Fearsome Power

This is a vexed subject, which has become emotional and politicised, and I know almost nothing about it. But what the heck, it’s very interesting. I would welcome comments from people who do know about it.

I had earlier posted two articles about a struggle between the most ancient layers of Tamil culture; and the pan-Indian tradition which, mixed with Tamil elements, formed mainstream Hinduism in Tamil Nadu today: Sanskritisation, and Dalit Poetry.

(By the way: As it happens, some of the oldest forms of Tamil culture are associated with the lowest castes, for which the current fashionable term is Dalit, ‘deprived.’ Mahatma Gandhi coined the term Harijan, ‘child of god,’ and that term was widely used at one time, but now I don’t see it at all. Was it seen as patronising? What happened to it?)

Last October the Chief Minister (CM) of the state announced that an existing-but-ignored law banning animal sacrifice in temples would henceforth be enforced: A decree on animal sacrifice.

Animal sacrifice is not part of the mainstream religion today, but it is a practise preserved in some temples of the ancient village goddesses. While many people felt that it was about time to stop this practise (which exists in pockets in other states as well), the people who were affected claimed that they were victims of the CM's wish to please the Hindu fundamentalists who were in power at the Centre at that time; and of caste discrimination against Dalits.

From the Frontline article cited above:
The reactions of political parties such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) were mixed. Although animal sacrifice was not acceptable to them, they questioned the wisdom of seeking to end an age-old practice by the mere enforcement of a law. The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), felt that the move was unwarranted. Puthiya Tamizhagam, a Dalit party, demanded a ban also on yagnas conducted by caste Hindus at the mainstream temples constructed and run under agama rules. During yagnas, gold coins, diamonds, expensive silk sarees, ghee and foodgrain are offered to Agni (fire) as `sacrifice', the party said. The Dalit Panthers of India (Viduthalai Siruthaigal in Tamil) saw the ban as an interference in the religious rights of the oppressed people and called for an agitation to protest against it.

Dalits and people belonging to backward and most backward communities, for whom animal sacrifice is an integral part of worship, expressed their resentment in no uncertain terms. Within days of the order, devotees in several parts of the southern districts went ahead with the customary practice at the local temples in defiance of the ban. August-September is the time of the annual or biennial `Kodai' festivals at these temples, and the mood among these people was one of anger, despair and defiance…

(My reaction: I haven’t witnessed animal sacrifice. I vaguely feel that, since food animals are being sacrificed, and since they are eaten afterwards, it’s just dedicating your (non-veg) food to god before you eat it. But I’m cursed with seeing too many points of view, and being unable to form strong opinions about most things.)

After the recent national elections, when there was a strong reaction against the central government for many reasons, the CM quickly began to reverse a number of her actions which had proved unpopular. Among them was the law against animal sacrifice, which was repealed on July 30, 2004: Animal Sacrifice Act Repealed.

Anyway, the reason I have raised all this is that I’ve started reading a book which I have owned for years, but only dipped into in the past: Tamil Temple Myths: Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Saiva Tradition, by David Dean Shulman. (Princeton University Press, 1980 – out of print). The book attempts to separate and examine the particularly Tamil cultural strands from the hybrid Hinduism of the Tamil country, by examining the myths which are connected with particular temples in Tamil Nadu. Perhaps because of these latest manifestations of what is not at all a recent struggle, between old and new, upper-caste and lower-caste, this book suddenly became very interesting to me. So, I was reading the Introduction, and I saw this, about the movement of mainstream Hinduism -- in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere -- away from blood sacrifice:
The process of Brahmin accommodation to ancient Tamil religion has been described by George Hart (in The Poems of Ancient Tamil) in the following terms:
”It must be remembered that, to the ancient Tamils, sacred forces were dangerous accretions of power that could be controlled only by those of low status. When the Brahmins arrived in Tamilnad, it was natural for them to dissociate themselves from these indigenous forces and to characterize themselves as ‘pure,’ that is, isolated to the greatest possible extent from polluting sacred forces; indeed, if they were to gain the people’s respect, they had very little choice. It was also natural for the Brahmins to characterize the gods they introduced as pure and unsullied by pollution… It follows that the Brahmins had to adopt from the high-caste non-Brahmins many of the customs whose purpose was to isolate a person from dangerous sacred power.”

The idea that the sacred is dangerous and potentially polluting is undoubtedly ancient in the Tamil area, and there is every reason to believe that the Brahmins who settled there came to terms with this idea in a manner that guaranteed their own claim to purity. But it is noteworthy that within the Vedic sacrificial cult itself we find an evolution away from contact with the dangerous forces of violence and death that are at work in the sacrifice. This development has been described by Heesterman in terms of the emergence of the pranagnihotra, the ‘sacrifice of the breaths,’ as a substitute for the original blood-sacrifice… The entire ritual is internalized, with the result that the actual slaughter of a victim is eliminated. Death and destruction are relegated to the chaotic world outside the individual performer of the ritual (just as they are made to rest beyond the confines of the sacred shrine in the Tamil myths)… It is this transformed tradition that was imported into south India, and that both crystallized and ultimately reinterpreted a local myth of violent sacrifice. Yet we shall see... how vital and enduring the underlying myth has always been, and how quickly the religious ideology superimposed upon it crumbles before the inherent force of the ancient symbols.

One of the myths he refers to is the wounding of the god -- as in the Madurai temple myth, where Meenakshi fights with Shiva before marrying him... but that's enough for now.

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