Greater Tolerance Of The Polytheists

By Indrajit Gupta
This kind of sweeping historical  generalization is  made once the conclusions have been decided and the facts are selected to fit these conclusions. It is very difficult to conclude from the evidence at hand that societies tend to be more or less free depending on how many divinities they worship.

The first difficulty posed by this presentation is its careful selection of one brilliant moment of mankind’s history as an example of what polytheism could do. This is misleading.

Why start here? Why not with the Semitic polytheists? Their brand of religion was harsh and unforgiving, and certainly gave short shrift to conquered or deviant people. For that matter, even within their own society, even as they slowly built the processes and systems that we take for granted in urban civilization and culture, they treated their own citizens with a harsh and barbaric severity.

It will be argued that this is yet another example of Middle Eastern fundamentalism. Let us first then look in more detail at the examples cited.

If we examine the record of the Greeks, three facts emerge almost immediately: that within the same polytheistic system,

  • there were the Athenians and their brilliant debates, their shining culture and literature, and their innovations in democratic governance;
  • there were the Athenians as an imperial power, which was an Athens far bleaker and harsher, an Athens which could order the massacre of an entire allied city, which was a slave society, where less than 200,000 citizens depended on the slave labour of dozens of slaves;
  • and there was the other Greece, the Greece that was not Athens, some parts of which contributed brilliantly to this cultural efflorescence, other parts of which, like Sparta, remained a harsh and severe military dictatorship.

If polytheism was such a boon to mankind, why didn’t the Spartans show their cultural capabilities alongside the Athenians? Or display a society as free as the Athenians?

Next, take the Romans. They, too, were polytheistic. Can there be a greater contrast in history between the Athenians and the Romans? What virtues and what freedom came to Rome, or from Rome, as a result of polytheism?

As the city expanded, from isolated city to a community of Latins, to an Italian power, to a power in the Mediterranean, and so on, it had a ruthless record of destruction of cultures and communities which opposed it militarily or culturally. It was a Roman, Cato, who first used the phrase ‘delenda est Carthago’, Before taking any other decision, destroy Carthage. When Carthage was finally destroyed, accounts of the time give a very complete account of the savagery of the pillage and the destruction, the systematic and methodical destruction, that followed. It is not clear that the polytheistic Carthaginians appreciated the softness, the freedom in society that the Romans got from their own polytheism.

When this interesting argument was being crafted, was it intended to tell us that the polytheist Romans had banned the Druids and Druidic practice, and later banned the Jews and the Christians? Was it planned to remind us of the Roman persecutions of Christians, which rose to a crescendo by the end of the 3rd century and the beginning of the 4th century, when the most intense persecutions took place? There is space for mention of the Christian persecution of pagans after the 4th century AD, but none for their persecution at the hands of the Romans.

Now we come to an interesting part of the argument, where the entire burden for the downfall of Roman civilization in the West and the coming of the Dark Ages is assigned to religion, and not to culture.

This is a biased and completely mistaken argument, and romanticizes polytheist religion well beyond its station. The empire was Christian in parts from the 2nd or 3rd century AD onwards; Christianity became the official religion of the empire in 380 AD, with Theodosius.  The Empire in that form lasted only a few years more; it fell in the West in 476 to the German barbarians, Rome itself to the Ostrogoths.

In province after province, in city after city, where Romans and the legions of Rome, not the free spirit of Roman governance or laws, but the force of arms, had brought the Pax Romana, the old cities were vandalized, the name itself derived from one of the incoming tribes, and Roman civilization as it had evolved was eradicated and replaced by something grim and German.

What about the role of the Church? In the remarks that follow, let it be noted that these remarks are not from an admirer of either the Catholic Church, or indeed of organized religion anywhere.

Far from being the destructive force that we are being asked to consider it, the monotheistic Church, the orthodox Catholic Church, was the preserver of things Roman, as far as it could, from the hands of the barbarians. Law, architecture, agriculture, viniculture, letters, philosophy, music – even the management of empire – all these were preserved and extended by the Church and its servants, not by secular society.

The hostility of the Church was reserved for representatives of the old religion; the Druids, for instance, in Gaul and in Britain, and the pagan tribes still existing in parts of the empire. Some of Charlemagne’s hardest fought campaigns were against the pagan Saxons. But the point is that the Church-linked Carolingian Empire, where the Emperor accepted his crown from the Pope, was still a civilized oasis compared to the wilderness outside, certainly compared to the Saxons and their barbaric state of being.

