Numerous British and more largely Western neo-Pagans seek contact with Hinduism. They recognize a similarity, both positively and negatively, both in their own religion’s characteristics and in the misfortunes that have befallen it. The extermination in summer 2014 of all the Yezidis (Kurdish Pagans) on whom the Islamic State could lay its hands has reminded many Pagans as well as many Hindus of what their own ancestors have had to suffer. We will start with a major negative experience of western Pagans of Hindus, viz. the challenge of Christianity, before addressing the similarities in contents.
Extermination of Paganism
European Paganism was exterminated by Christianity. The result was more thorough than in the case of the partial Islamization of South Asia, but far less violent. Initially, the Christians were a small and vulnerable community in the mighty Roman Empire. They had no real option but to adapt to the prevailing religious pluralism and to the Law of the Land. They have no separate systems of laws like Islam and ancient Judaism. So they didn’t have a law system to impose and could leave a society intact all while subverting its religion.
Rather than overthrowing a polity, they chose to work through its established authorities. All conversions were welcome, but the most promising ones were those of the king and his confidants. In Rome, the conversion of emperor Constantine changed history, turning a minority religion into the official and ultimately the only permitted religion. In the case of England, for instance, Pope Gregory the Great decided on a mass conversion after he saw some handsome young British slaves at the slave market in Christian Rome. (Slaves in Christian Rome? A modern line of apologetics is that Christianity was disliked by the elites because it wanted to abolish slavery. Not true at all, though it limited slave-taking to the remaining Pagan populations. The nearest were the Balkanic Slavs, hence the very word “slave”.) So he sent missionaries to work among the British elites and the royal court. Once enough of them were converted, or were at least turned favourable to the missionary effort, they in turn loaded the dice in favour of Christianity. Part of the deal in many countries concerned was that the Church would support the king against unsubmissive nobles, thus encouraging the centralization of power, or champion the ambitions of whichever nobles were most amenable to accepting the Christian message.
A very powerful factor was the monopoly on education which the first monasteries came to enjoy. This must ring a bell among present-day Hindus, considering the role of Jesuit and other Christian schools among the Indian elite. Another was the prestige of the Roman empire as more civilized and more advanced than what the Pagans could muster. Before and during the conquest of the Roman empire by the Goths, they embraced Christianity thinking this was an integral part in their advancement. That the Romans, for instance, built in stone rather than wood counted as an impressive innovation, but had nothing to do with Christianity. A similar thing is seen today: numerous Chinese and Koreans who migrate to the United States become Protestant overnight because they assume that this is a central element in becoming a real American. Among some Indian tribals, modern medicine passes as “Jesus medicine”, meaning “medicine coming from the same West as the missionaries”, though Jesus himself was an old-fashioned faith-healer who never used medicine. So, Christianity profited and still profits maximally from “merit by association”.
One has to give it to the Christians that they were clever. They outwitted their opponents just as they are outwitting Hindus today. Thus, in the conversion of the masses, they made it a point not to destroy existing shrines: they replaced the central God-statue with a crucifix, but otherwise they allowed the masses to keep on visiting their old shrine, so that they would gradually attach to Jesus the aura of sacredness that they used to associate with their own gods. Many cathedrals were built on Pagan temples or open-air sacred places, but fairly rarely have Christians destroyed temples; only the “idols” in them. They adopted holidays and celebrations but gave them a new Christian meaning. They turned old Gods into Christian saints. They Christianized the procession, originally the triumphal march of a Pagan God, now a display in the streets of the sacred Wafer representing Jesus. They accommodated the idea of pilgrimage, mostly to a purported relic of Jesus or a saint, eventhough the Christian view made nonsense of the idea that you can go on pilgrimage to the Omnipresent One. Like today in India, they used inculturation as a mission strategy.
And it worked. At the elite level, Pagan religion disappeared. It is common nowadays to bewail the injustice to the Jews because they were forced to live in ghettoes; but the Jews were at least tolerated as a standing witness to the “truth of the Old Testament”. By contrast, there were not even ghettoes for worshippers of Zeus, Venus or Thor.
As the Dutch poet Lucebert wrote: “Everything of value is vulnerable.” When a body dies, one of the first thing to degenerate and disappear is the brain, while the bones can last for centuries. The fabled secret traditions of the Druids were killed off by Christianity and remain forever unknown, but many popular practices and indeed also superstitions have survived till recently. The Middle Ages, though Christian at the elite level, saw the survival of numerous Pagan institutions and practices especially among the rural folk (both Latinate Pagan and Germanic Heathen mean “rural, rustic”). The Reformation in the 16th century delivered a body blow to the remaining Paganism, as Protestants started weeding out everything that was not Biblical, while the Catholics saw themselves forced to purify Catholicism and eliminate a number of practices that had come about as compromises with Paganism. A final blow was the Industrial Revolution, which saw the rise of an anti-religious mentality: it hurt European Christianity badly but it also flushed out the remaining Pagan practices among the common people.
So, Christianization was mostly effected through subversion and mass psychology. Instances of the threat of violence included the forced baptism of the Frankish king Clovis’ soldiers (“head off or head under [the baptismal water]”), or the threats by the king of Norway which convinced the Icelanders to adopt Christianity. Instances of effective violence include the lynching of the Neoplatonist scholar Hypatia or the slaughter of thousands of Saxon nobles by Charlemagne. These were smaller affairs than the wars between Catholics and Christian “heretics”, such as that in the 5th-6th century between the Byzantine Catholics and the Gothic votaries of Arian Christianity, and in the 17th century the Thirty Years’ War between Catholics and Protestants. One serious case of a Christian holy war against Pagans was the subjection of the Baltic area by the Teutonic Order in the 13th-14th century; but that was after Christians had developed the concept of Crusade mirroring the older Islamic concept of Jihad.
