The gods of place

22 Comments

Two books recently have made me wonder about the insights into the development of religion and culture in the Indian subcontinent. The Final Pagan Generation: Rome’s Unexpected Path to Christianity explicitly makes an analogy to local Hindu gods and shrines to allow us to conceptualize what pre-Christian Roman religion was like. The whole city was the purview of the gods, and their presence pervaded the world. The Final Pagan Generation notes that even though the attack on grand public temples such as the Serapion at the end of the 4th century are salient and notable, even 100 years later Christian mobs were able to collect thousands of items of religious significance through Alexandria.

Recently I have been reading The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao. The author notes that though the great traditions of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism, warrant public notice, the reality is that pre-modern Chinese religion was dominated by local gods, with numerous temples to the gods of a particular city, or a particular profession. Reviled as “superstition” in the early 20th century, these local gods and their shrines were torn down and destroyed first by the Nationalists, and later the Communists. 21st century China has only slowly been allow for the reemergence of this religious substrate.

One could argue that Abrahamic religions lack these organically developed local twists. But this is actually not true, as for Catholic Catholics saints and relics are a critical intermediary layer in their religious institution, and within many forms of Islam, the shrines of saints are critical. Rather, particular forms of Protestant Christianity and Salafist Islam are peculiar in their abstraction and rational decoupling from place.

0

22 Replies to “The gods of place”

  1. Can one say that Catholicism and various local Islams were encumbered by the preexisting local structures in the societies they took over, which agrarian economies weren’t equipped to weed out, so some of those remained and were digested, while an unencumbered run of the memetic code, towards which the Abrahamic societies manoeuvre their way through over centuries, manages to do a more comprehensive job of eliminating organic structures?

    1. > do a more comprehensive job of eliminating organic structures?

      Not convinced they’ve done that well as yet. You don’t see significantly fewer little roadside shrines in rural Ireland or Italy than you do in India.

      1. You don’t see significantly fewer little roadside shrines in rural Ireland or Italy than you do in India.

        This is why I said “so some of those remained and were digested“. Hence the necessity for an unencumbered re-run of memetic code such as protestantism or salafism.

        1. Hence the necessity for an unencumbered re-run of memetic code such as protestantism or salafism.

          these austere variants of abrahamism are new, and a minority. are they the logical extension of abrahamism? they would have you believe so, but religion and logic together are kind of bullshit to me.

          i think they ‘make sense’ in a more international/less local world. protestantism had more purchase with urban elites and the literate class, and it flourished where there were more printing presses. similarly, more ‘conservative’ Muslims are often upwardly mobile and reject ‘traditional superstition’ of the village.

          1. i think they ‘make sense’ in a more international/less local world. protestantism had more purchase with urban elites and the literate class,

            Thanks, an interesting and helpful perspective. I was of course following (or interpreting in my biased way) Tom Holland in thinking of protestantism as a re-run of Christian memetic code. (Holland does mention some pre-Lutheran peasant (and hence nonurban elite) riots motivating and around which splinter denominations arose, though I don’t know nearly enough on whether they copied the iconoclastic ideas of protestantism.)

  2. The best kind of God is always the provincial God. She will eat the food you eat, wear the clothes you wear and provide the best kind of introduction to the outside world. A provincial God will arrive only when the local economy is thriving and there is a local authority who is making all the rules. All the profusion of Gods in India, I attribute to the strong network of mahajanapadas and the panchayat systems that flourished starting from the Northern Black Polished Ware culture that started somewhere 2900 yBP. This and the later “magical” synthesis of Adi Sankara (1000 years later) provided the spiritual equivalent of the “East Australian Current”(Crush and his turtle cohort in Finding Nemo) where the local Gods could traverse far.

  3. I find it a little odd to contrast Daoism with “local gods” — as far as I’m aware, local gods (土地) are a major and explicit feature of Daoism. I once asked a friend which Chinese figures were responsible for safety in childbirth, and after some research she provided me an answer in three parts:

    1. There is a Buddhist goddess with this responsibility, 鬼子母.

    2. The Daoist goddess with this responsibility is, most traditionally, 泰山娘娘. This is the wife of the local god of 泰山 (Tai Shan, the most sacred of the five sacred mountains).

    3. But in the south, there is an alternative Daoist goddess with this responsibility, 金花娘娘. This is probably because (my friend speculates) Tai Shan is in the north, far away from Guangdong.

