How Christianity trumped Pantheism in the Roman Empire and What It Means for India. 

How Christianity trumped Pantheism in the Roman Empire and What It Means for India. 

by Deepika Ahlawat - Dec 31, 2014 05:16 PM +05:30 IST
How Christianity trumped Pantheism in the Roman Empire and What It Means for India. 

The secular state need not concern itself with the merits of theologies. But it does need to consider whether fundamental tenets of some faiths disallow a synergised existence within a secular social structure.

By 529 AD, the Emperor Justinian had closed down all the schools of philosophy in Athens that earlier Roman emperors had endowed and supported. Through the “Dark Ages”, the monotheistic imperium of Christianity held sway in Europe and parts of the Middle East, slowly purging innovation and heterogeneity from thought and intellectual practice.  Philosophy in this period centred on the a priori existence of a Christian God, and the entire realm of intellectual exercise was defined, restricted and asphyxiated by this assumption.

In the Greco-Roman world, and indeed, until very recently, when the most current taxonomies of knowledge and specialisms formed, philosophy encompassed all forms of human knowledge—from the particulars of knowledge to its very conception, including both science and theology.

( I incarcerate science in protective punctuation because the ideas and concepts denoted and connoted by this signifier were conceived of, debated over, revised, and edited till they came to us in our time, bear limited resemblance to the meanings it carried in various cultural settings in the past. This caveat also applies to the examples of religion I discuss, which too changed and remade themselves with the times.)

The Greco-Roman philosophers had all been pantheists, even though they had not always been Greek or Roman—merely functioning within the sphere of Greco-Roman language and culture, nurtured by these powerful schools of philosophy. The theology of these philosophers and of the world they influenced and created was complex, divisive, varied and always vigorously heterogeneous.

Formed by the absorption, creation, and edition of various localised myths and philosophical speculations, it displayed an ecumenical inclusiveness that many will recognise and find familiarly discombobulating–it was very like Hinduism.

This theology had poets, not prophets. It had hundreds of gods, with their own hierarchies and family dramas lovingly drawn out by the likes of Homer and Hesiod. It had critiques of these human foibles of the gods and the poets who dared to write such imperfect gods. It challenged and edited its gods. It killed and bribed them. It chose to ignore them, and often rejected them entirely.

And perhaps because the proponents of this theology questioned everything, they were able to walk through startling avenues of new knowledge.

Emperor Constantine (mosaic at the Hagia Sophia)
Emperor Constantine (mosaic at the Hagia Sophia)

With the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity in the 4thcentury CE, things changed.  Christianity had only one God, and prophets and apostles decreed his exact form and nature, and his requirements from his followers. The god-tolerant syncretism of pantheism reached out tentacles of various henotheistic doctrines to absorb this new faith, (and its followers and their wealth) within its folds, but the new church, far from finding this absorptive capacity pleasant and welcoming, considered it to be its most dangerous aspect.

Due to the demands of their faith, Christians simply could not reciprocate the acceptance that the pantheists were able to extend, and this led to violent conflict. These conflicts, often identified as wars of ideas, were more correctly wars for power and resources: though the pantheists were not opposed to Christian ideas, they were certainly threatened by the increasing power and influence of the Christian church.

Over the following two centuries, as the empire adopted Christianity, the pantheists were routed from Europe, their beliefs and history encompassed and dismissed within the derogatory word “pagan”.

(Of course, Christianity today is not the Christianity of the 6th century. Internal revolutions in the medieval ages transformed it into a faith that allowed the acceptance of new ideas, leading to the scientific revolution and heralding a new world for our species.)

This short and violent path slashed through history from a millennium and a half ago contains an example of a monotheistic faith engaged in a battle for followers and political power against a pantheistic one – and therefore relevant to the situation in India today. The loaded term “ghar-wapsi” or “return home” refers to the attempts being made by certain Hindu groups to re-convert individuals who, or whose ancestors, were converted to other proselytising faiths under duress.

By including conversion/re-conversion within Hindu ideology,   some followers of Hindu ideas (the debate around Hinduism and its definition as a religion using the same criteria as monotheistic faiths is a well-developed one, and I will not repeat it here) have challenged  Hindu orthodoxy. However, as there is no central authority in this system, they have every right to do so. Fundamentalist Hindus may not follow this brand of avant-garde Hinduism—but neither can they reject it from the fold of Hindu ideas.

Hinduism allows the adoption of the rigid, prescriptive theology of the kind avant-garde Hindus are intent on practicing, as much as it rejects it, and indeed many followers have enthusiastically embraced just such forms of prescriptive Hinduism in the recent past. As these followers take on characteristics of the very faiths they wish to convert others from, they propagate a uniformity of theology and ideas that may prove to be dangerous.

As we saw with medieval  Christianity,  homogeneity and uniformity in theistic constructs of the world lead to  similar stagnation  and uniformity in all intellectual practice, including the severe restriction of  that most holy, alms-giving  (and wholly misunderstood)  deity we seek to please today: scientific thought.

Emperor Justinian
Emperor Justinian

This is not to contend that pantheism by itself leads to a benign, just or scientifically advanced society—clearly not. Neither the Greek states nor the Roman Empire were ideal societies, and, most emphatically, nor was India before the advent of monotheistic competition. At this time we simply do not know the exact recipe for a  just society—this is a never-ending quest, and always will be. Heterogeneity of thought and philosophy allows us to speculate and experiment towards achieving this ideal; a homogenous, prescriptive faith disallows such endeavours.

The current situation in India differs from the Roman and Greek worlds, and indeed the country’s own recent past, in that the Republic has no faith; it is secular.  It can even be argued that it is the pantheistic nature of Hinduism that allows India to be a secular state– had the majority of Indians been members of a prescriptive monotheistic faith, it too would have been one nation under (one) God.

In order to better understand and manage faith within the citizenry of a secular state, debate about religion must move away from the simplistic and indigent assumption that all religions are the same. They are not. In the eyes of the secular state the followers of every religion, or none at all, should be equal, but extending that equivalence to the faiths themselves is illogical.  Although the secular state need not concern itself with the merits of their theologies, it does need to consider whether fundamental tenets of some faiths disallow a synergised existence within a secular social structure.  Fundamentalist Muslims and Christians, for example, simply cannot extend theological tolerance to the Hindus and their gods, however much they may wish to. Indeed, they are faith-bound to proselytise and convert.

That the open source system of Hindu theism has recently adopted these practices is surprising only in that it has taken avant-garde Hindu groups – no doubt looking for political relevance– so long to do so. Nonetheless, no rational argument can support proselytising and conversion by one faith while simultaneously decrying the exact same practise by members of another.

Should the state allow these practices within the purview of religious freedom?

Or, should the secular state curb all public proselytising even though it may go against the tenets of certain faiths?

Such curbs will inevitably restrict some religious freedoms, but all social morality and laws are based around just such complex negotiations of rights and freedoms.  Perhaps the secular state — forged in an age of scientific modernity– can curb proselytising under the ambit of  false advertising —because, after all, all proselytising, conversion and reconversion, is based around the existence of god/s and cosmologies  of which there is no empirical evidence.

Perhaps it is time that our secular state actually was secular and not a soppy omni-religious kindergarten notice board before the Holiday season.

Deepika Ahlawat is a museum curator, art consultant, and novelist. Her first novel, Maya’s Revenge, was published by Harper Collins India in 2013. Follow her on Twitter @ahlade.

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