I HAVE JUST ADDED
THE NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE
Hello and welcome to my new Philosophy page.
Philosophy is generally viewed as something that is for academics and theologians only, a study that it is so obscure and difficult that its arguments are above most people’s heads. However, this site is truly meant to be philosophy for all, because in truth we are all philosophers. Each one of us has his or her understanding of what life means for us personally. I have tried to be objective in my approach but of course this is never entirely possible. This site will reflect my philosophy but I hope that it may be of some help to others. I also hope that my writing is neither too academic nor obscure.
I studied philosophy for three years as a mature student at the University of East Anglia. Previously I had travelled extensively, two years in the Merchant Navy, followed by two overland trips to India and the Far East and one overland trip across Africa. There were shorter dips into Egypt, Morocco and Mexico, the Orient Express to Istanbul and motor cycle trips around Europe and Greece.
I was brought up with regular visits to Sunday school and even have some early certificates for Bible studies. The travelling gave me a deep interest in other faiths and cultures. I read translations of the Koran and the Upanishads. On a dusty pavement in India I found an old man with a toothless grin and a turban squatting among the equally dusty books he had for sale. Among them was a copy of Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy which I carried in my rucksack and read and re-read over the rest of the trip.
It all led to my late entry into university where after a false start I eventually emerged with a degree at the B-plus level. The false start was my first philosophy essay. I naively filled it with my own ideas and got down-marked to a C- minus. I read all the critical notes and realized that I was only expected to regurgitate all that we had been taught in the lectures. From there on I dutifully regurgitated and the marks went up, although I only once scored a double-A.
I left university and wrote God, Faith and Reason. I submitted the MS to every publisher I could find with philosophy titles on their list. The nearest I received to a positive response came from a publisher who said that he would have published the book if I had held a teaching post at university. It seemed that in his view philosophy books were only bought by university students and to get on their reading lists you had to actually be a lecturer. This, of course, was back in the good old days, before publishers decided that aspiring authors were rabid creatures best kept at bay behind barricades of agents. Now it seems that most agents are of the same opinion with what they call unsolicited manuscripts.
I did have a promising writing career back in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I wrote a long stream of crime, spy and adventure thrillers which were published by Robert hale Ltd. I sold foreign rights in most languages in Europe and eight titles were published in the USA. Twice I sold film options and there were more flickers of film interest. The books paid for all my travels and the travels provided backgrounds for the books.
That all disappeared with the recession of the 1980s. Hale stopped publishing crime and thrillers and all my paperback publishers and editors disappeared. I was getting contracts on outlines and Corgi had accepted one book on contract before the recession. The book was written and accepted but then Corgi decided that because of the recession they couldn’t publish. Foolishly I took the contract to a solicitor who said that the publishers were in breach of contract. I threatened to sue, Corgi published, but only a token edition. I had a good agent at the time but she dropped me like a hot potato and I have never since been accepted by a mainline publisher or been able interest another agent.
Since retirement I have written regular feature articles for local magazines and have published a few local histories and guide books. My fiction from these later years I have self published and all the titles and details can be found on my main website at www.robertleaderauthor.com.
I have also written God, Faith and Terror, which I have also published beside God, Faith and Reason. Both of those books are also available from Amazon through the Robert Leader website.
Now I am writing my third and what will probably be my last book of philosophy. I am over eighty now, possibly the perfect age to be writing philosophy, and so I have decided to print up on this website the chapters that are already written and to add each new chapter as I write. I can still dance and sing and swim twenty lengths, so hopefully I will get to the end of the book.
Below are a few of the magnificent examples of religious architecture which I encountered on my travels. These magnificent collections of mosques, temples, cathedrals and pagodas stimulated my interest in faith and religion. God is acknowledged and worshiped throughout the world through many understandings and it seems that this only makes sense if in some miraculous way all faiths lead to God.
. Is it really conceivable that all the people who have built and worshiped in all these magnificent buildings could all be totally wrong?
And consider, all the empires of kings and conquerors come and go; at the most they last just a few hundred years. By contrast the great religious faiths go on and on, seemingly forever.
HERE ARE THE FIRST FEW CHAPTERS OF GOD, WAR AND REINCARNATION
i HAVE INCLUDED A PROVISIONAL CHAPTER LIST TO SHOW WHERE i AM GOING
OTHER CHAPTERS WILL FOLLOW AS I WRITE THEM
GOD, WAR AND REINCARNATION
Why does God Allow war?
Is there reincarnation?
These are the questions which dominate this exhaustive survey of religious experience, politics, psychology, philosophy, legend and anything else that could possible shed light on these issues.
War is as perennial as the grass in the meadows or the leaves on the trees. Every generation is blighted by war and it seems that humanity never learns. Generals and politicians study the history of warfare but only to learn tactics and the skills of warfare, taking little or no heed of the endless lessons of futility and waste. If there is a God why does he allow this to happen?
War leads to multiple deaths but everyone dies so does it matter? And what happens when we die? Western religions offer heaven or hell. The Eastern religions all offer some form of reincarnation. The atheist option is simply nothing, oblivion and extinction.
There are no definitive answers, but we can look at the options and weigh the probabilities.
GOD, WAR AND REINCARNATION.
Chapter One: The Big Questions.
Chapter Two: The Christian experience.
Chapter Three: The Moslem Experience.
Chapter Four: The Jewish Experience.
Chapter Five: The Hindu Experience.
Chapter Six: The Buddhist Experience.
Chapter Seven: The Sikh Experience.
Chapter Eight: The Chinese Experience.
Chapter Nine: The Japanese Experience.
Chapter Ten: The Ancient religions.
Chapter Eleven: The New World religions.
Chapter Twelve: The Primal religions.
Chapter Thirteen: The psychology of Aggression.
Chapter Fourteen: Politics and the Security Dilemma.
Chapter Fifteen: The Spirit World.
Chapter Sixteen: The Mystic Experience.
Chapter Seventeen: Near Death Experiences.
Chapter Eighteen: The Journey of the Soul.
Chapter Nineteen: Legend and Fiction.
Chapter twenty: Philosophy answers.
Chapter Twenty One: God at the heart of All Faiths.
Chapter Twenty Two: Conclusions.
THE BIG QUESTIONS
“What am I?”
“Why am I here?
What happens to me when I die?”
Mankind has been asking these questions ever since the dawn of reason. They are probably among the first questions the first thinking ape ever pondered. Thinkers and philosophers have been arguing over the answers ever since. The Neolithic hunters and gatherers moved through a world of unseen ghosts and spirits, similar to the Dream Time still remembered by the Australian aborigines of today. When civilizations were born in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Mohenjo-Daro and the Yangtze and Yellow River valleys in China, religions arose to supply new meaning to the old questions.
The religions differed slightly, each one springing from its own soil with roots in its own area history and culture. Each one tried to make sense of the spirit world and some of the spirits were elevated into gods who could be approached through prayer and sacrifice to obtain their blessings. In Ancient Persia, with Zoroaster, and later in Palestine and the West, there developed the concept of One God. In the eastern religions there were many gods, but gradually came the philosophical understanding that they were all images or manifestations of the One God.
New questions arose as our human minds expanded.
“Is there a God?”
“What is His nature?”
“What is the nature of the world around us?”
“What is the nature of the moon and stars and of the universe?”
The questions multiplied and philosophers and theologians struggled. Religion generally held its ground because religion did provide meaning and most people would not accept that their existence was meaningless. The idea that there was no God governing the heavens and dispensing final justice was unacceptable. The idea that human beings had no immortal soul and that like the leaves on the tress when they died their bodies and everything within them simply rotted and disappeared was unacceptable.
Then came the age of science. Charles Darwin showed that nature operated through the process of evolution. Nuclear physicists told us that the world was created with a Big Bang which was still expanding. Religious philosophy had always stressed that to explain the existence of creation there had to be a creator. Suddenly there was no need for a Creator, no need for God. Friedrich Nietzsche glorified this new freedom in Thus Spoke Zarathustra with the triumphant cry, “There is no God.
Religion was in crisis. Science was triumphant. The western world veered on to a secular course, casting off religion as a defeated superstition. Karl Marx had even defined it as “The Opium of the masses.” God and the spiritual dimension, the proud new philosophy claimed, simply didn’t exist.
Well, almost. The majority of people still believed, despite the new knowledge. Faith in the eastern religions remained largely untouched. In Islam and in a lesser degree in the West faith still stubbornly persisted. It could be acknowledged that evolution was the process through which God worked. Just as an architect needed bricklayers and carpenters to turn his ideas into reality so God used evolution to bring His great concept into being. In the same way the Big Bang could be simply God’s method of bringing all of creation into being. You can kick-start an engine, but someone or something has to do the kicking.
Gradually the scientists began to fill in the details and now it seems that our universe has been fine-tuned in multiple ways which do suggest that it must have had a creator. The Goldilocks theory was established. In the children’s story of Goldilocks and the three bears, Goldilocks finds the three bear’s cottage in the woods. The bears are absent but their bowls of breakfast porridge are on the table. Goldilocks tastes them all in turn. One bowl is too hot, the next bowl is too cold, but baby bear’s porridge is just right.
Just right is the essence of the Goldilocks theory. Think of our planet Earth. If it had been closer to the sun it would be too hot, like Mercury a lifeless furnace. If it had been further out it would have been too cold, like the remote ice planets. Instead the earth’s orbit is just right; its distance from the sun makes it just warm enough to be life-sustaining. Scientists now look for Earth-like planets in the Goldilocks orbits of other solar systems and have identified thousands of planets which could support life like ours.
In many other ways the universe as a whole is just right for life as we know it to eventually arise. There is just enough hydrogen to create water and water is essential for life. The balance between gravitational and electro-magnetic forces is just right; too much gravity and we would all be squashed flat, too little and we all be torn apart. These are just two examples. In many other ways the necessary chemical and molecular balances seem to be just right. Everything about our universe fits with the Goldilocks hypothesis. What at first appeared to be a random big bang now seems to have been finely tuned and adjusted to create the only kind of universe in which intelligent life such as ours could have evolved?
Thus the atheist triumph is undermined. The old teleological argument is back in force again. Our world appears to have been designed for the specific purpose of making it habitable for our particular human species. We cannot have design without a Designer and the Catholic Church has agreed that the Big Bang is not incompatible with Christian theology.
Some atheist cosmologists have speculated that ours is not the only universe. Instead they have suggested that there are an infinite number of multiple universes. The purpose of this idea is to suggest that our universe does not necessarily have to have a creator to explain the fine-tuning that makes it possible for intelligent life to arise. If there were billions of universes our particular universe could appear at random. In this multi-universe lottery we were just lucky enough to appear on the winning ticket.
Here we see the consistency of uncertainty which I first described in God, Faith and Reason, appearing yet again. The bottom line of every field of philosophical enquiry is always a faint enigma, just a shadow of doubt to leave enough room for faith. So I would suggest that the vast scope of our one visible and actual universe is for most of us difficult enough to comprehend. The probability of the universe we can see being the only universe is a million times higher than the probability that there are multiple universes for which there is simply no evidence. The desperate speculations of diehard atheists do not really need to concern us,
One of the key questions of religious philosophy had always been that of the nature and creation of God Himself. If God was the First Cause who had created everything, then how had God himself come into being? Science had briefly pushed God out of the way and replaced him with the Big Bang, only to find that the Big Bang itself was in all probability the work of a creator. But the first cause question still remains. Who or what created the Big Bang? The First Cause question has simply been pushed back a step, and if the answer is that God had created the Big Bang then nothing has changed.
In God, Faith and Reason I explained how it was rational to believe in God, even though Science could not prove that God existed. One of the first lessons of philosophy is to understand that there is a fundamental difference between belief and knowledge. We cannot know, but we can still believe when belief becomes the best probable explanation.
In God, Faith and Terror I looked at the question of whether terrorism and the slaughter of all those who did not profess to any one particular faith could really be what God wants. My conclusion was that this was inconceivable. Why would a loving God create a diverse world of many faiths and cultures if he only wanted one faith and one culture to survive? And why would the command to love one another become embedded in every set of Holy Scriptures? Every one of the world’s great streams of religious faith holds up a version of the Golden Rule. It is expressed in the Holy Bible as, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” And in the Holy Koran in the words, “Be good unto others as Allah has been good unto you.”
Since I wrote God, Faith and Terror a Muslim academic Dr MuhammedTahir-ul-Qadi has written a new Quran Encyclopedia which dissects and explains all of the 6,000 verses in the holy book. There are 7000 pages in eight volumes and Dr Quadi claims that only one verse in the Koran actually urges its followers to kill unbelievers. It is known as the Sword Verse and reads: “Slay the idolaters wherever you may find them……” It is the fifth verse in the ninth chapter and refers only to one specific battle between Muslim and Pagan tribes. It is just one verse among 7,000 which the hate preachers and the crazed Jihadists have perverted into a call for mass killings by one small minority of Islamic fanatics. The bulk of the Koran is a call for submission to God, and for peace and tolerance to all who do not worship Him in exactly the same way.
So it would seem that the new Quaranic Encyclopedia endorses my own conclusions about religious terrorism. God does not want murder and atrocities committed in his name. God’s purpose would be best achieved by following the Golden Rule.
It seems that religion has now reached a key point in its own evolution with the understanding that all faith leads to God. All religions agree in three fundamental areas. One is that there is a God. Their definitions and understandings of His nature may all vary: Hinduism presents a multiplicity of gods, but the core philosophy behind them is that these are all manifestations or reincarnations of the One Creator God, or one spiritual source; Christianity offers us a Trinity of God-head, God the Father, God, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but these are all aspects of One God; Islam narrows it down to “There is no God but Allah.” The key point is that behind all these seemingly different definitions and understandings there is an overall Creator God.
The second point on which all religions agree is that there is a spiritual dimension to creation. In the monotheistic religions there are versions of heaven and angels, some religions worship saints or ancestor spirits, the more primitive religions worshipped totems or animal spirits and in some cases every aspect of nature was seen to have its own spirit. Some of these were benign and some were not. The world is full of stories of ghosts or djinns, of spirits that somehow have got left behind to protect or haunt the living instead of continuing their spiritual journeys.
The third point on which all religions agree is the Golden Rule. All scriptures contain some wording to the same affect. God’s Will is that we should help each other and love each other; that we must not do to anyone anything which we would not want done to ourselves.
All of this leads to the conclusion that all religions have the same roots, even if they have flowered in different ways, and so we can also conclude that all religions in some way will lead back to God.
There are two final areas of religious inquiry that have not been adequately examined in my previous two books. Throughout history every generation has gone to war, often more than once. War is a horrific waste of life but each generation still pursues its glory, blindly oblivious to the blood and slaughter reality discovered by each previous generation. In God, Faith and Terror I called it the Hobbit syndrome. Every young man wants to leave home, find adventure, defeat enemies, win the war against evil and return a triumphant hero. The fact that this dream almost always proves false is blithely ignored. Why does God allow this to happen?
The second area reverts back to the third of our opening questions, what happens when we die. The atheist says nothing, we simply cease to exist. The monotheistic religions offer us heaven or hell. We either join the angels around the heavenly throne or we burn in an everlasting hell. The eastern religions all say that we are re-incarnated, to live again in new bodies, perhaps forever or perhaps until we are sufficiently good to escape the wheel of re-birth. Perhaps then we will achieve union with God, or perhaps Enlightenment, which might or might not be a simply postponed extinction.
Why it is that mankind never learns from war?
When we die do we go up to endless hallelujahs or down to endless hellfire; or is there the option of rebirth due to our own merit?
These questions are the subject of God, War and Reincarnation.
THE CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE
One major difficulty with the idea that all faith leads to God is in trying to relate the eastern and western religions to each other. In the west we have the three great monotheistic faiths, Islam, Christianity and Judaism all springing from the same heritage of the Christian Bible. Judaism is based on the Torah, the first five Books of the Bible. Christianity is based on the New Testament which tells of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Islam rejects Christ as a Saviour and as the Son of God, but accepts him as an important prophet, second only to Mohammed. Islam also accepts all of the Old Testament prophets as earlier prophets of God. So it is easy to see that all three religions have their roots firmly established in Palestine and the first part of the Holy Bible. The three monotheistic religions share enough background and basic beliefs for them all to recognize each other.
Separated by the vast deserts of Persia, the mountain chains of Central Asia and the Indian Ocean the eastern religions have different roots in different soil, different cultures and different scriptures. In the past those formidable barriers have meant that religious faith and beliefs have flowered and developed in totally different ways.
For centuries this did not matter very much. There was contact between east and west, through traders following the old silk roads from China to Europe and through sailors and merchants crossing the oceans. New ideas and stories from the eastern religions circulated briefly as curiosities among the higher echelons of society but did not trouble the mass populations. The majority of Christians practised their faith unaware that there were other faiths on the other side of the world. In China they followed The Way of Lao Tzu or the ethics of Confucius without any knowledge of Christianity. Cut off by oceans and the mighty Himalayas the Hindus of India worshipped their gods in mainly blissful ignorance of what was worshipped in Europe or China.
The modern world is totally different. There are no longer any isolated communities or faith streams of religion. Today’s young people can take a gap year from university and travel the world. People in retirement can spend a chunk of their savings on a one-way round the world ticket, which is effectively one payment for a book of flight tickets. Alternatively they could take an extensive round the world cruise on a luxury cruise ship. The world has become everyone’s oyster.
Even those who stay at home will probably find that a mosque or a temple has sprung up in the next street. The university student who has no inclination to travel will find Chinese, Indian and African students among his class friends. Air travel has made the world a much smaller place, wiping out distances as though they no longer exist. Film and TV cameras have penetrated every corner of the earth, following travel writers to illuminate every culture and belief. We are all neighbours now, we are all one great global community whether we like it or not, and we are all aware to some extent aware of each other’s customs and religious understandings.
The old world, in which each faith existed in virtual isolation, and where each faith could be practised as the only true religion and the only true understanding has gone. Religions have been forced to acknowledge each other, and somehow have to relate to each other. This is perhaps easier for the eastern religions which have always understood that although there can only be One God, He can appear with many faces or many reincarnations or manifestations. Hinduism could always embrace another god as just another manifestation of the One God.
Christianity has always been very dogmatic. Darwin’s revelation shook the Catholic Church and the other Christian churches to their very foundations. For the masses the Bible stories had always been taken literally. Now it was incompatible for Evolution to be a scientific truth and for the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to be a literal truth at the same time.
Most of the early scientists had also been devout believers, trusting that science and their endeavours would at last prove the existence of God. Darwin seemed to have proved the reverse. When scientists discovered evidence for the Big Bang as the beginning of creation it again seemed incompatible with Genesis, the first book in the Bible. God could not have made the earth with all its land and seas before he placed the stars in the sky.
Slowly it became understood that some of the stories of the Old Testament were allegorical. They were expressions in metaphor and poetry designed to give people a grasp on truths that were otherwise incomprehensible. They were guide-lights to God and His Glory and His Love. Like the later parables of Jesus they were meant to illustrate an eternal truth, they were not intended as literal scientific descriptions of something that had actually happened. Even in the Bible, only the Ten Commandments were described as written in stone.
The Roman Catholic Church is the oldest and widest established of the many denominations of the Christian faith. It is the dominant faith in Europe, has widely penetrated North America and is deeply rooted in the whole of South America. The church is headed by the Pope, a role descended from Saint Peter, the first of Christ’s apostles who founded the original church in Rome.
The Christian faith is founded upon Jesus Christ whose story is told in the first four books of the New Testament of the Holy Bible. The Old Testament is the story of Creation and the history and prophets of the Jewish people who are named as God’s Chosen people. The New Testament tells of Jesus being born of the Virgin Mary at Bethlehem, his childhood in Nazareth, his preaching and healing ministry in Galilee, and finally his Crucifixion and Resurrection in Jerusalem. The Cross is the symbol and essence of Christian belief. Christ died upon the Cross to atone for all our sins and His Resurrection from the grave and eventual ascension to Heaven are proof of life everlasting.
The Book of John in the New Testament quotes Jesus as saying: “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one goes to the father except by me.” This exclusive claim is difficult to reconcile with the belief that all faith must lead to God.
However, the theory of evolution and the evidence of the Big bang have forced the Catholic Church to re-think some of its more dogmatic doctrines. The shrinking world and the existence of equally vast and influential streams of religious faith have also forced the church to take notice these other religions. In its Declaration of the relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, the Second Vatican Council held in 1965 formally opened the issue to further exploration and re-examination.
The above document stated that: While Christians are bound to witness Christ.......we should also acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians. Later, in 1986, Pope John Paul 11 attended a Peace prayer in Assisi with representatives of all the other world religions. Now there are yearly peace meetings of all religious representatives. Outside the church there are many multi-faith movements. Everywhere the dialogue between religions has begun. In regard to other Christian denominations the Catholic view seems to be that these movements have received genuine revelation from God, although this may be partial and incomplete. It is possible that similar judgements on other religions are struggling through.
To return to the main themes of this book let us consider the Christian position in relation to war. Like all the other religions Christianity preaches peace and the love of God to all men. Love thy neighbour as thyself is the Christian wording for the Golden Rule, which in some form is one of the basic tenements of all religions. War is the antithesis to The Golden Rule, and war has been the scourge of every generation.
Some thinkers have argued that religion has often been the cause of war, but this is not necessarily true. Wars are prompted by human greed, for political power, empirical expansion and the control of surplus resources. Religion is simply used as the legitimizing factor to control and motivate the common soldiers. When humans evolved from hunter-gatherers into agrarian societies there was a food surplus which created city states with rulers and aristocratic elites. These could only defend themselves from nomadic raiders and other cities with standing armies. Every religion advocates peace, but political reality always needs an army for protection and armies can also be used for offence.
In western philosophy war has always been a part of the problem of evil. Generations of philosophers have wrestled with the question of why should an all powerful, all loving God permit evil. The very existence of evil in a perfect world created by God seems inconceivable, a contradiction that could not and should not occur. The only answer when we are considering the evil performed by men is that God has given men Freedom of Will, and that some men consistently miss-use this precious gift. All through history dictators and conquerors have laid waste to the earth and sacrificed millions of lives to their own dreams and ambitions.
The Biblical explanation for this is simple: when God created the world he also created Adam and Eve, the first man and the first woman, and placed them in a paradise called the Garden of Eden. He gave them Freedom of Will, which meant that they could choose whether or not to obey Him. He did this by telling Adam and Eve that they must not eat a certain fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, thus giving them the option to obey or disobey. They choose disobedience, the exercise of their free will, and so they fell from a perfect state of goodness. Because of this we are now banished from paradise to live in a world where men have free will and consequently evil and good are at war. God hates war, but because it is necessary to maintain order and overcome those who choose to do evil war has become a regular occurrence.
In fact, or perhaps more precisely in legend, the First War occurred in Heaven. The Bible states that God and his angels fought a great battle with Satan and his angels. Satan was a dark angel who rebelled against God. The good angels were triumphant and Satan and his dark angels were cast out of Heaven. In Christian theology they now inhabit the Earth and by influencing men are responsible for all its evils. All the dark spirits of the earth are in league with Satan.
This would seem to give us two explanations for all the wars and bloodshed that continually stains the world.
One is that it all caused by Satan and his dark forces.
Two is that it is all caused by man himself through disobedience to God and his own miss-use of his freedom of will.
Both explanations and even the two explanations combined, still cause difficulties for the traditional Christian definition of God. If God created everything and is all knowing and all powerful and all good, then why did he create Satan and why did he give men freedom of will.
Either way the official Christian position is that God has sanctioned legitimate governments to enforce their laws and protect themselves by going to war. In essence there are different rules for individual Christians and Christian governments. The individual Christian should love God, bear witness for Jesus and obey the Ten Commandments, including Thou shalt not kill. A Christian government has the added responsibility of protecting its people and for this purpose it can legitimately and morally maintain military forces and go to war.
In the early Hebrew texts of the Bible there is a distinction between killing and murder and some authorities say that the Commandment words should be read as Thou shalt not murder. The act of murder is the shedding of innocent blood and this is prohibited. Killing in the heat of battle to defend oneself or for a just cause is permitted.
The complex role of a military chaplain would seem to be one of a contradiction, and possibly an insight into the Christian justification of war. Army chaplains generally seem to use the murder/killing, defence of good and opposition to evil distinctions to reconcile their dual role. As priests they must preach the love and peace of God, but their task is also to give pastoral care and counselling to those who must stand up and fight and inevitably to kill or be killed. The only realistic approach is to accept the soldier’s role and their need for pastoral care. And to accept that in the heat of battle moral questions have to be over-ridden by the need for survival. When war is unavoidable it creates its own rules. The enemy must be defeated, victory is necessary. In the aftermath enemy prisoners can and must be treated as human beings.
The French philosopher Voltaire once maintained sceptically that murder was acceptable as long as it was accompanied by the sound of trumpets. It is not quite as simple as that, although it can be quite confusing. In the last two Great Wars of the last century, World War One and World War Two, the European nations on both sides claimed to be Christian. Millions were slaughtered, bombed, machine-gunned or gassed and most of Europe was turned to rubble. Yet both sides, the Allied armies and the German Reich, claimed to worship the same God.
Today, one hundred years after the start of the First World War, England as a nation still honours and remembers the dead of that war and of all the wars that have happened since. On the 11th hour of the 11th month, the moment when the guns fell silent on the Western Front, the whole nation stops for a two minute silence. On the nearest Sunday there are Remembrance services and parades throughout the county. We remember the sacrifice and pray for reconciliation, freedom and peace. War unites us and the memories still hold us together.
Although one part of our logical, reasoning mind cries out that it was all a mad and shameful waste of human life, another part cannot help but admire and revere the courage and sacrifice of those who died. We can condemn the insanity that led the world into war but we cannot help but be inspired and humbled by the heroism of the men who fought it.
Heroism in a noble cause always touches and moves something within us. The story of Hector and Achilles battling to the death before the walls of Troy and a thousand other heroic tales still resonate within us. We still stand proudly with our poppy emblems to remember the fallen of the two great wars of the last century.
Like all of the other big questions war is an enigma. It seems that God cannot stop war. He could not prevent that first war between the angels in Heaven. The forces of good and evil have been opposed ever since, and sometimes it is difficult to tell which is which.
Today we do seem to be learning something because most of the recent wars in which Western governments have been involved have been described by those governments as peace-keeping operations. The real motives behind the conflicts are still debatable but some effort has to be made to convince the general public and electorates that the cause is just.
War and death are closely related. The action of one inevitably leads to a great surplus of the other. For the atheist of course there is no afterlife. There is no God and no spirit world. Death is the end of everything physical and as there is nothing beyond the physical the death of the individual is final. We have no soul. All that we have been is extinguished, a candle flame blown out, a fallen leaf rotted away.
All religions contest this finality. They all perceive or imagine some form of spiritual continuation, to the light, to some form of non-physical elevation. All religions believe that there is a spiritual dimension, and that all human beings have an eternal soul, a spark or a flicker of that eternal essence.
In Christian theology that eternal dimension is divided into Heaven and Hell. God rules in Heaven which is a paradise of cherubs, saints and angels all singing in praise and worship. God sits upon his throne with His Son Jesus Christ on his right hand. Christ promised one of his fellow victims on the Cross that “Tonight you will be with me with my Father in Heaven,” and that promise is extended to all repentant sinners who have accepted Christ as their Saviour. Here the mother of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, is the Queen of Heaven. God sits in Judgement and only the righteous dead are allowed admittance. The Catholic Church teaches that "heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness" Here accepted Christians can be reunited with their departed loved ones and look forward to the resurrection of their bodies with the Second Coming of Christ on earth.
The First Coming, of course, ended in that brutal crucifixion. Christ was forced to carry his own cross through the crowded streets of Jerusalem, up to the Hill of Golgotha where he was nailed to it by his hands and feet. The cross was then hauled upright and he was left to die in agony between two thieves. When he at last expired the sun stopped shining at noon, there was a violent earthquake and the temple curtain was ripped from top to bottom. Jesus was taken down from the cross, his clothes were divided among soldiers gambling with dice and his body was laid in a nearby tomb with a heavy stone rolled across the entrance. The next morning the stone had been rolled away and the tomb was empty.
A miracle had occurred. Jesus Christ was alive and made himself known to Mary Magdalene and Mary his mother when they visited the tomb with spices to embalm his body. Later the Risen Christ appeared to all of his disciples. Finally he led a large group of witnesses out of the city where he was lifted up and ascended to Heaven. These events are celebrated every year at Easter throughout the Christian world, and for Christians they are proof that there is Life after death for those who accept Jesus in life as their Saviour.
Sinners and those who do not accept Jesus are rejected from Heaven and are consigned to Hell, an underworld of infernal torment ruled by the fallen angel Satan, complete with demonic horns and a forked tail. Hell is a place of damnation and punishment, a torture chamber of hellfire and sulphur pits staffed by shrieking imps who delight in inflicting humiliation and pain.
On a simplistic level this is what lies beyond the grave. Good people go to heaven as a deserved reward for a virtuous life, and bad people go to hell as a just punishment for an immoral life. There is no in between. There are no second chances. Doorstep evangelists will tell that this life is no rehearsal; if you have not earned life everlasting then this life is the one and only life you will ever get.
This may seem harsh to many of us who may perhaps believe that even though we may not have been sufficiently good to merit a place in Heaven, neither have we been really so bad as to deserve eternal punishment in hell. Or perhaps we may argue the case of the stillborn baby who has never had any opportunity to choose whether to be sinful or good. The church answer, derived from Saint Augustine, one of the great philosophers designated as one of the Church Fathers, translates roughly as follows: “Thanks to original sin, committed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we come into this earthly life already deserving nothing but everlasting punishment in hell as a just recompense for original sin.” In other words we are born sinners and only by acknowledging Christ as Our Saviour can we cast ourselves upon God’s Grace and mercy to save us.
THE MUSLIM EXPERIENCE
Islam was born at the beginning of the seventh century AD in the harsh, barren wilderness of the Arabian Desert. It was a hard, simple religion, tailor-made for the nomadic tribesmen of the region who lived hard, simple lives. The essence of the faith is that there is One God, whose name is Allah, and that Mohammed is His Prophet. The name Islam simply means submission to Allah.
