What Does It Lead To?
What Does It Lead To?
Value of Historical Studies.
I HAVE finished my survey of Physical Religion and I feel that I ought not to shrink in my last lecture to-day from answering a question that has often been asked namely What does it all lead to?
You know that Lord Gifford's idea of founding lectureships on Natural Religion in the four Universities of Scotland has been criticised from different quarters and that the lecturers also who have endeavoured to the best of their powers to carry out the noble plan of the founder have not escaped the strictures of unfriendly critics.
What can it all lead to? What can be the use of lectures on the origin and the history of the ancient or so-called natural religions of mankind? has been the outcry of many writers both in religious and anti-religious papers and proposals have not been wanting as to how this munificent benefaction might be employed for other and more useful purposes.
Our schools and universities have long been told that much of what they are teaching is useless in the battle of life. Greek and Latin are called dead languages. Ancient history is condemned as a medley of legendary traditions and of one-sided partisan views while our newspapers are said to contain more wisdom than the whole of Thucydides; nay as has lately been calculated more words also—which is quite possible. As to philosophy it is looked upon as obsolete nay even as mischievous and the athletics of the cricket-field are praised as far more efficacious in forming manly and practical characters than the intellectual gymnastics of Logic and Metaphysics.
While every effort is being made to sweep away all ancient lumber and classical rubbish we can hardly be surprised that an attempt to introduce into our universities a new study the study of dead religions should have met with anything but a friendly welcome on the part of educational reformers.
So far as these attacks are directed against all scientific studies which cannot at once show what they lead to or produce useful and marketable results no defence seems to me necessary. We surely know by this time how often in the history of the world the labours of the patient student jeered at by his contemporaries as mere waste of time and money and brains have in the end given to the world some of its most valued possessions. Faraday died a poor man but the world has grown richer and brighter by his labours. Copernicus while he was quietly observing measuring and calculating—looked upon as a strange and even as a dangerous man by his fellow-canons at Frauenburg.—never asked what all his work would lead to. Like every true student he was simply in love with truth. And yet there has scarcely ever been a greater revolution achieved in the world of thought or a more important advance made in our knowledge of the universe nay in our knowledge of ourselves than by that solitary philosopher in the North of Germany when he proved that we and our globe did not form as was fondly supposed the centre of the universe but had to take the place assigned to us by the side of other planets all moving at a greater or smaller distance around one central sun.
The only question which deserves to be considered is whether a study of Natural Religion is ever likely to produce a similar revolution in our world of thought is ever likely to lead to a similar advance in our knowledge of the universe nay in our knowledge of ourselves is ever likely to teach us that our own religion also however perfect is but one out of many religions all moving at a greater or smaller distance around one central truth.
We are asked What can a study of the old and dead religions of the world teach us who are in possession of a new and living religion? What can we learn from Natural Religion who pride ourselves on the possession of a Supernatural Religion?
Lessons of Natural Religion.
What can a study of Natural Religion teach us? Why it teaches us that religion is natural is real is inevitable is universal. Is that nothing? Is it nothing to know that there is a solid rock on which all religion call it natural or supernatural is founded? Is it nothing to learn from the annals of history that ‘God has not left Himself without witness in that He did good and gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons filling our hearts and the hearts of the whole human race with food and gladness?’
If you examine the attacks that have been made on religion which have proved the more dangerous— those on Natural or those on Supernatural Religion?
Christianity to which alone at least among ourselves the name of a Supernatural Religion would be conceded has been surrounded during the nineteen centuries of its existence with many ecclesiastical outworks. Some of these outworks ought probably never to have been erected. But when they were attacked and had to be surrendered Christianity itself has remained unaffected nay it has been strengthened rather than weakened by their surrender. The Reformation swept away a good many of these ecclesiastical fences and intrenchments and the spirit of the Reformation dangerous as it was supposed to be at the time to the most vital interests of Christianity has never been at rest again and will never be at rest. Under the name of Biblical Criticism the same reforming spirit is at work in our own days and whatever may be thought of it in other countries in the country of Knox in the ancient home of free thought and free speech that reforming spirit will never be stifled however dangerous it may seem at times even in the eyes of old and honest reformers. There can be no doubt that free inquiry has swept away and will sweep away many things which have been highly valued nay which were considered essential by many honest and pious minds. And yet who will say that true Christianity Christianity which is known by its fruits is less vigorous now than it has ever been before? There have been dissensions in the Christian Church from the time of the Apostles to our own times. We have passed through them ourselves we are passing through them even now. But in spite of all the hard and harsh and unchristian language that has been used in these controversies who would doubt now after their lives and their deepest convictions have been laid open before the world that Kingsley was as deeply religious a man as Newman that Stanley served his Church as faithfully as Pusey and that Dr. Martineau the Unitarian deserves the name of a Christian as much as Dr. Liddon?
But now let us look at the attacks which have of late been directed against Natural Religion—against a belief in anything beyond what is supplied by the senses against a conception of anything infinite or divine against a trust in any government of the world against the admission of any distinction between good and evil against the very possibility of an eternal life—what would remain I do not say of Christianity or even of Judaism Mohammedanism Buddhism or Brahmanism but of anything worth the name of religion if these attacks could not be repelled?
And yet we are asked What can a study of Natural Religion teach us?
And when we have shown that Natural Religion is the only impregnable safeguard against atheism we are told that unaided reason cannot lead to a belief in God. This is an orthodoxy which may become the most dangerous of all heresies. Cardinal Newman was not a man who trusted in reason rather than in authority. And yet what does he say of Natural Religion? ‘I have no intention at all’ he writes in his Apologia p. 243 ‘of denying that truth is the real object of our reason and that if it does not attain to truth either the premiss or the process is at fault; but I am not speaking here of right reason but of reason as it acts in fact and concretely in fallen man. I know that even unaided reason when correctly exercised leads to a belief in God in the immortality of the soul and in future retribution; but I am considering the faculty of reason actually and historically; and in this point of view I do not think I am wrong in saying that its tendency is towards a simple unbelief in matters of religion.’
I give the Cardinal's words with all his restrictions. I am not concerned with the question whether historically the tendency of reason has been everywhere towards unbelief; except in the Roman Catholic Church. I only lay stress on his admission an admission in which he felt himself supported by the highest authorities of the early Church that ‘unaided reason when correctly exercised can lead to a belief in God in the immortality of the soul and in future retribution.’
In my present course of Lectures I have had to confine myself to one branch of Natural Religion only to what I call Physical as distinguished from Anthropological and Psychological Religion. Leaving out of consideration therefore the two great problems that of the immortality of the soul and that of man's true relation to God which form the subject of Anthropological and Psychological Religion I may now sum up in a few words what a study of Physical Religion can teach us and I may hope has taught us.
The Agents in Nature.
A study of the ancient religions of the world and more particularly of the earliest religion of India teaches us first of all that many things in nature which we are now inclined to treat as quite natural as a matter of course appeared to the minds of the earliest observers in a much truer light as by no means natural as by no means a matter of course but on the contrary as terrific as astounding as truly miraculous as supernatural. It was in these very phenomena of nature the sky the sun the fire and the storm-wind which to us seem so natural so ordinary so hackneyed that man perceived for the first time something that startled him out of his animal torpor that made him ask What is it? What does it all mean? Whence does it all come?—that forced him whether he liked it or not to look behind the drama of nature for actors or agents different from merely human agents agents whom in his language and thought he called superhuman and in the end divine.
We must not imagine that these early observers and namers of nature did not distinguish between these phenomena as mere phenomena and the agents postulated by their very language. The names given to these phenomena were in reality the names of nooumena of unseen powers. Zeus and Jupiter and Dyaush pitâ in Sanskrit were not meant for the dead sky; they were names at all events in the beginning of an agent within or behind or beyond the sky. They were masculine names not neuters. They represent as I tried to show the first attempt at grasping that Infinite which underlies all our finite perceptions and at naming the Supernatural as manifested in the Natural. They are the first steps which led in the end to a faith in God as revealed in Nature.
What I chiefly wished to establish by means of the evidence so unexpectedly supplied to us in the hymns of the Rig-veda was the simplicity and almost necessity of Physical Religion or of the discovery of God in nature. Given man such as he is not of course as a tabula rasa but as endowed with reason and language and armed with the so-called categories of the understanding; and given nature such as it is not as a chaos but as a text that can be construed what we call Physical Religion a naming of and believing in Agents behind the great drama of nature was inevitable and being inevitable was for the time being true.
One Agent in Nature.
But it was true as a first step only in an unbroken chain of intellectual evolution for it was soon recognised that these various agents were really doing one and the same work whether their presence was perceived in the sky or in the sun or in the fire or in the storm-wind. Hence the various names of these agents the Devas or the Bright ones as they were called were recognised after a time by the more thoughtful poets as names of one all-powerful Agent no longer a mere Deva by the side of other Devas but the Lord the Lord of all created things hence called Pragâpati the universal Will hence called Brahma and in the end the eternal Self of the objective world as recognised by the Self of the subjective world the Âtman of the Vedânta philosophy.
We also examined the different epithets that were assigned to the Devas and to Him who was recognised in the end as above all Devas and we found that they closely corresponded to the attributes of God in our own religion. If there are any other divine attributes supposed to be beyond the reach of natural religion all we can say is that they should be pointed out so that we may determine once for all whether they can or whether they cannot be matched even in so primitive a religion as that of the Veda.
If then so much of our religious knowledge and more particularly our concept of God as the all-powerful Agent in nature which was believed to be beyond the reach of the unassisted human intellect or supernatural in its origin has been proved to be perfectly natural nay inevitable have we lost anything?
Craving for the Supernatural.
I see nothing that has been lost and I see much that has been gained. Like the Copernican discovery this discovery also will teach us both humility and gratitude humility on learning that other people also were not left in utter darkness as to what lies beyond this finite world gratitude for that we have been spared many of the struggles through which other people had to pass in their search after God.
Unfortunately it is still with many of us as it was with the Jews of old. They were always hankering for something exclusive and exceptional for something supernatural and miraculous. They alone they thought were the chosen people of God. They would not believe unless they saw signs and wonders designed for their special benefit while they remained blind to the true signs and wonders that appealed to them on every side.
And yet the founders of the three greatest religions of the world however much they may differ on other points are unanimous on one point namely in their condemnation of this hankering after the miraculous and after the supernatural falsely so called.
Miracles condemned by Mohammed.
Orthodox Mohammedans delight in relating the miracles wrought by Mohammed. But what does Mohammed say himself in the Korân? He expresses the strongest contempt of miracles in the usual sense of that word and he appeals to the true miracles the great works of Allah in nature. And what are these great works of Allah these true miracles of nature? ‘The rising and setting of the sun’ he says ‘the rain that fructifies the earth and the plants that grow we know not how.’ You see the very phenomena of nature in which the Vedic poets discovered the presence of divine agents are what Mohammed calls the great works of Allah. After that Mohammed continues: ‘I cannot show you signs and miracles except what you see every day and every night. Signs are with God1.’ Here you see the true religious view of the world which perceives the Supernatural in all things natural and does not bargain for special miracles before it will believe.
