The Concept of God among the Aborigines of Australia
|Australia's Tribal Boundaries |
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O FAR we have attempted to disprove the currently popular theories of Western sociologists, who by a strange logic of their own, have tried to prove that the idea of God is a creation of man rather than man being His creation. Their so-called evidence in support of their theory is nothing but mere conjecture. How far the study of the evolution of mind over a billion years of biotic evolution would support this bizarre hypothesis is a subject of inquiry in itself and requires an in-depth study. On the other hand, an unbiased study of the history of religions reveals that belief in God is not a product of human superstition. Was it God Who created man, or was it man who created God, is the vital question we have already discussed with reference to the history of some major monotheistic religions.
Now, we propose to critically examine the sociologists' concept of a gradual evolution of the idea of God, with reference to the Aborigine religions of Australia. This study will further demonstrate the inherent flaw in the sociologists' manner of enquiry. Their enquiry invariably begins with the preconception that there is no God. No fair-minded person can adjudge such an enquiry as scientific, where the verdict is already passed before the enquiry has begun. It is this inherent contradiction which becomes manifestly exposed when the sociologists come face to face with the irrefutable reality of Australian evidence. Before constituting any enquiry, its principles have to be clearly laid down. But no such attempt has ever been made by the sociologists to define them and the purpose of the enquiry. The only principle they know is their conviction that there is no God. The purpose of their enquiry is simply to investigate why people worship God or godly images while they do not exist. Hence the growth of superstitions culminating in the creation of gods is the only subject of their enquiry.
Having said that, let us now draw the attention of the reader to the history of religion in Australia. It is a continent whose culture, social and religious history can be traced back to at least twenty-five thousand years. Many scholars extend it to forty thousand years or beyond. According to some researchers, however, this period could extend even to a past as remote as one hundred and thirty thousand years of unbroken, unadulterated and undisturbed growth of religion.
The Australian continent is not only unique in having been completely broken off from the rest of the world, it is also unique in containing within it hundreds of social islands, each comprising tribes that remained entirely isolated from each other. It is known that between five hundred to six hundred such tribal units had their own independent history of social and religious development, throughout an age of twenty-five to forty thousand years, in complete isolation from each other except for occasional marginal contacts at the boundaries of their territories.
Such contacts were not only brief, but also ineffectual in transferring their ideologies, beliefs, myths and superstitions to each other. It was not only the language barriers which stood in the way, but also their traditional aversion to socialize and communicate with outsiders, which had created an impassable barrier in the way of transfer of information from one to the other.
If the sociologist's view which begins with the negation of God has any substance in it, then in each of the Aboriginal tribes we should have discovered the same universal trend of worshipping objects of nature gradually evolving into belief in one Supreme God. What we discover, however, to the utter chagrin of the sociologist is a completely different story.
In all the tribes of Australia, without exception, there exists a belief in one Supreme Power, who is the first cause of all creation. Their descriptions differ on minor points and their terminology varies slightly, but according to the consensus of the sociologists and anthropologists, they all invariably believe in the existence of that ultimate first cause called 'High Gods'—another name for Allah, God, Brahmâ and Parmatama etc.
The central idea of one eternal Supreme Creator remains unadulterated by whatever other superstitions they may have entertained. The superstitions change from tribe to tribe, but not their belief in one God. Nowhere in Australia could the sociologists find any evidence of a gradual evolution of the idea of God. The views prevailing among the different tribes differ only in description. The Wiimbaio tribe, for instance, believed that while engaged in the process of the creation of earth, God remained close at hand but having finished His work He ascended back to the loftiness of the constellations. Similarly, the Wotjobaluk tribe believed Bunjil to be a Supreme Being, who once lived on the earth as a great man but eventually ascended to the sky.1
The sociologists, when referring to these beliefs, very often forget to inform the reader that these and all the other five hundred or more tribes, did believe in the eternity of the Creator; whether He took human form or not is only incidental and not central to the issue. Again, what is central to their belief is the fact that the earth and whatever it contained did not eternally coexist with the Supreme Creator.
Many anthropologists dispute the origin and purpose of the concept of God amongst the Aborigines. They doubt that the Australian High Gods*, is the same as the Supreme Being known elsewhere among traditional religions, because it is difficult for them to believe that savages or inferior people, as the primitive Australians were, could hold such advanced conceptions.
The utter absurdity of their position is self-evident. Because they could not believe something to have happened, so it could not have happened, is the crux of their argument. This further exposes their prejudicial attitude. If a society as primitive as the Aborigines of Australia is found to have believed in one God, right from the beginning of their history, then there is nothing left for sociologists but to admit ideas of God did not evolve from primitive superstitious myths. Instead all we have from them is a childish sulky response: we cannot believe because it could not have happened.
In an attempt to avoid this embarrassment, E.B. Tylor has discovered another evasive excuse to discredit the Australian evidence. In his article Limits of Savage Religion in the Journal of Anthropological Institute (1891), he proposes the novel idea that High Gods is the product of influences from the Christian missionaries on Australian religion. An absurd proposition, as it is, it is completely belied by the facts of history.
A.W. Howitt, another evolutionist, roundly disproves Tylor's claim pointing out that in some tribes in the South-East of Australia, the belief in One Eternal God certainly preceded the arrival of any missionaries or indeed any Western settlers, among them. Strangely, even he fails to notice that the bizarre idea of Christian missionaries sowing the suggestion of the Unity of God should have been dismissed outright because no trace of Trinity is found anywhere in the entire continent of Australia in the image of God which the Aborigines universally revere.
Nevertheless, despite the range and extent of Howitt's empirical studies, Howitt himself seems reluctant to push his own research to its logical conclusion. While he can readily admit in his book, published in 1904, that the Aborigines believed in an All-Father who was:
'...evidently everlasting, for he existed from the beginning of all things, and he still lives. But in being so, he is merely in that state in which, these Aborigines believe, everyone would be if not prematurely killed by magic.' 2
Thus Howitt attempts to escape the inescapable evidence of Divinity in their belief by confusing the issue. He claims:
'It cannot be alleged that these Aborigines have consciously any form of religion.' 3
Here is another example of a desperate attempt on the part of the evolutionists to escape the inevitable. The points Howitt has raised are not only inconclusive but are also irrelevant to the subject of discussion. The simple question which any sociologist must have addressed was: how could a primitive society, like that of the Aborigines, which was split into hundreds of sub-tribes with no means of communication among them, conceive the same idea of One Supreme Eternal Being independently? Again, they should have answered the question as to what legitimacy is left, in view of this, to their theories of an evolutionary development of the idea of God.
As for Howitt, even if we accept his tall claim that all Aborigines believed that if they were not killed by magic they could have evolved into something like the Creator Himself, it offers no haven of escape to him. In no way does it support the sociologists' myth of evolution of the idea of God. One is amazed how a scholar of Howitt's reputation could confuse the two distinctly separate issues. The theory of ultimate evolution of belief in one God, from the primitive superstitious beliefs in many gods, has nothing whatsoever to do with the hypothetical discussion of the possible evolution of men into gods, had death not terminated their span of life. At best this Aboriginal view could be likened unto a similar discussion in the Old Testament in relation to the story of Adam and Eve and the Serpent. God, according to the serpent, had denied Adam and Eve access to the fruit of the forbidden tree, lest they should become like the Creator Himself, sharing eternity with Him. This similarity between the primitive Aborigines' view with the Judeo-Christian beliefs brings their faith even closer to the comity of traditional religions. One really wonders how Howitt could fail to register this evident similarity.
Obviously, it is the Aborigine way to draw a clear-cut line between the Creator and the created. The message delivered is simply this: the Creator is not only Eternal in relation to the past, He is also Everlasting in relation to the future. He is the only One who possesses these attributes. No man can ever achieve eternity in relation to the future because every man is mortal. This brings them in line with all the Unitarian religions which share the same belief that God alone is Eternal and Everlasting.
In his enthusiasm to discredit the Aborigines of having any religion at all, he further argues that there are no signs of worship or sacrifice among them. This observation of Howitt has no relevance to the contention under review. Whether he calls their faith a religion or not, when he admits that they did believe in the existence of a Supreme Eternal Creator, he succeeds only in discrediting the sociologists' theory of gradual evolution of the idea of God.
As for the validity of his claim that there is no evidence of the Aborigines offering worship or sacrifice in any form to the High Gods in whom they believed, it cannot be accepted at its face value. It should be noted here that some of their religious practices have been completely misunderstood by most Western scholars. What they refer to as the habit of dreaming by the Aborigines, is not what the Aborigines themselves believe them to be.
HE AUTHOR has had the opportunity of meeting one of their knowledgeable leaders to verify from them the real significance of their dreams. It is important because one finds dreams mentioned in almost all Western literature written on Aborigines. It took some effort on the part of the author to ultimately persuade that leader to discuss matters of faith, which he was obviously reluctant to share with a non-Aborigine. This reluctance, it transpired, was largely due to the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of their beliefs by many a foreigner who had probed into this area of Aborigine life and history. This is what the author gathered from his conversation with him after a favourable rapport was established.
Dreams to them are merely a means of communication from God. Through dreams they are foretold of many important events in their lives. They have a system of religious hierarchy, comprising leaders who are well versed in the science of interpretation of dreams. Such leaders have no outside contact and access to them by the non-Aborigine is barred. When the dreams are presented to them, the dreamer himself has often no idea as to the message they carry. The interpreter however can read the underlying message and, most often than not, he is proved right. It is the subsequent events which testify to his truth as well as to the validity of the institution of dreams.
Thus, a clear line has to be drawn between their religious beliefs and practices on the one hand and their rituals and superstitions on the other, which are of no real significance anyway. Superstitions and superstitious practices vary from tribe to tribe and there is no common heritage found among all the Aborigines. The issue of dreams is radically different. Like their belief in one God, their reliance on dreams as a means of Divine instruction is shared by all invariably. The dreams very often follow their contemplation on matters of grave importance. Hence, it is not unlikely that this contemplation is just another name for prayers. It has to be so because their contemplation, unlike that among the Buddhists, results in such dreams as are answers to them. In relation to their dreams the Aborigines also have a strong and well-defined discipline, the breach of which is punishable.
To dub them as a religionless people therefore is far from justified. As far as their belief concerning death 'caused by magic' is concerned, in this context, it does not have the same meaning as understood elsewhere in the world. There are no theatrical magicians among the Aborigines, like those who operate elsewhere in the world. They certainly do not believe that every death which occurs among them, occurs because of a spell cast by an evil person through magical chanting. In this case magic is far more likely to refer to satanic influences, which symbolize darkness as against light in the spiritual sense. For magic to mean sin in Aborigine terminology is so apparent that it is hard to understand how the anthropologists and sociologists fail to recognize it. Death is considered to be the result of magic which works in the case of every mortal without exception. Only 'High Gods' is an exception to this rule. None else shares eternity with Him. By no means does it signify that death is caused in every case only by the acts of some magicians casting their spell on the living. Death is a universal phenomenon applicable to all living forms alike, everywhere in the world, Australia being no exception. Aborigines knew it well and however naive one may consider them to be, it is impossible to attribute to them the utter stupidity of considering every death to be the outcome of sorcery.
In view of this, the significance of magic can only be understood in two possible ways. First it may refer to sin as the ultimate cause of all spiritual death, as understood in other Divine religions elsewhere in the world. If this is the case, then they must have received the idea from the same source that enlightened the People of the Book to the existence of an Eternal God.
Alternatively, a second simpler meaning of magic which could reasonably be attributed to them would be that whatever they found to be inexplicable, for which they had no answer, was relegated to the realm of magic, meaning simply a mystery. Hence, the universality and inevitability of death, which marks the demarcation line between the finite and infinite, the Creator and the created, is a mystery spoken of as 'magic' by Aborigines. However, the term magic is not confined to this connotation alone. Whatever else they found to be inexplicable in their day-to-day experience was also referred to as magic.
Again, the eternal conflict between light and darkness, as depicted in somewhat material terms in the Zoroastrian religion, could as well be the underlying philosophy in the so-called superstitious practices of the Aborigine. Their well-established practice of trying to shun the shadow of a moving object may have the same significance as darkness representing sin or Satan.
But the dreams and whatever they understand by them, have nothing to do with their superstitions; they are two unrelated phenomena. The dreams are a part of the central core of their belief in God and the means of receiving communication from Him. According to them, from time immemorial, they have been witnessing the signs of an All-Knowing Supreme Being who takes a live interest in the affairs of what He creates. Thus the Aborigines have a genuine cause of complaint against the Western researchers who dismiss their religious experience as unworthy of being called religious because they deem them too primitive and ignorant. Their efforts to distort the image of the Aboriginal faith must have stemmed from the fear lest this recognition should discredit their own previously held theories.
One Aborigine who particularly impressed the author was a highly educated gentleman who had converted to Christianity, or so it seemed, before his access to higher education. By profession he was an engineer. In the beginning of the dialogue, he was evidently reluctant to share his knowledge of the religious beliefs and practices of the Aborigine. Surprisingly, despite his conversion to Christianity, he still remained Aborigine deep at heart. After a long persuasive effort on the part of the author when he became convinced of his sincerity and genuine concern for the cause of the Aborigine, he gradually began to thaw. The sorrow in his eyes was as deep and profound as the ancient history of Aborigine civilization. He told the author that it was seldom that outsiders could actually gain access to the elite hierarchy of the Aborigines. The knowledge they have acquired is mostly peripheral. He showed particular disgust at the manner the Aborigines' experience of dreams was treated and portrayed by the Western researchers.
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A tradition of the Holy Prophetsa, is worthy of note here because it speaks of Divine dreams to be one-fortieth part of prophethood.4 Though this profound observation indicates that universally it is true dreams with which prophethood begins, they ultimately pave the path for verbal revelation from God, which may, when He so pleases, commission the recipient to be His Messenger.
Returning to the subject of the conclusion drawn by the Western researchers, one must admit that all are not alike in their negative attitude to the spiritual experiences of the Aborigines. Among them are scholars who possessed the clear vision and boldness to admit that Aborigines did have a well-defined faith in a Single Supreme God. Andrew Lang in The Making of Religion 5, argued that 'High Gods' was an authentic Aborigine idea, and because there were very few myths around the 'All-Fathers', Lang justifiably concluded that the myths were born after the idea of the 'High Gods.'
Peter Wilhelm Schmidt, a German Roman Catholic priest, in his twelve volume Ursprung der Gottesidee, written between 1912 and 1925, also supported Lang and asserted that myth came after the idea of 'High Gods'. Schmidt's work was first published in French between 1908 and 1910 in Anthropos, a new journal founded by Schmidt himself. A reprint was circulated separately under the heading, L'origine de Dieu. Etude Historico-Critique et Positive. Premiere Partie. Historico Critique (Vienna 1910), a second enlarged German edition appeared in 1926. Here, Schmidt explained the coexistsence of myth and religion in the concept of the High Gods, by arguing that the original idea of High Gods had become mixed up with the later growth of superstitious gibberish.
However, there are some anthropologists who continue to insist that the idea of High Gods was the product of myths. Among them is the leading figure of Raffaele Pettazzoni in Dio, (1922) but it is surprising to note that his argument is not at all supported by the evidence consistently found in all the main Aboriginal tribes. For him to extend his conclusions drawn from the mythical traditions of only one particular tribe to all the Aborigines of Australia is neither honest nor logical. 6
Most Aboriginal tribes do not share the same myths as mentioned by him. As for their belief in God, they all subscribe to the idea of One Supreme, Conscious, Eternal Cause of creation. Moreover, despite the great name of Pettazzoni as an anthropologist, his insistence that the coexistsence of myths and the idea of One Supreme Creator must mean that the superstitions preceded the more highly developed idea of God—is unentertainable without the least evidence to support it. He has not even attempted to connect the development of their myths to the idea of a Supreme God through an evolutionary process.
The theory of the evolutionary growth of the idea of God from myths and superstitions is simply not relevant to the Australian evidence. There is no evidence whatsoever of nature worship under the influence of awe and wonder. No such step by step worship practices can be traced in the Aboriginal religious practices, ultimately leading to the more advanced belief in God. One has to agree therefore with Andrew Lang that the myth definitely followed and did not precede the idea of One God.
The myths among Aborigines are scattered unrelated pieces of superstitions which can be justifiably related to the simple wanderings of the mind of a primitive unlettered people to discover some meaning in what they observed. This attempt on their part is no different from the universal human trend.
Man has always been wondering about the nature of the heavens, the sun, the moon and the constellations. Many a time this wonderment has resulted in the creation of myths. Among the idolatrous people, their imaginary gods are ultimately dressed in the robes of myths. This, however, is not the case with the Aborigines. Their myths are neither related to the idea of worship, nor are they built around the figures of gods, as we find elsewhere. According to them the idea of God is separate and independent, the images of other forms of existence occupying the heavenly bodies and constellations are not gods. Hence it is made more difficult to agree with Pettazzoni when he argues that the High Gods is a product of mythological imagination.
The problem with the rationalist anthropologists and sociologists is basically the same as shared by all other secular scholars. If they accept the Australian evidence, they would ultimately have to admit that the idea of a Supreme Eternal Creator had not evolved, hence it must have descended in its perfected form from God Himself. Otherwise it could not be possible for the most primitive simple-minded dweller of Australia to conceive that idea with such unanimity without any inter-communication. Hence the denial of this evidence by some sociologists and anthropologists, merely because it does not agree with their concept of things, is no compliment to their scholarly image and their integrity. It is a relief however to learn that among them there are many happy exceptions. There are certainly some who exhibit enough maturity and honesty of purpose to accept the evidence as fact. Yet they too continue to explore some avenues of escape to hide behind the mist of obscure, shady explanations.
Such is the case of F. Graebner. While accepting that the 'great god' was certainly a Creator for the Aborigines and a
'... first cause of, at least, everything which is important for men ...,'
he goes on to argue:
'But Preuss is perhaps right in doubting that so abstract an idea as the first cause could have been capable, among primitive men, of producing a figure which is always so full of life.' 7
Like Howitt, Graebner is reluctant to commit himself to the view that the Aborigines could have perceived the attributes of a Supreme Being all by themselves, yet he lacks the moral strength to draw the inevitable conclusion. A prefixed atheistic bias is evident.
In some tribes of Australia, the idea of one High Gods is found intermixed with some mythical figures around him such as wives, children etc. This does not cast any doubt on our claim that the image of High Gods of the Aborigines is no different from that of God elsewhere in the conventional monotheistic religions. The scholars who discovered the prevalence of such myths have highlighted some of their distinctive features, which help the reader to draw a clear line of demarcation between them and God, with whom they are claimed to be related. It is a mistake to ascribe the same meaning to the so-called Aboriginal myths as normally related to the word 'myth' elsewhere in the world. Elsewhere, the myths are always created around the figures of gods in idolatrous religions, while among the Aborigines no such 'gods' are either worshipped or revered. Whatever myths the sociologists may refer to were certainly not created around the figure of their High Gods. For only a few tribes to entertain such myths is in itself a proof that their existence is not indicative of a universal belief among the Aboriginal tribes. No creative power is ever attributed to them nor are they believed to share eternity with Him. They are all creations none of which has ever created anything. They have to be created themselves because they are not eternal. It is likely that these myths were conceived haphazardly by some religious elders of later ages.
Speaking of the same, Eliade, while paraphrasing T.G.H. Strehlow, takes up the case of another tribe of the Western Aranda and shows that according to them:
'... the earth and the sky had always existed and had always been the home of Supernatural Beings. The western Aranda believe that the sky is inhabited by an emu-footed Great Father (Knaritja), who is also the Eternal Youth (altjira nditja). He has dog-footed wives and many sons and daughters. "They lived on fruits and vegetable foods in an eternally green land, unaffected by droughts, through which the Milky Way flowed like a broad river...".' 8
They have an Eden-like place where only trees, fruits and flowers flourish. All these sky-dwellers are seen as ageless and beyond death.
Despite the fact that these sky-beings display two essential characteristics of supremacy, that of immortality and chronological precedence (i.e. they came before the totemic heroes), Strehlow rightly refuses to acknowledge their significance in the development of Australian religion. He cannot accept these sky-beings as supreme because they did not shape or create life themselves.9
Strehlow's argument is irrefutable because the mythical forms referred to are described as immortal but not eternal in their relation to the past, while the High Gods, is both eternal and immortal. Moreover, no power of creation whatsoever is attributed to these mythical figures, hence they cannot be perceived as sharing Divinity with High Gods, the only Creator. Again it is quite likely that this belief may have been wrongly categorized as mythical. It may well have been a slightly changed version of the paradise concept common to all major Divinely revealed religions. The description of the Supreme Dweller of paradise being emu-footed and that of His wife and children as dog-footed are the only foreign elements to the concept of paradise found elsewhere, otherwise the same Eden-like gardens, eternally green, abounding in fruits and vegetables, with no fear of drought etc., are very close to metaphoric description of paradise presented by the Holy Quran.
The complete absence of animals other than the 'Children of God' is also significant. The concept of paradise in other major religions is likewise empty of animal life. The dwellers are only the pious people who are also described metaphorically as 'Children of God'. Had it been a myth created by the simple minds of Aborigines, it is unlikely that they should have altogether excluded the animals from their vision of paradise. In other areas of the world we often find mythical concepts involving the presence of some animals. Yet, in the image of paradise common to the major religions, animals are conspicuous by their absence.
HE HISTORY of evolution of society and religious ideas is not shaped by any single factor. It is far too intermixed and the mutual flow of ideas from one region to the other is so frequent that it becomes difficult to disentangle one from the other and determine the direction of influence with any certainty. To trace a single thread of thought process from beginning to end in a sequential order is indeed an extremely challenging task.
The debate as to who influenced whom goes unabated. Was it Buddhism, for instance which mothered Christian ideology or was it Christianity which influenced Buddhism, is one of the many unresolved questions. But what we find in Australia is a completely different story of a unique singularity. If evidence of the Australian religious experience had supported the sociologists' view, one wonders what their attitude would have been. Would they not have raised a storm and shouted 'eureka' at the top of their voice in exultation and pride! But with the hard realities of the unadulterated religious history of the Aborigines staring them in the eye, it is deplorable to watch how desperately they still struggle to escape the inevitable. We particularly speak of such naturalists as are in a state of shock because they had no faith in God the Creator. As such they were absolutely certain that the history of the Aborigines would support their convictions and testify to their theories that the idea of God had gradually evolved over thousands of years. But what they have discovered is so different and exasperating. Why exasperating, one may ask, when they are just in search of truth? Why be so profoundly disappointed at the truth being at variance with their own previously held views? It is so because the rejection of any argument which may lead to God is with them predetermined. Any discoveries contrary to this must either be discarded or misinterpreted. Secularism to them is synonymous with the negation of God. Whatever excuses they offer, however, to save the face of their 'secular' theories, serve only to expose their unscientific attitude further. Prejudice is no prerogative, it seems of the religious clergy alone. Non religious thinkers and philosophers can also have their fill of it whenever it suits their purpose. A draught full of this hemlock invariably drowns their faculty of logic and sense, justice and fair play. Under this influence they behave more like dogmatic religious zealots, than as secular thinkers, as they purport themselves to be.
But whatever argument they muster in support of their erstwhile view can in no way ressurrect it from the ruin it has already met. All their high-flown theories of a God progressively created by human imagination came to a disastrous crash on the Australian continent. They are in utter dismay and disarray confounded by the fall. To put them together again can be done neither by kings nor clowns. Their case is reminiscent of Milton's Paradise Lost. Only, no reason or logic will ever help them salvage the wreckage and regain what they have forever lost. Little could Milton imagine that his drama would one day be played in real life, with men for actors. Their paradise lost would not be 'God Himself', but a god of their own creation. What do we care if they lose him forever, and what do they care if God cares for them naught!
- ELIADE, M. (1973) Australian Religions. An Introduction. Cornell Uni Press, Ithach, p.4
- ELIADE, M. (1973) Australian Religions. An Introduction. Cornell Uni Press, Ithach, p.13
- ELIADE, M. (1973) Australian Religions. An Introduction. Cornell Uni Press, Ithach.
- Musnad Al-Imam Ahmad Bin Hanbal (1983) Vol.4. Al-Maktab-Al-Islami. Beirut, p.10
- LANG, A. (1898) The
Making of Religion. Longmans, Green & Co., London.
- ELIADE, M. (1973) Australian Religions. An Introduction. Cornell Uni Press, Ithach.
- ELIADE, M. (1973) Australian Religions. An Introduction. Cornell Uni Press, Ithach, p.24
- ELIADE, M. (1973) Australian Religions. An Introduction. Cornell Uni Press, Ithach, p.30
- ELIADE, M. (1973) Australian Religions. An Introduction. Cornell Uni Press, Ithach, pp.32–33