Monday, February 9, 2015

Terminology: Talking About Religions

We've seen some confusion lately about our terminology when it comes to talking about various pantheons and religions, so we figured now that things are moving inexorably toward the end of the project, we'd take a minute to talk about it! A particular example that we received a question about was the fact that some of our early promo materials referred to one of the pantheons of Hero's Journey as "the Indian gods", but we have more recently been referring to them as "the Hindu gods."

There's a great reason for that, and it's that after giving it some good hard thought, we realized that geography isn't a very good descriptor when it comes to myths, pantheons, or religions. Referring to Brahma, Lakshmi, and Indra as "Indian gods" of course isn't wrong, since they originated in India, but it's also not necessarily the best way to describe them.

For one thing, geography is always changing, and our conception of different countries and areas of the world today is very different from where they were historically. India is well-defined as a country today, but centuries ago it was broken up into various kingdoms, and different ethnic groups did and still do live in it that are not the same in spite of all being Indian. Saying something is "Australian", for another example, tells us nothing about who originated it except that it's on one of the seven continents - not particularly helpful, and sometimes confusing because it implies that everywhere in Australia has the same cultural history.

For another thing, calling any one pantheon by a geographical name excludes other religions that might be in that same geographical area. The Hindu gods are certainly Indian, but if we call them the Indian gods, we are accidentally implying that they are the only Indian gods, which erases deities of other religions native to India (for example, the gods of the Kalasha). And of course, there are plenty of people in India, both in the real world and in Hero's Journey, who adhere to other religions besides Hinduism, and we don't want to pretend that they aren't there.

And, finally, there are also plenty of places in the world where the Hindu gods are worshiped that aren't India. They have worshipers all over the world, in both our world and Hero's Journey's, so we don't want to imply, by calling them the "gods of India", that they aren't also the gods of faithful adherents in a hundred other countries as well.

So instead, we use the following guidelines when deciding how to refer to a particular pantheon and its religion:

  • If the religion has its own name, we refer to it by that name. For example, we would refer to Bön rather than a vague "Tibetan religion".
  • If the religion doesn't have its own name, we refer to it by the name of the culture it came from. For example, we would refer to the Yolngu religion and gods rather than referring to them as "Australian gods".
  • If the religion has a very common umbrella name, we refer to it by that name if there is not a better alternative. For example, we refer to the Norse gods, since "Norse" is an accepted and widely-known umbrella term for a historical culture in Scandinavia and northern Europe.

So, there you have it. Of the four pantheons currently in the game, we have the Hindu gods, who are using that first bullet point up there, the Greek and Egyptian gods, who are using the second bullet point, and the Norse gods, who are using the third. The Greek and Egyptian ones are a little weird, since they are names for ancient cultural kingdoms but also the names of modern territories, but we figured that it would be a lot of extra unnecessary text to say "Ancient Egyptian" and "Ancient Greek" whenever we refer to them (especially since those religions are quite current in HJ!), so we had to make a slight exception for them.


  1. I wasn't the one that sent in that question, but I admit that the issue was one that I had thought of as well.

    As both an Indian and a Hindu I can honestly say that I dislike the Hindu Gods being called the Indian Gods. I was considering bringing it up but then I saw that they were being consistently referred to as Hindu Gods, and the matter slipped my mind.

    That does not mean I am any less pleased at this official announcement. Thank you for this decision. It is very subtly important to me :)

    P.S. Who are the Gods of Kalasha (For a second I read that as Kailasha and I was wondering why you were saying Shiva wasn't Hindu)?

    1. Glad to hear it's a good change for you! :)

      The Kalasha are a people who traditionally live on and around the modern-day border between India and Pakistan, and who have their own religion and pantheon, headed by the creator/death god Dezau. Their pantheon shows influence from both older Persian beliefs and Vedic-age Hindu ideas (for example, Dezau shares some imagery that he may have borrowed from Yama), but is distinct from both.

    2. I've been looking up a bit of stuff about the Kalasha people, and there's something here that I found very interesting... the fertility goddess Jestak. Now, this reminded me of something I read ages ago, in a book on Hindu goddesses.

      According to that book, when the Arya first came to India, they adopted some of the local gods they found here... Shiva is borrowed from Nepal, and I think Varaha was a local god before being upgraded to avatara of Vishnu.

      One other god they adopted was a goddess of fertility. They named her Lakshmi.

      However, as tune went by and the Arya kingdoms began to grow, they decided that they needed their own Lakshmi. Which they made, while the older Lakshmi was relegated to being Alakshmi, the anti Lakshmi, goddess of misfortune and infertility. Alskshmi may well have evolved into or been influenced by the then also nascent Nirriti.

      The thing that got me thinking though, is that Alakshmi is still sometimes worshipped, usually with pleas for her to stay the hell away. And she's more popularly called something else... you see, as she is the older Lakshmi, she is poetically considered Lakshmi s older sister. And she's called by the Sanskrit word for elder sister...Jyestha. Could Jestak be the indigenous guides that the Arya adopted and then abandoned as Jyestha?

    3. That is all super neat! I think I would have to do way more research into Kalasha mythology to be able to have an informed opinion... but that sounds both plausible and super interesting to explore, if true.