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Hindutva and the Romans

Posted by RB Kollannur on September 21, 2009


(Author’s Note: A really long post, Maybe I should have split it up into three or four parts.)

“It is said that God created man in His own form. But what is not said is that man created God in his own.”

A long, long time ago a city was founded. East of the River Tiber flowing through the Italian peninsula. The founders  –  two brothers, princes of the Latin city of Alba Longa, and descendents (as per Virgil’s Aeneid, maybe some retconning of history / mythology (?)) of the Trojan prince, Aeneas. The city would eventually grow on to dominate the affairs of the world for close to two millennia, albeit in different forms – military, governance and religion.

The city, of course, is Rome, founded as per legends in 753 BC, on seven hills east of the aforementioned river.

It was ruled by Romulus and Titus Tatius, the King of the Sabine City of Cures (Wiki “Rape of the Sabines” for details) in its formative years. After their deaths, Numa Pompilius, the son-in-law of Titus Tatius, would be elected king (Yes, kings do get elected now and then, and need not always be dynastic like in India).

He is also credited with having organized the religion of Rome into an institution that would eventually provide the base for the Roman Catholic Church.

Initially, the Roman religion borrowed heavily from the Greek and the Etruscan religions. During the years of Numa Pompilius (717-673 BC), there were three major deities in the Roman Pantheon – Jupiter (God of Sky and Thunder), Mars (God of Agriculture) and Quirinus (God of War). Please note that Mars is mentioned as the God of Agriculture and not of War, which he would later become when he is more closely associated with Ares, the Greek God of War. The Roman Kingdom (753-509 BC) was largely agriculturist in nature and when the city became more militaristic in its Republican era (673-27 BC)., even the Gods changed portfolios.

These three Gods (What is with Gods and the number three?) and some of the lesser deities had priests associated with them – flamines, city officials and a post created by the aforementioned Numa. Numa also created the office of the Pontifex Maximus, who would eventually become the head of the Roman religious institution in the Roman Republic. The College of Pontiffs was also established during this time period and became the authoritative body of the religion.

Included in this College among others were the Pontifex Maximus, the flamines, the Rex Sacrorum, who would be the nominal substitute for the King in the Republic (which of course did not have a monarch and for that matter a solitary head of state, except in exceptional situations) chairing religious sacrifices, and the Vestal Virgins, an office that Numa had “borrowed” from the religion of Alba Longa.

Vestal Virgins were not the only practice that the Roman religion borrowed from other religions. In fact it was a compilation of all the religions it touched.

Rome absorbed the deities and religious customs of the lands just as they adsorbed those lands. With the absorption of the nearby Etruscan cities (The last being the city of Veii in 396 BC), the Roman Triad changed, to mirror the Etruscan one – Jupiter, Juno (Protector of the city and Jupiter’s wife) and Minerva (Goddess of Wisdom) as against Tinia (God of Thunder, among other things), Uni (Patron of the city of Veii and Tinia’s wife) and Menrva (Goddess of War and Wisdom). Juno and Minerva were borrowed from the Etruscan Uni and Menrva, though the latter lost the War portfolio to Mars (Maybe Quirinus, not sure if he was still relevant in 396BC). Later conquests of Greece, Egypt and Syria would induct their Gods to the Roman Pantheon as well. Isis, Egyptian Goddess of fertility and El-Gabal, Syrian Sun God, would have their tryst with fame in the later Roman Empire.

All this Borg like absorption of religions and changes in divinity may tend to be confusing to the layman, had it not been for the organized nature of the religion. The Pontifex Maximus and the College of Pontiffs were around to oversee the nature and order of the religion was preserved.  The Roman religion became a reflection of the nature of affairs in the city of Rome.

One thing that was distinctly smart on the part of the Romans was how they used their religion, especially in the course of a battle, to boost morale. Taking after the Etruscan tradition, Romans consulted their Gods before they went on battle (Or maybe after it, to interpret the results).  It considerably helped matters when the Roman Gods visited their generals in their dreams.

As Scipio was preparing his army for the crucial battle of Cartagena (which would be the turning point in Rome’s defeat of Carthage), he was visited in his dreams by the Sea God Neptune to convey that He would assist Rome to victory. Scipio promptly conveyed his God’s message to his troops. The troops motivated with the God on their side, readied for battle and proceeded to turn the tide in the Roman favour. When Constantine I took on the usurper Maxentius, blockaded within the Roman city walls, he was told in a dream to use the Cross as a standard for his army before going on battle. Maxentius, frustrated by his helplessness on being stuck in the city, ventured out to launch an attack, and was easily defeated by Constantine.

The Roman religion was a full-fledged state run institution. In the Republican era, the College of Pontiffs and the Roman Senate were distinct, though not necessarily mutually exclusive, bodies. It was consistent with one of the principles of the Republic, which held that no single individual will have complete authority in the city (The position of Dictator was an exception, but was used very rarely and only in times of emergencies). This relationship between the religious and the administrative bodies of the state was to change with the coming of the Roman Empire.

