False Gods and Filthy Idols

Many pilgrims also put themselues vnder the chariot wheeles, to the end that their false god may go ouer them: and al they ouer whom the chariot runneth, are crushed in pieces, and diuided asunder in the midst, and slaine right out. Yea, and in doing this, they think themselues to die most holily and securely, in the seruice of their god. And by this meanes euery yere, there die vnder the said filthy idol, mo then 500.[Journal of Friar Odoric]

Those are the words of Friar Odoric, who traveled to India after 1316 CE. In writings by missionaries like him there is contempt for idol worship and polytheism; both are considered primitive.

So why is monotheism good and polytheism bad? The simple answer comes from these words in the Ten Commandments: “Do not have any other gods before me” and “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

It was believed that there is a natural progression of religion from worshiping gods who are personifications of natural forces to a supreme God who is not limited by nature. Thus coming from a Europe which had abandoned Caananite religions tainted by polytheism and idol worship, the Friar was shocked to see people worshiping “a dead idole, which, from the nauel vpward, resembleth a man, and from the nauel downeward an oxe.”

In the 18th and 19th century, an evolutionary model of religion was put forward in which polytheism was considered primitive, monolatry an improvement and monotheism, the purest form. Instead of understanding them as two different ways, a value judgment was passed. It was during that time that Thomas Macaulay and his friends came to India. For them the task was clear: the primitive practices had to be stopped and the natives had to be uplifted to the purest form.

Prof. Christine Hayes at Yale explains what happened next and how this evolutionary model of religion evolved into a r-evolutionary model. This is part of her course on Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) which explains how the Bible was in fact adapted from various Near East traditions. The course is no MMW4, but worth listening.

13 thoughts on “False Gods and Filthy Idols

  1. JK:
    I believe there is some grain of truth hidden somewhere in that theory of religious evolution which advocates the transistion from polytheism to Monotheism.
    Arguably, world’s first Monotheistic religions originated in India. Vedic religion was polytheistic only on the outside, but rigvediya suktas like the Purusha sukta, Hiranyagarbha sukta and Nasadiya sukta clearly speak of The ONE creator. Even now, we worship different deities fully acknowledging the fact that they are all forms of the same ONE.
    Also, the persion Mazdaic religion (which has deep links with vedic religion) propounded by Zarathustra (a vedic priest) was also Monotheistic. Buddhism and Jainism, although do not advocate worship of one supreme deity, nevertheless have a single object of worship– Buddha or Jina.
    I remember reading somewhere that Alexandria and other mediterranean places were teeming with Buddhist missionaries during the first century BCE (Perhaps conversion ‘missions’ as such were first started by Buddhists, which is quite ironic because Buddhism in India was largely eliminated by another converting religion– Islam. May be you could shed some light on this).
    Hence, with my limited knowledge and intellect, I can hazard a sequence:
    1)Mazdaism is a simplistic/watered down form of vedic religion
    2)Judaism is a corrupted/changed form of Mazdaism;
    3)Christianity is an amalgamation of earlier Judaism, some Buddhism, and some local cults like that of Baal; and
    4)Islam is a total khichdi of Judaism, Christianity, and local Arabian beliefs.
    Also, just like our search for a unified field theory instead of having different theories for seeminly different occurances in universe, perhaps humans are motivated to integrate things and view different deities at a higher plane as a single entity.
    Monotheism as a concept isnt necessarily bad. The conept is defnitely a step higher than the earlier Greeco-Roman or Egyptian polytheistic one. It is just the most popular manifestations today are not upto the mark.
    What say you on this?

    1. Kedar,
      The unifying ideal behind all Indic religions is the practical realization of truth – basically sravana (hearing the truth), manana (conviction after critical analysis) and nidhidhyasana (practical realization). Under this vast umbrella theism, atheism and materialism were supported. This gives freedom to the end user; if he had practical realization, then no one can say it is false.
      There are more options – you could stick to apara vidya or para vidya – based on your level. What I am trying to say is, with these parameters, we cannot say one is better than the other. So if Caananites worshiped many gods and they realized the truth that path is fine and so is the path of Israelites who worshiped a Supreme God. It this value judgment – this path is better than the others – that has resulted in crusades and conversion.

  2. Hello JK (and Kedar),
    Wonder if you have read Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, which has sufficient hypothesis to answer the question of Monotheism, and some questions on culture and anthropology. The whole trilogy mentioned written by Daniel Quinn is a brilliant series (IMO).

  3. Though I believe monotheism to be a progression of polytheism, I do not believe the current crop of popular monotheistic religions solve it. Christianity has numerous saints that can be treated as minor Gods and usage of idols is common. I see it from the way people follow their religion – if a person chooses to accept a religion without questioning or understanding it, s/he is pantheistic. This definition would cover pretty much most people in the world. Then there are the people who have understood their religion and have chosen to accept it or reject it. They can be considered monotheistic or non-theistic, as the case may be.
    The idea of connecting Ahura Mazda with YHWH is interesting, especially if Hyskos and Mittani are ethnically linked. Still a far fetched idea. But I thought Zarathustra came from a later timeline than Rameses II.

