7 Religious Ideas Worth Reflecting On 5 May 2015
There are some ideas and nuggets of knowledge that make you pause and think. Either because its forces you to view things differently, or because they challenge what you think you knew, or they show you a depth to something you had otherwise not considered.
Life doesn’t throw up many of these moments, but they are valuable.
Religions too can be a source of many of those moments of epiphany (excuse the pun!), here are a list of seven ideas from religions past and present that should give you food for thought.
1) The Demiurge
What if the world we lived in wasn’t created by a good and merciful God? What if the reason there is evil in the world is because it is either intentional by the creator, or all a representation of his or her inability to create perfectly?
Well this is the idea central to a group of religions in the Middle-East around the same time as the growth of Christianity? They were naturally condemned as heretics by both Judaism and early Christianity, particularly as some of these Gnostics believed the wrathful and jealous God of the Old Testament was the very false god they rejected.
For many religions today, the creator of the world is synonymous with The God, the ultimate transcendental divine. For the Gnostics, they believed that a lesser spiritual being (the demiurge) is responsible for the creation of the world, but that humans could transcend the demiurge through knowledge of the divine (gnosis) and abstaining from the world.
It is a provocative idea, and one that does often return to our common consciousness. Those familiar with the Lord of the Rings prehistory, the Silmarillion, or His Dark Materials by novelist Phillip Pullman, may recognise the idea of the demiurge as it appeared in both works.
2) The Assassins
In the eleventh to fourteenth century, a secretive religious cult that branched out from Ismaili Shi’ism to form a group that would be shrouded in mystery, and inspire writers and artists for centuries.
They were the Assassins, or Hashashin, a group devoted to their charismatic leader Hasan-i-Sabbah (died 1124). Considered heretical by both Sunni as well as Shia Muslims, the group operated from their castle and headquarters in Alamut, modern day Iran.
The group became feared and infamous for their clandestine activities, particularly in targeting and assassinating political and religious rivals. The group had a particular order of devotees, the Fedayeen, who had devoted their lives to the continuation of the religious group and were considered living martyrs. As the group developed, the Fedayeen perfected their methods of assassination, fuelling fears of stealthy, elite, merciless killers.
The Fedayeen of the Hashashin were particularly feared by Crusader knights from Europe, and spoken of by Marco Polo in the details of his travels. It perhaps because of these two factors that their appeal has been so strong in Western literature and myth.
The Hashashin is in fact the root of the word Assassin, popularised by Shakespeare. There are debates about what Hashashin actually means. Some say it refers to Hashish, marijuana, supposedly used by the Fedayeen before their attacks. Others say it is a derogatory term, an intentional corruption of Hasaneen (the followers of Hasan), to disparage the cultic order as essentially a group of ‘potheads’. Either way, the pervasive myth is almost a staple of fantasy literature. The computer games Assassins Creed built on the mythos of the group. Batman is trained by the League of Assassins, the comic book equivalent of the same group. Even in the Game of Thrones book series we come across the Faceless Men, an order of religious zealots who are hired as assassins.
The historical Assassins came to end around 1256, when their fortress castle at Alamut was destroyed by the Mongol hordes. They still live on as one of the most mysterious and evocative religious sects of history.
3) Celtic Religions and Hinduism
Is there a common origin that ties the Celtic religions of the British Isles to Hinduism?
Yes, there is, according to historian Peter Berresford Ellis. Ellis is an expert on the Druids, the priests of the pagan religions most commonly associated with Stonehenge, but part of an ancient and largely mysterious religious tradition of pre-Christian Britain.
Ellis noted that there are quite a few similarities between the ancient British Druids and the Hindu Brahmin – the priestly caste of India. He notes too other similarities between Hinduism and Celtic religion, such as veneration of ancestors , and a diverse polytheism, even going so far as to make comparisons between the gods worshipped in Britain and the gods of Hinduism.
He wouldn’t be the first to make claims of an underlying unity between Hinduism and European religious ideas. Writing in the eleventh century, Muhammad Abu Raihan al-Biruni argued that there was an incredible concordance between the Hindu philosophies he was studying and that of the ancient Greeks, whose works he was deeply familiar with.
Is there anything behind these arguments? While the ideas of Ellis haven’t gained much traction amongst religious studies scholars, particularly because of the paucity of evidence to establish the claims firmly, there is however a very good reason to at least consider the theory.
Linguists often talk about Indo-European languages. They noted very early on that Welsh, English, German, Bengali, Hindi and Sanskrit all had quite a lot in common. Counting from one to ten in any of these languages, for example, sounds very similar. The linguists concluded that there was a proto-Indo-European language, one which was spoken by an early group of humans who then went onto colonise Asia and Europe, leaving their ancestral homelands of Africa.
It is possible then, though we perhaps will never know for sure, that there was a proto-Indo-European religion that underlies Celtic and Hindu traditions.
4) The Laughing Buddha
Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha is the ascetic upon whose teachings Buddhism is founded. He was born a prince, but moved by the deprivation of those around, renounced the world in search of a greater enlightenment. Why then is a man renowned for his abstinence depicted so often as a large, rotund and cheerful figure?
