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Natural Religion, vol. 1 1888–1892

Friedrich Max Müller

Lecture 9.
Historical Treatment of Religious Questions.
Is Religion Possible?
IT has often been said, What can be the good of an historical study of religious questions? We do not want to know what Manu, or Buddha, or Socrates, or Christ thought about the questions which trouble us. We want to know whether any living man can give us an answer that will satisfy the requirements of our own age, or prescribe a remedy which will cure the complaints of our own society. The burning question of the day is not what religion has been, or how it came to be what it is. The real question is the possibility of any religion at all, whether natural or supernatural; and if that question has once been answered in the negative, as it has been by some of the most popular philosophers of our century, why not let the dead bury the dead?
The fact that, as far as history can reach, no single human being has ever, from his childhood to his old age, been without something that may be called religion, would carry very little weight. The limitation, ‘as far as history can reach,’ would at once be construed into a confession of our ignorance, so long as there remained a single nook or corner on earth that had not been explored by anthropologists. In other cases, again, where the existence of a religion cannot be denied, the religion of the child would be explained as an hereditary taint, that of the old man as mere dotage or second childhood. The fact again that, so long as we know anything of the different races of mankind, we find them always in possession of something that may be called religion,—a fact which may now be readily granted,—and that out of the sum total of human beings now living on this earth (that number varies from 1400 to 1500 millions1—if you can realise such a sum or even such a difference) those who are ignorant and those who deny the existence of any supernatural beings form a mere vanishing quantity, would make no impression whatever on those who consider that the very word supernatural has no right to exist and should be expunged in our dictionary.
I do not wish to prejudge any of these questions; and in choosing for my own task a careful study of the historical development of religious thought among the principal nations of the world, I claim for it at first no more than that it may serve at least as a useful preparation for a final solution of the difficult problems which the great philosophers of our age have placed before us. It would be strange indeed if in religion alone we could learn nothing from those who have come before us, or even from those who differ from us. My own experience has been, on the contrary, that nothing helps us so much to understand and to value our own religion as a study of the religions of other nations, and that nothing enables us better to deal with the burning questions of to-day than a knowledge of the difficulties inherent in all religions. These questions which are placed before us as the burning questions of the day, have been burning for centuries. Under slightly varying aspects they belong to the oldest questions of the world, and they occupy a very prominent place in every history of religion. If there is continuity anywhere, it is to be found in the growth of religious opinions.
History and Theory inseparable.
Even our modern philosophers and theologians are what they are, and think what they think, because they stand on the historical accumulation of the religious thoughts and religious theories of former ages; and the religious thoughts and religious theories of former ages were in their time of exactly the same kind as the thoughts of our present philosophers. And not till our young philosophers have learnt that lesson, not till they will consent to serve a humble apprenticeship under the guidance of those who came before them, is there any hope of a healthy development in our modern philosophy. If there is evolution everywhere, is there to be no evolution in philosophy alone?
Let us examine a few of the more important of our so-called burning questions of the day, in order to see what kind of help we may expect to derive from history in trying to answer them. We are told that Agnosticism is an invention of our own age, and that, if it is once accepted, there must be an end of all that is called religion. This shows at all events a considerable agnosticism of the history of philosophy.
When a poet of the Veda (VII. 86, 2), though fully believing in Varuna, utters his complaint that he does not know how to get near him or into him, what is that but the most simple and primitive expression for the modern phrase, How can we know the Unknowable?
Modern Agnosticism has been defined as the profession of an incapacity to discover the indispensable conditions of either positive or negative knowledge2. In that sense, Agnosticism simply represents the old Academic ϵ̓ποΧή, the suspense of judgment, so strongly recommended by all philosophers3, and so rarely observed by any one of them, not excluding the Agnostics. When the word is applied in a more special sense, namely as expressing man's inability to assert either the existence or the non-existence of God, there was the old Greek word Agnoia which would have avoided the ambiguity of the word Agnosticism. For Agnosticism seems at first sight merely the opposite of Gnosticism, and it has to be carefully explained that it has nothing to do with Gnosticism, in the usual sense of that word, not even as its negation. And even if we are told that the name Agnostic was really derived, not from Gnosticism, but from ῄγνωστος, the unknown God, whose altar at Athens is mentioned by St. Paul4, this would not make Agnosticism a better name, for Agnosticism is supposed neither to deny nor to assert the existence of a god, while a god who has an altar is a very real god, although he may be said to be unknowable by men.
Plutarch, in his treatise on Superstition, calls what we mean by Agnosticism, Agnoia or Amathia, and he states that it generally branches off in two directions, leading either to atheism (ἀθϵότης) or to superstition (δϵισιδαιμονία)5.
Agnosticism, therefore, is at all events not a modern invention, and if we want an answer to it, we may find it in the words of one who has frequently been counted not only as an agnostic, but even as an atheist. This is what Goethe says:
‘The brightest happiness of a thoughtful man is to have fathomed what is fathomable, and silently to adore the unfathomable.’
‘Das schönste Glück des denkenden Menschen ist: das Erforschliche erforscht zu haben und das Unerforschliche ruhig zu verehren.’
Epicurean view of the Gods.
Another phase of thought which seems equally modern, namely the theory that there may be gods or supernatural powers, but that nature, when once started, is governed by her own laws, and men left to their own fate, was one of the best discussed problems of the Epicureans both in Greece and in Rome. The verses which Cicero ascribes to Ennius are well known:
‘I have always said and shall say that a race of heavenly gods exists, but I hold that they do not care what the human race may do; for if they did, it would go well with the good and bad with the bad—which is not so6.’
Chance and Purpose. Darwin.
This Epicurean concept of deity is very prevalent at the present time among what may be called the right wing of the Darwinians. Darwin, as is well known, retained the idea of a Creator, but he did not claim for Him more than that He created a few original forms, which were left to self-development into other and needful forms. He saw in the actual world, not the realisation of an ever-present Divine Thought and Will, but the result of what he called Natural Selection, Survival of the Fittest, and all the rest. Whether there is any difference between the old war of all against all and the survival of the fittest and strongest, or again, between chance and natural selection, depends on a definition of terms, and no term requires so careful a definition as ‘natural selection,’ unless, like the Duke of Argyll, we condemn it altogether as self-contradictory. For in ordinary parlance selection requires one who selects, and if nature can select, then we have certainly a right to ask whether we may spell this selecting or discriminating Nature with a capital N. But at all events the question between chance or purpose in the Universe has been argued before by men not inferior to ourselves, and the difficulties inherent in a belief in listless gods have been discussed so fully that the experience then gained should not be ignored in reopening that old question.
Here also Goethe's words deserve at least as much attention as the saying of Epicurus or Lucretius. ‘God,’ he writes, ‘did not rest after the six days of work; on the contrary, he continues to work as on the first day.’
That atheism also is not an invention of yesterday is generally admitted, though it seems hardly known at how early a date of the history of religion it comes in. In the Vedic hymns we can still watch the Aryan theogony, the very transition of natural phenomena into natural gods. But even there doubts spring up, and the ancient poets suddenly ask themselves whether after all there are such beings as the Devas. In a well-known hymn of the Rig-veda a poet expresses his doubts whether Indra, the chief god of the Vedic Indians, really exists.
The same doubt as to the real existence of such gods as Indra, that had grown into impossible beings by the accumulation of all kinds of misunderstood legends about them, occurs again and again in Indian literature. But we must remember that to doubt or to deny the existence of Indra or of Jupiter is not Atheism, but should be distinguished by a separate name, namely Adevism. The early Christians were called ἄθϵοι, because they did not believe as the Greeks believed nor as the Jews believed. Spinoza was called an atheist, because his concept of God was wider than that of Jehovah; the Reformers were called atheists, because they would not deify the mother of Christ nor worship the Saints. This is not Atheism in the true sense of the word, and if an historical study of religion had taught us that one lesson only, that those who do not believe in our God are not therefore to be called Atheists, it would have done some real good, and extinguished the fires of many an auto da fe.
