Philosophic Religion, Popular Polytheism, and Foreign Worship

As I finish writing up my thoughts on the Jewish -Hindu encounter, I will be offering a few tentative posts to get feedback (email or FB). For those who did not read the earlier posts, this is part of a bigger project. For some examples of the the prior posts, see here, here,  here, here, here and here and the feature article here. As stated in some of those prior posts: this post is not meant as a critique of either religion.

When I present lectures on the Hindu-Jewish encounter in Jewish venues, I inevitably hear from the audience that everything I say is only about the narrow elite Hindus who are like Westerners. However, they claim that the masses have no knowledge of any of these Hindu philosophies. The audience has never been to India, has never read or studied about the topic, and generally, is not socially connected to practitioners of Hinduism. Yet, the listeners are persistent in their stereotypes. Where does this widespread prejudice of assuming Hindus are primitive come from?


The short answer is that this approach is derived from English philosopher, David Hume and the thinkers of his era. It was copied in various mainstream books until the 20th century and promoted a distinction between popular and philosophic religions. Hume presents an evolution towards Protestantism, beginning with the first people being polytheists and then ritual legalists, culminating in Christianity.

Hume considers the basis of polytheism is “not the beauty and order we discover in the works of nature, as that leads us to genuine theism.” Rather, polytheism is a religion that responds directly to the human hopes, fears, and misery caused by weather, illness, and wars. “When human beings are in a more primitive and backward state of society,” we find that the “ignorant multitude conceives of these unknown causes as depending on invisible, intelligent agents who they may influence by means of prayers and sacrifice. By this means, human beings hope to control what they do not understand” by means of many gods.

Hume thinks that “As a result of this process, the world becomes populated with human-like invisible, intelligent powers that are objects of worship.” But is this not the concern of every religion?  Hume answers, no, in that polytheism does not concern itself with the abstract question concerning the origin or supreme government of the universe. For him, primitive people who are struggling for their daily survival do not have time to speculate about philosophy or our idea of God (Natural History of Religion, 4.2).

Hume sees two tiers of religion, the intellectuals and the common people, in which the common people are driven by fears and anxieties to accept forces beyond their control and slip into polytheism.

What does this have to do with Hinduism, in that much of it also applies to uneducated Jews and Christians? The application of Hume’s line of thought was made by eighteenth century authors on Hinduism. Sir William Jones (1746 –1794), for example, was an Anglo-Welsh philologist, a judge on the Supreme Court of in Bengal, and a scholar of ancient India. He was particularly known for his invention of the idea of Indo-European languages and wrote six volumes on Hinduism considering it locked into its infancy. It once had a magnificent past, but it did not progress yielding a degenerate present.

Jones explicitly compares the Hindus to the Jews as both stuck in their development to an ancient age of needing rituals. Jones writes: “Hindus are like the Israelites who needed rituals and ceremonies because of their childlikeness. With the full manhood of Christianity these rituals become superfluous.” So modern Jews should be careful about accepting the Hindu side of this pejorative statement, since much of the same applies to Judaism.

The 19th century Bengali Renaissance accepted Hume’s distinction and the colonial gaze of these books distinguishing the philosophic parts of the Hindu religion from the popular superstition. During this same era, Judaism refashioned itself so as to meet this rationalist and Protestant challenge creating Reform and aesthetic Orthodoxy.

This approach was further aided by Max Muller, the German Sanskritist and translator of the Hindu volumes in the series, Sacred Books of the East, who had never actually been to India, sought a rational meaning in the Vedas which he considered Aryan and philosophic as opposed to the popular Hindu religion of the last 2,500 years, which he considered degenerate and primitive. His focus on the ancient classics at the expense of medieval and modern Hinduism is the core of many religion textbooks to this day. Like Jones, Muller saw Christianity as the highest expression of religion to the detriment of Judaism and Hinduism.

