Rise of the new Pantheist
New sanghas of believers in ancient polytheist traditions, are growing across the globe in their contemporary polytheistic traditions with their multiple, diverse, and accommodating approaches to spiritual life, says Rishi Rathod
Charles Shahar, 63, a writer and Vedantin, says, “I always had an adverse reaction to organised religion and dogma. The whole point of this life was to become free, not to get bound and fettered with yet more concepts and strictures.” Charles was raised a Jew but now identifies with Advaita Vedanta, which he believes is neither monotheistic nor polytheistic. He says, “In my original faith, the duality between Self and God was a given. I never accepted that. What attracted me about Advaita Vedanta was that there is no duality between you and God and that Self alone is everywhere. These truths represented the highest philosophy or vision I have yet to encounter.”
Charles is one of the hundreds who are silently moving away from monotheistic faith to the more natural path of polytheistic traditions. This phenomenon has been taking place for the past couple of years across major societies in the world. People are going back to their roots; they are changing their religious faith from one commanding God to many gods and goddesses which appeal to their individual preferences. They are moving away from monotheism to embrace polytheism. Most are vocal about it, but many don’t openly declare it fearing the consequences in their social lives. These people worship their deity quietly but on the outside, they remain monotheist. Even the success of films like Avatar and Thor: The Dark World suggests a deep desire among people for a more spiritually satisfying life. If we only take the US, there is a burgeoning interest in Druidry, Hinduism, Buddhism, Wicca, Kabbala, and Tantra among other practices. There is a huge interest in Eastern Dharma. Well-known celebrities such as Julia Roberts, Jim Carrey, Will Smith, Jack Hughes, Gerard Butler, and others are diving deep into learning the Bhagavad Gita, meditation, and yoga, which has already become part of their daily life. They are vocal about the benefits of polytheism.
A survey of surveys
The membership of Americans in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50 per cent for the first time in Gallup’s (The global analytics and advice firm) eight-decade trend. In 2020, 47 per cent of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque, bringing the figure down from 50 per cent in 2018 and 70 per cent in 1999, says Gallup. This speaks volumes about people’s changing beliefs. A survey by Pew Research Center (PRC) conducted in 2018 and 2019 found that American adults who describe themselves as Christians have come down to 65 per cent from 77 per cent over the past decade. This is considered a rapid pace of decline for the US so far. Another survey published in May 2015 on secularisation likewise found an increase in the share of Americans who have regular feelings of ‘spiritual peace and well-being.’
This says much about the growing need for people to experience the Divine instead of following a certain dogma or rule book. One must note that this is happening after centuries of blind adherence to so-called monotheism that divided the world into ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers.’ Now, an increasing number of people across the world, especially in the West, are returning to their roots—the ancient pluralistic religions based primarily on piety towards divinity and traditional authorities.
A survey report in The Guardian in 2018 explains how the new breed of youngsters from the age group of 16 to 29 is changing the religious landscape in Europe. It was found that the Czech Republic is the least religious country in Europe, with 91 per cent of that age group saying they have no religious affiliations. Between 70 per cent and 80 per cent of young adults in Estonia, Sweden, and the Netherlands also categorise themselves as non-religious. The most religious country is Poland, where 17 per cent of young adults define themselves as non-religious, followed by Lithuania with 25 per cent.
Websites across the country advertise a full calendar of witchcraft festivals in England, Scotland, and Wales, as the polytheistic revival spreads across Britain.
The changing needs of people
The drifting towards pantheism could also be because the current generation expects religion and spirituality to play a more therapeutic role in their lives, a means for seeking greater connection with Mother Nature and experiencing peace in everyday living.
Sita Ram Goel, a religious and political writer, historian, and publisher, in his essay Theology of Monotheism, says:
“In the theology of Monotheism, God is extra-cosmic. He created the cosmos out of Nothing in order to demonstrate his almightiness and, consequently, kept himself outside and above the Cosmos. There is nothing in God’s creation which can partake of God’s divinity. The elements and forces of Nature are devoid of any divinity whatsoever. The sky is empty space, and the sun and the moon and the stars are only bright spots in that sky. Matter is absolutely material, and animals and birds are mere brutes unless they are domesticated when they show some improvement. Trees are timber, and the flowers embody no more than colour and fragrance. Air and water and fire and earth are what they are, and point to nothing beyond.”
In polytheism, the first dimension of divine presence or manifestation is the cosmos or nature. All the elements of nature are revered and praised along with the deities connected with them. It views the cosmos as a co-operative process: the deities co-operate in creating and maintaining the world. Many from the younger generation who have had secularised education find no connect with a monotheistic God. Someone who is not part of nature and is instead sitting somewhere in the sky waiting to swoop down and punish if one sets a toe out of line. Most are searching for the real meaning of life; they are seekers searching for the truth.
It seems that modern-day pantheism represents a personal process of decolonisation and a desire for spiritual autonomy. Where monotheism relies almost universally on dogma, hierarchy, and doctrine, pantheism offers inclusivity and self-direction, where no one is standing between you and your connection to the Divine. “Every bit—as it has been a search for meaning and truth—has been a grieving process for me to realise that what I have been attached to all of these years was, in fact, not the ultimate reality behind our existence. Nevertheless, it is simultaneously liberating and enlightening, which brings about serenity and peace of mind to me,” says Farhan Qureshi, a US citizen, a blogger, and a YouTuber, about his disappointment with monotheism, “My apostasy has not been based on disliking my birth religion or its requirements. Rather, it was based on a realisation that Islam is in direct contradiction with contemporary knowledge involving and including science, philosophy, ethics, anthropology, and the field which I am most interested in, educated, and practice as my line of work, namely, psychology, the science and study of human behaviour.”
Polytheism and women
It is germane to this discussion that we look closely at how monotheistic and polytheistic theologies look at half of the human population on the planet, i.e., women. The God of monotheism is addressed as a male in his oldest scripture and in his later avatars as the son of a virgin or as the granter of a heaven populated with 72 virgins, who exist exclusively to pleasure each believer.
Woman, however, elevated in monotheistic thinking, is either of a purity that denies her, her sexual side or is an object of pleasure for men in the hereafter for embracing certain beliefs. Monotheism is therefore a religious system of men, by men, and for men. Polytheism not only allows space for women to flower on their own terms and reveres her in many forms, but it has gone deeper than that. Polytheistic systems which have evolved to a certain degree acknowledge that the binaries of male-female, masculine and feminine, are but tools that enable us to talk about transcendental experiences in terms, which otherwise would not be possible.
Besides this, there is no scope for the third gender in monotheism, let alone considering the fact that a woman can have masculine elements present in her and vice versa. It is important to note in gender discussion that there are people who are born with both feminine and masculine features. This reality has been a part of every society for ages, yet it is ignored in monotheism, and even discussing it may be out of the question.
Even though polytheism believes in the concept of a supreme God or Goddess, it accepts many names, forms, genders, and hierarchies of deities. This paradigm is deeply woven into evolved polytheistic faiths. Especially in the Sanatan Dharma, it has been accepted since antiquity. The figure of Ardhanarishwar, where male and female forms are both present in a single deity, represents a rich metaphor for life, which remains open for much deliberation and exchange. Not only that, figures like Mohini and Shikhandi have become legends in the Hindu mythology, highlighting the tolerance and secular nature of such societies. This paradigm of inclusivity is part and parcel of polytheistic faiths. Dig deeper, and we see not only humans, but even non-humans become part of folklore, mythology, and earn a lot of reverence. They enrich texts, stories, wisdom tales, and get immortalised in conscious human memory. The fundamental disagreement a polytheist tradition has with monotheistic belief is that while the latter propagates ideologies, the former dwells more on myths and wisdom that keep growing with time. Mythology opens the field for discussion, whereas ideology restricts the mind. In mythology, there is scope for perspectives, and one can even have a personal experience connected to it, which leads one to the inward journey.
Sarah Khan (now known as Kali Dasi), 33, says, “I grew up in a staunch monotheistic faith where everything from eating to bathing, to reaching puberty, to education, to praying, was decided by one rule book that was revealed to mankind. I grew up in an overly controlled environment. We were told what to eat and what not to eat, so there was no scope for anyone to explore. They (family) even started deciding how long I should grow my hair, what is the right time to have sex, and that I should not drink alcohol, apply nail paints, and do eyebrows. Everything as per the book.”
She adds, “I was a very curious child and had a lot of questions. I was not looking to apply nail paints and do eyebrows, but I was interested in knowing why not? I was not interested in eating beef which they would force me to eat. I would ask why not eat pork if one has to kill an animal anyway, as it was much smaller in size compared to a cow. Instead of explaining things to me, my family fulminated over this, and I was thrashed most of the time for asking such questions.”
Freedom to choose
Polytheism is not merely the acceptance of many gods and goddesses. It creates a mindset and leads to the fact that there can be many different ideas of divinity. It gives one the capacity to explore and experience divinity in multiple forms. It also builds one’s capacity to accept more contrarian points of view. The Divine of a polytheist is not a single figure with super powers but a more fluid fusion of male and female forces, like yin and yang, Shiva and Shakti, and Purusha and Prakriti. Interestingly, societies that embraced this duality and allowed openness towards all the concepts of divinity have thrived with unparalleled creativity and prosperity. This spiritual understanding is more aligned with nature where opposites constantly intermingle with each other like day and night.
