On the Nature of the Gods
When you say you love God what does it mean? It means that you love a projection of your own imagination, a projection of yourself clothed in certain forms of respectability according to what you think is noble and holy; so to say, “I love God,” is absolute nonsense. When you worship God you are worshipping yourself—and that is not love. —J. Krishnamurti
Ethiopians imagine their gods as black-skinned and snub-nosed; Thracians imagine theirs as blue-eyed and red-haired. —Xenophanes
Sometimes I think of how western civilization would have turned out if Christianity hadn’t taken over as the religious ideology of the masses, for example if Julian Augustus “the Apostate” had survived his Persian war and succeeded in establishing some kind of Neoplatonist Paganism as the state religion of Rome. A cultural evolution to strict monotheism, or atheism, is not logically necessary, and modern India is an obvious example of a more or less modern society that still has a full pantheon of gods and goddesses. Even western Christianity could hardly be called monotheistic from a Buddhist point of view, considering that it freely accepts the existence of immortal superhuman beings called angels, and also some more or less deified saints. Anyway, I consider some forms of polytheism to be plausible, even for modern westerners, and so I’m not just playing devil’s advocate here, or repeating ancient Buddhist mythological dogma with tongue in cheek, when I try to explain the nature of the gods.
Lately there has been a growing number of people, mainly on the nationalist right methinks, who are looking for a genuinely ethno-European religion or spiritual system…and all of the indigenous European religions of the past, all of the most famous ones anyway, have been polytheistic. Even if they have accepted the existence of a supreme absolutist God Almighty, they have tended also to accept lesser yet still superhuman beings, much as Christianity also has done. So there has been an apparent resurgence in interest in polytheism, and in ancient (or at least ancient-style) European Paganism. This has mostly been Germanic and/or Celtic from what I have seen (with the left appearing to prefer some kind of New Agey Hinduism), though I personally have more affinity with something more Classical, i.e. Greco-Roman.
Theravada Buddhism also, though technically “atheistic,” denies only an absolute Creator God, and the immortality of higher beings, as well as any supposed power to send us to heaven or hell, or to do anything to us that is not in accordance with our own karma. From a Buddhist perspective even the gods themselves are subject to the same universal truths, including ethical truths, and impermanence, as we are. But still, even the earliest, most conservative forms of Buddhism have acknowledged higher beings, namely devas and Brahmas (“lower” and “higher” gods).
So in the Buddhist cosmology, a “god” is simply any being in this universe that is higher or more refined or more “subtle” than we are. In the mythological literature their usual characteristics include: an astronomically long lifespan, though without immortality; an immunity to sickness and the feebleness of old age; superhuman beauty, though generally in accordance with human standards; great power, including “psychic powers”; and a very luxurious lifestyle, including golden palaces, pleasure parks, and harems of hundreds of unimaginably beautiful celestial nymphs. The highest gods, or Brahmas, are longer-lived and more powerful, but are much more refined sensually and forgo sensual pleasures; and the highest of the high are formless and exist as pure mind. But aside from the formlessness of the highest ones the early Buddhists had a very anthropomorphic conception of higher beings, much as pretty much everyone has had throughout history. Gods have tended to be formless spirits or else human-like, and even the formless ones have tended to be endowed with human psychological traits. Hell, even the highest God Almighty of various monotheistic religions have endowed their infinite, omnipotent Creator with human emotions, and at times, human stupidity.
