Now for something completely different… Amateur Religious Ethnography Botched, Or the Pagan Interviews, Part 1

A few months ago I began wondering what key ideas actually held “pagan” religions within a group and how people approached this intellectually.  At first I wondered if I would find similar cans of academic backgrounds or at least academic interests in an otherwise socio-politically and demographically diverse, if somewhat marginalized, group.  Now, I am an outsider. I have interviewed people in “modal” religions as well as polytheistic people before, but I had never tried to come up with a solid definition.   Quickly, I realized that the line of definition of pagan was so diverse that outside of excluding Abrahamic monotheism and probably Dharmic religions, it was hard to even say exactly what we were talking about exactly. I began these interview by inquiring about people from various cultures and philosophical background who come from a polytheist belief structure to comment on the state of philosophy and American-European “paganism.”   These interviews often are repetitive as I originally planned to use them in some formal research on the make-up on new paganism as a kind of case-study ethnography. However, I am no longer sure that paganism is a narrow enough movement for such an under-taking to be coherent.

Katyayan Seraph is the nom de plume for an Indian reporter who studied both Hinduism and comparative religion.   While some of my readers may be troubled by some of the nationalist implications of his talk, I have decided not to edit it as point of views need to be presented as accurately and fairly as possible.   Katyayan Seraph is included in this as he addresses many issues related to Western pagan reconstructionism and polytheism.

Skepoet: How would you like to introduce yourself and your background?

Ketyayan Seraph:  My nationality is Indian and my race is North Indian Brown. My religious view is that of a born and practicing Hindu, which means practically the Itihaas-Purana period, which followed the Vedic period.  My religious studies are Orthodox and heterodox Hindu philosophy as well as some comparative theology, especially in reference to Islam. My pet peeves and hate-figures are Islam (every hue) and Missionary Christianity (proselytizing Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal and Catholic orders). I am quite fond of Orthodox Churches though.

Skepoet: Do you see Hinduism having any legitimate correlates to Western Religion? I know that the Ár nDraíocht Féin uses Hinduism to fill in the gaps in Western “pagan” religions of Indo-European speakers.

Ketyayan Seraph:  Seriously I don’t know. If they do, it’s only tangential, because everything strikes roots in animism and deference of natural forces. A lot of whites I meet tend to overlap white and brown because of the ancient Indo-European linguistic commonality.

My best understanding tells me that due to the pantheistic nature of Hinduism and most (extinct) pagan traditions – Nordic, Germanic et al – give us a template. However, I’m not very hopeful for neo-pagans managing to revive every bit of their tradition. It’s, after all, been extinct for a millennium.

There can be some give-and-take; however, Hinduism itself has undergone a huge metamorphosis, vis-a-vis the huge variance in its Vedic and post-Vedic forms.

Skepoet: How do you think Hinduism has fared in light of more recent developments of science?

Ketyayan Seraph: I think the doctrine of Vedanta school, which is amongst the six orthodox schools of Hinduism, has a lot of potential, especially with the Advaita Vedanta ands its theories on things such as Maya, later perfected by Sankara, can be reconcile with concepts like Many Worlds (Multiverse) theory and the concurrent dimensions, if there were such scholarship in India.

Certainly, the intelligent and creative principle of Monism is strictly Hinduism’s discovery, if we can call it that, much before Neo-platonist school upon the Greek intercourse with Hinduism during Hellenic period came up with The One.

I think the rest of the metaphysics is a footnote to the Indo-Greek Monism. In fact, two other orthodox schools of Hinduism Nyaya and Vaisheshika were forerunners of modern physics, having concluded some 3rd century BC that the world was made up of invisible atoms.

The biggest advantage of an arid, almost faithless, system like Sankara’s Advait Vedanta is that it places anthropomorphic forms of the almighty as well as personal god as subservient to the supreme creative principle.

It doesn’t satisfy the emotional need of a faithful who would like to have his god in a certain benign mould and a more definitive shape. For example, even the Yahveh, trinity and Allah are all male forms essentially.

But a student of Vedanta can live easily with anything that science might throw up. In fact, he has for centuries now.

Skepoet: What do you think of Hindu nationalism?

Ketyayan Seraph: Forget the six million Jews supposedly killed by Hitler. More Hindu and Buddhist lives have been lost at the hands of Muslim bigots than any other faith over such a long period of time.  Only an aggressive retort to the fundamentalist Christians, especially the Evangelical denominations originating in the US, and Islam can save the day for the Hindus. So, the Hindu nationalists’ vision– although they have little intellectual grounding– of creating something of an ethnic state out of India is the way out.  I look at Israel and, recently, Sri Lanka for models.

