Alfred Lyall on Christians, Muslims, India, China, Etc, 1908


By Sir Alfred Comyn Lyall (1835-1911)

Delivered as President of the Congress for the History of Religions, September 1908.—Fortnightly Review, November 1908.

“In considering the subject of my address, I have been confronted by this difficulty—that in the sections which regulate the order of our proceedings, we have a list of papers that range over all the principal religions, ancient and modern, that have existed and still exist in the world. They are to be treated and discussed by experts whose scholarship, particular studies, and close research entitle them all to address you authoritatively. I have no such special qualifications; and in any case it would be most presumptuous in me to trespass upon their ground. All that I can venture to do, therefore, in the remarks which I propose to address to you to-day, is to attempt a brief general survey of the history of religions from a standpoint which may possibly not fall within the scope of these separate papers.

The four great religions now prevailing in the world, which are historical in the sense that they have been long known to history, I take to be—Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Having regard to their origin and derivation, to their history and character, I may be permitted, for my present purpose only, to class the two former as the Religions of the West, and the two latter as the Religions of the East. These are the faiths which still maintain a mighty influence over the minds of mankind. And my object is to compare the political relations, the attitude, maintained toward them, from time to time, by the States and rulers of the people over which these religions have established their spiritual dominion.

The religion of the Jews is not included, though its influence has been incalculable, because it has been caught up, so to speak, into Christianity and Islam, and cannot therefore be counted among those which have made a partition of the religious world. For this reason, perhaps, it has retained to this day its ancient denomination, derived from the tribe or country of its origin; whereas the others are named from a Faith or a Founder. The word Nazarene, denoting the birthplace of Christianity, which is said to be still used in that region, was, as we know, very speedily superseded by its wider title, as the Creed broke out of local limits and was proclaimed universal. There has evidently been a foretime, though it is prehistorical, when, so far as we know, mankind was universally polytheistic; when innumerable rites and worships prevailed without restraint, springing up and contending with each other like the trees in a primeval forest, reflecting a primitive and precarious condition of human society.

I take polytheism to have been, in this earliest stage, the wild growth of superstitious imagination, varied indefinitely by the pressure of circumstance, by accident, by popular caprice, or by the good or evil fortunes of the community. In this stage it can now be seen among barbarous tribes—as, for instance, in Central Africa. And some traces of it still survive, under different pretexts and disguises, in the lowest strata of civilised nations, where it may be said to represent the natural reluctance of the vagrant human fancy to be satisfied with higher forms and purer conceptions that are always imperfectly assimilated by the multitude. Among primitive societies the spheres of human and divine affairs were intermixed and identical; they could not be disentangled. But with the growth of political institutions came gradual separation, or at any rate the subordination of religion to the practical necessities of orderly government and public morals.

