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Blood on our hands

Animal sacrifice is cruel, primitive and brutalising. It's time to end it.

The Tamil Nadu Animal and Bird Sacrifices Prohibition Act of 1950 clearly prohibits sacrifice i1t temples, as do similar laws in many other states. The State Government wants to enforce the prohibition - and rightly so. The response has been shocking. One section of the media has opposed the government directive because they oppose Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. The opportunistic communists have come out in support of animal sacrifice - whatever happened to Marxist rationalism and atheism? Someone else has flied a PIL. A former minister, also a well-known lawyer, has objected. Do we really want to go back to our primitive past?


Is this what the Gods want?

Blood sacrifice was common to all ancient cultures and religions. Ancient Hindus and Jews did it; Muslims continue to do it (during Id). There are scenes of human and animal sacrifice on Harappan seals. The first to speak out against bloody sacrifices were the rishis of the Upanishads. The chief message of the Buddha and Mahavira was to stop the killing of innocent animals. In time, the sacrifice of people and animals came to be regarded as primitive and cruel. Interestingly, scenes of animal sacrifice are rare in classical temple sculpture or painting.

Till the 20th century, human beings --especially the unwanted girl child -were regularly sacrificed in India. Education resulted in a public outcry against the practice and the government responded by banning human sacrifice, although we still hear of occasional lapses. But mere banning is never sufficient, and any change in attitude and action owes much to individuals such as the late Krishna Iyer in Tamil Nadu and Peela Ramakrishna in Andhra Pradesh. The former went around persuading people to "break" a pumpkin instead of killing an animal or bird. The latter took the police to the remotest villages to stop sacrifices. Such was the commitment of these men.

Animal sacrifice is particularly brutal. Buffaloes, goat and roosters are queued up as in a slaughterhouse, crying as they watch the others die and await their turn. Blood flows everywhere. Sometimes the worshippers anoint themselves with it; most times, they drink it even as it flows out. After the sacrifice, the priest may garland himself with the entrails. After beheading the buffalo, the chopped-off legs may be placed in its mouth, the fat spread over its eyes. The worst form of sacrifice is live impalement. It is altogether too gory. Is this what the Gods want?

Blood sacrifice was regarded as magic, a tool to propitiate or please a god, to fulfill a vow and as a sacrament. The animal (and, formerly, person) could be a scapegoat for human sins or inexplicable natural phenomena, or a vehicle to carry away the collected demons or ills of an entire community. It seems very unfair that a little goat or a peaceful buffalo should be made responsible for events beyond their comprehension or control. Ancient peoples performed sacrifices to (control negative forces, particularly disease, in the belief that any blood would satisfy the bloodthirsty spirit. The animal was sacrificed to "save" a human life. Today, medicine performs tile task more efficiently.

Animal sacrifices continue in villages all over India. The beginning of the planting season and Navaratri are particularly bad periods, when large numbers of animals, particularly buffaloes, are killed to propitiate local goddesses and thus ensure fertility. In the Himalayan states and the East, animals are sold by weight to be sacrificed to Devi during Navaratri, to re-enact killing of the buffalo-demon Mahisha. The confrontation between the Goddess and the buffalo goes back to a totemic period when the worshippers of the former defeated the worshippers of the latter. Unfortunately the memory of that confrontation lives on in the brutality of buffalo sacrifice.

There is a distinct gender bias in sacrifice. The male god - generally an aspect of Shiva or Vishnu - is regarded as benign and peaceful, an austere yogi or a benevolent provider. The female -a form of Shakti - is blood-thirsty; violent and cruel. She may be Kali, with sharp, protruding canine teeth, or Mari, the smallpox goddess, or any one else. Every village in South and Eastern India, has bloodthirsty village goddesses who reinforce the myth of the wicked witch, always a woman. The former is controlled by blood, the latter by society. Women are potentially evil, according to this belief, and must be kept under control. They are drinkers of blood and consumers of human and animal flesh, and any insufficiency in their propitiation will, it is believed, invite their wrath and inflame their cruel natures. The Sapta Matrikas (seven mothers/sisters/virgins); the various forms of Kali and Mari and all village goddesses have longing for blood and a reputation for cruelty. Their images are ugly and frightening, both in appearance and behaviour.

What an awful image of women, which is ingrained in the Indian psyche! Surely the mother who procreates and nurtures deserves a better reputation? While the temples to the male Gods" are beautiful, majestic buildings that inspire awe and "serenity, Devi temples are small, dark and dingy, situated outside the city in a sacred grove that is the haunt of dead spirits. Thus supporting animaI sacrifice is supporting both gender inequity and perpetuating myths about the evil that is woman. Male spirits who demand sacrifice are generally the Goddess' lieutenants, who have developed a taste for blood. This image was created to justify the suppression of women.

Another little-known aspect is economic. Animal sacrifices are promoted by moneylenders, who freely give loans for the occasion and thus get illiterate villagers into their clutches. The wielders of the knife are often butchers who officiate as priests and charge for their services. The cost of a buffalo runs into thousands, a goat, sheep or rooster into hundreds. Add the cost of the feast and the poojari's fees, and the result is a hole in the pocket. There is a mafia that benefits from the conduct of animal sacrifices, which keeps the lower strata in permanent bondage. This becomes a vicious cycle. The animal sacrifices purport to improve their situation. But they tie the votaries, who generally belong to the lowest classes and castes, in economic chains, where they remain forever. Obviously, the gods are not pleased.

Sacrifice means giving up something precious to oneself. Thus Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice his son, while Shunahshepas offered himself to be sacrificed. Buying and killing an innocent animal does not fit the bill. The sacrifice probably originated among totemic tribes who sacrificed the animal totem to acquire its strength or wisdom. Conquering tribes would sacrifice the animal totem of the defeated tribe to signify victory. In the choice of the buffalo to be killed, there is an obvious racial message: that the dark-coloured, slothful and ugly animal deserves to die.

Animal sacrifice is cruel, disgusting and primitive. Bloody sacrifices brutalise the viewer, confusing the distinction between right and wrong. If one man supports animal sacrifice, another will support human sacrifice, the killing of children and sati. How can any of these be permitted in a civilised society? All cultures and religions evolve, discarding ugly Practices. Over the years, we have learned to identify and repudiate negative aspects of Hinduism, such as sati and the caste system. Animal sacrifice is another cruelty that must be rejected and discarded. It is surprising to hear educated people talk of "customary practice". Religion should be value-based and ennobling. Sacrifice is neither: It is cruel and disgusting. We need to rise above petty political differences to support the implementation of a good law.

Nanditha Krishna
C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation

Creations, Sunday Express, September 14, 2003

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