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Friday, August 26, 2022

Beliefs and Practices through the Ages - 5 (Concluded)

In the Central Province of India (now Madhya Pradesh), there was a custom during a cholera epidemic for a priest to go from house to house collecting straw from the thatched roof of every house and burning them ceremoniously. Then a chicken was driven towards the direction of the fire carrying all the diseases away. A similar ceremony is described from another part of India in which a female black buffalo or goat was the “scapegoat”. The buffalo was driven out of the village never to return.

Then there is a section on the custom of bonfires in many European societies until as late as the 1700’s. These are eye-witness accounts. These were probably associated with human sacrifice initially, and then just beating or chasing away the victim chosen for this occasion, every year. (In my hometown, I have witnessed “sokkappanai”, which was probably meant to drive away evil spirits)

In his description of the bonfires, one can see practices like those described in the Vedas such as starting a new fire each year by churning or rubbing one wood with another and then maintaining it till next year in each house. He also refers to Agni as “born of wood and embryo of plants”.

There are several pages of examples from many societies on the isolation of girls at their first menstruation with emphasis on not having them see the sun (keep them in a closed room without windows or hut) and not have them “pollute” the earth.

In the section on souls, Sir Frazier thinks that ancient man probably thought that the soul can be stored away from the body temporarily. According to the Aristotelian idea of “contagion”, two items “once connected are always connected”. Therefore, the soul or spirit survives even after death of the body and can then be stored away in a secret place. Until the soul is found and destroyed the person cannot die even if he is killed!

(Samkhya philosophy says that even after the stula sarira or gross body dies, the sukshma sarira or the subtle body lives on and clings on to another body such as a leech does)

The soul can be deposited in a plant or an animal. Therefore, clans for whom an eagle is the repository of the soul, eagle is the totem and people from that clan will not kill an eagle – and consider it sacred. And this applies to different animals, birds and things in different tribes and cultures.

Interestingly, some tribes believed in several souls for each person.

Frazier recounts mythological stories from cultures in all continents, which recount the story of a giant or a king who cannot be killed until his soul kept secret in a deep ocean or huge forest guarded by demons, or inside a bird or an egg is destroyed. The hero goes through the ordeal, find the secret hiding place of the soul of the giant or the king, gets hold of the bird or the egg and destroys it. Many myths and legends are based on such beliefs.

There are several passages to explain the importance of the Oak tree to the ancient Celtics, who considered this tree to be very sacred. (In Indian culture, pipal tree holds this sacred position)

Because oak tree was considered sacred, the celts also thought that mistletoe which grows as a parasite on the oak tree was sacred. Indeed, many European cultures, even the non-celtics thought that the mistletoe has magical and mystical properties and was capable of driving away evil spirits. 

In the West, kissing under mistletoe is still practiced during Christmas season. The current practice is related to a Norse mythology;  but in ancient times  men were allowed to steal a kiss from any woman caught standing under the mistletoe.  More significant, refusing was considered to bring bad luck.

Sir Frazier concludes by saying that mistletoe is what is referred to as the Golden Bough in the ancient Book of Nemi. That is the reason why he chose The Golden Bough as the title for his book.

Scholars do not agree with many of the explanations given by Sir Frazier. But no one denies that this book is a remarkable collection of religious practices in various ancient and modern cultures and that this book generated several serious studies in cultural anthropology.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Addendum to a post on March 21, 2021: Adi Sankara and C S Lewis - comparison of their concept

In an earlier post comparing the thoughts and writings of Adi Sankara and C. S. Lewis, I referred to laws of physical nature and laws of human nature. C S Lewis points out that we all know that we cannot choose to disobey laws of physical nature. If we do, the results will be definite and disastrous. But we can choose to disobey laws of human nature, which deals with human behavior in relation to others, other lives. These laws relate to whether we behave decently towards others.

Later I was amazed, but not surprised to learn that Vishnu Sahasranamam, a famous Hindu prayer, has mentioned the same two laws of Nature, one of Physical Nature and one of Human Nature, in Slokas (stanzas) 151 and 153. It goes on to say that both Laws are held together by Lord Vishnu. It is interesting to learn that the name Achyuta is used to refer to Vishnu, who controls both. The word Achyuta in Sanskrit means “steady”.

Just as there are physical laws of nature, there are laws of human Nature. The word Dharma can be applied to both. The Primordial Force behind both, bringing them together in harmony, is the same for all of humanity. But the names happen to be different.