That polytheism can exist and flourish in the midst of a highly intellectual and civilised society, we know from the history of Greece and Rome. But in ancient Greece its direct influence upon political affairs seems to have been slight; though it touched at some points upon morality. The function of the State, according to Greek ideas, was to legislate for all the departments of human life and to uphold the moral standard. The law prohibited sacrilege and profanity; it punished open impiety that might bring down divine wrath upon the people at large. The philosophers taught rational ethics; they regarded the popular superstitions with indulgent contempt; but they inculcated the duty of honouring the gods, and the observance of public ceremonial. Beyond these limits the practice of local and customary worship was, I think, free and unrestrained; though I need hardly add that toleration, as understood by the States of antiquity, was a very different thing from the modern principle of religious neutrality. Under the Roman government the connection between the State and religion was much closer, as the dominion of Rome expanded and its power became centralised. The Roman State maintained a strict control and superintendence over the official rituals and worships, which were regulated as a department of the administration, to bind the people together by established rites and worships, in order to cement political and social unity. It is true that the usages of the tribes and principalities that were conquered and annexed were left undisturbed; for the Roman policy, like that of the English in India, was to avoid giving offence to religion; and undoubtedly this policy, in both instances, materially facilitated the rapid building up of a wide dominion. Nevertheless, there was a tendency to draw in the worship toward a common centre. The deities of the conquered provinces were respected and conciliated; the Roman generals even appealed to them for protection and favour, yet they became absorbed and assimilated under Roman names; they were often identified with the gods of the Roman pantheon, and were frequently superseded by the victorious divinities of the new rulers—the strange deities, in fact, were Romanised as well as the foreign tribes and cities. After this manner the Roman empire combined the tolerance of great religious diversity with the supremacy of a centralised government. Political amalgamation brought about a fusion of divine attributes; and latterly the emperor was adored as the symbol of manifest power, ruler and pontiff; he was the visible image of supreme authority. This régime was easily accepted by the simple unsophisticated paganism of Europe. The Romans, with all their statecraft, had as yet no experience of a high religious temperature, of enthusiastic devotion and divine mysteries. But as their conquest and commerce spread eastward, the invasion of Asia let in upon Europe a flood of Oriental divinities, and thus Rome came into contact with much stronger and deeper spiritual forces. The European polytheism might be utilised and administered, the Asiatic deities could not be domesticated and subjected to regulation; the Oriental orgies and strange rites broke in upon the organised State worship; the new ideas and practices came backed by a profound and fervid spiritualism. Nevertheless the Roman policy of bringing religion under authoritative control was more or less successful even in the Asiatic provinces of the empire; the privileges of the temples were restricted; the priesthoods were placed under the general superintendence of the proconsular officials; and Roman divinities gradually found their way into the Asiatic pantheon. But we all know that the religion of the Roman empire was falling into multitudinous confusion when Christianity arose—an austere exclusive faith, with its army of saints, ascetics, and unflinching martyrs, proclaiming worship to be due to one God only, and sternly refusing to acknowledge the divinity of the emperor. Against such a faith an incoherent disorderly polytheism could make no better stand than tribal levies against a disciplined army. The new religion struck directly at the sacrifices that symbolised imperial unity; the passive resistance of Christians was necessarily treated as rebellion, the State made implacable war upon them. Yet the spiritual and moral forces won the victory, and Christianity established itself throughout the empire. Universal religion, following upon universal civil dominion, completed the levelling of local and national distinctions. The Churches rapidly grew into authority superior to the State within their own jurisdiction; they called in the temporal government to enforce theological decisions and to put down heresies; they founded a powerful hierarchy. The earlier Roman constitution had made religion an instrument of administration. When one religion became universal, the churches enlisted the civil ruler into the service of orthodoxy; they converted the State into an instrument for enforcing religion. The pagan empire had issued edicts against Christianity and had suppressed Christian assemblies as tainted with disaffection; the Christian emperors enacted laws against the rites and worships of paganism, and closed temples. It was by the supreme authority of Constantine that, for the first time in the religious history of the world, uniformity of belief was defined by a creed, and sanctioned by the ruler’s assent.

Then came, in Western Europe, the time when the empire at Rome was rent asunder by the inrush of barbarians; but upon its ruins was erected the great Catholic Church of the Papacy, which preserved in the ecclesiastical domain the autocratic imperial tradition. The primacy of the Roman Church, according to Harnack, is essentially the transference to her of Rome’s central position in the religions of the heathen world; the Church united the western races, disunited politically, under the common denomination of Christianity. Yet Christianity had not long established itself throughout all the lands, in Europe and Asia, which had once been under the Roman sovereignty, when the violent irruptions of Islam upset not only the temporal but also the spiritual dominion throughout Western Asia, and along the southern shores of the Mediterranean. The Eastern empire at Constantinople had been weakened by bitter theological dissensions and heresies among the Christians; the votaries of the new, simple, unswerving faith of Mohammed were ardent and unanimous.

In Egypt and Syria the Mohammedans were speedily victorious; the Latin Church and even the Latin language were swept out of North Africa. In Persia the Sassanian dynasty was overthrown, and although there was no immediate and total conversion of the people, Mohammedanism gradually superseded the ancient Zoroastrian cultus as the religion of the Persian State. It was not long before the armies of Islam had triumphed from the Atlantic coast to the Jaxartes river in Central Asia; and conversion followed, speedily or slowly, as the direct result of conquest. Moreover, the Mohammedans invaded Europe. In the south-west they subdued almost all Spain; and in the south-east they destroyed, some centuries later, the Greek empire, though not the Greek Church, and consolidated a mighty rulership at Constantinople. With this prolonged conflict between Islam and Christianity along the borderlands of Europe and Asia began the era of those religious wars that have darkened the history of the Western nations, and have perpetuated the inveterate antipathy between Asiatic and European races, which the spread of Christianity into both continents had softened and might have healed. In the end Christianity has fixed itself permanently in Europe, while Islam is strongly established throughout half Asia. But the sharp collision between the two faiths, the clash of armies bearing the cross and the crescent, generated fierce fanaticism on both sides. The Crusades kindled a fiery militant and missionary spirit previously unknown to religions, whereby religious propagation became the mainspring and declared object of conquest and colonisation.

Finally, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the great secession from the Roman Church divided the nations of Western Europe into hostile camps, and throughout the long wars of that period political jealousies and ambitions were inflamed by religious animosities. In Eastern Europe the Greek Church fell under almost complete subordination to the State. The history of Europe and Western Asia records, therefore, a close connection and community of interests between the States and the orthodox faiths; a combination which has had a very potent influence, during many centuries, upon the course of civil affairs, upon the fortunes, or misfortunes, of nations.

