Friday, 14 November 2014

Incredible India: Intermission: Hinduism

world-map delhi

This week’s post is a little different, being the second of the two intermissions in ‘Incredible India’ dealing with the country’s religions. And today we tackle the most perplexing, the glorious technicolour drama of Hinduism. I’ve put my own take on it as my personal attempt to understand things. I hope that it works for you but if not, there’s only one thing for it: take a trip to India to see for yourself!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt
Flickr album of this journey

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

Intermission: Hinduism

Ever find the Hindu faith difficult to get your head around?

Me too.

Of all the world's major faiths in fact, this is the one that I really struggle to comprehend. However, after reading a variety of books – most notably Kim Knott's 'A Very Short Introduction to Hinduism', attending lectures and spending over two weeks wandering around India, here's my take on trying to comprehend it as a faith.[1]

Ok, now I'm going to ask you to imagine an alternative history for a while. The scenario that I'm going to cook up is one that probably never could have happened as it ignores some pretty major historical realities[2] but bear me out, it's the best analogy that I can think of.

Now around two thousand years ago, in the city of Tarsus, which lies in present-day Turkey, there was born a man. He was a Jew yet also a Roman citizen and his name was Saul. After years of persecuting the new Christian cult, he had a transformational experience and became a Christian himself. He felt that his mission from God was to make the faith of Jesus the Christ accessible and acceptable to all the world, Gentile as well as Jew. In doing so he transformed Christianity from just another Jewish sect into a whole separate religion.

Now imagine that that man had never been born. Christianity existed, but only as an expression of the Jewish faith, a form closed to the Gentiles. Thus Pagan Europe remained Pagan.

In Britain the faith had several key features. One of these was the priestly caste of Druids who performed the holy rituals to appease the many gods. They learnt the rites orally, father to son, sometimes even mother to daughter. They were a clean and superior caste who took care of the Divine whilst everyone else saw to more worldly matters.

But the faith was not limited to these Druids. Everyone took part in different ways depending on who or where they were. In the areas untouched by the Romans, different gods were venerated to those more cosmopolitan regions where foreign influences caused the growth in worship of the Roman Pantheon or other charismatic deities such as Mithras.

There was a big sea change though when the Romans left and waves of Angles, Saxons and Jutes came over to settle. They brought with them their own Germanic deities and also a belief in race. Whilst the old Druids were still respected, the rest of the original Celtic inhabitants of the islands began to be looked down on. Their lives were worth less under the law for they were inferior. After all, had not the gods themselves proved this beyond all doubt by granting victory to the newcomers?

And so things continued. Although in Ireland Brigit was worshipped and in East Anglia Frige, and their images in the simple temples that were starting to be built, (after the Roman fashion), different, there was also a vague understanding that they were the same, different manifestations somehow of a divine, benevolent female presence, the wife of and counterbalance to the more aggressive male deity, Thunor or Woden or Seaxneat.

This faith evolved too. Brigit/Frige appeared one day to a young noblewoman in East Anglia named Richeldis as a finely-dressed princess and commanded her to build to her honour a shrine. This Richeldis duly did, then miracles began to take place there and thousands across the country and beyond streamed to that place to pay homage to the goddess.

This worship of deities in their shrines emphasised one aspect of the faith. Whilst the ancient Druidic caste still maintained that the gods could only be appeased through rite and ritual (which they controlled), there evolved other, newer and more innovative thinkers who begged to differ or perhaps to clarify matters further.

190394_10152602216550305_1088809421_nBrahmin ritual being performed at Jaipur

One group maintained that the rites were of paramount importance because in essence the Self and the Divine are one and through the performance of ritual then that Godself can be realised and Heaven obtained.

However, another group of thinkers argued that the Self and the gods are separate and instead one reaches Heaven by worshipping the gods. This approach was popular amongst the non-Druids, especially the poor, as it gave them more of a say in their own destiny. It was they who filled the shrine to Frige at Walsingham and those of holy teachers such as the hermit Bertellin in Staffordshire who spoke with the animals and birds in the wild Peak District, Holy Dewi in Wales who caused an island to split from the land and later Mother Julian in Norwich, a spiritual teacher who had visions of Heaven and the future during a time of plague and suffering, and the countless temples dedicated to the ancient King Arthur who sleeps ready to be returned to life through prayer in an hour of need.

