60 Minutes Feature on Mt. Athos

Mt. Athos in Greece is a unique place where Orthodox monks live a monastic life. Though Greece protects the peninsula, it is self governed by the monks of the 20 monasteries of the Eastern Orthodoxy. Special permission is needed to visit Mt. Athos and only a few visitors are allowed each month. Mt. Athos does not permit women to enter and this ban has been in place since 1045 CE, since the time of the Byzantine emperor Constantine Monomachos. Mt. Athos does not even permit female animals (female cats are allowed since they catch rats).
Most of us will never set foot in this autonomous monastic state where orthodoxy has been preserved for a millenia. So the next best option is to watch the CBS 60 Minutes feature on this. (Part 1, Part 2). Ironically, the CBS clips are sponsored by viagra.

16th Century Europe

In 1492 Christopher Columbus set of to Asia and reached the Americas. Six years later Vasco da Gama reached Calicut. Following these, Europeans made many such voyages, started trading companies and eventually colonized the world. But what was Europe like in those days? Movies like 1492: Conquest of Paradise and The Sea Hawk give us  some images, but they do not present the complete picture.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has posted lectures given by Prof. George L. Mosse in the Fall of 1969. One of the lectures (mp3) deals with this question and the image of Europe of that period is not pretty.

By 1500, economic conditions were severe: a price revolution was starting, but it was also a time of bad harvests. 1500 saw a total crop failure in all of Germany that resulted in peasant uprisings, looting and pillaging, to such a proportion that in 1501 Europe for the firsts time saw a paid police force to maintain order. Additional scourges were diseases and epidemics. First and foremost, the Black Death: To the populations of Europe, this seemed like a willful and arbitrary punishment. Between 1499 and 1502, whole populations were decimated. A new disease, syphilis, joined the plague. This prompted preachers to call for repentance, penance and pilgrimages. The Plague was more frightening than the syphilis, because it occurred suddenly and greatly disfigured its victims. All of this leads to a heightened religious sensibility and a search for answers by all parts of the population.
To find answers, people turned to a kind of literature that had come down from the Middle Ages and was most popular: books of prophecies. Their content was simple, promising hope for the future: darkness would be followed by light, and after the Anti-Christ would come Christ. The roots of these books lay partly in the bible (which, Mosse tells the students, he is sure they have never read), especially in the Books of the Apocalypse. The Apocalypse is written in symbolic terms. Before the book of the seven seals can be opened, “the wine must be pressed and the harvest reaped” that means, before Christ’s return there will be bloody wars and mass the conversion of the heathens, especially of the Jews, to Christianity. Man lived in the expectation that the world was coming to an end; Luther believed it, and so did all protestant reformers and many of the intellectuals. With it came astrology. The stars were now in an evil conjunction. Saturn was “the evil planet”. The Anti-Christ would come up from the darkness; for a short while the Jews would rule the world before their conversion. Then the book of seven seals would be opened. (For example, Shakespeare firmly believed in astrology).[European Cultural History 1500-1815 – Summary]

Read the whole thing: European Cultural History 1500-1815 – Summary

God's Wife and Competitors

Baal (via Wikipedia)
(Baal, right arm raised. Bronze figurine, 14th-12th centuries, found in Ras Shamra, ancient Ugarit img via Wikipedia)
We know the three Abrahamic religions as monotheistic: there is an all powerful unique male god with no equivalent. The popular perception is that Israelites have been monotheistic from the beginning and the traditional view holds that Abraham made a pact with God to worship only him and his followers continued that practice. Thus Joseph took this belief to Egypt, Moses bought it out of Egypt and Joshua went to Caanan and wiped out the polytheists. The monotheists also believe that the polytheistic world is a lie and the eventual destination for them is hell.
A new BBC documentary by Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou steps out of the theological realm, looks at Bible as literature and comes up with the conclusion that the monotheists themselves were polytheists; they worshipped divine beings, quite similar to the ones in the Indian and Greek pantheon of gods. God himself had a competitor and the documentary also makes the revolutionary claim that the God of the monotheists had a female companion.
Once you stop reading the Bible with the preset monotheistic mindset, it reveals many secrets, even though the humans who wrote them attempted to conceal this information. Thus Baal, the Caananite god, was a competitor to the God of the Israelites. Baal was a warrior god, often seen in representations raising his hand to use the thunderbolt weapon. He was the Indra of the Middle East and was important for the people of Caanan who depended on the rains. But in the Bible, Baal and his prophets are ridiculed and in the documentary and Francesca argues the reason is that people were straying from the idea of monotheism and it was necessary to put down other gods.
There is archaeological evidence for the worship for Baal as well as another deity El, who was the Chief Caananite God. El was the head of the pantheon and one who maintained order in the world, like Varuna in the Pre-Upanishidic era. In this pantheon, there were gods for Dawn and Dusk much like other cultures around the world.
While the Biblical God is called Yahweh, he is called El in some places. Jacob calls El, the god of Israel. He is also the god of the Exodus. El tells Moses that he had revealed himself to Abraham as well, similar to what Krishna tells Arjuna in 4.1. A rabbi on the program explains that all these variants are the name of the same God and it indicates what attribute God wanted to reveal to the devotee. The rabbi then agrees that you could read polytheism into it, but that is not the traditional understanding.
For Francesca, in ancient Israel, polytheism was the norm, not the exception and there are clues all over the place. God is mentioned sitting on a throne with diving beings on his right and left. According to Psalm, “God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods”. According to Genesis, “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image” and in Exodus, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?.” Thus in Israelite theology, Yahweh managed a council of divine beings, quite similar to the Caananite theology.
For the Caananites, El had a wife named Asherah, who was considered the goddess of fertility. She had an erotic representation with huge breasts and a pubic region marked with a tree of life motif. Many figurines excavated in Jerusalem and dated to the peak of the Israelite period show that Asherah was still worshipped. Francesca shows that if you skip the translations and read the Bible in Hebrew, Moses refers to God arriving with goddess Asherah. In fact evidence shows that she was even worshipped in the Temple of Jerusalem. An inscription discovered in a shard (dated to 8th century BCE) in Sinai mentions God along with Asherah. Thus God having a female partner maybe a minority position among believers, but not among scholars.
This polytheism is not surprising since the scholarly view is that Israelites were not migrants from outside, but natives of Canaan. Following a social collapse in Caanan, Israel rose and was made of Canaan commoners, the few escaped slaves from Egypt, and dispersed people. They created a new identity, adopted the stories of Moses, Abraham and Joshua and came up with the idea of a monotheistic God from a desert people called Shashu. Thus these people with new identity could have co-existed alongside the polytheistic Caananites and shared some of their practices.
So what happened to Baal, El, Ashera and the divine council of gods? Why were they removed, ridiculed or concealed? The purge of polytheism followed the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem which happened during the time of Buddha in India. The Israelites were defeated, their temple destroyed and their all powerful God could do nothing about it. This would have been sufficient for most groups to lose their culture, but the Israelites persisted. During exile, while trying to make sense of their defeat, they wrote the Bible. Those authors transferred the power of Caananite gods to Yahweh, blamed the defeat partly on polytheism, and created new myths and histories. According to the NOVA documentary, Bible’s Buried Secrets:

Israelites were reminded that they had broke the covenant with God and hence were incurring his wrath. Still this was not taken seriously till the time the Babylonians exiled the Caananites. It was during this exile that one of the scribes of that era, known as “P”, took all the previous revisions and created the present version of the Bible. The documentary suggests that the Abraham story was created then, by this scribe, to enforce the concept of the covenant. The scribe lived in Babylon and Abraham was placed in the nearby Ur; Abraham’s goal was to reach the promised land, so was the dream of the exiles.
It was also during the exile that the observances like sabbath were emphasized. Israelites learned to pray in groups and to worship without a temple, king or priests. This was the formation of modern Judaism.

This re-write during exile was responsible for dis-empowering women, demonizing other gods and eradicating polytheism which was common till the 6th century B.C.E.
Postscript: You can watch the documentary in four parts on YouTube

Indic influence in ancient Syria and Egypt

Mention ancient Egypt and the names we remember are Tutankhamen, Nefertiti and Cleopatra. For an Indic connection there is Ramesses II – the Pharaoh who had peppercorns stuffed into his nose. Though he was dismissed as a rebel and heretic, one Pharaoh who deserves attention is Nefertiti’s husband and Tutankhamen’s father Akhenaten (1353 – 1336 BCE) – the first known monotheist and probably the founder of monotheist intolerance.
Recently BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time (via Anne) had an episode on Akhenaten and one of the issues they discussed was why did Akhenaten, in a polytheistic Egypt, insist on the worship of only the Sun disk Aten? Was that a shift in theological thinking or a political move to divest the powerful priests of Amun of their power?
There is no clear answer for why in the third year of his reign Akhenaten started the construction of the new temple dedicated to his Sun god. In some incomplete inscriptions Akhenaten mentioned that things were bad during the reign of his father and grandfather, but it is not clear what was bad. This is also a bit surprising since the reign of his father — Amenhotep III — was  one of those prosperous times in Egyptian history[1].
But another possibility — one which is rarely mentioned — is that Akhenaten’s father-in-law, one Tusharatta, was a Mittani king in North Syria. His wife Kiya was a Mittani and his mother Tiye was half-Mittani. The Mittanis were a warrior elite who ruled over a Hurrian population. But what’s special about them is that they spoke an Indo-Aryan language.

