The Shared Origins of Cult and Culture: Insights by Devdutt Pattanaik

What creates culture also creates cult

Both words, ‘cult’ and ‘culture’ have the same etymology – from words that mean cultivation as well as worship.

Cult refers to religious groups, or brainwashed communities, who believe in the occult, the mystical, the spiritual, the paranormal or the supernatural. Culture refers to a community’s aesthetic expression: food, fashion, customs, literature, and art. Both words, ‘cult’ and ‘culture’ have the same etymology – from words that mean cultivation as well as worship. This draws attention to the fact that originally religion was integral to all things political and economic. Cult and culture were integrated. This changed after human privileged reason and science. After that religion was viewed with suspicion and cults struggled for respect.

Privileging economics and politics

Cult is seen as indulging human fantasy and falsehoods like gods, soul, rebirth, heaven, and hell. These establish hegemonies such as tribe, clan, religion, caste, even gender, that beguile the masses and concentrate wealth in the hands of a few. Culture, on the other hand, is seen as responding to real needs, for resources, security, and respect.

As cults lose legitimacy, historical events are now being explained using ‘real’ reasons such as economics and politics, while ‘false’ reasons such as religion and ideology are downplayed. Historians are arguing that Crusades in the 10th century were actually European plunder of the affluent East, rather than the pushback of Christianity against Islam. The rapid spread of Islam in 7th century is being explained as the need for plunder and spread of agricultural technologies rather than Jihad. Religion is being argued simply as an excuse for materialistic motivations.

Materialistic philosophies that value the measurable emerged around the same time as scientific thinking, Industrialization and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, in the 19th century. People concluded that natural evolution extended itself into social, intellectual, and material progress. The enlightened West were supposed to lead this project.

Biologists observed that all organisms from plants to animals seek resources to survive. They seek security from predators and rivals. Anthropologists concluded that humans, being animals essentially, invented culture simply to harness food and security. Culture had no other purpose. Art was simply an outcome of economic and political needs, and so needed to propel humanity’s economic and political progress. Religion was just an opium. The diversity of cultures around the world was the outcome of multiple cults, each with its own unique opium. These had to go, or at least restrained, before they became toxic.

Push-back of the absurd

Ironically, those who favour reason function just like cults – cancelling, if not killing, opponents over ideas, just like religions that sought to wipe out cults of ‘false gods.’ But now the priests of reason are facing a brutal push back from foul-mouthed political mobs, popular precisely because they are going against science and logic, by propounding absurd ideas from Flat Earth to Creationism.

This would not have been a shock had scholars recognized that cults underlie culture: irrational human fantasies have played a key role in granting people identities and making them feel good about themselves. Britain wants to see itself as the force that spread science and technology around the world, not an enslaver of peoples. Muslims want to see themselves as superior to idol worshippers.

Cultures work not because they are right, reasonable, or fair, but because they indulge humanity’s primal yearning for meaning. Structures – however oppressive and hegemonic – make people feel special. To call these ‘opium of the masses’ or ‘fluid social constructs’ in the quest to invalidate them will therefore be met with fierce resistance.

Sequential or simultaneous

The rational utilitarian gaze insists that only after humans invented weapons, controlled fire, found food and felt safe, did they began thinking about gods, about life, meaning and purpose. As evidence, scholars pointed to early stone tools and hearths that are dated to at least 1,00,000 years before the discovery of the first burial sites, the first jewellery, the first cave art. In other words, culture came first, then cult. Before cults, there were no taboos, boundaries, structures, and hierarchies. Humans were simple, innocent, and egalitarian, before the creation of property.

At Gobilkle Tepe in southeast Turkey, archeologists have found rings gigantic well-carved and carefully placed stones, with images of wild animals, which are over 12,000 years. This was built before humans made pots. These structures are not accompanied by signs of agriculture or herding. People have argued this was a temple of hunters and foragers, a pre-historic cult. To meet the needs of this cult, to feed the builders and the pilgrims, farming and herding was institutionalized. In other words, a cult gave rise to the Neolithic agricultural culture. Belief in supernatural beings, gods, spirits, and ancestors mobilized people, which led to collaborative economic activities which in turn gave way to competitive political structures. The temple came first, not the field, as previously argued.

But even this counter argument remains linear, sequential, and teleological. This is exactly how history is written by historians: as if humans are meant to grow, develop, progress from savagery to civilization, from paganism to a true faith, from dark ages towards enlightenment. The cyclical, simultaneous alternative is deemed chaotic.

Many archeologists believe that the ring of megaliths was probably both a temple and a settlement, at the same time, a simultaneous cultural and cultic space, where imaginary gods, carved on stone, emerging during rituals, lived amongst people, nudging them towards economic and political innovations to make life easier. As humans collaborated with these mythic creatures, they created art, song, and dance, through which they communicated new ways of generating and distributing food and security.

Imagination at work

Neurobiologists draw attention to the pre-frontal cortex, which gives humans the power to imagine. It sits on top of the lower brain, which contains our deepest animal fears of starvation and death. Our imagination heightens our hungers and fears. It also provides us with the wherewithal to invent and innovate – control fire, water, plants, and animals. Imagination also enables us to empathize with others, so we take care of the weak and the disabled, not just slaves to whom we outsource labor. We gossip, we learn from others, and improve on the learning. Imagination enables us to imagine scenarios that we have never actually experienced: flight without wings, travel through time, a world without hunger or fear, or one of perpetual pain.

All this happens simultaneously, not sequentially. Humans did not first think of food and security, and then about identity, gods and demons. It all happened in a haphazard chaotic way. The utilitarian gaze insists the toolmaker came first, then the artist, and then the priest. The scientific materialistic mindset cannot appreciate the aesthetics of rocks placed around the fire, or the magic created by the clockwise spin of the hunter before he drew first blood. The artist was the priest as well as the toolmaker.

It all sprang from imagination: cult, as well as culture, simultaneously, symbiotically, chaotically. Imagination remains humanity’s most unique trait. It is the source of our subjectivities, and our fantasies, our innovations, inventions, and visions about how life can or should be. It is also the one thing most feared by those who value science and claim to be enlightened, for it will always favour the tribe, or caste, over the faith, the faith over the nation, the nation over the world.

Devdutt Pattanaik is an Indian physician turned leadership consultant, mythologist, author and communicator whose works focus largely on the areas of myth, religion, mythology, and management.




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