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Definition: polytheism from Philip's Encyclopedia

Belief in or worship of many gods and goddesses. The ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek and Roman religions were all polytheistic, as were the religions of the Americas before European settlement. Hinduism is a modern polytheistic religion. See also animism; monotheism


Summary Article: POLYTHEISM
from Global Dictionary of Theology

Polytheism is a worldview that postulates the existence of a multitude of gods and goddesses. Hinduism is considered the best-known polytheistic faith in the world. The early Vedic scriptures (1500-1000 BC) refer to 33 deities, and later the Puranas (c. AD 500) talk about 330 million gods and goddesses. Next comes the ancient Greco-Roman pantheon of many male and female deities. In practice, most of the theistic religions other than Judaism, Christianity and Islam seem to be overwhelmingly polytheistic or inclined to polytheism. Not only high religions like Greco-Roman religions and Babylonian and Assyrian religions in the past, and *Hinduism, Mahayana *Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism (see Chinese Religions) and Shintoism in the present, but also many traditional or tribal religions in Asia, Africa and elsewhere present an overwhelmingly polytheistic worldview. The number of deities never remains static in a polytheistic framework; it steadily grows and therefore any attempt to find out their exact number is a futile exercise.

Polytheism Explained

Polytheism is unequivocally distinguished from monotheism. Though both would hold the view that divinity is personal and distinct from the universe, they vehemently disagree on the issue of number; the former proposes a multiplicity of deities while the latter strongly insists on one single God.

Polytheism and pantheism are not the same; pantheism holds the view that there is only one Reality and that Reality is all in all, is in everything and everything is in It. Nonetheless, both of them can cohabit in a larger scheme, as in Hinduism, where a belief in an impersonal Ultimate Reality, called Brahman, and its 330 million personal manifestations, though “illusory” for the monists, is possible and permissible.

However, monotheism and polytheism are not fellow travelers, nor can they cohabit easily. When and where monotheism dominates, polytheism does not find a strong foothold. When monotheism declines, polytheism flourishes. This is evident from the history of the nation of Israel as seen in the Old Testament. When the *theism of Plato and Aristotle gained acceptance, Greek polytheism declined. In proportion to the growth of Christianity, Roman polytheism disappeared from the West. Likewise, with the advent of *Islam, the polytheistic religions of Arabia disappeared. This fact is being demonstrated again in the contemporary West. With the decline of Judeo-Christian monotheistic worldview, the West is now increasingly coming under the influence of polytheism.

It needs to be mentioned here that there is a probability of encountering a so-called monotheistic core in a polytheistic worldview. It is not uncommon to find that many polytheists in Hindu traditions, from among urban educated elites and equally from ordinary illiterate rural folks, hold the view that they are not really polytheists. Some may argue that polytheism is a concept that describes God as “One-in-many.” The abstract concept of the “One” God stays beyond the grasp of ordinary human beings and so polytheism provides tangible accesses to the mystery of the “One” God. They argue that there is only one God, but that God is known and worshiped by different names. Some refer to a verse in Rig Veda, the oldest Hindu scripture, saying, “Truth is one, but sages call it differently,” or “The wise invoke the one Being in various ways” (1.164). The context may not allow a generalization of the import of the verse. However, this verse is often quoted in support of the monotheistic core of Hindu polytheistic practice. Mahatma Gandhi taught that Krishna, Jesus, Allah and the like are different names of the same Reality. But for him, the Ultimate Reality is Truth, a principle and not a personal being. This makes the acclaimed “monotheism” of Hinduism a hollow concept.

Idolatry is a necessary corollary to polytheism. Identification and representation necessitates it. Idols are more than images. Any stone or a piece of wood, carved or otherwise, does not automatically become an object of worship. In Hindu tradition, such an image is ritualistically installed by authorized personnel after drawing the spirit of the concerned deity into it. With this pranaprathishta, or “life-installation,” ceremony that image veritably becomes the very god that the priest drew into it and the devotees address it Bhagawan, “Lord.”

So also in a polytheistic society witchcraft, sorcery and divination are common and a necessity as well. Some deities are good and others are capricious. Some are benevolent at times and at other times malevolent. Some are more powerful than others. All these necessitate that humans keep them in good humor and maintain a balanced relationship. They can be enlisted for one's support and protection and for the harm of one's enemies or opponents. In such a context witchcraft and sorcery flourish.

