Forward looking universal bioethics: Polytheism and Monotheism

- Jayapaul Azariah, Ph.D.(1998C)
No. 3, 8th Lane, 5th Cross Street, Indira Nagar Chennai 600 020, INDIA
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 11 (2001), 157-159.

In the history of religion there are definite milestone developments in the cultural traditions of three ancient religious societies. They are (a) the Hebrew culture (Israel) which later was recognized as the Judaism, (b) the Vedic culture that later paved the way for Hinduism and (c) the Tamil Dravidian culture. Judaism is monotheistic in its theology, Vedic society was polytheistic but with limited number of gods and the Dravidian Tamil culture people were nature worshipers. As rightly pointed out by Avi, all the people of these three cultures were the descendents of Noah. But the Vedic people (2000 to 500B.C) believed that 'Brahma created all that exists on the earth. He created the host of gods, the demigods, fire, air, the sun, stars, planets, time, rivers, seas, mountains and the hilly and level ground' (Sarma, 1996). These two societies were contemporary ones. The former is monotheistic while later is polytheistic/ But when it comes to matters of bioethics both have committed blunders. Around 760 BC, Judaism was beginning to loose human values since they were selling and buying human beings, who were in need, for a pair of sandals (Amos (Bible) 2:6 c & 8: 6 b). On the other hand, their theological monotheistic belief demanded that ' But let justice roll down like waters; and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. (Amos 5:24). They did not make any correction. Within about 200 years i.e. around 593 BC their principal city, Jerusalem was called the 'bloody city' (Ezekiel (Bible) 22:2). There was a total break down of moral and human values.

The Rig Veda, talks about the creation of the Universe our of the Supreme Being. 'His face became the Brahman, His arms were made into the Kshatriya; he who is the Vaisya us His thighs from His feet was the Sudra born(RV X.90). The Brahmans are the priestly intellectual caste; Kshatriyas are the warrior caste; the Vaisyas are the commercial and agricultural caste and the Sudras are the laborers and the menial working caste. There is caste discrimination. However, in the Tamil culture which prevailed during the Cankgam Period (300 BC to 300 AD) there were no such discrimination on the basis of skin color and casteism. Does racial discrimination also includes caste discrimination? The recent Durban World Conference Against Racism beautifully reported discrimination in the following poem:

If you are white you are right,

If you are brown, stick around,

If you are black, Oh brother, get back, get back, get back.

With the decline of Vedic way of life and loss of human values in Judaism, a major spiritual crisis prevailed during the 6th century BC. As a result about seven major world religions such as Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Vedanta Monism and Taoism emerged within a span of about 50 yeas (Brow, 1966). By the time of 1st century AD, there was a total collapse of human value system as evidenced by the fact that a young girl was willing to carry a beheaded part of human body on a plate (Mark (Bible) 6:17-29). This is an extreme example of violation of human rights due to a corrupt political system. But we can't correct past history. But we can certainly prevent such dastardly acts being repeated through the development of universal bioethics.

These are such global issues which believers in both monotheistic and polytheistic groups must confront and find a bioethical solution, Both Professor Verma & Saxena and the linguistic Scholar Avi Gold have missed these problem areas. What would be very interesting is that how monotheistic and polytheistic belief could find and provide bioethical solutions to this global problem. I am not suggesting that we evolve a synch-bioethics but a bridge between monotheistic and polytheistic groups.

The thought-exchange between Verma & Saxena and Avi on the need to develop universal bioethics by developing bridge(s) between Polytheism and Monotheism is important. We live in a pluralistic worldviews culture. These worldviews had given expression to the famous dictum 'All Roads lead to Rome'. Avi has agreed with the Shloka 21 of Ch. 7 of Bhagawad Geeta that there are multiple paths to the Infinite One or the 'Supreme One' as has been opined in Hinduism. According to scholars Geeta reinterprets the Vedic Law and the Mahavakya (The cardinal statement) 'That Thou Art' (Tat Twam Asi). Chapters 7 to 12 explain the term 'That - essence' (Tat). These chapters explain the technique of Self-realization by meditation and also Krihna's view of who exactly was the noblest among the different seekers pursuing the different 'paths' (Swami Chinmayananda, 1996). The seeker 'who has successfully merged his mind in the nature of the Pure Consciousness, through the path of single-pointed meditation, is the highest seeker'. The path of single pointed meditation has been singled out and therefore all paths do not have equal weightage. Scholar Avi has tried to 'demonstrate the possibility of accepting multiple paths' from a Jewish perspective. Since Christianity advocates the doctrine of 'only one path to salvation' it is difficult to consider idols as shittuf. However, the major point for consideration is that how such a path of meditation and the path of knowledge, as advocated in Hinduism, could help human beings to develop human values of bioethical importance with global significance? What I would like to expect from Verma and Saxena, is that of the development of a holistic Hindu view of universal bioethical values by taking into account not only a chapter in Geeta but also the four Vedas and the Upanishads. Further it will be very fruitful to identify areas of convergence and contrast between monotheistic and polytheistic scriptures and use the convergent areas as 'shittuf'. Already Scholar Avi has made a beginning in this regard with his writings on the early Jewish connections and references to India (Gold, 1998, 1999 a, b) which was followed by the beautiful presentation by Vohra (2001) in his article on 'Science and Ethics: Religious and cultural perspectives'. Vohra has pointed out my 'Shittuf' and has avoided many thorny issues, which may arise in any interfaith dialogue. Someone has to take the lead. It is a phenomenal task but worth considering to develop a bioethics of convergence.

