Last summer we had the privilege of being present at one of the annual religious events of a Pueblo Indian tribe in Arizona , the snake-antelope dance, in which some of the dancers carry live snakes in their mouths. In the last hundred years or so, numbers of anthropologists and laymen have studied this ritual (supposedly a rain dance), so alien in expression to the Western mind. Until about a decade ago, when the Hopis themselves partially lifted the veil, few observers understood it for what it really is: a symbolic presentation of cosmological truths. The ceremony itself, gripping and spectacular, is but the visible culmination of a preceding 16-day period, when the participants spiritually prepare themselves in complete isolation in their underground kivas (a large chamber, often wholly or partly underground in a Pueblo Indian Village, used for religious ceremonies and other purposes). Though there is little outward movement during that time, one cannot help being aware that in some fields of consciousness there is intensive activity, for the very air seems literally to be vibrating.
On the day before the dance, and then again on the day itself, before dawn the initiants walk out four or five miles into the desert, one of them carrying a vessel with water blessed in the kiva. The last two miles of their return journey turns into a fierce contest, the water container being passed on in turn to the one who overtakes the first runner. The tremendous speed with which this is done is maintained throughout, even as they climb up the steep wall of the mesa at the end of the race.
The warm desert colors had not yet appeared, the landscape being outlined in gradations of grey, as we stood at the edge of the cliff waiting for the runners to arrive. Around the mesas the silence of night lingered, but for a reedy whistling wind, chilly enough to make one huddle in blankets or coats even in August. People, singly or in small groups, found a place on the rocks; hardly anyone spoke, intent on what was to come. Then, far-away small points stirred, and getting nearer, became human figures. Soon one heard them shouting as they ran their zigzag courses, and finally the forerunners started to scale the bluffs with unbelievable swiftness. Under vociferous encouragement now from the crowd, they doubled their efforts in the arduous finale, yet on reaching the goal the winner, displaying no sign of triumph, quickly and silently retired, as did all who followed behind him.
Popularly it was (and still is) believed that this ceremony is held solely to ensure rainfall for the corn crop. Indeed, after the dance is over, most often clouds do release their burden over the land. The true reason for it, however, lies in the Hopis' conviction that cosmos, man and nature around him are one and interdependent. With sacrifices man feeds the gods or Kachinas. These, in turn, bestow their blessings in the form of rain which nurtures the soil and makes the vegetation grow. Closing this circuit, the plants give up their lives to serve as human sustenance. At first sight, man's share in this may appear rather nebulous, but throughout the sixteen days of preparation, the participants have offered their best physical and psychological energies. Though it also serves other purposes, the race, for instance, instead of a competition, is a selfless and conscious 'giving' of force by pushing oneself to the very limits of endurance. That finer forms of vitality are also yielded during this time and in what manner, is something left to the intuition of the outsider, not belonging to this particular heritage.
So far removed from our sphere of experience is ritual sacrifice, that we have little or no comprehension of it. Generally we tend to think it is a sort of bargaining transaction: the officiant puts a prized possession on the altar and, if the offering finds favor in the eye of divinity, he is granted a specific request in return. Originally, however, in every culture, it meant a process of 'giving' without expectations, as one indispensable link in the long concatenation of causes that makes the entire universe go round. It could not be more tersely and yet comprehensively expressed than in the Bhagavad-Gita, the sacred scripture of a people we also call Indian: "Beings are nourished by food, food is produced by rain, rain comes from sacrifice, and sacrifice is performed by action." Just as the Hopis do not have the life-giving rain in view, but the fulfillment of their responsibility in the cosmic order, so Krishna, the avatar of the ancient Hindu writings, prescribes no empty rites to accommodate personal needs but enjoins Arjuna, or aspiring man, to forget his own interests and devote all his actions to the well-being of the greater whole.
Although ceremonial sacrifice is not an expression of worship in Judeo-Christian religions at this point in time, as a spiritual concept it is and remains of vital importance, being one of the cornerstones of existence. If we accept the validity of this premise, then have we not sadly failed in our commitments? For is not desire for acquisition and prestige recognized and approved as the prime motive for most of our actions? As a civilization we have done a great deal of taking, infinitely less giving, and hardly any sacrificing without strings attached. That this was the right thing to do we have long thought unquestionable, although of late doubts have arisen in many quarters. For with all our material progress, have not our problems grown in equal proportion?
In addition to famine, disease, poverty and warfare and the manifold scourges mankind has always endured, more than ever our planet seems threatened with potential disasters. Since the voices of scaremongers and of those genuinely concerned are intermingled, it is sometimes hard to know which to give credence to. Nevertheless, there are enough sober facts to make us thoughtful. The specter of worldwide shortages looms large, not to mention that at a future point in some areas the air may no longer be fit to breathe or the water safe to drink. It is even feared we may have damaged the protective Van Allen belt which, if continued, could have far-reaching catastrophic consequences.
More and more it becomes apparent that the blame does not lie with technological advance as such, nor even the lack of it, for at the root of nearly every deplorable condition is some form of human iniquity. Clearly most of our difficulties, economic, racial, ecologic or otherwise, could be solved by a readiness to 'sacrifice ' on the part of individuals, groups of people, or even the entire human race. It is true that distressing situations have often grown historically, and the web of their ramifications is now so tangled that lifting one strand puts extra tension on a thousand knots; but with unanimous resolve some of these knots would vanish, because they exist mainly in men's preconceptions. It is obvious that giving up selfish interests would be beneficial in dealing with material issues, but no less does the same principle apply to what we might call psychological crises, whereby nations or races are in a vicious deadlock of hatred and misunderstanding. To relinquish claims to our assumed superiority and recognize in the opponent a brother upon whom we projected what we detested most in ourselves, may create a basis of mutual tolerance and finally perhaps of mutual appreciation.
Many are those who are deeply troubled and would willingly contribute toward the alleviation of man's suffering, but who are at a loss as to how to implement their constructive intentions. The efforts of the individual seem puny and ineffective in comparison with the workings of society, a colossus too unwieldy to make mid-course corrections.
In the first place, every person of good will at all times has the opportunity to serve right where he stands: we have the whole of humanity always with us, even if it comes in the guise of only a single one of our fellows who is in need. Then again, if admittedly we cannot combat global problems single-handedly, have we explored every possibility to do that little bit that is within our reach, even if it is not so easy or so obvious?
Although we may or may not find avenues to contribute materially, we definitely do have a way to restore the balance of the spiritual ecology, for each of us can submit something which would be sustenance to the gods — part of ourselves. In moments of honesty we know perfectly well which part it is we should give up: the seemingly unimportant but bothersome idiosyncrasies and tendencies, envy, bad temper, prejudices, the worship of our egos. We can all enumerate them. They may not turn us into criminals but, by the same token, those very things stand between ourselves and our own inner god and our aspirations to help.
Traditionally the offering should be an object we particularly cherish. Strangely enough, in laying our weaknesses and limitations on the altar, we definitely comply with this rule, for they are dearer to us than we realize, as we mistakenly see them as our true selves. At this point of human evolution, they are also the only appropriate gift, for our ignorance of nature's higher realms would preclude any ceremonial sacrifices as instituted in ancient times, and still of value for those peoples who have remained rooted in their traditions.
In periods of spiritual darkness, the Hindu scriptures tell us, Krishna reestablishes righteousness by imbodying himself and descending into the world of men, the nether regions for divinity. Many myths and traditions deal with the theme of the journey into the underworld. Great are the sufferings of the hero, and though the meaning of some of the details of his adventures may be obscure to us, we do know that one purpose of such a sojourn is the betterment of the inhabitants of those spheres.
Not only legendary heroes or avatars have the capacity of doing these great deeds, but everyone motivated by compassion. To reach Hades one does not have to travel far and wide, for it is found in the recesses of his own nature, and he who slays some of the dragons that lurk there, will return in triumph, having made his contribution toward the uplift of all mankind.
In the cycle of cause and effect, the commitment of the individual is of crucial importance, for it carries more power than an atomic chain reaction. The 'rain' made to fall even by few, will shed its blessing not only upon those who sacrifice, but also on all around them, and many more will be able to profit by "eating the right spiritual food" that will grow from it. Or, as Krishna told Arjuna: ". . . whatever is practiced by the most excellent men, that is also practiced by others, the world follows whatever example they set." The Hopis see their task as an even more immediate one, believing that only if they continue their observances in the right spirit, can the vital balance between the inner and outer world be preserved. Should they fail in their mission, disasters affecting the entire continent would be inavertible. That they are no more than a vulnerable handful of people in all this, never seems to daunt them.
If sacrifice is so clearly one of the laws of nature, when are we going to comply?
(From Sunrise magazine, May 1975; copyright © 1975 Theosophical University Press)