It is an old trick of a new religion. Discredit old religions. That is what followers of atheism and rationality (terms often used synonymously) do, although they would be furious at the suggestion that they follow a religion. And so you often hear them say, ‘God, hence religion, is the cause of most wars in the world. Remove God and you will have peace.’ When you point out that the World Wars of the 20th century were not based on religion, they will promptly tell you to shut up.
God as an idea is a relatively recent one in human history. Especially as a unitary idea. It became popular around the Mediterranean when the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity 1,700 years ago, and Islam rose in Arabia 1,400 years ago. Before that, the idea of one God was restricted to the tribes of Israel, who did not exert much influence in global affairs.
Of course, one can argue that the idea of one God was widely prevalent through Zoroastrianism in Persia over 2,500 years ago. And it shone brightly, briefly, even before, in ancient Egypt, during the reign of Akhenaten, who lived 3,300 years ago.
Human history is much older. And the history of violence older still.
The three Abrahamic religions— Judaism, Christianity and Islam—are the three largest monotheistic faiths. Of these Judaism is the oldest, the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh (including the Torah), being its oldest text, amongst a vast liturgical library.
Violence began when life began feeding on life: when the predator sought out the prey. The predator had to fight to find food. The prey had to fight to stay alive. Packs of predators fought battles to increase the probability of survival. Herds of prey did the same. Then there was the rivalry, for food, for territory, for mates. You just have to see the battles between two mountain rams or sea lions for their claim over the harem to understand what violence is. Big cats kill the litter of their rivals so that the females can bear their children. This violence is nature’s way of ensuring the strongest and the smartest and the most agile survive. Nature does not care for the meek. Nature does not care for the mighty once someone mightier arrives. And no single species will ever dominate; nature hedges its bets through diversity. It is in nature we find the first parasites. In nature we find the first raiding parties, the first enslavers. Nature never needed God for its violence.
This violence of nature is embedded in our genetic memory. Millions of years of fear—fear of starving to death, fear of being stalked and killed, of losing the pack or herd or one’s place in the pecking order. It is from here that violence comes. God is just an excuse.
Humans were the first to domesticate fire, carry water, weave baskets, make tools to hunt, innovate smart ways to survive: breeding animals, growing crops, establishing settlements, growing excess. But this excess needed to be protected, from rain, from fire, from greedy neighbours who were not so talented. Not just the food, also the wives.
Ancient Hindu scriptures refer to different types of marriage: marriage by love, by agreement, by purchase, by barter, by abduction, by rape, all revealing that a woman was also a commodity, if of a special kind, for on her depended the survival of the tribe. No women meant no children, which meant end of the tribe. So wars were fought over food and women, and slaves, those who worked while their masters rested, long before anyone thought of God.
But humans were different from animals. They were not satisfied with food and mates and slaves, even surplus food and surplus mates and surplus slaves. Humans sought identity and meaning. That is where the gods came in.
The earliest gods were nature gods, and ancestors, or a combination of the two. Nature was appeased to ensure it was less hostile and more fecund for the benefit of the tribe. From the venerable ancestors came the tools of survival. The gods, their rules, were remembered and transmitted through rituals, symbols and stories, in dances and tattoos, in rites of passage, in specific choreographed performances in response to the changing positions of stars, and the weather. These stories, symbols and rituals established a worldview, a knowledge system, a myth that bound a tribe more than blood in times of high infant and maternal mortality rates, as well as disease and animal attacks. Embedded in them was understanding of plants and animals that helped the tribe survive, and of birth, death and afterlife. Gods were ideas that bound unrelated people into a community and helped them face dangers and cope with uncertainty. They gave people’s life structure and meaning and direction. In the Amazon forests, tribes still follow old rhythms. They sing and dance depending on the movement of the stars and migration of animals. They speak of gods and of fantastic beasts, and of dream-time, a virtual reality shared by the tribe, and not by outsiders. People would die, but the story would contain the ‘learning meme’ that would ensure a way of life and a body of knowledge would survive. This established the social bonds. This made the tribe different from other tribes. This ensured their survival, and gave meaning to their existence.
When tribes fought, it was the fight of systems of knowledge, entire ways of beings, encoded as ‘gods’. When tribes collaborated, gods got married. When tribes were conquered, gods established a hierarchy. In settlements with multiple tribes, there were multiple gods, one in each neighbourhood, each one owing allegiance to the tribe that controlled the city, or the waterways, the tribe that could ask for taxes. Thus one hears in the Vedas multiple collectives of gods, like the Adityas and the Marutas. And in Mesopotamia one hears of the Annunaki, a confederacy of gods, almost 5,500 years ago. These collectives of gods enabled confederacies of tribes to coexist. Such a collective probably existed in Mecca before the idea of one God took root. It did exist in Rome for a long time after Constantine’s conversion to Christianity.
