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Lecture 4. Positivist Definitions of Religion.

Lecture 4.
Positivist Definitions of Religion.
BESIDES the definitions which we have hitherto examined and which all proceed from men who took an historical and impartial view of religion there is another class which betray a decidedly polemical spirit and which proceed chiefly from what are called positivist philosophers. Even they cannot deny that religion has a deep foundation in human nature but they look upon it as a mistake as a disease as something that ought not to be and they ascribe its origin not to the noblest but rather to the meanest and most selfish motives of our human nature.

Professor Wundt for instance a most eminent German physiologist and psychologist declares that all percepts and sentiments become religious as soon as they have reference to some ideal existence which can supply the wishes and requirements of the human heart1. It cannot be denied that this is one side of religion; but it is not the whole of it nor would it be true to say that all wishes even the most selfish and sordid were ever supposed to receive their fulfilment from that ideal existence which is postulated by religion.

Feuerbach was more decided still and declared that the gods were nothing but the wishes of men conceived as realised. But there are wishes and wishes and even admitting that some of the ancient gods represented the very lowest wishes of men realised there would be others also representing the realisation of the highest ideals which the human mind can conceive.
Generally speaking positivist philosophers have added little to an historical study of religion. They have told us not so much what religion has been as what according to their view of the development of the human mind it ought or it ought not to have been.
There is one exception however. In a decidedly learned work published in 1887 Die Griechischen Culte und Mythen Professor Gruppe has put forward a view of religion which deserves the most careful consideration and which I at all events cannot pass over in silence considering that the greater part of his first volume consisting of more than 700 pages is directed against myself. His book is certainly instructive and though I differ from Professor Gruppe on almost every point I cannot but admire his learning nor should I ever wish for a better and more valiant antagonist. Let us hear then the worst that can be said of religion.
Selfishness the Source of Religion.
According to Dr. Gruppe who may well be taken as the most powerful representative of the extreme positive and at the same time negative school of philosophy religion exists simply because it satisfies certain selfish instincts of man. It has no other raison d'être. The rapid spreading of religion all over the world is likewise ascribed to a social instinct which is supposed to be gratified by certain advantages which all religions provide. Religions we are told do not only give pleasure but they enable the individual members of a society to develop their faculties far better than the mere laws of family and state would allow. By an inner bond of thought and feeling which unites a religious community the individual gains more power of resistance in the struggle of all against all. It is only because it answers these requirements of society that religion flourishes. It keeps the poor and miserable quiet by promising them pleasures in the world to come and thus enables the rich and noble to enjoy their pleasures on earth in safety. It alone can strengthen law and morality in a state of society where there is no equality and it would probably cease to exist altogether if all inequalities on earth could be removed. Without accusing the founders of religion of selfish motives in the lowest sense Professor Gruppe is nevertheless convinced that they were all unconscious egotists. They enjoyed the reverence shown them by the multitude to that extent that they did not shrink as he thinks even from a martyr's death. But generally while professing to found a new kingdom of heaven they succeeded in founding a kingdom of this world.
The three true causes of the wide and rapid spread of religion are therefore (l.c. p. 273) according to him—
(1) the unconscious vanity of its founders
(2) a belief in the happiness which it procures to its believers and
(3) the substantial advantages which society derives from it.
This would really so far as I can judge leave the question of the origin of religion in the mind of its founders unsolved; but this we are told is of little consequence for the mere fancy of any single individual would have answered the purpose. Besides it is asserted (p. 276) that all historical religions presuppose older religions and are reformations rather than original intellectual creations while the first conception of religious thought required no more than a high degree of personal energy to induce people to believe what was irrational and to do in their primitive sacrifices what was absurd. Here again however the question why any single individual should have invented what was so utterly irrational remains unanswered.
Professor Gruppe's formal definition of religion I must give in his own words:—
‘We call religious belief a belief in a state or in a being which properly speaking lies outside the sphere of human striving and attainment but can be brought into this sphere in a particular way namely by means of sacrificial ceremonies prayers penances and self-denial. It might seem possible that on the strength of such a belief an individual should simply for his own benefit invent means by which such a possibility could be realised. But in history the religious belief always meets us as a doctrine professing to be able to produce the union with those beings and the attainment of that state for a large number of men. Such a doctrine we call religion.’
His definition too narrow.
