The sacrifice of animal sacrifices

Photo: Kunda Dixit

Dasain is here again, a festival of shopping, family reunions, feasting – and controversies. Fierce debates again rage online and offline about whether Dasain is indigenous or not, if there should be so many days off. But the loudest arguments in recent years are about the cult of animal sacrifice.

Going by previous trends, almost a million goats, sheep, buffalos and poultry will be killed during the fortnight of festivities. Not all are ritually sacrificed, some are slaughtered by butchers to meet the increased Dasain demand for meat.

Maya Thapa and her husband sell goats, sheep, chicken and ducks at the animal market in Kalanki. She says: “Dasain sees a peak in sales. During other times of year, we mostly supply animals to slaughterhouses, but in Dasain the animals are sold for household sacrifices.”

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Most Hindu sacrifices do not involve animals at all, but vegetables or dairy products. But in Nepal, the Kali cult manifests itself in animal sacrifices which are not just killing for the sake of killing, but hold a larger symbolism. By sacrificing goats and buffalos, devotees believe they are killing self-centredness and malice – humans are removing the animal instincts present in themselves.

Cultural historian Madan Mohan Mishra explains that sacrifices are a sign of respect to the Goddess Durga (in her various forms such as Kali, Bhawani, Mai) to confront and defeat the Mahisasur buffalo demon. His killing is represented by sacrificing multiple buffalos in front of Durga temples around Nepal at Dasain.

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Priestess Mohan Maiya Jha of the Char Narayan and Bhai Dega temples in Patan adds: “Human sacrifice used to represent the ultimate sacrifice – there was nothing to hold one back from attaining true liberation (moksha). But human life is much too precious to be left to religious symbolism which is why the practice was replaced with animal sacrifice. As social consciousness evolves and the times change, the practice of animal sacrifice may also die out.”

But she is opposed to the protests against sacrificing animals and the ruling of the Supreme Court to ban animal sacrifice at the Gadhimai festival. “There should be no interference in religious traditions. Protests and the courts cannot start or end a custom. Such matters, good or bad, must be left to society.”

However, the cult of animal sacrifice goes beyond religious customs. Webb Keane, Professor of Anthropology at University of Michigan, makes the case that sacrificing animals came about after humans evolved as natural hunters and possessed predatory instincts.

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But as societies evolved and institutionalised religions developed, such taking of life for food came to be regarded as morally wrong as humans were capable of producing food through agriculture without the need for violence. Early civilisations therefore developed ritualistic sacrifices to the Gods to justify the killing of animals for meat.

The hunter instinct is deeply rooted in humans to this day, and most religions, tribal and mainstream, possess one form of sacrifice or the other – in Islam it is Qurbani, in Christianity the sacrificial lamb, and in Hinduism the Bali.

“Animal sacrifices are not unique to any one religion – it is a universal theme driven by our innate animal instinct,” says Keane.

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In response to international activism against animal sacrifices, the Nepal government has outlawed the mass slaughter of animals in Gadhimai. Individual sacrifices at home in Dasain are also being gradually replaced by buying meat from supermarkets or the neighbourhood butcher.

Says animal rights activist Sujan Shrestha: “Beheading animals at home makes children impervious to violence, they get used to the sight of blood-letting. You do not have to be a psychologist to know that this risks normalising violence in the minds of youngsters.”

The usual justification for animal sacrifices is that they appease the gods and replace human bloodshed. But given the massacres and wars in Nepal’s history, that argument does not seem to hold. More than 90 nobles were killed in the Bhandarkhal Massacre of 1806 that brought Bhimsen Thapa to power, 55 were killed by Jang Bahadur in the Kot in 1846, and the 2001 massacre nearly wiped out Nepal’s royal family.

Today, the Kot Massacre is still marked at Dasain not by non-violent rituals, but by the mass slaughter of hundreds of buffalos, goats and birds.

Read also: 

This Dasain, vegetate, Sonia Awale

Overkill in Gadhimai, Lucia de Vries and Deepak Adhikari