Pure Things

Pure things for the pure. How then
Shall we purify ourselves?
By becoming like
Unto the all-pure Gods,
Do we approach Them, reflect
Them back unto Themselves.

Strip away all
That is alien to Them, all
That binds the soul to the depths
Of mighty matter. Instead,
Let the eye of the soul gaze
Upward, homeward, back
To her eternal source.

Then, only then, do we become
Pure. All
Else falls away, impurities refined,
‘Til what remains
Is an offering, pure,
Returned to the Pure.

Give Water to the Gods

Awkward confession time.

For years, I’ve heard other polytheists encouraging people to offer simple libations of water to the Gods. For whatever reasons—and even after searching my memory, I’m not entirely sure what those reasons were—I always ignored that advice, and even looked down on this practice. Whether it’s because those water offerings were sometimes framed as second-best (“if you can’t give anything else, at least give water”), or because of some other hang-ups on my part, I just didn’t do it. For years, I’ve burned candles at their shrines daily, offered incense regularly, and poured occasional libations of wine or other beverages. But until recently, never water.

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What is Tradition For?

Consider an antique telescope. There are two different ways of “looking,” with respect to this scientific instrument. I could look at the telescope: making the telescope the object of my study, inquiring into how telescopes were made in the 19th century, the materials used, the curvature of the lens, the mechanisms (or lack thereof) for making fine adjustments, etc. This might even become part of a detailed history of telescopes, or of the institution of astronomy over the centuries.

Or I could pick the telescope up, take it outside on a clear night, and look through the telescope, using the telescope as it was intended by its makers, to study the planets and stars. This latter project will, from time to time, require me to attend to the instrument itself: adjusting the focus, cleaning the lens, setting it up correctly in its stand so that it’s stable and ready to work. But none of these things are in the end, the goal, the telos toward which they are directed and from which they acquire their meaning. They are all in the service of allowing me to observe the heavenly bodies as they course through the night sky.

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Buddhism, dependent arising, and the erasure of polytheism

(No, we are not all trying to be atheists.)

In my last post, I discussed how a noxious mix of philosophical misunderstanding, hegemonic monotheism, and respectability politics have given rise to the false claim that “Advaita Vedānta is monotheism.” In the present post, I’d like to examine another, quite similar erasure of polytheism; namely, the false claim that “Buddhism is atheistic,” which arises from a noxious mix of philosophical misunderstanding, hegemonic atheism,1 and respectability politics.

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No, we are not all trying to be monotheists.

(Vedānta, monism, and the erasure of polytheism)

All too often, it’s claimed that “Advaita Vedānta is a form of monotheism.” Or even that Advaita Vedānta is a better, more pure, more refined form of monotheism than its Middle Eastern competitors, Christianity and Islam.

No, Advaita is not monotheism. It is monism,* the view that “there is only one thing.” But if there is only one thing, there is no more reason to call that thing “God” that to call it “cosmos” or “human being” or “chair” or “river.” I mean no disrespect or impiety here, but simply an entry into the core Advaita notion of “neti, neti”, “not this, not this.” Any label, any category, always functions by distinguishing X from what is not-X or what is other-than-X; in other words, by splitting things into different groups based on their defining features. No predicates, no labels whatsoever can possibly apply to Brahman, the one reality, since there is nothing other than itself from which it can be distinguished. Even calling it Brahman is ultimately problematic, for the very same reasons: ‘Brahman’ is a predicate/label, too.

Rather, the plethora of Gods and Goddesses, just like the plethora of humans, chairs, rivers, and other things that seem to populate the world, are all of them ultimately unreal to the monist/Advaitin.

But this is monism, not monotheism.

Continue reading “No, we are not all trying to be monotheists.”

First Things First

At the start of 2020, I read a thoughtful and inspiring blog post, on the beauty, value, and importance of beginning the new year by very deliberately calling upon the Gods. At the time, I was living in what the Brits (so I’m told) would call a bed-sit: I had a bathroom, a kitchen, and one other room to serve as bedroom, living room, study, and repository for all of my shrines, combined into one cozy space. This meant that every morning when I woke up, even before fumbling for my glasses and rolling out of bed, I was very tangibly in the presence of the Gods, before their shrines where I regularly offered my gifts and prayers. So it occurred to me that, just as it’s important to begin the year by acknowledging and honoring the Gods, so too, at the beginning of each day. And so I set out to form that habit.

As a daily practice, I don’t make this especially formal or elaborate; I save the more elaborate prayers and rituals for after I’ve fully woken up! But there’s something unexpressibly powerful, when the first words out of my mouth can be a simple sentence or two, in praise of the Gods who are so dear to me, and who have given me everything.

Though I’m no longer sleeping right in front of their shrines, I’m happy to say that I’ve kept up the habit of making a small simple prayer as soon as I wake, even before I put on my glasses. Which means that today, without any special planning for it, I could begin a new year of my own life with prayer and adoration. (The more elaborate work came a little later.)

Praise the Gods!

Is Obedience a Virtue?

It is sometimes claimed that obedience, toward both Gods and humans, is a virtue. That seems wrong to me, and I’d like to explore the reasons why. As usual, I’m trying to develop my own understanding by thinking out in public in this forum, and I eagerly welcome respectful criticisms, objections, questions, and suggestions which might help me further my thinking on the issue.

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The Most Important Part

A few weeks ago, I was conversing with someone who trotted out the old line that “really” all religions are the same, because what they’re “really” about is giving us a sense of purpose and the greater good, encouraging us to behave and to become better people, and the like.

It’s so easy to forget just how common this kind of misunderstanding is.

After my initial shock (and thinking silently “really? really?!”), I tried as best I could, gently but forcefully, to point out that my interlocutor had missed the most important part: the Gods themselves. The singular, unique divine persons with whom we cultivate a relationship. A relationship of worship and devotion, and possibly with other dimensions and aspects as well, but at bottom, a relationship with a person.

While I don’t want to push this analogy too far, compare the case of marriage or committed romantic relationships among humans. While healthy marriages tend to produce certain ancillary benefits—contentment, material and emotional security, even longer life expectancy and less likelihood of getting sick—none of these is the point of such a relationship. Just imagine telling one’s partner that these things were what the marriage was “really” about, with no reference to the partner as a person! The point is relating intimately to one’s partner, for the unique, singular, wonderful individual that that person is. If those other benefits also happen to come along (and while it’s not the subject of this post, I’ve seen studies that suggest that they’re statistically likely), that’s nice. But that’s just it: they’re nice, but they’re extra. Those other benefits are not the point. Without an other person, we would not have a relationship at all, and without this other person, we would not have this relationship, in all its wonder and mystery and uniqueness.

So too, mutatis mutandis, for religion. It’s about relating to the Gods as the singular, unique, wonderful individuals that they are. To be sure, it often works out that when we do that, other blessings and benefits tend to come our way. But when someone says that those other benefits are what it’s “really” all about, they are asserting that the Gods themselves are not “real,” and this is nothing other than atheism.

To neglect the persons—the Gods themselves, in all their singular uniqueness—is to leave out the most important part.