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Lecture 9. Usefulness of the Vedic Religion for a Comparative Study of Other Religions.

Lecture 9.
Usefulness of the Vedic Religion for a Comparative Study of Other Religions.
Agni Fire in other Religions.

IT would hardly be possible anywhere but in India to discover so complete a collection of fragments with which to reconstruct what I call the biography of the god of fire. Of the early period to which the formation of the name of Agni must be assigned and of the successive phases of its application to the various manifestations of the beneficial and baneful power of fire we have no records anywhere but in the Veda. But it must not be supposed that it was in India only that the god of fire and other gods sprang from the simplest observations of the phenomena of nature and that other nations more particularly the Semitic began at once with abstract names of deity. No language can have abstract names without something to abstract them from. The great advantage which the Veda offers to us consists in its enabling us to watch the very process of abstraction more fully and more minutely than it can be watched anywhere else.

In the hymns of the Rig-veda there is as yet no definite system of belief. There is no doubt a uniformity of thought but there is at the same time the greatest variety of individual expression. We saw how in some of the hymns Agni was really no more as yet than the name of fire whether burning on the hearth or destroying forests or descending from the sky in the shape of lightning. But we also saw how in other hymns there remained nothing but the name of Agni while what was meant by it was the omnipotent creator and the omniscient ruler of the world. I think I may say therefore that nowhere in the whole world does ancient literature enable us to study this development of religious thought so fully and so uninterruptedly as in ancient India.
No Religious Literature in Greece and Italy.
In Greece and in Italy there are some but not many indications left that might have opened the eyes of classical scholars as to the real theogony of the Olympian gods. But the continuous stratification of religious thought which is so instructive and in its teachings so irresistible in the Veda was broken up in Italy and Greece and little is left to us beyond the detritus forming part of a tertiary surface.
If we turn our eyes to other countries which claim to be in possession of a very ancient literature and try to study there also what may be called the geology of theology we seldom find the documents we really care for documents exhibiting the actual growth not the final upshot of religious thought.
Religion in Egypt.
In Egypt for instance there is plenty of religious literature and plenty of local variety but every cluster of mythology and religion whether in Upper or in Lower Egypt whether under the earliest or under the latest dynasties seems already finished systematised and complete.
Brugsch on Egyptian Religion.
I may quote the words of one of the best Egyptian scholars Professor Brugsch who in the introduction to his last work The Religion of the Old Egyptians (1888) writes:
‘The opinion which has lately been very unreservedly pronounced that the Egyptians possessed a kind of village-religion which assumed different forms in different parts of the country and was at last reduced to some kind of uniformity by the sophistical wisdom of the priests is refuted by the texts of the pyramids in which we perceive both the unity of a general fundamental system and the differences in details only of local cults. No one would deny that the mythology of the Egyptians like that of the Greeks and Romans and other civilised nations of antiquity arose from simple conceptions closely connected at first with the sky and the general nature of the country; but as far as monuments of mythological meaning can carry us back in the valley of the Nile nowhere do they display the faintest traces of those first beginnings least of all in the later legends and stories of the gods. Everywhere we are met by a well-established system and local traditions seem only like variegated illustrations of one and the same fundamental conception within a system.’
No religion has been represented to us under such different forms as the religion of Egypt. From the days of Herodotus and Manetho to our own days every kind of theory has been proposed as to its origin its nature and its purpose. Those who know least of the language and literature of that mysterious country have always been most emphatic in their opinions on Egyptian religion. We have been told with equal assurance that the gods of the Egyptians were deified men or deified animals that their religion was fetishism and totemism and that nowhere could sacrificial worship be traced back so clearly to a primitive worship of ancestors as in the original home of mummies and pyramids. That elements of all these beliefs may be discovered in Egypt need not surprise us considering that they are found in nearly all religions even in those that have not been spread over so large an area and preserved through so many ages as that of Egypt.
But scholarship surely has its rights and however much we may admire the achievements of the inner consciousness surely men who have devoted their lives to the study of Egyptian philology and to whom hieroglyphic hieratic and demotic texts are as familiar as Greek and Latin have a right to be listened to particularly if they are entirely free from predilections in favour of any philosophical system.
Le Page Renouf on the Gods of Egypt.
