The Polytheistic Origins of Monotheism

Reading Time: 26 minutes

Introduction and Overview

There are widespread misconceptions about monotheism at present—(a) that it is about a transcendent God, (b) that it has had no connections to polytheism, and (c) that it has always been monotheistic. These are far from the truth. The truth is that monotheism emerged out of polytheism, that its “God” was originally a low-level demigod but later transformed into an all-powerful God by abrogating other gods, and the reason for this transformation was political and worldly rather than transcendent.

In this article, I will discuss the origins of monotheism in polytheism, and the syncretic construction of monotheism by applying numerous traits of polytheistic gods to a monotheistic God. We will then try to understand the problems arising out of this syncretism, namely, that there is no God who possesses the traits of a syncretic God.

The Less Known Story of Yahweh

In her recent book “God—An Anatomy“, Francesca Stravrakopoulou writes many revealing passages about how Yahweh came to be the God of monotheism. I will cite some of them here. Those interested in this subject may want to read the whole book. It may prove an eye-opener. If we go through these passages, what monotheism is, and how it emerged historically, will become quite apparent.

  1. “As one of the many deities in the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age Levant, Yahweh was originally a god rooted within a polytheistic world—and remained comfortably so for much of his early career. This was a world in which the gods were imagined as a sprawling heavenly household, broadly reflecting the family bonds and social structures of their human worshippers. In most Levantine societies, this pantheon was headed by an aged progenitor of the cosmos, the god El or (in some dialects) Il—a name functioning both as a proper noun and the generic Semitic term for ‘deity’. Beneath him were ranked a younger generation of gods each charged with a particular portfolio in the management of the universe–from storms, seas, sunlight, and starlight, to fertility, birth, warfare, and death. As frontline deities, they were the most prominent gods of ancient Levantine societies, and those most closely tied to the territorial identities of their worshippers.”
  2. “Thanks particularly to a wealth of literature dated to the fourteenth and thirteenth century BCE, recovered from the ancient city-state called Ugarit, on the Syrian coast, El’s multitiered household has come into sharper focus. He was understood to be the gentle father of the gods, enjoying a comfortable semi-retirement from the day-to-day running of the cosmos, accompanied by his consort, the mother goddess Athirat. Between them, they had ‘seventy sons’—a collective term for the frontline deities. These included Ugarit’s special patron, the powerful storm-god Baal, and his sister, a fearsome warrior, as well as a boisterous sea-god Yam, and the underworld king of death, Mot, each of whom dwelt in his own domain located at the very edge of the divine realm. Ranked between them were the relatively minor deities of practical skill and cultural arts, including architecture and design, healing, music, and magic, while below them was a collection of divine attendants and messengers, who variously served the gods and commuted between the heavens and the earthly realms. Despite their differences in rank, the gods met together as a divine council or assembly chaired by El in his role as the highest god to decide on matters both divine and mortal.”
  3. “Ugarit’s pantheon was typical of Levantine religions in the second and early first millennium BCE when early forms of Yahweh worship emerged. The pantheon’s shape and composition was determined by the very human idea that to be a god isolated from any other was to be bereft of the benefits of collaboration, status, and kinship. In short, it was to be socially impotent—and frankly useless, therefore, to mortals. Against this cultural backdrop, certain theological claims asserting that Yahweh had only ever been a solitary deity look more than a little implausible.”
  4. “Yahweh appears as one among El’s many divine children. Ancient pieces of poetry in the Hebrew Bible tell something about Yahweh’s early career. Far from portraying Yahweh as the supreme king and creator of the cosmos, they present him instead as a minor but ferocious storm deity, at the margins of the inhabited world in an ancient place variously known as Seir, Paran, and Teman—cast in the Bible as a dangerous, mountainous wilderness, seemingly located south of the Negev desert, beyond the Dead Sea, in what used to be called Edom and is now southern Jordan.”
  5. “Scholars have long suspected that El, not Yahweh, was the original god of the people known in the Bible as ‘Israel’. Yahweh would gradually come to usurp his father El by supplanting him as the head of the pantheon. But quite how this happened remains frustratingly unclear. As a storm god, Yahweh was naturally a god of warfare, equipped with weapons of thunder, lightning, and rain clouds, and it was Yahweh’s personal patronage that the kings of Israel and Judah claimed.”
  6. “Yahweh was acclaimed as the ‘national’ or state deity, and the divine patron of each kingdom’s royal household. A number of other deities, who likely played their part in the polytheistic governance of the cosmos, were worshipped alongside him, with the most prominent among them being Yahweh’s wife Asherah. The biblical writers cannot help but reveal that she was worshipped alongside Yahweh in his temples in Jerusalem and Samaria, while inscriptions dating to the eighth century BCE attest to seeking blessings from ‘Yahweh and his Asherah’.”
  7. “Historically, the goddess’s fall broadly reflects the decline of traditional, state-sponsored polytheism—a decline triggered by the Assyrian annihilation of the kingdom of Israel in about 722 BCE, and the Babylonian destruction of Judah in 587 BCE. As patron deity and divine warrior of his peoples, Yahweh had seemingly failed to protect them. It would prompt a profound theological and cultural shift among certain priestly and scribal groups, some of them in exile, whose work would shape the central traditions reflected in the Hebrew Bible, and eventually craft a new image of their god—the deity who would become the God of the Bible. Despite the destruction of his kingdoms, Yahweh himself had not been defeated, they insisted. Rather, he had engineered the collapse of the states of Israel and Judah in punishment for his worshipper’s religious deviancy: the worship of other gods. Yahweh would come to be presented as a god intolerant of other deities, and Yahweh worship would become increasingly monolatrous.”

