What is the human, anyway?

Black and white photo of Radhika Govindrajan
Radhika Govindrajan is a cultural anthropologist who works across the fields of multispecies ethnography, environmental anthropology, the anthropology of religion, South Asian Studies, and political anthropology. Her research is motivated by a longstanding interest in understanding how human relationships with nonhumans in South Asia are variously drawn into and shape broader issues of cultural, political, and social relevance: religious nationalism; elite projects of environmental conservation and animal-rights; everyday ethical action in a time of environmental decline; and people’s struggle for social and political justice in the face of caste discrimination, patriarchal domination, and state violence and neglect. Her first book Animal Intimacies (University of Chicago Press, 2018; Penguin Random House India 2019) is an ethnography of multispecies relatedness in the Central Himalayan state of Uttarakhand in India. It was awarded the 2017 American Institute of Indian Studies Edward Cameron Dimock Prize in the Indian Humanities and the 2019 Gregory Bateson Prize, by the Society for Cultural Anthropology.

The Goat Who Died for Family Sacrificial Ethics and Kinship

Republished with permission of University of Chicago Press, from Animal Intimacies, Radhika Govindrajan, 2019; permission conveyed through Copyright Clearance Center, Inc.

What is the nature of sacrificial connection between the one who sacrifices, the one who is sacrificed, and the one who accepts the sacrifice? Does sacrifice leave an imprint on everyday relationships that extends beyond the moment of ritual killing? I was brought to a consideration of these questions after a visit to the Kalika temple in Gangolihaat during the Navratri season in 2011.1 On Ashtami, the eighth day of the Navratri (lit. nine nights, a festival commemorating the victory of the goddess Durga over the buffalo demon), I reached the temple in the company of a family who had brought with them eight goats—all male, since only bucks could be sacrificed—to be sacrificed to the devi. Neema Bhandari, the formidable fifty-three-year-old woman who invited me to accompany the party, had organized the puja (ritual offering). Years ago, Neema had prayed to Ma Kalika, a powerful Shakta goddess and the patron deity of the Kumaon Regiment, to bless her husband, Puran, with a successful military career.2 When he eventually retired with the rank of honorary captain, an achievement that no one in their family or village could match, it was clear to Neema that the devi had responded to her fervent prayers. It was now Neema’s turn to make good on her promise—an athwar, the sacrifice of eight animals.

It had taken Neema some time to save money for the puja. Two years earlier, she had bought eight kids from her sisters, whose goats had recently given birth, and dedicated them to the goddess. She had taken care of the kids herself, she told me proudly. No one else in the family had been allowed to care for them. Then there was the expense of the feast that would follow the puja. When sufficient funds were finally in hand, Neema decided that the puja would be offered during Navratri.

In the wee hours of the morning, a cavalcade of cars, Tempos, and motorcycles had arrived at their village to transport people to the temple of Ma Kalika. After being anointed with chandan (sandalwood) and pithiya (vermillion) by the village priest, the goats were crammed into the back of a cream-colored Tempo. Two of Neema’s teenage nephews clambered into the stuffed space with the animals and held onto the iron frame for balance as the Tempo started with a smoky sputter. Following on a motorcycle, I watched the boys jostling for space with the goats as they danced to the beat of the drum that somebody was playing in one of the cars that made up the procession. After arriving at the Kalika temple a few hours later, the family rang the brass bell at the red archway in the entryway and then took the cement path that circled the shrine instead of going directly inside. We completed the customary circumambulation of the shrine and its grounds, stopping every now and then to cheer Jai Ma Kalika (Victory to Ma Kalika). Several members of the family, including Neema’s daughter who was making her first visit to her mait after marriage, were possessed by their kul dyavtas (household deities).3 The other women ululated approvingly, delighted that the family deities had appeared on this important occasion.