Julius Caesar, himself a skilled manipulator of his armies, was the Pontifex Maximus for close to two decades and most of his military career. The office of the Pontifex Maximus would later be integrated with the title of the Roman Emperor during the time of Augustus (13 BC), till it was eventually devolved during the reign of Gratian (375-383). But by that time Christianity had become the official religion of both the Roman Empires (380). The Roman Empire brought with it the custom of God Emperors as well (a custom prevalent in Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid well, wherever they ended up ruling), with most Emperors being deified after their death. This gave the Emperor absolute authority over all the affairs of the state – religious and political, something which Republican Rome had sought to prevent.

All this meant was that the Roman religion mutated along with Rome to become an umbrella of different cultures and people. But it also maintained a definite structure and order, thanks to the Pontifex Maximus and the College of Pontiffs, and was reflective of the nature and stability of the state. It became what can be described as a secular religion for that time period, open to people of any faith while making room for their beliefs as well. There was no imposition of one religion over the other, more a case of both sides accepting each other’s beliefs, with some adjustments here and there. However, refusal to collude with the state religion and still be part of the state was not healthy, which the Christians found out during the reigns of Nero, Domitian and much later, Diocletian (The Jews were the other religion prevalent in the Roman Empire, but they kept largely to their Levantine bases and did not go around looking for converts)

However, like Rome, its religion would also eventually come to a close.

A long, long time ago a book was written. It was a sacred text of an ancient religion. Among other things it talked about Gods – Devas led by Indra and Agni and Asuras led by Varuna and Mitra. There were three followers for this religion – Aryans, Persians and the Mittani. But each of them viewed this religion in a different form. The Mittani disappeared a long time ago, but the other two forms of religion still exist, albeit in a different state. While the Aryans worship the Devas and demonize the Asuras (Though Varuna becomes a Deva), the Persians worship the Ahuras and vilify the Daevas (It has been debated whether Ahura Mazda, the supreme deity of the Zoroastrian faith is Varuna Himself, or a combination of Varuna and Mitra (who is a lesser deity in the Avesta), or something distinct and entirely beyond either of them).

The book, of course, is The Rig Veda, the sacred text of the Vedic religion and origin of which is unknown beyond our reckoning.

A long, long time ago there were few people living on the banks of the River Indus and the neighbouring areas in the Indian subcontinent. They worshipped a deity named Shiva, identified by the archaeological findings of the civilization. It is not clear whether the IVC subscribed to the Vedic texts as well nor is it clear whether the Aryans or the other Vedic people lived among the IVC (That was me trying to steering clear of the Aryan Migration vs Out of India debate).

But given the prominence of Shiva in the excavations and the lack of it for the Vedic deities, it follows that neither Indra nor Varuna had a significant role among the people in IVC.

Sometime later, but still a long time back, the Deva worshipping Aryans and the Shiva worshipping IVC combined to give the predominant form of the Vedic religion that now exists in the Indian subcontinent – Hindutva (or Hinduism if you prefer that nomenclature). Like the Roman religion that integrated the Greek with the Etruscan, Hindutva was a summation of the Aryans and the IVC. However, there were some significant changes in the theological line-up.  Vishnu, a minor God in the Rig Veda, shot into prominence while Indra and his Deva colleagues fell into the backdrop. Also prominent was the IVC Shiva, who was now integrated with the Vedic deity, Rudra (Another minor God in Rig Veda).

Curious nature this religious upheaval is, but clear not the reasons are.

During the reign of the kings of Magadha, Jainism and Buddhism (during the time of Ashoka) dominated the subcontinent. It was only during the rule of the Guptas (240-550) that Hindutva would recover its mantle as the main religion of the subcontinent. However, Jainism and Buddhism would have a lasting effect on this re-jigged form of Hindutva, now in prominence. Diwali, which marks the attainment of Nirvana by Mahavira among Jains, was celebrated by the Hindus to mark the return of Rama to Ayodhya. Whether this is an assimilation of a festival of the former dominant religion (Something the Roman religions are guilty of a lot) or if the Hindus followed Diwali prior to the rise of Jainism is not known.

The Guptas were predominantly a North Indian country. Over the centuries the fluid boundaries of India have been drawn and redrawn many a time, one state has always been left out of these boundaries (till 1947) – Kerala. Perhaps not surprisingly, Kerala do not follow Diwali (Disclaimer: The reason may actually be mythological in nature. Diwali, among other things, celebrates the downfall of Mahabali as well, while Mahabali is revered in Kerala).

Diwali is one of the many regional inconsistencies that prevail in Hindutva. It is cluttered with regional cults; Of Goddess Durga, Ayyappa and to a certain extent, Ganesha. A deity like Ayyapa, an offspring of two of the three main Gods of Hindutva, has very limited relevance in the northern states of the country, while being one of major Gods in the south. These inconsistencies in festivals and Gods have an interesting bearing on the nature of the religion.

It is more likely that the over the last three millennia, Hindutva evolved across the Indian subcontinent integrating itself with local beliefs, much like the Roman religion as mentioned earlier. However, without a central point of authority, the evolution has been chaotic and inconsistent. Also, the evolution was slow and time consuming.

