Gods and the World
Man’s dedication to the quest/or meaning is certainly as old as his existence on earth, and the belief in gods, in whatever form, has been present in all cultures of the world since time immemorial, even though questioned and denied from time to time. Carl Jung,¹ the father of depth psychology, viewed Man's urge towards transcendent meaning as an instinct sui generisÙ in the human psyche, or as he would say, "an innate predisposition of mankind.”
All over the world, the spiritual foundation of a society is reflected in a body of myths which are symbols of human experience each culture values and preserves because they embody its world-view or important beliefs. In the words of Mircea Eliade, a well-known historian of religions, myths are always the reflection of a genuine religious experience and, in his view, it is the sacred experience that gives them their structure, utility and universality. "Myths” , he says, "express figuratively and dramatically what metaphysics and theology define dialectically.” ÙÙ
Myths may explain origins, natural phenomena and death. They may provide models of virtuous or heroic behaviour by
* Sui generis: adj., of its own kind.
** Dialectically: adj., using discussion and reasoning as a method of intellectual investigation.
relating the adventures of great heroes, or they may describe the nature and function of divinities. They impart a feeling of awe for whatever is mysterious and marvelous in life, depicting a universe in which human beings take their place in a much larger scale, and may reveal much more deeply than any rationalistic rendering the very structure of the divinity; divinity who, as is so much stressed in all oriental religions, stands beyond all attributes, and gathers all contraries. "God is day and night, winter and summer; war and peace, hunger and satiety: all opposites are in him,” would say Heraclitus,² a Greek philosopher of the 5th century BC. The questions myths address have produced a body of stories from diverse cultures that often closely resemble each other in subject, although the treatment of each theme naturally varies from one society to another. Forming a bridge across time and space, they are like an open window on the mind of the people who created them, allowing us to better access deeper layers of their psyche. Sri Aurobindo, in his preface on the philosophy of the Upanishads, beautifully describes the differences he sees between the Asiatic and European mind. Digging into the rich soil of the epics which are at the roots of these two main lines of development, he writes: "The mind of the European is an Iliad and an Odyssey,³ fighting rudely but heroically forward, or full of a rich curiosity, wandering as an accurate and vigorous observer in landlocked seas of thought; the mind of the Asiatic is a Ramayan or a Mahabharat, a gleaming infinity of splendid and inspiring imaginations and idealism, or else a universe of wide moral aspiration, ever new masses of thought.”
As we have seen, an inherent part of myths is the belief in one or more powers that create life and control the direction of the Universe.
The ancient world contained a multitude of coexisting religious ideas and forms. Various forms of monotheism4 (both female-dominated or male-dominated), polytheism,5 nature worship, ancestor worship are found all over the world. A general tendency had long been to see the evolution of the religious
phenomena from "simple to complex” starting with the most elementary religious forms like totemism or fetishism, cults of nature and animism and evolving, as man and societies were becoming more civilized, towards polytheism to finally reach a monotheistic notion of god. For many scholars now and in particular for Mircea Eliade, it is a very simplified viewpoint and, as he often points out in his treatise on religious history, this hypothesis has never been proved. "A simple and linear representation is always a selection more or less arbitrary; nowhere will we find a simple religion reducible to elementary hierophanies.6 Everywhere even in the most primitive and ancient cult, religious life is always much more complex.”
It is certainly not for us in such a small format to study such rich and enormous material. Many books have been published on this fascinating subject and a few are suggested at the end of this monograph for interested students. We will limit ourselves to look into two systems of gods which have been very well defined, the Greek system and the Indian system.
Three texts, which are part of the literary material that have greatly influenced the cultural and spiritual development of Western or Eastern people to his day, are presented here. Our first text. The Colloquy of Indra and Agastya, has been selected out of the Rig Veda and is followed by a very enlightening commentary from Sri Aurobindo who consecrated many years of his life to unravel "the secret of the Veda”, Our second text is an excerpt from the Kena Upanishad.
If Veda and Upanishads are the roots of Indian civilization and the supreme authority in Hindu religion, ancient Greece gave soil for the rich crop of religious imagination that has shaped the mind of the Western world. Our third text thus is taken out of the Iliad, one of the two famous epics written by Greece's greatest poet. Homer, and which, together with the Odyssey, has probably been the most read poem for the past three thousand years. Finally to conclude this monograph, we have included an excerpt from Sri Aurobindo's long poem Ilion, inspired by the Iliad and in which the Olympian gods are presented in all their depth and beauty.