Friday, August 19, 2022

Beliefs and Practices through the Ages - 4

       Sir Frazier suggests that the myths of Isis and Osiris in Egypt, of Aphrodite and Adonis in Syria, of Cybele and Attis in Phrygia (part of present-day Turkey) and that of Demeter and Persephone of Greece are counterparts of the same myth in different cultures. He also describes the Eleusinian mysteries as documented in Homer’s Hymn to Demeter in support of his suggestion. It is a story of a daughter and mother symbolizing seed and the corn according to Frazier. Demeter is suggested to be the Goddess of corn. Persephone living underground with Pluto for 6 months and on earth for 6 months is suggested to represent the growth of plants starting in the spring and going underground in winter. Spring festival is celebration of rebirth (arrival) of plants and animals and therefore the joy of the mother, Demeter on the arrival of her daughter, Persephone. He suggested that the celebration of Easter was probably borrowed from these ancient myths and celebrations.

Speaking of substitution of symbols and objects in primitive rituals, Fraizer points out the association of trees with spring and revival festivals and corn or barley with the harvest festivals. Symbolically corn may be called “the old woman” in the rituals. (In southern India, rice plays the main part in harvest festival)

He compares the spirits of the primitive rituals with the gods of later magical worships. Spirits are confined to one sphere of nature over which these gods have influence. Their specific names include wind-god, rain – god, tree-god, corn-god etc., The head of these “gods” (devas) also has a specific name such as Indra, Zeus, Jupiter, Demeter etc., and have more general influence over many things.

Primitive rituals such as harvest festivals do not have any priests (unlike religious festivals for the God), can be celebrated anywhere such as on the field (and not in the temples, which are late arrivals), and are celebrations and not propitiation to any God for favors. (This is true of Pongal of southern India, which is also a way of thanking the powers behind a good harvest, the cows and the bulls and the Sun “God”)

Sir Frazier describes rituals associated with harvesting of new crops such as corn, rice, and millet in various parts of the world and in ancient cultures. The first yield was considered sacred containing the spirits of nature and therefore special prayers were offered before eating the first yields. In this section, he refers to the Curumbars and Badagas of southern India, the custom of Pongal in the south and Navan in the northern India.

 He refers also to a Green Corn dance by the Seminoles of Florida. In similar rituals among the Thompson Indians of British Columbia, Canada, a prayer is offered just before eating freshly harvested first yields of Sunflower Roots. This prayer sounds like the prayer we in India offer, namely Brahmarpanam, Brahma Havih etc., It says: “Oh food, I am going to eat you so you can help me achieve great heights in my life etc.,”

There is a very good explanation for the practice of offering food, particularly the first harvest, to the Gods. In the sacred mode of thinking, food is infused with Divine Spirits and that food and harvest are gifts from the Gods. Therefore, man is obliged, bound by duty, to express his gratitude to the Divine benefactor by acknowledging that gift. This is about the best definition of Naivedyam in the Hindu puja.

In another section Frazier explains the meaning behind the offering of rice balls in the Vedic ceremonies. Rice balls represent ancestors. These rice balls are called Pinda and each Pinda represents an ancestor. Offering pinda is part of the funeral ceremony (anthyeshti) and annual ceremonies for ancestors. In the customs of southern India, there are seven balls of rice, representing seven generations.  During the ceremony, the Pindas are mixed suggesting merging of the latest one with the previous one.

According to Frazier, the rice itself is the hair; water sprinkled to make the pinda is the skin; mixing them gives the pinda a body and flesh; when it is baked it gets hardened and gets bone and finally when butter or ghee is sprinkled the body acquires marrow. I think the author is quoting this explanation from an ancient Sanskrit text because he gives them under parenthesis.

Frazier gives several examples of people transferring their physical or mental pain and suffering to a plant or an object or an animal and even to another person. He gives examples from ancient times and also from recent centuries. Although he talks about the “barbarous and the aboriginal” people with some sense of superiority of the European nations, he gives examples of “barbarous and the aboriginal” practices from England, Italy, Germany, Austria etc.,

In this section, he gives example of Rajah of Manipur and Raja of Travancore transferring their sins to someone in their kingdom. In one example, the subject who accepts all the sins of the king is sent out of the kingdom, not to return.

