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Lecture Ninth. Connexion of Religion in its Earliest Phases with Morality.

Relation of Religion and Morality — That Objective Religion conceives God as a Father — In what Sense the Earliest Religion is Ancestor-Worship — The Opposition of Gods and Demons — Social Character of Early Religion and Morality — The Development of Objective Religion — (1) The Growth of Polytheism and the Effort to reduce the Many Gods to One — Henotheism — (2) Importance of the Stage in which the Heavens or Heavenly Bodies came to be worshipped — The Vedic Religion — Why it ends in Pantheism.

IN the last lecture, I showed that religion in its first expression must necessarily take the form of the sensuous consciousness; i.e. that the god or gods who are worshipped must be represented as mere objects, existing among other objects and on the same terms with them. And I went on to point out how this objective form of the first religious consciousness is in conflict with the fundamental idea of religion, and how this conflict leads to a progressive improvement of that form itself. In this stage it is impossible for man to escape from the bonds of sense. He is obliged to represent his god as an external object of perception. But, consistently with this general mode of thought, it is possible for the imagination gradually to elevate the object worshipped above other objects, and to give it a completeness and independence, an ideal perfection, which makes it a fitter representative of the divine. It is the essential function of art and poetry to subserve in this way the higher education of man, by teaching us to see the universal in the form of the particular; or, in other words, to make particular objects represent to us something that is not really identified with their limited existence. The painter has done nothing, unless he has shown us not merely the photographic lineaments of that which he presents to us, but also the beauty that “never was on land or sea”; and the poet has done nothing, unless he has made his theme the vehicle of a meaning which is not confined to the theme itself, but connects it with ideas, or at least with emotions, which are universal. Hence the agency of art and poetry is just what is needed to meet the wants of the religious mind in its earliest stage, when it is as yet confined to the objective way of thinking, and is obliged to find room for all it would express in this inadequate form.

But before following out this line of thought any farther, we must turn to another aspect of religion. Religion is not only a theoretical consciousness, but is always intimately connected with the practical life of man. For, as we have seen, it is always the consciousness, in some more or less adequate form, of a divine power as the principle of unity in a world, of which we are not only spectators but parts. Indeed, the presence of this unity as an element or presupposition of our consciousness is the only reason of man's being religious at all. The idea of it, therefore, not only controls our view of objects in their relations to each other, but also our view of their relations to ourselves, and of our relations to them; and the most important of all the objects to which we stand in relation are our fellowmen, especially those who are members of the same society. If it is through the objective world, the not-self, that we are conscious of the self, and if it is through the double relation of each to the other that we are conscious of God, yet we must not regard all objects as equally concerned in the development of this higher consciousness. It is not in collision with stones and trees and animals that the light of intelligence and the consciousness of a separate individuality is kindled. It is the tension of conflict with another self that awakes the joy of independent selfhood and the pain of a finite divided life. “Iron sharpeneth iron: so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his neighbour.” But also “as in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man.” The same cause which makes keen the sense of division and antagonism, also gives rise to a perception of the need of union, and to the consciousness of the existence of a principle of unity, which is deeper than the division and can overcome it. Thus our consciousness of self is predominantly a consciousness of our distinction from and relation to other men, and our consciousness of God is developed mainly in connexion with this distinction and relation. To take a religious view of life therefore, is, not only to see a divine agency in the world: it is to recognise that agency as a power which, in lifting us above ourselves, unites us to other individuals and them to us. Religion is the acknowledgment of a principle, in uniting himself to which, man is at the same time brought into alliance not only with nature but also with his fellowmen. And, though at first it is rather in nature than in human nature that the form is sought under which this divine principle is expressed or represented, yet this does not prevent the being so worshipped from being regarded above all as a principle of unity in the social organism. Man's relation to God is inevitably conceived as the ground of a social relation between himself and other beings like himself, which determines at once their practical obligations to him and his practical obligations to them.

