Ritual Slaughter of Animals
The ritual slaughter of animals is closely connected with flesh eating in the countries where it still prevails. Apart from that, it has played, in the formation of man’s religious psychology, too great a part for us not to devote a few pages to it.
The practice is now far less universal than it was once, and in Christian countries it is generally looked upon as one of the basest expressions of primitive superstition. There is, for instance, hardly a book written to defend the “civilizing” role of the white man in India, which does not give publicity to that gruesome side of Hindu religion, through some bloodcurdling description of the sacrifices regularly performed in the temple of the goddess Kali, at Kalighat, Calcutta.
We are surely the last people to support animal sacrifices, and yet we cannot but marvel at the inconsistency of those “sahibs” (and also of a certain number of “reformed” Hindus), who are horrified at the idea of what goes on at Kalighat, while they themselves are flesh eaters and — what is worse — flesh eaters not only in England or in Germany, or in the Scandinavian countries (where the animals are at least killed as quickly and painlessly as possible) but in India. They object to the goats having their heads cut off in one stroke at Kalighat, but see no harm in eating, in any of Calcutta’s European restaurants, the flesh of quadrupeds or birds killed in the most revolting fashion in the slaughterhouses or in the New Market, or in the yard behind the kitchen of the place, by men who feel bound by no ritual rules and just do not care what the creatures suffer. This is done in the name of man’s greed. And, in the eyes of many modern people, atrocities become really objectionable only when they take place in the name of the Gods.
And yet, what an amount of theology, inseparable from the primitive ideas attached to ritual slaughter, survives in some of the modern religions! To all those who are genuinely horrified at blood sacrifices while professing to be Christians, we would like to point out that the whole structure of their faith rests upon the dogma of atonement for sin through the shedding of innocent blood. True, the blood was shed once and for all, and it has to be that of a man — or rather of a God — the blood of ordinary cattle not being, we suppose, powerful enough to whitewash sinful humanity. And at the ritual meal, bread and wine are served to the faithful — apparently at least — in place of real flesh and blood. Still it remains a fact that, under all the elaborate symbolism that hides it in the Christian Church, lies the prehistoric belief in the necessity of propitiating an angry God with blood other than that of the sinner himself. It remains true that, at the back of the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion, lies the immemorial custom of partaking of the victim’s flesh in a ritual meal. Theologians, of course, will say that even the most repulsive ancient customs contained some kernel of heavenly knowledge; that the sacrifices of the Jews foreshadowed the supreme oblation of the Cross, and that even those of the Heathen (including their occasional human sacrifices) betrayed the unconscious yearning of humanity for salvation through the blood of Christ, one day to be shed. But many unprejudiced students of history and ethnology are tempted to reverse the statement and to see in the basic dogma of Christianity a survival of the primitive belief in atonement for sin through the shedding of innocent blood, and, in the rite of Holy Communion, the symbolical survival of a cannibalistic feast.
However, we do admit that, whatever be the superstition that pretends to justify it, the ritual slaughter of any living victim is pretty gruesome and that, if it can possibly be replaced by symbolical sacrifices, or suppressed altogether, so much the better — provided this does not give rise, in practice to a worse slate of affairs than before.
But our little experience in a country where ritual slaughter and agitation against it are equally common, as well as our little knowledge of the past, in countries where the custom is now obsolete, make us, unfortunately, very pessimistic.
As we have pointed out in a preceding chapter, people who believe in Christ as the one victim offered in oblation for the sins of the world, and who accept the Bible as it is written, should logically be vegetarians. For the Jewish Law (which the Messiah came to
fulfill and not to abolish) plainly condemns all slaughter of animals save for sacrificial purposes.1 Yet, the suppression of ritual slaughter among Christians has only had, as a result, an enormous increase in the number of animals slaughtered for man’s food alone. The scruples attached to the murder of a beast when the latter was not a sacrificial victim — scruples obviously shared by some of the first Christians, if not by Christ himself, but repudiated by Paul of Tarsus — were rejected altogether. And the killing of oxen, goats and sheep for purely commercial purposes, instead of taking place secretly (and relatively rarely, as crime generally does), became, with the sanction of the Church, a widespread institution — according to us, one of the dishonoring features of Christendom. And the pig, regarded as unclean and therefore spared by the compatriot of Jesus, was shamelessly added to the list of edible beasts on the authority of a text relating Peter’s famous dream and quoting alleged heavenly words according to which nothing that God has made is “impure” and unfit to eat.
Curiously enough, what happened in early Christendom is happening to-day, at a distance of eighteen centuries or more, among many of those “reformed” Hindus who reject the very idea of animal-sacrifices at a barbaric practice while tolerating the slaughter of the same and of other beasts for man’s food.