“Scapegoat”, we are told is a shortened version of “escape goat”, which refers to an object, plant, animal, or human who takes the blame (Or forced to take the blame) for someone else. The original scapegoat, we are told, goes back to Biblical times when the sins of the society were hoisted on a “goat” as part of Yom Kippur festival. However, we are also told that the goat was a wrong interpretation of the Hebrew word ez ozel, or Azazel, which meant an “evil spirit”.

There is a whole section on the sacrifice of a “scapegoat” in all societies, ancient and modern. This ritual was practiced when some one person is ill or a whole village is afflicted by cholera, plague, or smallpox. This was also practiced for removing the sins of individuals or of the society. Some were occasional events and some annual rituals. In many of these rituals, at the end of the ceremony when the “scapegoat” was sent away, people often said “Fly away, you devil. Never come back again” etc., There is mention of practices as late as the 16th and 17th centuries with humans as “scapegoats”, who were ceremoniously “sacrificed” (sent away).

When I was reading these passages, I skipped some of them, because I could not bear reading about the cruelty to animals and even to humans designated as “scapegoats”! What human beings will do in the name of faith and belief is beyond “my” belief.

Some examples from India includes the practice of sacrifice of langar monkey, as a scapegoat to get rid of evil from a village, in one part of Assam. It was an annual event called Asongdat. In one part of Mysore state (of those days), when there was smallpox or cholera, the evil was hoisted on an image. This image was carried from village to village at midnight and dumped into the nearest river.

From Nicobar Island comes an eye-witness account of a yearly ceremony in which boats with sails were constructed, which was laden with a special kind of leaf, representing evil and sin, and was taken to the sea or a river to float away.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Beliefs and Practices through the ages - 3

 On Taboos:  Taboos can be of things or of words. In Sir Frazier’s words, they are like insulations “to preserve the spiritual force with which these persons are charged” or “inflicting harm to the outer world.”

In describing how taboos start, he says that taboo of any item made of iron started soon after iron-age began, obviously because of fear of a metal they had not seen before. We still encounter this kind of fear about new items civilization had not encountered before such as new vaccines and GMO.

The taboo against blood began probably because people believed that the spirit of the animal or the person was in the blood. And any place blood touched was also a taboo.

Touching the head of a person was a taboo for fear of harming the soul. There are several pages on what is done to hair removed from the head in different societies. Indeed, there is a whole book on this subject (William c. Innes Jr. Religious Hair Display and its Meanings. Springer. 2021)

There are pages and pages of examples of prohibition of saying out the names of people loud, particularly the names of Kings and of course of God. In an example from ancient Egypt, Isis (the daughter of the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut and also wife of Osiris, God of the underworld) wants to be the Goddess but could not do so until Ra told her His real name. In the Old Testament, we read about the Creator God not giving his real name to Moses but just says “YAHWEH”. I have read (but do not remember the source) that in Vedic times, the name of Indra could not be uttered loud during yagnas lest “asuras” find out his abode.  

The book is full of examples of festivals and rituals, most often related to fertility and prayers for rain and good harvest. These festivals and rituals included sacrifice of an animal or a plant. Earlier versions included human sacrifice. Later effigies replaced human victims. In these festivals, effigies and images were taken in procession accompanied by frenzied dances and self-mutilations. Worship of images was common in almost all early civilizations. 

Civilizations that came later considered these practices as barbaric and condemned idol/image worship. In the Old Testament, one of the Ten Commandments Moses gave to the people of Israel was: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image” (Exodus 20: 4,5).

The author discusses and compares Christianity and Buddhism in one section. As the author points out, these traditions started with the noble ideas of their Founders who emphasized poverty and celibacy. One system pointed towards bliss in another world and one emphasized relief of suffering in this world. Both emphasized individual efforts which was different from the old religious practices with emphasis on the community. According to the author, Christianity and Buddhism were breakaways from primitive religious practices which emphasized rituals and sacrifice for the sake of the survival of the group by praying to a God. 

(This is true of Hinduism also. Early rituals were performed around fire-altar and worship of several Gods with oblations. These “gods” were different from the creator-God, each one as the energizing spirit behind parts of Nature, such as Varuna (god of water and rain), Agni (god of fire) and Aditya (the sun-god). The emphasis was on "group and universal welfare" and not individual salvation. The arrival of the age of the Upanishads changed the focus to individual efforts and salvation. Worship with images of Gods and temples came later. Even with temple worship, the purpose was one of "thanksgiving" to the Gods for the bounties He/She bestows on the devotees.) 

