On Theistic Worship, Propitiation, and Prayer

You get wisdom from suffering. You are alone with God when you are sick, in the cremation ground or hospital. You call on God when you suffer. —Neem Karoli Baba

     Atheism is based essentially on an appeal to ignorance. The way it works is that a person is unaware of any convincing evidence for the existence of a God or gods, and so he declares that no deity exists. His disbelief is not based on any real proof that a God or gods can’t exist, he just doesn’t see that they can. Or, if he is agnostic, he simply admits that he doesn’t know—which is also an appeal to ignorance, but a more humble one, and arguably a more intellectually honest and valid one. Contrariwise, theism may be based on an appeal to credulity; but this universe is unthinkably vast, and the existence of beings superior to us, somewhere, somehow, is pretty damn likely, even if they completely ignore us. Ants no doubt have no conception of the existence of humans, even when we are all around them; an ant can crawl over a person’s bare foot and still be totally clueless of the fact that it is literally in contact with a “higher” being. Humans, on the other hand, are aware of the existence of ants, though we generally don’t give a damn about them so long as they don’t infest our dwellings.

     I may as well specify here that I’m adopting a more or less Buddhist interpretation of gods: Any being that is “superhuman” or higher than us, which exists at a higher level of consciousness or has greater mental powers than us, or perhaps is just less crude, would qualify as a god. A being may have a body as physical as ours, look like a gooey squid, breathe methane or ammonia, and live in a galaxy far, far away and be oblivious to our existence, and technically still qualify as a god so long as it fits the requirements of greater mental powers or whatever. Gods like the extraterrestrial squid, however, along with any other beings with which we have no actual contact, conscious, subconscious, or superconscious, may as well be ignored though, for the purposes of this discussion. Mainly I’m interested in gods that may be the objects of human worship, or reverence, or propitiation, or prayer, be they merely superhuman or be It One and Absolute.

     Of the various possible levels of divinity or godhood, the lowest, from a Buddhist reckoning at least, would simply be powerful “spirits,” little better than ghosts. These might resemble ancient Greek dæmons, the lares and manes of pagan Rome, or Germanic elves, for example. Presumably such minor gods could include somewhat superhuman beings that we humans usually can’t see even if they are present, because they are composed of “subtle matter” or some such. Many that lie within the scope of formalized polytheism would have been human in the past, some serving in the relatively humble positions of “guardian angels” or “spirit guides.” Historically, many polytheistic deities have been dead and ascended heroes, like Herakles, Romulus/Quirinus, Odin, et al. As I mentioned last time, assuming that such beings exist at all, those who were formerly humans like us would presumably have sufficient affinity with our world that they might actually give a damn about us and work to our benefit, or harm. A similar case might be beings who, because they inhabit a version of reality similar enough to our own that they inhabit the same world as us, to some degree, may take an interest, positive or negative, in our actions. Buddhist cosmology abounds with such beings—although that in and of itself is no proof of their existence. But again, for the most part, superhuman yet still mundane beings or devas probably don’t give any more of a damn about us than we give to ants or mice in a nearby forest.

     A higher level of polytheistic gods, real or imagined, which is conducive to a higher level of spirituality, maybe even getting up to the level of liberating Dharma, would be “cosmic” gods who may serve as a doorway to the Absolute. That is, superhuman beings that are considered to be enlightened or spiritually perfect in some way, the worship of whom may help us mortal humans to approach that same perfection. If I remember correctly, Plato’s Symposium includes the mention of two Aphrodites, goddess(es) of love and beauty: a lower, human-like Aphrodite and a more universal one. It’s the universal kind that I have in mind here. The cosmic or universal Aphrodite could be viewed as a representation or facet of the Absolute manifested as perfect beauty or perfect love. Similarly, a cosmic version of Apollo or Athena could be viewed as another approach to the same Absolute, but manifesting as perfect wisdom or perfect harmony. The beings themselves may be made-up symbols to a hard-headed empiricist, yet the symbol may nevertheless serve as a way for the human mind to come closer to Infinity by focusing on something more or less comprehensible, and not totally mystified by a pure abstract unthinkable Void. The Hindus in particular have been singularly effective at this approach to polytheism; Max Müller famously referred to such a religious system as a form of henotheism, in which all the gods, or a great many anyhow, are seen as manifestations of the Absolute.

