Rig Vedic Polytheism and Punya Bhumi – Vijaya Rajiva

Gods venerate Mahalakshmi

Savinirmadi: Woman Scholar of Kolar (10th century)The link between Hindu monism and Rig Vedic polytheism establishes the richness of both dimensions: the Infinite Divinity and the infinite manifestations of this Divinity in the Gods and Goddesses that Hindus worship. – Dr Vijaya Rajiva

The Rig Vedic worship of many Gods and Goddesses provoked commentators from Abrahamic faiths (mainly Christians) to call the system polytheism (the worship of many gods). Many Hindus and respectful foreign students of Hindu philosophy now prefer the more neutral term, pantheism, to denote the Hindu pantheon, as polytheism was used in a derogatory way.

Modern Hindus are no longer intimidated by the polytheist label. Hindus believe that their land is punya bhumi (sacred earth) inhabited by the Gods and Goddesses of the universe, who are invited to special open air feasts (yagnas) and also housed in temples built for them by devotees. Perhaps no country in the world has so many temples, from north to south, east to west and no other religious tradition has invoked the presence of deities in the Vedic yagnas, and their successors in the Agama traditions of ritual and worship.

The Hindu bhakta knows that the Gods actually EXIST, but the educated Hindu elite are reluctant to admit to their heritage thanks to the massive indoctrination by the Macaulayian educational system and the missionary onslaught on Hinduism which denounces it as “pagan”, “polytheist”, etc. They contrast it with their ONE true god in whose name they have visited death and destruction on the planet.

Recent commentators from the Hindu side, such as Swami Devananda Saraswati (a Dashanami sannyasin) and earlier still, the philosopher-historian, the late Sita Ram Goel, have pointed out that the contemporary educated Hindu elite have been misled by their ill-conceived identification of monotheism and monism, and their inability to understand that the difference is crucial to understanding polytheism.

Sita Ram Goel prefers the word panentheism to polytheism (to describe Hinduism) since the former emphasises the special Hindu concept of ishta-devata, the special deity to whom a worshipper can relate to (a phenomenon unique to Hinduism).

The crucial difference between monotheism and monism is that the former believes in a ONE true god, and denounced the Gods of other faiths as “false gods”, whatever that means, for how can a God be “false” if the concept of God is real?

Monism believes in the infinite existence of the Divine, which is characterised by Existence, Consciousness and Bliss (Sat, Chit, Ananda). This is better known as Advaita Vedanta or Non-Dualism (unity, non-divisiveness). Its best articulation came with Adi Sankara. There are two other major Vedantas, the Qualified Non-dualism of Ramanuja and the Dualism of Madhva.

Modern practitioners of Monism are many, the most renowned being the Kanchi Mahaswami Chandrashekarendra Saraswati who specially highlighted the importance of the many Gods in Hinduism:

“… a yagna is making an oblation to a deity in the fire with the chanting of mantras. In a sense the mantras themselves constitute the form of the deities invoked. In another sense, the mantras, like the materials placed in the fire, are the sustenance of the celestials invoked….” (Hindu Dharma: Chapter on The Vedas).

Elsewhere, the Mahaswami remarked that the devout Hindu also sees the forms of the celestials appearing in the yagna fire.

These preliminary remarks are intended to emphasise the link between Hindu monism and Rig Vedic polytheism. It allows for an enriched Hindu polytheism where the devotee does not consider his / her chosen deity (ishta-devata) as the only true god, and does not anathematise the Gods of other faiths, as happens in Abrahamic monotheism. This is, of course, the difference between Abrahamic monotheism and Hindu polytheism.

Abrahamic monotheism must be rejected by Hindus for two reasons: 1) political, and 2) religious.

Politically, monotheism has been the source of conquest, violence and intolerance, both in Christianity and Islam. It is important that Hindus are always vigilant to this dimension in the interests of security. The security question arises not only in the crude context of everyday dangers such as the throwing of a severed cow’s head by miscreants inside a Hindu temple or the verbal abuse of Hindu scriptures and temples, but the equally looming danger of sophisticated inculturation. Here we perceive both Islamist and Christian attempts to find their monotheistic doctrines reflected in the Rig Veda, and the sophisticated attempts to wrest the “Rishi tradition” as they call it, from the Hindus, distort it and appropriate it for their own purposes.

In this project, the Vedas are no longer dismissed as “paganism”, but viewed as harbingers of the two monotheistic faiths. This can range from the crude attempt by evangelical Christian (and Islamic counterparts) to find references to Jesus in the Rig Veda, and / or references to the coming of the prophet and so on, to the more sophisticated attempts by scholars (mainly Catholic, but also such persons as Dr Zakir Naik) to find parallels in the thinking of the Veda and their own scriptures and beliefs.

In this way, inculturation, or the process by which another culture is absorbed—subsumed—into one’s own, has become a current trend. The aim, of course, is to eradicate the visited local culture. It is not some gentlemanly exercise or purely scholarly enterprise. The agenda is clearly there.

The link between Hindu monism and Rig Vedic polytheism establishes the richness of both dimensions: the Infinite Divinity and the infinite manifestations of this Divinity in the Gods and Goddesses that Hindus worship. One can theorise about this link, as have the great Hindu philosophers such as Adi Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhva. But for our purposes it is important to keep in mind that these manifestations are the murtis (derided as “idols” by monotheists) that Hindus consecrate and install in temples and worship. Hence, the importance of murti reverence and temples in Sanatana Dharma.

When the barbarian invaders arrived, their first task was to destroy as many temples as they could. Thousands of Hindus lost their lives in defence of these temples. The shocking desecration of murtis by Islamists and Evangelicals continues to this day, though on a smaller scale, and mainly by Evangelicals and in some cases by Islamists.

If the underlying unity between monism and Hindu polytheism is not clearly understood, many Hindus get misled to believe that the ONE god of the monotheists is the same as satchidananda (Infinite Divinity) and go on to downgrade Vedic polytheism as an accidental / incidental feature of Hinduism which Hindus outgrew in their historical development and are now presumably moving towards the higher (sic) faith of Abrahamic monotheism. This is a profound mistake and merely parrots the narrative put forward by the ONE god-ists. Nor is the ONE god the same as the ishta-devata of Hindus. The ONE god is held by its followers to be the ONLY true god with all other Gods being FALSE Gods. Whereas the ishta-devata is only one among many Gods and each devotee is allowed to worship freely his / her own ishta-devata (who may be different from the kula devata or even the grama devata).

The difference is politically significant since the ONE god-ists are prone to intolerance, violence, conquest and proselytisation, as happened historically and continues with a renewed sense of urgency by the Evangelical today. Hinduism, thus, is always in danger of attack from the ONE god-ists. The punya bhumi is the land peopled by the Gods and Goddesses of the Rig Veda and many other divinities and eminences of the Indic tradition who are not mentioned specifically in the Rig Veda. It has to stay that way.

The further philosophical / religious / spiritual dimension of the satchidananda-polytheism link is that while Vedanta stresses the former aspect, the latter is important for the householder (grihastha). The four stages of life (varnashrama dharma) each have their own dharma. Even Adi Sankara, as far as is known, stressed that the householder must fulfill his / her duties before taking up the last stage of sannyasa. In this he was different from the Buddha, for whom the monastic life could be taken up at any time that the individual desired.

» Dr Vijaya Rajiva is a political philosopher who has taught at a Canadian university in Montreal.

Rudra Yagna

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. It was a radical, unprecedented departure from the ancient world cultures. Naturally, it did not stop there and went on to find more fertile soils in Christianity and Islam. – Prof 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 Krishna’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 on to 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, earth quaking, 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 as 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