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Xenophanes’s God


If cattle and lions could paint, they would depict gods in their own images. And worship them too, of course. Xenophanes, the Greek philosopher, said that long, long ago. We create our gods in our own images. Xenophanes was disturbed by the behaviour of many of the gods in his religion. These gods had too many conspicuous weaknesses and vices. They were lascivious, jealous, scheming and cruel. They behaved just like the men who created them. Just like the mediocre Greek men and women.

Xenophanes, being a wide traveller, was aware of other cultures and their gods. In contrast with those gods, Xenophanes thought that his own gods were silly and childish. And very Greek to boot. Soon he observed that all the gods he knew were very similar to their creators. The gods of the Ethiopians were black and flat-nosed. The Thracian gods had blue eyes and red hair.

Xenophanes longed to replace the entire Greek pantheon with one God. He imagined a God without human shape and gender. Why would a God have a metabolic system and excretory organs? Why the penis or the vagina? Xenophanes thought of God as a mind that perceives. A consciousness. A dignified one at that. Not a lecher like Zeus, for example. Not a vindictive flame like Hera. But a noble consciousness that had no desires or wants.

Xenophanes marked the beginning of a tradition of questioning popular beliefs. That was 26 centuries ago. Xenophanes lived approximately from 570 to 475 BCE. Mankind came a long way from those days. We moved by leaps and bounds from the perverted darkness of religions to the glaring brilliance of science and technology. From the blatant narcissism of theology to the disarming modesty of Enlightenment. And in the recent past we liberated mankind from its self-obsessions and put it in a sacred pursuit of eco-systems and the environment and heavenly bodies.

Yet some of us – too many of us, perhaps – still cling to the ancient idols for various reasons. Dominant among the motives is politics, apparently – nothing to do with religion really. Let us consider just one example. Sabarimala.

Sabarimala is a Hindu temple in Kerala whose presiding deity is Ayyappan who is a celibate. Being a celibate (and very human-like), Ayyappan presumably does not like young women who may be potential threats to his chastity. A group of five women lawyers filed a petition in 2006 in the Kerala High Court challenging the same Court’s earlier defence of the tradition. Ten years later the case moved to the Supreme Court of India and in 2018 the apex court judged against gender discrimination and allowed entry of women in Sabarimala temple. This was followed by massive protests in Kerala against the verdict. The BJP with the Congress in tandem opposed the Court’s verdict and sought to perpetuate gender discrimination in the name of tradition. The Supreme Court accepted a review petition and a larger bench is studying the case further.

There is nothing to study. The case is obviously political rather than religious. Women of all age groups were actually entering the temple before this controversy started. In the first five days of every month, young mothers used to enter the temple for a religious ritual called ‘rice-feeding’ of the child. The Kerala High Court accepted this as a fact and evidence. The high priest (tantri) of the temple admitted that film shootings used to take place in the temple premises and female actresses not only entered the restricted areas but also danced there for the films.

Kerala is a state that walked ahead of most other people when it comes to breaking traditions. Many evils practised in the name of traditions like caste system and child marriage were all eradicated from the state long ago because of a radical iconoclasm that runs naturally in Malayali veins. Yet what is happening now with Ayyappan? Why is Kerala walking backward towards the darkness which Xenophanes questioned 26 centuries ago?

Since the answer is obvious, I don’t intend to mention it here. I wish we had more Xenophaneses and less politicians in the country.

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Previous post in this series: Will, the Tyrant

Tomorrow: Yale-New Haven Hospital’s Monkeys



  1. Absolutely we need more Xenophanes in our country or the way we are moving our gods can't save us.. as it is the king of god narad runs away at every given opportunity. Loved your argument in the post and the conclusion too.
    Deepika Sharma

    1. Since gods are pawns in the hands of politicians and religious leaders, they will continue to do absurd things until the common person becomes enlightened which is a distant possibility.

  2. A very good post. Even after so many years of 'progress' people of the quality of Xenophanes are missed in the world today.

    1. Our progress has been blinkered. We saw only linear truths.

  3. What a brilliant and interesting post!
    I am reading a book on Greek mythology and most of the Greek Gods have such unpardonable vices.
    We need Xenophanes in our country to stop such things like the Sabarimala incident from happening.

    1. Most pantheon religions have very human-like gods. Some of our own gods are no better than the Greek ones.

  4. This reminded me of Voltaire's "we only pray to God because we have made him in our image. We treat him like a pasha, like a sultan whom one may provoke or appease."
    Which means that every century produces its fair share of Xenophanes but their logic and reasoning fade in the blinding light of power.
    Even 'evolved' intelligences can fall prey to power (like Osho) and lose their way.
    What do we do about this mortal ego?

    1. Indeed even highly evolved souls are misled by crap when they become devotees.

  5. What an apt post in the times where the Xenophanes do not seem to be found anywhere to put some sense that is much needed in current times. I had visited Kerala few times and had visited many temples but I was unaware about the rice -feeding ceremony and film shootings. Glad to have known this through your post. I loved reading the post a lot.

    1. Kerala is progressive in many ways. But when it comes to religion, people tend to be the same anywhere.


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