1700 years — from the Council of Nicaea to the forests of India, Part Two

1700 years — from the Council of Nicaea to the forests of India, Part Two


Continued from Part One

Vision of an underwater world

Again, this is not essentially a theological discussion, but rather it is a look at how a question of belief was used to gain power – to usurp power and to use it to turn aside an original, spiritual intent.  It set a pathway for hundreds of years of history that were to follow – not just for the west, but ultimately for the whole world.

The Council of Nicaea established the doctrine that Jesus Christ is in fact God.  Now one would naturally suppose that this would be a good deal for the followers of Jesus.  But there is a school of thought that says that it turned out to be just the opposite—a really unfortunate thing. Now, instead of being able to feel an immediate connection with the magical, mystical Jesus, a being of love and compassion, there was no direct connection at all.  Instead, from that time onwards, one had to go through a priest, and only the priest could have a spiritual connection with God – nobody else could.

Now there are priests in most religions, and many of them are very kind, good, gentle people.  Some of them have upheld the strengths of societies for thousands of years. Nothing here is meant to detract from that – or to disparage in any way the many thousands of brave Christian saints and martyrs, who were genuinely heroic and sincere in their faith.

But there is a difference between the positive use of power and oppressive dominance.  And the western world was heading down a path that would lead to the latter.

We all know that order is necessary in the universe.  Without it the trains, the buses, and even the planets would all run into each other.

There is order too in the natural ways of animals. When a mother hen guides her chicks along the path,  she may give a stern knock or two to a wayward one who keeps wandering off—because they need to stay together to be safe and to find food.  She is the mom, and she organizes which way the family is going.  She is clearly in charge, and her use of power is positive; it keeps everybody safe.

This natural order of things is entirely opposite to the kind of dominance that the chicken farmer exercises.  He fattens up the chicks, not for the chicks’ benefit, but to get them ready for the chopping block.  He too is in control, but there’s a big difference.  His is not a nurturing control, but is the control of exploitation.

The Council of Nicaea, in determining what one should believe and how one should practice one’s faith, set a precedence of dominance that endured for centuries, and that ultimately helped set the course for how the modern world relates to many things, including the environment.

The terra cotta horse is an offering to Ayyanaar, spirit of the forest.

It started out harmlessly enough.  But, in the view of many, it took out all the mystery and magic of the original Jesus; it set up rules, organized, codified, and generally put everything firmly and irreversibly into the physical realm, under the control of the bishops. For the Church as an institution, there was no more seeking the Kingdom of Heaven – only a consolidation of earthly power.

Catholicism, or official Christianity as it was for centuries, is by no means unique in following this trajectory — but it does provide an excellent example of how to destroy the life of the spirit. The fourth century AD has long been recognized by some as a pivotal moment when one could say that the life of faith fell out of heaven and down to earth.  It set the followers of the gentle Christ off on a path of dominance.

Over the centuries the impulse to maintain firm control led to greater and greater violence.  Heresies had to be suppressed, as did witches, infidels, and mostly just about anybody who didn’t fit into the right mold.

After massacring an estimated 60,000 citizens of Jerusalem in the First Crusade, succeeding crusades followed a similar pattern, including crusades in southern France in the thirteenth century against the Cathar heresy, in which tens of thousands of French citizens were massacred.

The Inquisition followed, in which people were burned at the stake – witches, scientists, heretics. In England people were burned at the stake for translating the Bible into common English.  Translating the Bible into the common language was a no-no because it undermined the power of the Church as the sole intermediary between God and man.

This sort of thing never happened in India. For one thing no one was burned at the stake. For the most part, the tradition of ahimsa has always been followed, and is still strongly in place today.  The saints and heroes of India practiced austerities; they fasted, they may have starved themselves.  But the eastern spiritual tradition does not advocate dominance, suppression, or the massacre of heretics and dissenters.

A girl collecting fallen branches as firewood, in the sacred grove Puthupet.

Instead, in the land of Hinduism, everyone pretty much tries to get along.  Varying and entirely opposing schools of philosophy co-exist and respect each other.  There is a presence of kindness.

India has not been entirely immune though from this cult of dominance that has spread across the earth. One of the primary targets of this pursuit of dominance is the natural world.  The natural world is about life. Dominance is about death, and because it is about death, it is a danger to all living things – the animals, the birds, the people, the air, the oceans, and the forests.

Going back to history again for a moment — along the way, with the advance of “civilization”, the New World was “discovered” (though it had been there all along).  An untouched continent, where 600 million bison roamed across vast planes.  Within one hundred years, only 600 of these magnificent animals remained.  This was the advance of a wave of death.  This kind of wholesale destruction of nature and the animals never happened in India.

The forests in India, and at one time all over the earth, are sacred forests, filled with spirits, beings and presences, as well as the sacred birds, animals, trees and plants.  They are holy places. But to the invasive spirit of modern “development”, they are no such thing – only an opportunity to take what is on or under the earth – trees, plants, coal, oil, minerals, all is to be taken.  And the implied question that is posed is, “What good is a forest if it cannot be useful?”

Very ancient sacred trees at Puthupet.

For those with these intentions, there is no perception whatever of sacredness, and even worse, one has a sense that it is not just that the forests are being destroyed in the name of greed, but that even if there were no products to be taken from them, that they would be destroyed anyway – precisely because they represent the wild, the sacred, the holy, that which is not controlled by man, that which belongs only to the Gods.

One is reminded of the ten-headed demon Ravana, who killed the monkeys of the forest who so heroically fought on the side of Rama.  They were miraculously brought back to life by Brahma.  The demon waged war against the monkeys because they were sacred creatures who were emblematic of the forests.

This war is not over, and the forces that seek the destruction of the natural world and all that is sacred are alive and well. Standing up to defend the innocent, the sacred, and all the living world is what is required – and clear sight about what is actually occurring in our world today.

Restoring the sacred groves, the sacred forests, and inspiring the young, and all people, to view the natural world with reverence — and refusing to abandon the forests to the forces that seek to destroy them —  is one of the most worthwhile things that one can do in life.

Top photo: Public domain / Illustration by Edmund Dulac for the Japanese fairy tale “Urashima Taro / A fisherman rescues a turtle and visits a magical underwater world.

Second photo: Sharon St Joan / A magical horse, an offering to the spirit Ayyanaar at the sacred grove Puthupet.

Third photo: Sharon St. Joan /A girl collecting fallen dead branches for firewood at Puthupet.

Fourth photo:  Sharon St Joan /Very ancient trees at Puthupet.

1700 years — from the Council of Nicaea to the forests of India, part one

Christ with St Mina, 6th century icon, Egypt

In 325 AD, the First Council of Nicaea was held.  This was the first Christian council of bishops.

Though this is all a little obscure, there is a point to having a look at the First Council of Nicaea.  It wasn’t just a long-ago, irrelevant event, important only to Christian theologians and of no relevance to anyone else.

It was, on the contrary, a stepping stone setting off down the path that a part of the world has followed from that time until this –  which has impacted the whole world – and continues to do so.

It illustrates a pattern, a mindset, and a modus operandi – a handbook in how to exercise dominion – which may be said to have led down a long, unfortunate road to the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Age of Exploration, and even today, to the mindset that believes that the earth, the environment, the oceans, the forests, and even outer space are to be “used” and not worshipped.

Before the Council of Nicaea, the multitude of Christian sects had no overall leader;  the various pockets of Christianity were pretty much free (barring occasional persecution and martyrdom by the authorities) to worship in any way they wished.

image of Christ

The glimpses we can see of  Jesus in the earliest writings about him portray a man who is a teacher, a healer, a mystic, a psychic, a miracle worker, even a magician.  He is not a revolutionary in any political sense; he relates to individuals of all strata of society equally, the rich and the poor.  When he is not speaking to crowds, he often spends his time alone in the deserts and on the hilltops, where he seeks inspiration, surrounded by nature.

He is not all gloom and doom, but has a light-hearted side—turning the water into wine at a wedding. He is looked down on by some for spending his time with not quite the proper kind of people, sinners and tax collectors.

One of the few times he is portrayed as angry is in a temple, seeing the doves in cages about to be sacrificed.  He releases the doves, overturns the cages, and scatters the coins of those who are selling the doves.

There is something magical about his presence, reminiscent of the magical quality of passages from the Mahabharata or the Ramayana.  There are repeated speculations that Jesus may have spent time in India.  We do not know.  It is stated in the gospels that he spent his earliest years in Egypt; this was the Egypt where the ancient religion of pharonic times was not yet dead.   By the time he was twelve, he was back in Palestine, able not only to read and write (which must have been unusual for a carpenter’s son), but to hold a learned discourse over several days with the elders in the temple.

Three hundred years after he was killed for being a heretic and an insurrectionist, his followers existed in scattered bands, some led by women, with varying views of who he had been and what he stood for.  Clearly he had had absolutely no intention whatsoever of establishing a church in the temporal world.  As a mystic, he was the farthest thing from an administrator. There are many indications that he looked forward to the imminent end of the world, shortly following his death.  But that failed to happen.

Lake Iznik, Turkey

The First Council of Nicaea, in the spring of 325 AD, was held in present-day Iznik (Nicaea), in Turkey.  It is a walled, fortified city, whose western wall rises up from Lake Iznik, which lies in between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.  Around 300 bishops gathered there, convened by the Emperor Constantine.  The Roman Empire was in quite an unsettled state at the time (perhaps rather like our own times), it seemed like a good idea to bring about a greater degree of order and cohesion, at least to the realm of religion.  In short, things were out of control, and there was an urgency to putting everything into line.

A convocation of scholars and theologians might sound like an opportunity, through open discussion, to arrive at levels of spiritual truth and insight.  Indeed they did spend several weeks in discussion. They came up with the Nicene Creed to standardize Christian beliefs, with a list of canons to regulate procedures and how things were to be done, and with a correct way to calculate the right date for Easter. All in all a fairly productive meeting.

But there was one more thing – there was a hidden agenda.  The council had actually been called to suppress the heresy known as Arianism and to consolidate the power of the church in the hands of the bishops.  In other words, to establish, not a spiritual path to enlightenment, salvation, grace, or whatever – but a power structure of a purely temporal sort, which would hold dominion over the lives of the faithful for centuries to come.

Arius didn’t originate Arianism, he had predecessors before him, but he was a leading advocate of this sect, which was named after him. Most likely he was originally from Libya, and he lived as a bishop in Alexandria. We don’t know as much about him as we’d like to because nearly all positive writings about him were burned in one of the first book burnings in history.

Sort of coincidentally there had been an even earlier big book burning, also in Alexandria, of the Library of Alexandria, which in 48 BC destroyed many priceless books of the ancient world. Plutarch wrote that Julius Cesar had “accidentally” burned the library.

Montsegur, the last stronghold of the Cathars in southern France, another suppressed heresy

Anyway, Arius is described by a contemporary as being an ascetic, very distinguished-looking, of high intellectual ability, who was charming and charismatic.  The core belief of Arianism was that Jesus Christ was not God, or at least not anymore than anyone else was – but (paraphrased) that the spirit of God is potentially in everyone and that we all have a connection with God.

Arius, along with a couple of his associates, was present at the Council of Nicaea, and there was a great deal of discussion about the truth or falsehood of his beliefs.  The trouble was that, really, the whole discussion was rigged ahead of time. Constantine had called the meeting to obtain a specific result – the suppression of Arianism and the establishment of what became, from that time onwards, orthodox Christianity.  So there were no real discussions at all – only a pretense of openness, and in the end Arius and his two friends were banished—sent off to the Roman Province of Illyricum, which is now in the general vicinity of Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia.  After a while, Arius was able to get away from Illyricum and make his way back to Palestine, where he found refuge for the rest of his life.

The point here is not primarily to have a discussion about Christian theology, but rather to cast some light on the ways that people put themselves into power – for good or for ill.

Continued in Part Two

Top photo: Wikimedia / public domain / Christ and Saint Mina, 6th century icon from Bawit, Egypt, now in the Louvre

Second photo: Simon Ushakov / Wikimedia / public domain

Third photo: QuartierLatin1968 / Wikimedia / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Fourth photo: Emeraude / Wikimedia / public domain / seen from the bottom of the hill