    Since 泰山娘娘 is just the name of the mountain with a goddess title attached, I initially interpreted this as meaning that the mountain itself was conceived of as a goddess. But when I asked, my friend elaborated:

    我觉得泰山的山神的妻子叫泰山娘娘 [I think the wife of the mountain god of Tai Shan is called 泰山娘娘]

    按照中国的道教,每片土地上都会有土地公和土地婆 [Chinese Daoism teaches that on every stretch of land there is a local god and his wife]

    There is a temple in Shanghai to the city god of Shanghai, who was a bureaucrat during the Yuan dynasty. (Posthumously elevated to the position of city god.)

  4. I’m aware that China views India through a racist, condescending lens as a less developed country of darkies. I guess Indian perceptions of China aren’t that flattering as well, especially after the Corona dust will settle.

    Historically though, I’m interested to know why this Chinese perception has taken root, since in my limited understanding cultural exchanges between India and China have always been one sided. Would Chinese society have been poorer without the transmission of the Vedas,. Astronomy, Sanskrit texts, martial arts, philosophy, etc. from India? While undoubtedly always ahead in the physical sciences and technology, I get the impression that the pragmatic Chinese don’t have the philosophical output to match India, I could be wrong.

    1. Siddharth, your question has answers in two periods. The second and most recent was during the cold war, shaped by Chinese elite (diplomatic) interaction with their Indian counterparts during this period who came to see Indians as unserious prevaricators. Big talkers and little doers, whether or not you agree with this assumption, it is what drives Chinese elite opinion today.

      The first and older break was an earlier schism in worldview at the dawn of the 20th century when Chinese elites chose to take the path of Darwinian materialism towards national salvation. This meant radical politics and a restructuring of Chinese society towards any ends at any cost as long as it meant material prosperity and power. This left China lurching between fascism and communism. At the same time they came to view simultaneous Indian political trends, another vast nation under Western power, as being embodied by Tagore and Gandhi. That is focused towards traditionalism and eastern metaphysics as a path to revival. This is again may or may not be true but it became the default opinion. This was actually shared by elements of the Chinese elites as well, though the losing faction. The winners of the debate viewed such a policy as childish escapism verging on nihilistic passivity in the face of real threats and India, as the eidolon of such defeated views became tarred by association.

      1. Thanks for that, yes I agree that China has intimately tied itself to the path of Darwinian material progress, and in their eyes India must seem like a quaint, backward place. This was driven home to me through the Remembrance of Earth’s past trilogy by Lou Cixin, which I recently finished (thanks, Corona Lockdown!). In the author’s eyes, humanity’s salvation is clearly to go down the path of Darwinian materialism, and all environmentalists and humanists are presented ultimately as traitors to the species. I’ve grossly simplified of course, it’s an expansive, immersive book series up there with the foundation series, but the Chinese worldview does come into clear view.

    2. Even today there is a historical memory in China of India as being a land of ancient wisdom where some of their best and brightest once travelled in search of wisdom and spiritual insights.

      This is now overlaid with a sort of condescension – not surprising in light, first of a Communist orthodoxy and later of great material progress .

      Both these things are of no consequence. Just focus on becoming rich and powerful. Everybody respects riches and power – no matter how recent those riches and power might be.

      1. Yup, agree. The two impressions can coexist, kind of like how the Brits might look upon Italians today as once having civilised them through the Roman empire, but today a more noisy, chaotic folk

  5. (Viewing the Chinese wikipedia page for 泰山娘娘 suggests that my friend may be wrong to assume that she holds that title by virtue of being the mountain god’s wife, but I think the assumption and the explanation are still informative as to the relationship between Daoism and local gods.)

  6. Razib you might find this video talk interesting, Hinduism in China – Past and Present – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JF9KVQ0oP0w

    The visiting Professor lists how many different places in China had Indian Gods & Temples and not just those similar to Buddhist pantheon but even deities like Shiva were incorporated into local level pantheons in some places.

    It is no surprise that a land as vast as China would have diverse Religious practices, even Japan had a very splintered pantheon.

    What makes China unique is that it is the oldest surviving Political State in the world (since Egypt, Ancient Greece or the Romans are no longer here). So while superstitions, ancestor worship, ritual, temple visits, etc were practiced, they overtime became subservient to the Political Domain.

    There is a lot of official Chinese Imperial historical records about how black-magic or spell casting was illegal to the point of death penalty.