The Church did whatever it could, wherever it could, not without self-interest. It persecuted pagans, as it had been persecuted itself. Old temples were taken up and converted to Churches as the pagan congregations dwindled. Estates bestowed on the Church were carefully ploughed, sown and harvested. The need for wine for the sacrament led to the growth of today’s flourishing wine industry. There were barbarian outrages even by the Church, but that Church was not entirely an anti-civilisational body as it is made out to be.

This was in the West.

In the East, the same Roman Empire held on for centuries more, until its final capture by the Ottomans. That Christian Empire, under the monotheists, continued to maintain the culture and the traditions of Rome, in a radically altered manner, largely influenced by the Greeks, and that composite Greco-Roman culture continued until 1453 in that form.

The passage on the struggle between the Empire and the Papacy needs no comment, as it is not relevant to the central issue of societies being more free when their central religion is not monotheistic.

Middle Eastern monotheistic fanaticism is singled out for mention, as an inhibiting factor behind the backwardness of society, when in fact, in the Middle East and Asia Minor, where the monotheistic religion flourished, society and culture also flourished, and only in Europe, under the German tribes and their kingdoms, was society backward. This clearly reveals the nature of the message, where the conclusion is first decided, that societies are more free when their central religion is not monotheist, and the facts are then sought, facts which will bear out this conclusion, all inconvenient and contrary facts being omitted.

It is paradoxical that then we move on to the Renaissance, and the re-discovery of pagan classical learning, as if pagan classical learning was parachuted from the skies. Since it does not fit the thesis, the small but inconvenient fact that all this pagan classical learning had been carefully preserved by the Arabs has been completely omitted, an inconvenient tribe of monotheists, and only subsequently acquired from the Byzantines, after the fall of Constantinople. By that date, the Renaissance was far advanced; the wonderful reign of Frederick II Hohenstaufen, Stupor Mundi, was long over, and therefore any direct link with Byzantium is clearly unlikely.

On the question of the humanism of the Renaissance, why thinkers took man as their measure is too long to deal with on a blog comment. It certainly owed something to the idea that God was unknowable, but putting Man at the centre was due to a far more complex process of philosophical reasoning than that bland statement.

Regarding the comment on the domination of secularist thinking having much to do with the exhaustion of the religious preoccupations of the endless wars of the Reformation and the Counter-reformation, it is accurate enough, but it needs to be pointed out that in this same blog, the precise dates, the date of the Treaty of Westphalia, or the Peace of Westphalia, and the motto that governed its provision, Cujus regio eius religio, has been discussed and debated threadbare, in the context of a discussion of secularism. Not that it invalidates the statement made, but it needs to be said that this is not new, that this has been considered, that this is not entirely unfamiliar.

So much for the guide to European history. It would appear from a more careful examination than the cursory and selective treatment that has given it that actually the case for polytheism is far from being proven. Certainly the explanations that  have been supplied lead to no such conclusion.

In the final part of the note, the European escape from the barbarism of Middle Eastern monotheism has been ascribed to European society being more variegated than that of the Arabs. This variegation has even been specified: the relative importance of the merchant class in Europe, and the separation of the personal property of the ruler from the rights of the ruled to own property.

Take just the passage above.

Europe did not escape from barbarism after all. It ran the full course. Whether this was due to Middle Eastern monotheism or German lack of civic and civil processes has been answered by historians already; fortunately, we need not depend on an individual’s unsupported word for this.

On the other hand, there was no equivalent period, no Dark Ages, in the Middle East, which should have been there if this thesis was even superficially correct. In contrast to Europe, the Middle East had a flourishing civilization and a global culture of vastly superior nature compared to the Europeans at that stage.

It has been said that European laws relating to property tend to be more supportive of private property, and thereby lead us, through mercantile capitalism of full-blown capitalism in the West; it is a mistake, however, to assume that the mercantile class was in superior condition in the West, in Europe, compared to the Middle East.

Quite the contrary.

Within the protection of a cultural aura of favour that was attached to the merchant class, which was not without its association with the early Islamic leaders and their occupations, the merchants of the Middle East went far afield and used commercial systems that were far advanced compared to their European brethren. It will take a full-scale book to describe how the merchants of Europe emerged gradually, mainly in Italy and in the Low Countries, later in the Hanseatic League, and slowly acquired rights under the feudal system, which was initially hostile to merchants.

