– Dr. Koenraad Elst
Mono- versus polytheism
The Sumerian ideogram Dingir was read as ElIn neighbouring Akkadian, a Mesopotamian dialect of Semitic. We know this word very well through Hebrew, a northwestern (Levantine) dialect of Semitic. Thus the names Uriel, “my light is God”; Gabriel, “my strength is God”; Michael, “who is like God?” But as we shall presently see, these names now carry a meaning of “God” that has resulted from a revolution, viz. from poly- to monotheism.
A derivative of El is Eloha, “a deity”, “a god”. We know it mainly through the plural form Elohim, “gods”, “pantheon”. Strangely, this form has survived the theological revolution described in the Bible book Exodus under the leadership of Moses, ca. 1250 BCE. Here, the many gods were replaced with a single jealous god, yet the plural form Elohim remained but with a singular meaning: God. Thus, the Bible, which received its definitive form only under the Persian empire ca. 500 BCE, when this usage was well-established, starts with the sentence: “Berešit bara Elohim et ha-šamaim ve-etha-aretz”, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The connection with the stars was severed, at least for the Israelites, not all the other nations: “Pay attention lest ye lift your eyes up to the sky for seeing sun, moon and stars, that ye be led astray and adore and serve them, those whom the Lord your God hath assigned to all the nations under heaven.” (Deut. 4:19)
A synonym of Elohim, referring to the same jealous God, is Yahweh. Moses himself introduced this god-name into Biblical tradition. Though new to the Israelites after centuries in Egypt, it must have existed earlier among the Arab (South-Semitic) Beduins as well as among the Northwest-Semitic people of Mari. Moses, when a fugitive from Egyptian law after he was found out to have committed murder, stayed with a Beduin tribe. They had a storm-god Yahweh, best translated as a causative participle of a verb meaning “to move in the sky”, whether “to blow” or “to stoop like a bird of prey”, from an Arab root HWY later attested in the Quran (22:32), but not in the Bible. This meaning is confirmed by the fixed expression Yahweh Sabaoth, “he who causes the motion of the heavenly hosts”, i.e. of the majestic procession of the stars across heaven. Here again we find a stellar meaning associated with a god-name.
Moses saw an apparition of this god in the burning bush. When Moses asks the god who he is, the god expresses his total sovereignty: “I am who I am”, ehyeh ašer ehyeh. Theologians and translators have contemplated this sentence profusely, until in ca. 1900, the German Orientalist Julius Wellhausen hit upon its probable original meaning: it elaborates a pun on the name Yahweh, which the Hebrews misinterpreted folk-etymologically as a causative participle of the verb HYY, “to be”, hence “the being one”, “he who is”, or more philosophically, “he whose essence is existence” “he who necessarily exists”, “he who causes existence to exist”. This edifice of profundities is entirely built on a folk-etymological pun, nothing more. Or to put it more positively: a new conception of the divine was grafted onto an old god.
The Arab form of the originally polytheistic term ha-eloha, “the deity”, is al-Ilāha, also “the deity”. A contracted form is Allāh, “thé deity”, “the god par excellence”, hence “God”. Originally it could refer to any earlier-mentioned god. Thus, Mohammed’s Pagan father was called Abdallāh, “servant of the deity”. Mohammed, in a bid to establish monotheism among the Arabs, reinterpreted Allāhas a synonym of Yahweh. He saw himself as the latest (and even last) one of the line of the prophets of Yahweh, renamed Allāh in Arabia. This way, the star-god El, the Semitic form of Sumerian Dingir, ended up shedding his connection with the stars and becoming the disembodied extra-cosmic Creator-god Yahweh/Allāh. The Quran (6:78, 22:18, 41:37) simply and strictly prohibits star worship.
In the footsteps of the reform movements Brahmo Samaj and Aryan Samaj, many anglicized Hindus claim that “Hinduism too is monotheistic”. This is a very defensive stand, and it is simply not correct. If the Hindu wealth of gods and of ways of worship were not polytheistic, what other religion would be? It seems to us that they are using a word they don’t understand. Monos does not mean “one”, it means “alone”, “one and no other”. Monotheism accepts only Yahweh or Allah, and considers all others as false gods, only good to be destroyed and discarded: Marduk, Ba’al, Osiris, Ahura Mazda, Śiva, Buddha. By contrast, Hinduism is inclusive. The Vedic verse: “The wise call the one essence by many names”, means that the different gods are not false but are essentially the same as your chosen god. There are no “false gods” in Hinduism. Reality is both one and manifold, and Hinduism is not bothered with the question whether the divine is single or many.
