Saturday, April 14, 2012



Rig Vedic Polytheism and Punya Bhumi


Vijaya Rajiva

15 April 2012

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). 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 Macaulay-ian 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 Sarasvati (a Dasanami sannyasin) and earlier still, the chronicler 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 denounces 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 (788 -820 CE). 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 Sankarachariar 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 Sankarachariar 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 Pantheism where the devotee does not consider his/her chosen deity (ishta devata) as the only true god, and does not anathema-ise the gods of other faiths, as happens in Abrahamic monotheism. This is, of course, the difference between Abrahamic monotheism and Hindu pantheism.

Abrahamic monotheism must be rejected by Hindus for two reasons: [1] political, [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 Christians (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’s culture is absorbed 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.

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 Evangelicals 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 (incorporated from the Jaina ascetic tradition). In this he was different from the Buddha, for whom the monastic life could be taken up at any time that the individual desired.

The writer is a political philosopher who taught at a Canadian university


  1. Dhanyavad Ishwar Sharanji for your clarification. The problem is, ordinary mind cannot comprehend the deep philosophy of Advaita in its abstractness. Nirguna Brahman is a concept beyond most and as rightfully stated by you may be only for a select few who can grasp the concept whether they are Sannnyasins or not. Also, as there is no duality in that entity, no worship is possible or logical. (May I publish your comment on Sookta?) It is published as a comment after the first article by Vijaya Rajiva on Rig Veda and Polytheism on this blog.

    Logically all representations of Brahman are Saguna, and in my limited mind, all are combinations of Prakriti and Purusha. Only Prakriti has gunas and not Brahman which is by definition Nirguna.

    Even if one assumes an Abrahamic God really exists, "He" is Saguna and is a projection of Human mind and a culturally accepted entity for worship, orthodox Jewish considering it nameless, calling Him "It," and the other Judaeo-Christians and Muslims attributing "It" a male gender, anthropomorphizing "It" to suit the male dominated society, males ruling over all females.

    The crucial issue to be comprehended here is that this "Abrahamic God" stands separate from Nature (Prakriti) which He is conceptualized as "creating," and therefore, He is the "Creator" akin to Brahma of the Hindu Trinity. Again there is confusion among the lay Hindus about mixing up Brahman with Brahma. Yes, we can blame the Gurus but the problem is also in the complexity of the concepts and the near homonyms used for differently conceptualized entities namely Brahman and Brahmaa.

    "Theos" is not there in Hinduism as a "Stand Alone" entity separate from creation and that which is not pervading the creation like Vishnu who is Saguna (but Vishnu is all pervasive and is not entirely separate form the creation) though He can be represented as existing separately lying quietly in the Kshirasagara enjoying the bed made by Shesha or residing in Vaikuntha. Only creative artistic people can reconcile such pictures with the abstract and not fanatics, concrete minded desert people!! The missionaries and people like Swami Sri La Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada and other Vaishnavaites (including Swami-Narayan Panthees) will equate Vishnu with the concept of Theos or Christian God calling Him (Vishnu) a "Supreme Godhead" but that is a superficial comparison. What it boiled down to is, in my humble opinion, "One God" and "Many Gods," whether they have separate objective existence or not, are for most people products of their imagination in all cultures.

    This needs to be faced honestly. Human mind refuses to accept it (as imagination) as such and plays the politics of "My Imaginary God is better than Yours" at a developmentally primitive psychological state when a child truly belabors under a belief that "My father is better than yours," (he can beat up your father, may be!!). ("We are the favorite children of this One great Father", etc.) This utterly primitive mentality is behind the imperialistic "Monotheistic" religions and the human greed for wealth and power as well as the primitive desire to dominate over others, and other populations. That is where religions and politics get so mixed up mainly in the Abrahamic religions and "ONE GOD" becomes a "RATIONALIZATION" for justifying such base primitive drives, worse with even more primitive underlying "herd instinct."

  2. All this is primitive human culture (appropriate for deserts and jungles) glorified deceptively and disingenuously as "compassionate religions" that in effect routinely attack human dignity and human freedom to think and worship, this being the historical modus operandi of aggressive proselytizing Christianity and Islam. I think Freud and Nietzsche extensively dealt with this topic of Judaeo-Christian God, the latter proclaiming "God is dead."

    However, neither became favorites of the missionary political cartel. Some of us Hindus, however, take pride in saying their "dead" god is the same as our Brahman. Hindu cosmogony and science of consciousness is more a scientific exploration of inner space "antaraakasha", pursuit of Satyam (that which has a quality of existence and not pure imagination "asatyam", meaning that which does not exist) , trying to understand and know what is REAL and the knowledge of such reality is culturally wisely transmitted as "devatas" or "devas" which are the phenomena in the consciousness only experiential for human mind, and therefore, at a different level of abstraction. Both words come from the "enlightenment" in the consciousness. There can be enlightenment about presence of Varuna after a tsunami, after meditating on how all life depends upon water, how ocean water and human plasma (serum) is at the same concentration as the normal saline (0.9%) for millions of millennia, and one contemplates with awe on the mystery of how this is all regulated in nature, for example. Objectively existing principle in the nature, "Varuna" that is larger than life in time, space and complexity of its operations and regulations that are beyond human comprehension, thus can become an "entity" or devata for those endowed with this capacity to comprehend it in the consciousness when prajna enables such enlightenment and possible attunement with such terrestrial principle. And, there can also be thus conscious attunement in polytheism with Agni, Indra, and so on in the consciousness once prajna leads to enlightenment about the infinite manifestations of these cosmic forces of "perpetual transformations" and "electromagnetic forces" regulated in mysterious ways un- fathomed or unfathomable for humans. What is wrong about revering and respecting such cosmic forces as human consciousness has to reckon with their presence and considering them sacred and manifestations of Brahman. They truly exist while there is not an iota of evidence of existence of "One God." It is an error to translate Devatas and Devas (Devis) as Gods and Goddesses.

  3. Why do the people with "dead" "One God," a total imaginary concept, meddle with faiths of Native Americans, Hindus of India, and others who have polytheism and call them pagans, heathens or kafars without ever developing an intuition and abstract conceptualization to comprehend the concepts like "Devatas" and call them "idol worshippers" ? What right do they have to demean such beliefs that are closer to what really exists (Satya) in Nature? Respecting and revering such Devatas (erroneously called Gods and Goddesses) is their privilege and they cannot be deprived of such rights by some upstarts in civilized world, less than 2200 years old, whether they are Muslims, Christians, or even Hindu pseudo-advaitins. The older civilizations like the Vedic civilizations were/are not any inferior in their faith, ethics, or morality, and in contrast the Monotheistic people's history stinks with immorality, violence, deceit, dominance, exploitation, torture, sadism, duplicity, physical and sexual abuse, wars, holocaust, use of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear attacks killing millions in minutes, maiming billions, mayhem, slavery, serfdom, indentured labor, drug trafficking, plunder and pillage, colonization and neo-colonization, imperialism, hogging of world's natural resources, "One god and one religion for all" globalization mentality, intolerance, and all forms of man's inhumanity to fellow man (and mostly women too) with mega violations of human rights over millennia making them a blight on humanity. There is no podium of moral superiority of "ONE GOD" people to stand on and to justify such irrational bullying over others who do not subscribe to their form of thinking or worship over the ages. So, it is time to stand proud of Polytheism, uphold true and not pseudo pluralism, tolerance, etc. , and therefore, I commend Dr. Rajiva for revisiting this matter with highest dignity and pride.