In brief, yes, the legal system favoured the Europeans, largely through its preservation (ironically) by the Catholic Church, and thereafter by the efforts of national monarchies to control jurisprudence and centralize power. And no, the merchant class was not weaker in the Middle East compared to Europe.  

It is ironic that the conclusion that European society enjoyed the immense and invaluable wealth of pre-Christian thought is brought out as a weapon against Christian intellectual nullity.  This is just plain wrong, and ironic that this statement should be made.

It is ironic because this very European society was a brutalized, barbaric society for more than four centuries, during which time, the invaluable wealth of pre-Christian thought was preserved by the monotheistic, rigid, hide-bound Arabs, by the Church which according to the note was the mainspring of barbarism, rather than the preserver of old tradition, and by the Empire of Byzantium, located in the Middle East and in Asia Minor.

The description of the Arabs as a ruler-oriented society is accurate; however, this should be related to a particular point of time, not as an eternal verity.

It was true from the time of the coming of Islam, when the concept of a single ruler of the faithful emerged, and was not true earlier. Earlier, the concept of Empire emerged from Persia first in history, largely because most of the world had little or no knowledge of developments in China, and thence through Alexander to the Romans, bearing in mind that the Persian model was alive and well until late in the day in the East, whereas the Alexandrine model was more or less co-opted by the Romans, who put a definitive stamp on the idea of Empire.

To conclude that humanity advances when Judaeo-Christian-Islamic religion is absent, and that it retreats, or regresses, when these obsessions are powerful, is quite misleading. Religion is religion, whether polytheist or monotheist. It has its dead hand on civilization in either case. But we will see more of that when we examine the next thought.

The question of the post-Christian West, Hindu India and the Confucian Far East, with their easy-going attitude to religion and the gods is justified in terms of social harmony, in terms of Muslims being free through most of India to publicly ridicule Hinduism, as is proper. This is far from evident from the record. Large numbers of riots break out due to the smallest causes, and these are by no means initiated by the Muslim community in all cases. The present events in Bareilly are a case in point. These examples can be multiplied indefinitely. Where does this easy-going attitude show up? Not in Xinjiang, not in Tibet, not in the savage Japanese treatment of their indigenous Ainu, not in their contempt of the Korean dog-people. One is curious to know if there are examples for this magnanimity which can be cited, any firmer evidence than an unsupported statement.

The comment about Nehru and his Hinduism are in no way connected to the historical inaccuracies and the gross errors of understanding that fill the note posted.



Filed under Religion

23 responses to “Greater Tolerance Of The Polytheists

  1. Ganpat Ram

    When someone like Gupta bothers to reply at such lenth to a brief comment of mine, it’s clear I have shaken up the stale world of the PTH and forced people to THINK.

    Monotheism is not the great boon it is cracked up so often to be. Even Gupta would accept that point of mine, I think. We Hindu polytheists are not so retarded after all.

    The best the poor beknighted Church could do was PRESERVE some of the gains of a polytheist civilization. I suppose the Nazis (here’s a throwaway thought) would have pleaded that with their scientific research they preserved some of the advances of the Jewish intellectuals?…..

  2. Ganpat Ram

    By the way, it would be fair of the PTH if it would post my original remarks side by side with Gupta’s so people can see what inspired this article of Gupta’s in which my name is not mentioned.

  3. Ganpat Ram

    Here’s the comment I made on Yasser Hamdani’s article on “Understanding Islamic Revivalism” that inspired Gupta’s inept, pedantic, rattled refutation:

    “A great fallacy in this debate is the assumtion that all religions are alike in suppressing free thought.

    This is far from the case.

    History shows that societies tend to be freer when religions are not monotheistic.

    It is true Socrates had a hard time with the government of his day in polytheistic Greece. But Athenian regimes generally allowed enormous freedom for debate, which is why the city became the field of the incredible Athenian intellectual and cultural flowering, never equalled before or since.

    What happened to that thriving intellectual culture after the conquest of the classical world by monotheistic Christianity?

    We know only too well. Several centuries of persecution and suppression of any thoughts that could not fit into the narrow impoverished desert creed of a Middle Eastern tribe known as the Jews, suppression of the old intellectual elites and learning, ironically too ruthless anti-Semitism leading to the expulsions of Jews themselves to “pagan” areas where there was still tolerance, smashing of the ancient temples and their replacement by churches, etc…All the dreary and (to Hindus) only too well known accompaniments of takeover by Middle Eastern monotheist fanaticisms.