I have quoted the opinion of Professor Brugsch as to the real character of the ancient religion of Egypt. I cannot resist quoting likewise the opinion of Mr. Le Page Renouf an eminent student of hieroglyphics wedded to no system of philosophy nor suspected of any religious bias. And I do so the more readily because I am afraid that his words being contained in the Preface to the Book of the Dead Facsimile of the Papyrus of Ani 1890 have reached but few except students of hieroglyphics.
‘The beginnings of the Egyptian religion’ he writes (p. 7) ‘are anterior probably by many centuries to the earliest documents and we can only speak with certainty of it from a time when the nation had already attained a very high degree of civilisation. A period when the religion was confined to fetishism or to the worship of ancestors is historically unknown. Although many of the gods are mere names to us we have very accurate knowledge of all the important ones and those which are not yet understood are certainly of the same nature.
‘No competent scholar has the least doubt that the Earth and Sky the Sun Moon and Stars (and certain constellations in particular) Light and Darkness and the very hours of the day and of the night were considered as gods; and that the gods most frequently mentioned Seb Nu Nut Râ Tmu Horus are personifications of physical phenomena. And no greater names than these can be found.’
And again: ‘The mythology of Egypt had its origin exactly like the mythologies of other nations known to us. All proper names were originally appellatives and every name is derived from one only of the attributes or characteristics of an object. And as every object has several attributes or may be considered from various points of view it is susceptible of various names. Hence arise in some languages the many synonyms (often poetical or metaphorical) for such objects as island river horse serpent camel sword gold. It is evident that in countries where the powers of nature are the objects of worship the same power is liable to be called by very different names. This is especially likely to be the case when the population is distributed over a large extent of country with local worships under the superintendence of priesthoods independent of each other. The myths arising either from the name of the god or from the phenomena which he personified would necessarily vary according to locality. And this diversity would continue even when at a later period of intercourse between the different parts of the country many of the local worships and mythologies had come into general acceptance. No attempt was then made at harmonising contradictions and all attempts which have more recently been made to exhibit a consistent system whether of Greek Indian or Egyptian mythology spring from a radical misconception of the nature of a myth. When we know who the gods really are the myths about them are perfectly intelligible.’
Unless these statements emanating from real scholars can be proved to be erroneous it seems that we have a right to say that as in India so in Egypt the concept of something divine arose first from a contemplation of the wonderful activities of nature and that when other objects were deified this meant that they were more or less consciously placed within the boundaries of the same concept1. If the Egyptians could not mummify without having their mum or some similar substance answering the same purpose neither could they deify unless they were beforehand in possession of a deus or something divine.
Religion in Babylon and Assyria.
We should have expected most valuable light on the origin and the growth of religious conceptions from Babylon and Nineveh. But in spite of the wonderful discoveries that have been made among the recently disinterred ruins of palaces with their archives and temples with their libraries all is for the present chaotic and shifting. The very best scholars confess that they cannot tell what may be Accadian or Sumerian and what may be Babylonian or Assyrian in the religious phraseology of the inscriptions while the very names and gender of the gods vary from year to year. Much no doubt will in time be brought to light by the indefatigable discoverers and decipherers of Mesopotamian antiquities; but the student of religion who should venture to support his theories by facts taken from cuneiform sources would find that these supports have to be renewed or changed from year to year2. I say this from personal experience and without any disparagement;—on the contrary I think we ought to recognise in it the best proof of the rapid progress of cuneiform studies.
Where to study the Historical Growth of Religious Ideas.
It would be easy to collect from Egyptian and Babylonian sources some striking parallels to the development of Agni which we have traced in the Veda but we must leave this for a later lecture. Among uncivilised nations also the worship of fire in its various phases from the lowest to the highest can be and has been studied by some of our best anthropologists. But here even more than in Egypt and Babylon and other countries which possess literary documents of various dates the opportunities of studying the problem which occupies us at present are totally wanting. We find there also nothing but results. We see the last surface of religious belief but we have no means of piercing one inch beneath that surface. Fortified by our experience derived chiefly from the Veda we may guess at the antecedents of the actual beliefs of uncivilised races. We may apply the general principle of ‘like results like causes’ But we shall have to do this with the greatest caution for the human mind which is after all the only soil of religious ideas is least amenable to generalisation and in the growth of religion though the determining influence of the masses must not be forgotten the power of the individual is immense and often withdraws itself from all calculation.
The Old Testament.
We should naturally have expected the most useful information as to the natural growth of the concept of deity in the various books of the Old Testament. They profess to give us an account of the earliest intercourse between man and God from the days when we are told that Adam and Eve heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day (Gen. iii. 8) to the time when Moses was told that no man can see God and live (Ex. xxxiii. 20).
