The Sacred & Paganism
The distinguishing feature of pagan beliefs and cultures is their sense of the sacred— of sacredness as something that pervades the universe, its every nook and cranny, its every creation. Krishna in the Bhagavadgita (4.11) says: “All creatures great and small— I am equal to all; I hate none nor have I any favorites.” And this, as we shall soon see, extends to all creation, animate and inanimate.
In contrast, revealed faiths like Christianity and Islam cannot exist without favorites: sacredness is confined to an anthropomorphic icon called the Messenger of God, Son of God, the Prophet or any of the sundry intermediaries that block or control access to an anthropomorphic God who created man “his own image.” As a consequence nothing else is sacred. This means the world, with all its creations was created for man’s exploitation. Here is how the Bible (Genesis 9.2 – 3) puts it:
“…the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast on the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes in the sea; into your hand they are delivered.
“Every moving thing that moveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given all things.”
The pagan view is totally different. The celebrated Isa Upanishad opens with the injunction: Isavasyamidam sarvam, yat kincit jagatyam jagat; tena tyaktena bhunjitva ma gridhah kasyavaitdhanam.
This may be summarized as: “The divine lives in everything, in the minutest creation in the universe. Enjoy what is rightfully yours, covet not that which belongs to another.”
This holds two ideas— divinity resides everywhere and in everything, and one should take no more than what one needs. “Covet not that which belongs to another,” includes nature also, for nature too owns its share. This means nature and all its creations are sacred. So, in the pagan tradition God is not necessarily anthropomorphic— an idea by no means limited to Hinduism. Pagans have sacred plants like the ashvattah and the mistletoe (of the Druids), sacred animals like the Hindu cow and the bull of the ancient Egyptians, and any number of them among the natives of pre-Columbian America.
This idea of the sacred in animals gives rise to the interesting phenomenon of composite creatures and even human-animal combinations. In Hinduism we have the elephant-headed Ganesha, half-man half-lion Narasimha and many more. Similarly, the Egyptians had the Sphinx, pagan Greeks Pan (goat-man), and any number of such creatures among the Incas, the Aztecs and other peoples of pre-Columbian America. The idea in all this is man’s oneness with nature. Unlike in the revealed (Semitic) religions, which look down upon creations other than man, the pagans exalted both the animal and the human by combining them. They are all part of the same creation.
The assault on pagan civilizations by imperial movements let loose by revealed religions like Christianity and Islam involved to a great degree the destruction of this sense of the sacred— the sense of divinity everywhere and in everything. This is part of what is called “conversion.” It makes one shift allegiance from one’s culture rooted in nature and one’s surroundings to an alien anthropomorphic God and his intermediary who claims to speak for God. Conversion goes further: it makes imperial demands. It is not enough to shift allegiance; the convert has to destroy everything, including the history of one’s former self. And this is what the imperial ‘jealous’ God ultimately demands.
Since God in revealed religions is knowable only through the intermediary, conversion entails a change from worship of nature and all of God’s creation to the worship of man. To understand the pagan sense of sacredness, and the cataclysmic impact of conversion, is it is necessary to understand what the revealed creeds like Christianity and Islam demand of their flock. It means much more than a change in the mode of worship. This is what we may examine next.
God or Man-God as God-substitute?
The idea of the divine in everything in pagan traditions, especially in Hinduism, introduces a profound concept— of religion, or more properly spirituality as a-paurusheya. A-paurusheya in Sanskrit means “not of human origin.” (From purusha, human in Sanskrit.) This has many dimensions, but mainly that spirituality must be in harmony with all of creation. It is not for any human to claim any special privilege in creation. All are equal in the eyes of God— or “I hate none, nor have I any favorites,” in Krishna’s simple words.
A-paurusheya means that any teaching like the Vedas simply exposes the cosmic principles discovered by human sages, but the principles themselves, like scientific laws are eternal and owe nothing to human existence. For this reason, a Vedic seer like Vasishta or Vishwamitra is simply a drashtara— or one who ‘sees’ the truth of the cosmic order. The same is true of scientific seers like Newton and Einstein. They perceived cosmic truths like the Law of Gravitation and the Mass-Energy Equivalence. But these truths existed before them as part of the cosmos; they are eternal truths that were discovered by Newton and Einstein. Even Krishna in his Bhagavadgita makes no claim to originality. In his words:
“I taught this timeless Yoga to Vivaswan, who taught it to Manu. Manu then bequeathed it to Ikshwaku. This ancient wisdom transmitted through generations of royal sages became lost in the tides of time. I have taught you, my friend and most excellent disciple, this best and most mystical knowledge.”
