Religions of India: Brahmanism and Buddhism – Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I, The Old Pagan Civilizations by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations

Ancient Religions: Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian
Religions of India: Brahmanism and Buddhism
Religion of The Greeks and Romans: Classic Mythology
Confucius: Sage and Moralist
Ancient Philosophy: Seeking After Truth
Socrates: Greek Philosophy
Phidias: Greek Art
Literary Genius: The Greek and Roman Classics

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations
John Lord

Topics Covered
Religions of India
Antiquity of Brahmanism
Sanskrit literature
The Aryan races
Original religion of the Aryans
Aryan migrations
The Vedas
Ancient deities of India
Laws of Menu
Hindu pantheism
Corruption of Brahmanism
The Brahmanical caste
Character of the Brahmans
Rise of Buddhism
Experiences of Gautama
Travels of Buddha
His religious system
Spread of his doctrine
Buddhism a reaction against Brahmanism
Gloominess of Buddhism
Buddhism as a reform of morals
Sayings of Siddârtha
His rules
Failure of Buddhism in India

Religions of India: Brahmanism and Buddhism

That form of ancient religion which has of late excited the most interest is Buddhism. An inquiry into its characteristics is especially interesting, since so large a part of the human race–nearly five hundred millions out of the thirteen hundred millions–still profess to embrace the doctrines which were taught by Buddha, although his religion has become so corrupted that his original teachings are nearly lost sight of. The same may be said of the doctrines of Confucius. The religions of ancient Egypt, Assyria, and Greece have utterly passed away, and what we have had to say of these is chiefly a matter of historic interest, as revealing the forms assumed by the human search for a supernatural Ruler when moulded by human ambitions, powers, and indulgence in the “lust of the eye and the pride of life,” rather than by aspirations toward the pure and the spiritual.

Buddha was the great reformer of the religious system of the Hindus, although he lived nearly fifteen hundred or two thousand years after the earliest Brahmanical ascendency. But before we can appreciate his work and mission, we must examine the system he attempted to reform, even as it is impossible to present the Protestant Reformation without first considering mediaeval Catholicism before the time of Luther. It was the object of Buddha to break the yoke of the Brahmans, and to release his countrymen from the austerities, the sacrifices, and the rigid sacerdotalism which these ancient priests imposed, without essentially subverting ancient religious ideas. He was a moralist and reformer, rather than the founder of a religion.

Brahmanism is one of the oldest religions of the world. It was flourishing in India at a period before history was written. It was coeval with the religion of Egypt in the time of Abraham, and perhaps at a still earlier date. But of its earliest form and extent we know nothing, except from the sacred poems of the Hindus called the Vedas, written in Sanskrit probably fifteen hundred years before Christ,–for even the date of the earliest of the Vedas is unknown. Fifty years ago we could not have understood the ancient religions of India. But Sir William Jones in the latter part of the last century, a man of immense erudition and genius for the acquisition of languages, at that time an English judge in India, prepared the way for the study of Sanskrit, the literary language of ancient India, by the translation and publication of the laws of Menu. He was followed in his labors by the Schlegels of Germany, and by numerous scholars and missionaries. Within fifty years this ancient and beautiful language has been so perseveringly studied that we know something of the people by whom it was once spoken,–even as Egyptologists have revealed something of ancient Egypt by interpreting the hieroglyphics; and Chaldaean investigators have found stores of knowledge in the Babylonian bricks.

The Sanskrit, as now interpreted, reveals to us the meaning of those poems called Vedas, by which we are enabled to understand the early laws and religion of the Hindus. It is poetry, not history, which makes this revelation, for the Hindus have no history farther back than five or six hundred years before Christ. It is from Homer and Hesiod that we get an idea of the gods of Greece, not from Herodotus or Xenophon.

From comparative philology, a new science, of which Prof. Max Müller is one of the greatest expounders, we learn that the roots of various European languages, as well as of the Latin and Greek, are substantially the same as those of the Sanskrit spoken by the Hindus thirty-five hundred years ago, from which it is inferred that the Hindus were a people of like remote origin with the Greeks, the Italic races (Romans, Italians, French), the Slavic races (Russian, Polish, Bohemian), the Teutonic races of England and the Continent, and the Keltic races. These are hence alike called the Indo-European races; and as the same linguistic roots are found in their languages and in the Zend-Avesta, we infer that the ancient Persians, or inhabitants of Iran, belonged to the same great Aryan race.

The original seat of this race, it is supposed, was in the high table-lands of Central Asia, in or near Bactria, east of the Caspian Sea, and north and west of the Himalaya Mountains. This country was so cold and sterile and unpropitious that winter predominated, and it was difficult to support life. But the people, inured to hardship and privation, were bold, hardy, adventurous, and enterprising.

