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.

Continue reading “Buddhism, dependent arising, and the erasure of polytheism”

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.

Continue reading “Is Obedience a Virtue?”

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.

Iamblichus on the Discernment of Spirits

In book V, chapter 10 of De Mysteriis, Iamblichus gives us an elegant and straightforward method for distinguishing genuine Gods and Daimones from impostures.

We observe that the Demiurge provides us lower creatures with everything we need for our sustenance. So, why should he fail to do so, for the daimones? If their sustenance were adventitious, dependent on us (such that our neglecting them would somehow harm or disequilibriate them), then they would be inferior to us, and we would be superior to them, which is absurd.

We can conclude that any being which depends upon an offering is an inferior being, and not the God or Daimon to whom sacrifice is properly given.

As Iamblichus himself explains, “Each thing derives its nurture and fulfillment from that to which it owes its generation.”

A Solstice Carol

Gods rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay:
Remember that the Mabon was reborn this Solstice Day
To bring us all his light and warmth as winter wends its way.
Oh tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy!
Oh tidings of comfort and joy!

In depth of winter darkness falls, all creatures take their rest,
Reflecting on the year gone by, preparing for the next.
With feast and fire and Solstice cheer we welcome friend and guest,
With tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy!
Oh tidings of comfort and joy!

The cold dark nights now call to us and draw us deep within.
As ‘round the sacred fireside we gather kith and kin
To watch and wait the Longest Night ’til morning comes again.
Oh tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy!
Oh tidings of comfort and joy!

And when at last the morning dawns, we’ll greet the rising Sun.
We’ll raise our voices loud in song, proclaiming now as one
The blessings of these Holy Tides, the New Year now begun!
Oh tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy!
Oh tidings of comfort and joy!

Now to the Sun sing praises, all you within this place,
And with true love and fellowship, each other now embrace.
For even in these darkest days, the Bright One shines his face,
Bringing tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy!
Oh tidings of comfort and joy!

I’ve been working off and on with this since 2015, and have shared various drafts with a few individuals and private groups. I offer the whole thing now in response to PSVL’s recent challenge. Whether or not it’s appropriate (or even eligible) for the context, I hope others will enjoy!

Printables for Apollon

Some months ago, Kaye at KALLISTI suggested that we polytheists “need to up our printables game.” She posted one printable image with a prayer to Dionysos, which I’ve had on his shrine for a while now. (Thanks, Kaye!)

In honor of Lord Apollon’s holy day (the 7th of each lunar month), I offer the following humble contributions, which I invite fellow polytheists to use freely and share widely. (Three PDF versions linked below.)

The prayer is an oracle quoted by the Emperor Julian the Faithful, the last pagan emperor of Rome, in his “Letter to a Priest.”

The text and translation are from volume 2 of the Loeb edition of Julian’s works, translated by Wilmer Cave Wright, first published in 1913 and now in the public domain. I have slightly adjusted Wright’s punctuation and transliteration of Greek names, but otherwise left his translation unchanged.

The image is from here under a CC4.0 license.

There are three versions:


Inseparable Sisters

Sorrow, tragedy.
Depth of rage and anguish.
Tears flow, hearts break.
Sky darkens, hopes fade.
The folly of pride, revealed at the last:
The foolish and the luckless brought low
Before Gods and mortals.
Bitter cleansing. Katharsis.

Yet that is not all.
That is not the only story
Told together,
On one stage.

Joy, comedy.
Sky brightens, Dawn’s fingers
Bring day where once was night.
Tears flow once more,
But now of levity,
Mirth too much to contain.
The lost restored, hope triumphs:
Lightness and blessing. Success.

The bitter with the sweet,
The fullness, from high to low,
Seen together,
On one stage.

While in the wings,
Bless’d sisters watch,
Hand in hand, side by side.

For Thalia and Melpomene, of course.