Vedic Monotheism?2. Discovering monotheism underneath polytheism
Christian and post-Christian scholars have often attempted to recast other religions in the monotheistic mould. This endeavour was usually motivated by one of two contradictory motives, both of them presupposing a superiority for monotheism. Either its intention was sympathetic, in the case of liberal-Christian or post-Christians students of other religions: they tried to upgrade them from the general Pagan polytheistic category so as to make them more respectable. This was mostly the background of 19th-century descriptions of Buddhism or Zoroastrianism as monotheistic. Alternatively, it was a missionary stratagem to wean populations earmarked for conversion away from their polytheistic roots in their past or in the larger society to which they belonged. In particular, Catholic missionaries in India have tried to prove that tribal religions are basically monotheistic, hence ”not Hindu”, and at any rate typologically closer to Christianity than to Hinduism.
2.1. Monotheistic Buddhism?
When the study of Buddhism was first taken up by European Orientalists, even basic data about the religion were unknown or misunderstood. Thus, it took a while before scholars realized that the Buddha had been Indian rather than Chinese. After all, there were no Buddhists in India then, while they were omnipresent in China and her cultural satellites: Korea , Japan , Vietnam . And when the scholars started exploring Buddhism’s Indian genesis, they tended at first to project European and Christian experiences onto the Buddhist account.
As a towering figure who launched a distinct system of philosophy and practice within an existing Brahminism-dominated religious landscape, the Buddha has been likened to Moses challenging the idolaters, to Jesus challenging the Pharisees and the Temple establishment, and to Martin Luther challenging the Papacy. Whether his role was similarly revolutionary is another discussion (we don’t believe it), but at any rate, even if it was, this doesn’t imply that his doctrine was similar to that of the said Abrahamic figures. Yet, one conclusion briefly drawn from this purported likeness was that just like Moses and later Mohammed, the Buddha threw a monotheistic challenge into a polytheistic environment.
This idea was only a brief blip in the development of Buddhist studies, swiftly refuted by the Orientalists. It was too obviously untenable, for the word “God” or some credible equivalent is simply absent from the Buddhist canon. Yes, gods in the plural play an auxiliary role, as when Brahma and Indra are witnesses to the Buddha’s Awakening. In later devotional Buddhism, the Buddha is worshipped, but in various personae such as the Amitabha Buddha, and along with the Bodhisattvas Maitreya, Avalokiteshvara, Guanyin and others. Much of the Hindu pantheon was represented in Buddhist temples and taken along during Buddhist expansion abroad, so that Saraswati or Ganesha can be found venerated in Japan. However, these gods play no role in the original Buddhist method of Liberation, and the Buddha is never presented as their spokesman. The message he teaches is of his own yogic discovery, not a divine revelation. In that respect, Buddhism is atheistic. So, polytheistic on the one hand and atheistic on the other, Buddhism is anything but monotheistic.
Wherever the gods are acknowledged, Buddhism makes no fuss about their number. It never cares to replace the many with the One. So, it fails both tests for qualifying as monotheistic: it doesn’t worship a single God, and it doesn’t denounce or oppose the worship of the many gods.
It goes without saying that Buddhism never militated against so-called idolatry (m?rti-p?j?) either. First of all, the use of sculpted idols was probably rare in the India of the Buddha’s day. There simply were no idols to smash. Secondly, once the Buddhists came in touch with the Indo-Greek tradition of religious sculpture, they adopted it to create what was to become the world’s most popular sculpture: the Buddha statue. Later, Muslims in the area would name the generic phenomenon of idols after this proliferating Buddhist idol: b?t. In Persian, b?t-parast became the standard term for idol-worshipper.
However, this much is true that the Buddha himself is said to have forbidden his disciples to make images of him. If historical (and why not?), that injunction was not a stricture against the use of idols but rather against his own deification. He reasoned that if people were going to extol him above themselves, they would see his yogic method as likewise belonging to a level above their own, and would consequently fail to practise it.
