Rivers of blood

  • At Gadhimai, the world’s largest sacrifice of animals, human-animal relationships need scrutiny
- Jagannath Adhikari
Rivers of blood

Oct 15, 2014-

As November approaches, concerns about mass animal sacrifices during the worship of the goddess Gadhimai have appeared. Shedding a river of blood by killing a quarter of a million animals in cruel ways within five short days is not a small matter to be overlooked. These concerns are genuine, as we, being a more conscious species, need to constantly examine our traditions in the light of new information. Science tells us that animals are also conscious beings and that they have emotions, like humans. This means that we need to start dealing with them differently than we did in the past. In some way, this was even mentioned in various Hindu scriptures a long time ago.

Neither ahimsa nor vegetarian

However, opposing Gadhimai’s sacrifice does not mean asking for a complete halt to animal sacrifice. For instance, a greater number of animals are killed in a single day during the Dashain festival in Nepal, which does not draw similar worldwide attention. Many more animals are also killed every day in the abattoirs of developed countries than in the entire five-day period of Gadhimai’s worship. It seems it is the public display of such a mass killing that annoys many people, including myself.

Some would argue that Gadhimai’s animal sacrifice is not in line with the notion of ahimsa (non-violence) in the Hindu religion. Well, there are controversies regarding whether the Hindu religion promotes ahimsa or not. Whatever the case, religion should be used neither to promote nor to stop this kind of mass slaughter of animals. Instead, we should acknowledge that such an event does not provide a good impression of human relations with the animal world, which are part and parcel of our ecological, social, and, more precisely, food system. An event requiring the sacrifice of so many animals does not shed any good light on our bond with animals.

Moreover, opposing the Gadhimai sacrifice should neither be seen as a promotion of vegetarianism. Vegetarian food has its pros and cons, but so does meat, especially when both are consumed in large quantities. Scientists have demonstrated how high consumption of meats and other foods can cause problems in human health and in the ecosystem. But again, this is not an argument point against the Gadhimai sacrifice as people have been consuming meat and hunting animals since time immemorial. Rather, it is the poor manner in which these animals are treated at the Gadhimai festival before being killed en masse that is problematic.

Tradition no excuse

One cannot simply regard the Gadhimai sacrifice as a tradition. Tradition does not mean that something has to be carried out in exactly the same manner as in the past. Rather, tradition is an evolving process that undergoes changes according to time and environmental conditions. Traditions or elements that are inappropriate in a given situation must be given up and new, more appropriate elements added. Through this process, tradition is constantly modified, and such modifications also help humans to adapt to their changing environment. Humans have brought about many of these changes consciously, and that has helped society to evolve. This is why some traditions have persisted and some have become extinct. Therefore, tradition alone is not an excuse that can justify the continuation of the Gadhimai festival in the way it is carried out now.

Looking at the origins of traditions reveals that they are neither divine nor persisting forever or fixed in any way. If we take the case of the Gadhimai festival, it has a history of just about 260 years. Back then, a certain event, which should be seen in relation to the territorial unification process and the imprisonment of a local leader at that time, led to the belief that worshipping Gadhimai through animal sacrifice could fulfill one’s wishes and that through this means, one could escape the punishment of a powerful state. A large number of marginalised people followed, moreover believing that the animal sacrifice would give them ‘power’ (shakti). Later, even the state and the elite promoted sacrifice.

Looking at the evolution of the practice of animal sacrifice during Dashain, it also becomes obvious that killing animals and playing with blood were promoted to prepare young people for the ordeal of killing in the war, comparable to present-day simulated war games that are to be played by army personnel in developed countries. It has been revealed that people trained in such war games and in killing people in a virtual environment feel little difference between the virtual game and actually killing people in real war.

Looking critically

Therefore, we have two strong bases to stop animal sacrifice during the Gadhimai festival. First, the traditional notion of gaining shakti should not be based on bloodletting, but on solving problems that people face in their day-to-day life. Therefore, politicians who still go to temples to increase their shakti should instead visit the people and try to do their best to solve their problems. However, we know that in the past, kings and elite members of the ruling class used to visit such temples and sacrifice animals as a means of gaining shakti, and this notion is still present in the minds of people, sometimes just marginal, but sometimes also quite powerful.

Most importantly, the strongest rational argument for changing the practice at Gadhimai should arise from a critical look at our culture and from the will to take the responsibility to change it, especially for something that proves to be detrimental both socially and environmentally. We all know that humans have developed cultures and traditions in interaction with their environment, through which they have gained the power to change the ecosystem. Finding ourselves in such a dominant position, we have done so many things wrong for other species. Taking the case of Gadhimai, innocent animals have to suffer from our deeds. We need to realise this and stop it, even though it might require a sustained effort for some time to come.

Adhikari is a social scientist researching various aspects of development

Published: 16-10-2014 09:18

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