It is a most interesting process, as described by the philologists, which has enabled them, by tracing the history of words through their various modifications in different living languages, to see how the lines of growth converge as they are followed back to the simple Aryan roots. And there, getting at the meanings of the things or thoughts the words originally expressed, we see revealed, in the reconstruction of a language that no longer exists, the material objects and habits of thought and life of a people who passed away before history began,–so imperishable are the unconscious embodiments of mind, even in the airy and unsubstantial forms of unwritten speech! By this process, then, we learn that the Aryans were a nomadic people, and had made some advance in civilization. They lived in houses which were roofed, which had windows and doors. Their common cereal was barley, the grain of cold climates. Their wealth was in cattle, and they had domesticated the cow, the sheep, the goat, the horse, and the dog. They used yokes, axes, and ploughs. They wrought in various metals; they spun and wove, navigated rivers in sailboats, and fought with bows, lances, and swords. They had clear perceptions of the rights of property, which were based on land. Their morals were simple and pure, and they had strong natural affections. Polygamy was unknown among them. They had no established sacerdotal priesthood. They worshipped the powers of Nature, especially fire, the source of light and heat, which they so much needed in their dreary land. Authorities differ as to their primeval religion, some supposing that it was monotheistic, and others polytheistic, and others again pantheistic.

Most of the ancient nations were controlled more or less by priests, who, as their power increased, instituted a caste to perpetuate their influence. Whether or not we hold the primitive religion of mankind to have been a pure theism, directly revealed by God,–which is my own conviction,–it is equally clear that the form of religion recorded in the earliest written records of poetry or legend was a worship of the sun and moon and planets. I believe this to have been a corruption of original theism; many think it to have been a stage of upward growth in the religious sense of primitive man. In all the ancient nations the sun-god was a prominent deity, as the giver of heat and light, and hence of fertility to the earth. The emblem of the sun was fire, and hence fire was deified, especially among the Hindus, under the name of Agni,–the Latin ignis.

Fire, caloric, or heat in some form was, among the ancient nations, supposed to be the animus mundi. In Egypt, as we have seen, Osiris, the principal deity, was a form of Ra, the sun-god. In Assyria, Asshur, the substitute for Ra, was the supreme deity. In India we find Mitra, and in Persia Mithra, the sun-god, among the prominent deities, as Helios was among the Greeks, and Phoebus Apollo among the Romans. The sun was not always the supreme divinity, but invariably held one of the highest places in the Pagan pantheon.

It is probable that the religion of the common progenitors of the Hindus, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Kelts, Teutons, and Slavs, in their hard and sterile home in Central Asia, was a worship of the powers of Nature verging toward pantheism, although the earliest of the Vedas representing the ancient faith seem to recognize a supreme power and intelligence–God–as the common father of the race, to whom prayers and sacrifices were devoutly offered. Freeman Clarke quotes from Müller’s “Ancient Sanskrit Literature” one of the hymns in which the unity of God is most distinctly recognized:–

“In the beginning there arose the Source of golden light. He was the only Lord of all that is. He established the earth and sky. Who is the God to whom we shall offer our sacrifices? It is he who giveth life, who giveth strength, who governeth all men; through whom heaven was established, and the earth created.”

But if the Supreme God whom we adore was recognized by this ancient people, he was soon lost sight of in the multiplied manifestations of his power, so that Rawlinson thinks[2] that when the Aryan race separated in their various migrations, which resulted in what we call the Indo-European group of races, there was no conception of a single supreme power, from whom man and nature have alike their origin, but Nature-worship, ending in an extensive polytheism,–as among the Assyrians and Egyptians.

As to these Aryan migrations, we do not know when a large body crossed the Himalaya Mountains, and settled on the banks of the Indus, but probably it was at least two thousand years before Christ. Northern India had great attractions to those hardy nomadic people, who found it so difficult to get a living during the long winters of their primeval home. India was a country of fruits and flowers, with an inexhaustible soil, favorable to all kinds of production, where but little manual labor was required,–a country abounding in every kind of animals, and every kind of birds; a land of precious stones and minerals, of hills and valleys, of majestic rivers and mountains, with a beautiful climate and a sunny sky. These Aryan conquerors drove before them the aboriginal inhabitants, who were chiefly Mongolians, or reduced them to a degrading vassalage. The conquering race was white, the conquered was dark, though not black; and this difference of color was one of the original causes of Indian caste.

It was some time after the settlement of the Aryans on the banks of the Indus and the Ganges before the Vedas were composed by the poets, who as usual gave form to religious belief, as they did in Persia and Greece. These poems, or hymns, are pantheistic. “There is no recognition,” says Monier Williams, “of a Supreme God disconnected with the worship of Nature.” There was a vague and indefinite worship of the Infinite under various names, such as the sun, the sky, the air, the dawn, the winds, the storms, the waters, the rivers, which alike charmed and terrified, and seemed to be instinct with life and power. God was in all things, and all things in God; but there was no idea of providential agency or of personality.

In the Vedic hymns the number of gods is not numerous, only thirty-three. The chief of these were Varuna, the sky; Mitra, the sun; and Indra, the storm: after these, Agni, fire; and Soma, the moon. The worship of these divinities was originally simple, consisting of prayer, praise, and offerings. There were no temples and no imposing sacerdotalism, although the priests were numerous. “The prayers and praises describe the wisdom, power, and goodness of the deity addressed,” [3] and when the customary offerings had been made, the worshipper prayed for food, life, health, posterity, wealth, protection, happiness, whatever the object was,–generally for outward prosperity rather than for improvement in character, or for forgiveness of sin, peace of mind, or power to resist temptation. The offerings to the gods were propitiatory, in the form of victims, or libations of some juice. Nor did these early Hindus take much thought of a future life. There is nothing in the Rig-Veda of a belief in the transmigration of souls[4], although the Vedic bards seem to have had some hope of immortality. “He who gives alms,” says one poet, “goes to the highest place in heaven: he goes to the gods[5]…. Where there is eternal light, in the world where the sun is placed,–in that immortal, imperishable world, place me, O Soma! … Where there is happiness and delight, where joy and pleasures reside, where the desires of our heart are attained, there make me immortal.”