The Holy Book of Islam is the Koran which was revealed to Mohammed by the archangel Gabriel. Mohammed had retired to a cave near Mecca to fast and meditate when the archangel appeared and commanded him to recite. Mohammed found himself speaking the words of what became the Koran.
From the beginning it was stressed that this new faith was the continuation and clarification of the old faiths of the desert. All the prophets of the Old Testament, the Book of the Jews, were named as fore-runners of Mohammed who had made valid even though incomplete revelations. Jesus, the god of the Christians, was another important prophet. However, Allah was not begotten and could not beget, and so Christ could not be the Son of God. That aspect of Christianity was blasphemy to Islam.
The first verses of the Koran which were revealed in Mecca showed Allah as an understanding God and the new religion as tolerant of existing faiths. All religions that believed in One God, which rejected man-made deities and preached peace and justice were rightly guided religions which were generated from the same source. The early Koran stressed that there should be no coercion in matters of faith. The good Muslim should respect the peoples of the Book, meaning the Jews and Christians who derived their faith from the Bible. All differences between them should be set aside because only Allah could decide these issues and would do so in His own good time. Only Allah could make the final judgement.
This was the perfect religion. Compassionate, merciful and tolerant, and yet it was soon to be wrecked on the usual rocks of human political reality. Mohammed’s teaching attracted followers who grew in number until they were perceived as a threat to the established order. Mohammed’s high standards and his denouncement of false gods and immorality made him more enemies than friends. The authorities and established pagan groups in Mecca turned against them and Mohammed’s followers were driven out and fled to Medina. Mohammed remained in Mecca for another two years but eventually he too was forced to leave and join his group in Medina. His departure was to become a major event in Islamic history and marked the beginning of the Islamic calendar.
In Medina everything changed. Mohammed was no longer a lone prophet with a message of peace and obedience to God. Instead he was the leader of his community caught up in the inescapable swirl of tribal politics and tribal hatreds.
Medina proved no safer than Mecca for Mohammed’s growing group of followers. The Arab tribes there were rooted in polytheistic and animist practises and were all fighting each other. The Jewish tribes were equally hostile to the new faith of the Koran. Mohammed had no choice but to become a military as well as a political and community leader. He proved successful in his new role and as he rose above his rivals his old enemies in Mecca now saw the new regime in Medina as a threat. Mohammed was forced into a full scale war. He lost one major battle but won the next which was decisive.
His victory gave him 600 prisoners from a Jewish tribe which had joined with the army of Mecca. The Koran urged kindness and fair treatment for prisoners but this was completely impracticable in mediaeval Arabia. It was simply impossible to imprison and feed 600 captives. On the other hand, if they were allowed to go free then they would inevitably ally themselves with his enemies and Mohammed would have to fight them again. A harsh example needed to be made and so Mohammed had them all beheaded. It sounds gruesome and drastic in the modern era but it was all normal and expected in mediaeval Arabia.
Now the Koranic recitations which continued to be revealed in Medina became harder and more aggressive in tone. They justified Mohammed’s actions and began to urge war on all unbelievers.
The new faith rapidly spread, by word and by the sword. The nomadic tribes of Arabia had always been skilled at fast raiding hit-and-run attacks, usually upon each other for slaves and goods. It was their routine way of life. Now, united by their new faith, they burst out of their mountain and desert enclaves to raid and attack all over the Middle East.
The old desert empires of Byzantium and Persia were over-extended and failing, exhausted from fighting each other. The new faith under the Caliphs, the successors of Mohammed created new Arab empires that flourished on all fronts. The burgeoning waves of Islam occupied all of the countries of the Middle East, spread all over North Africa and penetrated into the great sub-continent of India. Europe was penetrated as far as Vienna and the Iberian Peninsula almost to the Pyrenees. Islam had entered its golden age.
Once the Arab empires had been established and the initial wars were over the new Muslim administrations tried to revert to some of the original teaching of the Koran. Jewish and Christian communities were accepted and tolerated and allowed to practise their own faith and rituals, as long as they paid their taxes. For most of the peaceful periods of Arab rule, Arabs, Christians and Jews did live in relative harmony side by side.
It was then that the European powers embarked upon the madness of the crusades. Savage battles and slaughter were again the order of the day. At the same time as the crusaders were ravaging the Mediterranean coast the Arab heart-lands came under attack from an equally relentless enemy, the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan rampaging from the north.
One command of the Koran that had almost always been obeyed was that Muslim should not kill Muslim. There had been exceptions during the lineage conflicts between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. When Muhammad died he left no son and had named no successor. His follower Abu Bakr was elected the First Caliph, the Successor of Mohammad. However, Muhammad did leave a daughter and many felt that her husband, Ali, should have been the next in line. The rift was a deep one and still divides Muslims to this day. Those who supported the line of Abu became the Sunni Muslims and those who supported the line of Ali became the Shia Muslims.
However the accession claims and the assassinations between Sunni and Shia were dwarfed by the problem which now faces the spiritual leaders of Islam. The Mongol hordes had accepted the Muslim faith and so technically they were all brothers in Islam. The Koran forbade them to kill fellow Muslims but the merciless Mongols were fast approaching and bent on slaughter. If they could not fight back the Arab cities in the Mongol path would be burned and razed to the ground and all their inhabitants butchered.
The third Mongol invasion of Syria occurred in the year 1303, led by Ghazan Khan, one of the grandsons of Genghis. For the third time the great Arab city of Damascus was threatened and this finally provoked a fundamental change in the interpretation of Koranic law. A prominent Sunni Muslim theologian named Ibn Taymiyya declared a fatwa, a religious ruling, against the Mongols, which permitted them to be killed. Taymiyya’s argument was that although the Mongols had converted to Sunni Islam they could not be true Muslims. They were still living by their traditional code of man-made laws and were not following Islamic Shariah law, so therefore they must be apostates. This meant that it was not only permissible to kill Mongols but obligatory. Ibn Taymyya called his fellow Arabs to Jihad, a Holy war against infidels, and the Mongols were defeated.
It was a ruling which was to have terrible consequences right up to the present day. It meant that anyone who was not a rigid, fundamentalist Muslim could be declared an apostate, one who has renounced the true religion, and so could be legitimately killed. It forms the basic justification for modern-age terrorism and all the atrocities committed by al Qaeda and ISIS. It also allows for Sunni Muslims to kill the Shia Muslims and has created wars, murder and massacres throughout the Middle East. It may have saved Damascus in the fourteenth century but it has turned the Syria and the Damascus of today into a landscape of tears and bloody ruin.
The last great Islamic Empire was that of the Ottoman Turks which lasted for nearly four centuries, from 1543 to the end of the First World War. The Ottomans aligned themselves with the Kaiser’s Germany and shared in their defeat. This had two far-reaching consequences for the Muslim world.
The collapse of the old Ottoman Empire meant that their lands could now be shared out between France and Britain, the two European nations of the Allied Forces. This gave Britain control of Palestine and eventually led to the creation of Israel, a new homeland for the Jews in the aftermath of the next great world war with the new Nazi Germany. The Jews needed a refuge after the horrors of the holocaust, but the creation of Israel robbed the Palestine Arabs of their homes and incensed and inflamed the entire Muslim world.
The second major consequence of the Ottoman collapse was that it left a political vacuum in the desert and mountain vastness of Arabia. Here the powerful Saudi family were able to take over and establish a new Saudi kingdom. The Saudis were influenced by the Wahhabi movement, a fiercely puritanical branch of Islam which ensured that the new Saudi Arabia was ruled by strict Shariah law. In addition to this oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia which made the desert sheikhs ludicrously rich.
Saudi Arabia has since become a strangely hybrid nation. It is mercilessly puritanical at home, still chopping off heads and wrists in the mediaeval manner of punishments, and yet its rulers and their wives exhibit fantastic opulence in Europe. Politically it is aligned to the west, strongly supported by the United States which has used it as a springboard for wars against Iraq, and yet it is suspected of using its great wealth to clandestinely support the recent waves of Muslim terrorist attacks directed at the west.
I have explored the questions raised by international and especially Muslim terrorism in my book God, Faith and Terror. That book goes into much more detail on the history of Islam, telling the full story of the Islamic empires, the crusades, and the modern growth of the PLO, Al Qaeda and ISIS.
This brief summary of Islamic history helps to explain the position of Islam in regard to war. The Taymiyya ruling means that war and killing is not only permissible but is also a necessary duty of all true Muslims when the enemy can be categorized as unbelievers. And to the militant fundamentalists anybody who is not a Sunni Muslim adhering rigidly to Shariah law is by definition an apostate and a non-believer.
Many Muslims will tell you that this is not Islam and they still try to stay true to the original spirit of the Koran. The Taymyya ruling is a later interpretation and is not a quote from the Koran, and as we have seen, the new Koranic Encyclopaedia which analyzes every verse in the Holy Book argues that only one verse, the infamous Sword verse, actually permits Muslims to kill non-Muslims outside the battlefield.
The Sword Verse is the fifth verse of the ninth sura of the Koran. The often quoted line of the verse reads simply, “Slay the idolaters, (or pagans) wherever you shall find them.” The verse goes on to end with the words, “But if they repent and establish regular prayers and practise regular charity then open the way for them, for Allah is oft-forgiving and most merciful.” So it can be argued that taking the first part of the verse alone is taking it out of context and does not allow for indiscriminate killing.
However, there are more references in the Koran which can be said to support war, jihad and terrorism. My English translation of the Koran does not have the chapters in the original order and so these quotes are as I found them.
“ Allah loves those who fight for his cause.”
“When you meet the unbelievers in the battlefield strike off their heads.”
“I shall cast terror into the hearts of the infidels. Strike off their heads, maim them in every limb.”
“Make war on them (the unbelievers) until idolatry is no more and Allah's religion remains supreme.”
“Fight against those to whom the scriptures were given as believe neither in Allah or the last day....until they....are utterly subdued.”
“Prophet, make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal rigorously with them.”
“Allah has purchased of the faithful their lives and worldly goods and in return has promised the garden. They will fight for his cause, slay and be slain.”
“Believers make war on the infidels who dwell around you.”
All of the above would seem to urge war to spread the faith and the word, but it is argued by most scholars that this only applies to the battlefield when Muslims have no option but defend themselves, as this final quotation makes clear: “Fight for the sake of Allah those that fight against you, but do not attack them first. Allah does not love the aggressors. Kill them where you find them.....Fight against them until idolatry is no more and Allah's religion reigns supreme........fight none except the evil-doers.”
To balance the calls for Jihad there are more peaceful quotations:
“Be courteous when you argue with the people of the Book (The Bible)..... Our God and your God is One.”
“Our apostle's duty is no more than to make plain His (Allah's) message.” It is several times repeated that all the prophets were sent to give warning.
“The righteous will give sustenance to the poor man, the orphan and the captive, for Allah's sake.”
“Be good to others as Allah has been good to you.”
“The true servants of the Merciful are those who walk humbly and say “Peace,” to the ignorant....(and who) keep the Golden mean (Surely a reference to the golden rule)... .who invoke no other God but Allah, and do not kill except for a just cause”. (Manslaughter is forbidden by him)
“Serve Allah and associate none with Him. Show kindness to your parents and your kindred, to the orphans and to the needy, to your near and distant neighbours, to your fellow travelers and wayfarers.”
“There shall be no compulsion in religion.”
“We send forth Our apostles only to give good news to mankind and warn them.”
It is an enigmatic mix but from all the above quotations it does seem that war is only justified to defend the faith and not to enforce it. Generally Muslims see life as God’s gift; it is not given by man so man has no right to take it away. Suicide, euthanasia and unjust murder are all prohibited as major sins. However, note that unjust murder is the description of the sin, which implies that some murder can be justified. Selected interpretations like the Sword Verse and the Taymyya ruling have been consistently used to give God’s authority to all forms of war. With Islam war is generally seen to be waged at God’s command.
In essence there is no difference with the Christian belief that God allows war to defend the rightful authority and the existing patterns of law and order. During the crusades the Saracens went into battle screaming “Allah Akbar!” (God is great) The Christian knights answered with screams of “God wills it!” as they carved their paths of blood. Both sides believed that they were doing God’s work and fighting for a just cause.
Death in Islamic thought is the termination of our physical and worldly life and the beginning of an afterlife. Some sources say that the Angel of death will appear to the dying to take out their souls. For sinners this can be an extremely painful extraction but for the righteous faithful it can be easy and painless.
There is no question or possibility of rebirth here. God has made this world and this life as we know it as testing ground and a preparation for the life to come. Each person has only one chance to prepare himself, or herself, and God will resurrect and judge each individual to decide upon their just punishment or rewards for the life that they have lived.
As with Christian theology Islamic theology also believes in Heaven and Hell. Unbelievers will be consigned to eternal torment but the faithful, and especially the faithful who die fighting for Allah, will all go to Paradise. In the Islamic paradise there are beautiful gardens with ample shade and running water, and Allah’s fighters will be served sweet wine by beautiful girls who are all at their complete disposal for all eternity. It is clearly a paradise for men and especially for men of the hard, arid desert where cool shade and clear running water would have been a near impossible dream.
With its belief in The Last Judgement, the Resurrection and the concepts of Heaven and Hell, Islam is generally in agreement with Christianity and Judaism, the original monotheistic religions which began with Abraham.
What is probably the most-frequently quoted verse of the Koran about death is as follows: "Every soul shall taste death, and only on the Day of Judgment will you be paid your full recompense."
THE JEWISH EXPERIENCE
Judaism is the third and oldest of the three great monotheistic faiths. All of them begin with Abraham, a nomadic shepherd who migrated from the ancient Mesopotamia city of Ur in what is now Iraq, to the land of Canaan on the eastern Mediterranean coast. Abraham was a deeply religious man who believed in Yahweh, or Jehovah, the One God. He heard God calling him to sacrifice his only son and Abraham prepared to do so, but at the last moment God relented and accepted the sacrifice of a lamb instead. The son, who was named Isaac, lived to father twelve sons. The twelve sons in turn founded the twelve tribes of Israel. From the Jewish faith and the long line of its prophets came Christianity and then Islam, like the mighty branches of a mighty tree.
It is possible that Jehovah, the God of Abraham, was developed from Zoroastrianism, an earlier religion of ancient Persia. The priest and prophet Zarathustra had a number of visions which convinced him that there was but one creator God, the Wise Lord who was the source of all things. Zoroastrian theology also saw a great cosmic struggle between the creative energies of the Wise Lord and the destructive forces of a powerful rival, which has echoes today in the heavenly war which all three of our great monotheistic faiths perceive between the forces of God and Satan.
The religion of Zarathustra is still practised today by the Parsees of India, a relatively minor sect now best known for their practise of leaving their dead on high towers to be eaten by vultures. This means of disposal avoids both burial and cremation so the dead cannot pollute the earth or fire which are both held to be sacred.
After the patriarch Abraham the next revered figure in the history of Judaism is Moses. The Jews had been enslaved by the Egyptians and it was Moses who led them out of captivity and back to the Promised Land of Canaan. Moses was the adopted son of an Egyptian princess, discovered in a floating basket in the bulrushes beside the Nile. When he became of age and discovered his heritage he became the leader of his people, pleading their cause and threatening Pharaoh with a sting of plagues promised and delivered by God. Pharaoh finally relented and released the Jews, but then changed his mind and pursued them to bring them back. God parted the Red Sea for just long enough to let the Jews cross the sea bed and then released the waves to drown Pharaoh and all his chariots and soldiers.
As they crossed the Sinai Desert Moses climbed Mount Sinai and received from God the Ten Commandments written on tablets of stone. When he descended he led his people into making a covenant with God which made them God’s Chosen People. It seems that it was at this point that Jehovah became not just a personal God for individuals, but the One God who was due homage from the entire nation.
The Jews went on to invade and defeat all the cities of Canaan. Jehovah was now their war god, advising them and ensuring their victories. Before one battle he urges them to kill every man woman and child and even their animals, hardly the expected advice from the loving god of all creation and one of the stumbling blocks of contradiction that can be found in all the holy books.
When the Jews were victorious their success was always attributed to the guidance of God who was leading His Chosen People. When they were defeated or suffered personal or national setbacks this was punishment from God for their sins or their failing in keeping their covenant.
Gradually, over the next two centuries, the land of Canaan was tamed and settled and the loose federation of Jewish tribes led by leaders called judges came together to fight a common enemy, the Philistines. The shepherd boy David killed Goliath, the huge champion of the Philistines with pebbles thrown from a sling and became king of the first United Jewish Kingdom called Israel. The next king, Solomon, renowned for his wisdom, built the great temple in Jerusalem to house the Ark of the Covenant. After Solomon the kingdom split into two, the ten northern tribes retaining the name Israel while the two southern tribes became the new kingdom of Judah.
Both kingdoms were invaded by the new Assyrian empire of Babylon. Jerusalem and its great temple were destroyed and all the Jewish leaders and nobles were carried off into another exile. Sixty years later the Persians conquered Babylon and the Jewish exiles were released. Through all of this a succession of priests and prophets blamed the sins of the people for all their woes. The prophets saw themselves as intermediaries between God and his Children of Israel and tried to steer the people along the path of moral holiness.
The Great temple of Solomon was rebuilt by the returning exiles. This second temple lasted until it too was destroyed in retaliation by the Romans in the aftermath of an ill-fated Jewish revolt against their occupation of Palestine. At the same time the Ark of the Covenant disappeared. This was in the reign of Herod, the Jewish puppet king ruling in Jerusalem at the time that Christ was born in Bethlehem. The unfortunate Jews, despite being God’s Chosen People, had always been plagued by foreign invasions, by the Assyrian, the Persians, the Greeks and now the Romans. Three centuries later Christianity became adopted as the official Roman religion and the Jews found themselves persecuted more than ever before.
Despite being God’s Chosen People the suffering of the Jews seemed to intensify with every phase of their history. Ninian Smart, the author of The Religious Experience of Mankind, suggests that this was because the state of being God’s Chosen People was not one that ensured God’s help and privileges. Instead it was a role designed to lead through suffering to enlightenment and the understanding of God’s role in the world. It was a process to prepare the world for the idea of The Suffering Servant which was to be the foundation for the interpretation of Christ’s suffering on the Cross.
However, the birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ did not prove to be the culmination of the Jewish faith. The prophets of the Old Testament had all pointed to the coming of a Messiah but the Jews did not accept the appearance of Christ as the fulfilment of their prophecies. Judaism still awaits its coming Messiah and Christianity split off as a new and separate religion.
The Jewish Diaspora, the great dispersion of the Jewish people, had begun with earlier exiles but now it intensified as the Jews fled persecution and many of them abandoned their traditional homeland in Palestine. They moved to Europe, Russia and North Africa, living in ghettoes and despite being a scattered people they maintained their national identity through their faith and their rituals. They attended the synagogue where the community could afford to build one but for many of them Judaism became a home-based religion.
Many of the exiled Jews could only take low paid work but the more clever ones became money-lenders. The practise of usury, the lending of money to profit from the interest, was forbidden to Christians. Therefore in Christian Europe this was a role in which the Jews were both needed but despised. They became the scapegoats of Europe, always blamed when things went wrong. In Russia there were many pogroms when they were physically driven out from their new homes.
The final and ultimate persecution came with the horror of the holocaust. During the Second World War the German leader Adolf Hitler authorized and demanded the genocide of all European Jews. It was the madman’s “Final Solution,” to what he saw as “The Jewish Problem”, and the need to ensure the Nazi purity of the German race.
In every German-occupied country the Jews were systematically rounded up and herded into concentration camps and gas chambers to be murdered, Six million men, women and children, almost two thirds of the entire Jewish population of Europe were transported in cattle trucks to their final destinations and death. The network of concentration camps and gas chambers functioned with all the ruthless efficiency of a modern factory production line. The names Belsen, Auschwitz, Dachau and Buchenwald became household names for inhuman horror, but there were thousands of these camps and detention centres establish throughout German occupied Europe. The epic scale of the killing was worse than monstrous. The target of the holocaust was nothing less than the total extermination of the Jewish race.
In addition to the general slaughter many prisoners were subjected to inhuman medical experiments. Most of these died before they reached the gas chambers. Men, women and children underwent surgical and chemical experiments designed to test new treatments for war wounds and defences against chemical warfare. Some were frozen alive to test their resistance to harsh conditions. To the Nazi doctors in charge of these experiments the Jews were nothing but expendable guinea pigs.
When the allied armies at last forced open the gates of the concentration camps they were appalled by what was revealed. The dead were piled everywhere and the survivors were starving skeletons, naked or in rags. Shock waves of horror and revulsion spread through the civilized world. Something had to be done; some form of reparation had to me made, for the ghosts of the six million dead and the tattered remnants of the living.
The answer was the creation of the modern state of Israel. The Ottoman Empire of Turkey had joined with Nazi Germany and shared in their defeat. France and England, the two European victors, now had the power to share out all the Middle Eastern territories of the old Ottoman Empire between them. They divided all the territories into new mandates and established part of Palestine as a new Jewish homeland.
In the gruesome aftermath of the Second World War it seemed like the right thing to do. The new land of Israel was the old land of Canaan, which had been promised by God to the Jews three thousand years before. The scattered nation could now come together, back where they belonged. They and the survivors of the concentration camps could now build a New Zion.
On paper it must have looked perfect, but the planners had forgotten one vital fact. The land of Canaan had not stood empty for the past three thousand years, instead it had been occupied and farmed by generations of Arab families who now found themselves being squeezed out and displaced. The Arabs had an equally valid right and claim to the fields and orchards which they had created and maintained for centuries.
The birth of Israel was both violent and bloody with the Arabs opposing the Jews every step of the way. As the Jews flooded in it was realized that there were many more of them than had been expected. The new settlers were not just the survivors of the concentration camps but Jews from all over the world, Zionists determined to rebuild their nation and restore their promised homeland. The resident Arabs resisted this invasion and the British who had taken the mandate over Palestine tried to control it. However, it proved impossible to set immigration levels that would be acceptable to both Arabs and Jews. Terrorist groups formed on each side, attacking each other and their British masters.
The West was determined to honour its pledge to the homeless Jews and in 1947 the United Nations adopted a partition plan for Palestine which meant dividing the territory into independent Arab and Jewish states. Jerusalem was to become an international city with free access to both sides. This was acceptable to the Jews but not to the Arabs. The Arab states surrounding the new Israel were gaining nothing but hostile borders and refugees and they were now expected to share what was to them also a Holy City.
On the Temple Mount, the site of Solomon’s Temple they had built their own exquisite mosque, the Dome of the Rock. In the Jewish tradition this was the site where Abraham had attempted to sacrifice his son to God. In the Islamic tradition this was where the Angel Gabriel had on one occasion taken Mohammed to pray with Moses and Jesus, and where later Gabriel had accompanied Mohammed on his ascension to Heaven. The temple site had always been sacred to the Jews. Now the magnificent golden Dome of the Rock was one of the oldest and most beautiful mosques in Islam, second in religious significance only to the Great Mosque in Mecca. The Arabs did not want to share the Holy City.
There had been intensified civil war as the British evacuated Palestine and immediately following the UN ruling the four neighbouring states of Egypt, Syria, Transjordan and Iraq all declared war on Israel. To the four Arab armies were added contingents from Yemen, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the Sudan. Virtually the entire Arab world had declared war on the embryo state. Most of the remaining Palestinian Arabs fled.
The fighting lasted for a year before a ceasefire was declared, but this was only the first Arab-Israeli war. In the Cold War climate that dominated the 1950s the USSR backed and supported the Arab states, which meant that the USA backed and supported Israel. American support and weaponry proved decisive. The third Arab-Israeli war in 1967 became famous as the six-day war. Egypt, Jordan and Syria united again in a surprise attack which the Israelis smashed and defeated in six short days.
The same Arab states tried again in 1973, launching their coalition forces against Israeli positions in the Sinai and on the disputed Golan Heights. This time they chose the day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and the holiest day in Judaism, which also fell on a day in the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan. It was a day on which they calculated an attack would be least expected but again the Arab offensive was halted after the first three days. Then the counter offensive began. The conflict had the two world superpowers in a nuclear stand-off before another ceasefire could be negotiated.
Today a frigid cease fire continues between Israel and her neighbouring Arab states. The old USSR has crumbled but the American shield still protects Israel. At the same time Israel is in a state of siege, surrounded by the sprawling refugee camps of displaced Palestinians. Terrorist rocket attacks constantly fly over the borders, and beneath those borders are growing networks of tunnels to allow hit and run murder attacks on Jewish settlers. The boiling hatreds and frustrations are still there, like never-healing, ever-festering sores and open wounds.
So why does the all-powerful, all-loving One God of Judaism allow wars to happen? In the Jewish tradition there are rules for war. Before declaring a war or starting a battle every effort must be made to make peace. Plus only combatants are allowed to intentionally kill enemy combatants.
The ancient rabbis saw three types of war that the Jews were justified in fighting. There were Obligatory Wars, which were wars commanded by God, Defensive Wars, which the people could fight if they were attacked, and Optional Wars, which were wars in a good cause where no form of negotiation remained possible.
In much of the Old Testament Jehovah clearly shows his approval for war. He is a warrior God who leads the Jews, directing them to victory or punishing them with defeat. Whenever the Jews suffer some grievous disaster, either as individuals or as a nation, it is always stressed that this is God’s punishment for their sins, for the original sin of Adam or for the breaking of their covenant or turning against God.
Sometimes the punishments seem totally unjustified. In the Book of Job in the Old testament Job is a character bowed down by woes and misery and disasters which seem wholly undeserved. He is a good man who worships God faithfully and commits no sin so why is he being punished.
Job puts this question to God and from out of a whirlwind receives a majestic and imperial reply. God asks, “Where were you when I created the foundations of the Earth?” God goes on to demand, “Can you make the rain to fall? Can you order the stars? Can you command the lightning? The interrogation goes on with the implication that God created the world and all that is within it and therefore He does not have to answer questions or give an account of His actions. All men have inherited the wickedness of Adam and so all men deserve only punishment.
The implication here seems to be that Job has no right to ask any questions, which may have some logic, but seems hardly the response one might expect from a caring and loving creator.
One explanation of why God allows war is that universal peace can only come when the human race has achieved universal harmony and justice. While there are injustices, caused by man’s miss-use of his free will, there can be no universal peace. This argument has also been used to explain why God allows the seemingly mindless excesses of modern international terrorism. In general while some men feast and others go hungry, and in particular while the Palestine refugees suffer in the hopeless squalor of their pitiful camps, there can be no peace.
Some questions still stand out in all of this. Why did the holocaust occur? Why did the German people allow it to happen? Hitler was only one man and even if his entire inner circle was equally depraved and psychopathic, why did so many of the German people actively help in the murder of millions?
The social and psychological answers seem to fall into two parts. One is the intense anti-Jewish prejudice that existed everywhere in Europe. Because of their devout religious beliefs and their different cultural practises they had always been a people apart. They were isolated groups, partly by choice to preserve their traditions and partly by segregation because they were feared and distrusted. They had always been blamed when disaster struck in any form. They had been blamed for the Black Death when plague struck in mediaeval Europe. Many of them were massacred because the rumours spread that the Jews had poisoned wells and water supplies. During World War Two they were accused of being a fifth column, together with the communists, who were working to defeat German morale and bring about the allied victory in Europe. This was just another disaster for which the Jews were to blame.
Nazi Germany needed scapegoats, and the Jews were tailor made for that purpose. At the same time there was a huge cover-up of the final horrors. The mass transportations were thinly disguised by the story that the Jews were merely being deported or re-settled.
For those involved in the mass murdering other factors were in play. Greed and gain focused on the plundering of Jewish homes and businesses, right down to the brutal extraction of the gold teeth from the corpses of the victims. There were also pressures to conform. Everywhere police, military and paramilitary forces are trained to follow orders without question and Nazi Germany was no exception. An order was an order and every link down the chain of command was under more pressure to obey. Finally there was the overwhelming fear that to step out of line or protest in any way would only bring down the wrath of the authorities on the protester and perhaps his family. It may have been possible to feel sorry for the Jews but no one wanted to join them.
So on the social and psychological levels there are possible explanations, but why did God allow the holocaust to happen? In the light of Judaic tradition and the Book of Job the answer would seem to be that this was yet another punishment for Adam’s disobedience, the original sin which merits all punishment.
When we look at Jewish eschatology, the understanding of what happens after death; the answers are all to be found in the promises of the Old Testament. At the End of the World, or the End of Days, God will gather together again the Jewish people and restore them to the land of Israel. He will restore the House of David and the temple in Jerusalem. He will also send a Jewish messiah to lead the Jewish people and usher in a new age of peace and justice. Our present world is flawed and imperfect so God will create a new heaven and a new earth.
God will also resurrect the dead of the Jewish faithful and also of any non-Jew who has lived the life of a righteous gentile.
THE HINDU EXPERIENCE
Civilization in the great sub continent of India began 3000 years ago in the Indus valley. It began in the ancient cities of Harrapa and Mohenjo-daro, and where there is civilization and cities there is inevitably priesthood. If civilization began there then so did the first formulation of Indian religion.
At first there were many gods but three of them emerged as prime forces, Indra, the warrior God, Varuna, the protector, and Agni, the fire god who carried the flames of sacrifice together with their prayers and devotions up to heaven. These were the main focus of the Vedas, the thousands of hymns composed in praise and adoration of all the myriad of gods in the Hindu pantheon.
Sometime during the second millennium BC India was invaded by the Aryans, people from the North West who brought with them many new ideas and new gods and other influences from as far away as Persia and Greece. Later, around 600 BC, Indian religion underwent more major changes with the arrival of Buddhism and Jainism, two major new strands of faith which were to have a lasting effect upon the nature of Hinduism itself.
It seems part of the fundamental nature of Hinduism that it could always include new gods and new beliefs under its overall banner. To this day this can still be confusing but it is part of the general belief that all gods are but manifestations or different aspects of the One Absolute Reality. The great pantheon of the mystifying parade of multi-coloured and multi-limbed gods and goddesses are simply the different aspects, reincarnations and avatars that represent the universal essence of creation. At its heart Hinduism is not a pantheistic religion at all, even though outwardly it appears so. Its core belief is that there is one overall Absolute Reality known as Brahman. Brahman is the centre and sustenance of the great pantheistic web of deities that emanate from this One Eternal Source.
