Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Is Hinduism Just Monotheism in Disguise?

This is an expanded version of my comment at Satyameva Jayate's site. What started the discussion: In the God Delusion, Richard Dawkins argues that Hinduism is monotheism in disguise. Not surprisingly, many people argue it's not, and Satyameva is one. I should first say that I find this type of discussion about the facts of religion refreshing, and in fact, like Daniel Dennett and Colin McGinn, I'm fully in favor of public classroom instruction on the matter. I'm genuinely fascinated with what religious people believe, I just don't agree that it's true.

In fact, I disagree with Dawkins that Hinduism is just monotheism in polytheistic clothing. I actually argue the opposite point, that all purported monotheism is polytheism in disguise. People who believe that the only god is X usually readily accept the existence of other supernatural creatures (angels, the devil, ghosts, talking snakes) but just don't call them gods.

Well, why not? In the excellent and undeservedly little-known novel Aztec, the narrator (an old Aztec being interrogated by Spanish officials) laughs at the idea that he is any more polytheistic than Catholics, who have a feast for a different although lesser god for every single day on the calendar.

We're not dealing with a binary question but a spectrum. Between poly- and monotheism there is a transition form called henotheism. In henotheism, you worship and revere your "hometown" god, but you recognize the existence of a whole pantheon, other members of which may very well be worshipped by other people. That is, you're a Vikings fan, but (however grudgingly) you acknowledge that the Packers and their fans also exist, even if they're morally inferior. Good examples from history would be the Maya or Bronze Age Mesopotamia. The political fortunes of each village or city-state or guild or clan will have an impact on how widely followed their particular god is. At some point your city-state could come to dominate the rest. Following this process to its conclusion, you could develop full-blown monotheism, with the other gods relegated to representation as lesser, sub-god entitites.

If this seems like a far-fetched just-so story, I can direct you to an attested form (a recorded, fossilized transition). Amenhotep (King Tut's dad) decided to throw out the rest of the Egyptian pantheon and shrink it to just one god, Aten (basically, Ra, who was already #1). By doing this he could do away with the priest class and so consolidate his power. For this, he was hated. The transition probably doesn't occur with such an explicit forced move, but it's clear that (as always) the reason for the change was a power struggle. In this case Egypt returned to official polytheism after his death.

Given that example, it's hard not to look the same way at another religion that has become fully monotheistic (Judaism and its two descendants). Gabriel, Satan, Baal, and the rest of the now-lesser angels and devils could have begun as coequals with Yahweh, but the people in Yahweh-town won, and the rest of the pantheon atrophied. Even beyond the trends of henotheism, this apparent "progress" from people worshipping many gods to one god is really just a trend of most religions getting run over by a very few successful ones (a religious Pareto principle). That the evangelical religions are also monotheistic is telling (and I would include Buddhism in that club). Before religions were "honed" as political tools, there was no problem of coexistence: your village worshipped the fire god because you were closer to the volcano than the guys on the other side of the hill, who worshipped the river god to keep their fields from being flooded (or just because their parents did). As soon as it became a conscious mechanism of political power, that coexistence wouldn't work.

Now to bring this back to Hinduism, indrectly: You can often trace language families (and genes) back to the initial tribe that spawned them. For example, you've probably heard of the Indo-European language family, i.e. that there is a demonstrable relationship between certain, languages like English, Russian, Bengali, and Latin - but what you probably don't realize is that this is because there is a literal ancestor language. That is, six to ten thousand years ago (the dates are still debated) there was a tribe of people living probably in southern Ukraine, speaking the single ancestral Indo-European language (which has been reconstructed). Not only does this ancestry show in language, it shows in the genes, and in religious complexes. Judging by their descendants, the Indo-European religion seems to have been a trinity of sky-sea-earth/underworld god. Even the names of these gods have been reconstructed from their descendants: Tyr-Loki-Odin, Jupiter-Neptune-Pluto, Zeus-Poseidon-Hades, and Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva.

We still see an impact of our ancestral religious customs in the West. That is, Semitic religion speaks not at all of a trinity - that was something Paul introduced during his marketing efforts as he wrote to various Galatians and Romans and Corinthians, and expressed this otherwise alien Semitic faith to Europeans in trinitarian terms that might appeal more to them. Search for mention of a trinity in Islam and Judaism and you will do so in vain. Religious syncretism is really just the cultural equivalent of lateral transfer in biology, but it seems more common. Is the Monkey Temple in Nepal a Hindu or Buddhist temple? I sure couldn't figure it out. The Hadiths even contain large stretches of word-for-word plagiarism of the Christian New Testament (scriptural junk DNA). But never mind the exotic examples, because it's in the West's backyard: blue-eyed Jesus and a trinity and Yule-logs at the winter solstice are all examples.

In that view, Hinduism is actually the only surviving Indo-European religion, and it's no coincidence that India has been politically united only for brief periods throughout its long history. Perhaps now that it's politically united under its own power, we're seeing a trend toward monotheism via henotheism. Who will be the winner? In five centuries will there be new Upanishads with Brahma as the only true god, and Shiva and Vishnu as mere angels?

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