You see that it would be difficult to take a lower view of religion. However as I remarked before everybody is at liberty to give his own dogmatic definition of religion. The only question is whether the definition given by Professor Gruppe and eagerly adopted by those who claim the name of positivist philosophers comprehends really all that in the history of the world has been comprehended under the name of religion. That there have been and that possibly there are even now human beings to whom religion is nothing but disguised selfishness may be true; but that there have been and that possibly there are even now human beings willing and able to surrender their own will to a Divine Will can hardly be doubted even by Professor Gruppe. His definition of religion is therefore at all events too narrow and it might possibly be found to apply to religion not in its original but in its most depraved state; not as conceived by the founders of religion and by those who were found willing to become martyrs to their convictions but as adopted by those who under the cloak of religion were bent on gratifying the lowest passions of human nature. On this point Professor Gruppe is not quite explicit and we must wait for the appearance of his next volumes before we can believe that the impression left on our mind by his first volume is really quite correct.
So far as he has gone at present his argument seems to be this that religion is something so irrational not to say so absurd that it could have been invented once and once only in the whole history of mankind. He denies altogether that religion is a general characteristic of man and that there is any excuse for it either in human nature or in its surroundings. Once or possibly twice only he maintains did such a paradox as religion enter into the heart of man. All similarities therefore which have been discovered between religions are ascribed by Professor Gruppe to an historical transmission which began probably not much earlier than the seventh century B.C. We are not told as yet where and when this monstrous birth took place but everything seems to point to Phoenicia or possibly to India (l.c. p. 499). We are given to understand in several places that the Nile has borrowed from the Ganges not the Ganges from the Nile (pp. 499 502 507). The greater antiquity of the Egyptian literature is questioned again and again and in Babylon also no trustworthy dates are admitted before the seventh century (p. 345). That missionaries could have travelled to Greece Italy and Central Europe from the South is said to be proved by discoveries of articles dropped on their journeys by early commercial caravans. That Eastern Asia China and Japan could have been reached by early missionaries from India is said to be proved by the success of Buddhist missionaries at a later time; and that from Eastern Asia the transit to America was not altogether impossible is now admitted we are told by the most competent authorities. Again we are reminded that the Mohammedan religion found its way in later times from Eastern Asia to Australia on one side and to Madagascar and Africa on the other so that there really was no physical impediment that could have prevented the spread of the earliest religion in the same directions. Even Northern Asia we are told was in later times touched by Persian influences and might therefore have been reached by the emissaries of those who had made the first discovery of religion. At all events no difficulties in the historical spreading of this religion when once discovered could compare according to Professor Gruppe with the difficulty of accounting for the discovery of something so opposed to all the laws of thought as religion. One man he thinks in the whole history of the world may have committed that logical suicide (p. 277) possibly two if America could not have been reached from China but certainly no more.
This is Professor Gruppe's theory which sounds almost incredible in the nineteenth century after Christ but which is put forward and defended with so much earnestness and so much learning that it requires and deserves a careful answer. When philosophers had proved or imagined they had proved that religion in some form or other was inevitable and inseparable from human nature to be told that religion would never have arisen but for the chance discovery of one single individual—and he a fool—is startling. When archaeologists had proved or imagined they had proved that the images of Egyptian deities went back to 4000 B.C. and that some of the statues of Babylon could not be much more modern2 to be told that in Babylon everything before the seventh century is nothing but constructive chronology and that in Egypt all dates before 1000 B.C. are uncertain was enough to rouse considerable indignation. Still one cannot help respecting the opinions of a man who besides being a classical scholar has made himself master of Hebrew and has not shrunk from studying Sanskrit Zend Hieroglyphics and Cuneiform Inscriptions before he ventured on his dangerous voyage of discovery. In spite of all drawbacks I can strongly recommend his book as containing most useful information. I myself feel most grateful for it for I am convinced that if my own system can resist so powerful and well delivered an attack as Professor Gruppe's it need fear no serious danger in future.
There is another advantage to be derived from the study of Professor Gruppe's work. If other writers tell us the best that can be said of religion he tells us the worst. Most writers who are honest enough to point out the weak points of religion and who do not shut their eyes to the infinite mischief that has been wrought in its name always plead for its purification and reformation not for its total abolition. They see the rubbish but they also see the grains of gold even in the most degraded forms of religion. Not so Professor Gruppe. Looking on all religion as an outrage on human reason he hopes that the time may come when religion will have clean vanished from the earth and when the world will have become so perfect that no more perfect world could be imagined or desired. It is well that we should see ourselves as we are seen by others and no one certainly has enabled us to do that better than Professor Gruppe.
We have now finished our historical survey of the most important definitions of religion though I am well aware that there are others which would have deserved and would have repaid a careful examination3. This survey has taken up much of our time but the advantages which accrue from a careful definition of religion and of all the words which we use in philosophical discussions will be perceived again and again at every step of our inquiries.