Miracles condemned by Buddha.
No religion as handed down to us is so full of miracles as Buddhism. The Brâhmans also the predecessors of the Buddhists were staunch believers in every kind of miracle. When Buddhism became a rival faith in India the Brâhmans twitted the Buddhists with not being able to perform such miracles as they performed and still profess to perform. But what did Buddha say to his disciples when they asked his permission to perform such miracles as making seeds to sprout healing diseases sitting in the air or ascending to the clouds? At one time he does not seem to question the possibility of acquiring supernatural powers (iddhi) but he says that the only way to them lies through the eightfold noble path as it were through much prayer and fasting. At other times he forbids his disciples to do anything of the kind but he allows them instead to perform one miracle which may be called the greatest moral miracle. ‘Hide your good deeds’ he says ‘and confess before the world the sins you have committed.’ That was in Buddha's eyes the only miracle which his disciples might safely be allowed to perform; everything else he left to the Brâhmans who might perform signs and wonders to please and to deceive the multitude.
Miracles condemned by Christ.
And what did the founder of Christianity say when asked to perform miracles in the sense ascribed to that word by the multitude? ‘An evil and adulterous generation’ he said ‘seeketh after a sign.’ And again ‘Except ye see signs and wonders ye will not believe.’
Such utterances from the founders of the three great religions should at all events make us pause and reflect what the true meaning of a miracle was in the beginning. It was not the supernatural forced and foisted into the natural; it was the natural perceived as the supernatural; it was the reading of a new and deeper meaning both in the workings of nature and in the acts of inspired men; it was the recognition of the Divine reflected in the light of common day.
A French philosopher and poet Amiel has truly said: ‘A miracle depends for its existence far more on the subject who sees than on the object that is seen. A miracle is a perception of the soul the vision of the divine behind nature. There is no miracle for the indifferent. Religious souls only are capable of recognising the finger of God in certain events.’
And even Cardinal Newman admits that we might be satisfied with the popular view of a miracle ‘as an event which impresses upon the mind the immediate presence of the Moral Governor of the world’ (Apologia p. 305). Is it not clear then that in the eyes of those who believe in the omnipresence of the Moral Governor of the world miracles in the ordinary sense of the word have become impossible and that to them either every event is miraculous or no event can claim that name. Before the great miracle of the manifestation of God in nature all other miracles vanish. There is but one eternal miracle the revelation of the Infinite in the finite.
The Supernatural as Natural.
But while on one side a study of Natural Religion teaches us that much of what we are inclined to class as natural to accept as a matter of course nay to pass by as unmeaning is in reality full of meaning is full of God is in fact truly miraculous it also opens our eyes to another fact namely that many things which we are inclined to class as supernatural are in reality perfectly natural perfectly intelligible nay inevitable in the growth of every religion.
Thus it has been the chief object of my lectures to show that the concept of God arises by necessity in the human mind and is not as so many theologians will have it the result of one special disclosure granted to Jews and Christians only. It seems to me impossible to resist this conviction when a comparative study of the great religions of the world shows us that the highest attributes which we claim for the Deity are likewise ascribed to it by the Sacred Books of other religions.
This is either a fact or no fact and if it is a fact no conscientious scholar would in our days try to explain it away by saying that the poets of the Veda for instance had borrowed their concept of God and His essential attributes from the Jews.
I have never been able to understand the object of these futile endeavours. Do we lose anything if we find that what we hold to be the most valuable truth is shared in and supported by millions of human beings? Ancient philosophers were most anxious to support their own belief in God by the unanimous testimony of mankind. They made the greatest efforts to prove that there was no race so degraded and barbarous as to be without a belief in something Divine. Some modern theologians on the contrary seem to grudge to all religions but their own the credit of having a pure and true nay any concept of God at all quite forgetful of the fact that a truth does not cease to be a truth because it is accepted universally. I know no heresy more dangerous to true religion than this denial that a true concept of God is within the reach of every human being is in fact the common inheritance of mankind however fearfully it may have been misused and profaned by Christian and non-Christian nations.
Common elements of all Religions. The Ten Commandments.
And this universal consensus is not restricted to the concept of God only. Many of the moral commandments which we are accustomed to consider as communicated to mankind by a special revelation such as the Ten Commandments for instance occur sometimes in almost the same words in the Sacred Books of other religions also. Instead of being surprised or what is still worse being disappointed by that discovery would it not be perfectly awful if it were otherwise? Or can anybody really persuade himself that what we call the heathen-world had to wait and borrow from the Jews such commandments as ‘Thou shalt not steal’ ‘Thou shalt not kill’ ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’?
When people are told that the Buddhists have their Ten Commandments the Dasasîla they are startled at once by the number ten. But we shall see that this number ten is a mere accident. The next step is to suppose that these Ten Commandments must have been borrowed from the Jews by some unknown subterraneous channel or as some will have it that they constitute a fragment of that primeval revelation which we are assured was given once and once only to the human race but preserved in its entirety and purity by the Jews alone. All these are utterly futile defences thrown up to guard against purely imaginary dangers.
