From Medieval to Modern: A Short History of Belief

Civil Servant and student of History, NR Visalatchy studies the varied morphology of beliefs as she reflects on its manifestations and effects from the medieval times to now

A cursory search on the Internet would reveal the following broad nature of ‘belief’ – ‘Beliefs are generally defined as convictions that things held in mind are true’. ‘Often people will vehemently maintain their beliefs even in light of disconfirming evidence’. The simple understanding of the term belief is that they are strong and unlike reason, there is less scope for dialogue in an environment of belief. The extended understanding is that belief has perpetuity in its microcosm. Due to its immortal nature, belief can be a formidable weapon.

Moving from a scientific base to the sociological base, we understand that congenital twins named belief and survival instinct have nourished each other from time immemorial. When it comes out of the cocoon called survivability, belief morphs into identity. A closer understanding will reveal that identity is synonymous with life itself for beings with six senses. The history of this world can be written from this perspective. There are numerous instances where the cause of preserving self-identity has pushed man to extremes. A crude possibility therefore is that belief can be created and manipulated to get a desired outcome. This can work in both ways – constructive and destructive. Modern biology has proved that belief is the dominant player in the field of epigenetics. While this is the positive side of belief, we need to pay attention to the other side, which has caused havoc on this planet time and again.

Take the example of these exquisitely carved stone sculptures from the medieval era.

Image courtesy: Telangana State Museum, Hyderabad

Men and women alike seem to be sacrificing themselves. The nadukal tradition mentioned in Sangam literatureseems to have continued in this medieval version of hero stones or Veeragal tradition. These images belong to Kakatiyan period. The dynasty ruled from present day Warrangal, Telangana and had its territory spanning unto the coastal Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. The commemorative hero-stones were carved in granite, basalt and sandstone. Carved typically on a single stone, stone slab or pillar of varying heights, they were installed to glorify the memory of those who died performing acts of valour. Point to be noted is that this act of valour was not always in the battlefield. People came forward to sacrifice their lives for varied causes. Men took the pledge of victory from their fellow soldiers before taking their own life. This was to ensure victory in a forthcoming battle. To bring suitable progeny to the ruler; to ensure safe completion of major construction projects like forts, tanks etc.; as a compensation to some of the mistakes committed by one’s family or clan are some of the other causes. The act of coercion cannot be ruled out. Influence of family, clan, and ruling class must have played a vital role in egging on the individual to take this extreme step. However the belief of life in the beyond seems to be the thought processor for the hero and the onlooker.

As can be observed in these sculptures, the sacrifices were seen to be received with respect in heavens where chowri bearers or fan bearers are assigned to them as a mark of their royal status in heaven. They are equated to Gods in some, and invariably become protecting deities of the clan.

Be it proving one’s allegiance to one’s religion or leader, history is replete with instances that show belief to be the Supreme Lord in whose presence everything else dwarfs, including human life. When belief takes the form of collective identity the results can be colossal. Some of the greatest monuments that adorn our world and the worst homicides that scar it are the results of this collective identity. When belief morphs into identity and collective identity, the classification of yours and mine appears. It is this classification that has been the mother of all historical events. Wars and salvations alike.

Dogmatised belief is called religion. The irony of organised religions is that the founding fathers themselves did not propagate or own the collective identity. They seem to be unaware of what their teachings would do in times to come and thus stand completely alienated to the practitioners of their own teaching. While the central teaching always preaches the path of ‘love’, it is the use of force that has established these religions and held the ground. The term ‘establish’ can be contextualised to mean protection, purification, civilisation etc. This per contra relation between dogma and its interpretation, preaching and practice is another intriguing aspect of belief. History has time and again proved that in the realm of religion, ends do justify the means. The economic currents of invasions get completely obliterated by the pedagogical fervour of belief. Only belief can justify bloodshed for the sake of love.

At this juncture let us revisit the statement, ‘Due to its immortal nature, belief can be a formidable weapon’. Why is belief immortal? The primordial patterns of worship have not changed much. The Indus script and civilisation have vanished, not the Pashupati worship. Most of the Gods of Sangam age are still alive while the language and culture have changed drastically. The Mother Goddesses born in several parts of the world are alive in Shakti worship .The past had to be inducted as Old Testament no matter who the Messiah was. The two images below would explain how belief is sustained.

Image courtesy: Aravind Arya, Warrangal, TS

Human mind somehow finds ways to reinforce it’s own beliefs. It becomes unconsciously selective in information intake to sustain the belief. Therefore once created, belief attains immortality in the human who holds it.

Why is belief a formidable weapon? Belief, unlike other constituent parts of human thought process does not seek logical base. Therefore once created in a human being, its survival is perpetual. What it took to create a belief a millennium ago is nowhere comparable to today’s world. The conquering king had to demolish the symbols of power of the conquered, countermark the coins, issue fresh coins, issue fresh inscriptions through out the conquered territory proclaiming his power, engage in fresh projects of constructing forts and temple etc. The list was long and time consuming. It took few generations before the image of a formidable dynasty reached the last citizen. Today all that is required is a dedicated team of IT professionals and wise statisticians, and the same belief of a strong country can be created.

Now, let’s juxtapose the scenario where people scarified themselves in the medieval age to the suicide bombers and war factions of modern age. The patterns of belief are similar. However, in the modern world, like weapons of mass destruction, beliefs are manufactured in large scale in. Digital age has the potential to supply unendingly that stimulus which the mind seeks to uphold its belief. A human being can be driven to a point of no return in a short span of time. How many hero stones shall we erect?

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