Saturday, June 03, 2017

The Origins of Religious Identity

Perhaps a tribal chief in some fertile valley found that during the idle time between crops, his people would become lazy. So he started the custom that during the idle season he would take them out to the riverside at sunrise and conduct a series of calisthenics exercises. As time passed, innovations were made and the calisthenics were combined with songs and chants. After the death of that particular chief, the practice was abandoned and forgotten. Many years later, drought and famine hit the valley and people started wondering why the calamity had befallen them. Sooner or later, somebody remembered that in the good old days of chief so and so they used to assemble by the river and greet the Sun with chants and rituals. In desperation, the practice was revived though in a modified form reconstructed from memory and conducted with a totally different spirit. Simply by coincidence the drought ended, but those people were convinced that the Sun was pleased with them and had changed things for them.

So started the religion of Sun-worship, and spread with local innovations; and the resolve of those who practiced it may have been strengthened by the ridicule of others. Perhaps, most worship rituals are meant to demonstrate a resolve that one has the moral strength to be oneself in spite of the ridicule or contempt of others.

Now let us consider how idolatry may have started. Somewhere in a river plane there was a village where people lived on agriculture and farming. Once in a few years the river would overflow its banks and cause flooding. Normally, on the first signs of approaching flood the villagers would move out to safer grounds with their valuables and cattle and return when the waters receded, repair their homes and life would continue with the land having become more fertile. One year, due to reasons not known to them there was a flash flood and water rose so quickly that the villagers could not move to safety and many cattle were washed away and children and infirm people drowned. When they recovered from the shock of the tragedy, a wise man among them suggested building a podium in the middle of the village large enough to accommodate the whole population and their cattle with stairs all around to facilitate quick sheltering. On top of the podium they also built a house where food and other supplies were kept for use in emergencies. The trusted wise man was also housed there as the custodian. The podium gradually became the centre of local educational and political activities and every year after harvesting the crops a feast would be held to consume the old food stock and replenish it with new stock. The village became safe and prosperous. After a few years the wise old man died and as a tribute the villagers placed his statue in the podium house and people would pay tributes to him by garlanding the statue at every annual feast. In due course people from other villages came to learn the secret of our model village and went back and built similar podia with temple and statue that was considered the guardian of the village. Imaginative minds made up all sorts of stories to impress other visitors.

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