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Ancient India's polytheism

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Reading through Will Durant's Story Of Civilization, I've noticed that there's frequently a strong attraction to belief in one god. At first the idea is too abstract but eventually it wins over, e.g., Christianity, Islam. But in India, even after invasion after invasion (the Moguls, Portuguese, French, British)  and even after competing religions enter the scene (Buddhism), Hinduism and it's stadium of gods survives and strengthens. For every new god Hinduism would just swallow it up and explain it as a reincarnation of some other God and win over. How is this?

Does anyone think it may have something to do with the epics, i.e., the Ramayana & Mahabharata?

 

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Great question. I agree that a move toward a belief in one God may be a natural intellectual progression: much the same way as Thales groped for a unifying theory, or the way others speculated about an atomic theory, religious philosophers might grope for a similar unifying theory. I think the next step up the intellectual ladder is to go from an anthropomorphic vision of God toward a more mechanistic theory: where God becomes almost part of the natural, even though he remains super-natural in the sense that we do not understand the phenomenon. [Somewhere there, just before the mechanistic view, come the deists like Jefferson.]

Hinduism is pretty hard to define. As you say, Hinduism often accommodated other Gods. In this regard it was like the Roman religion. When the Romans conquered people, they were not like the later Muslim invaders, imposing their God. Instead they -- and the folks they conquered -- seem to have accepted that there were all these Gods: your Gods, my Gods. Ancient Hinduism (pre-Mahabharata / pre-Buddhism) is quite like Greek and Roman beliefs. In fact, they're quite like most ancient beliefs... from all over the world. 

Importantly, Hinduism did not merely accommodate various Gods, it also accommodated various moral and metaphysical viewpoints (actually various mini-philosophies) within itself. I believe the same was true of other polytheistic religions. Consider morality. In a polytheistic religion, you might find a story about someone who was destroyed because he was too angry, but you might also find a story about someone who was destroyed because he could never get angry. Someone who is evil because he lies, and another who was moral to lie. So, it would be pretty impossible to say for sure whether a poly-theistic religion like Hinduism advocates anger or lying: it depends... You want a story from the scriptures to justify your viewpoint? We can do that for you.

The same with metaphysics. Hinduism (and I guess Greek and Roman traditions) can accommodate various stories about the origin of the universe. Some more educated Romans viewed the specific Gods as concretes that the masses needed to keep them focused and to give them fiction-like non-abstract examples, but not as literal truths. It is the same in Hinduism as it has evolved over the years. One can easily view Brahma (or Zeus) as a "one God" idea. But, more than that, there are ideas of the creation and disappearance of Brahma itself that postulate a more mechanistic view of the universe. There are famous Hindu philosophers who said that Hinduism is not a religion but a philosophy. If you meet 10 educated Indian who're interested in this topic, you're sure to find one who says this to you. It amounts to the view of the Roman intellectuals who loved their religious tales, but did not view them as concretely true. You will even find Hindus who will go the next step and tell you explicitly that Hinduism is atheistic.

The Hinduism of the Vedas is very different from the Hinduism of the Mahabharata. The Hinduism in the Bhagvad Gita is actually a negative critique of the older Vedic Hinduism, and has more in similar with Buddhism. It sounds like a Hindu intellectual not merely trying to accommodate Buddhist metaphysics, but accepting it; but, also leaving space for the traditional Hindu social structure of caste. (Not saying it is a response to Buddhism, but that is sounds like a response. It could well pre-date Buddha, with no inconsistency.)

I think the likely secret to the question is this: you want one God? Hinduism has that for you. You want atheism? Hinduism has that for you. How do you fight that except by force and by imposition?

 

Edited by softwareNerd

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Hinduism is pretty hard to define. As you say, Hinduism often accommodated other Gods. In this regard it was like the Roman religion. When the Romans conquered people, they were not like the later Muslim invaders, imposing their God. Instead they -- and the folks they conquered -- seem to have accepted that there were all these Gods: your Gods, my Gods. Ancient Hinduism (pre-Mahabharata / pre-Buddhism) is quite like Greek and Roman beliefs. In fact, they're quite like most ancient beliefs... from all over the world. 

"The "Hinduism" that now replaced Buddhism was not one religion, nor was in only religion; it was a medley of faiths and ceremonies whose practitioners had only four qualities in common: they recognized the caste system an the leadership of the Brahmans, they reverenced the cow as especially representative of divinities, they accepted the law of Karma and the transmigration of souls, they replaced with new gods the deities of the Vedas." (Our Oriental Heritage: The Story of Civilzation, Volume 1).

So then (I think) Hinduism is, rather than a religion, a grouping of related religions.

Right, and the Greek & Roman Gods are no longer worshipped, but the Hindu’s are—and in much the same way as they have been for over a thousand years.

Quote

Importantly, Hinduism did not merely accommodate various Gods, it also accommodated various moral and metaphysical viewpoints (actually various mini-philosophies) within itself. I believe the same was true of other polytheistic religions. Consider morality. In a polytheistic religion, you might find a story about someone who was destroyed because he was too angry, but you might also find a story about someone who was destroyed because he could never get angry. Someone who is evil because he lies, and another who was moral to lie. So, it would be pretty impossible to say for sure whether a poly-theistic religion like Hinduism advocates anger or lying: it depends... You want a story from the scriptures to justify your viewpoint? We can do that for you.

I think the same can be said about monotheistic religions, although maybe with less room to do so?

Quote

The same with metaphysics. Hinduism (and I guess Greek and Roman traditions) can accommodate various stories about the origin of the universe. Some more educated Romans viewed the specific Gods as concretes that the masses needed to keep them focused and to give them fiction-like non-abstract examples, but not as literal truths

What's this about educated Romans? So they did not believe in the specific Gods, but viewed them purely as tools to control the masses?

Quote

It amounts to the view of the Roman intellectuals who loved their religious tales, but did not view them as concretely true. You will even find Hindus who will go the next step and tell you explicitly that Hinduism is atheistic.

The Hinduism of the Vedas is very different from the Hinduism of the Mahabharata. The Hinduism in the Bhagvad Gita is actually a negative critique of the older Vedic Hinduism, and has more in similar with Buddhism. It sounds like a Hindu intellectual not merely trying to accommodate Buddhist metaphysics, but accepting it; but, also leaving space for the traditional Hindu social structure of caste. (Not saying it is a response to Buddhism, but that is sounds like a response. It could well pre-date Buddha, with no inconsistency.)

I think the likely secret to the question is this: you want one God? Hinduism has that for you. You want atheism? Hinduism has that for you. How do you fight that except by force and by imposition?

This is possible. In your opinion though is it common for most who associate themselves with Hinduism to believe in one god (?), no god (?). These groups may be minorities.

Anyway just something I find interesting, but not enough to want to start reading heaps more about it. (I still have around 19,000 pages left of Will Durant's work--enough for me.)

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