Literary Documents of Aryan and Semitic Religious.
BEFORE I began to give you an outline of Physical Religion I felt it incumbent on me to describe the materials which are accessible to us for studying the origin and growth of the gods of nature. The most important among them was the Veda and so it is again for our present purpose. For information therefore of what the Veda is I must refer you to the description of Vedic literature which I gave in the second volume of my Gifford Lectures.
Besides the Veda our chief authorities were then the Avesta the sacred book of the followers of Zoroaster the Homeric poems and the religious and mythological traditions preserved to us in the later literatures of Rome and Germany. I touched but rarely on Celtic and Slavonic traditions partly because they have not yet been so carefully collected and sifted; partly or I should say chiefly because I felt unable to control as strictly as they ought to be controlled the statements on which I should have had to rely.
Considering how ample the materials are with which the literature of the Aryan nations supplies the students of the Science of Religion it is but natural nay it seems most desirable that they should devote their principal attention to this wide field of research and not attempt to glance at other fields till they have gained a firm footing on their own. Still the time must come when they have to look beyond the limits of the Aryan world in order to compare their results with the results obtained by other explorers and thus either to modify or to confirm the convictions at which they have arrived by their more special studies.
The same applies to the study of the Semitic religions and we can see in a recent work by Professor Robertson Smith how wide and accurate a survey of extraneous religions may be commanded by a scholar if he has once gained a firm footing on his own special vantage-ground.
Literary Documents of other Religions.
But even from this higher point of view the instinct or it may be the prejudice of the scholar would naturally lead him to approach first of all the study of those non-Aryan religions which are represented by a real literature. Wherever I allowed myself to survey the wider fields of religious thought I dwelt chiefly on what may be called the historical religions of the world the Semitic in Babylon Nineveh and Judæa the Hamitic in Egypt and the national religion of China as restored by Confucius.
All these may be called the religions of civilised or historical races and what is more important still they can all be studied in literary documents.
The Religions of Illiterate Races.
But it has been said very truly that religion is not confined to civilised races nor is civilisation essential to religion. On the contrary the lowest savage has his religion and that religion for all we know may be far more primitive far more simple nay even far more true than the religions of many civilised races.
Now I have not one word to say against all this. On the contrary there was a time when I thought myself that a study of the religions of uncivilised races would help us to reach a lower that is a more ancient and more primitive stratum of religious thought than we could reach in the sacred books of the most highly civilised races of the world.
Comparative Study of Languages.
I was led to this opinion chiefly through the study of Comparative Philology. After exploring the most important languages of the Aryan and the Semitic families of speech I devoted as a young man several years to a study of other languages in order to see how far they agreed and how far they differed from the Aryan and the Semitic types. I examined for that purpose not only literary languages such as the Dravidian languages of India Chinese and Mandshu Turkish and Finnish but likewise some of the Malay and Polynesian dialects some representatives of American speech of one of which the Mohawk I wrote a grammatical analysis and some of the more important linguistic specimens from Africa and even from Australia. You must not imagine that I studied these languages as we study Greek and Latin. The age of Methuselah would not suffice for that. I studied chiefly the grammars I made myself acquainted with the general structure of each language and I was thus enabled to compare not only the materials of these languages but their grammatical expedients also with those of the Aryan and Semitic languages. I consider this more comprehensive study of languages extremely useful as a preparation for more special studies. It frees us from many prejudices it enables us in many cases to go behind the grammars of Sanskrit and Hebrew not genealogically but psychologically and it helps us to recognise beneath a great variety of grammatical formations one and the same fundamental purpose.
I am quite aware that the results of these re-searches which I collected in a letter to Baron Bunsen On the Turanian Languages published in 1854 have been to a great extent corrected and superseded by subsequent labours. Some of the classifications which I then proposed have had to be surrendered and the very comprehensive name of Turanian under which I included a large number of languages neither Aryan nor Semitic has very properly been banished for a time from linguistic science. But with all that I do not regret the time devoted to these studies and I still hold that for gaining a firm grasp on the general principles of human speech nay for fully appreciating the distinctive character of the Aryan and Semitic languages nothing is so useful as to be able to contrast them even with such imperfect attempts at embodying human thought as we find in the jargons of the Australian Blacks.
Comparative Study of non-Aryan and non-Semitic Religions.
When in later years I was led from a study of languages to a study of mythologies and religions it was but natural that I should have felt strongly drawn towards the same sources from which I had already derived so much useful information. Undeterred by the dark looks of classical scholars I endeavoured to show how some of the best-known mythological and religious traditions of Greece and Rome found their analogy and explanation in the Veda. I went even further and did not shrink from pointing out striking parallels between the gods and heroes of Homer and the gods and heroes of Polynesian African and American savages. Here again I do not deny that later information has shown in several cases that some of these parallelisms were no parallelisms at all that what seemed like was essentially unlike and that the chapter of accidental coincidences was larger than we expected. But the principle that there was quite apart from any historical borrowing a common fund of thought in all the mythologies and religions of the world has remained untouched and must continue to inspire all serious students of the ancient history of man.
New Epoch in the Study of Uncivilised Races.
