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Article: Burley, M (2017) “Mountains of Flesh and Seas of Blood”: Reflecting Philosophically on Animal Sacrifice through Dramatic Fiction. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 85 (3). pp. 806-832. ISSN 0002-7189
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“Mountains of Flesh and Seas of Blood”: Reflecting Philosophically on Animal Sacrifice through Dramatic Fiction
Mikel Burley School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science, University of Leeds, Leeds, LS2 9JT, United Kingdom
Despite recent moves among philosophers of religion to avoid undue abstraction by giving closer attention to religion’s practical dimensions, such moves commonly remain limited to a relatively narrow range of religious traditions. What D. Z. Phillips has termed the “radical plurality” of religious and nonreligious forms of life, comprising morally troubling as well as edifying varieties, thus continues to be neglected. This article promotes an expanded approach to philosophy of religion with regard to both methodology and scope. Methodologically, it explores the potential of narrative works, and of dramatic fiction in particular, not only to constitute resources for philosophical reflection but also to actively philosophize themselves. To this end, two plays, by Rabindranath Tagore and Girish Karnad respectively, are discussed. With regard to subject matter, the article examines the complex phenomenon of animal sacrifice, and opposition to it, in South Asian contexts.

The anthropologist Melford Spiro once wrote that “religious ideas deal with the very guts of life, not with its bland surface” (1982, 6). His point was, in part, that religious ideas are typically integrated into believers’ lives in ways that deeply inform their hopes, fears, and aspirations along with their practical responses to life’s vicissitudes, and hence that an understanding of religion cannot be arrived at if it is treated as a purely intellectual or theoretical matter. This, of course, will come as no surprise to most scholars of religion, perhaps including most of those who approach the subject from a philosophical angle. But paying lip service to religion’s messy embroilment in life’s affective, conative, and practical dimensions is relatively easy; doing conceptual justice to this embroilment in one’s philosophizing is often harder to achieve.
Among recent responses to the persistent philosophical tendency to dislocate religious ideas from the lived contexts through which they are shaped and embodied is the turn towards practice in the philosophy of religion, spearheaded by figures such as John Cottingham and Mark Wynn. Cottingham, for example, champions the view that practice (or “praxis”) has priority over theoretical reason in religious life: not merely in the sense that religious practitioners are generally initiated into certain forms of practice before participating in rational evaluation of the ideas that permeate the practices in question, but also in the “stronger” sense “that it is in the very nature of religious understanding that it characteristically stems from practical involvement rather than from intellectual analysis” (Cottingham 2005, 6). Wynn, meanwhile, has been developing a vision of religious (or “spiritual”) life that affords due attention to “the embodied, action-orienting, perceptionstructuring, and affect-infused character of religious understanding,” an understanding that is

not detached from but is thoroughly rooted in physical locations imbued with historical and sometimes intimately personal significance (Wynn 2009, back cover).
Amid the many strengths exhibited in the work of philosophical innovators such as Cottingham and Wynn, one potential weakness consists in the limited pool of varieties of religiosity from which their discussions draw. It is understandable that these authors should refer primarily to Christian modes of religious life to illustrate the claims that they make, given that these are the modes with which they are personally most familiar. So too is it excusable that, in view of the ignorance and hostility that beclouds much contemporary debate concerning religion, these authors should accentuate the moral, emotional, and cognitive benefits to be derived from participation in religious or spiritual practices. The danger comes, however, when these Christian-centric and morally selective conceptions of religion are presented, and indeed promoted, as though they facilitated an enriched comprehension of religion in general rather than of only a modest part of it. By foregrounding such a slanted repertoire of examples, one risks obscuring the sheer variety—what D. Z. Phillips has called the “radical plurality” (2007b, 207)—of forms that religious life can take, only a small proportion of which are apt to strike readers as morally or spiritually edifying, and many of which may appear downright repugnant.
What Phillips’s notion of radical plurality emphasizes is the need, if one is to do conceptual justice to the variety and internal complexity of both religious and nonreligious forms of life, to cultivate a willingness to attend to that variety and complexity without picking and choosing the bits of religion that one personally prefers while leaving aside those that one finds religiously or morally troubling (Phillips 2007b, 204–205). This aspiration to recognize differences and variegation, and to refrain from suppressing the unsettling elements of religious life, resonates with certain orientations in contemporary anthropology and sociology of religion. We see the aspiration, for example, in the work of sociologists of “lived