In a treaty between the Hittites and the Mitanni, Indic deities Mitra, Varun. a, Indra, and N¹asatya (Asvins) are invoked. A text by a Mitannian named Kikkuli uses words such as aika (eka, one), tera (tri, three), panza (panca, ¯ve), satta (sapta, seven), na (nava, nine), vartana (vartana, round). Another text has babru (babhru, brown), parita (palita, grey), and pinkara (pi _ ngala, red). Their chief festival was the celebration of visuva (solstice) very much like in India. It is not only the kings who had Sanskrit names; a large number of other Sanskrit names have been unearthed in the records from the area.[Akhenaten, Surya, and the R. gveda2]

But is this language Indo-Iranian, Iranian or Indo-Aryan or to rephrase: did the Mittanis speak the PIE branch of India.? That matter was settled in 1960 by Paul Thime[3].

There are several reasons, but to be brief, I shall only give three: 1. the deities Indra,Mitra, Varun.a, and Nasatya are Indian deities and not Iranian ones, because in Iran Varun.a is unknown and Indra and Nasatya appear as demons; 2. the name Vasukhani makes sense in Sanskrit as a “mine of wealth” whereas in Iranian it means “good mine” which is much less likely; 3. satta, or sapta, for seven, rather than the Iranian word hapta, where the initial `s’ has been changed to `h’.[Akhenaten, Surya, and the R. gveda2]

How did this Indo-Aryan speaking population reach Syria and Palestine in the 14th century B.C.E? There are four possibilities[3].

  1. This group split away from the Iranians, colonized the Mittani kingdom and then reached India.
  2. One group split away from Iranians and moved to India, while another group went to the Near East.
  3. The Indo-Aryans reached India and then went back to Near East.
  4. Indo-Aryans, a Vedic speaking tribe from India left for the Near East taking their gods with them.

Among these (1) is not considered as serious possibility while (2) is the most commonly accepted one. Sten Konov argued for (3) while Frederick Eden Pargiter supported (4). According to H. Jacobi (who believed that the Mittanis came from India), since the worship of Vedic deities was happening in 14th century Mittani kingdom, it would have happened in India much earlier. Jamna Das Akhtar and P.E.Dumont thought that the dates were even earlier[3].
In fact there are many arguments in support of (4). Archaeologists have not found Central Asian, Eastern European or Caucasian culture in the Mittani kingdom. At the time same time they found the peacock motif – something which could have come from India. Based on this Burchard Brentjes argued that Indo-Aryans were settled in the Near East much before 1600 B.C.E[3].With all the trading relations between various parts of India and the Near East, dating as far back as 4000 BCE with the find of cotton in Dhuwelia and carnelian bead in  Mesopotamia in the third millennium BCE, the migration of Indo-Aryans is not a fantasy tale.
Thus with all the Indo-Aryan culture around him, is it possible that Akhenaten got the idea of “One Truth” and the worship of the disk of the sun from it?[2]
There is another related mystery: how this concept of the worship of one God, which disappeared from Egypt, surface in Judaism much later.? The most common explanation is that probably Moses, who according to the Hebrew Bible led an exodus, took the idea to Israel. But archaeology has revealed that the Exodus as mentioned in the Bible never happened. One theory is that they adopted it from a desert people called Shasu? Is there any other explanation?
Postscript: Finally it would take Tutankhamen, the boy king who is currently in San Francisco, to restore the old Egyptian culture back.

  1. In Our Time, BBC Radio 4
  2. Subhash Kak, Akhenaten, Surya, and the Rg veda,July 17, 2003
  3. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).

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.

Consequences of having Reflective Floors

An important turning point in Mahabharata is when Duryodhana visits Indraprastha for attending Yudhishtira’s rajasuya yagya. Walking around, amazed at the grandeur of the palace, at one place Duryodhana mistakes the floor to be a pool of water and raises his clothes. In another place, he mistakes a pool as the floor and falls into it, and Draupadi laughs. You know the rest.
There is a similar story in the Qur’an about a person getting confused with a reflective floor. Here it is a woman – the Queen of Sheba – who ruled over a kingdom which may have included Eritrea, Ethiopia and Yemen. In the story, she visits King Sulayman (the biblical Solomon) with gifts of incense.
The pagan Queen enters the palace and seeing the reflective floor assumes it is water and lifts her skirt. This, of course is against social convention. It also does not help when Sulayman tells her that it was just glass. According to one version the Queen admits her mistake and accepts the King’s religion.
In another version the King too had heard about the Queen. He also had heard that her left foot is hairy and is like that of a goat. To test this he gets the floor shined until it is like glass.

