Tag Archives: tradition

Polytheism in media (part 2): Gautama Buddha 2007 and Confucius 2010

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Portrayal: The character of Buddha seemed too withdrawn and self-centered to invite a sympathetic 220px-Tathagatha_Buddha_film_DVD_coverconnection, at least from my position.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 220px-Confucius_film_postas 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!

Polemical topics for polytheists (part 19): Historical traditions and models

First view: Any historical tradition and model of a particular polytheism is acceptable to follow, including a new modern one

Second view: There is only one historical tradition and model of a particular polytheism, before which things were undeveloped and after which things were in decline

Balanced view: There is a plurality of valid historical traditions and models to follow, but it is also possible to refine our research in order to select the better few.

This is a topic that has long occupied my thinking and seems to grow only more complex with time. Let us consider an example, as in the Hellenic polytheism, since a great deal is known about its various historical traditions; there is the Minoan period, Mycenaean period, the Homeric, the Archaic, the Classical, the Hellenistic, the Greco-Roman, and the Late Antiquity or Medieval period. These all constitute what may be called distinct historical traditions and models of Hellenic polytheism which people nowadays follow with variations. Within those historical periods, there are more sub-variations, as for example, with the philosophical schools or regional practices within Greece. Other polytheisms share this plurality of period, model and region, with more or less complexity. The question is, do we have a best one, better ones or are all of them alike? The balanced path that avoids extremes will acknowledge that there is such a thing as “better” (and conversely “worse”), but at the same time no absolute “best” or “worst”. The reason for this critical approach is that we are aware of certain historical changes and mistakes that had adverse consequences on (to continue the same example) Hellenic polytheism. These were unconscious changes and mistakes that took place with the force of circumstance, but although one cannot remove a certain degree of validity from them, it is possible to compare and analyze distinct periods and models in order to refine our view about Hellenic polytheism in general. Although we should take the Hesiodic principle of decline through time (which seems universal through cultures*) into serious consideration, we must also understand the value of what can be called a tradition’s “maturity”. In my view, Hellenic polytheism matured during the Archaic and Early Classical Period, only to decline not long after during the Late Classical Period without recovery**. Since this double-edged situation is sometimes more or less true for other polytheisms, it is necessary to reconcile the notions of decline and maturity fairly. This can be done by a method which posits a sort of “terminus ante quem” for each particular polytheism, whereby there is a “latest date before which” the validity of a historical model cannot be much questioned, and thus after which it can be. By following this method, which may at first seem arbitrary, it will become possible to select the better (more valid, more correct or more mature) models and distinguish them from the worse (the opposite). The following list is an initial attempt for several polytheisms, based on my previous research:

Celtic- before Roman invasion

Roman- before Middle Republic (thus allowing for Etruscan and others to exist)

Germanic- before Late Antiquity expansions

Egyptian- before Late Middle Kingdom

Semetic- before Hellenistic invasion (with exception to regions not conquered)

Slavic- before Late Antiquity

Chinese- before Qin Empire

Indian- before Mauryan Empire

Thracian and Illyrian- before Roman invasion

American, East Indies, Sub-Saharan and Oceanic – before Western colonialism

Lest this is taken as a hugely and unjustifiably arbitrary attempt, I will explain four points before I conclude. First, as the list seems to exclude important developments in religion, I will certainly concede that there is a great deal of religious and ritual knowledge that are dated after these afore-mentioned periods which we can’t dispense with. In such a case, we should be using what we have, in order to reconstruct a purer model and period without decline. The second point is, these periods are broad estimates that are not true for all regions that fall under a particular polytheism. For example, the Irish were not conquered by the Romans and therefore their period can last later than the rest. This is also true of the Indian and Chinese religious traditions (among others) that were unaffected by imperial influence and the times.  Thirdly, these demarcations on religious tradition, which are meant to balance purity with maturity, do not exclude the arts, literature and so many other historical developments. For example, as a Hellenic polytheist who is seeking to follow a Homeric religious tradition, I value the art of the Late Classical and Hellenistic periods. And lastly, there will always be a considerable distance (in urbanized societies) between the religious tradition of the city and the rural areas, where the latter are always purer and less affected by dangerous innovations.

 

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*The Hindus share this principle, and it seems to be a very common mode of thinking in societies that value ancestral tradition and purity of practice. This stands in direct contrast to the notion of “progress”, which (as far as I can tell) derived originally from the quasi-atheistical Epicurean philosophy which embraced atomic materialism. See Lucretius’s poem.

 **Only true for areas affected by Athenian innovations, which by the Hellenistic period was almost every part of Greece (except the rural ones) and even beyond.

Polemical topics for polytheists (part 3): Systematic “polytheism”

First view: Polytheism is a mode of religion that governs the relations between people and Gods.

Second view: Polytheism is a mode of philosophical thought that governs how the world is viewed.

Balanced view: Polytheism is a religious, cultural, and social system based on tradition that governs our relations with the Gods, our way of life, and the world itself.

Words and terms can sometimes entrap those who think they are served by them; languages are by nature imperfect, especially when a complication arises because of time and tradition. There are also the problems of common usage, connotation, newly coined words, and mixing cultures. One thing is certain, however, within the scope of our discourse: The English language, together with probably most modern languages, does not contain a word that adequately explains “polytheism” as a concept or system. The word “polytheism” in itself is artificially constructed to provide a contrast to “monotheism”, a later system that supplanted its predecessor. Since both are defined through their differences, what we have left amounts only to “religion”, without the necessary considerations that accounts for the greater system that existed surrounding belief and worship. To think of either monotheism or polytheism merely as a religion, as many do, is to fall into the trap of modern language and its tendency to isolate or specialize terms, as well as to pretend it can encompass all ideas, beyond the confines of culture. The first and second views above are also examples of a kind of dualism that is at best unnecessary and at worst factious. Both views are correct, but they are also both partial, leaving out something greater that makes a complete whole. It behooves us in such a case to use larger words, as shown with the balanced view above. The worshipping of Gods existed amidst a cultural and social framework: There was agriculture or pastoralism to support their worldview, there was little pollution or oppression of nature to spoil it, there was oral tradition that passed through generations, there were customs that weren’t questioned or challenged selfishly within the group, there were priests or holy leaders who were revered by all (but not in a theocratic manner), there were elders and matrons who were respected by the young, and certainly there were communities of people that depended on one another. These are examples of a system surrounding the worshipping of Gods; take those all away and you are left with “religion” or “philosophy”, an isolated idea that applies to thinking and to individuals, more proper for books and discourse than as a true way of life. We should all aim at exploring and embracing all the parts within the larger system of polytheism that once existed in the better and more balanced world of our ancestors. In doing so, we will purify our worldview of the remnants of monotheism and its system, and lead a life that is more harmonious with people, nature and the Divine Beings.

The Himba people of Africa endangered by modern life

This story, published by the BBC today, illustrates much of the writing and reflection I have undertaken so far. The end of the article, however, is rather sad and unfortunate for all those endeavoring to preserve their native customs and distinct tradition. It is necessary for all polytheists to reflect on this point in regard to themselves and the future generations they will provide for. I still maintain, as I did before, that polytheism and modernism (in principle and practice) are incompatible and contradictory, and therefore one must inevitably choose either the one or the other.

Essential distinctions in polytheism (part 2): Traditionalism v.s Modernism

open hands on skySince I have named my site traditional polytheist, it remains for me to explain the choice of that particular adjective. The word tradition is derived from the Latin traditio, which signifies the action of handing over something to someone. In English, the meaning has shifted originally from something acquired from those before (as oral tradition), to custom itself. But in these modern times, the word custom has acquired a rather unfavorable connotation among many in civilized society, being especially considered as a remnant of Christian hegemony and how it imposed its ways upon the rest of the world by force. Although it is true that perhaps most customs in Europe and elsewhere today derive from Abrahamic religions, a studious eye will find that there are a great many others, practised originally by polytheists, which have escaped persecution and prohibition throughout the years.

It is necessary to make distinctions within this notion of custom to comprehend the nature of traditionalism better and pass a judgment upon it fairly. Any thinking person will agree that custom and tradition in themselves are not bad or corrupt notions, because they represents a very natural thing common to both man and animal, i.e. transferring experience or conduct from one generation to another. Even animals understand that individual experience, without a strong foundation of older experience to support it, often brings about huge dangers and failings that could lead to death. In a human case, custom and tradition are experiences and institutions that are worthy of attention and adherence, because they not only teach us lessons that prevent faults, but also elevate our condition with culture, something which animals lack the mind or means to acquire. By removing custom, we remove culture, and hence, an essential part of ourselves.

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