Please visit Thinking Skills for the Digital Generation by Athreya and Mouza at Springer.com

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Origins of Early Forms of Religions - Part 2


Rites are meant to separate the sacred from the profane. There are positive rites to elevate the profane to the sacred and negative rites to clean the profane and prepare it for the sacred. The rites are also allotted in space (pilgrimage, sacred sites) and time (feasts and seasonal festivals). When the devotee places food or other offerings at the altar (sacred spot) , it is not just the food he is offering. “It is his thoughts” which is offered. Durkeim points out the well-known fact that in the practice of negative rites “the system of interdicts (the prohibitions) swells and exaggerates itself to the point of usurping the entire existence”. How true this is in all religions!


“A sacred principle in any system is nothing more nor less than society transfigured and personified”, says Durkheim. “A sacred principle exists only in the minds of those who believe in it”. In fact, “there is nothing in the constitution of things which corresponds to sacredness”.


God is the collective representation of the society/clan/tribe in the individual mind and the rituals are where connections are made with that supreme and with other members of the tribe/clan/society.

Gods are symbolic expression of the society in which they originate, a collective conceptualized expression of individual images. These gods cannot do without the individuals any more than individuals can do without society. Idols are conceptualized, reified images of gods in that society and their function is that of a part to the whole. “It is an agent of transmission”. (These thoughts are echoed in Sri Aurobindo’s interpretations of the Rg Veda)


Rituals are to “revivify the most essential elements of the collective consciousness”. They re-enact the cosmology, history of the clan and ancestors and its moral system. They tie the individual to the society and transmits the societal values and views to the individual. The intended effects are on the mind of the individual to shape the moral aspects of relationship with other members of the society, with nature and with the supramental divinity.


Sacredness is an ambiguous concept according to Robertson-Smith and Durkheim, because religious forces are of two kinds: beneficent and diabolic. The beneficent forces are the providers of safety, health, food and wealth. We respect them, thank them. We worship them. They are the holy ones. The evil forces deliver sickness, disasters, and death. We fear them; try to appease them. We avoid them or try to purify after them so that the sacred forces are not contaminated. That is how the idea of religious purity comes in. Pure and impure are not two separate classes. Both are sacred, but of two different kinds. One is propitious, and the other is Unpropitious.


Religion according to Durkheim is a product of the society – any society. It is the collective consciousness of the society and therefore gives us moral values, esthetics, music and art and even the foundations of science.  Science asks the same fundamental questions as religion such as “How did this universe come about? What are the laws of nature?”. But Science takes an impersonal objective attitude to studying nature’s laws. In the process, it learns more about the parts but not able to connect to the whole. It also gets blind to human needs, values and emotions.


In differentiating religion from science, Durkheim also points out that science explains laws of nature but does not speculate. That speculative function of religion seems to be important to humanity. Every early religion fulfills this need of humans in society. Society gave these gifts to the individuals and individuals reinforced their collective sentiments through interactions and acting out in their rituals. In the process they also surrendered some of their individuality.


If we find that religions are full of evil, injustice and lies, it is because they reflect the realities of life and of the society in general. Durkheim asks: “Is there any society free of evil, injustice and lies?” Yet we strive for goodness, justice and truth. It is this battle for goodness, justice and truth in this imperfect world that is represented in all religions.


In religious thinking, concepts are different from sensory impressions. Sensory impressions are felt in individuals and are transient. In contrast, concepts are impersonal representations expressed in symbols, based on societal norms. They are relatively stable over time and can be shared with others.

Durkheim suggests that concepts are collective representations of reality. Individuals make concepts in their minds, of course. But they are formed based on how society abstracts and classifies concrete objects of the universe. “Concepts express the manner in which society represents things”. If the individuals were to be reduced to only personal thoughts based on individual perceptions only, he will be “indistinguishable from the beasts” says Durkheim.


Concepts represent categories and classes rather than particular objects. Conceptual thinking is not just grouping and classifying things. “It is relating the variable to the permanent, the individual to the social”. Useful concepts should be capable of helping individuals relate to the minds of others to bring harmony and also to understand the nature of things in this universe. Alan Wallace calls them “inter-subjective truths”. They have to be stable and impersonal if they are to represent truth.


Please read my blogs on related topics on February 8, 2011 and June 12, 2016.

No comments: