- Birth of Monotheism :
Gods are the imagined creation of man just like money, nation, human rights, laws, etc.. The whole edifice of human civilization is based on the concept of imagined reality – as this is the only characteristic that separates us from animals. We cannot do away with imagined reality of Gods, religion, nations, etc. – as this has helped in making us the masters of the world where we have pushed our cousin animals into either protected places like natural parks or zoos or they are pushed into factory farms for our consumption.
In homo sapiens’ evolutionary journey, Gods have been our constant companion since our acquiring of cognitive abilities. Humans have variety of social and survival needs that require different characteristics / abilities in order to fulfill those needs. Different Gods emerged from human psyche to help fulfilling these variety of needs. All humans in every part of world were polytheists believing in different personal Gods in various forms. These Gods were biased Gods ie humans believed that Gods that they worshipped answered their prayers.
Despite being polytheists, various societies had the concept of Supreme God i.e. only one true Godhead who is superior to all other biased Gods. This one true Godhead was not biased ie was not concerned whether you worship him or not, for He was indifferent to the murderer as well as to the victim. Supreme God is devoid of any interest / bias and therefore it is completely unconcerned of mundane desires of human beings.
It was pointless in coming to Supreme God for any favours as he is completely unconcerned of any personal happenings.
In ancient Greek religion, all Gods like Zeus, Appolo, Ares, Athena, etc were subject to all powerful entity called Fate or Moira or Ananke - all Gods were helpless in front of Fate. The ancient belief system of Euroba of West Africa - there are many gods but all gods were born of one Supreme God called OLODUMARE - who is the real ruler of the world and all other Gods remain subject to him.
In Hindu religion, there is a single principle called Brahmn - which is eternal soul of whole universe - which controls different Gods, spirits, humans, animals, trees, etc.
As concept of Supreme God was impersonal, Greeks did not waste time worshiping Fate or Hindus – though they build temples for every conceivable objects – have no temple dedicated to Brahmn.
In later years, Einstein too believed in Spinoza’s God who had characteristics of impersonal God – Brahmn or Fate – but that is another issue to be discussed later.
Over time, some followers of these polytheistic Gods became so fond of one of their sub-ordinate biased God that they drifted away from this concept of many Gods and thought their biased God is only one and is identical to the supreme power of universe ie original unbaised Supreme God. So these polytheists attributed all power to the minor God but kept his biases intact.
The first precursor to the monotheistic God of Jews (later Christians and Muslims) was the minor God Atum. In 1350 bc in Egypt, Pharos Aknathan declared that God Atum (one of the minor gods of Egyptian pantheon of Gods) as Supreme God and stopped the worship of other Gods. This was the start of concept of the biased and jealous Supreme God – God that was supreme but biased and also jealous ie could not tolerate worship of other Gods. Things reversed to original polytheistic way with the death of Pharos Aknathan, but later small cults with supreme biased and jealous Gods emerged in Egypt, which were marginal.
Somewhere in Egypt, a Jewish tribe too believed in Supreme God with bias / interests not allowing worship of other Gods. This God’s interests were only confined to small group of people (Jews) and small tract of land (Israel) and it had very little to offer to other lands and other people - so it was confined to only small group of people. Even the Jesus Christ was not supposed to be the savior of all humanity as he came as the King of Jews – (INRI -Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews) – his concern were the Jewish people and came to fulfill the Jewish prophecy. So to start with Christianity was just an esoteric sect of Jews - that taught Jews that Jesus was the long awaited messiah of Jews.
However, it was Paul who reasoned that in case the biased Supreme God has bothered to incarnate himself and die - he cannot be confined to small group of people but to the whole humanity. So Christians started to preach people the gospels of Christ and started converting people to their sect. In due time, they succeeded in converting Romans and then Christianity spread to all parts of world. Taking cue from Christianity, Islam too preached the same Jewish biased and jealous God as a Supreme God and no other God to be worshipped. Only difference being that Islam spread faster to all parts of the world. Christianity and Islamic onslaught killed millions of people and eliminated all Gods, cultures that came in their way – only because their God could not tolerate worship of the other Gods.