In this sense, then, we may say that, as is a man's religion, so is his morality. As he conceives of his relation to the power which determines his place in the world—and especially his place in relation to other men who with him are the members of one society—so also he conceives of the duty which he owes to them. Those who have denied that in early times religion had anything to do with morality, really meant that it does not produce what we call moral conduct. And to this it is sufficient to answer that their religion is not what we call religion. But it would be absurd to say that at any time man's relation to the beings he conceived as divine has not had a determining influence on his view of his relations to his fellowmen, and of the conduct therefore incumbent on him. And this would least of all be true of the earliest period of human history. Perhaps we might even go farther and say that, then and always, religion and morality are necessary correlates of each other, and that it is impossible to elevate one of them without also elevating the other. Of these reciprocal influences it would not be difficult to find many proofs, but we must confine ourselves to one or two salient points.

In the first place, I may refer to one very important effect on the conception of man's social relations, which is produced by the objective form of our first religious consciousness. In the absence of special counteracting causes, the fact that the god who is the principle of unity in a society, is conceived as an object, carries with it the consequence that the connexion of the members of that society with each other and with their god is conceived as an external and natural connexion. And, conversely, if the social bond be regarded as merely based on natural relationship, the god who is the principle of unity in the society will be represented as an external object, a merely natural existence. In other words, if the religion be naturalistic and objective, the morality will necessarily take the same form, and the social bond will be represented as simply the tie of common blood. And, on the other hand, if the sense of moral obligation does not separate itself from, or reach beyond, the natural ties of kindred, the god who is the principle of unity manifesting itself in that bond of union, will necessarily be represented in some merely natural form, and his connexion with his worshippers will be regarded as one of actual physical descent.

It is, therefore, only what we might expect that in early times such descent should be taken as the limit of the social bond, within which alone any duties to others are acknowledged; and that the god who preserves and sanctifies the bond of kinship should be regarded as the ancestor of all who partake in it. This, however, does not imply that, as Mr. Spencer among others has maintained, the beginning of religion was in ancestor-worship; for this would involve that the god worshipped was always, in the first instance, a human being. Now, under the system of Totemism, which is at least one of the earliest forms of social union, we find that the god is an animal, a plant, or, indeed, almost anything rather than a man, And, though a kind of anthropomorphism appears very early—because the sense of the distinction of different grades of being is very weak—yet a clear selection of the form of man as that which is primarily or exclusively divine, comes very late. The consciousness of the opposition between the finite and the infinite first betrays itself in the tendency to seek God in that which is far off from humanity, rather than in that which is nearest to it. And anthropomorphism in its full development is found only where, as in Greece, the human mind is on the point of turning away from all objective forms to seek deity in the subjective. While, therefore, I do not deny that ancestor-worship appears among the earliest forms of religion, yet I am inclined to think that, in the majority of cases at least, it is not that the being worshipped is conceived by his worshippers as a god because he is an ancestor, but rather that he is conceived as an ancestor because he is believed to be their god. For the god is yet represented as a mere object, and the only way in which men can as yet think of an objective power, which is not themselves, as being friendly to them, is by supposing it to be of their own blood. In this way the god cannot be brought near to his worshipper, except by regarding him as a father or remoter ancestor who is still watching over his family. The difficulties of thinking of a plant or an animal as the progenitor of a race of men are disregarded, difficulties of course not very great to those who have as yet no firm hold of the conception of law, and who are ready to believe that anything may come from anything. This is the only rational way in which we can explain how plants and animals, rocks and rivers, and what not, should be at once worshipped as gods and represented as ancestors, while the explanations of those who make ancestor-worship the basis of all religion, are necessarily entangled in all the difficulties of Euhemerism.1 On the other hand, as it is the simplest fact of morals that the natural tie of blood is the form under which the consciousness of spiritual relation between man and first develops and matures itself, so it is only the other aspect of that fact that religion as the consciousness of the spiritual basis of unity which expresses itself in such relations, should take the form of filial piety. And this holds good even of a time when the idea of humanising the gods, or of recognising humanity as essentially kindred with divinity, is as yet far off.

If these remarks have any truth, they may enable us to realise two points that are of no little importance in the history of religion: In the first place, we can see how it is that in all religious Particularism, i.e. in all systems of religion in which the god is identified with a particular object in the natural world, and is conceived as the head or father of a particular clan or kinship or nation, we have a polytheism or plurality of gods, at least in the sense that the family, tribe, or nation, while it worships its own god, does not deny the existence of other gods2 who preside over other families or nations. In the second place, we are enabled to understand why, under these conditions, religion and morality stand on the one side contrasted with, but easily passing into, superstition and immorality on the other. For, at this stage, morality simply means the solidarity of the little society, as expressing itself in the faithfulness of its members to each other; and religion means simply their loyalty and devotion to the friendly power, which is represented as the forefather of the family or kinship. But the society, or kinship, is surrounded by other similar societies which are unfriendly to it, and serve other gods. Every victory of his own society thus becomes to the member of it a victory of his god, and every defeat a victory of other gods. And, as at this stage he can scarcely conceive of the difference between good and evil powers, except as the difference between a power that is friendly and one that is adverse to the society with which all his life is identified, so it may be said that the gods of other societies are his demons, and that his god is a demon to them. Thus the war of good and evil is for him a war at once on heaven and on earth, a conflict of natural and also of supernatural powers. And a blow at the existence of the kinship or tribe to which he belongs is for him a victory won by the powers of evil over the powers of god; or, in other words, a victory won by superstition and immorality over religion and morality. If the circle of beings with whom nature and custom have made him one—the little friendly world in which he has moved and had his being, to which all his higher life is attached, which has been continually working for him, as he has been working for it—be broken up, he becomes an outcast without rights and without duties, and his gods have been dethroned by hostile supernatural powers which he must now seek somehow to evade or appease. As Homer says, he is ἀϕρήτωρ, ἀθέμιστος, ἀνέστιος, without kin, without law, without a hearth on which he can burn incense to the gods of his fathers. He is cut off at once from the charities of heaven and those of earth; and his unprotected state, as it leaves him open to the constant fear of outrage from men, so it makes him ready to crouch in slavish terror at any appearance which he can regard as the threat of an angry god. On the other hand, any tribal triumph or deliverance becomes to him the sign that his god is stronger than other gods, and at the same time knits him in closer union to the kinship that has thus received the blessing of heaven. The sense of the privilege and honour of belonging to such a society, and of the duty of living for it, becomes strengthened, and he conceives of the gods of his conquered foes as only defeated demons, who can do nothing against him. The consciousness of belonging to a victorious race brings with it a growing sense of personal dignity and increased readiness to sacrifice himself for the life of the community which is the source of his pride. And this pride is at the same time purified and elevated by the conviction that in serving the community he is serving his god. Thus religion and morality, the consciousness of solidarity with the community and the consciousness of unity with the god whom he worships, combine to redeem his life from the fear of unfriendly powers, natural or supernatural, and to educate him to that higher fear or reverence which is the ‘beginning of wisdom.’