But there has been of late a strong reaction. First of all it has been shown that it was certainly a mistake to look upon the manners and customs the legends and religious ideas of uncivilised tribes as representing an image of what the primitive state of mankind must have been thousands of years ago or what it actually was long before the beginning of the earliest civilisation as known to us from historical documents. The more savage a tribe the more accurately was it supposed to reflect the primitive state of mankind. This was no doubt a very natural mistake before more careful researches had shown that the customs of savage races were often far more artificial and complicated than they appeared at first and that there had been as much progression and retrogression in their historical development as in that of more civilised races. We know now that savage and primitive are very far indeed from meaning the same thing.
But another and even more important change has come over the study of anthropology so far as it deals with illiterate tribes. Formerly the chief object of students of anthropology was to collect as much information as was available. Whatever a sailor or a trader or a missionary had noted down about out-of-the-way people was copied out classified and tabulated without any attempt at testing the credibility of these witnesses. This was particularly the case whenever the evidence seemed to tally with the expectations of the philosopher or furnished amusing material to the essayist. At last however the contradictions became so glaring the confusion so complete that serious students declined altogether to listen to this kind of evidence.
The Two New Principles.
This no doubt was going too far. It was what the Germans call pouring out the child with the bathwater. But it has left at least two principles firmly established and recognised by all conscientious students of anthropology:
1. That no one is in future to be quoted as an authority on savage races who has not been an eyewitness and has proved himself free from the prejudices of race and religion. But even to have been an eye-witness does not suffice. Let us suppose that a traveller had passed through a desert and seen there a race of savages perfectly naked and dancing round a graven image which they called their god. Suppose that after a time these savages had quarrelled among themselves and the traveller had witnessed at the end of their orgies a massacre of about three thousand men the corpses weltering in their blood. What account would he have given of that race? Would he not have described them as worse than the negroes of Dahomey? Yet these savages were the people of God the image was the golden calf the priest was Aaron and the chief who ordered the massacre was Moses. We no doubt read the 32nd chapter of Exodus in a very different sense. But the casual traveller unless he could have conversed with Moses and Aaron could only have described what he saw and the ethnologist knowing his authority to be trustworthy would naturally have ranged the Israelites among the lowest of savage races.
2. It was necessary therefore to lay down a second principle namely that no one is in future to be quoted as an authority on the customs traditions and more particularly on the religious ideas of uncivilised races who has not acquired an acquaintance with their language sufficient to enable him to converse with them freely on these difficult subjects.
No true scholar requires any proof in support of these two demands. He knows how difficult it often is for the best informed Greek Latin or Sanskrit scholars to gain a correct view of the religious opinions of ancient writers. He knows how much depends very often on a single various reading in the text of Homer or Pindar. He knows how often he has himself changed his opinion as to the actual import of a verse in Homer or in the Veda. If therefore he has simply to rely on authority he knows that he must first examine the claims to authority possessed by special students and be would never dream of relying on the statements of casual travellers in Italy Greece or India ignorant of the languages spoken in these countries for information either on the modern or the ancient religions of their inhabitants.
Anthropologists can no longer ignore the fact that the languages of Africa America Polynesia and even Australia are now being studied as formerly Greek Latin and Hebrew only were studied. You have only to compare for instance the promiscuous descriptions of the traditions of the Hottentots in the works of the best ethnologists with the researches of a real Hottentot scholar like Dr. Hahn to see the advance that has been made. When we read the books of Dr. Callaway on the Zulus of the Revs. William Wyatt Gill and Edward Tregear on the Polynesians of Dr. Codrington on the Melanesians of Horatio Hale on some of the North American races we feel at once that we are in safe hands in the hands of real scholars. Even then we must of course remember that their knowledge of the languages cannot compare with that of Bentley or Hermann or Burnouf or Ewald. Yet we feel that we cannot go altogether wrong in trusting to their guidance.
A Third Principle for the Future.
I go even a step further and I believe the time will come when no student will venture to write on any religion unless he has acquired some knowledge of the language of its sacred writings or of the people who believe in it. I think of course of serious students only of men who wish to assist in the discovery of truth and in the real advancement of knowledge not of that class of anthropologists so well described by Professor Tiele as ‘Ces braves gens qui pour peu qu'ils aient lu un ou deux récits de voyages ne manqueront pas do se mettre à comparer à tort et à travers et pour tout resultat produiront la confusion’ (Le Mythe de Kronos p. 17).
This may seem to be exacting too much but you have only to look for instance at the description given of the religion the mythology the manners customs and laws of the Brâhmans about a hundred years ago and before Sanskrit began to be studied and you will be amazed at the utter caricature that is often given of the intellectual state of the inhabitants of India compared with the true picture reflected in their literature. Yet there was plenty of evidence from Greek and Roman from Arabic and Persian writers and from many intelligent travellers and missionaries which seemed perfectly trustworthy and was accepted as such without any misgivings.
This question of the trustworthiness of writers on religion who are ignorant of the language in which religion lives and moves and has its being has of late become the object of so keen a controversy that it seems best to argue it out once for all. I do not wonder that those who depend for their information on the tabulated extracts published by Mr. Herbert Spencer should be unwilling to surrender these convenient ‘Aids to Faith’ without a struggle. The best I can do therefore is to give some of the results of my own experience and to show in some critical cases on how broken a reed I myself and others with me have been resting when we thought that mere outside observers ignorant of the language of the people could ever be qualified to give us trustworthy information as to the real religion of uncivilised or even of civilised races.
Testing of Evidence (I) with regard to Civilised Races.
I suppose we may reckon the Hindus of the present day among civilised races and we might suppose that as many of them speak English they were quite capable of giving an accurate and intelligible account of their religion. I have tried the experiment again and again with educated Indians staying at Oxford and I have been startled at their ignorance of their own religion. Many of them have never heard the names of their own sacred books. I do not mean of the Vedas only but even of the more modern Purânas. They have learned a few prayers from their mothers they have watched the priest coming to their houses to receive gifts and they remember some festivals though often for their secular rather than for their religious character. If you ask them what their religious convictions are they will say that they are followers of Vishnu or Siva or some other popular deity but what they have to believe and not to believe about these gods or any gods they are unable to say. In fact they hardly understand what we mean by religion. Religion as a mere belief apart from ceremonies and customs is to them but one and by no means the most important concern of life and they often wonder why we should take so deep an interest in mere dogma or as they express it make such a fuss about religion.
However we must not be too hard on these young gentlemen who come from India to study in England. Consider what answer an English boy would give if be were suddenly asked to give an account of the Christian religion. No doubt he would have seen and read the Old Testament and the New Testament and acquit himself well to a certain extent. Still I know what answers are sometimes given in the examinations in the Rudiments of Religion by undergraduates at Oxford and knowing it I can make allowance for the answers which I sometimes receive from my young Indian friends. I shall give you two specimens only. In the questions on the Old Testament there was one ‘State what you know about Jezebel.’ The answer was short and pithy: ‘Jehu ate him.’ In the viva voce examination on the New Testament a candidate was asked: ‘Who was Salome?’ The answer came quick ‘The father of the sons of Zebedee.’ The examiner paused and said: ‘Do you really mean that Sir?’ He thought for a moment and then said ‘Oh no Sir a pool.’
After this we must not be too much scandalised if we do not always get the most trustworthy information about the Indian religion even from highly educated young Hindus preparing for the Indian Civil Service examinations.
Different Accounts of the Religious Beliefs of the Hindus.
But while these natives themselves are generally very reticent on their religion and unable or unwilling to give an account of the faith that is in them England possesses a large class of persons who have spent their life in India in various pursuits and who might safely be supposed to know everything about what is called the religion of the natives. These men were formerly quoted as the highest authorities and it would have seemed an unwarrantable scepticism to question their statements. There are no doubt very able learned and thoughtful men among these Anglo-Indians. These generally speak with great caution. But there are others who are most positive in their statements whether favourable or unfavourable about the manners the customs and the religious opinions of the natives and who think it the height of presumption for a student who has never been in India to differ from their opinions. Fortunately the number of Anglo-Indians is large and as they often contradict each other flatly it is open to us to appeal from one to the other and in the end to form our own opinion from recognised authorities in the ancient and modern literature of the country.
I shall mention a few only of the dangers which beset the inquiries into the religious opinions of the natives of India as carried on by gentlemen residing for a number of years at Calcutta Bombay or Madras.
First of all there is no such thing as a general religion of the natives. There are probably a hundred different forms of religious belief and worship in that enormous country but there is no general standard of belief no pope no councils no confession of faith to guide the masses of the people. The sacred books are read and understood by the few only. There are many educated Hindus who have never seen a copy of a Purâna still less of the Veda. No wonder therefore that observations made in one part of India should not always agree with observations made in another locality and among a totally different population.
Secondly in the great towns the whole atmosphere is now pervaded by European ideas. Schools newspapers and books have introduced words and ideas into the native languages of India which are quite foreign to the native mind.
Thirdly some natives particularly those who have been brought in contact with Europeans are very apt to give the answers which they are expected to give even if they do not go quite so far as Wilford's and Jacolliot's friends.
Like Roman Catholic theologians who when they are charged with tolerating idolatry have recourse to a distinction between objects of adoration and objects of veneration the educated Hindu repels indignantly the charge of idol-worship and shows that sacred images are only meant as memorials or as temporary abodes of the deity. This may be quite true for the educated classes but it is not so for the mass of the people.
To illustrate what I mean I shall give here a description by a missionary who has had long and intimate relations with the Hindus both the educated and the peasantry as to the way in which an idol is made and unmade in India and an account of what the Hindus themselves think of the indwelling spirit of the deity.
The Goddess Durgâ or Kâlî.
Durgâ or Kâlî is the most popular goddess in Calcutta and in the whole of Bengal. Her temple at Kalighat is the most sacred in the country. The image-maker preparing for the great Durgé-Pûgâ festival buys bamboos straw clay paint &c. He then fastens the bamboos together so as to form as it were the bones or framework of the future image. Having twisted the straw into ropes he gives the bamboos their required thickness by twisting these ropes round them and lastly he gives the outward form of limb and feature by plastering the whole with clay which when dry is painted and set up in his shop for sale. But it is as yet no more a goddess than an earthern pot is. A day or two before the Pûgâ the worshipper visits the shop of the image-maker and selects an image larger or smaller according to his means. Having paid for it he hands it to a coolie or to three or four coolies—if large—to carry home. Meanwhile he himself goes to another shop and buys Durgâ's hair in a third her sari in a fourth gorgeous jewellery made of mica or talc in a fifth the tin weapons &c. with which her hands are armed. Laden with these purchases he arrives at home and commences to tie on the hair and to array the image in gorgeous apparel. Still when all this is done and the image is enshrined in the Pûgâ house she is yet no goddess. Durgâ must be entreated to leave her beloved husband and to descend and dwell in the image; and it is only when she has done this that the image is to be bowed before and offerings of money &c. presented at the shrine. She condescends to dwell on earth for three days. On the afternoon of the third day the image is borne aloft on men's shoulders to the deafening sound of gongs and tom-toms. Baboos often men who never put a foot to the ground on any other day of the year follow through the dusty and not very odorous streets of Calcutta. When the banks of the Hooghly are reached the image is put on board a boat which is rowed to the middle of the stream; and just as the sun is setting it is allowed to sink below the water while a Nîlkanth (the beautiful Indian jay also a name of Siva) is released from a cage in which he has been carried to fly away to Siva to tell him that his beloved Durgâ is coming back to him. The image was not sacred till animated—so to speak—by Durgâ nor are the frameworks of the images which in a day or two plentifully strew the shore sacred. Durgâ has gone away and they are again but bamboo and straw.