Christian strategic acumen
The practical impact of this assessment is that it won’t get you very far to remind your audience of the violent element in Christian history, such as the burning of maybe 50.000 witches in the 16th-17th century. That violence was certainly there, but not enough to explain Christianity’s conquest of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Even the Native Americans, who had so much to reproach the Christians for, turned Christian in large numbers. (Indians do well to remember that the fate of the American “Indians” was in fact meant for the people of the continent the Conquistadores had set out to reach, viz. “India”.) You will have to take into account other factors, such as:
(1) “merit by association”, viz. Christianity’s piggy-backing on a literate and materially more advanced culture, then in Europe like more recently in Asia; to which should now be added the propaganda linking Christianity with social causes and human rights;
(2) Christianity’s self-righteousness due to a belief in being the sole possessors of the truth, and the consequent contempt for non-Christians, a far more negative attitude than anything the Pagans could muster; or in other words, the unmatched power of hatred; as well as the consequent importance they attach to religious identity, which means the pressure to convert in a mixed marriage is usually on the Pagan partner;
(3) The Christian care to distinguish between Pagans and Paganism, which gave them a good conscience and strong motivation, because they believed they were loving the Pagans all while hating and demonizing Paganism, and that the effort to convert the Pagans was the supreme form of expressing their love for them;
(4) the Christian development of a sophisticated missionary strategy emanating from a goal-oriented strategic centre.
By contrast, Pagans have mostly been in retreat because:
(1) they have been on the defensive in material and “soft power” respects (though even where this applies less and less, such as in the Indian elite and in China, there are now numerous conversions to Christianity due to the other factors) and have successfully been demonized in matters of human rights;
(2) they don’t think of religion in terms of truth, so that Christianity might be a nuisance but not a “false” religion; believe in the good things claimed for Christianity; and don’t make sharp distinctions between the secondary aspects of the religion (which may be innocent or even laudable and are often borrowed from Paganism anyway) and its core truth claims, which are patently false; so that they consider conversion to Christianity as only a minor change which may often be justified;
(3) since they have comparatively little theological schooling and no catechism, they fail to distinguish between Christians and Christianity, and are easily duped by the existence of some fine Christians into thinking that the Christian truth claims must be innocent as well;
(4) the confused, unorganized, “me too”-imitative, uninformed and amateurish nature of their self-defence.
It happened to my European ancestors long ago, and I see it happening today in India. The Christian plan is to make the same destruction of Paganism happen all over India as well as the rest of the world. However, the rediscovery of the indigenous Pagan heritage among the natives of Latin America as well as those of Europe threatens to jeopardize their project, though as yet only marginally. They have a more acute fear of Islam, in spite of (or, on the contrary, proven by) their numerous gestures of reconciliation with Islam, such as the Pope’s apology for the Crusades, contrasting with their lack of apologies to the heirs of the far more unjustly treated Pagans.
What to do after Christianity?
In Europe, at least, and to my knowledge also in Latin America, there is no direct or imminent threat of Christian violence. The battle can be won by consciousness-raising, which already happens automatically though it would benefit from a sharpening of its focus. Since the democratization of knowledge and of the scientific outlook, people have left the Churches in droves because they just cannot bring themselves to believing Christianity’s defining dogmas anymore. These ex-Christians (the majority of my own generation in the formerly very Catholic Flemish part of Belgium) are rarely tempted to turn back to the faith of their childhood, even on their deathbeds. Some Christian apologists find hope in demographics, asserting that the remaining Christian couples have more children (viz. just above the reproduction level) than the ex-Christian couples. True, but even of these born-again Christian couples, many children when growing up are just as susceptible to the temptation of scepticism as my generation was. After all, we have been there before: in the decades when Christianity decisively lost its majority, both the Christian birth-rate and the differential with the secularized minority were even bigger than now. I, for one, born in 1959, am the second of five siblings. Of my staunchly Catholic parents’ fourteen grandchildren, only six have been baptized – and that too is only a formality which doesn’t mean that they will be Catholics as adults. The last real hope of the Churches is the inflow of immigrants. In my country, the remaining Catholic churches are mostly filled with Polish or Congolese “new Belgians”. But there again, after a while many tend to conform to their ex-Christian environment. So, very much in contrast to India, where Christianity is making impressive gains, in Europe Christianity is largely a thing of the past.
That doesn’t mean these ex-Christians have lost the feeling for the higher things and immersed themselves in consumerism and sheer animality, as Christians tend to think. Nor are they without morality, which had unjustly been identified with being a Christian. But neither religiosity nor morals can be deduced from or made dependent on the defining dogmas of Christianity, which have been pin-pricked as delusional. Belief in Salvation through Jesus’ Resurrection cannot be revived, but that doesn’t mean the subtler dimensions have died. So now our job is to oversee the development of a new worldview and a different way of life, punctured by old-new rituals and celebrations. It is here that renascent Paganism in Europe seeks inspiration from Hinduism as the biggest and most developed surviving Pagan civilization.