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The Mosaic distinction: Why the Abrahamic faiths remain outsiders to Indosphere

One often hears Indian traditionalists arguing that not all religions are equal, and that the Sanskrit word ‘dharma’ does not translate as the English word ‘religion’. In essence, the Gandhian phrase, sarva dharma sama bhava, which is considered the root of Indian secularism (though it speaks more to pluralism, actually) does not apply to the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Why are the latter two of these three religions – Judaism presents a complication that will be discussed later – considered “outsiders” to the subcontinent despite having existed in the subcontinent for over a thousand years? In India, what passes for debate and discussion on this issue in the public sphere has so far been high on politicisation and wanting in scholarship.

In academia, however – ironically, even the Western variety that many Indian traditionalists like to ignorantly scoff at – there have been some articulate expositions of why the Abrahamic religions are fundamentally different from and unequal to the faith systems of the cultural Indosphere and elsewhere. The argument runs that the differences between the two groups are not simply about what to call the sine qua non (God) or even if it is indeed sine quibus non (many gods) but involve a radical difference in views on the political order as well.

How Many Gods?

Theo Sundermeier, professor of theology at Heidelberg University, makes an insightful distinction in his Was ist Religion? Religionswissenschaft im theologischen Kontext between primary and secondary religions. The former, Sundermeier explains, developed over hundreds, if not thousands, of years, usually within a single culture, society and language with which the religion is inextricably intertwined. These would include the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian religions as easily as Hinduism. The latter category of religions are those that originate from an act of revelation or foundation and are monotheistic, universal, and of the Book. Secondary religions denounce primary religions as paganism, a collection of superstitions, and idolatry. The three Abrahamic faiths fit this description well.

This seemingly obvious categorisation holds an evolution of great import. From primary to secondary, religion changes from being a system that is irrevocably embedded in the institutional, linguistic, and cultural conditions of a society to become an autonomous system that can transcend political, ethnic, and other boundaries and transplant itself into any alien culture. As Jan Assmann, an Egyptologist at the University of Konstanz, describes in his Die Mosaische Unterscheidung: oder der Preis des Monotheismus, this change, which he calls the Mosaic distinction, is hardly about whether there is one god or there are many gods, but about truth and falsehood, knowledge and ignorance.

Monotheistic faiths rest firmly on the distinction between their true god and the falseness of other gods; their truth does not stand in a complementary relationship to other truths but relegates any such claims to the realm of falsehood. They are exclusive, antagonistic, and explicitly codified and clearly communicated. As Assmann explains, the truth to be proclaimed comes complete with an enemy to be fought – only they know of “heretics and pagans, false doctrine, sects, superstition, idolatry, magic, ignorance, unbelief, heresy, and whatever other terms have been coined to designate what they denounce, persecute and proscribe as manifestations of untruth.”

Secondary religions do not evolve from primary religions – rather, the emergence of the former represents a revolution, a rupture with the past that uncompromisingly divides the world between “Jews and Gentiles, Christians and pagans, Christians and Jews, Muslims and infidels, true believers and heretics.”

Truth and Falsehood

Such orthodoxy was unknown to the followers of primary religions and they found secondary religions intolerant. Indeed, this is an age-old argument that has been most vividly captured perhaps by David Hume in The Natural History of Religions. What is the root of such unyielding intolerance, or to put it in more sympathetic terms, conviction in their version of the truth? Assmann argues that the Mosaic distinction created an entirely new category of truth – faith – and draws an interesting parallel with a scientific development that Werner Jäger, a 20th century classicist at Harvard University, described as the Parmenidian distinction in Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture.

Parmenides was a Greek philosopher who lived in the 6th century BCE and articulated something that is so taken for granted today in science that it would be difficult to imagine a world without such an obvious principle: Being is, and Notbeing is not; that which cannot not be, and that which is not, cannot be. Thus, knowledge is based on the distinction between true and false cognition and the irreconcilability between the two. In a sense, we can speak of scientific knowledge as intolerant too, as Hume did of monotheism.