Since 2000 years ago – Christianity and Islam are the dominant religions of the world and the only major polytheistic concept that still survives is Hindusim (Budhism being part of Hindu philosophy).
In polytheistic society, there were no conflicts due to the Gods ie belief was not been the source of conflict in polytheistic society. They rarely fought over Gods as one of the implications of being a polytheist is that they are tolerant towards other religions. Polytheists have no difficulty to understand others Gods and they have not prosecuted any other religions. Whenever they conquered other places, they did not force others to convert to their religion eg when Egyptian, Romans, Azetec conquered vast lands but they did not force others to accept their Gods. Subject people were supposed to respect the Gods of the rulers - as it was the sign of loyalty - but they were not asked to leave their own religion and rituals. In some cases, conqueror elites accepted the Gods and rituals of the subjected people eg Romans added Gods of conquered people – collecting them in their temple (Pantheon) - Romans worshiped Asiatic goddess ‘Kibly’ and Egyptain God ‘Easis’. The only God that Romans refused to respect or tolerate was the monotheist God ‘Christ’. Romans did not want Christians to give up their God or rituals but wanted Christians to respect their Roman Gods and the divinity of their emperor - who was considered divine. When Christians refused to accepted Roman Gods – they were persecuted because they were considered politically disloyal and not due to having different belief.
Over the last two thousand years, the persecution of monotheist by monotheist, just because of some different interpretation of the texts (love and compassion - in case of Christians and rightful successor to Mohammed - in case of Muslims) is far more severe by several magnitude than the persecution initiated by polytheist due to religion – let alone the persecution of the polytheists at the hands of monotheists.
Hindus have never gone to war with each other due to difference in belief – even though its philosophical range spreads from atheism to utter devotion. There is one myth story concerning the conflict between followers of Shiva and Vishnu – as to who of the two is greater. The solution to this conflict was the merging of Shiva and Vishnu into one entity called ‘HariHara’. The Prof. Richard M. Eaton in his book ‘Temple Desecration and Muslim States in Medieval India’ lists 18 cases of temple destruction by Hindus – but on closer scrutiny it turns out that in 16 of the 18 cases – Hindu gods / goddesses idols were taken from one temple and placed with respect at another temple. The excellent solution to the present conflict between Hindus and Muslims would be the creation of the new Supreme God say Bhagwallah or Ishwarallah – having good characteristic of both Hindu and Islamic God. Hindus will any day accept this new entity – as they do sing ‘Allah tero nam, Ishwar tero nam’ (Allah and Ishwar are God’s name) in temples but muslims will never think of associating another God with their jealous God – Allah.
The positive aspect of the spread of monotheism has been to get people closer –under the same ideological umbrella – resulting in smooth exchange of ideas and co-operation but the negative part is the destruction of diversity. At the moment, positive part seems have outlived its life and the monotheist societies (Christianity and Islam) are showing tremendous strain in its ideology due to the modern morals and values. This has resulted in Europe (cradle of Christianity) turning increasingly atheist with Churches going empty and the concept of Christian God challenged with ferocity in public debates without much opposition from church. Islamic world is seeped into the quagmire of conflict and ignorance where hundreds of thousands have been killed in last decade itself and there is no generation of any new ideas – Islamic world is constantly looking for aid from secular west – which in turn is getting cautious of the Islam and muslims.
The main reason for this conflict is the inherent flaw of infallibility and jealousy of biased Supreme God (Yahweh and Allah ) in monotheistic idea of God.
Due to the jealousy associated with the monotheistic God – the Islamic and Christian societies cannot live in harmony with people believing in different Gods or no God – as jealous God has no space for accommodation for other’s God or no God.
Monotheist societies cannot live peacefully among themselves as any healthy society needs to change with times – but is it not possible due to the infallible nature of the biased Supreme God.
The polytheist Gods that were worshipped were not supreme and hence were not perfect or infallible, therefore there was scope of change in its attribute with the passage of time. Since these fallible Gods derived their strength from unbiased / disinterested Supreme God – Fate or Brahmn, to which one cannot attribute any interest or characteristic – fallible Gods could change with times.
But in case of monotheist biased Supreme God, he has been attributed certain characteristics at certain point of time and since this God is supreme and infallible – so He cannot change with times – this supreme biased God is stuck with characteristic that were attributed to Him at the start of his life. So change is not possible.
Adaptation to the changing times is the fundamental requirement of a healthy society.
“The old order changeth yielding place to new, And God fulfills himself in many ways Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.” ― Alfred Lord Tennyson
Any system, custom or ideology that is good at any particular point of time- ceases to remain good with the passage of time. The old system, custom or ideology need to change and adapt with time to the changing environment, otherwise it will no longer remain good but will turn evil and corrupt the world.
Change or adaptation is the law of nature – all living species need to adapt to the changing environment to survive and those who cannot change, eventually die.
Same is the case with ideas, those that have adapted to the changing times survive but those that are itched in stones – having no scope of change - will perish.
The rate of change in the norms (values and morals) of the society has increased tremendously in last 100 years and this rate of change is only increasing with the passage of time. The life of any new idea is getting shorter – as it gets replaced by a better idea in a few years time. This pace of change will only keep increasing with new changing technology – affecting the social norms of society. Those philosophies that can keep pace with the changing times will thrive and those that cannot will sink into the quagmire of conflict till the time it perishes or it is forced to adjust to the changing times.
Let us examine how the dominant religions viz Christianity, Islam and Hinduism are prepared to face the changing times.
It was the renaissance period in Europe that pushed Christian religious dogmas into the background and bought rational thought to limelight, not before killing of thousands in the intra religious wars. In recent years, the Church has made every effort to adapt to the changing times to stay relevant. Some of the changes incorporated by the church are accepting usury or charging interest on loans which was forbidden earlier, abolition of slavery, acceptance of separation of Church from State, softening stance over homosexuality, abortion and divorce, etc.
I feel the most problematic concept that the Church still holds is the idea of salvation through Jesus ONLY. I am sure with the passage of time and spread of plurality in the world, Church will alter this stand too and then hopefully Christianity will remain relevant to the spiritual needs to the people, without creating conflict with non-Christians.
Islam, another of the Abrahamic faiths, is literally stuck in the 7th Centaury milieu. There were scholars called Mu'tazilites - who held the view that Koran was created by man and was not divine, they laid emphasis on rational thought and as a result Islamic civilization had a golden period of around 300-400 years, where scientists in Islamic lands were producing cutting edge scientific thoughts, that were precursor to the modern sciences. Their progressive march was stopped by Ash'arites – who believed in Koran to be divine and unchangeable. As a result all secular knowledge was destroyed with the explanation that centred on the thought - “if what they contain is right guidance, God has given us better guidance. If it is error, God has protected us against it”.
Since then it has been the steady downfall of Islamic nations. Their thought has not evolved from the 7th century Arabia, resulting in the conflict in each of the 56 Islamic countries. The root of the problem is resistance to change to suit the current times.
The resistance to change in Abrahmic religions (Islam and Christianity ) is due to the fact that they have only one source of theology and is centered around a particular time of real history. They have very less room to play. Though Christianity has an advantage of selfless image of Christ – (turning the other cheek) – which acts as an valve to escape from the abhorrent verses of the bible, Islam is not so lucky in this respect. Mohammed was a warrior - whose image is portrayed very negatively (wrt current moral values), in Islamic literature. This leaves Islamic scholars with no escape valve to come out of the equally abhorrent verses from Koran and hadiths.
The central idea of Islam and Christianity is God talking through his son or through his prophet. Since God is infallible and omniscient , change is not possible – as any change to the God’s text will render God fallible – negating the very idea of infallible God.
Hinduism, being the only major polytheistic religion left, has advantages as it is not history centric i.e. it does not start from a particular point of time, is not based on the single theological source and its core stories have not been historically confirmed ie it lies in the realm of myths. The fountain head of all Hindu texts –Vedas- are the poems sung by sages in praise of Gods ie sages talking to Gods. In other Hindu literature, Gods are projected as fallible beings driving power from the Supreme Godhead – Brahmn. Only Krishna avtara is considered as the complete Godhead with 16 maximum possible divinely attributes, Rama is endowed with only 13 divinely attributes, others are even less. Even though Krishna himself is projected as the ultimate Godhead still he has human characteristics – he is variously called a Navanitachora (butter thief) , Ranchod (one who fled from the battle) and his character in Mahabharata is far from perfect – as he is portrayed as a schemer / strategist to win the war.