It appears then that religion combines itself with a distinct morality and so disengages itself from superstition, just in so far as in it the alliance of the members of a kinship with each other is consecrated by their alliance with a divine being who is conceived as at once their god and their father. Farther, as this divine being is often, if not always, represented as some natural existence other than man, the alliance between man and man is also an alliance between man and nature, or at least some part of nature.3 And both alliances are conceived on the only type then comprehensible, i.e. on the type of blood relationship. Such an alliance raises a man above his natural self, by making him regard himself solely, or at least mainly, as the member of a society, devotion to the service of which is also devotion to God. Outside of this circle he finds only hostile or indifferent powers, and in the case of defeat or disaster to the society, his religion sinks into spirit-scaring and magic. Indeed, if we go back to the earliest stage—if that stage was anything like what we find among the lowest savages—the division between religion and superstition is very uncertain and fluctuating; and, as a consequence or necessary correlate of this, the social bond is only strong enough to save life from being what Hobbes called it, a ‘war of all against all.’ But, on the other hand, as we nowhere find an entire absence of social unity, so we nowhere find a mere demon-worship, in which there is no being worthy to be regarded as a god, no favouring power which can be reverenced as well as feared. Of course the line is not easy to draw; for, with the savage, the consciousness of the friendliness of the god is imperfect and easily disturbed. His own ferocity constantly tends to turn the object of his worship into a cruel and arbitrary being, whose favour can be won only by dreadful sacrifices and propitiations. On the other hand, the god, just because he is a natural object, or the personification of a class of such objects, is still partly a fetisch,—if we may use the word fetischism to indicate that the being worshipped is still regarded merely as one finite thing or object among others. And, just so far as this is the case—so far as the object is not lifted by imagination out of the ranks of other objects, so that practically it ceases to be treated as a mere object—the fear of it and the hope of favour from it cannot pass into a real religious reverence and devotion.

At the same time, while it is hard to detect the early steps of the process by which light and darkness, religion and superstition, morality and immorality, are first separated, we can see that from the beginning the advance is in the direction already indicated. Religion at first grows and develops in close connexion with social morality. At a later time there may, indeed, arise an individualistic morality, a morality which does not, directly at least, rest on the sense of community with others; and also a religion which connects itself with a moral ideal which is purely subjective: we shall have in the sequel to consider more closely what is the origin and nature of such morality and religion. But in an earlier age it may safely be said that morality must base itself upon the consciousness that man as an individual is only the organ and servant of some narrower or wider community,—be it the community of family, of tribe, or of nation; and upon the readiness of the individual to act in the spirit of this belief, and to surrender his individual interests, not indeed to the egoism of others, but to the greater ego of the community. And such morality has always gone with a corresponding religion; for the greater ego, to the service of which life was devoted, was always conceived as having an existence not merely in the changing collection of individual beings, who at any time constituted, so to speak, the body of the community, but in an ideal and divine being who was its soul. Thus the worship of a family god consecrated the life of the family as something for which the individuals, who in successive generations made up the family, had to live and die, and from which they derived all the worth and dignity of their individual lives. The theory of existence, so to speak, was that one life flowed out from one centre in the god, who was the head and original parent of the family; that it manifested itself in the family as one body, all whose members were continually nourished from the one divine source of its life; and that it was ever flowing back to that source in the failing and death of the individual members, only to reappear in the new generation that took their place. The importance attributed in early times to the persistence of the family or the gens in new representatives, who should keep up the domestic or gentile sacra, so that there should always be ‘a seed to serve’ the god of the kinship, shows how closely these ideas hung together the ideas of the solidarity of the kinship, of the subordination of the life of the individual to its life, and of the common worship of a god who was the permanent centre round which it revolved and in whose name it fought and conquered. Such devotion to the community in the earliest times was made somewhat easier by the very narrowness of the little society, by the instant necessity for union as the condition without which neither it nor its members could survive, and by the consequent impossibility of individual interests entering into an effective rivalry with those that were common. Under this state of things it was not so much that the independence of the individuals was suppressed, as that it never got time or opportunity to develop itself. The society was socialistic, not because of the self-surrender of its members, but because its members had not yet acquired any sense of a right and honour belonging to them as separate persons. Hence the only danger to the unity of the society lay in the caprices and passions of the natural man, a danger which all the influences of custom, tradition, and religion were employed to counteract; and which they could counteract the more easily that no moral idea or sense of right was enlisted on the other side. If individuals at this stage resisted social pressure, it was not in the name of any individual right which they conceived themselves to possess. The defective differentiation of early society was thus one of the safeguards of its unity. But, at the same time, it lowered the character of the social unity, the necessity of which was not yet mediated by the freedom of its members; for there can be no altruism in any high sense where there is so little room left for egoism, and to be truly unselfish man must know in all the fulness of its meaning what it is to be a self. And the defectiveness of the moral bond of man to man in such a society of course carries with it an equally defective stage of religion; for where man is not free in relation to man, there he cannot stand in a spiritual relation to God.

From this it follows that the natural bond of the family or kinship must separate itself from, and subordinate itself to, the comparatively artificial and ideal bond of the state, whose unity lies in the laws on which it is based, ere we can have, in the full sense of the word, a spiritual morality and religion. Yet, at the same time, in spite of this defect, the family is not only the first society but the type of all society; for it is the true socialistic community, in which the differences of individuals are dissolved, and egoism and altruism are, as it were, identified by affection. And, for similar reasons, it may fairly be said that in the earliest society, in which the tie of blood is the fundamental basis, and in which that tie is conceived as uniting the members at once to each other and to their God, we find a prefigurement or anticipation of the highest kind of community to which man can rise,—a community of man with man in the service of a God who finds his highest manifestation just in this community, a kingdom of this world which is also a kingdom of heaven. Without, however, looking forward so far, we may observe that it is this same principle,—showing itself on a wider scale, and supplemented by other principles of which we cannot yet speak—which we see manifesting itself in the civic and religious life of Greece. Thus it was the ideal unity of the Athenian state, as worshipped in the goddess Athene, which held all the citizens together in one community in the present, and bound the present of Athens to the past and the future. And in spite of the wide division which, as we shall see, separates the religion and morality of Israel from those of other nations, it was undoubtedly, in the first instance, connected with the idealisation of a domestic and tribal unity, which expressed itself in the worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and which united all the members of the nation together by binding them to one Lord. In short, whatever more we may find in these later and more developed religions, we invariably discover this primitive type at the bottom; a type in which an organised social life, with a tradition of the past and a hope for the future, is based on, and sustained by, faith in a divine principle, which is at once a power over nature and the abiding centre of the changeful life of man.

This is the general type of religion to which almost all the religions of the ancient world may be referred, though it is no doubt variously modified in different ages and nations. In the history of its development two points seem especially to deserve notice: on the other hand, the growth of polytheism, and, on the other hand, the effort to recover the divine unity either by generalisation or by a monarchical subordination of gods. It does not seem to be the case that the earliest religion is distinctly polytheistic, nor that it is distinctly monotheistic. As the god is then necessarily conceived as an object among other objects, though of a higher character than belongs to them, so the idea of his existence does not exclude the existence of other gods. Nay, we might even say it implies it, since the god is represented as the head of a little kinship, which stands in a relation, sometimes friendly but generally hostile, to other similarly organised kinships. Again, it was inevitable that in course of time a process of aggregation and segregation of such social units should take place. Kinships which formerly had only a small number of members, and which, therefore, were held together by the strongest inward and outward necessity, grew into larger groups of families or tribes which had no such intense feeling of solidarity. And every such partial division tended to give rise to some difference of worship. Or again, in the struggle for existence, social units which formerly were separate, were forced into unity by conquest, or by the necessity of resisting a common enemy; and the different gods which had been worshipped by the different sections came to be treated as concurrent powers, which divided the divine authority between them. Again, as men's ideas of nature widened, there was a tendency to supplement the deficiency of a god who represented one department or aspect of nature, by introducing other gods who represented other departments or aspects of it. The same impulse which at a later time led to a multiplication of the attributes or names of the divinity, at an earlier stage was satisfied in a simpler way by the multiplication of divinities themselves. The facility with which, under this phase of thought, men were ready to increase the number of their gods, cannot easily be understood by those with whom, as with us, monotheism has dried up the springs of mythology. But a book like Sir Alfred Lyall's Asiatic Studies vividly brings before us the fact that there are still many races in that stage of development when any new circumstance, event, or person, may become the occasion for the apotheosis of a new divinity. Half conscious that what he is seeking is the infinite, though still bound by his imagination to the finite, the polytheist has a secret dissatisfaction with his own religion; and this drives him continually to add new divinities to his Pantheon, as if by the multiplication of finites he could reach the infinite.

On the other hand, this tendency to differentiate is met by an opposite tendency to unity. The idea of God, which is bound up with man's consciousness of himself—i.e. the idea of God as the infinite principle of unity which is beyond all the differences of the finite, though implied in them all—is continually working against a mere external polytheistic system which ranks the gods together as independent powers; it is continually breaking down the boundaries which have been set up between their separate spheres, and extending without limit the attributes of any god that is at the moment the object of worship. Thus is produced the phenomenon to which Professor Max Miller has given the name of Henotheism, i.e. a polytheism, in which the gods are, as it were, continually melting into each other; or in which any one of then may be stretched to the infinite so as to leave no room for the operation of the others. The very attitude of worship is an attitude of devotion, of absolute self-surrender, which in the intensity of its feeling excludes all reservation, and so tends to lift its object beyond all the limits which at other times may be recognised for it. Thus the chaos of Polytheism is never without some beginnings of a cosmos; or, perhaps we should rather say, the religious instinct, with its controlling tendency to the one and the infinite, is continually striving to gain the mastery over the multiplicity of forms which in this stage of thought are forced upon it by sense and imagination.

It is not here necessary to speak of the manifold shapes of mythology which have appeared in the long struggle of religion with the first inadequate form of its expression. Perhaps, at the present stage of inquiry, it is impossible, if it ever will be possible, to state exactly the steps by which mythological conceptions were gradually elevated and finally abolished. Here I shall confine myself to pointing out one or two of the most prominent crises in the long struggle. The first of these is that which has given rise to what is called roughly the solar theory of mythology. In many nations—among the Peruvians and Mexicans in America, and again in different ways in Egypt in China, and in early India—we find a worship of the heavens or the heavenly bodies, of the great elemental powers of sky and earth, rising above the undergrowth of domestic and tribal worships, limiting and dominating though never destroying them. And this religious progress seems to go along with the development of a wider national unity, both as its effect and its cause. The absurd extension at one time given to the solar mythic theory has of late produced a reaction which has in the main been wholesome, in so far as it has led to the rejection of one exclusive interpretation of myths. But the main vice of that theory was that it referred to the earliest period of religious history a mode of conception which really indicates a considerable advance in civilisation. Some childish myths about the sun and the heavenly bodies, indeed, appear to be as early as anything we can trace in the history of mythology; but the marked predominance of such ideas, and the separation of them from the crowd of other mythic fancies, appears to be the characteristic of a particular stage in the development of man,—a stage in which he has attained to a certain width and freedom of view as to the nature of the world in which he is placed, partly as the cause, and partly as the effect, of a wider national consciousness. The physical universalism of the heavens, if we may use the expression, is thus the first form in which the idea of a universal God, a God who is above, though not as yet exclusive of all others, presents itself to the spirit of man. Aristotle, in speaking of the Eleatics, the first school of philosophy that laid hold of the idea of the unity of the world as an abstract principle, says that Xenophanes, the founder of that school, “looked up to the expanse of heaven, and declared that ‘all is one.’” It was by a similar process of thought that, at a much earlier date, the Chinese, the Egyptians, the Indians, the Persians,—in short, almost all the nations with whom civilisation may be said to have originated,—were led to raise their eyes above the special forms of nature to the overarching heaven, and to seek in those heavenly bodies which stand in general relations to the whole life of nature and man for the main embodiment of their idea of the divine. And the same lifting of the spirit, which thus separated the celestial god or gods from the totems or family and tribal divinities of an earlier age, awakened at the same time the consciousness of a national life reaching beyond the bonds of family or tribe. The races that thus literally raised their eyes and their spirits to conquering and civilising races of the early world, just because they claimed direct descent from, or relationship to, natural powers, which were regarded as universal in their dominion. The Vedic hymns preserve for us the authentic expression of this early phase of the spiritual life of man, the poetic revelation of the thoughts and feelings of those who first recognised that they had ‘a citizenship in heaven.’ The proud sense of belonging to a race of higher birth and higher powers than other races, the fearless outlook upon nature and upon human life, the freedom from grovelling superstition and the soaring strength of an imaginative sympathy which forces all nature to become an instrument for expressing the emotions of the human soul—these, which are the characteristics of the poets of the Veda, are only the natural indications of the inspiring power of this new idea upon a people that was fit to be its recipient. No wonder that, by its consciousness of alliance with powers that controlled all nature, the Aryan race was lifted above all fear of disaster either from envious gods or mortal enemies, and that it carried into the struggle with other races an energy of spirit which speedily made it the first conqueror of India. Animated by such a faith and by the higher sense of national unity, the early Aryans carne upon other races like superior beings whom it was useless to resist. We might say of them in relation to other peoples what is said of Coriolanus in relation to Rome, they took them

