“The monotheisms are not going to volunteer to give way for a level playing field. So, apart from Hindus reclaiming their identity and working by example to practically show that there are alternatives for people to tread their own paths to truth and peaceful coexistence, the self-professed liberals, particularly outside India will have to get off the pot and put some skin in the game. … A good start would be for the economic development of India to continue unimpeded. Yes, those inimical to progress will do all in their power to prevent this, but those who claim to be real liberals and progressives have to open their eyes and realise that economic progress and prosperity are the most effective road to peace and a potent antidote to fundamentalism.” – Jay Jina
Intolerance has been in the news these past several months, from a pontificating president who bowed to religious despots in their backyard the very day after lecturing the democratic unwashed untermensche of India about how to treat minorities, the sustained tirade of the scandalous “award wapsi” brigade over the Bihar polls, and more recently by the framed up interrogation of a BJP spokesman by a reactionary Islamist with a record of misogyny, homophobia, and outright discrimination, using his position in the media to impose his preconceived notions, which, at their core, profess that some people are less human than others because of their religion.
To see how all of these, together with endless one-eyed editorials and op-ed pieces in the western bastions of liberalism at the BBC, Guardian, and the NYT, not to mention the long going saga over “caste legislation” fuelled by the increasingly insignificant Church of England in collusion with their rather unexpected friends at the Secular Society in the UK, it would appear to Spielberg’s E.T., fresh off his spaceship, that some new and poisonous evil had surfaced on a previously peaceful planet. And that this evil incarnate was distinctly polytheistic, pagan Hindu. Vamsee Juluri neatly sums up this seemingly viral effect that Hindus and India seem to have had in 2015 in “Year of Living Intolerably”.
Let’s momentarily ignore the loss of millions of lives as a result of violent regime change and displacement of despotic though previously stable rule in Iraq and Libya which had held together disparate groups of people at relative peace with each other within established national borders.
Let’s also dismiss the plight of the Yazidis, Kurds, and assorted minorities who suffer rape, beheadings and worse under the cosh of fundamentalists in the Middle East, or the atrocities in Paris, about which some intellectually challenged liberals navel gazed on BBC Newsnight, a flagship current affairs program, and surmised the attacks as drug wars between gangs or being caused by the racist nature of the French capital.
Let’s instead pretend that the various social problems of the planet faces can be cured by a mode of multiculturalism that trumps hard-fought liberties and civic mores which have taken centuries to evolve and in their stead, run with a “free for all” where some of those who at one time may have campaigned for workers rights, stood for gender equality, and advocated an end to LGBT and racial discrimination, there now seems to be a situation where some now openly support homophobic, misogynist segregationists, all in the interests of what they call diversity and inclusion.
In effect, there is the endorsement of a form of multiculturalism which, in seeking to protect certain cultures, privileges only some versions of it: usually from the most vocal and regressive elements, and which hinders adjustment to the changing environment with the resultant outcome being the opposite of that which was desired in the first instance.
Instead of expanding the shared space between cultures, the result is the promulgation of the worst aspects of difference between peoples living within isolated cultural silos with ever sharper fissures between the “me” and “mine” on the one hand, and the alien “other” on the other.
Amidst all this, Jonathan Kirsch’s book, God against the Gods, is an apposite account of the threats that monotheisms in all their religio-politico-ideological forms, still continue to pose to human evolution towards a safer, fairer, more just global society.
Kirsch cogently argues that far from being the upholder of ethics and morality which it considers its USP and sole preserve, Monotheism in its various hues has always found it difficult to put into practice the kind, gentle words encapsulating “respect for the stranger” and “love thy neighbour”. In fact, he starts the book with an epigraph from Sigmund Freud who said “Religious intolerance was inevitably born with the belief in one god”.
Kirsch traces the advent of monotheism from Pharaoh Akhenaton to the various prophets and kings of Judaism and their millennium long struggle for supremacy over the more refined and diverse pagan Greco-Roman classical culture of the Mediterranean and near east.
In a show of monotheist totalitarianism and in order to destroy the power of the priests, Pharaoh Akhenaton (reign 1353–1336 BCE) decreed the elimination of worship of all gods in favour of only one, Aten, and with the Pharaoh himself as the sole interceder on earth. This proved unsuccessful as the people returned to their old polytheistic ways soon after Akhenaton’s death.
