Practising Equanimity in the Face of Sacrifice: A Lesson Learnt in the Field
Recently, I was asked a thought-provoking question: what are the saddest things that archaeologists have ever discovered? I think that in the minds of many, our discovery of sacrificed people is one of the saddest.
Sacrifice was practised by many cultures around the world; however, some of the largest and most publicised cases are from the Central Andes, where the practice is of long antiquity. For example, last year, a team working on the Northern Coast of Peru uncovered more than 130 children, who had been sacrificed around 1000 years ago during the reign of the pre-Inkan culture known as the Chimu 1 . This event has been linked to El Niño; according to reports, the children were sacrificed to stay major flooding. It may shock some of you to learn that sacrifice is still practised from time to time. However, communities tend to be aware of external opinions of this practice, and so are often very reluctant to discuss it.
As someone who has researched Inka sacrifice in depth, I have observed that whenever I speak to my friends, families and colleagues about this topic, their response is strong and emotionally charged. More often than not, people respond with sadness, disbelief and judgement, labelling it barbaric practice. I understand this; it is hard to understand why people would offer themselves or members of kin for a cause or in the name of a deity, especially when in our culture, we are motivated to preserve the life of the individual and spend many resources and effort to maintain our youth. More rarely, I come across people, who are more curious and want to know about the practicalities of the ceremony.
Over the years, I have been asked why I did choose to study Inka human sacrifice? I was drawn to the subject for both research and personal reasons. Even though I am not advocating for the practice and believe in non-violence, I wanted to understand its meaning from a more Andean perspective as a researcher. Meanwhile, after losing close members of my family suddenly, I had deep philosophical questions about the nature of death. Now, in reflection, I see that exploring this topic so deeply also afforded me the opportunity to practice equanimity.
Equanimity describes the ability to remain calm and composed in the face of danger or difficulty, and also when confronted with moral and ethical dilemmas. In Buddhism, equanimity is one of the four abiding, an interpersonal spiritual state, which is completely neutral. Importantly, as Alexander Von Gontard wrote, maintaining this state does not mean you are detached from suffering 2 ; you acknowledge and even experience it, but your actions are not motivated by it.
While in the field and living within a community who hold very different values and beliefs to your own, it can be very difficult to comprehend their life ways and maintain a neutral mind. Yet, the times I was able to remain open-hearted, I was afforded important and profound insights that altered my own personal understanding of what it means to live and die.
While sacrifice was practised to achieve a range of outcomes in the Inka world, I found that it’s meaning was founded on a number of basic fundamental principles, some of which are still important today. For instance, it was believed that human life was dependent on nature, which was alive, imbued with life force. When a person died, they underwent a transformation, becoming other substances.
There is an ancient Inkan song, recorded as part of a royal narrative in the 17th century, which conveys this belief beautifully; according to the story, on his deathbed, Pachakuti, a great king, sung:
Since I have bloomed like the flower of the garden, up to now I have given order and justice in this life and world as long as my strength lasted. Now I have turned into earth . (Betanzos 1996, 138 [Chapter XXXII]).
Our modern science also shows us that nature is a living system and our lives are reliant upon it. We are all bound together by air, for example. As David Suzuki eloquently explains, the air we breathe is essentially the same air exhaled by plants and creatures, great and small, that live alongside us as well as our ancestors and animals now passed.
I am interested to know what you think. What do you think is our saddest archaeological discovery? Have you dealt with moral dilemmas? How do you practice equanimity?