Guest Post: on ‘Polytheism’ as a Universal Category

By E. Butler, PhD

(To give a bit of context for this, Edward and I were discussing a couple of our upcoming articles and he mentioned some push back he’d had recently vis a vis the word ‘polytheism.’)

Edward: I posted a link to a collection of stotras (devotional hymns) attributed to Shankara, the famous Advaita (Non-dualist) Vedanta philosopher, remarking that, though there are questions about the validity of the attribution, the sheer number and diversity of the Gods addressed in the hymns made Advaita look quite polytheistic to me. This is in accord with my conviction that the issue between Advaita and Dvaita positions in Vedanta, being a dispute about the nature of brahman, have nothing to do with the number of Gods. 

So, [a certain ‘scholar’] chimes in with how it’s wrong to use a modern, Western category like polytheism with regard to Hinduism.

Galina: these modern secularist fools are trying to take away even the words by which we can define our faith. The word ‘polytheism’ occurs in ancient material; it just happened to enter ENGLISH in the 17th c. 

Edward: This is yet another stupid fight we have to wage. As far as I’m concerned, any language that has a plural term for “God” has polytheism, or had it, period. It doesn’t matter to me when the term itself was first used, it’s logically entailed by the use of the plural terms. 

The other nonsense issue I’ve seen come up lately is the notion that we shouldn’t translate foreign terms as “Gods” because they’re all sui generis. Only when polytheist civilizations encountered one another, there’s literally not a case I know of where they didn’t use the same term they use for divinities to refer to the foreign Gods. Angirasa Srestha found a passage, for instance, that refers to “Devas of foreign lands”, and Egyptians spoke of Netjeru in foreign lands, and of course we know that for Greeks and Romans the other people’s Theoi or Dei were Theoi and Dei, and so forth. 

It’s like being swarmed by ants, though, dealing with this shit. Everyone gets zealous about protecting other cultures from contamination once those cultures start appropriating Western concepts for themselves. Don’t let them get hold of the master’s tools, force them to use their native resources exclusively, after you’ve disrupted those intellectual resources for centuries. 

What we need to take away from this, though, is that we need to fight for the proper sense of universal categories like “Gods” and “polytheism”, a sense that doesn’t interfere with the uniqueness of nations and pantheons and individual Gods, but that grounds a stable theoretical discourse and for solidarity across traditions.

(and he is absolutely right. – GK).

 

Advertisements

Posted on December 12, 2017, in Hindu things, Polytheism, theology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Edward P. Butler

    This thread from Storify pertains to similar issues: https://storify.com/EPButler/polytheisms-as-religions

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It is so hard to talk about Gods or even God, when dealing with people who cannot see past their own experience to the relevant experiences of others. I have no problem respecting that someone has faith in Jehovah, or Allah, or Zeus, or Odin… To each individual the Deity that best fits their spirit. On a personal level I like the Native American concept of Great Mystery, or the Spirit-That-Dwells-Within-All-Things. This enables me to taste the fullest experience of the Spirits I encounter throughout life God, Goddess, or Vettir. And what I love about Odin, Hela, the Norns, Loki and Sigyn, they have no quarrel with any of this. If the Gods have no quarrel with any of this, then leave it to the people who do not seem to have that intuitive communication with their gods. It seems to me that maybe some of these “scholars” are carrying forward a bias of monotheism from Christianity. I had great professors who had no issue with the term polytheism in Hinduism.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Yes, a hundred thousand times! I cannot improve upon this now (or perhaps ever!), so I shall just echo my approval of it instead! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • And while this is no improvement, it just strikes me that there is a parallel situation, but with slightly different opinions on different sides of the matter.

      There has been too quick an assumption from some people (often of a Christian and hostile nature) to reading their own scriptures, as well as things from other cultures in the premodern worlds, as “homosexuality” when in fact that isn’t exactly what was going on in most of the cases under consideration…and the people who have often most loudly advocated that such is the reality are modern queer and queer-friendly scholars, exegetes, and so forth, who then (rightly!) conclude that Biblical prohibitions, or modern Christians’ readings of other ancient cultures jumping to the assumption that all of these things are “homosexual” and therefore abominable, etc., is simply not accurate.

      (Though I have also heard some queer people accuse queer theorists who point these things out to be attempting to erase some essentialized “gayness” from history…so, I guess one can’t really win.)