Polytheism allows people to believe in and pray to their own concepts of the Divine, in whichever form they choose, while at the same time, elevating all to their ultimate reality, which is their own divinity. This God demands no allegiance, punishes no one for their lack of belief, yet provides wisdom, comfort, compassion, and freedom to those who seek them. All they need to do is look within. On the other hand, the entire approach of one-God traditions is geared towards following a mindless frippery of dos and don’ts with no scope for critical thinking. The rule book is made to suppress your sense of curiosity, to make you fit in a frame or box.
Sarah says, “It was really suffocating. I was exploited and suppressed by my faith until I started embracing the divine feminine within me, after which I could see things changing for the better. I see no religion as good or bad. It is the people who immerse in dogmatic beliefs which sets a wrong precedent, and Islam remains stuck in these dogmas. Hinduism allowed me to explore the divinity in me. I have come to realise that I am just a small particle of the divine feminine form. Every woman is indeed divine. Goddess Kali has been my inspiration and source of enlightenment.”
“Monotheistic faiths don’t make sense. You can’t realise God through them,” says Anwar Shaikh, a critic of monotheism. “There is no such thing as democracy in monotheism. It advocates the government of God, as decreed by their holy book, whereas democracy is a government of the people, for the people, and by the people.”
Parochialism towards other religious outlooks is often observed in monotheism. Sarah says, “I would visit Maa Kali pandals (structured shelters) during the Durga Puja festival in Kolkata. I was drawn towards her beauty, her presence, and aura, but my father would restrict us from going there calling Her evil.” Later, Sarah had a deep spiritual experience with Maa Kali, which made her rechristen herself as Kali Dasi (servant of Mother Goddess). Today, she helps many seekers on the path.
Freedom to question
Priya Kangen Teulv, 30, a teacher by profession, who was raised in the staunch Roman Catholic faith in Dubai shares a similar experience. She says, “There are a multitude of reasons why I left the fold, but to sum it up, it just never felt ‘right.’ I spent years questioning my faith. I had a lot of questions that were not answered. Even if answered, they would not resonate with me. I just had to believe.” When she was in the UAE, she got a dream of a guru she had never met or heard about before. After meeting her guru Nityananda, her perception of God and religion changed forever. She explains, “My guru made me realise that God resided within me. I will not be punished by Him for not following some rules; rather, it’s my karma which punishes me. I learnt to revere myself and the elements of nature that have made my body. I experience life differently now, and it’s beautiful.”
With monotheistic faiths, as the term suggests, the outlook to life and living is fixed. One can’t venture into getting a second opinion. It is final for all of humanity. Author and historian Yuval Noah Harari points this out in his famous book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. He says, “What monotheism undoubtedly did was to make many people far more intolerant than before, thereby contributing to the spread of religious persecutions and holy wars. They believed that their God was the only God and that He demanded universal obedience. Consequently, as they spread around the world, so did the incidence of crusades, jihads, inquisitions, and religious discrimination.”
On the other hand, the primary focus of polytheistic faiths is an individual’s growth and their transformation into a more evolved being. It delves deeper into connecting with one’s own divinity.
Glen Kezwer, a PhD in physics and author of Meditation, Oneness, and Physics, who grew up in Canada, says, “I was feeling there was something essential missing in my life and realising that I was in the presence of a wise man (my guru, Shyamji), I asked him what I was missing. His answer was ‘You are missing you.’ I didn’t know what he meant, but at the same time, I was intrigued. I asked him how I could find that ‘you.’ He replied, ‘Close your eyes.’ The meaning of his answer was that the ‘you’ to which he referred was my essence and that I could find it in meditation. Since that day, I have been meditating regularly and have found the oneness that I believe is the essential existence of every human being.
She continues, “I also had trouble with the concept of God. God seemed distant to me, residing somewhere in heaven and tending to the earth and its inhabitants from afar. But I think what most alienated me was that God was a being separate from my own existence and that of the world around me. I could not relate to the concept of God that I had formulated, and it even came to the point where the word ‘God’ became anathema to me.”
Monotheism, as a system of belief, is absolute and has a tendency to proclaim its superiority over native culture when it enters foreign lands. All of Persia, the Middle East, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, and other South American and African countries are a telling example of this phenomena. At one point in time, pluralistic lifestyles thrived in these countries, but the advent of monotheism subdued their indigenous traditions. Yet pantheism has managed to survive against these onslaughts despite countless invasions, reflecting the resilience of natural religions. For example, the presence of more than a billion Hindus who have preserved their ancient Dharma—despite 1,400 years of foreign invasions, alien rule, and oppression—is living proof of this resilience. While it was the bravery and the undying spirit of polytheistic Hindus that saved India from going down like Persia, Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, in other parts of the world, polytheism survived only in fragments or as a memory. However, as awareness grows and people seek more meaning and a personal, soul-satisfying connection with the Divine, polytheism is slowly being more explored by people across the world.
