Definition of Physical Religion.
PHYSICAL Religion is generally defined as a worship of the powers of nature. We hear it said of ancient as well as of modern nations, that their gods were the sun or the moon, the sky with its thunder and lightning, the rivers and the sea, the earth, and even the powers under the earth. As Aaron said to the Israelites, the poets and prophets of the heathens are supposed to have said to their people, These be thy gods.
There are some well-known philosophers who go even further, and who, repeating again and again the old mistake of De Brosses and Comte, maintain that the earliest phase of all religion is represented by people believing in stones and bones and fetishes of all kinds as their gods.
God, as a predicate.
As their gods! Does it never strike these theorisers that the whole secret of the origin of religion lies in that predicate, their gods. Where did the human mind find that concept and that name? That is the problem which has to be solved; everything else is mere child's play.
We ourselves, the heirs of so many centuries of toil and thought, possess, of course, the name and concept of God, and we can hardly imagine a human mind without that name and concept. But, as a matter of fact, the child's mind is without that name and concept, and such is the difference of meaning assigned by different religions, nay, even by members of the same religion, to the name of God, that a general definition of it has almost become an impossibility. Nevertheless, however our ideas of God may differ, for us to say that the sun or the moon, or a pebble, or the tail of a tiger was God, would be absurd and self-contradictory.
The Greeks also, at least the more enlightened among them, who had arrived at the name and concept of God,men, I mean, like Socrates and Plato,could never have brought themselves to say that any one of their mythological deities, such as Hermes or Apollo, was God, ὁ θεός. The Greeks, however, had likewise the name and concept of gods in the plural, but even that name, which has a meaning totally different from that of God in the singular, could never have been applied by them to what are called fetishes, bones, feathers, or rags. Most of the Negro tribes, who are so glibly classed as fetish-worshippers, possess a name of God, quite apart from their fetishes; nay, their concept of God is often very pure and simple and true. But they would never apply that name to what we, not they, have called their fetish-gods. All they really do is to preserve with a kind of superstitious awe some casual objects, just as we nail a horse-shoe on our stable-doors, or keep a farthing for luck in our purse. These objects they call grigri
, or juju1
. This may mean anything, but certainly it does not mean fetish in the sense given to this word by De Brosses and others, neither does it mean God.
It has led to the greatest confusion of thought that our modern languages had to take the singular of the Greek plural, θεοί, the gods, and use it for θεός, God. It is quite true historically that the idea of θεός, God, was evolved from the idea of θεοί, gods; but in passing through that process of intellectual evolution, the meaning of the word became changed as completely as the most insignificant seed is changed when it has blossomed into a full-blown rose. Θεός, God, admits of no plural θεοί always implies plurality.
The problem of Physical Religion has now assumed a totally different aspect, as treated by the Historical School. Instead of endeavouring to explain how human beings could ever worship the sky as a god, we ask, how did any human being come into possession of the predicate god? We then try to discover what that predicate meant when applied to the sky, or the sun, or the dawn, or the fire. With us the concept of God excludes fire, the dawn, the sun, and the sky; at all events, the two concepts no longer cover each other. What we want to study therefore is that ever-varying circumference of the predicate god, which becomes wider or narrower from century to century, according to the objects which it was made to include, and after a time to exclude again.
This problem, and a most difficult problem it is, can be studied nowhere so well as in the Veda, that is, in the ancient hymns of the Rig-veda. I doubt whether we should ever have understood the real nature of the problem with which we have to deal, unless we had become acquainted with the Rig-veda.
It is quite clear that other nations also passed through the same phases of thought as the Aryan conquerors of India. We see the results of that process everywhere. In Africa, in America, in the Polynesian islands, everywhere we catch glimpses of the process of deification. But the whole of that process is nowhere laid open before our eyes in such fulness and with such perspicuity as in the Veda. Deification, as we can watch it in the Veda, does not mean the application of the name and concept of god to certain phenomena of nature. No, it means the slow and inevitable development of the concept and name of God out of these very phenomena of natureit means the primitive theogony that takes place in the human mind as living in human language.
It has always been perfectly well known that Zeus, for instance, had something to do with the sky, Poseidon with the sea, Hades with the lower regions. It might have been guessed that Apollo, like Phoebos and Helios, had a solar, Artemis, like Mene, a lunar character. But all this remained vague, the divine epithet applied to them all remained unintelligible, till the Veda opened to us a stratum of thought and language in which the growth of that predicate could be watched, and its application to various phenomena of nature be clearly understood.
