Polytheistic Hindu Identity: A Heritage of Divine Enlightenment
It is simply countless. The numerosity of apologism. The perpetual state of subtle ideological subservience in which we Hindus have lived in the past, and in which most of us still continue to live today. The fact that we are required to consistently justify this precious selfhood of ours; a distinctiveness that is the heritage of millennia of divine enlightenment, across time and space and all other dimensions, to those who obstinately refuse to understand it in the first place, is infuriating.
This selfhood, this uniqueness, and this cultural-religious identity is what has sustained us; is what has prevented us from turning into the egotistical bigots we see elsewhere. Those bigots, who have waged psychological pogroms and caused literal bloodbaths simply because those who they slaughtered like vegetables worshipped a different God. Concepts of tolerance, accord and dignity were alien to them, some concepts which are the foundational rocks upon which the Indic Hindu society and civilisation was consolidated.
There are several such facets of our beautiful multitudinous civilisational character, which we find burdensome, and consider them elements which require an apologetic attitude or a justification, as if it qualifies as a vice or a sin, instead of a strong, concrete, determined pride and courage, to wear that characteristic as a badge of honour.
You might be getting the hint as to where I’m getting at, but still the aforementioned statement might seem ambiguous. So, what are these elements of our glorious tradition that we are inadvertently, and unconsciously, ashamed of? And reluctant to happily accept and welcome?
Well, the answer to that is a manifold one. There are several cruxes which come under this mindset. Moorti Puja, certain rituals, specific ideologies, to name a few. The first one will be elaborately discussed by me in my next blog, however the one which is in focus for the current one, is one particular feature of our Indic Hindu society, that still, alongside Moorti Puja, continues to perplex and invite undeliberate as well as conscious disdain from certain members of not just our nation, but also those individuals abroad and everywhere else, Sanatani and non-Sanatani alike, who have failed to understand the depth of philosophy which they uneducatedly shame and jeer at. And that philosophy, is polytheism.
What is Polytheism?
Polytheism, as stoically defined by the Oxford Dictionary, implies the belief or worship of more than one God. For a mere singular sentenced definition, that is accurate, and true for the case of Sanatan Dharm too, since we definitely do believe in more than one God or Goddess. However, irrespective of how many explanations of polytheism we read or see anywhere, none of those explanations have ever conveyed to us or are capable of conveying to us the bona fide essence of polytheistic Hinduism, or just polytheism alone.
And why does this happen? It is because the ones writing those definitions and explications are either mostly monotheistic Abrahamics, who would obviously write with a bias against polytheism, and towards their monotheistic belief, or otherwise are non-religious academicians who harbour a disdain and lack of understanding of religion in general, or in a third case, are Indian Libertarians who neither possess the knowledge about Hindu Polytheism, nor the desire to acquire that knowledge.
One classic example of this sort of academic bias against polytheism and hence subsequently Hinduism, is revealed to us from the sort of basic teachings regarding polytheism we receive in educational institutions and elsewhere. In a sociological thesis I had read, which dealt with the subject of religion, it was quite audaciously mentioned that the polytheistic religion was a sign of the disorganised human mind which worshipped almost everything they could lay their eyes on, whereas the monotheistic religions were systematic religions of organisation and an orderly manner. Hence, the clear academic bigotry against Hinduism and polytheism is absolutely undeniable, as it quite evidently demonises a worship that was the most ancient and had the most beautifully authentic character.
We westernised Indians, still often unfortunately following in the footsteps of our erstwhile British masters, quite incorrectly assign the quality of backwardness and regressiveness to that which is old and ancient. Hence, in accordance to the restricted Western mind, which the liberal intelligentsia of our country often emulates, any system that is primeval or traditional, automatically corresponds to being backward, underdeveloped or unsophisticated. Hence, every aspect of ancient civilisations was condescended by the Western mind, wittingly and unwittingly, and one such aspect was religion. So, the religious character of these civilisations of antiquity too was greatly despised by shunning them as “barbaric”, “heretic heathenry”, and branding the nature polytheist worshippers as “satanic”. However, this theory is not even remotely close to the truth. If we were to compare the ancient pagan (pre-christian and non-Abrahamic) polytheist civilisational societies with those of non-pagan ones, we would observe the sheer drastic contrast of the level of scientific and spiritual advancement and development of these two societies, with the former pagan civilisations enjoying a high degree of social, economic, scientific and cultural progress, whereas the latter ones dwelling in a stagnant era of dark ages, devoid of scientific knowledge and spiritual enlightenment.
In simpler words, if we were to take the example of Europe itself, we witness the dramatic differentiation between the level of wholistic sophistication the ancient polytheistic pagan Greek civilisation had and that which medieval England did. The former formulated complicated mathematical theorems, while the latter believed that the sun revolved around the earth. So the difference is quite noticeable. And this was not just in the case of ancient Greece, but also in that of the Aztec, Maya, Inca civilisations, Mesopotamia, Egypt, ancient Chinese and East Asian societies, and to save the best for last- our own Mother India.
Why were Pagan Polytheists so advanced?
Now, the looming question that would naturally arise in the minds of anyone who reads this, is why did such a stark difference occur in the first place? Why is it that the polytheistic pagan societies were so advanced?
This is because of one reason: the liberation of the spiritual mind.
For the pursuit of scientific and socially progressive endeavours, there is needed the existence of a very significant pre-requisite, and that is a broad-minded, undogmatic, intellectually liberal character of the members of that society. The mind is merely an element of the soul or the spirit of the human in which it resides. Hence, the nature of the soul, which is the absolute whole of the human existence, determines the temperament of the mind which that being possesses. If the soul is rendered devoid of its divine enlightenment, and is moulded to remain restricted and be coerced to live with innumerable constraints, then its impact on the mind of that person would automatically be extremely negative in nature.
The mind will naturally lose its capacity to think beyond all sorts of superstitions and fanatical beliefs, it will be left incapable to attain spiritual consciousness and a sense of permanency of inner peace and tranquility, and the moment the mind is encaged, through illogical, unreasonable religious dogmas and credos, that is the exact moment the mind loses perception of elevated, advanced concepts of science, and social frameworks, even constructives of socio-political welfare for that matter. All aspects of civilisation will undoubtedly suffer because of this since it is the mind that has birthed that civilisation, and restriction of the soul and mind is bound to bring ruin to the culture.
So, how is the soul, and then subsequently the mind, encaged? Through stringency of religious norms.
Religious norms which dictate only one, stringent concept of the divine. Religious norms, which prevent the intellectual, and then the subsequent spiritual expansion of the mind, by restricting it only to a monolithic, singular perception of what is sacred or holy. This is an extremely exclusivist attitude that was completely absent in pagan polytheist societies. And why so? The simple reason behind this was that pagan polytheists saw the divine, the sacrosanct in anything and everything. From the lakes to the trees, from the wind to the earth and fire, everything was holy. So the concept of divinity was not restricted to one particular form or shape or structure, as the pagans readily and quite warmly welcomed the various, innumerable kinds and types of divine beings, as independent identities, which possessed a multifaceted beauty in several abstract and ineffable structures and dispositions.
So how did this lead to spiritual enlightenment? Naturally, because the second the mind and soul are opened up to the conception of the infinite, endless, innumerable divine, that’s the exact moment the mind and soul become familiar with the infinite possibilities of the universe and all that it encompasses, such as nature, and moreover the mind especially understands the underlying value and worth of every single piece of substance that it otherwise would have dismissed as a mere inanimate material. By realising the divinity that resides within every little entity, the pagans inculcated within themselves or rather attained the highest psycho-sentimental plane there exists, the plane of love, respect and humility, for everything they witnessed, heard, understood and felt. And honestly speaking, what can be more beautiful, than harbouring a loving, respectful and humble temperament for the world that we have been blessed to live in? What can possibly be more beautiful than to accept and welcome, and see the superlative beauty of the supreme divine that graces every little thing? What can more surreal than to live one’s life as a divine being, alongside seeing and appreciating the glorious divinity that exists within each being? And what can be more divine than love itself? Unlike what certain faiths state, pagans have always recognised even the most minuscule, and also the invisible phenomena and force as divine and worthy of exaltation. It is an extremely elevated, and superior feeling, that breaks all the inconspicuous barriers which block mind and soul, and allows the internal being to transcend to a new, enlightened reality, which has unlocked the divine within. The Pagans were not arrogant enough to consider themselves so powerful that they can even restrict the number of the divine to only one single form, numeric or classification. They had, and still have the humility to acknowledge that they should cherish divinity in all the different identities, numbers or structures it wants to be recognised in. Furthermore, the belief in more than one God automatically translated to a circumstance where diversity of divinity was being worshipped.
And, as I have already explained before, spiritual enlightenment effectuates all other forms of illumination. So consecrating diversity of divine, directly conjures up a scenario where diversity in all other spheres, such as social, intellectual, political, cultural, and even religious, is not just acknowledged, but also loved, accepted and adored, as the tolerance of multiplicity is a sign of a broad, educated and sophisticated mind. The classic example that should be noted here would be our own motherland’s civilisation. Such different colourful cultures, ethnicities, languages, attires, cuisine, religious ideologies, and so on, all starkly distinct from the rest, but all living and thriving together in beautiful harmony. This would not have been possible if there a lack of mindful tolerance or to be more specific, love, for each others’ identity and uniqueness.
All these factors led pagan societies to become the wonder that they were and still are.
What is Hindu Polytheism? And why should we cherish it?
As I have mentioned earlier, Hinduism too comes under the umbrella term of Paganism. Simply because of the expansive character of paganism that I have discussed in depth earlier matches entirely the concepts embedded within the variegated philosophies of Sanatan Dharm. Hence, that makes us polytheistic too, since we have many beautiful Gods and Goddesses. However, there are, unfortunately, some individuals who unintentionally misinterpret and subsequently, misportray Hinduism as a religion which does not believe in many Gods, but one God who has many forms, and often take refuge under the profound teachings of Advait Vedant to substantiate their stance. Well, to their surprise, Advait Vedant says anything but this. And it is not their fault that they think so, because this perception of Hinduism is birthed from the disdainful attitude some religions have regarding polytheism, and hence to escape any such condescension, a section of Hindus tries to identify itself as the practitioner of a religion that is actually, genuinely monotheistic, but has a polytheistic exterior. This is a classic example of apologism. Exactly what I was talking about earlier.
The sense of shame and guilt to identify as proud pagan polytheists and hence to have to “justify” the religion to those who don’t even care about it by distorting the original teachings of the religion to appease those bigots who ultimately will not change a single viewpoint of theirs regarding Hinduism. This state of inferiority complex is what we Hindus need to rise above. There should not be an iota of hesitation in admitting and accepting our pagan polytheist identity. But to do so, we need to first understand as to what this identity is in the first place.
How is Hinduism polytheistic? As I mentioned earlier, because there prevails the beloved veneration of splendidly infinite Gods and Goddesses, just like the infinite Brahman. Now, the biggest looming question would be, as to what is the Brahman? This particular concept, rather Truth, has an inexplicable depth to it, quite naturally, as it was extensively discussed in the Upanishads, and fundamentals of which were established in the Vedas. The Brahman is the absolute, omnipresent, timeless, changeless, eternal reality which is inexplicable. It is a plane, a state, a realm of heightened divine spiritual consciousness which rests and resides in every being, even the great Gods themselves.
It is the supreme divine force of the Ultimate which binds us all in a endless, limitless bliss. Brahman is the highest, greatest Truth of the Gods and Goddesses, which has been endowed to us intrinsically by the same Gods, to be learnt and dwelled in, to be accepted and loved. It is the divine everflowing transcendental ocean in which every being can swim forever. It is that realm with which the Jivaatama or the Soul merges upon attaining Moksh, and is freed from the circle of life and death, and is one which the Gods. That’s why our revered Upanishads teach us to attain the Brahman within- Aham Brahmasmi, which means that every living being is the Brahman in itself.
This is what our sacred Vedas, Vedant, and Upanishads say.
Now what often happens is, that quite a few Hindus misunderstand this Absolute Reality that is Brahman, as the Supreme God of which all the other Gods and Goddesses are a form. That is quite incorrect. These concepts and philosophies of Sanatan Dharm are extremely sombre, and they require in-depth comprehension. Brahman is not the Almighty Deity which has produced all the other Gods. Rather it’s quite the opposite, if I were to say. Brahman is the Absolute Divinity that the Gods and Goddesses protect and possess. To say that the Gods were a mere form of some other god would be quite disrespectful and derogatory to the magnificent deities of our beautiful Hindu Pantheon. Every God is a sole, independent, transcendental being who is Brahman in Himself. And this Divine Reality which the Gods have created through their existence is what connects all the deities of the Hindu pantheon.
The Brahman that we mortals witness is just a fragment of the infinite power the Gods possess. The Gods are the most supreme, and they carry the Brahman within them. They aren’t a form of the Brahman, rather Brahman is an element of them. A mere mortal can reach the Brahman and can experience the divine powers of the Gods by realising the ultimate divine that resides even in any one God or Goddess, and that is why some find the Brahman in Vishnuji, some in Shivji, others in Krishnaji, and some in Mother Shakti. Brahman is the ultimate realm of tranquility and bliss, which is the essence of the universe, that has blessed by the Gods. The Gods are the primordial bearers of the Brahman, which they have availed to us, to be attained by us, for our sake. Brahman is just a collective name to refer to the ineffable truth of all the Gods and Goddesses combined, for the sake of simplicity of explanation. It is because of the great Gods that we can attain the Brahman, whether we worship one of them or many. And this is something I do not alone say but is something that the luminous son of India, Sri Aurobindo, says as well.
Hence, irrespective of how hard some might try, there is nothing that can prove Hinduism to be monotheistic, especially Advait Vedant. Instead, on the contrary, the leading exponent of Advait Vedant, Sri Sri Adi Shankaracharya, was the one who encouraged the worship of the Hindu Gods Ganesh, Lakshmi, Shakti, and Shiv on a widespread scale, all across India, by the common public, and that is one of the primary reasons why these Gods in particular are much more popularly worshipped than the others. So had Advait Vedant propagated the theory of belief in one, formless God, Sri Shankaracharya would have done what he did.
Now, there is a proper distinction between belief in one God, and the worship of one God. Belief in one God means both having faith in one God and worshipping one as well, whereas the worship of one God may most certainly imply the faith and belief in multiple Gods and Goddesses, with a special place for one particular God. So Vaishnavites and Shaivites are not monotheists, they are similar to henotheists, which are people who have unconditional bhakti and unbridled love for one particular God, but without rejecting or disrespecting any other God or Goddess. They absolutely love and respect other Gods too, but one in particular holds a dear significance to them, and He is their Brahman.
Furthermore, I had earlier talked about the oneness to the implication of the terms “religious” and “spiritual” in the Hindu context, and that is because there are some Hindus who confuse Hindu rituals and customs as mere outward, exterior displays of superficial faith. However, this is quite untrue. To paraphrase Sri Aurobindo, the rituals and physical traditions of the Hindu religion and the iconographical symbology are all awakenings and veneration of the divine. The divine resides in everything, everything is divine. Hence, that ritual, which some very conveniently disparage as a mere exterior show, is actually the appreciation and extension of the love us Hindus have for our beloved Gods and Goddesses and their all-encompassing divinity, and moreover, rituals are a part of the visual beauty of our multi-hued culture, and instead of considering them burdensome, we must hold them close to our hearts. Therefore, the so-called “ritualistic” aspect of Hinduism has a divine significance, and so does the tranquil, soul-soothing meditation. The religion and spiritual have no such demarcations between them both, as both imply the same notion- the pursuit of Divinity.
So finally, I’d like to say, that we are the sole survivors of a heritage millennia old, and must do everything to save every little element of its beauty.
Featured image courtesy: Left image of Hindu pantheon of deities – a click by Manoshi Sinha from Kapileswar temple Bhubaneshwar and right image of aarti from IndiaMart.
This article was first published at the author’s personal blog divyanshisharda.blogspot.com.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely of the author. My India My Glory does not assume any responsibility for the validity or information shared in this article by the author.