Understanding the Story of Yahweh

Years ago, I wrote a book entitled “Cosmic Theogony” tracing the diversity of world religions emerging from a very large pantheon of demigods in the Vedic tradition. These diverse religions cannot be reconciled without understanding the Vedic tradition. However, if one knows that tradition, then it is far easier to reconcile them. I will try to explain the story of Yahweh as seen through the lens of Vedic descriptions. We can see what others cannot see if we use that lens.

  • The first stage
    • Originally, there is a very big multi-tiered polytheistic family of gods
    • There is a parent god called El, with seventy sons, whom we call Brahma
    • There is a child god of rain and thunder, called Yahweh, whom we call Indra
    • Both of them have their feminine consorts—Athirat and Asherah
    • They are respectively called Saraswati and Shachi in the Vedic texts
  • The second stage
    • At some point in history, El is substituted or replaced by Yahweh
    • The historical reasons for this substitution are obscure to scholars
    • Even after the substitution, a polytheistic system under Yahweh continues
    • Yahweh and Asherah are now primary deities, along with many other gods
    • Rulers of Israel primarily worship a smaller pantheon of gods under Yahweh
  • The third stage
    • There are major defeats in wars, and Yahweh’s patronage is questioned
    • These defeats are blamed on Israel worshiping gods other than Yahweh
    • To prevent future defeats in wars, Asherah and other gods are dropped
    • After dropping all other gods, Yahweh remains the only god
  • The fourth stage
    • At this time, the theological concept of “one god” or monotheism appears
    • Monotheism now pertains to Yahweh, an originally lower god, Indra
    • Priests and scribes rework the Hebrew Bible to remove all other gods
    • Still, there are uncleansed remnants of the past referring to other gods

Most people today think that monotheistic religions were monotheistic from the start. They also think that monotheistic religions were opposed to polytheistic religions. All these notions are false. The truth is that the original state of monotheism was polytheism, which included a large pantheon of gods. Over time, this pantheon gradually shrunk, and eventually, it was stripped of all but one deity. Different sects within these traditions continued with a fewer or greater number of deities, making the same tradition totally polytheistic, a mixture of polytheism and monotheism, and totally monotheistic. The militant opposition to polytheism came much later in the historical evolution.

The polytheistic system of worship that involved dozens of gods (which we call devatas in the Vedic system) closely resembles the Vedic pantheon of demigods. It was headed by a creator god El (whom we call Brahma in the Vedic tradition). These gods had their feminine consorts. But as time passed, most of these gods—including the top creator god, and their feminine consorts—were dropped, and a lower god called Yahweh (whom we call Indra in the Vedic tradition) was appointed as the supreme being. This is then the origin of monotheism—stripping away deities from a bigger hierarchical pantheon of demigods, appointing a lower demigod as the top deity, and rejecting all feminine consorts of these deities.