In contrast, revealed religions like Christianity and Islam cannot exist without a privileged human claiming exclusive access to God. This makes them paurusheya— or ‘man originated.’ Jesus is the purusha of Christianity while Mohammed is the purusha of Islam. Without these purushas, neither Christianity nor Islam can exist. Pagan beliefs like Hinduism have no such human founder or purusha. In the words of the great thinker Ram Swarup:
“The spiritual equippage of Islam and Christianity is similar; their spiritual contents, both in quality and quantum are about the same. The central piece of the two creeds is “one true God” of masculine gender who makes himself known to his believers through an equally single, favored individual. … (Emphasis added.
“The whole prophetic spirituality whether found in the Bible or the Quran, is mediumistic in essence. Here everything takes place through a proxy, through an intermediary. Here man knows God through a proxy; and probably God too knows man through the same proxy.
“In fact, to these religions, the chosen individual is not merely an intermediary, he is also a savior, a mediator. He intercedes on behalf of his flock with God. He can even delegate his authority to his disciples, who, in turn, appoint their own officials who too have the power to ‘bind and loose.’ As a result, these religions tend to deal not with God but with God-substitutes.”
The chosen intermediary does not tolerate a rival for he is the sole intermediary. Such a religion demands a single God— a jealous God, who, like his spokesman, brooks no rivals. This is what is behind the Only Son of God and the Final Prophet. The authority for this spiritualism by proxy is found in the Bible (Deuteronomy 18.18): “I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, …and will put my word in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him.”
This virtually defines exclusivism, which implies that the intermediary is authorized to be the exclusive spokesman of God, and there can be none other. It means that man cannot know God save through the intermediary, there can be no direct access. This exclusion of direct access to God shuts out alternative paths of exploration. As a result, any mystical exploration is treated as heretical and open to persecution.
The pagan approach to spirituality and mysticism is the antithesis of this. Here, there is no intermediary to bar access to the divine. This leads to freedom of choice in experiencing the divine. God resides within the soul of every individual, accessible to anyone through mystical seeking. As a result, pluralism is the rule in pagan cultures. And God being individual to the seeker, there are as many Gods — and as varied — as there are souls that seek. There is no intermediary to enforce any belief in the name of God. Socrates expressed it in this fashion (Dialogues of Plato, Cratallus 400-1):
“Of the Gods we know nothing, either of their natures or of the names by which they call themselves. …but we are enquiring about the meaning of men in giving them these names.”
That is to say God (or Gods) is the result of spiritual seeking, the mystical search for cosmic reality. He (or She) is not an external force speaking through an intermediary. This can be as varied and as manifold as the human experience and capacity. Dirghatamas, probably the most mystical of the Vedic poets recognized this truth when he said (Rigveda I.164.48):
“Cosmic reality is one, but the wise perceive it in many ways: as Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, the mighty Garutman, Yama, and Matarishvan— the giver of breath.”
This links the diverse pathways of the search for cosmic truth to the pluralistic pantheon that adorns every pagan culture. ‘Conversion’ to a revealed creed involves a wrenching from such a free-spirited mystical milieu to be cast among a throng whose spiritual life is regulated by God-substitutes. It entails a total uprooting from the land and culture of oneself and one’s ancestors. The spiritual loss is immense.
V.S. Naipaul: the sacred place
It is not easy for a human to give up everything, from the soul to the sacred land in which one was born and raised and surrender to a remote land and an unfamiliar Man-God— or God-substitute in Ram Swarup’s picturesque phrase. This must wreak havoc on the psyche. In the case of conversion to Islam it means, as V.S. Naipaul puts it: “A convert’s world view alters. His holy places are in Arab lands; his sacred language is Arabic. His idea of history alters.”
Naipaul might also have noted that this is accompanied by an inveterate hatred of one’s ancestors and the culture into which they were born. A hatred deep enough to want to destroy one’s own land and join the ranks of the violators of ancestral land and culture, at least in spirit. Pakistan is an example. Its heroes are not the Vedic kings and sages who walked the land, but invading vandals like Ghaznavi and Ghori who ravaged them. Or as Naipaul puts it: “Only the sands of Arabia are sacred.”
It is curiously tragic that these vandals were themselves were converted Turks who had lost their identity, now acting like surrogate Arabs, or ‘Arab substitutes’. This means: for a converted Muslim, his janma-bhumi (land of birth) can never be the punya-bhumi (sacred land). That can only be the land where the Prophet was born and preached.
