Animal Sacrifice: One of the oldest and most universal traditions

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Animal sacrifice in Rome

By Abdul Rashid Agwan

Eid Al-Azha is widely known as a celebration of animal sacrifice, but it is exactly not so.  The day also denotes completion of Haj, issue of the first charter of human rights in the Farewell Sermon of Prophet Muhammad, a ritual assembly of people from all races and nations at one place while symbolizing human unity, remembrance of the epitome of sacrifice in Prophet Ibrahim the arch-father of the Semitic faiths, and continuity of certain traditions that began from the first man Adam and his family in antiquity and universally followed by mankind across many millennia thereafter.

The story of individual sacrifices of the two sons of Adam, Habil (Abel) and Kabil (Cain), has been described in the Bible (Genesis, 3:21, 4:4) and the Quran (5-27-31). The Kapil Smriti (Verse 1) presents its Puranic version wherein these sons of ‘Manu’ are named as Shaunak and Kapil. The place of the first recorded animal sacrifice is the same, Mina.

The animal domestication that began around 12000 years before present, with sheep and goat, also led besides other purposes to the tradition of offering animals for common festivity and fulfilling a religious obligation. Some of the earliest archeological evidence suggesting animal sacrifice comes from the ancient Egypt. The oldest Egyptian burial sites containing animal remains have been excavated from the Badari culture of Upper Egypt that bloomed between 4400 and 4000 BC. Horse sacrifice for waging war had also been a prevalent tradition in ancient times, particularly among the Indo-European speakers. Chariot burial was also an ancient ritual in which whole chariot was buried with or without horses, the earliest such practice was found vogue in the Sintashta-Perovka culture of Russia around 2000 BC.

According to Wikipedia, the qorban is any of a variety of sacrificial offerings by Jews as described and commanded in the Torah. The most common usages are animal sacrifice (zevah), comprising zevah shelamim (the peace offering) and olah (the holocaust or burnt offering). A qorban was an animal sacrifice, such as of a bull, sheep, goat or a dove that underwent shechita (Jewish ritual slaughter).

The New Testament informs about the sacrifice of two doves by the parents of Jesus (Luke 2:24). The Christ’s crucifixion has largely been deemed in Christianity as a substitutionary punishment for all of humanity’s sins and hence no need of animal sacrifice further. Still, a few Christian sections have carried on the practice, especially on the occasion of Easter. Some villages in Greece sacrifice animals to Orthodox saints while observing the festival called kourbania. Animal sacrifice was instituted in the Armenian Church, Twewhedo Church of Ethiopia and Eritrea, Mayan Folk Catholicism, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and in some other communities. Though animal sacrifice is not ubiquitous among Christians but this does not restrict them to opt for a non-vegetarian food.

The Indus civilization had the prevalence of ritual of water-buffalo sacrifice, which then spread to other parts of India. A blog on harrapa.com informs: “Early Harappan cultures started moving toward the east and south in about 3000 BCE, and later waves of influence in these same directions came from the Indus civilization. That the Harappan water-buffalo cult had reached peninsular India by the late Harappan on Chalcolithic times is suggested by the large bronze sculpture of water buffalo discovered in 1974 in a hoard at Daimabad, the southernmost Indus site in Maharashtra. Throughout south India, until relatively recently, village goddesses have been worshipped through water-buffalo sacrifices. The goddesses have been associated with a male deity call the buffalo king, represented by a wooden post or a pillar made of stone, or by the pipal tree.”

The followers of Shaktism observe animal sacrifice as an integral part of their faith, which is mainly prevalent in West Bengal and Assam and some hilly parts of India. Animal sacrifice on a large scale came to light in April 2016 at a remote tribal habitation in Nalgonda district. Reportedly, tribal people slaughtered over 100 bulls at that time to appease their goddess Kankali Bhavani, locally called Ankalamma. According to Wikipedia, some warrior communities of Rajasthan worship their weapons and horses on Navratri. Though now redundant, they formerly offered a sacrifice of a goat to Kuldevi – a practice still visible in some places. There are temples in Assam and West Bengal and also in Nepal where goats, chickens and sometimes water buffalos are sacrificed as a ritual. The Kalaki Purana distinguishes bali (sacrifice) and mahabali (great sacrifice), for the ritual killing of goat and elephant, respectively. Manusmriti (5:22) prescribes sacrificial rituals. Ashvamedha ritual has been described in Yajurveda, Ramayana and Mahabharata as an ancient practice. A popular ritual of North Malabar region in Kerala is the blood offering to Theyyam gods. One of the largest animal sacrifices in Nepal occurs during a three-day-long Gadhimai festival, which was banned by the Nepal government in 2015.

Animal sacrifice is largely practiced in traditional African and Afro-American religions. There are two landmark Supreme Court judgments in America, which uphold the right of certain minorities there to practice the ritual of animal sacrifice.

Among Sikhs, only Nihang sect performs animal sacrifice. The religions that completely prohibit animal sacrifice are Buddhism and Jainism. However, Sikhs and Buddhists are free to choose their dietary menu. It is only Jainism that does not allow non-vegetarian life the least.

Animal sacrifice takes a communal turn in India around Eid Al-Azha. Three sections of activists become vocal and sometimes aggressive in criticizing and blocking the practice of animal sacrifice on the occasion of Eid, as performed worldwide by Muslims. These are the champions of Ahimsa, animal rights and cow protectionism. However, their arguments and agitations are largely on flimsy and hypocritical grounds.

The adherents of non-violence plead that animal sacrifice is not acceptable being antithetical to life.  Their sheer ignorance is exposed when they deny the fact that life is not the fundamental quality of animals only. It is also precious to plants and microorganisms.  When the trees are felled, crops are cut and vegetables are procured, a lot of living things suffer for the human benefit. When antibiotics are taken, may be in the form of a herbal syrup, billions of bacteria, viruses and other life forms harmful to men, got killed.  When men eat curd or drink water or cook food, billions of life forms are consumed in the process. In the flush of commodes and washing of floors billions of life forms are destroyed. The first experimental scientist of modern age, J.C. Bose, had been ignored in India only for his research that plants are also living beings.  Some recent studies and experiments have established that plants not only have feelings about happiness and sufferings but they also communicate and share resources with each other through a chemical medium. Some pseudo-environmentalist may talk in very convincing scientific jargons but they largely ignore the principles of energy entrapment, food chain and food pyramid as integral to an ecosystem. They ignore that humans are biologically omnivorous.

The animal right workers claim that killing animals for food and rituals is not a good practice. However, their hollow claims are exposed when they hardly speak and work for the liberation of a variety of domesticated animals and extraction of milk from them, which is not only a non-vegetarian product in itself but also a visible injustice to young lactating animals.  If rearing of monkey by a Madari is a violation of animal right, how the rearing of dogs in elite homes is a charity?

On this occasion of Eid-al-Azha, there should be a social environment of mutual respect of upholders of different views. Muslims should take care that their practice should not affect the feelings of those who are opposed to animal sacrifice, by confining it within their own homes and localities and not displaying pictures of animals and their blood on social media. After all it is a religious obligation and not a matter of ostentation. They should also treat vegetarianism as another category of minority whose rights must be respected by the majority of the nonvegans. In a world of 7 billion plus people, vegans comprise only 375 million of all, i.e. just 5%.

Cow vigilantes are generally the extortionist and political groups which violently attack animal traders for obvious reasons. Their concern for cows could not be seen in many cases when thousands of cows died at private and government run cow shelters. They hardly take interest in the welfare of cows stranded on busy roads and crowded markets, which often die of accidents or diseases.

Those who are opposed to non-vegetarian life style can preach their ideas without violence, both physical and mental. In fact, violence will only undermine their cause in the long run. One can hardly propagate non-violence by violent means. This will only increase violence in society and nothing else.

Coming back to the origin of sacrifice, can Muslims opt in the present circumstances of communal hatred and uncontrolled public violence to take the line chosen by Abel against his brother? He says (Quran 5:29), “If you do stretch your hand against me to kill me, I shall never stretch my hand against you to kill you: for I fear Allah, the Lord of all the worlds.” The lesson which can be drawn by Indian Muslims from the story of the first sacrifice is that they should not take recourse to counter-violence. Rather, they should go on convincing people why the Muslims’ viewpoint on the animal sacrifice is justified. In case of need, they should at the most take a legal course.

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