Image-breaking is a contribution of prophetic religions who have never reflected deeply on the difference between form and the formless, between what is material and what is spiritual.
Continued from Part 1
Paganism and Semitic Religions
Paganism has multiple Gods but believes in one humanity; Semitic religions have one God but two humanities: believers and unbelievers (infidels or heathens). The division is not just social, or racial, or cultural; it is metaphysical. Believers owe nothing to infidels, not even ordinary ethical behaviour. The Quran requires that Muslims “are vehement against disbelievers, but kind amongst themselves” (48.29).
A single God had a necessary adjunct in a single Prophet (or Saviour or Interpreter). Gradually, the intermediary became more than a medium. In Christianity, he became the Saviour; in Islam, he became the Intercessor and the last Prophet through whom God ever spoke. Claims increased to the extent that God became redundant and the intermediary took his place.
Intolerance is another necessary outcome. Dethrone other Gods, and so must also die those who speak in the name of other Gods (Deut.18.18-19). The Semitic God is jealous, and so is his sole prophet. Just like his God, he too can brook no rivals. The Bible is full of curses invoked on rivals — gods, prophets, apostles, doctrines. This tradition has continued and has been a strong element in Christianity, whether Catholic or non-Catholic.
Christianity and Islam began religious bigotry and arrogance on a large scale and with new power. In imposing their definition upon others, they have killed millions of people. They have been even more fanatic about their founders. “If you won’t believe that you’re redeemed by my redeemer’s blood, I’ll drown you in your own,” says the Christian, to put it in the language of Aldous Huxley. The same is true of Muslims. Some apologists say that intolerance is a latter-day growth. But it is not so. Intolerance is part of its creed. It is a declaration of war, a battle-cry against non-Muslims and their Gods, and historically it began so and continues to be so. Wherever they have gone, any tolerance shown was an exception, intolerance was the rule. As Ishwar Sharan observes in his The Myth of Saint Thomas and the Mylapore Shiva Temple, “Aurangzeb is nobody in comparison to St. Xavier when it comes to temple-breaking and bloodshed.”
Obviously, this ideology of a single god, a single prophet, a single revelation, a single church or ummah, and of a single life and single judgement (Hebr. 9.27) is different from the one the world at large has known in the past or even at the present. Historically speaking, it is more of an aberration, a local vogue that consolidated itself through conquest and propaganda, and it could impose itself in no other way. It is different not only from polytheism, a religious expression at a more popular level but also from mystical religions expressing man’s more intensive search for a spiritual life. For example, Hindu spirituality is seeking one’s own true Self. It talks of an immense unity binding all living and non-living things in the cosmos as a reflection of the one Reality. There are no infidels and heathens here.
Hindu Spirituality of Sanatana Dharma
Yoga is a deeper spirituality, a science and art of inward journey developed by the Hindus. Yoga is a special contribution made by religions belonging to the Santana Dharma family. Hindu spirituality seeks Self-Knowledge or atma-jnana. This also leads to the highest knowledge of Gods. All schools of philosophy in Indian systems acknowledge Yoga as the practical means to finally discover the ultimate Truth. It consists of physical, mental, and intellectual means culminating in meditation. The Truth in Hinduism is an inner journey but does not seek to impose its values on anyone else, especially a non-believer. A yogic God is a unity, not a unit; it is inclusive of all Gods.
Reincarnation and Karma are inseparable ideas of almost all Indic philosophies, including Buddhism and Jainism. Reincarnation is prevalent in both the “primitive” and the “civilized”: Eskimos; Melanesians; the Poso Alfur of Celebes in Indonesia; Algonquians; Bantus; Finns and Lapps; old Teutonics and Druids; the Lithuanians and Lettish; old Greeks and Romans; and the Chinese. Plato, Pythagoreans, teachers of Orphic mystery, Manicheans, and Tao systems speak about reincarnation of the soul as eloquently as Sanatana Dharma. Christianity held this initially but the Council of Constantinople (CE 543) condemned it completely as the belief went completely against some of the most fundamental doctrines of Christianity: the doctrines of one life and one judgement, of pre-election, of some saved but many condemned to suffer eternal punishment in hell.
In Islam, the idea is of tanasukh and we meet it only amongst the Druzes, and some heretic sects such as Ali Ilahis, who ask men not to fear death because death is like the dive the duck makes. But the idea is incompatible with mainstream Islam. There is no wonder that Yoga is unwelcome to prophetic religions. It is subversive of dogmas and special claims and is too universal in spirit. In 1989, the Vatican issued a statement to its monasteries and convents warning them against the lure of “Eastern meditation practices” which obscured “the Christian conception of prayer, its logic and requirements.”
A New Thinking
In many parts of the world, there is a new thinking on religious questions and a growing awareness that their present religions were an imposition. Ralph Borsodi, an American educationist (The Challenge of Asia) says that “everywhere in the world excepting in Asia Minor, the three great Semitic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—are intruders.” In Europe, Christianity is a superimposition; in Asia, Islam is. Pagan traditions across the world are trying to break off the hold of Semitic religions.
They are finding their old religion as a part of a larger religious system. One author finds similarity between old European Paganism and Hinduism. Prudence Jones, the spokesperson for the UK Pagan Federation, observes that all the world’s indigenous and ethnic religions have three features in common: they are nature-venerating; they are polytheistic and recognize many Gods; they all recognize the Goddess, the female aspect of Divinity as well as the male. She showed how European Paganism was like Hinduism, Shintoism, and the North American traditions. Among the indigenous peoples of two Americas, there is a growing awareness of their old identity.
Countries under Islam
The condition of countries now dominated by Islam is a difficult one. However, despite discouraging conditions for the time being, some advanced thinkers in Muslim countries have shown awareness of the fact that Islam was an imposition on their country. For example, Tawfiq al-Hakim, a social thinker of Egypt, said in the 1920s that the “classical Arab”, his name for Islam, was inadequate for “spiritual” Egypt, which he identified with Pharaonic golden age. He also found that Hinduism and Pharaonic Paganism of ancient Egypt were congruent and had been in contact. He thought that the responsibility for articulating a spiritual alternative to Europe’s materialism lay on neo-Pharaonic Egypt and Hindu India.
Iran, another ancient country that lost its individuality when Islam conquered it, also shows signs that it is aware of its “Aryan” past. But it has made two mistakes. First, it thought it could combine its pride in its ancient religion and culture with its present-day Islam; secondly, it underestimated the power of fanaticism.
The African continent has been under the attack of Christianity and Islam, for centuries losing much of its pagan culture. There is a Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that everyone has a right to embrace the religion of his choice. But where is a similar Declaration which says that tolerant philosophies and cultures have a right to protect themselves against aggressive, systematic proselytizing?
Hinduism- A Link to the Past
Hinduism can help all peoples seeking religious self-renewal, for it preserves in some way their old Gods and religions; it preserves in its various layers religious traditions and intuitions they have lost. In its simplest aspect, Europeans can best study their old pre-Christian religion by studying Hinduism. It is possible because there was a time when the two peoples shared a common religious milieu. Celtic religion, presided over by Druids (the priestly order), presents beliefs in various nature deities and certain ceremonies like those in Indian religion. They also share certain similarities of language and culture, thus indicating an ancient common heritage.
Spiritually speaking, monotheism has no natural superiority over polytheism and, in point of historical fact, it has been worse. Gods provide an invisible link between the past and the present of a nation; when they go, the historical link also snaps. The peoples of Egypt, Iran, Greece, Germany, Scandinavian and Baltic countries are quite ancient but as they lost their Gods, they also lost their sense of historical identity. What is true of Europe is also true of Africa and South America. The countries of these continents have recently gained political freedom; they are yet to regain their spiritual identity.
Muir thought that comparative studies of Christianity and Islam and their founders would also yield an indirect benefit. A Hindu, sickened by idolatry, may convert to Christianity if there is proof of the latter’s superiority. It certainly did not help but the book helped in revealing the nature of Islam. For centuries, Islam and Christianity looked at Hinduism through their prisms. Hinduism now reverses the gazes.
Yogic Spirituality View of Semitic Religions
Both the Bible and Quran speak of a ‘God in heaven’ but show a lack of interiority -a ‘god in the heart’. This god also lacks universality. The initial Jews had many interchangeable gods but by the time of Christianity and Islam, God became exclusive, of one people, and speaking through favoured intermediaries.
Abraham, of an early Biblical tradition, a man of deep faith, did not quarrel or deny other gods despite a deep faith in his own. The trouble begins with a hate campaign of neighbouring gods; equivalent to a tamasika-rajasika faith according to the Hindu view. Some traditions show him revolting against image worship but he was not a regular iconoclast like the later prophets. He did receive an instruction from the divine to get all his descendants circumcised. The story of Ruth, a lovable early character in the Bible, also illustrates a biblical period when multiple equally valid gods existed and when loyalty to one god did not affect normal human relations.
Old Testament also shows the ordinary Jewish people not as exclusive as their prophets. They interacted with their neighbours, even lent their gods and their rites to other people. However, the prophets laboured hard to keep them apart. The cult of an exclusive God denying other gods began seriously with Moses. The subsequent prophetic tradition in the Bible continued it. Finally, the Jews believed that they were a special people of a special god.