In pluralistic religions, specifically the Hindu faith, there are no set parameters or fixed rules. It is a vastly liberal religion which openly encourages and tolerates difference of opinion, use of discretion, and an interpretation based on one’s own circumstances and perceptions. At the same time, there are strong ethical principles and rituals that characterise this path. The great Vedas and Upanishads are organised texts of universally applicable spiritual principles capable of being individually realised by any seeker of truth.
Pantheism gets absorbed in the native culture because only a pantheist can stomach a differing view and still co-exist. When Buddhism travelled to different lands, all the gods and spirits that were worshipped by the natives of those places became a part of Buddhism. It did not seek to annihilate the local deities to spread its message. When it went to Tibet, Japan, and China, there were already deities and demigods that were worshipped by the locals. The Buddhists explained to the indigenous people that these spirits also recognise the Buddha. In Japan, there was Shintoism, and in China, Confucianism, yet they could easily co-exist with Buddhism. Today, in a single family, members can be found practising three different faiths. We can see that polytheism only creates harmony and co-existence with others. In the words of historian Yuval Noah Harari, “Polytheists found it perfectly acceptable that different people will worship different gods and perform diverse rites and rituals. They rarely, if ever, fought, persecuted, or killed people just because of their religious beliefs.”
Pantheism is an acknowledgement that the transcendental is experienced at different times and places in different forms, names, and attributes. This understanding makes a polytheist more accepting of diversity. For this reason, it is not difficult for them to perceive Shango of IFA, Thor of Norse legends, Indra of the Vedas, Rudra-Shiva of the Puranas, and Zeus of the Greeks as one deity expressed in contexts separated by time, place, and geography. Furthermore, when a polytheist encounters a new culture, it also engenders in them the tendency to discover their own gods and goddesses in the gods and goddesses of others. We can comfortably say that Athena, the Greek goddess of knowledge and wisdom is the Hellenistic counterpart of Devi Sarasvati. The Greek god Pan who is half goat and half boy, plays the flute and is also a shepherd, bears some resemblance to the Hindu god Shree Krishna. This way, a channel opens, and gradually, the mixing of blood happens smoothly and harmoniously. After some time, you cannot differentiate between the two.
A flourishing society
It is characteristic of polytheistic traditions to stay with the contradiction and not try to resolve everything. In these cultures, memes and metaphors often combine two polar opposites. Shiva is considered the god of destruction, but he is also the giver of boons and blessings to his devotees, thus creating new life and opportunities. This understanding that every act of creation requires destruction to give you multiple perspectives and multiple touchpoints which allow you to live with contradiction is part of polytheistic traditions. And because of this reason, art, poetry, discussion and debate are possible. If we talk about Europe, which is governed by monotheistic faith, sitting silently at its roots is polytheism. All the major developments that happened in Europe during and after the European Renaissance, from scientific inventions to art, literature, poetry, architecture, and culture, were a result of people looking into their own antiquity beyond the control of the church. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, poetess Sappho, and Pythagoras bolstered the Renaissance movement and much of the cultural growth in their times. All of them were gems of Greek polytheistic society.
If we look deeply, societies which were open to many forms of worshipping and divinity have flourished, whereas societies where this freedom was missing have gone down. Art, philosophy, the basis of science, the understanding of reality and spirituality, architecture, and literature—they all evolved and reached their peak during the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian era. We still refer to them to learn and deal with life. In fact, the language of polytheists still plays a major part in today’s English. The majority of the words come directly from this language. Where will philosophy be without Aristotle and Socrates? Where will geometry be without Pythagoras? Likewise, even India and China have given much to the world in terms of art, sculpture, literature, and spiritual enrichment. They were all polytheistic societies where debates and disagreements were allowed, and a variety of gods and goddesses were worshipped for various reasons. But unfortunately, almost all of them have lost their rich heritage except the Indian subcontinent where, even today, in certain pockets, the most ancient scriptures are not only revered but referred to and used in everyday living.
It is not that being a polytheist makes you a good person or being a monotheist makes you a bad person per se. There are masses of ignorant people on both sides, but many are waking up. Mankind has come to a stage where people are discovering their common humanity, and it is time to make the right choice. We can see across the world that it is growing into a force. It is time for coming out of any theism and seeing the eternal realities of life. The voice of the Universe that is talking to us, provided we listen to its voice, is not of any religion or faith. It is the voice of Brahman or the truth awaiting to be discovered. And everyone has their own way of discovering it, experiencing it, and expressing it. There is a sutra that can be traced to the Rigveda of the Sanatan Dharma, which states, It means “Truth is one; the wise express it in various ways.”
Finally, we have a right to worship our idea of divinity and a responsibility to honour and respect the way in which others worship theirs.
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