Russia has been the West’s great adversary during the last hundred years. First, as Soviet Union — before its collapse in 1991 — it battled Western capitalism throughout the world using the ideology of communism. Now its appeal is to nationalism and support of movements that wish to weaken and break up the European Union.
Some claim that Vladimir Putin is using nationalism and the Russian Orthodox Church for political ends. In reality, the Russian tradition is fraught with complexity. Although the Church serves as a convenient institution to rally around, there is a strong undercurrent amongst many Slavs to be reconnected to the ancient Slavic religion. Furthermore, the practised religion is not easily disentangled from the ancient ways.
The Christianization of the Slavs was a slow process that was resisted for a long time, and eventually Christianity became a largely superficial over-structure which in the words of Church Slavonic vocabulary is a “double faith” (dvoeverie in Russian). Dvoeverie is also used to characterize the revival of Slavic Native Faith (Rodnovery) and Vedism.
The Slavic rulers swore regularly by their god Perun (Skt. Parjanya). The conversion of the Kievan ruler, Vladimir, which marks the major shift in the history of the Slavs, took place in 988 and The Primary Chronicle, compiled about 1111, informs us that after his baptism, Vladimir directed that the idol of Perun “be bound to a horse’s tail and pulled from the hill. He appointed twelve men to beat the idol with sticks. While it was being dragged along the stream to the Dnieper, the unbelievers wept over it.” Historically, the popular resistance to Christianity was led by priests, and it persisted for centuries with the Slavs regularly re-embracing their original religion (relapsi sunt denuo ad paganismus).
The Germans used both violence and tithing to induce the Slavs to convert. In the 8th century, when the missionary Boniface asked Pope Zachary about Slav serfs working on church lands, he received the reply that “if they pay tribute, they will think the land is theirs. But made to pay tithes they will know who is the lord of the land.”
The Americal historian James Westfall Thompson wrote in 1916 on the conversion of the Baltic Slavs by the German Church. He believed the treatment meted out to the Slavs by the Germans had a parallel in how Spanish America treated Peru in “the spoliation of a weaker people by an avaricious priest class backed up by the sword of a powerful government.”
Thompson added: “[The Slavs] accepted Christianity as they accepted German domination, superficially and morosely.” There were many revolts by the Slavs against the tyranny of the Germans. But although the Church eventually triumphed, the faith as practiced remained deeply mystical, and quite different from the dogma of the Church. Fyodor Dostoveysky wrote about the religion of the sadness and suffering of Russia as fundamental to the Russian spirit.
The historian George Richards wrote in 1918: “[T]he religion of Russia is broader and deeper than the creed, polity, cultus, and precepts of the Church of Russia. The life of the spirit defies definition… It consists, not of temples and sacraments, priests and monks, dogmas and canons, but of moods and motives.. and ideals-all welling up from the soul’s depth.”
He added: “Her literature, art, music, philosophy, religion, theater, and dancing are something intrinsically Russian. Her dominant spirit is not the product of Byzantine Christianity. It is rooted in the Slavic nature,… and in oriental mysticism. The remote past with its passions, dreams, fears, and hopes throbs in the living present.”
It is recognized by scholars that the main deities listed in the Kiev Chronicle are Vedic deities with some evolution in meaning that somewhat parallels the changes that occurred in India. The linguist Roman Jakobson listed many key Slavic terms and the corresponding Sanskrit and Iranian ones; these are correctly seen as Vedic since there is no evidence that the Slavs ever embraced the Zoroastrian religion.
Slavic and Vedic
I have written elsewhere on the major parallels between Slavic and Vedic traditions. Here is some additional information. As in India, divinity for Slavs is nebo (Skt. नभ nabha, sky; Kashmiri nab, sky), and div is a point of light that can be used variously. The generic name of God is bog (Skt bhag भग or भगवान्). Some important Slavic religious notions are faith, vera (Skt. parā, परा, going beyond, which signifies faith), holy and sacred, svet (Skt. śveta श्वेत् for bright), peace and agreement, mir (Skt. maitri मैत्रि) and paradise, rai (Skt. rayi).