Up to the sixteenth century, at least, it was universally held, by Christianity and by Islam, that the State was bound to enforce orthodoxy; conversion and the suppression or expulsion of heretics were public duties. Unity of creed was thought necessary for national unity—a government could not undertake to maintain authority, or preserve the allegiance of its subjects, in a realm divided and distracted by sectarian controversies. On these principles Christianity and Islam were consolidated, in union with the States or in close alliance with them; and the geographical boundaries of these two faiths, and of their internal divisions respectively, have not materially changed up to the present day.

Let me now turn to the history of religion in those countries of further Asia, which were never reached by Greek or Roman conquest or civilisation, where the ancient forms of worship and conceptions of divinity, which existed before Christianity and Islam, still flourish. And here I shall only deal with the relations of the State to religion in India and China and their dependencies, because these vast and populous empires contain the two great religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, of purely Asiatic origin and character, which have assimilated to a large extent, and in a certain degree elevated, the indigenous polytheism, and which still exercise a mighty influence over the spiritual and moral condition of many millions. We know what a tremendous power religion has been in the wars and politics of the West. I submit that in Eastern Asia, beyond the pale of Islam, the history of religion has been very different. Religious wars—I mean wars caused by the conflict of militant faiths contending for superiority—were, I believe, unknown on any great scale to the ancient civilisations. It seems to me that until Islam invaded India the great religious movements and changes in that region had seldom or never been the consequence of, nor had been materially affected by, wars, conquests, or political revolutions. Throughout Europe and Mohammedan Asia the indigenous deities and their temples have disappeared centuries ago; they have been swept away by the forces of Church and State combined to exterminate them; they have all yielded to the lofty overruling ideal of monotheism.

But the tide of Mohammedanism reached its limit in India; the people, though conquered, were but partly converted, and eastward of India there have been no important Mohammedan rulerships. On this side of Asia, therefore, two great religions, Buddhism and Brahmanism, have held their ground from times far anterior to Christianity; they have retained the elastic comprehensive character of polytheism, purified and elevated by higher conceptions, developed by the persistent competition of diverse ideas and forms among the people, unrestrained by attempts of superior organised faiths to obliterate the lower and weaker species. In that region political despotism has prevailed immemorially; religious despotism, in the sense of the legal establishment of one faith or worship to the exclusion of all others, of uniformity imposed by coercion, of proselytism by persecution, is unknown to history: the governments have been absolute and personal; the religions have been popular and democratic. They have never been identified so closely with the ruling power as to share its fortunes, or to be used for the consolidation of successful conquest. Nor, on the other hand, has a ruler ever found it necessary, for the security of his throne, to conform to the religion of his subjects, and to abjure all others. The political maxim, that the sovereign and his subjects should be of one and the same religion, ‘Cujus regio ejus religio’, has never prevailed in this part of the world.

And although in India, the land of their common origin, Buddhism widely displaced and overlaid Brahmanism, while it was in its turn, after several centuries, overcome and ejected by a Brahmanic revival, yet I believe that history records no violent contests or collisions between them; nor do we know that the armed force of the State played any decisive part in these spiritual revolutions. I do not maintain that Buddhism has owed nothing to State influence. It represents certain doctrines of the ancient Indian theosophy, incarnate, as one might say, in the figure of a spiritual Master, the Indian prince, Sakya Gautama, who was the type and example of ascetic quietism; it embodies the idea of salvation, or emancipation attainable by man’s own efforts, without aid from priests or divinities. Buddhism is the earliest, by many centuries, of the faiths that claim descent from a personal founder. It emerges into authentic history with the empire of Asoka, who ruled over the greater part of India some 250 years before Christ, and its propagation over his realm and the countries adjacent is undoubtedly due to the influence, example, and authority of that devout monarch.

According to Mr. Vincent Smith, from whose valuable work on the Early History of India I take the description of Asoka’s religious policy, the king, renouncing after one necessary war all further military conquest, made it the business of his life to employ his autocratic power in directing the preaching and teaching of the Law of Piety, which he had learnt from his Buddhist priesthood. All his high officers were commanded to instruct the people in the way of salvation; he sent missions to foreign countries; he issued edicts promulgating ethical doctrines, and the rules of a devout life; he made pilgrimages to the sacred places; and finally he assumed the yellow robe of a Buddhist monk.