The Druids on the other hand, maintained the holiest shrine of them all, the one on the top of the Tor at Glastonbury, the Entrance to the Underworld where they performed their age-old mystery rituals and on which no unclean persons were allowed to tread.

Around all of these were attracted a whole host of other elements. Wandering madmen with straggling beards, cranks who pertained to perform magic spells and foretell the future, players who enacted the stories of Sir Lancelot and Robin Hood, reciters who had learnt the holy texts by rote, some mad, some holy, all colourful.

And so things continued until the cataclysmic events of five hundred years ago when a new religion arrived on the scene.

Islam was everything that the old faith – which was so diverse and eclectic that it didn't even have a name – was not. It had rules, one set holy text, an insistence on one God only and a view that all are equal before that deity. Although the Muslims never conquered Britain – Vienna was the nearest that they got – their influence was felt. In the major ports and cities mosques were built and the proselytising began. With time many began to accept and convert to this new faith, largely those who had been seen as inferior by the old. And the Druids and holy men would not have minded it too much – after all, what problem is there in accommodating one more god, this exotic Allah? - except that the Muslims would not accommodate them in return! Indeed, they went further; they declared the old ways to be wrong, evil in fact! They told people to smash their idols, destroy the sacred images and demolish the tombs of holy men and women!

It was a great challenge but one that the old ways weathered. Yes, many converted, but most did not. More than the conversions though, it caused the Old Faith to re-examine itself. It even got a name – Paganism – even though the Paganism of Wales was almost a completely different religion externally to the Paganisms of East Anglia and Yorkshire.

The Trimurti: Hinduism's Holy Trinity

Scholars and holy men came up with new ways of understanding their faith. The main Muslim charge was that the Pagans worshipped many gods which was wrong, God was One. Certainly it seemed that way with all their thousands if not millions of deities, from Woden and Brigit right down to the local oak tree or mountain, it seemed like the Pagans were very much polytheists, but in fact some scholars argued, they were not at all. Woden, Brigit, Mother Julian, King Arthur, the oak tree and the mountain, all were in fact mere manifestations of a single divine entity, one nameless, omnipresent God with a million faces, one and the same as the Muslim Allah in fact. For want of a better word, now they started to refer to Him/Her simply as 'God'.

Others worked hard to develop a canon of scriptures, although it has been hard, devotees of one deity preferring one text and those venerating another god, a different one. All however, agree on the importance of the great epics – King Arthur, Robin Hood, Beowulf. Last year the BBC made a fifty-part television epic of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Most of the country was glued to their TV screens, there have never been higher ratings for a show and whilst it was airing, offerings at Arthurian temples and pilgrimages to Avalon rose dramatically.

And so we have the alternative Britain of today, 80% Pagan, 10% Muslim and the rest a variety of other faiths or none, people offering to the gods of their choice at home in their domestic altars and going on pilgrimages to Glastonbury, Walsingham or other blessed spots where they hope that they can find favour with the Divine. In fact, in recent years they've even started to export this Paganism to Africa, Asia and America, indeed wherever the British have settled. The brand-new Pagan temple in Delhi is in fact seen as one of the wonders of the city by the locals.

And that is how I understand Hinduism except that you substitute India for Britain, the Indian names for those of Woden, Frige et al, and understand that the role played by Islam in my alternative historical analogy is that which has been played by both Islam and Christianity in the Hindu story.

And as well as getting a better grasp on Hinduism, maybe you also understand now why St. Paul is seen as such an important guy in the history of the world?

See you on Glastonbury Tor next Samhain.

[1] And I must stress, this is my personal take. What follows will make more sense if you're British as the analogies used are all ones that are rooted in British culture. However, hopefully there will be something of use to everyone in here too.
[2] The main one being the impact of a globalised proselytising Christianity on the form that early Islam took.

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