2.2. The one and only Ahura Mazda?
The first translators of the Asian religious source texts were children of their time and religious background. They projected themes from Jewish and Christian history onto Zarathustra, the Buddha, Confucius and other Oriental “prophets”. Among these was the struggle against polytheism and idolatry. They credited Zarathustra with being a pioneer of monotheism. Unlike in the case of the Buddha, the monotheistic tag has stuck to Zarathustra. In non-specialist circles, the received wisdom nowadays is that he was a kind of Iranian Moses and that his religion may also have influenced the Israelites in a pro-monotheistic sense.
The Mazdean or Zoroastrian religion, like ancient Vedicism and most ancient Indo-European religions, was aniconic, i.e. it didn’t use “idols” or representations of the gods. Iranian Muslims label Zoroastrians as ?tiš-parast, “fire-worshippers”, distinct from the idol-worship practised by the Pharaonic Egyptians and by ancient Semites such as the Ugaritics, Babylonians, Assyrians, Canaanites, pre-Moses Israelites and the pre-Islamic Arabs. When the Muslim conquerors of Central Asia encountered the Buddhists with their elaborate sculpture art depicting the Buddha, they termed them b?t-parast, “worshippers of Buddha statues”, then retro-actively generalized this term to all “idol-worshippers”. But they did not apply it to the Mazdeans.
It is possible, but not attested in so many words in the Bible, that the Israelites had a higher opinion of the Mazdean religion than of the idolatry of the Semites in Canaan and Babylon. As an aniconic form of worship, it may have seemed pleasantly familiar to the Israelites, who were recent converts to aniconism. They were at any rate grateful to the Persian emperor Cyrus for liberating them from Babylonian captivity in 539 BC. The Bible editors even have their god Yahweh call Cyrus his anointed and his shepherd (Isaiah 45:1-13; 44:28; 2 Chronicles 36:22,23; Ezra 1:1-11). He and his successor Darius organized the rebuilding of the temple of Jerusalem by Zerubbabel and the codification of the Bible by Ezra (Ezra 5:13-17; 6:1-16). A certain Jewish-Persian friendship resulted, lastly in the form of active Iranian cooperation with Israel under the Shah; as late as the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the Iraqi Arabs chided their Persian enemies for being friends of the Jews. However, neither from the common aniconism nor from this historical alliance can we deduce that the Mazdeans shared the monotheism of the Jews.
There are other elements in common between the two religions, probably borrowed by Judaism from Zoroastrianism. Thus, the belief in a future saviour already existed in the Avesta, where the Saošyant, “benefactor”, virgin-born from among Zarathustra’s own progeny, is awaited to set all injustices right. Some Bible scholars think that the Jewish notion of the awaited Messiah (Mašiah, “anointed one”, i.e. heir to King David’s throne) came about as an adaptation of this Mazdean concept. Likewise, the replacement of the belief in the afterlife as a mere shadowland with the notion of a final judgment showing the deceased the way to either heaven or hell, has been attributed to Mazdean influence (after having earlier been repudiated by the Israelites as a characteristic part of the Pagan Egyptian religion). Finally, the concept of angels and demons is said to be Mazdean in origin.
However, none of these modern interpretations of the Avestan and Biblical data, much less the Bible text itself, attests or proves the idea of Ahura Mazd?, “Lord Wisdom”, as the one and only god of the Mazdeans, to the exclusion of all others. Given the Bible’s focus on monotheism, it would have been logical if they had highlighted the discovery of a ready-made monotheism among a second and friendly nation.
On the contrary, some Bible commentators see an allusion to the ancient faith of the Persians as utterly Pagan in Ezechiel 8:16, which describes people bowing to the rising sun, an act of sun-worship comparable to the Hindu s?rya-namask?r, which it next denounces as an “abomination”. Since Ezechiel predated the Persian conquest of Babylon, this would require a later interpolation; which is common enough in the Bible but unnecessary here, because no doubt other West-Asian peoples also practised sun-worship. However, Christian sources m later confirm the same about the Iranian “Magians”, that they were sun-worshippers. Hence also the Magians’ enthusiasm for astrology after their conquest of Babylon (it is as astrologers who had “seen His star in the East”, that the three Magoi visit the newborn Jesus), and their purely solar calendar centred on Spring Equinox or Newroz.
The Norwegian scholar Prods Oktor Skjaervo has recently argued [“Zarathustra and monotheism”, in Beate Pongratz-Leisten, ed.: Rethinking Revolutionary Monotheism, Reconsidering the Concept of Revolutionary Monotheism, Eisenbrauns 2011] definitively that Zarathustra’s writings were not monotheistic at all. Indeed, even a cursory glance at the primary texts and Persian religious history suggests to us that Mazdeism was polytheistic.
Beside Ahura Mazda are well-known: An?hit?, goddess of the heavenly waters; Zam, the earth; Mithra, the sun (though Greek sources also interpret him as Venus, the morning star who clears the path for the sun), Sraoša, “willingness to listen”, and his female companion Aš?, = Mithra’s charioteer; Airyaman, the divine healer; Tištriya, the brightest fixed star in the sky, Sirius; and the psychedelic plant brew Haoma. Though the rejection of the Vedic storm-god Indra is central to the Avesta, we find that even he lives on in the Iranian pantheon under his epithet Verethraghna, “Vrtra-killer” or “dragon-slayer”. Zarathustra himself was also worshipped as a deity, a typical instance of the Pagan procedure of apotheosis (Greek: “elevation to divine status”) or širk (Semitic: “association” of a mortal with a god or with the pantheon). Achaemenid and Sasanian inscriptions confirm the worship of many gods.
If Ahura Mazda (Middle Persian: Ohrmazd) enjoyed an emphatic pride of place and was in some texts and rituals the only god worshipped, this is an instance of henotheism, lacking the condemnation of other gods beside him, a defining trait of monotheism. Sasanian highpriest Kerdir, ca. 240 CE, calls himself “in the services of Ohrmazd and the gods”. In the Younger Avesta , the generic term for a (male) god is a yazata “worshipped with sacrifices”, “someone worthy of sacrifice”. This shows the same semantic development as the Germanic word god, equivalent to Sanskrit h?ta, “worshipped with libations”. In the Old Avesta, this term is used only once, viz. for Ahura Mazda.
One of the most popular Mazdean deities was the sun-god Mithra. The latter was adopted into Mithraism, a kind of Freemasonic tradition popular among the Roman soldiers, which gave pride of place to the Zodiac as the twelve-stage road traversed by the Invincible Sun, Mithras. Because Ahura Mazd? probably originated as a form of address for the Indo-Iranian sky-god Varuna, the cult of Mithra along with Ahura Mazda can be seen as continuous with the Vedic cult of Mitra-Varuna, the twin deities of the day sky and night sky.
Under the impact of the monotheism espoused by foreign rulers (Arabs in Persia, Turks and Afghans and then Britons in India), the Zoroastrians have gradually reinterpreted their gods as aspects of the One God, just as some modern Hindus have tried to twist their polytheism into a kind of monotheism. As Skjaervo writes: “The pantheon was never eliminated, and Zoroastrianism, in some sense at least, remained a polytheistic religion throughout its history, although today the many deities have lost their individual divine character and are not worshipped for themselves but have been reinterpreted as allegories or symbols.”
Thus, the Ameša Spent?-s, “life-giving immortals” (viz. Best Order, Good Thought, Well-Deserved Command, Life-Giving Humility, Wholeness and Immortality), were conceived of as divine persons in the Older Avesta; in the Younger Avesta, they become Ahura Mazda’s first creations; and more recently, they have been understood as his own virtues. Or as “angels”, i.e. celestial persons with their own intelligence but not with a will of their own, totally integrated in the single God’s functioning. But this is an innovation, not reflecting the ancient situation where distinct divine personalities were acknowledged. So, far from being a pioneer of monotheism, Mazdeism, even to the extent that its contemporary form can be described as monotheistic, is a polytheistic religion that has only undergone the influence of Christianity and Islam later on.
If ancient sources, both internal and external, are lacking in testimonies of Mazdeism denouncing god-pluralism, whence then has the notion arisen that Zarathustra was a kind of Moses smashing the false gods? This hypothesis was deduced from the well-attested rejection by Zarathustra and his followers of a particular class of Indo-European and Vedic gods, the Daeva-s (= Sanskrit Deva). Not only had he abolished their worship, he had at once turned them into demons. Daemon est deus inversus, “a demon is a god turned upside down”. In particular they demonized the champion of the gods, the thunder-god Indra, renaming him as Angra Mainyu, “destructive spirit”. (Given the naïve fascination of our ancestors with the traps of language and the consequent abundance of puns in their religious texts, we may surmise an allusion here to Angiras, name of the Devas- and Indra-worshipping Vedic priestly clan.) This process of inverting a god into a demon greatly resembled the Judeo-Christian rejection of the Pagan gods and the transformation of the Horned God (Ba’al, Shiva, Cernunnos) into the Devil.
However, this rejection of particular Indo-Iranian gods was not a rejection of god-pluralism per se. In many Indo-European pantheons, we find several distinct categories of divine beings, e.g. the Gods and the Titans in Greece ; the Aesir, Vanir and giants in the Germanic world; the Deva-s and Asura-s in the younger parts of the Veda-s. In the oldest Vedic phase, the terms seem to have been interchangeable. The term Asura had no negative or demonic connotation yet, nor was there a notion of a Dev?surasangram, a “conflagration of gods and demons”.
But then a conflict arose between the Vedic Indians and the Iranian tribes. Two highlights are decribed in the Rg-Veda: the Battle of the Ten Kings (7:5 and 7:18), named after the western alliance facing the Saraswati-based Vedic king Sud?s, and a few generations later the V?rs?gira Battle (4:15 and 1:122:13), named after the patronymic of its commanders on the Vedic side. In the latter, one of the enemy (and allegedly defeated) kings is called Ist??va, the Sanskrit equivalent of Višt?spa, the royal patron of Zarathustra. It is highly plausible that the emerging opposition between Devas and Asuras, with the former worshipped and the latter demonized by the Indians and the latter worshipped but the former demonized by the Iranians, finds its origin in this war.
Thus, we can imagine that both sides invoked the storm-god Indra before the battle, but that he awarded victory to only the Indian side. The Iranian side, instead of looking for an explanation for their defeat in their own ritual or ethical shortcomings (as religious people tend to do), squarely blamed Indra and broke off their relationship with him. This way, a mundane event led to a whole theological construction of an enmity between two classes of gods, and ultimately to the dualism of cosmic good and evil that has been deemed distinctive of Mazdeism for most of its history.
To sum up, it has been the received wisdom for over a century now that Mazdeism started as a monotheistic revolt against polytheism. This impression sprang from the spirit of the times, with the fledgling science of comparative religion working from the assumption of monotheism’s superiority and generously trying to find as much of it as possible in exotic religions. The number of competent scholars who could critically rethink this common opinion was just too small, so misconceptions once accepted took long to get abandoned. Today, however, there is no excuse anymore for inertially holding on to this distorted understanding of Mazdeism. Ahura Mazda clearly had a supreme status, but among a crowd of other gods.
2.3. The one and only Sing Bonga?
For about a century and a half, the Mundari-speaking tribes in what is now Jharkhand have been the favoured hunting-ground for soul-hungry Jesuit missionaries from my homeland, the Flemish part of Belgium . They codified the native languages, devised a script for them and the first-ever school textbooks. Count on Flemish Jesuits to do thorough job; if one of these languages, Santal, is now an official language of the Indian Republic and not an extinction-bound wilderness dialect, it is largely thanks to their efforts. They also made themselves useful by providing legal assistance to the tribals in their struggle against landholders, moneylenders and even the colonial authorities. This way, they won the confidence of the natives to the extent that quite a few of them converted.
The Jesuit study of the native religion set a template from which later students found it hard to free themselves, all the more so because many of them, esp. the so-called secularists, shared the anti-Hindu animus of the Jesuits. Non-specialist reports on the Indian tribals in Western and Indian-English media commonly claim that their religions are completely different from Hinduism. For Western secularists, wary of Christian claims of doctrinal superiority, the specific theological differences are not that important (in contrast with the supposed greater egalitarianism of the tribal cultures), but Christian news channels regularly push the claim that unlike polytheistic Hinduism, “Aboriginal” religion is monotheistic.