In the oldest Vedic poems there were great simplicity and joyousness, without allusion to those rites, ceremonies, and sacrifices which formed so prominent a part of the religion of India at a later period.

The Car of Juggernaut, From a photograph

Four hundred years after the Rig-Veda was composed we come to the Brahmanic age, when the laws of Menu were written, when the Aryans were living in the valley of the Ganges, and the caste system had become national. The supreme deity is no longer one of the powers of Nature, like Mitra or Indra, but according to Menu he is Brahm, or Brahma,–“an eternal, unchangeable, absolute being, the soul of all beings, who, having willed to produce various beings from his own divine substance, created the waters and placed in them a productive seed. The seed became an egg, and in that egg he was born, but sat inactive for a year, when he caused the egg to divide itself; and from its two divisions he framed the heaven above, and the earth beneath. From the supreme soul Brahma drew forth mind, existing substantially, though unperceived by the senses; and before mind, the reasoning power, he produced consciousness, the internal monitor; and before them both he produced the great principle of the soul…. The soul is, in its substance, from Brahma himself, and is destined finally to be resolved into him. The soul, then, is simply an emanation from Brahma; but it will not return unto him at death necessarily, but must migrate from body to body, until it is purified by profound abstraction and emancipated from all desires.”

This is the substance of the Hindu pantheism as taught by the laws of Menu. It accepts God, but without personality or interference with the world’s affairs,–not a God to be loved, scarcely to be feared, but a mere abstraction of the mind.

The theology which is thus taught in the Brahmanical Vedas, it would seem, is the result of lofty questionings and profound meditation on the part of the Indian sages or priests, rather than the creation of poets.

In the laws of Menu, intended to exalt the Brahmanical caste, we read, as translated by Sir William Jones:–

“To a man contaminated by sensuality, neither the Vedas, nor liberality, nor sacrifices, nor strict observances, nor pious austerities, ever procure felicity…. Let not a man be proud of his rigorous devotion; let him not, having sacrificed, utter a falsehood; having made a donation, let him never proclaim it…. By falsehood the sacrifice becomes vain; by pride the merit of devotion is lost…. Single is each man born, single he dies, single he receives the reward of the good, and single the punishment of his evil, deeds…. By forgiveness of injuries the learned are purified; by liberality, those who have neglected their duty; by pious meditation, those who have secret thoughts; by devout austerity, those who best know the Vedas…. Bodies are cleansed by water; the mind is purified by truth; the vital spirit, by theology and devotion; the understanding, by clear knowledge…. A faithful wife who wishes to attain in heaven the mansion of her husband, must do nothing unkind to him, be he living or dead; let her not, when her lord is deceased, even pronounce the name of another man; let her continue till death, forgiving all injuries, performing harsh duties, avoiding every sensual pleasure, and cheerfully practising the incomparable rules of virtue…. The soul itself is its own witness, the soul itself is its own refuge; offend not thy conscious soul, the supreme internal witness of man, … O friend to virtue, the Supreme Spirit, which is the same as thyself, resides in thy bosom perpetually, and is an all-knowing inspector of thy goodness or wickedness.”

Such were the truths uttered on the banks of the Ganges one thousand years before Christ. But with these views there is an exaltation of the Brahmanical or sacerdotal life, hard to be distinguished from the recognition of divine qualities. “From his high birth,” says Menu, “a Brahman is an object of veneration, even to deities.” Hence, great things are expected of him; his food must be roots and fruit, his clothing of bark fibres; he must spend his time in reading the Vedas; he is to practise austerities by exposing himself to heat and cold; he is to beg food but once a day; he must be careful not to destroy the life of the smallest insect; he must not taste intoxicating liquors. A Brahman who has thus mortified his body by these modes is exalted into the divine essence. This was the early creed of the Brahman before corruption set in. And in these things we see a striking resemblance to the doctrines of Buddha. Had there been no corruption of Brahmanism, there would have been no Buddhism; for the principles of Buddhism, were those of early Brahmanism.

But Brahmanism became corrupted. Like the Mosaic Law, under the sedulous care of the sacerdotal orders it ripened into a most burdensome ritualism. The Brahmanical caste became tyrannical, exacting, and oppressive. With the supposed sacredness of his person, and with the laws made in his favor, the Brahman became intolerable to the people, who were ground down by sacrifices, expiatory offerings, and wearisome and minute ceremonies of worship. Caste destroyed all ideas of human brotherhood; it robbed the soul of its affections and its aspirations. Like the Pharisees in the time of Jesus, the Brahmans became oppressors of the people. As in Pagan Egypt and in Christian mediaeval Europe, the priests held the keys of heaven and hell; their power was more than Druidical.