    There were certainly contests for power in Christendom between popes and prelates and kings, but the kings claimed to be no less representative of God than the priests – they were in effect claiming to be both kings AND popes. That was what caused the fight. In the Byzantine and Orthodox areas, kings were also the top priests.

    All this obsession with Middle Eastern monotheistic fanaticism took a long time to fade. It was not until the Renaissance, caused by the rediscovery of pagan classical learning, from the fifteenth century onward, that clearly secular ideas made their appearnce in the West, the modern idea that God is unknowable and therefore we should concentrate on what men can do.

    Certainly, the domination of secularist thinking also had much to do with the exhaustion with religious preoccupations that came with the endless wars fostered by the Reformation and the reaction against it. People realised they were paying too heavy a price for these religious obsessions and, with the world having opened out with the discovery of America and the globe as such, they seem to have decided to move on to a higher stage of barbarism.

    That’s European history in a nutshell.

    Europe escaped the barbarity of Middle Eastern monotheism because its society was always more variegated than that of, say, the Arabs, one where the merchant class had a more important role, where Roman law clearly separated the ruler’s political rights from others’ rights to property. Asian societies lacked these clear-cut limits to rulers’ rights.

    European society also had the immense and invaluble wealth of pre-Christian thought to draw upon to save them from the Christian intellectual nullity.

    The Arabs had a naturally more ruler-oriented society, and were unable to retain the intellectual autonomy to develop towards secularism.

    The bottom line is: humanity advances when it is free from Jewish religious obsessions like Christianity and Islam. It regresses when (as today) these obsessions are powerful.

    In general, the post-Christian West, Hindu India and the Confucian Far East, with their easy-going attitudes to religion and the gods (in most of India Muslims can freely and publicly ridicule Hinduism, which is as it should be) will probably make much more headway in the world of thought than the Muslim world dominated by monotheistic fanaticism.

    You are right hat Nehru was steeped in Hinduism. One has only to read his “Discovery of India” to see this. He is polite to Islam, but dismisses it very briefly, but has page after page of thoughts on Hinduism and Buddhism. In one of his last injuctions to the country, “The Basic approach”, he recommends “the Vedantic ideal”. “

  4. Gorki

    Indrajit, Ganpat, all others:

    I find this debate between monotheism and polytheism interesting but not very relevant on this forum and to the present world.
    While in all honestly, in strictly religious terms polytheism is perhaps more tolerant than monotheism; it is irrelevant because at the end of the day it matters little, all religion is confining, and it is only a strictly secular separation of religion from all forms of public discourse that can be conducive to freedom of ideas.

    I agree that polytheism by definition can tolerate a worship of another deity and in many cases can even happily incorpororate one more God into its pantheon while Monotheism, by definition leaves no room for such flexibility.
    However this fact alone is not enough to make it more virtuous than the later since practical experience has shown that when it comes to organized religion; both monotheism and polytheism can be equally dogmatic and equally rigid and unyielding.

    The freedom in general and freedom of thought in particular, is not a simple function of any one belief system but a complex interplay of politics personalities, culture and the degree of exposure to other cultures and ideas.
    If this was not so then the polytheistic Asian civilizations of India; pre Islamic Persia; or the pagan Mongols would have been the people to have ushered in the enlightenment. If not these then surely the American civilizations of the Aztecs; Incas or the Mayas should have led the renaissance. Yet polytheistic Persians and the ancient Egyptians remained as despotic as ever; for thousands of years, till they made contact with Hellenistic culture and others later. Their political life, philosophy or the scientific remained fairly static.

    The big flowering of ideas came about in the wake of first the Greek and later the Arab conquest; the first a pagan polytheism, the later a relatively modern monotheism.
    Alexandria under both, and Baghdad and Damascus under the Arabs became international centers of learning and inquiry.
    Ironically it was upheaval in the wake of the pagan Mongol invasion rather than any religious edict that led to the decline of these centers.

    If one were alive at the end of the first millennia after Christ it would have been hard to imagine a city more exiting and more receptive to new idea in the world than the Abbasid ruled Cordoba; a haven of monotheistic Islam even as the polytheistic cities and states of north India had entered a period of decline.

    The point is again that the ebb and flow of human ideas and innovations by various civilizations are dependant on factors far more complex and far less beholden to the religious beliefs as have been implied above.

    Another thing; neither monotheism nor polytheism can claim to be less violent (as had been argued earlier by people like TM and GV). Violent contest for resources and ideas is but a natural impulse of our species; a part of being human. When it comes to settling political matters, the ability to deal out death and suffering is quite good among both kinds of believers. Again the ancient Aztecs and the Mayas, in addition to the Romans, the Greeks the Mongols attest to that inglorious fact.