The author points out that “civilization is only possible through the active cooperation of the citizens and the willingness to subordinate their private interests to the common good”.  This attitude was changed with the arrival of the Greek culture which emphasized rationality. Before that, cultures were celebrating festivals often connected with the cycles of season, arrival of rain, draughts, revival of life in the spring and their death or disappearance in winter. Dances, rituals, and sacrifices were part of these celebrations.

“The ecstatic frenzies which were mistaken for divine inspiration, the mangling of the body, the idea of new birth and the remission of sin through shedding of blood” which had their origins in ancient beliefs were called “savagery” by the Greek culture which took a more rational approach to events in Nature. When these rationalistic ideas spread to the Roman empire and then to the eastern regions, the new arrivals and the elite were forced to accommodate these earlier practices into the beliefs and customs of the original inhabitants because the masses were not ready to let go of them.

This happened to Buddhism when they had to adopt many of the gods of the Hindus since the common people were not ready to let go of their established practices. This is what happened to Christianity when it had to adopt the Winter Solstice celebration of Mithraites as the day of Nativity and the March Equinox ceremonies of Adonis and Attis as the Easter and Resurrection.

To learn the legends and myths of ancient Egypt, one should read sections on the celebration of Osiris in this book. This is an easy-to-understand summary of the complicated and incestual relationships among the ancient gods of Egypt. The author compares celebrations associated with Osiris to those of Adonis and Attis, all of them gods associated with agriculture, specifically corn.  The author quotes several passages from Plutarch’s book.

The way I understand, Ra is the Sun God. and His wife is Nut (sky goddess). Nut has extra-marital relationships. One of them is with Seb, the Earth god and Osiris is born of this relationship. Nut also has children by other connections: Horus, Set, Isis and Nephthys. Osiris marries Isis. Set marries Nephthys.

Ra gets angry because of Nut’s infidelity and curses Osiris. Osiris becomes the god of the netherworld (akin to Yama and Chitragupta of Indian mythology). He is also the god of corn. In this legend we learn that Osiris dies, was cut up into 14 parts and scattered throughout Egypt. The spots where the parts fell became sacred places.

Does this not sound like the legend of Sati (Parvathy) whose body was carried around by Shiva? In this legend, Sati’s dead body was carried around in a dance of destruction by Shiva and Lord Vishnu cut the body Sati’s body into 51 parts using His Sudarsana Chakra. These parts fall on earth (all within India, of course) and those sites became sacred pilgrimage sites for worshippers of Shakti.

Osiris is also brought back to life. According to the author, this may be the link to the legends of resurrection in Christianity since it corresponds in the timing of celebration to spring and arousal of life in the form of plants and animals.

Reading this part, I also noticed that most of the celebrations in all cultures are related to cyclic events of nature. Thus, those related to full moon are related to the Moon God; those that occur around the solstice are related to the Sun God. Those related to the god of Earth relate to sowing (spring, arrival of rain) and harvesting (just before winter). 

There is a description of a festival in ancient Egypt (documented by Plutarch and two other writers) around the time of winter solstice in which houses are illuminated with lamps one night a year. The festival itself is like Deepavali (Diwali) in India.

In the Egyptian legend, lighting of the lamps is said to be for helping Isis look for the body of Osiris. Osiris is considered to be the god of corn and the rituals enact effigy of Osiris made of corn being buried. The growing of corn from the body of Osiris is like the story of gods (devas) arising from the body of Prajapati in Indian mythology.



Friday, August 5, 2022

Beliefs and Practices through the Ages - 2

 Today happens to be National Bloggers Day, according to Tech Times. The word “blog” is an acronym and stands for the original “Web log”, which became “weblog” and then just “blog”. 

Sir Frazier summarizes two kinds of magical thinking in primitive cultures. One is called Sympathetic, also called Homeopathic magic based on similarities between objects or events and the old idea of “like produces like”. The second is called Contagious magic based on the belief that things which were in contact will continue to be in contact even if separated by distance or time. In other words, the belief system says: “Once connected always connected”.

