Polytheism, monotheism and henotheism

Are the terms ”polytheism” and ”monotheism” too crude for an analysis of Hinduism? These terms were culled from a western reality before knowledge of the Indian sacred writings became more widespread in the nineteenth century,

The terms seem at least fuzzy to me. Christianity is formally a monotheistic religion but has the awkward construction of the Trinity, which has caused much discussion and dissent as to the relationship and identity of God, Christ and the Holy Ghost. And angels are they divine rather than human (including the fallen one, the Devil), not to mention the Virgin Mary, who is also revered as divine. And then there are the saints, whom I believe must have performed a miracle before being sanctified, and to whom believers addresses their wishes. Defining Christianity in terms of monotheism seems rather blunt – it may be monotheistic in principle, but in practical terms, in terms of what believers actually do, this appears less certain when divinity is spread in this way.

The famous German philologist and religious researcher Max Muller, a German, who spent most of his active years in Oxford made widespread use of the term henotheism” coined earlier by Schilling to describe Hinduism, meaning the worship of a single, supreme god that does not deny the existence or possible existence of other deities. Hindus believe in the one all-pervasive God who energises the entire universe. It is believed that God is both in the world and beyond it (definition from Wikipedia, with sources in the article on henotheism).

I found the concept interesting as a further development of the blunt contrast between polytheism and monotheism (other related concepts are kathenotheism and monolatrism). However, after discussion with those more cognisant with Hinduism, I think Muller may have underestimated the importance of the other Gods in the Trimurti. Muller’s reading of the Indian classics was also hardly an innocent reading, not at least in his early years. He wanted to find evidence of tendencies towards monotheism as he wanted to Christianise India.

He translated over 50 volumes of Indian religious texts but he had an agenda:

“I do not at all like to go to India as a missionary, that makes one dependent on the parsons… I should like to live for ten years quite quietly and learn the language, try to make friends, and see whether I was fit to take part in a work, by means of which the old mischief of Indian priestcraft could be overthrown and the way opened for the entrance of simple Christian teaching…

— The Life And Letters Of The Right Honourable Friedrich Max Müller Vol.i, Chapter X.

I didn’t record the date of this quote but it must have been early in his career.

And later on, he had links with the reformers in the Brahmo Samaj and Ram Mohan Roy, which he hoped would lead to the development of an Indian form of Christianity, hoping that the “superstition” and idolatry, which he considered to be characteristic of modern popular Hinduism, would disappear.

I don’t know about the subsequent trajectory (after Ram Mohan Roy’s early death in Bristol) of his contacts with the Brahmo Samaj. I would assume that they became less important once the Bengali participants realised that many of the English whom they at first regarded as being sympathetic to the modernisation of Bengali society had a “tabula rasa” attitude more in the spirit of Shiva than Vishnu, which they couldn’t support.

Or it may have been that Müller moderated his attitude to Hinduism later in life.

The following is a quote from a lecture he held in 1883.

“If I were to look over the whole world to find out the country most richly endowed with all the wealth, power, and beauty that nature can bestow—in some parts a very paradise on earth—I should point to India. If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most full developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions of some of them which well deserve the attention even of those who have studied Plato and Kant—I should point to India. And if I were to ask myself from what literature we, here in Europe, we who

have been nurtured almost exclusively on the thoughts of Greeks and Romans, and of one Semitic race, the Jewish, may draw that corrective which is most wanted in order to make our inner life more perfect, more comprehensive, more universal, in fact more truly human, a life, not for this life only, but a transfigured and eternal life—again I should point to India”.

Max Müller, India – Lecture I. What can India teach us?, A Course of Lectures Delivered before the University of Cambridge

Müller also met Swami Vivekananda, the disciple of Ramakrishna, for lunch in 1896. According to Vivekananda,

“The visit was really a revelation to me. That little white house, its setting in a beautiful garden, the silver-haired sage, with a face calm and benign, and forehead smooth as a child’s in spite of seventy winters, and every line in that face speaking of a deep-seated mine of spirituality somewhere behind; that noble wife, the helpmate of his life through his long and arduous task of exciting interest, overriding opposition and contempt, and at last creating a respect for the thoughts of the sages of ancient India—the trees, the flowers, the calmness, and the clear sky—all these sent me back in imagination to the glorious days of ancient India, the days of our brahmarshis and rajarshis, the days of the great vanaprasthas, the days of Arundhatis and Vasishthas. It was neither the philologist nor the scholar that I saw, but a soul that is every day realizing its oneness with the universe”.

As I understand it (or perhaps misunderstand it…), Vivekananda did not regard himself as a Hindu, or at least did not have a simple relationship with Hinduism, but argued for a universal religion transcending Christianity and Hinduism etc. But he would hardly have expressed himself in such glowing terms, had Muller been in any way condescending or had devalued the Indian tradition.

It would be interesting to read more but another day, or another year. Having worked intensively on St Jerome, I now have a strong desire to read about the world we live in today and its problems. And until I have done that, no more dabbling with theology!!

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