You are here

Lecture 5. My Own Definition of Religion.

Lecture 5.
My Own Definition of Religion.
Former Definitions.
WE have now examined the most important and most characteristic definitions of religion. We have seen how some of them looked chiefly to the practical character others to the theoretic character of religion while some philosophers such as Schleiermacher would recognise the true essence of religion neither in its practical nor in its theoretic manifestations but only in a complete change of our nature in a loving devotion to and almost union with the Supreme Being.

Do not suppose that I look upon all these definitions as wrong or that I intend to criticise them one by one. On the contrary I believe that most of them contain some truth some very important truth but they all seem to me to be vulnerable in one and the same point namely in taking the object of religious thought for granted and therefore leaving it undefined. This may be defensible if in defining religion we only think of our own or of the religion of the present age. But if the historical school has proved anything it has established the fact to which I alluded at the end of my last lecture that in religion as in language there is continuity there is an unbroken chain which connects our thoughts and our words with the first thoughts conceived and with the first words uttered by the earliest ancestors of our race. A definition of religion ought therefore to be applicable not only to what religion is now but to what religion was in its origin and in its earliest developments. Religion may change and it has changed as we know; but however much it may change it can never break entirely with its past it can never be severed from its deepest roots and it is in these deepest roots that we ought to seek as it seems to me the true essence of religion.