These ideas were the basis of medical treatment in primitive societies and continue to be so even in modern societies.  Galen, a physician from the 2nd century, whose ideas dominated medical practice until 1800’s recommended treatments and taboos based on these ideas. For example, pain in the ear was treated with a plant whose flower looked like an ear.

Sir Frazier gives scores of examples. This includes several from India – why the crematorium- keepers were tabooed from the villages (contagion of death) and practices associated with menstruation and childbirth. There is an example of strict rules for continence among the weavers of Mirzapur district during silk-worm breeding season. The weavers did not want to offend the animal spirit and the consequent superstition that if men have sex during this season, silkworms will not be able to reproduce.

There are examples of purification ceremonies for returning soldiers after killing in war, so the spirit of the dead does not linger and cause harm (contaminate) or to appease the spirit of the dead.  The author gives an example of propitiation for killing a cobra in Madras (obviously Tamizh nadu).

Sir Frazier gives examples of practices in India which required a King to be deposed every 12 years. Twelve years corresponds to the time taken by Jupiter to make one revolution around the Sun. Jupiter seems to be the ruling planet for the kings. One of the legends around this 12-year cycle suggests that the king was be-headed in a special ceremony at the end of his reign. Frazier calls this “thalavettiparothiam”, and those of us who know Tamizh and Malayalam know that thalai is head and vetti means to cut. I did not believe it first; but found a book on Kerala written in 1900 by one Mr. Panicker who refers to this practice in the past.

 Even more fascinating is the suggestion that the “maha maham” of Kumbakonam has the same name as the Kerala celebration called Makamakam.  Since these festivals come once every 12 years, I wonder whether this has anything to do with the rotation of Jupiter. And the fact that in ancient Greece, the King ruled for only 8 years. This seems to be related to the fact that full moon falls on the longest day of the year once in 8 years, signifying the alignment of the Sun and the Moon.  

In an example from Bilaspur, India we are told that when the king dies, a Brahmin eats khir (milk and rice sweet) from the hand of the dead king and becomes a king for one year. At the end of the year, the Brahmin is banished. This is given as an example of a custom in many societies where the King’s power to produce good harvest, bring rain and prosperity is passed on to a substitute for a short period and the custom of killing the king at the end of 8 years or 12 years was given up. (Later still, instead of the king getting sacrificed, the custom of sacrifice of the first son of the king came. This was replaced later by the custom of sacrificing an animal) 

We learn from this book that a festival called Rali ki Mela was celebrated as a Spring Festival in Kanagra District which is now in Himachal Pradesh. (This is given as an example of festivals in several cultures to welcome spring) 

There is a description of an ancient custom in several parts of West Asia which the author calls “sacred prostitution”.  Specifically, he mentions a custom in ancient Cyprus in which women had to cohabit with strange men at the temple of Aphrodite before they can get married. A similar practice was also prevalent in some ancient followers of the pre-Jewish religions.  This reminded me of the custom of Devadasi in India and also the custom described by Perumal Murugan in his book on Madhorubagan or Ardhanareeswara.

Sir James Frazier describes a Festival of Adonis in ancient Syria, Greece, and other places. He thinks that by enacting this festival people mimic the growth of crops hoping to ensure a good harvest. One can question his interpretation. But the ritual and its details are interesting.

In this festival which occurs usually in early spring people plant seeds of wheat, barley, lettuce, fennel, and some flowers and grow them for eight days. At the end of that period, they ceremoniously immerse these plants in water. The author says that this is to pray for better rain and that the Easter ceremonies of Christian era got associated with this ancient custom.

For me the interest was the similarity of this festival to our custom of growing sprouts in mud pots and then immersing them in water. (paaligai,பாலிகை ). Indeed, Sir James Frazier describes this also as part of similar examples. He also describes another similar festival among the Mundas of Bengal. But he does not mention Varuna Japam and the ritual of immersing Nandi in water whenever there was drought.

As I have written in my book on Our Shared Sacred Space, comparative studies of cultures in a systematic scientific manner have made us realize how commonly similar beliefs are held in several different cultures, how several festivals correspond to rhythmic cycles of the seasons and harvest, and how each culture finds its own rituals and practices to relate to events in life such as birth and death. This is the importance of studying comparative anthropology, comparative mythology, comparative religion etc.,

Emile Durkeim’s book (Elementary forms of religious Life), Sir John Frazier’s The Golden Bough, The Believing World by Lewis Brown and Joseph Campbell’s several books are great starts.