The Point Of Animal Sacrifice
By Indi Samarajiva
There has been much commotion about the recent (and ancient) animal sacrifice in Chilaw. On www.thesundayleader.lk the news has drawn hundreds of comments, most condemning the practice. There is no similar condemnation, however, of the daily killing of thousands of animals to supply the appetites of Sri Lankan omnivores.
The issue cannot be the killing, as that is done everyday, displayed in every market and supermarket. The issue, therefore, must be killing and not eating. There is, however, no similar dispensation in human law. One cannot, for example, commit murder and get a lesser sentence by eating the corpse. For animals presumably, the offence is that the creatures are killed pointlessly. But what if there is a point?
Most major religions are founded on some sort of sacrifice, which they have since abandoned. The people of the book (Jews, Christians and Muslims) symbolically descend from Abraham who once tried to sacrifice his son Isaac (on God’s command, until the boy was spared by an angel). Hinduism is based on Vedic religion in which animal sacrifice was quite regular. Buddhism is the only major religion which doesn’t feature animal sacrifice, but it also emerged as Hinduism itself had abandoned both sacrificing and eating animals.
Sacrifice was traditionally offered for a number of reasons, but a main one seems to be externalizing and controlling the animal tendencies within ourselves. In this case the goat is literally a scapegoat. This is discussed in the book Animals On The Agenda.
Another reason is to change fate by making an offering, by giving something up, by making a sort of deal with the gods, one which most holy books have shown them receptive to. This is discussed in the book Sacrifice In Religious Experience. Whether there is an actual deal or not, faith alone can give a person a confidence to change their fate, something of a placebo effect.
This placebo effect (being told you’re taking medicine and being given a sugar pill) has been shown to work for depression and many ailments and faith alone can do wonders. With sacrifice as a concrete, memorable spur to that faith, it can make a real difference in people’s lives. Animal sacrifice is undertaken to help humans, but at the animal’s expense. Seeing as we use animals to help us in many other ways, this alone may not be a moral disqualification.
The Animal In Us
Since there is some valid point to animal sacrifice, the question is whether it’s necessary to make that point anymore. In a time when most people have access to meat and when sacrificing one goat does not significantly impede one’s marriage prospects, is sacrificing an animal really a sacrifice? At one point it may have been a big deal, a leap of faith to sacrifice ten or 20 sure meals for the prospect of something better. Today, however, it’s really not. Most religions now ask for the sacrifice of something more scarce — one’s time and attention.
It is well and good that animal sacrifice is fading from modern religion, just as human sacrifice faded in the past. We are not quite in a position, however, to tell this to the generations-old practitioners in Chilaw. People are right to peacefully protest, but they should respect that this sacrifice is not entirely pointless and that it does have significance to the people that do it.
Human murder is murder whether you eat the corpse or not. For animals the moral principle must be somewhat the same and if we accept industrial animal slaughter, we have to accept small-scale animal sacrifice at well. It may be disturbing in that that it shows an animal part of ourselves we don’t usually confront, but that’s kind of the point. In that sense, this Chilaw controversy has been positive for all of us. We have reacted with disgust, fear and self-righteousness, but what we’re really reacting to is the bloody, primal animal within us. That’s a point well worth making.