A Hindu nationalist, Subramanian Swamy, who teaches at Harvard, recently stated that minorities should be disallowed to vote. It’s a fair demand. Islam doesn’t recognize democracy. Not a single one of its four schools of jurisprudence have any patience for a modern democratic state. They subscribe to it: they should be the first ones to be divested of democratic right. Disenfranchising them is the only practical way to curb their tactical voting.

Even in Israel, Palestinian Muslims would one day outnumber Jews. The only way for non-aggressive faiths is for them to take such steps.

Skepoet: There is a lot to unpack there. First, I will be surprised if Subramanian Swamy teaches at Harvard for a whole lot longer given the controversies over what he has said.  Secondly, “supposedly” killed by Hitler? Third, the success of both Israel and Sri Lanka is somewhat questionable. However, let us be frank, why do you think those two monotheistic religions are a threat to the Hindu people?

Ketyayan Seraph: Because they have nothing to offer and are bent upon converting Hindus – hook, crook, violence – you know the deal. Islam is particularly bad here historically.

Oh yes, Swamy is a goner, totally. I used the word supposedly in reference to Jewish genocide just to grab attention. I mean white Europe’s guilt over it has been enormous. I don’t doubt genocide happened. I don’t dispute the figures either. I have immense sympathy for Jews. I just want to draw out an irony. Such genocides have happened to Hindus for centuries, consistently, and nobody even knows about it. Entire Buddhist populace was wiped off the face of Central Asia , Afghanistan, and parts of Pakistan.

See, in the long run, almost everything is questionable. That can’t prevent, shouldn’t prevent, you from taking action right now, to do what’s right. I don’t see this stopping. I’ve lived in a city of 1.5 million people in India, half of whom are Muslims. I’ve known more Muslims than most Muslims who live in the west.

The only sensible Muslim in the history of Islam was Ibn Al Arabi, whose doctrine Wajahat ul Wujud is worth reading. The rest of Islam, including Koran and both Sunni and Shia Hadiths, are insufferable in my opinion.

Monotheistic religions’ problem is that creator god doesn’t wash. To be sure, the more dominant and popular form of Hinduism is all about creator god too. However, Hindus aren’t going to kill to prove that their messiah or their creator god is the “best” as it were.

Just about the only redeeming feature of Christianity is Jesus. He is a rockstar in my book. A nice fellah. The churches, though, are horrendous mutilation.

Skepoet: Changing the subject. Can you explain the breakdown of the modern Hindu sects for Western readers?

Ketyayan Seraph: Hinduism is utterly non-sectarian in its current form. No text – Sruti or Smriti – actually divides on sectarian lines, only influential theologians have tried to come to a semblance of order (via defining sects).

Four sects are the most important (and there are literally hundreds of others, within and without this four-fold arrangement): Vaishnavite, Shaivite, Shakta and Ganpatya after Vishnu, Shiva, Goddess and Ganesha respectively; however, there’s a huge amount of overlapping and no clear-cut demarcations.

Southern part of India had sectarian strife till the turn of the 19th century, but no more. A better way to understand – drawing parallels from Semitic traditions – would be to think of Indic faiths as a commonwealth. Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism corresponding to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There’s also Sikhism thrown in the mix.

The parallels are only vague though. However, the dividing lines between Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism are clearly-defined, even more so because of modern political formulations. However, within Hinduism, the idea of sects is so malleable to change and dividing lines so fuzzy that it’s impossible to understand it through the prism of, say, Protestant-Catholic or Shia-Sunni conflicts in Christianity and Islam respectively.

Skepoet:: What do you think of Western manifestations of popular Hinduism such as Hare Krishna?

Ketyayan Seraph Hare Krishna is more or less a western manifestation. This sub-sect of Vaishnavite sect is a recent phenomenon; however, its cultural impact is amongst its white followers. It’s hardly mainstream within India. Since Hindus don’t have a `denominational’ phenomenon, sub-sects like this come and go. Hindus aren’t really temple-goers–as in church-goers–so the first physical act of sectarian leanings is out of the equation.

While it popularizes Hinduism in the west, or at least is the representative face of Hinduism and has perhaps the largest number of white converts, its impact on Indian Hinduism is negligible.

Skepoet: How do you feel about non-Indian converts to Hinduism?

Ketyayan Seraph: I have no interest in such converts. It may aid Hinduism’s temporal matters vis-a-vis the ongoing struggle against Islamist and Christian designs to convert Hindus. Beyond that, it’s individual quest really. If they find peace, good.

My only problem is with a section (albeit it’s still a minority) of white supremacist / far-right individuals trying to find a linkage with hoary Aryan Hindu past. Indo-European is being increasingly applied to a common genealogy in popular perception whereas it is still only a common linguistic root.

I’ve read some studies that link a large section of the males among Slavic people carrying the same genetic differentiators as Hindu men from the Indian subcontinent. However, that is hardly a racial marker. Association with white supremacist / far-right phenomenon could damage Hindus in the long run.

Beyond that, I don’t care if whites convert to Hinduism. In fact, I’m wary of most of them because they bring the same regimentation of their previous religion (Christianity) to Hinduism. Whereas Hinduism’s eddies, as it were, are very ephemeral. You can, and indeed should, flip about from one to another. That’s not how white neo-Hindus see things. They can’t approach anything in abstraction. That’s a grave folly.

Skepoet: I have heard of some very extreme Hindu nationalists also picking up on the far-right/white nationalist uses of the Indo-European hypothesis. Is this true?

Ketyayan Seraph: I think it is true. However, Hindus have their own brown racism going. I’d tell you something from personal experience. Both of my grandmothers would have died rather than even accept food or water from a white. My mother was dead-set against my marrying a white girl. It didn’t happen for another reason but the point is, while there may be some sympathies going both ways, racial solidarity is something that’s still very, very hazy, in fact, to the point of being non-existent.

A surefire sign of racial acceptance is marriage. Let’s see if majority of people on both the sides can take inter-racial marriages between the two groups in their stride. Then we’ll be able to tell where it is at.

The problem with Hindu right is that it is still a work in progress. Almost all its template comes from the European right. It would become something worthwhile only when it starts to think originally.

I think you’d find a fascinating European perspective from Dr. Koenraad Elst. A Belgian scholar, he’s studied Hindi Right from a sympathetic perspective for almost two decades now. He’s on my friends’ list.

Skepoet: Do you have any warnings for Western pagan traditionalists that they can learn from Hindu history?

Ketyayan Seraph : Paganism is not the be all, end all. It’s all very fine to want to return to your roots. However, there’s a catch. A spiritual system is always a work in progress. It evolves ever so relentlessly. The problem with Semitic traditions is that once they borrowed the concept of a single-creator God from the Indo-European Zoroastrians – following the exile of Jews to Babylon (and I think the Abrahamic myth about idols is just that, a myth), they pretty much stopped evolving metaphysically.

Barring matters of ritualistic detail, there’s little to choose among the three desert sisters – although at a comparative level, Jesus is the finest messiah ever. Mohammed came and absolutely turned the fine progression on its head. He could have taken monotheism to a higher level (through his own example). But he turned out to be an unmitigated disaster through his conduct – and thus, a false prophet. Jesus was pretty much the apogee they could achieve.

The reason why I’m forced to point this out is that even before the Semitic faiths coalesced into a recognizable belief system, Greeks had pretty much done all that was required. Then, neo-platonism – doubtless a Hindu influence from the intercourse during Hellenic period – much sealed the debate.

The point is, I’ve seen numerous attempts on the part of both Christian as well as Muslim theologians to somehow elevate their faiths by incorporating neo-platonic elements. However, the two are irreconcilable as long as single messiah-book paradigm remains. Small wonder Gospel of Thomas is apocrypha and Ibn Al Arabi is an anathema.

Coming back to neo-paganism, I see two huge problems. Pagan Gods as theophany (and a variant in monist-pantheism) of the intelligent cause of universe is where Hinduism stands. Paganism, for all I can tell, has yet to acquire those shades. I mean while Enneads, and Upanishads before it, had already arrived at the universal truth, paganism is really an unnecessary rediscovery. It will only delay, and impede, the evolution of European / white spirituality to a higher mass plane.

Paganism is what Hinduism at its core was in the early Vedic period. That, according to Hindu-hating Orientalists is still about 3500 years back in time. Things underwent a sea change gradually, starting with the latter Vedic period when some of the first signs of monism became incipient and the Upanishads evolved. Eventually, whites will have to evolve to that. That’s the only trajectory a pagan tradition can evolve by.

Skepoet:  Well, neo-paganism is a relatively new set of religions in its modern discourse and in my life I have seen an interesting use of Gnostic, late Hindu, or Neo-platonic thought to sort of take the edges off many such theologies. Would you be worried that such things are sort of an inverse-Orientalism?

Ketyayan Seraph: I think paganism’s liturgical elements are really identity markers for whites who are desperate to junk Christianity and go back to their `roots’. I dare not call it a fad. But hey, once this group becomes self-confident, I’m sure they would cut the clutter out and go for the real deal. I mean Europeans, generally, are much too advanced civilizationally to keep hanging on to paganism forever;
which is not to say that paganism is trash. The idea of the universal truth acquiring divine forms is something I accept wholeheartedly. I even pray to my own pagan gods, anthropomorphic forms of the supreme reality. However, inverse Orientalism is something I’m not sure about. Whites are a smart people. After initial hiccups, they will quickly readjust. The real trick is how quickly they can become self-confident about their hoary legacy, or certainly the one that existed before the arrival of Christian missionaries.

Skepoet: Thank you for your time.


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