Hinduism is the collective wisdom of many great seers and sages having different points of view. There are six classical schools of Hindu philosophy (ṣaddarśana) but the three atheistic schools (Jaina, Bauddha, Lokāyāta/Cārvāka) are also usually included in the list. Hinduism doesn’t sanction the monopoly of one God, one spiritual practice, or one scripture as the One and Only way to liberation. It is based upon the qualities of acceptance, absorption, continuous change and expansion.
It is thus a dynamic, living, ever-growing set of ideas, rituals and spiritual practices. It incorporates constant acceptance and freedom of thought.
Hindus consider that everyone is on a journey to reach a higher awareness. As long as an individual is mindful of ‘raising consciousness’ of self, community and humanity as a whole, one is following the tenets of Hinduism. Called ‘Shreya’, this is the essence of the Hindu way of life in one word.
So Hindu scholars have large room to play and interpret its theology to suit the changing times. This is testified by Al Beruni in 1000 AD, where he writes that Hindus change their laws with the times, do not bring in God while forming laws, will only fight with words and will not kill each other for the sake of Gods.
The adaptability is in the very nature of polytheism as was proved by the research by anthropologists in Australia which shows that religious beliefs are often considered a-temporal but in reality change continuously and adapt to new conditions, new knowledge and so on. This was discovered by comparing religious beliefs held by native Australians studied by anthropologists in the thirties and, much later, in the seventies. So, in a natural situation, religious beliefs adapt to the change in man's culture and knowledge.
Hindu sages had a skeptical view of Gods and rituals – truth, reason and experience and not scriptural texts is what they considered of highest value. This is shown in the following texts taken from various Hindu scriptures :
Gita, one of the most revered books of Hindus, states that though Krishna has enunciated his philosophy in Gita, it is entirely upto the individual to act on it, the way he feels :
Chap 18:63 :
इति ते ज्ञानमाख्यातं गुह्याद्गुह्यतरं मया |
विमृश्यैतदशेषेण यथेच्छसि तथा कुरु || 63||
“Thus has wisdom more profound than all profundities, been declared to thee by Me; reflecting over it fully, act as thou likest.”
So Hindus can pick and choose or even reject the scriptural text the way they want, while remaining devout Hindus.
Verse from Hitopadesha where reason is placed above God :
युक्तियुक्तं वचो ग्राह्यं बालादपि शुकादपि ।
अयुक्तमपि न ग्राह्यं साक्षादपि बृहस्पतेः ॥
Words conjoined with reason should be perceived from a child as well as a parrot. Those devoid of reason should not be grasped, even coming from Śrī Bṛhaspati himself. (Guru of the Gods)
And so does verse from Shankra ( the revivalist of Hinduism) in Vivekacūḍāmaṇi “Crest Jewel of Wisdom”:
अर्थस्य निश्चयो दृष्टो विचारेण हितोक्तितः |
न स्नानेन न दानेन प्राणायमशतेन वा ||
The truth can be known by reasoning,
and the words of wise men.
Not by ablutions or charity
or a hundred prāṇāyāmas.
Yudhishtria, in Mahabharat, answers to Yaksha on "What path to follow?" :
tarko.apratiShTTaH shrutayo vibhinnA
naiko R^IShiryasya mataM pramANam |
dharmasya tatvaM nihitaM guhAyAM
mahAjano yena gataH sa panthAH ||
“Logical reasoning is not without bias(assumptions),
vedic revelations are numerous;
Not one wisemen's thesis
can be accepted as facts;
truely the essence of right
conduct is a very subtle secret.
So the only recourse is
walk in the footsteps of great men.”
The key is the second line: "Naiko Rishir yasya matam pramaanam"
There is no Rishi whose word is THE final word!