Pilgrims thronged the inner courtyard of the temple when we walked in. There, the family, with their goats in tow, were greeted and blessed by the elderly pujari who tended to the main shrine. Kneeling with some difficulty on the cool marble stones donated by the Indian army and taking special care to avoid the pellets of goat dung that studded the floor like raisins, the priest applied more sandalwood and vermillion to their foreheads. He then touched a drop of water to the mouth of each goat, inducting them into the Bhandari family gotra.4 Puran, and later the priest, explained to me that by being inducted into the family gotra, the goat had taken a samkalp, a vow to complete a particular religious task. The goat was, in essence, taking a vow to sacrifice himself to a deity on behalf of the family of which he was now part.

A mixture of uncooked rice and water was then sprinkled on the goats’ backs. The family held their breath until each goat shook his body, a movement that Neema described as jharr. This jharr was read as a sign that the goat had consented to his own death and that the deity was pleased with and had accepted the sacrifice. If a goat did not shake immediately, more rice and water was scattered on his back until he did. Once all the goats had shaken their consent, they were whisked off to an open air shed below the courtyard that had been set up as a staging ground for the sacrifices. I watched as the goats stiffened when they inhaled the tang of blood that rose up from the wine red ground. One of them, who had a snowy-white coat with beautiful, long ears the color of dark honey, moaned repeatedly, his tone increasingly desperate. I was sick with anxiety as I heard his fear. Neema leaned toward me and whispered, “he’s calling for me. That’s how he would cry when I locked them up in the shed at the end of the day.” Her voice broke as she turned her face away.

The sacrificer, a tall man resplendent in blue and gold silk with telling splatters of blood all over his face and clothes, made quick work of the goats, chopping the head off each one with a surprising ease. As each headless body was in the throes of a final, fierce spasm, the head was handed to an assistant to keep aside. The head and one hind leg of each goat was the sacrificer’s to keep, and the rest of the meat was given to the family. Standing next to Neema, tall and graceful in a yellow chiffon saree that a niece from Delhi had given her, I felt each time she winced when one of the goats was beheaded. She was distraught when the goat with the honey-colored ears was killed, and tears started to roll down her cheeks. Meanwhile, the young men in the family hoisted bloodstained gunny sacks stuffed with meat onto their backs, and walked up the steep path to where the cars were parked. The sacks were loaded into a van, ready to be transported back to the village where the meat would be served at the feast that evening. A small portion of the meat was cooked right there and served to members of the family as bhog or prasad (food exchanges with divinities). The distinctive scent of singed hair and flesh hung heavy in the air and lingered on people’s clothes and in their hair.

Through all this, Girish, Neema’s nephew, who was visiting from the United States, had stood conspicuously apart from the rest of the family. After we returned home after the puja, Neema berated him for refusing to eat even the prasad, an act that she termed an insult to the devi. When she demanded to know why he had behaved in that manner, Girish responded that he was struck dumb by how “backward” his family still was. Sacrifice, he said bluntly to the assembled family, was a “barbaric” practice. Why couldn’t the family have offered the devi flowers or coconuts? Insisting that deities would be as pleased with vegetal offerings as with a goat, he concluded that it was people who really wanted to sacrifice animals so that they could eat meat and show off their wealth to the rest of the village. “Do you really think our dyavtas eat meat?” he asked in a voice dripping with scorn.

In response, Neema told us the story of how the practice of animal sacrifice had started in the mountains. “In the old days,” she began, “the goddess would be satisfied only with blood.”

Each household that took turns to serve in her temple would offer her their oldest son. Once it was the turn of an old widow who had to offer her only child as sacrifice. She couldn’t bear the thought and decided to appeal to the devi for mercy. The next morning, she waited by the naula [water tank] where the devi bathed every morning. When the devi’s retinue arrived, the old woman fell to her knees and begged for the life of her son. The devi asked, “What will I get in return?” So the old woman promised to sacrifice the animals that she had raised just like her own children. The devi relented only because of that promise. . . . If we don’t offer the devi a puja [sacrifice] . . . then we will be back to the terrible days of narbali [human sacrifice]. This is why [all this talk of] offering coconuts and flowers as puja is nonsense . . . They are not precious. There’s no loss when you give devi-dyavta coconuts. But giving an animal is like giving a human. A life is given in place of a life.