Before the Mosaic distinction, knowledge and faith were not separate concepts. Pagans knew their gods but did not believe in them for they were not objects of faith; like myths, they were unverifiable to science but not necessarily devoid of knowledge. Before the Mosaic distinction, there were four kinds of fundamental truths: experiential (water is wet), mathematical (two plus two is four), historical (the life of Mokshagundam Visveswaraya), and truths conducive to life (ethics). The Mosaic distinction cleaved faith from knowledge and installed the former as a fifth truth that claimed knowledge of the highest authority even if it could not be verified on scientific grounds.

The psychological and social impact of this differentiation is most visible in how Greek or Hindu science never conflicted with its philosophy, myths, or religious practices – each operated in its own domain. In fact, there are several anecdotes of highly acclaimed Hindu scientists subscribing to superstitions – S Ramanujan’s belief in astrology and CV Raman’s concern about the ill-effects of a solar eclipse come most readily to mind. But the monotheistic preoccupation with untruth in conjunction with faith-as-truth caused much acrimony in Christendom and the Dar al-Islam.

Alterity and Exclusion

If the conflicts between primary and secondary religion had been merely about how many gods there were, the world might have been spared much strife. Hans Zirker, emeritus professor of theology at the University of Duisburg-Essen, sees monotheism also as a statement against being influenced by strife between divine powers, being divided permanently between a dualism of Good and Evil, or being trapped in the incessant wars of self-affirmation of pluralist people. This is the political dimension of monotheism. Eric Santner, professor of Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago, suggests that the universalism of monotheism is imposed upon all, thereby forcing them to acquiesce to the Mosaic distinction or to be regarded as failures.

In The Psychotheology of Everyday Life, an obvious play on the title of Sigmund Freud’s work on psychopathology, Santner makes a case for the stranger – pagan? – to be the Other not for his spatial exteriority but because of his internal alterity (otherness). Externalities could be tolerated or influenced but internal alterity was far more insidious as it challenged faith-as-truth.

What makes Judaism different from Christianity and Islam, Assmann argues, is that Jews posit this universalism to be implemented at a messianic end-time whereas Christianity and Islam see it as an event at the time of their foundation. Judaism is no less exclusive than its Abrahamic descendents but as a result of a future date of redemption, Jewish communities have excluded themselves from the social and cultural customs of local gentile populations. Self-isolation has no need to resort to violence or persecute those with differing beliefs; for the Jews, goyim (usually meaning non-Jewish peoples) were free to worship whomsoever they wished. As a result Jewish communities have existed in harmony amidst pagan societies or found themselves to be co-victims of their own monotheistic cousins, alongside pagans, in the lands which came to be dominated by secondary religion.

In contrast, Christianity and Islam excluded the pagan rather than themselves. The Great Commission of Christianity and the Islamic obligation of da’wah not only excludes the pagan but directly puts them on a path of conflict. This intolerance stems from the absolute certitude that faith brings to Christianity and Islam. As Assmann points out, it makes no sense to talk of tolerance in pagan systems because there is no notion of incompatibility: one can tolerate something that is incompatible and irresolvable with one’s own views but how does one tolerate something that is not so steadfastly oppositional?


Among the practitioners of primary religions, there has always been a translatability of divinity – the cosmology of different communities was believed to be compatible with each other. In a practice that has been the norm since at least Sumerian times, pagan communities sealed contracts upon oaths to their gods. For example, if the Akkadians wanted to consecrate a treaty with the Egyptians, the former would swear by Utu and the latter by Ra, the solar deities of their respective civilisations. There was no question of the falsehood of the other’s cosmology. The worship of each others’ gods was not unknown either – the Egyptian goddess Isis had a popular cult in Rome and the Syrian Atargatis and Phrygian Cybele and followers all around the Mediterranean. Usually, these gods would travel to foreign lands with traders and with increasing commerce and familiarity, would be established in the local pantheon as well.

In the Indian context, the spread of Vedic Hinduism in India occurred along similar lines. The philosophical precepts of the Vedic Hindus were laid over the beliefs of the local communities and their gods were integrated into the Vedic pantheon. Many temples in Indian and Sri Lankan villages are dedicated to gramadevata – village deity – the legends behind whom trace their lineage back to a Puranic deity.