“as the osprey does the fish,

By sovereignty of nature.”

Now, the principle of this religion and morality is the same as that of which we have already spoken. Its social bond is still a kinship of men to men, based on their common kinship to a god or gods. The gods, moreover, are still conceived as outward objects, and the tie that binds them to their worshippers is still thought of as a natural tie of blood. But subject to these general limitations, it is obvious that a great advance has been achieved, and that we have here reached, at least in one aspect of it, the culminating point of objective religion. For the objects selected for worship are as unlimited as objects can be: they are objects to which it is difficult to conceive any individual or race as standing in an exclusive relation. And, indeed, the very conception of such an exclusive relation begins with this religion to disappear; for the Vedic hymns already trace all races back to the same divine origin, though in various ways they claim a more direct and honourable relation to the divine power for the Aryan race than for any other. Again, as it is an objective religion, the Vedic religion is still polytheistic. For not only does it leave room beneath it for an undergrowth of family and gentile worships, but even the unity of the heavenly power is with it broken into many differences; and beside Varuna, the most comprehensive name under which the divinity is worshipped, we have Mitra, Agni, Indra, and a host of forms which represent one or other aspect of the great power of nature. But the separate personality or individuality of the gods, though it stands out vividly in the poetic representation of them, is yet very easily thrown aside when it has served its immediate purpose. The ‘many. sinks back into the ‘one’; or, by the henotheistic process to which I have already referred, each divinity in turn absorbs all the others. Thus the polytheism of India soon begins to betray that pantheism which is latent in it, and the multiplicity of gods yields to the conception of one universal Power which is present in all finite forms of gods and men alike, which produces and consumes them all in turn, which through all their variety “spreads undivided, operates unspent,” and which alone is, while they only seem. The physical universality of the heavens was the stepping-stone upon which the religious mind of India rose to the abstract universality of thought, the Absolute Being in which everything else is lost. This pantheism is the final outcome of polytheism, the fatal gulf that must ultimately swallow up all merely objective religions. For religion, so long as it seeks the infinite and divine in objects without us, must, time after time, discover that the objects it has selected are finite and therefore not divine; and even when it turns its eyes to the all-embracing heaven, it has to learn that the ‘heaven of heavens cannot contain’ God, any more than a river or a tree, all animal or a man. Religion is, therefore, reduced to the worship of an abstract infinite Being, in which all that is finite is submerged and lost. It can save itself from such a euthanasia, such a gradual loss of all positive content or meaning, only by abandoning the purely objective representation of God, and by recognising that in the inner life of the self or subject, there is a higher revelation of Him than can be found in any object as such, or even in the whole world of objects.

  • 1. Cf. Principles of Sociology, Vol. I. Part I. Chap. 22 seq. See especially §§ 170–171, where Mr. Spencer tells us that the animal names given to gods, such as wolf, fox, and the like, were originally nicknames given to the illustrious forefathers of the race, because of their ferocity, cunning, or other prominent characteristics.
  • 2. Judges xi. 24: “Wilt not thou possess that which Chemosh thy god giveth thee to possess? So whomsoever the Lord our God hath dispossessed before us, them will we possess.”
  • 3. Cf. Robertson Smith, Lectures on the Religions of the Semites, First Series, p. 117 seq.