It will be the chief object of this course of lectures to elucidate this process of religious evolution, to place clearly before you, chiefly from the facts supplied by the hymns of the Veda, the gradual and perfectly intelligible development of the predicate god from out of the simplest perceptions and conceptions which the human mind gained from that objective nature by which man found himself surrounded.
The Natural and the Supernatural.
We have now classified the whole of our experience which we derive from nature under two heads, as either natural or supernatural, natural comprising all that seems to us regular, conformable to rule, and intelligible, supernatural all that we consider as yet or altogether as beyond the reach of rule and reason. This, however, as you will see, is but the last result of a long succession of intellectual labour. At first sight, nothing seemed less natural than nature. Nature was the greatest surprise, a terror, a marvel, a standing miracle, and it was only on account of their permanence, constancy, and regular recurrence that certain features of that standing miracle were called natural, in the sense of foreseen, common, intelligible. Every advance of natural science meant the wresting of a province from the supernatural, if we may use that word in the sense of what remains as yet a surprise, a terror, a marvel, or a miracle in man's experience of objective nature.
It was that vast domain of surprise, of terror, of marvel, and miracle, the unknown, as distinguished from the known, or, as I like to express it, the infinite, as distinct from the finite, which supplied from the earliest times the impulse to religious thought and language, though in the beginning these thoughts and names had little of what we now call religions about them. You remember that the very name of deva in Sanskrit, of deus in Latin, which afterwards became the name of God, meant originally bright, and no more. It came to mean God after a long process of evolution, which took place even before the Aryan separation, and of which we can only just catch the last glimpses in the phraseology of the Vedic poets.
Agni, Fire, as one of the Devas.
How this came about we shall, I think, best learn to understand if we analyse the growth of one of the many Devas or gods who form the Pantheon of the Veda. Many of these Vedic Devas appear likewise under more or less puzzling disguises in the mythology and religion of the other Aryan nations. Some, however, exist in the Veda only as real Devas, while we find no trace of them, as mythological or divine beings, in other countries of the Aryan world. I shall begin my analysis of Physical Religion with a Deva, belonging to this latter class, with the god of fire, called Agni in the Veda, but unknown under that name in any of the other Aryan mythologies, though the word agni, in the sense of fire, occurs in Latin as ignis, in Lituanian as ugnì, in old Slavonic as ogni.
When I say the god of fire, I use an expression which has become familiar to us from classical mythology. We speak of a god of the sky, or of the wind, or of the rain. But you will see that in the Veda we can watch this god of fire long before he is a god at all; and, on the other hand, we shall be able to trace his further growth till he is no longer a god of fire merely, but a supreme god, a god above all other gods, a creator and ruler of the world.
In fact we shall learn to understand by this one instance the authentic history of that long psychological process which, beginning with the simplest and purely material perceptions, has led the human mind to that highest concept of deity which we have inherited together with our language, as members of the great Aryan, and not of the Semitic family.
Early conceptions of Fire.
If you can for a moment transfer yourselves to that early stage of life to which we must refer not only the origin, but likewise the early phases of Physical Religion, you can easily understand what an impression the first appearance of Fire must have made on the human mind. Fire was not given as something permanent or eternal, like the sky, or the earth, or the water. In whatever way it first appeared, whether through lightning or through the friction of the branches of trees, or through the sparks of flints, it came and went, it had to be guarded, it brought destruction, but at the same time it made life possible in winter, it served as a protection during the night, it became a weapon of defence and offence, and last, no least, it changed man from a devourer of raw flesh into an eater of cooked meat. At a later time it became the means of working metal, of making tools and weapons, it became an indispensable factor in all mechanical and artistic progress, and has remained so ever since. What should we be without fire even now?
The etymological meaning of Agni.
What then did the early Âryas think of it, or, what is the same, how did they name it? Its oldest name in Sanskrit is Agni, and this has been preserved in Latin as ignis, in Lituanian as ugnì, in old Slavonic as ogni. It was therefore a very old name. So far as we can venture to interpret such ancient names, Agni seems to have expressed the idea of quickly moving, from a root AG or AG, to drive. The nearest approach would be the Latin ag-ilis. Another Sanskrit name for fire is vah-ni, and this, too, coming from the same root which we have in veho and vehemens, would have meant originally what moves about quickly. In the Veda Agni is called raghupatvan, quickly flying (X. 6, 4).