This also counts for other Pagan civilizations. When Protestant missionaries set up shop in China, they discovered that a native term roughly meaning “God” was Shangdi, so they appropriated this term as name of the Christian God. (Catholics preferred Tianzhu, the “Heavenly Boss”.) What they did not know, is that the Chinese language mostly does without the separate category of a plural, so the same word can be both plural and singular. Shangdi does not so much mean “the Sovereign on High”, as rather “the Powers on High”. In Chinese, even the grammar militates against the contrast between one and many. To monotheists this numerical matter is all-important, worthy of the iconoclastic destruction of all the “false gods”; but to regular people such as Hindus or Confucians and Daoists, it is just not an issue.
Heaven-worship is truly the universal religion, rivalled only by ancestor-worship. And even then, these two are intertwined. Deceased ancestors are deemed to be in heaven, often actually associated with a specific star. When your father has died, you take your child on an evening walk, and when the stars appear, you point out one of them and say: “There is grandpa, watching over us.” In a Vedic ritual, a zone in the sky, in the Scorpio-Sagittarius area, is designated as the destination of the dead.
For famous people, who had become part of the collective consciousness, the procedure could be to “elevate them to godhood” (Greek: Apotheōsis) by associating them with a specific star or constellation.A case in point from antiquity is Antinoös, the lover-boy of the Roman emperor Hadrian, who drowned himself and was given a star in Aquarius, still named after him. When in the 17th century the southern sky was mapped, one constellation was named after the protection given to Vienna by Jan Sobieski against the Ottoman siege: Scutum Sobieskii, “Sobieski’s shield”, now simply Scutum.
This practice was first attested in writing in Ugarit, Syria, where in ca. 2000 BC famous people upon their deaths were identified or “associated” with a star. In the native Semitic, this practice was named Širk, “association”. The term ought to be well-known today, but with an evolved meaning. When Islam imposed monotheism, it denounced polytheism and idolatry as Širk, i.e. the “association” of a mortal, a creature, with the Supreme Being, the Creator.
India too has known this practice. The stars of the Great Bear are named after the Seven Sages who composed most of the Ŗg-Veda. There are different variations of this list of seven, but one of the Sages who returns in all of them is Vasiṣṭha. He and his wife Arundhātī are associated with the twin stars Mizar and Alcor. In a moderate way, they did graduate to godhood, with a few temples in Himachal and Uttarakhand dedicated to them. Another sage who made it to heaven is Agastya, the Sage who went to the South, and therefore has the southern star Canopus named after him.
At the dawn of history, and practically since the birth of mankind, star worship, partly overlapping with ancestor worship, was the main religion worldwide. With the development of civilization, conceptions of the divine grew away from their referents in nature. India generated a spirituality implying renunciation, and the gods followed suit. The Upanishads signalled a break with the Vedic focus on the gods and reoriented mankind’s attention to the spiritual path. A kind of relation with a kind of gods was restored, but adopting the new focus on Liberation.
Star worship remained alive, as “nothing ever dies in India” (in the words of the late Girilal jain), but that old layer was overlaid with new levels of abstraction. The highest of these was the abstract concept of the Absolute (Brahmaṇ) that appeared in the Upaniṣads and remained, in various guises, in the mai sects of Hinduism. But the lower levels, including the naturalistic, star-related levels did not disappear; it was an organic evolution.
A roughly similar evolution took place in the Greek world and then in the Roman empire. The elites outgrew the colourful pantheon and, mainly through Stoicism, accepted a more abstract and more unitary concept of the divine. In Neoplatonism, which may have been influenced by Indian developments, everything was thought to emanate from “the One”. In China too, “the One” was the name of a unifying abstract concept transcending the many natural gods of everyday religion.
Unfortunately, in the Roman empire, this natural evolution was interrupted and forcibly driven in a particular direction by the imposition of Christianity. However, at the same time, to better insinuate itself in the Greco-Roman culture, Christianity also took over much from Stoicism and Neoplatonism, which appear mainly in Christian morals c.q. theology.The breakthrough of monotheism followed the same pattern as the conceptual development in Hinduism to a some extent, but was unnecessarily brutal and destructive regarding the earlier religion. The same scenario repeated itself even more abruptly with the advent of Islam.
The resulting concept of divine unity (in Islam: tawḥīd) was also much cruder than a what gradual development would have made possible. While superseding the colourful old gods, Yahweh or Allah were much like them in their negative aspects: all too human, too personal, not nirguṇa, “beyond qualities”. As India has shown, it was perfectly possible to move from a naturalistic to a more abstract conception of the divine without destroying the earlier conception.