We have only to look at the so-called Ten Commandments of the Buddhists to see that they could not possibly have been borrowed from the Bible. They are divided into three classes; five for the laity at large three more for what we should call religious people and two more for the priests. Every man who calls himself a follower of Buddha must vow—
1. Not to destroy life.
2. Not to steal.
3. To abstain from all unchastity.
4. Not to lie deceive or bear false witness.
5. To abstain from intoxicating drinks.
A layman of higher aspirations must promise in addition—
6. Not to eat food at unseasonable times that is after the mid-day meal.
7. Not to dance not to sing light songs; in fact to avoid worldly dissipation.
8. Not to wear any kind of ornament; not to use any scents or perfumes; in short to avoid whatever tends to vanity.
The priest or as it would be more correct to render Bhikshu the friar or mendicant has to obey two more commandments viz.—
9. To sleep on a hard and low couch.
10. To live in voluntary poverty.
You see at once how impossible it would be to suppose that the Buddhists had borrowed these ten commandments from the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament. The most essential commandments no doubt are there: ‘Thou shalt do no murder’ ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ ‘Thou shalt not steal’ ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’ and possibly ‘Thou shalt not covet.’ But does any student of the history of civilised or uncivilised nations really suppose that these commandments required what is called a special revelation and that they were not engraved on the tablets of the human heart before they had been engraved on the tablets of stone on Mount Horeb?
And how could we account for the absence of the other commandments some of them the most characteristic of the Decalogue? The fifth commandment ‘Honour thy father and mother’ is one that is often inculcated by Buddha in his numerous sermons yet it finds no place in the Dasasîla of the Buddhists; while another religion that of Confucius in China may be said to be mainly founded on that commandment on what he calls filial piety the honour paid by children to their fathers and mothers.
In the Vedic literature we find nothing corresponding to the ten commandments. Nevertheless all the essential commandments were known to the ancient Hindus quite as much as to the Jews and the Buddhists. Five of them are often comprehended under the name of ‘the summary of Manu's laws for the four castes.’ These are (Manu X. 63)—
1. Abstention from injuring.
3. Abstention from unlawfully appropriating.
5. Control of the organs of sense.
Here the first commandment corresponds to the sixth in the Decalogue and to the general commandment of ahimsâ not injuring among the Buddhists. The second corresponds to the ninth of the Decalogue the third to the eighth the fifth to the seventh while the fourth which enjoins purity cannot be matched in the Decalogue. But besides these five commandments there are four or five others which in the Vedic literature appear in the shape of the great sacred acts incumbent upon every member of society. These so-called Mahâyagñas as described in the Brâhmanas (Sat. Br. XI. 5 6) consist of—
1. Daily offering of Bali to the seven classes of beings (Bhûta-yagña).
2. Daily gift of food to men (Manushya-yagña).
3. Daily offering to the Manes accompanied by the exclamation Svadhâ which may consist even of a vessel with water only (Pitri-yagña).
4. Daily oblation to the gods accompanied by the exclamation Svâhâ which may consist of a piece of wood only (Deva-yagña).
5. Daily recitation for the Rishis (Brahma-yagña).
Here we see that the worship of the gods though not enjoined in the form of a command is clearly implied because the neglect of the five daily sacrifices entails sin. The daily offerings to the Manes are in reality a continuation of the honour due to father and mother during life while the daily giving of food to men and even to other beings implies to a certain extent the absence of covetousness which is enjoined in the last commandment of the Decalogue.
There is therefore in the commandments of the Brâhmans both more and less than in the Ten Commandments. As the Brâhmans had not arrived at the exclusive worship of one national God and had never excelled in making images the first commandment not to worship other gods and not to make graven images is naturally absent in India. The danger of using the name of God in vain seems likewise to have been unknown in Vedic times. The duty to honour father and mother is almost taken for granted and when it is mentioned it is generally joined with the command to honour the teachers also. On the other hand the duty of kindness towards all men and even towards animals and lastly the duty of honouring the dead are passed over in the Decalogue2.
If Comparative Theology has taught us anything it has taught that there is a common fund of truth in all religions derived from a revelation that was neither confined to one nation nor miraculous in the usual sense of that word and that even minute coincidences between the doctrines nay between the external accessories of various religions need not be accounted for at once by disguised borrowings but can be explained by other and more natural causes.
Very often we find that what at first sight seems identical in two religions is in reality not identical when we succeed in tracing it back to its original source. Many of the similarities between the lives of Christ and Buddha for instance of which we have heard so much of late belong to that class. They are at first sight puzzling nay startling but they generally become quite natural if subjected to the examination of a scholarlike criticism.
Similarities between Christianity and Buddhism.
I shall try to give you one specimen at least of what I mean by scholarlike criticism for it is really high time that an end should be put to the uncritical mixing up of Buddhism and Christianity which if true would upset nearly all we know of the real history of the ancient religions of the world. As Buddhism is about five centuries older than Christianity it is Christianity only that could have been the borrower if borrowing had taken place at all; and I ask by what historical channel could Buddhism have reached Palestine in the first century before our era? Buddhism is an historical religion and so is Christianity. No one I suppose would write about Christianity who has not read the New Testament. Why then should so many people write about Buddhism without reading the Sacred Canon of the Buddhists or at least those large portions of it which have been translated into English and published in my series of the ‘Sacred Books of the East’? Why should they instead read fanciful novels or worse than imaginary accounts of Mahâtmas and Theosophists which if they contain a few grains of Buddhism contain tons of rubbish and trash? It is a shame to see so beautiful a religion as Buddhism certainly is in many of its parts misrepresented caricatured nay degraded by many of those who call themselves Neo-buddhists or Theosophists and who by their own ignorance try to impose on the ignorance and credulity of the public.