But the Brahman, when true to the laws of Menu, led in one sense a lofty life. Nor can we despise a religion which recognized the value and immortality of the soul, a state of future rewards and punishments, though its worship was encumbered by rites, ceremonies, and sacrifices. It was spiritual in its essential peculiarities, having reference to another world rather than to this, which is more than we can say of the religion of the Greeks; it was not worldly in its ends, seeking to save the soul rather than to pamper the body; it had aspirations after a higher life; it was profoundly reverential, recognizing a supreme intelligence and power, indefinitely indeed, but sincerely,–not an incarnated deity like the Zeus of the Greeks, but an infinite Spirit, pervading the universe. The pantheism of the Brahmans was better than the godless materialism of the Chinese. It aspired to rise to a knowledge of God as the supremest wisdom and grandest attainment of mortal man. It made too much of sacrifices; but sacrifices were common to all the ancient religions except the Persian.

“He who through knowledge or religious acts
Henceforth attains to immortality,
Shall first present his body, Death, to thee.”

Whether human sacrifices were offered in India when the Vedas were composed we do not know, but it is believed to be probable. The oldest form of sacrifice was the offering of food to the deity. Dr. H. C. Trumbull, in his work on “The Blood Covenant,” thinks that the origin of animal sacrifices was like that of circumcision,–a pouring out of blood (the universal, ancient symbol of life) as a sign of devotion to the deity; and the substitution of animals was a natural and necessary mode of making this act of consecration a frequent and continuing one. This presents a nobler view of the whole sacrificial system than the common one. Yet doubtless the latter soon prevailed; for following upon the devoted life-offerings to the Divine Friend, came propitiatory rites to appease divine anger or gain divine favor. Then came in the natural human self-seeking of the sacerdotal class, for the multiplication of sacrifices tended to exalt the priesthood, and thus to perpetuate caste.

Again, the Brahmans, if practising austerities to weaken sensual desires, like the monks of Syria and Upper Egypt, were meditative and intellectual; they evolved out of their brains whatever was lofty in their system of religion and philosophy. Constant and profound meditation on the soul, on God, and on immortality was not without its natural results. They explored the world of metaphysical speculation. There is scarcely an hypothesis advanced by philosophers in ancient or modern times, which may not be found in the Brahmanical writings. “We find in the writings of these Hindus materialism, atomism, pantheism, Pyrrhonism, idealism. They anticipated Plato, Kant, and Hegel. They could boast of their Spinozas and their Humes long before Alexander dreamed of crossing the Indus. From them the Pythagoreans borrowed a great part of their mystical philosophy, of their doctrine of transmigration of souls, and the unlawfulness of eating animal food. From them Aristotle learned the syllogism…. In India the human mind exhausted itself in attempting to detect the laws which regulate its operation, before the philosophers of Greece were beginning to enter the precincts of metaphysical inquiry.” This intellectual subtlety, acumen, and logical power the Brahmans never lost. To-day the Christian missionary finds them his superiors in the sports of logical tournaments, whenever the Brahman condescends to put forth his powers of reasoning.

Brahmanism carried idealism to the extent of denying any reality to sense or matter, declaring that sense is a delusion. It sought to leave the soul emancipated from desire, from a material body, in a state which according to Indian metaphysics is being, but not existence. Desire, anger, ignorance, evil thoughts are consumed by the fire of knowledge.

But I will not attempt to explain the ideal pantheism which Brahmanical philosophers substituted for the Nature-worship taught in the earlier Vedas. This proved too abstract for the people; and the Brahmans, in the true spirit of modern Jesuitism, wishing to accommodate their religion to the people,–who were in bondage to their tyranny, and who have ever been inclined to sensuous worship,–multiplied their sacrifices and sacerdotal rites, and even permitted a complicated polytheism. Gradually piety was divorced from morality. Siva and Vishnu became worshipped, as well as Brahma and a host of other gods unknown to the earlier Vedas.

In the sixth century before Christ, the corruption of society had become so flagrant under the teachings and government of the Brahmans, that a reform was imperatively needed. “The pride of race had put an impassable barrier between the Aryan-Hindus and the conquered aborigines, while the pride of both had built up an equally impassable barrier between the different classes among the Aryan people themselves.” The old childlike joy in life, so manifest in the Vedas, had died away. A funereal gloom hung over the land; and the gloomiest people of all were the Brahmans themselves, devoted to a complicated ritual of ceremonial observances, to needless and cruel sacrifices, and a repulsive theology. The worship of Nature had degenerated into the worship of impure divinities. The priests were inflated with a puerile but sincere belief in their own divinity, and inculcated a sense of duty which was nothing else than a degrading slavery to their own caste.

Under these circumstances Buddhism arose as a protest against Brahmanism. But it was rather an ethical than a religious movement; it was an attempt to remove misery from the world, and to elevate ordinary life by a reform of morals. It was effected by a prince who goes by the name of Buddha,–the “Enlightened,”–who was supposed by his later followers to be an incarnation of Deity, miraculously conceived, and sent into the world to save men. He was nearly contemporary with Confucius, although the Buddhistic doctrines were not introduced into China until about two hundred years before the Christian era. He is supposed to have belonged to a warlike tribe called Sâkyas, of great reputed virtue, engaged in agricultural pursuits, who had entered northern India and made a permanent settlement several hundred years before. The name by which the reformer is generally known is Gautama, borrowed by the Sâkyas after their settlement in India from one of the ancient Vedic bard-families. The foundation of our knowledge of Sâkya Buddha is from a Life of him by Asvaghosha, in the first century of our era; and this life is again founded on a legendary history, not framed after any Indian model, but worked out among the nations in the north of India.

The Life of Buddha by Asvaghosha is a poetical romance of nearly ten thousand lines. It relates the miraculous conception of the Indian sage, by the descent of a spirit on his mother, Maya,–a woman of great purity of mind. The child was called Siddârtha, or “the perfection of all things.” His father ruled a considerable territory, and was careful to conceal from the boy, as he grew up, all knowledge of the wickedness and misery of the world. He was therefore carefully educated within the walls of the palace, and surrounded with every luxury, but not allowed even to walk or drive in the royal gardens for fear he might see misery and sorrow. A beautiful girl was given to him in marriage, full of dignity and grace, with whom he lived in supreme happiness.

At length, as his mind developed and his curiosity increased to see and know things and people beyond the narrow circle to which he was confined, he obtained permission to see the gardens which surrounded the palace. His father took care to remove everything in his way which could suggest misery and sorrow; but a deva, or angel, assumed the form of an aged man, and stood beside his path, apparently struggling for life, weak and oppressed. This was a new sight to the prince, who inquired of his charioteer what kind of a man it was. Forced to reply, the charioteer told him that this infirm old man had once been young, sportive, beautiful, and full of every enjoyment.

On hearing this, the prince sank into profound meditation, and returned to the palace sad and reflective; for he had learned that the common lot of man is sad,–that no matter how beautiful, strong, and sportive a boy is, the time will come, in the course of Nature, when this boy will be wrinkled, infirm, and helpless. He became so miserable and dejected on this discovery that his father, to divert his mind, arranged other excursions for him; but on each occasion a deva contrived to appear before him in the form of some disease or misery. At last he saw a dead man carried to his grave, which still more deeply agitated him, for he had not known that this calamity was the common lot of all men. The same painful impression was made on him by the death of animals, and by the hard labors and privations of poor people. The more he saw of life as it was, the more he was overcome by the sight of sorrow and hardship on every side. He became aware that youth, vigor, and strength of life in the end fulfilled the law of ultimate destruction. While meditating on this sad reality beneath a flowering Jambu tree, where he was seated in the profoundest contemplation, a deva, transformed into a religious ascetic, came to him and said, “I am a Shaman. Depressed and sad at the thought of age, disease, and death, I have left my home to seek some way of rescue; yet everywhere I find these evils,–all things hasten to decay. Therefore I seek that happiness which is only to be found in that which never perishes, that never knew a beginning, that looks with equal mind on enemy and friend, that heeds not wealth nor beauty,–the happiness to be found in solitude, in some dell free from molestation, all thought about the world destroyed.”

This embodies the soul of Buddhism, its elemental principle,–to escape from a world of misery and death; to hide oneself in contemplation in some lonely spot, where indifference to passing events is gradually acquired, where life becomes one grand negation, and where the thoughts are fixed on what is eternal and imperishable, instead of on the mortal and transient.

The prince, who was now about thirty years of age, after this interview with the supposed ascetic, firmly resolved himself to become a hermit, and thus attain to a higher life, and rise above the misery which he saw around him on every hand. So he clandestinely and secretly escapes from his guarded palace; lays aside his princely habits and ornaments; dismisses all attendants, and even his horse; seeks the companionship of Brahmans, and learns all their penances and tortures. Finding a patient trial of this of no avail for his purpose, he leaves the Brahmans, and repairs to a quiet spot by the banks of a river, and for six years practises the most severe fasting and profound meditation. This was the form which piety had assumed in India from time immemorial, under the guidance of the Brahmans; for Siddârtha as yet is not the “enlightened,”–he is only an inquirer after that saving knowledge which will open the door of a divine felicity, and raise him above a world of disease and death.

Siddârtha’s rigorous austerities, however, do not open this door of saving truth. His body is wasted, and his strength fails; he is near unto death. The conviction fastens on his lofty and inquiring mind that to arrive at the end he seeks he must enter by some other door than that of painful and useless austerities, and hence that the teachings of the Brahmans are fundamentally wrong. He discovers that no amount of austerities will extinguish desire, or produce ecstatic contemplation. In consequence of these reflections a great change comes over him, which is the turning-point of his history. He resolves to quit his self-inflicted torments as of no avail. He meets a shepherd’s daughter, who offers him food out of compassion for his emaciated and miserable condition. The rich rice milk, sweet and perfumed, restores his strength. He renounces asceticism, and wanders to a spot more congenial to his changed views and condition.

Siddârtha’s full enlightenment, however, has not yet come. Under the shade of the Bôdhi tree he devotes himself again to religious contemplation, and falls into rapt ecstasies. He remains a while in peaceful quiet; the morning sunbeams, the dispersing mists, and lovely flowers seem to pay tribute to him. He passes through successive stages of ecstasy, and suddenly upon his opened mind bursts the knowledge of his previous births in different forms; of the causes of re-birth,–ignorance (the root of evil) and unsatisfied desires; and of the way to extinguish desires by right thinking, speaking, and living, not by outward observance of forms and ceremonies. He is emancipated from the thraldom of those austerities which have formed the basis of religious life for generations unknown, and he resolves to teach.

Buddha travels slowly to the sacred city of Benares, converting by the way even Brahmans themselves. He claims to have reached perfect wisdom. He is followed by disciples, for there was something attractive and extraordinary about him; his person was beautiful and commanding. While he shows that painful austerities will not produce wisdom, he also teaches that wisdom is not reached by self-indulgence; that there is a middle path between penance and pleasures, even temperance,—the use, but not abuse, of the good things of earth. In his first sermon he declares that sorrow is in self; therefore to get rid of sorrow is to get rid of self. The means to this end is to forget self in deeds of mercy and kindness to others; to crucify demoralizing desires; to live in the realm of devout contemplation.

The active life of Buddha now begins, and for fifty years he travels from place to place as a teacher, gathers around him disciples, frames rules for his society, and brings within his community both the rich and poor. He even allows women to enter it. He thus matures his system, which is destined to be embraced by so large a part of the human race, and finally dies at the age of eighty, surrounded by reverential followers, who see in him an incarnation of the Deity.

Thus Buddha devoted his life to the welfare of men, moved by an exceeding tenderness and pity for the objects of misery which he beheld on every side. He attempted to point out a higher life, by which sorrow would be forgotten. He could not prevent sorrow culminating in old age, disease, and death; but he hoped to make men ignore their miseries, and thus rise above them to a beatific state of devout contemplation and the practice of virtues, for which he laid down certain rules and regulations.

It is astonishing how the new doctrines spread,–from India to China, from China to Japan and Ceylon, until Eastern Asia was filled with pagodas, temples, and monasteries to attest his influence; some eighty-five thousand existed in China alone. Buddha probably had as many converts in China as Confucius himself. The Buddhists from time to time were subjected to great persecution from the emperors of China, in which their sacred books were destroyed; and in India the Brahmans at last regained their power, and expelled Buddhism from the country. In the year 845 A.D. two hundred and sixty thousand monks and nuns were made to return to secular life in China, being regarded as mere drones,–lazy and useless members of the community. But the policy of persecution was reversed by succeeding emperors. In the thirteenth century there were in China nearly fifty thousand Buddhist temples and two hundred and thirteen thousand monks; and these represented but a fraction of the professed adherents of the religion. Under the present dynasty the Buddhists are proscribed, but still they flourish.

Now, what has given to the religion of Buddha such an extraordinary attraction for the people of Eastern Asia?

Buddhism has a twofold aspect,–practical and speculative. In its most definite form it was a moral and philanthropic movement,–the reaction against Brahmanism, which had no humanity, and which was as repulsive and oppressive as Roman Catholicism was when loaded down with ritualism and sacerdotal rites, when Europe was governed by priests, when churches were damp, gloomy crypts, before the tall cathedrals arose in their artistic beauty.

From a religious and philosophical point of view, Buddhism at first did not materially differ from Brahmanism. The same dreamy pietism, the same belief in the transmigration of souls, the same pantheistic ideas of God and Nature, the same desire for rest and final absorption in the divine essence characterized both. In both there was a certain principle of faith, which was a feeling of reverence rather than the recognition of the unity and personality and providence of God. The prayer of the Buddhist was a yearning for deliverance from sorrow, a hope of final rest; but this was not to be attained until desires and passions were utterly suppressed in the soul, which could be effected only by prayer, devout meditations, and a rigorous self-discipline. In order to be purified and fitted for Nirvana the soul, it was supposed, must pass through successive stages of existence in mortal forms, without conscious recollection,–innumerable births and deaths, with sorrow and disease. And the final state of supreme blessedness, the ending of the long and weary transmigration, would be attained only with the extinction of all desires, even the instinctive desire for existence.

Buddha had no definite ideas of the deity, and the worship of a personal God is nowhere to be found in his teachings, which exposed him to the charge of atheism. He even supposed that gods were subject to death, and must return to other forms of life before they obtained final rest in Nirvana. Nirvana means that state which admits of neither birth nor death, where there is no sorrow or disease,–an impassive state of existence, absorption in the Spirit of the Universe. In the Buddhist catechism Nirvana is defined as the “total cessation of changes; a perfect rest; the absence of desire, illusion, and sorrow; the total obliteration of everything that goes to make up the physical man.” This theory of re-births, or transmigration of souls, is very strange and unnatural to our less imaginative and subtile Occidental minds; but to the speculative Orientals it is an attractive and reasonable belief. They make the “spirit” the immortal part of man, the “soul” being its emotional embodiment, its “spiritual body,” whose unsatisfied desires cause its birth and re-birth into the fleshly form of the physical “body,”–a very brief and temporary incarnation. When by the progressive enlightenment of the spirit its longings and desires have been gradually conquered, it no longer needs or has embodiment either of soul or of body; so that, to quote Elliott Coues in Olcott’s “Buddhist Catechism,” “a spirit in a state of conscious formlessness, subject to no further modification by embodiment, yet in full knowledge of its experiences [during its various incarnations], is Nirvanic.”

Buddhism, however, viewed in any aspect, must be regarded as a gloomy religion. It is hard enough to crucify all natural desires and lead a life of self-abnegation; but for the spirit, in order to be purified, to be obliged to enter into body after body, each subject to disease, misery, and death, and then after a long series of migrations to be virtually annihilated as the highest consummation of happiness, gives one but a poor conception of the efforts of the proudest unaided intellect to arrive at a knowledge of God and immortal bliss. It would thus seem that the true idea of God, or even that of immortality, is not an innate conception revealed by consciousness; for why should good and intellectual men, trained to study and reflection all their lives, gain no clearer or more inspiring notions of the Being of infinite love and power, or of the happiness which He is able and willing to impart? What a feeble conception of God is a being without the oversight of the worlds that he created, without volition or purpose or benevolence, or anything corresponding to our notion of personality! What a poor conception of supernal bliss, without love or action or thought or holy companionship,–only rest, unthinking repose, and absence from disease, misery, and death, a state of endless impassiveness! What is Nirvana but an escape from death and deliverance from mortal desires, where there are neither ideas nor the absence of ideas; no changes or hopes or fears, it is true, but also no joy, no aspiration, no growth, no life,–a state of nonentity, where even consciousness is practically extinguished, and individuality merged into absolute stillness and a dreamless rest? What a poor reward for ages of struggle and the final achievement of exalted virtue!

But if Buddhism failed to arrive at what we believe to be a true knowledge of God and the destiny of the soul,–the forgiveness and remission, or doing-away, of sin, and a joyful and active immortality, all which I take to be revelations rather than intuitions,–yet there were some great certitudes in its teachings which did appeal to consciousness,–certitudes recognized by the noblest teachers of all ages and nations. These were such realities as truthfulness, sincerity, purity, justice, mercy, benevolence, unselfishness, love. The human mind arrives at ethical truths, even when all speculation about God and immortality has failed. The idea of God may be lost, but not that of moral obligation,–the mutual social duties of mankind. There is a sense of duty even among savages; in the lowest civilization there is true admiration of virtue. No sage that I ever read of enjoined immorality. No ignorance can prevent the sense of shame, of honor, or of duty. Everybody detests a liar and despises a thief. Thou shalt not bear false witness; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not kill,–these are laws written in human consciousness as well as in the code of Moses. Obedience and respect to parents are instincts as well as obligations.

Hence the prince Siddârtha, as soon as he had found the wisdom of inward motive and the folly of outward rite, shook off the yoke of the priests, and denounced caste and austerities and penances and sacrifices as of no avail in securing the welfare and peace of the soul or the favor of deity. In all this he showed an enlightened mind, governed by wisdom and truth, and even a bold and original genius,–like Abraham when he disowned the gods of his fathers. Having thus himself gained the security of the heights, Buddha longed to help others up, and turned his attention to the moral instruction of the people of India. He was emphatically a missionary of ethics, an apostle of righteousness, a reformer of abuses, as well as a tender and compassionate man, moved to tears in view of human sorrows and sufferings. He gave up metaphysical speculations for practical philanthropy. He wandered from city to city and village to village to relieve misery and teach duties rather than theological philosophies. He did not know that God is love, but he did know that peace and rest are the result of virtuous thoughts and acts.

“Let us then,” said he, “live happily, not hating those who hate us; free from greed among the greedy…. Proclaim mercy freely to all men; it is as large as the spaces of heaven…. Whoever loves will feel the longing to save not himself alone, but all others.” He compares himself to a father who rescues his children from a burning house, to a physician who cures the blind. He teaches the equality of the sexes as well as the injustice of castes. He enjoins kindness to servants and emancipation of slaves. “As a mother, as long as she lives, watches over her child, so among all beings,” said Gautama, “let boundless good-will prevail…. Overcome evil with good, the avaricious with generosity, the false with truth…. Never forget thy own duty for the sake of another’s…. If a man speaks or acts with evil thoughts pain follows, as the wheel the foot of him who draws the carriage…. He who lives seeking pleasure, and uncontrolled, the tempter will overcome…. The true sage dwells on earth, as the bee gathers sweetness with his mouth and wings…. One may conquer a thousand men in battle, but he who conquers himself alone is the greatest victor…. Let no man think lightly of sin, saying in his heart, ‘It cannot overtake me.’… Let a man make himself what he preaches to others…. He who holds back rising anger as one might a rolling chariot, him, indeed, I call a driver; others may hold the reins…. A man who foolishly does me wrong, I will return to him the protection of my ungrudging love; the more evil comes from him, the more good shall go from me.”

These are some of the sayings of the Indian reformer, which I quote from extracts of his writings as translated by Sanskrit scholars. Some of these sayings rise to a height of moral beauty surpassed only by the precepts of the great Teacher, whom many are too fond of likening to Buddha himself. The religion of Buddha is founded on a correct and virtuous life, as the only way to avoid sorrow and reach Nirvana. Its essence, theologically, is “Quietism,” without firm belief in anything reached by metaphysic speculation; yet morally and practically it inculcates ennobling, active duties.

Among the rules that Buddha laid down for his disciples were–to keep the body pure; not to enter upon affairs of trade; to have no lands and cattle, or houses, or money; to abhor all hypocrisy and dissimulation; to be kind to everything that lives; never to take the life of any living being; to control the passions; to eat food only to satisfy hunger; not to feel resentment from injuries; to be patient and forgiving; to avoid covetousness, and never to tire of self-reflection. His fundamental principles are purity of mind, chastity of life, truthfulness, temperance, abstention from the wanton destruction of animal life, from vain pleasures, from envy, hatred, and malice. He does not enjoin sacrifices, for he knows no god to whom they can be offered; but “he proclaimed the brotherhood of man, if he did not reveal the fatherhood of God.” He insisted on the natural equality of all men,–thus giving to caste a mortal wound, which offended the Brahmans, and finally led to the expulsion of his followers from India. He protested against all absolute authority, even that of the Vedas. Nor did he claim, any more than Confucius, originality of doctrines, only the revival of forgotten or neglected truths. He taught that Nirvana was not attained by Brahmanical rites, but by individual virtues; and that punishment is the inevitable result of evil deeds by the inexorable law of cause and effect.

Buddhist Temple at Kandy, From a photograph

Buddhism is essentially rationalistic and ethical, while Brahmanism is a pantheistic tendency to polytheism, and ritualistic even to the most offensive sacerdotalism. The Brahman reminds me of a Dunstan,–the Buddhist of a Benedict; the former of the gloomy, spiritual despotism of the Middle Ages,–the latter of self-denying monasticism in its best ages. The Brahman is like Thomas Aquinas with his dogmas and metaphysics; the Buddhist is more like a mediaeval freethinker, stigmatized as an atheist. The Brahman was so absorbed with his theological speculation that he took no account of the sufferings of humanity; the Buddhist was so absorbed with the miseries of man that the greatest blessing seemed to be entire and endless rest, the cessation of existence itself,–since existence brought desire, desire sin, and sin misery. As a religion Buddhism is an absurdity; in fact, it is no religion at all, only a system of moral philosophy. Its weak points, practically, are the abuse of philanthropy, its system of organized idleness and mendicancy, the indifference to thrift and industry, the multiplication of lazy fraternities and useless retreats, reminding us of monastic institutions in the days of Chaucer and Luther. The Buddhist priest is a mendicant and a pauper, clothed in rags, begging his living from door to door, in which he sees no disgrace and no impropriety. Buddhism failed to ennoble the daily occupations of life, and produced drones and idlers and religious vagabonds. In its corruption it lent itself to idolatry, for the Buddhist temples are filled with hideous images of all sorts of repulsive deities, although Buddha himself did not hold to idol worship any more than to the belief in a personal God.

“Buddhism,” says the author of its accepted catechism, “teaches goodness without a God, existence without a soul, immortality without life, happiness without a heaven, salvation without a saviour, redemption without a redeemer, and worship without rites.” The failure of Buddhism, both as a philosophy and a religion, is a confirmation of the great historical fact, that in the ancient Pagan world no efforts of reason enabled man unaided to arrive at a true–that is, a helpful and practically elevating–knowledge of deity. Even Buddha, one of the most gifted and excellent of all the sages who have enlightened the world, despaired of solving the great mysteries of existence, and turned his attention to those practical duties of life which seemed to promise a way of escaping its miseries. He appealed to human consciousness; but lacking the inspiration and aid which come from a sense of personal divine influence, Buddhism has failed, on the large scale, to raise its votaries to higher planes of ethical accomplishment. And hence the necessity of that new revelation which Jesus declared amid the moral ruins of a crumbling world, by which alone can the debasing superstitions of India and the godless materialism of China be replaced with a vital spirituality,–even as the elaborate mythology of Greece and Rome gave way before the fervent earnestness of Christian apostles and martyrs.

It does not belong to my subject to present the condition of Buddhism as it exists to-day in Thibet, in Siam, in China, in Japan, in Burmah, in Ceylon, and in various other Eastern countries. It spread by reason of its sympathy with the poor and miserable, by virtue of its being a great system of philanthropy and morals which appealed to the consciousness of the lower classes. Though a proselyting religion it was never a persecuting one, and is still distinguished, in all its corruption, for its toleration.


The chief authorities that I would recommend for this chapter are Max Müller’s History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature; Rev. S. Seal’s Buddhism in China; Buddhism, by T. W. Rhys-Davids; Monier Williams’s Sákoontalá; I. Muir’s Sanskrit Texts; Burnouf’s Essai sur la Vêda; Sir William Jones’s Works; Colebrook’s Miscellaneous Essays; Joseph Muller’s Religious Aspects of Hindu Philosophy; Manual of Buddhism, by R. Spence Hardy; Dr. H. Clay Trumbull’s The Blood Covenant; Orthodox Buddhist Catechism, by H. S. Olcott, edited by Prof. Elliott C. Coues. I have derived some instruction from Samuel Johnson’s bulky and diffuse books, but more from James Freeman Clarke’s Ten Great Religions^ and Rawlinson’s Religions of the Ancient World.

[2] Religions of the Ancient World, p. 105.
[3] Rawlinson, p. 121.
[4] Wilson: Rig-Veda, vol. iii. p. 170.
[5] Müller: Chips from a German Workshop, vol. i. p. 46.

Religion of The Greeks and Romans: Classic Mythology

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations