Why did I pick ‘From Cult to Culture’ as the name for my column? Let me explain. 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, custom, literature, 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 humans privileged reason and science, after which religion was viewed with suspicion and cults struggled for respect.
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 the Crusades of the 10th century were actually European plunder of the affluent East, rather than merely the pushback of Christianity against Islam. The rapid spread of Islam in the 7th century is explained as the need for plunder and spread of agricultural technologies rather than jihad. Religion is being argued as simply being an excuse for materialistic motivations.
Materialistic philosophies that value the measurable emerged around the 19th century, at the same time as scientific thinking, industrialisation, and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. People concluded that natural evolution extended itself into social, intellectual, and material progress. The enlightened West was supposed to lead this project.
Security from rivals
Biologists observed that all organisms from plants to animals seek resources to survive; 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, and 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.
Ironically, those who favour reason also function 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 pushback from foul-mouthed political mobs, popular precisely because they are going against science and logic and propounding absurd ideas from Flat Earth to Creationism.
This would not have been a shock had scholars recognised that cults underlie culture: irrational human fantasies have played a key role in granting people identities and making them feel good about themselves. Britain, for instance, wants to see itself as the force that spread science and ‘civilisation’ around the world, not as an enslaver of peoples.
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 says 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 point to early stone tools and hearths going back at least 100,000 years before the the first burial sites, first jewellery or 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, archaeologists found rings of 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 that this was a temple of hunters and foragers, a pre-historic cult. In other words, a belief in supernatural beings, gods, spirits, and ancestors mobilised people, which led to collaborative economic activities, which in turn led to competitive political structures. By this reasoning, the temple came first, not the field.
But even this counter argument is linear, sequential, and teleological. And this is exactly how history is written by historians: as if humans are meant to grow, develop, progress from savagery to civilisation, from paganism to a true faith, from dark ages towards enlightenment. Any cyclical, simultaneous, alternative history, which is more likely, is deemed chaotic.
Many archaeologists 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, lived among the people, with both hunger and faith 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.
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. 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 empathise with others, so we care for the weak and the disabled. 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.
Artist as priest
All this happens simultaneously, not sequentially. Humans did not first think of food and security, 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, 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 human 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 difficult to understand and control, for it will always favour tribe or caste over faith, faith over nation, nation over world.
Devdutt Pattanaik is author of 50 books on mythology, art and culture.