“There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”
A CAVE CALLED Shanidar cuts into a limestone cliff that rises above the Zab River, a tributary of the Tigris in the foothills of far northern Iraq. Kurdish tribespeople live at Shanidar today, and it’s likely that the cave has been continuously populated by humans and their ancestors for 100,000 years. During his excavations at Shanidar in the 1960s, archaeologist Ralph Solecki encountered the remains of a Neanderthal male buried between two boulders near the cave’s mouth. Solecki excavated the skeleton, removed it, and took samples of soil surrounding the spot where it lay. Sometime later, when the soil was examined for pollen content — a procedure that can lend valuable information about the season and climate at the time of a burial — something arresting emerged: Unlike typical soil samples, which include only a few grains of pollen broadcast by the wind, Solecki’s samples contained enormous numbers of grains of yarrow, yellow groundsel, grape hyacinth, rose mallow, hollyhock, and blue bachelor’s button — each of these species still flowering at Shanidar today as summer subsumes the spring.
Solecki concluded that the pollen could be accounted for only if it represented the remains of whole flowers rather than individual grains randomly borne by the breeze. And if blossoming flowers had been intentionally buried with the man’s body, then these beings labeled Neanderthal had certainly become something more than apes. They were big-boned, massively muscled, and a prominent brow ridge jutted outward above their eyes, yet these distant ancestors of ours apparently already were capable of ritual and symbolic activity and therefore of some level of complex thought.
Yet something even more important was made apparent by the fact that 60,000 years ago this body was buried among flowers. Not only were the man’s survivors capable of mourning their loss, they were aware as well of the imperative of death in the manner that is uniquely human. They were beings who responded to death with the consoling symbol we still choose today to remind us of life’s beauty and its brevity. And in considering death as the fundamental consequence of being alive, they had begun — even then — to shape meaning. From the time of the Neanderthals until now, we have struggled to make sense of both our living and our dying.
CODED INTO OUR genes by evolution is an insatiable desire to make sense of things. Our brains ceaselessly filter, modulate, and process the sensory stimuli by which they are bombarded, transforming those stimuli into information, into the framework of meaning. Unlike all other animals however, we are capable of shaping meaning from concepts and abstract symbols as well as from the input supplied by our senses. We can — and constantly do — employ information that is remote in both time and space. We act on and often share information that our brains stored yesterday or a thousand yesterdays ago, and likewise, we speculate about what the uncertain future is likely to hold. It is this ability to consider past and present that foremost allows us to recognize repetition and similarity and to move toward futures that are akin to those we have imagined. We can reflect and we can plan, in other words, and those two capabilities are at the essential heart of our humanness; they are the tools with which we elicit meaning. In this way, we attend to the important issues in our lives — to a teenager’s crescendoing demands for autonomy, to a troubled friendship, to the gnawing desire for new or better work, and even to the largest issues imaginable: how did the universe — and we — come to be? And should our short lives be aimed at a vivid purpose?
Although meaning-making is, at its most basic, a neurological process — one analogous to language, for example — it is also composed of transcendent elements that can best be described as religious. Yes, we are Homo poeta, creatures obsessed with seeking meaning, but we are Homo religiosa as well, beings bent on tying and binding ourselves to the meanings we hold most dear.
IN THE SIX millennia since our species made the first tentative attempts to decipher why we live and why we die, our spiritual seeking has taken myriad shapes. Almost certainly, the earliest Homo sapiens believed that powerful spirits inhabited everything they observed — not only themselves and the animals they depended on for survival, but also trees, soil, stars, and the life-giving sun. Spirits could not be seen or held in one’s hand, yet the earliest people presumed they governed the whole of the world. It was vitally important to remain in harmony with them — with the help of sacred rituals, fasting, and the ingesting of consciousness-altering plants, with offerings and prayers, and with the intercessions of shamans who possessed extraordinary powers — if the lives of individuals and groups were to succeed.
Out of ancient shamanism — which is still practiced, of course, by millions of people in tribal as well as contemporary cultures around the world — grew the tradition that long ago was derisively labeled Paganism. Yet early Pagans, “country-folk,” were not heathens nor were they rubes. Pythagoras, Empedocles, Socrates, Plato, and many more classical philosophers were Pagans — people who believed in numerous spirits, or gods, but who also comprehended the transcendent unity of all things. “On the one hand,” declared Empedocles, “the many unite to become the Oneness, and on the other hand, the Oneness divides to become the many.”
As the Pagan tradition evolved in the western world, a separate yet closely related way of believing slowly took shape on the Indian sub-continent, one that would come to be named after the Sindhu (now Indus) River. Yet early Hindus themselves preferred simply to call their faith the “sanatana dharma,” the eternal truth, and for them it was vital to follow one of many spiritual paths, known as “yogas,” in order to escape the limitations of the self and merge with the Oneness that is God. In China, in contrast, a tradition evolved that focused less on following prescribed paths than on emulating “the way of water,” the flow of life that is both yielding and enduring, nurturing yet deeply powerful. Taoists, followers of the “tao” — the “way,” “the way it is,” “the way life works” — understood that to live is to experience opposing yet inextricably linked conditions: day and night, pleasure and pain, birth and death, and for them the great Oneness of spirit was best expressed in the fundamental dualities of existence.
Adherents to what would become known as Judaism — tribes-people called the Habiru who traveled the regions of Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt in the near-East — came to believe that membership in their tribe was proof of their particular favor with God. There was one God only, the Hebrews professed — akin in many ways to the Oneness acknowledged in other early spiritual traditions — yet the God worshiped by Hebrew leader Abraham and his descendants was a God who possessed a particular and remarkably conscious personality, one that allowed him to interact very directly with individual lives. The Hebrew God set out strict codes of behavior and often punished those who failed to obey His rules, and it was out of this early Jewish tradition that the systems of justice that form the framework of most of the world’s contemporary societies first took shape.
During a roughly thousand-year period between the sixth century BCE and 600 CE, three religions that one day would dominate much of the world were spawned by the teachings of three remarkable men. Siddhartha Guatama, often called the Buddha, was born to a prominent family in the foothills of the Himalayas. At age 29, he left his family to pursue an ascetic life, deeply troubled by the human suffering he observed. It was the Buddha’s eventual insight that only a “middle way” between attention to the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit could lead to a truly harmonious life that spurred his decades of teaching and the subsequent devotion of thousands of disciples. By the third century BCE, Buddhism had spread hungrily throughout northern India, Nepal, and beyond, its adherents committed to the belief that human suffering is caused by human desire and that desire can be contained by living according to eight specific life-codes or paths.
In Palestine at the dawn of the contemporary era, a Jewish carpenter’s son also set out at about age 30 and similarly began to teach, assuring his followers that his message was not in opposition to Jewish law and prophecy, but in fulfillment of it. In the three years before he was sentenced to death in Jerusalem by a Roman magistrate, Jesus of Nazareth compelled his followers to believe that the one God was compassionate rather than vengeful, and that individual lives could be set right no matter how corrupt they had become. He spoke often of the attainability of what he called the “kingdom of God,” a phrase those who followed him understood to be a state of inner being — one akin to enlightenment in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions — yet which began to be understood to mean the heaven of afterlife by many of those who then spread the word of Jesus’s teachings in the years following his execution.
Six hundred years later, in the city of Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia, a merchant’s son named Muhammad — a descendant of Ishmael, the first son of Abraham — had a vision in which he was visited by the angel Gabriel, who informed him, “You are the messenger of God.” Muhammad understood himself to belong to the great line of Hebrew prophets, and, like Jesus, believed he had been chosen by God to further reveal divine truth rather than subvert either the ancient Jewish or nascent Christian traditions. Muhammad spoke of the vital importance of the Torah and Psalms of the Hebrew Bible, as well as the gospels and epistles written by the early Christians saints, and he proclaimed that the words of the Qur’an that were delivered to him by Gabriel were God’s own words, offered to demonstrate to all people the proper ways to conduct their lives. By the time of Muhammad’s death in 632, he and his followers, who called themselves Muslims, “those who submit to the will of God,” had shaped an entirely new religion — one now known as Islam — offering a sublime vision of peace attainable in this life and the next solely via a complete surrender to the unity and Oneness of God.
In the fourteen hundred years since the life of Muhammad sparked the beginnings of the Islamic tradition, no other new major religion has taken shape in the world. But during that time, each of the world’s great religions has split into myriad sects, branches, offshoots, and denominations. In the centuries since Muhammad, hundreds of millions of people have fashioned spiritual traditions common solely to themselves or a group of individuals with which they share similar life-views, sometimes embracing particular belief components of the formal religions, sometimes building systems of belief that have virtually nothing in common with what has come before.
Today, millions of people who proudly identify themselves as being spiritual employ astrology, numerology, the I Ching, and other ancient systems in forming their beliefs; many individualistic modern traditions are rooted in early shamanistic and Pagan practices; a deep appreciation and reverence for nature is the spiritual foundation for many more; and throughout the west, millions of people who were brought up in the Christian and Jewish traditions have turned away from those religions in favor of their own, highly westernized and individualized interpretations of venerable branches of Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Often described by their practitioners as “holistic” kinds of spirituality, these new approaches seek to illumine the interdependence between the material and spiritual, between what is empirically knowable and what must be accepted on faith, asserting that open, curious, and intuitive individuals are capable of finding their own best paths to what they agree is the one and eternal truth.
THE CONCEPT OF Oneness has assumed thousands of distinct shapes over the course of human history, yet the notion of oneness itself is universal to every spiritual tradition: all spirits, all objects are one; all gods are one God; one God unites us; one God is our source of peace and perfection; God is present in all things, and therefore all is united in God. As we search to understand what it means to live and to die, it appears that something deep in our brains — or is it perhaps in our souls? — propels us toward unifying explanations, towards ways of looking at existence that result not in a chaos of uncertainty and conflicting belief, but rather in the faith that a single unifying answer to the question of life is there be found, if only we’re willing to search diligently enough to find it.
THROUGHOUT HISTORY, THE world’s major religious traditions also have shared a very specific and singular view of how humans properly ought to interact. Despite the many shapes their institutions take and their range of opposing dogma, the fundamental admonishments of these spiritual traditions are in profound agreement in this regard — the great prophets and sages echoing in every era the same remarkably simple creed.
“Such as you wish your neighbor to be to you, such also be to your neighbors,” wrote the Pagan philosopher Sextus.
“One should not behave toward others in any way that is disagreeable to oneself,” reads the ancient Hindu scripture, the Mahabarata.
“Try your best to treat others as you would be treated, and you will find that this is the shortest way to goodness,” suggested the Chinese sage Mencius.
An Islamic scripture known as the Hadith proclaims, “Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”
And according to the Talmud, in ancient Palestine Rabbi Hillel taught, “What you yourself hate, do not do to your neighbor” only a few decades before Jesus similarly proclaimed: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Are these admonitions so remarkably similar across the sometimes severe boundaries of religious tradition specifically because the Divine has conveyed this elegant truth to people everywhere? Or have people in all parts of the world discovered a deeply important human truth, one whose simple profundity is evidence of our spiritual oneness? It is a question with differing answers for those who are faithful and those who are essentially skeptical, for those who believe foremost that God seeks the attention and devotion of humankind and those who accept that humankind is somehow compelled to seek the Divine, a question whose truest answer ultimately is unknowable.
Yet sixty millennia after primitive people first began to mourn their dead with flowers and to think about the complex meaning of living and dying, what is certain is that human beings across the sweep of the continents remain essentially alike in deeply important ways. All of us want our lives to be long and prosperous, to be etched with purpose, to have had some significance come the day they are done. We are one people, one family in that regard, a single family of many intertwined faiths struggling to join heaven and earth.
Russell Martin is a filmmaker, novelist, screenwriter, qnd nonfiction author, and the principal of Say Yes Quickly Productions.
Copyright © 2020 Russell Martin. All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews, no part of this essay may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the author.