The Head beneath the Altar: Hindu Mythology and the Critique of Sacrifice.

Author:Gerety, Finnian M. M.
Position:Book review

The Head beneath the Altar: Hindu Mythology and the Critique of Sacrifice. By BRIAN COLLINS. Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture Series. East Lansing: MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2014. Pp. x + 310. $24.95 (paper).

In La Violence et le Sacre (Paris: Grasset, 1972), the literary and cultural theorist Rene Girard argues that the murder of a scapegoat is the foundation on which all human culture rests. According to Girard's "mimetic theory," our natural penchant for mimesis engenders rivalry, with one person desiring what another possesses. When untrammeled mimetic aggression spreads, many rivals join forces to attack a random victim; such is the primeval scene from which sacrifice is born. For Girard, rituals of killing, accompanied by mythic narratives that hide acts of violence, constitute the origins of religion. Since the publication of his seminal book--during a year that also saw the publication of Walter Burkert's Homo Necans (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1972), which traverses similar territory--scholarly interest in the nexus of violence and religion has steadily increased and diversified. For a small circle of "Girardians," however, mimetic theory continues to inform a wide range of studies on human culture. When it comes to literature, the Girardian strategy has affinities with what Paul Ricoeur has called the "hermeneutics of suspicion": Girard and his acolytes read against the grain, sifting through texts for signs of a cover-up. Through this lens, myths do not reveal truths--they conceal crimes. With The Head beneath the Altar: Hindu Mythology and the Critique of Sacrifice, Brian Collins turns mimetic theory loose on the fertile terrain of Vedic sacrifice and makes a case for the relevance of Girard's ideas to the study of Hindu myth. It is a stimulating monograph that should appeal to scholars of comparative mythology, ritual studies, Indology, and the sociology of religion.

Girard's oeuvre is chiefly concerned with cultures of the Judeo-Christian West. He regards the Gospels and especially their accounts of Jesus's crucifixion as a revelatory criticism of the scapegoating that undergirds the "archaic" (that is, pre-Christian) religions rooted in sacrifice; after the Gospels, he argues, the violent origins of human culture become increasingly difficult to conceal or defend. A key question raised at the outset by Collins is therefore whether mimetic theory "works" beyond the Christian context (p. 15). Late in his career, Girard...

To continue reading