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Are The Gods On Our Side?

Credit: KWAN002.

Credit: KWAN002.

The writers at this website have a shared agenda: the end of capitalism. It’s tempting to declare definitively that the gods are anti-capitalist as well, but relationships between deities and their individual and collective worshipers are more complicated than that. If one accepts the premise that the gods are powers autonomous from humans, then they necessarily have their own agendas, which may or may not coincide with ours.

In acknowledging the individuality and diversity of gods and spirits, it becomes difficult to make broad generalizations. However, at a more localized level, some generalized characteristics can still be said to be inherent within the “function” of specific kinds of spirits. Spirits which dwell in trees typically do not like those trees being cut down. Note that this does not necessarily mean that a specific spirit dwelling in a specific tree is against any tree being cut down, though some might very well feel that way given the terrifying rate of deforestation these days. However, it’s fairly certain that a spirit will object to its own home being destroyed.

Ancestral spirits, at least from a Chinese worldview, generally want their descendants’ behavior to reflect honorably upon their names and are predisposed to favor their descendants’ material survival, which is a prerequisite for the continuation of the family lineage. “Hungry ghosts,” or the restless dead, are by definition inclined to draw attention to themselves and their deaths in some manner or another.

All of these classes of spirits have agendas which may very well coincide with anti-capitalist struggles against the destruction of ecosystems, the killing of youths of certain ancestral lineages, etc. Their assistance in these struggles should be sought out, when appropriate.

But what of the gods, whose agendas are both vaster and more varied than those of local spirits and the spirits of the dead? Where do they stand in the struggles of their worshipers?

Gods and Their Worshipers

In the “Strong Roots and Wide Branches: Essentials of Polytheism” presentation at Pantheacon 2015, River Devora and Anomalous Thracian suggested a working definition of gods: gods are distinguished from other beings with similar degrees of power over mortal lives by having oaths, obligations, agreements or some other form of ongoing give-and-take relationship with group(s) of said mortals. Thus, one may make the generalization that the gods are interested in upholding agreements and maintaining relationships with humans who make an effort to do the same.

So what happens when, humans being humans, conflict arises within or between those groups? If one group or sub-group has broken the “terms” of their agreement with the god through dishonorable conduct or impiety, then the god may show favor to one side over the other, perhaps by granting victory in a decisive battle. However, as occurs much more frequently, conflicts such as class struggle remain embedded within society over longer periods of time.

Guan Di

One of the primary gods that I worship, Guan Di, provides an interesting case study here. As was mentioned in a Wall Street Journal article last year, Guan Di is worshiped by cops, gangsters and protestors alike in Hong Kong. When a society falls apart or explodes due to its internal contradictions, how does a god like Guan Di deal with those conflicts between his various worshipers?

Being a mortal, I cannot answer for Guan Di. However, Prasenjit Duara’s 1988 article “Superscribing Symbols: The Myth of Guandi, Chinese God of War,” published in The Journal of Asian Studies, has shown that these types of contradictions are nothing new for Guan Di. I’ve quoted Duara extensively in a post on her essay at my own blog.

Before his apotheosis, the man named Guan Yu was a mortal warrior and general in the late Han Dynasty (he died in 220 CE) who participated in the suppression of a Daoist-influenced millenarian movement known as the Yellow Turban Rebellion, as well as the civil wars that ensued. Centuries after his death, both Buddhists and Daoists claimed Guan Yu as a protector figure within their respective pantheons.

In 1615, the Ming imperial government granted him the title “Di,” which means “Emperor”. However, there was also a massive expansion of his popular worship outside of Buddhist, Daoist and imperial religious organizations during the same time period.

Duara cites the research of Huang Huajie, which situates the spread of the popularity of Guan Di within a historical context in which “the rural economy became increasingly commercialized” and traditional forms of social organization were weakened:

Huang Huajie links Guan Yu’s growing popularity in the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing (1644-1911) to the great socioeconomic changes of the era, which of course also enabled the popular media to spread. As the rural economy became increasingly commercialized, self-sufficient kin-based communities tended to disintegrate. In their place, settlements came to be composed of unrelated kin groups, merchants for whom sojourning had become a way of life, and marginal peoples without a community, such as vagrants and bandits. (781-2)

In other words, Guan Di’s popularity does not exist in spite of class struggle but because of it. Duara writes that “for the rootless bandits and rebels of secret societies, the oath of loyalty that Guan Yu upheld gained an unparalleled salience” (782) and that “for them, the oath symbolized loyalty to brotherhood, not to the state that had been their enemy” (790). Ironically, many of the secret societies devoted to the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty subsequently formed the nucleus of the gangs (Triads) referenced in the Wall Street Journal article above, some of which have been accused of attacking protestors on behalf of the police. Contradictions upon contradictions. There’s also an interesting urban legend that Guan Di statues in Triad shrines hold the guan dao (Guan Di’s distinctive polearm) in the left hand, whereas Guan Di statues in the shrines of policemen and ordinary citizens hold the guan dao in the right hand.

Duara asks, “If a myth represents radically discontinuous meanings, if its symbols are pursued by particular groups only for their own particular purposes, how can it continue to impart legitimacy so widely across the culture?” (779). She proposes a theory that she calls “the superscription of symbols.” She contrasts “superscription” to “erasure,” writing that “the very mechanism of superscription necessarily requires the preservation of at least some of the other voices that surround the symbol” (791), rather than the total obliteration of those voices.

Thus, two diametrically opposed views of Guan Di (i.e. champion of the imperial dynasty vs. divine witness to the initiation oaths of secret societies trying to overthrow said dynasty) are linked to one another through their relationship to a common predecessor (i.e. the earliest Buddhist and/or Daoist conceptions of Guan Yu as a paragon of loyalty and protector of the faithful).

Finally, Guan Di also provides an example of a god intervening on only one side of a conflict: he was one of the gods who possessed insurgents during the anti-foreign and anti-Christian Boxer Rebellion of 1900. He was also credited with defeating a proposed law that would have forced the Chinese in Santa Cruz, CA to move outside of city limits (Lydon 280).

Implications

It seems reasonable to conclude that Guan Di has, at times, answered the prayers of both sides of a conflict simultaneously. It seems further reasonable to extend this pattern to the ongoing conflict that some call “the class war.” Guan Di has thousands and thousands of worshipers with whom he maintains relationship on both sides of said war.

The gods of (primarily European) reconstructed polytheisms and neo-paganisms have fewer total worshipers in the world today than Guan Di does. However, this fact opens the possibility that individual worshipers’ prayers and petitions will proportionally represent a larger “percentage” of a given deity’s relationships and obligations. As the worship of many gods is restored in the West, it is therefore the responsibility and duty of anti-capitalist/anti-racist polytheists and neo-pagans to make their voices heard as loudly as possible. Ask for your gods’ help in our collective struggles before the other side does.

That said, relationships to deities are not numbers games, and they’re not majority-rule democracies. Guan Di is called “Emperor” for a reason – not because he is always aligned with temporal State power (obviously, he is not), but because he exercises sovereignty over the areas of life that he rules. Reciprocity is not a mechanical process with guaranteed quantifiable results, but an organic process founded upon autonomous choices and decisions by both parties – in other words, voluntary association.

Conclusion

It’s tempting to declare that “the gods are anti-capitalist.” With careful consideration of the case study of Guan Di, worshiped by cops and protesters alike, it would perhaps be more accurate to declare that “our gods are anti-capitalist,” by which we would mean the specific gods that we are in relationship with. They are anti-capitalist not because it is innate in their nature but because they maintain relationships with us and answer our prayers, and because we in our turn make an effort to maintain relationship with them as we struggle daily against the impositions of Capital. We could all certainly use as much divine protection, aid and blessings as possible. It is not so much a question of whether the gods are on our side, but whether or not they are at our sides.

19 Comments »

  1. Thanks for this. Yes, I have said that anyone with enough information, without a specific motive (usually economic or political) to maintain it, and half a brain will be anti-capitalist. I don’t see why this maxim shouldn’t apply to the gods as well…. which as you point out introduces the possibility that some gods may not be anti-capitalist.

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    • I think that generally the gods have access to more information than us, and while they might not have biological neural systems, I think they’re also generally better at processing information than us as well.

      It’s the plethora of motives of the gods that allows for the possibility that gods may answer the prayers of capitalism and its defenders. But I think that with anti-capitalist worshipers, any given god can also (if they so choose) become simultaneously anti-capitalist.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this insightful article. It has given me some insights into the Chinese worldview and the history and the paradoxical nature of Guan Di I was completely unaware of.

    I found your last sentence particularly resonant: ‘It is not so much a question of whether the gods are on our side, but whether or not they are at our sides.’

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    • Thanks, Lorna! I wasn’t raised within any Chinese religious tradition (nor have I joined any, beyond lay worship), so a lot of what I’ve written is just my own interpretations of things I’ve read or heard, but I’m glad you found useful information in what I wrote!

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  3. Great post, it’s easy to assume “the gods” (any god) is on our side. I really enjoyed how you expressed the mundane nature of these struggles,

    “However, as occurs much more frequently, conflicts such as class struggle remain embedded within society over longer periods of time.”

    THIS is the real issue. Not just about a god or set of gods taking sides, but instead utilizing our relationship with the gods to execute our will within this corporeal life. Path-work is about relationships and growth, victories and defeats exist within that journey but do not define it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “It is not so much a question of whether the gods are on our side, but whether or not they are at our sides.”

    This is excellent – thank you. They do what They do for Their own reasons, which are rarely clear to us, even when we think what we’re doing is so important and so right all the Gods just have to be on our side.

    Like

    • I’m glad you liked it. Just as it’s important to avoid projecting one’s own agendas onto other humans, it’s important to avoid doing that with the gods as well. Especially with the gods: a bit of humility is in order.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love the way you describe our relationship with the Gods in this essay. We live in a society where the dominant cultural discourse on the nature of the relationship of human and divine is that of master and servant. The will of the human is completely subjected to the will of the divinity. It can be easy to forget that our Gods are different; that they may well take our side in a conflict or an issue merely because we asked.

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    • Thanks! I actually hadn’t quite identified and named that basic difference in perspective, but I agree, I generally find master-servant to be a less useful metaphor than, say, military alliance: there is always a difference in power, but ultimately an alliance should be a mutually beneficial agreement between autonomous parties. Of course, alliance also entails numerous obligations for both sides…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. There is so much of tremendous value here: some Chinese religious, political, and social history; reminders about the importance of human agency in divine relationships; very important notes and caveats on the differences in power and perspective between humans and divine beings; and, echoing River and Thrax, the importance of deities having actively bathed and declared relationships with human populations…and also, anti-Capitalism–!?!

    What can I say, my friend: you win the polytheist internet. 😉

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    • Thank you, friend, I’m glad you found what I wrote valuable. It’s high praise coming from you. 🙂

      Did you mean “actively oathed” rather than “actively bathed?” Though that would be pretty funny…maybe the gods go through purification rituals before they deal with us dirt-covered mortals? Actually, that sort of makes sense…if I was a god, I wouldn’t necessarily trust every single human worshiper to have purified themselves properly, so I’d probably take some precautions on my end as well.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, good heavens…yes, I meant “oathed” (and it just autocorrected to “bathed” once again!); though, especially given my experiences with Shinto, I wouldn’t be surprised if some deities come back from interacting with humans and go, “Wow, I need a deep clean after that,” or that they make the daimones who carry their presence and return with prayers go through some sort of cleansing before entering into the majesty of their presences. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

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