Let us take one instance. Mr. Oswald Felix writes ‘that according to the Lalita-Vistara which is one of the Sacred Books of Buddhism or more correctly of Northern Buddhism or Bodhism Buddha converted his first disciples half of them formerly followers of his precursor Rudraka while sitting under a fig-tree. The first disciples of Christ were seceders from the followers of John the Baptist the precursor of the world-renouncing Messiah. “I have seen you under the fig-tree” says Jesus when his converts introduce Nathanael. Nathanael then at once recants his doubts. Sitting under the sacred fig-tree is one of the mystic tokens of Buddhist Messiahship.’
So far Mr. Oswald Felix who is I must say one of the more conscientious and fair-minded students of Buddhism. But let us now examine the case more closely. That the founders of the Christian and Buddhist religions should both have had precursors can hardly be called a very startling coincidence particularly when we consider how different was the relation of John the Baptist to Christ from that of Rudraka to Buddha. But that the Buddhist and the Christian Messiah should both have converted their disciples under a fig-tree does sound strange and being without any apparent motive would seem to require some explanation. If there was borrowing on this point between the two religions it could only have been on the Christian side for Buddha died 477 B.C. and the Buddhist Canon was settled as we saw in the third century B.C. under king Asoka.
But let us look more carefully into this matter. That Buddha should be represented as sitting under a fig-tree is most natural in India. He was for a time a hermit. Hermits in India lived under the shelter of trees and no tree in India gave better shelter than what we call the Indian fig-tree. Different Buddhas were supposed to have been sitting under different trees and were distinguished afterwards by the trees which they had chosen as their own.
There would seem to be no similar explanation for Christ sitting and teaching under a fig-tree and hence the conclusion that this account must have been borrowed from the Buddhist scriptures seems not altogether unreasonable. The fig-tree in Palestine has little in common with the fig-tree in India nor do we ever hear of Jewish Rabbis sitting under trees while teaching.
But are we really told that Christ sat under a fig-tree? Certainly not. The words are ‘Jesus answered and said unto him “Before that Philip called thee when thou wert under the fig-tree I saw thee.”’ Where is then the coincidence and where the necessity of admitting that the Christian story was borrowed from the Buddhists? People who compare the gospels of Buddha and Christ ought at all events to be acquainted with the New Testament. Nathanael happened to be under a fig-tree when he was first seen by Christ. That fig-tree was not an Indian fig-tree nor was it the shelter under which Christ sat when choosing His disciples.
Much as has been made of this there seems to me nothing left that requires explanation nothing to support the theory that two religions so diametrically opposed to each other on the most essential points could have borrowed such accounts one from the other whether Buddhism from Christianity or Christianity from Buddhism.
I do not mean to say that all similarities between Buddhism and Christianity have been fully accounted for as yet. It would not be honest to say so. All I say is that most of them have been and that the rest are not such as to justify us in admitting an historical intercourse between India and Palestine before the rise of Christianity3.
The real coincidences not only between Christianity and Buddhism but between all the religions of the world teach us a very different lesson. They teach us that all religions spring from the same soil—the human heart that they all look to the same ideals and that they are all surrounded by the same dangers and difficulties. Much that is represented to us as supernatural in the annals of the ancient religions of the world becomes perfectly natural from this point of view.
Divine character ascribed to the Founders of Religions.
For instance the founders of most if not of all religions were after a time believed in as superior beings as superhuman or divine in the old-world sense of the word. An ordinary birth therefore was not considered sufficient nor in many instances an ordinary death. All this is perfectly natural it is almost inevitable.
If I say that it is almost inevitable this might be called a mere assertion or a theory and the Science of Religion as I have often said in my lectures deals not in theories but in facts only. These facts which speak with a louder voice than any theories are collected from historical documents and it is in them that we must learn to study the origin and growth of religions and all the accidents that befall them when entrusted to the keeping of weak mortals call them laymen or priests.
Let us begin with the birth of Buddha. At first it is no more than the birth of a prince the son of the Rajah of Kapilavastu. He is certainly the first-born child of his mother and it was in that sense that first-born children were often called the children of virgin mothers. Thus even Moses is called in the Talmud the son of a virgin. When Mahâ-mâyâ the wife of king Suddhodana was near her confinement we are told4 that she expressed a wish to go to Devadaha the city of her own people. The king saying ‘It is good’ consented and had the road from Kapilavastu to Devadaha made plain and decked with arches of plain-trees and well-filled waterpots and flags and banners. And seating the queen in a golden palanquin carried by a thousand attendants he sent her away with a great retinue. When approaching the Lumbinî grove the queen was carried in and when she came to the monarch Sal-tree of the glade she wanted to take hold of a branch of it and the branch bending down approached within reach of her hand. Stretching out her hand she took hold of the branch and then standing and holding the branch of the Sal-tree she was delivered.
This is as yet a very sober account of Buddha's birth and even what follows is not more than we should expect from an Oriental narrator. ‘Four pure-minded Mahâ-Brahma angels came there bringing a golden net and receiving the future Buddha on that net they placed him before his mother saying “Be joyful O lady! a mighty son is born to thee.” Of course Buddha is born pure and fair and shining like a gem placed on fine muslin of Benares. Two showers of water came down from heaven to refresh mother and child5.’
But the plot thickens as we go on. We are told (p. 62) that the queen had had a dream in which the four archangels the guardians of the world lifted her up in a couch carried her to the Himâlaya mountains and placed her under the Great Sâlâ-tree. Then their queens took her to the lake Anotatta bathed dressed and anointed her and laid her on a couch in the golden mansion of the Silver Hill. There she saw the future Buddha who had become a superb white elephant ascending the Silver Hill entering the golden mansion and after thrice doing obeisance gently striking her right side and seeming to enter her womb.
This was at first a dream only but it was soon changed into a reality. In later accounts we are told that Buddha really entered his mother's right side as a white elephant and this incarnation has become one of the favourite scenes in Buddhist sculptures.
At the time of this wonderful incarnation we are further told that the worlds shook and that an immeasurable light appeared in the ten thousand worlds! The blind received their sight as if from very longing to behold his glory. The deaf heard the noise. The dumb spake one with another. The crooked became straight. The lame walked6.
These miraculous stories connected with the birth of Buddha are all the more surprising in Buddhism because they seem so objectless. They are never used as a proof of Buddha's divine character for Buddha's was high above all gods nor are they quoted in support of the truth of the doctrines which he preached later in life. When we think of the exalted character of Buddha's teaching we wonder what he would have said if he could have seen the fabulous stories of his birth and childhood.
Birth of Mahâvîra.
Still more extraordinary is the birth of Buddha's contemporary Mahâvîra the reputed founder of Gainism7. After his first incarnation he is actually transferred from one mother who belonged to the caste of the Brâhmans to another who belonged to the caste of the Kshatriyas because—and this is very significant—the Kshatriyas were then considered as more noble than the Brâhmans. And when at last he is born there is a divine lustre originated by many descending and ascending gods and goddesses and in the universe resplendent with one light the conflux of gods occasioned great confusion and noise. In that night in which the venerable ascetic Mahâvîra was born many demons in Vaisramana's service belonging to the animal world rained down on the palace of king Siddhârtha one great shower of silver gold diamonds clothes ornaments leaves flowers fruits seeds garlands perfumes sandal powder and riches. It is the story of Buddha only carried to greater extremes.
We saw before how opposed Mohammed was to all miracles falsely so called. But in the later accounts of his life we read of many miraculous events which accompanied his birth. We are told8 that a Jew in Jathrib (Medîna) called his friends together on the morrow after Mohammed's birth and said to them: ‘This night the star has risen under which Ahmed will be born.’ Before his birth a spirit appeared to his mother Âmina saying: ‘Thy child will be the lord of this people. Say at his birth “I place him under the protection of the Only One against the wickedness of all enviers and I call him Mohammed.” While she was with child she is said to have seen a light which spread its rays from her so that one could see by its lustre the castles of Busra in Syria.
Some Mohammedans now go so far as to believe that ‘when the prophet was born the gods and goddesses and saints of heaven descended upon the earth praised and saluted him and thanked his mother Âmina.’ Again one feels tempted to ask what Mohammed himself would have said to such gods and goddesses descending from heaven he whose chief doctrine was that there is but one God and Mohammed His prophet.
But these superstitions are not confined to Buddha and Mahâvîra both born in the sixth century B.C. or to Mohammed who was born in the sixth century A.D. In much more modern times and in the broad daylight of history the same stories spring up and are believed. Nânak for instance was the founder of the Sikh religion; he lived in the sixteenth century and was a contemporary of our reformers. Yet we read of him that when he was born (A.D. 1469 April-May) in a moonlight night at an early hour while yet about a watch of the night was remaining unbeaten sounds were produced at the gate of the Lord thirty-three crores of gods paid homage the sixty-four Yoginîs the fifty-two heroes the six ascetics the eighty-four Siddhas the nine Nâthas all paid homage because a great devotee has come to save the world9.
Kaitanya the founder of one of the most popular modern systems of religion in India is a still later and perfectly historical character. He was born in 1485. Yet his birth also could not escape the miraculous halo which is considered essential to every founder of a new religion or of a new sect. At his birth also as his followers assure us ‘men from all sides began to send presents. Sakî his mother saw in the heavens beings with spiritual bodies making adoration. There was an eclipse when the child was born and the men of the world shouted aloud. The women also cried the name of Hari and made sounds of Hooloos. The saints of heaven danced and played music with joy10.’
These are facts—I do not mean the miracles themselves but the poetical tendency of man which without any thought of fraud is led on irresistibly to these imaginary representations of the birth of great heroes and prophets11 even of those who were themselves most opposed to the idea of appealing to signs and wonders in support of the truth of their doctrines.
The Birth of Christ.
Should we hesitate then to assign the same origin to the accounts of the birth of Christ which were preserved in some of the Apocryphal Gospels while some of them have actually found their way we do not know through what channels into two of our Synoptical Gospels?
When we think of the exalted character of Christ's teaching may we not ask ourselves once more What would He have said if He had seen the fabulous stories of His birth and childhood or if He had thought that His divine character would ever be made to depend on the historical truth of the Evangelia Infantiae?
Signs changed to Miracles.
It is due to the same psychological necessities of human nature under the inspiring influence of religious enthusiasm that so many of the true signs and wonders performed by the founders of religion have so often been exaggerated and in spite of the strongest protests of these founders themselves degraded into mere jugglery. It is true that all this does not form an essential element of religion as we now understand religion. Miracles are no longer used as arguments in support of the truth of religious doctrines. Miracles have often been called helps to faith but they have as often proved stumbling-blocks to faith and no one would in our days venture to say that the truth as taught by any religion must stand or fall with certain prodigious events which may or may not have happened which may or may not have been rightly apprehended by the followers of Buddha Christ or Mohammed.
Dr. Robert Lee.
Let me quote here the words of an eminent Scotch divine whose memory is still widely loved and revered I believe the late Dr. Robert Lee. His Life written by Dr. Story is probably known to most of you. On one occasion a gentleman undertook a long journey to gain his advice on a point that troubled him. He could not bring himself to a belief in the Christian miracles. ‘I asked him’ Dr. Lee said ‘if he believed the doctrines which the miracles were designed to recommend and illustrate.’ On receiving a reply in the affirmative the wise spiritual guide added: ‘Then for you belief in the miracles themselves is unnecessary. To lead to such belief was their purpose; it is sufficient if that is attained.’
Far more important however than the discovery of a number of outward coincidences between the miracles of various religions is another lesson which a comparative study of the religions of the world has taught us namely that there is a common fund of truth in the most essential doctrines which they teach.
The Highest Commandments.
We saw before how the most important of the Ten Commandments could be traced in Buddhism and other religions of the world while the idea that they must have been borrowed from the Jews was shown to be utterly untenable.
But what has been proved with regard to the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament is equally true with regard to the fundamental commandment of Christianity. ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ has long been proved to form an integral part of that eternal religion which has never been quite extinct in the human heart and has found utterance more or less perfect by the mouths of many prophets poets and philosophers.
I shall here quote one instance only. We read in the Confucian Analects XV. 2312 ‘Tsze-kung asked saying “Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one's life?” The Master said: “Is not reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself do not do to others.”’
How difficult Confucius considered this rule of life is shown in the same Analects V. 11. Here Tsze-kung is introduced as saying ‘What I do not wish men to do to me I also wish not to do to men.’ But the Master replied : ‘Tsze you have not attained to that.’
The Talmud says that when a man once asked Shamai to teach him the Law in one lesson Shamai drove him away in anger. He then went to Hillel with the same request. Hillel said ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. This is the whole Law; the rest merely commentaries upon it13.’
But we may go one step further still. The commandment not only to love our neighbour but to love our enemy and to return good for evil the most sublime doctrine of Christianity so sublime indeed that Christians themselves have declared it to be too high for this world can be shown to belong to that universal code of faith and morality from which the greatest religions have drawn their strength and life.
Let me first quote the words of Christ14: ‘You have heard that it hath been said Thou shalt love thy neighbour and hate thine enemy.
‘But I say unto you Love your enemies bless them that curse you do good to them that hate you and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.
‘That you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.’
Let us now consult a religion which cannot possibly be suspected of having borrowed anything from Christianity. Let us take Taoism one of the three great religions of China such as we know it from the writings of Lao-tze who lived about 600 B.C. His birth also you may remember was represented as very miraculous more miraculous perhaps than that of any other religious teacher. As I explained in my first course of Gifford Lectures Lao-tze was believed to have been seventy years old when he was born and to have actually come into the world with a head of grey hair15. Yet all this was probably not meant to convey more than that Lao-tze was a wise child as wise as a man of seventy.
In chapter sixty-three of the Tao-te-king Lao-tze says in so many words: ‘Recompense injury with kindness;’ or as Julien translates ‘Il venge ses injures par des bienfaits16.’
How widely spread and how old this doctrine must have been in China we may gather from some curious remarks made by Confucius the contemporary of Lao-tze and the founder or reformer of the national religion of China. In the Analects17 (bk. xiv. c. 36) we read:
‘Some one said “What do you say concerning the principle that injury should be recompensed with kindness?” The Master said: “With what then will you recompense kindness?” Recompense injury with justice and kindness with kindness.’
This is evidently the language of a philosopher rather than of a religious teacher. Confucius seems to have perceived that to love our enemies is almost beyond human nature and he declares himself satisfied therefore with demanding justice to our enemies—and who does not know how difficult it is to fulfil even that commandment?
However the true prophets who thought not so much of what men are as what men ought to be insisted on love or at all events on pity for our enemies as the highest virtue. Thus Buddha said: ‘Let a man overcome evil by good: let him overcome the greedy by liberality the liar by truth… For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time; hatred ceases by love; this is an old rule18.’
Remark here again the same expression that the commandment to overcome hatred by love is an old rule in the eyes of Buddha as it was in the eyes of Confucius. What then becomes of the attempts to show that the doctrine of love towards our enemies must have been borrowed wherever we find it from the New Testament as if that doctrine would become less true because other religions also teach it or because it had been revealed in the truest sense of that word to all who had eyes to see and hearts to love. It is truth that makes revelation not revelation that makes truth.
So far from trying by more or less specious arguments to claim this doctrine as the exclusive property of Christianity we should rather welcome it wherever we meet it.
The Hitopadesa a Sanskrit collection of fables is in the form in which we possess it certainly far more modern than the New Testament. But if we read there:
Bar thy door not to the stranger be he friend or be he foe
For the tree will shade the woodman while his axe does lay it low’
is there any reason why we should say that it must have been borrowed from Christian sources? The same idea meets us again and again with varying metaphors taken from nature such as it was in India and nowhere else. The sandal-wood tree was a tree peculiar to India and thus the Indian poet tells us to love our enemies as the sandal tree sheds perfume on the axe that fells it.
