War and Paganism

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The “On Faith” blog asks its panelists about keeping faith in times of war. Amongst the various monotheist perspectives comes the views of Wendy Doniger, a professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. Doniger, an expert in Hinduism and mythology, ventures into polytheist views of war.

“Some religions avoid the moral ambiguity about war that Christianity wrestles with by having a god who is frankly warlike, who drinks hot blood and is precisely the sort of person you would think could have thought up a place like the detention camps in Guantanamo. Hindus, for all their philosophical idealism (or perhaps, more precisely because that idealism frees them to think the very worst of apparent reality), are much more realistic about the relationship between god and war. They worship gods like the goddess Kali, who has a necklace of human skulls and a girdle made of childrens’ hands, or the god Shiva who, like Nero in Rome, dances/fiddles while the universe burns–indeed, whose dance is precisely what makes the universe burn.
The Bhagavad Gita, one of the major texts of Hinduism today, is a conversation in which the incarnate god Krishna persuades the hero Arjuna to fight in a war against his friends and cousins, a war from which Arjuna had recoiled.”

But lest one begins to think that polytheism wholly condones making war, Doniger points out that for every god/dess of war, there are divinities dedicated to peace, healing, and tranquility.

“But some of the Hindu gods (and even these same gods, in another mode of worship) also promise a deeper, more philosophical peace, not the sort of peace that comes when you’ve won the war by massacring hundreds of thousands of people whose land you wanted to take over, but the peace that comes when you’ve figured out that there is no reason ever to have war at all. This seems to me a highly reasonable sort of faith.”

This view of Hinduism easily translates into European polytheist structures. While the Greeks had the war god Ares, he was not trusted and was rarely worshiped except in times of conflict. The Roman Mars and several Celtic warrior-gods all had healing aspects. Most polytheist cultures have gods and goddesses of healing, peace, and beauty to balance out the more battle-prone divinities (and most held out for a time when all wars would be at an end). In short, war was seen as a tragic part of life, one that would eventually be overcome, and polytheist conceptions of the divine bear that out.