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Friday, March 9, 2012

History and Geography matter (i.m. Gherardo Gnoli)

What one is and what one thinks and writes also depend on one's context. Original thinkers are not completely determined by their context, but they use the elements they derive from it as the building blocs of their own system. One of such original thinkers was Zarathustra, who —among other things— changed the semantics of two key terms in Old Iranian and used ahura (Sanskrit.asura) to denote God (Ahura Mazda "the good Ahura") and daeva (Sanskrit deva) to denote the demons. This is probably due to the fact that he wanted to turn upside down the previous religious beliefs and that he, consequently, identified the previous gods as demons. Thus, in order to understand his thought one needs to understand what he was reacting against. Furthermore, one needs to know which were the most influential religious models of his time. One easily sees that Persia was at that time not the cultural centre of the Middle East. Rather, the Eastern side of Mesopotamia was, with its Semitic inhabitants. It is hence not surprising that one finds female deities in Zarathustra's Mazdeism which can hardly be explained if one only considers its inner consistency or its indoeuropean parallels (female deities tend not to be very popular in Vedic religion), whereas they are easily explained if one compares them with their semitic counterparts. A typical example is Anahita and her Semitic counterpart Ishtar.

Long story short: History matters, but also Geography. I learnt it from one of my first university teachers, prof. Gherardo Gnoli (an short biography in English can be found at the beginning of the Preface of a Festschrift dedicated to him and which can be downloaded here), who passed away a few hours ago, on the 7th of March 2012. May some propitious ahura help him in his after-life journey!

Further examples of the importance of the geographic contexts? (Please no hypothetical contexts, such as the dravidian, muṇḍa or african origins of the Buddha.)

I dedicated many posts to history, e.g., this one (on the purpose of studying history) and this one (on the importance of historiography).


krishna said...

Dear Elisa, what a bad news you are giving us!
I met prof. Gherardo Gnoli years ago in Trieste, where he come to deliver a lecture on the life and work of Mircea Eliade. After his speech, we had the occasion for a private talk and - despite the short time spent together - he was so fond towards me, in a way that only people of great human depth are.
May whatever there is in the afterlife bring him relief and joy.
As far as the historical and/or geographical "reactions" you write about are concerned, a good example of this things I think could be the - so to speak - "divine-inversion", thought up by some gnostic circles, according to which the one we think to be God is nothing but a fake God, the real one being a "God before God". This dialectic structure - so fraught with Platonism and Neoplatonism, with a pinch of Manicheism - has been "invented", if I remember well, in order to explain the presence of evil in the world, the world that is supposed to be a creation of God (=supreme good). Accordingly, some Gnostics theorized that it is this "second (imperfect) God" - believed by people to be the real God - the actual responsible for the world's evil. This was a reaction to, and a restructuring of, those Jewish cosmogonic theories generally accepted during this time... etc. etc.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Krishna,
yes, it is so sad that this generation of "complete" scholars is leaving us…
As for your example, I lost you at the last sentence. I thought the idea of the "two Gods" was meant to explain why one created the world and another came, millennia later, to rescue us. Which Jewish cosmogonies do you refer to, instead?

krishna said...

The two-Gods theology which I refer to is of a Gnostic origin. Some gnostics did suppose that who we believe to be the only God is in reality a sort of second and imperfect God with whom evil entered this world. This second God is nothing but the chief Archon (someone called him Jaldabaoth), and according to some version of this theology he in his turn believes himself to be the real God, because his essence is ignorance. The real God is a "pure" God that stands besides/before this second God. This kind of arguments were introduced in order to explain the presence of evil and imperfection in this world, the justification of which by the "normal" one-God Jewish theory - it was opinion of the Gnostics - was quite defective. The point is that evil should be considered, according to Gnosticism, as something that inheres to the world rather than something, the presence of which is only accidental.
In short, Jaldabaoth - who is born outside the Pleroma, the divine family - is supposed to be the origin of evil and the real God's goodness is thus completely safe. The difference with the Lucifer of the Jeweish tradition is that Lucifer is supposed to be a direct product of God (against whom he, as we know, reacts and rebels... and this fact - argued the Gnostics - arises the problem on the sovereignty of God: how can be God so powerful as he is described to be if an angel can dare him?), whereas Jaldabaoth is not: on the contrary, indeed, he is said to be far from God. His being far from God is also the reason for his being imperfect and bad.
Of course, the explanation is more articulated than the way I've put it... but I hope to have been clearer on the matter...
:-) k

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