Some terms in Slavic are closer to Iranian forms of Sanskrit words, but that is to be expected since the Iranians were the immediate neighbors of the Slavs. We see this most strikingly in the Slavic divinity Simargl, which is clearly close in linguistic terms to the Iranian winged monster, Sīmorg (Skt. Śyena-mṛga, श्येन मृग, falcon bird). But its usage amongst the Slavs as divinity is quite like in the great Vedic Agnicayana fire altar, where it symbolizes time.
Apart from the usage of Vedic terms for a variety of philosophical and religious concepts, the Slavic conception of divinity as impersonal is identical to the Vedic. The Slavic religion must be seen as representing a description of the inner space of the mind, which is consistent with its conception as a mystical tradition based on contemplation.
The One Reality in the Vedic religion has an expression in triplicate in various sets of polarities together with the process between the two, as in examples of light, activity, and darkness and God, Goddess, and attributes.
The common Slavic polarities are:
Rod-Rozanica like Skt. Rudra-Rudrāṇī रुद्र-रुद्राणी (Rod, by itself, could also be Ṛta, the Law)
Sud-Sudenica like Skt. Siddha, सिद्ध् (Kashmiri sĕd, for Śiva)
Belobog-Chernbog (white god- black god, Skt. bhadra-bhaga and cherun-bhaga, भद्र-भग छेरुन-भग, auspicious and inauspicious gods (Kashmiri cherun छेरुन् means Skt. मलिनित)
Zhibog-Zhiva (Skt. Śivabhaga-Śivā, शिवभग, शिवा)
Khors Dazhbog and Jutrobog. This is Skt. Svar (स्वर् Sun or Light), Dakṣabhag दक्षभग for the Sun and Candrabhag चन्द्रभग for the Moon.
The triplicateness of reality is represented by Triglav, Tribog (Skt. tribhaga, त्रिभग). The three-headed divinity encompassing the three divisions of the universe into heaven, movement, and earth, or past, present, and future, and so on. Triglav is interpreted as the equivalent of Skt. Trimurti.
Svarog (Skt. svarga स्वर्ग) represnting heaven, which is where heroes go.
Ognebog (Skt. Agnibhaga, अग्निभग, Fire God.) He is equated with Simargl, since the fire ritual took place on the Falcon altar.
Svetovid (Skt. Śvetavid, श्वेतविद्, Lord of Light) is the four-headed highest divinity, with each representing a direction of space. To make sense of the name here, remember that Śiva is also called Prakāśa (light). Svetovid’s nickname is Beli (or Byali) Vid (Beli = white, bright, shining) which is quite accurate although the word “svet” is generally translated as “sacred”.
Svetovid’s white northward head is Svarog, the red westward head is Perun (पर्जन्य), the black southward head is Lada (Earth Goddess associated with beauty and fertility, which may be from Skt. Laḍaha लडह, meaning beautiful, written more compactly as Laḍa; Lāḍo in Hindi is used for someone to be loved), and the green eastward head is Mokosh (Goddess of Waters as Skt. Mokṣa, who is also seen as a form of Aredvi Sura Anahita, or Śurā Sarasvatī); two are male and two female.
The list of Slavic divinities represents just some of the symbols of the Vedic system, which the tradition claims is the “science of consciousness”. In it, the outside world is mirrored in the inner space of the mind and “true knowledge” is possible.
Given the richness of this tradition and its new relevance in the Age of Machines where humans, who are alienated from the Spirit, wish to know the mystery more than ever before, it will become increasingly attractive to new seekers, which will lead to further fault lines in the Slavic lands.
The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was a rebellion similar to those that had occurred earlier against the Germans; likewise, the throwing off the yoke of Communism in 1991 expressed a yearning for a mythic past. The Slavs haven’t yet made peace with this past, and so one would expect that their angst will persist for much more time.