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Da Bathala Code

Part 4: Paterno & his critics
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Pedro Paterno Jose Rizal T.H. Pardo de Tavera
Pedro Paterno, originator of the Bathala Code
Jose Rizal thought Paterno was “loopy”, but he didn't express it in words
T.H. Pardo de Tavera was one of Paterno’s harshest critics

Rizal's handwriting in German

Excerpt from Rizal's letter to Blumentritt, handwritten in German. Rizal describes Paterno:
"I can find no word for it, but only a sign like this [loops]"

In the previous article of this series we met Pedro Paterno, the man who originated the notion that there are hidden meanings in the shapes of the letters of the old Filipino baybayin script, specifically, in the letters that spell Bathala, the name of the ancient Tagalog god of creation.

Paterno was a self-styled renaissance man. He wrote fiction, poetry, stage plays and operas. He was educated in philosophy and theology, and he held a doctorate in law. He also wrote several books on Filipino ethnology, including La antigua civilización tagalog, the book in which he first imagined the Bathala-baybayin connection, which some people today misconstrue as a real part of ancient Filipino spirituality. But, as we saw last time, his research methods were quite eccentric, to put it mildly.

Paterno’s critics

By today’s standards of scholarship, Pedro Paterno would probably flunk a legitimate history course. His ideas about the ancient Philippines were not even taken seriously in his own time, either. Jose Rizal, no less, wrote the following in a letter to his friend, the ethnologist Ferdinand Blumentritt:

In regard to the work of my countryman P.A. Paterno on Bathalà, I tell you, pay no attention to it; P.A. Paterno is like this: [here Rizal drew a line with a series of loops]. I can find no word for it, but only a sign like this: [more loops]. 1

If there were any doubt about what Rizal meant, some of his contemporaries were much more direct about the “loopy” Paterno. Resil Mojares quoted some of them in his book Brains of the Nation:

T.H. Pardo de Tavera regarded Paterno’s scholarship with scorn. He called him a plagiarist, and “vulgar imposter” who made false claims about his sources and advertised non-existent books among his works. He dismissed Antigua Civilizacion as “a work of pure fantasy full of extraneous and incredible assertions.” He judged Los Itas a book of “buffooneries” and Cristianismo en la Antigua Civilizacion Tagalog a piece of work “full of surprises for history, science and reason!”…While acknowledging the labor that went into Paterno’s books, [Wenceslao Retana] rejected their arguments as “the dreamy fantasy of a poet” devoid of all “scientific value.” 2

Paterno’s defence

In an 1892 issue of La Solidaridad, Paterno defended his imagined pre-colonial religion, which he called Bathalismo, by saying, in essence, that his critics had not done their homework:

Some have taken the interpretations I give of Bathala as products of my imagination and that I, according to them, wish to inject into simple letters entire phrases of profound ideas. However, such critics, no matter how respectable they are, doubtless ignore the primitive oriental languages and, in this instance, the Tagalog language, in the roots of which are preserved, on the whole, the purity of the elements of the most ancient ones; or perhaps the first words of the language of man, elements religiously preserved by generations of Tagalogs. 3

Pedro Paterno was not trained in linguistics or philology and, according to Resil Mojares, he could not even speak Tagalog passably. According to Paterno, the Tagalogs had “religiously preserved” elements of the most ancient languages in the world and yet, in the 1880s, the name Bathala, which he was interpreting, was virtually unknown to all but a few scholars. In Rizal’s letter to Blumentritt, quoted earlier, Rizal said that he “was surprised that no Tagalog knew about the word Bathala” and that “the word Bathala might also have disappeared on account of the Christian religion.” 4

If Filipino scholars of Paterno’s time ignored his evidence, it was simply because it was so obviously absurd. Since then, generations of historians, linguists, anthropologists, archaeologists and other scientists have done much more research, refined their techniques and, in the process, discredited many theories that were once thought to be true. None of them ever found a scrap of evidence that happened to support Paterno’s preposterous claims.

What did ancient Filipinos really believe?

This is not to say that pre-colonial Filipinos had no religious traditions and mythologies of their own. In fact, they had many more deities and myths than Paterno imagined in his pseudo-Christian, Tagalog-centric fantasies of the land he called Luzonica, which was his name for the ancient Philippines. (He also believed that he himself belonged to the nobility of this ancient kingdom.) In reality, pre-colonial Filipinos were mainly animists, meaning that they believed certain trees, rocks, animals and natural phenomena possessed souls and they revered them as gods. The names of these gods varied from place to place but only the Tagalogs and the Zambals recognized a creator god named Bathala, while the approximate counterpart in the Visayas was known as Laon. 5

As in other cultures around the world, many pre-colonial Filipinos also worshiped the sun, as Paterno claimed. However, this is not a unique belief. The sun is probably the most obvious thing in nature to worship. As such, this hardly qualifies as a Filipino connection to Ra, the ancient Egyptian sun god, as Paterno had claimed. A good overview of pre-colonial beliefs can be found in William H. Scott’s Barangay, Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society.

Ancient connections

It is true that at least one far-away ancient civilization – other than China – did have some influence on pre-colonial Filipino culture. Many words found in the languages of the Philippines, such as bathala and diwata (meaning god and goddess), were derived from the Sanskrit language of India. However, these words were likely brought to the Philippines through trade contacts with Malays, and not brought directly from India. Hinduism was one of the religions practiced in the Malay Archipelago before the population began to convert to Islam in the 13th and 14th centuries.

It is also likely that the baybayin writing system was derived from Indian writing but, like the Sanskrit loan words, it was not a direct import. It came to the Philippines via the writing systems of the Malay Archipelago. (See my online article, Baybayin, the Ancient Script of the Philippines)

Even so, the Indian influence on ancient Philippine society might have been deeper than even Pedro Paterno realized. The discovery of the Laguna Copperplate Inscription in the late 1980s revealed a language that might have been spoken in Luzon in the year 900 CE, which had many more Sanskrit words than modern Philippine languages have. It is not known how widespread this language was and, unfortunately for Paterno, the inscription was not written in the baybayin script, which in his imagination illustrated the essence of Bathala. It was written in the Kavi script of Java, which not only pre-dated the baybayin, but was also more technically advanced than the baybayin. (See The Beginning of Philippine History)

Inventing history

Inventing history is not unique in the Philippines. All nations have at least a few manufactured legends that their citizens believe to be true. Pedro Paterno might simply have been the first in the long line of modern Filipino pseudo-historians who still to try to remedy the loss of so much of their own culture during the Spanish era by inventing a glorious ancient past for the Philippines, rather than doing serious research. Understandably, regional and national pride plays an important part in their efforts and one common element in these inventions is to draw as many connections as possible to other ancient civilizations, as though this somehow validates Filipino culture and heritage. However, this kind of invented history is unnecessary because legitimate scholars and scientists continue to uncover the truly unique heritage of the diverse cultures that make up the Philippines today. Pre-colonial Filipinos did have a rich spiritual heritage but, for the most part, they kept it alive through oral traditions. Eventually, it was recorded in Spanish-authored chronicles and dictionaries (biased as they were), but it was not hidden in the shapes of baybayin letters.

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Source & notes

1. Rizal, Jose. “Rizal, Berlin, 29 March 1887.” The Rizal Blumentritt Correspondence, Volume I, 1886-1889. National Historical Institute, 1992. p. 70. Original handwriting reproduced on unnumbered pages between pp. 65 & 67.

2. Mojares, Resil B. Brains of the Nation: Pedro Paterno, T.H. Pardo de Tavera, Isabelo de los Reyes and the production of modern knowledge. Quezon City. Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2006 p. 15.

3. Paterno, Pedro A. quote from La Solidaridad IV, p. 517 in Mojares, Resil B. 2006. p. 54

4. Rizal, National Historical Institute, 1992. p. 69.

5.  Chirino, Pedro. Relación de las Islas Filipinas. The Philippines in 1600, Historical Conservation Society. [Publication]. Manila,: Historical Conservation Society; Bookmark, exclusive distributor, 1969.

p. 60
Entre los cuales hacen principal y superior de todos: á quien los Tagalos llaman Bathala Mei-Capal, que quiere decir el dios fabricador, ó hacedor; y los Bisayas Laon, que denota antiguedad.

Among [their gods] they hold one to be the greatest and above all the others, called by the Tagalog Bathala Mei-Capal, meaning the creator or maker god, and by the Bisayas Laon, which denotes antiquity.

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