Well, because he isn’t. There are in fact two common depictions of the Buddha you will come across, the slender and zen-like figure of the Gautama Buddha, and the Laughing Buddha. The latter is an image from Chinese and East Asian traditions of Buddhism. The Laughing Buddha is a representation of Maitreya, a figure from Buddhist eschatology. In a far distant future, when Buddhism and its teachings lay forgotten, the appearance of a new Buddha will call mankind back to the true and pure Dharma.
The Maitreya will then succeed Gautama Buddha, and become the fifth Buddha of this era of cosmic history (there are 1000 prophesied), reinvigorating the religion and teachings of Buddhism.
Outside of China, these two figures are often confused, perhaps because both can be referred to as Buddha – which simply means “enlightened one”, an honourific rather than a given name.
5) Satan Forgiven?
The plight of the Yazidis in Iraq came to international attention in the most sombre and heartbreaking way, as countless were stranded on the Sinjar mountain due to advances by Isis militants.
Not many knew much about the ancient religious community and their faith. They are often disparagingly referred to as “devil worshippers” however – but why?
Muslims and Yazidis share a common view of the creation of mankind. God had created Adam, the first human, and ordered all the inhabitants of the heavens to bow down before his new creation. All bowed, except one, Iblis. In the Islamic tradition, he refused to bow out of pride and arrogance, and is given the title “Satan the Accursed” for his refusal to obey the divine commandment.
The Yazidis however interpret these events of prehistory differently. Iblis refused to bow not out of arrogance, but out of love and devotion for God. He could not bring himself to worship anything other than God. Gerard Russell, speaking about the Yazidis, one of the religious minorities he writes about in his work “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms” says “the Yazidis, like Muslims, believe Iblis rebelled against God, but unlike Muslims, Yazidis believe he was forgiven.”
The Yazidis veneration of Iblis isn’t altogether unlike that of the Sethian heresy in early Christianity, in which certain Gnostic groups argued that the snake in the Garden of Eden was an agent of the good and true God, sent to guide Adam and Eve towards true knowledge by eating from the forbidden true.
These ideas are almost all but forgotten by modern day Muslims, Jews and Christians – but they offer an insightful glimpse into the medieval Middle-East, which subverted many of the religious ideas we take for granted.
6) The Good Samaritans
Judaism is well known as a tradition based around the Hebrew Bible, a collection of religious scriptures that originate in the ancient Middle-East, of which the Torah is the most important. Of course, Judaism is an ethno-religious grouping of people who trace their lineage back to Judah, one of the twelve sons of Israel.
There exists however a contending group who lay claim to both the Torah and the Israelite religion – the Samaritans.
In the sixth century BCE, the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah and sent the Jews into a deeply traumatic period of their history, the Exile. Not all left however, and some Israelites remained behind in the Holy Land. The Samaritans trace their lineage back to Joseph, perhaps the most famous son of Israel. They follow a religion deeply rooted in the Torah, but sceptical of what they see as the extracononical additions of the Jewish religion. It is the Samaritan religion, they believe, which is the true religion of the Ancient Israelites. They argue Judaism is an altered form, one which transformed after the traumas of the Exile.
Naturally, when the Jewish communities returned to the Holy Land, their was antagonism and animosity between these two competing religious groups. It was in the context of this religious rivalry and prejudice that the Parable of the Good Samaritan is set.
The Samaritans persevere onto today, still living in the Holy Land and practising their ancient religion. They are Palestinians but not Muslim, Israelis but not Jewish, the ancient community has provided an important voice in the recent crisis of modern Israel.
7) The Deluge
Almost everyone knows the story of Noah. A righteous man among in a wayward society, who under divine inspiration, builds an ark that saves a few remnants of humanity and the animal kingdom from a deluge that swallows the entire earth, purifying it for a new birth.
It’s a familiar Biblical story, but did you know it is also one you can find in almost all religions? Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as Abrahamic traditions, of course share the Prophet.
Beyond this however, you will also find the story in the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Sumerean myth that is one of the oldest stories preserved to the modern era. In it, the eponymous hero Gilgamesh visits a man of incredible old age, who saved humanity from a global flood. Some scholars have pointed to the Epic of Gilgamesh as the founding narrative behind the Biblical stories.
In the Hindu traditions, the Shatapatha Brahmana scriptures which date from roughly the 8th to 6th centuries BCE tell of the king Manu, who is warned by Vishnu of an oncoming flood, and his instruction, builds an ark that saves Manu’s family and who then go on to repopulate the earth. In Ancient Greek mythology, Deucalion, the son of the titan Prometheus, is warned by his father of an oncoming flood that puts all mankind at risk. Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha survive in a wooden chest, floating amidst a violent storm for nine days and nights, before embarking back on earth.
Similar stories, though less detailed, are also found in Native American oral stories, such as those that belong to the Hopi peoples, as well as Mesoamerican myths such as that of Bochicha and countless African tribes that share the motif of a global flood.
Why is this the case? Well, some say the rising sea level at the end of the last ice age would have given plenty of inspiration to cultures across the world to develop epic stories to explain them. Though it is important to perhaps bear in mind Karen Armstrong point, who writes in The Case for God, myths can sometimes hold important truths that far transcend discussions about historical accuracy.
Whatever their origins, the flood myths have an enduring legacy in human memory and hold important messages for modern-day society.