But you know how difficult nay how impossible it is in the present state of Biblical criticism to use the single books of the Old Testament for historical purposes. I need hardly remind you that by the students of the Science of Religion the Old Testament can only be looked upon as a strictly historical book by the side of other historical books. It can claim no privilege before the tribunal of history nay to claim such a privilege would be to really deprive it of the high position which it justly holds among the most valuable monuments of the distant past. But at present the authorship of the single books which form the Old Testament and more particularly the dates at which they were reduced to writing form the subject of keen controversy not among critics hostile to religion whether Jewish or Christian but among theologians who treat these questions in the most independent but at the same time the most candid and judicial spirit. By this treatment many difficulties which in former times disturbed the minds of thoughtful theologians have been removed and the Old Testament has resumed its rightful place among the most valuable monuments of antiquity. It is now often invoked to confirm the evidence of cuneiform and hieroglyphic inscriptions instead of having to invoke the testimony of these inscriptions in its own support. But all this was possible on one condition only namely that the Old Testament should be treated simply as an historical book willing to submit to all the tests of historical criticism to which other historical books have submitted.
But what the student of the history that is of the continuous growth of religion looks for in vain in the books of the Old Testament are the successive stages in the development of religious concepts. He does not know which books he may consider as more ancient or more modern than other books. He asks in vain how much of the religious ideas reflected in certain of these books may be due to ancient tradition how much to the mind of the latest writer. In the third chapter of Exodus God is revealed to Moses on Mount Horeb not only as the supreme but as the only God. But we are now told by competent scholars that Exodus could not have been written down till probably a thousand years later than Moses. How then can we rely on it as an accurate picture of the thoughts of Moses and his contemporaries? It has been said with great truth3 that ‘it is almost impossible to believe that a people who had been emancipated from superstition at the time of the Exodus say 1491 and had again and again proved the evils of idolatry and been driven to repentance and who had been all along taught to conceive God as the one universal spirit existing only in truth and righteousness and justice and mercy should be found at the time of Josiah in 621 nearly nine hundred years later steeped in every superstition and permitting among themselves the perpetration of all the crimes known to the false and barbarous forms of worship.’ Still if the writings of the Old Testament were considered as contemporaneous with the events which they relate this retrogressive movement in the religion of the Jews would have to be accepted.
Most of these difficulties however are removed or at all events considerably lessened if we accept the results of modern Hebrew scholarship and remember that though the Old Testament may contain very ancient traditions they probably were not reduced to writing till the middle of the fifth century B.C. and may have been modified by and mixed up with ideas belonging to the age of Ezra.
This is not the place to discuss questions of Hebrew scholarship and yet it is of extreme importance for us to know whether we may or in fact whether we must take into account the books of the Old Testament in studying the growth of religious ideas. What would the student of religion give if he could really feel sure that he was reading in the books of Moses the thoughts of humanity 1500 B.C. All our ideas of the historical growth of religious ideas among Semitic nations at least would have to be modified whereas at present unless we can fix the date of each individual book of the Old Testament our only safe course is to leave this most important collection of sacred documents aside the very collection from which formerly all our ideas of the ancient history of religion used to be formed.
It sometimes happens however that researches carried on for quite different purposes suddenly cross the path of other inquiries and help in settling questions with which they were originally unconnected. The same has happened in our case.
Invention of Alphabetic Writing.
Thanks to the genius of De Rougé and the subsequent labours of Lenormant and Brugsch there can be no doubt—at least I cannot see how there could be—that what we call the Phenician letters and what the Greeks also very honestly called the Phenician letters were derived from hieratic hieroglyphics. I cannot at present explain the whole process by which out of a large number of hieroglyphic signs about twenty-two were selected to serve as alphabetic letters as consonants and vowels. Nor has it been possible to fix the exact date at which this process took place though such evidence as there is points according to De Rougé to about 1000 B.C. But it is a matter of history that we have no evidence of alphabetic writing even for the purpose of inscriptions much less for the purpose of the composition of books till about the time of king Mesha whose famous inscription dates from the ninth century B.C.4
Between the use of writing for monumental or even for commercial and epistolary purposes and the use of writing for literary purposes however there is everywhere a gulf of centuries. In fact we may say so far as our knowledge extends at present that there is no historical evidence of any book in alphabetic writing before the seventh century B.C.
To suppose therefore that Moses could have written a book in Hebrew and with a Semitic alphabet would be to antedate the writing of books by nearly a thousand years and the employment of alphabetic writing in general by more than 500 years.
If Moses wrote at all if he actually held a book and read it in the audience of the people (Exod. xxiv. 7) he could only learned as he was in all the learning of the Egyptians have written in hieroglyphics but certainly not in the Phenician alphabet. The very tables of the law could not have been traced with any but hieroglyphic or hieratic letters for the simple reason that our Phenician alphabet so far as we know at present; did not exist before 1000 B.C. if so early. Of course the arguments which are used in support of this conclusion may be controverted. One single inscription in Phenician or Semitic letters found in Egypt or Arabia might by its date upset our conclusions as to the date of the invention of alphabetic writing. But what will hardly ever be upset is our conviction that books in alphabetic letters were a far more recent invention and existed nowhere before the seventh century B.C.
The Sixth Century B.C.
It has been truly said that a more interesting history of the world might be written if instead of being divided according to the domination of particular dynasties or the supremacy of particular races it were cut off into departments indicated by the influence of particular discoveries upon the destinies of mankind5. You would have the epochs marked by the discovery of gunpowder of the printing press of the steam engine of electricity in modern times; and you would have in ancient times the epochs marked by the discovery of fire of bronze of iron and of alphabetic writing for literary purposes.
But if the introduction of written books marks an epoch in the history of civilisation we ought to be able to discover clear traces of it in the principal countries of the world. Now you know the wonderful intellectual activity of the sixth century B.C. in every part of the civilised world. Between 600 and 500 B.C. we have in Asia the foundation of the Persian Empire with Cyrus and Darius Hydaspes the restorer of the Zoroastrian faith. We have in Asia Minor the rise of the Ionian republics and the sudden burst of Greek philosophy Greek poetry nay even Greek history. Not only Thales (solar eclipse 585) Anaximander (612 546) and Anaximenes but Pythagoras (†510) Xenophanes Herakleitos and Parmenides all belonged to that great century. Greek lyric poetry burst forth in the songs of Theognis Simonides and Anakreon; ancient laws began to be collected by Solon and others and towards the close of the century we hear of Pisistratus (†528) collecting manuscripts of the Homeric songs as they had been recited at the great Panathenaic festivals. The Logographi of that time were actual writers of chronicles and the immediate precursors of real historians such as Herodotus.
Though it is a mere guess it seems to me extremely likely that this literary development of the sixth century B.C. was really due to the introduction of alphabetic writing for literary purposes from Egypt and Phenicia to Asia Minor and Europe. I doubt whether we can trace the writing down of any of the sacred books of the East to an earlier date than that century though they no doubt existed for centuries before that time preserved by oral tradition.
The Zoroastrian texts may have been collected at the time of Darius. The Veda was probably not reduced to writing till much later and the same applies to the Buddhist canon. In China writing according to their fashion may have been known long before but the collection of the canonical books of Confucius and Laotze belongs again to the sixth century.
The Old Testament as an Historical Book.
If then we turn to the books of the Old Testament we find that they were finally collected by Ezra 458 B.C. who lived about seventy-five years after Darius the collector of the Zoroastrian code. We must remember that Ezra had been brought up in Babylon during the reign of Artaxerxes. To suppose that portions of the Old Testament existed in the form of books at the time of Moses would run counter to all history. The Jews we must remember were far from being a more literary people than their neighbours and to suppose that they alone should have possessed a book-literature at a time when all their neighbours had to be satisfied with oral tradition or with hieroglyphic inscriptions hieratic papyri and cuneiform cylinders is more than at present any historian can admit6.
But though in using the books of the Old Testament we must always be on our guard against intellectual anachronisms due to the inevitable colouring which the mind of the collector and final redactor may have thrown on the character of a book the traditions as finally collected by Ezra and before him by the High Priest Hilkiah hardly allow us to doubt that a belief in one Supreme God even if at first it was only a henotheistic and not yet a monotheistic belief took possession of the leading spirits of the Jewish race at a very early time. All tradition assigns that belief in One God the Most High to Abraham. According to the Old Testament Abraham though he did not deny the existence of the gods worshipped by the neighbouring tribes yet looked upon them as different from and as decidedly inferior to his own God. His monotheism was no doubt narrow. His God was the friend of Abraham as Abraham was the friend of God. Yet the concept of God formed by Abraham was a concept that could grow and that did grow. Neither Moses nor the Prophets nor Christ himself nor even Mohammed had to introduce a new God. Their God was always called the God of Abraham even when freed from all that was still local and narrow and superstitious in the faith of that patriarch.
Monotheistic Instinct of the Semitic Race.
It is well known that some excellent Semitic scholars and more particularly Renan find the explanation of this early monotheistic belief of the Father of the Faithful in what they call the monotheistic instinct of the whole Semitic race. That theory however even if it explained anything is flatly contradicted by all the facts that have come to light in the early history of the Semitic nations.
If there was any religious instinct in them it was a polytheistic instinct as we see in the monuments of Babylon and Nineveh in the traditions of Arabia and even in the constant backslidings of the Jews.
Many years ago in one of my earliest essays on Semitic Monotheism (1860) I tried to show in opposition to Renan's view that the Jewish belief in One Supreme God must be traced back like all great ideas to one person namely to Abraham and that in his case it could not be ascribed to a national instinct which rather would have led him in the very opposite direction but on the contrary to his personal opposition to the national instinct or to what I ventured to call in the truest sense of the word a special revelation. For that expression I have been taken to task again and again during the last thirty years though I thought I had made it very clear in all my writings what I meant by a special revelation not a theophany but ‘a profound insight an inspired vision of truth so deep and so living as to make it a reality like that of the outward world7’ nay more than that of the outward world. Such a revelation can by its very nature be granted to one man only can be preached by one man only with the full faith in its reality and this man as far as the religion of Jews Christians and Mohammedans is concerned was Abraham.
But although Abraham may have attained at a very early time to his sublime conception of the One God the Most High God freed from the purely physical characteristics which adhere to the gods of other nations we can see very clearly that in this sublime conception he stood almost alone and that the gods of the Jews and of the Semitic nations in general had once been gods of nature quite as much as the gods of India.
If we saw the account of the appearance of Jehovah on mount Sinai in the sacred books of any other religion we should have little doubt that the God as there described was originally a god of fire and thunder. ‘In the morning’ we read ‘there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud upon the mount. And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace and the whole mount quaked greatly.’
What is told of Elijah and of his vision on mount Horeb is like an epitome of the whole growth of the Jewish religion in general. We read that ‘the Lord passed by and a great and strong wind rent the mountains and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind.
And after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake.
‘And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire.
‘And after the fire a still small voice.’
What we should have expected in any other sacred book at the end of this description of a storm would have been the loud strong voice of the thunder following after the storm and the earthquake and the fire of lightning. But the still small voice shows that Elijah saw more than the mere physical features of the storm and that the voice which he heard was meant for a higher voice that speaks not only in the storm the earthquake and the fire but in the heart of man.
The God of Fire in the Old Testament.
The highest authorities on the religious antiquities of the Semitic peoples and of the Jewish people in particular have expressed their conviction that the physical characteristics of their principal God point to an original god of fire taking fire in the same wide sense in which it was taken in India not only as the fire on earth but as the fire of heaven the fire manifested in storm and lightning nay the fire as the life of nature and of man. In this way only they think can we account for the poetical phraseology still found in many places of the Old Testament. For instance Psalm xviii. 8:
‘There went up a smoke out of his nostrils
And fire out of his mouth devoured;
Coals were kindled by it.
He bowed the heavens also and came down
And thick darkness was under his feet.’
Or again Psalm xxix. 3:
‘The voice of the Lord is upon the waters
The glory of God thundereth
Even the Lord upon many waters.’
But though we can clearly perceive in these and similar passages that there were physical ingredients in the character of the supreme God of the Jews nowhere but in the hymns of the Veda can we watch the gradual elimination of these physical ingredients and the historical unfolding of the true idea of God out of these primitive germs. I know full well that to some any attempt to trace back the name and concept of Jehovah to the same hidden sources from which other nations derived their first intimation of deity may seem almost sacrilegious. They forget the difference between the human concept of the deity and the deity itself which is beyond the reach of all human concepts. But the historian reads deeper lessons in the growth of these human concepts as they spring up everywhere in the minds of men who have been seekers after truth—seeking the Lord if haply they might feel after him and find him;—and when he can show the slow but healthy growth of the noblest and sublimest thoughts out of small and apparently insignificant beginnings he rejoices as the labourer rejoices over his golden harvest; nay he often wonders what is more truly wonderful the butterfly that soars up to heaven on its silvery wings or the grub that hides within its mean chrysalis such marvellous possibilities.

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