Evolution of Religious Thought

Just a warning up front: this isn’t an academic post with multiple citations. Just some musings. Let me know what you think or what I’ve missed.

It seems to me that over the few thousand years before the Buddha there was an evolution in religious thought that went from the local to the universal in an interesting way. People started (or at least as far back as we can trace seemed to) have a strong spiritual connection to the things that surrounded them every day. They worshipped the god of this particular mountain or the goddess of this particular tree. This was very much still a going concern in the India of the time of the Buddha. All of the talk of Devas in the ancient texts was all about bringing the little local gods and goddesses into the fold of Buddhism. “You see! The Deva of this river is a Buddhist, too!”

Eventually this was universalized into The Tree Goddess. Only a single village could worship the oak down by the river, but everyone could worship The Tree Goddess. This became more important as the idea of a nation evolved into being. It wouldn’t do for the priests of the capital to only worship local deities. They had to be the spiritual leader for the entire country. This is an important reason why sky gods gained in authority at this time. There had always been sun and moon gods, but Ra was more such a big deal in Egypt became everyone in Egypt could see and worship the same sun. It was physical and tangible but also universal.

By the way, it’s interesting to note that SO many cultures have legends of their patheon of “new” gods have to kill off the giants of old. Giants, whether the asura of indian, the norse jothuns, the Bulgarian ispolini, or the Native American Si-Te-Cah or Sai’i, there is a common thread. They were huge and strong. They were brutish, uncivilized, and lived out in the wild. They were killed off by the gods. In my view this is a story of our ancestors giving up the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and settling down to farm. Recent anthropology has shown that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were much healthier, longer lived, and, yes, taller (by several inches) than the farmers that followed them. In fact, for centuries the only reason peoples were willing to give up the older lifestyle and settle down to farm was by force. Most farmer populations have been either slaves or barely more than slaves. In classical Athens, for example, there were about 25,000 citizens, and about 250,000 slaves, mostly working in agriculture.

The next step was to further universalize god by claiming that all gods were really just an aspect of the true god. Vishnu began his career as a minor god in the Rigveda, to one of the 3 top gods (along with Brahma and Shiva), to finally the top god in Vaishnavism. And of course the Christian/Jewish/Islamic foundation is of a single god.

So where could we go from there? One top god is truly universal, right? Well, the vedic religion and its descendants, as far as I know, is the only tradition to take the next step. It is to me a beautiful and amazing teaching: it is not the case that there is one great consciousness (God) and a bunch of little consciousnesses (us). In fact, all of our little human consciosnesses are simply aspects of the one true Big consciousness. Our true self is the universal consciousness of which we are a “piece”. Wow. Mind blown.

It’s a beautiful idea, but in fact it was exactly that teaching that the Buddha rejected in the idea of anatta (anatman). The universal mind is atta, atman. The idea is that it is eternal, blissful, and our true self. The Buddha taught that there is nothing we can see that isn’t anicca (impermanence), dukkha (subject to suffering), and anatta.

What do you think?


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