Evolutionary Theory of Religion

Some students of comparative religions propose that religions have evolved from lower stages to higher stages—from animism or tribal religion to polytheism to henotheism to monotheism. Therefore, polytheism is treated as one of the lower stages of this evolution. But this theory now stands discredited as evidences are immense to argue that monotheism is the original form and variations of polytheism are different aspects of the spirit of religious degeneration. No polytheistic religion has ever developed into monotheism. As is the case with Hinduism, once polytheism is accepted the number of deities keeps multiplying. More and more natural phenomena, virtues and vices, forces or powers, saints and charismatic leaders can be deified and worshiped, constantly increasing the number of gods and goddesses. Hosts of modern-day gurus (“saints” who claim to have the unity experience with the Ultimate, such as Osho Rajneesh, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Sri Sai Babas, Sri Satya Sai Baba and other gurus of the Sai Baba tradition, Muktananda Paramahamsa, Mata Amrithanandamayi Ma) and charismatic politicians, like former prime minister the late Indira Gandhi, are virtually deified and treated as divine by their followers, and that is quite legitimate within the scheme of Hindu polytheism.

Different Types of Polytheism

Plurality is the heart of polytheism and therefore there are different types of polytheisms. Henotheism, though it believes in one supreme God, does not deny the possibility of many lesser gods. Traditional religions in Africa and elsewhere tend to believe in a High God who is the creator of the universe, but this great God is not meant to be disturbed all the time; for daily concerns there are many lesser gods and spirits. Only in extreme cases, like a devastating calamity where the lesser gods and spirits prove inefficient, may this High God be approached. Such is the case with many who follow popular (folk) Hinduism. Monolatry is another variation of polytheism. This is the worship of one God, but there is no denial of the existence or power or goodness of other gods. One chooses and worships a particular god or goddess for purely subjective reasons, and this person has no quarrels with those who worship other gods. In Hinduism this is known as the worship of Ishtadeva or Ishtadevi (god or goddess of one's own liking). One chooses a particular deity and falls in love with that deity while others may do the same with other gods. For instance, in Hindu tradition one may accept and adore Krishna as one's Ishtadeva while others in his or her family may choose Siva or Kali or Hanuman and none rejects or oppose the other.

Rationale for Polytheism

The reasons behind the emergence and popularity of polytheism could be several. In view of such logical plurality we may categorize polytheism into four groups.

4.1. Assured Polytheism. There are many who sincerely believe in the plurality of deities. Some are polytheists because they are convinced that virtually there are many gods and goddesses, different and distinct entities. Life is full of plurality and this fact of multiplicity they transfer to the realm of divinity also.

4.2. Defensive Polytheism. The number of deities is ever on the increase and there can be no cap on it. New deities are being added to the pantheon regularly. The rationale behind this could be a desire to protect oneself from causing any divine wrath or missing a blessing. This presupposes that no one can be sure that all gods are adequately represented in their pantheon. For instance, in Athens the Greeks had innumerable idols representing all the deities of their pantheon; yet they had one altar with an inscription on it, “To an unknown god” (Acts 17:23). This was a precaution. They did not want to incur divine anger in case one was left out.

4.3. Accommodative Polytheism. For political or cultural or communal reasons one may subscribe to and encourage polytheism. Siddhartha Gautama (6th c. BC), who later became famous as Sri Buddha following his enlightenment experience, challenged and repudiated almost all the major tenets of Brahmanism (Hinduism) and subsequently founded a new system that came to be known as Buddhism. Brahmanism, however, maybe for political or communal reasons, later accepted him as a divine incarnation and accommodated him into the Hindu pantheon. This accommodative spirit is seen widely in contemporary India where many Hindus may be very willing to add Jesus Christ to their list of gods and goddesses and offer him worship even on a daily basis. One may note here that this accommodative spirit of Hindu polytheism is a major issue that the church in India faces—the unique Christ of the Christian faith being reduced to just one among a myriad of deities.

4.4. Functional Polytheism. Deities are assigned to various functions in life and different natural forces. A desire for holism may be detected here; no aspect of life nor any natural phenomenon is left out from the purview of divinity. For instance, in Hinduism, Indra is the god of war, Brahma is the god of creation, Vishnu is the god of sustenance, and Siva is the god of destruction or dissolution. Lakshmi, Saraswati and Parvati are the goddesses of wealth, fine arts and energy, respectively. Ganesh is the god of business and success, while Kama and Rati are associated with sexuality. Yama is the god of death. Rain, fire, wind, sun, mountains, rivers, animals, reptiles and birds— are all divinities. A similar tendency could be identified in ancient Greco-Roman polytheism. For instance, deities such as Ares (god of war), Aphrodite (goddess of love), Demeter (goddess of the harvest), Athena (goddess of wisdom), Apollo (god of light and music), Dionysus (god of wine), Hades (god of the dead) and Hephaestus (god of fire) were worshiped by Greco-Romans. The context or the immediate need of a person then decides the particular deity one should invoke and honor or appease at any given time.

Conclusion

Polytheism, religious plurality and pluralism (the ideology that all religions are equally true and efficient to bring salvation) have a great appeal to modern people, who largely subscribe to the principle of relativism and who deny or feel discomfort with the idea of the existence of an absolute objective truth. The value of human freedom of choice is eulogized in a polytheistic worldview. The missionary enterprise of eastern religions like Hinduism and the revival of traditional or tribal religions in the West have a weakening effect on the influence of Judeo-Christian monotheism on Western culture; in proportion to this there is an increasing acceptance of polytheism in the West. This is one of the major challenges the Western Christian church needs to address in today's world.

All human beings everywhere have an inner sense of God's existence and their dependence on him. But aided by the corrupt imagination and will, fallen men and women display a tendency to suppress this truth of God and wickedly exchange the truth about God for a lie and transfer the glory due him to various creatures and objects (Rom 1:18-23). Human beings, with their prolific spiritual imagination and inherent rebellious spirit, have made gods in their own image and in the image of all kinds of creatures and objects in the universe. Polytheism is the result of human rejection of the sovereignty of one God over their lives. It is a human invention.

Gods and goddesses in polytheism are divinities because of the greatness of their power and not on account of the excellence of their moral character. As they are made primarily in the image of man and woman, they resemble some of the fallen characteristics of humans beings. They are subject to human tendencies such as jealousy, inclination to immorality, deception, competitive and quarrelsome spirits and the like. Human beings find polytheism to their advantage because they can control, manage and manipulate the gods whom they have made; they are then free from being accountable to a demanding creator-moral God.

If God is the ultimate and absolute, there cannot be many ultimate and absolute entities. Contingent beings and parts can never be absolute and ultimate. There is no philosophical and rational ground for the existence of a plurality of deities; the evidence is in favor of one and only one God. In his critique N. L. Geisler rejects polytheism as a viable and reasonable worldview because it lacks rational and evidential support; the many deities are limited and imperfect; and it does not explain ultimate causality or ultimate unity, which are essential to explain a diverse and changing universe.

Polytheism does not provide an adequate or compelling basis for transformation of individuals and the society at large. Only a moral, personal God demands change, a change to reflect his moral character. But in a polytheistic setting, a plethora of deities are there to support and protect one in one's action, no matter what that action is. This truth is vividly illustrated in the history of Israel. When Israel went after the gods of other nations, both the spiritual and moral life of the people was at its lowest ebb. Oppression, corruption, injustice, perversion of justice and immorality were the order of the day then as we see in the book of Amos and elsewhere. Polytheism provides an immense sense of “spirituality” to its practitioners and ushers them to a realm of complacency, but it numbs their moral conscience so much that they may indulge in injustice and immorality without any qualms. It results in moral degradation. This is the reason the Bible comes out so vehemently against polytheism and its corollary, idolatry; the Bible calls it (spiritual) adultery (Jer 3:6-25). The prophets who were champions of social justice and morality were those who were denouncing polytheism and idolatry. They called people to turn back to the worship of the only one creator God. Here is the significance of the opening commandments in the Decalogue: “you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God” (Ex 20:3-5).

See also AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGION; BUDDHISM; CHINESE RELIGIONS; GOD, DOCTRINE OF; HINDUISM; THEISM.

Bibliography
  • Bray, G , “God,” Zondervan Handbook of Christian Beliefs, ed. McGrath, A (Zondervan Grand Rapids, 2005) 56-105;.
  • D'Aulaire, I , Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths (Random House New York, 2003);.
  • Fletcher, D B. , “Polytheism,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Elwell, W A. (Baker Grand Rapids, 1994) 861-62;.
  • Geisler, N L. , Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Baker Grand Rapids, 1999) 602-6;.
  • Miller, D , The New Polytheism (Harper & Row New York, 1974);.
  • Noss, J B. , Man's Religions (Macmillan New York, 1956);.
  • Stackhouse, J , “Faith,” Zondervan Handbook of Christian Beliefs, ed. McGrath, A (Zondervan Grand Rapids, 2005) 20-55;.
  • Swanson, G E. , The Birth of the Gods: The Origin of Primitive Beliefs (University of Michigan Press Ann Arbor, 1968);.
  • Zacharias, R , Can Man Live Without God? (Word Dallas TX, 2000);.
  • Zaehner, R C. , Hinduism (Oxford University Press London, 1966).
  • C V. Mathew
    ©2008 by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA

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