But it is not only religion in its origin which the ordinary definitions would fail to comprehend. There are several of the historical developments of religion also which could hardly be brought within their gage.
Is Buddhism a religion?
If you tried for instance to bring Buddhism within the compass of any of the definitions hitherto examined you would find it impossible to do so and yet as you know the largest number of human beings have trusted to Buddha's teaching as their only means of salvation. Those who define religion as a theory as a mode of knowledge must necessarily as I pointed out before supply an object that is to be known whether they call it gods or god the father the creator the Supreme Being or the Supreme Will.
Buddhism as theoretical not included under any definition.
But in Buddhism—I mean in Southern Buddhism which ought to be carefully distinguished from Northern Buddhism or Bodhism—there is no mention of God as a creator or ruler of the world1; on the contrary a belief in creation is condemned if not as heresy at all events as a conceit highly reprimanded by Buddha himself. Gods or Devas are mentioned indeed but only as subordinate legendary beings accepted as part of the traditional phraseology of the times. From a kind of compassion they seem to have been accommodated with a new position as servants and worshippers of the Buddha. Several of the great questions of religion besides that of the existence of a Deity or Creator are banished once for all from the discussions nay from the thoughts of orthodox Buddhists. Some of Buddha's own disciples are introduced as blaming the master for not enlightening them on such questions as whether the world is eternal or had a beginning whether Buddha and those who like him have arrived at perfect knowledge will live after death or not? Whether the living soul is identical with the body or not?
Mâluṅkya-putta and Buddha.
After Mâluṅkya-putta had expostulated with Buddha for leaving his disciples in uncertainty on such important points Buddha answers2:
How did I speak to thee formerly Mâluṅkyaputta? Did I say: Come and be my disciple and I will teach thee whether the world is eternal or not whether the world is finite or infinite whether the living principle is identical with the body or different from it whether the perfect man lives after death or does not whether he lives and does not live at the same time or whether he neither lives nor does not live.
Mâluṅkya-putta replied: Master you did not say so.
Then Buddha continued: Then did you say to me I will become thy disciple but answer me all these questions?
Mâluṅkya-putta confesses that he did not.
After that Buddha proceeds: A man was once wounded by a poisoned arrow. His friends and relations called in an experienced physician. What if the wounded person had said I shall not allow my wound to be treated till I know who the man is by whom I was wounded whether he is a nobleman or a Brâhmana or a Vaisya or a Sûdra. Or what if he said I shall not allow my wound to be treated till I know how the man is called by whom I was wounded to what family he belongs whether he is tall or short or of middle stature and what the weapon was like by which I was wounded. What would be the end of it? The man surely would die of his wound.
Buddha then lets Mâluṅkya-putta see that when he came to him he was like the wounded man who wished to be healed and he finishes his lesson by saying: Let what has not been revealed by me remain unrevealed and let what has been revealed by me remain revealed.
It was natural that the opponents of the Buddhists should make this reticence of Buddha on points of the highest importance a ground of attack. We find the question fully discussed for instance in the Milinda-paṉha3 a theological and philosophical dialogue in which the Yavana King Milinda (Menandros about 100 B.C.) exchanges his views on Buddhism with Nâgasena. Here the King says:
‘Venerable Nâgasena it was said by the Blessed One: “In respect of the truths Ânanda the Tathâgata has no such thing as the closed fist of a teacher who keeps something back.” But on the other hand he made no reply to the question put by the son of the Mâlunkya woman. This problem Nâgasena will be one of two ends on one of which it must rest for he must have refrained from answering either out of ignorance or out of wish to conceal something. If the first statement be true it must have been out of ignorance. But if he knew and still did not reply then the first statement must be false. This too is a doubled-pointed dilemma. It is now put to you and you have to solve it.
‘The Blessed One O king made that first statement to Ânanda and he did not reply to Mâluṅkya-putta's question. But that was neither out of ignorance nor for the sake of concealing anything. There are four kinds of ways in which a problem may be explained. And which are the four? There is the problem to which an explanation can be given that shall be direct and final. There is the problem which can be answered by going into details. There is the problem which can be answered by asking another. And there is the problem which can be put on one side.
‘And which is the problem which can be put on one side? It is such as this—“Is the universe ever-lasting?” “Is it not everlasting?” “Has it an end?” “Has it no end?” “Is it both endless and unending?” “Is it neither the one nor the other?” “Are the soul and the body the same thing?” “Is the soul distinct from the body?” “Does a Tathâgata exist after death?” “Does be not exist after death?” “Does he both exist and not exist after death?” “Does he neither exist nor not exist after death?”
‘Now it was on such a question that ought to be put on one side that the Blessed One gave no reply to Mâuṅkya-putta. And why ought such a question to be put on one side? Because there is no reason or object for answering it. That is why it should be put aside. For the Blessed Buddhas lift not up their voice without a reason and without an object.
‘Very good Nâgasena. Thus is it and I accept it as you say.’
Buddha does not imply that he could not have answered these questions or revealed these mysteries if he had chosen. He professes the same philosophical abstinence or ἐποχή or agnosticism as it is now called as Socrates and he utters the strongest condemnation of those of his disciples who ventured to give either a positive or a negative answer.
Yamaka on Life after Death.
Thus one of them called Yamaka taught openly that a monk if free from sin would cease to exist after death. But for this he was found guilty of heresy and had to be converted to the true view namely to abstain from expressing any opinion on a subject which is beyond our knowledge4.
Dialogue between the King of Kosala and the nun Khemâ.
The question whether the Buddha himself the founder of what we call Buddhism continued to exist after death was naturally a question of a more than purely speculative interest. It touched the hearts of his disciples and there must have been the strongest inclination on their part to answer it in the affirmative. The Northern Buddhists admit the existence of Buddha and of all Buddhas after the end of their earthly career. But the Southern Buddhists abstain. Thus in a dialogue between Pasenadi the King of Kosala and the nun Khemâ the King is introduced as asking the question again and again whether Buddha exists after death or as we should say whether the founder of that religion enjoyed eternal life. But the nun is immovable. She simply repeats the old answer: ‘The perfect Buddha has not revealed it.’ And when questioned further why the perfect Buddha should have left so momentous a question unanswered she says5:
O great King have you an arithmetician or a master of the mint or an accountant who could count the grains of sand of the Ganges and could say there are there so many grains so many hundreds so many thousands or so many hundreds of thousands of grains?
The King replied I have not O reverend lady.
Or have you O great King the nun continued an arithmetician a master of the mint or an accountant who could measure the water in the great ocean and could say there are there so many pints of water so many hundreds so many thousands or so many hundreds of thousands of pints?
The King replied I have not O reverend lady.
And why not? she said. The great ocean is deep immeasurable unfathomable. And in the same manner O King if one tried to conceive the nature of the perfect Buddha by the predicates of corporeity these predicates would be impossible in the perfect Buddha their very root would be annihilated they would be cut down like a palm-tree and removed so that they could never rise again. The perfect Buddha O King is released from having his nature to be counted by the numbers of the corporeal world; he is deep immeasurable unfathomable like the great ocean. To say that the perfect Buddha is beyond death is wrong; to say that he is not beyond death is wrong likewise; to say that he is at the same time beyond and not beyond is wrong; and to say that he is neither beyond nor not beyond6 is wrong again.
With this answer the King must be satisfied and millions of human beings who call themselves Buddhists have had to be satisfied. They have no God no creator or ruler whom they could know there is modus cognoscendi et colendi Deum for them; and yet who would say that they have no religion?
Buddhism an practical not included under any definition.
