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Lecture 1. How to Study Physical Religion.

The Three Divisions of Natural Religion.

THE first course of lectures on Natural Religion which I had the honour to deliver in this University was chiefly of an introductory character. It was then my object to discuss and to answer as far as was in my power three principal questions:

(1) What are the limits of Natural Religion?

(2) What is the proper method of studying it? and

(3) What are the materials accessible for such study?

In the present course of lectures I mean to treat of Natural Religion in one of its three great manifestations namely as Physical Religion. Natural Religion as I tried to show last year manifests itself under three different aspects according as its object what I called the Infinite or the Divine is discovered either in nature or in man or in the self. I shall repeat from the last lecture of my first course a short description of these three forms of religious thought.

‘In treating of Physical Religion’ I said ‘we shall have to examine the numerous names derived from the phenomena of nature by which the early inhabitants of this small planet of ours—some of them our direct ancestors—endeavoured to apprehend what lies behind the veil of nature beyond the horizon of our sensuous perception. We shall meet there with the so-called gods of the sky the earth the air the fire the storm and lightning the rivers and mountains and we shall see how the god of the sky or in some countries the god of the fire and of the storm-wind assumes gradually a supreme character and then is slowly divested again in the minds of his more enlightened worshippers of what we may call his original purely physical or mythological attributes. When the idea had once sprung up in the human mind that nothing unworthy should ever be believed of the gods or at least of the father of gods and men this 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 as a creator and as a wise and 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.

‘But the Infinite has been discovered not only behind the phenomena of nature but likewise behind man taking man as an objective reality and as the representative of all that we comprehend under the name of mankind. Something not merely human or very soon 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 of sacred law of revealed truth. 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 never very far removed from the divine.

‘Offerings similar to those that 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 wise and loving ruler of the universe who had been discovered behind the veil of nature.

‘This second sphere of thought may be comprehended under the name of Anthropological Religion. Under the form of worship of ancestral spirits it seems among some people to constitute almost the whole of their religion but more generally we find it mixed with what we call Physical Religion not only in ancient but also in modern times. Christianity itself has been obliged to admit some remnants of that ancestral worship and in Roman Catholic countries the immense popularity of the Festival of All Souls seems to show that a loving homage paid to the spirits of the departed satisfies one of the deepest and oldest yearnings of the human heart.

‘The third sphere of religious thought the Psychological is filled with endeavours to discover what lies hidden in man considered not merely as a creature or as a part of nature but as a self-conscious subject. That self of which man became conscious as different from his merely phenomenal or even his personal being has been called by many names in the different languages of the world. It was called breath spirit ghost soul mind genius and many more names which constitute a kind of psychological mythology full of interest to the student of religion as well as to the student of language and thought. 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 his 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-conscious 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 relationship. We find the earliest name for the Infinite as discovered by man within himself in the ancient Upanishads. There it is called Âtman the Self or Pratyag-âtman the Self that lies behind looking and longing for the Paramâtman the Highest Self—and yet it is not far from every one of us. Sokrates 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 personal and phenomenal self.’

The Three Phases of Religion often contemporaneous.

It must not be supposed that these three phases of natural religion the Physical the Anthropological and the Psychological exist each by itself that one race worships the powers of nature only while another venerates the spirits of human ancestors and a third meditates on the Divine as discovered in the deepest depth of the human heart. As a general rule physical religion everywhere comes first and is succeeded by anthropological and lastly by psychological religion. Among most nations whose historical antecedents are known to us we can see that the idea of something divine is elaborated first from elements supplied by nature and that afterwards the spirits of the departed are raised to a fellowship with the gods of nature while the recognition of a universal Self underlying the gods of nature and the spirits of the departed and recognised as the immortal element within ourselves comes last nay belongs even now to the future rather than to the past. The germs of these three developments may be discovered in most religions. Sometimes the one sometimes the other becomes more prominent. But I doubt whether any nation whose earlier history is known to us has been found devoted exclusively to the worship of physical deities still less devoted exclusively to the worship of ancestral spirits. What I call psychological religion is a phase of thought which we generally comprehend under the name of philosophy rather than under that of religion and though it may have been anticipated here and there by prophets and poets it presupposes in its developed form the existence of religion both physical and anthropological.

The ancient Vedic religion for instance is pre-eminently a physical religion but to maintain as some philosophers have done that it contained no traces of ancestor-worship shows simply an ignorance of facts. The worship of the Fathers the Pitaras is presupposed by a number of Vedic hymns and to the present day the most truly religious ceremony of the Hindus that which still touches their hearts and not their eyes only is the so-called Srâddha the sacrifice in memory of their ancestors.