This is one account of the goddess Durgâ the most popular deity of Bengal.
If we asked an educated native he would probably say that all these festivals with their processions and shoutings and images were meant for the people who could not understand anything else. Educated people in England say the same of the corybantic processions of the Salvation Army. They say that they appeal to minds to whom nothing else would appeal. But to the Kuli and his wife and children the very question what the image of Durgâ was would be hardly intelligible. To him it is Durgâ the wife of Siva who has to be propitiated and whose festival is to them one of the happiest days in the whole year.
We should find but few if any among the learned natives who could tell us the real character the origin and history of this goddess. They see no doubt more in her than a mere idol and look upon the hideous accessories of her worship as things that must be tolerated though they cannot be approved. But her real antecedents and her historical origin would be as great a puzzle to them as it is to us.
The Higher Conception of Durgâ
I had a correspondence not long ago with a learned and thoughtful native of India a real believer in Durgâ in order to find out how he reconciled his own exalted ideas of the godhead with the popular conception of this deity. ‘Behind the popular conception’ he writes ‘there is as many of us believe a beautiful and grand idea of godhead. Durgâ represents to us universal Sakti or power i.e. every force spiritual and physical of Nature in every form. This may be seen from the famous hymn addressed to her as Kandî (in the Devîmâhâtmya of the Mârkandeya Purâna) beginning with the words yâ devî sarvabhûteshu “she who is the goddess in all things” occurring in every verse. The Vedic deities represent separate forces or manifestations of Nature. Agni is fire Varuna is water Indra is the firmament or clouds or rain. But Durgâ includes in herself every deity being universal power. She is all the Vedic deities and all the Paurânic ones combined in a grand unity. The teachers of the Âdi Samâg (Devendranâth Tagore &c.) have already familiarised the people with the idea of God being either Father or Mother. Durgâ is Mother-God. Divested of personality and sex Durgâ is universal power almighty irresistible power. What Krishna says of himself to Arguna in the Bhagavadgîtâ about his being everything would apply to this conception of Durgâ equally. For Krishna in the Bhagavadgîtâ read Durgâ and you will readily understand who and what Durgâ is in the estimation of all genuine and educated Sâktas.
‘How a deity of Paurânic origin could come to supplant all the earlier Vedic deities and to be idenfied with the idea of supreme Godhead is perhaps not very difficult to understand. The manner in which the Mârkandeya Purâna has described her (notwithstanding the late origin ascribed to her) has naturally led to this development. No Christian can compose a hymn to the Godhead (without reference to Christ of course and to the Holy Ghost) that would not apply to Durgâ. Indeed if a personal God almighty and all-perfect is to be believed in it makes very little difference whether that God is called Father or Mother.
‘I have only to add what the meaning of the word Durgâ is. Etymologically the word means She who is approached with difficulty. Of course in this sense she is the unapproachable supreme godhead; one that is who cannot be approached without years upon years of the austerest of penances and meditations. It may also mean one who can cross every difficulty and hence ward off all difficulties from her devotees. You know that Râma worshipped Durgâ and it was on the fourth day (i.e. the first day after the worship had been over) that Râvana was slain. No Hindu rises from his bed in the morning without repeating the following:—
Prabhâte yah smaren nityam Durgâ-Durgâksharadvayam
Âpadas tasya nasyanti tamas sûryodaye yathâ.
“He who recollects every morning the two syllables Durgâ Durgâ his calamities vanish like darkness at the rising of the sun.”’
Who would deny that there are true religious elements in this view of Durgâ so different from the image made of bamboos straw clay and paint? Who would deny that motherhood has as much right as fatherhood as one of the many forms under which man may conceive the godhead? Durgâ as conceived by my friend seems a kind of deified Nature or an image of Divine Omnipotence such as we find most frequently elsewhere particularly in Semitic religions.
The Origin of Durgâ.
But there is one difficulty that remains. My correspondent says that the manner in which the Mârkandeya Purâna has described Durgâ has naturally led to this development. No doubt it has. But the question is How did that late Purâna come to describe her thus? Are there any historical antecedents of such a goddess as the Durgâ described in the Mârkandeya Purâna? If the study of religion has taught us anything it has taught us that no goddess springs suddenly from the brain of man. like Athene from the head of Zeus. Now it is well known that female deities act a rather subordinate part in the Vedic mythology of India and even those who like the Dawn receive the warmest homage never attain to the dignity of the female deities in Semitic mythology who represent the active power (sakti) of their male companions.
Some scholars such as Weber Muir1 and others endeavoured many years ago to show that the Paurânic Durgâ was the continuation of the Vedic Kâlî the dark flame also the wife of Agni and of Ambikâ the sister later the wife of Rudra. There is some truth in this as there is also in the other theory that Siva the husband of Durgâ may be looked upon as connected with Rudra and Agni.