This view became standardized in introduction to religion textbooks such as L.S.S. O’Malley’s 1935 work, Popular Hinduism: The Religion of the Masses. O’Malley writes:

The differences between the beliefs and practices of the cultured classes and those of the masses, mostly unlettered villagers, are so great that they almost seem to be differences of kind rather than of degree. The religion of the latter has few of the higher spiritual conceptions of Hinduism and represents in the main its lower side. A mixture of orthodox Hinduism and of that primitive form of religion which is known as animism, it combines Brahmanical rites and observances with the fetishism of lower cults.

Notice that the elite Brahminical works as well as the medieval theological works are listed as primitive in contrast to the modern Neo-Hindu approaches.  In contrast, my stay at Banares Hindu University concerned the so called “primitive” Brahmimical works, especially as they are similar to Jewish works.

Between the 16th to 19th centuries Jews were also generally considered pagan in their rituals, so much so, that Jewish practice was used to understand Native American practices and other newly discovered peoples. Let us not forget, in our discussion, the visit of Samuel Pepys, English naval administrator who is now most famous for his 1663 diary entry, detailing his visit to a synagogue for Simchat Torah. Pepys saw Judaism as brutish and primitive, the way contemporary Westerners have viewed Hindu festivals:

But, Lord! To see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.

The philosopher G. F. W. Hegel following Hume saw Judaism as mediation between primitive religion and Christianity having aspects of both.


Jewish ritual was only excluded from the primitive in the twentieth century. James G. Frazer in his classic work The Golden Bough (1890) placed the rituals of Biblical religion amidst primitive polytheism. Originally, Semitic scholar, Robinson Smith, in an 1880 article discussed totemism and animal worship among the Hebrews. However, later he switched and kept the Biblical religion separate from the primate, treating many statements as mere metaphor. In 1951, the Biblical scholar H Frankfort wrote that scholars should no run to create parallels between the Ancient Near East and the Bible, almost repudiating the connection in Western culture.

shabot 6000

Foreign Worship

Is Hume’s concept of polytheism and the Jewish concept of foreign worship (avodah zarah) the same? In a word: No. Polytheism is about being primitive, magical, and behind the evolutionary curve, a Protestant pejorative. The Jewish halakhic category of foreign worship deals with a mistake that leads people from a primordial natural theism to a form of worship using representation. Among the first to use the term polytheism was John Selden in 1619 who applied it as well to ancient Hebrews.

The most common definition of the Jewish concept of foreign worship is that of the medieval commentator Rashi, who considers the prohibition as referring as using images. Judaism remains without images and statues, compared to its iconography-heavy religions of Christianity and certainly Hinduism.

If we turn to Maimonides, we see foreign worship as a categorical mistake of logic and of one’s following imagination instead of reason.  He presents the use of images in worship as only having started in the era of Enosh, the first son of Seth who figures in the generations of Adam in the book Genesis.

In the days of Enosh, the people fell into gross error, and the counsel of the wise men of the generation became foolish. Enosh himself was among those who erred. Their error was as follows: Since God, they said, created these stars and spheres to guide the world, set them on high and allotted them honor, and since they are ministers who minister before Him, they deserve to be praised and glorified, and honor should be rendered them.


They began to erect temples to the stars, offered up sacrifices to them, praised and glorified them in speech, and prostrated themselves before them – their purpose, according to their perverse notions, being to attain the Creator’s will. This was the root of idolatry, and this is what the idolaters, who knew its fundamentals, said. They did not however maintain that there was no God except the particular star.

Foreign Worship  is born of a confusion growing from this fact that stars and astral bodies govern the world and the proper way to worship the one true God. It is a category mistake followed by a second mistake about needing Temples, ritual and sacrifice. The foreign worship is the misdirected quest to fulfill God’s will and to grant Him honor through ritual to these forces regardless of good intention.

Maimonides continues his presentation by explaining how this view of Biblical history plays itself out as a restriction on Jewish practice:

The essence of the commandment of foreign worship is not to worship any creation, not an angel, a sphere, or a star, one of the four elements, nor any entity created from them. Even if the person worshiping knows that the Lord is the God, but nevertheless serves the creation in the manner in which Enosh and the people of his generation worshiped originally.

