The Rig Veda and ‘Hindu Polytheism’
4 April 2012
Hindu ‘polytheism’ – the worship of the Divine in its diverse expressions and manifestations – is the Rig Veda’s gift to the Indian subcontinent, which is why the land is called punya bhumi (sacred earth) by Hindus. The tradition of worshipping a pantheon of gods was a worldwide phenomenon in the ancient world, and was destroyed by the proponents of mono-theism or One God-ism, the belief that only ONE MALE GOD worshipped by the patriarch Abraham was the TRUE GOD. All divinities worshipped by other peoples were declared as FALSE GODS.
The violence, conquest, murder and mayhem that followed such a conviction were not incidental or accidental. They were part of the strategy of invading, conquering and subjugating the conquered. All the ancient faiths and attendant civilisations that flourished in Egypt, Greece, Rome, Africa and the Americas were destroyed and the neo-paganism of the international community today is only a pale revival of the same. It has possibilities, and it is to be hoped that the revival will come of age soon, before a marauding globalisation once again defeats them. The current revival of native traditions of the Americas is also a hopeful sign.
Only in the Indian subcontinent and in places in the Far East has polytheism continued as an unabated tradition. This is significant not only for India but also for the rest of the world, where the forces of greed, one god-ism, violence and destruction of the planet are proceeding apace.
The worship of Divinity in the form of many gods and goddesses as an ongoing, continuous and widely prevalent tradition of religious practice is unique to Hinduism and commenced with the Rig Veda (conservatively dated anywhere between 2000-1500 BC, though some scholars put it earlier still). In the four Vedas, the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda and the Atharva Veda, the worship of terrestrial, atmospheric and celestial powers (deities) was conducted through elaborate ritual. This continued throughout Indian history and is preserved in Hindu ritual. It is the central feature of Hindu worship, whether in the temple or elsewhere, and is practiced by the entire Hindu society. While the devotional and philosophical aspects of Rig Vedic worship were developed towards the end of the Vedic period and especially in the Upanishads (there are various interpretations of the same), the rituals are intact. They were part of a complex oral tradition handed down the millennia and is now ranked as a world heritage by UNESCO.
With the arrival of the British colonialists in the 17th century and earlier still with the conversion activities of the Church and its missionaries, this ritual became unpopular among Hindu intellectuals and elites of the 19th century, as they felt the maximum pressure for survival and upward mobility under the new political dispensation. They began to subscribe to some kind of ‘Hindu monotheism’ consistent with Abrahamic ideology and distanced themselves from Vedic tradition and its attendant rituals.
Surprisingly, this trend continues even to this day amongst the elite. Rather than question the monotheistic enterprise of attacking polytheism via colonial and post-colonial scholars and missionaries, the Hindu elite are either apologetic or dismissive and distort the Hindu concept of the Unity of Divinity into an artificial construct that asserts that Hindu Polytheism is really the worship of the one true God – who is suspiciously like that of the Abrahamic god – but is known by different names!
Alternatively, the elite take refuge in the deep philosophical tenets of Advaita Vedanta, where most Occidentals lose their bearings anyway and give up their agenda, except for the tenacious Inculturationists. Perhaps there is some wisdom in this strategy, or at least one hopes so! In this way, the Hindu elite try to present a respectable face to the Christian West which is their main – perhaps sole – audience.
In some cases, this has become a frantic, frenetic tendency. Vedanta then becomes a shortcut and an easy way out before the international community while negating the reality of the vast number of Hindus in the homeland of Hinduism who are upholding and following the Rig Vedic tradition, and where rituals are largely the legacy of this Vedic tradition.
Some contemporary Hindu gurus such as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar have engaged in a type of interfaith dialogue which has at best only some limited utility. The reference here is to the famous debate between Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and the Islamic scholar Dr. Zakir Nayak on the Hindu idea of God. In fairness, Sri Sri cannot be blamed for maintaining a stoic and dignified silence most of the time before Nayak’s school-boyish recital of Hindu scriptural verses at breakneck speed. It was quite obvious that the reciter had mechanically memorized the verses without understanding them (the fact that he seemed pleased with his performance, and it was just that, is neither here nor there).
