Jesus and Buddha and Brahma, Oh My!
(a look at how and why religion shapes us)
The ancient Greek gods have always fascinated me. The stories of Hercules, and Zeus, the Titans and the underworld. Naturally, that brings me to Stephen Fry, an English actor, comedian and writer. He too, it seems, is fascinated by these stories of the Greeks, since he has written a series of books about them. The first book of the series is “Mythos”, the second is “Heroes”, and just released late in October 2020 is “Troy”.
If you are looking for an academic book about the ancient Greek gods or an in depth understanding of the religious views that were held at the time of their creation, well then, to paraphrase a religious leader from a long long time ago in a Galaxy far far away, “These are not the books you are looking for”. These are highly entertaining tellings of stories. Stories that were the basis of religions in their day. Religions that helped shape much of the western world. They gave, as all religions try to do, explanations to the big questions about where we come from and where we go from here. These are stories that have lingered with us, and influenced most all of us, in some ways. If you would like to look back to our existentialism discussion you will see even Albert Camus used the Sisyphus myth as an example in his work. Ayn Rand gave us “Atlas Shrugged”, the demonized, praised, and often misunderstood, masterpiece. We know so much more about the Olympians than we think we do, you can take that to the bank and put it in a Hermetically sealed vault. That is what draws me to them, that they still pervade our everyday speech. They remain in our thoughts even after all these ages since the end of them as religions. We all know the gods, the heroes and the stories to some degree or another. They have passed into myth, no more worshiping them or believing that the world was created by these gods.
Reading Stephen Fry’s work, as he worked through the pantheon of the original dozen Olympian gods, I could not help but wonder at all of the other religions, throughout the history of mankind, that have come and gone. Some of which still have types of holdover believers, though, in practicality, we have to consider them to be dead religions. So many old beliefs having passed into myth, some more and some less known. If all of those long gone religions were wrong. If the origin beliefs are now no more than myth. What does that tell us about our religions of today?
I am not going to go into a faith based argument, (there is no arguing faith). I’ll not try a compare and contrast either. Taking our cue from the wonderful Stephen Fry and his books, as discussed, we will not be too concerned about making sure that every aspect of each religion is presented with its preferred reverence. I want to look at them all, more or less, as a collective, the big “Religion” not a particular religion. Paying closer attention to some basic precepts of their origins and later the basic tenets of their teachings.
What is the underlying philosophy behind religions? What were each of them trying to show us? Those from the ancient past as well as those with millions and millions of followers today?
Religions and philosophy really go hand in hand, they both concern themselves with the “big picture” of things and try to inform the minor things we can do to achieve the ultimate goal. Religions however, do give us versions of the origins of everything. Philosophy only thinks about them without the presumption of giving a definitive answer.
Looking at all the various creation stories, from all the religions, can we find patterns within that might connect them and in so doing shed light on what we should do now?
The Greek mythology started with Chaos in the beginning, from which Gaea and Ouranos emerged out of the light, proceeding to parenting a group of others, (like the titans referenced by Ayn Rand above), and from whom eventually the Olympian gods rested authority. Those gods finally created man from clay with Zeus’ spit and eventually woman out of spite. Then we can talk about the Abrahamic religions to which about 4 billion of the worlds 7.6 billion people get their story of creation. Basically it states that in the beginning there was God, who proceeded to create light and everything else finally making man and eventually woman. Hindu’s with about 1.1 billion believing that Brahma created himself in a golden egg and then created the universe and all in it, or more recently Vishnu birthed Brahma from a lotus in his Navel possibly at the behest of Shiva. Another possibility is that Parvati is the mother of the universe. Sometimes, it is explained that all of these should only be seen as different ways for the explanation of the start of consciousness and time in humans as none of them actually created the universe from nothing. Where we live or think we live, is only a cycle of the material world that continually repeats. There is also the eternal side that is always there and has no time or matter associated with that so it has no need for the cyclical part, perhaps this is the realm of the soul, the eternal state that existed even before the…well, before.
There are many other religions that have come and gone though, each leaving us with only bits and pieces of the myths for us to study. The oldest being that of the Egyptians. We can only piece together bits of the creation story from them, but it is interesting to note that they have similarities to the others. Life emerged from chaos in the form of the sun god (light), possibly from an egg, possibly from a lotus flower. There is also the South American native religions with all the variations thereof, some of which have a supreme being others do not. Most have the idea of our world or universe being an iteration of previous worlds. The North American native tribes each have a slightly different version of creation, though they all agree that the creation happened from something be it water or earth, and that there is a Great Spirit that watches over all. It is a similar story across the African continent where there is the common theme of an over all god creating humankind. Most of the African religions, also have some story about the over all “god” once living closer to humans before, moving away to varying distances. God did this invariably to get away from the strife between the humans. Out in the outback of Australia creation is a dream. Everything started with the Father of all Spirits waking the mother the sun, she did all the heavy lifting but did less “creation” than awakening the spirits already there that were dreaming. It took some time but eventually she brought about the North Star and the Moon that in turn had children, us.
