A Successful Myth
DISCLAIMER: This is an opinionated piece and doesn’t intend to hurt or dominate the reader’s beliefs.
Hinduism is considered to be the oldest surviving religion, with the massive pantheon of 33 million Gods commanding the faith of over 1.2 billion followers around the world.
While all the other religions like the Greco-roman polytheism or the Egyptian mythology with similarly polytheistic complex structures eventually declined, Hinduism plodded on and amassed devotees steadily, and still had people believing in Gods living in the freezing cold of the Himalayas.
This spectacular phenomenon can be attributed to the adaptive nature of the religion, wherein it accepted changes in the rapidly developing society. For instance, in Ramayana, Sita, who was kidnapped by a demon king, was abandoned by her husband while in Mahabharata we see Lord Krishna accepting the women ostracized by the society after being freed from the demon king. Such characteristic changes in the image of the ideal man(incarnation of Vishnu) between the two ages is indicative of the way Hinduism adapted to changing times.
A noteworthy addition to the Hindu pantheon happened around the 1960s, when the Goddess Santoshi Ma, previously unheard of, appeared into the scene. No one knew of her origin. Nor was she mentioned in any religious text before her mysterious arrival; however, she soon began to command attention, with several temples being built in her honor. She went on and became a major religious figure in a short span, and now is an integral part of the pantheon of the Hindu gods and goddesses.
It all started with a temple distributing pamphlets of this new and very effective ‘vrat’ done for 16 Fridays to bring peace and prosperity in the poverty-stricken society of the 1960s. It grew popular among the North Indian women and gradually gained ardent devotees; one of them decided to make a movie named “Jai Santoshi Ma” which was released in 1975, giving her a backstory and establishing a pan-Indian presence of her devotees, thus cementing her place in the religion.
This addition of newer Gods to the pantheon is not a new phenomenon- just a few centuries before the birth of Christ, a man named Gautam came up with a very different outlook on life and gathered a lot of followers. The way of life that he proposed though was very different from the Vedic lifestyle; nevertheless, he became very popular and started being recognized as Buddha, the enlightened one. This religion Buddha proposed was an atheistic one, a religion without a God. He believed that the origins of belief in omnipotent Gods emerged out of fear. This won him a lot of followers and the religion became a major one in the region with beliefs contradicting those of Hinduism.
Inspite of his completely contradicting teachings of atheism as opposed to the Hindu polytheism, Hinduism accepted Buddha as the 9th Incarnation of Lord Vishnu and thus avoided conflict between the religions; which curbed the spread of Buddhism in India because by then it just became a faction of Hinduism.
The acceptance of newer philosophies and adapting to the changes in the society helped Hinduism survive for several millennia inspite of its complex structure and bizarre belief systems.
It would not be far fetched to assume that intolerance and rigidity could cause a religion to decline much like the decline of the Greco-Roman polytheism which saw its last days during the advent of Christianity. The primary reason for its decline was simple – the polytheist structure didn’t adapt to the needs of society. With the increasing poverty and general dissatisfaction in the public, the people turned to the teachings of Jesus, a poor but charismatic carpenter born in the middle of summer who might not have conclusively proved his divinity; but he had new information about how to live life just the right way to reach heaven. Jesus promised a simpler path to salvation and his way was the most convincing and convenient, and the fact that he was killed by orders of the tyrant king Augustus Caeser made his beliefs ever more plausible.
Moreover, the Abrahamic God of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims had been inspired by the king of Greco-roman gods, Zeus/Jupiter. There are some differences, true, but that is mostly because he was developed to some degree before the influence of the Greek. The same can be said for Satan/Lucifer and Hades/Pluto. All four are basically tasked with the same responsibilities. So, if the Romans had accepted the advent of Christianity instead of violently opposing it by crucifying Christ, we’d probably be remembering Jesus as one of the many sons of Zeus and the polytheist religion would have prevailed.
We have been acquainted with numerous bizarre religions that now exist just in books and movies, because they eventually lost their relevance like the Greek and Egyptian myths, and the other major surviving religions are monotheist and simpler. Hinduism is perhaps the only surviving major polytheist religion owing to the freedom it once used to offer.