The 1008 plus hymns of the Rig Veda are invocations to multiple male and female divine energies, Agni, Indra, Varuna, the Viswa Vedas, Sarasvati (invoked 78 times), and they together represent the Vedic comprehension of terrestrial, atmospheric and cosmic powers. At various times, various deities are invoked without the least feeling that only one or two or groups of them are more important than the rest. Agni is invoked as the chief messenger who carries the worshipper’s message to the rest of the pantheon, but there is no rift or rivalry with the other deities in the pantheon.
The Vedic universe’s innumerable deities convey an impression of richness and variety, a deep spirituality absent in the limited monotheistic framework. Historically, the practitioners of a monotheistic faith (chiefly Islam and Christianity) have forced their belief in THEIR One God on peoples of other belief systems. This has been so since the inception of these monotheistic creeds, from the Nicene Council of 325 AD for Christianity, and since the 8th century AD in the case of Islam. In India, this process can be dated from the 7th and 8th centuries onwards and continues to this day through jihad and conversion.
Hindus need to question why the belief in ONE (Abrahamic) god is superior to polytheism or even whether such a belief is necessary. The ONE god is an abstraction. No mortal has either seen or heard this entity. There is only the testimony of other mortal individuals. Above all, Hindus must question WHY this One God of Abraham cannot coexist in peace with other faiths and belief systems? And when this One god is actually only a political weapon of the power wielding it, it has to be rejected without hesitation.
As a system of religious belief per se, the ONE god-ists are searching for an unattainable goal, as argued by French Indologist Alain Danielou in Hindu Polytheism (1964). Contemporary Hindus can use this methodology creatively to start an inquiry into the nature and structure of Hindu spiritual diversity and the limitations of a frantic search for the ONE god, as opposed to the UNITY of God. (The 1984 edition’s first chapter is available on the internet under, Indian Gods: Hindu Polytheism). Danielou himself creatively appropriated the work of Kant.
Briefly, Danielou rebuked those who dogmatically describe God as the ONE:
“A supreme cause has to be beyond number, otherwise Number would be the First Cause. But the number one, although it has peculiar properties, is a number like two or three, or ten, or a million. If “God” is one he is not beyond number anymore than if he is two or three or ten or a million. But although a million is not any nearer to infinity than one or two or ten, it seems to be so from the limited point of view of our perceptions. And we may be nearer to a mental representation of divinity when we consider an immense number of different gods than when we try to stress their unity, for the number one is in a way the number furthest remove from infinity (Chapter one, p.7)”.
The Rig Veda celebrates these gods and goddesses and invokes them in profound Yagnas (ritual prayers). It is relatively easy for the determined non-Hindu with philosophical training to work his/her way into the profound philosophical speculations of Vedanta and even try to subvert them to his/her purposes by the process known as Inculturation. Bede Griffiths, after a prolonged study of Vedanta, eventually returned to the Christian Trinity. But the Vedic rituals cannot be so subverted; this is also the formidable obstacle faced by Islamic scholars.
(See my article on Bede Griffiths, ‘Frank Morales and the Jesus Video’ in
http://bharatkalyan97.blogspot.in/; http://www.sookta-sumana.blogspot.com/; and
The oral ritual tradition of the four Vedas may seem to be ‘regional’ and has been so dismissed in the past, as pointed out by American Vedantin Dr. David Frawley (aka Vamadeva Shastri) in his BIRD lecture of 24 March 2012 (reproduced on the BIRD website and in Haindava Keralam). Dr. Frawley says that the universalism of Vedanta is gaining recognition in today’s world. But on the other hand, as the present writer has been stressing, it can be subverted owing to the nature of philosophical speculation, whereas the authenticity of Vedic mantras (and mudras) remains immutable.
Contemporary Hindus, therefore, must pay special attention to the preservation of this aspect of our Vedic heritage.
(The author is a political philosopher who taught at a Canadian university. Her academic training has been in Philosophy, Literature, Political Science, Political Economy & History)