When the Queen of Sheba walks across the floor, Solomon sees the reflection of her cloven foot. Right in front of his eyes, it transforms and becomes normal.The Queen of Sheba tests Solomon’s wisdom, asking him many questions and giving him riddles to solve. He answers to her satisfaction and then he teaches her about his god Yahweh and she becomes a follower.[In Search of Myths & Heroes . The Queen of Sheba | PBS]

The missionaries who are busy harvesting souls in Orissa and Karnataka would be wishing if only conversions were this easy.

Bible's Buried Secrets (2/2)

Read Part 1
3. Monotheism did not happen instantly. (contd.)
Still the Israelites practiced polytheism,worshiping not just Yahweh, but also the fertility goddess Asherah and the Canaanite God Baal, though they were not supposed to. Whenever a major calamity fell on the Israelites, like the Assyrian invasion in 722 B.C.E and the Babylonian invasion followed by the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E it was blamed on polytheism.
Israelites were reminded that they had broke the covenant with God and hence were incurring his wrath. Still this was not taken seriously till the time the Babylonians exiled the Caananites. It was during this exile that one of the scribes of that era, known as “P”, took all the previous revisions and created the present version of the Bible. The documentary suggests that the Abraham story was created then, by this scribe, to enforce the concept of the covenant. The scribe lived in Babylon and Abraham was placed in the nearby Ur; Abraham’s goal was to reach the promised land, so was the dream of the exiles.
It was also during the exile that the observances like sabbath were emphasized. Israelites learned to pray in groups and to worship without a temple, king or priests. This was the formation of modern Judaism.
4. Archaeology disproves other events as well
Following the Exodus, as per the Bible, Joshua takes the Israelites into Canaan through a military conquest. Archaeology has found evidence of destruction in various settlements which seem to agree with the Bible. But on dating the sites, it was found to happen much before Exodus and among the 31 sites listed by the Bible, just a few showed signs of war.
Similarly there is no evidence of the First Temple as well which made Ahmed Qurei, the Palestinian Authority official leading all peace talks with Israel to provocatively say that it was a Jewish invention. The problem is that the First temple lies below the third holiest site in Islam which makes archaeology impossible. The Bible has a detailed description of the temple and in fact there is a temple which matches this description at Ain Dara, in modern-day Syria.
Sometimes there is a kernel of truth in myths. But as we go back in time it becomes difficult to find even this kernel. The documentary says that, “Genesis is, for the most part, a compilation of myths, creation stories, things like that, and to find a historical core there is very difficult.”

5. Archaeology vs Scripture

While the documentary suggests that the concept of one God was evolved during the Babylonian exile, in fact for a brief period in Egypt, the Pharaoh Akhenaten had this concept of One God and he ruled before the time frame suggested for the Exodus? Is it possible that the small number of people who fled Egypt carried with them the seeds of this story? This possibility was not raised in the documentary.
While archaeology disproved many Biblical narratives, there are a few places where the text agrees, like in the case of the House of David. There was scepticism about King David, but on a victory stele dedicated by the king of Damascus, the words, “I slew mighty kings who harnessed thousands of chariots and thousands of horsemen. I killed the king of the House of David.” were found which makes David, the earliest Biblical figure to be confirmed by archaeology. He lived around 1000 B.C.E, as a petty warlord of a small chiefdom with few settlements.
Archaeology also shuts up the sceptics who claim that the entire Bible was an invention. A silver scroll with a Priestly Benediction earlier then the Dead Sea Scrolls by 400 years have been found. And those scrolls contain the word – Yahweh.
While this program enraged certain believers – for using government funding to prove there was no God – there is consensus, with some quibbles, that this program was a fairly accurate summary of a century of Biblical Studies.
Was the Bible, a book of faith, meant to be investigated like this as a historical document? According to William Dever, Professor Emeritus of the University of Arizona

We want to make the Bible history. Many people think it has to be history or nothing. But there is no word for history in the Hebrew Bible. In other words, what did the biblical writers think they were doing? Writing objective history? No. That’s a modern discipline. They were telling stories. They wanted you to know what these purported events mean.

And Carol Meyers, an archaeologist and professor of religion at Duke University

Too often in modern western thinking we see things in terms of black and white, history or fiction, with nothing in between. But there are
other ways of understanding how people have recorded events of their past. There’s something called mnemohistory, or memory history, that I find particularly useful in thinking about biblical materials. It’s not like the history that individuals may have of their own families, which tends to survive only a generation or two. Rather, it’s a kind of collective cultural memory.

Postscript: The website for this program is a treasure trove of information. The entire documentary as well as the transcript is available online. Besides this there are interviews with the scholars who talk about the writers of the Bible, foundation of Judaism, Archeology of the Hebrew Bible, Moses and the Exodus, The Palace of David and the Origins of the Written Bible. There is also an interactive timeline and a whole bunch of video extras.
Update (Dec 9): DIY Scholar has a list of online resources which will enhance the understanding of this period.