This idea of the destruction of the sense of the sacred is not widely recognized. The pagan spirit, especially the Hindu, attaches great significance to his sense of punya-bhumi, to tirthas made sacred by association with heroes and sages from the hoary past. Conversion entails giving up this attachment to one’s sacred land and symbols and even turning against it with destructive zeal. This is movingly narrated in Naipaul’s Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples.
V.S. Naipaul, whose ancestors were from India, was born and grew up in Trinidad. Its original pagan inhabitants along with their sacred places had been obliterated by European invaders following Columbus. It was only after he had left the island, some forty years later that he began to notice this void. What brought this realization was his coming into contact with India, the punya-bhumi. As he wrote:
“… it was much later, in India, in Bombay, in a crowded industrial area — which was yet full of unexpected holy spots, a rock, a tree — that I understood that, whatever the similarities of climate and vegetation and formal belief and poverty and crowd, the people who lived so intimately with the idea of the sacredness of the earth were different from us. …Perhaps it is this absence of the sense of sacredness — which is more than the idea of the ‘environment’ — that is the curse of the New World, and is the curse especially of Argentina and ravaged places like Brazil. And perhaps it is this sense of sacredness — rather than history and the past — that we of the New World travel to the Old to rediscover.”
It is this sense of sacredness that Christianity and Islam have destroyed wherever they have gone. This anti-sacred feeling is particularly virulent in lands converted to Islam. Again, as Naipaul observes: “…in the converted Muslim countries — Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia — the fundamentalist rage is against the past, against history, and the impossible dream is of true faith growing out of a spiritual vacancy.”
I have noticed the same rage, though perhaps more subdued and certainly less violent, among the converted Christians in India, many of whom have never reconciled to the loss of colonial patronage (which they mistakenly identify with Christianity). They are blind to sacredness around them, still clinging to the impossible dream of Western ‘Christendom’ coming to their aid in their hopeless, unnecessary struggle against the pagan Hindus.
In my travels in Central America, I have noticed that this sense of sacredness is not altogether lost among the converts, especially Native American tribes. Though nominally Christian, they retain their ancient beliefs and practices. They even paganize Christianity by identifying Christian figures with pagan gods and goddesses. In parts of Mexico, Virgin Mary becomes Our Lady of the Guadeloupe and Aztec sacred symbols often take the place of the cross.
Similar pagan traces with their sense of the sacred can be found among some Muslims of Indonesia. Naipaul found that among some of the people of Sumatra, there was great reverence for nature— a most un-Islamic idea. They believed that certain trees and springs had spirits. Speaking of her childhood in the village, an Indonesian woman told Naipaul: “We always have to ask permission when we cut down a big tree, or drain a spring, or build a house. We have to follow certain rituals, ceremonies, to appease guardian spirits.”
This of course is a throwback to the Hindu past, before the coming of Islam. Naipaul later visited the village, an enchanting place where rice had been cultivated in the same way, in the same place for time immemorial. So were the practices and the rituals. In his words:
“And yet very little was known of this immense history. There were no documents, no texts; there were only inscriptions. Writing itself was one of the things that came from India with religion. All the Hindu and Buddhist past had been swallowed up. …People’s memories could go back only to their grandparents or great-grandparents. The passing of time could not be gauged; events a hundred years old would be like events a thousand years old. All that remained of two thousand years of great social organization here, of a culture, were the taboos and earth rites…”
All this ancient tradition, with its sacred land and its guardian spirits were uprooted by the coming of Islam with its tribal Arab God and his Prophet who brooks no rivals, brought by an army of God-substitutes. As Naipaul sees it: “The cruelty of Islamic fundamentalism is that it allows only one people — the Arabs, the original people of the Prophet — a past, and sacred places, pilgrimages and earth reverences. These sacred Arab places have to be the sacred places of all the converted peoples. Converted peoples have to strip themselves of their past. …It is the most uncompromising kind of imperialism.”
This means the convert has no punya-bhumi. He has to be an eternal spiritual subject of the Arab people.
The result is rage without end. Having lost one’s own identity, the convert must destroy everyone else’s. The convert can never be at peace with himself or with the world.
Naipaul, V.S. (1998) Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples.
Viking-Penguin, New Delhi.
Rajaram, N.S. (2003) A Hindu View of the World: Essays in the Intellectual Kshatriya
Tradition. Voice of India: New Delhi.