religion” such as Meredith McGuire, who urges that care be taken not to erect “implicit boundaries that exclude from our purview the religious and spiritual practices we personally find repulsive,” including those “that literally, as well as figuratively, embody violence and aggression” (2008, 116). It is the effort to refrain from facile moralizing in the face of such practices that a number of philosophers, including Phillips, have characterized as placing ethical or moral demands upon the inquirer (Phillips 2007a, 38; 2007b, 208; Winch 1996, 173). Notwithstanding these demands, the effort is necessary if we are to develop a suitably nuanced conception of religion that is not unduly distorted by the inquirer’s predilections.
My purpose in this article is to contribute towards an expanded conception of how philosophy of religion might avoid the distortions that result from a one-sided diet of religious examples. My focus will be on the phenomenon of animal sacrifice in certain South Asian religious traditions and also upon opposition to such sacrifice as it manifests in that same South Asian milieu. Despite the prevalence of animal sacrifice in many cultures throughout history and across the world,1 this aspect of religious life has received sparse attention from philosophers of religion. Substantial discussions of animal sacrifice or indeed of ritual activities more generally are absent from the major available textbooks and anthologies.2 In other places, when Western philosophers or social theorists do refer to animal sacrifice, the subject is commonly treated at a high level of abstraction with little consideration of specific examples, especially examples from outside the Abrahamic traditions. In such treatments the assumption tends to be made that what is needed is a general theory of sacrifice as opposed to the kind of attention to particulars that is liable to disclose how diverse the phenomenon of sacrifice is.3 In other instances blood sacrifice,
1 For examples, see Baumgarten (2002), Carter (2003), Petropoulou (2008). 2 See, for example, Taliaferro and Griffiths (2003), Wainwright (2005), Taliaferro, Draper, and Quinn (2010), Meister and Copan (2013). For attempts to rectify this lacuna, see Schilbrack (2004) and Meszaros and Zachhuber (2013). 3 For critical discussion of several general theories of sacrifice, see Hedley (2011).

whether of animals or of human beings, is rapidly dismissed by philosophers as a “primitive” aberration involving moral backwardness or confusion about causal relations.4
This raises the question of how to engage philosophically with the topic of animal sacrifice. Care is needed in this area, lest one be tempted to slide into either censorious deprecation or gratuitous exoticization. Academic discussion of South Asian religious and cultural traditions needs, in particular, to remain alert to the tensions that persist over questions of “who speaks for” these traditions.5 Moreover, to focus on animal sacrifice in the South Asian context without at the same time explicitly acknowledging the diversity of attitudes towards such practices that obtains within and among the traditions themselves would risk generating merely another distorted picture, which might itself tend to resuscitate rather than erode certain once-prevalent colonialist and Orientalist stereotypes about “superstitious cults” and “barbarous tribes” (cf. Stietencron 1995, 75; Wilson 1840, 195 n. 157). Without presuming it to be the best way, still less the only way, of enabling philosophical engagement with issues of animal sacrifice, I propose in this article to carry forward an approach that I have illustrated and argued for elsewhere (Burley forthcoming a), namely that of utilizing works of narrative fiction as a locus of philosophical reflection.
By “a locus of philosophical reflection,” I mean two main things. First, that the works in question can themselves be understood as exemplifying modes of philosophizing, most notably the mode that prioritizes the elucidation of “possibilities of sense,” or possible perspectives on the world, without rushing to try to reconcile or synthesize those perspectives or to evaluate them in terms of some supposedly universal and objective criterion of
4 See, for example, the discussion of human sacrifice in Hick (2004, 309–11). D. Z. Phillips, with reference to the scapegoat ritual in Leviticus 16:20–22, has also been rather hasty to characterize such rituals as confused; see esp. Phillips (1993, 89–91).
5 For discussions of the question “Who Speaks for Hinduism?,” see Caldwell and Smith (2000) and the other articles in the same special issue. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for this journal for reminding me of the relevance of these discussions.