The challenge was next taken up by the Jews, the challenges of whose prophets and kings over several centuries to impose monotheism and the primacy of the Only True God (OTG) on the chosen people is well documented in the Old Testament. This clash is played out between OTG and Polytheism within the civilizational milieu of a rich Greco-Roman tapestry and also as an intra-Judaic struggle between the rigorists and the assimilationists.
After centuries of struggle, with various forays into zealotic orthodoxy led by personages like Moses, Joshua, and Ezekiel which included strict punitive sanctions including death for those of the flock who disobeyed the laws of the OTG, all the way to the Masada partisans, infamous for their martyrdom to the last man, woman and child, the rigorists were defeated by the military might of the Roman legions in Judea thus forcing the Jewish people to reach an accommodation with the greatest empire in the known world of the time.
Thereafter, an assimilated Judaism flourished in the farthest reaches of the pagan realm of Imperial Rome, not unlike the way in which Judaism has assimilated into all corners of the modern world.
All was well until an upstart off-shoot cult of Judaism rose on the scene in the early centuries of the common era, and a long, bloody clash ensued between this cult and the reigning pagan power of Pax Romana—a breach of the peace that had hitherto existed between the myriad peoples of the Roman Empire.
This new cult, which, after an internecine war over self-identity, defeated the Judaists within its ranks and shed its connections to Judaism by rejecting circumcision and Jewish dietary laws (both of which made it easier to win adherents, being less painful and tastier on the palate), came to be known as the “soldiers of Christ” and Christians.
In their zeal to be “different”, these early Christians displayed what looks similar to various minority, victimhood tendencies on show prevalent even to this day. They explicitly refused to respect the polytheist norm “that all modes of worship are to be respected” and challenged the role of paganism with its diverse deities as a unifying characteristic upon which citizenship and Pax Romana were founded.
Visible means by which they did this was to display outright hostility towards the religious and civic emblems of Rome, even attacking and destroying pagan shrines; refusing to participate in the Pax Deorum—Peace of the Gods, praying for the prosperity of the Empire, lest such behaviour pinch the sensibilities of their cuckolded, jealous OTG.
In this regard these early Christians considered civic duty an act of apostasy and were little different from the rigorists and zealots of the Old Testament—just like Joshua hundreds of years before, this new breed of worshippers of OTG would not countenance any form of compromise and instead became “holy warriors” to preserve the purity and exclusivity of their new faith.
How different are they from those today who would not pay respects to an anthem or flag or who consider that emblems and insignia of their ancient or even new homelands should be modified to suit the sensitivities of one or other of the hues of OTG?
What distinction can one possibly draw between these shrine destroyers and the barbaric acts of Ghazni at Somnath, Ghor across the Indian plains, or the Bahmani sultans’ blood lust at Vijayanagar? Anyone see the close parallels with the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas or Palmyra?
The early Christians learnt and exploited the impact of terror on a civic populace as also the propaganda value of victimhood and martyrdom to the fullest, much of which still continues to be recycled under totalitarian monotheisms of various hues even today be they religious or political in nature.
The response of the generally tolerant pagan establishment of the Empire to this was to persecute what was a visible minority. The punishments included various forms of torture, being fed to wild animals as well as crucifixions.
In a circular way, the Christian zeal was a necessary prerequisite for Christian martyrdom and the martyrs fuelled the next waves of zeal and martyrdom, though Edward Gibbon, for example, characterised the worst atrocities as “extravagant and indecent fictions” invented to inspire the faithful.
As Kirsch himself notes, it is a truism that (even imagined) oppression is an ideal breeding ground for “true belief” to flourish whereas the seductive influences of peace, freedom and prosperity are far more dangerous to the survival of fundamentalism.
This went on till the early part of 4th century CE, during which time, the Christian cult came close to being totally eliminated. However, by a fate of coincidence, a Roman pagan general who history knows as Constantine the Great entered the scene, and by a convoluted sequence of events more to do with prevailing realpolitik than with articles of faith, rose to the become Emperor and ended the persecution of the Christian cult and so began their rise in status and influence in the Empire.