We have two more major “religions” we will discuss but they do not have creation ideas or for that matter a god, just revered teachers. These religions are more living philosophies in order to eventually have your spirit reach a state of perfection, for lack of a better word. Those two are are Buddhism and Taoism. I suppose they fit inside the category of religion because there is the idea, somewhere in there, that you are living a certain way in order to achieve a reward, eventually, that would separate them from a purely philosophical point of view or a scientific point of view. The rest of the world is made up of either Agnostics or Atheist those two groups making up 1.2 billion of the unaffiliated category. We will not concern ourselves with that group of people here unless they would like to think about all the ways we have all be influenced by religions regardless of ones belief.
Having now looked at many of the creation stories, as varied as they seem, they all seem to have so much in common. A semblance of a thread connecting them. All of the religions also have other similarities. They all have the teachings of how to live a good life and be a good person. They all tell us to love, to use our actions through this love in order to show the world the right way of doing things! That right way of course being the way each respective religion says is the right way. This set of moral understandings and ways of dealing with each other were our first sets of laws. Humans then decided they should enforce those laws on each other and in many cases force those laws on any and everyone that did not follow the gods they ascribed to themselves. The Buddhist and Taoist are against this idea of forcing anyone to believe as they do, in the case of the buddhist they even greatly admire and try to learn from various other great teachers for they can still learn good from the flawed.
The point, at which I think, religion deviates from the ideas that seem to follow along with what we can think through and find the good in, from a philosophical standpoint, is the point at which I believe religions were corrupted and used for control of the population. They were no longer used only to help the adherents of the religion but, to motivate the populations for material gain by their leaders in the guise of doing right according to the precepts of a god or gods. Throughout the history of humankind there have been those that seem to take some pleasure in the death and destruction of others. We can see this in every culture on the earth. The African gods even moved away from Earth just to get away from the noise in some cases.
Being essentially animals, as we all are after all, we fall prey to the predatory life cycle. Kill or be killed, is the law of the jungle. It’s an either/or proposition. Taking that a step further in humans to put forth the idea that there are good (your side) and evil (the other side), is a small leap. It is, the leap necessary, in order to foment any type of societal uprising. It is also a division that can be seen readily in religions. There is the good god and the evil god. The right and the wrong. It is a very easy way to distinguish a set of moral absolutes.
We all know that life rarely works so cut and dry. The benefit of hindsight allows us to see when things became so out of balance that the scales needed to be tipped by whatever means necessary. We can also look back and see when greed, a simple desire for more, was the motivation disguised as moral obligation by those that came to power for the sake of power, often in the guise of improving the lives of the masses invariably leading to tragedy. This is only possible with a unified base. Religions allow for ready built unification of a base. Though when we take a look at the commonality of the religions of the world. What one chooses to eat, what one decides to wear or not wear, the minor rules of every religion really get taken out of all context and proportion. Then they are used as a basis for for that primal either/or cycle. We know that the fundamentals of religions are to help people to live a life in harmony with others, to have love for each other and to reach the hearts of others through the actions this love would precipitate.
As the world continues to become more and more, “a global community”, we must all try to apply the philosophical underpinnings of our various religions. The only thing to be gained by living in a land of absolutes is conflict. Absolutes make it easy to make decisions as they give a belief of certainty. We, as thinking individuals must accept what reality tells us, there are no absolutes. The only true absolute can be your faith in your faith. That faith that your beliefs are right, that faith however, does not give the right to do wrong.
Hera, was probably the most vindictive of all of the Greek gods. We can look at her nature as presented in the myths and the way she went about punishing anyone that she felt did her any harm in any way. She would often punish the innocent if she thought it would hurt the one that she felt deserved to be hurt. She demanded absolute loyalty and adoration. Her followers did as she decreed, or did in her name, unspeakable acts of violence. The rituals were secret, like a cult, also like a cult they held the leader blameless and themselves blameless when acting in her name. So though the Greek myths fascinate me and I do love the Stephen Fry books dedicated to them. I am happy that the world can look back and see the folly of their ways as we look toward a future of harmony taking the best of our religious philosophies to heart while using our heads for the absolutes.