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Did religion invent agriculture?

We are repeatedly told that religion is the cause of wars. But that does not explain the First and the Second World Wars, or the Cold Wars, or the Gulf War. As secular institutions rose in the 20th century, there was need to discredit religion. Yet, what archaeologists and historians find is the religion and the mythic visions that accompany it are the driving forces of culture and civilisation.

Most of us are taught that humans were first hunter-gatherers. By gradually domesticating the land, humans started agriculture. As the transformation took place, there was surplus resources, people had time to think about the world, and life, about creation and salvation, and thus religion emerged. Patriarchy, notions of property, structures and civilisation followed. This assumption has been turned on its head by the discovery of a temple in Southeast Turkey, near the Syrian border.

The place is known as Gobekli Tepe. Translated, it means pot-bellied hills. Archaeologists have found a temple here that is 8000 years older than Stonehenge, pyramids, and Harappan cities. Like Stonehenge, there are colossal stone structures.

These are much more sophisticated; they are T-shaped. These pillars have an average height of 16 feet, weigh more than 60 tons and are arranged in a circular fashion, much like Stonehenge. The largest pillar found is about 65 feet. Some believe they represent a human being.

The ground penetrating radar survey suggested that the site is over 22 acres wide. It has about 16 such stone circles buried underneath it. It is humongous. On these are carved images of beasts like vultures and scorpions and birds, all wild, none domesticated. There is no sign of herding or agriculture in the region around at this time. This probably means those who built these structures were hunting-gathering communities. It would have taken several generations to create these structures. There are no traces of domestic fire, garbage dumps or building foundations.

This indicates that this was not a place of residence. This was not a settlement but a gathering place to meet people. People have found bones of humans as well as animals. This could suggest this was a place of burial or leaving dead bodies or ancestor worship. The first sign of wheat cultivation emerges here 500 years after the construction begins. 500 years later, we find domestication of pigs, cattle and sheep. This means the temple came into being first. To build the temple, labour was required. To provide food for these people, agriculture had to be practiced in a systematic way. Systematic domestication of pigs, cattle and sheep also took place. In other words, agriculture and animal husbandry followed religion. First, came religion and then came economic, political and agricultural activities.

Modern historians tend to dismiss religion as a flight of fantasy or mere political propaganda created by humans to control humans. They assume that human culture is based purely on economic or political grounds. This is the approach of Marxist historians, where everything is about economics and politics and religion is just a manipulative tool to oppress people, create slaves for the elite.

Everything is about wealth and power. Not about worldviews and visions of people. What historians forget is that around the world, religions played a key role in the creation of settlements and communities.

For example, in what is now Bangladesh and Pakistan Punjab, most agricultural activity emerged after barren lands were donated to local Sufis known as Ghazis about five hundred years ago. They brought not just the Quran from Arabia but also new agricultural technology from Persia. They introduced water wheel in lands that had not been cultivated. This created large Muslim communities in these regions that eventually became Bangladesh and Pakistan.

In the same way, at least a thousand years earlier, we learn of ‘brahmadeya’ lands in Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. These were barren lands given to Brahmins. They introduced plough farming here, established Brahmin residential collectives known as ‘agrahara’. The land was actually given to a local deity, with the Brahmins serving as proxies for the gods. The harvest provided livelihood to the Brahmins and enabled temple ceremonies. Thus we find how Ghazis and Brahmins, in different periods of history introduced agriculture and became harbingers of civilisation.

This shows us that religion played a very critical role. It was not an afterthought, after economics and politics. It was often, the driving force, to establish new villages. It is mythic thinking that creates history, economic and political possibilities. An idea that many people need to get their heads around.

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