I have friends who don’t eat honey because they feel the pain of the bees, whose food is being stolen.
And then I have friends who come from communities where traditional ritual sacrifice is necessary to keep the wheel of life turning.
As a Brahmin, I grew up in a household where eating buffaloes, chicken and pigs were forbidden. Brahmins don’t eat buffalo meat because buffalo is considered to be a bovine animal. Cows cannot be killed, or eaten, by Brahmins. All we were allowed were goats, and that too a few times a year. That’s why Dashain was special: the goat sacrifice was eagerly awaited because the meat was a rare treat, and also because it did taste special because it had been offered to the goddess.
I now live in a mostly vegetarian household where only my father and I eat meat. We cook meat in the home—usually chicken, since ideas have changed, chicken being considered healthier—about 4 times a year. Before, Brahmins considered chicken dirty and forbidden because it would eat shit off the ground—including its own, as well as human feces. With the advent of industrial farming and stringy, hormone and antibiotics laden chicken, even this rare meat-eating episodes have been getting rarer.
The huge outcry from animal activists against the Gadhimai sacrifice, I feel, is an opportunity to keep the discussion going about not just this one event in Nepal, but about the whole notion of what “Civilization” means. It is easy to brand it “barbaric”—if you go back to the history of Western civilization, “barbarism” was an accusation that led to the decimation of entire population of Native populations in South and Latin America, as well as the United States. “Barbarism” has also been a useful excuse to keep Africans chained to wheels of Western capitalism, and to decimate their local religions and beliefs.
The Western world had a special claim to “civilization,” which was seen to the be the opposite of “barbarism.” But strangely, the West never once acknowledged its own barbaric histories, including genocidally decimating huge populations of indigenous peoples in the New World, often in the name of the Christian religion.
I believe Gadhimai is a good moment to bring up these histories and discussions, because often the West’s morally high ground has been used, in complex ways, to create hierarchies of human beings which allow it to continue its exploitation—including the economic exploitation of capitalism—to continue unchecked. Civilization is the monopoly of countries that don’t openly sacrifice animals to gods or goddesses—but often do eat meat grown in factories three times a day. Civilization where cars flow in an unceasing river and chemicals and pharmaceuticals cure all diseases. Civilization rests on the ability of Wall Street to create the illusion that money is printed fairly, and that it is distributed through some fair means. Civilized countries get to print more money in fancy programs called “quantitative easing.” Countries still mired in “barbarism” don’t get any. They have toil on for years in the oilfields of the Gulf for low or no pay, to fuel the cars of the West.
Capitalism relies on the “civilization versus barbarism” dichotomy to keep up its illusion of superiority. The Christian faith has often braided itself into this complex discourse over the centuries, being an inextricable strand of why the West continues to dominate other cultures.
Indeed, Brahmins of Nepal should be morally opposed to the sacrifice of Gadhimai, because its about the sacrifice of buffalos, amongst other animals. Buffaloes are a relative of the cow, and the cow is considered sacred to Hinduism, especially Brahmins. The reason why the Nepali Brahmins do not oppose this event, I think, is that there appears to be a heavy indigenous culture component to the sacrifice. And in general, local faiths and beliefs have always been allowed in Nepal, without heavy-handed control from hegemonic groups-despite new academic theory to the contrary. If that were not so, Nepal would long ago have become like the USA, where indigenous cultures are only a memory and struggle on in very tiny spaces. The fact that strange customs and rituals survive here is precisely because the Brahmins haven’t been as hegemonic as many US trained social scientists glibly proclaim them to be.
Mushahars are a group considered low on the caste hierarchy and face the most discrimination due to their culture of hunting “rats.” What are called rats are actually field mice that eat grain—Mushahar in turn hunt these field mice and eat them during certain food-lean seasons. Ten years ago, I visited a Mushahar village where the village headman proudly showed us the ways in which they used bows and arrows (from what I remember) during their annual festival, during which they went to hunt for field mice. Note these pests eat half the grain grown, and it’s a survival strategy—and protein-- for the Mushahar to eat them in return. These field mice are also offered as sacrifice to Gadhimai, which shows the complex interweaving of how religion is often an amalgamation of different faiths and beliefs. All of those opposing this event in a simplistic manner, calling it a “Hindu sacrifice,” often miss the fact that this is not an event that in any way could have endorsement from the detested Brahmins who are supposedly running the Hindu faith.
It appears to be a complex blend of sacrifice offered by Tharu, Mushahar and other indigenous groups in the Terai, which has taken on local significance after the Indian authorities closed down animal sacrifice in India, bringing huge amounts of followers to Nepal. Local goddess worship, of course, predates the evolution of Hindu gods. I have no doubt animal sacrifice to goddess existed long before Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva made their appearance in South Asia. Gadhimai is not a well-known goddess—she is a local diety known only to the people of that specific locale, meaning that the Hindus of Kathmandu, for instance, had not heard of her before media highlighted this specific phenomena. Many Indians are also appalled by this sacrifice—but because “Hinduism” is often a complex, broad, and flexible set of faiths, practices and beliefs that span a billion people, there is no central Pope or Bible to oppose local practices. The fact these practices are not regulated by a central authority points to how “Hinduism” may have kept indigenous faiths alive—despite accusations by indigenous groups who often claim that Brahmins have imposed their lifestyles on everyone.
If Brahmins dictated Hinduism’s tenets and their priests had as much power as claimed, Gadhimai would be shut down. But in a multi-cultural country with 58 different kinds of ethnic groups, all carrying various levels of beliefs and practices, this kind of behavior would not be tolerated.
I advise people who are interested to Gadhimai to read the history of how the “civilized versus barbaric” discourse has played out in the West, often with greatly tragic results for indigenous cultures. As someone trained in anthropology, in which this discourse played out in great detail, I am interested in ways “civilization”, and the discourse of it thereof, continues to play out in contemporary life.