2016-06-30
Excerpted from a longer article with permission of the author.

In recent years, Pagan groups have reached out to Hindus, pointing out that so-called "heathen" cultures--often in Europe--had much in common with elements of Hinduism. The Lithuania-based World Congress of Ethnic Religions wrote to a 1999 meeting of Hindus in India:
"We wish to draw the attention of the Hindu leaders to the efforts currently made to maintain the ancestral religions of the Native Americans, Africans, and other 'Pagan' peoples in the face of the subversion of their cultures and aggression against their dharmic practices by agents of self-righteous missionary religions.
We also wish to draw your attention to the efforts to revive or reconstruct the ancestral religions of those nations who were overwhelmed by Christianization or Islamization in the past. By common origin or simply by a common inspiration, these ancient religions share a lot with the Sanatana Dharma, in both its tribal and its Sanskritic manifestations. We therefore wish to express our hope and intention of establishing a friendly cooperation."

There is certainly truth in this, as the late Ram Swarup, influential Hindu thinker and author, noted. At Ram Swarup's suggestion, I have done some participant observation of Neopagan movements in the last couple of years. I have made many friends in these circles, and I sympathize with the whole idea of the revival of the wrongfully eliminated ancestral religions. Clearly, there is a measure of common ground between Hinduism and Pagan revivalism.

That said, I do have mixed feelings about the actual performance of these fledgling new incarnations of old religions--incarnations which often suffer from some serious childhood diseases. In particular, I would like to draw attention to a few problems in the encounter between Hinduism and Neopaganism.

Sexual ethics: One thing which is bound to make many Hindus uncomfortable is the seeming predominance in certain Neopagan circles of what Indians know as hippyism: the kind of loose and undisciplined behavior which Western backpackers have displayed while travelling in India. Wiccas (neo-witches) dancing naked in the moonlight may not be the Shankaracharya's idea of Dharma. And while nakedness as such need not be immoral in any way, the fact is that the looser morality which Asians tend to identify as typically modern-Western is entirely the norm in most Neopagan circles.

As Fred Lamond candidly admits in his must-read introduction Religion without Beliefs, Essays in Pantheist Theology, Comparative Religion and Ethics (Janus Publ., London 1997, p.111): "Our practical ethics are 90% the same" as those of established religions, but "the only area where our principles differ sharply from theirs is in sexual ethics. To Pagans, sexual intimacy before marriage is neither sinful nor immoral (...) we regard shared sexual passion under most circumstances as a sacrament which, far from harming our souls, can be a gateway to self-transcendence and unity with the divine."

Hindus in India, and perhaps even more so overseas Hindus who have experienced a close-knit family structure and the concomitant "family values" as a great asset, would probably feel more comfortable among Christian evangelicals, with their prudish morality, than among libertine Neopagans.

Vegetarianism: Hindu taboos against beef-eating or meat-eating in general are also an issue. Though vegetarianism is a major trend in some Western Neopagan circles, other groups celebrate hunting and do-it-yourself slaughtering of your next meal as part of the return to a more natural way of life. Even among vegetarian Neopagans, the motive can be health and ecology rather than Hindu considerations such as compassion for all sentient beings and the taboo on touching, let alone digesting, animal tissue in a state of decomposition.

Spiritual practice: One of the most important fruits of civilization is a system of techniques allowing man to reach beyond the ordinary, world-absorbed consciousness. This does create an inequality within the broad category of non-Abrahamic or "Pagan" religions.

I am aware that this may sound elitist, but there is a real difference between the systematically developed techniques of consciousness as practiced in Hindu and Buddhist monasteries (and by laymen every morning and evening), on the one hand, and the whole spectrum of ordinary religious experience on the other: ritual, celebration, devotional practices, even erratic mystical experiences that anyone may have in exceptional moments. The best way to realize this difference is to meet an accomplished yogi. The quality of profound peace he radiates is unlike anything else.

This does not mean that other activities, religious and secular, are somehow bad and to be shunned. Not at all. Whereas Western adepts of yoga often deride "organized religion" with its rituals, I have never heard of an Indian or East-Asian practitioner who did not observe some calendar of rituals (e.g., Zen as a tradition of meditation is heavily ritualized). Contrary to what early Orientalists imagined, 99% of the people in the Orient are not sages; yet, they are aware of the existence and nearness of such a class of seers, and this infuses their religion with a quality absent in the purely naturalistic Pagan religions.

Did such a spiritual tradition exist within the pre-Christian religions of Europe? In Greek and Hellenistic culture, we certainly see traces of it, but they are usually attributed to Egyptian or Asian influence. A perusal of the remaining (and often distorted) Pagan literature of the Celts and also of the Germanic peoples shows a lot of celebration of life, of courage and passion, and some insightful meditations on the mysteries of life and death, but nothing like a yogic tradition.

Neopagans who understand that something is missing make up for it by borrowing heavily from the living traditions of Asia. Thus, neo-Druids such as the "Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids" have imported a lot of Hindu-Buddhist lore into their curriculum as a substitute for the unknown and irretrievable doctrines which the ancient Druids must have taught. To some extent, this is historically justified because European and Asian Pagan traditions did have certain doctrines in common. For example, the belief in reincarnation is well-attested by Greco-Roman observers of the Druidic tradition, in Virgil's Aeneid and other European Pagan sources.

But to some extent, it may be just fantasy. It is really possible that our Celtic and Germanic ancestors did miss out on some philosophical developments which were taking place in more civilized parts of the ancient world. And whatever they did know and teach has largely been lost, or only been registered by Christian monks who didn't understand much of it anymore. So, either way, neo-Pagans trying to supply the innermost teachings to a tradition of which folklore and scanty surviving texts have only preserved a skeleton, have no choice but to look to surviving traditions like Hinduism.

Polytheism: To many Western Neopagans, this is the central point of difference with the Abrahamic religions, and so they brandish their polytheism as the defining trait of their religion. While most Hindus have no problem with polytheism, they will find the issue in itself less important. Depending how you define "God," something can be said for both monotheism and polytheism. The ancient Greek philosophers, though undoubtedly Pagan, nonetheless sought a unifying principle underlying the whole of creation. It is only because of the Judeo-Christo-Islamic crusade against polytheism that this has become such a crucial issue for Westerners trying to revive their Pagan roots.

As Ram Swarup puts it: "A purely monotheistic unity fails to represent the living unity of the Spirit and expresses merely the intellect's love of the uniform and the general. Similarly, purely polytheistic Gods without any principle of unity amongst them lose their inner coherence. The Vedic approach is probably the best. It gives unity without sacrificing diversity."

Some Conclusions

Hindus should welcome the revival of the pre-Christian religions of the West, often cognate religions through the common Indo-European origins, otherwise at least typologically related religions which are not based on a monopolistic prophet or scripture. At the same time, they should be watchful for impure motives and degenerative trends, or for phenomena which may be acceptable in a multicultural framework but with which they need not involve themselves. The ancestral religions of Europe are at present in a formative stage, a stage of groping in the dark, of gradual rediscovery or self-reconstitution. At this stage they attract people with a variety of motives and divergent levels of knowledge and understanding. Still immature, these religions often look to Hinduism for guidance.