“They continue these animal sacrifice rituals because they believe it is a tradition that can’t be broken.”
Ram Bahadur Chetri – Professor of Anthropology at Tribhuwan University, Kathmandu
In Southern Nepal, November 24th marked the beginning of a two-day bloodbath that is said to be the world’s largest religious animal sacrifice. Every five years, hundreds of thousands of Hindu devotees participate in a centuries-old tradition meant to honor a deity called Gadhimai. During this year’s festival, by conservative estimates, over 200,000 animals were beheaded. The actual number could be as high as 500,000.
By some accounts, up to a million participants traveled to the temple in the border district of Bara, many from neighboring India where animal sacrifice is banned. One priest at the Gadhimai temple said he was pleased with the festival’s high turnout, and stated, “The goddess needs blood”.
In Hindu tradition, sacrifice is seen as a way of thanking a deity for good luck, or asking for fortune and prosperity. After Gadhimai, the slaughtered animals are taken back to the villages and eaten by devotees. In a clear example of the irrationality of superstitious beliefs, the flesh of these brutally murdered beings is considered blessed, and consuming it is said to protect the individual from evil.
Animal advocates in Nepal and elsewhere have condemned the practice as being “cruel and inhumane” and the campaigns have won the support of French actor Brigitte Bardot, who has petitioned the Nepalese prime minister about the issue, and Maneka Gandhi, Indian politician and animal advocate.
According to the Kathmandu Post,
“Maneka Gandhi has called upon the Nepali state to abandon the killings. She says the superstition behind sacrifices is assiduously spread by a coalition of priests, butchers, and animal sellers… [and that] animal sacrifice is simply commerce.”
And that is undoubtedly the reason the Nepalese government donated US$60,000 in funding to the event. Not only do local hotels, vendors and restaurant owners thrive during the festival period, but afterward, the meat, bones and hides of the animals are sold to processing and tannery companies in India and Nepal.
Ironically, considering the fact that nearly all Indian leather is exported overseas, there’s a good chance that at least some of the skins of these animals will end up being worn by Westerners, who rightly see this kind of brutality as being abhorrent, yet likely don’t stop to think about how the skin of an animal is turned into shoes, bags, belts or jackets.
Government minister Saroj Yadav said he believed the festival was the biggest animal sacrifice in the world. “We haven’t heard a bigger number… We are certain this is the largest one,” Yadav said.
(The Nepalese must not have heard of the great American tradition called Thanksgiving, for which over 45 million birds are beheaded in slaughterhouses all around the country.)
In fact, the scale of the entire Gadhimai festival pales in comparison to a single day of animal sacrifice here in the US. To put the numbers into perspective, in the US alone we slaughter 10 billion land animals for food every year (more than the entire human population). That’s a number so large, it’s almost too vast to fully comprehend. To put it another way, for us to kill 500,000 animals for food would take us less than thirty minutes. In the two days of Gadhimai, while Westerners denounced the cruelty of the slaughter in Nepal, we were busy ourselves slaughtering 55,000,000 animals, while no one blinked an eye, and most people, in fact, were happily partaking of the flesh of the victims.
To be fair, the two things are not exactly the same, but the differences are meaningless, really. What is relevant is the fact that here in the US, we also condone the unnecessary slaughter of animals en masse. We just do it out of plain view, using institutionalized methods, and while the blades are slicing through the throats of our victims, we don’t dance in the streets. Simply put, in this supposedly enlightened culture, most of us choose to hide from the reality of what we ask others to do to animals on our behalf.
But what gives us the right to criticize the world’s religious poor for their disregard for animal life, while we sit back in our ivory towers of self-imposed ignorance, refusing to even look at the consequences of our dietary choices?
As pointed out by one blogger,
“Nepal, incidentally, has a poor population for whom meat remains a luxury – for many of those doing the sacrificing, this may be the only meat they eat during the entire year… And the animals themselves were bred to be eaten. So the net effect of the sacrifice seems to be that animals [who] were going to be slaughtered anyway end up being slaughtered all in the same spot, as a sacrifice, rather than one by one in the home villages… And as to the methods of slaughter being cruel, well, just how does anyone think that animals are normally slaughtered in those home villages?”
Let me be clear. I am not trying to suggest that the brutal slaughter of almost half a million animals, by any method, is not horrifying and contemptible. Of course it is. To look at the images from the massacre is positively heartbreaking, if one allows the terror of the animals to move in. But surely, if we want to lead the way toward building a more civilized humanity, we must look beyond the practices that are convenient to condemn, and make an effort to examine the brutality in our own backyard.
Since it occurs in plain view of the entire world, the Nepalese ritual of Gadhimai offers us a clear window through which to view the barbaric nature of animal slaughter. Unlike the people of Nepal, we in the West have access to a vast array of food choices that do not require the killing or enslavement of animals. Until our culture truly embraces the value of nonviolence, and extends our circle of empathy to the animals who suffer at the hands of those who kill on our behalf, we are simply in no position to vilify the priests of Gadhimai.
Image: Wanda Embar, Vegan Peace