The Myth Of Polytheism

Throughout its long history, the concept of dharma, or the universal Law, gave such a freedom to Indians that all kind of branches and sects developed within Hinduism, which sometimes even went against each other. Indeed, Hinduism was never static, it never barred its followers from experimenting new techniques and spiritual paths : everything that helps you on the way is dharmic. It is this fundamental principle which allowed India to survive all over the ages with a prodigious continuity, whereas other civilizations saw their cultures and their religions systematically destroyed. Unfortunately, this enormous tolerance of Hinduism – or Induism, if you prefer – is not recognized in the world today, or even acknowledged by Indians themselves, for two reasons. The first one are the Muslim invasions and the second the European colonization. It is the immense shock between these two great monotheist religions and Hindu polytheism, which has completely perverted our perception of India.

Yet, Hinduism, whether you want to call it a religion or a spiritual system, is without doubt the most monotheist religion in the world, because it always recognized that the Supreme can only be diverse and that he incarnates Himself in many forms – hence the million of gods in the Hindu pantheon. Vedic Sages had understood that man has to be given a multiplicity of different approaches, if you want him to fathom the Unfathomable. And truly, for the Hindus, the Divine cannot be “this” or “that”, neti, neti; in its essence He cannot be several – or even one – and thus can never be perfectly seized by the human mind. Indeed, Hindus, who were once upon a time the best dialecticians in the world (and this is maybe why they are today the best software programmers of this planet), were able to come-up with this kind of equation: a) God is in the world; b) the world is in God; c) the world is God; d) God and the world are distinct; e) God is distinct from the world, but the world is not distinct from God; f) it is impossible to discern if the world is distinct from God or not… Never has the unique nature of Hindu polytheism been better defined.

Hindus have also always recognized the divinity of other religions, as their concept of the avatar helped them to accept the reality of other prophets, masters or gurus. It is, for instance, perfectly acceptable for an ordinary Hindu to have on his wall the image of Krishna, alongside the one of Buddha, one of the Christ, with a few photos of the Mecca or even John Fitzgerald Kennedy ! And Hindus have always worshipped at non-Hindu places, such as Velangani, the Christian place of pilgrimage of South India, or some Sufi shrine in Kashmir or Rajasthan. Not only that, but Hindus never tried to convert others to their own religion, not even by peaceful means, as the Buddhists did all over Asia; and their armies never set to conquer other nations to impose their own culture and religion. Yet for the Muslims and later European invaders, who were both persuaded that their God was the only true one, Hinduism with its myriad of Gods, represented the Infidel, the Kafir par excellence, not only did they set upon, by violence, coercion, or devious means, to convert Hindus to their own “true” religion, but they also propagated in the world the image of the “Pagan” Hindus, which has survived even up to today in many ways, subtle – and not so subtle.

European Cartesianism and Hinduism

“Only believe what you experience on yourself”, said the Buddha 2500 years ago. Indian philosophy and spiritual thought was thus always very down to earth and attempted to define scientifically and logically the different means and ways to reach the goal: “If you do this, this is what will happen; if you breathe in this way, this is what may result; if you practice this particular posture, these are the results you will gain”… Yet the West is today wary of anything which has a Hindu flavor and is quick to label as “sects” everything that does not spring from the larger conventional family of Christianity. It is true that gurus teaching in the West can be a mixed lot, and some of them might have brought a bad name to Hinduism, but the ordinary Indian meditating every morning, or doing his pujas, practicing his asanas, chanting bhajans, or doing pranayama, does not feel he is doing anything out of the ordinary. There is no sectarism here, no fake mysticism, no pagan obscure rites.

To understand India and Hinduism, one then has to go beyond the clichés of paganism and the accusations of sects that have been applied to Hindus, particularly after the coming of Christian missionaries to India who had a vested motive to show Hinduism in a bad light. It is true that Hindus adore Gods made out of stone or cast in brass. But is it less rational or Cartesian to think, as the Catholics do, that Mary conceived a child while remaining a virgin, or that Christ came back from the dead and ascended physically to heaven (and not in his subtle body, which is more likely)? Muslim invaders were also immensely shocked by this worshipping of images and gods and set upon destroying hundreds of thousand of temples and idols. But Alexandra David-Neel, the remarkable French explorer, writer and mystic, had remarked that the role that Gods play in India is remarkable “because the images or statues are like a battery which is charged over the ages by the adoration of the devotees, who in turn can draw energy, inspiration, or grace from these statues”. She goes on: “As a battery, the energy in the statue will not get discharged, as long as the faithful continue worship it by their cult and adoration”. And she concludes: “Gods are thus created by the energy given out by the faith in their existence”.

At any rate, Hindus are great rationalists: they have discovered for instance that the sound Aum, “Amen” for the Christians, possesses very strong vibrations which take you to the deepest level and that the Creator is the Original Verb: Shabda Brahman; that the ragas, these few notes of music on which one can improve indefinitely, have also a strong inner power; or that the breath is the physical conduit to the Divine, which they have codified into pranayama, the Indian science of breathing. But nothing, without any doubt, is more scientific, more logical, more Cartesian, more noble and prophetic than the Vedas, the most ancient and sacred Scriptures of Hinduism, which are nearly totally ignored in the West and misunderstood in India.

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