But I cannot bring myself to believe that this modern god and goddess represent really a continuous development of the older Vedic gods and goddesses. There is such a decidedly non-Vedic spirit in the conception of Durgâ and her consort Siva that I feel inclined to trace it to some independent source. A goddess with four arms or ten arms with flowing hair riding on a lion followed by hideous attendants could hardly have been the natural outcome either of Rodasî the wife of Rudra and of the Maruts or even of the terrible flames of Agni Kâlî and Karâlî. The process to which Durgâ and Siva owe their present character must I believe be explained in a different way. It was probably the same process with which Sir Alfred Lyall and others have made us acquainted as going on in India even at the present time. When some outlying half-savage tribes are admitted to a certain status in the social system of the Brâhmans they are often told that their own gods are really the same as certain Brâhmanic gods so that the two coalesce and form a new incongruous mixture. Many years ago I suspected something like this in the curious process by which even in Vedic times the ancient gods the Ribhus had been assigned to the Rathakaras literally the chariot-makers a not quite Brâhmanic class under a chief called Bribu. If we suppose that some half-barbarous race brought their own god and goddess with them while settling in the Brâhmanised parts of India and that after a time they forced their way into the Brâhmanical society we could then more easily understand that the Brâhmanic priests in admitting them to certain social privileges and offering them their partial services would at the same time have grafted their deities on some of the minor Vedic deities.
Traces of a foreign possibly of a Northern or Northeastern Durgâ may still be discovered in some of her names such as Haimavatî coming from the snow-mountains; Pârvatî the mountaineer; Kirâtî belonging to the Kirâtas a race living in the mountains east of Hindustan. One of her best-known names Kandî explained as violent savage belongs to an indigenous vernacular rather than to Sanskrit. Kanda and Munda the latter possibly meant for the Munda tribes are represented as demons conquered by the goddess and she is said to have received from her victory over them the name of Ka-mundâ. Possibly Kandâla the name of one of the lowest castes may be connected with Kanda supposing that like Munda it was originally the name of a half-savage race. Even in so late a work as the Harivamsa v. 3274 we read that Durgâ was worshipped by wild races such as Sabaras Varvaras and Pulindas. Nay even Sarva another name of Siva and Sarvâ and Sarvânî names of Durgâ may be interpreted as names of a low caste (see Sarvarî a low-caste woman a devotee of Râma).
If then Kandî was originally the goddess of some savage mountaineers who had invaded central India the Brâhmans might easily have grafted her on Durgâ an epithet of Râtrî the night or on Durgâ as a possible feminine of Agni (havyavâhanî) who carries men across all obstacles (durga) or on Kâlî and Karâlî names of Agni's flames or Rodasî the wife of the Maruts or Rudra. This goddess is called vishita-stukâ with dishevelled locks and Kandî also is famous for her wild hair (kesinî).
In the same way her consort whatever his original name might have been would as a lord of mountaineers have readily been identified with Rudra the father of the Maruts or storm-winds dwelling in the mountains (giristhâ Rv. VIII. 94 12 &c.) or with Agni whether in one of his terrible or in one of his kind or friendly forms (sivâ tanûh Satarudriya 3). In his case no doubt the character of the prototypes on which he was grafted whether Rudra or Agni was more strongly marked and absorbed therefore more of his native complexion than in the case of Durgâ his wife. But the nature of Siva's exploits and the savage features of his worship can hardly leave any doubt that he too was of foreign origin. It should be remembered also that Rudra and Agni though they were identified by later Brâhmanic authors were in their origin two quite distinct concepts2.
I hold therefore that neither Durgâ nor Siva can be looked upon as natural developments not even as mere corruptions of Vedic deities. They seem inexplicable except as importations from non-Brâhmanic neighbours possibly conquerors or as adaptations of popular and vulgar deities by proselytising Brâhmans.
But even this would not suffice to account for all the elements which went towards forming such a goddess as we see Durgâ to be in the epic and Paurânic literature of India.
If she was originally the goddess of mountaineers and grafted on such Vedic deities as Râtrî Kâlî Rodasî Nirriti one does not see yet how she would have become the representative of the highest divine wisdom. The North no doubt was often looked upon as the home of the ancient sages and as early as the time of the Kena-upanishad the knowledge of the true Brahma is embodied in a being called Umâ Haimavatî. She is also called Ambikâ mother Pârvatî living in the mountains and her husband Umâpati is identified with Rudra (Taitt.-Âr. 18). Some authorities (Râm. I. 36 13) speak of Umâ and Gaṅgâ as two daughters of Himavat which might lead us to suppose that Umâ was the name of a Northern river possibly like the Sarasvatî a river protecting the settlement of some Vedic sages. But whoever this Umâ or Ambikâ was she too as representing the highest wisdom was sometimes embodied in the goddess Durgâ who thus became the incarnation of wisdom quite as much as the terrible goddess the destroyer of thousands of evil demons. Nor is she only the representative of that Brahma-vidyâ (Mahâbh. Bhîshmaparva v. 803) or of that Vedântie philosophy which discovers the true Brahma behind the veil of Mâyâ; but in the Devî-mâhâtmy a she is represented also as Mahâmâyâ herself or the cause of all phenomenal existence. We read there (V. 56): ‘By thee the universe is upheld by thee this world is created by thee it is preserved O goddess; and thou always devourest it in the end.’ And again (V. 63): ‘Thou art the power of whatever substance existent or non-existent anywhere is O thou soul of all things; why art thou praised then? Who is able to magnify thee by whom the creator of the world the possessor of the world and he who devours the world have been made subject to sleep?’
Here then we see to a certain extent the justification of the opinion expressed by my Indian correspondent as to the true nature of Durgâ. What he says of her is exactly what the gods headed by Indra said to her after she had vanquished the demon Mahisha: ‘We bow down with devotion before the goddess Ambikâ who stretched out this world by her own power in whom are impersonated the various energies (saktis) of all the gods; she is to be adored by all the deities and Rishis.’
But the steps by which Durgâ became what she is now will never be laid bare from beginning to end unless we can gain much fuller information of the religious life of the people at large than has hitherto been accessible to us in Sanskrit literature3.
This may give some faint idea of the difficulties which confront the student of religion even under the most favourable circumstances. They could hardly anywhere be more favourable than in India. We have the advantage there of a large number of witnesses whose observations can be compared and checked one by the other. We have natives who speak English and missionaries and others who speak Hindustani and yet we see how they not only contradict one another but how what they relate is hardly ever the whole truth. There are more varieties dialects patois and jargons of religion than of language and to construct out of all of them a classical grammar a rule of faith accepted by all is one of the most difficult tasks4. Some people would consider it almost impossible. Every one they say has a right to his own religion. Religion lives only in the heart and no one has any right to touch or to correct it. Such a view though I do not deny that there is some truth in it would of course put an end to all historical study and religion. It would be the same as if in the study of language we were to say that every one has a right to his own dialect; that language lives only as it is spoken and no one has any right to touch or to correct it.
Among most nations this difficulty has been solved for religion by sacred books and creeds for language by classical literature and grammar. But among races who have neither the one nor the other you will see now why the task of discovering the general outlines of their religion is so difficult a task quite as difficult as that of discovering the general outlines of their grammar nay even more difficult.
Testing of Evidence (II) with regard to Illiterate Races.
I tried once to collect from the mouth of a Mohawk a grammar of his language. The circumstances were most advantageous. My Mohawk friend knew English and a little Latin. He had been educated at a Missionary school and he was ready to answer all questions which I addressed to him. Besides the Mohawk being one of the North-American polysynthetic languages I knew on the whole what to expect.
It was most curious however that this young Mohawk who knew what grammar meant insisted from the first that Mohawk was really no language like English that it had no real grammar and that it was useless to attempt to construct a grammar of it.
This is exactly what some Negro converts say when examined about their former religion. It is really no religion at all they say; their old gods are quite different from their new God and yet when they are in trouble they will pray to their old gods to avert dangers while they shrink from troubling their new God with their petitions.
I soon discovered that Mohawk as spoken by my friend was a most systematic most regular most transparent language. The roots stood out clearly by themselves and the most minute grammatical modifications were expressed by a number of short suffixes which left no doubt as to their original pronominal character. After I once knew the character of these suffixes there was little difficulty in telling how to conjugate a new verb even though my friend had not repeated to me the actual forms. This surprised him very much and I remember one occasion when he was almost frightened by my knowledge of the Mohawk grammar. In Mohawk there are different forms not only for singular and plural but also for a dual. Now if we want to say ‘I love my children’ we must say ‘I them love my children.’ The suffix for them is really what is called an infix and seems to form part of the verb. I then asked my teacher to give me the Mohawk for ‘I love my parents’ which was ‘I them love my parents.’ Here I stopped him and asked whether it should not be ‘I them two love my parents’ substituting the dual for the plural infix. He stared at me when he heard my grammatical compound as if it were not quite canny. ‘Why’ he said ‘that is how my grandmother used to say. How came you to know it?’ I explained to him how I came to know it. The fact was that in Mohawk as in other languages the old dual forms were dying out. His grandmother still used them—he himself found the plural sufficient.
If this correcting and reconstructing process is necessary for a knowledge of the languages how much more is it for the religions of uncivilised people. As I have spoken of my Mohawk friend I may give you another curious case that arose in my conversations with him and which shows how the peculiar character of a language may influence even religious expressions. In Mohawk we cannot say father mother child nor the father the mother the child. We must always say my father or thy mother or his child. Once when I had asked him to translate the Apostles’ Creed for me he translated ‘I believe in our God our father and his son’ all right. But when he came to the Holy Ghost he asked is it their or his Holy Ghost? I told him that there was a difference of opinion on that point between two great divisions of the Christian Church and he then shook his head and declared that he could not translate the Creed till that point had been settled.
Of course my friend the Mohawk having been educated at a Missionary school in Canada knew nothing of the old religion of his tribe. He was a Christian and if he had known anything of the religious beliefs and customs of his ancestors he would probably have said that they really had no religion like the English religion just as he thought that their language had no grammar like the English language. Such an answer has very often been given to inquisitive travellers and some of them have told us in consequence that certain races had really no religion at all.
This belief however that there are savage races without any trace of religion has now I believe been completely surrendered by those who have made the history of religion a subject of scholarlike study. Tribes without religion have been hunted for in the most remote and inaccessible corners of the globe but in every case so far as I am aware the statement that a whole race was ever without any religion has been controverted by ocular observation.