The Story of Adam and Eve

The story gets more interesting as we go along this journey. For example, God gives a place for Adam and Eve to live, but asks them never to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge or wisdom. We can interpret this story in more than one way, and I will try to note two such interpretations here.

  • We could call it karma-yoga—God gives Adam and Eve a place to live, there is a tree of knowledge (which we call the Vedas) and which has a karma-kānda portion (signified by the four Vedas) by which one can obtain many material benefits; however, God forbids Adam and Eve to eat these “fruits” of the tree, and accept the other parts of the tree. Eschewing karma-kānda, while doing one’s duties with renunciation, is called karma-yoga in the Vedic tradition, and the Adam and Eve story can be seen as accepting karma-yoga and rejecting karma-kānda.
  • We could also say that God gave Adam and Eve a place to live, with a tree of wisdom, while forbidding them from eating the real fruits of wisdom, namely, devotion to a transcendent personality. The Śrīmad Bhagavatam, for instance, is called nigama-kalpa-taror galitaṁ phalaṁ or the “ripened fruit of the desire tree of knowledge”. Hence, there is a tree of knowledge, called the nigama-kalpa-taru, in which there are numerous subdivisions of knowledge found on the different branches of the tree, and the fruit of this tree is perfect devotion to the Supreme Being, but whichever God gave Adam and Eve a place to live, forbade them from eating the ripened fruit, which means to remain entangled in the world of material enjoyment.

If God is Yahweh or Indra, then there is ample information in the Vedic texts to understand why he would not want his followers to attain transcendence—Indra is known to seduce attractive wives of other men, disturb the austerities of sages, pollute the yajñá of kings, and always remain in conflict with demons. From the Śrīmad Bhagavatam, we know how he is infuriated when Kṛṣṇa stops his worship and causes a flood. He fits the bill of a “jealous god” perfectly—he is always demanding exclusivity, trying to destroy any potential threats, and punishing those who disobey or disregard his commands.

But if God is not Yahweh or Indra, then there is literally no scenario in which people who don’t practice karma-yoga but take to karma-kānda, would be condemned from a heavenly place as sinful persons. The fact is that living entities ascend to heaven due to the performance of sacrifices or yajñá. Doing these things is the norm rather than the exception. To condemn someone for doing the normal thing would be an exception. Hence, if God gave Adam and Eve a place to live, and asked them to not eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, the best inference is that God is Indra.

Syncretic Enhancement of Monotheism

In a polytheistic pantheon of demigods, each demigod performs a unique function and role. Thereby, no demigod is “complete” because they have their respective departments—wind, water, fire, earth, sky, planet, stars, punishment, arts, architecture, healing, music, etc. If we reduce a polytheistic system to one God, by elevating one of the demigods to the status of God, then the monotheistic deity elevated thus would also be incomplete. Then we cannot call the monotheistic God the most powerful God because he lacks the capacities of other demigods. Thus, after abrogating numerous demigods, monotheism had to attribute their powers and stories of all the polytheistic gods to the monotheistic god.

For example, in the Bible, God creates the world, which means that Yahweh created the world when it was originally created by El. The creation of the world originally attributed to El must now be attributed to Yahweh. This is the equivalent of attributing the work of Brahma to Indra, after removing Brahma.

The removal of Brahma’s worship is not “frustratingly unclear” in the Vedic tradition. We can find hundreds of temples of various demigods in India, but never a temple of Brahma. This is because Brahma was cursed by Lord Shiva to never be worshipped after Brahma lusted for his daughter—Shatarupa. Brahma is excluded even in Vedic yajñá, although he is recognized as the father of all the demigods and the topmost demigod in the pantheon. Thereby, there is a double standard regarding Brahma even in the Vedic tradition—(a) he is excluded from the standpoint of worship, and (b) he is recognized as the creator of the universe. It is likely that El or Il was never worshipped, although he was recognized as the creator of the universe. The usurping of El by Yahweh is therefore a natural consequence of the fact that Brahma is not worshipped and Indra is identified as the leader of the lower-level demigods after that.