Gradually the original prime gods were replaced as the main divinities by a new trinity. Vishnu replaced Varuna as the preserver and sustainer of the universe; Indra receded in popularity to make way for Shiva, the destroyer. Agni too faded from the public perception and overall there was now Brahman. Originally it seemed that creation was believed to have occurred before the appearance of the many gods, but with new thinking that came with the Aryan invasion Brahman came to be seen as the Creator God or the Creative Force. He exists only to create. Vishnu preserves everything that Brahman creates. At the end of each cycle of creation Shiva destroys it in a celestial dance which turns the worlds into chaos, but Shiva also dances in the recreation of the next cycle. The two major reincarnations of Vishnu are as Rama and Krishna. Rama is the hero of the Ramayana, the great epic of Hindu literature in which Rama’s wife Sita is kidnapped by the Demon King of Ceylon and Rama undergoes numerous adventures to retrieve her. Krishna appears in the Mahabharata, another epic focusing on a great battle of rival dynasties. All the gods and all their manifestations have consorts which add to the confusion of deities.
Brahman is beyond name, number, gender or form, and his many definitions and images are only limited parts of what is indefinable and in the final analysis unknowable. At the popular level there are many polytheistic and animist cults. However, in the higher theology the many definitions and images of the gods are gathered together and seen as only aids to worship and symbols and representatives of the Ultimate Reality.
It is tempting to see the triple godhead of Brahman, Vishnu and Shiva as somehow parallel to the Christian Trinity but the comparison is too insecure. The Christian God is a Creator, somehow standing outside and above his creation, whereas Brahman is in effect Creation itself. Brahman is manifest in all aspects of the Cosmos, working through all the forces of nature and through all human beings.
Christianity did arrive in India with Saint Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus who founded a Christian enclave on the Kerala Coast after Jesus had been crucified. One of India’s greatest philosophers studied Christianity and found nothing in it that was not in some way already embraced within the many doctrines of Hinduism.
With this new wave of ideas and speculations came India’s most sacred scriptures, the Upanishads. My translated copy carries the subtitle “Breath of the Eternal” which likens all knowledge and wisdom to sparks and smoke from an eternal fire. The fire is Brahman and the sparks of knowledge contained in the Upanishads are His eternal breathing.
The literal meaning of the word Upanishad is to “sit near devotedly” and reflects the fact that initially most of these writings were delivered verbally by wise men to attentive circles of seated devotees. Most of them are also expressed as dialogues between masters and pupils
Each chapter of the Upanishads begins with a short prayer to Brahman and each prayer ends with the line: OM...peace...peace...peace...OM is said to have been the first sound heard in the universe and in some sense OM is also Brahman. Again there is a temptation to see here a parallel with Christianity and the first chapter of the Book of John in the New Testament: “Before the world was created the Word already existed: He was with God and He was the same as God. From the very beginning the Word was with God. Through Him God made all things.” My copy of The Bible has a footnote which explains the Word as the source of life. It is one of the many parallels of definition which suggest that all faiths lead to God.
Throughout the scriptures discus the nature of Brahman, who is Pure Consciousness, the Supreme and Absolute Reality. Brahman is best described by listing all the things that he is not. Many of the pictures we see of the Hindu deities show them with multiple arms and legs with each hand holding a variety of different objects. The aim is to show the entire range of the god’s multiple abilities, concerns and aspects, and all of them are acknowledged to be inadequate. It is impossible to accurately depict terror and compassion in the same image. Brahman embraces them all. Like characters in an actor’s repertoire, underneath the masks and the paint and the props, they are all Him. They are all aspects of Him. Nothing truly defines Him yet he is in everything. Brahman is unknowable and yet he is all. When I first read the Upanishads I did try to express my own definition in a poem.
I held a rose within my hand,
A crimson jewel of nature,
Each dew-fresh petal sparkling crisp,
And kissing back the golden sun of morning.
And I felt I held the Soul of God,
As God in Nature held the soul of me.
All is God,
And God is All.
My own small Soul.
Another of the key concepts in these doctrines is the atman, or the self, the particle or essence of Brahman which is in everything and especially in all human beings. The nearest concept in western thinking is probably the soul. In effect God is in everything and everything is in some sense part of God. Some western philosophers, like Baruch Spinoza have identified this definition of God with nature. On first reading Spinoza many years ago I felt that here was a bridge between Western and Eastern thought.
One chapter in the Upanishads tells the illuminating story of the salt. A son asked his father to tell him the meaning of the self. The father commanded him to fetch a handful of salt and a bowl of water. The father then commanded the son to drop the salt in the water. The next day the boy was asked to bring the bowl of water and was then asked, where is the salt? Of course the boy could not produce the salt but when told to taste the water found that the salt could still be tasted. In the same way, the father explained, even though we cannot see Brahman in any form, in all things Brahman is there. He is the subtle essence of existence in all things. In human beings he is the self.
In another section the self is described as like one of the many rivers that all flow into the sea, becoming intermingled and indistinguishable. The sea waters become vapour to be lifted into the clouds and eventually descend again as rain into rivers in a series of endless cycles. The rivers are like souls, the sea is the ocean of death and the return to the source which is Brahman. The self within and the Holy Power that sustains the universe are in reality one and the same. Like rain the souls return to be reborn but without knowledge of their former cycles of existence.
There are two more theories which try to explain the relationship of the soul to Brahman. They are known as the cat and the monkey. A baby monkey has to cling to its mother as she carries it from branch to branch. The mother carries the baby but the baby has to help itself by holding on. A mother cat by contrast simply grabs her kitten by the scruff of the neck and takes it where she wants it to go. The kitten does not have to do anything and has no choice. The monkey analogy gives some small freedom of choice. In the cat analogy everything is determined.
With this discussion of the soul we have reached the doctrine of reincarnation, known in Hinduism as the cycle of Samsara. Samsara is influenced and determined by dharma which is the sum of all previous reincarnations and their due. It is acknowledged that no single incarnation is enough for a soul to reach perfection, and so many reincarnations will be necessary. Rebirth can be up or down, to a higher level in return for a virtuous life, or a lower level as the due return for a wicked or sinful life. Rebirth can be to a higher or lower station on earth, or for the particularly sinful perhaps as an animal or a plant, or some suffering life form on some dark and distant inhospitable planet.
These ideas are also reflected in the two major spin-off faiths from Hinduism. Buddhism we shall discuss in the next chapter. However, Jainism has been particularly influential due to its philosophy of total non-injury and non-violence. Jain monks recognize no creator god and no deities, only spiritual teachers. The objects of worship in their temples are the nude statues of the teachers, often with vines twining around their legs to symbolize the long years spent in meditation and motionless contemplation. The teachers were totally indifferent to all the usual worldly concerns.
They are strict vegetarians with an extremely austere life-style. Their moral code acknowledges three jewels, which are right knowledge, right faith and right conduct. They believe that every living thing has a soul and that as far as possible nothing must be harmed. Even the smallest insect is sacrosanct. Jain monks may wear face masks to cover their mouth and nose so that no insect can be breathed in and inadvertently damaged, and they carry a small brush to sweep away any possible insects from their path.
Hinduism has been rocked and re-shaped by the repeated conquests of India: first by Islam and the Mughals from the 12th to the 16th centuries, and then by the British Empire. British rule began in 1757 with Robert Clive winning control of Bengal and ended with Mahatma Ghandi’s Campaign of Civil Disobedience in 1930. Ghandi’s non-violence grew directly out of the abhorrence of violence and the non-harm philosophy of the Jains.
Ghandi himself lived a life of austerity and poverty which endeared him to the great mass of the Indian people. They saw him as a teacher modeled on the sages of old. His lifestyle and his methods kept faith with the ethical dimension of Hindu religious experience while at the same time reforming the social dimension and returning India to the Indian people.
The story of Ghandi and India’s independence seems to illustrate again how the peace-loving aims of God and every religion seem to be inevitably thwarted by the realities of human greed, fears and emotions. Ghandi won independence for India with his strategy of non-violence and peaceful marches and protests, but immediately the politicians had to divide India and caused the most horrendous bloodshed and massacres.
It was decided that now there was free rule the sub-continent must be divided into what would remain Hindu India and the new Moslem states of East and West Pakistan. Mass migrations followed, with Muslim families who had lived for centuries in India fleeing to Pakistan and Indian families from the new states fleeing hysterically to the newly defined India. Anger, fears and resentment boiled over into a murderous cauldron of savagery and butchery as the fleeing columns passed each other. Ghandi’s vision of a peaceful changeover of power was drowned in blood.
This was not the first demonstration in Indian history of how the best of intentions can be undermined by political and practical realities. In the third century BC the brilliant emperor Ashoka the Great of the Mauryan dynasty ruled almost the entire sub continent of India. Ashoka expanded his empire with savage and ruthless wars against rival states and was also said to have been a man of great cruelty. His wars of conquest caused widespread death and destruction and in one instance he is said to have executed 500 of his own concubines in punishment for the cutting down of his favourite tree,
After one particularly blood-drenched war against the state of Kalinga, resulting in 100,000 corpses he is said to have been struck by sudden remorse at the sight of so much slaughter. He became converted to Buddhism and pacifism. He warned other kings against seeking the vain and empty glories of conquest and war and became famous for erecting carved pillars with his new edicts promoting peace and goodwill. His court became a tolerant forum for philosophers and teachers of all faiths. He also sent Buddhist missionaries to preach all over Asia.
However, he did not disband his army or wholly cease his own predations. As head of state he could not renounce military force to protect his frontiers, and neither could he abolish capital punishment for his enemies. He was trapped in the eternal dilemma of all civilizations. He had to maintain law and order and even when he ceased his own efforts to expand his territory he would have to defend himself against others who would expand theirs.
War, it seems, is unavoidable, but how does Hinduism explain why God who creates and controls all things allow such events to happen. One partial explanation is given in the Bhagavad Gita, an extract from the great epic of the Mahabharata which was written about 500 years BC. The Mahabharata, or the great war of the Bharatas, is a huge poem which reflects the ancient history, religion and philosophy of India. It describes the Great War between the kingdom of the Kurus and the kingdom of the Panchelas in the area of the Upper Ganges some 1400 years BC.
The focus of the Bhagavad Gita is Arjuna, one of the princes of the Kurus. As he takes his place in the forefront of the battle line he recognizes the faces of many of his cousins, uncles, teachers and friends in the opposing line of princes and warriors. Arjuna is appalled at what is about to happen and what he is now asked to do. He feels that it would be better if he were to die immediately in the battle rather than be responsible for killing someone he has previously loved, honoured or respected.
However, his charioteer is Krishna, who now reveals himself as a reincarnation of the God Vishnu. Krishna tells Arjuna that he must do his duty as a warrior. He has been born into that caste and has no other choice. And even if he refuses it will make no difference to the outcome because as God Krishna has already decided who will live and who will die.
The implication here is that God makes these choices. The warrior or the soldier is only His instrument.
There is an interesting parallel here with the beliefs of the Dinka, one of the African tribes of the Sudan. The anthropologist Evans-Pritchard who lived among the Dinka for many years reported their belief in what they called the Second Spear. In battle a warrior would throw his spear at the enemy, but God would throw a second spear. It was the second spear, the invisible spear, which guided the first and determined whether the physical spear would kill, wound or miss its target. The final outcome and decision was always in the hand of God.
Ask why and Hinduism would give the law of karma, we all get what we deserve. No one can live forever and each life span is due to the merit earned in previous, unremembered incarnations.
Our second recurring question is what happens when we die? As we have seen, all branches of Hinduism believe firmly in reincarnation. Our bodies are interchangeable and the soul moves from one body to another. The sum total of a soul’s good and misdeeds in all past lives is that person’s karma. The sequence of cycles is samsara. Good and bad deeds earn merit or demerit and cannot be cancelled out. The fruits of all our actions will have to be experienced in a later life. For most people there will be no escape from these endless cycles of rebirth, but escape is obtainable.
Each Hindu life has four stages. The first is childhood when the focus will be on learning and education. Next comes the household stage when the focus is on family and raising the next generation. The third stage is retirement from work and becoming more closely involved in the spiritual life. Finally the devout Hindu renounces the world altogether and concentrates on knowledge of the absolute, of becoming One with Brahman.
This final goal is Moska, a transcendental state which is beyond the cycle of life and death. This is when the inner soul, the atman, merges and becomes identifiable with the Absolute that is Brahman. It is a loving union with the godhead; the losing of one’s own consciousness into the overall and blissful consciousness of Brahman. It can only be achieved by experiencing wisdom and gaining true knowledge.
Clearly we have here a fundamental difference between the monotheistic and the eastern religions. In Christianity, Islam and Judaism there is only one life, followed by a Day of Judgement and then eternity spent in either heaven or hell. In the eastern religions there is reincarnation with souls being reborn into a long succession of unremembered lives. In between some texts speak of various heavens and hells.
However, both streams of thought are emphatic about one thing. Death is not the end of everything. Death is not the final extinction of all that we have been and of all that we are. Death is the end of the physical body which carries us, but there is some essence of our being, something which we generally define as the soul, which does continue. It continues and it can return to God.
THE BUDDHIST EXPERIENCE
The Buddhist experience has a modern following of some three hundred and fifty million people and has lasted for more than two and a half thousand years. Hinduism from which it sprung, Judaism and the ancient faiths of China are even older. Christianity has lasted for over two thousand years. Even Islam, the new kid on the block, has lasted for more than thirteen hundred years. All of them, like Buddhism, have hundreds of millions of followers all over the world;
Contrast this with the empires of men: Assyria, Babylon, Greece and Rome, the many empires of India and China, the Aztecs, the Maya and the Inca, and even the Colonial empires of the recent past. None of them has lasted more than a few hundred years. When they are gone they are only history. They belong in the past. This surely says something for the strength, power and endurance of the great religious faiths. They continue while empires rise and fall like collapsing waves upon the sand. The faith generated by the great religions is both present and future.
Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha, was born some 650 years before Christ, roughly the same time as Mahivira who founded the Jains. This was a time when men had come to lose some of their faith in the ancient multiple gods of India and were tired of the endless rounds of blood and violence driven by the petty wars and ambitions of princes and kings. Both men founded a new kind of religious faith which renounced the idea of a creator god and all forms of hurt and violence. We have touched briefly on the Jain philosophy of non violence to all living things. The Buddha went even further in seeing that the pain so caused even had its reverberations on the perpetrator.
Gautama was born a prince of Nepal and it was forecast soon after his birth that he would either be a great and powerful king or a Holy Man. The prophesy added that if he were to witness the suffering caused by old age, sickness and death then he would surely take the latter path. His father, of course, preferred the idea of his son becoming a great king rather than an itinerant beggar and so took great pains to shield him from the stark realities of old age and death.
However, eventually the young man who was to become Buddha did encounter a sick man, a man crippled with old age, and a corpse. Some stories say the gods of India visited Gautama in these guises to show him the full extent of human suffering. Gautama was horrified. He had a young wife and a new-born son and was appalled by the knowledge that they would have to grow old and sick and die. He saw that every human being was doomed to suffer in this way and that all would have to suffer the grief of losing all those they loved.
In the dead of night the young man left his wife and son and his father’s home, without even saying goodbye, to become a wandering monk. There were many who had abandoned the ways of this wicked world and were desperately seeking something better or some explanation for the way things were. The more revered among them had formulated many dharmas, or teachings to explain their doctrines and Gautama sought them out and listened devoutly at their feet. None of them could satisfy him with an answer and so he moved on from one to another.
The means of attaining the dharma was usually the same, some form of yogi, the yoking of the inner consciousness and pulling it away from the distractions of everyday life. The seeker of understanding would practise the art of inner contemplation in a place of solitude and seated in the cross-legged lotus position. Initially he or she would focus on something physical, a single blade of grass, a flower or a stone. Total concentration was required to eliminate all the usual fantasies, fears, hopes, desires and imaginings that normally dominate the mind. The next step was to close the eyes and simply imagine the chosen object, then to banish the image and totally empty the mind. Only then could the seeker hope to find some form of enlightenment.
The teachers had acquired their different dharmas in this way but none of them convinced Gautama. He finally lost faith in all the sages and joined a homeless group of five other monks in the forest. There in addition to the yogi practises they forced their bodies through all forms of austerity and hardship in the hope that this would force their minds into totally ignoring their bodily needs and somehow force the extremes of concentration that would bring them to the truth. They starved themselves and subjected their bodies to cold and heat and every form of discomfort, but all with no illuminating flash of insight.
Finally Gautama gave up on this approach. To the horror of his fellow monks he enjoyed a decent meal and they abandoned him and fled. Alone he wandered across northern India, still engaged in his quest. He came to the place now called Bodh Gaya where he again sat under a bhodi tree to meditate. This time he was determined and persistent. He sat in the perfect state of contemplation for three days and three nights and finally achieved enlightenment.
He at last understood the Four Noble Truths. The first, which probably he had always known, was that all life was composed of suffering. Everything suffered, through pain or despair and eventually death. The second Noble Truth was that all suffering was caused by desire. Desire fuelled greed and lust which brought suffering to others and the frustration of desires, our hopes and needs and loves, all brought suffering to the individual. The third Noble Truth was that suffering could only end when we are free from desire. The fourth Noble Truth was that desire and suffering could be ended by following the Noble Eightfold Path of righteousness.
It should be remembered that Buddhism evolved against the background of Hinduism, The accepted doctrine of reincarnation was never questioned. Human souls migrated from one dying body to the next rebirth and the station in that next existence was determined by the balance of good and bad deeds, the merit or demerit, accumulated in all previous lives. To this the Buddha added a new twist. The soul carried with it all its previous bundle of hopes and desires. They were the flame of passion that was re-kindled in each new rebirth. To end it all it was necessary to put out forever that flame of passion. When desire in the soul was extinguished the soul was released from the wheel of re-birth and only then would it achieve Nirvana, the ultimate enlightenment.
The Noble Eightfold Path began with right understanding and right intention. To gain Nirvana the aspirant must first have the right understanding, the knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, and then the right intention to follow the Noble Eightfold path. The next three rights were basically a description of Buddhist ethics, right speech, right conduct and right occupation. These indicated that the aspirant must rid himself or herself of all desires and all negative and selfish feelings. Right occupation meant only work that involved no bloodshed or harm to others. The final three were right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration, all aimed at avoiding extremes, excluding doubt and worry and focussing on the right means to meditation.
In achieving this understanding and formulating this teaching Gautama had become a Buddha, an enlightened one who could now enter Nirvana. At this point he could have blissfully expired, avoiding old age and decline, but instead he chose to live out his natural life and spend his remaining years teaching others. A demon god named Mara tried to intervene, urging him to go straight to Nirvana and abandon humanity to its own choices. The story is reminiscent of Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness. Like Jesus the Buddha refuses the temptation offered to him and stays to bring the benefits of his teaching to mankind.
The Buddha spent the next forty years teaching and preaching, gathering followers wherever he went. He sought out the five monks who had been his companions in the forest and found them in the deer park at Sarnath where he preached his first sermon. All of them were converted to his dharma.
It was the routine for wandering monks to beg and preach until the monsoon rains came. Then, when the roads became impassable they would gather in groups to wait until movement became possible again. Rich men and kings donated various pieces of park land and these became their temporary homes. The relationship between the monks and lay people was a reciprocal one. The monks offered prayers and teaching. In return the lay people placed food in the monk’s begging bowl and received merit for the next life in doing so. The order of monks became ever larger and was known as the Sangha.
While the Buddha lived he insisted that he was not important. He had no wish to be worshipped or to become the centre of a faith. Only his dharma was important. Nothing mattered except that his teaching should endure and be followed.
After the death of the Buddha the sangha continued to expand. Monasteries were built and became permanent rather than temporary homes. At first the Buddha’s teachings and sermons were memorized and passed down through generations of monks by word of mouth, but eventually they were collected and written down to become the Pali Canon. This was not a single text like the Bible or the Koran but a vast collection written in the ancient literary Pali language. Over time the Buddha came to be venerated and his image worshipped, even though he had insisted he was not a god.
The Emperor Ashoka became a Buddhist and sent missionary teams all over the world. They carried the faith to Ceylon and then into South East Asia, converting the peoples of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. The teams sent north converted the Himalayan kingdom of Tibet and penetrated into the huge expanse of China where the Buddha was to become the third of China’s Three Wise Men. Finally the faith reached Japan in the form of Zen.
Eventually Buddhism passed its zenith in India and began to decline. In its homeland it was competing with the well establish gods of the Hindu pantheon and it suffered further attacks when the Muslims invaded from the west in the 14th century. The new Mughal Empire destroyed many of the old Buddhist monasteries and introduced the new challenges of Islam.
However, where Buddhism had expanded beyond India the new faith continued to flourish and take new forms. The major division is between the Theravada and the Mahayana branches of Buddhism. The Theravada school stays close to the Buddha’s original teaching with its stress on the Sangha and meditation. The Mahayana school is more complex with additional layers of interpretation and understanding. It teaches additional scriptures and believes that the Buddha did not cease to exist when he reached Nirvana. He still exists to be worshipped. They also believe that there are other Buddha’s who have gained enlightenment, and that there are also Bodhisattvas, beings who are well advanced on the path to Buddha-hood and are therefore Buddhas-to-be.
Theravada Buddhism is dominant in most of South East Asia, in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Burma. Mahayana Buddhism has developed more in China and Korea. One Chinese offshoot is Pure Land Buddhism which believes in a Buddha name Amitabha, or the Buddha of Infinite Light. Amitabha rules his own heaven, sitting on a lotus flower and glowing with golden light. His worshippers can join him there after death in a pure land where all have achieved Nirvana.
I first encountered Buddhism when my overland travels reached Thailand. I had seen the blue mosques of Isfahan and other glories of Islamic architecture, plus the magnificent technicolor gateways of Madurai and the erotic sandstone ruins of Khajuraho in India. However the Buddhist temples of Bangkok were something completely different. Here were magnificent golden stupas, demon guards and celestial bird-angels in an eye-dazzling splendour of coloured glass and semi-precious stones. It was all blinding to the eye and stunning to the mind. The monks still carried begging bowls but now they wore bright saffron robes. It was all a far cry from the simple preaching of a homeless, wandering monk.
I saw the gleaming white marble temple with its riot of descending red tile roof bristling with the scintillating serpent heads of the celestial nagas. There were shaded gardens and a small stream with a red Japanese bridge. Young monks sat in silence in the shade and studied their scriptures. It looked the perfect place to simply stop and read philosophy. Buddhism looked tempting, calm and serene, the perfect religion.
Except that it wasn’t quite a religion. Buddhism believed in gods but there was no supreme creator god. When I read deeper it all became less appealing. The core belief was that all life was just endless rounds of suffering. It seemed that Buddhism had never witnessed a sunrise or a sunset, the glory of a night sky cascading with stars, the miracle of birth, and the laughter of a child or the joys of love. There is so much beauty and wonder in the world and Buddhism ignored it all, seeing everything as a worthless suffering. The aim of Buddhism was to withdraw from life, to escape from life and never to embrace it.
After some reflection I decided that Buddhism was not for me. At the same time it is worth considering that my life experience is totally different from that of the Buddha. I am fortunate to have been born into the 2Oth century, in the western world where I have a comfortable existence. I have travelled extensively but I have never been to war. I have never been beaten or starved or homeless. My world view is therefore totally different to the world view at the time of the Buddha.
So how does Buddhism answer the question of why does God allow the madness and folly of ever-recurring war? The answer would seem to be that Buddhism would not even recognize the question. Buddhism believes in a realm of gods but there is no Creator God with controlling power. Although he has since come to be venerated with a god-like status the Buddha never claimed to be a god. He only claimed to be a teacher who had achieved Enlightenment and wished only to help others.
The Buddha saw all life as suffering. This was a brute fact. War and killing is all part of the suffering of life and so the inevitability of war would seem to be just part of the brute fact of life. There is no omnipotent god to allow or disallow the insanity of war.
Buddhism is seen as a gentle faith and at its core this is its intention. At the same time Buddhism, like all the other faiths with good intentions, is subject to the realities of politics and war. We saw that the great Emperor Ashoka became a Buddhist and renounced bloodshed but he remained an Emperor, governed by political needs and unable to disband his huge army.
The recent history of South East Asia saw the countries of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia come under French colonial rule. The peaceful Buddhists resisted the colonial occupation of their countries which led to the wholesale slaughter and horror of the Vietnam War. Powerful America could only see the freedom struggle as a Communist takeover by Russia and China. Unhappy Vietnam became the decade’s long battlefield for two rival political ideologies.
One of the most gruesome images to come out of that conflict was that of an elderly Buddhist monk burning himself alive on a street corner in the capital city of Saigon. It occurred during the reign of the American-backed president Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem was a dictator but he was the anti-communist strongman the Americans needed. His rule was so oppressive that even the senior monks felt that they must protest. The ghastly fire suicides were their chosen method. Six monks and nuns allowed their acolytes to pour petrol over their heads and then burned themselves alive on the public streets of Vietnam’s major cities. Diem’s only response was to send his crack troops to storm and close the pagodas.
More recently the Buddhist country of Burma has been in the news. Burma, now renamed as Myanmar, is a former British colony. Soon after independence a coup d’état turned it into a military dictatorship. Since then this supposedly Buddhist nation has been continually suppressing its ethnic minorities, especially the Rothingya Muslims. Its human rights record is one of the worst in the world with consistent violations and atrocities. Its military operations have repeatedly burned down mosques, destroyed villages, looted and raped. In 2018 Burma’s military clearance operations had killed more than 24, 00 Rothingya Muslims and displaced nearly 700,000 by driving them out and forcing them to flee into neighbouring Bangladesh. It was another heart-breaking refugee crisis described by the rest of the world as both ethnic-cleansing and genocide.
These events have shown that even in countries where the gentle faith of Buddhism is supposedly the national faith, the same old abuses and political realities continue to exist. No religious faith is immune.
Our second question, what happens when we die, does get a clear answer from Buddhism. The Buddhist belief, like the Hindu belief, is that we will be reincarnated. However, it seems that it is not so much the soul but the bundle of desires that fire the soul which will be re-ignited in the next rebirth.
This is an almost endless process but it can be terminated by blowing out the returning fire of desire and ignorance. Good moral conduct, compassionate behaviour and studied meditation upon the Four Noble truths and the Noble Eightfold Path can ensure that we ascend to higher levels with each rebirth until we can finally extinguish the fuel of samsara and escape into Nirvana.
But what exactly is Nirvana. It translates as Enlightenment, which is not in fact very enlightening. The Buddha refused to say whether it was extinction or not extinction. Later Buddhists of the Mayhana School seemed to have rejected the idea of extinction and believe that the Buddha does exist somewhere, or somehow. Plus, as we have seen, some schools believe that there are other Buddhas , ruling over their own Buddha fields which are the blissful equivalents of heaven.
No answer, or many answers, the issue is still unclear.
GOD, WAR AND REINCARNATION
THE SIKH EXPERIENCE
In the sixteenth century the warrior chieftain Babur from what is now Uzbekistan led his armies down into northwest India to conquer and create what became the mighty Mughal Empire. His armies captured Kabul then carried the banners of Islam through the Kyber Pass to win the Battle of Panipat. The Sultan of Delhi was defeated and suddenly the entire north of the Hindu sub-continent came under Islamic rule. It was a clash of cultures that gave birth to an entirely new religious faith which tried to synthesise all that was best and true of both Hinduism and Islam. It was a bold idea to embrace the pantheon of one faith with the monotheism of the other by promoting the concept of diversity contained within unity.
The new faith was called Sikhism, the faith of the Sikhs or Disciples. It was born in the Punjab, the first state of India to be conquered by Babur after his troops had swept through Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan. Its founder was the Guru Nanak. Guru means teacher and the mantle passed through ten gurus before being invested in the Sikh Holy Book, the Guru Granth Sahib, which is a vast collection of all the hymns and poems of the succession of ten living Gurus.
Nanak was born in a small village in what was North India but is now part of Pakistan. He grew up into a deeply spiritual and poetic young man and was obviously deeply troubled by the Mughal invasion and the conflict of faith brought by the new prophets of Islam. It was his habit to take a daily bathe in the river and one morning he failed to return. His friends searched for him in vain and finally assumed that he had drowned. Then, three days later, Nanak reappeared with a remarkable story.
Nanak had been in direct communication with the Divine. Until now he has been unable to choose between following the path of Islam and becoming a devout Hindu. Now he knew that there is no division and no choice to be made. He understands a new definition that embraces both Allah and Brahman. God is simply The One, the Transcendent One, the Ultimate Reality; God is within everything and embraces everything. Nanak neither rejects Islam nor Hinduism but includes them with equal status. The Hindu and the Moslem are one, they are human beings blessed by God. The Hindu temple and the Moslem Mosque are the same, they are places of worship seeking God .All humanity is One. Humanity is a single caste; we are all of the same body and the same light.
After his mystical experience Nanak was able to announce that because there was neither Hindu nor Moslem there was only the one path to follow and that was God’s path.
Nanak travelled widely to preach this revolutionary new religious message, and some accounts say that he even visited Mecca. Finally he settled to found a small village in the Punjab where he was able to establish patterns of meditation and regular worship. This small Sikh community flourished and was the root of Sikhism today.
However, there was more to Sikhism than worship and meditation. Because all human beings were equal, regardless of their faith, sex, colour or class, then it was essential for all human beings to help each other and treat each other with due respect. The magnificent Golden temple of the Sikhs was founded by the fifth Guru at Amritsar, and Sikh temples or gondwaras flourished throughout the Punjab. Every gondwara offered free hospitality to all travellers. Everyone was offered a free community meal and a free bed for the night. It was all part of the Sikh ethic of living this life to the full and of embracing everyone as equal.
Before he died Guru Nanak named his successor and introduced him as the next Guru. This became a ritual which continued through the whole line of ten Gurus. By the time of the fifth Guru, the Guru Arjan, the great Mughal Emperor Akbar was firmly seated on the imperial throne. Akbar was the grandson of Babur and despite a few blunders by his father he inherited a stable empire which stretched from Kandahar to Bengal. Akbar could afford to be magnanimous and he had deep interest in comparative religion. He welcomed men of all faiths to his court and avidly listened to all their doctrines and ideas.
