Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Hinduism, Paganism, & Polytheism

There has been a sudden flurry of interest in two very closely related questions about Hinduism:

1. What, if any, relationship exists between Hinduism and Paganism?
2. Is Hinduism polytheistic?

One of the main reasons for the current go-round on these two recurring topics is that the upcoming Pagan gathering, PantheaCon 2012, will feature a highly anticipated panel discusion entitled Hindus and Pagans Together: One Billion Strong (see the official schedule of events here). This panel will include two members of the Hindu American Foundation (link), Mihir Meghani and Raman Khanna, as well as Big Name Pagans Patrick McCollum and T. Thorn Coyle, and also Amadea, who has played a pivotal role in facilitating the newly blossoming relationship between Hindus and Pagans.

Another catalyst for the renewed discussion was an article by Huffington Post contributor Arvind Sharma with the provocative title Is Hinduism a Pagan Religion?, in which Sharma "defends" Hinduism against what he sees as the double slur that Hindus are both Pagans and polytheists. Sharma very nicely sums up his whole argument in a single sentence: "It is true that there are many gods in Hinduism and that it abounds in image worship, but while these various gods are considered different gods in paganism as traditionally represented, in Hinduism they represent the various forms of the one and same God."

Star Foster, a Pagan blogger at the religion megasite Patheos, took note of both the upcoming Pantheacon panel discussion and Arvind Sharma's article in her own contribution to the discussion: When Hinduism Confuses and Frustrates Me, which in turn sparked a lively and wide ranging exchange of views in the comments section.

What I would like to do now is to draw attention to some articles that I believe help to shed some light on these thorny issues. The first two of these are very recent and can be considered important contributions to the current round of discussion. The next four are less recent but still highly relevant. Following that there are some links to posts from this blog that also relate to the topic of Hinduism, Paganism, and Polytheism.

Vedic monotheism? 1. The dawn of monotheism
by Koenraad Elst, Feb. 7, 2012
Monotheism is not merely the cult of a single god, which would be called henotheism, but also implies the active rejection of all other gods. The recipient of monotheistic worship is not Heis Theos, “one god”, but Ho Monos Theos, “the only god”. Thus, Hindus worshipping an ishta devata, “chosen deity”, selected from among many, are henotheists but not monotheists. A Hindu who never worships any god except Shiva, but doesn’t object to his neighbour’s worshipping Krishna or Durga, fails the test of monotheism.

De-Monotheising the Human Mind the Hindu Way
by Ranbir Singh, Feb. 8, 2012
Almost a thousand years of cultural onslaught have left Hindus apologetic about their beliefs. They are keen to mould them into the framework dominated by a monotheistic mindset which holds sway even when it is mutated into terms such as rational, scientific and even atheist. Such is the power of monotheism that it infects even ideologies which purport to be antagonistic to any form of religious belief and it does so without most of us even realising.

Polytheism and Monotheism: A Hindu Perspective
Ramdas Lamb, Mar. 31, 2011
Today, the two most popular theological beliefs in the West are monotheism (the belief in a single all-powerful divinity) and atheism (the belief that there is no divine entity). The Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam preach the former, while those who base their world view exclusively on material or scientific rationality tend to adhere to the latter. Yet, in much of the rest of the world, polytheism, or a belief in multiple divinities, has been a long held and popular conviction. Atheists and Western monotheists together denigrate polytheists and their beliefs as either ignorant or pagan. The more conservative monotheists even equate them with evil and demonism. Such narrow minded views and biases have hampered many who adhere to western thinking from understanding the value and validity of polytheistic beliefs for the people who hold them.

Pagan Power in Modern Europe
by Hughes Henry & Ram Swarup (from Hinduism Today magazine, July, 1999)
"Pagan renaissance is overdue. It is necessary for Europe to heal its psyche. Under Christianity, Europe learned to reject its ancestors, its past, which cannot be good for its future also. Europe became sick because it tore apart from its own heritage, it had to deny its very roots. If Europe is to be healed spiritually, it must recover its spiritual past--at least, it should not hold it in such dishonor." [Ram Swarup]

Hindu Spirituality Versus Monotheism

by Sita Ram Goel, from his book Defense of Hindu Society (1983, revised 1987)
It is an intuition ingrained in the Hindu psyche to inhabit our entire environment - celestial, physical, vegetable, animal, and human - with innumerable Gods and Goddesses. Some of these divinities are installed in temples as icons, and worshipped with well-defined rituals. Some others are worshipped as and where they are invoked. Hindu shastras, saints and sages have paid homage to many Gods and Goddesses in many sublime hymns.

Hindus as “Indian Pagans”
by Koenraad Elst (from his book Who is a Hindu?, 2001)
All Indians who were not Parsis, Jews, Christians or Muslims, were automatically Hindus. So, the original definition of Hindu is: an Indian Pagan. Since the earliest use of the term Hindu in India, a clear definition has been given with it, and of every community it can easily be decided whether it fits that definition or not. It does not matter if you do not like the name-tag: if you fit the definition, you fall within the Hindu category. The Hindus have not chosen to be called Hindus: others have conceived the term and its definition, and Hindus simply found themselves carrying this label and gradually accepted it.

And here are a few things I have written in this blog on related topics (including a little something on Zoroastrianism, an appreciation of Arab polytheism, and my two recent posts of excerpts from Plotinus, among other things):