rationality.6 Second, I mean that philosophers (who are not themselves typically in the business of writing narrative fiction) can deepen their own analysis of religious and nonreligious perspectives by reflecting on how these are portrayed in the narrative sources, treating the sources as instances of “thick description” and bringing them into critical and constructive dialogue both with one another and with non-narrative and nonfictional materials.7
The principal works of narrative fiction to be discussed here are two plays by Indian dramatists, each of which takes animal sacrifice as its thematic core. The first of these, chronologically, is Sacrifice by Rabindranath Tagore (1917), which dramatizes competing conceptions of the Goddess Kālī, one of which envisages her as a granter of wishes in return for the blood of animals and the other of which regards her as the power of love and compassion, opposed to the shedding of blood. The second play, though the first that I shall discuss, is Bali: The Sacrifice by Girish Karnad (2004), which explores not only the tensions within and between Hindu and Jain conceptions of sacrifice but also the related entanglements between power, sexuality, and intention. It is in large part by showcasing what we might call, borrowing a phrase from Mikhail Bakhtin, “a genuine polyphony” or “plurality of independent and unmerged voices” (1984, 6; italics omitted), that works of narrative fiction in general and of theatrical drama in particular are capable of enriching our appreciation of diverse perspectives rather than reinforcing the kinds of stereotypes that I noted above.
Inevitably, a single article can hardly even begin to do justice to the abundant and intricate ramifications of the two literary works I have selected, or to their potential for
6 In speaking of elucidating “possibilities of sense” I am again borrowing a motif from Phillips; see, for example, Phillips (2001, 33).
7 The term “thick description” derives from Ryle ([1968] 2009), and, as many readers will know, was popularized among ethnographers by Geertz (1973) and in the social disciplines more generally by Denzin (e.g., 2001, chap. 6). For discussion of this notion in relation to philosophy of religion, see Burley (forthcoming b) and Knepper (2014).

deepening our thinking both about animal sacrifice and about religion more broadly. But if I can say enough to at least justify the need for further philosophical reflection upon these works in particular as well as upon the themes they illuminate, then the article will have served a useful purpose. Before coming to my examination of Karnad’s and Tagore’s respective plays, in the next section I contextualize that examination by offering a concise introduction to the topic of animal sacrifice in the South Asian context.
ANIMAL SACRIFICE IN SOUTH ASIA The phrase “Mountains of flesh and seas of blood” in the title of the present article derives from an account of the words sung by the men employed to carry out the sacrificial slaughter of animals during the autumn festival known as Dashain (daśaĩ) in Nepal (Anderson 1971, 150). Dashain is the Nepalese version of the pan-Hindu festival that in India typically goes by the name Navarātrī (“nine nights”), which is immediately followed by Daśahrā (the tenth day, from the Sanskrit daśaharā).8 In Nepal, along with regions of northeast India where Goddess worship is prominent, the festival centers on the image of the goddess Durgā in her form as Mahiṣāsura-mardinī, the “slayer of the buffalo demon,” and large-scale animal sacrifice has traditionally been integral to its celebration; hence the aptness of talk of seas or rivers of blood.9 As Nanda Shrestha recounts from his childhood in the Nepalese town of Pokhara, “During this festival, most temples are littered with blood from sacrificed animals (uncastrated goats, roosters, ducks, and buffalos). The smell of blood and raw meat is everywhere” (1997, 44). The practice of animal sacrifice has a long and convoluted history in the South Asian region. Central to the ancient Vedic religion were rituals involving the suffocation and
8 Strictly speaking, daśaĩ is the Parvate term for the festival; the term normally used by Nepali Newars is mohanī (Shrestha 2012, 269, 582).
9 Cf. Rana 1969, 18: “So great is the slaughter of animals in the three cities of the Kathmandu Valley that rivers of blood flow in the court-yards of temples.”

immolation of animals that included goats, sheep, oxen, sometimes horses, and occasionally smaller animals such as doves, owls, or hares (Keith 1925, 324).10 Almost extinct in the modern world, Vedic sacrificial rites that are probably around 3,700 years old still persist among at least one small community in contemporary southeastern India (Knipe 2015, esp. chap. 6), and despite differences between Vedic and post-Vedic modes of animal sacrifice, traces of Vedic procedures are discernible in later sacrificial practices, not least those associated with the Goddess in her various ferocious forms.11 Preeminent among those latter forms are Durgā and Kālī, though they also include numerous village deities, such as the goddess of smallpox known most commonly as Śītalā in northern India and as Māriyammaṉ in the south (Fuller 2004, 85).
Animal sacrifice has been a site of tension both within the traditions that practice it and between those and other religious groups. Non-Brahmanical movements such as Jainism and Buddhism were vociferous in their opposition to the sacrificial rites rooted in the Vedic religion, rejecting them on the grounds that they violate the fundamental ethical principle of nonviolence or harmlessness (ahiṃsā) (Tiwari 1998, 66). The latter principle also became increasingly prevalent in Brahmanical orthodoxy from the late Vedic period onwards, apparently being appropriated from surrounding ascetic groups from as early as the time of the oldest Upaniṣads (c. eighth century CE) (Bodewitz 1999, 40–41).
The perceived incompatibility between an ideal of nonviolence and the institution of animal sacrifice is typified by a verse quoted in the collection of folktales known as the Pañcatantra (c. 300 CE) in which it is declared that those who sacrifice animals are immersed in darkness and that there never has been nor will be a “higher religious duty than
10 Under certain circumstances human sacrifice (puruṣamedha) is also enjoined, though whether it was ever performed remains disputed. See, for example, Oldenberg (1988, 204), Bakker (2007), and Parpola (2007).
11 For discussion of continuities and discontinuities between Vedic and post-Vedic animal sacrifice, see Hiltebeitel (2011, esp. 135–37); cf. Rodrigues (2003, 36–37, 83).

harmlessness” (3.51, trans. Edgerton 1924, 370).12 There is, however, an irony attached to this verse, which is that the character who recites it in the Pañcatantra is a cat named Dadhikarṇa, whose recitation is part of a strategy for appearing benign to a partridge and a hare; having gained their confidence, the cat seizes and kills them (3.53). Within the narrative context, therefore, the verse simultaneously condemns animal sacrifice and is implicated in a subterfuge that results in the slaying of gullible victims, a sardonic twist neglected by modern authors who cite the verse as a straightforward pronouncement of the nonviolent ideal (e.g., Preece 1999, 202).
One response of the Brahmanical tradition to those who denounce animal sacrifice as a breach of nonviolence has been to draw a sharp distinction between killing for one’s own benefit and killing to serve the greater good. For example, the classical law book known as the Mānava Dharmaśāstra (c. second or third century CE) maintains that domestic animals were created precisely for the purpose of sacrifice, which promotes “the prosperity of this whole world.” When carried out for this reason, “killing is not killing” (5.39, trans. Olivelle 2005, 140). To avoid the appearance of paradox, we might interpret this latter contention to mean that the killing of an animal as an act of sacrifice is not the kind of killing that is prohibited by the principle of nonviolence, for the principle concerns only killing that is selfishly motivated.13
Over the last few centuries the sacrificial practices of goddess worshippers have diminished as a consequence of several factors. Chief among these in northwest India, for instance, has been the proliferation of a strain of Vaiṣṇavism (worship of the divine in the form of Viṣṇu, especially as personified as Kṛṣṇa or Rāma) that is opposed to the killing of animals both for dietary and for religious purposes. Also contributing to an atmosphere
12 Although the verse is presented as a quotation from the Dharma Śāstras, its precise source remains unknown (Sternback 2002, 32).
13 Cf. Mānava Dharmaśāstra 5.45 (Olivelle 2005, 140): “If someone, craving his own pleasure, harms harmless creatures, he will not find happiness anywhere while he is still alive or after death.”

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