These details of the lower phases of religion in India in the sixth century B.C. have great and essential similarity with the beliefs held, not only at the same time in the other centres of civilisation,— in China, Persia, and Egypt, in Italy and Greece,— but also among the savages of then and now. But there is a further and more striking resemblance. Sir Henry Maine has said: “Nothing is more remarkable than the extreme fewness of progressive societies—the difference between them and the stationary races is one of the greatest secrets enquiry has yet to penetrate.”[Footnote: Ancient Law, p. 22.]
Whatever the secret, above and beyond the influence of economic conditions, may have been, we know that civilisation, of a kind at least, extended back in time, on the four great river basins of the Nile and the Euphrates, the Ganges and the Yellow River, not merely through centuries, but through thousands of years, if reckoned from to-day. Yet in each of those places—though there was a real and progressive civilisation, and ideas and customs were no doubt constantly changing and growing—there was a certain dead level, if not a complete absence of what we should call philosophic thought. The animistic hypotheses, the soul-theories, of their savage ancestors seemed sufficient, even to the progressive races, to explain all that they saw or felt. Men varied, but never dreamed of rejecting, the soul-theories. They did not even build up on the basis of them any large and general views, either of ethics, or of philosophy, or of religion. Then suddenly, and almost simultaneously, and almost certainly independently, there is evidence, about the sixth century B.C., in each of these widely separated centres of civilisation, of a leap forward in speculative thought, of a new birth in ethics, of a religion of conscience threatening to take the place of the old religion of custom and magic. In each of these countries similar causes, the same laws regulating the evolution of ideas, had taken just about the same number of centuries to evolve, out of similar conditions, a similar result. Is there a more stupendous marvel in the whole history of mankind? Does any more suggestive problem await the solution of the historian of human thought?
The solution will not be possible till we have a more accurate knowledge of the circumstances which led up, in each country, to the awakening. And in India one important factor in the preceding circumstances seems to me to have been, hitherto, too much neglected. The intense interest, from the world-history point of view, of the sixth century B.C. —the best dividing line, if there ever was any, between ancient history and modern, between the old order and the new—would be sufficient excuse, if one were needed, for a somewhat detailed consideration of this particular point.
In India, as elsewhere, the whole of the popular animistic notions mentioned in the last chapter, and no doubt others also, survived in full force. But no one man believed in them all, or even knew of them all. In that part of the priestly literature which has come down to us a certain selected portion of these beliefs is taken, as it were, under priestly patronage, has received the stamp of respectability, has been given such social rank as the priests could confer. They seldom, perhaps never, stepped outside the charmed circle of animistic magic. But what they chose was probably, on the whole, of a better kind than what they left to itself. Even so the contents of the priestly books on ritual, though a rich mine of materials for a history of magic and superstition, are unspeakably banal. M. Sylvain Lévi, the author of the most authoritative work on this subject, says in the introduction to his summary of the Brāhmaṇa theory of sacrifice:
“It is difficult to imagine anything more brutal and more material than the theology of the Brāhmaṇas. Notions which usage afterwards gradually refined, and clothed with a garb of morality, take us aback by their savage realism.”
Or again :
“Morality finds no place in this system. Sacrifice, which regulates the relation of man to the divinities, is a mechanical act, operating by its own spontaneous energy (par son énergie intime); and that, hidden in the bosom of nature, is only brought out by the magic art of the priest.”[Footnote: Doctrine du sacrifice chez les Brāhmaṇas, p. 9 (Paris, 1898).]
To these writers, the sacrifice, if only rigidly carried out in each one of its details, is the source of all profit and advantage. The gods (who are quite unmoral, not immoral, though they are represented in these texts as having been guilty of falsehood, chicanery, and incest) are utterly unable to counteract the effect of such a sacrifice. Indeed they owe their own supremacy, their own position in heaven, to sacrifices they themselves had thus carried out to older gods. And it is by the same means that they continue to defeat the Asuras, that is the Titans, the rival gods, who would otherwise storm the gates of heaven.
