The platform given by Hindus to pre-Christian and pre-Islamic traditions to rediscover their pagan roots is heartening to see.
In the past weekend, 20-21 February 2021, I had the honour of participating in the 7th international Gathering of the Elders, the world conference organized every 3rd year since 2003 by the International Center for Cultural Studies. This organization is headquartered in Washington DC, and was started at the initiative of Yashwant Pathak, professor of Pharmacy and RSS office-bearer (pracharak). As a known critic of the Hindu-nationalist movement RSS, I acknowledge that unlike their performance at the political level, their local workers’ initiatives at the ground level can be very commendable. Indeed, the idea of building bridges with the world’s remaining pre-Christian and pre-Islamic traditions was a stroke of genius.
Till now this event was always held in an Indian city, more or less coinciding with the start of the triannual Hindu mega-festival Kumbha Mela. The choice for India has strongly been supported by participants worldwide, but this was the first time that it was in the form of an unlocated teleconference, in sessions coinciding with late morning in respectively Asia/Pacific, Africa/Europe and the Americas.
But the show was still entirely run by Hindus, for Europe mostly the British National Hindu Students’ Forum. The footage of the annual One Tree gatherings between British Hindus and Druids that filled the time between events was quite inspiring. As far as outsiders could tell, the organization and presentation of the teleconference was impeccable, with only a technological glitch in the session I happened to take part in: unfortunately the communication with Dr. Lietsela Ngobese Nomagugu, speaking from far-away South Africa, was disturbed. She really had the right vibration, obviously a lot of knowledge and a field of expertise about which we had everything to learn. From what I could understand, she brooked subjects that are also important for India, such as the paradox of education: obviously a boon, but also a factor of alienation vis-à-vis the pupils’ native culture.
For an overview of the entire event, this may not be the right place and me, not the right observer. I merely want to summarize my own contribution, and then add some remarks prompted by the proceedings I have witnessed.
Let me first explain my personal story, which happens to throw light on several problems that most of us face. To those who have preserved their traditions (even through a difficult period of Christian domination), from Maoris to Mayas, this may be a very different world, where ex-Christian set out to rediscover their roots. They have to reconstruct what to hereditary Pagans is automatic, and thereby risk some artificiality,
In the 1980s I had worked in a New Age bookshop and got to know the whole spiritualist scene, both the native and Oriental schools and movements. But I only decided to involve myself after I had gotten to know the Hindu philosopher Ram Swarup. In his book Names of Gods, he calls on Christian-born Westerners to make a pilgrimage back in time to the religion of their ancestors. (It so happens that I live in a neighbourhood called Oude God, “old God”, named after a Roman statue of Jupiter that was smashed by the missionaries but lived on in folk memory as the ancestral God.) To me, he advised that I get myself more actively involved with the Heathen revival.
It so happened that in 1993, a fresh neo-Heathen society was being founded in Antwerp. In the case of Belgium, it was logical that it would tap into both the Germanic and the Celtic heritage. I soon discovered that it was slightly politically compromised, not formally, but several prominent members carried a serious nationalist baggage, a very typical problem in a smattering of European Pagan Revivalist groups. I decided not to run away, as some reputation-conscious people might have done, but to get my hands dirty on the problems that turned out to bedevil this necessary revival of the murdered ancestral traditions. If I am presently known in India as particularly alert to the excesses of Hindu chauvinism, part of the origin lies in my own little crusade in the mid-1990s against the xenophobic distortions I saw at close quarters in Belgium.
In particular, I used to stress that the ethnic self-centredness of quite a few neo-Heathen groups was only seemingly based on the traditions of the ancestors. Of course their geographical horizon had been more limited, but they did not reject foreign inputs on principle. Indeed, a consciousness that different “religions” (to use a term appropriated by Christianity and wrongly given the connotation of discrete doctrinal boxes) were essentially a single continuum was already present. This was seen e.g. in the interpretation Romana, the tendency to “translate” the gods of one people into those of another, as still seen in the names of the weekdays: Wednesday = Woden’s day = Mercurii dies = Budh-war.
Also, the oft-heard critique that Christianity had to be rejected because it was a “foreign imposition” and a “desert religion” made no sense. The desert is one of the landscapes to which human communities have had to adapt, and it is just as legitimate as the lush vegetation in our own environment. As for impositions, they are a pity, but not really because of their foreign origin. If the Christian message had been true, as it claims to be, then the foreign intrusion and the violation of the native cultures could be taken in stride for the greater good; the problem with the new religion was that it failed to live up to this promise. Maybe, with hindsight, some reforms were welcome in the ancestral cultures, but even then there was no need of the Christian novelty, and certainly no need for the native religionists to “burn what they had worshipped” (as demanded of the Frankish king Clovis upon his baptism in 496).
This problem of nationalist appropriation of the native religion and obsession with its ancestral purity was gradually solved, not so much by my own interventions, but because the founder made it clear that the group’s purpose was religious so that more political people lost interest. I don’t usually bring it up, and the new generation of Traditie members doesn’t even know about our debates in the early years; good for them. It is not really important, and unlike what journalists might think, it is not that significant for the European neo-Pagan scene, which is essentially a matter of post-Christians in search of something to fill the “God-shaped hole” left behind by the passing of a mighty religion. But it should not be denied or disowned either. A Sanskrit word for the lotus flower is panka-ja, which means “born from the mud”: let us own up the juvenile mistakes from which we have had to wrestle ourselves free in order to rise to the light.
Another problem that the undersigned troublemaker rose up against, was more doctrinal. The group’s name was Traditie, not just a general reference to what has been passed on from the ancestors, but specifically to the “Traditionalist” movement. This was started in the interbellum by the French mathematician René Guénon, who believed in a past Revelation that held the truth, that we could at best only preserve, and from which no progress was possible. No wonder he converted to Islam, the very model of a static religion that claimed to be revealed and that tried to preserve the entire body of doctrine and commandments given at its outset. It seemed to me that this was at variance with the very idea of Paganism.
Both the words “Pagan” and “Heathen” mean “rustic”, and refer to the European situation in the mid-1st millennium, when the cities were being Christianized while the countryside still preserved its ancestral ways. It had a connotation of “backward” but was at once very revealing for a genuine distinction. Christianity was a “religion of the Book”, an artificial construct that preachers in the population centres had to tell you about, whereas the ancestral religion was based on nature. Wherever there is reality, Pagan religion has to come up, inevitably. You can start from scratch and it will develop. Our ancestors too had developed it from scratch. No presumed revelation was needed, nor any frantic attempt to preserve this revealed religion intact and impose it on the next generations. If ever we forget all about it, we can rediscover it for it is ever-present all around us.
Yes, there is a lot of antiquarian interest in the Pagan Revivalist scene, with re-enactments of epic battles and breathing new life into old arts and crafts, but this is not a matter of principle. Not far from here, there is a place where our ancestors brought human sacrifices, with the victims all dressed up and painted for the occasion, possibly even honoured that they had been chosen for the role; I do not have the impression that anyone feels bound to revive such practices. Our sensibilities have evolved, and we start from who we really are, not from reaching back to an idealized past that fundamentalists might dream of. At heart neo-Paganism is a contemporary religion. I don’t think that the Maoris, Mayas and Hindus present would deny that their religion, though old, is very much a contemporary religion.
Over the years, we increasingly focused on the variegated Heathen lore as it really exists (or as is easy to bring to the surface). Initially this closely followed in the footsteps of the Scandinavian movement Ásatrú, “being true to the gods”, which can base itself on a large transmitted corpus of documents, inscriptions and sculptures. This remains a source of inspiration, but the emphasis today is more on existing practices and rituals of which the profound source waits for rediscovery. This largely ties in with a broader social phenomenon in our post-Christian society: even religiously uninformed people try to create rituals to accompany the turning-points in their lives. A typical funeral nowadays does not take place in church anymore, but in a secular crematorium (burials are on their way out), where a relative or friend of the deceased person chooses or writes appropriate texts and music and devises his own appropriate ritual. One of our board members is professionally involved with this tendency, which is the most visible dimension of the repaganization of Western society.
An element of this “back to reality” is the reclaiming of Christian lore that long ago was “inculturated” from Pagan sources. Thus, my sons recently walked in a procession for the Virgin Mary, which originally was devoted to a local river-goddess. Much of this lore fits in purely local traditions, not in a Pagan religion that might be construed as rivalling Christianity. For instance, there is a revival of the Celtic cult of the sea-goddess Nehalennia in nearby Zealand, hardly noticed in books about Celtic religion. Traditie has chapters in the provinces with a very distinct identity.
Now, a brief comment on all that I hear being said here. No one can fail to observe the attention given to environmental issues. This is commendable and necessary, but I am inclined to restore the balance a bit. Care for nature satisfies the Christian stereotype that Pagans are rustic, at best Noble Savages. Of course environmentalism, solving the energy scarcity without hurting it, controlling the climate sufficiently etc., is important, but religion has more to offer. What has Paganism to say to urban dwellers. As I have learned here from Druid spokesmen: their congregations out in the forest or in Stonehenge suffer the same seeming loss of interest as the churches and as most volunteer societies nowadays do; but they are a great success on the internet, where the younger generation feels more at home.
An example of what should be another legitimate concern: the disappearance of the family in Western society. So far it is only the Evangelicals who address this issue and provide an (albeit old) alternative, whereas Pagans over here count as old hippies, dissolute and fully part of the individualistic and hedonist society that we now live in. I would like to see a more articulate Heathen solution for the broken family. To be sure, on such topics, harder choices will have to be made, whereas environmentalism is a safe concern which no one really questions.
Within the ecological discourse, I discern a pessimistic tone. More civilized variations on angry-faced Greta Thunberg’s dramatization of the present situation: “How dare you?!” Global warming, overpopulation, plastic pollution and the energy crisis (at least if you insist on going nuclear-free) seem to drive some speakers into a panic. While those topics are not my specialty, I know enough about the world to recognize these problems as but new variations on past problems that seemed formidable but proved eminently solvable. Who remembers “acid rain” or “the hole in the Ozone layer”? They were solved by human ingenuity, and I am confident that the problems presently before us can likewise be solved.
If the religious dimension that we are exploring here can contribute anything, it is confidence. For ages, religious people have faced hardships but relied on the basic trust that “God will provide”. The divisions in society too can be relativized, lightened, by looking at the transcendent dimension. Let us overcome all despondency and focus on the difference we can make. Let us ennoble the world!