    Also pre Zhou, the Shang and the whole Oracle bone thing suggests that Religion/Priest-class were the dominant elite of society and the control of religion is what afforded them political power. The Polical Domain superseding this equation happened progressively under Zhou and then later on pre Han.

    India never had this long run to iron out a consistent theme Politically. It kept getting fragmented too quickly. However that doesn’t mean India (whatever semantic one wants to use) didn’t exist, it was (and Is) like China a Civilization State first and post that a Westphalian Nation State.

    Even today in Modern China, Politics is Supreme, everything else is beneath it, be it Religion (contrary to what Ian Johnson might try to subtly peddle, he is part of the silly section of the China Watching Twitter as well), be it Economics, even large swaths of Social-Civil issues or even Capital (which in the Western Liberal Capitalist Democracies is the Top Domain, as in Capital controls/leads the Political Domain since Church/Pope/Religion, etc are no longer the fundamental top-driver anymore).

  7. the Shang and the whole Oracle bone thing suggests that Religion/Priest-class were the dominant elite of society and the control of religion is what afforded them political power.

    i’m 99% sure the rulers of the Shang were the guys in chariots. not the priests. genghis khan put stock in shamans. doesn’t mean shamans rule (ask teb-tengri)

  8. I find it a little odd to contrast Daoism with “local gods”

    addressed sidewise in the book as late 19th-century and early 20th-century modernizers distinguished religion for superstition. this separated some aspects of Buddhism and daoism from ‘folk religion/superstition.’

    so yes it’s a modern and odd artificiality, but there it is

  9. Tom Holland in thinking of protestantism as a re-run of Christian memetic code.

    haven’t read holland’s book yet. but i think i kind of disagree with this. if protestants were ‘primitive christians’ they’d all be like Baptists who reject the trinity

    1. My earlier response seems to have gotten lost, so let me repeat. The usage “rerun of memetic code” was wrong on my part, Holland doesn’t do that, and I was inaccurately trying to articulate a weaker claim. Anyway for fear of putting more words into Holland’s mouth, let me stop at updating my priors with your idea. If/when you read Dominion, I would very much like it should you choose to review the book.

  10. “Rather, particular forms of Protestant Christianity and Salafist Islam are peculiar in their abstraction and rational decoupling from place.”

    this is obviously true. i wonder where does this impulse to transcend localization come from? i suppose an abstract religion within an unseeable and formless god somehow sounds intellectually superior to their followers compared to the religion of local gods who can appear trifling, unrefined, and with human failings?

    i was involved in a lighthearted banter with some jehovah’s witnesses recently. they call their religion “the truth” – the implication being that all other religions are falsehoods. after getting a bit tired of their incessant proselytization, i asked them why do they think their religion with one god is superior to my hindu religion with its array of 330 million beautiful gods? pet came the answer- if a person can have only one father, how can someone claim to have 330 million fathers (meaning gods). obviously they had practiced this answer beforehand as a debating argument when preaching to hindus.

    i replied saying that they are mixing the concept of parenthood with divinity. i don’t want my gods to be my parents. parents are humans with human traits. the concept of god is different. they didn’t have any answer. obviously they had not prepared their arguments in depth.

    so i do feel that the proponents of abrahamic religions have a certain condescending, we-have-superior-IQ kind of attitude towards hindus. they should know that during the high noon of pagan roman empire they used to be thrown to lions in the circuses for being stupid and eccentric fanatics.

    1. i wonder where does this impulse to transcend localization come from? i suppose an abstract religion within an unseeable and formless god somehow sounds intellectually superior to their followers compared to the religion of local gods who can appear trifling, unrefined, and with human failings?

      most people are stupid, so “intellectualy superior” is irrelevant. for stupid people intellectually superior is a bug.

      but these ascetic and spare rationalized religions are *portable* and not connected to locality. calvinist protestantism in particular reduced christianity to pure reflection and belief, as opposed to the whole praxis component that looms large in catholicism, lutheranism, orthodoxy, etc. similarly, more ‘conservative’ islam in places like indonesia is popular is cosmopolitan urban areas where people from different backgrounds mix.

      in europe protestantism of the intellectual reform sort is probably a feature of economic development after 1500 as urban burgeois try to figure out a religion more suited to them than peasant catholicism.

      unlike weber, i think protestantism is an effect of economic development, not the cause.

Comments are closed.