May 5, 2014 at 9:23 am

Sacrifice—The Head Beneath the Altar

In the movie, Indiana Jones stumbles upon the Temple of Doom, where a cult worshiping the fearsome Hindu goddess Kali practices human sacrifice.

The movie is fantasy. The setting is India. The sacrifice scene—the blonde nightclub singer in a cage dangling over a fiery pit—is the creation of co-writer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg.

But this creative duo didn’t get to film their movie in India. And the box office hit still draws criticism for its mean-spirited treatment of Indian culture and Hindu religion.

And for millions of people around the world, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is their only impression of sacrifice and Indian culture—an impression of angry gods promoting human violence and sacrifice.

But it is humanity, not God or gods, with a violence problem, some scholars (and almost all the evidence of history) suggest. And the role sacrifice plays in human culture is a lot more complex than the one it plays in the plot of a Hollywood thriller.

The Head Beneath the Altar

The Head Beneath the Altar by Brian CollinsIn his new book, The Head Beneath the Altar: Hindu Mythology and the Critique of Sacrifice, Dr. Brian Collins studies sacrifice in the origin of religion and culture, as portrayed in Hindu texts. Collins is the Drs. Ram and Sushila Gawande Chair in Indian Religion and Philosophy at Ohio University.

He examines the idea of sacrifice from the earliest recorded rituals through the flowering of classical mythology and the ancient Indian institutions of the duel, the oath, and the secret warrior society.

For his lens, Collins uses a theoretical model developed by René Girard, a philosophical anthropologist who writes that man’s desires are “mimetic”—borrowed or mimicked from others. Conflict and rivalry develop because mimetic desire inevitably leads people to desire what others possess. We have systems of law and social structures to mitigate these conflicts now, but in order for the proto-human societies of prehistory to function, it was necessary for the group to create a single scapegoat to bear the entire burden of being the cause of the conflict. After they killed or drove out the scapegoat, these early societies experienced a sense of cathartic relief that led them to misidentify the scapegoat as the cause of their conflict and his or her death as a miraculous return to peace.

Although these rituals are gone, all of our most basic social symbol systems are predicated on these processes of exclusion and victimization that lay at the foundation of human culture, notes Collins. For Girard, the undoing of this system of controlled violence begins when people begin to see a crucified sacrificial victim as radically innocent and his innocence illuminates the innocence of every victim of historical persecution—every burned witch, every expelled Jew, every tortured Muslim.

The Head Beneath the Altar is the first book to present a wide-ranging study of Hindu texts read through the lens of Girard’s mimetic theory of the sacrificial origin of religion and culture and his contention that Christianity is unique in its rejection of sacrifice. Departing from Girard, Collins uncovers implicit and explicit critiques in the tradition, confirming Girard’s late-career intuition that Hinduism offers an alternative anti-sacrificial worldview to the one contained in the Christian gospels. Girard posits that as Jesus is resurrected and shown to be innocent, the scapegoat cycle is broken and mankind learns how to understand its violent rivalries.

Perhaps Lucas and Spielberg were channeling Girard when they awoke Indiana Jones—whose hand had been the one lowering Willie into the fiery pit—from under the spell of the cult leader? But most certainly they were using a Western-centric lens on their camera. Collins, however, provides a look at sacrifice from the perspective of ancient Hindu texts.

Widening the Conversation with an Indian Perspective

In the beginning, says the ancient Hindu text the Rig Veda, was (the) man. And from the man’s sacrifice and dismemberment came the entire world, including the hierarchical ordering of human society. As time went on in India, the animal sacrifices that served as the repetition of that primordial sacrifice became increasingly symbolic and violence was minimized before being dropped altogether. These changes left the Brahmin priesthood with a static scriptural tradition that was in conflict with the evolving ritual tradition, and this conflict was the source of the ever-growing body of texts interpreting the rituals and speculating on their meaning.

“The book’s title—The Head Beneath the Altar—comes from a debate that sits at the center of ancient Indian ritual thinking: How does one obtain the head of a human sacrificial victim required to perform an ancient ritual without breaking the prohibition against killing? Through an elaborate system of symbolism and substitution, the Brahmin priests managed to simultaneously solve the problem and to build an immense treasury of philosophical speculations on the meaning of sacrifice that eventually gave rise to things like Yoga and Buddhism. They replaced the human head with a head-shaped clay pot (a practice still in use today) and left us with a living record of their sophisticated and systematic thought: the origins of Indian philosophy,” Collins says.

“In this lucid and vividly written book, Collins illuminates his analysis of violence and sacrifice in Hinduism with a highly original concept of the meaning of violence and sacrifice more generally. Building on works by (and against) René Girard, he shows what a more nuanced Girardian theory would look like based upon Hindu rather than Christian data,” says Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago and author of The Hindus: An Alternative History.

“Brian Collins reviews and critically assesses René Girard’s mimetic interpretation of violence and religion, and in particular Girard’s late in life endeavor to assess the great sacrificial traditions of India. Collins ably reviews and succinctly assesses that vast heritage of Indian thinking on the sacrifice, attending to both indigenous and Western scholarly sources. This resultant study both honors Girard’s many contributions and, with respect to the Indian context, pushes beyond them. It greatly widens, beyond the Christian West, our necessary conversation about religion, violence, and the heritage of sacrifice in today’s global web of religious and secular societies,” notes Francis X. Clooney, SJ, Parkman Professor of Divinity and Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard University.

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