The Created Creator And The Illusion Of Our Battles
I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in the reality of gods, literally or metaphorically. Nonetheless, I find religions interesting in the way that they play with ideas, and am interested exploring the ideas that the gods proposed by religious groups represent.
My starting point in these explorations is the understanding that not all gods are the same. There are many people, especially in liberal religious groups, who assert that really, all religions are trying to teach the same thing, and all gods are really just manifestations of the same one God that they happen to believe in.
Unitarian Universalists are well known for making this sort of assertion, with sermons about how all human beings are living in one single church, basking in the same warm light from the same beloved God, and that the differences we see come from the fact that we happen to be looking at different stained glass windows. Such an opinion may seem natural to those who have never stepped foot out of a church, but to anyone who has studied late at night under the glow of a library’s lamplight, or stepped out after sunset to look up at the sky, or gaze at fireflies, the notion is absurd. There are countless different sources of light in the universe. Likewise, the human imagination is able to come up with many metaphorical supernatural characters. These metaphorical divinities only can be regarded as representing the same thing if they are reduced to insipid generalities.
Some Hindus like to perform the same maneuver that Unitarian Universalists make, saying that all the different gods are really just incarnations of a single transcendent god, saying, “One Atman is worshipped in many names.” Try telling Christians that Jesus is merely a manifestation of the Hindus’ transcendent cosmic soul, and most won’t be very happy about it. Even the Hindu texts, and their sects, argue about which god is transcendent.
If you want to see the metaphorical distinction between divinities can be, compare the origin tale told in the Satapatha Brahmana to the concepts of Christianity.
In the beginning this universe was water, nothing but a sea of water. The waters desired, ‘How can we be reproduced?’ They toiled and performed fervid devotions. When they became heated, a golden egg was produced. In a year, a man, Prajapati, was produced from the egg…
Prajapati had a life span of a thousand years… Wanting children, he worked and sang, and gave himself the power of reproduction, and made the devas, who entered the sky and made daylight.
Prajapati then made the asuras, who entered the earth, and made darkness.
Prajapati knew that he had created darkness for himself when he made the asuras, by making darkness, and struck the asuras with darkness, and they were overcome…
Therefore, the wise rishis say, “You have never fought for a single day, and you have not one single enemy, and all your battles are illusions.”
In reading this tale, many Westerners have simply placed their familiar religious words in the place of the Hindu terms. So, they say that Prajapati is God, and the devas are gods, and asuras are demons.
However, even in making this simple translation, equivalence turns into incoherence. If Prajapati is simply God, then what does it mean for God to make gods? The Bible doesn’t say anything about that. Furthermore, Prajapati is a mortal, with a long life compared to ours, but with a short life span in comparison to that of the universe. Christians don’t believe that their God can die. In this story, multiple divine beings were created by a mortal man, who hatched out of an egg, which was made by waters. To say that this story is really just the same as the creation myth of the Book of Genesis is only possible if one obliterates the significant elements of both stories.
The moral vision of this tale from the Satapatha Brahmana is also vastly different from the morality that emerges from Christianity. The Satapatha Brahmana suggests that when the creator Prajapati created dark beings, he created darkness within himself, and so by striking out against that darkness, he was fighting against himself, and that all battles we have are likewise against ourselves.
Inspired by these lines from the Shatapata Brahmana, I think of the freshest demonology of our our day: That of the Islamic State army over in Syria and Iraq.
Fighters of the Islamic State undoubtedly do cruel things, and broadcast images of those cruel things to show themselves as cruel.
Have our own fighters, however, not also done cruel things? Have they not tortured Iraqis, and killed them? Have Americans forgotten Abu Ghraib? Have we forgotten that 60 percent of the people who died in the Iraq War started by the American invasion were civilians?
Well, of course we’ve forgotten. Barack Obama has ordered photographs of torture by American soldiers to be hidden from the American people. One difference between our army and the army of the Islamic State is that our army tries to keep its atrocities secret.
I don’t deny the darkness of the Islamic State. However, I am troubled that, as the United States enters into yet another war in Iraq, once again without any specific plan or exit strategy, Americans are avoiding any consideration of their own involvement in the creation of the darkness against which they now seek to strike out.