Under Akbar’s benevolent rule the Sikh faith flourished. The magnificent Golden Temple of the Sikhs was constructed at Amritsar, floating like a gilded jewel in the blue calm of its surrounding pool. At this time the Guru Arjan also collected together all the writings of his predecessors to create the Sikh Holy Book. The Sikh faith was enjoying its own golden age of expansion.
When Akbar died in 1605 the whole liberal, open-thinking ethic of his court died with him. The new Emperor, Jahangir, was a fanatical Muslim with no time or tolerance for the religious diversity of his father. Jahangir’s first act was to reverse everything that Akbar had tried to achieve and bring back a strict adherence to the faith of Islam.
He was particularly angry at the sudden growth of this new faith of the Sikhs. He ordered the arrest of the Guru Arjan and the confiscation of all his property. Arjan was cruelly tortured before Jahangir ordered that he be put to death. He was executed in Lahore and the Sikh faith gained its first martyr.
Now the peaceful Sikhs became more war-like. The next Guru wore warrior dress with the usual rosary and saintly emblems and he wore two swords. The first sword, passed down from the first guru, was a symbolic emblem to denote the new religious teacher. The new sword marked his transformation into a commander of the faithful. The new guru added more military symbols in the kettledrum to rally his troops and the pennants to lead them. He urged his followers to bear arms and defend themselves and built an Iron Fort to defend Amritsar. He fought several battles against the Mughals before retiring to the hills.
The sixth guru had introduced a new martial strain into Sikhism and this took another major step forward with the tenth guru. The ninth guru had again challenged their Mughal rulers over the issue of converting Hindus and other non-Muslims to Islam by force. His defence of religious freedom led to his public execution near the Red Fort in Delhi. His son and successor, who became the tenth Guru Gobind Singh, praised the courage of his martyred father and inaugurated what was to be known as the Khalsa, the Order of the Pure.
At the annual spring festival Godbind Singh staged a shock demonstration in front of a huge congregation. Standing before the assembled Sikhs with a naked sword in his hand he demanded to know if there was a Sikh present who would offer his head for his guru. There was a stunned silence before one Sikh bravely stepped forward. Gobind Singh led the man behind a concealing curtain. There was the swish and chop of a falling sword and the thud as something heavy hit the ground. Gobind Singh re-appeared with a now blood-stained sword and asked for another volunteer.
In all five Sikhs volunteered and were led behind the curtain. The same sounds were repeated each time and the sword grew bloodier each time Gobind Singh reappeared. Finally the guru led out his five supposed victims, all smiling and each with his head in place. Behind the curtain five goats had been beheaded.
The five men had passed the ultimate test of faith, loyalty and courage. Gobind Singh called them his Five Beloved and initiated them into the new Order of the Khalsa. He gave them the new surname of Singh, which means Lion, and their duty now was to fight against any form of religious persecution. They were to be pure and clear and follow a strict moral code which forbade tobacco, alcohol and adultery. They were also to follow a strict dress code which meant that they must not cut their hair, must always wear under-breeches, must always carry a comb , must always wear a steel or iron bracelet, and perhaps most important for a new warrior elite, must always carry a sword.
The brutal aggression of the Mughals had transformed the devotees of Sikhism into a new martial force that would help them become the best and fiercest fighting men in India. Gobind Singh led many battles against the numerically superior forces of the Mugals and finally died following an assassination attempt. He killed the assassin who had stabbed him twice but later died from his wounds.
The Guru Gobind Singh made one last decision to change the nature of Sikhism. He decided that there would be no more living gurus. Possibly the fact that two of his predecessors had been foully murdered held him back from naming another guru. Also two of his elder sons had been killed in battles with the Mugals and two of his younger sons had been murdered. Instead he declared that henceforth the Holy Book would be the Guru Granth Sahib. Enough had been written and there was no more to be said. The book of scripture would be the only object of veneration and the final perpetual authority for all Sikhs.
There were to be no more living gurus but the Sikhs continued to produce able military commanders. The first organized a civilian rebellion after the new Mughal ruler passed an edict ordering the extermination of the Sikhs, but he was captured and executed after he had refused the offer of a pardon if he converted to Islam. However, the power of the Mughals was now on the wane and as the tide turned so the strength and confidence of the Sikhs increased. They began to win more battles than they lost and eventually they produced a genius in Ranjit Singh who united the Sikh forces to create a Sikh Empire in the Punjab
The Maharajah Rangit Singh established his capital in the city of Lahore at the end of the 18th century and ruled over two hundred thousand square miles of the north-western Indian sub continent. He restored and expanded the magnificent golden temple at Amritsar with lavish amounts of marble and more gold. His court reproduced all the richness and splendour, pomp and glory that had once been the exclusive province of the Mughals.
As the British Empire expanded into India through the long tentacles of the British East India Company, the Sikh Empire of Ranjit Singh was a power to be reckoned with. The two sides first met in a political encounter that ended with the signing of a treaty of perpetual friendship. The Maharajah invited the British envoy Charles Metcalf into his camp by the Sutlej River. Metcalf brought with him numerous gifts from the Governor General of India and the Maharajah responded in kind. Sikh hospitality was as always generous and the treaty acknowledged that the Sutlej River was to be the dividing line between their territories and ambitions.
The treaty lasted until the death of Ranjit Singh in 1839. Without the ruling hand of its powerful Maharajah the Sikh Empire fell rapidly into disorder and decline. The Sikhs split into opposing factions which the British could easily exploit and defeat. Ranjit Singh’s oldest son was quickly removed from power and just as quickly died in prison, most probably poisoned. His grandson who was next in line also died quickly when an archway collapsed on top of him as he returned to Lahore Fort after his father’s cremation. While the struggle for succession took place the empire also had to fight off opportunist attacks from the surrounding Afghan and Hindu kingdoms.
The British moved equally fast to take advantage. The British East India Company moved more troops and siege gun batteries north and annexed the neighbouring province of Sind. The company argument was that with no strong hand at the helm the Sikh army was becoming a dangerous menace that had to be checked, but naturally the British moves and motives were seen as hostile and threatening. Diplomatic relations broke down and the Friendship treaty was forgotten. There followed two disastrous Anglo-Sikh wars.
The infantry and heavy artillery units of the Sikh army began crossing the Sutlej River in the December of 1845. Major and bloody battles followed at Mudki, Ferozeshah and Aliwai. The main British army took heavy casualties and was exhausted but then they received a fresh division of reinforcements. In a final battle at Sabraon the British broke into the main Sikh bridgehead across the Sutlej River. The bridges behind the Sikhs were broken by artillery fire. The surviving Sikhs were trapped and the British soldiers were in no mood to show them mercy. The rout became a massacre.
In the humiliating Treaty of Lahore the Sikhs were forced to surrender huge areas of territory, including Kashmir. Duleep Singh, the infant son of Maharajah Ranjit Singh was allowed to retain his father’s throne but now all policy of the broken empire was controlled by a British Resident.
All of this was abhorrent to Sikh pride but the British Governor General unwisely chose to make economies and cut back on the strength of the troops needed to defend the North West frontier. Two British officers were murdered by a mob in the city of Multan, the flames of rebellion spread and the second Anglo-Sikh war had begun.
There were more bloody battles to re-take Multan and again heavy British reinforcements had to be moved to bolster those already in place. It ended with the battle of Gujarat when the British forces bombarded the Sikhs with a hundred guns, followed by a cavalry charge. It was a war in which both sides took no prisoners and overwhelming force crushed the last Sikh rebellion. Another humiliating treaty was signed and the young Duleep Singh was exiled to England, removing the last Sikh figurehead.
The Sikhs suffered again during the partition of India in 1947. Their homeland, the Punjab, remained part of India but was immediately adjacent to the newly created state of Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims fled west and hundreds of thousands of Hindus fled east. In all the anguish, anger and despair the displaced columns fought each other and the Sikhs were in the middle. Bloody massacres were inflicted on all sides.
Despite all this and the loss of their empire the Sikhs were still seen as skilled and loyal fighting men. Many of them served in the British Army and after Independence in the Indian Army. Sikh soldiers played a key role in the suppression of the Indian mutiny and during two world wars 83, 000 Sikh soldiers were killed while fighting for the freedom of Britain and the British Empire.
In 1971 a Sikh separatist movement was launched which sought to create a new Sikh nation to be called Khalistan, the Land of the Khalisa. It was proposed and financed by expatriates of the Sikh Diaspora but immediately gained support in the Punjab. The local leadership in India quickly allowed matters to degenerate into terrorism through a campaign of murders and bombing. Matters came to a head when they occupied the Golden temple at Amritsar. The temple was turned into an armoury and HQ to support an armed uprising for Khalistan.
India’s Prime Minister Indira Ghandi ordered Operation Blue Star to remove the armed militants from the temple precincts. The militants were led by a former Major General named Shabeq Singh. The Indian Army units which surrounded the temple were led by another Sikh, Lieutenant General Kuldip Singh Brar.
Brar addressed his men before the battle, stressing that the operation was not against the Sikhs or the Sikh religion, but against terrorism. He offered any man with strong religious sentiments or reservations the opportunity to opt out without it being held against him. Many of his junior officers and other ranks were also Sikhs but no one opted out.
The battle to clear the temple complex lasted for 24 hours and was more bloody and violent than had been expected. The terrorists were armed with Chinese made rocket-propelled grenade launchers and tanks and artillery had to be called in. Trapped pilgrims were used as human shields. Finally it was over, the Golden Temple was recaptured and Shabeq Singh was dead.
The assault was still seen as sacrilege by some Sikhs and later Indira Ghandi was assassinated by two of her trusted Sikh bodyguards in bitter revenge.
Sadly, what emerges from all this, is that no matter how noble the intentions of its founders the realities of politics and the need for self defence always supersede the original goals and aims. The first guru devised a faith which was meant to bring Hindus and Muslims together, eradicating any need for hostility and conflict between them. Instead both faiths rejected Sikhism and the Mughals especially tried to wipe the Sikhs from the face of the earth.
The Sikhs have been forced to fight many bloody battles simply to survive, first with Mughals and then with the British. In the end we have the disheartening spectacle of Sikhs fighting Sikhs within the confines of their own sacred shrine, each side convinced that the other is sacrilegious and evil.
That beautiful concept of diversity being contained with the unity of One Infinite Whole, the One God, the Immaculate Primal Being, was designed to bring monotheism and the pantheon of Hindu faith and all other religions together. The western philosopher Spinoza is sometimes seen as an intellectual bridge between western and eastern religious thought. Spinoza’s belief system of one substance within and enclosing everything was probably influenced by eastern religious faiths. If Spinoza had devised a religion it would probably have been something like Sikhism.
Because the Sikh faith regards all people of whatever faith as equals it seems that this is a quality of religious tolerance which the modern world badly needs. If all people are equal and all religions are equal in that they are all searching for the same indefinable God then the Sikh faith has grasped an indispensable truth. The world needs this understanding and the Sikhs being forced into a military tradition and violence is a true tragedy.
A similar story can be told of the Baha’i faith which originated in Persia in the mid 19th century. The Baha’is believe there is One God, revealed through his manifestations who are the founders of all the major world religions. Thus, Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed, the Guru Nanak, and all the other faith-founders were all manifestations of the One God. The great faiths all worship the same god, however they understand Him and regardless of what they call Him. All the faiths draw on the same spiritual truths and are united in the same spiritual purpose.
There are echoes of Sikhism here but the Baha’i were also cruelly persecuted in their Islamic homelands. In what is now Iran the Muslim clergy hates them and represses them in every way possible. The fanatics of ISIS slaughter them wherever they can find them. Trying to synthesize religion to ensure tolerance and acceptance seems to be a recipe for disaster. The extremists of every faith seem to react more hysterically to any modification of their own faith than they do to those of other established faiths.
It seems that there is no way to end war. In the final analysis every community of every faith has to be ready to defend itself.
When we look at life after death the Sikh religion also believes firmly in reincarnation. The kind of life we lead now again influences the kind of life we will have when we are reborn again. The Sikhs see five stages of existence, each one on a higher and more moral plane than the one before. Thus living a good life now, being morally responsible and helping others is vital to spiritual progress. In the end our spiritual self will be able to focus fully on God and reach a blissful state beyond rebirth.
GOD, WAR AND REINCARNATION
THE CHINESE EXPERIENCE
China was home to one of the world’s first civilizations, beginning in the valley of the great Yellow River some three thousand years ago. China’s history is a tumultuous procession of dynasties and warlords, of empires expanding and retracting up until the 18th century. Until then the Chinese emperors ruled over what was to them the entire civilized world. There were barbarians beyond their borders but these did not count.
China is derived from the Empire of the Chin, or the Ju-chen, the Golden Tartars who created their empire some eight hundred years ago. Long before that, a thousand years before the birth of Christ, The Chou had unified enough of China to create their empire which they ruled for some 500 years. The first emperors of the Chou dynasty were able and enlightened men who pulled together a society that could create literature, art and philosophy. The period was a burst of intellectual effort and it produced the first of the Three Wise Men of China, the mystic poet and philosopher Lao Tzu.
The religion of China is derived from the Three Wise Men as they have come to be known. The other two were Confucius and later the Buddha. Today it is generally considered that Lao Tzu was not a single person and that the poetic works ascribed to him were authored by a number of mystics and sages of the time. The book that bears his name, The Tao Te Ching, or The Way of Life, by Lao Tzu, is the oldest and most important spiritual text in China.
It is convenient to regard Lao Tzu as he came to be revered in China as the founder of Daoism. Tao is pronounced dow and means The Way, which is the mystics definition of the flow of creation. They did not see a single Creator God but the cosmic process of creation was all around them, in the forces of nature, the cycles of the seasons, the patterns of life and death and perhaps even the rise and fall of dynasties and empires.
The Way was the eternal principle that underpins the universe, the celestial flow of all things. It was the never-beginning, never-ending ultimate reality but in effect all these words were meaningless approximations. At heart the Way was nameless because it could not be named. It was indefinable because it could not be defined. Here we have the mystic heart of all religions, any name we use is just a name; it is not necessarily The Name. All religions survive through faith and spiritual instinct.
Popular culture in China venerated the spirits of the ancestors and the gods of wind and rain and storm and visualized a Heaven which mirrored the Emperor’s court on earth. The heavenly court was ruled by the Jade Emperor and his consort and was filled with immortals who came to be regarded as gods. The earthly emperor was believed to rule by the Mandate of Heaven and his duty was to perform the national rites and sacrifices to remember the ancestors and please the gods so that the society as a whole would prosper with good harvests.
This understanding of the Way as defined by Lao Tzu led to the conviction that the good and happy life was best implemented by being as much as possible in harmony with this natural flow of natural forces. Harmony was the key to a long and pleasant life which might lead to becoming an immortal and joining the ancestors in Heaven. One important factor here was the balancing of the Yin and the Yang, the principles of masculinity and femininity which embraced all things in equal measure. The Emperor was urged to blend compassion and mercy with firm rule.
Many of the poems in the Tao Te Ching are exhortations to the wise man, presumably the emperor, to practise kindness and morality, intelligence and wisdom. The good ruler embodied all these aspects and kept his pleasures simple without undue extravagance. The repetition of these themes suggests that perhaps the emperors needed constant reminders.
Another aspect of the Way was the practise of Feng Shui, the arrangement of one’s surroundings in the most balanced and harmonious way. Gardens and even the furnishings in the home had to be arranged to set all the colours and shapes in harmony with each other. Nothing must clash or offend the senses. The goal was perfection and peace within the soul, to go with the flow of creation. Human beings should be morally guided and inwardly well balanced to earn the approval of the gods. Men and women should be in harmony with each other as well as in harmony with the spirits of nature and the Way of all creation. Like a beautiful piece of music everything should be in tune.
Over time Lao Tzu himself came to be regarded as an immortal and one of the gods, monasteries carried on his teachings and temples were built to give him thanks and offer him prayers. His image took its place at the altars with all the other gods and goddesses. The smoke of the incense that is burned in all Chinese temples is believed to waft prayers up to Heaven.
The second wise man of China was Confucius, born some six hundred years later and still more than 500 years before the birth of Christ. The empire of the Chou was in decline and China was a feudal patchwork of large and small city states owing only a nominal allegiance to the Emperor. The states were ruled by kings or warlords who were all perpetually at war with each other and the fear must have been rife that all of China could degenerate into anarchy and barbarism. The self appointed task of Confucius was to avert this by promoting a new code of morality. It was partly revolutionary and partly a reinforcement of the best of the existing ethics.
Confucius is a translation of Master Kung and although he held several political and government posts it seems that his nature was very much that of a school headmaster. He worked hard at trying to influence people with his ideas and ethics and wrote five classic books but in his own lifetime he was not particularly successful. He eventually resigned from his final government post, possibly frustrated in his ambitions, and devoted himself to his writing. However, his disciples carried on his work and eventually he was to become renowned as China’s greatest ethical thinker and teacher. Under the later Han dynasty the imperial court adopted totally his ideas and ethics for the perfect order of society. His works became an essential part of the curriculum for the prestigious civil servant examinations and his influence on the succeeding courts of China was to last for the next two thousand years.
Confucius stressed the importance of correct ceremonial behaviour and etiquette. Respect and the proper deportment were essential in all relationships, between men and women, towards the emperor and most of all towards the gods. The rituals to communicate with the gods and the ancestors must all be performed with due sincerity and ceremony. This correct behaviour was part of the thread that bound society together.
However, it was not just the correct behaviour to the higher realms of the Emperor’s court and the heavens that were important. Confucius also stressed the vital importance of all relationships, beginning with the basic relationships with the ordinary family. In the Confucian moral code a son should show due respect to his father, the younger sibling should show due respect for the elder sibling, a wife should be obedient to her husband. Throughout the total hierarchy of all relationships respect should be showed to elders and seniors. All should show due respect to government ministers, government ministers should show due respect for the Emperor, and the Emperor should show due respect to the gods. Everyone should show due respect to the ancestors.
It was also stressed that these relationships were all reciprocal. A son owed due respect to his father but the father had a return duty to show kindness and consideration to his son. And so it continued throughout the whole chain of relationships. Where respect was due kindness and consideration must also be shown in return, the citizens should all respect the Emperor, but the Emperor had a duty to act in the best interests of society as a whole. The Emperor had the final duty of performing the rites and ceremonies due to the gods. This would all lead to the benevolent and virtuous state. Goodness, humanity and benevolence were the key factors throughout the long line of allegiances that spanned from earth to heaven.
It seems that Confucius’s attitude to religion was somewhat ambiguous. He supported belief in the Mandate of Heaven and the existence of the Immortals because it worked for the greater good of society. It was ordered and polite and far preferable to barbarity and superstition. The harmony of relationship between earth and heaven, as it was between ruler and ruled, was the Confucian ideal.
The morality of Confucian ethics blended well with the harmony of The Way as defined in Daoism. Confucius was a religious and moral reformer but his emphasis was on his new vision of morality. His aim was to achieve mental, spiritual and social harmony and respect for tradition was conducive to that aim. He was content to leave the existing patterns of belief and faith much as they were. The new combination worked and served China well.
Confucius was venerated as the great moral teacher of China until the disintegration of the last empire and the coming to power of the Chinese communists. Then his long enduring code of the perfect, civilized scholar gentleman came to be seen as a hated reactionist symbol of the ancient and now discredited imperial system.
The last of the three great wise men of China was the Buddha. In the sixth century before Christ Buddhism spread north from India into central Asia and then along the great silk roads, the caravan trade routes, that wove their ways across the deserts that divided China from the west. This gentle faith with its non-threatening message of enlightenment and its emphasis on good conduct and right behaviour was complementary to the code of Confucius and seems to have grafted on to the complexity of Chinese belief as easily as ivy on to any ancient superstructure.
The Buddha, Lao Tzu and Confucius were all seen as sages from the same mould. They each had a profound influence on the culture and religious understanding of China as a whole.
Buddhism took on new forms in China. The faith left India in two main schools, the Theravada school which went mainly to the smaller countries of South East Asia, and focussed mainly on the original teachings of Gautama in monasteries where the monks sought personal enlightenment. The Mahayana school which was the most influential in China had a wider appeal in that it was open to everyone and could be interpreted more widely. Here the promise of salvation was open to anyone and not just the monastic few.
At one stage there were said to be at least ten different forms of Buddhism in China, although most of these were short-lived. However, in China Gautama was not the only Buddha who was worshipped. The expanding Mahayana school in China defined many more Buddha figures who had found enlightenment, and many Bodisvattas, and all of them were fitted into the cavalcade of immortals in heaven. Some of them, like the Buddha Amita worshipped by the Pure Land sect, presided over their own Buddha states or individual heavens. The Pure Land was said to glitter with diamonds and golden light and to be filled with flowers and perfume.
Another popular Buddha figure was the laughing Buddha who was always depicted with a huge full belly and a fat laughing face. His image promised the huge abundance of earthly pleasures that could be found in his exclusive Buddha heaven.
One aspect that Daoism, Confucius and Buddhism all had in common was that they were all enigmatic about the source of creation. Daoism saw that in the final analysis the source was nameless; Confucius concentrated on the moral order and ethics and had little or nothing to say about the ultimate reality, while Buddhism focussed only on Enlightenment and the release from suffering. They were all non committal concerning the gods and heaven and so none of them challenged the popular accepted pantheon of the Jade Emperor and his court of immortals. All three of the wise men of China were content to leave the popular beliefs as they were. The higher spiritual and philosophical levels of thought simply accepted that the great majority needed their more familiar images on which to focus their prayers and worship.
So the three faiths blended and intermingled with the popular pantheon. All of them were destined to go through various phases of imperial favour and persecution, and over time all of the three wise men were transformed in the public mind into immortals in Heaven and then into gods themselves. Temples and cults grew up around all three founders. Sometimes all three of them could be worshipped at separate altars in the same temple.
New conclusions developed from these new and combined strains of thought. Delve too deeply and Chinese religion can become very complex with these different strands of belief. The base belief structure was the pantheon of ancient gods and spirits, over-layered by the more sophisticated levels of Daoism, Confucius and the Buddha. All of these strands were influenced by each other and gave rise to more sub layers of thought and belief. Islam made an impact along the silk roads from the west and Christianity was introduced by the European breakthrough into the trading ports of the east. The whole edifice came dangerously close to total collapse in the twentieth century when Communism crudely pushed it all aside. Then Marxism became the only religion that was officially tolerated.
The Three Wise men of China were all agreed on one issue. Harmony was important, harmony between society and nature, harmony between society and the gods, and harmony within society itself. This harmony could best be achieved by following what has become known as The Golden Rule, which they all articulated in memorable phrases. From the Buddha we have, “Hurt not others in ways which you would find hurtful.” Confucius expressed it as, “Never impose upon others what you would not choose for yourself.” And in the words of Lao Tzu, “Regard your neighbour’s gain as your gain and your neighbour’s loss as your loss.” They are all echoes of the Christian urging to, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
Yet despite this, despite all three of their venerated sages pleading for harmony, the long history of China has been anything but harmonious. The rise and fall of its many kingdoms and empires has been accompanied, as usual, by all the horrors and bloodshed of war. When they were not fighting each other they suffered invasions by the Mongols and the Manchus. In its more recent history China was invaded by the Japanese during the Second World War and was then devastated by more war between the nationalists and the communists. Horrific massacres were common, the bloodshed and loss of life were staggering.
Like every other faith the three main strands of Chinese religion all called for peace and preached love and harmony, but when it came to pride and ambition, conquest or the defence of kingdom or empire it all fell upon deaf ears. Young men marched off to war dreaming of victory and glory and those who should have been wiser generally manipulated them to further their own earthly aims.
China’s history shows yet again that it is impossible to escape the dilemma of all organized states and societies. They must maintain an army to defend themselves and soldiers can only be honed into an effective fighting force by going to war. War is a senseless sacrifice of lives and resources and yet no organized society can avoid it.
Bordering China’s great land mass in the south west is the isolated country of Tibet, perched on the highest plateau in the world and surrounded by the ice peaks of the Himalayas. Its original religion was a form of Shamanism which sees an overlapping spirit world, not only of the ancestors but also spirits associated with every aspect of nature. The spirits were a mixture of good and bad and could be approached by shamans, adepts trained to enter into trance-like states where they could commune with this other world. On to this was grafted a top layer of later Buddhism which again seemed to flourish without unduly affecting the base beliefs.
Tibet was a peaceful land of monks and monasteries with limited contacts with the outer world. Its army was small and poorly equipped. It offered no threat to China but that did not save it from being invaded by the new Communist Government. In 1957 the giant Peoples Liberation Army simply marched in, defeated the tiny Tibetan army and then systematically destroyed the monasteries and murdered the monks who tried to defend them because Communism could not tolerate religion. Religion was an alternative power they could not control and they had already waged campaigns against the monasteries in China. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, was forced to flee into India to set up a government in exile.
Tibet stands as a terrible example of what happens when a country has inadequate means to defend itself. A stronger neighbour simply invades because it can.
China is the most heavily populated country on earth and it seems that here life is cheap. It was not only the man-made slaughters that caused hundreds of thousands of recurring deaths, China was also prone to recurring natural disasters. The flooding of the great Yellow and Yangtze River basins has drowned millions and frequent earthquakes have shattered whole towns and cities. The Yellow River alone has flooded more than fifteen hundred times in China’s recorded history. One flood in 1877 is said to have drowned a million people, The River has become known as China’s sorrow.
China’s rulers could also be blindly indifferent to huge losses of life. The building of the Great Wall of China, more than two thousand miles long and medieval China’s greatest achievement cost hundreds of thousands of lives, many of them entombed within the wall itself. In 1936, when the Japanese had invaded China, the Nationalist General Chiang Kai Shek deliberately blew up the dykes of the Yellow River to create a flood to stop the Japanese advance. It was not only the Japanese who suffered, something like nine hundred thousand Chinese were also drowned or starved to death as part of the result.
In China these stupendous death tolls seem to barely dent China’s huge exploding population. In the 1980s stringent birth control measures were forcibly imposed by China’s government. Only one child per family was allowed. Women had to have a contraceptive device surgically installed after their first child and would be sterilized if they had a second. A system of heavy fines and withdrawal of privileges and employment opportunities could also accompany any breach of the rules. China’s birth control problem was soon to become a generalized third world problem. The poorer countries were producing more human beings than the planet could support.
This raises an awkward question: Could wars and disasters be nature’s way of controlling the human population? Are they a kind of cull, a necessary pruning? We read horrendous death count figures from wars, revolutions and natural disasters throughout history, but the human race always goes on and populations keep recovering and expanding. If God is in control of everything, could this be God’s way of keeping a balance? The Hindu story of Arjun and Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita seems to suggest so, and so does the Dinka story of the Second Spear.
At the end of life everyone has to die. If everyone lived for ever we would end up standing on the shoulders of generations of our forefathers with no room to move or breathe. Everyone has his or her lifespan, long or short, but it must come to an end. Perhaps the time and method are unimportant, but that is an atheist thought and all religions would contest it. Some of us will come to peaceful ends and that is the ideal, a long life and a peaceful end. For those who die violently perhaps there is some recompense somewhere to come. Most religions do promise that we will receive what we have earned. In this life it does not seem possible to eradicate war.
Death in Chinese religion is not the end. Chinese Buddhism sees more rebirths and the possibility of eventual Enlightenment and ascension to one of the Buddha state heavens. Taoism and Confucianism both see the possibility of joining the ancestors and the immortals in the heaven of the Jade Emperor. At death a Taoist priest will officiate to transform the deceased to a benevolent ancestor instead of a wandering ghost. The soul will descend to the Chinese underworld to be tried and judged by a judiciary similar to that of the emperor’s court on earth. It may have to pass through some of the punishments of hell to atone for past misdeeds but then it can ascend to be reincarnated or to join the immortals.
Confucius was never directly concerned with the afterlife, preferring to concentrate on the morality and good order of society here on earth. However, the practise of venerating the ancestors and caring for their destiny after death fitted perfectly with the Confucian value of filial piety. As his teachings were developed and accepted the Confucian acceptance of the afterlife blended almost indistinguishably with the Taoism and the popular religion.
The people of Tibet also believe firmly in reincarnation. The present Dalai Lama is believed to be in his fourteenth reincarnation. When a Dalai Lama dies the monks of Tibet immediately begin to look for a male child who was born at the same moment in time. When one is found the senior monks will show him items with which the last Dalai Lama was familiar and if the child shows signs of recognizing anything he is then hailed as the re-born Dalai Lama.
It has been said that east of Karachi, everyone believes in reincarnation. It is the dominant belief of all the eastern religions.
THE JAPANESE EXPERIENCE
The islands of Japan lie between the Sea of Japan and the North Pacific Ocean. On the world map it looks as though the southern island of Kyushu is almost touching the peninsular of Korea which thrusts out from the Chinese mainland. It was through Korea that the Chinese influences of Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism gradually infiltrated to reach Japan..
The original indigenous religion of Japan is Shinto, which means basically the way of the gods. Shinto has no founder like a Jesus or Mohammad but was simply an overall animistic belief which worshipped the spirits of nature. Every animal and every ancestor, and every mountain, rock and stream had its own guardian spirit. The spirits were visualized with divine powers for both good and evil and were infinite in number. Like human beings there could be both good and bad in all of the spirits and none were exclusively benevolent or hostile. Some of these eventually became personalized as gods, especially Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun. The Rising Sun is still the emblem of Japan today and is displayed on the national flag.
Sun worship has always figured predominantly in primary religious belief. The sun gave life and warmth, generating all growth, and so it was almost inevitable that the spirit of the sun should be the most senior spirit and one of the first to be personified. Amaterasu’s parents were two celestial creator deities named Izanagi and Izanami and she has inherited from them the role of continuing the process of creation. The brother of Amaterasu was the storm god Susanoo, a violent spirit who symbolized disaster and destruction. Shinto mythology tells of the storm god wreaking havoc on the rice fields of the Goddess. Amaterasu fled to a cave where she hid herself away. All efforts to entice her out failed completely until a mirror was placed before the cave mouth, The other spirits then danced so cheerfully that Amaterasu was at last tempted to peep out, When she saw her own reflection in the mirror she was enchanted and emerged fully again. The story could be symbolic of an eclipse or the ending of winter but either way it is now enshrined in legend and the mirror has become Amaterasu’s symbol.
The vast range of Shinto spirits representing all kinds of natural forces and entities is known as the kami. Some of them are national spirits, such as the sun goddess, the storm god and the rice god and others are localized to certain areas or as the ancestors of certain households. They all have spiritual power but there is no actual spiritual hierarchy although some are more widely revered than others. It is probably because these beliefs are so localized that Shinto has never sent missionaries beyond the shores of Japan.
Jimmu Tenno the great grandson of the grandson of Amaterasu became the first emperor of Japan, a divine lineage and bloodline which is believed to have continued from the seventh century through to the present emperor, whose role is now seen as purely representative and ceremonial. The emperors of course did not wield real power throughout all of this time. They commanded a mandatory respect due to their exalted lineage, but for a long period the real power in Japan was held by the Shoguns, the reigning warlords who commanded the military strength of the country.
In the divine lineage of the Emperors of Japan it is possible to see a parallel with the God-given right of early European kings and the Mandate of Heaven enjoyed by the Chinese Emperors. The idea that the ruler was divinely ordained and that to oppose the ruler was to oppose the will of the gods was usefully employed in many ancient cultures. It was always the duty of the king or emperor to offer prayers and sacrifices to the gods on behalf of the nation. Bad harvests or natural disasters were usually seen as a bad sign from the gods and perhaps as a signal that the ruler could be righteously replaced.
There is always interplay between the various strands of religion. Daoism spread from China through Korea to Japan and it is possible to see its influence on Shinto. The supreme roles of the Jade Emperor and Amaterasu the Sun Goddess are in direct contrast, as are the concepts of a heaven modelled on the earthly emperor’s court and the pantheon of a vast range of nature spirits. However, both religions looked for harmony between men and nature and harmony between men and their visions of the gods.
Later, when Buddhism travelled the same road and made its major impact on Japan it again found no major conflict with the existing beliefs. Buddhism generally did not try to uproot or deny the polytheistic and animistic beliefs of the Asian world. Shinto and Buddhism generally complemented each other. The missionary Buddhist monks seemed always content to blend in their message and teaching with the indigenous view of the spirit world, which no doubt contributed to its successful expansion.
There was, however, some initial conflict between the two religions, first because one major clan favoured Buddhism while another still supported Shinto. Later the Shoguns made Buddhism the state religion, mainly it seems because they were hostile to China and the Chinese influences of Daoism and Confucianism that had crept into Shinto. After the Shogun period the emperor made Shinto the state religion again. These changes seem to have been mainly political and through it all the majority of Shinto priests simply accepted the range of China-inspired Buddhas into their own pantheon of spirits and it seems that the worship of both the Shinto Kami and the Buddhas was generally acceptable to both sides.
One form of Buddhism which became particularly dominant in Japan was the Chinese Chan school of Buddhism, which in Japan became known as Zen. In Zen belief every one of us is actually a Buddha, although the vast majority of us have no knowledge of our Buddha potential. Plus we are all identical with everything in the cosmos. There is a cosmic unity of which we are all part. To reach an understanding of this unity we must be awakened. This sounds like the standard Buddhist quest for enlightenment, but in Zen this need not be a lifelong process of monastic meditation and the study of the eightfold path. The knowledge is within us, like a flower waiting to open.
This illumination can come suddenly and spontaneously, like a dreamer being shocked from sleep into wakefulness. Zen masters snap startling questions at their pupils, or give them a violent and unexpected slap. The aim is an abrupt awakening, which is perceived as a spiritual as well as a physical possibility. The method has been likened to a parallel in archery where the novice hits the target without aiming. Zen is the direct path up the spiritual mountain, the exact opposite to the easy, winding route of least resistance.
Both Shinto and Buddhism advocated peace and harmony but still the history of Japan is once again nothing but a catalogue of wars and conflict. One of the most enduring heroes of Japanese folklore is the samurai. There were wandering samurai mercenaries but most were the hereditary military nobles and officer class of mediaeval Japan. They had high prestige and cultivated a military code of values known as Bushido. The code demanded unflinching loyalty to their feudal lord, an indifference to pain and a fierce standard of honour which could ultimately demand a ritual self disembowelling to avert disgrace.
The Samurai ethic was nurtured through many battles as the Daimo Clan lords fought for supremacy and again through two failed but bloody and devastating invasions of Korea in1592 and 1597. The same ethic served the Shoguns through their years of supremacy when the emperor was reduced to a mere figurehead. A nominal loyalty was always paid to the imperial bloodline but not necessarily to the man on the throne. Respect was due to the Emperor as the ruler he should be, but if the Shogun decided that the Emperor was being wrongly guided by “evil counsellors” then he could be circumvented.
During the 1870s the status of the Samurai came at last to be seen as obsolete and was officially abolished. The Meiji revolution which restored power to the emperor ended their feudal roles. They were no longer allowed to wear two swords or to summarily execute any commoner who showed them disrespect.
However, it seems that the code lingered in the hearts and minds of the military officer class long after the medieval armour and the outer regalia had been abandoned. In the 20th century the military classes were again the effective rulers of Japan. There was a Japanese Parliament but the civilians in it were mostly ignored or over-ruled.
Manchuria in Northern China had long been a bone of contention between Russia, China and Japan. It was nominally a part of China but the Russians wanted it because it gave access to Port Arthur, the only year round ice-free port on the northern Pacific. The Japanese wanted to block the perceived threat from Russia and to expand their hold through Korea into China. The last empire of China had collapsed and the vast country was being fought over by the competing armies of the nationalists and the communists which made it the ideal time for Japan to invade Manchuria.
The Japanese army in Manchuria was supposed to be there simply to maintain order, but very quickly they found an excuse to attack the Chinese troops in the city of Mukden. Mukden fell and immediately the Japanese Army moved in more troops to take control of more cities. Independent of the restraining efforts from the parliament in Tokyo, the Japanese Army leaders announced that Manchuria was now the Japanese state of Manchuko.
It was the trigger for the start of the second Sino-Japanese war. The divided Chinese were almost helpless before the single-minded assaults and suffered appalling losses. The old Samurai code was in full force as the Japanese advanced, sweeping down from the north and opening up a new bridgehead at Shanghai. They were all prepared to die for their emperor, unaware that their leaders were ignoring his advice, and they fought mercilessly with no pity for their enemy. The enemy lost honour by failing to win their battles and so were only fit to die.
China’s capital was then the city of Nanking and it was here that the Japanese Army committed some of its greatest atrocities. The fall of Nanking was followed by six weeks of raping, looting and murder. Many of the defeated Chinese soldiers had tried to disguise themselves as ordinary citizens which allowed for the mass murder of civilians. Estimates vary as to how many people were massacred after the capture of Nanking, ranging from forty thousand to three hundred thousand. Photographs showing hundreds of bodies sprawled in the streets or along the riverbank show only snapshots of the general horror.
The Western World was soon to be engulfed in the great struggle of the Second World War, which allowed Japan a virtually free hand in the South East Asia and the Pacific. The Japanese war machine rolled unchecked into Indo China and down through the Philippines and the islands of the Pacific. The British had installed heavy guns to defend Singapore but the inevitable attack did not come from the sea. The Japanese Army stormed through Malaya to attack from the land and Singapore fell. The thousands of British prisoners of war suffered intolerably under the Japanese regime. The Samurai code saw no honour in prisoners and they were treated with barbaric contempt.
Japan was triumphant, rampaging seemingly unchecked around the rim of the pacific. Only one power looked as though it could stop them and the Japanese military sought to forestall that without warning. The Japanese Air Force launched a murderous surprise attack on the United States at Pearl harbour in Hawaii and sank most of the US Sixth Fleet.
Japan had miscalculated, its forces were over-extended and the US fought back. In the air and sea war over the Pacific the Americans gradually turned the tide. They won massive aerial and sea battles over the Coral Sea and over the island of Midway and now it was Japanese cruisers and battleships that were being sent to the bottom of the Pacific. The Japanese advance toward Australia was halted and then the Japanese were slowly pushed back. America was a vast country with enough soldiers to fight wars on two fronts and US troops poured into the Pacific. The Japanese held islands were re-taken one by one with fierce and savage fighting. In the true Samurai tradition many Japanese garrisons fought to the last man.
In the end the ultimate horror of modern warfare was inflicted upon Japan by the United States of America. On the 6th of August 1945 the newly developed atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The devastation wiped out the city with a one mile radius of total destruction and over four square miles of firestorm. Between seventy and eighty thousand people were killed, most of them civilians, and a similar number were horribly burned and injured. Whole generations of schoolchildren were obliterated as they attempted to clear firebreaks in anticipation of a conventional bombing raid. Two days later the atrocity was repeated when a second bomb was dropped and a second nuclear mushroom spread over the doomed city of Nagasaki.
The logical justification for this nuclear slaughter was that it actually cost less lives than the numbers anticipated for a full scale US invasion of Japan. The islands of Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima had seen such ferocious last ditch fighting by the Japanese that the US government was convinced that every Japanese soldier would fight to the death for his homeland. Even the civilians in Japan had been armed with bamboo spears. The casualties on both sides in such an attempt would have dwarfed those of both Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Japan surrendered and submitted to a US Army of Occupation. One clause in the new constitution forced upon the Japanese by America was that it would never again be allowed to build up any armed forces. However, incredibly, only five years later the Americans were encouraging the Japanese to build up a national Police Force armed as soldiers. In a few more years this force had become a well-equipped modern army. The reason for this turn-around was the outbreak of the Cold War and the belief that the West might need Japan’s help to fight the forces of communism. Political reality had stamped down once again.
There are two sides to the Japanese character. This is probably true of all the races on earth but with the Japanese the differences seem more sharply drawn. On the one hand there is the Samurai, shaped by the Bushido Code, the implacable and contemptuous soldier who showed himself at Nanking and at the Japanese prisoner of War camps during the Second World War. On the other is the over-polite and gentle Japanese of peace-time, shaped by the harmonious edicts of Shinto and Buddhism.
The latter bows on every occasion and delights in simple pursuits: such as the religious precision of the tea ceremony or the cultivation of the perfectly balanced garden. In the tea ceremony the cups and utensils must all be handled in a certain, reverential way. The tea must be made, served and tasted, all with exact precision. It is a calming ceremony, designed to slow and still both mind and body, giving time to relax in a moment of peace and beauty. The temple gardens in Japan are designed to have the same affect. The temples, mosques and cathedrals of the rest of the world are beautiful but garish in comparison. A Japanese temple is generally less ostentatious and natural, a subdued building which does not distract from the peace and beauty of the surrounding trees, plants and reflecting water.
To get a Japanese answer to the first of our two continuing questions, why do men go to war, it seems that we must look to the first aspect of the Japanese character as evidenced by the samurai culture and the Bushido Code. The art of the warrior is the reason for existence and one cannot be a warrior without war. Courage in war and loyalty in war is everything. If courage and loyalty fail then hara kiri, the ritual suicide by self disembowelment is the only way to eradicate shame and disgrace. At the end of the Pacific war young Japanese pilots were deliberately crashing their planes on to American ships in their efforts to sink them. They called themselves kami-kazi after the “Divine Wind” of a typhoon that had wrecked an invading Chinese fleet and so saved Japan back in the Middle Ages. To die for Japan in one of these glorious suicide dives was seen as a great honour. Waging war successfully is a prime samurai reason for living.
Perhaps this goes too far. The eight virtues of the bushido code include compassion and justice as well as courage, loyalty and honour, but it seems that these first two can be too easily forgotten. They certainly had no place in Nanking or the POW camps of the Second World War.
For an answer to our second question, what happens when we die, we must return to Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto belief is that after death the soul of the deceased merges with the kami spirits of the ancestors and can achieve immortality. However, Shinto seems more concerned with honouring the spirits for their beneficial effects on life in this world, and less on any emphasis on the afterlife. The Shinto focus is mainly on how we live now, and how a person honours the spirits and relates to the nature of things here and now,
Shinto acknowledges no heaven and seems to have left behind some original notions of hell. So most Japanese today apparently prefer to be buried with Buddhist rites and obviously the hope is for an afterlife in one of the Buddhist heavens such as the Pure land of Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite light. Again Shinto and Buddhist beliefs seem to complement each other and blend together well.
THE PRIMAL RELIGIONS.
We have seen that the basis of Shinto is animism, a belief in the kamis, the spirits that are evident in every aspect of the natural world the kami are the spiritual essence of the forces like wind and rain and fire, of human ancestors and animals and places. Every rock, stream, waterfall, grove, cave and mountain has its own spirit and the more beautiful or remote the place, the more important is the residing spirit. The primary peoples before the ages of agriculture and then industry were all hunters and gatherers and fishermen. They all lived closer to nature, were directly dependent upon its bounty and so were much more aware of the natural world around them.
It has been estimated that for about 90% of the time that man has been the dominant species on this planet he has lived in this way. The advent of agriculture and the settled society of towns and then cities and civilizations is a relatively recent phenomenon. Long before the founders of the great doctrinal faith streams preached their messages of hope and salvation primitive peoples everywhere were all aware of a spiritual dimension to the wonderful creation within which they found themselves. They believed in this spiritual world and tried to relate to it. They believed that the spirits possessed powers for both good and evil and for better or worse were capable of interfering with human lives. The kamis of the Japanese had their parallels in almost every primal society. The understandings and the names, the mythologies and the rituals were different in different cultures, but the basic ideas were universal across the globe. The spiritual or supernatural world of the dead was always believed to pervade or overshadow the physical world of the living.
This indigenous tribal or folk religion was known all over Asia before the arrival of the great faiths of Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Daoism and Confucianism which dominate today. It is still there in the pantheistic roots of some of these great faiths and is still widely practised in Russian Siberia. The central practitioner of such beliefs is usually the Shaman who performs the role played by the priests of what we tend to regard as the more modern religions. Shaman is a Siberian word but Shamans are found throughout the northern regions of the world, among the anuit of Hokkaido in Japan, in Mongolia, Greenland and among the Arctic Eskimos of Canada. They are also found among the tribal societies of South America.
The Shaman is the man who can connect to the otherworld and communicate with the spirits. He usually does this through various forms of divination, throwing bones or runes, or by dance and music, using rattles and drums and working himself up into a visionary trance. During this vision quest he can enter or communicate with the spirit world to find answers to questions or cures for sickness. The Shaman often has a personal bond with a particular spirit in the otherworld with whom he makes contact. Masks and regalia are used to help transform the Shaman and he is often believed to be possessed by the spirit he approaches.
In the many island groupings of the Pacific Ocean similar patterns of animistic beliefs persist. In Polynesia everything both animate and inanimate is believed to be endowed with a sacred, supernatural power. This power is known as mana and because it can be adversely affected by human activity it has given rise to another major religious concept, that of taboo. Something that is taboo is something that is forbidden because it angers the gods, the spirits, or affects the mana of others. In ancient Polynesia a commoner could be killed for touching a chief’s shadow because that would break a taboo and detract from the chief’s power.
There were again many diverse gods and spirits but as might be expected the more important of these were those who presided over storms and the sea, rain and thunder and successful fishing. There were sacred groves and places, often marked by stone platforms and stone gods, like the tikki gods of Hawaii, the gods of war, fertility and the sea and the goddess of volcanoes. These were often depicted with bulging eyes and protruding tongues. On Easter Island there are mysterious and monumental stone figures that may be the figures of their ancestors. In many places the remnants of these traditional beliefs were deliberately obliterated by Christian missionaries.
In Australia we find the colourful Dreamtime of the indigenous aborigine people. The Australian aborigines with the possible exception of the Bushmen on the Kalahari Desert in South Africa are the oldest race on earth and the people still most closely associated with their prehistoric roots. Their Dreamtime is the mythological time of creation. The Rainbow Snake, the Kangaroo and the Lizard are all credited with participating in the creation of the different aspects of the Australian landscape. There is a Dreamtime legend to explain how everything came into being. The aborigines moved for countless generations through deserts and mountains that were perceived as alive with spirits and the forces of creation.
In the centre of the Australian desert stands the great red rock of Uluru. This massive sandstone dome is now a tourist attraction due to its gorgeous transformation of glowing colours at every sunrise and sunset. As the skies darken or brighten and the shadows become longer or shorter the rock passes through multiples shades of purple, red, gold and orange. It is a fantastic spectacle and has been sacred to generation after generation of aborigines. Around the circumference of the rock lie an abundance of fresh water springs and waterholes, together with caves and clefts decorated with ancient rock wall paintings. They are, of course, all inhabited by the spirits of ancient creator beings.
There are several accounts of how Uluru came into being. One tells of a race of serpent beings that raged war around the rock and so created the great cracks and rifts which scar its surface. Another tells of two tribes of ancestral spirits who fought a great battle until the leaders on both sides were slain. The earth itself heaved and rose up in grief to become Uluru. Not far away is Kata Tjuta, an equally huge pile of domed red sandstone boulders which are also sacred to the aborigines. A great Snake King is said to live on the summit of Kata Tjuta. There are other Dreamtime legends woven into these sacred rocks but most of them are secret and known only to the aborigines.
Linguists and archaeologists have established that the vast area of the Pacific Ocean Islands was populated in gradual island-hopping stages from China and South East Asia. It is logical to believe that some of their original spiritual ideas came with them, evolving through various adaptations along the way. This chain of colonization eventually reached New Zealand and gave rise to the Maori. The Australian aborigine also originated in ancient Asia but much further back in time, possibly when New Guinea and Australia were part of the same land mass. Given the vast gulfs in time and ocean that have separated these different peoples it seems significant that the central belief that there is a supernatural spirit world has persisted.
Africa was the continent where our species, homo sapiens, first appeared, his footprints were found in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and dated back to 17,000 years ago. Ironically Africa was also the last continent to be fully explored by the rest of the world. Its peoples are diverse but again the same patterns of belief run through all their societies. Their world is full of spirits and ghosts and they fully believe in a supernatural dimension that rules over their physical reality.
The Bantu-speaking groups are spread over most of central Africa and cover many different tribes. All of them traditionally believe that there is a supreme god although his nature is only vaguely defined. He may in some cases be associated with the sun or with the oldest of all the ancestors. In most traditions God is believed to live in the skies, high above the earth, although among the Kikuyu he lives on Mount Kenya. Several Bantu myths tell of why god is so distant from men. God cares about humanity but is displeased with men because they have corrupted or miss-used his natural world. One Congo belief tells how God and humans once lived in the same village, but the humans quarrelled and so God exiled them to earth. The men tried to build a tower back to heaven but when they succeeded they held such a noisy party on the top that God got angry and cut down the tower, so separating Himself from men forever.
In Bantu mythology god is not seen as a creator because all things have existed eternally. Men were born from a plant or simply emerged from a hole in the ground. While god is distant the spirits of the dead are close and veneration of the dead is important because they can influence the living. They communicate through dreams and omens and can take the visible shape of animals, snakes or birds. The world of the dead, as in most other cultures, is underground. In Africa the role of the Shaman is played by the tribal witch-doctor. He is the traditional healer, credited with the ability to read signs and bestow or lift curses.
In Zulu mythology the world began as a vast primordial swamp until the Sky father came down to creates the reeds on which all the animals and men eventually grew. He taught the Zulu how to hunt, how to make fire and cultivate grain. Zulu tradition contains numerous other deities, including the goddess of the rivers, the moon goddess and the goddess of the rainbow,
The Dinka of the Southern Sudan worship a supreme creator god who is the god of the sky and rain and rules over all the spirits. He is believed to be present in all creation and to control the destiny of all beings. We have already noted the Dinka belief in “The Second Spear.” A man may throw a physical spear at his enemy, but God throws the second spiritual spear which controls its flight. So it is God’s will that decides whether or not the spear will hit its target.
The Yoruba who have their homeland in Nigeria in West Africa have developed a sophisticated cosmology of their own. They believe that all people possess a destiny that will eventually bring them to be one in spirit with their divine creator who is the source of all energy. There is a spiritual realm and each person must try and develop his or her spiritual consciousness in the physical world to reach transcendence and his or her destiny.
From all of this we can see that Africa is far from being a religiously barren wasteland. Before it was discovered by Europeans the history of Africa between the Sahara and the central jungles is full of kingdoms and empires that rose and fell with the usual regularity. Between 900 and 1500 AD the kingdoms of Kanem, Bornu, Songhay and Darfur all thrived between the great sand desert and the tropical forests. The huge empire of Mali rose along the Niger River with its bustling capital and salt market at Timbuktu. The black kings of Benin and Akan on the southern coast of West Africa grew rich on exports of gold, ivory and slaves. Their artists worked exquisitely in bronze.
Arab traders carried Islam with them as they plied the caravan trade routes deeper into Africa and gradually the traditional religions of these independent kingdoms were overshadowed by conversion to the faith of Mohammad. However, all of these kingdoms appear to have emerged with the idea that their kings ruled by divine right. It was a right which passed down through dynasties and the pattern seems to have infiltrated up the mighty River Nile through the upper Nile kingdom of Kush from the dynastic civilization of ancient Egypt.
The Nile was one of the earliest cradles of civilization and the Pharaohs of Egypt ruled through more than thirty dynasties. The annual flooding of the river created a rich and fertile soil on both banks, growing the abundance of food that was necessary for a great civilization to thrive. Egypt was a land of pyramids, palaces and tombs, ruled by a God-King with a rich priesthood and an elaborate hierarchy of gods.
There were hundreds of deities in the Egyptian pantheon and powerful and important cults grew around them. These gods of Egypt were half animal and half human, usually visualized in art and sculpture with human figures and beast or bird heads. At their head was Amun, the king of the gods, portrayed as a ram-headed figure with a double head-dress. He seems to have become later amalgamated with Ra, the sun god; to become Amun-Ra. Hathor was the mother goddess, represented in the form of a cow or a woman with cow’s ears. Osiris was the god of the dead and the afterlife, an anthropomorphic, mummified figure with a crook and a flail. He was closely associated with the jackal-headed Anubis who was the god of burials and cemeteries. Seth was the wicked brother of Osiris and was associated with storm and chaos. Horus, the falcon-headed god, was identified with the first king of Egypt. There were many more, representing cosmic forces and all the mysteries of life and death.
The pharaohs of Egypt could be regarded as god or as a being somewhere between mortal and divine. The concept of their kingship seems to have been carried with the office rather than invested in the man. It was carried on through the dynasty and could pass from one dynasty to the next. The divinity of the pharaoh was a vital part of a complex belief system and social structure. It continued in this way for more than 3,000 years.
The ancient Egyptians believed firmly in the underworld and the afterlife. Their burial rites were elaborate and their tombs and the great pyramids were built to last. The bodies of the Pharaohs were mummified to prevent decay and buried with a vast range of grave goods. Elaborate life size paintings in the cut rock tombs in the Valley of the Kings show the procession of the dead Pharaoh through the underworld. He is shown being greeted by the jackal-headed god Anubis, and then in the presence of Osiris for the Weighing of the Heart, the ceremony of Judgement.
The early hunter-gatherer groups maintained no standing armies ad fought no major battles, but no doubt groups and tribes did occasionally quarrel when they encountered each other and had to compete for limited food resources. The mediaeval African kingdoms were sometimes large and powerful and obviously fought within themselves or with each other as they rose and fell. Egypt suffered dynastic wars and was invaded many times, by the Hittites, the Assyrians and the Persians and finally by the all conquering Alexander the Great. However, in none of these cases was there a great religious teacher like Jesus, Mohammad, the Buddha or the great sages of China to preach the values of peace and harmony. There is no contradiction here between religious belief and political or defensive action.
What our survey of the primal religions does reveal is that everywhere there was some sort of understanding of the spirit world and an afterlife. This natural physical world was not the only world but was inextricably united with the supernatural spiritual world. People did not just die and vanish from existence. Their physical remains could be burned or buried, or just left behind for the vultures and the animals to eat, but somehow the essence of their being continued in the spirit world that was all around them. As society developed it became imperative to devise rites and rituals to help them on their way and to ensure their continuing good will.
The Egyptians had an elaborate cult of the dead, as attested by the towering pyramids and the funerary temples and the rock cut tombs they left behind. The gods they envisaged presided over every stage of the underworld journey and the heart of the deceased was even weighed in judgement. Tombs and temples, identical in purpose if not exactly similar in structure, have been left behind by every great civilization.
Archaeological digs have revealed that even from earliest times, as far back as the Palaeolithic age, burials have been accompanied by grave goods. These are usually weapons and jewellery, or implements that the dead person might have used and would thus find useful again in the next life. In the tombs of kings these can be very rich hauls indeed. The tomb of the Egyptian boy king Tutankhamen, which somehow escaped the tomb robbers of antiquity, revealed a rich and fascinating treasure trove when it was finally opened, including a superb golden death mask.
With powerful rulers, as in ancient Egypt and ancient China, slaves, soldiers, servants and wives could be buried with them, either ritually killed or just buried alive when the tomb was sealed. They were there to continue serving their master in the afterlife.
In some cases ancient skeletons have been found bent up into the foetal position before internment. This could suggest that those who conducted the burial were preparing for the deceased to be born again; or it could be that the body was tied up to prevent it from flying free and perhaps causing mischief from the afterlife. Either way the practice indicates that there was a belief that the spirit would continue.
The Australian aborigines, the oldest primal group still surviving on Earth today believed in a place they called “The Land of the Dead.” Sometimes it was also known as the Sky World. As long as the correct rituals were performed at the time of death and burial the spirit of the deceased would be permitted to enter this world and would perhaps become attached to part of the landscape which would then become a sacred site.
Belief in the spirit world is worldwide and has persisted through all societies and through all ages.
THE AMERICAN RELIGIONS
America was first inhabited by peoples from Siberia crossing the ancient land bridge that once connected Asia to Alaska. These peoples then infiltrated down into North America and brought many of their spiritual beliefs with them. So it is not surprising to find that the Red Indian tribes who came to inhabit the Great Plains and forests of the North American continent were also fully aware of the spirit world they sensed all around them. The shamans of Siberia became the medicine men of the tribes and fulfilled much the same role.
Among the Algonquian peoples Manitou was the Great Spirit or Supreme Being. Manitou was omnipresent and manifested everywhere in the environment. When the white settlers eventually came some of them saw in the Manitou concept the monotheistic god of their own Abrahamic tradition.
The medicine man could connect with the Manitou and other spirits by various means; through hallucinogenic drugs or a trance state induced by chanting, dancing or the rhythmic beat of drums. In this way they could see the future, change the weather or cure illness. Some tribes believed that Manitou dwelt in the stones of the sweat lodge where they underwent their prayer and purification ceremonies. Water was sprinkled on the hot stones inside the buckskin covered wigwam to create a sauna-like atmosphere. Manitou then left the stones in the rising steam, penetrating the bodies of the men in the lodge, purifying and driving out all pain before returning to the stones.
To the Sioux Indians life and religion were inextricably mixed. Human beings, the mighty buffalo and all other animals were all created from Mother Earth. To them the Great Spirit was known as Wankan Tanaka, a mysterious, powerful and sacred being who had created the universe and who somehow was the universe. The Sun, the moon and stars, and everything on earth were in some way manifestations of Wankan Tanaka.
Before the arrival of the white man the Native American Indians lived, like most other primal peoples, by hunting, gathering and fishing. Wild animals, especially the buffalo, provided not only their food but also the skins for their clothing and tepee tents. The animals had to be thanked with prayers for giving up their lives so that the hunters and their families could survive. Everything had its place and purpose in the great circle of life and so everything was a gift and was due respect and gratitude.
The first Europeans to arrive on the North American continent found the native Indian tribes living in the traditional way, but further south in central and southern America three great civilizations had developed. The Spanish conquistadores who discovered these empires of the Inca, the Aztec and the Maya were surprised to find cities and social structures as sophisticated as anything they had left behind.
However, these empires and their religions had a dark side. They were founded on principles of human sacrifice with pyramid temples where the hearts of living victims were torn out and offered to their gods. Human sacrifice was not unknown elsewhere in the world, peoples as advanced as the Egyptian Pharaohs and the Emperors of China had their concubines and servants killed and entombed with them to serve them in the after world. However, no other civilizations had developed such gory and regular rituals for the sacred murder of such large numbers.
The Aztecs had developed ritual murder to a fine art. Their whole belief system revolved around blood and sacrifice. They believed that it was absolutely necessary to make regular and multiple offerings of blood and human lives to their gods. If they did not do this they believed that the sun would die and that their world would come to an end. All Aztecs pricked their ear lobes each morning to produce two drops of blood to offer to the gods. Their rulers pierced their tongues or penis with sharp cactus thorns to make the sacrificial blood offerings. They made war to obtain captives for human sacrifice. To celebrate the completion of their great temple at their capital city of Tenochtitlan it was reported that 20,000 captives were slaughtered in one great chest-ripping orgy that lasted for four days. The hearts were offered up to the gods and then eaten by the priests. The bodies were tossed down the steps of the pyramid to be cooked and eaten by the crowd.
Maintaining the constant procession of sacrificial victims was a religious duty to legitimize the political power of the ruler and to safeguard the natural order of the land. The tears wept produced the rain and the blood flow ensured the fertility of the earth and good harvests. Above all it appeased and satisfied the gods.
The Aztecs had built their capital city on an island in a lake where the modern Mexico City now stands. They expanded their empire through most of what is now Mexico. The Maya spread their city states through the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula and across most of Central America. The Maya had an almost identical belief system to the Aztecs and their city states were constantly at war to provide captives for their blood thirsty rituals. Both the Aztecs and the Maya built splendid cities with pyramids, temples and palaces.
The Maya were already in decline and many of their jungle cities had already been abandoned when the Spanish Conquistadores arrived in AD1519. They were led by Hernan Cortes, a Spanish soldier and fortune hunter. The lure of Aztec gold led them to Tenochtitlan and on the way they impressed the local Maya and enlisted their aid. The Spaniards were relatively small in number but they possessed firearms and rode horses which gave them a huge advantage.
Among the major gods whom the Aztecs worshipped was Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent God. They believed that they were descended from Quetzalcoatl and that one day the Serpent God would return and reclaim his lands and his throne. They also believed that this ancient god had a white face and a beard. So when Cortes and his conquistadores appeared many of the Aztecs believed that Cortez must be Quetzalcoatl returning to claim his throne. He even had the supreme good fortune to arrive at the very time the prophesy had proclaimed for the return of the god.