Universality of Religion.
Let us to-day take one instance only. No question has excited so much interest and has produced so much heat and passion as that of the universality of religion. Are there at present any human beings without religion or does history tell us of any? You may read book after book on the subject and you will ask how it is possible that on so simple a matter of fact there can be any difference of opinion. But not only is there difference of opinion but there is flat contradiction. The same tribes who are described by some observers as deeply religious are described by others as without an idea of anything supernatural. How is this to be accounted for?
Angle of Vision.
Some allowance must no doubt be made for the angle of vision which varies in every observer. This does not necessarily arise from dishonesty as is so often supposed but simply from a weakness inherent in human nature. We all are inclined to see what we expect or wish to see and if we see what we expect or wish to see we are naturally less incredulous and less critical than if we see what we did not expect or did not wish for. We are all liable to this and we have all to learn to be doubly incredulous when we meet with unexpected confirmations of our own favourite theories. I shall give you two illustrations only of what I mean cases where men famous for their honesty and their critical disposition were completely deceived in what they saw and heard.
Darwin on Tierra del Fuego.
One is the case of Darwin. We know how from his early youth his mind was dominated by the idea of evolution and how his researches led him to look everywhere for evidence in support of that theory and for an explanation of its working. He wished to find men as low as animals or if possible even on a slightly lower stage than that reached by some of the higher animals. When he visited the coasts of South America he thought he had found in the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego what he was looking for and he accordingly described these people as like the devils which come on the stage in such plays as the Freischütz. ‘Viewing such men’ he writes ‘one can hardly believe that they are fellow-creatures and inhabitants of the same world. Their language scarcely deserves to be called articulate. Captain Cook compared it to a man clearing his throat; but certainly no European ever cleared his throat with so many hoarse guttural and clicking sounds.’ With regard to the physical features of these Fuegians also Darwin must either have been very unlucky in the specimens he met or he must even then have used his own somewhat coloured Darwinian spectacles. Captain Snow speaks of exactly the same race which Darwin describes as hideous devils as really beautiful representatives of the human race and Professor Virchow who exhibited a number of natives from Tierra del Fuego at Berlin protested warmly against the supposition that they were by nature an inferior race. But more than that. Their very language which had been described by Captain Cook and by Darwin as worse than the noise of a man clearing his throat has lately been studied by Giacomo Bovè who describes it as ‘sweet pleasing and full of vowels’ and who states that the number of words forming their dictionary amounts to 32430. If we remember that Shakespeare could say all he wished to say—and who has poured out a greater wealth of thought and feeling than Shakespeare?—with about 15000 words a race possessed of more than double that number of words can hardly be said to be below the level reached by some of the higher animals. I have quoted this case on several occasions not in order to question Darwin's honesty but simply to illustrate one cause of error to which all human observations are liable—a disposition to see what we expect and wish to see. Darwin was honest enough to confess his error and that is more than can be said of many other observers. And I feel therefore all the more bound to state that there are some dialects spoken in Tierra del Fuego such as the Alacalu or Ona which Signor Bovè himself declares to be harsh and guttural4.
Niebuhr and Bunsen.
Lest I should appear unfair in quoting Darwin only let me tell you what happened to Niebuhr. The story was told me by my friend Bunsen who was his secretary when Niebuhr was Prussian Minister at Rome. Niebuhr was very anxious to discover traces of Greek in Italian as spoken by the common people in the South of Italy. He thought that the occupation of the country by the Greeks when the South of Italy was called Magna Graecia ought to have left at least a few vestiges behind just as the occupation of Britain by the Romans can be proved by such words as chester in Dorchester Lat. castrum; coln in Lincoln Lat. colonia; cheese Lat. caseus; street Lat. strata scil. via5. Finding himself one day with Bunsen in a small boat and being caught by a storm Niebuhr listened attentively to the sailors who were rowing with all their might and shouting what sounded to Niebuhr's ears like πλόη. ‘Listen’ he said to Bunsen ‘they call for πλόη or ϵὔπλοη (ϵὔπλοια) a fair voyage. There you have a survival of the Greek spoken in Magna Graecia.’ Bunsen listened attentively. He saw that one of the sailors looked very English and that the others simply repeated what he said and what seemed to them to possess a certain charm; and he soon discovered that what to Niebuhr sounded like πλόη or ϵὔπλοη was really the English ‘Pull away.’
If such things can happen to Niebuhr and Darwin we must not be surprised if they happen to smaller men; and to return to our subject we must not be surprised if some missionaries find no trace of religion where anthropologists see the place swarming with ghosts and totems and fetishes; while other missionaries discover deep religious feelings in savages whom anthropologists declare perfectly incapable of anything beyond the most primitive sensuous perceptions.
Lubbock v. Quatrefages.
But though a certain bias must be admitted in writers on anthropology that does not suffice to account for such books as Sir John Lubbock's Prehistoric Times as illustrated by Ancient Remains and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages 1865 as compared with Quatrefages L’espèce humaine 1877 and Roskoff Religionswesen der rohesten Naturvölker 1880. Sir John Lubbock collects all the evidence that can possibly prove the existence even now of tribes without religion while Quatrefages and Roskoff sifting the same materials show on the contrary that there is no trustworthy evidence whatsoever to support such a theory6. Neither the facts adduced by Roskoff; nor the arguments founded on these facts have ever been controverted and until that has been done—and I doubt whether it can be—this controversy ought to be considered at an end.
My friend Dr. Tylor also made some time ago a very useful collection to show how the same people who by one missionary are said to worship either one or many gods are declared by another to have no idea and no name of a Divine Being and how even the same person sometimes makes two equally confident assertions which flatly contradict each other. Thus in one place Sparrmann7 is very doubtful whether the Hottentots believe in a Supreme Being and tells us that the Khoi-Khoi themselves declared that they were too stupid to understand anything and never heard of a Supreme Being; while in another place the same Sparrmann argues that the Khoi-Khoi must believe in a supreme very powerful but fiendish Being from whom they expect rain thunder lightning and cold. Liechtenstein again while denying in one place that there is any trace of religious worship among the Khosa Kafirs admits in another that they believe in a Supreme Being who created the world though if we are to believe Van der Kamp (died 1811) they have no name for such a being.
Preconceived Ideas.
It may seem strange why there should be so much animus in these discussions and why missionaries and anthropologists should not be satisfied with simply stating the facts such as they are. But there is a reason for it. It seems important to some people to prove that religion is a necessity of the human mind or as it was formerly expressed is innate or as Cicero says is engraved by nature on our minds8. To them therefore it seems of vital interest to prove that no race of men has ever been found without some kind of religion as little as any human beings have ever been found without the cravings of hunger and thirst. Other philosophers on the contrary like Professor Gruppe are anxious to prove that religion is not an essential ingredient of human nature but an acquired social habit; and in their eyes the actual existence of non-religious races acquires an immense importance as confirming their view of human nature. In this they totally forget that all human beings whether we call them savages or not may formerly have had a whole pantheon of supernatural beings and have forgotten or surrendered it just as the Hindus in becoming Buddhists surrendered their belief in the ancient Devas. But this would be against another article of the anthropologist faith namely that savages who are really far more changeable than civilised races are stereotyped once for all and unchangeable.
Sometimes these two parties change sides in a very strange way. When the Missionary wants to prove that no human being can be without some spark of religion he sees religion everywhere even in what is called totemism and fetishism; while if he wants to show how necessary it is to teach and convert these irreligious races he cannot paint their abject state in too strong colours and he is apt to treat even their belief in an invisible and nameless god as mere hallucination. Nor is the anthropologist free from such temptations. If he wants to prove that like the child every race of men was at one time atheistic then neither totems nor fetishes not even prayers or sacrifices are any proof in his eyes of an ineradicable religious instinct. If on the contrary he is anxious to show that the religions of the highest races are but an evolution of lower types of faith or as Darwin would wish us to believe that even animals possess something like religious feelings then a sigh a tear a sudden silence an involuntary interjection or even a curse become proof positive of the existence of germs of religion though in a most rudimentary state.
We ought to be as cautious at least as Cicero who after he has introduced Velleius as upholding the universality of religion9 makes Cotta say that such important questions cannot be settled by majorities provided even that we knew the religions of all races of men10. Though we know a good deal more of the world than was known at the time of Plutarch yet we should probably hesitate to say what he says ‘that you may indeed find towns without walls without letters without kings without houses without wealth not requiring coined money ignorant of theatres and gymnasia. But there is no one who has seen or who ever will see a town without temples and without gods not employing prayers oaths or oracles and not performing sacrifices to render thanks for good things or to avert misfortunes11.’
The historian of religion must try to be as free as possible from all preconceived opinions. He may be convinced as a philosopher that it is impossible for any human being to be without something like what we mean by religion but as every child is born both without religion and without language the possibility at least ought to be admitted that some races might have remained in a state of childish idiotcy might be without religion without language nay without reason.
In most cases however which I have been able to examine where some authorities maintained that certain savage tribes had never heard of religion while other observers declared that they had discovered in their language names for good and evil spirits these strange contradictions could always be accounted for by the absence of a proper definition of religion. If religion can be used and has been used in so many different and even contradictory senses as we saw in our last lecture we need not wonder that there should be so much conflict of opinion when it has to be determined whether Negroes or Australians do or do not possess religion.
If religion is defined as a modus cognoscendi et colendi Deum even Buddhism would not be a religion. If it is defined as a surrender of the finite will to the infinite even Judaism at least in its earliest form would hardly deserve the name of religion. If a belief in a more perfect future life is considered an essential element of religion then the faith of the early Greeks would not be a religion12. If temples and sacrifices are indispensable for religion the ancient Germans and some of the Polynesian tribes13 even at present would be without a religion.