Names of Fire.
It will be useful to examine some more of the old names of fire, because every one of them, if we can still interpret it etymologically, will enable us to see in how many different ways fire was conceived by the Âryas, how it struck them, they thought of it.
Dahana means simply the burner.
Anala, from an, to breathe, would seem to mean the breathing, or blowing fire, just as anila is a name for wind. The root AN, to breathe, is the same which we have in animus, anima, and in Greek ἄνεμος. In the Veda the fire is often said to be breathing (abhi-svasan, I. 140, 5).
Pâvaka, a frequent name of Agni, conveys the meaning of cleaning, clearing, illuminating. Some scholars have derived πυ̑ρ and fire from the same root.
Tanûnapât is a Vedic name of Agni. It is explained as meaning offspring of himself. It is possible, no doubt, to conceive Agni as self-born. He is called sva-yoni in the Mahâbhârata (19, 13931). But the usual idea in the Veda is that he has a father and mother, namely, the two fire-sticks.
Gâtavedas, another name for Agni, means all-seeing, all-knowing, like visvavedas.
Vaisvânara seems to convey the meaning of kept by all men, or useful and kind to all, universal.
Another epithet applied to Agni is Bhuran
yu means quick, and is formed on the same lines as Agni and Vahni. Derived as it is from a root BHAR, to bear, to carry, it seems to have meant originally, carried along headlong, borne away, or possibly, bearing away, like the Greek φερόμενος. This Sanskrit word bhuran
yu is almost the same word as the Greek Φορωνεύς, who is supposed to have brought to men the gift of fire, and to have become the founder of cities (Paus. ii. 15, 5)2
Fire, named as active.
We ourselves occupy, of course, a totally different position from those who had first to conceive and to name fire. We learn the name mechanically from our parents, and the sound fire is a mere outward sign for what burns and hurts, or warms and cheers us. In after life we may learn to call fire with the ancient Greek philosophers one of the four elements; and, later on, a study of natural philosophy may teach us that fire consists of luminous and calorific rays, that it is a natural force, or, it may be, a motion of something unknown which we call ether. But in all this we deal with predicates only, and the underlying substance remains as unknown as the underlying agent whom the, as yet, undivided Âryas called simply Agni, the mover.
At all events we may well understand that the early inhabitants of the earth were puzzled by the fire. There was nothing like it in the whole worldnow visible, now invisible, tangible, yet dangerous to touch, destroying whole forests and the habitations of men, and yet most welcome on the hearth, most cheerful in winter.
We can well understand how, after the senses had once taken note of this luminous apparition in its ever-varying aspects, a desire arose in the human mind, and in the human mind only, to know it; to know it, not simply in the sense of seeing or feeling it, but to know it in the sense of conceiving and naming it, which is a very different thing.
How could that be done? I cannot explain here once more the whole of the process of conceiving and naming, or naming and conceiving. You will find that subject treated in my first course of Gifford Lectures, and more fully in my work On the Science of Thought, published in 1887.
I can here only state it as a fact that the only instruments by which man could achieve this process of naming were what we call roots, and that all these roots, owing to the manner in which they first came into existence, expressed actions, the ordinary actions performed by men in an early state of society. There were roots expressive of striking, pushing, carrying, binding, lifting, squeezing, rubbing, and all the rest, and with these roots all that we now call naming and conceiving, the whole of our language, the whole of our thought, has been elaborated.
This is a fact, simply a fact, and not a mere theory. To doubt it, as has been done of late again, is to doubt the laws of thought. We may differ as to the exact form in which those roots existed from the first. Such doubts are allowable with regard to roots, as elements of speech, they are allowable with regard to letters, as the elements of sound, nay even with regard to the chemical elements, as constituting the whole material world. But to doubt the existence of any of these three classes of elements is either ignorance or unreason.
No one denies that we name and conceive by means of signs. These signs might have been anything, but, as a matter of fact, they were sounds; and again, as a matter of fact, these sounds were what in the Science of Language we call roots. When we examine these roots, as the actual elements of speech, we find that they signify acts, and we conclude that their sound was originally the involuntary clamor concomitans of the simplest acts of man. This last conclusion may no doubt be called an hypothesis only, and I have never represented it as anything else; but, till a better hypothesis has been suggested, I retain it as the best working hypothesis.
