The Battle for Polytheisms’ Soul?
The title is a riff off a video I’ll be discussing toward the end of this article. Still, while I may be engaging in a bit of expressive rhetoric myself with it, there is likewise truth in the concept. Polytheisms today are religions under siege. This is true not just in our communities but for indigenous polytheisms like Hinduism too. There is a trend, and that trend is gross whether it is manifesting in ways large (Hinduism) (1) or small (us).
When the subject of polytheism comes up in community discourse, there are inevitably nay-sayers, non-theists, secular-pagans and the like who pounce in proudly with “but there were non-polytheists in the ancient world too.” They will bring up pantheism, monism, atheism and the like as though this somehow strengthens their attempts to dismantle our traditions.(2)
I think the time has come to address some of this ideological undercutting because while what they say is technically accurate, it is presented without context and that context is important. We live in a very different world from our polytheistic ancestors. We are an occupied people. Our world is doggedly, demonstrably, and sometimes violently monotheistic. Those ancient Polytheists and others living in a world where the dominant paradigms were all polytheistic had a luxury we don’t have. They could entertain questions about divine ontology and metaphysics, turning polytheism inside out in their arguments solely for intellectual excitement without risking harm to those polytheisms. The world was polytheistic and that wasn’t going to change (little did they know) so what harm was there in batting ideas around? One could even indulge those who didn’t believe in the Gods so long as they remained outside of religious discourse and participated in the civic rituals.
Two caveats to that: when faced with a religious worldview (Christianity) that desired exclusivity and extinction of polytheism, our antique forebears had the good sense to impose a litmus test to ferret out the destructively impious. That litmus test was sacrifice to the Gods (something that I have seen all but pathologized by parts of the community). It was, as I have noted before, crucial to the proper practice of the faith, was the first thing targeted when Christianity gained supremacy, and was also the one rite held up as a standard against which non-polytheists were judged.
Secondly, yes, our polytheistic ancestors were – with occasional exceptions– tolerant of every possible approach to polytheism. Look where it got them. Exterminated. So maybe we might want to rethink reifying “tolerance” of every assed up, non-theistic view put forth as ‘polytheism.’ We have clear evidence of where such tolerance leads. Perhaps we can afford to be tolerant when we’re not under siege but that day is not today.
I’m taking an online course in world religion in my off time and this week we were assigned to watch and comment on this video. It is a short video. Take a few moments and watch it. Note the rhetoric.
I was appalled that such a biased video would be promulgated in an academic course. Of course I shouldn’t have been. How is it biased? Were you able to parse it out? Yes? No? Well, I’ll help you. Note the following language:
India must reflect “on what kind of country they want to live in; one dominated by Hindus or one that respects all religions equally.”
This of course puts the onus for the problems and violence on Hindus, ignoring the fact that they are responding to having one of their own sacred sites co-opted, ignoring the fact that they are responding to monotheistic colonization of their spaces, ignoring the fact that they are reacting to incursion into their religious world, and ignoring the fact that they are in fact the religion originally native to the area. While it may be rooted now, monotheism of any stripe was a late comer, a foreign intruder in that land. Isn’t it amazing how “respecting all religions equally” always seems to mean allowing monotheistic incursion and the destruction of polytheistic sites? It never translates as leaving polytheistic religions in peace.
Note also at the end where the narrator comments that this “all started with a tiny statue being placed in a mosque in the dead of night.” No, it didn’t. It started with a monotheistic religion laying claim to a Hindu holy space. Monotheisms have a history of destroying or claiming and repurposing polytheistic spaces. This is not an isolated incident as the briefest of explorations of fourth and fifth century Rome will show (not to mention Christian expansion north). With both Christianity and Islam (and even Biblical Judaism) it was standard operating procedure. Are the people whose religions spaces are being destroyed or polluted supposed to be grateful for it? I think not.
In the TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that I posted last week, she notes that if you want to dispossess a people, start with “Secondly.” In other words, if you want to dispossess Native Americans, don’t start telling the story with the incursions and violence of European invaders, start with the arrows shot by Native warriors and make it look as though it was without provocation. If you want to dispossess polytheistic Hindus, start with the statue in the mosque, not the appropriation of a site of Hindu reverence. The way a story is told matters.
The community involved is currently involved in a legal battle over their sacred site, and that battle is in its third generation. They are fighting to defend their tradition, and they are fighting to protect their sacred spaces. I think we could learn a lot from them especially in the type of perseverance required in this work.
Nor am I suggesting, as much as I sometimes think it might be a good idea, that we have any type of litmus test for polytheists. Sacrifice is our most sacred rite, but there are those who are not permitted to do it, by will of their Gods. I respect that. What I do not respect are attempts by otherwise sensible people to attack and discredit the practice of sacrifice, which is so integral to polytheistic practice.
I posted this with the video because we’ve been having discussions of rhetoric over the past week, and it gave such a dramatic example of how even someone we assume to be unbiased (a news commentator) can speak from a specific agenda, one that has its biases, and one that is willing to cast a foul light on people fighting for their own religion. We have a lot of buzzwords today that get our backs up. All it takes really to raise people’s ire is to use language that makes readers think one is on the wrong side of certain ideological debates (doesn’t matter if a person actually is or not, that’s the point of effective rhetoric). All it takes is fashioning a public persona for oneself that oozes tolerance and conciliation, and subtly positioning the other side of that debate as radical (note how so many of us were demonized about a year and a half ago as ‘radical polytheists’, specifically to make people assume and then to think that our positions were untenable and extraordinary if not dangerous). Rhetoric is powerful. Words have a life of their own. It pays to be aware of that. (3)
- Hinduism is not monolithic, with its many sects representing a radical diversity of viewpoints which managed for millennia to more or less peacefully co-exist before the arrival of militant Islam and Christianity. Even so, they managed to incorporate elements of these traditions, especially on the folk level. It is those who declare there is one god and one way to worship that god who are inherently divisive. For every Hindu who says they are monotheistic, there is one who says polytheistic and even again those who argue that the push to define the polytheism out of Hinduism is in fact, pandering to the West.
- And as if these were all the same things, which is rather insulting, I think, to those who hold these diverse beliefs.
- Not that I support censorship either. Only the cowardly are afraid to engage directly with unfriendly words.