This is not to say that there were no conflicts among pagans – there were, and quite a few, but to go to war over theological differences was largely incomprehensible to them. In fact, conquerors often stole the idols of the vanquished to re-consecrate the deities back home with the dignity due to them. Hercules has thus been around the Mediterranean quite a few times in the wars of Phoenicia, Greece, Carthage and Rome. Religion, however, functioned as a medium of communication rather than as a criterion to exclude and eliminate. Varro, the Roman scholar who lived at the end of the 2nd century BCE, did not understand the need to distinguish between Jupiter and Yahweh as “the names are of no importance so long as the same thing is intended.”

The Mosaic distinction prevented this translatability, for Allah could never be Zeus nor Jesus be Apollo. This is another political ramification of monotheism.

Dominus Unum

The Mosaic distinction, if understood correctly, is, thus, a new political order rather than a cosmological order. The importance of this can be seen in that the primus inter pares status of the Abrahamic god and the prohibition of graven images is cemented in the first two of the 10 commandments in every version. According to Assmann, this implies that monotheism does not deny the existence of other gods but merely holds them to be false and their worship, therefore, is not meaningless but disloyalty. The former is a cognitive category, a matter of knowledge, while the latter is a political category. In essence, one could not serve two masters. Christians themselves felt the repercussions of this tenet during the Reformation in the Early Modern era when Catholics were viewed with suspicion by monarchs belonging to the breakaway sects.

Historically, monotheistic faiths made outlandish accusations against pagan religions to keep their base radicalised while turning one community against another. The Book of the Wisdom of Solomon, for example, spoke of pagans sacrificing their children in sacrifices and secret ceremonies, living in communities defined by adultery, murder, theft, corruption, and all other manner of immoral behaviour. Idolatry, the faithful are told, is the beginning of spiritual fornication and the corruption of life. Thus, idolatrous religions are depicted as completely lacking in ethical orientation. Though this critique might be dated to a specific period of monotheistic radicalisation during the third century, it nonetheless lays claim to proper worship and ethical conduct. This dispute is not merely about the number of gods one worships but about the negation of all gods but one.

Strictly speaking, most polytheistic faiths do not claim there to be many gods but that a singular divine presence animates itself in many ways. In that sense, the unity of divinity is not a monotheistic invention. However, the monotheistic spiritual binary is incapable of allowing for a primary god and several subordinate gods – it must insist on the exclusion of all gods but theirs.

There was no such paranoia in the lands where primary religions flourished. Monarchs patronised all religions in their kingdom despite their personal beliefs. Admittedly, at times, some received greater favour than others but never was a faith and its adherents exiled or made into second class subjects. Such pluralism was evident even in recent times. In Nepal, during the monarchy, Hindu and Buddhist holy days were both observed despite the official status of the state as Hindu and an overwhelming portion of the population – about 85 percent – being Hindu.

The closeness between the Hindu and Buddhist communities has historically been so great that it is difficult to demarcate the two in terms of social customs even today. During the famous Bunga Dyah Jatra festival in Laliptur, for example, the Hindu kings of Nepal participated during the climactic Bhoto Jatra phase during which they had to climb up the ceremonial chariot and display a sacred vest to the crowds.

Disenchanting the World

Another reason monotheism stands as the Other is that unlike polytheistic faiths, it disenchants the world. Pagan myths usually involved humans cavorting with the gods, in war as well as in love. This entanglement gives structure to the cosmos, describing its oppositional and synergetic forces in a manner that can be easily grasped by all. Furthermore, the gods bring order to society: with each trade, settlement, and resource associated with a patron deity, a network of duties and obligations is created. Each cult, so to speak, must be balanced with others in the greater community. As Assmann argues, this can even be extended to human destiny in that the stories of the gods give meaning to human relations as well. “By telling stories about the gods, myths bring order to human life.”