     Next above personified aspects of the Absolute, still limited in their own personal ways, might be a kind of intermediary between the phenomenal world and the unthinkable Void of the pure Absolute, something like the Nous or Logos of the Neoplatonists (the latter of which was commandeered by the hellenized early Christians), or the Platonic and Gnostic Demiurge. Possibly the Saguna Brahman or even the Maya of the Vedantist Hindus may be an Indian version of this. A more or less biblical-style God Almighty, who is considered to be the one true God and Creator of everything, yet nevertheless wallows in human passions and occasionally may even throw a pissed-off conniption, and maybe assumes human form, may be a modern western approximation of this. But the farther a manifestation of Absolute Divinity deviates from something easily imaginable to the common person, the harder it is to make a statue of it or even to write about it, the less popular it will be to the masses, and the more esoteric will the worship of it be, possibly limited to some initiated spiritual elite.

     Finally, or primally (primordially?), there is the monotheistic God par excellence, the pure, infinite, formless, unimaginable Absolute, perhaps interpreted as infinite consciousness or spirit, or possibly simply as Ultimate Reality. Theravada, however, rejects such theism as heretical “wrong view,” as the early Buddhist conception of the Absolute is, for starters, completely impersonal. (Some Mahayana Buddhists interpret the Buddha himself as a cosmic Absolute, or at least as a kind of infinite Nous, for example with their concept of the Dharmakāya or “Dharma body” of the Buddha. But this is a later development in Buddhist philosophy.) Nibbāna as a metaphysical state is rather more like the Chinese Tao, totally impersonal and selfless, with no cosmic I AM…though Nibbāna/Nirvāna understood metaphysically is really not so different from the Vedantist Hindu conception of Nirguna Brahman, “God without discernible characteristics,” which is interpreted to be Brahma in His Absolute state. But furthermore, not only is the Buddhist Highest State impersonal and thus non-theistic, it is also indeterminate—it transcends duality—and thus can’t even be said to exist, or not to exist. Again, another term for such an Absolute, a non-theistic one, is simply Reality, ultimate reality that is, the reality that transcends Kant’s phenomena or mere things as they seem. We’ve moved beyond theology at this point, and such an unthinkable Void rarely receives any ritual worship or offerings. Once one refers to it as an “it,” let alone a “He,” it stops being an Absolute unthinkable Void anyway.

     Theravada, early Indian Buddhism in general, and also the ancient north Indian (non-Vedic) shramana movement in general, have not emphasized the worship of gods, though Theravada does encourage respect for them, as well as for any beings superior to oneself, including human ones. Prayer or propitiation in most cases is probably futile, at best a belief in divinity misdirected towards beings who are merely superhuman, and not perfect or immortal, and who mostly mind their own business, not ours. Thus the main benefit derived from propitiating the gods, or even The God, would be any self-cultivated subjective effect on the mind of the worshipper himself, i.e., “good karma” through positive mental states involved in the prayer or propitiation. Prayer is indeed used as a kind of meditation by some theistic types; though the Buddha reportedly made fun of the very idea of praying as a religious practice. In one sutta (I don’t remember the name of it) he compared praying to the gods to praying to the far side of a river to come over to the side of the man praying, because he wants to cross the river. Obviously, he’ll get to the other side through his own efforts, not the efforts of some river god or guardian deity, much less any supposed efforts of the far shore itself.

     Really, what the hell do we care what ants or frogs want, so long as they leave us alone and stay out of our house? Why should higher beings care about us? Maybe a slightly higher being, who was once human but who has moved on to a slightly higher stage of development, might give a damn about us, perhaps even becoming some kind of guardian angel or guiding spirit. Beings very much higher than we are might consider our plight if they are extremely aware and attentive to the doings of tiny insects and blind worms, or if we are doing something unusually remarkable, positive or negative.

     Even so, some folks have a very crude understanding of the gods and want to swindle them, or else flatter or pester them until they get what they want out of them. I am reminded of a Burmese village woman in a very remote area of Burma who was at a spirit shrine. The shrine was dedicated to some kind of nature spirit called Amei Gyi, or Great Mother, and was located on the edge of a sacred grove also dedicated to her. Anyway, the woman came to the shrine, took a clay pot she found there and filled it with water from a nearby creek, picked some leaves from the grove and stuck them into the pot, offered the pot at the shrine, and then proceeded to recite a long list of stuff that she wanted, including her desire for her son to pass his exams at school. That strikes me as one hell of a raw deal for the Great Mother. More sophisticated but possibly even worse is the idea some religious people have that they can compel the gods to do their bidding with powerful rituals (the Mimamsaka Brahmins of India try this), or getting them dependent on one’s offerings, rather like necromancers get spirits addicted to offerings of raw meat and blood, in order to command them when they start jonesing. Theravada Buddhists have their share of beliefs in powerful chants, but still I seriously doubt that higher beings are going to feel much compelled by them, regardless of how perfectly the Pali is pronounced. Better to pay respect to higher beings with sincere admiration and love; then, they might behave like the owner of a cat who just lovingly offered him a dead shrew, and reward his crude little offering with more affection and maybe some milk.

     The gods are beyond us and mostly incomprehensible; but even so, they’re presumably subject to the same universal laws as we are, and can’t really do unto us what is not in accordance with our own karma, or what we deserve. Better just to respect and honor one’s superiors and defer to their own judgement, with the idea “You know better than I do what’s best.” It may be that we really need a disaster to give us a harsh lesson that we don’t want but really need. Or it may be that the woman we beg Aphrodite to cause to fall in love with us is well known to the Goddess not to be the one for us. Even if we pray to the gods, or to anyone else, we may not even know the right things to pray for. Maybe just asking for wisdom or general help might be reasonable, assuming that prayer is itself reasonable.

     Maybe more importantly, and more obviously, there is a real value to having everyone subscribing to the same mythos, and the same pantheon. It causes everyone to be on the same page, so to speak, with regard to fundamental assumptions about reality, and with regard to ethical values, thereby unifying and strengthening the society. In which case, the objective existence of the god or gods is of secondary importance; the gods revered may not actually exist at all, and so the theological assumptions are more of a social tool than an approach to divinity—though even a person who believes the most absurd fairy tales may use them as a kind of indirect avenue to self-purification and transcendence.

     So, the power of propitiating the gods, from a more or less Buddhist perspective, is more a matter of belief in the power of the propitiation, or of “good karma” derived from respecting superior beings. Prayer may be a form of meditation in general, with the same subjective benefits as some other forms of meditation. Or to some degree it could be a matter of some cosmic placebo effect or channeled psychic power, similar to the way magic (or Magick) is said to function. The faith of a grain of mustard seed has been said to have the power to move mountains, with the object of that faith possibly being arbitrary. But if so, the kind of skepticism that I’m indulging in now pretty much kicks such faith in the head if one takes me seriously. Then again, assuming that gods really do exist and are aware of our reverence and requests, I assume they’d have more regard for someone making an offering out of love and respect, without a blatant ulterior motive, like a cat lovingly offering a dead shrew, than for someone trying to compel them with dogmatic ritualism.

     But they’re almost certainly out there, even if they don’t give a damn about us and completely mind their own business in their own worlds. It does make sense, after all, to respect our superiors, even if we don’t understand them.

     Belief in gods will continue to exist, even in a technological age, largely, it seems, because some people just like a personified Infinite that they can at least pretend to understand. As for actually realizing that Infinite, well, that’s advanced mysticism, and a whole different kettle of wax.



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