Today, someone asked me a very hard question about what we do when people we respect say and do things that are awful — how to reconcile someone’s piety with bad behavior that leaves our faith shaken without sinking into spiritual disquietude and extreme sorrow.
I am going to tackle this question because these things happen often. Human beings will never cease to cause one another misery, and in the case of religious community reckonings, leaving the wound to bleed without acknowledging it leads to lingering harm to community members’ sense of connection to the Gods or even faith in them at all, as if someone had detonated a bomb to rend multiple people with the shrapnel from a respected person or leader’s fall.
It is tragic when this happens, and I feel nothing but compassion and sorrow for all those involved in any one of these situations. One of my oracles for the how-do-I-be-a-good-person draw this week said ἀπέχθειαν φεῦγε, flee enmity/hatred; another, λέγε εἰδώς, knowing, speak. Thus, I will speak from what I know — acknowledging that I am only thirty-three and there is a lot about other people that remains elusive — and endeavor to write in a way that is compassionate and concise.
Lessons from Yoga (Yes, Really)
My sorrows about these issues are not just relevant to the polytheist community. I started doing asana/yoga when I turned 25, and over the past half-decade, the yoga world has been rocked with sexual abuse and other scandals. One of the most harrowing articles I have read about what that does to the victims was one in which the writer had lost her faith in any God completely and was building herself back together from the pieces. I was reading Iamblichus heavily back then, and since the crowning happiness of each of us is knowing the Gods and coming into alignment with them, it makes the cut of seeing behavior like this feel as if someone has poured acid into it. That someone had willfully done those things without consideration for the damage it would do to his students’ souls made me angry for a long time. When I read Plato’s Republic, I reflected back on that often while contemplating the Myth of Er — the people who choose their lives too hastily, drawn to experience a next life as a ruler or religious teacher without reading the fine print to see that they had picked the life of a tyrant or of someone who commits spiritual violence.
What grounded me in that context was looking back to Edwin F. Bryant’s The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, which contains prescient commentary on such scandals. In the chapter on meditative absorption, Patañjali gives I.15 as dṛṣṭānuśravika-viṣaya-vitṛṣṇasya vaśīkāra-saṁjñā vairāgyam, which Bryant translates as, “Dispassion is the controlled consciousness of one who is without craving for sense objects, whether these are actually perceived or described” (p. 52). Continuing on the same page, dispassion, according to the commentators, is “indifference to objects even when these are available” (Vācaspati Miśra) and includes “members of the opposite sex, food, drink, and power” (Vyāsa). It dovetails aptly with things said in Platonism about control of the passions of the appetitive and spirited parts of the human soul, which — when they are left unchecked because someone has not properly brought them into alignment — lead to disasters great and small. “The wise,” Bryant continues, “strive for detachment and the eternal experience of the soul rather than the never-ending pursuit of ephemeral pleasure” (p. 53).
This is important because we are going backwards to something Bryant said about I.14, sa tu dīrgha-kāla-nairantarya-satkārāsevito dṛḍha-bhūmiḥ, translated as, “Practice becomes firmly established when it has been cultivated uninterruptedly and with devotion over a prolonged period of time” (p. 49). What a practitioner of yoga wants is steadiness of mind so that le can abide in ler own true nature. People in the yoga commentary tradition have warned that cultivating a good state is a continuous process, which Bryant likens to cultivating a garden. The moment a person stops, weeds come.
Bryant takes this in an Unexpected Direction.
As an aside, many Hindu gurus and yogīs have been embroiled in scandals that have brought disrepute to the transplantation of yoga and other Indic spiritual systems to the West. This sūtra provides a mechanism of interpreting such occurrences. If one reads the early hagiographies of many Hindu gurus whose integrity was later found compromised, one is struck by the intensity, devotedness, and accomplishments of their initial practices. Nonetheless, however accomplished a yogī may become, if he or she abandons the practice of yoga under the notion of being enlightened or of having arrived at a point beyond the need of practice, it may be only a matter of time before past saṁskāras, including those of past sensual indulgences, now unimpeded by practice, begin to surface. The result is scandal and traumatized disciples. There is no flower bed, however perfected, that can counteract the relentless emergence of weeds if left unattended. As Patañjali will discuss later in the text, as long as one is embodied, saṁskāras remain latent, and therefore potential, in the citta [mind]. Hence one can read this sūtra as indicating that since the practices of yoga must be uninterrupted, one would be wise to politely avoid yogīs or gurus who claim to have attained a state of enlightenment such that they have transcended the need for the practice and renunciation presented by Patañjali here.Yoga Sūtras, trans. Bryant, p. 51
Now that I have hurled something heavy onto the ground, let’s lift it up together and look at what is transferrable in what I have just written — remember, the question is about how someone can be so deeply pious and yet do such awful things.
Obviously, the type of practice in yoga is not the same as what we have in most New Religious Movement (NRM) polytheisms that have grown up around the Hellenic, Norse, Celtic, Roman, &c. Gods. I can draw parallels to philosophical schools like Platonism, though, especially the fact that Plato was writing dialogues (here, the Laws) up until the end of his life that more and more urgently pointed to the soul’s need for virtue, justice, and good ordering.
The bit I want to point out is how, according to Bryant, the hagiographies show that the sacred teacher started in a good place, and then something happened. In yoga, it is neglecting the practice of actual yoga and allowing the weeds to creep back in. In NRM polytheisms, I would argue that it’s someone in a leadership position not having as deep a grounding as required (not having a well-tilled garden?) to handle the human aspects of a religious community and not knowing themselves truly, deeply, with barren and stark clarity enough to break through the noise and prioritize the group over the individual in a healthy manner. There is also another thing: In any group(s) today, the impact of modern social media platforms’ algorithmic attempts to hold our attention results in the platform displaying content designed to push our psychological buttons in ways that are extremely hard to resist and that often lead to radicalization and the loss of a common understanding of basic facts about the world and current events, something that those living before the 2010s/20s did not experience on the same scale even in high-propaganda environments; it prompts an excruciatingly thorny ethical/moral question about how culpable someone is if le is the perpetrator of evil or wrong actions sown by AI-driven radicalization.
Piety is not just doing right by the Gods in a vacuum. It’s situated in a world in all its messiness.
So … Piety?
Usually, when people talk about piety and pious behavior, they are talking about one of the following things:
- Doing what one said that one would do for a God
- Having a regular cycle of offerings to the Gods that are most divine-etiquettely appropriate at the time
- Considering the Gods during decision-making, i.e., beginning things from them
- Going above and beyond the bare minimum to choose to do something for a God that le didn’t have to do or that the God indicated that le wanted but that’s inconvenient for the worshipper
- Writing hymns for Gods and doing public displays of devotion
- … and similar.
Most of the above are highly visible activities, easily Instagrammed, tweeted, or blogged.
There is another dimension to piety, though. Previously on this blog, I have argued that we do need to consider completely everyday occurrences and human beings when we think about what does right by the Gods.
Part of being pious involves seeing that brilliant happiness that Iamblichus discusses in Book X of De Mysteriis. For those who do not have a copy, here is the Clarke et al. translation, Book X.1:
You enquire, then, whether there is not some other road to happiness [aside from theurgy/devotional activity] which we are ignoring; yet what other reasonable mode of ascent to it can there be apart from the gods? For if the essence and accomplishment of all good is encompassed by the gods and their primal power and authority, it is only with us and those who are similarly possessed by the greatest kinds and have genuinely gained union with them that the beginning and the end of all good is seriously practiced. It is there, hen, that there occurs the vision of truth and intellectual understanding, and with knowledge of the gods follows a turning towards ourselves and knowledge of ourselves.
In the next paragraph, Iamblichus will begin by saying something about people looking towards the Gods not needing human approval. With a careful reading, though, informed by other texts I have read by a lot of people, he is not implying that people put their Godphone on speaker and tune out everything else in the world. Goodness is anchored in the Gods and that the stable happy place comes from them. Like a properly conductive wire, when connected to the Gods properly, we can provide current in all that we do.
At its most basic, this can mean something like affirming that reducing barriers to others’ ability to learn about how to pray to the Gods is a good thing that one should prioritize. It can also mean something more complicated, like deciding to spend three hours writing a blog post with the goal of dressing grapeshot injuries because helping those in pain when one has the skill to do so is more important than writing a cute hieropoeic story about alien nymphs and college students.
This other part of piety, and a extremely important part, is in sincerely beginning one’s actions from the Gods and examining how those actions need to be shaped to meet the current circumstances. Piety has both a personal and a community context, and if one is a leader, one’s actions matter beyond one’s own shrine and one’s own personal relationship with a God or Gods — for good or ill. It is easy for anyone to be caught up in the heat of the moment or to follow Bad Decision Dino down the road to regrets.
We all make mistakes, and we are all capable of inflicting tragedies on ourselves and those around us — tragedies of ego, tragedies of appetite, tragedies of misapplied rationality. We forget some types of pious actions in favor of others, making us prone to toppling if pushed, or — because we are a cluster of NRMs and thus a cluster of Very Serious and Engaged Converts with a few others who grew up in polytheism sprinkled in — we lack the steadiness that comes from traditions more rooted in continuity, especially those that possess checks and balances to authority.
This is added to the general human problem that people often try out for leadership positions without a well-rounded idea of what leadership and interpersonal management means. My mom, operating within an initiatory Wiccan framework, had to take some kind of empathy class when she was studying for one of her degree levels. I took a management training class for people tapped as possible managers/leaders at my broader workplace, and considering the personal flaws I identified during those sessions, I decided that I was not ready for that because I had not yet solved some lingering trauma from childhood that could impact my ability to be a good boss to direct reports. (Then again, is starkly knowing one’s pressure points better than not knowing them at all?)
The Gods are blameless in this. Breathe, light incense, read, light incense, breathe.
The first time a well-respected polytheist whom I respected acted in a way that rattled me (I was just a witness; it was a fight), I was in my early 20s, and it felt really awful. In the intervening years, sometimes, the psychological bruises from things that have happened in our communities have hardened my heart or made my mouth taste nothing but bitterness or made me feel numb. Divination session after divination session, be they weekly or annual, has tried to keep my heart from turning to stone by saying yes, yes, you can trust other people because you cannot use the ones who behave badly as a proxy for everyone, people are good, do not let bitterness fix into your heart this easily.
Those words are right. We lose a lot when we do not give people the benefit of the doubt and when we allow those past experiences to hang like vengeful ghosts. We also lose when we allow these fundamental moral/ethical issues to dilute into us attacking people for any differences because we can no longer discern among (a) highly changeable and contextual cultural/doctrinal things that we just don’t like, (b) differences that can only be resolved by negotiation because both positions have a point or several points, and (c) what is truly unjust. Conversely, we lose when we trust too eagerly.
People are fundamentally trying to be good. Even in the worst circumstances, there are opportunities for change and for real healing; it’s a greater sign of courage when someone who has done irreconcilable wrongs recants. Often, this doesn’t happen — at least, not in this lifetime. Maybe the next, if we look back to Plato’s account of the Myth of Er. The most we can do is pray for people, even the ones who have caused harm, breaking cycles of retribution and violence. (My dad once pushed my mom through a glass table, so I don’t say this from a place of naïvité about how people can be.) This is true even if, as Proclus writes in the Timaeus commentary, there is tension and warfare built into the universe.
I hope that the above at least began to give due measure to the topic.