Call it Civilization

HinduismWhile brushing up on Hinduism by reading the book of that title by Cybelle Shattuck, it once again occurred to me how the concept of religion distorts itself. Prior to the Roman Period, the concept of religion really had no name. In fact, religions were sets of folk beliefs held in common by people of a single culture. These beliefs had many functions: keeping social order, establishing common practice, undergirding a kind of optimism in the face of inevitable death. Since long-distance communication was rare and unreliable, communities separated by more than a few miles soon developed details that fit their own situation and would hardly apply universally. Until they were written down, anyway. In Hinduism—which is in no sense a unified religion—even the “sacred writings” were not held to be authoritative for all people across all places and times. That concept would emerge with Christianity, a religion that would define the term and try to make it stable.

Hinduism is the oldest continually practiced “religion” in the world, as far as we can tell. The religions of the Mesopotamians and Egyptians eventually died out (although they have been revived by some in recent times) but the folk belief—or better, folk practice, of ancient India has continued relatively uninterrupted while new religions from Israel and Arabia changed the rules of the game. Monotheisms quickly demand heresies. A single God would not tell people different truths. Something upon which Shiite and Sunni, Catholic and Protestant, Pharisee and Sadducee all agree. One Lord, one faith, one baptism. By fire.

Meanwhile, even with Muslim and Christian missionaries afoot, Hinduism continued its accustomed continuity. To be a Hindu doesn’t mean worshipping the same god with the same ritual as everybody else. It is a way of living intended to keep dharma and avoid bad karma. And even as trendy westerners stretch themselves into impossible yoga postures, they are participating, at some level, in ancient practices that we call the religion of Hinduism. Shattuck’s brief introduction is a nice little primer that explains this time-honored folk tradition in a way even a believer in religion can understand. There are, it turns out, more things in this philosophy than our universe has ever dreamt of. Or perhaps the one dreaming is really Vishnu after all.

Continental Religion

In the course of my duties as an editor of religious studies, I was pondering the origins of the world’s major religions. Now, agreeing on what the major religions are is an exercise fraught with political incorrectness. What does “major” mean, after all? In any case, when we count in terms of numbers, there are more Christians, at the moment, than any other single religion. They are followed by Muslims and Hindus. So far there is little upon which to disagree, at least according to self-professed affiliations. Buddhists are usually counted as the next largest group, followed by Sikhs. When religionists mention “the big five,” however, they usually mean Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. There are likely far more followers of traditional Chinese folk religion, perhaps mixed with Confucianism and Taoism, than most accountings record—such beliefs aren’t neatly categorized. Jains make up a sizable population, and Shinto is often classed in with all those religions of the far east. Many of the more modern religions, such as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, sprang from Christianity, and so can safely be classed as a form of that faith.

What occurred to me that day was that all the major religions of the present world began in Asia. Judaism and Christianity, with all their numerous progeny, started in Israel or Palestine. Islam, as we all know, began in Arabia. Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism all have their origins in India, the big winner for the seed-bed of religions. Traditional Chinese religions and Shinto trace themselves to the far east. Yes, there are indigenous religions throughout the world. Native American and African religions are not to be discounted, yet they never quite attain the level of public awareness to be qualified as “major” religions. In this spiritual accounting, “major” has nothing to do with importance. For the religions with the largest followings we must turn our eyes to the one-stop continent, Asia.

Where major religions begin

Where major religions begin

Considering this, the obvious question is why. Why Asia? Civilization itself began in Asia, and one of the marks of a civilized society, at least until the day of the New Atheists, has been religion. Religion may be abused, as might any human innovation, but it has also been a harbinger of a more civil world. Not only fear of the divine, but also a sense of gratitude toward whatever forces might be greater than humanity, allowing us to survive for another season, or through another storm. Even in the world of science, religion has been a motivator. Gregor Mendel, the scientist who gave us genetics, was a monk experimenting in a monastery. Sir Isaac Newton was an occultist. Francis Collins is an evangelical Christian. Religion is at least as old as civilization. Its forms may be morphing, but, I suspect something our Asian forebears knew: religion will never truly go away.