Greece and India both have produced a luxuriant mythology and an abundant pantheon.* If the Greek gods belong now to the past, having been dethroned by Christianity, and are more to us figures of art and poetry, the Indian gods are still very much alive. For the Indians have always tended to retain their early beliefs and mould them in such a way as to mirror new social conditions or to fit them into a new philosophical scheme. Moreover, the oldest Vedic hymns have affirmed the ultimate Reality of the One Supreme Being and some various gods and goddesses as cosmic manifestation of the One.
Greek religion was essentially polytheistic, and no other religion has ever been so anthropomorphic.** "Every object or force of sky or earth, every blessing and every terror, every quality - even the vices - of mankind were personified as a deity, usually in human form and animating power. Every craft, profession and art had its divinity and in addition, there were demons, harpies, furies, gorgons, sirens, nymphs almost as numerous as the mortals of Earth.” (Will Durant, History of Civilizations - Vol II) This animism, which corresponds to the subtle perception that no plan of existence is without form and animating power, is a remarkably universal feature in the religious culture of the ancient world, and similarly even wood-gods, river-gods, mountain-gods, house-gods, tree deities, snake deities peopled the world of ancient India.
But the great gods of the Vedas, as well as the Olympians belonged to a much higher order. They were great powers, supporting universal laws and functions, and were not bound by life and matter.
In Greece, already at the time of Homer, the gods had developed deep moral and psychological functions.
Zeus, very similar in some aspects to the Vedic god Indra, Lord of the sky and Illumined Intelligence, was Lord of wind, rain and storms, and of thunder The Thunderer became one of his most
* Pantheon: n., the gods of people, especially the officially recognized gods.
** Anthropomorphic: adj., described or thought of as having a human form or human attributes (deities).
A Greek bronze of Zeus bearing a thunderbolt
familiar epithets, and the thunderbolt,7 symbolic of his supreme creative power, was his main attribute. He had united in himself all the attributes of the supreme divinity. He was "The Father of all”, head and source of the moral order of the world, the mighty ruler of gods and men. He was omnipotent, saw and, knew everything. His daughter Athena, "born from his head fully armed”, in whom some scholars have seen a personification analogous to the Vedic Saraswati, but who had been most probably a storm and lightning goddess — hence her normal attribute, the aegis, which in primitive time signified "the stormy night” and her epithet as "Goddess of the brilliant eyes” was venerated in her quality of Warrior Goddess who protected the brave and the valorous, and as the goddess of learning and wisdom. Her wisdom which earned her the epithet pronoia (the foreseeing) made her the counselor goddess and the goddess of the assembly.
Even more worshiped than Athena was Apollo, son of Zeus by Leto, goddess of the night. Apollo was the solar god without being the sun himself, which was represented by a special divinity, Helios. Apollo had assumed high moral qualities. He was honoured as patron of music, art, and poetry; as founder of cities,
maker of laws and as god of healing and prophecy. Everywhere he was associated with order, measure and beauty; whereas in other cults there were strange elements of fear and superstition, in the worship of Apollo, and in his great festivals at Delphi and Delos, the dominant note was the rejoicing of a brilliant people in a god of health and wisdom, reason and song.
In India the Vedic gods developed their psychological functions but retained also more fixedly their external characters, and for higher purpose, gave place to a new pantheon who assumed larger cosmic functions. Nowadays, as has been shown by Sri Aurobindo in his book The Secret of the Veda, a factor of main importance and understanding of Vedic religion is that, like in so many cultures of the ancient world Egyptian, Chaldean or Greek, to name a few — a double aspect of exoteric* practice and esoteric** symbolism has been one of its fundamental characteristics. The Veda belongs to that age of mysteries 8 in which men of a deeper knowledge and self-knowledge established their practices, significant rites, symbols and secret lores within or on the borders of a more exterior religion. That was also certainly true for Greece whose highly moralized Homeric gods were but very exterior aspects of its religion. Its deeper life fed itself on the mystic rites of Orpheus,9 Dionysus,10 and the Eleusinian mysteries,¹¹ all deeply rooted in antiquity and whose initiations were kept very secret. And if we do not know the fundamentals of the Orphic initiation, we do know its preliminaries: vegetarianism, asceticism, purification and religious instruction through sacred books - heroi logoi - which remind us very much of Indian yoga.
The Veda, properly read, is fundamentally a record of mystic and occult experiences, intuitions and revelations. One deep perception the Vedic seers had was that nothing could happen in this world without relation to some force or being in some worlds behind, nor that there could be any material, vital or mental
* Exoteric: adj., related to the outside, external. Suitable to be imparted to the public.