Likewise, when God causes a catastrophic flood, the work of the water and wind would be attributed to Yahweh. In the Vedic system, Indra is the god of rain and thunder. But floods require cooperation from other demigods like Varuṇa and Vāyu (the demigods of water and wind). Ideally, all three demigods—Indra, Varuṇa, and Vāyu—must be noted while attributing the occurrence of a flood, although under one supervising deity. This is understood in the Vedic system as the subordinate role played by Varuṇa and Vāyu under Indra. But if other demigods are removed, then everything would be attributed to Indra.

I wonder which God would ask people to cut off their foreskins as a mark of a covenant with him and why such a covenant ritual would exclude women from participating in the covenant. The fact is that this ritual predates monotheism for thousands of years and was widely practiced in Africa. Egypt is cited by historians as the most prominent case of ritualistic circumcision. But the god of Egypt wasn’t Indra or Brahma. It was the sun god, called Ra. Again, by continuing the practice of circumcision and attributing it to the monotheistic god—Yahweh or Indra—the practices related to the sun god were misattributed.

The practices of animal sacrifices, followed by the consumption of meat as a ritual, used to be highly varied. Each demigod was offered a different kind of animal, sometimes a different gender animal, only at specific times for specific reasons. The offerings for male and female deities were also different. But when the diversity of demigods is removed, then the stipulations of time, place, animal, and gender were abrogated and animal killing and consumption were normalized even outside of rituals. There are numerous such examples of acts found in monotheistic texts which should be attributed to other demigods, but they are just attributed to God. The syncretic construction of a monotheistic God does more harm than good—it makes God a very confusing personality, often engaged in acts that we would not attribute to a truly divine and transcendent personality, but only to the powerful demigods.

Concepts of the Kingdom of God

The fact that monotheism emerged purely out of earthly preoccupations—namely, a religious reform movement initiated after the defeat of Jews at the hands of Assyrians and Babylonians—is clearly evidenced in the numerous references to the “Kingdom of God” abundantly found in monotheistic texts. There is a famous Christian prayer: “O God, our Father in heaven, thy kingdom come”. Clearly, this cannot refer to a heavenly kingdom where God’s rule already prevails so it cannot “come” because it never went away. This has to be speaking about the desire to revive an earthly kingdom. Such prayers indicate that there was once an earthly kingdom, which was then lost, the loss was interpreted as a punishment from Yahweh, which then led to a monotheistic reform, and having done that reform, the reformers pray for the revival of their lost kingdom.

The Old Testament speaks to this too. King David had been promised by God that his descendants will forever rule over Israel. That was true for about 400 years, after which the descendants of David were overthrown by invasions. The reforms of monotheism that followed thus began speaking of the new “King of the Jews”, who was expected to arrive, free the Jews from foreign rule, return the Jews living in exile to their homeland, and reestablish a Jewish kingdom on earth. The references to king and kingdom are about an earthly king and an earthly kingdom, assumed to return after a monotheistic reform.

Addition of Salvation Doctrines

Traditional polytheistic religions were not about salvation from the world or going to a transcendent realm after death. They were about worshipping demigods to get a good life on earth. We have to remember that in polytheism, going to the heavenly kingdom of gods requires a person to become god, or something equivalent to him. But how can man become a god? In the Vedic system, we talk about how men can become demigods due to their pious deeds, that they will die and will be reborn, that the soul will be transferred from earth to heaven through a process of soul transmigration, and after some time, the demigods will lose their position, only to be replaced by a new generation of demigods.

But all this is too complicated. The simple version is—gods will be gods and men will be men, men need the favor of the gods, but they cannot become gods. This version of god works only so long as people can see the favor of their gods upon them. If that favor has been replaced by misery, then people will naturally start questioning if God even exists. This is not a new phenomenon, by the way. Many modern atheists became atheists after seeing the misery in their life—their argument is that if God is so kind, then why would He make everyone suffer, for no apparent fault of theirs? The answer to that question involves past lives, deeds in past lives, and reincarnation. But if these ideas do not exist in a religion, then how do you assure and placate people to keep their faith in religion while enduring bad times?

The answer is that you can solve the problem of diminishing faith by adding a doctrine of salvation where you could say that God tests people, that He gives heaven to people who pass that test, etc. Now, monotheism drives in two directions—(a) even if people are not seeing God’s favor right now—since they haven’t regained the kingdom—religion is still important for going to heaven, and (b) due to persistent faith in God, the Kingdom of God will arrive soon to give people a good life. The former is a monotheistic doctrine of salvation and the latter is a monotheistic doctrine of a good life on earth. Good life on earth is the original motivation and salvation is added as compensation to keep the faith.

We see this addition through the transformation of the concept of redemption in Judaism. Right after the Assyrian attacks around 700 BCE, redemption meant the return of Jewish people from various exiles to their homeland as a result of accepting a monotheistic god. Almost 500 years passed before this idea of redemption was enhanced to speak about a final redemption when a Jewish Messiah would come, the world would end, the dead would be revived, and people would then enter an afterlife in heaven. Jewish belief in an afterlife in heaven did not exist before 200 BCE. It was added because 500 years had passed, the “King of the Jews” had not arrived, and religious faith in the people was declining.

The late addition of the doctrine of salvation to the religion indicates that salvation was not the motive for religion previously. It wasn’t even a motive after monotheism was created. The goal of monotheism was only to get back the lost kingdom. When that did not happen, and people began losing faith in religion and the possibility of ever returning to their motherland, then salvation was added. Until that time, gods lived in heaven, and men lived on earth, and men needed the favor of gods for a good life on earth. The concept of going to heaven and becoming God or something like Him came later.

The Causes of the Crucifixion of Jesus

The earthly preoccupation of early monotheism played a central role in the crucifixion of Jesus because when Jesus began teaching the Jews, he was quickly hailed as the “King of the Jews” who would bring back the Jewish kingdom. This is because the preponderant idea in the mind of the Jews wasn’t a messiah savior who would come to tell them about what is wrong with their beliefs and practices. Their preponderant idea was that Yahweh will send a new warrior king who will then fight with the Romans to bring back their kingdom. Hence, when they saw Jesus speaking, they thought the new king had come.

The news of Jesus possibly reviving a separate Jewish kingdom reached Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who obviously had no intentions of returning Israel back to the Jews, and he ordered the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus was crucified by Romans because he posed a political threat. If Jesus had been portrayed merely as a preacher, savior, or messiah, who was bringing the message of God, which posed no political threats to Romans, then he would not have been crucified. Jesus says in the Bible: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” Jesus was factually not a threat to the Roman empire. But the Jews were not interested in his teachings. He was crucified because Jews were expecting a warrior king to revive their kingdom and hailed his arrival as the future king who would soon fight and defeat the Romans in a battle. That possibility posed a serious threat to Romans.

The Separatist Birth of Christianity

The dreams of a Jewish kingdom either ended or faced a serious setback when Jesus was crucified. But for most Jews, the crucifixion just meant that Jesus was not the savior that had been prophesized. Jesus was not a warrior and he would have never revived the Jewish kingdom. For most Jews, the crucifixion of Jesus was an aberration caused by their misunderstanding that the Messiah had arrived.

But for a smaller sect of followers of Jesus—later to be called Christians—Jesus was indeed the Messiah. The Christians gave a radical interpretation of the crucifixion in which Jesus had been sent by God to be sacrificed for the sins of Jews (committed when they were polytheists), and through this sacrifice, Jews were finally free of their sins. In this interpretation, the Jewish kingdom could not be established until the Jews had been completely purged of their sins of polytheism. But God had now purged the sins of the Jews, to prepare them for a new king and kingdom. Therefore, the crucifixion of Jesus was the mark that the kingdom of God was soon to arrive. Thereby, calling Jesus the “King of the Jews” was a mistake, but his arrival and crucifixion weren’t to be treated merely as accidents of history because, through his sacrifice, he had paved the way for a “Kingdom of God”, which would soon arrive.

Since most Jews did not accept this interpretation of crucifixion, the Christians broke off from Judaism to start a new religion called Christianity which focused on the doctrines of how the sacrifice of Jesus was essential for the revival of God’s kingdom on earth, and how those who accepted this sacrifice were the rightful inheritors of God’s earthly kingdom, destined to rule over those who did not accept this sacrifice. Thereby, the “Kingdom of God” was itself given a new interpretation—it was not a kingdom for the Jews who did not believe in the importance of crucifixion. It was rather a kingdom for Christians who accepted the crucifixion as a divine plan to revive God’s kingdom on earth. Thus, Christians converted the previous idea of God’s kingdom for the Jews in Israel to a worldwide kingdom for the Christians.