If then the Âryas possessed a root, such as AG, by which they expressed their own acts of marching, running, jumping, and, at last, moving in general, all they did in naming and conceiving the marching, running, jumping, or quickly moving luminous appearances of fire, was to say to each of them: Moving here, Moving there, or in Sanskrit Ag-ni-s3
Agni therefore meant originally the mover, and no more. Many more qualities of the mover might be recalled by the name of Agni, but they were not definitely expressed by that one name. We must remember, however, that by calling him Agni, or the quick mover, the ancient people knew no more who or what that mover was than we do when speaking of fire as an element, or as a force of nature, or, as we do now, as a form of motion. It sounds very learned when we say that a mass of matter becomes a source of light and heat in consequence of an extremely rapid vibratory movement of its smallest particles, which is propagated as a series of undulations into the surrounding ether, and is felt by our tactile nerves as heat, and by our optic nerves, if the undulations are sufficiently rapid, as light.
I confess, from a philosophical point of view, I see little difference between this Ether, and Agni, the god of fire. Both are mythological. Professor Tyndal asks quite rightly: Is it in the human mind to imagine motion, without at the same time imagining something moved? Certainly not. The very conception of motion includes that of a moving body. What then is the thing moved in the case of sunlight? The undulatory theory replies that it is a substance of determinate mechanical properties, a body which may or may not be a form of ordinary matter, but to which, whether it is or not, we give the name of Ether.
May not the ancient Âryas say with the same right: Is it in the human mind to imagine motion without at the same time imagining some one that moves? Certainly not. The very conception of motion includes that of a mover, and, in the end, of a prime mover. Who then is that mover? The ancient Âryas reply that it is a subject of determinate properties, a person who may or may not be like ordinary persons, but to whom, whether he is or not, we give the name of Agni.
Agni as a Human or Animal Agent.
When that step had once been made, when the word Agni, Fire, had once been coined, the temptation was great, nay almost irresistible, as Agni was conceived as an agent, to conceive him also as something like the only other agents known to man, as either an animal or human agent.
We often read in the Veda of the tongue or the tongues of Agni, which are meant for what we call his lambent flames. We read of his bright teeth (sukidan, VII. 4, 2), of his jaws, his burning forehead (tapuh-mûrdhan, VII. 3, 1), nay, even of his flaming and golden hair (sokihkesa, V. 8, 2; hiranyakesa, I. 79, 1), and of his golden beard (hirismasru, V. 7, 7). His face (anîkam) is mentioned, but that means no more than his appearance, and when he is called winged (I. 58, 5; VIII. 32, 4), or even the hawk of the sky (divah syenah, VII. 15, 4), that is simply intended to express, what his very name expresses, his swift movement.
This may help to explain how some nations, particularly the Egyptians4
, were led on to conceive some of their gods in the shape of animals. It arose from a necessity of language. This was not the case, however, in India. Agni and the other gods of the Veda, if they are imagined at all in their bodily shape, are always imagined as human, though never as so intensely human as the gods and goddesses of the Greeks. Beauty, human, superhuman, ideal beauty, is not an Indian conception. When in later times the Indians also invented plastic representations of their gods, they did not shrink from unnatural and monstrous combinations, so long as they helped to convey the character of each god.
All this is perfectly intelligible, and a careful study of language supplies us with the key to almost all the riddles of ancient mythology.
New explanation of Animism, Personification, and Anthropomorphism.
Formerly the attribution of movement, of life, of personality and of other human or animal qualities to the great phenomena of nature, was explained by names such as Animism, Personification, Anthropomorphism. It seemed as if people imagined that to name a process was to explain it.
Mr. Herbert Spencer against Animism.
Here we owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Herbert Spencer for having stood up for once as the champion of primitive man. I have often pointed out the bad treatment which these poor primitive creatures receive at the hands of anthropologists. Whatever the anthropologists wish these primitives to do or not to do, to believe or not to believe, they must obey, like silent Karyatides supporting the airy structures of ethnological psychology (Völkerpsychologie). If Animism is to be supported, they must say, Of course, the storm has a soul. If Personification is doubted, they are called in as witnesses that their fetish is very personal indeed. If Anthropomorphism has to be proved as a universal feature of early religion, primitive man is dragged in again, and has to confess that the uncouth stone which he worships is certainly a man, and a great deal more than a man.
Whenever I protested against this system of establishing Animism, Personification, and Anthropomorphism as the primeval springs of all religion, I was told that I knew nothing of primitive man, nor of his direct descendants, the modern savages. I have always pleaded guilty of a complete want of acquaintance with primitive man, and have never ventured to speak about savages, whether ancient or modern, unless I knew something, however little, of the nature of their language. Mr. H. Spencer, however, cannot be disposed of so easily. If any one knows the savages, surely he does. But even he has had to protest at last against the theory that the primitive man is a kind of maid-of-all-work, at the beck and call of every anthropologist. The assumption, he writes (Sociology, p. 143), tacit or avowed, that the primitive man tends to ascribe life to things which are not living, is clearly an untenable assumption. He defends even the child, which has likewise had to do service again and again for what I called Nursery-psychology, against the charge of animism. When a child says, Naughty chair to hurt babybeat it, Mr. Herbert Spencer shows that this burst of anger admits of very different explanations, and that no one would be more frightened than the child if the chair, on being beaten, began to kick, to bite, or to cry.
But though Mr. Herbert Spencer does not believe that any human being ever mistook an inanimate for an animate object, for even animals have learnt to make that distinction, he still considers them capable of very wonderful follies. He thinks that they do not distinguish between what they see in dreams and what they see while awake (p. 147), nay, he considers them capable of mistaking their actual shadows for their souls. On this point we shall have to touch at a later time.
At present it suffices to state that all these processes have now been traced back to their vera causa, namely, to language, and more particularly to what are called the roots of language. As every one of these roots expressed, owing to their very origin, one of the many acts with which men in an early state of society were most familiar, the objects thus named could not be named and conceived except as agents of such acts or as subjects.
If the Aryan nations wished to speak of fire, they could only speak of it as doing something. If they called it Agni, they meant the agent of fire. Instead of this understood agent, implied in the name of Agni, we hear other nations speak of the heart, the soul, the spirit, the lord, or the god of fire5
. But all these expressions belong to a later phase of thought, for they presuppose the former elaboration of such concepts as soul, spirit, god, or they are based on metaphor, as in the case of heart.
Prof. Tiele's Theory of the Gods as facteurs.
Professor Tiele in his Le Mythe de Kronos
, 1886, came nearest to my own view on the development of the concept of God. The ancient gods, he says (p. 9), are what, according to our abstract manner of speaking, we should call des facteurs, des forces, des sources de vie.
He does not indeed lay stress on the fact that there was in our very language and thought an irresistible necessity of our speaking of the sky, the sun, the fire, if we speak of them at all, as agents. He only warns us against supposing that the gods are ever the phenomena of nature themselves, considered as acting persons, but always what ho calls souls or spirits, represented as analogous to the soul of man, that impart movement to the celestial bodies and produce all the effects for good or evil which appear in nature. This is most true, but does it not explain one difficulty by another? Was the soul of man a matter of more easy discovery than the soul of the sky? When we have once arrived at the concept of a spirit, as something substantial, yet different from the material body, the task of the religious and mythological poet is easy enough. In another place (p. 30) Professor Tiele most rightly defines the physical deities, not as des objets naturels quel'on a personnifiés,
but as des êtres positifs, des esprits, que l'on a vus à l'uvre dans la nature, où ils se manifestent par leur action
. All this is perfectly true in our modern languages, which supply us with such terms as esprits
and êtres positifs
, ready made, but if we have to account for the more ancient formations and the earliest strata of religious thought, the science of language alone will solve the riddle why the great phenomena of nature were named as agents, as facteurs
, nay, it will show that what at first seemed a mere freak of fancy was in reality a necessity of language. While I accept Professor Tiele's facteurs
, I cannot, for the early periods of human thought, accept his forces
or sources de vie
. While I gladly accept Mr. H. Spencer's agents
, I cannot accept his agencies6
The Agents in Nature.
Facts are stronger than theories, and unless the facts as collected in my Science of Thought can be shown to be no facts, the fact remains and will remain for ever, that all objects which were named and conceived at all, were named and conceived at first as agents. The sky was he who covers, the sun he who warms, the moon he who measures night and day, the cloud he who rains, the fire he who moves, the horse he who runs, the bird he who flies, the tree he who grows or shades, even the stone he who cuts. We need not wonder at this, for we ourselves still speak of a cutter, a tender, a sucker, a slipper, of clinkers and splinters, without thinking of the activities ascribed to all these objects by the primitive framers of words.
Though the agents of the different acts of nature remained unknown, yet as the agents of the light of the sun or of the rain of the clouds, they were conceived as very real agents. All this was the work, the almost inevitable work of language, provided always that we take language in the sense of the Greek logos, comprehending both speech and thought as one.
The Categories of the Understanding.
If we once have accustomed ourselves to speak of thought as something different from language, then, of course, instead of appealing to the necessities of language as a whole, we should, with Kant, have to appeal to the categories of the understanding. We should then have to recognise the category of substance as embodied in the active character of roots. We should thus gain, perhaps, a clearer insight into the abstract process of thought, but we should lose all that is most important to us, namely, the historical growth of the human mind.
I have neither forgotten Kant, nor surrendered my belief in his categories. But the study of language, as the embodiment of thought, has made it clear to me that Kant's categories are abstractions only. They have no existence by themselves. They are not pigeon-holes made of a pine and covered with cloththey are simply the inside of language.
The Categories of Language.
Justice has at last been done to language. At first Aristotle learnt from language what he very properly called the categories, that is, the predicaments, or what we can predicate of our experience. Afterwards these categories, though originally abstracted from language, claimed complete independence and became extremely masterful in their relation to language and grammar. At last, however, language has now resumed her proper position as the only possible embodiment of deliberate thought, and the categories, so far from being the moulds in which language was cast, are recognised once more as the inherent forms of thought-language.
We shall thus understand why fire, if it was to be named at all, could at first be named in one way only, namely, as an agent.
Fire, as a Deva.
We may now advance a step further, and ask how it was that Agni in the Veda is not conceived as an agent only, but as a god, or, if not, as yet, as a god in the Greek sense of the word, at least as a Deva. How shall we account for that?
Here we touch at once on the most vital point in our analysis. Certainly in the Veda Agni was called deva, perhaps more frequently than any other god. But fortunately in the Veda we can still discover the original meaning of the word deva. It did not mean divine, for how should such a concept have been suddenly called into being? Deva is derived from the root DIV, and meant originally bright. From the same root we have in Sanskrit diva, sky, divasa, day, in Lat. dies, and many more, all originally expressive of light and brightness. In many passages where Agni, or the Dawn, or the Sky, or the Sun are called deva, it is far better to translate deva by bright than by divine, the former conveying a natural meaning in harmony with the whole tenour of the Vedic hymns, the latter conveying hardly any meaning at all.
But it is true nevertheless that this epithet deva, meaning originally bright, became in time, in the Vedic, nay even in the Aryan period already, the recognised name of those natural agents whom we have been accustomed to call gods. We can watch the evolutionary process before our very eyes. When the different phenomena of nature representing light, such as the morning, the dawn, the sun, the moon, the sky, had been invoked each by its own name, they could all be spoken of by the one epithet which they shared in common, namely deva, bright. In this general concept of those Bright ones, all that was special and peculiar to each was dropt, and there remained only the one epithet deva, to embrace them all. Here then there arose, as if by necessity, a new concept, in which the distinctive features of the various bright beings had all been merged in that of brightness, and in which even the original meaning of brightness, being shared by so many very different beings, had been considerably dimmed or generalised, so that there remained little more than the concept of agent which, as modified by brightness, had been from the beginning contained in the root DIV.
You will now perceive the difference between our saying that the ancient Âryas applied the name of gods to the fire, the sun, or the sky, or our watching the process by which these Âryas were brought to extract or abstract from the concepts of fire, sun, moon, and sky, all being bright beings, the general concept of Deva-hood. But, though we cannot help translating deva by god, you will easily understand what a distance there is from Deva-hood to God-hood. A Deva is as yet no more than a bright agent, then a kind agent, then a powerful agent, a more than human agent, nay, if you like, a super-human agent; and then only, by another step, by what may be called a step in the dark, a divine agent.
Greek and Roman Gods.
In Greece the process was slightly different. The Greeks very soon endowed these powerful agents with human qualities, to such an extent that immortality seems almost the only quality which they do not share in common with human beings. In Italy the old gods had less of that anthropomorphic character which they had in Greece. It is, in fact, a distinguishing feature of ancient Roman mythology that there are few family ties that hold the gods together, while the Greek gods are all related with one another most intimately, if not always, most correctly.
The early Christians invented still another concept for these Greek and Roman gods. They did not deny their substantial existence, but they accepted them as living beings, as spirits, as they called them, but as evil spirits. This idea has remained till almost to our own time, when the study of ancient religion and ancient language has enabled us to see what the Devas of the Âryas really werenot evil spirits, not human or superhuman beings, but names given to the most prominent phenomena of nature, which naturally and necessarily implied the idea of agents. With the progress of language and thought we are now able to speak instead of agents, of agencies, of forces, forces of nature, as we call them; but what is behind those agencies, what is behind warmth or light or ether, we know as little as the Vedic Rishis knew what was behind their Agni or their other Devas.
Ruskin on the Ancient Gods.
How powerful the influence of words may be, how long they may continue to charm and to mislead even the wisest, we may see from an eloquent passage in Mr. Ruskin's Praeterita, vol. iii. p. 17.2. He tries to explain to himself and to others what he means when he speaks, as he often does, half poet, half philosopher as he is, of gods. By gods in the plural, he writes, I mean the totality of spiritual powers, delegated by the Lord of the universe to do, in their several heights, or offices, parts of His will respecting man, or the world that man is imprisoned in; not as myself knowing, or in security believing, that there are such, but in meekness accepting the testimony and belief of all ages, to the presence, in heaven and earth, of angels, principalities, powers, thrones, and the likewith genii, fairies, or spirits ministering and guarding, or destroying and tempting, or aiding good work and inspiring the mightiest. For all these I take the general word gods, as the best understood in all languages, and the truest and widest in meaning, including the minor ones of seraph, cherub, ghost, wraith, and the like; and myself knowing for indisputable fact, that no true happiness exists, nor is any good work ever done by human creatures, but in the sense or imagination of such presences.
Does not this confirm the words of Rosmini when he said: The deeper we penetrate into this matter, the more do we find that all our intellectual errors, all the pernicious theories, the deceptive sophistries by which individuals and nations have been deluded, can be traced back to the vague and improper use of words7
Evolution of the word Deva.
It is very important that you should clearly apprehend this process by which the word deva, originally meaning bright, assumed in time the meaning of god, in that sense at least in which the Hindus, like the Greeks and Romans, would speak of Agni, the fire, Ushas, the dawn, Dyaus, the sky, as their Devas, or their gods. It is one of the most interesting cases of intellectual evolution, for it shows us how a word, having originally the purely material meaning of brightness, came in the end by the most natural process to mean divine. There was nothing intentional in that process. It was impossible that there should have been a conscious intention to express the divine, for, if there had been such a conscious intention, there would have been already in the human mind a pre-existent name and concept of the divine. The process was one of the most natural evolution. You may say that nothing could be evolved that was not involved in the word deva, and in one sense this is perfectly true. In the idea of agency, which was involved in every root, there lay the germ which, as one outside envelope after the other was removed, came out in the end in all its simplicity and purity. But it came out nevertheless after it had been coloured or determined by these former envelopments. It had passed through an historical process, and had thus grown into an historical concept.
Nor must we suppose that the evolution of the word deva was the only evolution, which gave us in the end the idea of divine. That idea was evolved in many different ways, but nowhere can we watch every stage in the evolution so well as in the history of the word deva. Our own word God must have passed through a similar evolution, provided it be an old word. But unfortunately nearly all its antecedents are lost, and its etymology is quite unknown.
We have as yet traced the history, or, if you like, the evolution of the word deva to that stage only when it signifies a number of bright, kind, powerful agents, such as Mr. Ruskin declared he could still accept on the testimony and belief of all ages. But its history, as we shall see, does not end there. It gradually rises to the highest concept of deity, to a belief in a God above all gods, a creator, a ruler of the world, a judge, and yet a compassionate father, so that what seems at first a mere matter of linguistic archaeology, will stand before us in the end as the solution of one of the most vital questions of religious philosophy. How many times has the question been asked, whence comes the idea of God? and how many different answers has it elicited! Some people maintain it is inherent in the human mind, it is an innate idea, or a precept, as it has lately been called. Others assert that it could have come to man by a special revelation only. Others again, like Professor Gruppe, maintain that it is a mere hallucination that took possession of one man, and was then disseminated through well-known channels over the whole world. We do not want any of these guesses. We have a guide that does not leave us in the dark when we are searching for the first germs of the idea of God. Guided by language, we can see as clearly as possible how, in the case of deva, the idea of God grew out of the idea of light, of active light, of an awakening, shining, illuminating, and warming light. We are apt to despise the decayed seed when the majestic oak stands before our eyes, and it may cause a certain dismay in the hearts of some philosophers that the voice of God should first have spoken to man from cut the fire. Still as there is no break between deva, bright, as applied to Agni, the fire, and many other powers of nature, and the Deus Optimus Maximus of the Romans, nay, as the God whom the Greeks ignorantly worshipped was the same God whom St. Paul declared unto them, we must learn the lesson, and a most valuable lesson it will turn out to bethat the idea of God is the result of an unbroken historical evolution, call it a development, an unveiling, or a purification, but not of a sudden revelation.
Natural Revelation of God.
It seems almost incredible that in our days such a lesson, confirmed as it is by the irrefragable evidence of historical documents, should be objected to as dangerous to the interests of religion, nay, should form the object of virulent attacks.
For some reason or other, our opponents claim for their own theories the character of orthodoxy, while they try to prejudge the whole question by stigmatising our own argument as heterodox. Now I should like to ask our opponents, first of all, by what authority such metaphysical theories as that of innate ideas can possibly claim the name of orthodox, or where they can point to chapter and verse in support of what they call either a special or a universal primeval revelation, imparting to human beings the first concept and name of God? To a student of the religions of the world, in their immense variety and their constant divisions, the names of orthodox and heterodox, so freely used at all times and on all sides, have lost much both of their charm and their terror. What right have we to find fault with the manner in which the Divine revealed itself, first to the eyes, and then to the mind of man? Is the revelation in nature really so contemptible a thing that we can afford to despise it, or at the utmost treat it as good enough for the heathen world? Our eyes must have grown very dim, our mind very dull, if we can no longer perceive how the heavens declare the glory of God. We have now named and classified the whole of nature, and nothing seems able any longer to surprise, to terrify, to overwhelm us. But if the mind of man had to be roused for the first time, and to be lifted up to the conception of something beyond itself, what language could have been more powerful than that which spoke in mountains and torrents, in clouds and thunderstorms, in skies and dawns, in sun and moon, in day and night, in life and death? Is there no voice, no meaning, is there no revelation in all this? Was it possible to contemplate the movements of the heavenly bodies, the regular return of day and night, of spring and winter, of birth and death, without the deepest emotion?
Of course, people may say now, We know all this, we can account for it all, and philosophy has taught us Nil admirari. If that is so, then it may be true indeed that the sluggish mind of man had to be stirred once more by a more than natural revelation. But in the early days of the world, the world was too full of wonders to require any other miracles. The whole world was a miracle and a revelation, there was no need for any special disclosure. At that time the heavens, the waters, the sun and moon, the stars of heaven, the showers and dew, the winds of God, fire and heat, winter and summer, ice and snow, nights and days, lightnings and clouds, the earth, the mountains and hills, the green things upon the earth, the wells, and seas, and floods, all blessed the Lord, praised Him, and magnified Him for ever.
Can we imagine a more powerful revelation? Is it for us to say that for the children of men to join in praising and magnifying Him who revealed Himself in His own way in all the magnificence, the wisdom, and order of nature, is mere paganism, polytheism, pantheism, and abominable idolatry? I have heard many blasphemies, I have heard none greater than this.
It may be said, however, that the road from nature leads only to nature's gods, to a belief in many, not in one supreme God. It certainly leads through that gate, but it does not stop there. If we return to the Veda, the oldest record of a polytheistic faith, and if we take up once more the thread where we left it, we shall be able to see how Agni, the god of fire, being at first but one by the side of many other gods, develops into something much higher. He does not remain one out of many gods. He becomes in the end a supreme god, the Supreme God, till his very name is thrown away, or is recognised as but one out of many names by which ancient seers in their helpless language called that which is, the One and All. You may remember the passage from the Veda which I quoted before: That which is one, the seers call in many ways, they call it Agni, Yama, Mâtarisvan.
The Biography of Agni.
This process, which I call the theogonic process, is so important that we must study it carefully, and step by step, in the case of at least one of the ancient gods. If I select for that purpose the god of fire, Agni, and not Dyaus, Zeus, Jupiter, the supreme god of the Aryan Pantheon, it is because the biography of Dyaus, having been fully worked out by me on former occasions, need not be gone through again in full detail8
. It is my chief object at present to show how many roads, starting from different beginnings, all converged and met in the end in the same central point, the belief in one Supreme Agent, manifested in all that is and moves and lives, and how the perception of the Infinite was revealed everywhere in what we call the perceptions of the Finite.