      Like

      • I see this all the time, PSVL. (so much of my academic research involves castrati and projecting modern gender/sexual orientation/etc. categories onto them is pandemic). It annoys the fuck out of me. I’m sorry, categories like ‘gay/straight/bi’ did not actually exist in ancient Rome. Not the way we think of them today.

        Like

      • Exactly. One of a million reasons why the “Antinous the Gay God” and “Hadrian was gay” (which some modern historians and archaeologists are saying, too!) crowd gets on my tits so much…he’d have been closer to “straight” for his culture at the time, actually, from all available evidence, because he “stuck it in” whomever he wanted, male or female. But anyway, you know that already. 😉

        Like

      • Modern queer vocab is increasingly used in a taxonomical way, and I think there’s space for that in scholarship as long as someone is honest that it’s a dubbing process or an attempt at social science behavioral classification. Many non-academics are woefully under-educated about queer-to-us identities among deities around the world, imo, and using modern terms can help raise awareness. 😩

        (The “dubbing process” term should be credited to an article I read about teaching Western students gender concepts from other cultures. The article is specifically about the hijra.)

        Like

  4. Right, PSVL? I think the Romans were practical: in the dark all cats are black. Just be sure you’re on top. lol. (seriously….for those who may not know roman social mores….)

    Like

  5. Kaye, i couldn’t disagree more strongly. Not only are those categories ahistorical and inaccurate when applied to the ancient world, medieval world, renaissance, and baroque worlds, but those categories point to specific identities and by projecting what we would like (for our own comfort) to make of antique identities onto historical figures, we are erasing their actual identities and personhood. how would you like this flipped? Do you want to live by the societal and sexual standards of previous periods in history? Or have those identities foisted as a matter of course off on you? it’s sloppy scholarship.

    As to the Gods holding specific gender identities…that’s even more problematic. I see this with Odin a lot, people say He’s straight, He’s queer…no. He is. He’s Odin and that smashes into every possible permutation of identity. He…like every other God…is whatever He wants to be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’re not in disagreement, so I’ll try to clarify what I said: There’s a valid place in scholarship for using terms and classification schemes to study these things provided that the study clearly marks why it is using those terms. I’m using the word “taxonomy” as a proxy for scientific scales or terminology classifications that ethnographers and people who study gender, sexuality, and romantic spectra would use. Using terms in media that do not clarify the “queer-to-us” part are problematic because they center early 21st century Western experiences as normative. That’s why I emphasized honesty in the original comment.

      The queerness (to us) of a behavior is often emphasized over the actual study’s findings when it goes to a university press office (and then on to newspapers, magazines, Twitter, &c.), which y’all have commented on above in slightly different language. A study of traditional Ancient Roman masculinities may conclude that a subset of homosexual activities are part of normal masculinity, but all such activities might be queer to modern Americans, and the “homosexual” part is what will get picked up. I don’t think that using terms in an academic context is the problem. As an information specialist, I’d argue that having consistent terms benefits scholars during a lit review because they can then make use of controlled vocabularies.

      I removed a paragraph from my earlier comment (because I considered it tangential) that maybe I should have actually included. On queer SFF (scifi/fantasy) Twitter, there has increasingly been an emphasis on explicitly naming IDs in fiction, preferably in dialogue, that I’m extremely uncomfortable with. I don’t translate gender identities or (most) sexual orientations in my own fiction. I call my fiction “queer” because the social constructions of gender and sexuality are different from ours, and that is queer. But the campaign to have authors assign modern Western IDs in-text assumes that all of the world-built SFF cultures in queer SFF have the exact same identity construction that we do. It’s a dicey area because on the other hand, having positive depictions of one’s own identity in fiction is good for mental health, especially with the queer suicide/depression/anxiety rates in the USA — which is the long shadow looming over people in public queer spaces when we emphasize queer-to-us practices in other cultures or in history. I hope this additional context is helpful.

      The gods situation is complex, I think, in that it gets into polytheistic theology, and most people don’t even know the basics of polytheism as an actual system — which is why “dealing with this shit” is so important. I used the phrase “queer-to-us identities” in my original comment because many don’t realize the exact things that you mentioned in your second paragraph. That *is* queerness to modern culture. A SFF work published by someone sometime recently uses GNP for all of its gods; that was seen as dramatically innovative. This kinda brings this back to the original post on polytheism because this entire paragraph is about the lack of polytheistic literacy.

      Liked by 1 person

%d bloggers like this: