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A Theory Of Polytheism

This essay is based on the first chapter of the book Of God and Gods by Jan Assmann, titled ‘Understanding Polytheism’.

Assmann begins with the very interesting comment that as yet there has been no valid coherent theory of polytheism – by which he means a systematic ‘theology’ of polytheism – only descriptions and histories of polytheistic religions.

Assmann is not comfortable with the term polytheism – or paganism – and neither am I, for these are both constructs of monotheism as its ‘other’ and not identifiable by the practitioners to whom they are ascribed as a referent for what they are doing. The term ‘religion’ is no less problematic. But in this essay I do not want to get bogged down by their semantics and will use them freely in full knowledge of their limitations.

The Nature of the Egyptian Religion

Egyptian religion can be understood in two contexts, in a broad sense as consisting of cult and culture, and in a narrow sense as consisting of only the cult. The Egyptian king was required to establish Ma’at and annihilate Isfet by performing two unrelated acts. Ma’at appears to be the Egyptian equivalent of dharma and establishing it sounds like dharma- saṃsthāpana which Kṛṣṇa promises in the Gītā. Isfet refers to disorder and chaos. The two acts by which the king is expected to establish Ma’at are ‘judge mankind’ and ‘satisfy the gods.’ The former involves the cultural sphere: abide by the laws, administer justice, rescue the poor, support widows and orphans. The latter involves the cultic sphere: ‘satisfy the gods’ in the cultic sphere i.e. engage in active worship, sacrifice and give up offerings, perform the prescribed rituals, and observe festivals.

This distinction between justice and cult is consciously and emphatically destroyed in biblical monotheism. The biblical God is satisfied with justice rather than cultic worship. Justice becomes the core of religion and ‘pagan’ religions are condemned as lacking any ethical normativeness and orientation. However, the pagans dealt with ethical issues in the broader secular context while the narrow religious sphere was reserved for divine communication through cultic worship which was concerned more with the issues of purity and impurity. Traditional religions not based on revelation evolve in this two-fold manner, inseparable from the other institutions of culture and civilisation.

Assmann makes a curious comment distinguishing pagan and biblical religion which will have to be explored in a later post. He says that in Egypt religion and state were identical in that the state represented the sovereignty and dominion of the creator over the world. But it distinguished between justice and cult – though, for sure, the king acted on god’s orders and represented divine justice among the living. In the bible, on the other hand, religion and state were theoretically separated while justice and cult were combined.

This monotheistic transformation of the cult-culture complex by destroying the cult which ‘satisfies the gods’ and making justice, which was administered as part of culture, the centre of religion, informs the contemporary Indian understanding of religion and is responsible for all the problems related to cultic worship. Applying the monotheistic critique to the diverse Hindu cults, it is demanded that they conform to the justice which is administered in culture. The distinction between cult and culture as inside and outside where different rules can be in operation is lost. The cult is expected to follow the same standard of ethics which apply to the culture.

Assmann distinguishes between two types of theology. Explicit theology is a discourse about God and the divine world structured according to the rules of argumentation. It is not an essential feature of religion. In Egypt, the pharaoh Akhenaton instituted a short-lived monotheistic revolution and explicit theology became widespread in the subsequent period known as the Ramesside Age. Implicit theology, on the other hand, is an essential feature of religion in the narrow sense. It forms the ‘deep structure’ of the cult, like grammar is of language, and consists of mythological narratives that bring together the three dimensions along which the deity is represented, the forms in which its divine presence is felt, which Assmann identifies as follows:

  1. Cultic or Shape (jrw) – This refers to the various cult images and representations of a deity in the temple cult.
  2. Cosmic or Transformation (kheperu) – This refers to cosmic manifestations such as the celestial bodies, the basic elements, rivers, vegetation, etc.
  3. Linguistic or Name (renu) – This refers to the set of linguistic representation of the deities such as their names (Osiris, Amun), epithets, titles, pedigrees, genealogies, myths.

Cult – The First Dimension of Religion

The cultic dimension of the deity connects it to a place. A major Egyptian deity is a lord of a town and a major town is the realm of a deity. An Egyptian thought of himself primarily as a citizen of his town and its deity and its temple formed the focus of his political identity. This involved acting as a member of the festive community. Beyond towns, the gods Horus and Seth represent Lower and Upper Egypt; the sun god Re represent the unified empire. The divine pantheon reflects the structure of the Egyptian political organisation.

The cultic dimension of the Egyptian religion consisted of two aspects. One was the daily worship of the deity in the temple which was performed exclusively by the priests and from which the public was excluded. The other was the occasion of the religious feast when the deity was brought outside the temple and carried around in a procession. This was a ritual in which the public participated at large to ‘see the god’ or, to put it in a Hindu idiom, have a darśana of the deity. It is not clear whether everyone barring the priests was prohibited entry inside the temple. As Assmann puts it:

Contact and communication did, of course, take place in the temple, but this contact was of a very symbolic, indirect and complex nature. It was nothing in which the ordinary person could participate.

This situation appears to me as quite similar to the Hindu religious traditions where there is a complex set of conditions about who, how and when, one can enter the temple and do what, with the priest always serving as the intermediary. The deity in the temple is likewise secluded in the sanctuary – what we call the garbha gṛha – and he abides there along with his companions hosted in other sanctuaries in the same temple. In the Egyptian case, they were usually related as father, mother and child.

I am reminded of the temple complex in my native village of Khanoli, Maharashtra where Siddheśvara (Śiva), Sāterī (Pārvatī) and Ravālanātha are installed as king, queen and general, and form what the Greeks call theoi synnaoi (deities inhabiting a common temple). Presumably, there would have been strict rules about entry inside the temple, which are quite relaxed now but there is an annual procession on Mahāśivarātrī, when Siddheśvara does the round of the complex in his chariot, a ritual in which the whole village participates. The Hindu deities do not seem as ‘secret, hidden and inaccessible’ as in the Egyptian case but I think they are supposed to be. This would also explain why darśana carries such paramount importance – to see the deities and be seen by them is a supreme privilege.

We are here confronted with a very different kind of religious thinking and one realises how ignorant it was of someone like Tagore to offer Protestant advice to the Hindu religious aspirant in God with the Lowly: ‘open thy eyes and look thy god is not before thee … he is there where the tiller is tilling’ and so on. We also need to reflect differently on the ongoing temple entry problems because, as we can see, the very discourse of the temple marks it as a restricted area. In the Egyptian case, it asserts a separation between ‘inner and outer, secrecy and publicity, sacred and profane.’

According to Assmann, the Egyptians held that the gods were real, living powers who once lived on earth but had now withdrawn to heaven and could not be encountered and experienced in everyday life. The religious feast marks a reversal of this situation when heaven unites with the earth and god comes down among the people. Usually, the god is present symbolically in the temple where he resides passively and is looked after by the priest. But during the feast he becomes active and moves on earth. The hymns sung on the occasion beseech the earth to give up its usual profanities and prepare for the divine presence.

All of this will sound quite familiar to the Hindu but it is important to point out that such a state of affairs point at the separation between vyavahāra (worldly realm of profit and loss) and paramārtha (divine realm of the highest good). The divine presence is for limited time when people will follow the rules pertaining to the momentous event. At other times, they will follow the rules determined by custom and prudence. This is radically different from the circumstances under monotheism where people are expected to participate in the divine presence at all times through obedience of the divine word. The distinction between vyavahāra and paramārtha is obliterated. This also explains why monotheists undertake a destruction of temples and the deities housed therein which become mere ‘idols’ for them.

Cosmos – The Second Dimension of Religion

The world or cosmos is regarded as a form of divine manifestation. It is conceived as a process rather than as a space. Order is the overcoming of disorder and destruction, rather than a case of spatial structure and harmonious arrangement (see feature image of the first blog). This dimension of the Egyptian religion consisted of assisting the gods in maintaining the world and keeping the cosmic process going. Astronomy for the Mesopotamians, Chinese and Romans was a means of divination, of discovering the will of the gods and foretelling the future, by observing exceptional and deviant phenomena. The Egyptians, on the other hand, were interested in the regular and the recurrent and developed a sacred cosmology.

The cosmic manifestation of the Egyptian deities and their role in the maintenance of the world is understood as a transformation, a becoming in time (somewhat analogous in my view to the notion of avatara) which began with the first sunrise as the first time of a never-ending cyclical process. This sep tepi (first time) corresponds to the first word of the bible be reshit (in the beginning) and Assmann notes how the sun gets demoted in the bible from being the origin of the universe to a clock or lamp suspended by God on the fourth day of creation.

The solar circuit, the daily movement of the sun across the sky, generates time and light. It establishes the cosmic sovereignty of the sun just as the procession of a cultic deity establishes its divine sovereignty on earth. It also models the lifecycle in being born every morning, dying every evening, entering the netherworld and being reborn the next morning.

Language – The Third Dimension of Religion

The linguistic dimension refers to ‘sacred language and texts whose recitation in the appropriate context has magical power and contributes to the maintenance of the world.’ It includes the name which is ‘a linguistic representation of a person’s essence.’ The names and the stories when recited correctly at the right time and place summon a divine presence in the same way as in the other two dimensions. Through a process of mutual modelling, myths connect the parallel spheres of the cosmos, the state and the individual person. The solar myth, for example, in terms of the celestial path and the cycle of the rising and setting of the sun models the Pharaoh’s sovereignty and the vicissitudes of human life.

Myths are anthropomorphic in that the gods exhibit human characters but they are not anthropocentric in that the gods engage only with other gods and not with humans. Assmann refers to this as historia divina which is a history of a divine world that refers to the human world only in allegorical form, as opposed to historia sacra which is found in monotheism when God engages with humans.

In the Indian context as well, we find a historia divina although we do have instances of gods engaging with humans in the Mahabharata and other texts. Such engagements, however, do not carry any historic value in the manner in which God’s intervention is believed by the Jews to have shaped their history.

Assmann mentions that the Roman antiquarian Varro distinguishes three forms of theology: physike or naturalis of the philosophers; politike or civilis of the priests; and mythike or fabularis of the poets. For Varro, only the philosopher could lay claim to truth while the works of the other two were products of imagination. In Egypt, on the other hand, philosopher, priest and poet were the same person and the three kinds of theologies equally complemented each other. In Greek scientific thought and Israelite revelation only one form of divine knowledge became privileged.

History – The Fourth Dimension of Religion

History, as a dimension of religion, is sacred history (historia sacra) and is an account of the encounter and communication between God and man. History is seen as the manifestation of the will of God who reacts to the deeds of men based upon justice. Accordingly, justice is seen as a generator of history. This understanding of the divine presence is typically found in biblical religion whose earlier traces can be found in Mesopotamia and the Hittite world and occurs late in Egypt from 1300 BCE onwards.

The Egyptians maintained records of the royal dynasties but did not develop them into a historical narrative. For them a historical event was something that ideally should not occur and the purpose of rites and feasts was precisely to assure that the cycle of time continued uninterrupted, so that the process of world regeneration was not broken and reduced to chaos.

In Mesopotamia, justice between the city-states was maintained through treaties sworn under the respective gods (this was not the case in Egypt which had a central government from the very start). This led to the belief that gods intervened to ensure the prevalence of justice and mete out reward and punishment. The fall of dynasties, for example, was explained as the result of the punitive will of some divinity who had been offended by the kings. However, it is not clear from Assmann’s book whether this offence was restricted to transgressions in cultic worship or extended to matters of justice such as the violation of some treaty.

This theologisation of history developed along three lines among the Hittites. Firstly, catastrophes were interpreted as the vengeance of the deity against offences committed by the king, who could be appeased only through public confession of guilt. Secondly, treaties between states included past records of friendship as assurance for the stability of the future relationship between them. Thirdly, usurpers justified their claims by pointing out the prosperity the gods showered in their reign and the miseries suffered by the people under the predecessors due to the sins of the latter.

These three genres, which Assmann refers to as confessional historiography, covenantal history and royal apology, reached their fullest fruition in the bible. The first form is found in the Deuteronomic tradition which judges the reigns of different kings in terms of their obedience to the law, whose transgressions are seen as ultimately leading to the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile. The second form is found in Exodus and Deuteronomy which introduces the law by relating the history of God’s intervention to deliver the chosen people. The third form consists of the elaborate accounts of the reigns of Saul, David and Solomon. Whereas in the Mesopotamian case there are simply divine interventions in response to specific events, in the bible there develops a single coherent narrative from beginning to end, known as the historia sacra.

The historical sense is bound up with the idea of justice and we find it developed in Mesopotamia and the Old Testament on account of their lack of belief in immortality or the hereafter. Where such a belief was prevalent, as in case of the Egyptians, judgement could always be deferred subsequent to death. But in its absence, judgement would be held to occur in the world, extended to subsequent generations in the future. The chronicle of human acts performed in the past and the present therefore becomes significant as they affect the divine will which shapes the future.

In the case of Jewish monotheism, all three dimensions of the polytheistic religion were gradually destroyed. The cultic dimension was reduced to Jerusalem around 800 BCE and ceased to reflect the pluralistic identity of various centres and regions. The cosmic dimension changed from being a manifestation of the divine presence to a creation of God. The linguistic dimension changed from historia divina, narratives describing events between gods, to historia sacra, a narrative describing events between God and his people.

The article has been reproduced from author’s blog with permission.

(This article was published by IndiaFacts in 2016)

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