** Esoteric: adj., designed for or understood by the specially initiated alone.
movement except as the expression of a life and a soul behind. They perceived or conceived of a series of worlds, particularly of the mind and the overmind, and even of a supramaterial world. The Vedic gods had their permanent dwelling in the supramental world. As Sri Aurobindo would say, "The gods of the Rig Veda are not material Nature powers but great world deities with complex functions material, mental and spiritual. The same Agni who burns here in fire, is master of pure force in the mind and of simple active energy in the universe. The same Surya who rides yonder in the skies, is the master of inspired knowledge and the principle of illumination wherever it is found. The same Varuna who in ether upholds the stars and finds a pathway for the sun, is in the soul the master of majesty, self control, law and calm and by these functions maintains the order of the Universe. The same Usha who dawns rosily on the verge of the material heaven, is the goddess of the soul's expansion and presides over the evolution of what we shall be out of what we are.”
As for the Greek gods and goddesses, Sri Aurobindo in his Ilion puts forth their philosophical functions. Paris, when confronting the Trojan assembly, describes some of them beautifully:
... earth resists but my soul in me widens
Helped by the toil behind and the age-long effort of Nature.
Even in the worm is a god and it writhes for a form and an outlet.
Workings immortal obscurely struggling, hints of a godhead
Labour to form in this clay a divinity. Hera widens,
Pallas aspires in me, Phoebus in flames goes battling and singing,
Ares and Artemis chase through the fields of my soul in their hunting.
Last in some hour of the fates a Birth stands released and triumphant...
But we shall have some more insights into these Greeks gods and goddesses in a long extract that we are presenting from Sri Aurobindo’s Ilion.
1. Carl Jung (1856-1936): a Swiss psychiatrist and one of the founders of psychoanalysis. Jung was a very original and innovative thinker. A disciple of Freud in his early years, he soon separated from him and developed his own practice. His main contribution, amongst others, has been the now widely recognized concept of the existence of a ' universal collective unconscious we can see reflected in the myths and fairy-tales of the peoples all over the world and in the dreams of many individuals.
2. Heracleitus: Heracleitus was born to a noble family in Ephesus around 530 BC and died, probably of dropsy* in his seventies. He lived most of his life like a hermit in the mountains, and expressed his views in pithy"" and enigmatical apophthegms*** on nature, which he deposited in the temple of Artemis.
Heracleitus' philosophy is certainly one among the major products of the Greek mind. The first nucleus of his thought was the oneness of all that is, with fire at its core. All things are one, he said, and everything is a form of fire. (By identifying fire with soul and God, he used the term symbolically as well as literally.)
The second important element in his philosophy was the eternity and ubiquity of change. Panta, rei, ouden menei. All things flow, nothing abides.
The third element was the unity of opposites, the interdependence of contraries, the harmony of strife. God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, surfeit and hunger. All these contraries are stages in a fluctuating movement, moments of ever-changing fire.
3. The Iliad and the Odyssey: Great epic poems composed by Homer. The Iliad is the earliest written work of ancient Greece. It tells us the story of the siege of Troy. Scholars believe that Homer composed it as a young man in the middle of the 8th century BC.
The Odyssey: It is believed that if the Iliad was a product of Homer's
* Dropsy: n. Edema, an abnormal excess accumulation of serous fluids in connective tissues.
** Pithy: adj. Having substance, concise.
*** Apophthegm: n. Aphorism; concise statement of a principle.
youth, the Odyssey arose out of his old age. It describes the ten-year long and difficult journey back to the home of Odysseus, one of the heroes in the Iliad. It is primarily a superb adventure story and, contrary to the Iliad which remains in the real world, it includes many elements of folklore (giants, monsters, sorceress; etc.).
4. Monotheism: Doctrine or belief that there is but one God. There are various forms of monotheism; one conceives of God as the ruler of the world while another sees in God the creator as well as the ruler of the world. Another form of monotheism is monism. Monism maintains that god is also the stuff of the world. According to monism He is like the spider which makes its web out of itself. This is the basic thought of India, Vedic thought and Upanishadic thought.
5. Polytheism: Belief in or worship in more than one god.
6. Hierophanies: n. Sacred revelation. A hierophant was a priest in ancient Greece and more specifically the high priest in the Eleusinian mysteries.
7. The thunderbolt: The thunderbolt or lightning is celestial fire as an active force, terrible and dynamic. The thunderbolt of Parabrahman, the fire-ether of the Greeks is a symbol of the supreme creative power. In the majority of religions we find that the Godhead is hidden from man's gaze, and then, suddenly, the lightning flash reveals Him momentarily in all his active might. This image of the logos* piercing the darkness is universal. The Thunderbolt, or Vajra, is one of the major symbols in Buddhist iconography,** signifying the spiritual power of Buddhahood (indestructible enlightment) which shatters the illusory reality of the world.
8. Mysteries: By the time of the Periclean*** enlightment, the most * * *
*Logos: Divine wisdom manifest in the creation. In Greek philosophy the logos or reason, was the controlling principle of the universe
** Iconography: Traditional or conventional images or symbols associated with a subject and especially a religious or legendary subject.
***Pericles: (492-429 BC) Athenian statesman, champion of Athenian democracy. Under his leadership Athens went through a very prosperous and enlightened period.
vigorous element in Greek religion was the "Mystery". In the Greek sense, a mystery was a secret ceremony in which sacred symbols were revealed, symbolic rites were performed, and only initiates could participate.
9. Orpheus: The great Greek dramatist Aeschylus, 525-456 BC, describes Orpheus as he who "haled all things by the rapture of his voice." Vase painting shows him playing the lyre, surrounded by birds, wild . beasts or his Thracian disciples. He is pictured as a gentle spirit, tender, meditative, affectionate. According to legend, Orpheus lived and died in Thrace, sometimes a musician, sometimes a reforming ascetic, priest of Dionysus. Legend tells us that he married the nymph Eurydice whom he passionately loved. One day she was mortally bitten by a snake. Heartbroken, Orpheus resolved to descend in the underworld to reclaim her. He was able to charm Persephone with his lyre and was allowed to take his wife back to Earth on the sole condition that he should not turn to look at her. They had almost reached the gates of Hades when Orpheus, overcome with anxiety lest she should not be following, looked back. Immediately Eurydice vanished, this time forever.
Orpheus playing the lyre surrounded by wild beasts
The god Dionysus, represented here with some of his symbols, the ivy crown, the panther-skin cloak, the grapevine and the drinking cup
Thracian women, resenting his unwillingness to console himself with them, tore him to pieces in one of their Dionysian revels. The severed head, still singing, was buried at Lesbos in a cleft that became a famous oracle.
Orpheus was known primarily as "founder of initiation and mystery"; He became the symbol and the patron of a whole
fields of Nysa when she suddenly noticed a narcissus of striking beauty. She ran to pick it, but as she bent down to do so the earth gaped open and Hades appeared. He seized her and dragged her with him into the depths of the earth. There he made her his queen, and she took the name of 'Persephone'. Demeter meanwhile had heard her child's despairing cry for help. Then, says the poet of the Homeric hymns, bitter sorrow seized her heart. Over her shoulders she threw a somber veil and flew like a bird over land and sea, seeking here, seeking there. At last, on Hecate's advice, she went to consult Divine Helios who revealed to her the name of her daughter's ravisher.
After roaming the earth Demeter retired at Eleusis. There she prepared for mankind a cruel and terrible year in which the earth refused to give forth any crops. Then would the entire human race have perished of cruel, biting hunger if Zeus had not intervened. Zeus sent his son Hermes to Hades, and he obtained from him the promise that he would return young Kore to her mother. But, before sending her back, Hades tempted her to eat a few seeds of pomegranate and, as this fruit was a symbol of marriage, their union became indissoluble. As a compromise Zeus decided that Persephone should live with her husband one-third of the year and pass with her mother the other two-thirds."
Thus was explained why each year, when the cold season arrived, the earth took up an aspect of sadness and mourning. It was the moment when Persephone went to join her husband into the deep shadows; but when sweet-scented spring came, the earth put on her mantle of a thousand flowers to greet the return of Kore.
In February, each year, the return of Kore was celebrated in what was called, The Lesser Eleusinia, festival that was held near Athens. The Greater Eleusinia took place in Eleusis every five years in September. During this festival the Mystai or initiates were admitted into the hall of initiation where secret ceremonies were performed. In the age of Peisistratus* the legend of Dionysus-Zagreus was superimposed on the myth of Demeter; but through all forms the basic ideas of the mysteries remained .the same: As the seed is born again, so may the dead have renewed life and not only the dreary, shadowy existence of Hades, which was part of a more traditional viewpoint.
* Peisistratus: Athenian tyrant - 527 BC.