God, Devil (Satan), and Polytheism

It is true that the modern Jewish thought, which is more influenced by the Rabbinic than by apocalyptic or Qumranic literature, places less emphasis on the Devil. Rabbinic Judaism was less interested in building a demonology than others. It is one thing to say this, but quite another to say that the Judaic tradition knows of the Devil only in terms of the psychological ‘inclinations’ in man. (It is equivalent to suggesting that there is no demonology in Judaic thought, a preposterous suggestion on any count.) Belial, Mastema, Azazel, Satanail, Sammael, Semyzza, or Satan do not name either psychological or spiritual ‘inclinations’, surely. (Think further of what Behemoth, Leviathan, etc. are). The Satan in the Book of Job is already an emissary of God (though not yet the personification of evil), and not a mere ‘inclination’. The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs name Belial or Satan as Chief of evil angels commanding the spirits of wrath, hatred, etc. and as lord of war, fornication, bloodshed, destruction, etc. He tempts and seduces humankind to error.

By saying this, I do not suggest that the ‘Devil’ made his appearance in the Judaic literature in one fell swoop, equipped with horns, tail, hoof, and a fork. (It took time, suffering, exile, and such like before the notion of ‘Devil’ finally crystallized.) But I do want to maintain that appear he did, and has remained there ever since.

The most modern-day Roman Catholics have difficulties in consigning a Buddha or a Confucius to Hell and call them minions of the Devil. This is true. My point is not about the sensibilities of any particular group in today’s world but about a structure of thought, which still has an enormous impact on these sensibilities as well.

To get a flavor of this impact, consider the notion of’ ‘polytheism’. (For the moment, let us keep etymologies of theos and such like outside the purview of our discussion.) In both commonsense and scholarly parlance it is supposed to connote multiplicity of ‘gods’, which contrasted to ‘monotheism’ that is alleged to connote a single entity ‘God’. (Look at the way the words are capitalized as well.) Ask yourself this simple question: who or what can the word ‘god’ refers to? Within the (simplified) framework sketched in my earlier post, this notion makes perfect theological sense. The plurality of ‘gods’ can only refer to entities other than ‘God’: the ‘false’ gods and the True one. If you take away this theological framework, the notion of ‘polytheism’ is strictly senseless and becomes a contradiction-in-terms: If ‘god’ is that being which created the world, the Lord of the Universe (say), how can there be a plurality of such entities? If such a multiplicity exists, none of them is ‘god’. If none is ‘god’ there can be no multiplicity of gods either. Therefore, polytheism is possible if and only if polytheism is impossible.

Here is why this arcane discussion becomes relevant to us. How many of us have not been taught (and still teach) that ‘Hinduism’ is a polytheistic religion? To the European Christians, and their liberal ‘secular’ counterparts, who continue write books and treatises about ‘Hindu Polytheism’, such appellations make perfect sense. They have not really left their theological framework behind. But to us, people from another culture, this should not make sense. In fact, I suggest it does not. But we continue to act as though the notion of ‘polytheism’ makes linguistic sense (when it is perfect semantic nonsense). Why do we do this?

Partly, but only partly, because that is how we have learnt English: we were taught that ‘deva’ was ‘god’, ‘puja’ is ‘worship’ and so on. Who coined these terms? Well, people with a theologically inspired framework. To them, ‘Hinduism’, ‘Buddhism’, ‘Jainism’ were not only religions but also pagan or heathen religions, whose practitioners worshipped the Devil and his minions.

Consider some questions, which ask the ‘Hindus’ whether they ‘worship’ lingam, stones, monkeys, rats, and such like. It is important to realize that ‘worship’ is a theological concept–nothing like our notion of ‘puja’. You can worship only ‘God’– in exactly the same sense in which you can only eat what is food to you. It is possible that you worship the false god (an image is how this false god deceives you into worshipping him), while under the impression you worship ‘God’. This ‘God’ is not any Tom, Dick, or Harry, but ‘The Perfect Being, The Creator, The Lord of the Universe’. Again, ask yourself this simple question: which idiot ever thought that some particular rat, or cow, or crow, or ‘lingum’ is ‘The Perfect Being, The Creator, The Lord of the Universe’? Idiots exist everywhere, but should whole cultures and peoples (from Asia to Africa) comprise only of idiots, such a group could never survive. Whatever the future might bring, India is a culture and has survived for a couple of thousand years. Are we to assume that Indians do not know they have physiological fathers and mothers, and they were all brought into being by a crow, a rat, or a ‘lingum’ made out of stone?

In other words, we really need to re-think what we have been taught about who we are and what we do. Our question (in this context and as an example) should not be what puja means, or how it should be translated into English, but what is it we Indians do, when we do Puja.

This applies not merely to the endless diatribes about ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Buddhism’, but to many more things, things that we have imbibed along with our mother’s milk. A long, arduous job, but worth every inch of the way. It appears to me that those of us, who are living elsewhere, in another culture and at other times than our forefathers, can at least attempt to undertake the job of critically reflecting on our own experiences instead of reproducing barren third-rate ideas borrowed from
second-hand sources from elsewhere.