Friday, October 29, 2010

Animal Sacrifice

In the United States, October is known for Halloween. Millions of kids and adults will dress up as their favorite monster or celebrity and go to parties and trick or treat.

But in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, October is known for festivals involving animal sacrifices on a massive scale. In Bangladesh and some parts of India, the festival of Dussehra involves the ritual slaughter of thousands of animals at temples in honor of the Hindu goddess Sati. During the festival of Durga Puja, in order to honor the goddess Durga, animals are also slaughtered at temples throughout India and Bangladesh. In most of India, animal sacrifice is illegal and authorities and animal welfare organizations have been working to convince locals to replace the animal sacrifice, known as bali, with other offerings like pumpkins, cucumbers and other foods.

But no festival in South Asia demands more animal lives be lost than Nepal’s festival of Dashain, which began on October 15 and runs for fifteen days. Each year, hundreds of thousands of animals are sacrificed for the goddess Durga. In temples around the country, thousands of water buffaloes, pigs, goats, chickens and ducks are killed in order to please the goddess and protect against evil. So many animals are needed that they need to be trucked in from India and Tibet; one news report said that 20 truckloads of buffaloes are arriving daily. In 2009, over a million animals lost their lives in this two week period. Another Nepalese event is the month-long Gadhimai festival, which occurs every five years in November and likewise involves the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of animals to the goddess Gadhimai, in order to end evil and bring prosperity. Gadhimai draws millions of attendees from both Nepal and India, who come because animal sacrifice is legal here.

In recent years, Nepalese animal rights organizations like Animal Welfare Network Nepal (AWNN) have been attempting to stop the sacrifices and substitute new activities for the celebrations, but have thus far been unable to sway public opinion. AWNN argues that animal sacrifice is not consistent with Hindu values, and that goddesses like Durga, who is a symbol of both power and motherly love, would not want animals to be slaughtered in their name.

Proponents of animal sacrifice in South Asia note that not only are these practices cultural traditions that date back thousands of years, but that the animals live better lives than the billions of animals who are raised and killed for food every year in Western factory farms. We could also add that Westerners’ distaste at practices like this stem in part from the very public, and very bloody, way in which the animals are killed. In the United States, animals are killed in slaughterhouses which very few of us will ever see, in conditions which are, for all intents and purposes, invisible. Their suffering is thus invisible, allowing us to conveniently ignore it. The killing of animals in India, Bangladesh and Nepal is, for sure, brutal (many of the animals are hacked to death and beheaded), but comparatively speaking, even a few hundred thousand animals who lose their lives this way (in countries where meat consumption is quite low) is relatively minor compared to the billions of animals who lose their lives every year in the US.

On the other hand, if local activists are ultimately successful in ending, or even minimizing, the slaughter in Nepal, as they appear to be in India, hundreds of thousands of animals per year will be saved. Then the spotlight will be even brighter on Americans, who so often take the moral high ground when it comes to the practices of other cultures, but whose own behaviors are hardly morally pure.