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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.

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