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