About the ungodlike Abrahamic god – Michel Danino

Prof Michel Danino

I find it highly symbolic that Judaism should have been born in blood and fear, not out of love for its founding deity. As Sri Aurobindo put it, “The Jew invented the God-fearing man; India the God-knower and God-lover.” It probably took centuries for the old cults to disappear altogether, and a stream of prophets who sought to strike terror into the hearts of the Israelites. It was a radical, unprecedented departure from the ancient world cultures. Naturally, it did not stop there and went unto find more fertile soils in Christianity and Islam. – Michel Danino

Our first task … is to examine the Abrahamic concept of God at the root of the three monotheistic religions: Yahweh (later Jehovah) or Allah. I do not refer here to more ancient Greek, Norse or Celtic gods since, as we know, they lost the war against God with a capital “G”. (Some of them are now striving to revive, but even if they partly succeed, they will be little more than pale replicas of their original selves.)

The first thing that strikes the discerning Indian reader of the Old Testament, especially the Exodus, in which Jehovah first introduces himself to Moses under that name, is his ungodlike character. Jehovah is admittedly jealous: the second of the Ten Commandments reads, “You shall have no other gods before me,” while the third explicitly forbids the making and worship of any idols, “for I am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers”. Jehovah does speak as often of punishment as he does of sin, and periodically goes into a state of “fierce anger”, promising the most complete devastation of the Hebrews who reject him. Not content with cursing his reluctant followers, he also curses nation after nation, and finally the earth itself, which, as I pointed out earlier, he holds responsible for man’s sins: “The day of the Lord is coming—a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger—to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it”. (Isaiah, 13:9). In fact, he is so obsessed with sin that one looks in vain in his oppressive berating and legislating for any hint of a higher spirituality, such as we find in the Upanishads or the Gita. Contrast his jealousy with Krshna’s insistence on spiritual freedom: “Whatever form of me any devotee with faith desires to worship, I make that faith of his firm and undeviating’ (Gita, 7.21), or again: “Others … worship me in my oneness and in every separate being and in all my million universal faces” (9:15). But the god of the Bible and the Koran will have none of this catholicity.

If Jehovah had stopped there we might have found him to be simply a foul-tempered and libidinous god; after all, some Puranic gods too have such defects, although they usually retain a sense of their limits and compassion of which Jehovah is spotlessly guiltless. But he has a plan, he means business and knows that coercion alone can establish his rule: when the Hebrews over whom he is so keen to hold sway go back to their former worship of a “golden calf”, he orders through Moses that each of the faithful should “kill his brother and friend and neighbor” (Exodus 32:37). Instructions which were promptly complied with, for we are informed that 3,000 were killed on that fateful day; to crown his punishment, Jehovah “struck the people with a plague.”

Sri AurobindoI find it highly symbolic that Judaism should have been born in blood and fear, not out of love for its founding deity. As Sri Aurobindo put it, “The Jew invented the God-fearing man; India the God-knower and God-lover.” It probably took centuries for the old cults to disappear altogether, and a stream of prophets who sought to strike terror into the hearts of the Israelites. It was a radical, unprecedented departure from the ancient world cultures. Naturally, it did not stop there and went unto find more fertile soils in Christianity and Islam: earlier, Jehovah was content with being the god of the Hebrews alone; now, reborn in the new creeds, his ambition extended to the whole earth.

Increasingly aware of this cruel, irritable, egocentric and exclusivist character of Jehovah, many Western thinkers, specially from the eighteenth century onwards, rejected his claim to be the supreme and only god. Voltaire, one of the first to expose the countless inconsistencies in the Bible, could hardly disguise how it filled him with “horror and indignation at every page”. In particular, he found the plethora of laws dictated by Jehovah “barbaric and ridiculous”. The U.S. revolutionary leader and thinker Thomas Paine wrote of the Old Testament in his Age of Reason:

Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon that the word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served  to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my own part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.

Because a few intellectuals had the courage to state the obvious, the power of Christianity was greatly reduced in the West. Yet I have always marveled that Indians should learn about Christianity neither from those bold Western thinkers nor from their own inquiry, but from bigots who continue to pretend that the Age of Enlightenment never happened.With the growth of materialistic science, in particular Darwinian evolution, such views which were revolutionary at the time of Voltaire, became widespread. Bernard Shaw, for example, described the Bible god as “a thundering, earthquaking, famine striking, pestilence launching, blinding, deafening, killing, destructively omnipotent Bogey Man.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the courageous U.S. pioneer of woman rights movement, wrote in 1898, “Surely the writers [of the Old Testament] had a very low idea of the nature of their God. They make Him not only anthropomorphic , but of the very lowest type, jealous and revengeful, loving violence rather than mercy. I know of no other books which so fully teach the subjection and degradation of woman.”  Mark Twain put it in his own way: “Our Bible reveals to us the character of our god with minute and remorseless exactness. The portrait is substantially that of a man—if one can imagine a man charged and overcharged with evil impulses far beyond the human limit…. It is perhaps the most damnatory biography that exists in print anywhere. It makes Nero an angel of light and leading by contrast.”  On another occasion he added, “It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” Freud, seeing in Jehovah an all too human creation, subjected him to psychoanalysis—a dream of a subject for a psychoanalyst. Aldous Huxley called the Old Testament “a treasure trove of barbarous stupidity [full of] justifications for every crime and folly.” In fact,  Huxley traced the “wholesale massacres” perpetrated by Christianity to Jehovah’s “wrathful, jealous, vindictive character, just as he attributed “the wholesale slaughter” of Buddhists and Hindus by invading Muslims to their devotion for a “despotic person”. Albert Einstein said, “I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own—a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty.”