An uncle-in-law of Neema’s entered the fray and pointed out that flowers and coconuts would not satisfy the dyavta’s desire for maans (flesh) and blood. Besides, he said, goats were also bhakts (devotees), and “gods expect the life of a bhakt because it tells them how much bhakti [devotion] they can command. A coconut isn’t a devotee,” he said; “an animal is.”

While everyone else in the room seemed impressed with the simple clarity of this statement, Girish was still unsatisfied. He repeated that people in the mountains were sacrificing innocent animals in their own interest and declared that it was a sin to “murder” a living being in this manner. Neema snapped at him. “Do you know how much labor it takes to raise animals?” she cried, her voice shrill.

I work day and night to take care of these animals. My legs are tired from walking with them all day, my arms are still scarred from when I entered a thicket of thorns to rescue one of the young ones. I have cared more for them than my children . . . Taking care of animals is an everyday ritual. But you see only the ritual of sacrifice and then say that we don’t really love our animals. It pains me every time I see one [of them] die. I feel such mamta [maternal love] for them . . . I think of them even after they are dead, I cry for them when I open the door to the shed and they are gone . . . They repay the debt of my mamta [by dying for our family].

Girish’s response was a sarcastic snort of laughter; he was visibly agitated. This talk of mamta, he said, was meaningless. After all, mamta didn’t prevent people from sending these animals to their death in place of their sons. His aunt’s eyes shone with angry tears at this dismissal of her claim to the maternal affect that emerged through acts of gendered labor. “You may not concede my mamta,” she said, finally, “but the devi can see it. She knows it was a true [sach] sacrifice for me . . . like watching a child die.”

Girish is not alone in his objections to animal sacrifice. The practice of animal sacrifice is regarded with hostility by animal-rights activists, Hindu reform organizations, and a number of pahari youth. Simmering tensions about sacrifice boiled over in 2010 when the PFA filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Uttarakhand High Court calling for a ban on the practice on the grounds that it not only entailed cruelty against animals but was also a false superstition that violated the Hindu ideal of ahimsa (nonviolence). In its ruling on the writ petition in 2011, the High Court acknowledged that there was a long tradition of sacrificing animals to local deities but declared animals could no longer be sacrificed for explicitly religious reasons. The judgment stated that “the person sacrificing an animal can only sacrifice the same, not for the purpose of appeasing the Gods, as he believes, but only for the purpose of arranging food for mankind.”5 Significantly, it went on to say that animals slaughtered for food could be killed in a manner dictated by any particular religion, but they could not be sacrificed to deities in a temple. Slaughter for food, the court stipulated, would now take place only in slaughterhouses recognized by municipal or other local authorities, except in rural areas, where this rule was more difficult to enforce. With this ruling, the court moved sacrifice out of the realm of ritual practice and into the secular domain of food provisioning. Sacrifice would be acceptable only if stripped of its devotional character; the deities to whom the gift was originally offered were rendered incidental and the sacrificial animal transformed from a ritual substitute for a human victim to a mere source of food.

Neema’s argument with Girish reveals much about what is at stake in the vigorous and often angry debates that were taking place across the region on the meaning of sacrifice. For Girish and others like him, the association between goats and children was limited, even hypocritical, in that people did not offer their children as sacrifice even as thousands of goats were sacrificed every year. The claim that a sacrifice becomes real only by offering a being whose death causes pain to the sacrificer was regarded by many opponents of the practice as opportunistic, a thin veneer for what they saw as senseless cruelty and violence. The ethical questions opponents of sacrifice raise about human responsibility for the extinguishing of animal life cannot be evaded. Indeed, those who continued to offer animal sacrifice were, more often than not, troubled by its violence, and they attempted to navigate the ethical dilemmas it raises in myriad, complex ways. As such, Girish’s assertion that Neema’s experience of loss and grief in the face of death was simulated forecloses any engagement with the complex entanglements of care, kinship, and violence that characterize these sacrificial relationships.