Worshiping another being is what constitutes foreign worship.  Jews do not use any intermediary, angels, or natural force in their worship . Most traditional Jews accept this definition, albeit traditional Jews have always had appeals to angels as part of the liturgy that seems to violate this approach. In contrast, for Hindus, the images are the only ways to reach the Absolute infinite divine, in that a sensory image is needed to focus human worship, while for Jews images are a category error.

Let us contrast Hume to Maimonides in their concepts of incorrect worship of the divine. Maimonides thought that monotheism came first and turning to other beings  came second as a mistake; for Hume it was the other way around.  People are primitive until they evolve into enlightened reason.

To Maimonides view, Hindus could easily retort that he is mistaken on the nature of their Hindu worship, but to Hume the only response would be to claim to be philosophic as did the Neo-Vedanta modernists. The Jewish concept of foreign worship is about the concept of the divine and the role played by the imagination. While the non-Jewish English word polytheism is about a primitive state of humanity that could not conceptualize the divine.

Maimonides argues that we ought to endeavor to imitate God as much as it is possible for a human being. In imitating God, we will be drawn towards greater human perfection which may eventually result in knowledge of God and becoming like God. However, to Hume one is not seeking to obtain knowledge of God or to imitate God, rather to be rational in an Enlightenment sense.

How does Maimonides see the Jewish non-philosophers? Maimonides claims the Bible is written in a way that all men are capable of understanding even prior to their philosophic training. (Guide I: 26, 56). According to Maimonides, “the Torah speaks in the language of the sons of man,” in order that everyone has exposure to correct views, therefore the multitude ought to be instructed as to the perfection of God in terms using only the external, sense of the words.  Elsewhere he claims that people ought to be “made to accept on traditional authority the belief that God is not a body; and that there is absolutely no likeness in any respect whatever between Him and the things created by Him. (Guide I: 35, 80).

Maimonides, similar to Saadyah, could have no problem with theist versions of Nyaya, Mimamsa, and Yoga, and could theoretically find a way to accept many forms of Vedanta. The fundamental divide in the two religions from a Maimonidean perspective comes down to three key differences, the first being the proper method of worship. For Hindus, imagination, sight, sense, and aesthetics are essential to proper worship. Jews in theory do not embellish worship with the senses.

Second, the Maimonidean philosophic religion aimed for the elite gives it a lack of tolerance toward lay devotion or any vestigial forms of ancient religion so a Maimonidean would even have problems with Jewish folk practices.  Hindus have huge amounts of tolerance toward lay devotion and popular conceptions.

Third, Hindus use images and intermediaries in their worship as a proper means to bring the person to God. Maimonides rejects this, but Nahmanides’ approach of limiting the eschewing of images only to Jews is more productive in that it allows non-Jews to have images. Rashba, Nahmanides’s student, states that worship is not considered foreign worship provided one has not lost sight of God, who is the ultimate source of power and governance behind the lower forces.

Polytheism implied an evolution to the truth of Christianity. The traditional Jewish category of foreign worship in practice is more  about erecting boundaries in relation as to what a Jew is allowed to do than a theological position.

During the colonial era, Chief Rabbi of Britain Joseph H. Hertz (1872–1946) combined Hume with a universal tolerance. He states that the heathens were not held responsible for a false conception of God and “were judged by God purely by their moral life.”  For Hertz, “a primitive stage of religious belief” can still form “part of God’s guidance of humanity.” Even in their primitive version, [they] are serving the one true God (Malachi. 1:11) “Even the heathen nations that worship the heavenly hosts pay tribute to a Supreme Being, and in this way honor My name; and the offerings which they thus present (indirectly) unto Me are animated by a pure spirit, God looking to the heart of the worshipper.”