During this period, further internecine feuds ensued within the monotheistic Christian fold over which the emperor sought to broker peace among the believers at the famous Council of Nicaea but fundamental doctrinal controversies (which pagans would have found rather inane) still festered for decades after Constantine’s death and are still some of the reasons for schisms between various Christian sects.
This swing towards what became an exclusivist monotheist creed and the official religion of the Roman Empire culminated in Theodosius (347-395 CE), effectively becoming the head of the world’s first totalitarian empire underpinned by the dogmas of orthodox Christianity and the criminalization of paganism as well as all other forms of religious practice and belief.
However, this was not before Julian, “the Apostate” (331-363 CE), nephew of Constantine and the last Pagan emperor of the Roman Empire nearly won the day for polytheism and diversity.
Though brought up as a Christian, he had the good fortune to learn about the diverse, classical, ancient, syncretism-filled cultural heritage of the centuries old Roman Empire, and grew up to prove himself an excellent military commander, where, despite being outnumbered, he achieved crushing victories in Gaul over the Alamanni in 357 CE at the Battle of Argentoratum. In 360 CE Julian was declared Augustus by his troops at Lutetia, Gaul (modern-day Paris).
Constantine’s inspirations from the symbol of the cross of his adopted religion led him to brutality towards pagans and rivals alike; by contrast, Julian’s exposure to the diversity and “mix-n-match” of polytheism marked a peaceful ascent to Emperor, from where, in his brief tenure, he once again reaffirmed the ancient beliefs of the Empire, restored religious freedoms and challenged the monopoly of Christianity in the civic space of the Empire. Unfortunately, Julian lost his life in battle in 363 CE in an ambitious campaign against the Sassanid Empire of Persia.
The Roman Empire went through much turbulence led by several weak and vain leaders, on the inexorable road to terminal decline. Fuelled by an explosive cocktail of Church, State and Mob acting as instruments of terror, Rome disintegrated ending the glory of Classical Civilization and the Roman Empire and the advent of a thousand years of cultural darkness across Europe.
Just two examples serve to illustrate the destructive effect of monotheistic zeal: the murder of the philosopher Hypatia and the destruction of the library at Alexandria. It is ironic that the same zeal for OTG led to the murders of scores of unnamed philosophers and the razing to dust of the Academy at Nalanda in Bihar.
And yet, the cabal of “eminent” historians, without the guts of an Edward Gibbon, have been peddling lies in the name of their own monotheism of sham Nehruvian secularism?
Julian and polytheism lost: Constantine and monotheism won. What a cruel mirror these two Romans hold only to reflect India’s Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb? What might India have become and how might monotheisms have reached an accommodation with pagans and polytheists, had Dara Shikoh prevailed? What trouble and strife of the past 300 years might have been avoided by humanity? If only.
Have any of their “eminences” polluting the corridors of History faculties an iota of grey matter to ponder on these questions and build an objective, positive narrative that could unleash the potential of a truly syncretic India as opposed to the “chicken tikka” version where the underlying culture is disparaged while despotic, murdering monotheists like Aurangzeb are feted?
Where the collective pagan, pantheistic, polytheistic, atheistic but above all, Dharmic fabric that constitutes the major core of Indian society can fully contribute in “defining India”? Where, the negative narratives of Caste, Cow and Idolatry which the colonist western, racist, proselytizing monotheists have imposed on the Indian narrative whilst at the same time appropriating Indic ideas like Ayurveda, Yoga, and Meditation practices as if they were their own, are repaired with contrition and respect?
The polytheistic pagans of Rome readily adopted the OTG as part of their pantheon and accepted the worshippers of OTG as equals. How similar is this to modern-day Indians—Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs—who crowd the narrow streets to pay homage and offer prayers at the Sufi shrines around India?
How is it possible that no one bats an eyelid, that Ajmer’s Adhai Din Ka Jonpda at the site of the shrine to Moinuddin Chisti, looks so like a temple that it must have been one, but that it’s acceptable for people of all faiths to gather and offer prayers in their own way? How else can one explain that Sufi music—ostensibly founded on Indic raga and meter and not something imported into India by the monotheistic invaders—still holds an emotional connection with the soil and people of India?
In contrast, the custodians of the OTG at the Vatican, after centuries of destruction and pillaging, today, in a show of blood curdling triumph, brazenly prostitute the sacred statuary and holy objects of the vanquished infidels within its unholy walls (one has to pay to enter).
By a rather ironic twist, in its naked show of victory over the polytheists, the Vatican “celebrates” the classical pagan culture which it was instrumental in destroying. Among the relics—nowadays granted pride of place in the holiest bastion of this OTG, stand beautiful works of art and antiquity—row upon row of any number of Greek, Roman and Egyptian deities.
The most telling is the disgustingly triumphal display of Cybele, the Great Mother of the Gods whose earliest worship was in Phrygia and Lydia, which had spread to Greece by the 5th century BCE and later to Rome where she also came to be known as Artemis and Diana. It’s as if the papal hierarchy is mocking the infidels with its superiority in a morbid gallery of false gods and abominations.
Would the Pope or his church, assure all Pagan peoples of the world that their sacred artefacts are safe in their own shrines, that they will never sanction their destruction or relocation as “works of antiquity and primitive art” in the house of loot and plunder in Rome?
Let’s make it simple: When will the Vatican stop obfuscating and sign the UN Convention on Human Rights? Or is one to take it that some members of the human race are lesser human than others, and that, in fact, yet some others are non-persons, without any rights, fit for purging of their abominations and idolatry?
Would the Church of England admit to and end the prejudices that their church holds within its own doctrines and assure Hindus that, as a religious body, it fully respects the right to religion for all peoples and stop the assault on Dharma under the guise of “caste”?
Indeed, would the leader of any church or any other group of monotheist followers of OTG anywhere, assure not just the last pagans and humanists of the world but also adherents of competing versions of OTG, that their cultures, traditions, way of worship, sacred places, spaces, art, and imagery are safe? That they are part of the common human legacy that should be respected and given the space to live and the air to breathe? Is there a world politician with the courage to give their citizens this promise?
As a reviewer of Kirsch’s book on Beliefnet notes, Kirsch himself acknowledges “that traditional monotheists generally dismiss his writing out of hand as uninformed and anti-faith. Yet he insists that he is a ‘Jewish monotheist.’”
Kirsch further fully acknowledges “that polytheists—including pre-Christian Romans—can be as brutish as fervent monotheists (his preferred term for fanatical fundamentalists). The only difference between violent polytheists and violent monotheists is that the former kill to gain political control and the latter kill to assert theological dominance. However, the difference is subtle but important: Polytheists sought control over the public sphere alone; monotheists sought control over private thoughts as well.”
What the Monotheists Think about Pagans
Kirsch may well be right about the rationale of traditional monotheists dismissing his arguments. The question though arises: isn’t this something that secularists also have persistently chosen to do? It is instructive to compare the world views of monotheists and pagans/polytheist vis-a-vis each other (much of it derived from Kirsch’s book):
What monotheists thought/think of and how they react to pagans and polytheists:
- Believe in the superiority of OTG; all others are false gods or disparagingly still “false idols”, a parade of the horrible, those who worship any other than the OTG are at best “lost” and need to guided on the one right path, and at worst, are an abomination, dark, demonic idolaters, morally deficient guilty of harlotry, sorcery, black magic;
- Regard pagans and polytheists with fear, loathing and contempt: peaceful coexistence is a one way street—if you are not one of us….
- It is not sufficient to have belief in OTG, but there are rules on the accepted mode of worship which are to be followed;
- OTG demands absolute obedience: he is jealous, wrathful and vengeful, he doesn’t abide competition; when bad things happen (especially to the non-believers, it is divine retribution);
- Clear delineation between who is “one of us” and who is “the other.”
What pagans and polytheists (the religions of the high culture of classical Greco-Roman civilization and of Hinduism) thought/think of and how they react to monotheists:
- Religious plurality, a spongy mass of tolerance and tradition;
- Not only tolerance, but acceptance of multiple deities and respect for multiple paths to the truth;
- Acknowledging the “Unknown Gods” as evidenced in abundant archaeological finds of shrines from the Roman Empire and also in Hinduism, for example the Narasimha pillar at Chennakesava Temple, Halebid;
- With or without assistance of priests/priestesses and no interceding prophets;
- Co-existence of gods and goddesses in one place, no concept of divine retribution for non-pagans;
- Accepting of the OTG and their worshippers as equals, not sense of the “other”;
- Seeing the world as holistic including all life forms—pray for the health, happiness, safety, security, justice, mercy, and a decent life for all.
Throughout its history, the Roman Empire had attracted all faiths from all corners of the known world—the Greco-Roman deities co-existed with the worship of the gods and goddesses of Egypt, Persia, Sumeria, Phrygia and Lydia. They even accommodated the “strangest of all”, the monotheist Jews and later, the sect of Judaism that morphed into orthodox Christianity.
It is perfectly evident that the war between monotheism (or should it more correctly be monotheisms?) and polytheism is still raging.
Even if India, the last bastion of polytheism and paganism, as Krishen Kak explains in his piece, was to be converted, the war will still rage between the competing and conflicting claims of the multiple factions claiming to speak for OTG.
Therefore, if the pagan Roman Empire could accommodate the followers of two groups of OTG, why is it not possible that the contemporary world can also accommodate the ways of life and multiplicities of belief including OTG, polytheist, and none? One can’t simply “un-invent” god, so let’s be practical. After all, is this not what the pseudo-liberals claim to crave?
But for this to be possible, it is logical to conclude that accommodation can only be reached by an admission of contrition and developing mutual respect that extends not only among followers of the various shades of OTG, but transcends to include those who may be pagan, Hindu, atheist, non-theist, pantheist, Buddhist, or whatever.
The doomsayers who have been parroting about India’s intolerance need to wake up and realise that India has lived with and survived assaults from multiple monotheisms and yet retains much of its “pagan” culture. Let’s call it what it is: Hindu culture, accepting of diversity and easy on the senses which, sets India apart from its neighbours. These neighbours, who in the space of three generations have literally cleansed their domains of the abomination, the heathen and the idolater, and yet failed to find a sense of identity with which they can be at ease.
It is definitely not the “chicken tikka” statist diktat version of Nehruvian secularism which sets India apart and offers hope for humankind—for far from showing how to deal with the ongoing war of God against the Gods, this hollow version of how society ought to function has aggressively sought to deny the ambient pagan culture an iota of legitimacy in the civic space whilst granting special privileges to monotheisms.
The monotheisms are not going to volunteer to give way for a level playing field. So, apart from Hindus reclaiming their identity and working by example to practically show that there are alternatives for people to tread their own paths to truth and peaceful coexistence, the self-professed liberals, particularly outside India will have to get off the pot and put some skin in the game.
To adapt what Rod Liddle mockingly referred to as “these silly mares” of liberalism and turn it into a positive, they will need to snap out from “… navigate(ing) their way through life on such slender mental resources, …” refrain from being so “… stupid because they do not see the world as it really is, but only as they would wish it to be,” and get a “handle on reality,” coming out their slumberous “… state of denial.”
Some of these “mares” are for sure beyond redemption, but one can live and work in hope and expectation, targeting those that have the capacity to turn on their dormant intellects for the greater good. For, the alternatives are not appealing; the stakes are too high to let the lunatics run the asylum.
A good start would be for the economic development of India to continue unimpeded. Yes, those inimical to progress will do all in their power to prevent this, but those who claim to be real liberals and progressives have to open their eyes and realise that economic progress and prosperity are the most effective road to peace and a potent antidote to fundamentalism.
Indians, comprising a sixth of humanity, with a millennium old experience of the battle of God against the Gods offer the best hope for resolving this vexing question. The battle isn’t over yet, in fact it’s only just begun. On India’s success depends the world’s capacity to overcome this conundrum. Those who impede India’s economic and social development do so at a greater peril.
As the Roman philosopher, Symmachus said, “What does it matter by which wisdom each of us arrives at the truth?” and observe how it rings in total consonance with the Rig Veda phrase, “ekaṁ sad viprā bahudhā vadanti” translating to “There is one (ekam) Reality (sat), about which wise persons (viprā) in various ways (bahudhā) speak (vadanti). — IndiaFacts, 5 January 2015
» Jay Jina is a UK-based third generation NRI. Besides pursuing a professional career as a European IT director with a multinational and a part time university academic, Jay’s interests span history, current affairs, the Indian Diaspora and the history and politcs of science.
- Obama smacks down India for religious intolerance, says Gandhi would have been shocked, Times of India, 5 February 2015, “Obama smacks down India for intolerance….” at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Obama-smacks-down-India-for-religious-intolerance-says-Gandhi-would-have-been-shocked/articleshow/46141742.cms
- Vamsee Juluri, “Why I think Ram Madhav’s Al Jazeera interview was framed” at http://www.dailyo.in/politics/modi-ram-madhav-akhand-bharat-pakistan-al-jazeera-interview-rss/story/1/8163.html
- Jakob De Roover and Sarah Claerhout, The Caste Connection on the Sacred Foundations of Social Hierarchy, University of Ghent, Belgium, at https://www.academia.edu/19752142/The_Caste_Connection_On_the_Sacred_Foundations_of_Social_Hierarchy
- Vamsee Juluri, “The Year of Living Intolerably”, at http://swarajyamag.com/magazine/the-year-of-living-intolerantly/
- Rod Liddle, “The political wisdom of people who don’t even know what a circle is” in The Spectator, at http://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/01/the-political-wisdom-of-people-who-dont-even-know-what-a-circle-is/
- Wikipedia article on “Multiculturalism”. See in particular the section on opposition to multiculturalism at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiculturalism#Opposition
- Jonathan Kirsch, God against the Gods: The History of the War between Monotheism and Polytheism, Penguin Books, 2004
- Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1, Chapter 16, at http://www.ccel.org/g/gibbon/decline/volume1/chap16.htm#chri
- Jonathan Kirsch, quote from page 74 of God against the Gods: The History of the War between Monotheism and Polytheism, Penguin Books, 2004
- Abraham Eraly, The Mughal Throne: The Saga of India’s Great Emperors, London, Phoenix. Quote from p. 336: “India was at a crossroads in the mid-seventeenth century; it had the potential of moving forward with Dara Shukoh, or of turning back to medievalism with Aurangzeb.”
- I used the term “chicken tikka masala” to describe the so-called “ethical Foreign Policy” cooked up the chicken tikka masala that is the multi-culti flavour of Britain today: Just like the nondescript dish that goes by that name in the UK, naa yahaan ka, naa wahaan ka, or to put it bluntly, neither fish nor fowl. The term applies for the secularist idea of syncretism too. See http://indiafacts.co.in/pseudo-secularism-uk-style-lessons-india/
- Concordat Watch, “How the Vatican evades human rights obligations through Canon Law, diplomatic immunity and other dodges” at http://www.concordatwatch.eu/topic-47307.834
- Book review of “God against the Gods” (author unidentified) on Beliefnet at http://www.beliefnet.com/Entertainment/Books/2004/05/One-God-To-Bind-Them-All.aspx?p=3
- Krishen Kak, “Hindus are the Last of the Pagans” at http://indiafacts.org/hindus-are-the-last-of-the-pagans/
- There are various examples of dispensation of privilege for religious minority, for example the Haj subsidy, the independence of places of worship and perhaps, most openly invidious of all, the status of “missionary” as a visa category for entry into India. In each of these cases, the comparative position for the “majority” belief system is overtly discriminatory: Hindus do not even get adequate protection for the Amarnath Yatra, Hindu temples are under state control often with antipathetic administrators imposed against the wishes of the temple stakeholders, and even small attempts at reversion of poor sections back to Hinduism get blown out as workings of Hindu “fascism”.
- Vamsee Juluri, “Rearming Hinduism”, Westland, 2015. This little volume to my mind reads as a succinct and balanced manifesto protecting and projecting all that is of value about Hindu Dharma. It deserves to be widely read and merits being made required reading for all undergraduates in India and those outside India with an interest in India.
- Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, Pimlico, London, 2003. The line is a quote from the 4th century philosopher,
- Graham Schweig, Translation of Rig Veda 1.164.46. on the Dharma Civilization Foundation website at http://www.dcfusa.org/many-truths-of-the-one-reality/
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