Asoka elevated, so Mr. Smith has said, a sect of Hinduism to the rank of a world-religion. Nevertheless, I think it may be affirmed that the emperor consistently refrained from the forcible conversion of his subjects, and indeed the use of compulsion would have apparently been a breach of his own edicts, which insist on the principle of toleration, and declare the propagation of the Law of Piety to be his sole object. Asoka made no attempt to persecute Brahmanism; and it seems clear that the extraordinary success of Buddhism in India cannot be attributed to war or to conquest. To imperial influence and example much must be ascribed, yet I think Buddhism owed much more to its spiritual potency, to its superior faculty of transmuting and assimilating, instead of abolishing, the elementary instincts and worships, endowing them with a higher significance, attracting and stimulating devotion by impressive rites and ceremonies, impressing upon the people the dogma of the soul’s transmigration and its escape from the miseries of sentient existence by the operation of merits. And of all great religions it is the least political, for the practice of asceticism and quietism, of monastic seclusion from the working world, is necessarily adverse to any active connection with mundane affairs.

I do not know that the mysterious disappearance of Buddhism from India can be accounted for by any great political revolution, like that which brought Islam into India. It seems to have vanished before the Mohammedans had gained any footing in the country.

Meanwhile Buddhism is said to have penetrated into the Chinese empire by the first century of the Christian era. Before that time the doctrines of Confucius and Laotze were the dominant philosophies; rather moral than religious, though ancestral worship and the propitiation of spirits were not disallowed, and were to a certain extent enjoined. Laotze, the apostle of Taoism, appears to have preached a kind of Stoicism—the observance of the order of Nature in searching for the right way of salvation, the abhorrence of vicious sensuality—and the cultivation of humility, self-sacrifice, and simplicity of life. He condemned altogether the use of force in the sphere of religion or morality; though he admitted that it might be necessary for the purposes of civil government. The system of Confucius inculcated justice, benevolence, self-control, obedience and loyalty to the sovereign—all the civic virtues; it was a moral code without a metaphysical background; the popular worships were tolerated, reverence for ancestors conduced to edification; the gods were to be honoured, though it was well to keep aloof from them; he disliked religious fervour, and of things beyond experience he had nothing to say.

Buddhism, with its contempt for temporal affairs, treating life as a mere burden, and the soul’s liberation from existence as the end and object of meditative devotion, must have imported a new and disturbing element into the utilitarian philosophies of ancient China. For many centuries Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism are said to have contended for the patronage and recognition of the Chinese emperors. Buddhism was alternately persecuted and protected, expelled and restored by imperial decree. Priesthoods and monastic orders are institutions of which governments are naturally jealous; the monasteries were destroyed or rebuilt, sacerdotal orders and celibacy suppressed or encouraged by imperial decrees, according to the views and prepossessions of successive dynasties or emperors. Nevertheless the general policy of Chinese rulers and ministers seems not to have varied essentially. Their administrative principle was that religion must be prevented from interfering with affairs of State, that abuses and superstitious extravagances are not so much offences against orthodoxy as matters for the police, and as such must be put down by the secular arm. Upon this policy successive dynasties appear to have acted continuously up to the present day in China, where the relations of the State to religions are, I think, without parallel elsewhere in the modern world. One may find some resemblance to the attitude of the Roman emperors towards rites and worships among the population, in the Chinese emperor’s reverent observance and regulation of the rites and ceremonies performed by him as the religious chief and representative before Heaven of the great national interests. The deification of deceased emperors is a solemn rite ordained by proclamation. As the Ius sacrum, the body of rights and duties in the matter of religion, was regarded in Rome as a department of the Ius publicum, belonging to the fundamental constitution of the State, so in China the ritual code was incorporated into the statute books, and promulgated with imperial sanction. Now we know that in Rome the established ritual was legally prescribed, though otherwise strange deities and their worships were admitted indiscriminately. But the Chinese Government goes much further. It appears to regard all novel superstitions, and especially foreign worships, as the hotbed of sedition and disloyalty. Unlicensed deities and sects are put down by the police; magicians and sorcerers are arrested; and the peculiar Chinese practice of canonising deceased officials and paying sacrificial honours to local celebrities after death is strictly reserved by the Board of Ceremonies for imperial consideration and approval. The Censor, to whom any proposal of this kind must be entrusted, is admonished that he must satisfy himself by inquiry of its validity. An official who performs sacred rites in honour of a spirit or holy personage not recognised by the Ritual Code, was liable, under laws that may be still in force, to corporal punishment; and the adoration by private families of spirits whose worship is reserved for public ceremonial was a heinous offence. No such rigorous control over the multiplication of rites and deities has been instituted elsewhere. On the other hand, while in other countries the State has recognised no more than one established religion, the Chinese Government formally recognises three denominations. Buddhism has been sanctioned by various edicts and endowments, yet the State divinities belong to the Taoist pantheon, and their worship is regulated by public ordinances; while Confucianism represents official orthodoxy, and its precepts embody the latitudinarian spirit of the intellectual classes. We know that the Chinese people make use, so to speak, of all three religions indiscriminately, according to their individual whims, needs, or experience of results. So also a politic administration countenances these divisions and probably finds some interest in maintaining them. The morality of the people requires some religious sanction; and it is this element with which the State professes its chief concern. We are told on good authority that one of the functions of high officials is to deliver public lectures freely criticising and discouraging indolent monasticism and idolatry from the standpoint of rational ethics, as follies that are reluctantly tolerated. Yet the Government has never been able to keep down the fanatics, mystics, and heretical sects that are incessantly springing up in China, as elsewhere in Asia; though they are treated as pestilent rebels and law-breakers, to be exterminated by massacre and cruel punishments; and bloody repression of this kind has been the cause of serious insurrections. It is to be observed that all religious persecution is by the direct action of the State, not instigated or insisted upon by a powerful orthodox priesthood. But a despotic administration which undertakes to control and circumscribe all forms and manifestations of superstition in a vast polytheistic multitude of its subjects, is inevitably driven to repressive measures of the utmost severity. Neither Christianity nor Islam attempted to regulate polytheism, their mission was to exterminate it, and they succeeded mainly because in those countries the State was acting with the support and under the uncompromising pressure of a dominant church or faith. Some writers have noticed a certain degree of resemblance between the policy of the Roman empire and that of the Chinese empire toward religion. We may read in Gibbon that the Roman magistrates regarded the various modes of worship as equally useful, that sages and heroes were exalted to immortality and entitled to reverence and adoration, and that philosophic officials, viewing with indulgence the superstitions of the multitude, diligently practised the ceremonies of their fathers. So far, indeed, his description of the attitude of the State toward polytheism may be applicable to China; but although the Roman and Chinese emperors both assumed the rank of divinity, and were supreme in the department of worships, the Roman administration never attempted to regulate and restrain polytheism at large on the Chinese system. The religion of the Gentiles, said Hobbes, is a part of their policy; and it may be said that this is still the policy of Oriental monarchies, who admit no separation between the secular and the ecclesiastic jurisdiction. They would agree with Hobbes that temporal and spiritual government are but two words brought into the world to make men see double and mistake their lawful sovereign. But while in Mohammedan Asia the State upholds orthodox uniformity, in China and Japan the mainspring of all such administrative action is political expediency. It may be suggested that in the mind of these far-Eastern people religion has never been conceived as something quite apart from human experience and the affairs of the visible world; for Buddhism, with its metaphysical doctrines, is a foreign importation, corrupted and materialised in China and Japan. And we may observe that from among the Mongolian races, which have produced mighty conquerors and founded famous dynasties from Constantinople to Pekin, no mighty prophet, no profound spiritual teacher, has arisen. Yet in China, as throughout all the countries of the Asiatic mainland, an enthusiast may still gather together ardent proselytes, and fresh revelations may create among the people unrest that may ferment and become heated up to the degree of fanaticism, and explode against attempts made to suppress it. The Taeping insurrection, which devastated cities and provinces in China, and nearly overthrew the Manchu dynasty, is a striking example of the volcanic fires that underlie the surface of Asiatic societies. It was quenched in torrents of blood after lasting some ten years. And very recently there has been a determined revolt of the Lamas in Eastern Tibet, where the provincial administration is, as we know, sacerdotal.

The imperial troops are said to be crushing it with unrelenting severity. These are the perilous experiences of a philosophic Government that assumes charge and control over the religions of some three hundred millions of Asiatics.

I can only make a hasty reference to Japan. In that country the relations of the State to religions appear to have followed the Chinese model. Buddhism, Confucianism, Shintoism, are impartially recognised. The emperor presides over official worship as high priest of his people; the liturgical ordinances are issued by imperial rescripts not differing in form from other public edicts. The dominant article of faith is the divinity of Japan and its emperor; and Shinto, the worship of the gods of nature, is understood to be patronised chiefly with the motive of preserving the national traditions. But in Japan the advance of modern science and enlightened scepticism may have diminished the importance of the religious department. Shinto, says a recent writer, still embodies the religion of the people; yet in 1877 a decree was issued declaring it to be no more than a convenient system of State ceremonial.[ The Development of Religion in Japan, G. W. Knox, 1907] And in 1889 an article of the constitution granted freedom of belief and worship to all Japanese subjects, without prejudice to peace, order, and loyalty.

In India the religious situation is quite different. I think it is without parallel elsewhere in the world. Here we are at the fountainhead of metaphysical theology, of ideas that have flowed eastward and westward across Asia. And here, also, we find every species of primitive polytheism, unlimited and multitudinous; we can survey a confused medley of divinities, of rites and worships incessantly varied by popular whim and fancy, by accidents, and by the pressure of changing circumstances. Hinduism permits any doctrine to be taught, any sort of theory to be held regarding the divine attributes and manifestations, the forces of nature, or the mysterious functions of mind or body. Its tenets have never been circumscribed by a creed; its free play has never been checked or regulated by State authority. Now, at first sight, this is not unlike the popular polytheism of the ancient world, before the triumph of Christianity. There are passages in St. Augustine’s Civitas Dei, describing the worship of the unconverted pagans among whom he lived, that might have been written yesterday by a Christian bishop in India. And we might ask why all this polytheism was not swept out from among such a highly intellectual people as the Indians, with their restless pursuit of divine knowledge, by some superior faith, by some central idea. Undoubtedly the material and moral conditions, and the course of events which combine to stamp a particular form of religion upon any great people, are complex and manifold; but into this inquiry I cannot go. I can only point out that the institution of caste has riveted down Hindu society into innumerable divisions upon a general religious basis, and that the sacred books separated the Hindu theologians into different schools, preventing uniformity of worship or of creed. And it is to be observed that these books are not historical; they give no account of the rise and spread of a faith. The Hindu theologian would say, in the words of an early Christian father, that the objects of divine knowledge are not historical, that they can only be apprehended intellectually, that within experience there is no reality. And the fact that Brahmanism has no authentic inspired narrative, that it is the only great religion not concentrated round the life and teachings of a person, may be one reason why it has remained diffuse and incoherent. All ways of salvation are still open to the Hindus; the canon of their scripture has never been authoritatively closed. New doctrines, new sects, fresh theological controversies, are incessantly modifying and superseding the old scholastic interpretations of the mysteries, for Hindus, like Asiatics everywhere, are still in that condition of mind when a fresh spiritual message is eagerly received. Vishnu and Siva are the realistic abstractions of the understanding from objects of sense, from observation of the destructive and reproductive operations of nature; they represent among educated men separate systems of worship which, again, are parted into different schools or theories regarding the proper ways and methods of attaining to spiritual emancipation. Yet the higher philosophy and the lower polytheism are not mutually antagonistic; on the contrary, they support each other; for Brahmanism accepts and allies itself with the popular forms of idolatry, treating them as outward visible signs of an inner truth, as indications of all-pervading pantheism. The peasant and the philosopher reverence the same deity, perform the same rite; they do not mean the same thing, but they do not quarrel on this account. Nevertheless, it is certainly remarkable that this inorganic medley of ideas and worships should have resisted for so many ages the invasion and influence of the coherent faiths that have won ascendancy, complete or dominant, on either side of India, the west and the east; it has thrown off Buddhism, it has withstood the triumphant advance of Islam, it has as yet been little affected by Christianity. Probably the political history of India may account in some degree for its religious disorganisation. I may propound the theory that no religion has obtained supremacy, or at any rate definite establishment, in any great country except with the active co-operation, by force or favour, of the rulers, whether by conquest, as in Western Asia, or by patronage and protection, as in China. The direct influence and recognition of the State has been an indispensable instrument of religious consolidation. But until the nineteenth century the whole of India, from the mountains to the sea, had never been united under one stable government; the country was for ages parcelled out into separate principalities, incessantly contending for territory. And even the Moghul empire, which was always at war upon its frontiers, never acquired universal dominion. The Moghul emperors, except Aurungzeb, were by no means bigoted Mohammedans; and their obvious interest was to abstain from meddling with Hinduism. Yet the irruption of Islam into India seems rather to have stimulated religious activity among the Hindus, for during the Mohammedan period various spiritual teachers arose, new sects were formed, and theological controversies divided the intellectual classes. To these movements the Mohammedan governments must have been for a long time indifferent; and among the new sects the principle of mutual toleration was universal. Towards the close of the Moghul empire, however, Hinduism, provoked by the bigotry of the Emperor Aurungzeb, became a serious element of political disturbance. Attempts to suppress forcibly the followers of Nanak Guru, and the execution of one spiritual leader of the Sikhs, turned the Sikhs from inoffensive quietists into fanatical warriors; and by the eighteenth century they were in open revolt against the empire. They were, I think, the most formidable embodiment of militant Hinduism known to Indian history. By that time, also, the Marathas in South-West India were declaring themselves the champions of the Hindu religion against the Mohammedan oppression; and to the Sikhs and Marathas the dislocation of the Moghul empire may be very largely attributed. We have here a notable example of the dynamic power upon politics of revolts that are generated by religious fermentation, and a proof of the strength that can be exerted by a pacific inorganic polytheism in self-defence, when ambitious rebels proclaim themselves defenders of a faith. The Marathas and the Sikhs founded the only rulerships whose armies could give the English serious trouble in the field during the nineteenth century. On the whole, however, when we survey the history of India, and compare it with that of Western Asia, we may say that although the Hindus are perhaps the most intensely religious people in the world, Hinduism has never been, like Christianity, Islam, and to some extent Buddhism, a religion established by the State. Nor has it suffered much from the State’s power. It seems strange, indeed, that Mohammedanism, a compact proselytising faith, closely united with the civil rulership, should have so slightly modified, during seven centuries of dominion, this infinitely divided polytheism. Of course, Mohammedanism made many converts, and annexed a considerable number of the population—yet the effect was rather to stiffen than to loosen the bonds that held the mass of the people to their traditional divinities, and to the institution of castes. Moreover the antagonism of the two religions, the popular and the dynastic, was a perpetual element of weakness in a Mohammedan empire. In India polytheism could not be crushed, as in Western Asia, by Islam; neither could it be controlled and administered, as in Eastern Asia; yet the Moghul emperors managed to keep on good terms with it, so long as they adhered to a policy of toleration. To the Mohammedan empire has succeeded another foreign dominion, which practises not merely tolerance but complete religious neutrality.

Looking back over the period of a hundred years, from 1757 to 1857, during which the British dominion was gradually extended over India, we find that the British empire, like the Roman, met with little or no opposition from religion. Hindus and Mohammedans, divided against each other, were equally willing to form alliances with, and to fight on the side of, the foreigner who kept religion entirely outside politics. And the British Government, when established, has so carefully avoided offence to caste or creed that on one great occasion only, the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, have the smouldering fires of credulous fanaticism broken out against our rule. I believe the British-Indian position of complete religious neutrality to be unique among Asiatic governments, and almost unknown in Europe. The Anglo-Indian sovereignty does not identify itself with the interests of a single faith, as in Mohammedan kingdoms, nor does it recognise a definite ecclesiastical jurisdiction in things spiritual, as in Catholic Europe. Still less has our Government adopted the Chinese system of placing the State at the head of different rituals for the purpose of controlling them all, and proclaiming an ethical code to be binding on all denominations. The British ruler, while avowedly Christian, ignores all religions administratively, interfering only to suppress barbarous or indecent practices when the advance of civilisation has rendered them obsolete. Public instruction, so far as the State is concerned, is entirely secular; the universal law is the only authorised guardian of morals; to expound moral duties officially, as things apart from religion, has been found possible in China, but not in India. But the Chinese Government can issue edicts enjoining public morality and rationalism because the State takes part in the authorised worship of the people, and the emperor assumes pontifical office. The British Government in India, on the other hand, disowns official connection with any religion. It places all its measures on the sole ground of reasonable expediency, of efficient administration; it seeks to promote industry and commerce, and material civilisation generally; it carefully avoids giving any religious colour whatever to its public acts; and the result is that our Government, notwithstanding its sincere professions of absolute neutrality, is sometimes suspected of regarding all religion with cynical indifference, possibly even with hostility. Moreover, religious neutrality, though it is right, just, and the only policy which the English in India could possibly adopt, has certain political disadvantages. The two most potent influences which still unite and divide the Asiatic peoples, are race and religion; a Government which represents both these forces, as, for instance, in Afghanistan, has deep roots in a country. A dynasty that can rely on the support of an organised religion, and stands forth as the champion of a dominant faith, has a powerful political power at its command. The Turkish empire, weak, ill-governed, repeatedly threatened with dismemberment, embarrassed internally by the conflict of races, has been preserved for the last hundred years by its incorporation with the faith of Islam, by the Sultan’s claim to the Caliphate. To attack it is to assault a religious citadel; it is the bulwark on the west of Mohammedan Asia, as Afghanistan is the frontier fortress of Islam on the east. A leading Turkish politician has very recently said: ‘It is in Islam pure and simple that lies the strength of Turkey as an independent State; and if the Sultan’s position as religious chief were encroached upon by constitutional reforms, the whole Ottoman empire would be in danger.’ We have to remember that for ages religious enthusiasm has been, and still is in some parts of Asia, one of the strongest incentives to military ardour and fidelity to a standard on the battlefield. Identity of creed has often proved more effective, in war, than territorial patriotism; it has surmounted racial and tribal antipathies; while religious antagonism is still in many countries a standing impediment to political consolidation. When, therefore, we survey the history of religions, though this sketch is necessarily very imperfect and inadequate, we find Mohammedanism still identified with the fortunes of Mohammedan rulers; and we know that for many centuries the relations of Christianity to European States have been very close. In Europe the ardent perseverance and intellectual superiority of great theologians, of ecclesiastical statesmen supported by autocratic rulers, have hardened and beat out into form doctrines and liturgies that it was at one time criminal to disregard or deny, dogmatic articles of faith that were enforced by law. By these processes orthodoxy emerged compact, sharply defined, irresistible, out of the strife and confusion of heresies; the early record of the churches has pages spotted with tears and stained with blood. But at the present time European States seem inclined to dissolve their alliance with the churches, and to arrange a kind of judicial separation between the altar and the throne, though in very few cases has a divorce been made absolute. No State, in civilised countries, now assists in the propagation of doctrine; and ecclesiastical influence is of very little service to a Government. The civil law, indeed, makes continual encroachments on the ecclesiastical domain, questions its authority, and usurps its jurisdiction. Modern erudition criticises the historical authenticity of the scriptures, philosophy tries to undermine the foundations of belief; the governments find small interest in propping up edifices that are shaken by internal controversies. In Mohammedan Asia, on the other hand, the connection between the orthodox faith and the States is firmly maintained, for the solidarity is so close that disruptions would be dangerous, and a Mohammedan rulership over a majority of unbelievers would still be perilously unstable. I have thus endeavoured to show that the historical relations of Buddhism and Hinduism to the State have been in the past, and are still in the present time, very different from the situation in the West. There has always existed, I submit, one essential distinction of principle. Religious propagation, forcible conversion, aided and abetted by the executive power of the State, and by laws against heresy or dissent, have been defended in the West by the doctors of Islam, and formerly by Christian theologians, by the axiom that all means are justifiable for extirpating false teachers who draw souls to perdition. The right and duty of the civil magistrate to maintain truth, in regard to which Bossuet declared all Christians to be unanimous, and which is still affirmed in the Litany of our Church, is a principle from which no Government, three centuries ago, dissented in theory, though in practice it needed cautious handling. I do not think that this principle ever found its way into Hinduism or Buddhism; I doubt, that is to say, whether the civil government was at any time called in to undertake or assist propagation of those religions as part of its duty. Nor do I know that the States of Eastern Asia, beyond the pale of Islam, claim or exercise the right of insisting on conformance to particular doctrines, because they are true. The erratic manifestations of the religious spirit throughout Asia, constantly breaking out in various forms and figures, in thaumaturgy, mystical inspiration, in orgies and secret societies, have always disquieted these Asiatic States, yet, so far as I can ascertain, the employment of force to repress them has always been justified on administrative or political grounds, as distinguishable from theological motives pure and simple. Sceptics and agnostics have been often marked out for persecution in the West, but I do not think that they have been molested in India, China, or Japan, where they abound, because they seldom meddle with politics.[ ‘Atheism did never disturb States’ (Bacon)]. It may perhaps be admitted, however, that a Government which undertakes to regulate impartially all rites and worship among its subjects is at a disadvantage by comparison with a Government that acts as the representative of a great church or an exclusive faith. It bears the sole undivided responsibility for measures of repression; it cannot allege divine command or even the obligation of punishing impiety for the public good. To conclude. In Asiatic States the superintendence of religious affairs is an integral attribute of the sovereignty, which no Government, except the English in India, has yet ventured to relinquish; and even in India this is not done without some risk, for religion and politics are still intermingled throughout the world; they act and react upon each other everywhere. They are still far from being disentangled in our own country, where the theory that a Government in its collective character must profess and even propagate some religion has not been very long obsolete. It was maintained seventy years ago by a great statesman who was already rising into prominence, by Mr. Gladstone. The text of Mr. Gladstone’s argument, in his book on the relations of the State with the Church, was Hooker’s saying, that the religious duty of kings is the weightiest part of their sovereignty; while Macaulay, in criticising this position, insisted that the main, if not the only, duty of a Government, to which all other objects must be subordinate, was the protection of persons and property. These two eminent politicians were, in fact, the champions of the ancient and the modern ideas of sovereignty; for the theory that a State is bound to propagate the religion that it professes was for many centuries the accepted theory of all Christian rulerships, though I think it now survives only in Mohammedan kingdoms. As the influence of religion in the sphere of politics declines, the State becomes naturally less concerned with the superintendence of religion; and the tendency of constitutional Governments seems to be towards abandoning it. The States that have completely dissolved connection with ecclesiastical institutions are the two great republics, the United States of America and France. We can discern at this moment a movement towards constitutional reforms in Mohammedan Asia, in Turkey, and Persia, and if they succeed it will be most interesting to observe the effect which liberal reforms will produce upon the relation of Mohammedan Governments with the dominant faith, and on which side the religious teachers will be arrayed. It is certain, at any rate, that for a long time to come religion will continue to be a potent factor in Asiatic politics; and I may add that the reconciliation of civil with religious liberty is one of the most arduous of the many problems to be solved by the promoters of national unity.”


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