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Saturday, January 19, 2019

Origins of Early forms of Religions (Part 1)




Emile Durkeim is a French Sociologist and one of the founding fathers of modern social sciences. He utilized empirical research methodology to study sociological phenomena and published extensively on the sociology of morality, suicide, law and religion. 


Durkheim's works emphasize the importance of religion in human lives, although I prefer spirituality to religion. It appears that the speculative functions offered by religion are uniquely important to humanity. This is a function not offered by sciences. We humans have a need to know about the future. But future is not knowable with certainty. Therefore, we speculate. We imagine. We speculate about the fate of our body and life after death. We speculate about the nature of soul. These can be frightening. We like to know about our origins. But we can never know that for certainty. We can only speculate.  Religions provide an avenue for these speculations.


My reflections following reading of Emile Durkheim’s book on The Elementary forms of Religious Life made me realize many new facts and reinforce many of my own observations. This book is based on the author’s study of primitive religions in parts of Australia, South America and Africa. The author’s concluding remarks are worth reading. Here are some other points gleaned from this book.


Man is the only animal who will kill oneself (suicide) or kill another for no good reason and demonstrate that he does not consider his own life of much value. All other animals will do their best to save themselves and will not kill except for food.


What is given often as evidence in explaining myths, rituals and religious texts is retrospective explanation and not reason.


Soul as a concept is connected to a single body, is within the body and leaves when the person dies. It may also float free for a limited time. But comes back to a body. Spirit is outside the body or the object and can influence the body or the object from outside to move and act (as if possessed).


Durkheim defines religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things – that is to say, things set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a church all those who adhere to them”.


Essential elements of all religions, even the earliest known forms of religion, include some fundamental and universal ideas and ritualistic attitudes. They include division of things into sacred and profane; the concepts of spirit and soul; mythical personalities and early ancestors; national or universal divinity;  “negative cult” of ascetic practices and self-injury; rites of communion and oblation (sacrifice) and commemorative and expiatory rites.


Durkheim says that primitive religion was born as soon as sacred was distinguished from the profane. Totemism was the earliest stage in this separation. Durkheim studied many of these totemic religions.

Religion is more than gods and spirits. It is a system of beliefs and rites. Beliefs are opinions about sacred objects and nature of things. This is the mental aspect. Rites constitute a system of actions which connect to a system of beliefs, ideas, and concepts about the universe. They reinforce and re-energize each other.


 Rites are actions based on basic beliefs. Actions towards others in the society and nature are morals. Actions in relation to the sacred become rites and rituals. 


Rites express aspects of reality which are mysterious, universal and intuitive and which evade ordinary reasoning, by means of special actions and symbols. They are speculative. One may disagree with the modes of expression and claims of exclusivity to specific actions and symbols but cannot deny the existence of collective need for belief among all societies, in something beyond what is available to our senses.


It is interesting to note that Adi Sankara, one of the most brilliant of philosophers of India, who taught asceticism and renunciation and an intellectual path to spiritual freedom changed his mind when he found that most common people were spiritually ecstatic during puja (worship service to specific deities) and bhajans (chanting). He realized that there has to be something in faith to move the masses and started writing poems for the faith tradition (bhakti).  

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