Even the third phase the Psychological though in its fully elaborated form it belongs to a later age and assumes the character of a philosophy rather than of a religion is never entirely absent in any religion. The very recognition of superior beings implies some kind of perception of man's own being some recognition of what really constitutes his own self. If he calls the gods immortals that would seem to imply that he considered himself as mortal; but when he begins to implore the favor of the immortal gods not only for this life but for a life to come when he prays to be united again with those whom he loved and lost on earth a new conception of his own self must have sprung up in his heart and though mortal and liable to death he must have felt himself or something within himself as eternal and as beyond the reach of annihilation.

Ancestor-worship also implies always the recognition of something immortal in man however dim that primitive belief in immortality may have been.

Physical Religion.

But though we find these three roads on which a belief in the Infinite was reached by different nations running closely parallel or even crossing each other it is possible and for the sake of systematic study almost indispensable that we should explore each of them by itself. This present course of lectures will therefore be devoted to a study of Physical Religion though from time to time we shall hardly be able to avoid a consideration of such influences as Anthropological and Psychological ideas exercise on Physical Religion in its historical progress to higher ideas.

The Historical Method.

How that exploration is to be carried out I need not tell you after what I have said in my first course of lectures. There is but one method that leads to really trustworthy and solid results and that is the Historical Method. We must try to discover the historical vestiges of that long pilgrimage which the human race has performed not once but many times in search of what lies beyond the horizon of our senses—in search of the Infinite in search of a true religion; and this we can only achieve by a careful study of all truly historical documents in which that pilgrimage has been recorded.

Historical Continuity.

There is an unbroken continuity in the religious and philosophical concepts as there is in the languages of the world. We know that the language spoken by Hume and Kant is substantially the same as that which was spoken by the poets of the Veda in India four thousand years ago. And we shall see that the problem of causality which occupied the powerful minds of Hume and Kant is substantially the same as that which occupied the earliest framers of Aryan language and Aryan thought when driven by the very necessities of pure reason or as we may now call it by a better name by the very necessities of Logos or language they conceived and named for the first time the sky the sun the fire and all the other great phenomena of nature by means of roots expressive of agency of force or in the end of causality. Physical Religion owes its origin to the category of causality or in other words to the predicating of roots expressive of agency and causality as applied to the phenomena of nature. And this intellectual work performed thousands of years ago by millions of human beings deserves it would seem at least as much attention as the speculations of two individuals even though they be Hume and Kant as to the legitimacy of the concept of causality when applied to the data of the senses. ‘Without the doctrine the true doctrine of substance and of cause’ I am quoting the words of the founder of these lectures Lord Gifford ‘philosophy would be a delusion and religion a dream’ (Lord Gifford's Lectures pp. 139–140). ‘Just let me say’ he adds ‘and I say it with the deep seriousness of profoundest conviction that true philosophy and true religion must stand or fall together. If philosophy be a delusion religion can hardly escape being shown to he a dream.’

Varieties of Physical Religion.

But here again we must not try to attempt too much. Though we find traces of physical religion everywhere among ancient and modern among civilised and uncivilised races it would lead to confusion only were we to attempt to treat them all as one. Physical Religion is the same and yet not the same at different times and in different places. The lessons which nature teaches in a small and fertile island surrounded by a horizon half sky and half sea are very different from the lessons which man reads when living in narrow valleys overawed by snow-decked mountains and hemmed in by rivers which though they are looked upon as beneficent may at any moment bring destruction and death on what man calls his own his home on earth. The Nile in Egypt assumes a very different aspect in the religious imagery of its worshippers from that which the river Sarasvatî bears in the hymns of the Rig-Veda; and the cupola of the sky resting all around on the monotonous desert as its sole foundation forms a very different temple from that in which the most gigantic snowy mountains support on all sides like lofty pillars the blue roof of heaven.

For practical purposes therefore it will be best to study first of all the origin and growth of Physical Religion in one country only and then to turn our eyes to other countries where the same ideas though under varying outward conditions have found expression in mythology or religion.

Physical Religion best studied in India.

And here there can be little doubt as to which country is the typical country for the study of Physical Religion. In no country do we find Physical Religion in its simplest form so completely developed as in India. Not in India as it is popularly known not in modern India not in mediaeval India not even in the ancient India as represented to us in the Epic Poems of the Mahâbhârata and Râmâyana least of all in the India of the Buddhists whose religion old as it is—for Buddha died 477 B.C.—was built up on the very ruins of that religion which interests us at present.

