Debating India


An age-old practice


Friday 10 October 2003, by VISWANATHAN*S.

Article paru dans Frontline, Volume 20 - Issue 20, September 27 - October 10, 2003.

THE practice of offering animals and birds in sacrifice to gods has been part of the belief systems of different communities cutting across race, region and religion.

These belief systems are as old as humanity itself. Beliefs were evident even in Neanderthal Man’s life, not less than one hundred thousand years ago, says Professor V. Sudarsen, head of the Anthropology Department in the University of Madras. It was during that period that for the first time there was evidence of the burial of the dead. The pits dug by Neanderthal Man are testimony to this. Some time later people began to bury with the dead the things they used when alive. This meant they believed that these tools and implements might be useful to them in the after-life. Clearly, they had evolved a concept of after-life.

As civilisation developed and man’s strength and talent began to manifest themselves in many respects, people began to adore strong and talented persons and worship them after their death. The worship of the dead and the worship of one’s ancestors became part of their belief systems. They offered to the dead a part of what they ate. The practice of sacrificing animals and birds to deified men originated then. The belief is that the offerings will please them and the power they possessed while alive will get socially transferred to them. Most of the earlier beliefs were related to the people’s survival mechanism.

Things began to change when there was surplus food, enabling a section of people to free itself from the food production process. With the development of civilisations and the appearance of secondary production and tertiary services, society began to get stratified. Sudarsen says, "Always it happens that certain groups of society, who, though in a minority, determine the kind of values that are to be followed. This is owing to many factors. They possess certain knowledge and certain skills, and control the economy. They are the class of people who are interested in perpetuating certain value systems, what they call the Great Tradition." The belief systems are no longer linked only to the survival system. New value systems were created. Belief systems to defend the hierarchy itself developed. There were different streams of belief systems. "Belief systems themselves began to be stratified and there were belief systems to justify inequalities, to justify hierarchy", says Sudarsen. The vast majority of the people who were involved in the production process, such as Dalits and tribal people, had their own value systems. These people continue to worship village deities. Animal and bird sacrifices are confined to these village temples.

The first challenge to the practice of animal sacrifice came from Buddhism, which countered the Vedic religion. Animal sacrifice had been sanctified by the Vedic religion. The opposition from Buddhism and Jainism did not make any impact on the practice. "Only around the Sixth century A.D. vegetarianism as a value began to be highlighted and food itself became a defining factor to decide one’s stratum in society," says Sudarsen. Those who took animal food were considered lower in status and the practice of animal sacrifice began to be scorned at.

The state, it appears, has generally kept off the controversy all along. Although the Buddhist emperor Asoka, in one of his edicts, prohibited animal sacrifice and festive gatherings and later Akbar banned animal sacrifice, the belief of a significant section of society in animal sacrifice has survived to this day.

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