By Saurabh Bhattacharya March 2002 Who, or what, is God? Why is the concept of God so integral to humanity? Where did the concept come from? What does the future hold? The questions are endless. What follows is a tentative hunt for some answers Welcome to the biggest treasure hunt of all. The game plan is simple. Like all treasure hunts, we start with a map. Only, in this case, the map will not be in our hands. It’ll lie in our head—uncharted, unmarked, and incomplete—like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces will emerge as we proceed on our quest. Pieces that will continually shift shape, size and color, much in tune with the seeker’s frame of mind. My clue will not be the same as your clue; your map will not be the same as mine. The rules are simple. There are none. No winners or losers. No time limit or starting point. The only thing common among all participants will be the unquenchable thirst to know, to seek, and to finally find…God! And in this hunt, God’s decision will be final. WHAT’S UP, GOD? Some people say there is a God; others say there is no God. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.—W.B. Yeats First things first. Why do we need to search for God? We all know that He (She? It?) is somewhere taking care of things—or not. The believers have their belief, the atheists their disbelief, and the agnostics their ambivalence. Then why bother? To answer this, let me share with you a joke. Quite aptly, it is in first person and is true for any faith, Eastern or Western: I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man about to jump off. I immediately ran over and said:“Stop! Don’t do it!”“Why shouldn’t I?” he asked.I said: “Well, there’s so much to live for!”“Like what?”“Well… are you religious or atheist?”“Religious.”“Me too! Are you Christian or Jewish?”“Christian.”“Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?”“Protestant.”“Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”“Baptist.”“Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”“Baptist Church of God.”“Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?”“Reformed Baptist Church of God.”“Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?”“Reformation of 1915!”To which I said, “Die, heretic scum!” and pushed him off. Funny? Maybe. But jokes are merely humorous shields that protect us from the horrific face of reality that something is really going wrong in the world. Temples are being torn down, statues broken, towers decimated, even food banned—all because you do not agree with my view of God. It doesn’t matter that perhaps you too have a view of God that is equally true. It doesn’t matter that perhaps neither of us actually know what God is all about. I think you, and anyone else who does not believe in my God, is not worthy of living. So, what’s up, God? How does it feel to be fought over so mercilessly and stupidly? How does it feel to be called upon to save one country while the armies of that country bombard another nation to bits? How does it feel to be worshipped, revered, followed by and prayed to by a humanity that actually has absolutely no clue about You—about who You are, where You came from, why You are, what You are, whether You actually are or not? As the till now only rational and intelligent species on this planet, I think the least we could try and do is get to know God a bit more before actually believing (or disbelieving). And the sooner the better, before all the heretic scum of the world throw the rest of the heretic scum off the bridge of evolution. At that point, will there still be a God to fight over? I wonder! IN THE BEGINNING If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.—Voltaire According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word ‘god’ came into being in English before the 12th century AD. But it is certain that the concept of God is much older than the oldest of all spoken language. Exactly how old is this concept? Our first clue lies in anthropology, particularly in the works of a Prof Christopher Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum. While searching for the origin of humanity as Homo sapiens, Prof Stringer discovered that Homo Sapiens were actually one of four subspecies to come out of Africa a million years ago. All these subspecies practiced a crude form of ritual burial of their dead that could well be termed religious. Explaining this in his The Drama of the Holy, American sociologist T.R. Young notes: “The most ancient religious practices were associated with the cult of the dead and the use of skulls for magic. The Dragon-bone caves near Peiping (now Beijing) in China are around 5,00,000 years old. Bodies in those caves were decapitated and the skulls emptied. Skull cups were used for drinking… and thus for the magical transfer of mana (the immortal spirit)…” This might be a far cry from the God that we profess to know today, but it definitely shows the first recognition (or should one say discovery?) of some form of being that exists within, and yet beyond this material world. Mankind’s search for God began with this little spark. For our ancestors, however, the origin of a God-concept perhaps had a cause more basic than that of gaining knowledge from dead predecessors—and that was the dilemma of mortality. Unlike humans, all other animals are born with a set of instincts that enable them to function independently from an early age. They mature, mate, struggle against the elements, and eventually die. But humans were born with advanced reasoning abilities and few instincts. They felt insignificant, and insecure in the face of natural forces and their own finite lifespan. As Matthew Alper, neurologist and author of The ‘God’ Part of the Brain, puts it: “With the emergence of self-conscious awareness, a life form became cognizant of the fact that it is going to die. More terrifying yet, death could befall us at anytime.” People do not like chronic anxiety. Some coping mechanism had to be developed. So, in order to cope with what theologian Paul Tillich later termed ‘this shock of non-being’, our ancestors conceptualized animism—the first bona fide religion whose roots go back to the Paleolithic period. The term ‘animism’ is derived from the Latin word anima, meaning breath or soul. In this belief system, a soul or spirit existed in every object, even if it was inanimate. In a future state this soul or spirit would exist as part of an immaterial soul. The spirit, therefore, was thought to be universal and came to be signified as God. But then there was no one God. Because every thing on earth—animate or inanimate—had a spirit, everything symbolized God. All were True, and all had their unique functions. Praying to any spirit was not an act to further personal transcendence—it was merely aimed at appeasing the relevant spirit so that the required end could be achieved. If you wanted to cut a tree, you first paid your respects to the tree’s spirit and prayed for it not to get angry, as this was purely business. The same logic applied to totems and idols. Further, in early animism, if the worshipper didn’t seem to get the required benefit from a specific totem or idol, he or she moved on to look for a more efficient one. This value-based approach towards various gods, coupled with the establishing of families and tribes, led to the creation of a divine hierarchy. The less effective gods inhabited the lowest rungs of the ladder and the more potent ones were promoted by the faithful. Along with the establishment of a so-called ‘divine’ hierarchy, another feature was added to the formlessness of God—gender. From being a problematic and mystical neuter concept in its earliest manifestations, God was slowly but surely becoming comfortably human. A QUESTION OF GENDER If triangles had a God, He’d have three sides.—Old Yiddish proverb As societies became more complex, God was conceptualized in all aspects of life, animate or inanimate, and there also began a proper process of worship and reverence. But mere propitiation of an un-definable God was not enough. As scholar Karen Armstrong notes in her best-selling book A History of God: “Naturally people wanted to get in touch with this reality and make it work for them, but they also simply wanted to admire it. When they personalized the unseen forces and made them gods possessing human characteristics, they were expressing their sense of affinity with the unseen and with the world around them.” So the mystery of a fertile nature that provided bountiful crop in the Paleolithic period was symbolized by the Mother Goddess, and artists gave her the shape of a naked, pregnant woman. In fact, sculptures representing the Mother Goddess are some of the earliest images of God that archaeologists have discovered, a classic example of which is the Willendorf Venus, dated circa 3,00,000 BC Says Prof Kunal Chakrabarti, who teaches history of religion at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India: “All primitive religions from the earliest Neolithic period, were based on goddesses. There was no concept of god because the goddess symbolized the feminine principle of fecundity, and man’s role in the creative process was not understood.” This veneration persisted in agrarian civilizations that developed on the banks of rivers, such as the an
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