During many centuries of foreign domination, the Jews had learnt to expect a Messiah, a religious-political personage, who was also to be their king and deliverer from the foreign bondage. Many claimed to be Messiahs from time to time but failed to clinch their claim. John the Baptist who proclaimed the coming Messiah was also not sure. He told his disciples after watching Jesus, ‘Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?’ (Mt.11.3).
Though doubtful, the hope for national independence made the Jewish people ready to try anyone who made the claim. But politically it was unsafe for the claimants or the nation. The course brought them into collision with the Imperial authorities and invited oppression. Flavius Josephus (CE 37 or 38), a Jewish historian, mentions several such Messiahs including Theudas. The Roman rulers killed him when he claimed the ability to divide the Jordan River.
Not long after Jesus, in CE 70, Titus, the Roman general, for attempted rebellion, burned the Temple and levelled Jerusalem to the ground. Next century, Bar-Kokhba claiming to be the Messiah-king of the Jews, seized Jerusalem and held it for three years. Finally, he lost and Jews had to leave the ruined city. They could re-enter the city on pain of death except on the ninth of Av, the traditional anniversary of the destruction of the Temple when they could pay a tax and come to weep on the site of the old sanctuary. The city saw many conquerors before it finally passed into the hands first of Christians and then of Muslims. It is only now after a lapse of nineteen centuries that the Jewish people are again able to reconstruct a national home for themselves in Palestine.
From a Messiah to a Saviour
Jesus began as a Messiah of his people; he said that his teaching was for the Jews, that they “be first fed.” But when Jews rejected him, he rejected the Jews in return. He declared that God was terminating his old covenant with the Jews, and entering a new one with those who believed in His Son. Christians replaced Jews as the ‘chosen people’; the Church needed to tolerate the Jews until all humankind converted to Christianity and there was no need for Jewish testimony. Jesus himself became a Saviour and the Intermediary between God and man.
Christianity faced several competitors and it went on a spree of unacknowledged borrowing from non-Judaic sources. There were too many Saviours around. They were often born on a day, lived under similar circumstances, and invariably rose after dying. Jesus’s life followed the same pattern. Indeed, the Dying God and his Resurrection were popular themes in many ancient legends of the region. His life as given in the Gospels is so true to the contemporary fashion that many scholars wonder whether it is a biography at all. The current Jewish history mentions no Jesus. The Talmud mentions one crucified Jeschu ben Pandira but a hundred years before the Christian era.
Many regard Jesus’s life closer to legend than to history. Christian theologians have now begun to talk of a Jesus of faith rather than of history. Christianity borrowed also most of its central rites from the creeds and cults in contemporary Egypt, Syria, and the Mediterranean world. Early Christian fathers explaining the embarrassingly similar rites invoked the Devil who introduced similar practices into the religion of Mithra. Tertullian similarly blamed the pagan devils for the Lord’s Supper showing such similarities with other rites.
Christianity borrowed from two sources: Judaic and non-Judaic. It borrowed its core ideas from Judaism: scripture, prophets, belief in a special people and a special covenant, atonement through blood sacrifice, and above all, a jealous God, and its hatred for ‘other’ Gods- misotheism(hatred of god). But it has also some non-Judaic sources like the Saviour, the Virgin Birth, Resurrection, and the Lord’s Supper.
Its own contribution was that the God of its special covenant began to claim universal sovereignty; its saviour began to claim to save all, and it itself claimed a world mission. Its other contributions were the Cross, the Hell, the Devil, possession, and exorcism. Christianity added that Jesus, not only the firstborn but the only begotten son of God, made a sacrifice for all humankind by shedding his blood. After making sin into a formidable dogma, its remission is simple- just baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
A Messiah was a phenomenon of late Judaism with a secular connotation occurring only two times in the Old Testament. The central idea in biblical Judaism was a prophet who warned, predicted and proclaimed. Moses was a prophet par excellence but was not exclusive. Nor was a prophet unique to the Jews. Their neighbours had their own prophets who were even consulted by Jewish princes. But with time, the idea of the prophet took a new turn. God talked to only one and nobody else. The only Saviour and the Prophet had to be a special prophet with a world mission.
Muhammad came at a time when he had to be the prophet and not a prophet. Jews and Christians already had their Prophets and Saviours. Muhammad first said that the same God talked to him who talked to Abraham, Moses, and Jesus and that he came with the same message. When the Christians and Jews did not take him seriously, he declared that he was the most authentic spokesperson of God of all times. Any old revelation was now redundant.