This is but one instance to show how much all our inquiries into the history of religion and all our theories on the origin of religion depend on a clear and correct definition of what we mean by religion of what is included in and what is excluded from the sphere of that name.
Names for Religion.
Before however I proceed to give you what seems to me the right definition of religion at all events from an historical point of view—a definition I mean of what religion has been rather than of what according to the opinions of various philosophers it ought to be I have a few words to say on the names for religion in foreign and particularly in Oriental languages. It is surprising to find how difficult it is to discover words in these languages which correspond exactly to our concept of religion. This difficulty applies no doubt to many words and it is a very useful lesson which the study of foreign languages teaches us.
When we first begin to learn a new language all seems easy. The dictionary gives us the corresponding words the grammar the corresponding forms. But the more we learn of a foreign language the more difficult do we find it to discover words that will really square our own words. There is always something too much or too little. We enter really into a new atmosphere as soon as we speak in a new language and there are associations playing round every one of our own expressions which like the light and shade of the clouds like the rustling of the leaves and like the freshness of the air determine without being perceived the whole character of a landscape.
So common a word as philosopher for instance has a much narrower meaning in German than in English. A man like Darwin would not be called ein Philosoph in German but ein Naturforscher. Philosophie in German has remained restricted to Logic Psychology Ethics Metaphysics Aesthetics; and we have Darwin's own confession that of all these subjects he was absolutely ignorant. It is a standing joke among German philosophers against English philosophy that in England you can buy philosophical instruments. The joke loses its point as soon as it is known that philosophy in English means likewise the study of nature such as chemistry optics acoustics and all the rest and that therefore what in German are called physicalische Instrumentes may well be called philosophical instruments in English.
There are many such words in all languages which are the despair of the translator. A very common word in German is zweckmässig that is anything so contrived that it answers its purpose. From it Zweckmässigkeit which we may translate by appropriateness but which means a great deal more. We can speak of the innere Zweckmässigkeit eines Organismus that is an organism in which everything is so contrived that it answers exactly the purpose for which it was intended; but I know no word in English or French which fully conveys that meaning14.
However the modern languages of Europe have so many of their antecedents in common that in a rough and ready way one can be made to answer as well as another to express our thoughts. We lose a little when we exchange a shilling for a German Mark and we lose more when we accept a franc for a shilling; still if we are not too exacting we can make our way through the world with one coinage as well as with the other.
But when we leave Europe to travel in Eastern countries the exchange becomes more and more difficult both with our monetary and with our intellectual coinage. It sounds hardly credible but if you take so rich a language as Sanskrit and a literature so full of religion as that of India you look in vain for a word for religion. To a certain extent this is our own fault. If we put so many ill-defined meanings into a word as have been put into religion we must not be surprised if we do not find exactly the same conglomerate elsewhere. Here it is where thinking in two languages often proves very useful by making us aware of the presence of the many amorphous particles of thought which will not pass through the sieve of another language. But it is strange nevertheless that a word which seems to us so simple and so clear as religion should be without its exact counterpart in any language.
Words for Religion in Chinese.
It may easily be imagined that if so rich a language as Sanskrit is deficient in names corresponding exactly to our idea of religion other languages do not supply us with better equivalents for that word.
In Chinese for instance there is as Professor Legge informs us no word corresponding exactly to our word religion.
To Confucianism there is applied more especially the character Chiâo meaning ‘the Teaching or Instruction’ Doctrina.
To Buddhism the character is commonly given meaning ‘Law.’ Fo Fâ ‘the Law of Buddha’ is Buddhism.
Tâoism is Tâo ‘the Way.’
These are often spoken of as San Chiâo ‘The Three Systems of Teaching’ for which phrase the best rendering seems to be ‘the Three Religions.’ But if the three be spoken of discriminatingly the different terms are appropriate to them severally.
The authors of the famous Nestorian Inscription applied all the three names to Christianity. Now it is with them ‘the Doctrine’ now ‘the Law’ and now ‘the Way.’ They found it difficult they say to fix on a distinctive name for it and finally determined to call it Ching Chiâo ‘the Illustrious Doctrine’ using the terms which Lâo-tze employs when he says he would call his subject or system the Tâo or Way.
The general term for ‘having faith’ is hsin indicating the idea of ‘believing.’
Words for Religion in Arabic.
In Arabic which reflects more advanced and subtle thought on religious topics than most languages there is nevertheless no word that can be considered a real equivalent of our word religion. Dîn according to Lane implies obedience and submission to the law and is used in Arabic for religion in the widest sense both historical and practical. Ahlu-d-dîn however people of religion is a term restricted to those who profess to found their faith upon revealed scriptures Mohammedans Jews and Christians while the followers of natural religion are classed with the followers of philosophical systems as ahlubahwâ people of opinions.
