Of Heathens and Believers

I began dying a long time ago. I can’t tell you the exact date, time or year as I didn’t notice it at first. But it has been long. Painful. Bloody. Hope-filled. Dreaded.

My name is Acceptance.

I was once the queen of a kingdom spanning the earth. Things were peaceful, my subjects simple. They survived off the land, the forests, the rivers and oceans. They built stone temples to worship nature. Sometimes they painted on walls with vegetable dye; beautiful pictures of animals, plants and life. They were one with everything around them and I was proud as they were enlightened.

I bore four daughters – Sivaa, Salma, Sara, and Eva. I raised them to be independent-minded, but close. I encouraged their different ideas and views. I allowed them to debate for hours, sometimes even days and their personalities grew, blossomed, became distinct and yet complemented each other’s.

All the people of the earth had their eyes on my children; they were princesses after all. Some liked Sivaa more, others Salma, Sara or Eva. On crisp, sunny days when birdsong filled the palace and the air was so clear you could see the distant ocean, I would find my daughters sitting on the fresh grass in deep, sometimes heated, discussion. Their hair was braided with wildflowers, their delicate hands flying around like excited sparrows. Sometimes, they would sit surrounded by the people who loved them, laughing gaily. “My people don’t like to eat animals,” Sivaa would say of those who sought her company. “Mine won’t eat pork,” Salma replied. I smiled at how they bonded with everyone on this planet.

Looking back, I should have been careful in giving my daughters so much freedom. But how was I to know that their independent minds and fearless hearts would not unite, but divide, human beings? My daughters strove hard to not be the cause of the world’s disruption. They helped each other, they cried when fights broke between their people. Long after I’ve given up they are still trying to maintain their identities in harmony.

My eldest, Sivaa, was the hardest to fathom. She spoke of such things as self-realization, life after death, the infinite soul. Even as a child she sat still for hours, her eyes closed, her face peaceful. I don’t know what passed through her mind and when I asked she said she couldn’t explain it. It was only years later, as a grow woman, that she came to me and described what she often experienced.

“The force that drives the universe,” she told me.

“What is it like?” I asked, curious.

“I cannot explain it Ma,” she said. “But you will know it when you experience it.”

My Sivaa sat still for days, sometimes weeks, contemplating this force. At such times she didn’t eat or sleep. Nothing disturbed her and no one could touch her. She was there but she wasn’t really there if you know what I mean?

“We begin dying the second we are born,” she told her sisters. “But that is only the body. Our spirits, our souls, are invincible.”

Salma, Sara, and Eva, light of spirit and happy of heart, wondered at the finality of those words. It made them a little sad and they begged their older sister to tell them happier things. I, too, wondered at the somber ideas of my oldest child. Even Sivaa’s followers were a strange bunch, uninterested in tangible things but greedy for knowledge. Food didn’t please them, comfort didn’t calm them, darkness didn’t frighten them. They were the same in joy and sorrow and closest to the earliest people who worshipped nature.

Sivaa’s followers called the force that drove the universe God and believed it manifested in everything. They had gods for all kinds of things – the sun, the skies, the earth, even the sperm and ovum whose union determines the constitution, the soul. Thus, were created Shiva, Nut, and Ra. Nanook, Sedna, and Saraswati. Vishnu, Sedna and Yaya.

My other three daughters did not like the idea of so many avatars of god. People were beginning to worship the avatars rather than the one true god, they said, and they were right. So they all came up with their own idea of how the universe worked and who was in charge. They described Sivaa’s inexplicable force as God and said it was everywhere, in every person. They created the idea of prophets, humans, chosen by God to spread his word. The prophets’ message was written in books people could follow. It was a guideline of how to live a life of good intention. Salma, Sara and Eva went a step further and invented the idea of heaven and hell. If you sinned you went to hell. If you led a sin-free life you went to heaven.

Sivaa, at first, was appalled at this simplistic view of the universe. She said god existed everywhere, not just in human beings but in every animal, stone, and air particle. She said human beings were the only ones gifted with conscience and consciousness and it was their responsibility to care for this earth. Animals and plants were not put on this earth to be killed and used by humans, she said. Some laughed when she bowed her head before a plant and asked its permission before she plucked the fruit.

When Sivaa heard of heaven and hell, she became very sad. She insisted we have to be born again and again to atone for our sins. Life wasn’t the ultimate aim, nor was it a gift. It was given to us as a chance to atone for the sins of past lives. The ultimate goal wasn’t to live but to become one with the universe. Sivaa called it salvation. Her ideas didn’t appeal to the young people who wanted more and more from life.

My four daughters, all of them strong and beautiful and kind, agreed that whatever their paths they led to one god. They had different names for this god but it meant the same thing.

They didn’t know, then, that their gods, prophets, and books would slowly give rise to hostility between their groups of followers. Each of them had, unwittingly, created the idea of religion. The followers of a religion killed to protect their gods and prophets. Wars would be fought to spread religions. The conquered were forced to convert to the religion of the conquerors. Rivers of blood flowed through the streets of the great cities of the world.

When Sivaa found some of her followers worshipping gold idols of gods in marble temples she fled and disappeared into the forests with the people closest to her.

It wasn’t long before Salma, Sara and Eva’s followers, too, began worshipping god in confined spaces they called temples, mosques and churches. They grew alarmed when people referred to the nature worshippers, who came before them, as heathens. The idea that the world’s oldest beliefs were unevolved, unsophisticated and barbaric took hold even as modern religions mounted their own hateful wars on each other to establish their superiority.

That was when Salma, Sara and Eva sent their most trusted followers in search of Sivaa in the remotest, untouched places of this planet. They are beginning to believe that Sivaa’s nature worshipping is far the better choice. It inspires respect for everything, living and non-living. Sivaa hasn’t been found yet but my children are sure she is still alive, somewhere, and will reveal herself when the time is right.

Meanwhile some kind souls try desperately to keep me from taking my last sweet breath decorating my dry, broken body, shouting slogans in my name.

“Secular,”

“One people.”

“One God.”

“Acceptance.”

And, finally, the most insulting word of this world.

“Tolerance.”

Such a condescending term used by those convinced of the superiority of their belief and kindness of their heart as they put up with those who are not them.

My daughters, no longer young or beautiful, regret that they allowed people to follow them. They were just playing with different ideas, they tell me. They are weary, they tell me. Sometimes I can hear them crying in the dark nights that are becoming longer and longer.

I, their mother, long unable to speak or console hover over them sometimes flying high in ecstasy and sometimes sinking low to the earth’s bowels.

The green grass and sparrows are gone. The vast ocean now hides behind a thick, black fog. Sometimes, when it becomes very silent in the palace I close my eyes and imagine I can hear the sparrows and the roar of the ocean. I believe I can see those people who bow to the sun, the moon, the stars. Those who kiss every rock and hug every tree are alive somewhere, I am certain.

 

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