And so again if we tried to apply to Buddhism those definitions which see in religion not so much a theory as a practice which for instance as Kant's definition explain it as a recognition of all our duties as divine commands how would Buddhism then be brought in?
The Doctrine of Karma.
The essence of Buddhist morality is a belief in Karma that is of work done in this or in a former life which must go on producing effects till the last penny is paid. The same thought pervades much of the Brahmanic literature and it is still one of the most familiar ideas among the Hindus of the present day.
We find the first traces of this belief in Karma in the Upanishads. Thus we read in the Brihadâranyaka7III. 2 1:
‘Yâavalkya’ said Gâratkârava Ârtabhâga ‘when the speech of a dead person enters into the fire breath into the air the eye into the sun the mind into the moon the hearing into space into the earth the body into the ether the self into the shrubs the hairs of the body into the trees the hairs of the head when the blood and the seed are deposited in the water where is then that person?’
avalkya said: ‘Take my hand my friend. We two alone shall know of this; let this question of ours not be (discussed) in public.’
Then the two went out and argued and what they said was Karma work and what they praised was Karma work namely that a man becomes good by good work and bad by bad work. And after that Gâratkârava Ârtabhâga held his peace.
Among the Buddhists however the belief in Karma took a most prominent place. In the very first verse of the Dhammapada8 we read:
‘All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought pain follows him as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.’
And again verse 127:
‘Not in the sky not in the midst of the sea nor if we enter into the clefts of the mountains is there known a spot in the whole world where a man might be freed from an evil deed.’
There can be no doubt that this faith has produced very beneficial results and that it would explain many things which to us remain the riddles of life—but is it religion?
While to us the inequalities with which men are born into the world seem often unjust they can be justified at once by adopting the doctrine of Karma. We are born as what we deserved to be born9 we are paying our penalty or are receiving our reward in this life for former acts. This makes the sufferer more patient for he feels that he is wiping out an old debt while the happy man knows that he is living on the interest of his capital of good works and that he must try to lay by more capital for a future life. It may be said that in the absence of all proof of such a theory and with the total extinction of any recollection of our former good or evil deeds very little practical effect could be expected from this assumption. But this is not the case for the assumption has become a belief as strong as any belief in a religious dogma. Besides though it cannot be proved it helps to explain many difficulties and this gives it a strong hold on man's convictions. The Buddhist trusting in Karma can honestly say Whatever is is right and the same belief which makes him see in what he now suffers and enjoys the natural outcome of his former works will support him in trying to avoid evil and to do good for its own sake knowing that whatever may befall in this life no good and no evil word thought or deed can ever be lost in the life of the universe.
Of course like every honest belief this belief in Karma too may degenerate into superstition. I read not long ago in a Ceylon paper that when an English judge condemned a Buddhist to death the culprit said quietly: ‘Thank you my lord you also will die.’ He then went on to threaten the judge. ‘You will become a bullock in your next life’ he said ‘and I shall then be a driver and I'll drive you up the Kadujanava Pass’—one of the steepest of the steep paths of Ceylon.
While Christian teachers comfort the afflicted by telling them that all injustice in this life will be remedied in the next that Lazarus will be in Abraham's bosom and the rich man in torments Buddha teaches those who seem to suffer unjustly in this life that they have deserved their punishment by their former deeds that they must be grateful to pay off their old debts and that they should try to lay in a store of good works for the time to come.
While ordinary mortals must be satisfied with this general belief Buddha himself and those who have reached a high stage of enlightenment are supposed to possess the power of remembering their former states of existence; and many of the most touching legends in the Buddhist canon are the recollections of his former existences by Buddha himself the so-called Gâtakas.
All this is most excellent and I believe has proved most extensively useful; but when we are asked whether it could be accommodated under any of the definitions of religion which we have passed in review we have to answer that it cannot.
Let us then attempt our own definition.
My own definition of Religion.
A definition as logicians tell us ought to begin with the summum genus to which what we have to define belongs and should then proceed to narrow the sphere of the summum genus by those differences which distinguish our object from all other objects belonging to the same genus.
Religion an Experience.
I well remember Professor Weisse the Hegelian Professor at Leipzig beginning his lectures on the Philosophy of Religion by telling us that religion was first of all an experience.
To many of his hearers this seemed at the time a mere truism but one comes to learn that some truisms are not only true but also very important.
Unless religion can be proved to be an experience in the ordinary sense of that word and as sharing the essential qualities of all other experience it will always lack the solid foundation on which all our knowledge rests. Religion if it is to hold its place as a legitimate element of our consciousness must like all other knowledge begin with sensuous experience. If that foundation is wanting there can be neither natural nor supernatural religion for the supernatural is not what is unnatural but what is superimposed on the natural. In that sense I hold as strongly as ever and in spite of all the false interpretations that have been put on it that Nihil est in fide quod non ante fuerit in sensu.
In order to explain my meaning more clearly it will be necessary to show in greater detail of what all our experience all our states of consciousness all our Ego-knowledge really consists and how even our highest aspirations have their roots in the universal soil of sensuous experience.
Our experience consists of sensations percepts concepts and names.
All that we have or know consists of sensations percepts concepts and names. But though these four phases of knowledge may be distinguished they can-not be separated as entirely independent functions of our mind. They form parts of one whole members of one living organism. In the actual work of thought as carried on by educated men we deal with names as the embodiments of concepts we deal with concepts as the result of percepts and we deal with percepts as the residue of sensations. The process which changes sensations into percepts and percepts into concepts and names belongs to the very earliest age in the history of the human mind. In learning our language we enter at once on an inheritance which has been amassed by our predecessors during thousands of years and to which we ourselves may add something but very little in comparison with what we receive ready-made. It has been argued that even with us sensations may exist by themselves as when we feel a blow taste what is bitter smell what is nauseous see what is dark hear what is loud. They exist no doubt; but as soon as we become conscious of them know them think them they are more than sensations; they have become percepts concepts and names. From the very expressions which we use for these sensations it is clear that as soon as we not only suffer a dumb pain but are becoming conscious of it we have raised the momentary feeling into a permanent image into something that causes what we call the percept of a blow—of something that bites and is therefore called bitter or of something that is like sea-sickness and is therefore called nauseous or of something like the night and is therefore called dark or of something like a shout and is therefore called loud. However let it be granted that like dumb animals we may stare at the blue sky or the green forest without knowing anything about blue or green or colour; even then that state of receptive passiveness should at all events not be called thought but have its own distinctive name. Real thought (antahkarana inward-doing) begins when we leave that merely passive stage of staring or dreaming when we do what no one can do for us namely combine the percepts of sensations into concepts by discovering something they share in common and embody that common property in a sign or a name.
Sensation and perception inexplicable.
This process of conceiving and naming or naming and conceiving though it leads on to the most marvellous results is in itself extremely simple and perfectly intelligible whereas the previous process that of feeling and perceiving is not only mysterious but altogether beyond our powers of comprehension. Formerly people took the very opposite view. It was supposed that sensation and perception were so simple and natural as to require no philosophical explanation at all while understanding and reason and all the rest were looked upon as powers so mysterious that like language they could only be explained as divine gifts.
