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Saturday, July 30, 2022

Beliefs and Practices through the Ages - 1

 Dear friends, in the next several posts, I plan to summarize interesting examples of beliefs and practices from several cultures documented in a classic written by Sir James George Frazer in the earlier part of the 20th century. Many of the conclusions of this author have been challenged over the years. But the scholarly mature of the book and new research spawned by this book are important to take note of.

      I just completed reading a book with the title The Golden Bough in Two Volumes published by Macmillan, London 1920 written by Sir James George Frazer. It is a classic but controversial. Many of the theories and explanations given by the author have been challenged since he wrote the book in the early 1900’s. This fact suggests that the book must have generated interest in the study of ancient religions and practices among scholars.

It is unlikely that many people will be interested in reading this book with patience. I found it a tedious reading experience. That is why I am summarizing areas which I found interesting for those who might not want to read the entire book.

Many modern scholars do not accept the author’s theories and conclusions. I do not either. The author reflects the attitudes of scholars of that era with a “colonial” mindset which considered cultures other than European as of inferior status. That is evident by the words the author uses to refer to other cultures, words such as "pagan", "heathen", and "savages". But he admits that those "pagan" practices which he scorns were practiced in the European cultures also even in the 19th century.

Sir Frazier shows his own prejudices and thinking of his era when he suggests: “….people in other parts of the world, who because they have lagged behind the European race in mental development” … have kept their superstitious customs and rituals! He did not realize that Will and Ariel Durant were more honest when they wrote in a separate section on Superstitions in their Ten Volume book on The History of Civilization. They pointed out that every culture tends to make fun of superstitions of other cultures when each one of them practices its own set of superstitions.  

But this criticism is no reason for not reading the book since it contains descriptions of rituals and religious practices in different societies, ancient and modern. They are well-documented and valuable.

The author gives multiple examples from a variety of primitive cultures to indicate how the ideas of sacredness and religion evolved out of the curiosity of folks belonging to these ancient cultures. In trying to explain natural phenomena, they resorted to magical thinking, which became the basis for their assigning sacredness to specific sites and to the concept of “spirits” animating man, animals and birds and “spirits” explaining natural disasters.

There are certain critical summaries at the end of some chapters in which the author gives his views on how the ideas and practices evolved. His views are questionable. But his examples are not. They are based on observations of primitive societies in the 1800’s by anthropologists and missionaries and classics such as those by Herodotus, Plutarch etc. Some examples are based on current practices which are remnants of ancient customs and rituals.

Now to the book.

This book is a “ collection of evidence of superstitions and beliefs” from several societies, spanning all the continents including Africa and Australia from ancient times. 

Let us start with the author’s definition of what religion is.

“By religion, then, I understand a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed powers to direct and control the course of nature and of human life. Thus defined, religion consists of two elements, a theoretical and a practical, namely, a belief in powers higher than man and an attempt to propitiate or please them. Of the two, belief clearly comes first, since we must believe in the existence of a divine being before we can attempt to please him. But unless the belief leads to a corresponding practice, it is not a religion but merely a theology; .......... Hence belief and practice or, in theological language, faith and works are equally essential to religion, which cannot exist without both of them". (Page 222-223.)

The author's thesis is that human civilization moved from magical explanation of natural phenomenon to religious explanations and has now moved to scientific explanations. Initially, man believed that he can magically control nature such as producing rain or get rid of plagues and pestilence. When he realized that he cannot do this through shamans, he moved to attributing nature’s phenomena to unseen forces and used priests to intercede with the Gods. Later still, he learnt to study phenomenon using scientific methods and discover universal laws of nature.

Before I delve into the chapters, let me give a few samples from this book on practices in India. 1. Among one clan of Todas of Nilgiri mountains, the milkman is akin to a king. He is considered to have the ability to influence nature and therefore, special. But that puts special restrictions on his life. 2. The reason why some people snap their fingers in front of the mouth while yawning is to prevent the “soul” from leaving the body.  3. He recounts a story (most likely from Nepal) that when Adi Sankara went to Nepal to meet with the Dalai lama and defeated him in arguments, the Dalai Lama stuck a knife on the shadow of Sankara and Sankara broke his neck soon thereafter. This example (by historical accounts this never happened) is given as an example of the belief that the shadow of a person carries the soul and it is possible to control the individuals fate by manipulating the shadow.

The author also gives several examples from other cultures to explain why some primitive people did not want their photos (their shadows captured) taken. They feared that the person who took the photo or someone else can cause harm to the real person by damaging the “shadow”. (I remember my grandmother objecting to any photograph taken of her) This same applies to reflection in the water. (In Tamizh culture, this belief was still prevalent in my childhood days and it was called "soonyam", or "laying a curse" on someone)


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