Meating God

A very interesting story ran in Tuesday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger. A Hindu family that was unintentionally served a dish with meat, hidden in samosas, has won a suit requiring the restaurant to pay for a trip to India in order to seek purification in the Ganges. As a vegetarian my sympathies are with the family, but as a student of religion I frequently wonder at the fragility implied by rigid religious demands. When your religious leaders declare a mundane act either sacred or profane, investing it with supernatural significance, what recourse is left to the believer? A religion that cannot adapt to everyday realities will necessarily become watered down to the point of a social club.

On the other hand, a society so focused on food as ours—particularly red meat products—can become overbearing. Over the past decade many restaurant visits have left me with ethical conundrums as all menu items include some species of meat. Not wanting to offend, I am willing to pick around the offensive bits to get to the non-sentient foodstuffs, but when food becomes equated with meat both sacred and secular vegetarians must lean to cope. Even in the monotheistic camp, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all make demands on the diet—sometimes overt, sometimes subtle. Deities, it seems, are as concerned about what goes in the mouth as with what comes out.

In the modern understanding of religions, they are means of diverting attention from the physical present to a spiritual “reality” behind reality. Along the way even the most faithful frequently find themselves in compromising positions. The gods, having never been human, don’t understand. Even those incarnate deities had the ability to work miracles—a feature the majority of us lack—and so cannot truly participate in the angst of attempting to lead a perfect life in their footsteps. As one who has had his religion forcefully compromised repeatedly in a jagged career in religious studies, I wonder if any dip in any river will really do the trick in purifying a faith that makes superhuman demands on herbivores for conscience’s sake.

Immorality on a plate? Only time will tell.

Anomalies in Paradise

In 1874 (C.E.) a mysterious ghost of an artifact from Brazil was announced. In a story full of twists and turns and multiple Spanish surnames, a director of the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro had received a copy of a Phoenician inscription allegedly found in Brazil. Efforts to trace the letter to its source and to find the actual artifact both ended unsuccessfully, leading the director, Ladislau de Souza Mello Neto, to conclude the letter was a hoax and the artifact non-extant. The story might have ended there had not Cyrus Gordon, one of the premier Semiticists of the last century, allowed his open mind to reexamine the evidence. Gordon, in an article in 1968, argued that the inscription had to be authentic because of advances made in the understanding of Phoenician that would have been unavailable in the 1870’s. Gordon’s interpretation was in turn challenged by Frank Moore Cross, noted Harvard epigraphist, and scholarship heaved a collective sigh of relief and returned to the status quo. No Phoenicians ever crossed the Atlantic.

Neto's un-copy of the un-inscription

This little incident highlights one of the persistent conundrums of academic life. Anomalous objects are found/reported every once in a while and mainstream academia immediately debunks them to come back to center. A student of Hinduism asked me recently about the correlation of ancient calendars; before British colonialism hit India artifacts were dated to much earlier periods. Under the influence of Britain Dravidian culture grew younger and the background to European culture was considered more ancient, more time-honored. Those with investment in the system do not like to have privileged positions challenged.

While a post-graduate student at Edinburgh, my advisor had me read Peter James’ Centuries of Darkness, a study that challenged the accepted chronology of the ancient world. Intrigued, we set up a seminar with representatives from the Archaeology Department to discuss whether this was a feasible approach to the many problem areas of ancient chronology. The archaeologists duly trooped in, set up their weapons and took pot-shots at the book, blowing multiple ugly holes in its arguments. After about an hour, when the archaeologists were unable to answer a very specific question by my advisor, he asked, “How many of you have read the book?” Sheepishly, not a hand was raised. The premise of the book was sufficient for its well-deserved snubbing. I learned a valuable lesson about academia that day — open minds lead to trouble. It is a lesson that demonstrates a very basic insecurity of those who do not wish to have their assumptions challenged.