In Lecture I, ‘How to Study Physical Religion', Müller begins with a brief summary of Natural Religion, his first and introductory series of Gifford Lectures, explaining that this course of lectures will focus on physical religion, that is, on religion inspired by nature, as one of three manifestations of natural religion; the two courses of lectures to follow will treat the other two manifestation, anthropological and psychological religion, respectively. These three ‘phases’ of religion do not exist separately, as if each manifestation occurs in various places and times independent of the others, but rather each exists on a continuum, beginning with the physical, passing through the anthropological and finally arriving at the psychological. As there are many varieties of religion, the best way to study physical religion initially is in isolation, in one country or culture at a time, and then relate one’s findings to other cultures and religions that demonstrate similar characteristics. A most excellent resource for the study of physical religion is the Vedic religion of the Brahmans and its accompanying sacred text, the Rig-veda, an ancient and (at the time) recently discovered collection of hymns composed between 1500 and 1000 BCE. Müller spends the next three lectures explicating the history and nature of the Veda. Lecture II, ‘The Veda and the Testimonies to Its Early Existence’, describes the Veda and how it was discovered by Christian missionaries to India once they had acquired a knowledge of Sanskrit; Lecture III outlines the study of the Veda by European scholars, including the work of his colleague and mentor of sorts, Eugène Burnouf of France, who encouraged Müller to translate theRig-veda, leading to its first edition; and Lecture IV provides a survey of Vedic literature. Veda means simply ‘I know’, and in Müller’s discussion of the Vedic religion, he considers the terms Veda, referring to the religion, and Rig-veda, the collection of hymns (rig = ‘verse of praise’), inseparable. In Lecture V, ‘Age of the Veda’, Müller explains the complicated process of assigning certain dates to the body of Vedic literature, the extant manuscripts of which do not extend back farther than 1500 CE. He also situates the Vedic religion in relation to Brahmanism and the Upanishads, and to Buddhism (which he asserts was a reaction to the Veda) and the Sutras.
At the outset of Lecture VI, Müller defines physical religion as the worship of the powers of nature: sun, moon, stars, wind, thunder and lightening, river and sea, mountains, earth and power under the earth. To demonstrate ‘how the perception of the Infinite was revealed everywhere in what we call the perception of the Finite’ (p. 143), Müller then embarks on a comprehensive discussion of the element of fire and Agni, the god of fire, which he continues in Lecture VII, ‘The Biography of Agni’. He examines the Vedic hymns in which Agni is described and explains how Agni came to be regarded as a God by a process of divestment of all his material character (Lecture VIII). Lectures IX and X locate the usefulness of the Vedic religion and the conception of fire, respectively, in the broader comparative study of religions, and Lecture XI explicates the mythological development of conceptions of fire/Agni across various cultures and traditions. As the constituent elements of mythology are always perfectly natural, there are grains of reason in the seeming unreason of mythology; mythological stories are significant because human beings construct their image of the Divine from their myths.
In Lecture XII, ‘Religion, Myth, and Custom’, Müller argues that if we ‘understand how various myths and legends arose, how they represent an inevitable stage in the growth of ancient language and thought, we shall understand not only their outward connection with religious ideas, but also likewise their very essential difference’ (p. 278). Religion, mythology and ceremonial are not all the same thing; the former draws upon the two latter, but the latter may never be regarded as religion in their own right. Müller reevaluates his previous definition of religion (perception of the Infinite that has a bearing on morality), and clarifies the meaning of the Infinite, which he suggests could have as easily been termed “the Unknowable” or the “Unlimited” (p. 297). At the start of Lecture XIII, ‘Other Gods of Nature’, Müller recounts his larger purpose for such a thorough examination of the concept of fire: to show that the human mind is capable of perceiving the supernatural in the natural by way of the commonest impression of the senses. He goes on to examine conceptions of the storm-wind across various cultures and religions. His reverence for so-called pagan religions is evident when he writes: ‘We may thus discover in all the errors of mythology, and in what we call the false or pagan religions of the world, a progress towards truth, a yearning after something more than finite, a growing recognition of the Infinite, throwing off some of its veils before our eyes, and from century to century revealing itself to us more and more in its own purity and holiness’ (p. 328).
Müller carefully examines the attacks directed against the scientific study of religion and natural theology in his final lecture, ‘What Does It Lead To?’ The study of ancient religions teaches us of the discovery of God in nature: that those elements of nature which appear to the modern mind as most natural and commonplace appeared, to the earliest observers, as miraculous, as supernatural, which catalysed man’s religious impulse. Müller analyses what he considers the common elements of all religions by looking first at the Ten Commandments, then at the similarities between Christianity and Buddhism, and finally at the “highest commandments” of various traditions. As the concept of God arises by necessity in the human mind and is revealed to every human being, Müller allows that other religions might also contain all that is necessary for salvation, although he admits his conviction that ‘the religion taught by Christ … is the best, the purest, the truest religion the world has ever seen’ (p. 364).