In a forest, multiple tribes live in an uneasy harmony. They don’t usually interact. They stay out of each others’ lives and stories, visiting common hunting grounds at different times, rules established a very long time ago. But as human imagination evolved, as ideas transformed humans, made them more inventive and innovative, life changed. New ways of life came into being, upsetting the old harmony.
Religious and state terror are just ancient tribal feuds over land and power. God is just a mythic shorthand to mobilise the tribe.
Some hunter-gatherers turned into agriculturists. They burned forests and established boundaries. This led to conflict with old nomads, whose paths were now blocked. The tribe with more land and resources saw itself as more powerful. So, wars were fought over land, resources, women, wealth. Inspiration was drawn from tribal gods who spoke through charismatic shamans and prophets. As land was claimed, sometimes old gods were simply destroyed; at other times they were made part of the divine entourage. And so we hear of gods who form families—Shiva with Shakti, Ganesha and Murugan. We hear of gods who merge into one another—HariHara or Ardhanarishwara. We hear of gods who emanate from a single source—the vyuhas and the avatars of Vishnu. All these reveal tribal experiences of mergers and collaboration, and of conflict
The idea of a jealous god, who does not like other gods, perhaps came from the need for efficiency. Plurality is inefficient. Many gods means many priests, many liturgies and many rivalries. Best to simplify. And so, polytheism gave way to monotheism. One tribe demanded that everyone worship its god. All other gods were cast aside. This idea was tried, but failed, in Egypt in the reign of Akhenaten. This idea thrived in Persia, and established the concept of the God-king. Finally, it appealed to the Roman Emperor. But of the many gods he could choose, he chose Christianity as it was best organised. It had nothing to do with Jesus, or his message of love. Jesus had become a totem. The old Persian God of Zarathustra was likewise overwhelmed by the God of Abraham. The old wars between Greeks and Persians were replayed schematically in the Crusades, with Europeans fighting now under the banner of Christ, and monarchs of the Levant fighting under the banner of Allah.
Buddhism did not bother with God, or gods. The Buddha said, “Why bother with one who has shot the poisoned arrow? Let’s focus on finding the doctor.” Buddha focused on meditations and various techniques to rid the mind of suffering. But he also created an institution of monks who slowly organised themselves and became so influential that they started securing the patronage of kings. Jain monastic orders did the same. Brahmins did the same. And so suddenly, every king realised that his legitimacy came from the Buddhist or Jain monastic order, or Brahmin support. Some kings chose the Buddhists, some the Jains, some the Brahmins. As demand increased, so did supply of legitimising authorities. In Southeast Asia, fierce battles took place between Old Theravada schools of Buddhism and later Mahayana schools of Buddhism for royal patronage. Just as different European kingdoms established their own different churches (Anglican for England, Swedish for Sweden), in Southeast Asia every kingdom had its own personal Buddhist order. In India, some kings chose Shiva, others Vishnu. These religious orders were tribal or clan markers for legitimacy. The presence or absence of God in them did not matter.
European enlightenment privileged rationalism and a scientific temper over religiosity. The world could exist without God. All it needed was rationality. It proceeded to come up with rational doctrines to create a rational society. Rational distribution of wealth. Rational distribution of power. Rational identity and status based on merit. It forgot that humans are not rational creatures; we are emotional creatures, for whom rationalisation is often a defence mechanism to cope with stress, and to find meaning.
With gods removed, old tribal markers were destroyed. So new markers were sought, ones that granted legitimacy and status—money, nation-state, leaders, nuclear weapons. Today the purpose of life for many people has become about having more money. Today, rational scientific societies have created a nuclear stockpile that can destroy the world several times over. No god told them to do that. Democracy is what voted Hitler into power, and his notions of race. Tribes have long annihilated each other, contrary to utopian visions of tribal society. The Holocaust is just that. Religious terrorism and state-sponsored terrorism are just ancient tribal feuds over land, over property, over power. God is just a mythic shorthand to mobilise the tribe.
The new, secular gods who can establish and rouse a tribe are nations, ideologies and brands. Nations can fight over identity. Feminists and queer rights activists can rally a mob. Non-violent commercial wars are encouraged in civilised society: we watch with glee as Jio crushes all competition in the telecom sector and becomes the dominant player; one God, with a minor god somewhere on the edge, to avoid accusations of monopoly. Apple has a rival in Google, Flipkart is not willing to bow to Amazon as yet. Artificial Intelligence, where people are bypassed, is seen as giving a competitive advantage. Management and leadership thrive in corporate wars, mergers, acquisitions, market penetration, and market domination—the very language valorises the business community. They follow an old god, money, which the animals called food. It helps you live, it helps you dominate, it gives you meaning and purpose and agency.
The idea of God was meant to liberate us from hunger and fear forever, but food (which takes away hunger temporarily) and power (which takes away fear temporarily) seem to be winning the battle, first by discrediting God, and then ensuring we keep fighting like dogs over meat.
Devdutt Pattanaik writes on ancient Indian scriptures and mythology