    Coming to the modern Indian context, I find it a very misleading statement that Nehru’s beliefs, especially as elaborated in the DOI, were steeped in Hinduism.

    Unless my own tattered copy of the DOI is a fake, it is my belief that while Nehru was steeped not in Hinduism but in Indian culture and he himself, took great pains to make that distinction.
    I reproduce below the relevant parts of his writing from that exact book to illustrate my point. He writes:

    ‘Hinduism as a faith, is vague, amorphous, many sided, all things to all men. It is hardly possible to define it or to say definitely whether it is a religion or not, in the usual sense of the word’.
    He then goes on to say that: ‘It is therefore incorrect and undesirable to use the word ‘Hindu’ or Hinduism for the Indian culture, even with reference to the distant past, although the various aspects of thought, as embodied in various writings were the dominant expression of that culture. Much more it is incorrect to use those terms, in that sense, today. So long as the old faith and philosophy were chiefly a way of life and an outlook on the world, they were largely synonymous with Indian culture; but when more rigid religion developed, with all manner of ritual and ceremonial, it became something more and at the same time something much less than that composite culture. A Christian and a Moslem could, and often did, adapt himself to an Indian way of life and culture, and yet remained in faith an orthodox Christian or Moslem. He had become Indianized himself and become an Indian without changing his faith.

    Thus the correct word for Indian, as applied to country, or culture, or the historical continuity of our varying traditions, is ‘Hindi’ from Hind; a shortened form of Hindustan. Hind is still used commonly for India in countries of Western Asia, in Iran and Turkey, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and elsewhere. India has always been referred to and is still called ‘Hind’ and everywhere Indian is called a Hindi, ‘Hindi’ has nothing to do with religion, and a Moslem or a Christian is just as much a Hindi as a person who follows the religion of Hinduism.’ (DOI, Asia publishing House, 1961, reprinted 1964; pages 7-78)

    There, you have it! From Nehru himself; that the tolerance of the Indian civilization was in essence a function of the innate Indianness; as opposed to the religion of Hinduism, which he admits is a great religion in itself, but complete with its rituals and ceremonies, its belief system; it is not much different than other great religions; Islam and Christianity that made India its home.

    In another passage he goes on to talk about the amazing flowering of ideas that occurred in the wake of the founding of Islam and its impact on the Arab people.
    He discusses its impact on other civilizations of the day and laments that the Indians could have benefitted more from it, if only they had been more receptive. He writes:

    ‘The Indians remained aloof, wrapped in ‘their own conceits, and keeping as far as possible within their own shells. This was unfortunate, for the intellectual ferment of Baghdad and the Arab renaissance movement would have shaken up the Indian mind just when it was losing much of its creative vigor. In that spirit of intellectual inquiry the Indians of the older day would have found a kinship in thought’. (Page: 244)

    An interested reader can read the entire book himself. The theme I tried to convey above comes out in it, without any ambiguity, and over and over again; that in his views, The Indian civilization today, is a synthetic product of many great streams of human ideas brought to it by our ancestors who chose to enrich our land with their presence.
    Thus today it is a common home for all of us Indians.
    No one person or group has any exclusive rights to it and none needs any permission from another to see it that way.

    In fact even if one disagrees with Nehru, I would suggest that any serious student of modern Indian history should read and re-read this one small book to understand this man and his ideas which in my opinion had a colossal impact on the founding of this modern and secular republic of India.


  5. Ganpat Ram

    I would argue most of the great scientific and philosophical ideas of civilization came out of polytheistic societies: Egypt, Mesapotamia, China, Hindu India, Classical Greece and Rome.

    Until they were freed by the Enlightenment, the Jews contributed very little to science and philosophy.

    Classical Greece and Rome (to a lesser extent) were very fertile in philosophical and scientific ideas. After the coming of Christianity, this ceased to be so.

    The Arab made advances in science, but this was in their early period, before the full force of monotheistic orthodoxy was clamped down on them. After that their civilization decayed into uncreative despotism.

    Polytheistic Hindu India was very creative in philosophy and science, but ceased to be so in any major way with the conquest by the fierce monotheism of the Muslims.

    The West only reawakened to science and philosophy when it began to shake off the deadly grip of the Christian church.

    I think the record in favour of polytheism is pretty clear.