But in the end, Hindutva is a religion similar in character to the Roman one, with respect to religious belief, though not theology.

Back to Rome.

During the years of 186-284, the Roman Empire fell into chaos. It had become too big to rule by a single individual (but not too big to fail) and after the death of the Marcus Aurelius (The old Emperor who gets killed early in Gladiator), periods of misrule, civil wars, rebellions and usurpations would haunt the Empire. The Empire would be revitalized firstly by the soldier Aurelian who reconquered the breakaway peripheries, then by Diocletian’s Tetrarchy and finally by Constantine I, a masterful spinner like no other in the pages of history.

The Crisis of the Third Century was also reflected on the Roman religion. With Emperors changing favours from one God to another and multiple Pontifex Maximus at the same time, the religious institution that preserved the order of the Roman religion for close to one millennium would fall flat. Aurelian (270-275) would attempt religious reform by strengthening Sol Invictus as the main Roman God in an attempt to form a single God, but he would die before he could complete the reform successfully. The reform would happen eventually during the reign of Constantine I (306-337).

By the time of Constantine I, Christianity had gained ground on its Roman predecessor. It had become the state religion of the neighbouring Kingdom of Armenia (301), while it attracted many followers within the Empire. Indeed, Constantine I’s mother was a Christian and so was Diocletian’s wife. More importantly, it was monotheistic, unlike the quagmire of the Roman Pantheon.

Rome needed a clear religion without ambiguity while also being under Roman control. This was the case of the Roman religion prior to 186 before it went awry. Unfortunately, Christianity was neither. The Donatists, who wanted Christians, who colluded with Diocletian when he persecuted Christians, to be kicked out, fell out of Roman favour after the (First) Council of Arles in 314 and were persecuted by Constantine I for continuing their ways (Yes, Constantine I did persecute Christians). The theology was also inconsistent with opposing views over the divinity of Jesus. So, the (First) Council of Nicaea was called in 325, again by Constantine I, to discuss debate and decide what Christianity should be. Finally, Rome had a clear-cut religion like before (It would take some time for Roman Christianity to be completely in force, but it had become only a matter of eventuality). The Pontifex Maximus would eventually be replaced by the Pontiff or the Bishop of Rome, while the College of Pontiffs would be replaced (much later) by the College of Cardinals.

The Roman religion outlived its usefulness to the State of Rome. It became chaotic and out of State control. Soon, it was replaced by the more tenable Christianity (With a definitive Roman touch after the Council of Nicaea).

The world has come a long way since those ancient times. Roman Christianity has undergone many subsequent changes, without the Roman State to shepherd it.

Now, here in India, we have a religion that is much in the similar vein as the Roman religion before its downfall. A combination of the different cultures and people of the Indian subcontinent, secular in the archaic sense of the word. It survives because it is not a creation of the state. It varies from person to person, carved by their own free will (At least in theory). It also chooses not to interfere with other beliefs that exist in the subcontinent (Again in theory). But, if it becomes a creature of the State looking to devour or control everything it sees, it loses its relevance, just like its Roman counterpart.

The days when the state created its Gods are long gone. But religion still tries to define the state not knowing it was state who created it in the first place. The cycle continues…

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8 Responses to “Hindutva and the Romans”

  1. […] Arby draws a parallel between the Romans and Hindutva […]

  2. interesting post .

    if you have seen star trek, hinduism is like the Borg – it simply absorbs all other influences and makes them its own.
    if you visit Shirdi, you will know what i mean. Here is a Sufi Muslim mendicant who has been completely hijacked – gets archana and abhishek thrice a day – give it a couple of centuries and he will be proclaimed an avtaar 🙂

  3. Arby K said

    Exactly. I’ve used the Borg reference on the Roman religion. But the difference between the Romans and Hindutva was that the former was happening with a specific intent, while the latter evolved on its own.

  4. Kaffir said

    “if you have seen star trek, hinduism is like the Borg – it simply absorbs all other influences and makes them its own.”

    Harini, is that a bad thing? Your comment seems to present this as a negative – but I’m not so sure that it is. This dynamism which you call “hijacking” could be seen as avoiding conflict between different communities.

  5. is it a bad thing – not at all . it is what has helped it survive and thrive for so very long.
    my grandmother would tell me – that if Adi Shankara happened a couple of centuries later – Jesus would have been part of the pantheon, and half a dozen centuries later Prophet Mohd. would have been also included 🙂

  6. Kamini said

    Brilliant post, made for very enjoyable reading. The ability of Hinduism to absorb a variety of influences is one of its greatest strengths, I think.

  7. Rithwik said

    “Hindutva (or Hinduism if you prefer that nomenclature)”.

    The post was nice but I have a huge complaint.
    How come you use the word ‘hindutva’ ?
    any reason? you must be knowing what Hindutva refers to.

  8. Arby K said

    @ Kaffir & Kamini : I agree the absorption has been good for the religion, but how should its believers take these changes? Should they attach any value to the Hindu Gods if they are subject to change in future?

    @ Rithwik : The so-called Hindutva brigade uses the terms interchangeably. Once you talk about Gods and their ilk you are moving on to the propagandist nature of religion.

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