In times of conflict, even the act of speaking the simplest of the truth is an act of bravery. And in the age of hypocrisy, even an act of chanting a religious chant is a war cry. That is what they have turned ‘Jai Shri Ram’ into- a violent, war cry. As I read ‘The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World’, I find uncanny resemblance to our times and our world.
The old Hindu India which has long been the most accommodative and peaceful of all the people, is suddenly being demonized. Between the two monotheist religions out to conquer the world, Hinduism with acceptance of all faiths, openness to believe in several dimensions of a single truth, has stood like a sore thumb. Much like Paganism of Romans about which Catherine Nixey has written so elegantly written in this book of hers, Hinduism is not able to understand the hatred of those who attack it. We think it is politics, hypocrisy, intellectual opportunism. We call it all names except what it is. Monotheists hate any competing faith. While polytheism is not by nature very orthodox, fanatical and dogmatic; for monotheism, any faith which is not that faith is a sin. When one says it, it offends many. But this actually explains the amount of antagonism that attacks Hinduism, every day, day after day.
Monotheist cannot understand a religion which does not think any other competing religion as sin, which does not want to win more geographies. For them, for imperialistic religions, a faith steeped in philosophy is strange. Apart of confusion which prompts negative narratives, there is a tried and tested way to convert people from the competing faiths and eventually erase them from the face of earth. What this book tells us is that not only is the erstwhile religion erased from the Earth, the memories of the brazen and brutal act itself has been erased from public memories. Although factually, we can historically put the finger on the actual arrival of both Islam and Christianity, is it not amusing that when we look at historical evidence of any religion pre-dating them, we largely encounter darkness and silence. Very little has survived the Christian onslaught in terms of literature and history from the Roman times, in terms of religion. If one reads through the largely sanitized literature from Roman times, one would believe that either they had no religion or faith or that they abandoned it en-masse out of free will. Nothing can be further from the truth as we read this book, which stands out not only for the brilliant writing but also for extraordinary honesty.
We are generally made to believe that while the Christians braved all kinds of atrocities at the hands of the Pagans; Christians, once they attained a position of power, merely relied on logical debate and inherent dissatisfaction of the Pagans to get them converted in such numbers that no Pagan was left behind. This book destroys the myth. We have often been made to believe that the demolishing of temples by the past Islamist invaders had nothing to do with religion. But when we read the Roman History, we can see the pattern. Although our historians who try too hard to make us forget the religious fanaticism of the invaders, it is not too difficult to imagine with immeasurable wealth, plenty of lands and a rich supply of artisan; why they did not try to build the monuments of their faith afresh in Ayodhya, Mathura or Kashi, considered by Hindus to be an axis to Hindu faith. Hinduism as a faith, hinges significantly on buildings, idols and structures. When you break these structures, you trample on a faith. This explains also the adamant opposition of the return of Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura. Amid all the big talks of secularism, the comparative significance of the three sites for Hindus and Muslims. All three have great religious significance for Hindus while for Muslims, they are at best of historic significance. These structures for the Muslims are nothing but a brutal reminder of the age when they ruled over the majority. None have been erected by any of the Islamic religious figures, all three are connected deeply to Hindu faith.
When I read the prologue of the book, which starts on one afternoon in Palymra, in 385AD, with the demolition of the grand temple of Athena, I could see in my mind, the reflection of Kashi Vishvanath by the Armies of Aurangzeb. She writes, “Great stone columns that had stood for centuries collapsed in an afternoon; statues which had stood for half a millennium had their faces mutilated; temples that had seen the rise of the Roman empire fell in a single day.” I often wonder how the day after would have been for the citizens of Palmyra or the Citizens of Kashi.
Further, what makes it exceptionally great read is the quotes which often appear at the beginning of chapters. It shows the clearly secular view of the Pagans and blatantly bigoted view of the early Christians. For instance she quotes Pagan author Symmachus- “We see the same sky, the sky shared by us all, the same world surrounds us. What does it matter what wisdom a person uses to seek for the truth.”; and in contrast, we read St. Augustine- “That all superstition of Pagans and heathens should be annihilated is what God wants, God commands, God proclaims.”
While Pagans advocate accommodation, Christians advocate annihilation. It always begins slowly, silently. The first Christian emperor, Constantine, did not ask all the non-Christians to be annihilated as St Augustine wanted. He spoke of coexistence, asked for the Pagans to be ‘spared’. That was some Ganga Jamuni civilization in AD 312. But what he did do was stop supporting the Pagan Temples, annexed their riches, taxed their festival, made the Church exempt of taxes. It was too early for brute establishment of the empire so it worked from the other side. It made the practice of Paganism difficult, incentivized the conversion to Christianity. In the next two centuries, supported by the State, Christianity flourished and Paganism declined.
In AD391, Law was passed by Emperor Theodosius stating- ‘No person shall be granted rights to perform sacrifices; no person shall go around the temples, no person shall revere the shrines.’ In AD 399 came another law, which said, ‘If there should be any temples in the Country districts, they shall be torn down without disturbance and tumult. For when they are torn down, the material basis for all superstitions will be destroyed.’ Do we hear the echoes of Deepavali firecracker bans, Jalikattu and Sabarimala here? Do you see how science serves the believers? By 527 AD, the annihilation was complete, when one dark night the academy (yes, the one where once Plato taught) was closed and Damascius with his band of Philosophers escaped the civilization of the Book, where nothing was left for debate or discussion.
In AD529 came the Royal decree, that “all those who laboured under the insanity of Paganism- would no longer be allowed to teach. It was further mandated that anyone who had not yet baptized was to come forward and make themselves known at the holy churches immediately, or face exile. And if anyone allowed themselves to be baptized and then slipped back into their old Pagan ways, they would be executed.” So for Damascius and fellow philosophers, it meant they could no longer worship their Gods, make their living. In the year 532AD, they eventually moved and thus the curtain of darkness rolled over a religion which had lived in Rome since eternity. Most of what Damascius wrote has been erased (Macaulay was not doing something new. The path Romila Thapar and gang pursued was long tried and tested), but occasional quotes remain. At one place he wrote that his entire way of life was being ‘swept by the torrent.’ Another philosopher from the time wrote- “We are men reduced to ashes..for today everything is turned upside down.”
The Pagans did not die at one stroke. They watched, they tried to reason, they suffered and then gave away. Nothing that was written then remains in original form. Catherine calls what poses as original roman writing as Palimpsest. How often do we see Indologists lament non-availability of original Vedic scripture? It is not only because much wasn’t written. It is also because most of what was written was either erased or mistranslated, leaving us with our own Palimpsest. The last copy of Cicero’s De Republica was written over by St Augustine. The work of Democritius was erased. Do we know when Missionaries arrived in Kerala, they launched a set of four Christian Vedas? Blame Brahmins for all their orthodoxy, but unlike Damascius, they were able to preserve Indian history and thought. That could be a reason for being the target of all the hatred.
This is how a great Civilization fell. It wasn’t an easy win. Romans, writes Ms. Nixey, were no Christians-in-waiting. The discrimination started slow, and was practiced with impunity under the garb of inherent secularism of a polytheist faith. In AD 312, the Church was exempt of taxes, Bishops were paid five times as much as the Professors and six times as much as the doctors. Apart from economic measures, efforts were made to discredit the tradition. Catherine Nixey mentions Augustine’s quote- “All the pagans where under the power of demons. Temples were built to demons, altars were set up to demons, priests ordained for the service of demons.” I can almost hear a John Dayal sermonizing on Sabarimala.
Just like PFI to the SDPI, the Church started setting up their own militia, the dreaded parabalani. And in AD 415, they did an act which was to stand like an ultimatum to the intellectuals in Christian world. A famed philosopher and renowned mathematician, Hypatia of Alexandria was mob-lynched in the most dreaded fashion on the streets of the city. The great Temple of Serapis was already razed to ground. Hypatia was charged with Atheizing Alexandria. The men of church, grabbed her in the street, the greatest woman intellectual of her times, stripped her naked, dragger her to a church, used broken pieces of pottery to flay her skin and while she gasped for her life, gouged her eyes.
A pagan India in Rigvedic period had Devahuti, daughter of Manu, contributing hymns to the Vedas. When you have to discredit a Pagan religion like Hinduism, you have to write fiction like Leila; when you have to understand the truth of a fanatic faith, you just need to read the truth. I did check some reviews of the book. They were recommendatory but hesitating. Possibly, Christianity allows for liberalism only up to a point. For instance, The Guardian review is largely positive, but then, the complaint- the book does not talk of atrocities on early Christian. In reality, Catherine Nixey does mention that. She explains how the atrocities against the early Christians was much hyped.
Secondly, this book was about why the Pagan religion disappeared, in spite of atrocities supposedly committed by Romans against early Christian. How did they suddenly gained such power as to wipe out an ancient faith? She does explain that the most of the atrocities were in the reign of Nero and he was cruel equally to both Romans and Christians. The review in NY Times is much more forgiving and laudatory. Bettany Hughes writes about Catherine Nixey- “She wears her righteousness on her sleeve. This is scholarship as polemic. Nixey writes up a storm. Each sentence is rich, textured, evocative, felt. And I totally agree. I once read that a great book is one, having read which one wants to call up the writer and congratulate. This is one such book.