  4. The concept of Monotheism in the Semitic religions seems to be similar to the one who is glorified in various Suktas. Also polytheism may be more less mature than monotheism. Hindusim is (“uniformly”) polytheistic. Let us see how such statements could be improved.
    It is only the western religions who see a God other than the self, while the Sanatana-dharma clearly says that the Self is God. It is the western religions who define a world which is different from God, while it is Sanatana-dharma which says that the world that the individual (the “little i”) sees is not different from God. Hence the idea that Indic religions, in particular Sanatana-dharma being monotheistic is incorrect in the absolute-sense. The “mono” part may be true, but what is the meaning of theism when you have a major branch of Philosophy (Darshana) Purva-Mimamsa need not believe in the creative power (as well as dispensing power (of karma)) of Ishvara. They believe in Vedas and Vedas only.
    The Upanishads follow a adhyaropa-apavaada theory of teaching, where you shown a higher level of truth from the current state you are in. For them, the whole world is a manifestation of God. Lord Krishna has made the above very clear in chapter 10 of Bhagavad Gita, where He defines the whole world as a manifestation of Himself. Is He creating a new theory. No. He is rephrasing a Upanishadic-metaphor (Mundaka) of a spider weaving a web and becoming it. In fact, such a glorification is clear in worshipping the feminine qualities of (almost) all Devatas in Sanatana Dharma. These feminine qualities, like Lakshmi (as Bhudevi), Parvati (as Lalitha) are the symbols of the concrete, and visible aspects of Ishvara, with the more abstract form (like sleeping Narayana, eyes-closed Shiva) being the abstract form of Self. That Self that is Sat-Chit-Ananda.
    Swami Dayananda says: Other religions says “Our God Only”, while Hinduism is the only one who says that “It is Only God”.. Here the Swami is explaining the spirit of chapter 10 of Gita that I have referred above.
    Also refer to an excellent article on the same subject
    The gradation in Sanatana-dharma is very clear: The initial “Jiva-Jagat-Ishvara” bheda is refined to “Jiva-Jagat-Guru-Ishvara” to “anaatma-aatma” to “Atma”. In the final stage, where the Atma is Atma without a second, ekameeva-advitiyam.

  5. JK and RK:
    I am yet to read about the spirituality and realisation in Canaanite religions but I do know that major polytheistic religions of the Mediterranean– Greek, Egyptian, Roman, etc had very little to offer in terms of ‘Atma-chintanam’. They had Gods scheming amongst themselves and bound by a bigger enitity, which Kaufman calls ‘Metadivine realm’ (from Prof. Hayes lecture). The best life lived was that of a warrior who sacrificed his life in the line of duty, like Hercules who was raIsed to the status of a DemiGod.
    My point is, when westerners look at polytheism, they mostly look at Greeco-Roman or Egyptian (GRE) religions, and when they look at Monotheism, they look at Abrahamic religions. But neither the GRE coalition represents polytheism in its best sense, nor Abrahamic religions represent Monotheism in its best sense. The sad part though is that definitions and characterisations are made based on these very examples, good or bad.
    Typically, Indic religions area class apart, and all of the 6 sub religions– Vaishnava, Shaiva, Shaaktya, Gaanapatya, Soura, Skaanda, not to mention the various tribal and village deity-cults, Buddhism and Jainism are each a study in their own, and I think its unfair to drag them and try to fit them into the pigeon holes created by the west.
    So I would limit myself to the examples available and say that Abrahamic type of monotheism is at a higher plane than GRE type of polytheism.
    Zarathushtra is quite ancient. Talageri puts him well into the 3rd millennium BCE, whereas Kak puts him in the middle of 2nd millennium BCE. Even if Kak’s later date is considered, its still early stages of Judaic religion.

    1. Kedar,
      True. Most of these comparisons do not take into account the philosophy behind polytheism or idol worship and are based on finding similarities with other Eurocentric religions.

  6. Buddhism and Jainism, although do not advocate worship of one supreme deity, nevertheless have a single object of worship– Buddha or Jina.
    Not all branches of Buddhism call for a single object of worship (Buddha), though that is how we see it manifested in the form of Buddha statues in temples, with people worshiping, most notably in Thailand.

  7. Kaffir, I agree.
    Some forms of Buddhism have over time, come to have different deities like Tara (there is a white one and I think a green one), Avalokiteshwara etc. I believe they are a marriage between original Buddhism, certain Tantric traditions, and native south-eastern traditions.

  8. kedar,
    True re: Avalokiteshwara and Tara, but what I was trying to say was that some branches of Buddhism do not call for worshiping of any single object, be it Buddha, Avalokiteshwara or Tara. Worshiping (of deities) is neither promoted, nor called for.

  9. I believe that those who think a particular religion is inferior are actually ignorant people. Truly spiritual beings will enjoy interesting stuff in all the religions. As with everything even spirituality has to be simplified for lay persons and we do see great deal of that done by different saints and it should be commended.

  10. Tantra sastra has nothing to do with buddhisim.Please don’t get used.Tantras are based on vedic principles of garghabadhya swarpu anabhuvam. Sage parsuramar sutram follows vedic principles.

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