No the original simple and intelligible religion of India is to be found in the Vedic period only which preceded the rise of Buddhism just as the religion of the Old Testament preceded that of the New. Here and here only can we see Physical Religion in all its fulness in all its simplicity nay I should say in all its necessity. Suppose we had known Christianity only as it appears after the Council of Nicaea after it had become a state-religion and had once for all settled its dogmas and ceremonial and then had suddenly discovered a manuscript of the Gospels—the new insight into the true nature of Christianity could not have been more startling and surprising than was the new light which the discovery of the Veda has thrown on the origin and growth of religion not only in India but in every part of the world. That the gods of the Greeks and the Romans the Teutonic Slavonic and Celtic nations that the gods of the Babylonians and Assyrians and other Semitic nations not excepting the Jews that the gods of Egypt and the whole of Africa that the gods of Finland and Lapland of Mongolia and China of the Polynesian islands and of the North as well as the South of America that all these gods had in the beginning something to do with the most prominent sights of nature could hardly have escaped even the least thoughtful student of antiquity. But it was only like guessing at the former existence of a geological stratum which does not come to the surface except in scattered fragments. That Helios was originally the sun and Mênê the moon no one could have doubted except he who is proud of his ignorance of Greek; but that Apollo too had a solar and Lucina a lunar origin was contested by many a classical scholar with the same eagerness with which many a theologian would fight even now against the admission of physical elements in the original character of Jehovah.

The Vedic Period.

With the discovery of the Veda all this has been changed. Here was the very stratum the very period of language and thought before our eyes the existence nay the very possibility of which had been so keenly contested. That Zeus was originally a name of the sky could hardly have been denied by any Greek scholar; but it was not till the corresponding deity Dyaus was discovered in the Veda that all opposition was silenced and silenced for ever.

How can we imagine it used to be said again and again that the whole of the ancient Greek religion and mythology should have consisted in talk about the sun and the moon the sky and the dawn day and night summer and winter. Surely the Greeks would have been mere idiots if they had found nothing better to engage their thoughts or to supply their religious cravings.

Natural Phenomena as viewed by Nomad and Agricultural People.

No doubt even without the evidence supplied by the Veda one might have asked in return what better subjects there could have been in an early state of society to engage the thoughts and to satisfy even the higher aspirations of mankind than the wonders of nature—the daily return of the sun which meant the return of light and warmth that is the possibility of life and the joy of life—or the yearly return of the sun which meant again the return of spring and summer after the horrors of winter that is the possibility of life and the joy of life. In days when a violent storm might turn a happy homestead to wrack and ruin when a sudden rain might sweep away a whole harvest and bring famine and death on a prosperous village when the hot rays of the sun might parch the fields kill the cattle and spread pestilence among children and servants what subjects could there have been nearer to the heart of man than the strange and startling movements of the heavenly bodies the apparent cause of all their happiness the apparent cause of all their misery on earth?

What does a farmer talk about even now before and during and after the harvest but the weather? We have now calendars to tell us when the spring returns when the summer heat may be expected how long the autumn may last and when the winter will set in with its snow and frost. But with the ancient tillers of the soil the most highly-prized wisdom consisted in sayings and rules handed down from father to son which told when it was safe to sow when it was time to mow and how much provision was wanted for a long winter to prevent children and parents from dying of hunger. In our days with all the experience gathered in our books with all the precautions taken against the violent freaks of nature with the forecasts of the weather published in all the newspapers we can afford to neglect the signs and warnings of nature or leave their observation to those whom they more specially concern. But ancient superstitions connected with Physical Religion are not quite extinct even now. We may be sceptical as to the Halcyon birds having the power of quieting the sea and unwilling to postpone our voyage until the return of the Pleiades. We should hardly believe that if Zeus has visited the earth with rain on a certain day he will repeat his visits for many days to follow. But sailors still object to embark on a Friday and farmers still believe that if St. Swithin sends rain rain will continue for forty days. If then even in our own enlightened century a simple-minded peasant may still be found here or there uttering a prayer or presenting an offering to St. Swithin is it so very strange that in early days when the very possibility of life depended on the success of the harvest the thoughts of people should have been almost entirely absorbed in watching those powers of nature on whom they felt themselves dependent for life and breath and all things?

If these powers had to be named they could be named as I tried to explain in my first course of lectures as active only as doing deeds as working works; as raining not as rain; as storming not as storm; as feeding and protecting like a loving father or as punishing and chastising like an angry father. Given these few germs of thought which are found in every human heart what is there strange or unintelligible in the luxuriant growth of physical mythology and physical religion?

But we need not argue this point any more. What was a mere postulate before the discovery of the Veda has now become a fact. We have that whole primitive stratum of thought laid open before our eyes in one and that a very important part of the world. To those who will not see who will put what they think ought to be in the place of what is we can only say with all the frankness of the Hindu logician ‘It is not the fault of the post if the blind man does not see it.’

Physical Religion outside of India.

On the other hand we must guard against exaggerating the importance of the Veda. If we wished to study Dutch art we should feel it our duty first of all to go to Holland and to examine there on the spot not only the master-works but the whole school of Dutch painters. But we should not imagine that we had thus done our whole duty and that the vast galleries in the other capitals of Europe had nothing to teach us. In the same way Physical Religion has to be studied not only in the Veda and in India but almost everywhere where historical documents enable us to study the gradual growth of religion. A study of the Veda is the best preparation for the study of Physical Religion; but it does not claim to teach us all that can be known about the gods of nature.

The meaning of Primitive.

Secondly if we call the Veda primitive it must not be supposed that we imagine we can find in the Veda the earliest thoughts that ever passed through a human brain. If we call the Veda primitive we mean two things; first that it is more primitive than any other literary work we are acquainted with; secondly that it contains many thoughts which require no antecedents which are perfectly intelligible in themselves thoughts in fact which we should call primitive even if we met with them in the works of modern poets.

But it would be the greatest mistake to imagine that everything in the Veda is primitive everything is intelligible everything without antecedents. The student of the Veda knows but too well how much there still remains in the Veda that is hard petrified unintelligible artificial secondary nay tertiary and altogether modern in one sense of the word. The collection of hymns which we chiefly mean when we speak of the Veda in general is a collection of various collections and in each of these there are relics of different ages mixed up together. We have to search carefully for what is really primary in thought for the later rubbish is much more abundant than the original gold. The Vedic poets themselves make no secret of this. They speak of old and of living poets they know of ancient and recent deeds of the gods. Their very language bewrays the date of many of the Vedic hymns. The distances between the intellectual layers forming the collection of the Rig-Veda are so enormous that most scholars would hesitate to translate them into any chronological language. And yet for all that and for all that we possess in the whole world no literary relics intellectually older than the oldest hymns of the Rig-veda and I doubt whether we possess any literary relics chronologically older at all events in our own the Aryan world.

Discoveries of Ancient Life.

We have lived to see many discoveries revealing to us the buried life of ancient nations. I still remember the amazement produced by the resurrection of Pompeii and Herculanum. If you want to realise the feelings with which the highest intellects regarded that discovery read Schiller's poems or read a novel which I can still read with undiminished admiration particularly when I remember that it was written in 1832 by a young man not more than twenty-seven years of age—I mean Bulwer's ‘Last Days of Pompeii.’ I have seen and known the most learned and the most brilliant young men whom our Universities now send out into the world—I must confess I have never met with one who at the age of twenty-seven could have produced a work so full of genius and so full of learning also.

Then followed the wonderful discoveries in Egypt the Rosetta stone supplying to Champollion the key to the decipherment of the hieroglyphic inscriptions and every year adding new treasures to our museums new materials to our Egyptian grammars and dictionaries till now it would seem as if all Egyptian mysteries had been revealed and the ancient language spoken and written there thousands of years B.C. could be read with the same ease as Greek and Latin.

About the same time the kingdoms of Persia of Babylon and Nineveh shook off the shroud of sand under which they had so long been buried. And here too the genius of Grotefend of Burnouf Lassen and Rawlinson broke the spell of those long rows of wedges or arrows which seemed more meaningless even than hieroglyphics and restored to us first the contemporaneous edicts of Darius and Xerxes and afterwards the very archives of the ancient kings of Babylon and Nineveh. With the help of cuneiform grammars and dictionaries the Persian Babylonian and Assyrian texts can now be read by all who possess the patience of real students. We were told at the International Congress of Orientalists at Stockholm in 1889 that there are at present in the United States of America thirty chairs filled by professors who lecture to good audiences on Cuneiform Inscriptions on the language religion and history of Persia Babylon Nineveh and Accadia. This shows how rapidly a discovery can progress and how widely-spread an interest still exists even in our utilitarian age in the earliest history of the human race.

Discovery of the Veda.

Less remarked though certainly not less remarkable than these unexpected finds in Egypt and Babylon was the discovery of the Veda which took place about the same time. It was in one sense even more important for it revealed to us not only inscriptions but a real full-grown literature and a literature containing the annals of our own the Aryan race. The French have a saying that it is always the unexpected that happens. And certainly if anything was unexpected it was the discovery of a literature in India in distant India among dark-skinned people of a literature more ancient than Homer of a language less changed than Latin of a religion more primitive than that of the Germans as described by Tacitus and yet intimately connected with all of them. It is true the literature of ancient India had not been buried in the earth it was never altogether lost in its own country. But so far as Europe and European science were concerned the Veda was as good as buried nay as non-existent and what is more extraordinary still it remained as if non-existent for European scholars long after the discovery of India long after the discovery of the ordinary Sanskrit literature.

The Veda has now become the foundation of all linguistic mythological and religious studies. Even the minutest changes of vowels in Greek and in English find their final explanation nowhere but in the accents of Vedic words. Many of the most important names of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses remain dumb till they are made to speak once more when brought face to face with the gods and goddesses of the Veda. Nay religion itself which seemed to some scholars so irrational and unnatural a creation ‘that it could have been invented by one man only and he probably a madman’ assumes when watched in the Veda a character so perfectly natural and rational that we may boldly call it now an inevitable phase in the growth of the human mind.

Unique Character of the Veda.

In saying this I am not afraid that I shall be charged with exaggerating the importance of the Veda. There was a time when it was thought necessary to protest against the assumption that the Veda reflected the image of the earliest phase of Aryan life nay of all human life on earth. I am not aware that so preposterous a claim in favour of the Veda had really ever been made by any scholar. It seems only another instance of a very common practice in the republic of letters. A purely imaginary danger is conjured up in order to claim the merit of having stemmed it. I do not mean to say that there may not have been an unguarded expression here and there which could be construed as claiming for the Veda a primordial antiquity. After all scholars write for scholars and they take it for granted that even their somewhat enthusiastic expressions will not be misinterpreted so as to become unmeaning and absurd. Now for a scholar it would be nothing short of absurd to claim for the Vedic poetry a primordial character. Whoever the first inhabitants of our earthly Paradise may have been they certainly did not speak the language of the Veda which shows as many rings within rings as the oldest trunks in the Yosemité valley. Nor would it be less absurd to represent the Veda as a literary monument dating from the undivided Aryan period. The division of the Aryan race into its two chief branches the North-Western and South-Eastern belongs to a time beyond the reach of historical chronology whereas the date claimed for the Veda does not exceed the second millennium B.C..

There are misunderstandings against which one does not guard because they seem impossible at least ‘within the profession.’

But on the other hand who can deny that the Veda is the oldest monument of Aryan speech and Aryan thought which we possess? Who can wonder at the enthusiasm with which its discovery was greeted at the eagerness with which the Vedic MSS. were seized copied collated and published and at the zeal with which its treasures have been ransacked and brought to light? What Aryan nation could produce anything to match the Veda? Beautiful as the Homeric poems are—for power of description infinitely superior to anything in the Veda—yet they exhibit a far more advanced state of society so modern in many of its aspects that we ourselves could almost feel at home in it. Besides they represent chiefly the outward life and allow us but few glimpses into those inward thoughts about gods and men about this life and the next which find expression in the hymns of the Veda. And if no one would blame the historian who drew the picture of early chivalry from the Iliad or the idyl of early domestic life from the Odyssey why should we wonder at the student of religion drawing his most valuable lessons from the Veda? We shall certainly not find in the Veda the archives either of the first man or of the undivided Aryan race but we do find there and there alone the oldest record of what one branch of that race thought about this life and its many problems and what it believed about the gods and another life. And if among the gods worshipped in the Veda we find some that have the same names as the gods of other Aryan nations such as for instance Dyaus and Zeus is it so wild an assumption to maintain that some of the antecedents of the Greek and Roman gods may be discovered in the Veda? May we not say with the Preacher ‘Be not righteous over much neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?’

Neither the hieroglyphic inscriptions of Egypt nor the cylinders of Babylon can lend us such assistance for our studies more particularly for the study of the historical growth of that Aryan race to which we and the greatest historical nations of the world belong as the Veda. The first thing therefore which I shall have to do is to give you an account of how the Veda was discovered and what the Veda really is.

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