All this is changed now. All that is done by ourselves call it conception or naming or adding and subtracting our understanding our reason our language our intellect all this we can account for; and though we may make occasional mistakes in un-ravelling the network of language and reason true philosophy does not and need not despair of disentangling in the end the threads with which we ourselves or our forefathers have woven the woof and warp of our thoughts. But the problem of sensation we must leave to be dealt with by other hands. We accept the discoveries of physical science. We believe that what is meant by seeing is really an ethereal tremor striking the retina and conveyed by the optic nerve to specialised cells of cerebral tissue. But how that tremor becomes a sensation of light or to put it into more technical language ‘how10 the excitation from the peripheral end of the afferent nerve reaches its termination in the sensifacient sensorium’ passes all understanding. Touch odour taste colour and sound are our sensations. We know them and grow more perfect in our knowledge of them from the first years of our childhood till our organs of sense become blunted again by old age fade away and perish by death. We also know that what causes these sensations are vibrations of some unknown medium which in the case of light has been called ether. But what relation there is between the effect namely our sensation of red and the cause namely the 500 millions of millions of vibrations of ether in one second neither philosophy nor physical science has yet been able to explain. We can only accept the fact that vibration is translated into sensation but how it is so translated will probably remain a mystery for ever.
How strange therefore that these sensations which are the most wonderful elements of our mind should have been looked upon as common as low and material compared with our own workmanship the concepts and names through which we handle them. If anything deserves the name of a revelation it is our sensations what is as even Kant says given us what we cannot produce ourselves but must accept as coming from a power other than ourselves. If we ascribe these sensations to matter what can justify us in looking down on matter as something inferior or as some philosophers and founders of religion have held as something vile nay as the very work of the devil? What should we be without what we call the material or objective world which though it has been blasphemed against as the work of the devil has also been called the creation of God? We might exist without it but all that we prize most highly our knowledge our science our philosophy our morality our whole intellectual and spiritual life would without an objective material world be a mere blank. What does even Kant say he who was so anxious to reestablish the claims of pure reason to her ancient possessions against the levelling tendencies of Locke and Hume: ‘Concepts without intuitions are empty’ he says; ‘intuitions without concepts are blind 11’ that is to say Without our senses our mind would be empty without our mind our senses would be blind.’ To compare and weigh mind against sense to call the one sublime the other low would be absurd. The one is as necessary as the other; only while what the senses bring to us whether you call it divine or diabolic or neither is certainly beyond all human comprehension what the mind makes’ of it is perfectly intelligible.
The working of our mind.
Let us look into the workshop of what we call our mind. What is brought in? Sensations or something which we feel.
We may go a step further and ask what is meant by sensation and our answer would be that feeling in the highest sense is resisting. In the fight of all against all or as others call it under the pressure of the universe resistance produces what may be called vibration a coming and going a yielding and returning according to the pressure which impinges upon us and is repelled by us. Our very existence has been called by Schopenhauer resistance or will. There are different kinds of pressure. Some may pass us without being even perceived others may crush and almost annihilate us. Our first sensations may be simply sensations of pain or pleasure according as we have to resist the impacts made upon us with violent effort or are able to acquiesce in them without any effort. But there are also many kinds of pressure which give neither pain nor pleasure but which produce in us a rhythmic movement a yielding at first and then a corresponding recovery a kind of swing-swang which we call vibration and which in a sensuous and self-conscious being is sensation in the widest sense of the word though not yet perception. We may stare at the blue sky the green forest the red flowers; we may watch the flight of the clouds and listen to the song of birds; or we may be startled by a clap of thunder frightened by a flash of lightning and driven away by the terror of falling trees. We may be in a state of perturbation or of rest and we may act under the influence of what we thus see and hear. We may even be said to act rationally just as a dog is said to act rationally when on seeing his master raise his whip he runs away.
No percept without language. Helmholtz.
But though we may imagine such a state and though I do not like to contradict collectors of psychological curiosities who maintain they have actually experienced it I hold myself as strongly as ever that not until we have a name and concept of sky can we truly be said to see the sky; not till we have a name for blue do we know that the sky is blue. Philosophers have long known this but the best students of physical science also some of the highest authorities on optics and acoustics have at last come to see the same. ‘Only after the perceptions of the senses have become fixed by language are they (the senses) that is to say are we brought to a conscious possession and a real understanding of them12.’ These are not the speculations of a meta-physician or of a student of language they are the ipsissima verba of one who stands foremost among experimental philosophers and who in England as well as in Germany is recognised as one of the highest authorities on optics and acoustics that is on the sensuous perceptions of sight and hearing—they are quoted from Professor Helmholtz.
Perceptions always finite.
Let us now consider the general character of our percepts. There is one characteristic which is common to all of them and therefore to all our concepts and names—to all we know—they are always finite in themselves; or if you like the objects to which they refer are taken as finite. Some critics have objected to the term finite and maintained that I ought to have used definite instead.
Finite sad definite.
I see no objection whatever to using definite instead of finite; my only reason for preferring finite was that it seemed to me wider than definite which is frequently used in the restricted sense of what has been defined by logical terms. The important point however is not the name so long as we see clearly that all objects which we perceive and afterwards conceive and name must be circumscribed must have been separated from their surroundings must be measurable and can thus only become perceivable and knowable and namable.
And this applies not only to finiteness in space and time but also to finiteness in quality. We know now that all shades of colour even those which our unassisted eye cannot distinguish are due to so many and no more vibrations of ether within a given time. They are therefore finite in their very nature. The same applies to every tone which we hear. It consists of a finite or definite i.e. a limited or countable number of vibrations in a second. And as our perceptions of material objects such as stones or trees or animals must be outlined must have a beginning and an end our concepts and names also are possible only with well defined groups or at all events with groups that ought to be well defined if they are to answer their purpose. It is for this reason that concepts can be represented as they have been by Euler and others by spheres of greater or smaller extent the definition determining the extension of a concept as a circumference determines the extension of a sphere.
The finite implies the infinite.
But if finiteness is thus a necessary characteristic of our ordinary knowledge it requires but little reflection to perceive that limitation or finiteness in whatever sense we use it always implies a something beyond. We are told that our mind is so constituted whether it is our fault or not that we cannot conceive an absolute limit. Beyond every limit we must always take it for granted that there is something else. But what is the reason of this? The reason why we can not conceive an absolute limit is because we never perceive an absolute limit; or in other words because in perceiving the finite we always perceive the infinite also. Descartes who has so often been called the founder of modern philosophy declares without any hesitation: ‘I ought not to think that I perceive the infinite only by the negation of the finite as I perceive rest and darkness by negation of motion and light; on the contrary I clearly perceive that there is more of reality in infinite substance than in finite and therefore that in a certain sense the idea of the infinite is prior to me to the finite.’
