23 October, 2010


OCT 23, 2010 - The Kathmandu Post
Close to the blue serenity of the Begnas Lake, walking down a winding path towards a neat new temple, I noticed a gathering. The temple is the Deurali temple, and the gathering is debating an age-old dilemma in Nepali society. A young girl, around 13, has been possessed by the goddess. She has been shaking and trembling for the past few days. The goddess within her demands sacrifice. The temple, however, has been built a few decades ago under the blessing of a Guruji—under one condition. The temple was to be free of blood sacrifices.

This dilemma—whether to sacrifice or not sacrifice—continues to arise in Nepali homes each Dashain. In our own family, we no longer give sacrifices. A rather interesting incident allows for this to happen. According to my mother, about a decade ago, she took three goats and left it with a family who could feed the goats some fresh grass till the day of sacrifice. While taking the animals to them, she had this thought: What if the goats die when I go there tomorrow? Sure enough, the next day, the man told her the frisky, healthy goats had died mysteriously. There was no mark on them to indicate foul play. According to Hindu belief, this meant that the sacrifice had been rejected by the Goddess. We should no longer provide any sacrifice from our house. This, I thought was a rather neat solution (also for a family where almost all are vegetarians) not to have to behead goats. No doubt the poor family at whose home my mother left the animals had a weeklong feast of high-protein mutton after the Goddess so kindly suffocated the goats!

Animal rights activists and Western civilisation advocates think of blood sacrifice as barbaric, and the banning of sacrifice as a progressive shift towards civilised values. After all, they say, isn’t it horrific that animals are beheaded in mass numbers for a blood-thirsty goddess in these humanist times?

As I’ve written before, I think these issues tend to be more complicated than a mere blood sacrifice is akin to barbarity equation. Inhabitants of Western countries ingest meat from live animals every single day, for three meals. To me, this amounts to more barbarity than a once-a-year event where families behead a goat who’s been grazing in fresh pastures, and which is killed with one swift stroke of a knife. The low-carbon footprint of a family ingesting a goat in Dashain is far more civilised than any European and American diet on the planet.

Yet discourse insists that the goat-sacrifice is the height of barbarity, not the sausage, bacon and eggs breakfast that puts a trillion more animals in misery in factories where they are bred under horrific conditions, pumped full of antibiotics and hormones, killed in mass numbers with electric shock-guns, and packaged in neat civilised plastic for the world to enjoy.

People in the West never see where their meat comes from. It’s clean and bloodless as it lies under plastic and glass in a supermarket freezer. They’ve never seen the farms where the animals are bred. For Nepalis, we know what we are eating. We see the animals struggling as they are put in taxis. We see them terrified as they are taken to the killing fields. We see the body beheaded. We see the blood. And with this kind of naked clarity, is it any wonder that most older Hindus give up meat in their older years? Vegetarianism becomes a virtue as people get older, and it’s not just because Brahmanical values tell them to be so. Talking to people of all ethnicities, I hear over and over the simple realisation: I used to love meat, but now I gave it up because I don’t like killing animals.

But this is a personal realisation that people come to of their own accord. In a secular country, people have the right to their own beliefs and practices.

The paradox of civilisation begs the question: Why do Europeans and Americans, who are so civilised and no longer sacrifice to a higher being, continue their brutal sacrifices of human beings on the field of war? Iraq, Afghanistan... the bloody mines and fields of Africa where European companies continue to sacrifice children and women and men on the fertile land to satiate their own Gods of Materialism, Modernisation and Civilisation.

So let’s ask this hypothetical question: If the civilised Belgians and the civilized Dutch had a god or a goddess to whom they sacrificed an animal, would they be more reflective of their own blind sacrifices of human labour and human toil to the diamond mines and the mineral mines of Africa? Would it make them low-carbon footprint humanists and voluntary vegetarians in their older years?

There is an interesting anthropological account of how the indigenous people of the Solomon Islands died out. The people of the Islands were cannibals. They went headhunting of their enemy tribes. After the hunt, they had a big feast. After the Europeans got to them, the tribes were “civilised”—headhunting was no longer allowed. Within the century, the tribes from the Islands died out. Evans Pritchard, a British anthropologist, who did extensive work in the Islands, explains it in this way: the head-hunting allowed for meaning in the society. People worked hard to build up to the hunt, and for the feast afterwards. When this stopped, people stopped having any meaning to continue living. Society collapsed with the end of the hunt.

I am clearly not advocating for

head-hunting. All I’m advocating for is a more introspective and nuanced look at the idea of civilisation. Do we, as humans, all sacrifice in some form or another? Can an overtly bloody sacrifice be, in the long run, less bloody than a sanitised, plastic wrapped one? Does a goddess who asks for blood in one moment make you see the value of not eating animals the next? Are these things more complicated than they appear to the civilised eye?

In the Deurali temple, a compromise is reached. No sacrifice had been made inside the temple since it was constructed a few decades ago. But now, through the goddess possessing this 13 year old girl, a sacrifice would be offered this year—a few feet outside the temple gate.

(Joshi has an MA in anthropology from the New School for Social Research, New York)

Posted on: 2010-10-24 08:47