I’ve never had much use for mainstream notions about the gods, or higher beings—and I may as well point out here that this universe is unthinkably vast, and almost certainly contains beings higher than us out there somewhere, maybe even nearby, a point to which I will return. The Buddhists of Burma usually portray devas and Brahmas as pretty, fair-skinned, and rather effeminate-looking, and wearing the costumes of the 19th-century Burmese royal court. The gods wear strange pagoda-shaped hats, and the goddesses wear headgear resembling Flash Gordon helmets. The Hindu gods of India tend to be even prettier and plumper, wearing Indian style clothing, though sometimes having more than two arms or unnaturally hued skin—and then there’s Ganesha with the head of an elephant. The gods of Classical Greece likewise were essentially humans with great beauty and vast power, but not necessarily being much wiser or more intelligent than we are. The Egyptian gods were powerful people with animal heads. Frankly, I just don’t buy it. Not only mere superhuman beings, but also Jehovah God Almighty supposedly resemble human beings, which are upgraded apes. Does a celestial being have hair? Nipples? Everted lips? Nostrils? Toenails? Sweat glands? A digestive system? Even a monotheistic Absolute Being, even if it doesn’t outwardly resemble a human, nevertheless has human emotions like anger or jealousy. What an abysmal lack of imagination.
Another human-imposed limitation on the gods has been that their personal data, so to speak, have been systematically manipulated for propaganda purposes, religious and political. The most important gods to the ancient Buddhists of the Ganges Valley, for instance, were coopted from Vedic Brahmanism, and were made to convert to Buddhism, or at least to acknowledge the supreme wisdom and power of the Buddha. Indra, the patron deity of the ancient Indo-Aryans, changed his name to Sakka and became a Buddhist saint; Maha-Brahma, the very personification of ultimate reality, humbled himself before the Buddha and pleaded with him to begin teaching a spiritual system that denied the supremacy of himself, Maha-Brahma; and Mara the Evil One, the “Buddhist Devil,” was wringing his hands for decades in his continual failed attempts to stop Buddhism. This is, it seems to me, blatant religious propaganda. On the other hand, that scene in Homer’s Iliad in which Ares, God of War, is struck by a human-thrown spear and immediately rushes back to Zeus to complain is some not so subtle anti-war propaganda. (That a poet would slip some anti-war messages into his epic poetry is understandable, but it really surprises me how few people have noticed it. Achilles, the protagonist of the Iliad, is a towering ass, especially when compared with his defeated yet noble enemy Hektor.) Even the absolute monotheistic Gods are spun to endorse social and political policies that strengthen the society that worships Them, in addition to being endowed with biological traits of upgraded apes.
The human, all too human lack of imagination regarding superhuman beings is not restricted to religion, but is common to science fiction aliens as well. In fact occasionally the distinction between alien and god/angel is deliberately ambiguous, like in the movie Knowing. I will observe, though, that even in Knowing the angel/aliens were humanoid, even though they evidently were wiser, more intelligent, and more powerful than us. Most people don’t see anything wrong with the idea that extraterrestrial beings throughout the galaxy look pretty much like terrestrial humans, and might even speak English, with an American accent. (To Americans the absurdity of this may rise into conscious awareness if the space aliens speak English with a British accent though.) Alien beings who have the intelligence and superior technology to fly to earth from many light years away are almost always portrayed in human movies as being as stupid as us humans, if not stupider. This allows the humans to win at the end of the movie, but it also is symptomatic of humans’ incapacity for imagining beings that are clearly superior to us. Consider the movie Signs, in which alien beings with technology much in advance of our own are nevertheless so astonishingly stupid that they come to a planet the surface of which is mostly water (Earth), with water being deadly poison to them, and they don’t even have protective suits to save their lives from the deadly water. They’ve got to be some of the most idiotic space aliens in movie history.
Possibly the best human attempts at portraying superior beings in science fiction have been those of Arthur C. Clarke, who simply bombarded the reader (or viewer in a film version) with incomprehensible images (consider Rendezvous with Rama, or the climactic light show towards the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey). The bizarre vision of Ezekiel in the Bible may be similar, with his flaming wheels in the sky, metallic angels with multiple faces and thunderous roars, etc. The point is that beings far superior to us, especially mentally, would be incomprehensible to us, much as we are incomprehensible to ants or frogs. An ant can walk right over the bare foot of a human—literally come into direct contact with us—and be totally oblivious to the fact that it has done so. Humans and gods may be in a similar situation, regardless of the smugness of materialistic, scientistic atheists who insist that there is no evidence for the existence of higher beings interacting with us. They may be right, but then again they may be like ants oblivious to said higher beings due to our human limitations.