The infinite in space.
I do not go quite so far as Descartes but it seems to me beyond the reach of doubt that even in our earliest and simplest perceptions we always perceive the finite and the infinite simultaneously though it takes a long time before we clearly conceive and name the two as simply finite and infinite. If we perceive a square we can only perceive it by perceiving at the same time the space beyond the square. If we perceive the horizon we perceive at the same time that which hems in our senses from going beyond the horizon. There is no limit which has not two sides one turned towards us the other turned towards what is beyond; and it is that Beyond which from the earliest days has formed the only real foundation of all that we call transcendental in our perceptual as well as in our conceptual knowledge though no doubt it has also been peopled with the manifold creations of our poetic imagination. To the early nations the West the setting of the sun was the extreme limit of the world—to the Buddhists the golden gate that opens to receive the setting sun in the West has become the Eastern gate of a more distant West of Sukhâvatî the land of bliss.
The infinite in time.
And what applies to space applies to time. As we cannot perceive and therefore conceive anything in space without a something beyond we cannot perceive or conceive anything in time without a something beyond a before and an after. Here too imagination has stretched its view as far as language will carry it. The number of years by which Hindus and Buddhists have tried to measure the infinitude of time are simply appalling—yet beyond the giddy height and depth which they have reached there always remained that eternal Beyond from which no human mind can escape.
The infinite as cause.
Closely connected with the infinite as it is postulated in space and time is a third infinite namely that of cause. This has been called by some philosophers a mere illusion a mere weakness of the human mind. There are some strong-minded philosophers who hold that a world is possible in which there is no cause and no effect and in which two and two would not make four. But wherever that Erehwon may be in our sublunary world and I may add in our sublunary language two and two will always make four and as we can never shake off the chain of causality we shall always be forced to admit not only a beyond beyond all beyonds but also a cause beyond all causes.
If therefore our ordinary sensations and perceptions are at the same time both of the finite and of the infinite they naturally call forth and leave in our mind and in our language the concept of finite and at the same time the concept of infinite. I speak here of a logical and psychological necessity only; and not yet of the realisation of these concepts of finite and infinite in history.
It is extraordinary how difficult it is to avoid misunderstandings even on the part of honest critics to say nothing of dishonest opponents. In answer to what I tried to show that every single perception so far as it is finite involves whether we are conscious of it or not some perception of the infinite—which is really only a freer rendering of the old scholastic formula omnis determinatio est negatio I am told that there are many savage tribes even now who do not possess a word for finite and infinite. Is that an answer?
Savages without words for finite and infinite.
No one can doubt that the idea of the infinite as a pure abstraction is one of the latest and that when we trace religion back to a perception of the infinite in nature or in man we can mean no more than that the infinite as hidden in the finite left some impression on our senses and on our mind from the very first dawn of human intelligence and that it is that very impression which after passing through a long hibernation grows and grows and bursts forth at the very last like the butterfly from the chrysalis as the infinite in its most general most abstract most purified sense.
It is very easy to be positive about the languages of ancient savages for we know so little about them. But supposing that languages spoken by ancient savages were known in which no words occur for the boundless sky or the shoreless sea this would not in the least affect our position. On the contrary the more savage tribes can be produced without names and concepts for what is endless deathless or infinite the stronger the proof that these concepts were only gradually evolved out of percepts in which they were contained but from which they had not yet been separated.
The Duke of Argyll's Definition of Religion.
I must try to define my position as clearly as possible. I hold that the only justification for a belief in a Beyond of any kind whatever lies in the original perception of something infinite which is involved in a large class of our ordinary sensuous and finite perceptions. But I hold equally strongly that this perception of a Beyond remained undeveloped for a long time that it assumed its first form in the numberless names of what we call deities till at last it threw off its husk and disclosed the ripe grain namely the name and concept of a Beyond of an Infinite or in the highest sense of a Supreme Being.
Here is the point where I differ for instance from the Duke of Argyll. In his great work The Unity of Nature the Duke arrives at the conclusion that religion begins with ‘a belief in supernatural beings in living agencies other and higher than our own’ (p. 466) and he maintains that ‘to conceive of the energies that are outside of man as like the energies that he feels within him is simply to think of the un known in terms of the familiar and the known.’ ‘To think this’ he writes ‘can never have been to man any matter of difficult attainment. It must have been in the very nature of things the earliest the simplest and the most necessary of all conceptions’ (p. 474).
We shall see hereafter that this definition contains a great deal of truth. The reason why I cannot accept it is that it makes religion begin with concepts and not with percepts and it is with percepts that all our knowledge even the most abstract ought to begin. We cannot perceive supernatural beings or living agencies but we can perceive the sky and in perceiving it as finite perceive at the same time the necessary complement of the Infinite. There are many steps which must have preceded such concepts as ‘energies without being like the energies within us.’ To conceive and name energies within us is a process unknown to the large majority of mankind even at the present day and to think of energies without as like the energies within is very different from seeing the sky or the fire and conceiving and naming such beings as Dyaus or Zeus as Indra or Agni. The Duke speaks of a belief in superhuman beings and considers such concepts as a being and a superhuman being as very early and very simple. But the very verb to be is a very late creation and the noun being much later still. Even Cicero looked still in vain for such a word as ens or essentia13.
It is on the contrary one of the most interesting subjects for the historian of religion to see how the more abstract concept of superhuman beings was slowly evolved out of such concrete and full concepts as Dyaus sky Agni fire Vâyu wind Sûrya sun. Instead of the more general concept coming first and being gradually invested with differentiating attributes history shows that the differentiated and almost dramatic characters came first and by being divested of their various attributes left behind them the more general but at the same time more exalted concepts of beings or superhuman beings. There is no trace whatever so far as I know of any of the early nations having first elaborated the concepts and names of superhuman beings and then having connected them with various attributes. Among most nations also so far as historical evidence enables us to judge a belief in many superhuman beings preceded a belief in one superhuman being and for a long time what seem to us two contradictory beliefs a belief in one and a belief in many gods were held to be perfectly compatible in the same religion. The Duke of Argyll unless his own words misrepresent him represents the connection of these superhuman beings with material objects as a later phase. ‘The nature of that connection’ he writes ‘may not be always it may not even in any case be perfectly clear and definite. Sometimes the material object is an embodiment sometimes it is a symbol often it may be only an abode. Nor is it wonderful that there should be a like variety in the particular objects which have come to be so regarded. Sometimes they are such material objects as the heavenly bodies. Sometimes they are natural productions of our own planet such as particular trees or particular animals or particular things in themselves inanimate such as springs or streams or mountains. Sometimes they are manufactured articles stones or blocks of wood cut into some shape which have a meaning either obvious or traditional’ (p. 480).
There are manifestly two ways only in which the truth of such statements can be tested. We have to ask whether they rest on historical facts or on any logical necessity. Tertium non datur. Now I can see no logical necessity for admitting even the possibility of any concepts which are not founded on previous percepts. On the contrary if only we define these terms properly the existence of concepts without previous percepts would become self-contradictory.
And as to facts I have no hesitation in saying that so far as our knowledge of ancient religions reaches at present they do not support the opinion that religion began anywhere with the general concept of super-human beings and that at a later time only these mere beings were connected with differentiating qualities. Logically no doubt the general comes first and the particular follows; but what is first by itself is not first to us and in the growth of concepts the historical process is generally the reverse of the logical. I hold that before man could speak even of the infinite sky or Dyaus he must actually have perceived something infinite and must have been brought in sensuous contact with something not finite like everything else; but to conceive an infinite being or even a number of infinite beings is a very different process which comes in earlier it is true than we expected but still much later than the naming and conceiving of the infinite sky the infinite earth the infinite sea.
While the Duke considers that religious thought began with the conception of superhuman beings and that these were afterwards connected with distinguishing mythological attributes it seems to me that we must learn the very opposite lesson from history namely that religious thought began with the naming of a large number of clearly marked and differentiated beings such as Sky Dawn Thunder Lightning Storm Mountains Trees etc. and that the concept of superhuman beings arose afterwards as a concept common to all when divested of their characteristic differences. In the Veda we look in vain for words of so abstract a character as super-human beings or personal agencies. Even the words for gods in general such as deva bright vasu brilliant asura living are still full of physical meaning in the more ancient hymns. We are confronted from the first with such strongly marked dramatic characters as Dyaus the bright sky Varuna the dark sky Marut the storms Agni the fire Ushas the dawn. We can understand the origin of these mythological characters because in their material aspect at least whatever may have been suspected behind them they offered themselves to the eyes and ears of those who framed their names and believed in their existence. But mere superhuman beings without definite attributes never presented themselves to their senses and could never therefore have found an entrance into their intellect. Dyaus in the Veda was originally a name of the sky but of an active and subjective sky. The purely material characteristics of the sky are still there faintly visible; but they slowly vanish and in the end there remains the name only which coupled with pitâ father appears in the earliest Aryan prayers as Dyaush pitâ Jupiter Heaven-father and in the end even in the language of philosophers as the Supreme Being. And what applies to the name of Dyaus applies likewise to the names of other gods. They are names of material objects or phenomena of nature though all of them with the background of the infinite behind them. They lose their individual character very gradually and in the end only stand before us sublimised into superhuman beings or personal agencies. The germ of the superhuman or as I like to call it by a more general name of the infinite element was there from the first but it was involved as yet in sensuous perception not yet evolved in a conceptual name.
Early Names of the Infinite.
But though these conceptual names of superhuman beings and living agencies are clearly from an historical point of view of later growth it is true nevertheless that we meet with names for the Beyond or the Infinite in documents of great antiquity. I see however that some remarks of mine on the early occurrence of names for the Infinite have caused some misapprehension which I must try to remove. I expressed my surprise that such a name as Aditi should occur in the Rig-veda for so far as we know at present Aditi is derived from the negative a and dita bound so that it seems to have expressed from the beginning an unbound unbounded or infinite being. But the Rig-veda though it is the most ancient document of Aryan thought within our reach contains relics of different ages and even its most ancient relics are relics of Aryan thought only and are separated by an immeasurable distance from what people are pleased to call the beginning of all things. We can clearly see the linguistic and intellectual detritus on which the Veda rests and though the occurrence of such words as Aditi will always remain startling it can never be used to prove that the Vedic Rishis or their distant Aryan ancestors began life with a clear conception and definite name of the Infinite in the abstract.
My remarks on Mana also have been supposed to mean something very different from what I intended. Mana14 is the name not of any individual super-human being but it is used we are told by most of the Pacific races in the sense of a supernatural power distinct from all physical powers yet acting every-where in nature and believed to be conciliated by prayers and sacrifices. If that name is spread over the whole Pacific we are justified in supposing that it existed before the final separation of the Polynesian races and such a date however vague may when we deal with illiterate races be called an early date.
But this is very different from supposing that Mana was the most primitive concept of the whole Polynesian race and that its whole religion and mythology were founded on it. The mythological and religious language of this race so far from being what people call primitive or primordial shows so many antecedents so much that is already petrified decayed and unintelligible that the Vedic language may be called primitive as compared with it. I never could share the opinion that the thoughts of savage races simply because they are the thoughts of savage races carry us back into a more distant antiquity than the thoughts of civilised and literate nations. These so-called savages are so far as we know not a day older or younger on the surface of the earth than present They inhabitants of India China or even of England. England. They have probably passed through more changes and chances than our own ancestors unless we assume that by some special providence they were kept stationary or preserved in spirits for the special benefit of future anthropologists. In the eyes of an historian therefore a word like Mana though extremely curious and instructive can claim no greater antiquity than the stratum of language in which it has been found. It may be an ancient survival a mediaeval revival or a modern imagination but it cannot possibly be forced into an argument to prove that religion began anywhere with a belief in supernatural beings or living agencies and not with a naming of the great phenomena of nature behind which such beings or agencies were suspected.
The last word which I mentioned as a name for a supreme being without any physical attributes was Manito. This word used by the Red Indians as a name of the Supreme Spirit has been proved to mean originally no more than Beyond. Here therefore there seemed to be another proof that religion among savage people might begin with such abstract concepts as that of Beyond. The fact itself was so curious that I thought it right to point it out though as we know the word Manito and its various dialectic forms in documents of the last century only I never understood by what right it could possibly be transferred to the primitive periods of humanity. And here a very useful lesson has been read to anthropologists in whose eyes every nineteenth-century savage becomes an antediluvian. For according to the most recent researches there seems to be little doubt that Manito was introduced in the last century only by Christian Missionaries as a name for the Supreme Being and had never been used before in that sense by the Red Indians themselves15.
I hope I have thus made it clear that in citing these names of the Infinite whether in the Veda or among the Pacific tribes or among the Red Indians I never intended to imply that they could have represented under any circumstances the earliest phases of religious thought. The perception of the Infinite which is the necessary foundation of all religious thought is something quite different. It is the perception of the infinite within the finite and hence whenever these perceptions are raised to a conceptual level and named the names of the finite remain and become imperceptibly the names of the Infinite.
Does the Vedio Religion begin with sacrifice?
Let us now consider another objection. The perception of the Infinite it has been said16 can have nothing to do with the origin of religion because the Vedic religion begins not with faith in infinite beings but with sacrifice.