I know the difficulty of finding a word for religion in Sanskrit from practical experience.
Some years ago an enlightened and very zealous gentleman in India Behramji M. Malabari conceived the plan of having my Hibbert Lectures ‘On the Origin and Growth of Religion’ translated not only into Sanskrit but into the principal vernaculars of the country. The question was how to translate the title. If the book had been on the origin of any particular religion such as the teaching of Buddha or Mohammed or Christ there would have been no difficulty. But the idea of religion in general had not presented itself clearly to the Hindu mind and hence there was no recognised name for it. After long consideration we settled that it should be simply Dharma-vyâkhyâna ‘an explanation of Dharma’ that is the Law and under that title translations of my Hibbert Lectures have appeared in Bengâlî Guzarâtî and Marâthî and more will appear in Sanskrit Hindî and Tamil.
This dharma certainly means religion in one sense but in one sense only. It means law and a law-book therefore is called Dharma-sâstra. The same word dharma may be used to express dogma or objective religion but it cannot include the subjective disposition which we likewise comprehend under the name of religion.
In the Rig-Veda dharma law does not yet occur but only the other form dharman. With the accent on the first syllable dhárman means one who holds and upholds; with the accent on the last dharmá15 means support ful-crum; then law and order what holds things as they are and as they ought to be. The gods are looked upon as the givers and guardians of these dharmas or laws. In later Sanskrit dhárma has the same meaning of law then of duty and virtue that is of law performed. Lastly it has been used in the sense of the nature or essence of a thing as we might say the law or character of a thing the ϵἰ̑δος. When Manu (II. 12) in his Law-book explains dharma he represents it as consisting of the Veda (revelation) of Smriti (tradition) of Sadâkara (the behaviour of good people) and of what is dear to oneself that is what meets with the approval of our own conscience.
It was with the Buddhists that dharma became more exclusively the name of the doctrines taught by Buddha which contained all that was supposed necessary for salvation. The three great treasures of the Buddhists are Buddha the Church (sangha) and the Law (dharma); and when a man embraced Buddhism he recited the formula ‘I take refuge with Buddha with the Church and with the Law as preached by Buddha.’
But through all these phases dharma always retains something of its etymological meanings. It is what holds us in the right path and keeps us from what is wrong. It is the law that comes to us from without not the law or the will or whatever else we may call it that comes from within.
A Brahman when speaking of his own religion might use the word Veda. Veda means originally knowledge but it has been restricted so as to signify exclusively what a Brahman considers as sacred and revealed knowledge. Instead of Veda we find in Sanskrit another curious word for revelation namely Sruti which means hearing from sru to hear the Greek κλύω. It is most carefully defined by Hindu theologians so as to exclude all secular knowledge and so as to comprehend such knowledge only as is received by direct inspiration from a divine source. Even the Laws of Manu though invested with a sacred character are not Sruti but only Smriti which means remembering or tradition not revelation; so that whenever there should be a conflict between Smriti and Sruti Smriti is at once overruled by Sruti. All these expressions however refer clearly to objective religion only to a body of doctrines placed before us for acceptance or rejection. They do not render what we mean by subjective or inward religion an idea that seemed quite strange and proved therefore untranslatable to my Hindu translators.
There is however in later Sanskrit one expression which comes very near to what we mean by subjective religion namely bhakti devotion and faith.
The verb bhag bhagati from which bhakti is derived means first of all to divide to distribute to give. We read in the Rig-Veda of the gods distributing gifts to men and also of rich people giving presents to their friends and followers. The same verb however particularly if used in the Âtmanepada or the middle takes also the meaning of giving something to oneself that is choosing it for oneself holding it loving it. From meaning to choose to love bhag took the more special meaning of loving venerating and worshipping a deity. Bhakta the participle thus came to mean a devoted worshipper and bhakti faith devotion and love.
Bhakti in the sense of loving devotion directed towards a certain deity does not occur in the Vedic literature except in some of the Upanishads. It gains more and more ground however in the Bhagavadgîtâ where it means the loving worship paid to Krishna and it then comes so near to the Christian conception of faith and love that several Sanskrit scholars as well as missionaries have expressed their conviction that the idea of bhakti must have been borrowed by the Brahmans from Christianity16. It is strange that these scholars should not see that what is natural in one country is natural in another also. If fear reverence and worship of the Supreme God could become devotion and love with Semitic people why not in India also? Besides we can see in India the same development of thought as in Palestine. No doubt the gods are feared and reverenced in India but they are also addressed as friends and sentiments such as ‘thou art like a father to a son’ are by no means unfrequent in the earliest portions of the Rig-Veda. We read in the very first hymn of the Rig-veda ‘Be easy of access to us as a father to his son.’ In the Upanishads when the different gods of the Veda have been superseded by the Supreme Lord the Îsvara the feelings of love and devotion are transferred to him. And at a still later time when Krishna was worshipped as the manifestation of the Supreme Spirit we see in the Bhagavadgîtâ every expression that human love is capable of lavished on him.
I shall read you first an extract from the Svetâsvatara Upanishad17:
1. Some wise men being deluded speak of Nature and others of Time (as the cause of everything); but it is the greatness of God by which this Brahma-wheel (the world) is made to turn.
7. Let us know that highest great Lord of lords the highest deity of deities the master of masters the highest above as God the Lord of the world the adorable.
10. That only God who spontaneously covered himself like a spider with threads drawn from nature (pradhâna the chief cause) may he grant us entrance into Brahman.
11. He is the one God hidden in all things pervading all—the Self within all beings watching over all works dwelling in all beings the witness the perceiver the only one free from all qualities.
12. He is the one ruler of many who are above their acts18; he who makes the one seed manifold. The wise who perceive him within their self to them belongs eternal happiness not to others.
20. When man shall roll up the sky like a hide then only will there be an end of misery unless that God has first been known.
23. If these truths have been told to a high-minded man who feels the highest devotion (bhakti) for God19 and as for God so for his Guru then they will shine forth then they will shine forth indeed.’
Here then we have in the Upanishads the idea of bhakti or devotion clearly pronounced and as no one has as yet ventured to put the date of the Svetâsvatara20 Upanishad later than the beginning of our era it is clearly impossible to admit here the idea of early Christian influences.
The date of the Bhagavadgîtâ in which Krishna is represented as the Supreme Spirit and loving devotion for him is demanded as the only means of salvation is more doubtful21. Still even if chronologically Christian influences were possible at the time when that poem was finished there is no necessity for admitting them. I do not wonder at readers unaccustomed to Oriental literature being startled when they read in the Bhagavadgîtâ IX. 29: ‘They who worship me (bhaganti) with devotion or love (bhaktyâ) they are in me and I in them (mayi te teshu kâpy aham)22.’
But such coincidences between the thoughts of the New Testament and the thoughts of Eastern sages will meet us again and again because human nature is after all the same in all countries and at all times.
A whole system of religious philosophy has been built up in later times founded on the principle of bhakti or love namely the Sütras of Sândilya23 who in his second Sütra explains bhakti as affection fixed on God.
And at the present moment no system is more popular in Bengal than that of Kaitanya. Kaitanya was born in 1486 and he did much to popularize and humanize the old Brahmanic doctrines24. With him bhakti or love became the foundation of everything and different steps are laid down through which a worshipper may reach the highest perfection. The exoteric steps consist in discipline (1) social discipline (svadharmâkarana); (2) discipline of the intellect and a surrender of all to Krishna (Krishnakarmârpana); (3) mendicity (svadharmatyâga); (4) philosophic culture (gñânamisrâ bhakti); (5) simplicity of the heart (gñânasüyabhakti); and (6) dispassion (sântabhâva).
Then follow the higher or esoteric steps viz. loving devotion (premabhakti) consisting in humility (dâsya) friendship (sâkhya) and tenderness (vâtsalya); and as the crowning step sweetness and love (madhurabhâva kântabhâva) represented by the highest and purest love between husband and wife.
Bhakti therefore may be used as an equivalent of religion in the sense of devotion and love but it is comparatively speaking a modern word in Sanskrit.
Sraddha faith.
There is however a very ancient word for faith. It is a very important word for while bhakti is a purely Indian concept and even in India of later growth sraddhâ faith is a very old word and must have existed before the Aryan nations separated25. Think what that implies. We read in the Rig-veda I. 55 5: ‘When the fiery Indra hurls down the thunderbolt then people believe in him.’
Adha kana srat dadhati tvishimate
Indrâya vagram nighanighnate vadham.
Here you have in one line the whole secret of natural religion. When people see the manifestation of power in the storm and lightning then they believe in Indra. It is not said that they perceive Indra or that they find out by reasoning that there must be a god called Indra: no they believe in him they accept him they do not doubt his existence. Or again Rv. I. 102 2: ‘Sun and moon move in regular succession that we may have faith O Indra.’
Asme süryakandramase abhikakshe
Sraddhe kam indra karatah vitarturam.
Here we have no longer faith in Indra or any particular deity but faith in general and that faith is taken as the result of our seeing the regular rising and setting of sun and moon.
Faith therefore is represented as reposing on terror produced by the overpowering convulsions of nature and on trust called forth by the discovery of law and order in nature. Few of the best living philosophers have anything better to say on the origin of faith.
And now let us consider this word sraddhâ a little more closely. It is letter by letter the same as the Latin crêdo and our creed. When the Brahmans said srad-dadhe the Romans said credidi; when the Brahmans said sraddhitam the Romans said creditum.
The two words are therefore clearly the same; but if you ask me what sraddhâ meant etymologically I can only say We do not know. Professor Darmesteter derives it from srad in the sense of heart and dhâ to place. Phonetically this etymology might be defended though srad by the side of hrid the regular word for heart in Sanskrit would be without analogy. But Professor Darmesteter has not considered that srad occurs elsewhere by itself and that there it cannot possibly mean heart. For instance Rv. VIII. 75 2 srat visvâ vâryâ kridhi ‘Make all our wishes true!’ Here srad cannot possibly be taken as a dialectic form of hrid.
How srat should come to mean true and sraddhâ to make true to accept as true we do not know. But this only shows how old a word sraddhâ really is and how early in the history of the human mind the idea must have sprung up that we may accept as true what can neither be confirmed by our senses nor proved by our reasoning but what is nevertheless irresistible. Here you see how we may discover embedded in the very deepest strata of language the germs of religion—for there can be no name for believing before the first rays of faith have dawned in the human heart.

  • 1.

    Teichmüller, Religionsphilosophie, xxxiii; Gruppe. Die Griechischen Culte und mythen, 1887, p. 246.

  • 2.

    Sayce, Hibbert Lectures, p. 33.

  • 3.

    Strauss defines religion as a feeling for or touch with the Universe (Gefühl für das Universum); H. Lang as love of the Infinite; Daniel Thompson in his work on The Religious Sentiments of the Human Mind, 1888, as the aggregate of those sentiments in the human mind arising in connection with the relations assumed to subsist between the order of nature (inclusive of the observer) and a postulated supernatural.

  • 4.

    See Bovè, Patagonia, Terra del Fuoco, Rapporto del Tenente Giacomo Bovè. Parte prima. Genova, 1883.

  • 5.

    G. P. Marsh, Origin and History of the English Language, p. 60.

  • 6.

    Introd. to the Science of Religion, p. 277.

  • 7.

    Theophilus Hahn, Tsuni-Goam, the Supreme Being of the Khoi-Khoi, 1881, p. 45.

  • 8.

    Cie. De Nat. D. i. 17, 45, ‘Natura insculpsit in mentibus ut Deos aeternos et beatos haberemus.’

  • 9.

    Cic. De Nat. Deor. i. 16, 43, ‘Quae est enim gens, aut quod genus hominum quod non habeat sine doctrina anticipationem quandam deorum?’

  • 10.

    Cic., l. c., iii. 4, 11, ‘Placet igitur tantas res opinione stultorum judicari?’

  • 11.

    Plutarch, Adv. Coloten, eap. 31.

  • 12.

    Mill, Three Essays, p. 121.

  • 13.

    Chamisso, Werke, ii. p. 258, ‘Es giebt auf Ulea, and den östlicheren Inseln (Lamureck, etc.) weder Tempel noch Priester, und es finden keine feierlichen Opfer statt. Auf Mogemug. Eap und Ngoli sind eigene Tempel erbaut, Opfer werden dargebracht, und es giebt einen religiösen Dienst.’

  • 14.

    Dr. Martineau (Study of Religion, ii. p. 154) translates it by ‘adaptation to internal ends,’ or ‘internal conformity to an end,’ but he generally retains the German expression

  • 15.

    Rv. V. 15, 2.

  • 16.

    See Die Bhagavadgîtâ, übersetzt und erläutert von Dr. F. Lorinser, 1869.

  • 17.

    Upanishads, translated by M. M., in Sacred Books of the East, xv. 260.

  • 18.

    Nishkriya, without acts, i.e. not really active, but passive; merely looking on while the organs perform their acts.

  • 19.

    ndilya (Sùtra 18) explains deva as a god, not as Îsvara, the Lord.

  • 20.

    Professor Weber in one of his earliest treatises (Indische Studien, i. 421 seq.) has indeed discovered in the name Svetâsvatara, i.e. white mule, something that may remind us of a Syro-Christian Mission, but I doubt whether he would still like to be held responsible for such an opinion. With the same right Krishna might remind us of an Ethiopian missionary.

  • 21.

    See the Bhagavadgîtâ, translated by K. T. Telang, Sacred Books of the East, viii. 34, 1882.

  • 22.

    St. John vi. 57; xvii. 23.

  • 23.

    Edited by Ballantyne in the Bibliotheca Indica, 1861, and translated by Prof. Cowell in the same collection, No. 409.

  • 24.

    See Yogendra Chandra Ghosh, Chaitanya's Ethics, Calcutta, 1884; A. de Gubernatis, Giornale della Società Asiat. Italiana, 1888, p. 116; and Kaitanya-kandrodaya, ed. Rajendralal Mitra, Bibl. Indica.

  • 25.

    Hibbert Lectures, p. 309. According to Sândilya (Sutra 24), bhakti is not identical with sraddhâ, because sraddhâ, belief, is merely subsidiary to ceremonial works; but not so is faith in Îsvara.

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