Vedic scapegoating

This slim volume condenses and extends Girard’s path-making theory on mimesis – ideas that have set the standards in anthropological philosophy for much of the past thirty years. Sacrifice is translated from the 2003 French text, and Matthew Pattillo and David Dawson have done a remarkable job rendering the material into accessible English that opens up the discourse to even the non-expert reader.

At heart in Sacrifice is a search for correspondence in the depths of religious violence, between the familiar narrative of the Judeo-Christian tradition and what, to the Western reader, are the more mystical rituals of Hinduism, received through the Vedas, its ancient scriptures – and in particular, the Brahmanas that detail the processes and system of rituals. Girard’s focus here is fixed on the rituals of sacrifice that, as he describes it, are at several places removed from common recognition.

But he does chart the anthropological significance of ritual sacrifice as an anchor around which ancient (Indian) societies manifest collective sense of unity. The need for a scapegoat, as he explains here and elsewhere, is often seen in its necessity in these communities because they allow for the projection of latent violence – religion merely mediates these. Communities, we are meant to realise, expect periodic sacrifices, even rally around them, such that the sacrificed assumes sanctity – the Christ figure being the primal example of this; Oedipus, another.

Sacrifice, as a singular act that purges ill-will and restores society, however temporarily, is an implement of change. There is, in this, a disproportionate relationship between agency and consequence, and sacrifice and violence thus become inextricably linked.

In Sacrifice, Girard goes beyond these recognisable features of Western notions of ritual violence to examine the ways by which sacrifice is performed – and treated. This implies a belief, notionally acceptable, that the compulsion is universal. Where the social necessity of blood sacrifice is accepted, rituals are formed around it to soften the problematic reality that sacrifice is, stripped of its semantics, nothing more than murder. The Brahmans – the priestly caste in Hindu society – clearly recognise this, but also accept that the larger appeasement of the collective supercedes the private complications of the victim-scapegoat.

What forms as a result are the rituals of justification and assuagement, some of which relying on hallucinogens for completion, presumably to lessen (or displace) the weight of conscience. In other traditions, the scapegoat is even elevated – occasionally post facto – as is more familiar in Western sacrifice narratives. But to all intents and purposes, the violence performed is never acknowledged as such, at the risk of shattering the illusion that is carefully constructed.

And to the extent that the ritualisation sets into re-enactable narratives and performances, sacrifice, and its inherent characteristics are extrapolated as aspects of a larger continuum of mimesis that places the book largely within the canon of Girard’s ideas.

Sacrifice is drawn from a lecture series that Girard gave to the National Library of France in 2002, and must be read in such a light, as it otherwise comes across as an extended, ungrounded set of analogies that aims to achieve more than its brevity – at 103 compact pages – assumes. However, considered in relation to Girard’s other writings, Sacrifice provides a useful entry to the more complex ideas that are developed in such seminal texts as Violence and the Sacred and The Scapegoat.

Sacrifice. René Girard. trans. Matthew Pattillo and David Dawson. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011.

Lim Lee Ching

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