Limitation of religious texts :
The religious texts are to be used as ladder to reach higher level of consciousness and then to be discarded once highest state is reached – these scriptures do not have any strength on its own, they are to help one experience self realization. The contention is that wisdom can be realized by individual experience and not by the text alone.
Shankra writes in Vivekacūḍāmaṇi “Crest Jewel of Wisdom”:
अविज्ञाते परे तत्त्वे शास्त्राधीतिस्तु निष्फला।
विज्ञातेऽपि परे तत्त्वे शास्त्राधीतिस्तु निष्फला॥
The study of śastra is useless as long as the highest truth is unknown.
The study of the śastra is equally useless when the highest truth is known!
वाग्वैखरी शब्दझरी शास्त्रव्याख्यात न कौशलम् ।
वैदुष्यं विदुषां तद्वद्भुक्तये न तु मुक्तये ।।
Eloquence in speech, mastery over words,
And a command over the scriptures;
These can serve to fill the stomach
But not to liberate.
Bhatṛhari, redoubles the same sentiment in nītiśataka:
किं वेदैः स्मृतिभिः पुराणपठनैः शास्त्रेर्महाविस्तरैः
स्वात्मानन्दपदप्रवेशकलनं शेषा वणिग्वृत्तयः ||
Why all this fuss about the Vedas?
About the Smṛtis? Purāṇas? Śastras?
And the flurry of activities called rituals?
They don’t provide no heaven.
Except entry into the blissful abode of one’s self,
which burns away the misery of existence,
Everything else is business in disguise!
Even the Gīta does not hesitate to talk about the fallibility of the Veda:
यामिमां पुष्पितां वाचं प्रवदन्त्यविपश्चितः ।
वेदवादरताः पार्थ नान्यदस्तीति वादिनः ||
Only the ignorant speak in flowery tongues,
extolling the Vedas, claiming
“There is nothing deeper than this.”
यावानर्थ उदपाने सर्वतः संप्लुतोदके।
तावान्सर्वेषु वेदेषु ब्राह्मणस्य विजानतः।।
There’s as well use for a well in a flood,
as for the Veda to a man of realisation.
Mundaka Upanishad too mentions that scriptural texts are at lower level as compared to the knowledge of self :
“Saunaka, the great householder, approached Aṅgiras respectfully and asked: 'Sir, what is that through which, if it is known, everything else becomes known?'
He said to him: 'Two kinds of knowledge must be known, this is what all who know Brahman tell us, the higher and the lower knowledge.'
The lower knowledge is the Rig-veda, Yagur-veda, Sâma-veda, Atharva-veda, Sikshâ (phonetics), Kalpa (ceremonial), Vyâkarana (grammar), Nirukta (etymology), Khandas (metre), Gyotisha (astronomy);
but the higher knowledge is that by which the Indestructible (Brahman) is apprehended.'
'That which cannot be seen, nor seized, which has no family and no caste 1, no eyes nor ears, no hands nor feet, the eternal, the omnipresent (all-pervading), infinitesimal, that which is imperishable, that it is which the wise regard as the source of all beings.'”
Katha Upnishad writes :
Nayamatma Pravachanena labhyo na medhaya na bahuna Srutena
'That Self cannot be gained by the Veda, nor by understanding, nor by much learning. He whom the Self chooses, by him the Self can be gained. The Self chooses him (his body) as his own.'
The Vedas themselves proclaim that one has to go beyond mere chanting of the hymns to realize one’s true nature:
– Ṛgveda 1.164.39
ṛco akṣare parame vyoman yasmindevā adhi viśve niṣeduḥ |
yastanna veda kiṃṛcā kariṣyati ya ittadvidusta ime samāsate ||
“Upon what syllable of holy praise-song, as twere their highest heaven, the Gods repose them,—
Who knows not this, what will he do with praise-song? But they who know it well sit here assembled.”