Though the Arabs rejected him initially, later, by force, they converted. The shariat prescribes the death penalty for denying Muhammad’s Prophethood or ‘defiling’ his name in any way, like giving up Islam. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1905), the founder of the Qadiani or Ahmadiyya sect, claimed to be a mujaddid, a ‘renewer’ of Islam. This brought his sect into unanticipated conflict with orthodox Muslim opinion.
New saviours and prophets tried to make their way in. In the USA there were the Southcottians and the Mormons. The leader of the first was a lady, Joanna Southcott (1750-1814) and the second was Joseph Smith (1805-1844). The Mormons are a flourishing community. Similarly, there were Mirza Ali Muhammad (the founder of Babism) and Bahaullah (founder of the Bahais) with a good amount of following. The latter-day prophets are not so successful as the previous ones but they both represent the same principle of prophetic spirituality claiming to be the sole mouthpiece of God or his apostle.
Most prophets have made their claims without trying to justify them. Christian theology, more trained in this line, has given us an answer by first putting ‘Revelation’ in a special sense. Ordinarily, Revelation means “unveiling something hidden,” to become conscious of things to which we were previously unconscious of. In prophetic religions, it has a semi-technical meaning. Christian theologians understand that the word means that activity of God by which “He took Noah, Abraham, and Moses, into his confidence, telling them what He had planned and what their part in His plan was to be.” It culminated in the Revelation to Jesus who told us “all things that I heard of my father; God’s crowning and final revelation.” It was only God’s will that he reveals himself more fully to one person or to one nation. It is “God’s management of His household.”
As usual, Christian theology has used pious language to reach a conclusion. “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of Heaven and earth, that thou didst hide these things from the wise and understanding, and did reveal them into babes” (Mt. 11.25f), says the Bible. Christianity has only cared for a God known by babes and sinners; it has hardly any idea of a God revealed to wisdom, understanding and purity. In the Gnostic writings, buddhi or wisdom is not a dirty word as it is in Semitic scriptures. In the Upanishads, God is known by the pure, the wise, the understanding. God belongs to all; self-effort can be a route to God-realization for all, including sinners.
To be sinful has become a cult with Christians. The Christian heaven has more joy over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance (Lk.15.7). In fact, Christianity has more interest in repentance than in righteousness.
Every religion has its own forms and modes of worship, both public and private, informed by its dominant ideas of God and man. One scholar finds that the “veneration of relics seems to be practically unknown to Brahmanical Hindus,” but he finds nothing creditable in it. It was simply because “their ill-defined religion has no recognized founder like Jesus Christ, Buddha or Muhammad.”
Prophetic religions take great pride in “one” God, but it seems they have not found it always easy to handle him. In Christianity, he became triune at an early stage. Later, the Son replaced the Father and even later, the Mother (not even a member of the Trinity) replaced the Son. Saints and martyrs replaced them all. Their shrines and graves became paramount objects of worship generating money.
It was all worship of relics and graves. The dead saints were far more useful than living ones. Aldous Huxley tells us that during the middle ages, the faithful would often strip naked or dismember sanctified persons after their death. Clothing, ears, hair, toes, fingers, nipples, bones, foreskins, blood became amulets, charms, and objects of worship. Thefts, piracies, and even wars between towns happened for the possession of these relics-sometimes even faked. The monks decapitated and boiled the dead body of Saint Thomas Aquinas to get his bones. Churches display the relics related to Christ: pieces of the cross; the holy nails; thorns from the crown; coins used for betraying Christ; cord which bound the Jesus to the cross; Christ’s blood; milk of Mother Mary; and so on.
In France, Voltaire counted six foreskins of Jesus to which barren women made the pilgrimage. We learn from Calvin that there was so much wood in the relics of the Cross that not even three hundred men could carry them. San Bernardino of Siena tells us that: “All the buffalo cows of Lombardy would not have as much milk as is shown about the world”. The Church authorities certify the relics.
In Islam too, we find a lot of ‘grave worship’. The Black Stone at Ka’ba is an object of worship. Every Muslim pilgrim walk between Safa and Marwa as a ritual. In some places, the prophet’s hair (hazrat bat) is an object of great veneration.
Most religions prescribe certain spiritual practices to help their followers to realize the truths they preach. Hinduism and Buddhism prescribe a regimen of discipline known as samadhi and prajna, to open higher consciousness. They believe that even with all the guidance and help, everyone must rediscover the spiritual truths for oneself. Spiritual truths cannot come by proxy. Prophetic religions believe that God has already chosen them and already revealed to them truths that are hidden from others. Prophetic religions prescribe only certain beliefs and the religious duty to convert others to those beliefs through preaching and holy wars.