The Christian Doctrine of Salvation

Christians borrowed the Jewish doctrines of salvation—under which those who accept the monotheistic God not just enjoy an earthly kingdom but also go to heaven in an afterlife—almost completely, except that the coming of the Jewish Messiah just before the end times became the second coming of Jesus. This subject pertaining to the end times is called Eschatology and the end time is called the Apocalypse.

The Christian doctrines, however, further simplified the problem of salvation by saying that anyone who has accepted Jesus in this life would receive salvation, thereby progressively reducing the importance of moral human deeds in deciding one’s salvation. If at all a deed is important, it is only to accelerate the second coming of Jesus. Thus, Christians proselytize all over the world to pave the way for Jesus’ arrival. They believe that Jesus hasn’t come so far because many parts of the world have still not accepted Jesus. Thereby, Jesus is waiting for most people to accept him before he arrives to end the world.

This doctrine serves two important purposes. First, it ameliorates the objection of why people are still suffering in this world if Jesus has already suffered for their sins—the answer is that the Kingdom of God hasn’t yet arrived, and it will not arrive until the second coming of Jesus. Second, it creates incentives for the conversion of people to Christianity in their self-interest—namely, that if most people in the world converted to Christianity, then Jesus would arrive sooner, and that will put an end to all suffering.

Popular Incarnations of Salvation

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a widespread belief that the hurdles to the spread of Christianity due to the prevalence and power of communism had been removed. The fact that a conservative Christian President in the US—Ronald Reagan—was instrumental in bringing an end to the Soviet Union and the power of communism, just added to the conviction in most people that this would now lead to a rapid spread of Christianity. Many territories that were previously parts of the Soviet Union were rapidly inducted into the NATO alliance to bring them under the influence of the US, ostensibly to spread or revive Christianity in them after the atheistic onslaught of communism.

Thus, in 1992 Francis Fukuyama published “The End of History and the Last Man” in which he noted that humanity has reached “the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. Such was the euphoria at the end of the Soviet Union that people started calling this end the final state of humanity.

But many parts of Asia were still non-Christian. China was the biggest communist nation at that time. The plan to convert them to Christianity involved bringing capitalism and democracy to them. The West strongly believed that if people accept the Western culture, then they will also accept Christianity. The Western formula for bringing Christianity to them was to give them capitalism under the hope that this will transform China into a democratic society, which will then accelerate their conversion to Christianity. Thus, if liberal democracy and capitalism take over the world, then Christianity cannot be far behind. This process of Christianizing the world was called “globalization”.

Thus, a little over a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Thomas Friedman wrote a book in 2005 entitled “The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century” in which he talked about how free trade and globalization have finally dissolved the boundaries between nations, and this would be the story of the world for the remainder of the 21st century. This was another euphoric moment in which the spread of capitalism meant the inevitability of democracy and the arrival of Christianity.

The fact is that after the Ukraine war, globalization is reversing, Western liberal democracy is teetering, there are talks about World War III, and an economic crash is predicted to occur soon. This has been the fate of the second coming of Jesus or that of a Jewish Messiah for 2000 years. Every few years there is talk about the arrival of a messiah who will then end the world. If that messiah doesn’t come, then there are plans to accelerate his arrival. Colonialism was the preferred method earlier. It went bust at the end of the two world wars. It was democracy and capitalism after the two world wars. It is going bust now. This is a serious personal issue for many Christians because their ascent to heaven is tied to the second coming of Jesus, and he is not coming until most people have accepted Christianity.

Every now and then, thinly disguised Judeo-Christian pufferies—e.g., the books by Francis Fukuyama and Thomas Friedman—celebrate the arrival of mankind to their final destination in history signaled by a comprehensive victory of Judeo-Christian ideals. We cannot help but yelp in joy at the end of reading such propaganda pieces: “And the Judeo-Christian messiah is just about to arrive”.