These are bold statements. First of all it should never be forgotten that the deities invoked in the Veda must have existed long before the hymns which we possess were composed. Some of them exist in other Aryan languages and must therefore have been framed prior even to the Aryan separation. The origin of their names lies therefore far beyond the Vedic age and if they were originally names of finite phenomena conceived as infinite in the evolution of religious thought whatever the Vedic hymns and Brâhmannas might say to the contrary would be of very little weight. But secondly what possible meaning can we connect with the statement that Vedic religion begins with sacrifice?
When sacrifices come in for whom are they meant? Surely for somebody for beings who are the object of faith for beings different from things we can touch or see for infinite beings if only in the sense that their life has no end and that they are in that sense immortal endless infinite.
And what can be the meaning of such a sentence (p. 221) as this that in the Veda ‘the faithful knows that the lighting of the matutinal sacrificial fire drives away the demons of night and supports the approaching sun-god in his fight against them. He has been taught by his ancestors that the sacrificial potion and the intoxicating Soma invigorate Indra for his fight with the dragon and he sacrifices gladly because he hates the night which is full of dangers and because he loves the break of day. For this reason and not from a desire for the infinite does he call the bright deities his friends and the sky his father. And when the faithful has performed his sacrificial rite he expects that heaven will do his part increase the cattle of the faithful fertilise his fields and destroy his enemies. In this very finite sphere does the religion of those early days have its being.’
If we dissolve these assertions into their constituent elements we shall find that they have absolutely no bearing whatever on the question at issue. We wanted to know how the concept of any so-called gods or divine powers arose of beings to whom at a later time sacrifices may be offered; and we are told that the faithful knows that his sacrifice will support the sun-god in his fight against the demons of night! (p. 276.) But here everything which we wish to account for is taken for granted. When people had arrived at the conception of a sun-god and of nocturnal demons the whole battle of the human intellect was won. But who ever told them of a sun-god or as we should say what perceptions led them on to such a concept and such a name? Then again whence came that idea that a sacrifice could invigorate the sun-god? We are told that man learnt it from his ancestors. Yes but we want to know how his ancestors learnt it. We are really speaking of two totally different periods in the development of human thought. If man has once arrived at the idea of bright deities we can understand why he should call them his friends; but why did he call anything bright deities?
Then again the idea that an intoxicating beverage like Soma taken by the sacrificer should invigorate the god fighting against the dragon is so late so secondary even in so late and so secondary a phase of religion as we see represented in the Veda that it is difficult enough to discover all the missing links in the intellectual chain that led to it. But to suppose that religion could begin with Indra drinking Soma offered at a sacrifice is like supposing that the Aryan language could begin with French.
And is it really a very finite sphere of thought if people have actually brought themselves to believe not only that there are bright gods in heaven but that these gods in heaven but that these gods in heaven can hear our prayers and that though unseen themselves they are able to increase the cattle of the faithful and destroy their enemies? Where in all our finite experience is there any evidence for such thoughts thoughts which become intelligible only by patient research just as French words become intelligible only if we trace them back through various phases to Latin and from Latin to some Aryan root the meaning of which is sometimes so different that without a knowledge of the intermediate links we could never believe that the two had any organic relationship at all.
Germs of the Infinite in the Veda.
Any one who is able to understand the Veda will find no difficulty in discovering the true germs of the infinite in the conception of what the Vedic poets call devas. It makes no difference whether we call those poets primitive or modern savage or civilised so long as we know what thoughts they were capable of. Now the thought of the infinite in space and time at least was certainly not beyond their grasp.
When a Vedic poet such as Vasishtha stood on a high mountain in the land of the Seven Rivers as he called the Punjab and let his eye travel across land and water as far as it could reach had he not a perception of the infinite?
When a Greek hero such as Odysseus was tossed about on the vast commotion of the waves seeing no stars and no land anywhere had be no perception of the infinite? And are we so different from them?
The Infinitely Great.
When we ourselves—savages as we are according to Bacon in spite of all our syllogisms17—have learnt to look upon the boundless earth with its boundless ocean no longer as a stupendous mass but as a small globe or globule moving with other globes across the infinite firmament; when wider infinitudes than the infinite firmament open before us and the sun which was once so near and dear to us becomes a fiery mass the magnitude of which defies our power of imagination; when afterwards the magnitude of the sun and its distance from us which is expressed in millions of miles dwindle down again into nothing as compared with the nearest star which we are told lies twenty millions of millions of miles from our earth so that a ray of light if travelling with the velocity of 187000 miles in a second would take more than three years in reaching us;—nay even this is not yet all—when we are assured by high astronomical authorities that there are more than one thousand millions of such stars which our telescopes have discovered and that there may be millions of millions of suns within our sidereal system which are as yet beyond the reach of our best telescopes; and that even that sidereal system need not be regarded as single within the universe but that thousands of millions of sidereal systems may be recognised in the galaxy 18—if we listen to all this do we not feel the overwhelming pressure of the infinite the same infinite which had impressed the mind of Vasishtha and Odysseus and from which no one can escape who has eyes to see or ears to hear?
The infinitely Small.
But there is another infinite the infinitely small which is even more wonderful than the infinitely distant and great. When we turn away our eyes from the immensity which surrounds us and look at one small drop of water taken from the boundless ocean a new universe seems to open before us. There are in that drop of water atoms of atoms moving about some visible some invisible some hardly imaginable. A high authority Sir Henry Roscoe has told us ‘that the chemists are now able to ascertain the relative position of atoms so minute that millions upon millions of them can stand upon a needle's point.’ Is not that infinitude of atoms as wonderful as the infinitude of stars?
Infinite Inseparable from Finite.
I maintain then that the infinite is the necessary complement of the finite in every human mind that it was involved in the first perceptions and became part of the silent clockwork within us though it may have taken thousands of years before the necessity was felt to give it its final expression as the Infinite or the Unknown or the Beyond.
The Concept of Cause.
And it is the same with the idea of cause and causality. There may be ancient there may be modern savages who have no such word as cause. Does that prove that they had no other expression for that concept? When we now speak of the cause of the world we could in the childhood of our thought and language have said no more than ‘the father or progenitor of heaven and earth’ ganitâ dyâvâprithivyoh; or if our thought dwelt more on the forming and shaping of the world the carpenter of heaven and earth tvashtâ (τέκτων) dyâvâprithivyoh. When afterwards it was felt to be less important to dwell on the act of begetting or shaping when in fact it was felt desirable to drop these special features human thought and language reduced the begetter and shaper to a mere maker or creator. And when those names also were felt to be too full of meaning they were lightened once more till they conveyed no more than author source origin principle cause. This is the historical and genetic account of the concept of cause. It began with a real maker like unto ourselves when we do a thing and see that it is done; it ended with something that is neither human nor divine nor even real in the sense of perceptible by the senses—a mere cause.
I hope that I have thus made it clear in what sense I consider the perception of the infinite to have from the very beginning formed an ingredient or if you like a necessary complement to all finite knowledge19;. I am quite willing to admit that finite and infinite are not always quite adequate terms to express all that we want to express and that I sometimes should prefer visible and invisible known and unknown definite and indefinite. But every one of these expressions proves even more inadequate in certain circumstances than finite and infinite and if technical terms have once been properly defined I do not see how they can be misunderstood.

