Eid al-Adha is meant to be a festival of sacrifice. For it to remain truly so, it has to be a festival of love and compassion, and should not be tarnished with the blood of innocent animals. To thus celebrate Eid would be a truly noble way to observe the festival of sacrifice.
In one of the senses of the word, Sacrifice is a most noble ideal – one that brings out the divinity in man. This involves surrender of something of value for of a greater good. This is the kind of sacrifice that is often required in love. This is the sentiment that inspires men to give up their own lives for the sake of love, family, or motherland.
Another sense in which the word sacrifice is used involves taking the life of another for one’s own betterment. This practice is found in many religions, and is the refuge of cowards and scoundrels who would throw away the lives of others for their own personal benefit. These are among the basest acts that a man often commits in the name of religion.
The latter, in my opinion, is not even sacrifice. You cannot sacrifice something that is not yours to begin with. We do not own anybody else’s life, and thus have no right to sacrifice it. In Mahabharata, there is the story of how a Mongoose with one side colored gold appears at Yudhishtira‘s Aswamedha and tries in vain to convert his other half also into gold by drawing from the worth of this sacrifice. It concludes that sacrifice of goods acquired through improper means, or those that do not rightly belong to oneself are of no worth, no matter how much they amount to. The mongoose gives the counter-example of a poor family that parts with their own meal to satisfy a hungry guest that turned out to be the God of Dharma (righteousness).
Another beautiful example of sacrifice is that of King Shibi, whose refuge is sought by a dove that is chased by a hawk. The dove seeks protection of the King from its predator. The hawk reminds the King it is also one of his subjects and thus deserves his protection, and that it will die of hunger if it is denied its prey. The King sees that the only meat that is his to offer to the hawk is from his own body. To protect his subjects and uphold Dharma, the noble King offers meat from his own body equal in weight to the that the dove. However, since the two birds were in fact Gods Agni (God of Fire) and Indra seeking to test the King’s righteousness, Shibi could not match the weight of the dove by giving piece after piece of his flesh, and he throws his entire body in, at which point the Gods reveal their identity. They gladly accepted defeat against the King’s endless charity and commitment to Dharma, and restore his body to its earlier state.
If we read through the history of Eid, this festival is celebrated in memory of how Ibrahim was willing to sacrifice his own son on God’s command. Putting aside the question of whether the life of your son is yours to sacrifice, we must note that here he is surrendering something that is possibly dearer to him than his own life to obey an unambiguous command from God. Pleased with Ibrahim’s obedience, God spares the life of his son and a dead ram was found in the place of his son who was left unharmed.
Ibrahim’s sacrifice is worth remembering, and his resolve and devotion worthy of admiration. However, I do not think it can be done by trading the life of an innocent animal for one’s selfish gain. The only way I see for one to match Ibrahim would be to put the knife to his own throat and let God find him worthy and spare his life. For those not willing to take that risk (which I do not advise or recommend by any stretch of imagination) the best sacrifice they can make is something they are attached to. If one is attached to meat, giving up meat will be a difficult and noble sacrifice that is sure to bring spiritual blessings. For those attached to other pleasures of life, those are worth sacrificing if they can bring themselves to do it.
Being an outsider, I have no right or business advising Muslims on how to celebrate their festival, nor do I have any intention of doing so. Nevertheless, that does not stop me from presenting my candid opinion to fellow spiritual seekers who are open-minded enough to hear me out. Not being a Muslim also does not stop me from observing Eid in its true spirit, or using this as an occasion to sacrifice something that I have often wanted to, but have not yet been able to. I am a vegetarian who has been open to eating eggs and have had my own excuses for doing that. Even if I may not be taking a life by eating an egg that was never going to hatch, I would still be supporting a business that treats animals cruelly and unethically. This Eid, I am giving up consumption of eggs in the true spirit of sacrifice that this festival is supposed to embody, thereby joining my Muslim brethren in its observance.
It is my sincere belief that if one were thus to sacrifice what they hold dear on the altar of spiritual upliftment, year after year, they would soon transcend the realm of ritual and religion.