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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.



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