The Arya Samajists,2 the most eloquent opponents of ritual slaughter in modern India, are, we admit, strict vegetarians as a rule. But their sect draws its origin from a province Punjab — where, for centuries, the habit of offering living sacrifices never has been prominent and where practically all Brahmins, at least, just shrink at the idea of flesh eating. But in Bengal, the worship of the Mother Goddess with all the traditional ritual slaughter attached to it always was widespread, even among the highest castes of Hindudom. And the members of the Brahmo Samaj — the oldest of the reformed Hindu sects of the last century — shrink at the thought of blood sacrifices, but have unfortunately no scruples at all about eating meat. In the early days of the sect, some of them even rather gloried in that repulsive
1 Leviticus 17, 3-4. (Already quoted. See p. 52).
2 Members of a reformed Hindu Sect founded in the 2nd half of the XIXth century by Davananda Saraswati.
habit, as in an unmistakable sign of freedom from widely accepted custom and immemorial “prejudice.” It seems to have been one of their ways of making themselves different from non-reformed Hindus, for the sheer sake of being different.
And up to this day — strange as it may appear — while blood sacrifices are looked upon in Brahmo Samajist circles as horrid remnants of ages of superstition (and rightly so), there has been no agitation worth mentioning against the still more shocking custom of breeding animals to be slaughtered for man’s food.
To think of this attitude of self-styled “progressive” men is enough to generate in one’s heart a profound disgust for mankind at large, and a no less profound contempt for European education applied to Easterners of Hindu (or Buddhist) tradition — or, by the way, for any type of foreign education applied to people on a broad scale, which only makes them worse instead of better.
One realizes that people would be brought gradually to give up their customary atrocities, through a series of more and more evolved interpretations of some of the most tenacious of their own old beliefs -if necessary, through an intelligent regulation of their oldest customs rooted in “superstition.” One realizes that the newly Christianized (that is to say, Judaized) Greeks and Romans, and the people of Northern Europe, centuries later, behaved much like the nineteenth century newly Europeanized Indians. They shook off old customs which possibly were bad enough to take on a new outlook which implied a much worse one. In particular, as regards animals, they threw off the last shame they had about the act of eating non-sacrificial meat, and replaced the age-old institution of ritual slaughter (based on belief in magic and on superstitious fears) by the still more revolting practice of killing creatures just for the sake of greed, independently of religion. It became a crime to eat flesh only in the case if the latter had been offered up to the “idols.” But in all other cases it became rather commendable. Only out and out ascetics were expected to abstain from doing so, and that merely in order to mortify their own bodies, not from any feeling of mercy towards living creatures.
The result (in both cases) was a regression, not a progress, in real civilization; a lowering of men’s moral standards.
The number of animals sacrificed to man’s greed — whether in the ancient world or in modern India — grew altogether out of proportion with that of the victims once offered up to angry Gods as a primitive means of propitiation. And (what is as bad, if not worse) the creatures, instead of being slaughtered in a definite
manner, prescribed once and for all by the ritual (which, among the “Shakta” Hindus of Bengal, at least, implied a minimum of suffering for the victims, whose heads had to be cut off at one stroke) were killed anyhow, the horror and length of their agony depending solely upon the greater or lesser skill of the slaughterers, bound by no laws at all, and, sometimes, upon their inborn sadism or lack of sadism.
One might think that this occurred only whenever a religion prescribing or tolerating blood sacrifices was superceded by a new one which implied no teaching at all as regards man’s behaviour towards creatures, or at least which did not stress universal kindness. But it is a fact — though admittedly a baffling one — that populations, among which a religion such as Buddhism replaced others, of the ritual of which animal slaughter was a more or less common feature, very quickly reverted to meat eating (or fish eating) if they ever had given up that practice at all. This is the case of the Buddhist section of the population in China, Japan, Burma, Ceylon and India.
Admittedly the Buddhist vegetarians of the Far East are the most strict vegetarians on earth (more strict even than the Indian ones, which is saying much). But they comprise, apart from the monks, only a very small percentage of the people who profess to take refuge “in the Buddha, in the Law, and in the Community of the Faithful.” Proportionally far more animals, killed in the slaughterhouses, are daily eaten by so-called Buddhists in Ceylon, and in the Chittagong district of Bengal — the last Buddhist spot in India — than are consumed by “Shakta” Hindus, who eat only sacrificial meat, and that, merely on certain religious occasions. Never was a vegetarian diet forced on a whole country in the name of Buddhism (or of any other life-centered creed) save in India, during the last part of the reign of good King Asoka, and, occasionally, for short periods, in Japan. And when this took place, it was always as the result of a decree expressing the sweet will of an absolute monarch. Also, at least in the case of Asoka, the new and better order was established gradually, a certain number of animals being slaughtered for some years, with the ruler’s permission, for the food not merely of meat-eaters in general but even of the inmates of the royal palace.
This all goes to show how difficult it is to change man’s ingrained habits, however wicked these be, even in the name of a Teaching of love as influential as Buddhism was in India, in Asoka’s days.
It is indeed no wonder that, among the sincerest followers of life-centered religions (such as are all forms of Hinduism) there are some who, still today, are prepared to tolerate the ritual slaughter of certain animals solely in order to prevent a more general, more indiscriminate, and even more gruesome slaughter outside the temple precincts, merely in the name of human greed.
We have heard that argument put forward by several Hindu “Shaktas,” in particular by one Bengali Brahmin domiciled in Assam, who appeared to me to be a sincere and consistent lover of animals. This man assured me that the only means he could imagine, at present, to avoid a crueler and more frequent slaughter of living beings, was to limit the murderous custom to ritual slaughter on certain festive days, and to confine meat eating strictly to occasional sacrificial meals. Of course he readily agreed that education, coupled with gradual reforms forwarded by religious authority, should end by rendering that primitive custom altogether obsolete and at the same time, by making a harmless diet the only conceivable one.
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When one considers that this applies to India — the country in which meat eating seems to have been, for centuries, far less prevalent than anywhere else, even among those people who do not condemn it — one grows more tolerant towards those religious teachers (and especially those legislators) of non-Indian Antiquity who, though themselves the expounders of definitely life — centered religions or philosophies, do not seem to have protested against the slaughter of sacrificial victims in temples, high places, and other such sacred areas.
One might not go so far as to say that all legislations regulating the ritual slaughter of animals were worked out in order to avoid indiscriminate massacres on a broader scale by greedy, flesh-eating primitive men. But we firmly believe that all teachers who, in spite of professing a definitely life-centered philosophy, accepted or tolerated the custom of ritual slaughter (or even incorporated it into the external rites of their own religion) did so in the spirit which we have just tried to explain.
We believe that the better ones among the wise men of all ancient countries where a life-centered religion prevailed were moved by such a spirit — from the “rishis” of Vedic India, who accepted as a matter of course (and even regulated) the age-old sacrifices to Indra, Lord of heaven, and to the other Aryan Gods,
down to the most consistent of the Neo-Pythagoreans, Apollonius of Tyana. That sage, so keen to avoid taking advantage of the slaughter of creatures for his own food or dress; so genuinely against ritual slaughter as to refuse even to be present at a sacrifice, does not seem, however, to have raised, in his daily conversations with temple priests, such a protest against the gruesome custom as to win himself, amongst them, the reputation of a revolutionary. On the contrary, from what his biographers say, he always remained on friendly terms with the priest of the Greek Gods, whose temples were as bloodstained as any, a fact which can only be taken to imply an understanding silence on his part as regards even the barbaric aspects of their ritual.
Another historical instance confirming that which we have mentioned could be found in the presence of piles of geese upon the altars of the Sun, in the City of the Horizon of the Sun Disk, the Tell-el-Amarna of modern archaeologists. No creed could be more decidedly life-centered than the Religion of the Disk, of which we have said a few words in a former chapter. And the above instance would just point out how its Founder — Akhnaton of Egypt — the unquestionable revolutionary, arch-enemy of all priestcraft, found it less impossible to suppress some of the commonest manifestations of age-old superstition than to change a country’s diet at one stroke. He might have preferred to confine killing to a sacrificial practice on very definite occasions, rather than take the risk of seeing an indiscriminate and broad scale slaughter of creatures for the sole purpose of man’s food become a habit. We cannot tell, of course, from purely archaeological evidence, if this view is the right one or not. But it has, at least, the advantage of lifting the apparent contradiction between the undeniably life-centered spirit of a beautiful cult, and the conclusions that pictorial evidence might suggest. It also tallies with what we know to be the case in many other instances, ancient and modern.
To sum up, the ritual slaughter of living creatures, so over-decried today in a world that accepts and even encourages far more shocking insitutions, can be looked upon from two entirely different angles: either as a traditional — magical — means of propitiating angry Gods, or, as a practical means of avoiding a greater and crueler slaughter of animals outside religious enclosures, and openly in the name of man’s greed. Only very primitive people can possibly consider it in the first manner.
In all cases in which, though still accepted or tolerated as a part of the public cult, it obviously does not correspond to such a
barbaric theology — wherever such a theology is decidedly out of keeping with the spirit of the religion itself — ritual slaughter is to be interpreted in the second manner, whether today, in modern India, or centuries ago, in the temples of the Ancient World. In particular, we feel sure that this was the meaning of it in the eyes of the best men of Antiquity, upholders of life-centered forms of religion, whether Sun worship or any other.
But there is every reason for one to agitate against the gruesome custom wherever and whenever it can possibly be suppressed without greater cruelties to animals consequently taking place. In particular, in all technically well-equipped countries, in which animals are killed for man’s food by such means as the “humane killer,” the survival of the horrid “kosher” slaughter or of any other barbarous form of ritual killing is a shocking concession to obsolete superstition, to be stamped out ruthlessly, and without consideration for “religious freedom” — one is never free to inflict pain upon animals, Nor can we praise too highly the efforts of all such enlightened Indians who consider it to be time for their compatriots to realize at last that slaughter of innocent creatures is always to be condemned, even if taking place under the cover of age-old religious rites.