A Brief History of Monotheism

These are then the simple conclusions we can draw from the history of monotheism:

  • The original religion of Israel had a multilayered pantheon of demigods
  • At some point, all layers in this pantheon above Yahweh were removed
  • After this, Jews were defeated in wars by the Assyrians and the Babylonians
  • Jewish priests blamed their defeat on the presence of gods besides Yahweh
  • Monotheism was thus crafted by stripping away all the remaining demigods
  • The acts and qualities of some demigods were retroactively imputed upon Yahweh
  • Redemption in Judaism originally meant the return of Jews to their homeland
  • When that did not happen, a doctrine of an afterlife was added to preserve Judaism
  • Jesus was crucified due to the Jewish idea of a king who revives a Jewish kingdom
  • Crucifixion was reinterpreted by Christians as God’s plan to absolve their sins
  • Jews rejected this interpretation of crucifixion due to its factual incorrectness
  • Christians then broke away from Judaism to create a separate religion
  • But they carried forward the Judaic eschatology and apocalyptic theories
  • Predictions of this eschatology have not come true for two millennia
  • Tricks and tactics used to realize eschatology are periodically reversed

The fact is that if Jews had accepted Jesus as a messiah or savior, Judaism would have been reformed, there would be no crucifixion, there would be no need to reinterpret crucifixion as God’s plan to absolve the Jews of their sins, and Christianity would not exist as a religion. All these things would occur if Jews had earlier not interpreted their defeat at the hands of Assyrians and Babylonians as indicative of a need for religious reform and hoping that the reform would automatically bring back their kingdom.

I’m not trying to conjure an alternative course in history. I’m just trying to point out the historical chain of events in which monotheism is created from polytheism for political objectives—i.e., the return of the Jewish kingdom. Then a doctrine of the afterlife and redemption is added to extend and preserve Judaism. Then the arrival of a messiah is interpreted as the arrival of a king. Then the crucifixion of that supposed messiah-king is interpreted as God’s plan to absolve sins. Since that plan is rejected by most Jews, a breakaway religion—Christianity—is created, primarily to extend and reify the theories of crucifixion.

Why is Monotheism So Successful?

There are several theories about why Christian monotheism became so popular.

  • Most Powerful God: The earliest converts to Christianity were most impressed by the concepts of virgin birth and resurrection as these indicated the miraculous powers of Jesus. Christianity gained enormous popularity by talking about the miracles of Jesus. Constantine won a major battle after accepting Jesus although he knew pity little about Christianity. One of the earliest persecutors of Christians—Paul—underwent a transformation to become its greatest advocate writing the most gospels included in the New Testament. The transformation of a persecutor into an advocate signified the power of the Christian faith. While pagan gods had powers only in one domain, the Christian God—due to the aggregation of powers from many domains ruled by many demigods into one god—had greater powers than any individual pagan god.
  • Most Merciful God: The God of the Old Testament is depicted as demanding, punishing, and harsh. But Jesus is known as a merciful healer. The God of the Old Testament punished Jews by forcing their exile. But Jesus had appeared to forgive the previous sins of people, and suffer for them if needed. The God of the Old Testament was giving commandments to people. But Jesus was teaching love and brotherhood. For all these things to be beneficial for Christianity, Christians had to establish that Jesus was God. He wasn’t merely a Jewish messiah but was God himself.
  • Most Accessible God: The God of the Old Testament lived in the sky and did not speak to everyone, but Jesus as God appeared among the ordinary people. God of the Old Testament was talking to prophets, patronizing kings, and accessed by priests, and a complicated set of rules were necessary for obedience to Him. But Jesus was accessible to everyone. Religion was no longer a greater privilege for priests, prophets, or kings. Religion was for the common man. The rejection of Jewish laws and the adoption of simple ideas like love and brotherhood appealed to everyone. God had walked among common men, become one of them, and He was no longer distant.

The attraction of Christian monotheism can be summarized through three simple principles—Our God is the most powerful, most merciful, and most accessible. Everyone can approach our God, everyone can receive his mercy easily, and he can do anything for you. Our God is loving and kind, rather than harsh and fearsome. Having the most powerful person on your side, ready to ignore your faults, accept you as you are, and always be available to solve your problems, is undeniably an unbeatable combination.

The Contradictions of Monotheism

This popularity required a radical transformation from the harsh, judging, and demanding image of God in the Old Testament to a kind, giving, and forgiving image of God in the New Testament. The God of the Old Testament is Yahweh, but the God of the New Testament is Jesus. Everything rests on Jesus being God, and yet, not being the kind of God that Yahweh is. Does that mean there are two Gods—one who is kind and the other who is harsh? That would not be monotheism. Or, does it mean that Yahweh is not God and only Jesus is God? That would mean that God had died on the cross and was then resurrected. The question would also be: If God had died then who resurrected Him? You need two ideas of God, which are in total contradiction to each other, but you cannot have a religion with just one of those.

These contradictions in Christianity make it a malleable religion because you can go to the extremes of kindness and harshness whenever and whichever seems convenient. You can talk about the mercifulness of Jesus on those who follow Jesus and then talk about the unkindness of Yahweh on those who don’t follow Yahweh. You can forgive the sins of Christians because Jesus is merciful and punish the sins of non-Christians because they haven’t accepted Yahweh. You can send the followers of Jesus to heaven because Jesus is merciful and send everyone else to hell because they have rejected Yahweh.

Most people are attracted to Jesus and most people are repelled by Yahweh but Christianity cannot reject either of those. They cannot call them two separate Gods, because it would not be monotheism. These two personalities cannot be reconciled, because they are fundamentally opposed. This duality within monotheism has been seen over the ages in the cruelty that Christians have shown to people of other religions while talking about the kindness, love, and brotherhood within Christianity. This duality has allowed people to interpret Christianity in thousands of different ways with different people taking different parts of the Bible literally and metaphorically and everything in between those extremes. Thus, apart from the problems of how monotheism emerged from polytheism and how the interpretation of crucifixion is contrary to the facts, there is the issue of two radically opposed depictions of God.

Trajectory Away from Monotheism

Followers of the Vedic tradition have no problem accepting the many aspects of God, which appear as lower deities, along with a complete form of God. Vedic darshan is specifically about studying everything in terms of six aspects. God has both cruel and kind faces, which He shows to different people, based on their natures. Those different aspects of God are always possible, but they become real to a specific person, at a specific, time, place, and situation. These aspects of God are His many forms. The followers of the Vedic tradition accept that everyone has a unique relationship with God, through which he can see a different form of God. God is one, and yet, He exists in many forms.

Therefore, contrary to monotheism, there is no exclusivism of multiple forms of God in the Vedic system. The fact that one form exists doesn’t mean only one form exists. There are infinite forms. And yet, those forms are not experienced by everyone. This is demystified through the problem of the five blind men trying to understand the elephant—they touch different parts of the elephant and they are not wrong in saying that the elephant is the part that they are currently touching. However, they become wrong when they say that the other part of the elephant doesn’t exist.

Therefore, apart from all the historical, conceptual, philosophical, and logical problems in monotheism, the fundamental problem—as far as other religions are concerned—is their exclusivism. In the five blind men problem, this exclusivism comes from the blindness of the men trying to understand the elephant. The man touching the leg of the elephant says that the elephant cannot be the ear or the tail. Exclusivists attack other religions because they don’t have the philosophical framework in which they could think of reality as multiple aspects of one thing, seen differently by different people.

This is why we have to contrast monotheism with personalism. Monotheism says that God can either be like the tail or the leg. Personalism says that God is actually an elephant of which tail and leg are aspects. God is one as an elephant and God is many as the elephant’s tail and leg perceived by the blind men. Therefore, the Vedic tradition is neither monotheistic, nor polytheistic, but something that is neither and both. Every aspect of God is not equally important; some aspects are more important than others, quite like the head of the elephant is most important, the stomach is next, the legs are next, the ears are next, and the tail is last. We can grade the parts of an elephant in a hierarchy, and talk about the more important aspects of God. This is how the Vedic system rejects both the blind equality of all religions and the blind rejection of other religions.

Personalism requires a non-binary system of reasoning in which there are many aspects that are neither the whole, nor separate from the whole. The problem of exclusivism is easy to state. But it is so deep and broad that to solve it, we need to discard ordinary principles of logic, objectivity, and universality. We have to revise even the notion of truth. When such radical differences are understood in their full resplendence, then the semblance between personalism and monotheism is like the superficial whiteness of chalk and cheese without any deep similarity.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "The Polytheistic Origins of Monotheism," in Shabda Journal, March 7, 2023,