What is a Sacred Book?
ALL Sacred Books came to us from the East: not one of them has been conceived composed or written down in Europe.
It is sometimes difficult to say what is a Sacred Book and what is not. When I undertook some years ago with the help of the best Oriental scholars in Europe and India to publish translations of all the Sacred Books of the East it was by no means easy for us to determine what books should be included or excluded. It was suggested that those books only should be considered as sacred which professed to be revealed or to be directly communicated by the Deity to the great teachers of mankind. But it was soon found that very few if any of the books themselves put forward that claim. Such a claim was generally advanced and formulated by a later generation and chiefly by theologians in support of that infallible authority which they wished to secure for the books on which their teaching was founded. But even that was by no means a general rule and we should have had to exclude the Sacred Books of the Buddhists of the followers of Confucius and Lao-gze possibly even the Old Testament as looked upon in early times by the Jews themselves if we had kept to that definition. So we agreed to treat as Sacred Books all those which had been formally recognised by religious communities as constituting the highest authority in matters of religion which had received a kind of canonical sanction and might therefore be appealed to for deciding any disputed points of faith morality or ceremonial.
We should not treat the Homeric poems for instance as Sacred Books because though Herodotus tells us that Homer and Hesiod made the gods of the Greeks—whatever that may mean—neither the Odyssey nor the Iliad was ever intended to teach religion. There are many books which have exercised a far greater influence on religious faith and moral conduct than the Bibles of the world. Such are for instance the Imitatio Christi by Thomas à Kempis Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress Dante's Divina Comedia or in Southern India the Kural. But none of these works received any canonical sanction; their doctrines were not binding and might be accepted or rejected without peril.
The Five Birthplaces of Sacred Books.
There are five countries only which have been the birthplace of Sacred Books: (1) India (2) Persia (3) China (4) Palestine (5) Arabia.
Survey of Sacred Books.
I can do no more to-day than give you a very short account of the Sacred Books of the East. I may hope that by this time no one will ask what some thirty years ago an eminent London publisher asked Professor Wilson when he offered him a translation of the Rig-veda. ‘And pray Sir’ he said ‘What is the Rig-veda?’ The collection of translations of the Sacred Books of the East which through the liberal patronage of the Indian Government and the University of Oxford I have been enabled to publish during the last twelve years amounts now to thirty-six volumes.
It seems a long list and yet it is only a beginning though I trust that the next generation will carry on the work and thus render the religious thoughts of the ancient world more and more accessible and intelligible to all who care for the sacred records of Natural Religion—for the Bibles of the whole human race.
India holds no doubt the foremost rank as the mother of four great religions each with its own code of sacred writings.
We have in India first of all the Vedic religion the most ancient faith of the Aryan race of which we have any literary records.
Its records have been preserved to us in four collections of sacred poetry (mantras) called the Rig-veda-samhitâ the Yagur-veda-samhitâ in two texts the mixed (Taittirîya) and the unmixed (Vâgasaneyi) the Sâma-veda-samhitâ and the Atharva-veda-samhitâ. The most important by far is the Rig-veda-samhitâ the original collection of sacred hymns as preserved in different Brahmanic families. The Yagur-veda and Sâma-veda-samhitâs are collections made for liturgical purposes. The Atharva-veda contains besides large portions taken from the Rig-veda some curious remnants of popular and magical poetry. These deserve more attention particularly from the students of folk-lore than they have hitherto received.
Next to these collections of ancient poetry and representing a later and far more advanced period come the Brâhmanas all written in archaic prose and teaching everything connected with the performance of the ancient Vedic sacrifices. The more important are the Aitareya and Kaushîtaki-brâhmana for the Rig-veda the Taittirîya and Satapatha for the two Yagur-vedas the Tândya for the Sâma-veda the Gopatha for the Atharva-veda.
The Âranyakas or Forest-books form part of the Brâhmanas and contained originally the famous Upanishads the philosophical treatises on which the Vedânta philosophy was founded.
The latest productions of the Vedic period are the Sûtras concise treatises on sacrifices customs laws also on grammar metre etc.
The periods which succeed the Vedic in the history of the Brahmanic religion are of much smaller interest to us. They can be studied in the two epic poems the Mahâbhârata and Râmâyana in the later Law-books the six systems of philosophy and the Purânas.
The Vedic religion seems to have ruled supreme from 1500 B.C. (if not earlier) to about 500 B.C.
At that time a reaction took place against the exclusive claims of the Vedic faith and its privileged representatives and out of numerous dissenting schools three acquired political importance and historical permanence: (1) Southern Buddhism (2) Northern Buddhism or more correctly Bodhism and (3) Gainism.
Each of these religions is represented by a large body of sacred literature:
Southern Buddhism has to be studied in the famous Tripitaka the three baskets or collections as they are called (1) the Vinaya-Pitaka the book of discipline; (2) the Sutta-Pitaka the book of sermons; (3) Abhidhamma-Pitaka the book of metaphysics;
Northern Buddhism has for its sacred books the Nine Dharmas; and
Gainism the Siddhânta consisting of the forty-five Âgamas.
Specimens of each of these canons can be found translated in the Sacred Books of the East.
Influence of the Kshatriyas the Nobility.
It is important to observe that the founder of Southern Buddhism and the founder of Gainism both belonged to the second caste the aristocracy or nobility of India not to the priestly caste of the Brâhmans who had hitherto enjoyed the exclusive privilege of religious teaching and of performing sacrificial acts. The founder of Buddhism was a prince or at all events a nobleman who lived about 500 B.C.; and so was Mahâvîra the son of Siddhârtha of Kundagrâma (Kotîggâma) the founder of Gainism his contemporary. He is mentioned in the Buddhists' canon by the name of Nigantha Nâta-putta i.e. the Nirgrantha of the Gñâtrika clan. Buddha means the Awakened or Enlightened Gina the conqueror a name applied to Buddha also. Their systems share much in common but they are kept apart both in doctrine and in ethics. The followers of the Gina number at present half a million only those of the Buddha who may be called the Southern Buddhists are estimated at about 29 millions.
The name of the founder of Northern Buddhism is not known and we shall probably be not far wrong in looking on this branch of Buddhism as a combination of Buddhist doctrines then prevalent in Northern India with religious and philosophical ideas imported into the country about the beginning of the Christian era by its Turanian conquerors the Indo-Scythian races under Huvishka Kanishka and other semi-barbarous sovereigns. The number of these Northern Buddhists is estimated at 470 millions.
So much for India as the mother of four religions to say nothing of its smaller offspring the religion of the Sikhs and many other still living sects.
Media and Persia.
In a wider sense India or at all events the Aryan Conquerors of India may even claim some share in the ancient religion of Media and Persia known to us by the Zend-avesta the sacred book of the Zoroastrians. The most ancient portions of the Avesta the Gâthas and the hymns of the Rig-veda are certainly the products of the same intellectual soil. They may even be called twins and some of the students of the Zend-avesta have not hesitated to represent the Avestic Gâtha or prayer as the elder twin of the Vedic Sûkta or hymn of praise.
The Avesta consists of two parts. The first contains the Vendîdâd a compilation of religious laws and mythical tales; the Vispered a collection of sacrificial litanies and the Yasna consisting likewise of litanies and of the five ancient Gâthas. When these three are written together according to the requirements of the liturgy and without a Pehlevi translation the collection is called Vendîdâd sâdah the pure Vendîdâd. The second part is called the Khorda Avesta or ‘Small Avesta’ containing prayers such as the five Gâh the thirty formulas of the Sîrôzah the three Âfrigân and the six Nyâyis with some hymn of praise the Yasts and other fragments.
Outside of India and Persia we have only China Palestine and Arabia as cradles of religious literature. China gives us the works collected rather than composed by Confucius and the manual of the doctrines of Lao-gze the Tao-te king. Both religions that of Confucius and that of Lao-gze are still prevalent in China together with Buddhism which was introduced into China from Northern India in the first century B.C. Confucius and Lao-gze were contemporaries both living between 600 and 500 B.C. Lao-gze however was 50 or 40 years the senior of Confucius and it is believed that he was 72 years old at the time of his birth 604 B.C. This is perhaps the most wonderful of many wonderful achievements ascribed to the founders of religion and its origin is probably the same as that of many other miracles—a misunderstood expression. Lao-gze in Chinese means the old one literally the Old Boy. We can easily understand what such an expression really meant. It was probably kindly meant. But when after a time it did not seem sufficiently respectful it was misinterpreted and became a myth. The founder of Tao-ism was represented as old even when a boy and very soon other legends were added by helpful grandmothers who told their children that this wonderful boy had actually grey hair when he came into the world.
You would probably be inclined to say that such absurdities are possible in China only. But a comparative study of religions teaches us a very different lesson and enables us to see even in the silliest miracles a rational and human element. We find a very similar legend in Europe—not indeed among Aryan people but among the Estonians a Turanian race akin to the Fins who live in the Baltic provinces of Russia on the Gulf of Finland not very far from St. Petersburg. These Estonians have like the Fins some ancient epic poetry; and one of their fabulous heroes is called Wannemuine. He was possessed of extraordinary wisdom; and the poet in order to account for it declared that he was not only grey-headed but grey-bearded at the time of his birth.
We shall meet again and again with this curious longing after a miraculous birth claimed for the founders or propounders of new religions by their devoted disciples and followers—as if there could be or as if poor human reason could even imagine anything more truly miraculous than a natural birth and a natural death.
The Chinese views of religion are so different from our own that their religious classics have never enjoyed the authority which in India for instance is conceded to the Veda or in Arabia to the Qur‘ân. They received the title of King or classic during the Han dynasty (from 202 B.C.).
The first is the Shû-king the book of historical documents. They profess to go back to the 24th century B.C. and they end with King Hsiang of the Kâu dynasty 651–619 B.C. Confucius himself lived as we saw in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.
The second is the Shi-king the book of poetry. It contains 305 pieces some of which are said to be as old as the Shang dynasty 1766–1123 B.C. The character of these poems is by no means exclusively religious the greater portion are simply relics of more or less ancient popular poetry.
The third is the Yî-king the book of changes a most obscure and enigmatic collection chiefly intended for the purposes of divination but interspersed with many metaphysical physical moral and religious utterances.
The fourth is the Lî-kî the record of rites with occasional remarks of Confucius on the sacrificial worship of his country as collected by his disciples and later followers.
The fifth is the Khun-khin ‘the spring and autumn’ the only one which can be called the work of Confucius himself giving us his account of his own native state of Lû from 722–481 B.C.
There is one more treatise attributed to Confucius the Hsiâo-king or the classic of filial piety containing conversations between him and his grandson and pupil Zang-gze. It is an attempt to base religion morality and politics on filial piety as the cardinal virtue and has exercised a more extensive influence than even the five great Kings.
Besides these five Kings the Chinese treat four other books the four Shû as likewise of the highest authority.
1. the Lun Yü or discourses and conversations between Confucius and some of his disciples.
2. The works of Mencius a later follower of Confucius.
3. The Ta Hsio the great learning ascribed to Zang-gze.
4. The Kung Y u n g the doctrine of the mean.
The third and fourth of the Shûs are really taken from the Lî-kî.
Lao-gze's views are embodied in the Tâo-teh-king the classic of Tâo. This Tâo means primordial reason or sublime intellect but without action thought judgment and intelligence. Dr. Chambers translates Tâo by way reason and word. Even the best Chinese scholars despair of ever comprehending the full meaning of Lao-gze's doctrines but it is easy to see that the Tâo-teh-king contains fragments of deep thought and high morality.
Though Palestine has produced two Sacred Books only it may really be called the mother of three religions of Judaism Christianity and Mohammedanism.
It is true no doubt—and recent discoveries among the cuneiform inscriptions have proved it very fully—that the original germs of the Jewish religion formed the property of the whole Semitic race and that they had reached a considerable development in the Mesopotamian kingdoms or in Ur of the Chaldees before they were carried to Palestine. Still the peculiar features which distinguish the Jewish from all other Semitic religions were developed in Palestine and justify us in claiming that country as the true home of Judaism. What we call the Old Testament was known to the Jews themselves as the Law the Prophets and the Hagiographa.
With regard to Christianity its Palestine origin is a matter of history—though by its later development that religion has almost ceased to be Semitic having been re-animated and re-invigorated by Aryan thought and Aryan faith. The books of the New Testament with the exception of some of the Epistles were written in Palestine and in Greek as spoken there in the early centuries of our era.
Mohammedanism no doubt had its geographical birthplace in Arabia but its true mother was nevertheless Palestine. It would be impossible to understand the teachings of Mohammed without a knowledge of the Old and the New Testaments. His God as he says himself was the god of Ibrâhîm that is Abraham. And though the Qur‘ân bears the clear impress of Mohammed's strongly marked individuality its vital doctrines can easily be traced back to a Jewish or Christian source.
With these three the Old Testament the New Testament and the Qur‘ân our Bibliotheca Sacra is complete.
The Eight Religions.
Though the bulk of the Sacred Books of the East is enormous yet we have seen that they represent no more than eight religions: (1) the Vedic both ancient and modern; (2) Buddhism Northern and Southern and Gainism; (3) the Zoroastrian religion of the Avesta; (4) Confucianism; (5) Taoism; (6) the Jewish (7) Christian and (8) Mohammedan religions.
In the East religions are often divided into two classes those which are founded on books and those which have no such vouchers. The former only are considered as real religions and though they may contain false doctrines they are looked upon as a kind of aristocracy to whom much may be forgiven while the vulgar crowd of bookless or illiterate religions are altogether out of court.
To us living in the nineteenth century when ‘black on white’ has become synonymous with true it may seem very natural that religion should be founded on something written something black on white. But we ought not to forget that writing is a comparatively recent invention while religion is a very old invention if indeed it may be called by that name at all. It is quite easy to imagine that writing to say nothing of printing might never have been invented at all while it is difficult to imagine nay as I am convinced impossible to imagine that religion should never have been called into existence. We know that even now there are large numbers of human beings to whom writing and reading are utterly unknown and yet they possess not only an elaborate religion but often a priesthood prayers and sacrifices.
The Invention of Writing.
I believe it can be proved that the invention of what we mean by writing was a pure accident—I mean an historical event that might or might not have taken place. No one ever sat down and racked his brain to invent letters for in order to do that he must have known what letters are. Till we know what letters are the idea of writing would seem a perfect absurdity. No wonder that a New Zealander who was appointed a letter-carrier and who knew that these pieces of paper which he carried conveyed some kind of information held them while he was drudging along to his ear to find out what they contained. Even we who are so familiar with the idea of writing if we were suddenly asked whether it was possible to hear with our eyes would probably say that it was absurd to say so. And yet that is what we do in writing and reading.
We must distinguish between writing and painting. Man is no doubt an imitative animal and we know that even the antediluvian cave-dwellers amused themselves with scratching the pictures of animals on horn and stone. The most uncivilised races and the most illiterate children can draw ‘two eyes and a nose and a mouth.’ Trees animals rivers mountains sun and moon are all easy to draw in a way; and we find such tracings not only on the walls of ancient caves but likewise to our great annoyance on the walls of our own houses. With the help of a little imagination such tracings or pictures may become means of communication up to a certain point. But this pictorial writing is very far removed from what we mean by writing. And it is important to observe that the only nations who invented an alphabet the Chinese the Babylonians and the Egyptians never so far as we know employed this purely pictorial writing even on their most ancient monuments.
How the discovery of our alphabet was made I have no time to describe in this lecture. All I can say is that it was an historical accident that it might or might not have taken place though no doubt the life of man on earth would have been very different from what it is if writing had never been invented. We can hardly realise what life would have been without writing and reading. Whether our lot on earth would have been happier or unhappier without writing and reading is difficult to say. We can well imagine civilised life without printing for after all Plato and Aristotle Dante and Beatrice may be called civilised beings. But without writing life seems to some of us hardly worth living. We have no time to enter into the whole of this subject at present but I may quote as a warning against deciding too rapidly in favour of writing as an unmixed blessing the opinion of Plato who held as you know that the invention of the alphabet was almost an unmixed evil.
Influence of Writing on Religion.
What we have to consider to-day is whether the division of all religions suggested by Mohammedan theologians into book-religions and bookless religions touches an essential point; whether if writing had never been invented and there were therefore no sacred scriptures at all religion would have been something different from what it is when based on written authorities.
The Arabs as we saw recognised but three real religions because they possessed written credentials in their Sacred Books. These three were Mohammedanism Judaism and Christianity. Why the religions of Zoroaster Buddha Confucius and Lao-gze which are likewise in possession of Sacred Books were not admitted to that select circle does not appear unless we suppose that Mohammedan theologians were not aware of the existence of such books.
Individual and National Religions.
Before however we proceed to consider this division there is another division of religions which has to be disposed of namely that into individual and national religions. To a certain extent it runs parallel with the division into bookless and book-religions but not altogether. Some modern writers have classed the three book-religions the Jewish the Christian and the Mohammedan together with those of Zoroaster Buddha Confucius and Lao-gze as individual religions in order to distinguish them from the ancient religions of the Brâhmans the Greeks Romans Teutons Slaves and Celts and other savage nations which are called national religions.
This division however though useful for certain purposes is utterly untenable from an historical point of view and nothing has shown this better than some attempts which have lately been made to defend it.
The more we study the history of the religions of the world the clearer it becomes that there is really no religion which could be called an individual religion in the sense of a religion created as it were de novo or rather ab ovo by one single person.
This may seem strange and yet it is really most natural. Religion like language is everywhere an historical growth and to invent a completely new religion would be as hopeless a task as to invent a completely new language.
Nor do the founders of the great historical religions of the world ever claim this exclusive authorship. On the contrary most of them disclaim in the strongest terms the idea that they have come either to destroy or to build a completely new temple.
If we begin with the most recent religion that of Mohammed we find that it was clearly a reform of an older religion and if we removed from the Qur‘ân all the elements which belonged to the folk-lore and the national faith of the Arabs as well as all that was borrowed from Judaism and Christianity there would remain very little indeed that Mohammed could claim as entirely his own. Mohammed himself in his earlier days traced his faith back to Ibrâhîm that is Abraham the friend of God. He claimed him as a Moslim not as a Jew or Christian. Christ also was looked upon by him for a time at least as the Spirit and Word of God as the Messiah and as his own immediate predecessor. The very name of the one God (l.c. p. 1) whom he preached was an old Semitic name for God. Allah stands for Al-Ilâh the god; and Ilâh is the same word as the Hebrew Eloah in the plural Elohîm. Long before Mohammed some of the Arabs had stood up for the worship of Allâh ta ‘âlah the god most high as against the worship of the host of heavens and against the worship of idols such as El’Huzza Allât and Manât (l.c. p. xiii) and the worship of stones such as the Kaabah which even Mohammed was obliged to retain. Without these historical antecedents without a nation in exactly that state of religious confusion and apathy as the Arabs were at the time of Mohammed his new teaching would have been impossible and unintelligible. Mohammed was at first no more than what the Arabs called a Hânif a religious enthusiast a dreamer a man who at times was terribly afraid as he confesses himself that he might be a madman magnûn; but nevertheless an enlightened teacher and an honest reformer protesting against superstitions and abuses that had crept into other religions though hardly an originator of any now religious doctrines.
The founder of Christianity insisted again and again on the fact that he came to fulfil and not to destroy; and we know how impossible it would be to understand the true position of Christianity in the history of the world the true purport of the ‘fulness of time’ unless we always remembered that its founder was born and lived and died an Israelite. Many of the parables and sayings in the New Testament have now been traced back not only to the Old Testament but to the Talmud also; and we know how difficult it was at first for any but a Jew to understand the true meaning of the new Christian doctrine.
As to Buddha he is no doubt a strongly marked character particularly as he is represented to us in the Southern Canon. But take away the previous growth of Brâhmanism and Buddha's work would have been impossible. Buddhism might in fact have remained a mere sect of Brâhmanism unless political circumstances had given it an importance and separate existence which other rival sects did not attain.
Confucius so far from teaching a doctrine of his own is bent on nothing more than on proving that nothing is his own that the whole of his teaching is old and that he only hands down what antiquity has bequeathed to him.
We know less of Lao-gze his contemporary and the founder of Tao-ism the grey-haired baby. Some people doubt whether the Tâo-teh-king is really his own work. This seems to me carrying scepticism too far; but with regard to his principal doctrine that of Tâo or the way or the reason which supports and pervades everything we know that the greatest antiquity far beyond the age of Lao-gze is claimed for it.
Of Zoroaster we might say with even greater truth that much if not all that is told of him is pure legend. He may have been the author of some of the ancient prayers contained in the Yasna but he was not the author of the whole Avesta. And whoever the author or the collector of the Avesta may have been his materials had long been national property while their deepest roots reach back to the common ground from which both the Avesta and the Veda drew their life.
As to the Old Testament no scholar would suppose that it was the work of one man or that Moses was even the author of the Pentateuch. ‘The Books of Moses’ were to the more orthodox Jews the books telling of Moses not the books written by Moses just as ‘the Book of Job’ was the book containing the story of Job not a book written by Job.
If now we look find again at the Sacred Books of the East what do we find?
They are all collections of religious thoughts that had been growing up for centuries among the people. They are not the creations of those whom we call the founders of the great religions of the world but rather their inheritance which in most cases they gathered up and sifted and purified and thus rendered acceptable able to a new generation. There are no individual religions in the true sense of the word though we may call Zoroastrianism Buddhism Christianity and Mohammedanism individual reforms.
Sacred Books when consigned to writing.
The most powerful instrument for consolidating the ancient national religions was the art of writing. The discovery of writing and its employment for literary purposes marks the most critical period in the history of religious thought for without it it would almost have been impossible to impart to the floating elements of religion a permanent form.
The Founders of Religions are never the Writers of Sacred Books.
And here it is very important to observe that in no case has the actual writing down of any of the great Sacred Books of the East been ascribed to the founders of religion. Even their authorship is but seldom claimed for them but they are represented as the work of their immediate disciples or their more remote followers.
It is curious that this historical fact should have been so little taken into consideration. To me it seems one of the greatest blessings for every religion for it allows to all believers an amount of freedom which they would hardly have ventured to claim if dealing with the very words as written down by the glorified in some cases the deified authors of their religion.
The Veda originally not written.
The ancient Vedic religion reigned supreme in India long before the introduction of writing into that country. It lived by oral tradition and even to the present day if every MS. of the Rig-veda were lost the text could be recovered I believe with perfect accuracy from the recollection of living scholars. We are never told of any Vedic poet writing his hymns as little as we ever read of Homer writing his poems. The Vedic hymns come to us as collections of sacred poetry belonging to certain ancient families and afterwards united in one collection called the Rig-veda-samhitâ. The names of the poets handed down by tradition are in most cases purely imaginary names. What is really important is that in the hymns themselves the poets speak of their thoughts and words as God-given—this we can understand—while at a later time the theory came in that not the thoughts and words only but every syllable every letter every accent had been communicated to half-divine and half-human prophets by Brahma so that the slightest mistake in pronunciation even to the pronunciation of an accent would destroy the charm and efficacy of these ancient prayers. This we can hardly understand considering how enlightened views on religion were entertained by the ancient philosophers of India.
The Avesta originally not written.
The religion of Zoroaster which is intimately connected with the Vedic religion existed likewise before the invention of writing particularly the Gâthas. What we know of it however are the fragments of a written collection which was made probably not long before the time of Alexander and which according to a very ancient tradition was destroyed at the time of Alexander's conquest of Persia and afterwards put together again chiefly from memory.
The Tripitaka not Buddha's work.
Let us take Buddhism next. Its sacred canon is enormous. It is said to consist of 275250 lines each line consisting of 32 syllables and its commentary of 361550 such lines. One copy of it was written on 4500 leaves. The Siamese translation of it amounts to 3683 volumes. The Tibetan translation called Kanjur and Tanjur consists of 325 volumes each weighing from 4 to 5 pounds in the edition of Peking. The Kanjur published at Peking sold for £630; another copy was bartered for 7000 oxen by the Buriates; and the same tribe paid 12000 silver roubles for a complete copy of Kanjur and Tanjur together.
A pupil of mine a Buddhist priest who came all the way from Japan to Oxford to learn Sanskrit published at the University Press a Catalogue of all the works constituting the Buddhist Canon in its Chinese translation and brought the number of separate works belonging to the canon to 1662.
It must be quite clear that so enormous a collection could never have been written by one person nor are we even told that Buddha himself wrote the Buddhist Bible. There may be portions in it containing his sermons nay his ipsissima verba but in the form in which we possess them they are not older than the third century B.C. the period when Buddhism became a political power and had its councils convoked by royal authority to settle its sacred canon.
Confucius writer not author of the Kings.
What are called the sacred books of China the Kings of Confucius were certainly written down by Confucius. Writing seems to have been as old a discovery in China as in Egypt. But Confucius as we saw before never pretended to be the author of the Kings or the founder of the religion that is taught in them; and the same may be said with certain reservations of the doctrines contained in the Tâo-teh-king of Lao-gze.
The Old Testament.
When we come to the Old Testament we find that the idea of writing is perfectly familiar. We never meet with any expressions of surprise or marvel at anything being written and yet what could have been more wonderful than writing when first brought to the knowledge of ancient peoples? That the Tables of the Law for instance should have been written by the finger of God excites no astonishment and the Hebrew language itself is full of metaphors borrowed from writing. But we are never told that Moses consigned the Old Testament to writing.
It has been argued that this familiarity with the art of writing proves that the Jews used writing for literary purposes for actual books long before their neighbours the Phenicians the Persians the Ionians and the Greeks of Europe. It may be so; but the fact admits also of ancient interpretation namely that even the most ancient books of the Old Testament were not reduced to writing before the idea of writing and of writing books had become perfectly familiar to the civilised peoples of Western Asia. And it is well known that literature flourished less among the Jews than among their neighbours.
The New Testament.
Exactly the same applies to the New Testament. We are never told in the Gospels that they were written by the Founder of the Christian religion Himself. They only profess to give us what the four Apostles had to tell of the life and doctrine of Christ; or more accurately what had been handed down in Christian families and it may be in Christian schools according to the original teaching of some of the Apostles and their friends.
Mohammed could neither read nor write.
The most recent sacred book is the Qur‘ân and there have been many controversies among Mohammedans themselves whether it was actually written by Mohammed or not. So far as I can judge there is no evidence that Mohammed was even able to read or to write. It is true that Qur‘ân means ‘what was read’ from the verb qaraa to read. It is likewise true that the first vision or revelation granted to Mohammed began with the word Iqra i.e. ‘Read.’ But Mohammed himself answered: ‘I am no reader.’ Then the angel shook him violently and again bade him read. This was repeated three times when the angel uttered the five verses which commence the 96th chapter of the Qur‘ân:
‘Read! in the name of thy Lord who did create—who did create man from hardened blood.
‘Read! for thy Lord is the most generous who has taught the use of the pen—has taught man what he did not know.’
Read seems to be used here in the sense of ‘See’ or ‘Learn’ and would in no way prove that Mohammed was able to read still less that he was able to write the Qur‘ân. Tradition tells us on the contrary that at the prophet's death no collected edition of the Qur‘ân existed. Scattered fragments were in the possession of certain of his followers written down at different times and on the most heterogeneous materials but by far the greater portion was preserved only in the memories of men whom death might at any moment carry off. Abubekr or rather Omar during his reign employed an amanuensis of Mohammed to collect the sayings of the prophet ‘from palm-leaves skins blade-bones and the hearts of men’ and he thus produced the original text of what the Mohammedans call the Qur‘ân or the Lecture as we call the Bible the Scripture. At a later time this text was revised with the assistance of the same amanuensis by the command of Othmân and this has remained the authorised text of the Qur‘âan from the year 660 to the present day.
We have thus seen that not one of the Sacred Books on which the eight book-religions profess to be founded was written down by the founders of these religions. In the beginning therefore those so-called book-religions were exactly in the same position with regard to their authorities as other religions which had their doctrines and customs handed down from father to son or from teachers to their pupils but possessed nothing black on white to appeal to.
Religions with and without Sacred Books.
The question now presents itself Was it essential that the religious doctrines which had sprung up naturally in the hearts and minds of men should at a certain period be reduced to writing as they have been in the Sacred Books of the East? Are the bookless religions of the world really different in kind from others which profess to be founded on written codes and have these written codes been an unmixed blessing to those who derive their religious convictions from them and from them only?
The advantages of possessing Sacred Books are so clear that they hardly require to be stated. Sacred Books may be said to be to religion what legal codes are to law.
But this very comparison teaches us our first lesson.
Law existed before codes of law and religion existed before codes of religion. Nay more. Unless there had been a natural growth of law whether in the form of sentences uttered or dooms laid down by chiefs and accepted by the people at large there could have been no legal codes such as the codes of Solon or Dracon or the Twelve Tablets. And in the same way unless there had been a natural growth of religion whether in the form of oracles delivered or prayers uttered by prophets and accepted by the people at large there could have been no sacred codes such as the codes of Moses or Zoroaster or Buddha; there could have been no such religions as the book-religions or as they are called in most cases the revealed religions of the world.
History however teaches us another lesson namely that codes of law are apt to become a kind of fetish requiring an implicit and unquestioning submission that their historical or natural origin is often completely forgotten and that the old ideas of what is right and just are almost absorbed nay almost annihilated in the one idea of what is written and legal.
The study of Eastern religions teaches us the same lesson. Sacred books often become a kind of fetish requiring an implicit and unquestioning faith; their historical or natural origin is often completely forgotten and the old ideas of what is true and divine are almost absorbed in the one idea of what is written and orthodox.
And there is a third lesson which history teaches us. The sense of responsibility of every citizen for the law under which he lives is in great danger of becoming deadened when law becomes a profession and is administered with mechanical exactness rather than with a strong human perception of what is right and what is wrong. Nor can it be denied that the responsibility of every believer for the religion under which he lives is in the same danger of becoming deadened when religion becomes a profession and is administered with ceremonial exactness rather than with a strong human perception of what is true and what is false.
My object however is not to show the dangers which arise from sacred books but rather to protest against the prejudice which prevails so widely against religions which have no sacred books.
There is a great difference between book-religions and bookless religions and the difference offers from an historical point of view a very true ground of division. But because the book-religions have certain advantages we must not imagine that the bookless religions are mere outcasts. They have their disadvantages no doubt; but they have a few advantages also.
A Blackfoot Indian when arguing with a Christian missionary described the difference between his own religion and that of the white man in the following words: ‘There were two religions given by the Great Spirit one in a book for the guidance of the white men who by following its teachings will reach the white man's heaven; the other is in the heads of the Indians in the sky rocks rivers and mountains. And the red men who listen to God in nature will hear his voice and find at last the heaven beyond.’
Now that religion which is in the head and in the heart and in the sky the rocks the rivers and the mountains is what we call Natural Religion. It has its roots in nature in human nature and in that external nature which to us is at the same time the veil and the revelation of the Divine. It is free it grows with the growth of the human mind and adapts itself to the requirements of every age. It does not say ‘Thou shalt’ but rather ‘I will.’ These natural or bookless religions are not entirely without settled doctrines and established customs. They generally have some kind of priesthood to exercise authority in matters of faith morality and ceremonial. But there is nothing hard and unchangeable in them nothing to fetter permanently the growth of thought. Errors when discovered can be surrendered; a new truth if clearly seen and vigorously defended can be accepted. If however there is once a book something black on white the temptation is great is almost irresistible to invest it with a more than human authority in order to appeal to it as infallible and as beyond the reach of human reasoning. We can well understand what the ancient poets of the Veda meant by calling their hymns God-given or by speaking of them as what they had seen or heard not what they had elaborated themselves. But a new generation gave a new meaning to these expressions and ended by representing every thought and word and letter of the Veda as ‘God-given’ or revealed. This was the death-blow given to the Vedic religion for whatever cannot grow and change must die. From this danger the bookless religions are exempt.
Another advantage peculiar to these religions is that generally they are extremely simple not burdened with 325 volumes weighing from four to five pounds each. When they are at their best they seem to be simply an unhesitating belief in some higher power and a life in the sight of God.
It is painful to see how unfairly these simple bookless religions are often judged. Over and over again we are told by missionaries and travellers that they do not deserve to be called religions at all and on the strength of such assertions philosophers who ought to know better have represented a large number of races as without any religion as believing neither in the true God nor even in any false gods.
The blubber-eating Eskimos have sometimes been represented as altogether godless or as devil-worshippers. Mr. John Rae who lived among them for some time wrote to me (12 March 1870): ‘The Esquimaux believe their Great Spirit is too good and beneficent to punish them even if they do what is wrong but that in that case the evil spirit is permitted to have power over them. Consequently while they pray to the former they make offerings to the latter.’
Ever since the Jesuit Baegert published his interesting account of California in 1718 the inhabitants of that peninsula have been set down as without any religion at all. Baegert says ‘they have no idols no religious service no temple no ceremonies. They neither adore the true God nor do they believe in false gods. There is no word in their language corresponding to the Spanish Dios or signifying a higher being.’
Later accounts have considerably modified these statements and have shown that there is no longer any excuse for treating the Californians as savages without religion. Nay the latest accounts describe their religion in such terms that we might indeed envy them their religion at all events for its simplicity. According to de Mofras one of the latest travellers the ‘Californians believe in a God whose origin is perfectly unknown or as they express it who has neither father or mother. He is believed to be present everywhere and to see everything even at midnight though himself invisible to every eye. He is the friend of all good people and punishes evil-doers.’
Do you call this a bad religion? Could not a man with such a religion walk through life with a straight and steady step if only he believes what he professes to believe and shapes his way accordingly?
Anything that lifts a man above the realities of this material life is religion. I like to tell the story of the old Samoyede woman whom Castrén met in his travels and asked about her religion. Poor soul she hardly understood what he meant and why he should ask her such a question. But when at last she perceived what he was driving at she said: ‘Every morning I step out of my tent and bow before the sun and say: “When thou risest I too rise from my bed.” And every evening I say: “When thou sinkest down I too sink down to rest.”’ That was her prayer perhaps the whole of her religious service—a poor prayer it may seem to us but not to her for it made that old lonely woman look twice at least every day away from earth and up to heaven; it made her feel that her life was bound up with a larger and higher life; it encircled the daily routine of her earthly existence with something of a divine light. It gave her the sense of a Beyond and that is the true life of all religion. Is there not something of the simple religion of that old Samoyede woman even in the familiar lines of Bishop Ken
‘Awake my soul and with the sun
Thy daily stage of duty run’?
This kind of religion may seem very imperfect it may seem in our eyes very childish or even wrong. But it is real and therefore a real power for good. It is a struggle for God—if haply we may find Him; and in that struggle also—after many mistakes it may be—it is the best that survives and lives.
The whole world in its wonderful history has passed through that struggle for life the struggle for eternal life; and every one of us in his own not less wonderful history has had to pass through the same wonderful history has had to pass through the same struggle; for without it no religion whatever its sacred books may be will find in any human heart that soil in which alone it can strike root and on which alone it can grow and bear fruit.
We must all have our own bookless religion if the Sacred Books whatever they be are to find a safe and solid foundation within ourselves. No temple can stand without that foundation and it is because that foundation is so often neglected that the walls of the temple become unsafe and threaten to fall.
It is easy to say it before an audience like this but I should not be afraid to say it before an audience of Brâhmans Buddhists Parsis and Jews that there is no religion in the whole world which in simplicity in purity of purpose in charity and true humanity comes near to that religion which Christ taught to his disciples. And yet that very religion we are told by even bishops is being attacked on all sides. ‘The unbelief of the day’ as one of the most eloquent bishops said at the late Church Congress ‘is not only aggressive but almost omnipresent. It is found in the club and in the drawing-room. It is chattered to one by the first young gentleman who might be airing his freethought before he had learned how to talk. It is lisped prettily sometimes from charming lips at dinner tables and it lurks in the folds of the newspaper and the pages of the magazine and the novel.’
There may be other reasons for this omnipresent unbelief but the principal reason is I believe the neglect of our foundations the disregard of our own bookless religion the almost disdain of Natural Religion. Even bishops will curl their lips and toss their heads when you speak to them of that natural and universal religion which existed before the advent of our historical religions nay without which all historical religions would have been as impossible as poetry is without language. Natural religion may exist and does exist without revealed religion. Revealed religion without natural religion is an utter impossibility. While some of our missionaries are delighted when they meet with some of the fundamental doctrines of their own religion expressed almost in the same words by so-called pagans or black men others seem to imagine it robbery that any truth at all should be found in non-Christian religions.
Surely a truth is not less a truth because it is believed by heathens also because it belongs to that religion which is universal? It is easy enough to discover the blemishes of other religions though many of them seem far more gross and repulsive to us than they really are.
‘It is hardly fair’ as a friend Books of mine wrote to me ‘to translate the Sacred Books of the East—they are so infinitely inferior to our own.’
Yes they are but that is the very reason why we should look all the more carefully and eagerly for any grains of truth that may be hidden beneath an accumulation of rubbish.
The heart and mind and soul of man are the same under every sky in all the varying circumstances of human life; and it would indeed be awful to believe that any human beings should have been deprived of that light ‘which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.’ It is that light which lighteth every man and which has lighted all the religions of the world call them bookless or literate human or divine natural or supernatural which alone can dispel the darkness of doubt and fear that has come over the world. What our age wants more than anything else is Natural Religion. Whatever meaning different theologians may attach to Supernatural Religion history teaches us that nothing is so natural as the supernatural. But the supernatural must always be super-imposed on the Natural. Supernatural religion without natural religion is a house built on sand and when as in our days the rain of doubt descends and the floods of criticism come and the winds of unbelief and despair blow and beat upon that house that house will fall because it was not founded on the rock of bookless religion of natural religion of eternal religion.
Allow me in a few words to recall to your memory the purpose of this course of lectures. It was to be a survey of the materials which exist and many of which have but lately been brought to light for studying the origin growth and in many cases the decay also of religious ideas.
In order to define the exact limits of our inquiry it was necessary first of all to determine what ideas could properly be considered as religious; and I had therefore to devote some of my early lectures to a definition of religion and to an historical examination of the more important definitions of religion given by theologians and philosophers of different ages and different countries.
After that I felt it incumbent upon myself to explain why I looked upon an historical treatment of religious ideas as the one most likely to lead to results of permanent value. I had to defend the Historical School against a very common misapprehension as if the historian cared only about facts without attempting to interpret them; and as if his interest even in these facts ceased the moment he approached his own time. The true object of the Historical School is to connect the present with the past to interpret the present by the past and to discover if possible the solution of our present difficulties by tracing them back to the causes from which they arose. It is surely no very bold assumption that the greatest thinkers of India Persia Greece Rome of the Middle Ages and of the whole of Europe since the revival of learning are at least as good as we ourselves and that they who have been our teachers and masters may continue to be our guides though we may pass beyond the point which they had reached.
This is the position which I felt bound to defend against that other school of philosophers who seem to think that our own inner consciousness is not only as we all admit a very looked upon as the one and only source from which to draw a knowledge and understanding of Natural Religion. They surely forget that even that inner consciousness of theirs is but the surface of human intellect resting on stratum upon stratum of ancient thought and often covered by thick layers of dust and rubbish formed of the detritus in the historical conflicts between truth and error.
After having thus determined first of all what should form the special object of our study and secondly what I consider the best method of that study—after having defined in fact the What and the How—I felt free to proceed to a consideration of the materials for a proper study of Natural Religion or what may be called the Wherewith of our study.
In order to proceed systematically it seemed to me necessary to divide Natural Religion into three branches according as what I call the Beyond or the Infinite was perceived in nature in man or in the self and named accordingly in different ways.
Of these three branches of Natural Religion I hope to treat the first which I call Physical Religion in my next course of lectures. We shall have to examine in that course the numerous names derived from the phenomena of nature by which the ancient people endeavoured to apprehend what lies beyond the veil of nature. We shall meet with the so-called gods of the sky the earth the air the storm and lightning the rivers and mountains. My principal object will be to show how the god of the sky or in some countries the god of the storm-wind assumes gradually a supreme character and then is slowly divested in the minds of his more enlightened worshippers of what we may call his physical or mythological attributes. When the idea had once sprung up that nothing unworthy should ever be believed of the gods or at least of the father of gods and men the process of divestment proceeded very rapidly and there remained in the end the concept of a Supreme Being still called it may be by its ancient and often no longer intelligible names but representing in reality the highest ideal of the Infinite as a father or as a creator and as a loving ruler of the universe. What we ourselves call our belief in God the Father is the last result of this irresistible development of human thought.
There are two more spheres of religious thought as I pointed out at the beginning of my lectures according as the Infinite was perceived not only behind the phenomena of nature but behind man as an objective reality and behind man as a subjective reality.
In the former sphere of thought we discover the germs of what I call Anthropological Religion which meets us again and again in different ages and in widely distant parts of the world. Its genesis is very clear. Something not merely human or something superhuman was discovered at a very early time in parents and ancestors particularly after they had departed this life. Their names were preserved their memory was honoured their sayings were recorded and assumed very soon the authority of law. As the recollection of fathers grandfathers great-grandfathers and still more distant ancestors became vaguer and vaguer their names were surrounded by a dim religious light. The ancestors no longer merely human approached more and more to the superhuman and this is not far removed from the divine.
Offerings such as had been presented to the gods of nature were tendered likewise to the ancestral spirits and when the very natural question arose who was the ancestor of all ancestors the father of all fathers the answer was equally natural—it could only be the same father the same creator the same loving ruler of the universe who had been discovered behind the veil of nature. Dyaus the sky and the Supreme God was now called Dyaush-pitar Heaven-Father in Greek Ζϵὺς πατήρ in Latin Ju-piter.
But while in some parts of the world the idea of the primeval father was identified with the idea of the primeval god it assumed another character among other races namely that of the first man the type of all mankind being god not as the father but as the son intimately connected with the father yet not to be confounded with him. This idea too as you will see arose and grew spontaneously from the soil of our common human nature and I need not tell you in what religion it has found its fullest expression and most perfect historical realisation.
The third sphere of religious thought is that which I called Psychological because it is filled with intellectual endeavours after that which lies beyond man as a self-conscious subject conscious of self whatever that self may be. That self has been called by many names in the different languages of the world. It was called breath ghost spirit mind soul genius and many more names which constitute a kind of psychological mythology full of interest to the student of language and philosophy. It was afterwards called the Ego or the person but even these names did not satisfy man as he became more and more conscious of a higher self. The person was discovered to be a persona only that is a mask; and even the Ego was but a pronoun not yet the true noun the true word which self-unconscious man was in search of. At last the consciousness of self arose from out the clouds of psychological mythology and became the consciousness of the Infinite or the Divine within us; the individual self found itself again in the Divine Self—not absorbed in it but hidden in it and united with it by a half-human and half-divine sonship. We find the earliest name for the Infinite as discovered by man within himself in the ancient Upanishads. There it is called Âtmâ the Self or Pratyag-âtmâ the Self behind looking towards Paramâtmâ the Highest Self. Socrates knew the same Self but he called it Daimonion the indwelling God. The early Christian philosophers called it the Holy Ghost a name which has received many interpretations and misinterpretations in different schools of theology but which ought to become again what it was meant for in the beginning the spirit which unites all that is holy within man with the Holy of Holies or the Infinite behind the veil of the Ego or of the merely phenomenal self.
This is but a very imperfect sketch of what I think a complete study of Natural Religion in its three great branches ought to be; and though I feel myself far too old and far too incompetent to survey the whole of that immense field of religious thought I hope that those who follow me in this place will carry out this great work which requires many labourers and many diverse gifts.