Polytheism is synonymous with cosmotheism, and the divine cannot be divorced from the world. It is this theology that monotheism attacks. The divine is liberated from its ties to the cosmos, society, and the people, and in its place is the relationship of the individual with a divinity that stands outside the world, time, and space. Monotheism changes not only the image of god but man’s image of himself as well; instead of being in a seamless and symbiotic relationship with nature, he now stands alone and above it, to rule over it freely and independently, subservient only to a true god. To secondary religions, divinity is transcendent whereas for primary religions it is immanent. Through this distinction between transcendence and immanence, the mosaic distinction also achieves a distinction between man and the world.

Ethics, the Law, and Justice

The disruption from culture and history, the certitude of a new type of truth, the exclusive rejection of other gods, the falsehood and criminality of the Other, the demand of fealty, and the disenchantment of the world pave the way to one of monotheism’s most important claims – that it is the religion of justice. Again, this is a political rather than theological claim. The key point of this claim is that ethics gained entry into religion precisely through biblical monotheism since the gods of Babylon, Assyria, or Rome had nothing to do with ethics in this sense.

For the first time in history, justice, law, and freedom are declared to be the central themes of religion and the sole prerogative of god. Though technically true, this is a misleading statement. The monotheistic point of view is that since god is the true authority, only he can be the final arbiter of justice; the temporal laws of man are inferior to the divine. The story of the exodus from Egypt ties in well with ideas of liberation of the Jewish people from slavery. Furthermore, their escape, divinely sanctioned, also took the power to sit in judgment over them away from the pharaoh and invested it in god. The Shemot, or the Book of Exodus, is thus more concerned with political theology than with idolatry (the story of the golden calf). Thus, in monotheism, the political role of justice was given to religion. The authority of the king was superseded by that of the high clergy, god’s representatives on earth, as papal power well into the Early Modern era demonstrated. This fusion of the political with the religious in secondary religions, but not primary belief systems, is exactly what makes secularism a requirement solely of the former in the modern era.

In pagan religions, justice was of this world for even the gods were of this world. A Roman or an Egyptian who had been wronged could appeal to the local magistrate for justice for its own sake without reference to the gods. Indeed, in Hinduism, dharma is not only properly a function of kaala, desha, and paristhiti but the chaturanga purusharthas mention it along with artha and kama as one of the three goals of mortal life.

The ultimate goal, moksha, is beyond short-term earthly consideration. As Hindi novelist Gurudutt explains in Dharma tatha samajwad and Dharma, sanskriti, aur rajya, the individual is free to interact with the divine in a manner of his choosing but wherever he must interact with another, their conduct must be guided by the precepts of dharma, artha, and kama. Ethics and the law were intrinsically this-worldy and had no business to be under divine purview. Thus, justice, or ethics at least, existed much before secondary religions came on the scene but were not truly a part of the religious system.

In a world enchanted, this caused no philosophical problems. The famous story of Indra, the king of the Hindu pantheon, being cursed by Gautama Maharishi for seducing his wife, Ahalya, illustrates how virtue reigns even above the gods in Hinduism. Monotheism did not usher law, justice, or ethics into the world; these had long been in existence. Yet monotheism first made justice a matter of direct interest to god; before then, the world had not known a law-giving god. Any claim that law, morality, and justice are terrestrial and not celestial goods still arouses feelings of deep unease in theological circles; even today, the Church defends the dogma of the inseparable unity of monotheism and justice.

Behind the Mosaic distinction between true and false in religion, there ultimately stands the distinction between god and the world. This worldview is not only fundamentally alien to Hindus but it is also antithetical and inimical to their way of thinking. The emphasis of secondary religions on universalism and all its attendant political baggage keeps them at an arm’s length from the pagan practices of the sub-continent. Were the rejection of Christianity and Islam by Indian traditionalists merely a matter of geography, it would be silly. Yet the grounds for suspicion and Otherness are two-fold – a predatory proselytism of exclusive monotheisms and the entire cosmology of secondary religions. Neither of these traits has mellowed over the 1,000-plus years secondary religions have been in India, and until they do, the two religions will remain outsiders to the Indosphere.

(The article was published on on May 11, 2015 and has been reproduced here)

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