I suppose the wisest approach to an understanding of the gods is to keep them as mysterious as possible, which would include keeping them pretty much formless. Many past cultures have done likewise, not only with a supreme Creator whose likeness or even name was forbidden, but even with regard to the cruder sort of polytheists. I have read that the early Romans, for example, did not favor anthropomorphic gods and images of gods, often preferring a simple stone as a symbol of a deity, until they became sophisticated and corrupted through contact with the Greeks.
I can think of two plausible reasons, maybe three, for why a superhuman being, a “god,” might resemble us humans. First, some gods may have been human before they “ascended.” Many, probably most polytheistic religions, including Buddhism and the ancient European systems, allowed for deification of great heroes or sages. The Buddha himself was reportedly a god in the Tusita heaven realm before being born as an Indian noble of the Gotama clan; and of course in the west there have been the likes of Osiris, Herakles, Romulus/Quirinus, numerous Roman emperors, and possibly Odin, just to name a few. Some cultures have more or less deified ancestors in general. Also there is the possibility that "gods" or advanced "aliens" are advanced versions of humanity coming here sideways through probability, from an alternate earth. But in cases like this the higher being probably wouldn’t be very much higher than we are. At any rate it could also help to explain why they bother to associate with us: they used to live among us and may still have some nostalgia or attachment for our world. Some of them may adopt the role of guardian or guiding spirit to a person with whom they had some connection when they also were merely human.
Another hypothetical reason why a god might resemble a human being instead of, say, a squid or a computer program, might be that the being consciously adopts a superficially human appearance when interacting with us, in order not to frighten us to death—or maybe it has no discernible form in its natural state and adopts one temporarily in order to interact. Beings of this type could be vastly superior to us, as opposed to the ascended heroes and sages. In these cases, who knows, for reason of its own a “god” might dress up in a medieval Burmese costume or in a tunic and winged sandals. Presumably it could appear to us as we would have them appear in our subconscious imagination, in order to elicit the “full effect” of a celestial vision.
A third possibility, maybe, which I find entertaining, could be that a few beings come from some other world which contained beings somewhat similar to us, but which was destroyed. Such a being might feel some affinity for our species or our world due to some perceived resemblance to its own, and might even admire some quality we humans possess. So it might adopt our ways and our superficial appearance out of a liking for us and the destruction of its own world, a kind of immigrant assimilation. Who knows. Presumably this variety could be intermediate between the deified human heroes and the really advanced beings simply endeavoring not to terrify us, or adopting a convenient form for making some perceptible contact.
Bearing all this in mind, one thing is fairly certain: gods or higher beings, assuming that they exist, will be almost totally beyond human comprehension. One may do best to represent them symbolically in accordance with Clarke’s or Ezekiel’s methods, or else simply to fall back on unthinkable formlessness. This is a good argument for prohibitions on idolatry and “graven images” in a religious system: it makes it a little harder to degrade a higher being into some kind of absurd celestial politician or rock star. There’s no way in hell an amoeba, a frog, or even a dog could really understand us humans, though of course the closer to human intelligence it comes the less hopelessly crude and unrealistic its idea of us would be. Likewise, we could never really understand much about beings far superior to us—aside from a mystical, non-perceptual awareness of some formless Absolute. With regard to superhuman yet still limited beings, we should not presume to know much about them, which would include their attitudes and preferences, if any. And for those of you who prefer to rely on divine revelation, good luck proving that it isn’t just fraud or hysterical dissociation. All we can do is guess, or just bow our heads in humble ignorance. Even so, in the next installment I’ll consider means of incorporating “the gods” into some kind of meaningful religious practice.