Month: May 2012

A brahmin walked into a Pagan bar….

Is Paganism always defined by the affirmation of life and corporeal being?

I’m finishing Michael York’s Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion, the subject of my last entry as well. Its strength: an exploration of the various polytheistic world religions, as well as several non-polytheistic faiths, which are parsed for Pagan behavioral holdovers. As a compendium of religious customs in India, Japan, China and other places, it’s wonderful. Its weakness, I think, lies in its overall foundation.

His idea is that polytheistic systems — he uses “Pagan,” but I’ll go directly for what I mean by the term: systems that allow for more than one god — can be encompassed by one overarching theology. Interesting concept. Ultimately, that theology is based on the earth, on bhakti-type devotion, on nature and physical being, in so many words. Systems that transcend the primacy of the earthly/corporeal/physical and its concerns are, in his estimation, simply not Pagan.

He defines Buddhism as “protestant Hinduism,” which I find a bit perplexing. However, I can see how that could be the case. I disagree with his contention that the brahmin caste was Dravidian in origin, and that it gained primacy through a “con job.” (His terms.) Yes, they did write themselves into first place — since they were perhaps the only people of that time and place who could write, and had knowledge of the “sacred things.” Priestly castes, however, are native to Indo-European systems; see the typical relationship between the Roman flamen, the brahmin and the Celtic Druid, for example. Yes, I understand he doesn’t like brahmins and believes them to be greedy frauds (“greedy” is a term he uses) — but shouldn’t an academic researcher be able to recognize one’s own biases and put them aside?

Zoroastrianism? A “pagan perversion” because it flips the poles of the devas/gods and asuras/demons, and makes the other the divine party. This is, of course, true — but I don’t see why honoring the Jotun or the Fomhoire as your divine pantheon would make you un-Pagan, since you’re not denying the existence of multiple spirits, the importance of the natural world, etc. It might make you an absolute fool, unless you know something about the Fomhoire I don’t, but a uniquely Pagan fool.

Hinduism with its many Gods and Pagan philosophies that don’t fit his concept of earth-centered bhakti — Plato, the Orphics, etc. — are gnostic, not Pagan. In secular modern times, Pagan devotion can be observed … in going to bars, the opera, the movies.

Um, what?

Taverns were pretty darn popular in Pagan Roman times. Those pesky Greeks and Romans also had theater and their own “star” actors. While you can argue that Greek theaters were, in fact, shrines to Dionysus, they were different than, say, an actual temple. I dare say that most Pagans in those days went to the theater to be entertained or to be deeply moved (in the case of tragedy), to see their favorite actors — much the same reasons people go to the theater today. People went to the tavern to connect with others, not to honor supernatural spirits by sipping a dram of Jack. Social behavior isn’t necessarily pagan; it’s simply human. It’s what we, as a social species, do.

And I’m left wondering: can you have a “transcendental” Paganism, or must Pagan religions be, by definition, focused on the earth and earthly life? Is Paganism always life-affirming, however that is defined?

In most forms of Neo-Paganism, that answer would be yes. But I don’t agree. Platonism, Orphism, the mystery religions of Isis, Mithras, Demeter and Persephone — all, in some respects, transcend the bounds of earthly living and concerns. They focus on the mysteries of the afterlife, conquering death and, in some cases, pursuing “pure” celestial wisdom. Some of the Greek philosophers were monists, although they operated in a polytheistic system.

There are Pagan traditions that include the mortification of the flesh: Hindu ascetics piercing their skin or practicing austerities to gain wisdom, the Plains Nations’ Sun Dance, the Mayans and Aztecs piercing their tongues and drawing blood in atonement. Purification is part of many traditional polytheistic religions. Some traditions are downright gory and life-denying; what I saw of Mayan practices during that culture’s imperial era at Chichen Itza would fit the bill. There are traditional practices in polytheistic cultures many modern Pagan traditions would find absolutely abhorrent.

I suppose that’s one of the dirty little secrets no one wants to bring up, since modern polytheists do encounter very real prejudices in a monotheistic culture that has defined them as minions of the devil. We like to paint ourselves and our ancestors as pure and innocuous. And most of the time, we are. But we’re people, too, and all peoples and faiths have their screwed-up bits, whether you’re talking about Aztec human sacrifice or the Spanish Inquisition.

Overall, what I took from the book: You can define “paganism” as anything you want to justify your personal theories. Which is a shame, because the depiction of various world cultures in the book is really vivid. Better explorations of Pagan theology can be found in John Michael Greer’s A World Full of Gods and, although more narrowly focused, in Brendan Myers’ The Other Side of Virtue.

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Jnana, bhakti, praxis and other weird words

Lately, I’ve started reading Michael York’s Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion. I’ve delved into other texts of theological interest to Pagans, which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. Not in the manner of my goofy werewolf novels, mind you, but the fact that they promote systematic thinking.

But is theology important for Pagans? And if so, why?

York quotes Ninian Smart, who claims that there are two types of religion: bhakti and dhyana; both are Sanskrit terms and refer to modes in Hindu practice. I’d amend it somewhat, and say those types are bhakti and jnana. So, what does all that word salad mean?