Hafiz one of the greatest poets of Persia might no doubt have taken his thoughts from the New Testament. But as Sir William Jones remarks there is not the shadow of reason for supposing that the poet of Shiraz had borrowed his doctrine from the Christians19. This is a translation of some of his verses:
‘Learn from yon orient shell to love thy foe
And store with pearls the hand that brings thee woe:
Free like yon rock from base vindictive pride
Imblaze with gems the wrist that rends thy side:
Mark where yon tree rewards the stony shower
With fruit nectareous or the balmy flower;
All nature calls aloud. Shall man do less
Than heal the smiter and the railer bless?’
I have no time left to quote other instances all showing that this the highest truth of Christianity had been reached independently by what we call the pagan religions of the world. When I call it the highest truth of Christianity I am but quoting the language of well-known theologians who declare that this is the most sublime piece of morality ever given to man and that this one precept is a sufficient proof of the holiness of the Gospel and of the truth of the Christian religion.
So no doubt it is. But what shall we say then of the pagan religions which teach exactly the same doctrine?
Shall we say they borrowed it from Christianity?
That would be doing violence to history.
Shall we say that though they use the same words they did not mean the same thing?
That would be doing violence to our sense of truth.
Why not accept the facts such as they are? At first I quite admit some of the facts which I have quoted in my lectures are startling and disturbing. But like most facts which startle us from a distance they lose their terror when we look them in the face nay they often prove a very Godsend to those who are honestly grappling with the difficulties of which religion is full. Anyhow they are facts that must be met that cannot be ignored. And why should they be ignored? To those who see no difficulties in their own religion the study of other religions will create no new difficulties. It will only help them to appreciate more fully what they already possess. For with all that I have said in order to show that other religions also contain all that is necessary for salvation it would be simply dishonest on my part were I to hide my conviction that the religion taught by Christ and free as yet from all ecclesiastical fences and intrenchments is the best the purest the truest religion the world has ever seen. When I look at the world as it is I often say that we seem to be living two thousand years before not after Christ.
To others again whose very faith is founded on honest doubt the study of other religions will prove of immense service. If in my present course of lectures I have proved no more than that the concept of God in its progress from the imperfect to the more and more perfect constitutes the inalienable birthright of man; that without any special revelation it was revealed to every human being endowed with sense with reason and language by the manifestation of God in Nature; and that the admission of and the belief in a real Agent in all the works of nature is found under various and sometimes strange disguises in all the religions of the world; if I say I have succeeded in proving this by facts by facts taken from the Sacred Books of all nations then my labour has not been in vain. We can now repeat the words which have been settled for us centuries ago and which we have learnt by heart in our childhood—‘I believe in God the Father Maker of heaven and earth’ with a new feeling with the conviction that they express not only the faith of the apostles or of œcumenical councils but that they contain the Confession of Faith of the whole world expressed in different ways conveyed in thousands of languages but always embodying the same fundamental truth. I call it fundamental because it is founded in the very nature of our mind our reason and our language on a simple and ineradicable conviction that where there are acts there must be agents and in the end one Prime Agent whom man may know not indeed in his own inscrutable essence yet in his acts as revealed in nature.
You may have wondered why in these lectures on Physical Religion I should have so often appealed to the Veda the sacred book of the Brâhmans. It was because nowhere else can we watch the natural evolution of the concept of God as the Prime Agent of the world better than in these ancient hymns. I have quoted many passages from them showing how the simple observers of nature in India discovered the presence of supernatural agents in the fire the storm-wind the sky the dawn; and the sun; how they called them by many names but most frequently by that of deva and how this name deva meaning originally bright after being applied to the brightness of the dawn the sun the sky and the fire became in the end to mean divine is in fact the same word which we still use as Deus God.
Let me finish by one more quotation from the same Veda showing how these early observers of nature in India were not satisfied with a belief in many Devas in many bright and beneficent agents but were led on irresistibly to a belief in one Prime Agent in one God. It is a precious line and I shall quote it first in the original Sanskrit as it may have been recited three thousand years ago in the silent groves watered by the waves of the sacred river Sarasvatî:—
Yáh devéshu ádhi deváh ékah ấsît.
‘He who above the gods was the one God20.’
Unless the whole chronology of Sanskrit literature is wrong that line was composed in the north of India at least 1000 B.C. It was not the result of what historians mean by a special or supernatural revelation. It was the natural outcome of man's thoughts such as they had been fashioned in response to the impressions of nature. There was nothing artificial in it: it was simply what man could not help saying being what he was and seeing what he saw. If as some philosophers tell us man was wrong in this belief in God then all we can say is that the whole world is a fraud but a fraud beyond the ingenuity of any human detective.
I say once more in conclusion what I have often said in the course of these lectures—the Science of Religion has to deal with facts not with theories. The line from the Veda with which I close these lectures is a fact. It proves as a fact what I wished to establish that the human mind such as it is and unassisted by any miracles except the eternal miracles of nature did arrive at the concept of God in its highest and purest form did arrive at some of the fundamental doctrines of our own religion. Whatever ‘the impregnable rock of scripture truth’ may be here we have ‘the impregnable rock of eternal and universal truth.’ ‘There is a God above all the gods’ whatever their names whatever their concepts may have been in the progress of the ages and in the growth of the human mind. Whoever will ponder on that fact in all its bearings will discover in time that a comparative study of the religions of the world has lessons to teach us which the study of no single religion by itself can possibly teach and that Lord Gifford's idea of founding Chairs of Natural Religion in the Universities of Scotland showed greater wisdom and a truer appreciation of the signs of the times than some of his critics have given him credit for.