A very interesting video full of useful information and great hope…but also some fear.
A very interesting video full of useful information and great hope…but also some fear.
I visited The Hindu Temple of St. Louis yesterday with a friend, and my experience there inspires this article. I was extremely pleased with the magnificence of the temple and the great care that was taken to maintain it. The presence of people offering prayers was very refreshing and the very first I had seen in person since my adoption of polytheism about three years ago. And it was a special experience indeed: the Hindus have the largest and strongest tradition of polytheism in continuance. Surely we revivalists and reconstructionists can learn a great deal from the example of this prosperous people who seem to be flourishing within a diaspora. To that end, through careful observation, I have reflected on the following points as necessities for the establishment of a polytheist or pagan community.
1. People with a common interest and vision
Any new community of faith begins with a certain number of people that, in being distinct from the majority around them, hope to maintain and also nourish their particular beliefs and customs. What number is the least to set out with is subject to opinion, but I can’t help but think that even as few as three or four people can take it upon themselves to form something and aim at future growth, because a common interest for or devotion to what is being preserved can only be sustained by growth and can only be begun by a bold initiative. The Hindu Temple of St. Louis was first conceived as an *idea* in 1983, a time when not too many Hindus lived around, but because the growth in the numbers of Hindus was inevitable (because of families), the idea was solidified as a non-profit organization five years later.
2. Monetary contribution
How can a piece of land and a particular structure be allotted to the religious activities of a community? It must first be purchased, unless it is offered for free, which is almost never the case. Just as parents look forward by saving for their children’s college education, they must also do the same towards their spiritual and cultural education. The same happened with the Hindus of St. Louis as with any other community of faith; donations were gathered after the situation was explained to parents and then a piece of land was purchased. The ground-breaking ceremony for the Temple and first rituals before construction were performed in 1990, two years after the non-profit organization was formed. Construction was obviously gradual, and patience needed to be plentiful, but when there is a will, there is a way; no vision can be stronger than that of a home and the grander it can be, the greater the community will prosper. The first phase of construction was completed within a year and a half. At first, there were only pictures of the Gods, but in the course of five years, the temple received the splendor it deserved.
3. A connection to a native culture with deep roots
The Hindu parents were not to allow their children to lose the native traditions and precious beliefs they had come with from abroad, because they were sure what they brought was valuable. Especially in such a different country as America, where either Christianity or materialism determined the general way of life (in the absence of sufficient native voices), traditions could decay or decline easily within one generation, unless care was taken. The depth and strength of the cultural roots that the migrants brought, they could never bear to see gone because it would mean the severing of many centuries, indeed millennia, of continuity. It was only natural that an architect from India, and a renowned one too, would symbolically plant a native seed in a foreign soil by designing the temple, just as if it were magically transported from India. And the native languages needed to be maintained also, as also the native food and clothing, because the ritual experience could not have otherwise been authentically “Indian”, just as it was at home, where the kin and ancestors were. As for those of us who are less fortunate with regards to historical continuity, a heavy burden is on us, which history will judge us by: we must still look back and somehow seek our deeper roots, both cultural and ancestral, a task that is by no means easy, but is necessary. There can be no such thing as “American” polytheism, because it never existed, except for the lucky natives themselves whose ways and lineages have survived. Any attempt to Americanize polytheism, will only cause division and subversion, usually in socio-political factions that parallel those already in existence, and this is something we can already witness. For those in a diaspora, including White Americans, some serious connection to a distant past must be made; the absence of deep roots signifies a weak or stunted growth, if not one that dies off in time. True polytheism requires much more than the worship of many Gods, and the Hindus teach us this.
If rituals are not performed correctly, the temple cannot remain in function, and thus the whole purpose of a temple that can help people by serving the Gods will be weakened or lost. But who determines how the rituals should be performed? Those with a continuous tradition have an easy answer: those who study and know the ancient ways of the ancestors. There are four priests that serve the Hindu Temple of St. Louis, because the languages and ways of India are diverse. For revivalists, the task of attaining and maintaining a priesthood is very difficult, but can become easier, if those with learning consult with the Gods and with one another about the best general courses to take in ritual practices. Once this foundation is laid, each community can further develop its rituals organically. Communities understand the value of leadership, including priesthoods, precisely because communities cannot be formed except with the initiative and vision of leaders.
After a community grows in number and flocks together, certain differences are bound to arise, even among those who strongly share the same vision and hope. There is a natural tendency for minds to battle through conflicting opinions, especially in the beginning when there is much at stake. But if the common vision is continuously emphasized, and people are always reminded of it, diatribes can turn into discussions and disputes into discourses. It is an inherent part of every community to endure early struggles, but the way to reduce the difficulty is always to maintain the bonds that were originally put in place. By this means, general structure becomes more important than particular details, or to express it better, structures guide details, and details are not permitted to be emphasized so much as to lead to the formation of distinct structures. Perhaps if polytheists think of polytheism as a structure and traditions as details, at least until such time as each group can form distinct communities, we will be far happier than we are now.
6. Organizational bodies
Cooperation must always require management within a collective effort. If priests serve as those who organize and lead rituals, committees and boards serve as those who lead and organize the larger system. The Hindu Temple of St. Louis is no exception to other successful community centers: They have a Board of Trustees and an Executive Committee, the latter with distinct functions for overseeing and deciding how the temple is cared for. The executive committee is moderately hierarchical and consists of a president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer, joint secretary, joint treasurer and general members. These positions are elected with three-year terms. The proceedings of committee meetings are shared with the community, because there is no need to hide anything from those you are eager to serve; positions come with a privilege, but also a duty. This resembles a small nation, but as we all know, small nation is far happier and easier to manage than a large one.
The initial money discussed earlier is never enough for the preservation of a great project that continues and indeed grows with time. A community of faith is a serious investment that demands considerable management and funds before satisfactory returns can be made. The Hindu Temple’s Board of Trustees ensures that sufficient funds are collected as well as spent efficiently. The construction of a grand temple and all its very magnificent components could not have been accomplished without plenty of dedication and generosity. After 30 years, they continue to grow: I saw the community center, a project worth $6 million, still in construction. It is needed for the current and future generations of the 16,000 Hindus that live within the larger region.
8. Community events
Rituals are necessary in a community of faith, but social events are necessary in any community. There must be activity, including entertainment, to keep a community alive and proud of itself. In addition to the Hindu Temple and the new cultural center, there has been a cultural center (within the same large plot of land), where musical performances, weddings and other events take place. There is a library also where books may be borrowed. As I was leaving at the end of my visit, I noticed lights outside after what must have been a very festive Diwali. Such events always help the younger generations stay within the community rather than leave it, which is essential for continuity.
9. Youth groups
A further step must always be taken with youngsters, because they have additional energy and soon become ambitious to make their mark. Channeling their energy towards the right direction is a serious matter that requires a clever mind, but the benefits are huge when it is done correctly. A well-trained youth can become the life-blood and fuel that drives a community forwards. The Hindu Temple has a youth group with its separate page, publications, events and achievements. The youth are divided into four groups, ranging from kindergarten to high school. This allows the older youth to lead the younger, which lessens the burden they sometimes feel when they are led by adults. In fact, there is hardly any burden at all, once the youth understand their purpose and their value, through the guidance and care of adults.
10. Community service
This is what connects the community to others in the region and gives it a good reputation. One becomes more confident in and proud of his community when he knows that it helps others who are in need, even if they are not of the same faith. How else can the world become more harmonious and less hostile, but by such means? It is obvious that the Hindus are a minority, but they must make themselves heard and known, much like the other faiths in the area and region. Accordingly, the Hindu Temple generously offers the needy donations of food by various efforts, as well as a free legal and health clinic at certain times of the month.
I saw these a few weeks ago, but I forgot to share them. They are about 30 minutes total in length, but are very worthwhile. The author has not published parts 3 and 4 yet, but these two are probably the most important to consider in the case of polytheism. Although the videos were produced by a rational humanist following a philosophical group called “Hyperianism”, there is plenty of useful information, accurate explanations, and deep ideas that polytheists can and should reflect upon, in regards to the theory and practice of their traditions. In this site, I think the theories and conceptual framework has been more or less between Participation Mystique and the Axial Age, which happens also to be the position of the Homeric tradition I seek to follow. A question to think about: is your polytheistic theory & tradition more to the side of Participation Mystique or the Axial Age or even beyond in the Modern Age, and why?
Spoilers below. If you haven’t seen the films yet, I recommend them greatly. They might well be the first Indian and Chinese films respectively you have ever seen. Links are provided. Another warning: although I enjoyed these films greatly, I have something to say against Buddha and Confucius themselves. Pardon the intensity, but do correct me and engage if you have cause!
Gautama Buddha, 2007—set in North India around 550-450 BCE
Visual: Immediately I loved the attractive sets and colorful costumes. An older camera must have been deliberately used to make the film seem older and I think this had pretty good effect in the storytelling.
Verbal: The script was serious and literary, with much to analyze. Buddha is obviously given the largest share of speech, and he is always teaching and reflecting with success. There are also beautiful folk songs that are meant to adorn the story.
Portrayal: The character of Buddha seemed too withdrawn and self-centered to invite a sympathetic connection, at least from my position. He leaves his wife on a whim and treats everyone with a sense of superiority and grandeur, and then when he returns to see her and his son after many years, he is without any emotion at all—a mere piece of wood. Indeed, if one looks closely enough, some of Buddha’s behavior and speech resembles that of a psychopath! Since the film was quite successful, the depiction and performance offered must have been very acceptable to the viewer and even admired as such.This implies that the film was not only meant to celebrate Buddha, but also in effect to deify him. He is often called “bhagwan” (god-man) by his followers and others who meet him, including former enemies. The question that the film (and indeed the story itself) raised but did not answer for me was, what did Buddha preach that was really new and why is he so admired for his erratic individualism?
Thematic/Moral: The main moral and theme was the promotion of peace and happiness by the limitation of desire. I admire the film for this purpose, but not so much the story itself. One thing I disliked is that women (in the form of the wife and later the courtesan) are placed on the side of desire and serve as obstacles to tempt the Buddha from transcendent salvation, but certainly he overcomes them because he is transcendent. Women are included in Buddha’s school at the very end, but we still don’t see any of the feminine power and agency of the traditional Hindu religion, where women serve as priestesses and oracles, for example. Moreover, regarding desire, even though Buddha merely organized a few ideas already known, Buddha must have desired excessively to be known, otherwise he would have conformed a little to what others were doing (including other sages-note the melodrama with the Hindu priest who hates Buddha). Moderation is a noble idea and Buddha should be admired for promoting it, but (this in reference to the film) he must not allow others to call him a “god-man” while declaring himself an agnostic, nor should he be so immoderately spiritual. But perhaps that is an inherent problem with individualism and the Axial Age “philosophy” that go along with it. It is said that the followers of Epicurus (who also invented nothing, but unlike Buddha preached absolute nonsense), who did not care for traditional worship or believe the Gods influenced life, erected a shrine for him.
Confucius, 2010—set in Eastern China around 500 BCE
Visual: Quite satisfactory and noble
Verbal: The script was somewhat Western in its brevity, but still there is some complexity and room for analysis between the lines.
Portrayal: Confucius reminds me very much of Buddha in his individualism and egotism, but at least he seems to care for tradition and other people. He weeps for one of his scholars who died trying to save texts, but at the end of the film he is shown surrounded by thousands of copies of his texts, directing one of his students to send copies to such and such a prince. I am not sure whether his humanization rather than deification is something the Chinese state would prefer, but in any case there isn’t much to deify about him, when all is studied historically. I know that he is a folk Hero in China, which I respect as far as local tradition and ancestral worship is concerned, but I question that one should go beyond. In the Analects, he alleges that Tian (Heaven) spoke to him, but not in words, and I don’t see how this is different from what any traditional Chinese shaman would experience. But Confucius’ concentration on Tian, the transcendent supreme Deity or Spirit, parallels his high-flown spirituality and ambition in the film. He is in the company of kings and nobles, and there are hints of Chinese unification and imperialism in his thought, or at least this is what the film depicts. The character of Confucius does not seem to fit his time at all, but fits the modern age quite well, which annoys me, although it isn’t his fault alone. The nobles had their share of wrongdoing in an unstable period and Confucius reminded people of some old traditions such as filial piety. His exhortation against the human sacrifice of retainers was also noble, but there was no need for the violent depiction to prove the point.
Thematic/Moral: Transcendence, avoidance of temptation (we see another courtesan, but at least Confucius doesn’t disrespect his wife), asceticism, self-righteousness, and other Axial Age pomp as before. I can’t help the criticism! I wish Buddha and Confucius weren’t such individualists who constantly subverted their own humility and thus weakened their lessons!
One correct and fair, from a careful reader of history*
And the other distorted and biased, from an American Conservative
* The comment section is unfortunate though, since some American Conservatives have taken advantage of its light tone (without heeding its essence) to subvert the lesson & message it should otherwise deliver.
Spoilers below. If you haven’t seen the films yet, I recommend them greatly. Links are provided for further reading.
Set around 1335 BCE
-Beautiful scenes and set (later used for The Ten Commandments)
-Excellent script and performances
-Thematic depth, but with somewhat fixed characters
-Peter Ustinov’s drollery
-Egypt is depicted with splendor, but there is social decay
-Horemheb should have been replaced with the historical Ay, and perhaps giving a presence to the Amun priesthood would have also added complexity.
-Akhenaten is depicted as a wise saint as well as a tragic hero, but this was hardly the case in reality. His unprecedented invention of monotheism resulted from a bitter struggle with the priesthood of Amun for the domination of Egypt.
-The artistic and thematic allusions that compare Christianity to Atenism are rather weak in a historical respect, but significant in what the film wishes to achieve for a popular audience. In particular, I mean the “whore of Babylon”, the Moses story, the ankh/cross, and Akhenaten’s selfless humility.
-General Horemheb massacring Akhenaten’s “fanatics” turns the story into somewhat of a melodrama, but I can understand its purpose for the plot without justifying its huge inaccuracy. It is also entirely misleading and unlikely for the historical Horemheb to have done so, because Akhenaten’s “reforms” were neither popular with the masses nor did the common people worship Aten directly—rather, they worshipped the Pharaoh and Akhenaten served as sole mediator and priest with Aten. If there was any real violence associated with this historical event, it was probably committed by Akhenaten in order to force the Egyptians (the priesthood especially) to adopt his heretical innovations.
-Sinhue’s conversion and transcendence at the end of the film, after hearing Akhenaten’s last words, is obviously something that would annoy a polytheist. This increases with the intended foreshadowing of corruption and inevitable decline in Egypt when Horemheb becomes Pharaoh (because he doesn’t care for ideas or morality), which contrasts to the foreshadowed moral & philosophical ascendance of monotheism to reform the world. In reality, Egypt was to decline seriously (and never recover) about two hundred years after Akhenaten, because of the raids of the mysterious Sea Peoples, who actually succeeded in destroying the Mycenaean and Hittite civilizations. As for the purported improvement of monotheism upon polytheism, the present state of the world says enough to prove otherwise…
Set around 1070 BCE
-A very magnificent and monumental set and scenes
-Excellent script and performance
-Thematic simplicity, but with great depth
-Several interesting characters
-As before, Egypt is depicted with splendor, but there is decay
-Although Ramesses XIII is a fictional pharaoh, the film is set at the onset Third Intermediate Period, which was a time of great decline for Egypt, from which it was never to recover. One thing to admire is that this film, unlike the other, doesn’t seek to add inaccurate ideas or choose sides to prove its point. The theme that was unfortunately missing in The Egyptian, i.e. the struggle between the Amun priests and pharaoh for power, is present here to the full.
-As with the other film, we have a contrast between the virtuous, humble woman and the deceitful, tempting one. This film gives us the familiar Hebrew and Phoenician contrast, which is rather worn out and stereotypical, but at least it is wrapped up in political intrigue. It was good (and somewhat surprising) to see that the other film didn’t further degrade its complexity with such unnecessary Biblical allusion.
-I am not sure what to make of the failure of the Pharaoh to defeat the priesthood. On the one hand, I am glad of it as a polytheist, but on the other, I know that the Amun priesthood was corrupt and touchy, much like the Catholic bishops and monks before Protestantism. However, I am baffled by what the film was intended to achieve according to its writer and producers, who were operating under Communism. Why does the Amun priest’s prayer cause a successful sandstorm against the mob that is depicted as divine? I can understand the Pharaoh’s youthful mistakes and tragical end, but his case becomes weak when he stands alone against the priesthood, except for a few bitter or ambitious associates.
-As a continuation of the above, it’s interesting to note that the priest of Amun is murdered by the Pharaoh’s men and the Pharaoh is murdered shortly after. It’s as if there is revenge and retribution for violating the sacred, especially since the priest was murdered just outside a temple.
-I couldn’t tell if the Greek youth, who looked like the Pharaoh and murdered him, acted symbolically in his capacity. Does it perhaps confirm our idea that the Pharaoh, in effect, destroyed himself? We know that the Pharaoh operated in a difficult environment and a period of decline, but his failure to understand his limitations and act patiently with good counsel led to his end.
An excellent post–this is my comment to it:
This is one of those topics that is extremely rich for study, and even a little dangerous! I wonder if the list of events here are your own, or are drawn from a book. The Mesopotamian legacy seems foundational in the histories & mythologies of Near Eastern and Western civilizations, although systematized Egyptian theology seems earlier. Civilization is always at war with “primordial chaos” and that’s why we see the serpent figure of Tiamat also present in the marshes of the Egyptian Delta as Apep, the creature that battles with Ra.
Theology, as a system, arises from the interaction of various peoples, their Gods and their myths. But it always tends to become increasingly complex, and dare I say arbitrary in its detail, with imperialism. This is because the power of one state or group or region sets itself above the subjected others, and expresses the hegemony in divine terms. So, since the first Pharaohs (i.e. conquerors) of Egypt came from Nekhen in the South, they set their tutelary God Horus to a very high position, but that stature later declined somewhat because of rising influences from the solar theology of Ra in the North (the Pharaohs settled around that region), which was one of the several Gods of the Sun in Egypt. Ra was later to be joined with Amun after the second re-unification of Egypt by a king of Thebes (Ahmose), and thus Amun of Thebes (like Horus before) rose to a pre-eminent position. It’s interesting to note, however, that during the first re-unification, which also was achieved by a king of Thebes, the tutelary God of the city was different: Montu, and this God also arose to a supreme theological position for a time.
The Enuma Elish was Babylonian theology and it was used to elevate the rank of Babylonians in Mesopotamia. An early nation-state was forming there, just as with Egypt before, and the Sumerian Eannutum (a little earlier than Sargon) was actually the first true founder of imperialism in the region. The Assyrians, much like the Thebans in Egypt, later replaced Marduk with their own tutelary God Ashur, in order to attribute their new power to him. And when Babylon rebelled, a myth was commissioned by Sennacherib the Assyrian King, where Marduk is brought to trial by Ashur and found guilty! The nation-state ultimately failed in Mesopotamia and that is a reason why the theologies of that region are much more easy to comprehend than any attempt at a unified Egyptian theology. In fact, any unified Egyptian theology makes little sense, and I have a theory that Akhenaten’s monotheism grew out of that confusion and struggle for power.
I have reflected on this topic of divine genealogy and hierarchy (the two are related) for some time past, even as it regards the Hellenic pantheon. The Gods are the Gods, but their changing positions can be traced sometimes to certain events. There is no unified scripture, and thus myths and epic poems take their place. Homer sung about a Greece that was soon to be dominated by Dorian peoples, said to be descended from Herakles and whose tutelary God was therefore Zeus. It’s actually plausible Poseidon might have risen to a pre-eminent position if the Mycenaeans had continued, because although Zeus was important, he was not as exalted as later. So, there may after all be some truth to what Herodotus says about Homer and Hesiod, in that they established the positions of the Gods and distinguished their functions more neatly.
Lastly, one observation: Since you mention the notion of paterfamilias, I can’t help but notice its centrality within civilization in general. It’s also expressed within the desire to end “chaos” by power (it’s interesting Tiamat is made female) and thus, by extension, is attached to imperialism. We see a hegemony of male Gods over female ones, or at the very least, the masculine over the feminine. The Athenians were actually the most patriarchal in all Greece. I think my position against imperialism has made me somewhat of a “feminist” in this respect–civilization is a kind of masculine chaos in itself that needs to be controlled.
During the Bronze Age in Mesopotamia, empires rose and fell. In the Enuma Elish, the creation story of the Babylonians, this is told in mythic terms. One part of the Enuma Elish tells of the rise of the Sumerians. Their generation of Gods were Anu (An), Enlil (Ellil), and Enki (Ea), who focused on developing agriculture and decreeing divine law. While Anu ruled the Gods, Enlil granted kingship, and Enki created people. These Gods had overthrown Tiamat of the Saltwater and Apsu of Sweet Water, the original Gods of the Ubaid people of the late Stone Age.
The Sumerians drained the swamps, dug out the canals, and began irrigation. They tamed the “sweetwater” thereby killing Apsu as a God. Moreover, they transformed the salt marshes into farmland. Then in 2330 BCE, Sargon of the Akkadians established the first empire. He began the first dynasty by deciding that his son should…
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