In the path of meditation, iconization of gods in the form of idols serves as facilitators (shittuf) of concentration and meditation. A modern Jewish scholar like Avi has tried 'to demonstrate how 'shittuf' can bridge the gap between monotheistic and polytheistic approaches'. But it will not be so for a Christian. Since all Christians are converts from other polytheistic religions of the 1st Century AD, they faced the problem of idols. To an Indian who is a Christian, eating food offered to idols is a problem in the light of Pauline teaching to the Christians in the 1st Century. St Paul addressed the question of eating food offered to Idols to the church of God at the city of Corinth. He taught them (a) 'as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that 'an idol has no real existence' and that ' there is no God but one'. This is a very strong monotheistic teaching. St Paul continued ' If any one sees you, a man of knowledge, at table in an idol's temple, might he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died' (1. Corinthians (Bible) 8:4 &10\11). As a result many believing Christians in South India flatly and strongly reject any food items offered to them during the Puja celebrations conducted in their work places. This creates strife, contention and irritations in any office situation. This is also a glaring example of discrimination due to one's own religious belief.

Professor Verma and Saxena remind us that the lofty ideals of Bhagawath Geeta (some use to write the same as Bhagavad Gita) are set in the backdrop of battlefields. Today there is no country, which is not engaged in warfare of some kind. Some warring fractions have religious connotations while others have ethnic reasons. One leader says 'to them it is a piece of land but to us it is our very life'. May be some scholar in Bhagawath Geeta could cull out basic bioethical principles contained in it that could be used by us as an enabling factor to prevent war and preserve global peace. Any conflict drains productive energy.

Professor Verma & Saxena have mentioned that ' if godliness is especially pronounced in an individual, he/it is taken as an incarnation or 'personification' of gods or an 'avtar' and is worshiped as a deity. In the world of ever-growing digital electronics information era, technologists have evolved many computer generated cyborgs who will be the stage actors, instead of human actors, in any movies. They are also called 'Avtars', following the Hindu theology. What sort of universal bioethics will we develop in the movie world of 'make believe reality'? Secondly, for the future of global bioethics, whether one is in the camp of monotheism or polytheism, we can't miss out the fruits of science and technology. Cloning of human beings is a hot topic today. If we ban human cloning, it is argued that it violates a woman's right for reproduction, whatever may be the means. What sort of guidelines\ religious, moral, ethical, spiritual. scientific - we could provide to the world on these issues?

Finally, the thought collective exercise initiated by Scholar Avi and Professor Verma & Saxena has provided a base for interfaith dialogue. Provision of mysticism and spiritualism as components of balanced-bioethical-diet in the development of moral and spiritual nature of human beings, especially in the psyche of a scientist, is a forward-looking bioethics. Modern science should not destroy the already existing religious base for the development of universal bioethics before finding an alternate, suitable and sustainable base. Since science is neural in value judgment it can not serve as a base. In this regard, Scholar Avi and Professor Verma and Sexena have done well to preserve the religious base.


Brow, R 1996. Religion Origins and Ideas. Tyndale London. Pp 27-28.

Gold, Avi 1998 India in early Jewish writings. Part I AIBA NEWSLINK. All India Bioethics Association. 1: No 5, 2.

Gold, Avi. 1999 a Early Jewish References to India. Part II AIBA NEWSLINK. All India Bioethics Association. 2: No 2, 1-2.

Gold, Avi. 1999 b Early Jewish References to India. Part III. AIBA NEWSLINK. All India Bioethics Association. 2: No 4, 2-3.

Sarma, D, S 1996 The Nature and History of Hinduism. IN Morgan, K ., Ed. (Reprint) The Religion of the Hindus -pp. 7 -47) Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd. Dehi pp 433.

Swami Chinmayananda, 1996 The Holy Geeta. Chinmaya Mission West. Pennsylvania. Pp 1186.

Vohra, F.C 2001 Science and Ethics: Religious and Cultural Perspectives. AIBA NEWSLINK. All India Bioethics Association. 4: 5-12.

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