The goal is self realization and once that goal is achieved then there is no requirement of scriptures :
Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 4.3.22 :
atra pitāpitā bhavati mātāmātā lokā alokā devā adevā vedā avedāḥ |
atra steno’steno bhavati bhrūṇahābhrūṇahā cāṇḍyālo’caṇḍyālaḥ
paulkaso’paulkasaḥ śramaṇo’śramaṇas tāpaso’tāpasaḥ |
ananvāgataṃ puṇyenānanvāgataṃ pāpena |
tīrṇo hi tadā sarvāñ śokān hṛdayasya bhavati ||
“In this state a father is no father, a mother no mother, the worlds no worlds, the gods no gods, the Vedas no Vedas. In this state a thief is no thief, the killer of a noble Brahmana no killer, a Candala no Candala, a Pulkasa no Pulkasa, a monk no monk, a hermit no hermit. (This form of his) is untouched by good work and untouched by evil work, for he is then beyond all the woes of his heart (intellect).”
Carvakas have rejected the authority of the Vedas and still they have been respected by Hindus and called Rishi.
Cārvakas have lambasted the ritualistic methods of the Vedas with impunity :
पशुश्चेन्निहतः स्वर्गं ज्योतिष्टोमे गमिष्यति |
स्वपिता यजमानेन तत्र कस्मात् न हिंस्यते ||
त्रयो वेदस्य कर्तारो भण्ड-धूर्त-निशाचराः ।
जर्भरी-तुर्फरीत्यादि पण्डितानां वचः स्मृतम् ॥
If the animal killed in the Jyotiṣṭoma sacrifice goes to heaven,
Why does the sacrificer not offer his own father?
The three authors of the Vedas were buffoons, knaves, and demons.
Just look at the nonsensical words of their pandits ‘jarbharī’, ‘turpharī’ !
(The two strange sounding words are from the Ṛg-saṃhita)
One of the most maligned Hindu books is Manu Smiriti, where one does find the objectionable references to women and low caste people – but Manu Smiriti itself says that scholars (at that time the knower of Vedas) can change the doubtful points of law :
“One who knows the Rig-veda, one who knows the Yagur-veda, and one who knows the Sama-veda, shall be known (to form) an assembly consisting of at least three members (and competent) to decide doubtful points of law.
Even that which one Brahmana versed in the Veda declares to be law, must be considered (to have) supreme legal (force, but) not that which is proclaimed by myriads of ignorant men.”
God is one – you call it with various names :
Rig Veda : 1:164:46
“They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuṇa, Agni, and he is heavenly nobly-winged Garutmān.
To what is One, sages give many a title they call it Agni, Yama, Mātariśvan.”
Emphasis on Collective Wisdom :
“Assemble, speak together: let your minds be all of one accord,
As ancient Gods unanimous sit down to their appointed share.
The place is common, common the assembly, common the mind, so be their thought united.
A common purpose do I lay before you, and worship with your general oblation.
One and the same be your resolve, and be your minds of one accord.
United be the thoughts of all that all may happily agree.”
Karna Parva of the Mahabharata :
yad bhūtahitamatyantam tat satyamiti dhāraṇā”
“truth is that which is good for all beings, that which is good at the universal level”
Skepticism to the very idea of Gods :
Rigveda (10:129) - Nasadiya Sukta:
“But, after all, who knows, and who can say
Whence it all came, and how creation happened?
the gods themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?
Whence all creation had its origin,
he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not,
he, who surveys it all from highest heaven,
he knows - or maybe even he does not know”
Rig Veda - 8 89 3
“Striving for strength bring forth a laud to Indra, a truthful hymn if he in truth existeth.
One and another say, There is no Indra. Who hath beheld him? Whom then shall we honour?”
Total freedom of thought in Hinduism can be gauged from the fact that one can pick fights with Gods- to the extent of abusing them :
- there are at least two famous Devi temples in Kerala - in Kodungalloor (old Cranganore) and Chottanikkara - where the devotees 'abuse' the Devi and Devi accepts the ‘abuse’
- there is a compulsory ritual during the Jaganath Rath Yatra where devotees chuck various possible obscenities and sacrilegious abuses at the God.
Ref : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1XW01HK5C0&list=PLBOXjuzxIKcrqTyqh2Wwh6B86sIN-42di&index=38