    Th Jews, who claimed monotheism is such a great boon to the world, gave the world nothing by way of science or philopsophy as long as they wwre in the grip of Judaism; only their freeing by the European Enlightenment made them a force to reckon with in these spheres.


    It is all too clear that monotheistic Judaism and its progeny, Christianity and Islam, have held mankind back. Polytheistic Mesapotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, India, have helped it to progress.

  6. Ganpat Ram

    The Jews have little right to complain about Muslim fundamentalism. These Muslims are merely faithful followers of the Mosaic creed.

    The only great bdifference between Jews and Muslims is that Muslims stayed in their homelands while the Jews were able to imbibe Enlightenment ideas (the fruits of the scorned “pagan” “idolatrous” Greece) in their Western exile. The fanatical Muslims of today are a mirror image of Old Testament Jews.

    There is no reason whatever why Israel would have been much freer than Saudi Arabia had it not been founded by Jews from Europe.

  7. vajra


    It is surprising to see you spend time on a piece that is nothing more than an extended comment. Since you have dignified it beyond its deserts, one is forced to engage with a few of the thoughts you have on the subject.

    First, surely the author cannot have intended to say that polytheism worked the way you have supposed in your response. A polytheistic system does not work like flypaper, picking up divinities every day as they approach it too closely and get stuck to its sticky surface. The pantheon is fixed, the cosmogony decided and there is usually a creation myth and a myth of the rule of an elder god located in it somewhere.

    You may take the three examples of the ancient Egyptian pantheon, the ancient Sumerian and the ancient Indo-European, covering four of the six branches of the Indo-European diaspora, the Greeks, Latins, Celts and Germans.

    There is little or no tolerance for worship of any divinity outside the recognised pantheon; death, of a peculiarly cruel variety in the Sumerian case, might result. The only tolerance that we can spot is to be seen within the boundaries of an accepted pantheon.

    This should make it clear that there was no particular tolerance of different views implicit in polytheism. On the contrary, these systems were as rigid as any monotheistic system.

    Your first mistake, if it can be called so, is a misinterpretation; your second is a set of anachronisms, apart from misinterpretation.

    In historical writing, the Enlightenment is not an enlightenment; the Renaissance is not a renascence. Both have specific meaning and a specified place and time in historical writing. In addition, to get these unpleasant mentions over in one gasp, Hellenistic refers to a short period of a few centuries, from 320 BC to 146 BC (some date it to 30 BC, for valid and specific reasons), and you omitted to point out that the destruction of the brilliant achievements of Baghdad and Damascus, under monotheist Muslims, was due to the invasions of the polytheist Mongols (pagans are polytheists, if they worship divinity at all):
    Paganism (from Latin paganus, meaning “country dweller”, “rustic”)[1] is a blanket term used to refer to various polytheistic, non Abrahamic religious traditions. Its exact definition may vary:[2] It is primarily used in a historical context, referring to Greco-Roman polytheism as well as the polytheistic traditions of Europe before Christianization. In a wider sense, extended to contemporary religions, it includes most of the Eastern religions, and the indigenous traditions of the Americas, Central Asia and Africa, as well as non-Abrahamic folk religion in general.

    So what of these? A few very small quibbles: what you stated below is simply not possible.

    the polytheistic Asian civilizations of India; pre Islamic Persia; or the pagan Mongols would have been the people to have ushered in the enlightenment. If not these then surely the American civilizations of the Aztecs; Incas or the Mayas should have led the renaissance.

    The enlightenment refers to the Enlightenment, a description of a particular place and its cultural and religious ferment, at a particular time. The renaissance, likewise; you are referring to the Renaissance, a term not to be used loosely for any and every period of cultural renewal.

    But these are quibbles, and there is little to be said about your main argument. As for Nehru, besides a broad agreement, I have nothing much to add to your comments.

  8. harbir singh nain


    What a lot of mental masturbation.

  9. vajra

    @harbir singh nain

    I have been a lifelong admirer of the propensity of a class of North Indians to concentrate entirely on the physical, to the exclusion of all other forms of activity. No doubt the bulk of your time is spent away from these effete mental exercises.

  10. Gorki

    ‘A great fallacy in this debate is the assumption that all religions are alike in suppressing free thought. History shows that societies tend to be freer when religions are not monotheistic’

    Vajra, Ganpat:
    I was responding to the above statements by Ganpat. Therefore I don’t deny that while I took certain liberties of the general nature, it does not change my basic argument; that regardless of the fact whether polytheism is only slightly more accepting, not at all accepting or it is much more accepting of the other than monotheism is; at the end of the day it still remains a system based on faith.
    Any system, based on blind faith, without any empiric proof cannot be expected to impart any advantage to its followers in terms of encouraging freedom of thoughts and ideas.

    In other words to me all organized religions, being based on faith are diametrically opposed to exercise of rationality.

    Similarly, while I used the words enlightenment and renaissance in a general form if one were to substitute ‘The Age of Enlightenment’ and ‘The Renaissance’ instead, it would clarify what I wanted to say; that is, if indeed polytheism was more conducive of rational thought, it would have been polytheistic cultures rather than a monotheistic West that would have ushered in such a cultural phenomena.

    All I want to do is to point out the discrepancy between the above statement and the evidence from history.
    Ganpat keeps reiterating the same argument without addressing the fundamental flaw in his reasoning. How is it that the very same monotheism that is supposed to suppress free thought laid the groundwork for such revolutionary events whereas the tolerant polytheistic faiths that lasted much longer were unable to do so.
    Why did the ‘renaissance’ take place in the monotheistic West?
    How come polytheistic India did not engineer an age of enlightenment if it was simply a function of one faith versus another?

    And the problems multiply as we dig deeper. He has yet to address the civilization of the Americas; The Mayas, Incas and Aztecs were all polytheistic; why then did an Aztec Columbus not sail instead from Tenochtitlan to Cadiz?

    And there is this little problem with his statement that:
    “It is all too clear that monotheistic Judaism and its progeny, Christianity and Islam, have held mankind back. Polytheistic Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, India, have helped it to progress”.

    Is that really true?
    It took a thoroughly ‘Christian’ surgeon like Vesalius to disapprove the erroneous texts of Galen. When his work was questioned, Vesalius in his inimitable style , pointed out to his detractors that rather than questioning him, they all and indeed the entire mankind owed him a big debt for emancipating them all from the fraud that the Greeks had been perpetuating on them all these years.
    Another ‘Christian’ William Harvey showed the circulation of blood; something no ancient Greek, Egyptian, Roman, Chinese or Indian had ever suspected.
    Isaac Newton wrote his glorious principles of Mathematics; but when he was not working out mathematical principles, he was writing about the matters of the Christian faith!

    And what of the Renaissance itself?
    Far from being a secular emancipation of the minds held captive by Western monotheism, the Renaissance itself was made possible because of the piety of the faithful.
    Some people like to fix the exact date of the beginning of the Italian Renaissance in 1329 when Pisano was awarded the commission for the gates of the Baptistery; and act of extreme piety.
    Almost all famous humanist artists, architects and innovators associated with the Renaissance Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Botticelli, Brunelleschi, among many others, were funded by the pious Medici family or the Popes; often both.

    I have not even started to scratch the surface; countless other examples abound; the point is as I mentioned earlier; human advances occur for many complex reasons of culture, politics, personalities and even chance.
    The fact that a civilization believed in a monotheistic or a polytheistic faith had a negligible role in it.

    One last thing; I am not sure why this diatribe against the Jews; surely they are not breeding fast and planning to take over India any time soon, so why are they a target for the Hindutvadis?

    Ganpat insists that the Jews made no contributions to scientific discovery until they were cleansed of their monotheistic blinders by the Western enlightenment.
    OK. Then, good for them, at least they learnt fast. Look at the number of scientists, scholars, physicians, musicians etc. they have produced.
    Now let us look at the track record of the khaki knickers wearing polytheistic and their apologists; what is their numbers of the Nobel Prizes won?
    Where are their Einsteins?

    After all mob pack hunting is not a year around activity; where are they the rest of the time?

    I end my post with a quote from Nehru:
    “Facts are facts and will not disappear on account of your likes”

  11. vajra


    You would have noticed I had only quibbles with specific instances where you were a little loose and lax with your definitions and your facts. If I had questions, it was not about the trend of your argument.

    What you have stated in your last response is very powerful and persuasive – except, of course, to those who have already made up their minds and do not want to be disturbed by the facts.

  12. Ganpat Ram

    Those who flatly deny that polytheistic societies by and large have a much better record on tolerance betray the hollowness of their case.

    The multifarious Hindu heritage, not tied down to defending one god, produced a culture very open to ideas and debate. Thus whole new, radical schools of thought such as the aetheist one, the Buddhist, etc, arose. All this lasted over many centuries until the coming of Islam. It made the Hindus a cuture that has proved very hospitable to liberalism and democracy later, unlike the Muslim societies.

    The West became open to democratic ideas only when the fierce grip of the Church was broken. Chjristianity in any case is not a completely monotheistic faith; Jesus is worshipped as a divinity, as is Mary, in addition to God the Father. One reason why Christianity has proved more flexible than Islam, I think, which is more like Old Testament Judaism in its uncompromising monotheism.

    In contrast, early philosophers in Islam only had to hint that the Koran was the work of a man not God, when fierce orthodoxy was imposed on them to shut off debate.

  13. Ganpat Ram

    Even today we dare not mention the name of the man the early Muslim philosophers thought might have authored the Koran……So powerful is the monotheistic interdiction on thought !

  14. harbir singh nain


    Not all mental exercise is mental masturbation. but some is quintessentially that.

    “Mental masturbation:

    The act of engaging in intelligent and interesting conversation purely for the enjoyment of your own greatness and individuality. Subjects range from obscure lp’s to cultural movements in preindustrial societies. Either delivered through grand monlogues or subtle conversation orientation, it links large words and random references resulting in nothing actually being communicated.”

    no offense intended. Carry right on.

  15. Ganpat Ram

    Harbir Singh Nain:

    Whatever your views – and at one stage I thought I agreed with one of your theses – this kind of language is uncalled for.

    People resort to such demeaning abuse when they have nothing more intelligent to say.

  16. harbir singh nain

    “Mental masturbation” is a fairly standard phrase. This is the first time I’ve heard it referred to as “this kind of language” or as “abuse”.

    but I suppose I should remember that desis have a particularly delicate sense of modesty.

  17. Ganpat Ram

    Harbir Singh Nain

    It’s an utterly disgusting phrase.

    Vajra and I have had our tiffs, but I really have to defend him on this one.

    You owe him an apology.

  18. DCMediagirl

    @Gorki: Thank you for your reasonable comment. The enlightened culture of the Aztecs brought us the barbaric practice of human sacrifice. The Greeks and the Romans practiced slavery. I too am baffled by the comments about Jews, whose numbers are actually dwindling worldwide. All cultures, whether poly- or monotheistic, have blood on their hands.

  19. Vajra

    @Ganpat Ram

    If you meant that defence genuinely, I appreciate the gesture. However, I wish you wouldn’t bother; harbir singh nain’s attempt at shock tactics is hardly worth such time and effort. I would have appreciated in him a closer focus on facts and their interpretation, rather than on pretentious criticism.

    Let him wallow in his own little mud-bath. I would rather you thought about your formulations about India, about Muslims in India, about polytheism versus monotheism, about the diffidence of Pakistanis regarding Pakistan that you have found, and matters such as those. Not all are interesting, but they deserve time and attention, if only to contradict them.

  20. harbir singh nain

    I wonderful if folks are upset at the use of the M word or at the description of this intercourse as MM.

    More the latter than the former, I’d guess.

    Well, I accept that the word caused displeasure and my apologies for that. but my judgment of the discourse, which I described as MM, remains. I would elaborate, but I would be joining the collective MMing, so I’ll just leave you folks to it and make my exit.


  21. harbir singh nain

    * I mean ” I wonder if”, not “I wonderful if”. sorry for the mistake.

  22. Ganpat Ram


    Of course I meant it sincerely.

    If there is one thing I utterly despise, and which I regard as a sure indication of low character, it is the resort to obscene abuse.

    You and I have had some very tough exchanges. I am no saint, and occasionally used terms like “illiterate” to describe you which no-one can take seriously given the excellent quality of your English.

    But Nain ought to take an example from the fact that neither of us were ever tempted to resort to obscene taunting.

  23. harbir singh nain

    ganpat ram,

    Don’t be such a rondu. you chaps have derailed your conversation in your rush to respond to the offence i caused.

    there are usually only two kinds of responses to the charge of mental masturbation. You laugh and move on, or you get on a high horse and pretend that whats offended you is the “foul” language, without acknowledging the commentary that was implicit in the use of phrase.

    I suggest you take vajra’s advice about ignoring me, and try to pick up your conversation where it was left off.

    and please don’t say that masturbation is disgusting. a lifetime of it will fend off prostrate cancer. Too many elderly men find out too late that their avoidance of this “disgusting” thing, is now about to kill them.

    in short, I don’t feel the slightest bit chastised. please. ignore me, and pick up your conversation if you can. I will say no more if I am not discussed.