In this chapter, I argue that perspectives like Neema’s offer compelling responses to the two questions that I posed at the beginning of this chapter. On the nature of sacrificial connection, her point of view is that sacrifice is made meaningful and authentic, and by extension acceptable to the gods, by shared bonds of kinship—what she experienced as mamta—between the person who offers the sacrifice and the animal that is sacrificed. Following her, I explore the idea that sacrificial relationships are marked by practices of care, attention, and reciprocity that emerge through everyday, gendered forms of labor involved in raising animals who are eventually sacrificed. When Neema described the scratches on her body received from crawling into thorny thickets to rescue a goat, it was this intimate, routinized, arduous, and affective labor that she was invoking. This daily entanglement of lives creates bodies that are open to being affected by one another, and it is this porosity that allows different beings to come together in relationships of proximate intimacy. The death of an animal with whom people feel this embodied kinship creates a sense of loss and grief that is essential to making sacrifice truly a sacrifice. This, I argue, is the nature of sacrificial connection.

Neema’s response to her nephew Girish offers an interesting lens through which to consider my second question about whether ritual sacrifice has an influence on everyday life beyond the sacrificial moment. When Neema said that she mourned the death of her goats, she was not posturing but offered insight into the fact that the spectacular nature of sacrificial death forces people to engage with it long after it is over. I argue that this engagement takes the form of ethical acts and aspirations that emerge in the ordinary unfolding of everyday life even as they respond to an out of the ordinary event. These gestures are often small and fleeting, like Neema’s tears on the occasion of her beloved goat’s killing. Small and perhaps even insufficient though they may be, they open up the possibility for ethical kinship and love in the interstices of violence.

(1.) Di is a diminutive for didi, older sister. Throughout the book, I use this and other kinship terms, especially da (brother), chacha (father’s younger brother), chachi (father’s younger brother’s wife), bhabhi (sister-in-law), mama (mother’s brother), and mami (mother’s brother’s wife) to describe some of the people who figure in the book. The names themselves are pseudonyms except in the case of well-known public figures.
(2.) Moh-maya is often translated as an illusion. However, as in other parts of India, maya is used here to signal the affect that binds humans (and nonhumans) to one another. As Sarah Lamb points out, “maya not only consists of what we would classify as emotional ties but involves substantial or bodily connections as well. People see themselves as substantially part of and tied to the people, belongings, land, and houses that make up their personhoods and lived-in worlds” (Lamb 2000: 116).
(3.) Radhika is a diminutive of Radha, Krishna’s beloved.
(4.) David Schneider’s landmark book A Critique of the Study of Kinship, published in 1984, marked an important shift in the terrain of kinship studies from the biological to the cultural. Schneider (1984, 165–66) criticized anthropological models of kinship that claimed to have discovered kinship “out there” as it “actually is.” Anthropologists, he argued, needed to distance themselves from conceptual models of kinship as biological being and focus instead on the daily “doing and performing” of kinship within particular ethnographic locations. Schneider’s emphasis on kinship as a doing, to be located in the practices of everyday life, was taken up by a number of scholars, including the anthropologist Janet Carsten (2000, 3) who offered the term relatedness to describe “indigenous statements and practices” of what it means to be related, “some of which may fall quite outside what anthropologists have conventionally understood as kinship.” In particular, Carsten argues, exploring what it means to be related in particular places allows us to understand the complicated ways in which the biological and the social interact in everyday life in ways that do not conform to the pregiven analytical opposition between biology and culture in studies of kinship that were rooted in Euro-American epistemologies. Such critiques of early studies of kinship as rooted in European epistemological and ontological categories were, as Franklin and McKinnon (2001, 3) note, “exemplary of a broad shift within anthropology in the 1970s and 1980s toward more self-critical and reflexive approaches … and a rejection of objectivist models in favor of more hermeneutical ones.”
(5.) For a wonderful account of the role of Hanuman in South Asian culture and religion, see Lutgendorf 2007.