The absence of supernatural entities in Indian traditions

1. The absence of supernatural entities in the Indian traditions may seem counterintuitive to many. We can let someone else do the talking for us, namely Dale B. Martin in his interesting book Inventing Superstition: from the Hippocratics to the Christians (Harvard University Press, 2004):

“One of the basic arguments of this book is that, contrary to many modern assumptions, the category of “the supernatural” did not exist in ancient culture as a category. Neither popular notions, held by the vast majority of inhabitants of the ancient world, nor philosophical notions (we could say “scientific” with due consideration for the possible anachronistic connotations of the term) assumed that reality was split up into two realms, one “natural,” containing things like “matter” and “natural forces” such as gravity or electricity, and another “supernatural,” to which gods and similar beings (demigods, angels, demons, ghosts) could be assigned… What is important for this post is that the category was not available, either explicitly or by assumption, for persons in the classical Greek and Roman worlds. The Greeks and Romans certainly had no word that was equivalent to the modern English “supernatural.”…I do not, however, want just to quibble about words. Classical Greeks and Latin had not term for what passes in the modern world as “the supernatural” precisely because the ancients did not separate out divine forces and beings from “nature” and relegate them to a separate ontological realm that could designated by its own label. Generally, for ancient people whatever does exist exists in “nature.” Almost without exception the Greek term physis (nature) refers to “all that is.” People might argue that the gods did not exist or that some particular daimon or god or superhuman being did not exist (I know of no ancient author who argued for actual atheism in the modern sense). But in that case, they said that the disputed entity simply did not exist, not that it might exist in some other realm of reality, such as the “supernatural.” Ancient philosophers might argue that lightning was not caused by a god, but they did not do so by pointing out that lightning occurs in the “natural” realm and that the gods exist in the “supernatural” realm and that the two realms are not supposed to interact with one another. Ancient people took the gods and all other beings we would think of as “supernatural” to be part of nature if they existed at all.” (pp. 13-15)

2. All these points are also valid for the Indian traditions. They do not split up the world into two realms, natural and supernatural. Nature to them is all that is. The devatas, rakshasas, and other special beings do not exist in some ontologically separate realm: whatever exists exists in ‘nature’. It does not even make sense to discuss the question as to whether Brahman is ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’. Brahman is present in nature, but since there is no such ontological division between two realms, it is superfluous to state this explicitly.

3. Interestingly, the question as to whether Brahman is ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’ does indicate where this terminology comes from and why the question was raised at all. It is part of the Christian theological critique of ‘Hinduism’ as false religion. From the eighteenth century onwards, the ‘Indian religion’ was dismissed as a form of ‘pantheism’ whose doctrine claimed that God is nature. The concept of Brahman was viewed as an expression of the equation of God with nature. This image of ‘Hinduism’ as ‘pantheism’ emerged against the background of centuries of debate on Spinoza’s philosophy. Christian theologians and orthodox philosophers had accused Spinoza of being a pantheist because he claimed that “Deus sive natura” (God and nature are interchangeable). Pantheism, of course, was a heresy for Christians. Spinoza’s philosophy became extremely influential among European philosophers in the 18th century. In Germany, in particular, a controversy on pantheism divided the intellectual world in the late 18th century, the so-called Pantheismusstreit. This controversy shaped the German Indology of the early nineteenth century and its argument that Indian religion was also ‘pantheism’ as opposed to the theism of Christianity. In Hinduism, there was no conception of a supernatural God who had created and commanded human beings but only a conception of ‘Brahman’ or ‘nature = God’, the Indologists and philosophers said, and therefore Hindus had no sense of duty and no morality (see the interesting analysis of this episode in Arvind-Pal Mandair’s Religion and the Specter of the West (Columbia University Press, 2010)).

Predictably, this Christian critique of the heathen religion of India gave rise to another position, which intended to argue that Hinduism was not pantheism at all but also a proper form of theism. There was ‘a supernatural God’ in Hinduism, other scholars argued, but He had been forgotten by the populace. This claim used the same concepts of Christian theology, but tried to give a positive valuation to the ‘pure monotheistic Hinduism’. Not surprisingly, the educated ‘Hindus’ of the 19th century reproduced this alternative Christian-theological position because it allowed them to ‘defend’ their religion against the onslaught of missionaries and civilizing colonials. Without understanding what this meant, these educated Hindus began to insist that their religion did have the ‘supernatural’ and was not a form of pantheism, and that therefore Hindus could also be moral beings.

4. It is against this background that we have to understand the fact that some educated Indians of today feel so strongly about insisting that their ‘religion does also have supernatural entities’. But these people should be aware that they are simply reproducing the language of one of the Christian-theological judgments about their traditions. The term ‘supernatural’ – as Dale Martin makes it very clear – does not make sense without assuming the division of the world into two ontologically separate realms. This division is central to the Christian theological view of the world: there is the eternal, spiritual, supernatural realm as opposed to the temporal, material, natural realm. God, the angels and our souls exist in the first realm, while our bodies exist in the second realm. This theological framework determined how Christian Europe looked at other cultures. They were fit into this framework as pale and erring variants of Christianity. Hinduism also had awareness of the true supernatural God, the ‘open-minded’ Indologists said, but this awareness had degenerated into imagining all kinds of ‘supernatural beings’. In other words, the people who feel they have to insist that “Hinduism does know of supernatural entities” should become aware of the implications of what they are actually saying: ‘Hinduism’ is nothing but a degenerate form of Christian theism.

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