But is that all there is to the Abrahamic god? Are we simply faced with a man-made demon or the product of some fevered brain?  If you look at Jehovah in the light of Indian experience, it is striking that he has all the characteristic of an asura. Recall for a moment a being such as Hiranyakashipu: did he not, too, forbid all other cults? Did he not order that he alone should be worshiped as the supreme god? Did he not use fear and violence to try and coerce Prahlada? That he was stopped by a Divine manifestation, like many other asuras eager to possess this world, is another story; the point is that we find here the same seed of pride and cruelty as in Jehovah.

Now, to pinpoint Jehovah’s identity we must remember that he himself explains how “Yahweh” is a new name to the Hebrews: “By that name I did not make myself known to them” (Exodus 3:14 – 15, 6:3). But in the Old Testament Jehovah does not reveal his earlier name; it is only the early Christian Gnostic tradition, which was brutally suppressed by the growing orthodox school, that provides us with an answer—or rather two. In the Gnostic Gospels which survived centuries of persecution Jehovah is named either Samael, which means (appropriately) “the god of the blind”, or Ialdabaoth, “the son of chaos”. Thus one of the texts contain this revealing passage:

Ialdabaoth became arrogant in spirit, boasted himself over all those who were below him, and explained, “I am father, and God, and above me there is no one.”  His mother, hearing him speak thus, cried out against him, “Do not lie, Ialdabaoth; for the father of all, the primal Anthropos, is above you.

So not only was Jehovah not the Supreme God, but he also had a mother! For the Gnostics, like the Indians, refused to portray God as male only; God has to be equally female—and ultimately everything.

Another text , in the Secret Book of John, asks pertinently:

By announcing [that he is a jealous God] he indicated that another God does exist; for if there were no other one, of whom he be jealous?

In fact Jehovah is viewed in the Gnostic Gospels as no more than a demiurge or a subordinate deity—exactly and asuras are in Indian tradition. The French novelist Anatole France made use of apocryphal Gospels (rather the new fragments known in his time, for he wrote a few decades before the Nag Hammadi finds). In his perceptive novel The Revolt of the Angels, one of the rebellious angels depicts Jehovah thus:

I no longer think he is the one and only God; for a long time he himself did not believe so: he was a polytheist at first. Later on; his pride and flattery of his followers turned him into a monotheist…. And in fact, rather than a god he is a vain and ignorant demiurge. Those who, like me, know his true nature, call him “Ialdabaoth”…. Having seized a miniscule fragment of the universe, he has sown it with pain and death.

Now contrast this notion of God as tyrannical ruler wholly separate from his creation with the Indian notion of an all-encompassing, all-pervasive, all-loving Divine essence. In the language of the Upanishads:

He is the secret Self in all existence…. Eternal, pervading in all things and impalpable, that which is Imperishable … the Truth of things…. All this is Brahman alone, all this magnificent Universe.

If Jehovah depicts a radical departure from the ancient worships, it is in that he is “wholly other”, as Huxley puts it. Because of the unbridgeable gulf between him and his creation, no Jew or Christian would dare to declare, “I am Jehovah”, no  Muslim would dream of saying, “I am Allah.” But to the Hindu, so’ham asmi, “He am I”, or tat twam asi, “You are That”, is the most natural thing in the world—it is, in truth, the very first fact of the world. Again, can Christian parents christen their son “Jehovah” or Muslim parents name theirs “Allah” in the way a Hindu child can be called “Maheshwari”, “Purushottama” or “Parameshwara”?

Clearly, thus, if we use a single word—“God”—for such widely dissimilar concepts, we will land ourselves in total confusion. “God is one”, is perhaps, in the Vedantic sense that all is ultimately one, because all is ultimately Divine, and yet Hindu inquiry always discerned a whole hierarchy of beings, not all equally true or luminous:  a rakshasa, for instance, cannot be equated with a Krishna. Some may object to calling the Biblical or Koranic god an asura, but I use the word in the original sense of a mighty god who comes to his fall owing to ambition or pride. Moreover, the Indian approach has always claimed absolute freedom to inquire into every aspect of Divinity, from the most personal to the most transcendental: if the Abrahamic god happens to have the attributes of an asura rather than those of a supreme Reality, why should be look away from that essential difference? — Excerpt from Michel Danino’s book Indian Culture and India’s Future, via IndiaFacts, 17 December 2015

» French-born Prof Michel Danino is a historian and the author of The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati and Indian Culture and India’s Future. He used to teach at IIT Gandhinagar and is a member of the Indian Council of Historical Research.

Yahweh / Jehovah / Allah