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, editor of a modern edition of the Talmud, takes other religions at their word as theists and considers the high culture philosophic version as the correct version.  First, he assumes that “Hinduism and Buddhism are sufficiently monotheistic in principle for moral Hindus and Buddhists to enter the gentile’s gate into heaven.” For Steinsaltz, “the compromises made or tolerated by the world’s major religions as ways of rendering essentially monotheistic theologies easier in practice for large populations of adherents.” So a theist Shavite, or a Vaishnavite would fall under Jewish monotheism.

At the same time, however, Steinsaltz, while still following Hume, writes that “the less than absolutely monotheistic folk beliefs” of Hindus are taken in Jewish law to be violations of the monotheistic principles of those religions.  Folk believes “are only problematic internally – solely within the discourse of another religion about its own believers. Such violations do not affect what Judaism has to say that religion.” Once the other religion is deemed sufficiently theistic then they are not foreign worship despite their folk belief since Jewish law cannot be violated “by Hindus since Jewish law does not apply to them.”


Folk Religion

What is the religion of the folk in the villages? There are two main Western books on village Hinduism. Lawrence Babb’s Divine Hierarchy and the subsequent C.J. Fuller’s The Camphor Flame.

In contrast to Western speculation from afar based on Hume, Lawrence Babb, an academic specialist on Hinduism who did field work in a small village, calls this distinction between philosophic Hinduism and primitive Hinduism into question. Babb notes that before he entered the field, his Western education taught him to distinguish between the great tradition of the relatively few and the little tradition of the unreflective masses. In contrast, his field work showed that the two elements are complimentary and that the Sanskrit high tradition plays an important role in defining the local traditions while the local traditions define how the high tradition would be performed in a given location.

Babb specifically shows how ordinary villagers have internalized a hierarchy of behaviors with philosophic theologies behind them showing they know both the high and low levels of their relgion. A prime example is found in the ubiquitous knowledge of different types of temples differentiating the high culture of the Brahmins, who serve in the temple and have fixed liturgy from the folk in their own local temples who know that in their own local temples they themselves can perform rituals and worship lower devas. For these people, no god can be so demanding as to exclude their own worshipers from their altars. Local devas and temples are less strict about purity, procedure, and chants than Brahmin temples but there remain a known hierarchal differences between a temple with a Brahmin priest and those without.  Deities of the high culture are seen as responsible for the social order unlike smaller local ones who handle smallpox and fertility. According to Babb:

The Hindu pantheon is a fluid array of supernatural beings and tends to alter in form as one context is replaced by another. In some contexts particular deities are seen as discrete entities, but under other circumstances deities merge with one another and their characteristics blend. At the most abstract level differentiation disappears altogether, as is suggested in the frequently heard Hindu truism that “all gods are one.

Major deities may have a village, local or little version who hears personal concerns. Great theistic god(s) with general powers over the cosmos, are normally thought to be distant from mundane problems of ordinary people. For that reason, Hindus rarely ask them for help.” All towns have a goddess to pray to for fertility, marriage, and smallpox even though she irrelevantly assumes different names.  The high theist god (s) are known by the people but are seen as abstract and distant in both feeling and in their pure rituals. But the local devas are kept featureless so that tales and theology return to the high culture.

The high Sanskrit culture and the culture of the ordinary villager are not separate or discrete from each other; they are merely differences of style or dialect, different modes of expression saying the same thing. Even complex theologies of metaphysics, philosophy and emanations are chanted in the vernacular or carved into the images in the walls of the Temples.

For the religion within contemporary urban slums, the more practical needs of daily life predominate over formal temple ritual. They stress the feminine Shakti elements in religion that are concerned with fertility, childbirth, health and family. Ordinary people pray for worldly ends and individual needs in the same way all urban poor worry about money, relationship and health in their religion. Jews and Christins who fret about illness and money also turn to practices that address these issues.  And like graffiti and hip hop, urban poor create their own original art and stories and songs that catch on among the elite as part of modern popular culture.


Comments are closed.