However, already a first acquaintance (even through first-hand descriptions of actual religious practice by Jesuit missionaries) will make clear that tribal religion In Jharkhand is polytheistic. Consider this recent media report on a festival of the Ho tribe: “Maghe Porob was celebrated in honor the Sing Bonga, the mythological God as creator of universe and his amazing creation of nature by ‘HO’ community, at Ashura, Jharkhand.” (19 March 2011,
The term “creator of the universe“ is a bit suspect, it may well be a Christian transposition of a Biblical notion. Then again, astrophysics and geology have taught us that the whole solar system, including all the substances and biomass on earth and in the atmosphere, have all originated as solar dust, the gradually condensed remnants of clouds emanating from the sun during its formation. Since Sing Bonga is the sun god (quite literally “Sun God”), it makes sense to say that he is the origin of at least the relevant part of the universe, the solar system; as long as we acknowledge that this doesn’t make him the only entity fit to be worshipped.
Now, let us listen to some details: “‘Maghe’ was being celebrated in honor of Sing Bonga, and his incarnations like Singi (the sun), Chandu (the moon), Deshauli (sacred groove of trees), Nage-Bindi era (A deity of river, pond and spring etc), Marang Bonga (a deity as protector of the village), Pauri Bonga (a deity as guide to marriage life) and Bagia Bonga (a deity as protector of cattle)”, and “Densari Bonga (the deity of craft)”. Bonga means “god”, and in a mere newspaper report, we already meet eight of them. Further, we know that the tribals worship their ancestors, the spirits of trees and wells, and other sources of sacrality. So, Sing Bonga may be a supreme deity, but is definitely one among a number of deities. He is the pinnacle of a prolific pantheon. The acceptance of one god as higher in rank than others doesn’t constitute monotheism, or else the Church would not have condemned the ancient religions of Zeus, Jupiter, Woden, etc. as polytheistic.
Even if Sing Bonga were the only god of the Mundari tribes, there is no record of their condemning or trying to suppress the worship of other gods, a key condition for monotheism. And at any rate, their worship of the sun as sole deity without a second would not save them in Christian eyes. To Christians, the sun is a false god, usurping the place of the one true God who was incarnated as Jesus Christ. The sun-worshipping Inca Athahualpa was killed by the Spanish Christians because he remained true to his sun worship: “Your god died on the cross, but mine rises every morning.” So this whole Christian game of reinterpreting the tribal religions as somehow more monotheistic than Hinduism is not going to save them, it is only a tactic to isolate them from the Hindu mainstream all the faster to destroy them.
The obsession with curtailing the existing pluriformity of religious expression is a fairly rare phenomenon in human history. The Buddhists didn’t have it, neither the profound philosophers who went without worship of any gods nor the lay folk who continued the existing worship of the Hindu (and Chinese, Japanese etc.) traditional gods. Instead, they only added the Buddha and related Buddhist figures to the pantheon, making it even more densely populated.
The Zoroastrians, at least the early ones who still had an acquaintance with the worship of the Daeva category of gods, had a peculiar hostility to these Daevas, esp. Indra or Angra Mainyu, but they (and their descendents, to whom “Daeva” had become an empty word) nevertheless continued the worship of other gods beside their mascotte god Ahura Mazda. In spite of numerous contacts with monotheists, friendly with the Jews and hostile with the Christians and Muslims, they were never recognized as monotheists.
Of preliterate tribals, no case is known of the imposition of the worship of a single god at the expense of all others. Everywhere, they have venerated the ancestors, the Mother Earth, the Father Sun, the heavenly host of moon and stars, the spirits inhabiting mountains and rivers. This is also true of the Indian tribals whom the Christian missionaries have tried to isolate from their Hindu neighbours by reinterpreting their religion as monotheistic and thus an exceptionally worthy preparation for the ultimate monotheism of Christianity.