Intuitive knowledge of Gods.
And if another school of modern philosophers, baffled in their search for unconditioned knowledge, takes refuge in intuition as the true foundation of religious knowledge, this idea too is foreshadowed in the Vedic hymns. In a hymn addressed to Varuna7, the poet begins with a confession that he has neglected the works of Varuna, that he has offended against his laws. He craves his pardon; he appeals in self-defence to the weakness of human nature; he deprecates death as the reward of sin. ‘My thoughts,’ he says (I. 25, 16), ‘move onwards towards thee, as cows move to their pasture.’ And then he exclaims suddenly, ‘Did I see him who is seen by all? Did I see his chariot on the earth? Yes, he has heard these my prayers.’
In another hymn (VIII. 10), where the poet had first expressed his doubts whether the great god Indra existed at all, because it was said that no one had ever seen him, he immediately introduces Indra himself8, saying, ‘Here I am, O worshipper! behold me here. In strength I overcome all creatures.’
Here we have intuition of the divine in its most primitive form. That idea, however, develops and becomes very prominent in the later theological and philosophical literature of India. As in the Old Testament, the poet in the Veda too, the Rishi, was interpreted as a seer, not as a maker. His poems were called God-given9; or the gods were called the friends and helpers of the poets.
Philosophical treatment.
In later philosophical systems the question is most fully discussed, whether we ought or ought not to admit an intuition as a kind of perception, by the side of ordinary sensuous perceptions.
A few extracts from the Sâṅkhya-sûtras, one of the six recognised systems of Hindu philosophy, will show you how small the world of thought really is, and how exactly the same difficulties which trouble us, have troubled the minds of the gymnosophists on the banks of the Ganges. Kapila, the supposed author of the Sâṅkhya-philosophy, admits three kinds of evidence, and no more. These are called10 pratyaksha, sensuous perception, anumâna, inference, and sabda, the word, particularly the sacred word or the Veda. You see therefore that this philosophy, though it is suspected of being atheistic, tries to appear orthodox. It begins by defining perception or the evidence of the senses, by the following aphorism (I. 90): ‘Perception is the discernment which portrays the form of that with which it is being brought into contact.’
The author then proceeds to defend his definition of sensuous perception against those who object that it is not wide enough, because it does not include the perceptions of the Yogins, the people who by means of fasting and other kinds of penance bring themselves to have ecstatic visions.
Kapila rejoins that these perceptions of the Yogins are not perceptions of things outside them with which their senses can be brought into contact. And if it should be said that these Yogins, in their state of exaltation, might have perceptions arising from contact with hidden or invisible things or things which exist as past and future, though not as present11, his own definition would then be wide enough to comprehend them.
After this, Kapila proceeds to meet another objection. The critics of his definition of sensuous perception seem to have pointed out to him that his definition was not wide enough to include the ecstatic visions having Îsvara, the Lord, for their object. Some Yogins must have pretended to have had such visions by means of something like sensuous perception (Yoga-sûtras, II. 44–45). But Kapila declines to entertain these objections or to modify his definition accordingly, because, as he says, the existence of such a Lord has never been established (Sâṅkhya-sûtras, I. 92). From his own point of view the concept of an Îsvara or Lord, as defined by the Yogins, would be self-contradictory (I. 95), and, as he points out in a subsequent chapter (V. 10), would not be established by sensuous evidence, by induction, or by revelation12.
He does not deny thereby the existence of a Lord, but only of such a Lord as the Yogins assert, namely, a being that can be reached by sensuous contact and perceived by ecstatic vision13.
Vision in the Bhagavadgîtâ.
How prevalent a belief in such ecstatic visions of a deity became in the religious philosophy of the Indian people, we see from the famous episode in the Bhagavadgîtâ, where Krishna appears in his true nature before the eyes of Arguna.
Arguna said14 to Krishna: ‘I have heard from you about the production and dissolution of things, and also about this your inexhaustible greatness. O highest Lord, I wish now to see your divine form. If, O Lord, you think that it is possible for me to look upon it, then, O Lord of the possessors of mystic powers, show your inexhaustible form to me.’
The Deity said: ‘In hundreds and in thousands see my forms, various, divine; see wonders in numbers unseen before. Within my body see to-day the whole universe. But you will not be able to see me with merely this eye of yours. I give you an eye divine.’
Having spoken thus the great Lord showed his supreme divine form. If in the heavens, the lustre of a thousand suns burst forth all at once, that would be like the lustre of that mighty one.
Then Arguna said: ‘O God, I see within your body the gods, as also all the groups of various beings; and the lord Brahman seated on his lotus seat, and all the sages and religious snakes. I see you who are of countless forms, possessed of many arms, chests, mouths, and eyes on all sides. And, O Lord of the universe! O you of all forms! I do not see your end or middle or beginning. I see you bearing a coronet and a mace and a discus,—a mass of glory, brilliant on all sides, difficult to look at, having on all sides the effulgence of a blazing fire of sun, and indefinable…I believe you to be the eternal Being. I see you…having the sun and moon for eyes, having a mouth like a blazing fire, and heating the universe with your radiance. The space between heaven and earth and all the quarters are pervaded by you alone. Looking at this wonderful and terrible form of yours the three worlds are affrighted.’
In Sanskrit all this sounds very grand, and when the vision is over, Krishna assumes again his own human form. ‘I cannot be seen,’ he says, ‘in this form by any one but you, even by the help of the study of the Vedas or of sacrifices, nor by gifts, nor by actions, nor by fierce penances. Be not alarmed, be not perplexed, at seeing this form of mine, fearful like this. Free from fear and with delightful heart, see now again that same form of mine.’
The visions of Santa Theresa and of even more modern saints are so like the earlier visions of Indian heroes that we cannot be far wrong in ascribing both to the same source and treating them both with the same indulgence.
In close connection with this question, the possibility of an intuitive knowledge of God, another question also, that of the possibility of a revelation, of a communication of divine or absolute truth to man,—a question so hotly discussed at present,—meets us again and again in our wanderings through the history of religion. In the Veda the inspiring influence of the gods is simply taken for granted. The gods are said to have roused and sharpened the mind of the poets15, and in the end the gods themselves were called seers and poets. As soon as the Vedic religion became systematised, and had to be defended against the doubts of friends and foes, the Brâhmans elaborated an apologetic philosophy which seems to me unsurpassed in subtlety and acuteness by any other defence of a divinely inspired book. The whole of the Veda was represented as divine in its origin, and therefore beyond the reach of doubt. It was not to be looked on as the work of men, but only as seen by inspired poets. It was supposed to date from all eternity, and to be so prehistoric in character that when unfortunately the names of real kings and real cities occurred in some of the Vedic hymns, as they do, they had to be explained away as meaning something quite different.
Historical traces in the Veda.
We find, for instance, in the Rig-veda III. 53, 14, the following verse:
Kím te krinvanti Kîkaieshu gṅvah, ná àsíram duhré ná tapanti gharmám,
Ấ nah bhara Prámagandasya védah, Naikasảhám maghavan randhaya nah.
This means:
What are thy cows doing among the Kîkatas? They yield no milk, they heat no kettle;
Bring us the wealth of Pramaganda, subdue, O Maghavan, Naikasâkha!
These Kîkatas are evidently a tribe which did not worship Indra and which Indra is asked to subdue. The name does not occur again in the Rig-veda, but it is said to have been the old name of Magadha or Behar on the Ganges, the future birthplace of Buddhism. According to others the northern part of Behar was properly called Magadha, while the southern portion only was called Kîkata16. Whatever they were, they must have been a real race, Pramaganda must have been a real king, and Naikasâkha, even if it meant originally, as Ludwig thinks, of low birth, must have referred to some real historical character. But all this is denied by orthodox theologians. If it were so, they say, the Veda would not be nitya, eternal, or as we say, prehistoric. ‘It has been said,’ they argue, ‘that the Veda has not a divine, but a human origin, and that in the same way as the Mahâbhârata was composed by Vyâsa, the Râmâyana by Valmîki, the Raghuvamsa by Kalidâsa, so the Kâthaka, Kauthuma, and Taittirîyaka, which are portions of the Veda, were composed by Katha, Kuthuma, and Tittiri. And even if these names were only meant to signify that the families of Katha, Kuthuma, and Tittiri were in traditionary possession of these portions of the Veda, yet the fact that historical and real persons are mentioned in the Veda would by itself be sufficient to prove that the Veda cannot be considered as prehistoric. Now there are passages, like: “Babara, the descendant of Pravahana wished;” “Kusurubindu, the descendant of Uddâlaka wished,” etc. The Veda therefore must have had a beginning like all other existing things.’ So far the opponent who denies the eternity of the Veda.
All this, however, is stoutly denied by Gaimini, the representative of the most orthodox philosophy in India. ‘The Veda,’ he says, ‘was the word before the beginning; it existed before all other words, such as Katha, Kuthuma, Tittiri, etc., so that titles of certain parts of the Veda, such as Kâthaka, Kauthuma, Taittirîyaka, etc. contain merely the names of those who handed down the Veda by tradition. As to such names as Babara, the son of Pravahana, they must not be taken as the names of historical persons; but Babara is really another name of Vâyu, the wind, who makes a sound like babara, and whose nature it is to drive things forward, hence called pravahana (provehere). In the same manner all other historical and geographical names should be explained, etymologically, not historically.’
This is only a small specimen of what forensic theology can achieve, and could achieve long before our own time. It enables us to see both what was originally intended by such words as God-given, God-inspired, Sruti, what has been heard, Revelation, what has been unfolded, and what was made of these words afterwards. It was the sense of an over-powering truth which led to the admission of a revelation. But while in the beginning truth made revelation, it soon came to pass that revelation was supposed to make truth. When we see this happening in every part of the world, when we can watch the psychological process which leads in the most natural way to a belief in supernatural inspiration, it will hardly be said that an historical study of religion may be useful to the antiquarian, but cannot help us to solve the burning questions of the day. But this is not what I am pleading forat present. At present I want to prove no more than that an historical study of the religions of the world possesses this one great advantage, that it familiarises us with the old problems of the philosophy of religion, and fits us for a more fearless treatment of them in their modern form.
The old Problems in their simpler Form.
And by showing us the various phases through which many of these problems have passed before they assumed their present form, it teaches us another and most important lesson, namely, that in attempting to solve these problems we must not attempt to solve them in their modern form only, and with all the perplexities which they present to us in their often obscure metaphysical phraseology, but that we must trace them back, as far as we can, to their first beginnings and to their simplest form.
It is with these religious problems as it is with the problems of language. Who could account for language, if he only knew the language of to-day? If we knew none of the antecedents of English, as it now exists in its 250,000 words, many of them with different meanings, many of them again having one and the same meaning, even the wisest of us could say no more than what Plato said in the Cratylus, namely that language could not possibly have been invented by man17. And now that we know by what simple process language was, if not invented, at all events produced and elaborated by man, does it lower language, because it was not invented by the gods, or does it lower man because he was not presented by the gods with a language ready made? I believe not, and I hold the same with regard to religion. If we see with what natural feelings and simple sentiments religion began, and then follow its course till it reaches that perfect, or at all events that complete state in which we find it in later times, we shall hardly think that we degrade religion by accepting it as the most precious product of the human mind, nor shall we consider man as robbed of his dignity, because on the day of his birth the gods did not descend from heaven to present him with a religion ready made or reduced to settled creeds and finished articles of faith, but left him to grow and to learn to stand on his own legs, and to fight his own battle in the struggle for truth.
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