  • 1.

    See the account of Brahman as a Creator in Selected Essays, ii. 297,

  • 2.

    Mr. Rhys Davids, in his translation of the Milinda-paṉha (i. 199), calls him the son of the Mâlunkya woman (Mâluṅkya-putta), but be mentions Mâluṅka as a various reading. Professor Oldenberg (Buddha. p. 281) gives the name as Mâlukya-putta, or simply Mâlukya.

  • 3.

    Translated by Mr. Rhys Davids in the Sacred Books of the East.

  • 4.

    Oldenberg, Buddha, p. 287.

  • 5.

    Oldenberg, Buddha, p. 284.

  • 6.

    N’ eva hoti art na na hoti tathâgato param maranà’ ti pi na upeti.

  • 7.

    Sacred Books of the East, xv. 126.

  • 8.

    Sacred Books of the East, x. 3.

  • 9.

    ‘My possessions are my Karma, my inheritance is my Karma, my mother's womb is my Karma,’ etc.; see Oldenberg, Buddha, p. 248, quotation from the Anguttara Nikâya, Pañkaka Nipâta.

  • 10.

    What is Religion? by C. N., p. 54; quotation from Huxley's Science and Culture.

  • 11.

    Science of Thought. p. 143.

  • 12.

    Science of Thought, p. 151.

  • 13.

    Seneca, Epist. 58.

  • 14.

    Hibbert Lectures, p. 55.

  • 15.

    See Brinton, Myths of the New World, p. 53.

  • 16.

    Gruppe, p, 221.

  • 17.

    See De Bonald, Mél. i. 100.

  • 18.

    See R. A. Proctor, in Secular Thought, April 21, 1888.

  • 19.

    This point has been carefully reasoned out by D. G. Thompson in his Religious Sentiments, London, 1888.

From the book: