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Ac­counts of com­par­a­tive re­li­gions of­ten im­ply, or even ex­plic­itly as­sert, that monothe­ism is in­tel­lec­tu­ally and morally su­pe­rior to poly­the­ism, that the con­cep­tion of a sin­gle de­ity rep­re­sents a great step for­ward for the hu­man mind. Not sur­pris­ingly, this view is es­poused es­pe­cially by the ad­her­ents of Ju­daism and the two re­li­gions that de­rive from it, Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam; but it can­not be said to be ei­ther right or wrong in an un­qual­i­fied sense.

Clearly the the­ol­ogy of St Thomas Aquinas is con­sid­er­ably more so­phis­ti­cated than the prim­i­tive be­liefs of head­hunters. But it is also far more so­phis­ti­cated than the view of God em­bod­ied in the Book of Ge­n­e­sis, who can be ma­jes­tic but also petty, and who re­mains the tribal god of a sin­gle peo­ple. The dif­fer­ence, how­ever, comes less from the teach­ing of Christ than from the philo­soph­i­cal her­itage of the Greeks, those no­to­ri­ous poly­the­ists.

The Greeks in­vented phi­los­o­phy, and from the be­gin­ning, more than five cen­turies be­fore Christ, their con­cern was with the unity and whole­ness of be­ing. Thales started the de­bate by sug­gest­ing the first prin­ci­ple was wa­ter, be­cause of all sub­stances we en­counter in the nat­u­ral world it was the most vi­tal to life and was also ca­pa­ble of chang­ing from solid to liq­uid to gaseous states.

His suc­ces­sor Anax­i­man­der ar­gued that the un­der­ly­ing prin­ci­ple of be­ing could not be any one ex­ist­ing thing but a mu­ta­ble sub­stance with no def­i­nite qual­i­ties of its own. Tak­ing a struc­tural rather than a ma­te­ri­al­ist ap­proach, Pythago­ras thought math­e­mat­ics of­fered the key to na­ture; Par­menides ar­gued that sub­stance was one and eter­nal, that mul­ti­plic­ity and change were il­lu­sory; Her­a­cli­tus as­serted on the con­trary that change was uni­ver­sal, but that this process was reg­u­lated by a uni­ver­sal mind or rea­son, which we could call God if we liked.

So even be­fore Plato and Aris­to­tle, who pro­vided the foun­da­tion for all sub­se­quent phi­los­o­phy — the Jewish Mai­monides and the Mus­lim Aver­roes, as well as the Chris­tian Aquinas were all Aris­totelians — the con­cept of unity of be­ing, and there­fore of unity of any world mind or de­ity, was al­most ax­iomatic. Unity, reg­u­lar­ity and uni­ver­sal prin­ci­ples do in­deed rep­re­sent an in­tel­lec­tual step for­ward from the con­cep­tion of a world ruled by magic, the wil­ful or ma­li­cious acts of ghosts and spir­its, and by su­per­sti­tious rit­u­als in­tended to avert these threats.

But philo­soph­i­cal think­ing of this kind is in­ac­ces­si­ble and un­sat­is­fy­ing to the minds of un­e­d­u­cated peo­ple. They find it much eas­ier to fo­cus their hopes and fears, even their spir­i­tual yearn­ings, on di­vini­ties that can be imag­ined in hu­man form, and in­deed in both sexes. One only has to look at the ex­am­ple of Chris­tian­ity, with its pro­found emo­tional at­tach­ment to the hu­man Je­sus, and the Vir­gin Mary, Theotokos, mother of God, as a god­dess in all but name.

The Old Tes­ta­ment God is not like this. He is con­ceived as re­mote, im­plic­itly mas­cu­line and the ob­ject of fear rather than love, as he re­mains in main­stream Is­lam; and he can­not be rep­re­sented in hu­man form. Christ spoke of a God of love, rather than of law, and when his teach­ing spread be­yond a splin­ter group of Jews to the Greeks and other Hel­lenised peo­ples, they nat­u­rally be­gan to rep­re­sent him as a man, and found in his mother an im­age of the fem­i­nine face of the di­vine.

And thus the range of re­li­gious ex­pe­ri­ence in Chris­tian­ity has been as di­verse as that of the Greeks: in both cases in­tel­lec­tu­als and philoso­phers con­ceived the di­vine as uni­fied, im­per­sonal, with­out age, sex or any­thing like our per­sonal feel­ings; but the or­di­nary peo­ple wor­shipped an­thro­po­mor­phic fig­ures who could be the ob­ject of love and devo­tion and who could love us in re­turn, sur­rounded by a plethora of sec­ond and third-tier sa­cred fig­ures, mi­nor gods or heroes in one case, an­gels and saints in the other.

We can see some of the same trans­for­ma­tions in the his­tory of Bud­dhism, even though this sys­tem of be­lief was, strictly speak­ing, hardly a re­li­gion at all in its ori­gins. There are a great many tra­di­tions of thought in In­dia, oc­cu­py­ing a some­times am­bigu­ous do­main where re­li­gion and phi­los­o­phy meet. The six ortho­dox schools all recog­nise the author­ity of the Vedic scrip­tures, al­though not all of them are the­is­tic.

To take one ex­am­ple, the Samkhya phi­los­o­phy is an athe­is­tic tra­di­tion that em­pha­sises the dis­tinct­ness of con­scious­ness from the ma­te­rial world: even mind is part of the ma­te­rial world, in­sep­a­ra­ble from body, and its per­tur­ba­tions, with the con­stant chat­ter of thought, in­hibit the trans­parency of con­scious­ness. Thus one can see that Samkhya is at the root of the phi­los­o­phy of yoga, the pur­pose of which, as Patan­jali says in the yoga su­tras, is to still the turn­ings of the mind ( chitta vritti nirodha) in or­der to free con­scious­ness from dis­tur­bance.

Later, af­ter the ar­rival of Is­lam with con­quests from the north, the neo-Vedanta school, em­u­lat­ing Mus­lim re­li­gios­ity, be­gan to em­pha­sise a the­is­tic per­spec­tive and the idea of union with the di­vine. The yoga su­tras, too, were rein­ter­preted from this point of view, so that the pur­pose of prac­tice was held to be com­mu­nion with God or the world soul. Even to­day yoga the­ory vac­il­lates be­tween the ideas of pure free­dom and of con­nec­tion with the tran­scen­dent.

In a sim­i­lar way, Bud­dha’s teach­ing was not orig­i­nally the­is­tic at all. It was a so­lu­tion to the night­mare of uni­ver­sal suf­fer­ing, end­lessly per­pet­u­ated in the Hindu way of think­ing through rein­car­na­tions caused by the ef­fect of karma. And that so­lu­tion was the re­al­i­sa­tion the whole world of suf­fer­ing was an il­lu­sion in which we re­mained em­broiled be­cause of our at­tach­ment to it: if we could break with our habits of de­sire and fear, we would be free. The whole world of suf­fer­ing would van­ish.

The orig­i­nal teach­ing was thus re­mark­ably sim­ple: there were just a few prin­ci­ples of eth­i­cal liv­ing, self-con­trol and spir­i­tual dis­ci­pline to prac­tise, and there was no re­li­gious cult prop­erly speak­ing. But, as the ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria shows, it did not stay sim­ple for long. In­deed the ex­hi­bi­tion opens rather oddly with a small, fat, grin­ning Bud­dha of a kind found in China and Viet­nam, which is more a pop­u­lar god of good for­tune and pros­per­ity than an em­bod­i­ment of en­light­en­ment.

Bud­dha was not rep­re­sented in hu­man form at all for the first few cen­turies; as in the case of Chris­tian­ity, it was again the Greeks who in­spired this an­thro­po­mor­phic in­car­na­tion, for the Greco-In­dian civil­i­sa­tion of Gand­hara, in what is now Pak­istan, was con­verted to Bud­dhism in the sec­ond cen­tury BC and, be­ing Hel­lenised, they nat­u­rally wanted to imag­ine the ob­ject of their cult as a man: so the first Bud­dhas, like the first Christs, were mod­elled on the im­age of Apollo.

Bud­dha could thus be ven­er­ated in hu­man form, and Bud­dhism even ac­quired a fem­i­nine in­car­na­tion, al­though this time not from Greek but from Chi­nese in­flu­ence. The fig­ure known in Chi­nese as Guanyin and in Ja­panese as Kan­non, and rep­re­sented here in tra­di­tional form in small white porce­lain sculp­tures, was orig­i­nally the bod­hisattva Aval­okitesh­vara. Bod­hisattvas

A 12th-cen­tury Amida Bud­dha from Ja­pan

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