Because of this Montezuma, the Aztec emperor initially made the first Spaniards welcome and tried to appease them with fateful gifts of gold that only incited their greed. Cortes and his men also had steel swords and armour, firearms in the form of cannon and blunderbusses, and most of all his horses and war dogs, mastiffs and wolfhounds – all terrifying things which the Aztecs had never seen before. Cortes was a gambler and it seemed that all the cards were in his favour. He found a shipwrecked Spanish sailor who had learned to speak Maya, and a Mayan mistress who could speak the language of the Aztecs. Through these two he could glean information and communicate. The mighty and powerful Aztec empire had over-stretched itself and was on the point of collapse. Many of the neighbouring states and cities that were forced to pay tribute to the Aztecs were on the point of rebellion. Like a house of cards that was tottering under its own weight the Aztec Empire only needed a determined push.
As he marched upon Tenochtitlan Cortes encountered the city of Tlaxcala. The Tlaxcala’s met him in battle and almost defeated him. At the last moment they seemed to realize that these vicious new arrivals with their fearsome weapons could help them to defeat the Aztecs. So they became allies. Cortes entered Tenochtitlan at the head of a large column of his conquistadores and their Tlaxcala friends. Montezuma welcomed them, hedging his bets and playing for time. It was a cat and mouse game and half the time it was difficult to know who the cat was and who the mouse. Eventually the game was up and the Spaniards had to fight their way out of the city. Many of them were butchered, or drowned in the lake due to the weight of the stolen gold in their pockets. Those that were left behind were sacrificed on the temple altars but Cortes and about a quarter of his men escaped.
But Cortes was not beaten. Fate dealt him another brilliant and terrible card. A smallpox epidemic unwittingly introduced by the Spaniards decimated and demoralized the Aztecs. More and more Conquistadores were flowing from Spain through Cuba to join Cortes. He and his allies built up a new army and returned to lay siege to Tenochtitlan and ultimately to destroy the city and slaughter its warriors.
The Maya had already passed their peak and they too were decimated by the spread of smallpox and eventually they were subdued in their turn, Cortes had conquered all of Mexico and to demonstrate that this was now New Spain he had all the Mayan and Aztec temples destroyed and built Christian churches or cathedrals in their place.
It fell to another Spanish Conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, to discover and defeat the third great South American Empire of the Inca. There had been a long line of ancient civilizations along the Pacific coast of South America and the Inca were the last and the most magnificent. Their empire spanned the whole of modern day Peru and extended north into Columbia and south into Chile. They built splendid cities, irrigated the dry deserts and terraced the mountain sides to produce abundant food crops.
The sun was the supreme Inca deity and the emperor was believed to be a divine being descended from the sun. The Incas also worshipped the moon, the lightning, the Pleiades star system, Venus and the rainbow; these all had their shrines in the Court of Gold, the great main temple in the capital city of Cuzco. There were many other deities in the Inca pantheon, similar to the spirit worlds throughout the rest of the world. The Inca, like many other successful empires, simply included the local gods of the peoples they conquered into their own ever expanding pantheon.
The Inca ritual calendar celebrated all the usual coming of age and life changing events, the pattern of the seasons and most important of all the summer and winter solstices. Human sacrifices did take place, when a new emperor came to the throne and during times of extreme crisis, but it seems that this was nothing like the gruesome scale of the Aztecs or the Maya. The usual sacrifices were lamas, the Inca beasts of burden. White lamas were always offered to the sun god, brown lamas to their creator god, and spotted lamas to the god of thunder. Guinea pigs were also sacrificed and other offerings included food, beer and maize.
Warfare was for conquest and not the capture of sacrificial offerings. Often the sheer size of the Inca army was enough to induce surrender and they preferred siege warfare against walled cities rather than pitched battles. The Incas were fierce fighters but they were on foot and armed with clubs and wooden spears. The Spaniards who finally came against them were a tiny group by comparison, but again they had steel swords, firearms and horses.
The conquistadors, of course, were only interested in gold. They had the example of Cortes before them and they were eager to repeat his success. And incredibly it seemed that fate and luck were also on their side. They had arrived when the Inca Empire was in deep crisis, a civil war had recently divided the nation and their invisible ally the lethal smallpox had arrived before them. The disease had struck down the emperor and caused the rivalry between his two sons who had battled for the right to the succession.
As they marched inland from the coast the conquistadors had the good fortune to encounter Atahualpa, the new emperor. With his army weakened from the fighting to defeat his half brother Atahualpa was cautious and agreed to meet and welcome the strangers. The meeting was arranged to take place in the open plaza of a town abandoned during the civil war. The emperor and his nobles arrived and found the plaza empty. A priest who had accompanied Pizarro appeared and began to harangue the Inca delegation with a copy of the Bible. The Emperor finally threw the book down. The priest cried out for vengeance against the insult to the Holy Book and that was all the excuse the Spaniards needed.
The hidden conquistadores opened fire with their canon and blunderbuss. Before the smoke could clear they launched a cavalry charge into the plaza to cut down the survivors with the cold steel of their swords. Within minutes the shocked nobles and retainers were all dead. Only the emperor was left alive and he was Pizarro’s prisoner. Luck and one bold, bloody and ruthless stroke had enabled the small handful of conquistadores to bring the mighty Inca Empire to its knees.
Pizarro kept his prisoner for twelve years, forcing him to restrain his people and to gather up a huge ransom in gold. Finally, when the emperor was no longer of any use Pizarro had him garrotted. By then the damage was done, Pizarro had found allies among Atahualpa’s enemies, reinforcements had arrived from Spain and the smallpox had again decimated the population. Fighting with Atahualpa’s successors continued for four decades but the Inca nation was divided and finally conquered and its treasure looted by Spain. Mule trains carried the Inca gold to Caribbean ports like Cartagena, and then fleets of Spanish galleons carried it across the Atlantic. Like the Aztecs and the Maya the great civilization of the Inca disappeared from history. Of all three only the ruins remain.
The spirit world perceived by the North American Indians fits with the general pattern of the spiritual dimension as it was seen in Polynesia, Australia and Africa. The names and the mythological stories vary, but generally throughout the world a spiritual dimension is sensed and acknowledged. Some cultures are simply more aware of it than others.
The three great empires of central and South America also had this spiritual awareness but from here they differed sharply from almost every other known civilization. Most of the enduring great faiths were blessed with a founder of divine vision, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, a Confucius or a Lao Tzu. Each of these preached a message of peace and harmony and some version of the Golden Rule that all men should love each other and treat each other as equals. In Mesoamerica there was no such founding figure and no harmonic vision of men as brothers seeking enlightenment or union with their creator. The empires that were created here, especially the Aztecs and the Maya, choose to explore a darker path. They were brilliant peoples, some of their temples, palaces and observatories still survive, they were astrologists who developed calendars and charted the stars, and agriculturalists who irrigated and terraced their diverse lands, but they choose to base their worlds on blood and human sacrifice.
The three empires took a wrong path and they were virtually wiped from the face of the Earth. The Conquistadores were ruthless conquerors, greedy for riches and gold, but when we read their stories it seems incredible that so few could have defeated and subjugated so many. They had armour, horses and steel swords, but even so it seems that they were blessed with a staggering amount of luck and good fortune. Cortes found a shipwrecked sailor who could speak Maya and a Mayan mistress who knew the Aztec tongue, all the empires were in crisis, weak, divided and ripe for conquest, and Pizarro just happened to meet the Inca Emperor and make him his prisoner. A deadly disease which the Spaniards carried but from which they were practically immune shattered all three of the great empires. It almost seems as though all this was planned to happen, as though fate fortune or God had decreed that these awful, blood-letting practises must end.
The Indian tribes of North America also suffered and lost, swamped and defeated by the endless waves of settlers coming over from Europe. The new comers saw themselves as pioneers, opening up a new and untamed land, but to the natives they were invaders and interlopers, grabbing the lands where the tribes had lived and hunted for centuries. The new world that the pioneers were winning as their wagon trains trekked ever west, was the old world that the tribes saw vanishing before their eyes. The Sioux, the Pawnee and the Cheyenne were herded into reservations and even these were not sacrosanct when gold was discovered within their boundaries.
The North American Indians had no great blood cults demanding human sacrifice. The tribes fought sometimes but no more than any other ethnic groups coming into collision over territory and resources. If there was some kind of divine justice in terminating the civilizations of the Aztecs and the Maya there was none in curtailing the lifestyle and freedom of the Northern tribes. So, perhaps it is fanciful to see the Hand of God in any of this.
What these events do illustrate once again is one of the most common causes for war, a population explosion seeking a new home. The European settlers flocking to the New World were looking for a new start, freedom of lifestyle and religious expression, or perhaps just a plot of land to farm for themselves. The Irish were fleeing the potato famine and simply wanted to eat. Perhaps no one told them that the New World was already occupied. Perhaps they believed the land was empty and just waiting to be developed. Perhaps for many their own need was so great that they just didn’t care.
The discovery of the New World was something different, but most empires expanded in the same way. Usually the merchants and the traders went first and the armies followed. When cultures clashed or when one group of people possessed what another group needed, in land or resources, war was inevitable, a war of defence or a war of conquest. They were two sides of the same coin. Brute force and skills in warfare usually decided the issue.
The rise of an empire always involved bloodshed. As the old proverb says, you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs. Throughout world history empires have risen and fallen. Like man himself each empire seems to have had a lifespan, a blood-stained beginning, vigorous growth, and then a mellowing period of peace and achievement. It is in these later, golden periods, when philosophy, art and architecture reach their greatest heights.
History is like a two-edged sword. On the one hand we have all the blood, destruction and horror of war, the seemingly great waste of human life. On the other we have the brief intermission of rebuilding and peace when mankind makes great strides of advancement. There is only time for art and philosophy between the periods of fighting, so is this a necessary process of evolution? An empire grows and settles it borders, for a brief while civilization flourishes, then the empire grows old and weakens. A new empire builder seizes the opportunity and the whole process repeats. The wars destroy but each wave of civilisation lifts mankind a little higher. War and civilization go hand in hand, like the alternate footsteps of the rise of human society.
The settlers who pioneered North America found a land of hunters and gatherers where there was nothing man made that was taller than a wigwam. Today they and their successive generations have built a land of great cities and skyscrapers with the power to decide two world wars and fly men to the moon. Other nations have followed, but the United States of America has led us to the edge of the stars.
Could war be just a brute fact, a necessary element for the progress of civilization?
The tribes of the great plains of North America had their own vision of paradise in the afterlife. They called it the Happy Hunting Ground. It was a place where the buffalo still roamed free and plentiful and the opportunities to continue their old lifestyle on the plains was unlimited. Like most other societies they modelled their vision of the afterlife on what they knew.
The Inca also believed strongly in an afterlife and had their own concept of heaven and hell. Their chief deity was the sun god and those who lived a good life by the Inca rules would go to live in the sun’s heavenly warmth. Those who lived a bad life and broke the rules would have to spend their afterlife in the eternal cold and darkness buried in the earth.
Like the Egyptians far across the sea in Africa the Inca mummified their dead and buried them with grave goods, jewellery, pottery and sumptuous textiles. They left gifts for the dead that the dead could use in their next life. For special occasions dead emperors and other exalted mummies would be brought out from their tombs to participate in the ceremonies. They would be offered food as though they were still living persons.
Similar practises and beliefs were held by the Maya and the Aztecs. In Modern Mexico today they still celebrate the Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. In towns and villages colourful parades are held with exuberant singing and dancing. The theme is death with skull masks and skeleton costumes but the purpose is a joyful demonstration of love and respect for deceased family members. Death is seen as a natural phase in life’s continuum and the departed ancestors are still part of the present community. The dead are still present in memory and spirit.
The festival of the dead is held on the two successive days of All Saints Day and all Souls Day in the Christian calendar. They blend together the ancient beliefs and the new faith which replaced them. These celebrations echo the Aztecs, the Maya and the Inca and the belief in the spirit world and an afterlife is as strong as ever.
THE MEDITERRANEAN CIVILIZATIONS
Before we move on from our study of the great world religions and their attitudes to war and the possibility of life after death we need to look briefly at the religions and civilizations of the early Mediterranean. The glory that was Greece, and later the power that was Rome, helped to lay the foundations for modern Europe. They are the roots of Western civilization and their influence and philosophies cannot be ignored.
Ancient Greece saw many cross-currents of religious belief, ranging from the mystic to the mysterious. Dionysus was a deity connected with many of the fertility cults that flourished in Asia Minor. His rites of worship usually took place in secret places like remote woodland glades or olive groves and involved wild dancing and music. Sometimes Dionysus was worshiped as Bacchus, the god of wine, because his praise invariably entailed copious amounts of wine consumption. Devotees delighted in the state of divine intoxication.
The Orphic mysteries revolved around a dualistic doctrine which held that evil was associated with the human condition. There was a clear distinction between the body and soul and the devotee’s aim was to liberate himself from this bodily entanglement and so achieve immortality. The Eleusian mysteries were rites focused around the vegetation deity Demeter, the Corn Mother and the spiritual renewal through every fresh season of growth.
From Homer we know that the main gods were an immortal family who lived on Mount Olympus. Zeus was the Father of the Gods, a powerful ruling sky god who threw thunderbolts and commanded the wind, storms and rain. His consort Hera was the goddess who ruled over the concerns of women. The radiant Apollo was a handsome youth, the son of Zeus and the god of light and music. Aphrodite was the goddess of love, sex and beauty. Poseidon was the god of the sea and Ares the God of war. Athena was the goddess of wisdom and Artemis the goddess of the hunt. Hades ruled the underworld of the dead.
They were an argumentative and fickle family, in Greek mythology forever favouring one or other of the heroes of Earth. Sometimes they opposed each other, interfering and manipulating their own heroes and heroines like pieces on a chessboard.
When the Roman Empire replaced that of the Greeks they replaced the Greek gods of Olympus with gods of their own. The great sky god Zeus became Jupiter. Hera became Juno, Aphrodite became Venus, Poseidon became Neptune, Ares became Mars, and Athena became Diana. The names changed but basically the roles remained the same.
The glory that was Greece produced much advancement to civilization, but perhaps the greatest of them all was the development of the Greek Alphabet. There had been systems of writing and recording before. The ancient Egyptians had their pictorial hieroglyphics. In Mesopotamia they had their cruciform clay tablets with their patterns of wedge shaped incisions. The Phoenicians had developed their alphabet a little further. However, these were cumbersome systems, capable of showing ideas in pictures or keeping tallies of accounts. The brevity of the Greek Alphabet with its new vowel sounds paradoxically enabled writing to expand in much greater clarity and detail. It enabled Homer to write the Iliad and the Odyssey. It enabled Euripides to write his dramatic and tragic plays. And it enabled Plato and Aristotle to write their philosophies.
Ancient Greece saw the birth of Western Philosophy; Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Protagoras, Socrates; the names that proceeded Plato, were all Greeks or from part of the Greek World. Socrates is credited with being the first moral philosopher. He is famous for his question and answer system of steering his pupils into forming their own conclusions. His methods and his views annoyed the nobility of Athens and they put him on trial for corrupting the minds of the young. He was found guilty and forced to drink poison. However, before he died he was also tutor to Plato.
Plato was obviously affected by the unjust death of his tutor. The Athenian democracy of the Senate had convicted and murdered Socrates so Plato had no time for democracy. His Utopia, his vision of the perfect state, was pure communism, supposedly ruled by the wisest of philosophers. However, his most useful contribution in the field of religious thought was his theory of forms.
Plato asserted that our physical world which we experience all around us is only a shadow of the true reality of what he called the world of forms. These forms are the abstract, perfect and unchanging concepts or ideas of things; these ideas or forms exist forever, transcending time and space. For example, there are millions of trees existing at any one time on earth, but they are all transitory and short-lived. The only real and enduring tree is the form of the tree on which all the trees of all time are but passing copies. Generations of lions have lived and will continue to live, but the only true lion is the form of the lion. Plato claimed that if we do not understand this then we are like primitive men living in a cave; all we see are the flickering firelight shadows on the wall, and never knowing the reality of the daylight outside.
This difference between reality and appearance means that while we may recognize and identify a particular object, for example a cat, this is only possible because we have the idea of what a cat looks like in our mind. Our next door neighbour’s cat is another cat, but these two cats are impermanent and neither is as real as the eternal idea of a cat.
In Plato’s world view our physical world is therefore not as real as the timeless and absolute world of unchanging ideas. The forms as he describes them are the non physical essence of which the physical objects and life forms which we see are only imitations. Even qualities, such as colour, love, hate, courage and beauty all have forms, the unchanging essence that makes these things what they are. This transcendent world is permanent and timeless while the physical world of its imitations is in constant flux.
For Plato then, God was the form of the good. The quality of Goodness had to have a form and the ideal of perfect goodness and the source of all that is good had to be God. Aristotle, who was a pupil of Plato, took this one step further. For Aristotle God was the source of everything, God was pure form and was thus unchangeable. Therefore God was the Prime Mover, the First Cause uncaused. Aristotle redefined Plato’s forms and called them universals and moved the whole concept forward. Aristotle’s God governed a world that was continually developing toward something better. It led to arguments for design and purpose.
Aristotle came in turn to be tutor to the young Prince Alexander, the son of Philip the King of Macedonia, one of the state cities of Northern Greece. When Phillip died Alexander united the armies of Greece against their common enemy the Persians, and then led them on a bloody conquest of the entire known world. He was to go down in history as Alexander the Great and his empire spanned from Egypt to India.
Alexander was only twenty when he took his father’s throne and only thirty when he died of a fever, he was invincible in battle and yet it seems that in the end he was defeated by a humble mosquito. His empire, the greatest ever know in the ancient world, was divided between the loyal friends and battle commanders who had waged war with him.
It all began to break up then, but Alexander had not only waged war, he had brought with him all the influences of Greek culture which now became fused with those of Persia, India and Egypt. He destroyed cities but he build a score more all with the name Alexandria. Traces of Greek art, sculpture, architecture, thought and philosophy lingered as long as his legendary memory.
The philosophic ideas that began with Plato and Aristotle were further refined by Plotinus who lived in the time of the Roman Empire. The philosophy of Plotinus became known as Neo-Platonism. By this time Jesus had been born, preached his ministry, and been crucified, entombed and resurrected. Christianity, after much persecution, eventually became the official religion of the Roman Empire after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine.
Much later, after the advent of Islam and the forging of the first Arab empires, the works of Plato and Aristotle filtered back into the western world by the way of Arabic translations which were then translated into Latin. Very few people had been able to read ancient Greek so these new translations were a rediscovery of the books and complete works of Plato and Aristotle which had a great influence on the present doctrines of Catholic Christianity. Thus the preservation of these ancient Greek ideas came to be seen as one of the major contributions of Islamic civilization.
We can see here something positive in war, how each wave of expanding empires help to spread and transplant cultural influences and ideas. The books of Plato and Aristotle have come full circle after travelling around the globe. Alexander’s conquests were brutal and bloody bur the essence of all that had flowered in the Golden Age of Greece flowed outward with his marching armies. The dawn of Islam that came later despite the merciless bloodshed that came with the creation of the great Islamic empires also led to the birth of a splendid Arab civilization which brought its own golden age of art and architecture, thought and philosophy. The translations of Aristotle and Plato were only one of the achievements that came from the thriving desert cities of Damascus, Bagdad and Kairouan
We have already seen a similar example in the story of the Emperor Ashoka in India. Like Alexander Ashoka built his empire on a merciless campaign of warfare. The blood on his hands finally appalled him but not until his conquests were consolidated on a firm foundation and well defended. Then he could afford to repent and try to compensate for all the blood he had spilled and all the death he had caused. He listened to the priests and philosophers of his time, launched a period of peace and sent Buddhist missionaries into South East Asia.
Later in India the Mughal conquerors brought Islam into the heart of the Hindu world. The conflict of faiths led to the fusion of monotheism into the Hindu Pantheon which led to the birth of the Sikh faith. The Emperor Akbar who could rest on the stable empire that his grandfather had founded could allow the cultivation of the Sikh faith which provided Sikhism with a brief period in which to develop and grow.
It seems that war and civilization can go hand in hand, like the alternate footsteps of advancing evolution. However, the frenzy of empire-building did not always contribute to the spread of civilization. Genghis Khan, the Mongol warlord who slaughtered millions and destroyed most of the great cities of central Asia to build his empire, caused more harm than good. His Golden Horde simply ravaged and slaughtered their way throughout all of Asia and the Middle East.
Genghis left behind a stable civilization in China for his grandson Kublai Khan who became the Great Khan of the Mongols and founded the Yuan dynasty. Marco Polo, the Venetian who travelled the Silk Road to visit China in 1271 was impressed by the wealth and magnificence of the court of Kublai Khan but it was just a facade. The Chinese never accepted the Mongols as true rulers and a dynasty of only a hundred years was short by Chinese standards. Compared to the destruction they caused the Mongols left nothing that was truly creative behind.
If we go back to Plato we find that he believed that war came from the lusts of the body. The body was a distorting medium which distracted the mind into believing that the physical world was the true reality. He wrote that the body was a source of endless trouble, requiring food and being prone to disease. Worst of all the body filled us with loves and lusts and fears and fancies. The needs and desires of the body stole away the power of clear thinking.
It was the needs and lusts of the body which brought about all wars and fighting. Money and power were needed to satisfy all the demands of the body and wealth and power could only be acquired by war and fighting. Thus experience showed for Plato that for the mind to have true knowledge of anything it must be quit of the body.
Here it seems that Plato must have been thinking of the mind or soul obtaining true knowledge of his theory of forms. However, in relating war and fighting to the lusts of the body he may have had a point. The classic war that was probably in his mind was the Homeric version of the Trojan War. The assault on troy was led by the Greek king Agamemnon, supposedly to avenge the insult done to him by the Trojan prince Paris who had stolen away his young wife Helen. Helen of Troy was said to be the face that launched a Thousand Ships.
The reality was no doubt a little less noble. The city of Troy was a rich prize with plenty of loot for all. The common soldiers, and probably the lesser kings of Greece who all laid siege to Troy, were probably not particularly concerned with the honour of Agamemnon. They were there for the gold and riches of Troy, and to rape the Trojan women. Even for Agamemnon the theft of Helen was probably only the excuse he needed to mount the attack and ransack the city.
The fall of Troy, especially with the subterfuge of the Trojan horse, gave Homer a splendid heroic tale with two enduring heroes in Achilles and Hector, but it achieved nothing else. Troy was looted and burned and totally destroyed and there was no advance of civilization at all.
Rape and loot were always part of the soldier’s pay and the initial causes of war. In defensive wars men would fight to protect their own lands and their women and children, but to go out and fight an aggressive, empire building war there had to be some personal gain. Soldiers fought for pay and the opportunity to loot and rape.
The story of Rome brought a subtle change in the history of warfare. Rome returned to empire building with a strong emperor at the head of state. Bur Rome was essentially a republic governed by a senate with the democratic principles that had been founded in Athens. Also the Roman soldiers were more disciplined, they did not lay waste to the territories they conquered. Rome expanded because it worked on the principle of turning conquered peoples into Romans. Defeated fighting men were not indiscriminately slaughtered but instead invited to join the Roman Army and become soldiers of Rome. It was a system which built a European and northern African empire which lasted for four centuries.
War then is a double-edged sword. War advances and it destroys. There have been many exceptions when war has been purely destructive but throughout history war has helped the spread of philosophical and religious ideas and generally to build higher levels of civilization. Now we are all closer together and the internet reaches everywhere. There are no longer unknown lands where the occupants can be considered as savages or barbarians and their territories fit for plunder and occupation. If war has had a purpose in bringing us to this point we have now grown beyond it.
The two world wars of the last century achieved nothing but wholesale destruction. However, the Second World War did see a profound change in the attitude of the victors. Instead of inflicting punishments or incorporating the defeated nations into their own empires the victors helped the defeated to rebuild their shattered industrial structures and economies while remaining independent nations. With the Marshal Plan in Europe and similar constructive and economic help in Japan the German and Japanese peoples were brought back into the world fold and took their place in a reformed United Nations.
The next major conflict, the Vietnam War, saw some young Americans burning their draft cards and following their consciences instead of orders. The morality of the war in which a giant technological nation launched its awesome air power against a country of small peasant farmers was brought into question. Now we have the United Nations as an arbiter of possible conflicts. It is not always successful but it is there.
When we look at the possibility of life after death we find that the ancient Greeks had developed some clear ideas on the matter. The orphic mysteries preached that all life was linked to a soul. The souls of the dead were either banished to the underworld of the dead which was ruled by Hades, or if they were good they returned to the star from which they came.
The spirit world which we have seen acknowledged everywhere had now achieved a higher plane for the souls of men and women. They came from the stars where in Plato’s view they would have been familiar with his eternal world of forms. The body which they briefly inhabited blotted out their memories with its own lusts and needs and the ultimate goal of human existence was to escape from the body and return to the stars.
Aristotle again took the idea of souls one step further. He taught that everything in life and nature had a soul, beginning at the lowest level with plant souls, moving upward through the souls of birds and animals, and rising to the highest level with the souls of men and women. The souls of men and women were the highest because mankind had the power of reason. This power of creative reasoning was a spark of divinity, something of the essence of God which could not cease to exist. Therefore the human soul had to be immortal.
It now becomes clear why the ideas of Plato and Aristotle became so important to Arab and Christian theologians. They have all argued for centuries over which parts of Platonic and Aristotelian thought can best be fitted into their monotheistic doctrines.
The spirit world of the ancient primal religions had always been perceived to exist, but now the spirits of men could be identified as souls.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF AGGRESSION
We have looked at all the great faiths and all forms of religion. It seems that all the founders and all the great thinkers have preached similar messages or gospels of love, peace and harmony, and always their hopes have been wrecked on the rocks of human aggression and war. Religion can tell us nothing more and so it is time to move on and explore other areas of experience and knowledge. The obvious place to start is the psychology of war and aggression.
Psychologists in this area of research now seem to be in agreement that the instinct to fight and dominate is all part of the evolutionary process inherent in human beings. All of nature seems to be divided between predators and prey and man is the ultimate predator, the intelligent ape who has forced his way to the top of the food chain. Nature programmes on television have shown us all too often the spectacle of powerful bulls and alpha males of almost every species fighting for the mating rights to a harem of females. Everything from bears to hares will fight in the mating seasons. Bulls crash horns or antlers, giraffes swing their mighty necks in pulverising blows, walruses gore each other with their tusks and hippopotami savage each other with gaping jaws. All of nature, as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes once described it, is “red in tooth and claw.”
The evolutionary purpose of all this is to ensure that only the physically perfect and most healthy males will get to father the next generation and pass on their genetic imprint. The survival of the fittest is the basic law. Only the best is preserved and continued.
In addition to the annual competition for mating rights the most powerful animals will also mark out their territory, with urine sprays or scent marks. The strong smells tell other males of the same species that this is a boundary they must not cross and the owner will fight to defend it.
These are traits which our human species has inherited. The basic structure of our brains was formed thousands of years ago, and some of those dark instincts necessary for initial human survival are still there. We still carry the basic instinct for fight or flight. When we are alarmed the blood drains from our skin, leaving us pale-faced but with our essential organs primed to either defend ourselves or flee, whichever seems the most imperative. In warfare the fear of death urges us to kill of be killed. In mortal combat there is no other choice.
Since recorded civilization began, with Samaria in Mesopotamia, the Shang in ancient China and the first dynasty of pharaohs in Egypt, history has been a continuous cavalcade of battles and wars. The dictators, the conquerors and the empire builders, the Alexanders, the Ghengis Khans and the Hitlers, have all learned how to control and direct our primal tendencies, shaping them to fulfil their own dreams and destinies.
Men fight for glory and to expand their empire, or for survival and to defend their homes. Both causes are seen as noble and right, the stuff of legends and heroes. Achilles fought for the glory of Greece while Hector fought for the defence of Troy. Their duel to the death has been celebrated in song and story ever since. Both combatants have been an inspiration for all those who followed in their bloody footsteps.
There are two parts of the human brain which control our potential for aggression. One is a part of the older brain known as the amygdale and the other is the pre-frontal cortex which is its control centre. The amygdale is connected to the nervous system and registers stress and fear, alerting us and enabling us to respond to situations of danger. It releases neurotransmitters which trigger reactions and also enable us to remember the danger signals for future reference. The cerebral cortex decides our responses, whether to release our aggression or react in some other way, typically to fight or flee.
The male sex hormone testosterone also plays a significant role in human aggression. Where testosterone levels are high an aggressive response is much more likely. The tendency of alpha male animals to fight over access to females makes this unsurprising. Young men have always fought and risked all for the love of a woman. It is the basis of every good myth and story. The siege of Troy began with young Prince Paris stealing away Helen, the wife of Menelaus, one of the kings of Greece. It led to Helen being enshrined in legend as the face that launched a thousand ships.
Negative emotions such as pain, fear, anger and frustration can all raise testosterone levels to create aggression. In fact it seems that there can be a vicious circle in which testosterone increases the impulse to aggression which in turn raises the level of testosterone. However, testosterone can also be controlled by the neurotransmitter serotonin which helps us to inhibit aggression.
Our capacity for violence does seem to be related to those basic animal instincts for survival that are rooted in the oldest part of primeval brain. At the same time nature, or God, has fitted us with controls that give us the opportunity of choice. We are not necessarily aggressive animals. The frontal cortex can control the impulses of the amygdale and our serotonin levels can control the rise of testosterone.
Fights between individuals can be attributed to testosterone, clashes over mating rights, insult or simply the desire of two evenly matched brawlers to decide which one of them is the alpha male. Conflict between groups, war between empires or nations and major battlefield situations become much more complex. Here cultural identity, nationalism, religion and a host of other factors can play a part. Basically it is them against us. The other side is seen as hateful, evil and a direct threat to national or cultural existence.
Group loyalty and identity also come into the picture. Every group of fighting men consider themselves an elite. Standing together forges bonds between them. When men have fought together, bled together, suffered the same trials and hardships, then they will be prepared to die together. The warriors who formed the old shield walls knew that if one of them fell or withdrew the wall could be broken and all of them cut down. They had a duty to live or die for each other. Modern fighting forces cleave to the same principle, no one wants to be the coward who breaks ranks or lets the side down. When hard pressed the last resort is to rally round the flag, fighting to the last man to protect the symbol of national and cultural identity.
That same spirit will surface in the wider community at war. It is not just the soldiers at the frontline who become united in purpose. The ordinary people suffering the brunt of war will pull closer together, sharing resources and hardships, helping each other and the war effort in any way they can. The blitz spirit of Londoners during the Second World War is a shining example.
There is an opposite side to this positive unity coin. Psychologists have defined it as moral exclusion. When one group strengthens its bonds of identity it excludes all those classed as others. It increases hatred for the perceived enemy. Most of the great conflicts of history have been between ironclad doctrinal identity groups. The Crusades were fought between Christians and Muslims, wars against Israel are fought between Arabs and Jews, the Vietnam War was fought between Communism and Democracy, and the current wars of terrorism are fought between Muslim fundamentalists and everybody else. Massacres and ethnic cleansing arise from paranoid feelings of moral exclusion of the victims from the perpetrators. The holocaust when the Nazis tried to exterminate the Jewish people in their concentration camps and gas chambers is the ultimate example. The Jews were not seen as ordinary human beings; to their Nazi murderers they were alien outsiders and a positive threat.
It has been noted by researchers that war did not begin until the advent of civilization. This is hardly surprising because it would be impossible to wage large scale war between small scale communities. The early human groups and tribes were hunters and gatherers. They were mobile peoples whose possessions were limited to what they could carry. They hunted the game and gathered the nuts and berries they needed to eat for the day and had no means of stock-piling any more. It was not until the development of farming techniques enabled the settled creation of towns and cities that the acquisition of territory and resources became important. It was then that history began the age of empire-builders, of standing armies and the large scale organization of war. The professional soldier was unknown until he had walls to guard.
Fighting over resources and fighting over cultural identity are a relatively modern phenomenon in the long history of human evolution. To these we can add revenge for humiliation. It is often the oppressed and conquered of one empire who rise up to become the empire-builders the next time round. The Second World War of the Twentieth Century was in many ways an attempt to reverse the results of the First World War and avenge Germany’s initial defeat. The loss of Empire in the First World War spurred the nationalism and the political triumphs of Hitler and the Nazi party that led to German aggression, the invasion of Poland and World War Two.
The First World War was supposed to be the War to end all Wars. However, that title may perhaps be better fitted to the Second World War. The death toll in the First World War is said to have been between five and thirteen million but the number of those who lost their lives in the Second World War has been estimated at around fifty million. The devastation and the financial cost also increased with man’s technological advancement in tanks, guns, warships and warplanes and all the other modern means of wholesale slaughter.
However, technology and political advancement has helped to curtail the frequency of later wars. The Cold War which followed the Second World War saw both the Communist and the Western powers armed with a vast array of atomic and nuclear weapons which could have sent both sides back to the Stone Age if they had been unleashed. This Mutually Assured Destruction held both sides in check.
Since then most major wars have been fought in proxy with each power bloc arming different sides. In the Middle East the Russians have always armed the Arabs while the Americans have always armed the Jews. In Europe and Africa the Russians and the Americans have usually armed opposing sides. In Korea and later in Vietnam the two opposing power blocs of Democracy and Communism have fought prolonged and bitter wars.
Vietnam was perhaps a major turning point in the history of warfare. The nineteen-sixties were an emotional decade, a time of free love and flower power and anguished outbursts of conscience over the horrors of the Vietnam War. This seemingly endless conflict in a faraway corner of South East Asia was the first to be minutely scrutinized in every agonizing detail by a growing and ever-hungry news media. Our new color TV screens brought all the blood, fire and murder directly as it happened into our living rooms. Everyone had feelings and opinions about the first modern high-tech war launched with all its awesome fire-power on a tiny, peasant farmed Third World country.
The sixties also saw something new in the form of organized protest marches calling for peace. There were marches against the stockpiling of H-bombs and the picketing of rocket sites. There were marches against the Vietnam War and in the United States student riots and draft card bonfires. Young Americans were challenging the right of their government to send them overseas to a fight for a jungle and rice fields they didn’t want against a supposed enemy they had never seen.
America had used the atomic bomb to settle the conflict with Japan at the end of the Second World War, but the arguments for its use were no longer valid in Vietnam. The US used awesome air power and its military might, but the almost certain moral repugnance of the rest of the world prevented it from using the atomic bomb. Obliterating Hanoi would not have solved the problem, especially as by this time Hanoi’s Chinese backers possessed Atomic bombs of their own.
In the end the Americans were defeated in Vietnam and it all proved pointless anyway. The rational for fighting the war was the Domino Theory, the argument that if one country of South East Asia fell to Communism all the other countries of South East Asia would automatically follow. Cambodia saw a brutal takeover by Communist regime, but fifty years later all is peaceful. Cambodia and Vietnam are back in the international fold and the beaches and ancient splendours of both countries are back on the modern tourist trail.
If we watch television or read the newspapers we can be forgiven for thinking that war is still endemic throughout the world and that mankind has learned nothing from the endless and appalling death tolls of previous conflicts. The media always seems to be reporting a war somewhere with graphic pictures and lurid stories.
However, this picture is closely focussed and thus distorted. Despite what we see, or what is thrust in front of us, the scale and frequency of wars does seem to be declining. Western Europe for example, where neighbouring nations were always at each other’s throats, has since the Cold War enjoyed a long period of relative peace. Where wars have broken out it has usually been in a political vacuum, in Africa after the withdrawal of the Colonial powers and in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the old Soviet Union. Since the Vietnam War the empire building ambitions of the three super powers have been channelled into new directions. China has now joined the newly emerged Russia to challenge the United States but all three now mainly compete for influence with arms sales and political and economic aid.
There are several reasons for this slight shift away from war. One is the nuclear bomb. Mutually Assured Destruction prevented the Cold War from becoming a Hot War. Both sides knew that they could and probably would obliterate each other if their leaders ever pressed the nuclear button. Both sides feared a First Strike but neither dared to make one. The weapons they controlled were so powerful that even a few retaliatory missiles would have been enough to bring disaster. The same risks today hold the major technological powers back from facing each other in open conflict.
The second reason is the creation of the United Nations. The UN has come in for much criticism for petty squabbling and the inbuilt provision for any of the five great powers to block it with their veto. The pictures of Russia’s Kruschev banging his shoe on the table severely damaged its reputation. However, the United Nations is an institution that serves peace as well as it is able. It provides a negotiating arena for belligerents who are seeking a peaceful way forward and it sends peace-keeping forces to police trouble spots. It is a major step in the right direction.
Other reasons are the world media and the power of the internet which have served to bring people closer together. International travel and tourism also mean a greater mixing of races and cultures. There are no longer blank spaces on maps that can be labelled here be dragons or demons. We are all familiar with each other and this makes it difficult for any single group to be morally excluded. When ethnic cleansing does happen it is highlighted and receives international approbation.
Finally the spread of democracy means that governments are now more accountable to the people they rule. To declare war now needs much more soul-searching and public debate. As we saw with the Vietnam War many young male Americans simply burned their draft cards and refused their government’s orders to go and fight. Now even professional soldiers from democratic nations are only ostensibly sent to preserve democracy and protect the peace.
Our world now faces different problems. Overpopulation is one with people from the Middle East and Africa trying to force their way into Europe and people from Mexico and South America trying to force their way north into the United States. Global warming is another with the already hot areas of the planet fast becoming uninhabitable. The shortage of oil supplies leads to fierce competition for existing and new oil fields. Muslim fundamentalism has led to worldwide terrorism.
We still have the old super power bloc rivalries, with Russia again trying to expand and reclaim its empire. Plus we now have the major industrial military interests which manufacture and profit from the sales of arms and munitions worldwide. They still need wars to stay in business. All these pressures carry with them further risks of war.
Today’s wars are usually initiated by politicians who never know the heat of the battlefield. The days of the Alexanders and Genghis Khans who made the decisions and led the charges with swords in their hands are long gone. Now the political leaders who make the decisions to go to war do so far from the battlefield. If they visit at all it is only after the front lines are secure and they are perfectly safe to do so. Making the decision to go to war must be easier when you do not have to lead from the front.
So where has all this led us? If there is a God whose purpose is unfolding through the process of evolution then he has fitted us with the aggressive means to defend ourselves. With serotonin to balance testosterone and the frontal cortex to monitor and control our aggressive impulses He has also given us the means to determine whether or not to use our capacity for aggression. Once we reach the state of war the necessity to survive on the battlefield negates all controls and the will to live forces us to kill or be killed. So it must be necessary to avoid the state of war.
Aristotle defined man as a reasoning animal. The bulls of other species still fight to claim the mating rights with all the available females in the herd. Human beings have moved beyond this. Bonding between one man and one woman is now the norm, with marriage ceremonies to define this status. It is a system which eliminates rogue males and much fighting.
We can change and as we continue to evolve and develop our powers of reason we must use them to prevent war. Modern war between major powers is now a highly organized activity, pre-planned with tempers rising but in relatively cold blood. This is the point where reason must prevail. Once war begins it escalates, the built in controls are lost and the destruction of the enemy seems the only way to ensure survival. It seems that in most cases we cannot stop wars from becoming all destructive and so the only sane way forward is to stop them from starting.
GOD, WAR AND REINCARNATION
THE SECURITY DILEMMA
We have mentioned the security dilemma several times and now it is necessary to investigate this phenomenon more closely. Quite simply it materializes as follows. In order to defend itself a nation or an empire must maintain its military strength, it must maintain an efficient standing army, make alliances, and where possible improve its weaponry and tactics above those of its neighbours. Unfortunately all of this makes it appear threatening and dangerous to other nations or empires who then do everything in their power to improve and advance their own military [position. The situation can then spiral out of control, thus giving its alternative name, the spiral model.
In effect we then have an arms race, building up tensions and fears to a point where a conflict can arise even though neither side initially desired it. We have a classic example in the Cold War between the Western Powers and the USSR when both sides built up massive stockpiles of atomic and nuclear weapons. For decades both sides were terrified that the other would initiate a First Strike in order to gain the advantage of a surprise. A hotline had to be established between the White House and the Kremlin so that that the leaders of the two sides could immediately contact and reassure each other if any misunderstanding of intentions should arise.
The Cold war was the freezing of international relations and a state of hostility between the two major powers that fell short of an actual hot war. It emerged in the aftermath of World War Two. Previously the international scene had been one of shifting alliances between a number of great powers but now most of these powers were in ruins with their peoples exhausted. Of the two remaining powers the United States was the stronger. The war had been fought in Europe and Asia, European Russia was devastated but the US mainland was untouched.
The Soviet Union had lost twenty million dead in World War Two and it had now been invaded three times from the west, by Napoleon, the Kaiser and now by Hitler. So there was some justification in the fact that Moscow forcibly installed communist governments in the countries it had occupied in the march to defeat Germany. This is what Stalin defined as his “Cordon Sanitaire,” a ring of satellite states to act as a buffer between the Soviet Union and the democratic west.
Here the security dilemma kicked in. America, France and England could only see this expansion of communism as sinister and threatening. Their fears were also justified. Ever since the Russian Revolution of 1916 the Soviet Communist Party had consistently declared its intention of waging an international class struggle to spread the socialism of Marx and Lenin throughout the globe. This implacable enmity to the capitalist system and the Soviet determination to remould the world in its own image was constantly and publicly re-affirmed.
So it was not surprising that the West saw the so-called “Cordon Sanitaire” as a creeping communist threat that was more aggressive than defensive. The addition of rapidly developing atomic and nuclear power on both sides added a new dimension to the crisis. More and more, bigger and bigger atomic and nuclear tests were carried out on both sides. Bombs and rockets proliferated and delivery systems from long range bombers to intercontinental ballistic missiles became more and more sophisticated.
On the economic front the American Marshall Plan provided for the reconstruction of Europe and the Truman doctrine offered anti-communist support to all those who needed it. The Russian blockade of Berlin and the British and American airlift saw the high point in the great test of wills over Europe but ended without any actual fighting. However, in the Far East the cold war spilled over into a hot war between the Korean allies of either side. The pattern for the next three decades was thus established: cold war in Europe and subversion and bushfire hot wars in the battle for influence in the peripheral areas of the third world.
Soon Britain, France and then China joined the nuclear club by developing atomic weapons of their own. They joined America and Russia as the five great Powers with the veto right to block any move made by the struggling United Nations.
In 1962 the arms race and the build up of tensions reached its crisis point when the Russians installed missiles on the Caribbean island of Cuba, a Russian satellite within missile reach of the US mainland. According to myth and media the American President, John F. Kennedy and Kruschev, the Russian Premier, were “eyeball to eyeball, with neither side daring to blink,” in the end the Russians withdrew but both sides had scared the other.
It was then that east and west found themselves living in a MAD world, a world of Mutually Assured Destruction. There would be no winners in a nuclear exchange. Both sides would be pulverised to rubble and radiation sickness would rot and destroy any survivors of the original holocaust.
In the end it was the crippling cost of building and maintaining their huge arsenals which eventually brought the Cold War to an end. For a while the Soviet Union had even competed in the Space race to put a man on the moon. The Soviets had launched the first man into space but eventually it was the Americans who succeeded in putting one of their astronauts on to Earth’s orbiting satellite.
America’s lead in the space race enabled President Reagan in 1983 to announce his planned Strategic Defence Imitative, which was quickly labelled Star Wars. This was a proposed missile defence system which would protect the US from attack from intercontinental missiles and submarine launched missiles. A wide array of advanced weapon concepts were proposed, including lazer weapons, particle beam weapons and space platform based weapon systems, all capable of shooting down hostile missiles before they reached their target.
In the end it never happened. It was all dependent upon a failsafe computer system and the tragic explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, killing all seven astronauts on board, showed that computer systems were not failsafe. However, America had raised the stakes and in trying to compete the Soviet Union was tipped over into economic bankruptcy. As the Soviet Union collapsed and broke up with its satellite states grabbing the opportunity to fly apart, the long running cold war came to an end.
In subsequent hot wars the security dilemma again played an invisible but significant role. The Korean War and the Vietnam War were both responses to the perceived Communist threat as seen by the West. Previously the security dilemma had always been in relation to the defence of territory but now it was in defence of an ideology. It was not national interest or the power of empire that was at stake but the culture and freedom of the entire western world. The Domino Theory saw the whole of the Third World of Asia and Africa joining the Communist bloc of Russia and China.
In Russia similar fears led to the ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan. Moscow was becoming paranoid about the growing number of its former mid-Asian satellites which now had strong Muslim governments. There was a large Muslim population inside Russia and another strong Muslim government in Afghanistan would cause internal problems for the Communist regime. So it became imperative to try and put a compliant puppet government into Afghanistan.
The invasion led to nine years of futile fighting with the guerrilla groups of the Afghan mujahedeen and an eventual ignominious withdrawal. Ironically the United States initially supported the mujahedeen only to end up embroiled in another war with them later. The Afghans wanted neither communism nor democracy. They were Muslims.
The tragedy of the Middle East again had proclaimed roots in the security Dilemma. Saddam Hussein, the strong man of Iraq had always been a belligerent dictator. In 1980 he had invaded neighbouring Iran in an attempt to grab the oil-rich border regions, leading to a bloody and costly eight year war before a cease fire was finally established. Two years later he invaded the much smaller neighbouring state of Kuwait, but was repelled by a British and American task force. Finally, in 2003, it was reported that Saddam was secretly acquiring a stockpile of chemical and nuclear weapons.
These Weapons of Mass Destruction could not be left in the hands of a mad dog dictator. Saddam was called upon to give them up. Saddam, of course, denied that they existed. United Nations teams were allowed into the country to hunt for the weapons but found nothing. Saddam insisted this was because there was nothing to find. His paranoid enemies insisted that the weapons must be well hidden.
The terrorist attack which toppled the twin towers of the New York World Trade building tipped the whole thing into war. The Muslim terrorists who crashed two hi-jacked airliners into the skyscrapers had done some of their training in Iraq, presumably with Saddam’s blessing. Saddam had to be deposed. An American led coalition stormed into Iraq to do the job, using air power and missiles to obliterate Saddam’s ill-equipped army. Saddam was later caught, tried for crimes against his own people and executed by hanging.
In the aftermath no weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq, neither chemical nor nuclear. The debate has raged ever since over whether or not the supposed weapons of mass destruction were the real reason for the invasion, or whether it was just an excuse. American revenge and the protection of western oil interests seem just as likely. In either case it was the weapons of mass destruction argument that swung world opinion in initial favour of the war. World security was supposedly threatened and so the war against Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein was justified.
The once great Persian Empire is now the Islamic Republic of Iran and is another example of the security dilemma at work. Like Iraq Iran is accused of trying to develop atomic weapons. Iran claims that its atomic power plants are for peaceful energy purposes only but the very thought of a hard-line Muslin government obtaining atomic weapons terrifies the West. As I write no actual fighting has yet broken out but the western powers, especially the United States, have imposed severe economic sanctions on Iran in their efforts to bring the nation to heel. Fears and tensions boil high with the ever present threat of war.
North Korea, under the protection of China, has now developed and tested atomic missiles, posing another direct threat to a delicate world peace.
All these examples show how the security dilemma creates havoc with peace moves in international relations. Every nation or power bloc strives to maximise its military might and the sophistication of its weaponry, either individually or through groups of alliances. This is the only way they can see to ensure their own security. A nation, an empire or an alliance, must remain strong to stay in the top position of power. But rivals and challengers also see the need to be strong or stronger.
Falling behind in the arms and power race does not reduce the risks of conflict. Instead virtually it ensures that smaller countries become victims, swallowed up by the big operators. Remember the ease with which China conquered peaceful Tibet, and the speed with which Hitler’s Wehrmacht rolled through helpless Poland. Remember how Saddam’s Iraq crushed and grabbed tiny Kuwait before the western allies reversed his callous victory.
The political reality of international relations is that the weak are all too often prey to the predatory strong, just as it has always been.
It begins to look as though our inbuilt evolutionary defensive aggression mechanism, plus the tensions of the security dilemma will always lead us into war. The religious faiths and the great teachers can continue to preach their gospels of love and peace and harmony but the human race simply cannot avoid war and fighting.
We can see why this must be so, the causes of war are stark and clear. The consequences of war are also horribly evident. With the advent of photography and film cameras the terrible reality of modern warfare is beamed every night directly on to our television screens. The rubble of devastated towns and cities, the smoke and flame of airstrikes, the shattered vehicles and broken bodies, the blood and guts, the gaunt and petrified refugees, the shocked children and the weeping mothers with staring haunted eyes are all too familiar.
We have all watched these scenes a thousand times, from Vietnam, Africa, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria – the list is never-ending. They all echo the madness and destruction of World Wars One and Two and there is no way of bringing it all to an end.
The death tolls are colossal. We have already mentioned twenty million dead in Russia alone during World War Two. Overall it has been estimated that between seventy and eighty-five million people perished in this, the deadliest military conflict in all history. In World War One the estimated death count was seventeen million soldiers and civilians.
In subsequent conflicts the figures continue to shock. The Vietnam War saw more than a million Viet Cong and North Vietnamese dead, plus seven hundred and forty thousand South Vietnamese and allied war deaths. Fifty eight thousand of these were American deaths.
In the eight year war between Iraq and Iran an estimated five hundred thousand Iraqi and Iranian soldiers died. In the Afghan Soviet war fifteen thousand young Russian soldiers died and some two million Afghans. In the continuing war in Afghanistan between western coalition forces and the mujahedeen some three and a half thousand coalition forces have been killed, plus over thirty-five thousand Afghans.
Half a million people have died in Iraq of war related causes. In the Syrian civil war the estimated figure is four hundred thousand. The numbers wounded, crippled, blinded, maimed or made homeless during all these conflicts is simply immeasurable.
Despite all of these appalling figures the human race continues to bounce back. Even though whole generations of virile young men are sacrificed on the altars of war and national interest, the overall population figures for the human race continue to rise. Despite all the slaughter and the obscene losses of human life we still have the problem of an exploding world population. We have reached the point where we are consuming the earth’s resources faster than the planet can replace them and could be in danger of starving or over-crowding ourselves to death.
Is it possible then that war is nature’s way of maintaining a survivable balance? All of nature is a food chain, with many species such as turtles and fish fry being born in excess simply to feed other species higher up the food chain. We are at the top of the food chain. There is no predator capable of preying on man other than other men. So are we programmed to prey on each other in order to keep the planetary numbers down to a manageable level?
Nature does seem to have its own laws governing the process of evolution and for maintaining a planetary and cosmic balance. Most religions see in the forces of nature the hand of God, shaping us to His Will and directing us to His Purpose. The teleological argument, that the universe does have an intelligent purpose and design, is one of the main arguments for the existence of God. Some aspects of Hinduism equate nature with God and the philosopher Spinoza based his complete metaphysics upon the idea that God and nature were one and the same.
If we believe in God then we have reached the problem of evil. If God is good, and believers invariably do believe that God is good, then why does he permit the existence of evil? Why does He permit war, murders, rape and robbery, and all the natural disasters like floods and famine, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, plagues and sickness and all the other disasters that like war can take massive tolls of human lives? Christianity believes that God is All Good and All Powerful and has struggled for two thousand years with the problem of evil. How can an all good and all powerful god permit the existence of evil?
The answer seems to be that in the case of man-made evil the fault is in mankind. God has given us freedom of will because this makes for the best of all possible worlds, and yet sometimes man miss-uses his freedom of will. With natural disasters which create death and suffering we may have to concede that God cannot do the logically impossible. Having created this magnificent universe with all its possibilities of continuing creation and evolution it may not be possible to prevent all forms of pain and suffering. For example, you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs. Civilizations flourish at the height of empires but it is impossible to create an empire without blood and battles. New life means new endeavour and evolution must always struggle upward.
So can it possibly be God’s will that we regularly go to war? Is war necessary to control the levels of population? I live in the Breckland forest area of East Anglia where wild deer roam free among the deep fir trees. The shy and innocent deer population have recently grown to a size where their over-grazing is actually damaging the forest environment. To resolve this problem it was recently suggest that wild lynx from Northern Europe should be re-established in the Breckland forests. The lynx is a predator cat the size of a small leopard and the young deer would be its natural prey. The presence of a predator, it was suggested, was necessary; this would be the natural state of the forest.
Is this why God allows war and is war the best way of controlling population levels? Or is there another reason for the perennial recurrence of war? Is it possibly a learning experience of some kind, or as the British philosopher John Hick has suggested, could war and conflict be some form of soul-building process. These are questions to which we must return later.
MYTH AND LEGEND
There is one aspect of mankind’s inclination to war which we have not yet considered. Our innate defence mechanism from primeval times explains how we can be provoked into aggressive behaviour. The security dilemma explains why empires and nations and even ideologies can be drawn into conflict. But why does man find himself drawn again and again into the arena of battle. What is it that is so fascinating and attractive about war? Why do men actually seek these brutal confrontations?
We have discussed the greed for wealth and power, the need to appear as the alpha male in order to attract and dominate women. But it seems that there is more. There is something about the camaraderie of men at arms, the need to be part of an elite, the need for excitement and adventure. Can it be that endless peace is too boring? Is a simple routine, of eating and sleeping, planting and harvesting or some other form of work, just too dull? When armies form or the call goes out that Your Country Needs You, why do so many run almost eagerly to the ranks, dreaming of winning great victories and returning home covered in glory?
It seems that here we must look to the storytellers, who are part cause and part result of the craving for excitement and adventure that fill our imaginations and dreams. Myth and legend and heroic tales have always inspired every generation in every culture. In the ancient world, and in most parts of the third world until very recently, wandering storytellers would hold groups of avid listeners enthralled as they told their tales by flickering firelight. Dramas and plays and dance have all been used to re-tell familiar storylines. Great battles and heroic deeds are recounted again and again.
With the advent of writing these tales began to be written down and a host of new tales were invented. Home wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Iliad told of the epic siege of Troy, the love of Paris and Helen, the fight to the death between Achilles and Hector, and the wily Ulysses eventually bringing about the fall of the city with his wooden horse. The Odyssey told of the further adventures of Ulysses on his long journey home.
Another ancient Greek poem tells the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Jason is a prince who must go on a dangerous voyage to find a fabled golden fleece in order to win his throne. The quest in which the hero and his companions must travel great distances and overcome many adventures and difficulties to find some great treasure or sacred relic is one of the great storylines that has been used in many forms many times.
Heroes like Alexander, who smashed the mighty Persian Empire and battled his way across the entire known world, resound in history through song and story. The courage of Horatio and his two companions, defending Rome against an army while the townspeople destroyed the bridge across the river Tiber will always be remembered. On the narrow bridge the enemy champions could only approach three at a time, and Horatio and his friends slew them three by three until the bridge was destroyed. His companions ran back at the last moment but Horatio stayed to the end and then plunged in and swam the river in full armour.
The Norsemen had their sagas of men and gods. The stories of Beowulf were recited in the Viking long halls and the halls of the ancient Britons, of how he slew the monster Griselda and then the monster’s mother who came seeking revenge. Overcoming the monster is another recurring plot line in a multitude of stories, the monster being any kind of creature or evil force. Saint George slaying the dragon is another example.
Every culture has its mixture of myths and legend, of oft-told stories of heroes, gods and demons. In India the two great classics are The Ramayana and the Mahabharata which are combined compositions of history, poetry, philosophy and religion. The Ramayana tells the story of prince Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu and his wife the princess Sita. Sita is kidnapped by the demon king of Ceylon and Rama eventually rescues her with the aid of Hanuman the general of a Monkey King. Rama and Sita have come to represent everything that is good and true in Indian manhood and femininity.
The Mahabharata tells of a great war between the ancient kingdoms of the Kurus and the Panchalas. It is a truly epic work and has been described as the longest poem every written. It contains over 200,000 couplets. It is a saga of great battles, epic duels and gladiatorial contests. It has been retold a thousand times and its scenes have been carved in stone on a thousand temples. Together with the Ramayana it contains the entire fabric of Vedic mythology
The history of Chinese literature goes back over thousands of years and includes such classics as The Outlaws of the marsh and The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The Outlaws of the marsh, also known as Water Margin or All Men are Brothers, tells the story of Song Jian, a kind of Chinese Robin Hood. Song releases an army of 108 heavenly spirits and earthly demons. From their stronghold in the marshes he leads them against the forces of the emperor. They defeat the imperial army but then are given an amnesty and serve the emperor as a military contingent, being sent of many campaigns and missions against foreign invaders.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a 14th century historical novel set towards the end of the Han Dynasty. It is part history, part legend and part myth. It has over a thousand dramatic characters and deals with the battles, intrigues and struggles of three contending groups for the remnants of the Han Empire. Like the classics of India its influence has been compared to Homer, Shakespeare and even the Bible. The Chinese regard it as the greatest of all their novels.
Coming nearer to our own time who can forget Sir Francis Drake casually completing his game of bowls before sailing out to defeat the Spanish Armada: or Nelson at Trafalgar, the valiant charge of the Light brigade as they obeyed orders and galloped into certain death, Columbus sailing out into the unknown with his three tiny ships to discover America, General George Custer’s defiant last stand against the Sioux at the battle of the little Big Horn. These are heroes who have thrilled and inspired us all. Their exploits have instilled into every small boy the frantic desire to sail off to adventure, to cross the far horizons, to penetrate the unknown, to discover lost cities, to fight and win battles; to become heroes and create their own legend.
World War One an d World War Two, as we have seen, are the greatest conflicts this planet has ever known, involving almost the entire globe and with the most horrendous death tolls, and yet they have spawned endless war stories. It was not just the thrill of combat and the epic military adventures that enthralled, but also the magnificent war-time spirit of all the people involved. There was nothing glorious in the mud and gas-filled trenches of the First World War, but the courage of the men who endured there and the final, reckless abandon of going “Over the Top,” will live forever. In the Second World War There was nothing glorious in sheltering in the underground railway stations and emerging to the burning rubble of their blitzed homes, except in the fantastic heroic spirit of the Londoners who endured it.
It is not just the fighting and winning of battles that captures our imagination and admiration. We honour our battle heroes with Victoria Crosses and other medals, but in our hearts we honour those other heroes who not only survive but help each other to survive. In the Battle of Britain the young hurricane and spitfire pilots save d the nation and won our eternal gratitude and respect, but we never forget the nurses in the hospitals, the firemen battling the flames, the people risking their lives to help the wounded, or just shaking a defiant fist at the bombers in the sky.
Both World Wars have been fought again and again in novels and on film, in documentary accounts and in fiction. The thriller writer Alistair Maclean wrote stirring action-packed war adventures. The Guns of Navarone was an all time classic with a hand-picked group of men tasked with silencing two huge artillery guns on a German-held island in the Mediterranean. In Force 10 from Navarone he did it again with the same heroes blowing up a giant dam to bring down a bridge that would slow up the German advance in Yugoslavia. With Where Eagles Dare another hand-picked group of paratroops storm a German castle HQ high in the Alps to rescue a captured allied general.
These three books were all filmed and this type of war story has been repeated again and again by other authors and film-makers. However, family sagas set in wartime, sometimes spanning both World Wars, have proved equally popular. A family saga enables more characters and storylines. It brings in the home front, the hospitals, and all the trials of those who watch and wait.
The events and stories of two world wars are fast becoming our modern myths and legends, stories to be told and told and retold. The feed our imaginations and inspire us, just like those ancient myths and legends told around the firelight of open campsites or in the Viking long halls. The book industry now produces millions of copies of hundreds of thousands of titles and they are still using the same basic plots: the quest, overcoming the monster, rags to riches, voyage and return and the stock themes of all the action thrillers, pursuit, rescue, revenge.
Every crime story is a riddle mystery and most of them involve murder, another extreme act of violence which holds an endless fascination. Who Dun it, or Will He Get Away With It are the basic plotlines here, but the murders are often described in great and gory detail, which only seems to add to our enjoyment. Boy meets girl is another perennial plotline, a stand alone in romantic novels but an indispensable sub-plot in almost everything else. In fact, in many of the more complex works of fiction many or all of these basic plotlines can be skilfully woven together.
Horror stories are another favourite, featuring vampires, Demons and werewolves and all imaginable forces of evil. It seems that we actually like to be scared; we like to feel our hearts thumping and the adrenaline pumping in our veins. At fairgrounds the faster and most death defying rides always have the longest queues and the loudest screams, but the screams are as much of delight as they are of terror.
Films are now even more popular than books and again it seems that they cannot be graphic or visceral enough. The most popular fictional detectives now are not police officers or gifted private amateurs; they are forensic scientists who begin all their investigations by carving up bodies in gruesome detail. Battle scenes have to be as realistically gory as possible with blood spraying all over the screen. Nothing is spared as we seek the ultimate thrill. We want to be shocked, to be horrified, and to get as close to the actual experience as it can possibly be portrayed in print or on screen.
Fantasy books and films are some of the biggest blockbusters, bringing us to J.A. Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien has created an amazing Middle Earth peopled with elves and dwarves, human warriors, wizards and monsters. The books made six spectacular movies. In Lord of The Rings Tolkien give a neat new twist to the ancient quest plotline. The coveted talisman is a Ring of Power, but the task is not to find it but to destroy it. This task is given to Frodo, a childlike hobbit, one of a race of little people with big appetites and hairy feet.
Frodo is a prime example of what I have come to call the Frodo Factor, because there is something of Frodo in all of us. Every boy child dreams of leaving his safe home to survive countless adventures and defeat all the forces of evil and innumerable monsters. Carrying out a sacred task that will somehow save the entire world from destruction is just the icing on the dream cake. I suspect we all have such dreams and fantasies and this is the lure that causes many to actively seek out adventure and danger. If we are lucky the Frodo Factor will lead us to travel to strange places, explore beyond the ranges, cross deserts, climb mountains, penetrate jungles and perhaps find lost cities. That same urge, however, could lead us to the battlefields and the horrors of war.
When I was a boy I avidly read all the great adventure comics, the Wizard, the Hotspur and especially the Rover. These were the English equivalent to the American marvel comics but their characters were not superheroes, they were just ordinary guys having extraordinary Boys Own Adventures. They were a feast for every young imagination. Through their pages we could all live the exploits of their heroes. We acted them out as cowboys and Indians, swordsmen with wooden swords, and spitfire pilots with model aeroplanes.
Today everything has moved on. Star Trek and Star wars have moved all the old storylines into outer space, with ever more fantastic monsters and evil forces to overcome. Heroes no longer sail schooners across the seven seas, they fly star ships through wormholes to other galaxies. Small boys no longer read adventure comics. Instead they play computer war games, blowing up tanks, shooting down the enemy or zapping zombies. Many of the games seem to be focussed only on the body count. Psychologists tell us that these are dangerous, blotting out compassion and highlighting the ease of killing.
One of the most popular Television shows of recent times has been Game of Thrones, based on the fantasy books by George R. R. Martin. Game of Thrones depicts a medieval world of savage cruelty, drawing in all the most violent aspects of Ancient Rome and the Wars of the Roses. The plotlines mix armoured knights with dark magic, dragons and an army on undead zombies. Violence, sex, nudity, murder and mutilation fill seventy three hour long episodes. One major character has his arm chopped off, another is castrated, and another has a helmet full of molten gold poured over his head. Even the women are violent, powerful or evil. The battle scenes as in most modern films are as bloodily graphic as possible. The gore spurts everywhere. It has been highly successful, distributed world -wide and receiving innumerable awards. It has been hailed as one of the best television series of all time.
There is an argument that all this excessive violence in books, films and computer games has a numbing effect on all our finer emotions. It serves only to intensify the ease and pleasure of killing and causing hurt. In effect it is warping the Frodo Factor so that it is no longer just adventure and excitement that we lust for but the actual joy of killing and causing pain.
There may be some truth in the above argument but it is far from being the whole truth. As I write the world is gripped by a planetary disaster in the form of the corona virus pandemic which has swept the globe causing at least half a million deaths. Suddenly Planet Earth is at war but the enemy is invisible and as I write there is no defence. Most countries are in lockdown with vulnerable people confined to their homes. The battlefields are now in hospitals and care homes and the frontline fighters are doctors and nurses, ambulance drivers and care workers, together with delivery drivers and shop-workers who are keeping our supermarkets filled with food.
Stories are emerging of total dedication and compassion from those on the new front lines. They are all working above and beyond the call of duty. Some doctors and nurses have come out of retirement to do what they can and have died as a result. Ordinary people have set up good neighbourhood schemes to shop and care for people who cannot get out. All the noble virtues of wartime are in full force with people uniting and working together. Compassion, caring and empathy are definitely not a thing of the past.
In these last three chapters we have looked at all the causes of war but we still have not answered our primary question. If there is a God and he is all good and all powerful as all the religious faiths believe, then why does He permit war? Why has he allowed the corona virus and all the previous forms of plague to sweep with such dire consequences over the full face of the Earth? Why does he allow floods and famine and any form of evil?
And why do wars and disasters always fascinate and inspire us, forever feeding our fantasies and imaginations?
One possible answer has been proposed by the British philosopher and Christian minister John Hick. In his book An Interpretation of Religion Hick suggests that ours is a soul-building world and all its evils are designed to hone and perfect the soul. Conflicts and disasters bring out the best in us as well as the worst. War and any other kind of human catastrophe bind us together, showing the courage, caring and indomitable spirit that is the true essence of the human race.
In one of my previous books, God, Faith and Terror, I devoted a full chapter to John Hick and his interpretation of the perennial philosophy and because it fits so neatly I include it here. It is a revival of what is known as the Irenaean Theodicy first formulated by a philosopher Bishop who became a saint.
In the view of Irenaeas God has not yet made man into a perfect being. Instead man, the physical being, is still in the process of creation and each one of us still needs to be refined into a fully spiritual being. Man may be made in God’s image but that image is still but a reflection of what man may become. The pain, suffering and difficulties that man may have to endure in this world are all part of this continuing spiritual enrichment and attainment. God allows evil because the ills and trials of this world allow human beings to show courage and compassion and self-sacrifice which are all soul-making qualities which will help to forge us into the spiritual perfection which God wants.
Spiritually we are still evolving.
THE SPIRIT WORLD
For the record it should be stated that some philosophers cannot believe that such a thing as the human soul can exist. They simply cannot envisage how something that is supposedly non-physical and immaterial can influence or motivate something that is physical and organic like the human body. These philosophers also insist that God cannot exist, they cannot grasp how something that cannot be weighed, measured, dissected and analysed in a scientific laboratory can possibly be said to exist.
Because any kind of spiritual dimension is also beyond the reach of science it must also be a delusion. Anything metaphysical must be a figment of the imagination. If they are right then I have wasted my time writing this and you have wasted your time in reading it. The billions of people around the globe who follow one or another of the great streams of religious faith are also deluded and wasting their time.
However, when we think about God and this impossible spiritual dimension we are in tune with almost everybody who has ever lived and the vast majority of all those who are alive now. Belief in the spirit world, like belief in God, is one of the primary beliefs that are held as true and essential in every religion. In all the ancient belief systems the physical world which we can all clearly see and feel and touch also had a parallel world, an unseen spiritual dimension which could be sensed and experienced, even though the experience was nothing tangible that could be grasped or adequately described.
The idea that the actual essence of a person, the sum total of all that made them individual and unique, could simply vanish with the death and decay of the physical body was simply unacceptable. That unique essence, the spirit of the person was always believed to continue to exist. In many cultures, such as the Australian Dreamtime, the spirit world was also inhabited by animal spirits, nature spirits, and the spirits of all the sacred places, mountains, groves, glades and valleys.
In the great religious faiths today there is always a spiritual dimension. Christianity talks of heaven and hell, of saints and cherubs and angels. Islam dreams of the celestial gardens of paradise, blessed with the desert-dweller’s dream of scented gardens, cool shade and flowing waters. All the faiths promise salvation, either immediate or through a series of reincarnated lives, in some sort of celestial unity in the spirit world. In Japan the core of Shinto is still the worship of the Kami, the Japanese understanding of the spirit world.
Wherever we look, in any time or place the existence of a spiritual dimension has been acknowledged by the majority of individuals in every society. Belief in God and the spirit world have gone hand in hand throughout time and place until very recently in the west. Since the eighteenth century science has changed the way we live with wonderful advances in every field of technology and so science has become the new western god.
The atheist buoyed by science derides the belief in God as a delusion, echoing the Marxist cry that religion is just a crutch that the world no longer needs. When faced with the universal and timeless belief in God and religion he equates it with the ancient belief that it was the sun which orbited planet Earth. Primitive man saw the sun rise in the east and set in the west and could be forgiven for this apparently logical belief. Now science has shown that it is the Earth that rotates around the sun, and that the Earth also rotates on its own axis, thus giving this mistaken belief that it is the sun that orbits the Earth. This false belief also existed with all men and in all places for many centuries, but now science has proved the truth. Someday science will do the same with religion.
But God and the spirit world are not in the same class of existence as the earth and the sun. The stars and the planets are made of physical substance, they are solid and substantial and so their movements can be observed and measured. The spiritual dimension with God at its core is metaphysical, it is beyond physics. In the final analysis it is unknowable because that leaves room for free will and faith.
The full details for my argument for the probable existence of God were set out in God, Faith and Reason. In brief our perceived universe is enigmatic in every way. In every field of philosophy, metaphysics, mind, morality and religion, the basic understandings are arguable and in the final analysis there is always a shadow of doubt and uncertainty. I called this the consistency of uncertainty. I found later that John Hick had followed the same path in his brilliant book An Interpretation of religion. I went one step further and argued that in remaining unknowable and forever in doubt; God has left room for free will and faith.
Most real philosophy stopped at the point of accepting the inability of science to prove the existence of God, with philosophy abdicating to science. However, belief in God and the spiritual dimension still persists and the hopes of mankind and the great streams of faith simply will not go away. By allowing the possibility, or even the probability of God’s existence we can continue to discuss the mystery of God and the spiritual dimension.
The spirit world as it is generally understood is a parallel spiritual realm inhabited by spirits who can be either good or evil. They are the ancestral spirits of past human beings, the spirits of animals and sometimes the spiritual essences of objects or places, such as Uluru, the great red rock in central Australia or the Delphic groves of ancient Greece. In religious spiritualism God is always at the centre of the spirit world, which is sometimes perceived as concentric circles spreading out from God. Close to god are beings like the saints and angels of the Christian religion, often reflecting His light. Farthest from God the light fades toward darkness and the outer regions of hell which in some religions contain demons and the damned.
By its very nature the spirit world is separated from the physical world, it is invisible, unseen and so can be dismissed as a figment of the imagination. What sustains the belief is that the body of ideas that compose the spirit world are constant and universal. They persist everywhere throughout time, like the central idea of the existence of God Himself. If they are a figment of the imagination then it has to be a timeless and global imagination.
Despite its natural independence from the physical world, the spirit world and the physical world are believed to interact and the spiritual world can influence the physical world. In some cultures good or bad events are always believed to be the work of good or bad spirits and so the spirits have to be beseeched, appeased or consulted. Prayers or offerings will often suffice but there are channels of communication which can be opened by those with the correct training and esoteric knowledge.
In older cultures the man or woman gifted with such communication abilities is the shaman, the medicine man or the witchdoctor. They work by creating within themselves a state of altered consciousness, a deep trance-like state in which they can penetrate the spiritual world. These altered states are usually induced by intense concentrated meditation, or by frantic dancing to rhythmic, throbbing music. In either approach hallucinogenic or psychedelic drugs are often included. By communicating with the spirits, or by allowing a spirit to possess them, they can seek out the causes of misfortune, sickness and illness and divine and foretell the future. Some are also believed to be magicians or sorcerers, able to manipulate natural forces, and so they are both sought after and feared.
A shaman is literally One Who Knows, one who understands the spirit world. They are found in various cultures all around the globe, in Asia and Africa, among the Arctic peoples and Red Indian peoples, in the Pacific islands and among the Aborigines of Australia. Among indigenous peoples they combine the roles of healers, religious leaders, counsellors and councillors. They are a pre-modern combination of doctor, psychiatrist and priest, fulfilling all of these tasks with the use of bizarre masks, drums, rattles and ritual.
Shamanism and animism, the belief that all animals have spirits, go hand in hand and the whole body of belief is believed to have originated among the earliest hunter-gatherer communities. Both beliefs have persisted in many places despite the change into agricultural societies although the beliefs remain stronger in tribal or nomadic societies. Modern man in the west has grown away from nature, insulated by all his new technology, but where people live closer to the natural world the old beliefs grip tighter. When you are totally dependent upon hunting or fishing or even farming, the vagrancies of weather and natural forces bring a closer connection to that transcendent world which seems more in control.
In the western world the concept of a spiritual dimension still lingers but the flamboyant caricatures of the ecstatic shaman are absent. Instead those who feel that it is possible or desirable to contact an entity from the spirit world will seek the services of a medium. Like the shaman the medium is a person who is believed to have the ability to communicate with the spirit world, but the means are very different. The principle ritual is for a group of people to sit in a darkened room, holding hands in a circle to perform a séance.
It is essential to sit around an oval or circular table, set with one or two candles and some simple food as an offering of physical nourishment. Obviously this should all take place in a darkened room and all other lights should be switched off. The people in the circle must concentrate and call upon a spirit to reveal itself, usually by a code of one knock or two for yes or no. Again obviously all the people present must believe in what they are doing. The presence of a sceptic would render it all pointless. In a successful contact a spirit will speak through the medium or answer his or her questions with a yes or no response. For some reason the spirits who respond are often famous or exotic personages.
For a full séance a medium has to be present to channel and relay the messages from the spirit world. Without a medium an Ouija board can be used. A simple Ouija board would contain just the letters of the alphabet with a small pointer. One person touches one or two fingers to the pointer, questions are asked and the pointer moves to spell out the answer.
Séance parties were very popular in Victorian times. The wife of the American president Abraham Lincoln even organized them in the White House on Capitol Hill. These sessions could easily be manipulated by clever conjuring tricks and the exposure of a large number of medium frauds soon caused them to go out of fashion. However, there are tricksters in every profession and the exposure of fake mediums and shamans cannot necessarily show that the spirit world does not exist.
The fascination with the séance brought about a general interest in the spirit world and spiritualism in the west. One popular 18th century author was Emmanuel Swedenborg who claimed that creation consisted of two co-existing worlds, the spiritual world and the natural world. The spirit world was a series of concentric spheres that gradually became more illuminated and celestial and was filled with unseen realities which we could not fully encounter until after death. All of life in both worlds is sustained by the love and wisdom of God.
After death, according to Swedenborg, we do enter this intermediate world of spirits. Here we are not exactly punished for our sins, but instead are allowed to choose whether we move to heaven or hell, depending on where we will feel most comfortable with like-minded spirits. In eastern philosophy, of course, this is the realm where we would be allocated into our next reincarnation.
One sphere of the spiritual world which has often fascinated fiction writers is the astral plane. According to occult teachings the astral plane can be visited through astral projection which can be achieved by concentrated meditation or lucid dreaming. The astral traveller is able to separate his consciousness or spirit from the physical vehicle of his body and thus travel at will through the spiritual dimension.
In some near-death experiences some people have described themselves as floating above and looking down upon their own body. These episodes have been interpreted as inadvertent astral projection experiences. Many fantasy novel authors have taken this idea further and introduced at least one character who is capable of astral travel, virtually flying great distances and to great heights. Having one character who does not have to be dead to visit the spirit world is a great device for plot development and clarification and enables snippets of overall philosophizing to be neatly inserted into the narrative.
There is one final aspect of the spirit world we have yet to consider and that is the world of ghosts. In popular folklore a ghost, a phantom or a wraith is the soul or spirit of a dead person who can appear briefly to the living. They are generally held to materialize as translucent or barely visible wispy shapes that can be portrayed in pantomime by actors draped in white sheets. When they cannot materialize they make themselves known by lowering the temperature, creating an ice-cold room, or by mysterious noises and movements. The clanking of chains or soft footsteps can signal their presence, or objects will be moved or broken. When they are glimpsed they quickly vanish again, sometimes gliding through solid walls.
Ghosts are generally believed to be the spirits of the dead who for some reason have not been able to wholly depart. Some trauma binds them close to the place where they lived or died. Their lives may have been cut short by violent death, by murder or by suicide. Broken hearted lovers who have taken their own lives quite often stay to haunt the area.
It seems that in England every ancient ruin supports a ghost. They haunt empty castle halls and the crumbled monuments of broken priories and abbeys. You might think that holy men would sleep peacefully on a direct ticket to heaven, but every religious relic seems to be haunted by ghostly grey monks.
There is even a Howling Monk who haunts the remains of St Bennet’s Abbey in the Norfolk Broads. The story goes back to the time of the Norman Conquest. One of the monks betrayed his brothers by giving the conqueror’s soldiers access to the abbey. He had been promised that in return he would be made abbot. The cynical Normans kept their promise; they named him abbot and dressed him up in the abbot’s regalia. Then they stripped him, skinned him alive and nailed him to the abbey door. His screams are said to still be heard on misty nights across the marshes.
Tales like these abound and it seems that every old coaching inn in England also has a resident ghost. Ghost stories are very popular and it is hard to tell what is supposed to be fact from fiction. The phenomenon of ghost sightings and haunting is worldwide and ghosts appear in every culture. There is no corner of the world where ghosts and spirits do not appear in local folk tales,
Many spiritualist writers have defined their own versions of the spirit world, and of course the philosophers of Islam, the east and the orient have all painted their own pictures of how they perceive the spirit world to be. Every religion has its own definition of some celestial heaven and infernal hell, a paradise or a nirvana. Writers who claim a gifted insight and shamans who have ventured on a vision quest have all added their own thoughts to this growing body of ideas. The descriptions may differ from faith to faith, from culture to culture, but just as the definitions of the nature of God find different forms there is always a basic consistency. All faiths believe that God does exist and all faiths believe that there is a spiritual dimension to creation.
THE NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE
One of the major questions with which we started was what happens when we die. Our review of all the major religions shows that none of them believe that death is the end. They all offer some form of hope or salvation. The atheist shrugs this off as wishful thinking and a blind refusal to face the inevitable. Science sits proud on the philosophical recognition that belief is not knowledge. Only science can prove knowledge and belief without knowledge is meaningless. We all have to die and nothing can be known beyond that brute fact.
Except that some of us have died and apparently come back. What has become known as the near death experience has now become extremely well documented. Talk of the near death experience began to circulate in the 1890s, an age of vigorous exploration and mountain climbing. Suddenly climbers who had experienced dramatic falls which theoretically should have killed them were telling tales of their whole lives flashing before them as they fell.
The body of tales grew; from falls, from soldiers who had survived catastrophic war injuries and from the survivors of drowning, heart attacks and other sudden accidents which should have killed them. To the accounts of their whole lives flashing before their eyes were added other consistent accounts of the near death experience. Many people reported out of body experiences, the sensation of rising from their damaged physical bodies and floating above the operating table or scene of their accident. Many of them were drawn through a dark tunnel towards a brilliant white light. Almost always they experienced the sensations of being wrapped in infinite light and infinite love. Usually at some point they encountered a deceased relative or an angelic being in white who would tell them that their time was not yet and they must go back, then they would return, often reluctantly, to their physical bodies.
In 1968 the first analysis studying 400 firsthand accounts of this phenomenon was published. Soon a psychiatrist had had used the term near death experience to label them all together. At first they had been classified as anomalous perceptual experiences or hallucinations, but now they were being taken more seriously. More and more ground-breaking books were being published as more studies took place.
Researchers were soon able to define the common elements of the near death experience. Initially the patient would be aware of being dead and of a great sense of peace and well-being. At the same time there would be the perception of being out of their physical body, perhaps floating above an operating table or the scene of a road accident, watching the efforts being made to help and revive them. Next would come the tunnel and the rapid movement towards the light. There was usually the intense feeling of unconditional love and acceptance and perhaps an encounter with relatives or other beings in white light. Somewhere in all of this would be the scenes of their past life flashing before them. Finally there would be some sort of boundary, perhaps a bridge or a river they could not cross, the message that this was not yet their time, and then the abrupt return to the body.
All or any of these sensations could be experienced and with them the conviction that it had all really happened.
There were psychological explanations and objections. One suggested that these were depersonalized hallucinations, caused by over-riding fear and emotion. The mind was deluding itself by detaching and disassociating from the pain and the life-threatening situation it did not want to face. Or the mind was constructing images of what it wanted to believe, coupled with what religion had led them to expect. There was even an argument that this was some kind of birth reversal trauma. We all travel down the birth canal to exit from the womb so now the mind was picturing this progress in reverse.
Naturally science and psychology choose to ignore the most probable explanation of them all, that these experiences were exactly what those who experienced them believed them to be.
Ironically it is the advance of modern information technology which is reinforcing the evidence that near death experiences are what they claim to be, Today computer technology has given us the internet and so provided researchers the means and the opportunity to cast their net more widely, Thousands of near death experiences have been collected and analysed and the findings are remarkable consistent. They all tell virtually the same story.
In his best-selling book God and the Afterlife Dr Jeffrey Long has distilled the results from questionnaires answered by more than four thousand people who have responded to a survey by the Near Death Experience Research Foundation. Dr Long is a radiation oncologist, a specialist in radiation therapy for cancer patients. The foundation is his brainchild and by posting it as a website with a forum for people to share their near death experiences he has amassed a significant amount of data for his study.
His findings have gone far beyond the study of the near death experience itself, for it seems that those who have come to the edge of life, almost into the abyss of death, have also in many instances encountered what only can be understood as God. Almost all of those who speak of a near death experience also speak of sensing not only a spirit world and a vision of the afterlife but also the overwhelming love of God. God is sensed not as a person but usually as some kind of light force of unconditional and undying love. God is also the unity of everything, universal and eternal.
The light which draws everything to its source is said to be more brilliant than the sun and yet is never painful to the eyes. It is the central focus of every near death experience. It is also reported that colours are more vivid and beautiful than anything that can be experienced on earth, and there is often music that is more gentle and soothing than anything ever heard before. The whole experience is described repeatedly as like being wrapped and enfolded in enduring compassion and love.
Sometimes there are glimpses of heaven, as a glittering city or a pastoral valley, but these are always just out of reach. Usually there is some kind of boundary which cannot be crossed to reach the promised vision. At this point it is communicated or just understood that the traveller must go back. It is not yet his or her time and life on earth is not finished. There is something still to be accomplished or learned. Or there is a need to be fulfilled.
It could be argued that as these are all or mostly stories gathered from the internet forum then they could be just that, made up stories by people who are just seeking attention. But just as it seems an unlikely coincidence that all these experiences are so similar, so it seems unlikely that all these story tellers would make up exactly the same kind of story. There is room for doubt, but as we have repeatedly seen, there is always room for doubt. In every field of philosophy and theology there is always that consistency of uncertainty, the faint question mark which means that the final step must always be one of faith.
It is interesting to note that this Oneness of God and the perception of reuniting with this essence of light, seems to be very close to the possibility of a union with God which the mystics of every religion have somehow sensed and tried to achieve. Mysticism has been defined as the belief that union or absorption with the Deity or the Absolute is a possibility. Such a union may be impossible to the intellect but may be attainable through contemplation and complete self surrender.
It may have begun with the secret and mysterious Eleusinian rites of ancient Greece. Since then the inner quest for this experience has had a branch of adherents in every faith, the Whirling Dervishes and the Sufis of Islam, the naked Sadhus of India, the practitioners of the Kabbbalah in Judaism, Christian mystics and Holy Men and hermits everywhere withdrawing into the isolation of forests and caves.
Classical Sufi scholars have defined Sufism as a science with the objective of the reparation of the heart, turning it away from everything except God. This remembrance or acceptance of God can be achieved through forms of rhythmic chanting, music and dance, such as the whirling of the dervishes. The aim is to reach a trance-like state where the only experience is the knowledge or union with God. Other methods include intense meditation or visiting Holy Places such as the tombs of Sufi Saints to try and draw upon their lives and experience. It is all about trying to reach the mystical inner God inside oneself.
The Sadhus of India are the holy men who have renounced all worldly things in order to follow a path of dedicated spiritual discipline. It is said to be the fourth and final stage of Hindu life when all else has been accomplished. The only aim of the Sadhu is to transcend the limited identification with the physical body, the mind and its ego. It is trying to unite the self with Brahman. Yoga is the collective term for the physical, mental and spiritual practises which are used to achieve this aim and many Sadhus are also Yogis. Sometimes the rejection of all earthly possessions is taken to the extreme by the naked Sadhus who refuse to wear anything except a smearing of ashes. There are said to be between four and five million Sadus roaming India, including grandfathers and grandmothers from all branches of Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism. They wander between pilgrimage sites and other holy places, praying for peace and begging for their food.
In Judaism the esoteric and mystical tradition is called Kabbalah. Its teachings try to explain the relationship between the unchanging eternal God and his creation, the mortal finite universe. This truth is believed to be concealed in inner meanings of the Hebrew Bible and the traditional rabbinic literature. Its practises are a means of approaching God directly to seek out the hidden meanings in the scriptures.
Christian mysticism also has a long history. There is mystery at the very heart of the Christian faith. When a believer accepts Christ as his or her saviour it is believed that the Holy Spirit transforms and dwells within us to enable us to live out God’s calling, but no one can explain exactly how this happens. When Christians take Holy Communion it is believed that the bread and wine they are offered actually becomes the body and blood of Christ, but no one knows exactly how this is supposed to happen. However, mainstream Christianity is out-looking, attempting to follow the example of Christ and the teaching of the New Testament in serving others, their community and the world at large. The mystic devotes himself or herself to a more personal quest, seeking for hidden meanings and a total experience of or union with God.
In their search for the direct contact with the divine or the transcendent the early Christian mystics sought isolation and separation from the world. They suffered self-imposed austerity and hardship, starving and flagellating themselves. In the middle ages the first monastic communities appeared in the deserts of the Middle East, whole communities of monks locked themselves away to devote themselves to prayer and the inner search for God. The monastic ideals spread into Europe and the Norman conquerors brought it to England. The first thing the new French lords did was to build a castle to defend their territories. Next they founded a priory or an abbey for their personal order as an expression of their gratitude to God for their victory.
The monasteries became great land owners and consequently a power in the land until forcible dissolved by King Henry the VIII. During their reign the different orders went to different extremes. The white friars, the Carmelites stayed close to the mystic tradition. They built their abbeys and priories in the most remote locations where they could isolate themselves and devote themselves to prayer and contemplation far away from the distractions of the towns. In Suffolk they originally built Leiston Abbey in the depths of the Minsmere Marshes but then found that it was prone to regular flooding. They had to take it down brick by brick and rebuild it on higher ground. The Grey friars, the Franciscans, decided that shutting themselves of from the world was wrong and so they devoted themselves to taking their teaching and healing skills into the towns and serving God by serving the ordinary people. The Black Friars, the more numerous Benedictines, stayed somewhere in the middle.
There have been many recorded Christian mystics including some of the church fathers, Saint Augustine and Saint Anselm of Canterbury . Saint Francis of Assisi who became the patron saint of animals was a mystic, but perhaps a classic example is Julian, or Juliana, of Norwich. She was an English anchorite, a religious recluse, and her book, The Revelations of Divine Love, was the first known book to be written in the English language by a woman. She lived most of her life in Norwich in the middle Ages. The city was then an important centre of commerce with a vibrant religious life. It had some twenty religious houses of different orders and more than sixty churches.
Juliana lived through the devastating ages of the Black Death and the Peasants Revolt and at the age of thirty she fell seriously ill. She had vivid visions of the passion and the bleeding of Christ. When she recovered she wrote her books and spent the rest of her life in permanent seclusion in her cell. Before she was locked away the office of the dead was sung to her as though it was her funeral.
Juliana is regarded as one of the most important of the Christian mystics and her book tells of her visions of the sufferings of Jesus and of God’s omnibenevolence with joy and compassion, comparing it to motherly love. It stresses her certainty of being loved by God and protected by his providence. In her first text she details her visions and in a later long text goes into extensive detail on the meaning she derived from them.
Other Christian mystics such as Saint Padre Pio and Saint Francis have displayed the stigmata, bleeding wounds corresponding to the wounds inflicted upon Christ at His crucifixion. In some cases they are the marks of the nails where he hung upon the Cross, the place where the spear was thrust into his side, or the scratches from the crown of thorns that was placed upon His head. Or the marks may be the scourging on his back or bruises from where the cross was carried on his shoulder. The appearance of the stigmata usually accompanies religious ecstasy and may be temporary or permanent. The Roman Catholic Church regards this as a sign of a mystical union with the suffering of Christ.
The American psychologist and philosopher William James wrote a famous study which he called, The Varieties of the Religious Experience. He argued that mystical experiences are comparable to sensory experiences and that although they derived from personal religious experience they were more fundamental to religion than theology or ecclesiasticism. He added a perennial interpretation by saying these experiences were uniform in all cultures and religious traditions.
It seems that there is some correlation between what has been sensed in the near death experience and what has been sensed and sought by mystics of every faith throughout the ages. The near death experiences suggest that there is an overall unity of the godhead and that it is possible to merge with this spiritual unity. That this is what the mystics have always tried to achieve also seems a high probability.
The work of the near death Experience Research Foundation appears to have been carried out with mainly English speaking respondents and most of them from America. It would be expected that many of these experiences would reflect a Christian background. Some of the experiences have reported glimpses of God as an old man in a white robe with a white beard, bathed in a radiant halo of light. Some have also stated that they sensed the presence of Jesus. However, Christian imagery does not seem to dominate these experiences. The emphasis is more on God as a creative force and a spiritual entity of love and light.
If there had been a predominance of pearly gates, lions gambolling with lambs and images of the Passion of Christ, then the psychological explanation that this was just the mind drawing upon expectations would perhaps suffice. But this does not seem to be the case. Although presumably gathered from people with a Christian background the experiences show little of the Christian story. There is nothing about the wounds of Christ and the shared stigmata. The underlying Christian belief of the infinite compassion, benevolence and love of God is what strongly shines through, and this is the basis of all faith.
It would be interesting to see further research on the near death experiences of people from other cultures. Would Hindus, Buddhists and Moslems report a spiritual world of all encompassing love that did not exactly map on to their own traditions? James saw that personal religious experiences were uniform and not specific to any one religion. It would be illuminating if near death experiences in other cultures showed the same pattern.
One final thought for this chapter. When as Christians we pray the words of the Lord’s Prayer......”Thy will be done, thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven......”..... are we praying for the overwhelming love of the unified God to envelope the Earth, for the establishment of the Golden Rule that in some form appears in all religions?