I cannot here go through every case where a more or less savage race has been described to us first as entirely without religious ideas and afterwards not only as religious but as superstitious pious and even priest-ridden. It might seem as if there had been on one side a wish to establish the fact that man could exist without religion and on the other side that he could not. There certainly was for a time a tendency to discover men standing on so low a level as to form a bridge between animal and man. All such tendencies are much to be deprecated as hindrances to the progress of science. But in most cases I believe the conflict of evidence is due to misconception rather than to prejudice.
We all know from our own experience within a smaller sphere what contorted and distorted images our own peculiar angle of vision our own religious moral national or political spectacles may produce what we can bring ourselves to believe and as we call it honestly to believe if there is nothing to make us hesitate.
Read the descriptions of Mohammed by his disciples and by his enemies read the enthusiastic panegyrics of Socrates by Plato and his condemnation as a corruptor of the Athenian youth read the account of Napoléon by Thiers and by Lanfrey or by Mad. De Remusat read in our daily papers the representations of the same person as a pattern of unselfish patriotism and as a reckless political gambler and you will learn to make allowance for the strange opinions expressed by travellers and missionaries of races of men whom they are pleased to call savages or brutes.
The Andaman Islanders.
I shall only mention one more case which seems more flagrant than all the rest that of the Mincopies or the inhabitants of the Andaman islands. It is a case of taking away not only their religious character but their character altogether. Owing to the exaggerated accounts of travellers the inhabitants of these islands had acquired such a bad reputation for ferocity and brutality that for centuries no ships passing there on the very high road of commerce would go near these islands. An Arab writer5 of the ninth century states that their complexion is frightful their hair frizzled their countenance and eyes terrible their feet very large and almost a cubit in length and that they go quite naked. Marco Polo (about 1285) declared that the inhabitants are no better than wild beasts and he goes on to say: ‘I assure you all the men of this island of Angamanain have heads like dogs and teeth and eyes likewise; in fact in the face they are just like big mastiff dogs.’
In 1857 after the Sepoy mutiny it was necessary to find a habitation for a large number of convict prisoners. The Andaman Islands were then selected for a penal colony. The havoc that was wrought by this sudden contact between the Andaman islanders and these Indian convicts was terrible and the end will probably be the same as in Tasmania—the native population will be extirpated. If these natives had really been like what Marco Polo describes them their disappearance would not have been a cause of regret. But let us hear what Mr. Edward Horace Man the Assistant-Superintendent of the islands and specially in charge of the natives has to tell of them. He is a careful observer a student of language and perfectly trustworthy. According to him the Andamanese are certainly a very small race their average height being 4 feet 103/4 inches. The tallest woman was 4 feet 41/2 inches the smallest 4 feet 2 inches. Their hair is fine very closely curled and frizzly. Their colour is dark not absolutely black. The features possess little of the most marked and coarser peculiarities of the negro type. The projecting jaws the prominent thick lips the broad and flattened nose of the genuine negro are so softened down in the Andamanese as scarcely to be recognised.
Before the introduction into the islands of what is called European civilisation the inhabitants lived in small villages their dwellings built of branches and leaves of trees. They were ignorant of agriculture and kept no poultry or domestic animals. Their pottery was hand-made their clothing very scanty. They were expert swimmers and divers and able to manufacture well-made dug-out canoes and outriggers. They were ignorant of metals ignorant we are told of producing fire though they kept a constant supply of burning or smouldering wood. They made use of shells for their tools had stone hammers and anvils bows and arrows harpoons for killing turtle and fish. Such is the fertility of the islands that they have abundance and variety of food all the year round. Their food was invariably cooked they drank nothing but water and they did not smoke.
People may call this a savage life—I know many a starving labourer who would gladly exchange the benefits of European civilisation for the blessings of such savagery.
But this is not all. It has been the custom of a certain class of anthropologists to illustrate their theories of the growth of civilisation by descriptions of savage life such as it was supposed to exist in Africa Australia and America. In these descriptions the Andaman islanders have generally been made to serve as specimens of the very lowest stratum of humanity and it is fortunate that before they have been altogether improved off the face of the earth they should have found one advocate at least to redeem their character. This is what Mr. Man who witnessed their last struggle with civilisation says of them:
‘It has been asserted that the “communal marriage” system prevails among them and that “marriage is nothing more than taking a female slave;” but so far from the contract being regarded as a merely temporary arrangement to be set aside at the will of either party no incompatibility of temper or other cause is allowed to dissolve the union; and while bigamy polygamy polyandry and divorce are unknown conjugal fidelity till death is not the exception but the rule; and matrimonial differences which however occur but rarely are easily settled with or without the intervention of friends.’ ‘One of the most striking features of their social relations is the marked equality and affection which exists between husband and wife’ and the ‘consideration and respect with which women are treated might with advantage be emulated by certain classes in our own land.’ ‘As to cannibalism or infanticide they are never practised by the Andamanese.’
But this is not all. These little fellows who inhabit these beautiful islands have lately found another defender in the person of Colonel Cadell the Chief Commissioner of the Andaman Islands. As to the scenery he describes it like fairyland. ‘The water deep and clear as a crystal; on either side within a stone's throw magnificent forest trees reaching to a height of 200 feet the stems of some straight and white like gigantic silver rods with umbrella-like tops; others clothed from foot to summit with creepers in beautiful festoons; palms rattans and canes of many varieties interspersed among the forest trees creating striking contrasts of form and colouring while beneath the vessel were inconceivably beautiful coral gardens.’ ‘But year after year;’ he continues ‘in his cruises among the islands he saw a perceptible diminution in the number of people. It was undoubtedly a moribund race and probably none of them would be found alive twenty-five or thirty years hence except perhaps in Little Andaman where the inhabitants had been kept free from the dire effects of contact with civilisation.’
I have said before that I cannot share the feeling of regret that certain races are dying out particularly when they are succeeded by a stronger and better race. If the Celtic race were effete why should it not be replaced by the Saxon race? If the Saxon race were effete why should it not make room for a better race? Nothing would be lost so long as we have on earth sound minds in sound bodies. But I must protest when I see certain races represented as unworthy to cover the face of the earth simply in order to have an excuse for removing them from the face of the earth. Now think of all that has been alleged against the poor Mincopies. They had feet a cubit long—and yet we know now that they are hardly five feet in height. They had faces like dogs they were like big mastiffs; but Mr. Man tells us that the coarse features of the Negro type were softened down in them so as scarcely to be recognised. And now let us hear Colonel Cadell once more. He is a Victoria Cross and not likely to be given to excessive sentimentality. Well this is what he says of these fierce mastiffs: ‘They are merry little people. One cannot imagine how taking they are. Every one who had to do with them fell in love with them. Contact with civilisation had not improved the morality of the natives. In their natural state they were truthful and honest generous and self-denying. He had watched them sitting over their fires cooking their evening meal and it was quite pleasant to notice the absence of greed and the politeness with which they picked off the tit-bits and thrust them into each other's mouths. The forest and sea abundantly supplied their wants and it was therefore not surprising that the attempts to induce them to take to cultivation had been quite unsuccessful highly though they appreciated the rice and Indian corn which were occasionally supplied to them. All was grist that came to their mill in the shape of food. The forest supplied them with edible roots and fruits. Bats rats flying foxes iguanas sea-snakes molluscs wild pig fish turtle and last though not least the larvae of beetles formed welcome additions to their larder. He remembered one morning landing by chance at an encampment of theirs under the shade of a gigantic forest tree. On one fire was the shell of a turtle acting as its own pot in which was simmering the green fat delicious to more educated palates; on another its flesh was being broiled together with some splendid fish; on a third a wild pig was being roasted its drippings falling on wild yams and a jar of honey stood close by—all delicacies fit for an alderman's table.’
According to strict anthropological terminology these men are savages nay the very lowest among savages because we are told they have no knowledge of kindling a fire they do not cultivate the soil and they do not domesticate any animals. How they can boil a turtle and roast a pig without a fire is difficult to understand. It may be true that they sow not neither do they reap nor gather into barns but the reason which they give for it would prove satisfactory even to an alderman. They need not toil and they need not spin and yet they have enough to eat.
However I do not want to defend these merry lazy islanders or to maintain that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of them in their almost complete nakedness. All I wished to point out was the insecurity of the evidence on which so many theories have been erected and the necessity of trusting to no witnesses except those who have lived among so-called savages for many years and who have acquired a practical knowledge of their language.
And now let us consider their religion. According to some authorities they were quite guiltless of any religion whether good or bad. This opinion received the support of Sir John Lubbock and has been often repeated without ever having been re-examined. As soon however as these Mincopies began to be studied more carefully more particularly as soon as some persons resident among them acquired a knowledge of their language and thereby a means of communication with them their religion came out as clear as daylight. According to Mr. E. H. Man they have a name for God Pûluga; and how can a race be said to be without a knowledge of God if they have a name for God Pûluga has a very mythological character. He has a stone-house in the sky. He has a wife whom he created himself end from whom he has a large family all except the eldest being girls. The mother is supposed to be green (the earth?) the daughters black. They are the spirits called Môrouin. His son is called Pîjchor. He alone is permitted to live with his father and to convey his orders to the Môrouin. But Pûluga has a moral character also. His appearance is like fire though now-a-days he has become invisible. He was never born; and is immortal. The whole world was created by him except only the powers of evil. He is omniscient knowing even the thoughts of the heart. He is angered by the commission of certain sins some very trivial but he is pitiful also to all who are in distress. He is the judge from whom each soul receives its sentence after death.
According to other authorities some of the Mineopies look on the sun as the fountain of all that is good on the moon as a minor power and they believe in a number of inferior spirits the spirits of the forest the water and the mountain as agents of the two higher powers. They believe in an evil spirit also who seems to have been originally the spirit of the storm. Him they try to pacify by songs or to frighten away with their arrows.
All this has been known for years and yet the old story is repeated again and again that the Andaman islanders are devoid of all religious sentiments. Is that right6?
Negative and Positive Evidence.
It can easily be seen that there is in these matters an essential difference between negative and positive evidence. If travellers tell us they have never discovered any signs of religion among certain races this may or may not be a proof that these races are without religion. But if a traveller tells us that he has seen people believing in God or gods showing reverence to the spirits of the forest the water and the mountains and trying to pacify an evil spirit we can hardly ignore all this and ascribe it either to imagination or wilful untruth. It is quite possible that a traveller or missionary may misapprehend and misunderstand what he sees and hears but there are few cases where downright falsehood as to facts has been proved against any of them. I fear however that unless the students of religion acquire themselves a certain knowledge of the languages in which religious ideas have taken their origin and their shape Comparative Theology will never hold its place by the side of Comparative Philology and will never assume a truly scientific character7.