One of these rare spiritual practices was known as “speaking with tongues”, where the believers gathered and waited on the Holy Ghost to descend upon them and speak through them. Paul encouraged this but forbade women from speaking at all. Mostly, these phenomena arise from self-suggestion and make-believe.
The New Testament’s other important teaching is to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 4.17; 3.2). This teaching may be the cornerstone of the biblical teaching along with sin, its remission by sacrifice, and atonement by the blood of Jesus. Sin and repentance reinforced each other. They led to their other sister-cults: the threat of Hell-fire, Purgatory, Indulgences. All this could not be healthy either for the mind or the soul and all was God-eclipsing- a “spiritual terrorism.”
It led to many negative features. The atonement of sin by self-flagellation became widely common from the 11th century onward. Three thousand strokes and the chanting of thirty psalms expiated the sins of a year; thirty thousand strokes atoned for the offence of ten years, and so on in proportion. Wisdom, enlightenment, the opening of higher consciousness were altogether unknown. Whole multitudes of men and women walked in procession whipping themselves and indulging in what they called the “baptism of blood.”
In the spiritual praxis of prophetic religions, iconoclasm has been important. Christianity and Islam have engaged in large-scale destruction of temples of others through centuries. They have believed that demolishing the images on an altar, particularly in the temples of their neighbours, is the best expression of their own spirituality. Image-breaking is a contribution of prophetic religions who have never reflected deeply on the difference between form and the formless, between what is material and what is spiritual.
Anthropomorphic gods are no problem; the fearful things are anthropopathic gods having human passions, human hatreds, and preferences. Prophetic religions have given their God all human weakness and passions; on the other hand, Hinduism has thought of man with all divine virtues. The former has humanised God, the latter have deified man. Hindu spirituality teaches us that “all this is filled with God”. The Upanishads see “the earth, the atmosphere, the heaven, the waters, the mountains meditating as it were”. It is not only higher spirituality; it is also proper ecology. Hindu scriptures also say that God is formless and only our knowledge of him has form. The problem of prophetic religions is not that their god is formless, but that he has a rigid, stiff form that cannot take on and reflect other forms.
The Theology of Missions and Jihad
Every religion has its own ethos. The ethos shapes by the kind of questions raised and the answers given. In Hinduism, the seeker raised the question: What is real? What is the highest Good? What is man? What are his roots? Is he only his body or even his mind and intellect? Is there something by knowing which all this is known? Hindu spirituality sought answers to these questions; it had a vision of a higher and transformed life.
Prophetic religions raised different questions: Who is the true God? What is His will? How does it fulfil? However, often even before he raised the question, often he knew that the Gods his neighbours knew were false, that he was the mouthpiece of this true God, and that unless others believed in him and followed him, they were damned. He felt strongly that it was his duty to propagate this view about his God and about himself.
Christianity and Islam shapes by this theology. The characteristic figure of these religions is a preacher, a crusader or a mujahid. He has nothing to learn from others; he can only teach the correct view, or he can correct or punish a different view. The others are in darkness and he must spread the light. Missionary work is the most meritorious in Christianity often accompanied by liberal use of force, but a good end justified it. St. Martin of Tours (b. CE 315) preached to the pagans of rural Gaul while attacking their shrines. Now 3675 churches and 425 villages have his name in France alone.
With this kind of understanding of man and God and its own mission, Christianity started as soon as it gathered enough strength on a long career of persecution. It has persecuted pagans, Jews, heretics, cultures and peoples, different modes of worship, and different views of God. It carried this in Europe (Greek and Roman Empire), Asia, the Americas, and Africa. India faced this too.
This new theological or ideological persecution of Christianity, according to WEH Lecky (History of European Morals), has been far more sustained, systematic, and unflinching than previous persecutions. It was not merely against acts of worship, but also against speculative opinions. It received support not merely as a right, but also as a duty by a whole literature of theology, by devout classes, and by the most opposing sects. The spirit of intolerance has found its most eloquent and most passionate expressions in idolatry and religious massacres. This holds equally good for Islam too.
Yoga speaks of this kind of self-deception whose source is deep in the mind’s opacity and duality, in achaitanya (unconsciousness) and avidya (nescience). Why should “jealous” Gods arise at all? In Indian temples, icons of gods are in groups on the altar as they were in Greek and other pagan temples. There was no jealousy either among the Gods or their worshippers.
The falsehood that accompanies the converting business is even worse than its intolerance. Mahatma Gandhi called proselytizing the “deadliest poison that ever sapped the foundation of truth”. Time has not modified Christianity’s missionary aim, but only its strategy of action.
To be Continued..