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The Gods Are Where We Are: Living Polytheism in the 21st Century/ Part 6

NOTE: This feature was originally published on April 13, 2021 by Aparna Sridhar in Soft Power Magazine

What are the challenges to indigenous polytheism today? How can we preserve it?

Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: The biggest threat I see to indigenous polytheism is the missionary work of evangelical Christianity, which is just another form of colonialism; Christian organizations spending large sums of money to sustain the work of missionaries abroad, whose sole aim is to convert a populace from its indigenous traditions to Christianity. This is insidious, pervasive, and the most effective way to eliminate indigenous polytheisms from the face of the earth. There are any number of approaches one could take to heal the effects of this epidemic, but I'm going to answer this question from my own personal experience, from the point of view I have as a devotional polytheist and iconographer.

The strength of Sanātana Dharma in India is rooted in its strong religious communities, and these

communities are sustained by their gurus and āchāryas, priestly traditions and ritual specialists. At the heart of this community network are the temples, and at the heart of the temples are the devas in Their mūrtis. It is India's intimate relationship with Her Gods that has sustained the power of the Dharma as a way of life passed down from generation to generation; these are the Goddesses and Gods Who have protected and nourished India from the beginning of history, and generated a line of enlightened teachers stretching down to the present day. Without its Gods, without its temple institutions, without its priestly traditions and ritual specialists, without the mūrtis that give a tangible home to the devas at the heart of religious communities, there is no hope for indigenous polytheism to continue in India. Indigenous religious communities can only be strong if their sacred institutions are strong, and their values are being supported by qualified teachers and specialists who carry out the worship of the Gods correctly. Correct worship of the Gods means establishing right relationship with the Gods through the activities required by the Gods in order to maintain Their bonds with a specific community. The maintenance of right relationship with the devas is essential for the legitimate operation of any temple, and a fully functioning temple is a requirement for carrying out the work of the Gods correctly. All of these things go hand in hand, and if any link in the chain is weak or functioning improperly, or missing altogether, the system will collapse.

What needs to happen for indigenous polytheisms to survive is a complete resistance to the spread of Christian evangelism by strengthening temple institutions and the religious specialists tied to those institutions. In the case of the Sanātana Dharma, this means the preservation of the temples and the resuscitation of defunct temples as the centers of community life and propagation of the Dharma. I was recently told by an Indian woman living in a small town in India that the once-thriving guilds of sacred craftsmen responsible for creating mūrtis were becoming lax in their specialist knowledge and devotion, and were beginning to disband. This is certainly a concern, because the creation of divine images according to strict ritual procedures is the only way a temple community can ensure the establishment and maintenance of right relationship with its gods. Without right relationship with the Gods, there is no divine life in a temple and no outpouring of boons as a result of sacred activities; so the crux of the matter is the preservation of the traditions responsible for sustaining religious communities the right way. This has to take priority for indigenous polytheism to survive.

Something I would like to see happen is the creation of some kind of support network- both online and offline- for sacred artisans, iconographers, and religious specialists of various polytheist traditions to share with one another, encourage one another's activities, and compile precious data concerning the materials, methods, and philosophies vital to the maintenance of right relationship with the Gods. Who is going to carry on these traditions in the next generation if this knowledge isn't preserved or prioritized for transmission? This means a willingness to cooperate and see traditions not as a luxury or cultural curiosity, but as a vital aspect of humankind's sacred development and relationship with its gods. Once this information is lost, it might be gone forever, and I know this only too well in the case of my own tradition because I am attempting to put back together the pieces of a very fragmentary puzzle in order to serve my Gods authentically and correctly. My work as an iconographer is grounded wholly in the purpose of establishing ties between the Gods and humankind, and to strengthen those ties through the correct ritual procedures and images. If our sacred relationships have any value, we must struggle to offer our best in each moment, and sustain our efforts not only for ourselves, but for those who come after us.

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