Philosophy   > Abraham's Choice


Dr Ranjit Konkar -- Compassionate Friend, Monsoon-Winter 1997 ---
Beauty Without Cruelty India


Bakr-Id is the day for commemorating the spirit of sacrifice. The memory is of the courage displayed by the Prophet Abraham centuries ago in being willing to sacrifice to God the life of his only child upon being commanded by God to do so to demonstrate his dedication to Him. Upon seeing the unshaken resolve he displays in obeying God's word, it is said that God, very pleased with his dedication, intervenes through his angel just as Abraham is about to take his child's life and relieves him of the burden by asking him not to go ahead. He then causes a ram (a kind of sheep) to appear near the sacrificial alter. Abraham sacrifices the ram instead to complete the ritual. Today, this act of courage is sought to be remembered by millions of households the world over by taking the life of a goat or a sheep or even larger animals on that day.


On this occasion, I wish to raise the issue of the ethics of animal sacrifice. This is no way directed only toward the observers of Bakr-Id -- majority religion, Hinduism has a far greater incidence of this practice of killing animals for religious purposes than the other religions. Therefore, we all have something to ask ourselves in this regard.


What is Sacrifice?


Sacrifice should mean the giving up of something that belongs to oneself. Does my child's life belong to me? Does the life of any animal belong to me? That life is wholly and solely owned by the being (human or non-human) that is its holder. Religious thought goes a step further and doesn't grant ownership of the life even to its holder -- the holder is merely the custodian of that life and cannot decide to shed it when he/she desires, by committing suicide. Legal thought has made suicide a punishable offence on that very basis. God, the creator, is the only entity given universal ownership of all life. Only God can take life, just like only God can create life.


Seen in this light, it should seem outrageous that one can consider the taking of another's life as one's own sacrifice. When we are trained to think, on one hand, that the taking of even our own life is a social and moral crime, how do we allow ourselves to not only take the life of another being but call it our sacrifice, on top of that? Would Abraham have looked favorably upon our wilful destruction of life? Would Goddess Kali or Lord Shiva, if they could take form and communicate with us, condone the barbaric bloodshed taking place in their names?


The Danger of Rituals


The ritual, mechanistic repetition of a historic act in order to display one's reverence for the act or for its original perpetrator is fundamentally an act fraught with dangerous possibilities. Suppose that God had not intervened to substitute a ram for Abraham's child, and that instead accepted his sacrifice and decided to reward him later by bringing his child back to life. Would the followers of Abraham then have dared to commemorate that act by sacrificing their children, knowing fully well that they can't bring them back to life? A less shocking and offensive analogy too is worth pondering over: imagine that God has substituted not a ram but tree in place of Abraham's son. Would we then, to commemorate the great sacrifice, be cutting down trees on this day? In these days of environmental consciousness, this would produce a public outrage. Why, then, is animal life, which is so much higher than plant life, in feeling pain and in possessing six senses versus the plants' one, held so cheaply? Why do we think nothing of slitting the throat of a fully conscious and frightened animal like goat when cutting down a tree is socially castigable? And harming a human being is unthinkable? Do these animals deserve no mercy from us? They put their trust in us only to find that we deceive them and belie their trust by taking their life. Is this how we, the supposedly superior species, should behave?


How many of us who so willingly sacrifice a goat's life, whether at Kali's feet or in Abraham's memory, would make actual sacrifices of one's possessions when called upon to do so? Is it that sacrificing the goat's life equips us in any way with a greater moral readiness to do so? If not, then why this disrespect towards the life of another, the life that is held so dear by its owner? How can we take away what we cannot give back?


If we think that by killing a goat, we are replaying the situation that Abraham found himself in, we are mistaken. Not one of us can claim that God has asked us to sacrifice our dearest possession to Him. Even if we can, then can we, with any self-respect, claim that the goat that we purchase in the market for so many rupees and paise is our dearest possession? Would any of us dare to do what Abraham showed courage to do? What is this fascination with replaying historical events anyway?


Questioning Abraham's Choice


At this point, let me commit the blasphemy of questioning the propriety of Abraham's actions. I hope rational minds will not condemn me for doing so. If the relevant section of the Bible (Genesis 22:01-22:13, reproduced below) is read carefully then one sees nowhere that God asked Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead. He just relieves Abraham of his command to sacrifice his child (Genesis 22:12). It is Abraham's own choice to go ahead and kill the ram (Genesis 22:13). Why was that justified? It is not that some sacrifice or the other had to be performed. Was it right of Abraham then to unnecessarily take the ram's life?


One is reminded of the story of Yudhishthira and the dog, in Yudhishthira's last days, in the epic Mahabharata. The Pandavas renounce their kingdom and the worldly life to spend the twilight of their lives roaming around in the forest. Sahadeva, Nakula, Arjuna, and finally Bheema fall dead one by one. A dog joins Yudhishthira to keep him company in his wanderings. At the gates of heaven, Yudhishthira is asked to enter but without the dog, who is not allowed inside. Yudhishthira refuses the offer to enter alone, his conscience not allowing him to accept the prize of heaven at the cost of abandoning his faithful companion. Seeing his fidelity even to such a mute and non-human companion, and his sacrifice in refusing what a lifetime of walking the right path had earned him, God is pleased and reveals the true identity of the dog -- it is none other than Dharma, come to subject Yudhishthira to his final test of character. Yudhishthira is allowed inside.


How devoutly it is to be wished that Abraham would have replied similarly. I do not think that the all-merciful and just God would have found his refusal objectionable at all. Millions of innocent animals the world over would have been spared the slaying at the hands of man; children would have been more sensitized to the sanctity of life; and less blood would have been split in the name of religion.


For my own part, I must say that if anyone were to ask me to sacrifice another's life to prove my dedication to God, I would refuse. I would commit the sin of not proving my dedication to God sooner than committing the sin of taking away another's life and thus showing total disrespect to the giver of life Himself. My children's lives may be more dear to me than my own, but they are not mine to take away. I should give up my life to protect theirs, not take theirs away to demonstrate my devotion to anybody, even God. There I differ with Abraham in the choice he made five thousand years ago -- I would consider it a transgression of my privileges if I were to agree to offer my son's life. However, Abraham's choice was different and presumably dictated by his times.


The Golden Principle


At the risk of sounding like an atheist, I would like to propound the stand that the true test of the rightness of one's actions is in probing deep into our own consciences for approval rather than reposing belief in what God supposedly want us to do. No surer guide to morally right actions exists than the Golden Principle: Do not do to others that which you would not like done to you. One can never go wrong with this lamp showing the way.


Consider the following hypothetical situation: the earth is invaded by an alien species from another planet, a species that is far superior to us in physical and mental capabilities. They decide to use us for their food, their leather, their religious sacrifices, their entertainment, etc.: all the things that we do to our less-evolved animal brethren on this planet. How would we face that day? We would be begging for mercy from them, pleading with them to see reason and logic, the very things that we refuse to grant to our own animals. How can we do to others what we would not like done to us?


Need of the Age


Five millennia have passed since the time of Abraham. Sacrificing animals might have been a socially acceptable practice then. But does it mean that it must be practiced in this day and age? The practice of performing animal sacrifices to atone our sins (never justifiable, in my opinion) was asked to be stopped by Jesus Christ, since he had come to this world to sacrifice his own life for our sins. Christians do not celebrate Abraham's deed with animal sacrifices today. Can other communities not follow their example? After all, Christ is as much a prophet to Muslims and Jews as to Christians, hence his message should be considered with as much sanctity.


Every society or civilization has its deformities. The remnants of casteism, sexism, class-distinctions are still very much with us. But does it mean that we do not try to shed these blemishes? Similarly, should we not rise above our discriminatory attitude towards the rest of the sentient world also, and include animals in our circle of compassion? We should stop considering them commodities for us to treat as we like, to butcher them for our taste, to sacrifice them for our religious ends, to hunt them for our pleasure. Let us strive to constantly live up to the adjective for kindness that is named after our species: humane.


Excerpt from: BOOK 1: GENESIS


22:01 And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.


22:02 And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.


22:03 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place which God had told him.


22:04 Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.


22:05 And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.


22:06 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.


22:07 And Isaac spoke unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?


22:08 And Abraham said, My son. God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.


22:09 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.


22:10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.


22:11 And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.


22:12 And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.


22:13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a ticket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son