Bhakti is devotion and devotional practice: chanting the names of the Gods, making offerings at shrines, pouring your heart into devotion. It is an emotion-based response, and quite arguably the most popular manifestation of religion, whether you’re a Pentacostal weeping as you’re filled with Jesus’ spirit, or a Druid priestess kissing the ground as you honor Danu (as I did on Beltane).

Dhyana refers to meditation. There are meditative religious paths, of course, whether you’re talking about Zen Buddhists, Hindus focusing on a mandala, Catholic nuns engaged in Christian contemplation, or modern Pagans walking a chalk labyrinth. But I think the real other strand is what’s called jnana in Hinduism. The word means “knowledge” and connotes an intellectual path to the divine through analysis of ultimate realities and the study of sacred texts.

Theology as a whole would fall into the jnana category, as it distances itself from emotion. Bhakti is, in essence, praxis or practice: it’s what you do. Jnana is more about what you think. In traditional Pagan cultures, praxis is of utmost importance; it doesn’t matter what you believe about the Gods or spirits, only that you’re making the offerings, chanting the prayers, visiting the shrine, etc.

Which isn’t to say that Pagans weren’t given to jnana in ancient times. The Stoics were Pagan, after all. Philosophy as a whole is a type of jnana. But overall, I think it’s safe to say that jnana has always been the minority path; most religious practitioner opt for bhakti, which plays to rather than negates emotion. It’s why evangelical church services with praise bands and faith healings are more popular than the traditional paradigm in which a minister talks at/lectures to a congregation for an hour or three. (When I was briefly involved in the Unitarian church, I used this time to balance my checkbook while yearning for my favorite part of the service: the singing.)

When it comes to modern Paganism, I think it’s fair to say that most of us are bhakti-oriented and praxis-oriented. The most prevalent Pagan texts are your typical how-to’s: how to conduct spells, rituals, make the right offerings for particular deities, practice divination, etc. These days, more jnana-oriented books are making their way to the market, but it’s a relatively late development and they’ll probably never eclipse the how-to’s in popularity, just as the seminarian will never outshine the praise band, at least for the masses.

I’m your typical bhakti Pagan. In devotion, I light Brighid’s hearth-candle whenever I’m home. I light my altar candles when I practice my instruments, so the music can praise the Gods at the same time. I light candles and incense on the Hindu altar when I do yoga. (Yes, I keep the Yankee Candle people operating firmly in the black.) I have schedules of rites I honor, and even give prayers of thanks to Brighid when I’m out running (which is the one thing that seems to help my injury load in these past few months. Go figure).

But I do enjoy thinking, hence the theology. I’m not the type of person who sees the holy in systematization; I think that simply our human minds imposing patterns of meaning on phenomena that are, essentially, beyond us. But the systematization is a rather meditative exercise, I find, and essential in other ways. If we don’t ask the reasons behind our praxis and simply categorize it as sacred and unassailable tradition, we risk propagating repressive or harmful practices, whether you’re talking about suttee, the Aztec cutting out of hearts or animal sacrifice.

Theology, then, helps clarify the meanings and purposes of praxis. By thinking about and understanding why you do something, you can ultimately deepen your engagement.

Nine knobs for the animals

One traditional activity on Beltane is offering bannock to the critters, both helpful and unhelpful. Bannock, in short, is simple country-style bread, which I make with oatmeal, wheat flour, honey, butter and buttermilk, as well as a few other ingredients. Being a cinnamon lover, I always put a helping of the fragrant spice in the dough.

I make bannock for other Druidic festivals too — always Imbolc, since it’s sacred to Brighid as a hearth goddess, and often Lughnasadh, because it’s such an easy bread product to make by hand. At Beltane, it’s also traditional to make caudle, a heated concoction of milk, spices, eggs and mead, to pour out on the land in offering. Caudle is also used as a tasty glaze for bannock, although I don’t use it that way; glazing the bannock would make the offering process a lot stickier.

For Beltane, the bannock is made with nine “knobs,” which are torn off and crumbled in offering to the Nature Spirits — the spirits of animals, plants, trees, stones and all that live in the Green World, as well as the unseen Spirits of Place and other tribes of non-corporal spirits, known collectively as the Sidhe. While I pour the caudle in the forest, I crumble the bannock in my garden, since it can use the extra blessing.

During the bannock offering, it’s traditional to offer to both helpful and non-helpful creatures. Why the non-helpful type? The notion is: “Take this offering so you don’t need to chew on my house, eat my chickens, etc.” In days of yore, the non-helpful animals who would have received offerings included fox, wolves, weasels — your usual predators, which found farm animals a tasty repast.

Interestingly, I find myself making offerings to the predators as beneficial animals. The coyote drives off the deer that eat my garden and shrubs. The fox, bobcat and weasel eat the squirrels and chipmunks that chew on the house and carry Lyme. I honor the bat, who blessedly eats the insects — a creature in desperate need of a good PR firm, as well as prayers to recover from the white-nose fungus decimating its population.

My less-helpful critters: ants, carpenter bees, mosquitoes, ticks, the aforementioned squirrels, chipmunks and deer. That’s way more than nine knobs in total, but I double up on some.

I find it interesting how the concept of beneficial animals has changed over time. But then, it’s all contingent on circumstances. If I were a hunter, I’d include the deer as a beneficial animal and not as a take-this-bread-offering-and-scram animal. If I had cows and chickens, they’d be included as helpful critters, and the predators would not.