There were no temples, and probably no images. The altars were put up anew for each sacrifice in a field or garden belonging to the sacrificer. The benefit to accrue from the sacrifice went to him, and to him alone. He therefore had to pay for the performance, for the animals to be slaughtered, for the numerous work people employed, and for the fees for the priests.
“As to the fees, the rules are precise, and the propounders of them are unblushing. The priest performs the sacrifice for the fee alone, and it must consist of valuable garments, kine, horses, or gold;—when each is to be given is carefully stated. Gold is coveted most, for ‘this is immortality, the seed of Agni,’ and therefore peculiarly agreeable to the pious priest.”[Footnote: Hopkins, Religions of India, 192.]
It would be unnecessary to go into the interminable detail of such sacrifices. They are expounded very fully and carefully in Professor Hillebrandt’s standard works on the subject.[Footnote: Altindische neu-und vollmondsopfer, Jena, 1879, and Ritualliteratur, Vedische Opfer und Zauber, Strasburg, 1897.] The expense must have been very great, even for the less complicated; and it is probable that this had something to do with the fact that a way was discovered to obtain the desired result without sacrifice.
The nearer we get to the time of Buddhism the greater is the importance we find attached to this second method, that of tapas,—self-mortification, or more exactly, self-torture. The word occurs, in this its technical sense, in the latest hymns included in the Rig Veda. It is literally “burning, glow”; and had then already acquired the secondary sense of retirement into solitude in the forest, and the practise there of austerity, bodily self-mortification,— not at all with the idea of atonement or penance, but under the impression that self-torture of this kind would bring about magical results. Just as the sacrificer was supposed, by a sort of charm that his priests worked for him in the sacrifice, to compel the gods, and to attain ends he desired, so there was supposed to be a sort of charm in tapas by which a man could, through and by himself, attain to mystic and marvellous results. The distinction seems to have been that it was rather worldly success, cattle, children, and heaven, that were attained by sacrifice; and mystic, extraordinary, superhuman faculties that were attained by Tapas.
Then, by a natural anthropomorphism, the gods too, in later works, were supposed—just as they had been supposed to offer sacrifice—to practise tapas, austerity. And it was not a mere distinction without a difference, it was a real advance in thought, when this sort of physical self-mastery, of the conquest of will over discomfort and pain, came to be placed above sacrifice. It had been by sacrifice that the gods had made the world. Now it came to be said, in different cosmological legends, that one god or another had brought forth the world by tapas.[Footnote: Śatapatha-brāhmaṇa vi. 1.1.13, and often afterwards.] And a Brāhmaṇa text declares:
“Heaven is established on the air, the air on the earth, the earth on the waters, the waters on truth, the truth on the mystic lore (of the sacrifice), and that on Tapas.”[Footnote: Aitareya Br, xi. 6. 4.]
It will be noticed that tapas is here put in the most important place, higher than sacrifice, which is, in its turn, higher than truth—a most suggestive order, as we shall see later on. We have no details in the books of this period of the particular practices in which the austerity, the self-mortification, consisted. It was no doubt of various kinds, and would tend, in course of time, to be elaborated. But we have a full statement of the stage it had reached in the Buddha’s time, as set forth by a naked ascetic in a Dialogue he had with Gotama.[Footnote: Rh. D. Dialogues of the Buddha, 1. pp. 226–232.] This professor of self-torture enumerates twenty-two methods of self-mortification in respect of food, and thirteen in respect of clothing, and among these the ascetic may make his choice. And he keeps his body under in other ways:
“He is a ‘plucker-out-of-hair-and-beard’ (destroying by a painful process the possibility of pride in mere beauty of appearance)—or he is a ‘stander-up’ (rejecting the use of a seat)—or he is a ‘croucher-down-on-the-heels’ (moving about painfully by jumps)—or he is a ‘bed-of-thorns-man’ (putting thorns or iron spikes under the skin on which he sleeps)—or he sleeps on a plank, or on the bare ground, or always on the same side—or he is ‘clad-in-dust’ (smearing his naked body with oil and standing where dust clouds blow, he lets dust and dirt adhere to his body).”
Later on, in the epic for instance, the list grows longer, the penances harder, the self-torture more revolting. But from this time onwards, down to quite modern times, this tapas, self-mortification, is a permanent idea and practice in the religious life of India. As is well known it is not confined to India. Tennyson, in the monologue of St. Simeon Stylites, has given us a powerful analysis of the sort of feelings that lay at the root of this superstition in the West. But the theological views that give the tone to the Christian saint’s self-revelation are very different from those we find in India. The Indian way of looking at the whole conception is much more akin to the way Diogenes thought when he lived, like a dog, in his tub-kennel. The Greek word cynic is indeed exactly analogous to the Indian expression kukkura-vatiko, “one who behaves like a dog,” as applied (quite courteously) to the sophist, the naked ascetic, Seniya.[Footnote: M. 1. 387.] There is no question here of penance for sin, or of an appeal to the mercy of an offended deity. It is the boast of superiority advanced by the man able, through strength of will, to keep his body under, and not only to despise comfort, but to welcome pain. By this it is not, of course, intended to imply that the Christian did not advance a similar claim. He did. But it was, in his case, overshadowed by other considerations which are absent in India.
Both in the East and the West the claim was often accepted. We hear a good deal in India of the reverence paid to the man who (to quote the words of a Buddhist poet),
“Bescorched, befrozen, lone in fearsome woods,
Naked, without a fire, afire within,
Struggled in awful silence toward the goal!” [Footnote: M. 1. 79 = Jāt. 1. 390.]
Simeon, by the mere strength of popular acclaim, became a saint, even almost before he died. Diogenes, and his parallel in India, Mahāvīra, founded important schools which have left their mark on history. And ought we, after all, to be surprised that those who despise earthly comfort, and subject themselves to voluntary torture, should be looked upon, with a kind of fearsome awe, as more holy, as better, than other men? There was some justice in the view. And until experience had shown the other side of the question—the attendant disadvantages, and the inadequate results of strength of will when applied to physical ends—it was inevitable that the self-mastery quite evident in such practices should appeal strongly to the minds of the people.
We find the other side put forward in India from two directions, one mainly philosophic, the other mainly ethical. The manner in which both these movements came about was perfectly natural, though it was much influenced by the custom already referred to as peculiar, at that period of the world’s history, to India.[Footnote: See above, Chapter VIII.] Students are often represented as begging, just as students did in Europe in the Middle Ages.[Footnote: Śat. Br. xi. 3. 3. 5; and often later in the law-books.] And we hear of sophists, just as we do in the history of Greek thought. But the peculiarity was that, before the rise of Buddhism, it was a prevalent habit for wandering teachers also— and not only students—to beg. Such wandering teachers, who were not necessarily ascetics except in so far as they were celibates, are always represented as being held in high esteem by the people. In the monarchies the royal family, in the clans the community, put up (as we have seen above) public halls where such Wanderers (Paribbajakā) could lodge, and where conversational discussions, open to everyone, were held on philosophic and religious When he is being defeated the problems put are such as this: Why are creatures born without teeth, then teeth grow, and when the creatures become old then the teeth decay? The answer of his opponent, the orthodox priest, is: The preliminary offerings of a sacrifice have no formulas of invitation, therefore creatures are born without teeth (!). The chief sacrifice has, therefore teeth grow (!). The closing acts in the sacrifice have no such formulas, therefore in old age teeth decay (!). Other explanations, equally lucid and convincing, are given for the growth and decay of the procreative power, etc. Such are the deep mysteries Uddālaka Āruni is scoffed at (in the priestly manual which has preserved this interesting old story) for not knowing.
This is a foreshadowing of the well-known Buddhist story of the woman sophist who wandered from village to village offering to meet all the world in argument, and when beaten in a disputation, became the pupil of her Buddhist conqueror. In the centuries between the date of these two legends the whole system had grown up. But unfortunately there is so little about it in the priestly books that it is not easy to trace its progress.
The priests, very naturally, did not like the gradually growing esteem in which a body of men (and women) were held who despised the sacrifice, the source of the priests’ income and reputation. But they were quite helpless in the matter. The sacrifices the priests were ready to offer had entirely lost any significance they may have once possessed as national or tribal ceremonies. They were now merely magic rites performed for the benefit of one individual and at his expense. In the priestly books it is taken for granted that every one entitled to do so is desirous to have the sacrifices performed for him. In actual life there were probably many who gibed at the cost; and preferred, if they wanted magic, magic of other and cheaper kinds. In any case there was no central organisation of the priesthood; there were no permanent temples to their gods, and such sacred shrines as the people could frequent were the sacred trees or other objects of veneration belonging to the worship of the local gods, and quite apart from the cultus or the influence of the priests.
And the latter were divided against themselves. They vied with one another for sacrificial fees. The demand for their services was insufficient to maintain them all. Brahmins followed therefore all sorts of other occupations; and those of them not continually busied about the sacrifice were often inclined to views of life, and of religion, different from the views of those who were. We find brahmins ranking tapas, self-torture, above sacrifice. We find brahmins among those who reckoned insight above either, and who, whether as laymen or as Wanderers, joined the ranks of the other side. Unable therefore, whether they wanted or not, to stay the progress of newer ideas, the priests strove to turn the incoming tide into channels favorable to their Order. They formulated—though this was some time after the rise of Buddhism—the famous theory of the Aśramas, or Efforts, according to which no one could become either a Hermit or a Wanderer without having first passed many years as a student in the brahmin schools, and lived after that the life of a married householder as regulated in the brahmin law-books. It was a bold bid for supremacy. If successful it might have put a stop to the whole movement. But it remained a dead letter—probably always, certainly during the period we are here considering. It is quite true that the priestly manuals, especially those later than the Christian era, take it as a matter of course that the rule was observed. But they do not give us the actual facts of life in India. They give, and are only meant to give, what the priests thought the facts ought to be. And there is ample evidence even in the priestly literature itself of a gradual growth in the theory, of differing views about it, and of its loose hold on the people. I have elsewhere collected the evidence, which though most interesting, historically, and quite conclusive, is too long to set out here.[Footnote: Dialogues of the Buddha, 1, pp. 212–219.]
In the second place, the priests, already before the rise of Buddhism, had (as appendices to their sacred books on the sacrifice) short treatises setting out, as the highest truth, those forms of speculation which they held most compatible with their own mysteries. Their procedure, in this respect, was exactly parallel to their treatment of gods not included in their own pantheon, but too powerful and popular to be left alone. It is quite evident, from the outcome of the whole movement, that there must have been other ideas current besides those that the priests thus adapted and handed down in their text-books. And we have valuable evidence, in the lay literature of a later date, as to what these other ideas were, so that in this respect also, as in other matters, the priestly books have preserved an invaluable, but still only a partial, record.
The ideas they selected are, as would naturally be expected, those based on the same animistic notions as underlay their own views of the sacrifice. A soul in these texts—the pre-Buddhistic Upanishads —is supposed to exist inside each human body, and to be the sole and sufficient explanation of life and motion. In the living body, in its ordinary state, the soul dwells in a cavity in the heart.[Footnote: Bṛhad. iv. 3. 7, v. 6; Chānd. viii. 3. 3; Tait. i. 6. 1. Compare Kaṭha, ii. 20; iii. 1; iv. 6; vi. 17.] It is described as being in size like a grain of barley or rice.[Footnote: Bṛhad. v. 6; Chānd. iii. 14. 3 (this idea is even Vedic).] It is only in later speculation that it grows to be of the size of the thumb, and to be called therefore “the dwarf.”[Footnote: Kaṭha, iv. 12, 13, vi. 17; Śvet. iii. 13, v. 8.] In shape it is like a man.[Footnote: Tait, ii.; Bṛhad. i. 41; Śat. Br. xiv. 4. 2. 1.] Its appearance was evidently found difficult to portray, even in simile; but it is said in different passages to be like smoke-coloured wool, like cochineal, like flame, like a white lotus, like a flash of lightning, like a light without smoke. Beliefs vary as to what it is made of. One passage says it consists of consciousness, mind, breath; eye and ears; earth, water, fire, and ether; heat and no heat; desire and no desire; anger and no anger; law and no law—in a word, of all things.[Footnote: Bṛhad. iv. 4. 5. See also iii. 7. 14–22.] We see from this that the soul was supposed to be material—the four elements of matter are there—but selected mental qualities are also in it. In another curious and deeply mystical old text the elements of matter come first, and we are told of five souls, each inside the other, each the same yet different from the one outside it, each of them in shape as a man, and made respectively of food, breath, mind, consciousness, and joy.
Certain forms of disease were supposed to be due to the fact that the soul had escaped out of the body; and charms are recorded for bringing it back.[Footnote: Atharva Veda, v. 29. 5; vi. 53. 2; vii. 67. Compare Ait. Ār. iii. 2. 4. 7.] In dream sleep also the “soul” is away from the body. “Therefore they say: Let no one wake a man brusquely; for that is a matter difficult to be cured for him if the soul find not its way back to him.”[Footnote: Bṛhad. iv. 3. 14.]
During the dream the soul, after leaving the body, wanders at its will, builds up a world according to its fancy, creates for itself chariots and houses, lakes and rivers, manifold shapes, a gorgeous playground wherein it acts and enjoys and suffers, “either rejoicing with women, or laughing with its friends, or beholding horrible sights.” Till at last, tired out,— just as a falcon after roaming hither and thither in the sky, tired, flaps its wings and is wafted to its nest,—so the soul returns from that playground of his to the body, when in deep, fast sleep it wants no more, and dreams no more.[Footnote: Bṛhad. iv. 3; Chānd. viii. 12. 3.] It is a charming and beautiful picture.
Such dreams are premonitions of good luck or the reverse, which gave rise, in India then, as throughout the world in similar stages of culture, to many foolish fancies.
When the soul has come back to the body, which remains recumbent in dreamless sleep, the soul pervades the whole of it, down to the tips of the hair and nails, by means of seventy-two thousand arteries called Hitā (the Good). And oddly enough it is precisely then that the soul is supposed to obtain light.[Footnote: Bṛhad. ii. 1. 19, iv. 3. 20; Chānd. viii. 6. 3; Kauṣ. iv. 19.]
We are not told how the soul gets out of, and back into, the body. This is not surprising, for the opinions expressed as to how the soul got into its first body—whether at conception or at quickening or at birth—are contradictory. All views on this point were no doubt neither more nor less hazy then in India than they are now in the West. There are passages which suppose the soul to have existed, before birth, in some other body[Footnote: Bṛhad. iii. 2. 13; iv. 4. 6. Compare vi. 4, and Ait. Ār. ii. 3. 2.]; and other passages which suppose it to have been inserted, at the origin of things, into its first body downwards, through the suture at the top of the skull, into the heart.[Footnote: Tait. i. 6. 1; Ait. iii. 12.] But there is a passage which affirms that the soul was inserted upwards, through the intestines and the belly, into the head. And we find a curious speculation, of which there are three variants, on the transfer of the soul by generation, through the seed.
One of these is the theory that certain human souls, on going to the moon, become food to the gods there, and are thus united to the gods as a consequence of their good deeds. When the efficacy of their good deeds is exhausted, they pass from the gods to the ether, from the ether into the air, from the air into the rain, from the rain on to the earth, from the earth into plants which become food to males, and from the males they pass into females.[Footnote: Bṛhad. vi. 2. 16; vi. 3. 13. Comp. Kaus. i. 2; Ait. ii. 1–4; Ait. Ār. iii. 2. 2. 4.]
At the death of an ordinary man the top part of the heart becomes lighted up, and the soul, guided by that light, departs from the heart into the eye, and through the eye to some other body, exalted or not, according to the deeds the man has done in that body the soul is now leaving. But the soul of the man whose cravings have ceased goes, through the suture of the skull (at the top of the head), to Brahman.[Footnote: Bṛhad. iv. 4; Kauṣ. iii. 3; Chānd. vii. 6. 6; Tait. i. 6. 1.] In each case there are many stopping-places on the way,[Footnote: Bṛhad. vi. 2; Chānd. iv. 15 and v. 9.] but the theories differ both about these and about other details. I have discussed these points elsewhere.[Footnote: Dialogues of the Buddha, 1. 188, 242; Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1899, pp. 79, foll.] And a careful search would no doubt reveal passages even in other parts of the priestly literature acknowledging views which do not happen to be referred to in the older Upanishads, but which bear the stamp of great antiquity —such passages as Mahā-bhārata, xii. 11.704, where we are told that if, as the dying man draws up his knees, the soul goes out of him by way of the knees, then it goes to the Sādhyas.
But there is an almost entire unanimity of opinion in these Upanishads that the soul will not obtain release from rebirth either by the performance of sacrifice in this birth or by the practice of penance. It must be by a sort of theosophic or animistic insight, by the perception, the absolute knowledge and certainty, that one’s own soul is identical with the Great Soul, the only permanent reality, the ultimate basis and cause of all phenomena.
The ideas had therefore just made, at the time when our history begins, a complete circle. The hypothesis of a soul—a material, but very subtle sort of homunculus within the body—had been started to explain the life and motion, sleep and death, of human beings. By analogy, logically enough, it had been extended, ever more and more widely, to explain similar phenomena in the outside world. There must be a soul in the sun. How else could one explain its majestic march across the heavens, evidently purposeful, its rising and its setting, its beauty and light and glow? If its action was somewhat mysterious, who was to limit or define the motives of the soul of so glorious a creature? There was no argument about it. It was taken for granted; and any one who doubted was simply impious. These souls in nature—gods they called them—had, of course, no existence outside the brains of the men who made them. They were logical corollaries of the human soul. And the external souls, the gods, were therefore identical in origin and nature with the souls supposed to live inside human bodies. But the very men who made these external souls, the gods, looked upon them as objective realities, quite different from their own souls. They—the gods—were always changing— that is to say, men’s ideas about them were always changing, moving, being modified. The long history of Indian mythology is the history of such changes, by no means always dependent on theological reasons.[Footnote: See American Lectures, pp. 12–14.] And with each change the objective reality of the external souls, the gods, their difference from the souls of men, seemed more clear and certain than ever.
Then came the reaction. The gods began, not in popular belief, but among thinkers, to be more and more regarded as identical one with the other until at last, just before Buddhism, the hypothesis was started of a one primeval soul, the world-soul, the Highest soul, the Paramātman, from whom all the other gods and souls had proceeded. There was a deep truth in this daring speculation. But the souls inside men were held in it to be identical with god, the only original and true reality; whereas, historically speaking, soul was the original idea and the gods (and god) had grown out of it.
We have abundant evidence that this grand generalisation was neither due to the priests who adopted it, nor had its origin in the priestly schools. Precisely as regards the highest point of the generalisation, the very keystone of the arch, the priestly, literature has preserved the names of the rajput laymen who thought it out and taught it to the priests. And among the priests who had the greatest share in adopting it, in procuring admission for it into their sacred books, is mentioned the very Uddālaka Āruṇi, the Gotama, whose defeat in argument on “spiritual matters” has been recorded above.
When this point had been reached, speculation on the basis of the soul theory could go no further. The only modification possible was in the ideas as to the nature and qualities of the souls, internal and external, and as to the relations between them. And to this point speculation reached, but later, and less clearly, in China also, and in Greece. But it was in India, and in India only, that the further step was taken, by Gotama the rajput and his disciples, to abandon the soul theory altogether; and to build up a new philosophy (whether right or wrong is not here the question) on other considerations in which soul or souls played no part at all.
That this thoroughgoing and far-reaching step was taken by laymen should not surprise us. To suppose that the Indians were more superstitious at that time than other folk, more under the thumb of their priests, is to misunderstand the evidence. On the contrary there was a well-marked lay feeling, a real sense of humour, a strong fund of common-sense, a wide-spread feeling, in all such matters, of courtesy and liberality. How otherwise can we explain the fact, already pointed out, of the most complete and unquestioned freedom, both of thought and expression, which the world had yet witnessed?
We shall probably be ignoring an important factor in the history of the time if we omit to notice that this state of things was due, in great part, to the very easy and simple economic conditions of those days.