“THE STATE IN ITS RELATION TO EASTERN AND WESTERN RELIGIONS”
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denoting the birthplace of Christianity, which is said to be still used in that region, was, as we know, very speedily superseded by its wider title, as the Creed broke out of local limits and was proclaimed universal.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.”
Author’s Note: My articles on related subjects recently published in The Statesman include “Understanding China”, “China’s India Aggression”, “China’s Commonwealth”, “Nixon & Mao vs India”, “Lessons from the 1962 War”, “China’s force & diplomacy” etc
China’s India Example: Tibet, Xinjiang May Not Be Assimilated Like Inner Mongolia And Manchuria
First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article March 25 2008
Zhang Qingli, Tibet’s current Communist Party boss, reportedly said last year, “The Communist Party is like the parent (father and mother) of the Tibetans. The Party is the real boddhisatva of the Tibetans.” Before communism, China’s people followed three non-theistic religious cultures, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, choosing whichever aspects of each they wished to see in their daily lives. Animosity towards the theism of Muslims and Christians predates the 1911 revolution. Count Witte, Russia’s top diplomatist in Czarist times, reported the wild contempt towards Islam and wholly unprovoked insult of the Emir of Bokhara by Li Hung Chang, Imperial China’s eminent Ambassador to Moscow, normally the epitome of civility and wisdom. In 1900 the slogan of the Boxer Revolts was “Protect the country, destroy the foreigner” and catholic churches and European settlers and priests were specifically targeted. The Communists have not discriminated in repression of religious belief and practice ~ monasteries, mosques, churches have all experienced desecration; monks, ulema, clergymen all expected to subserve the Party and the State.
For Chinese officials to speak of “life and death” struggle against the Dalai Lama sitting in Dharamsala is astounding; if they are serious, it signals a deep long-term insecurity felt in Beijing. How can enormous, wealthy, strong China feel any existential threat at all from unarmed poor Tibetans riding on ponies? Is an Israeli tank-commander intimidated by stone-throwing Palestinian boys? How is it China (even a China where the Party assumes it always knows best), is psychologically defensive and unsure of itself at every turn?
The Chinese in their long history have not been a violent martial people ~ disorganized and apolitical traders and agriculturists and highly civilised artisans and scholars more than fierce warriors fighting from horseback. Like Hindus, they were far more numerous than their more aggressive warlike invading rulers. Before the 20th Century, China was dominated by Manchu Tartars and Mongol Tartars from the Northeast and Northwest ~ the Manchus forcing humiliation upon Chinese men by compelling shaved heads with pigtails. Similar Tartar hordes ruled Russia for centuries and Stalin himself, according to his biographer, might have felt Russia buffered Europe from the Tartars.
Chinese nationalism arose only in the 20th Century, first under the Christian influence of Sun Yatsen and his brother-in-law Chiang Kaishek, later under the atheism of Mao Zedong and his admiring friends, most recently Deng Xiaoping and successors. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” is the slogan of the present Communist Party but a more realistic slogan of what Mao and friends came to represent in their last decades may be “Chinese nationalism with socialist characteristics”. Taiwan and to lesser extent Singapore and Hong Kong represent “Chinese nationalism with capitalist characteristics”. Western observers, keen always to know the safety of their Chinese investments, have focused on China’s economics, whether the regime is capitalist or socialist and to what extent ~ Indians and other Asians may be keener to identify, and indeed help the Chinese themselves to identify better, the evolving nature of Chinese nationalism and the healthy or unhealthy courses this may now take.
Just as Czarist and Soviet Russia attempted Russification in Finland, the Baltics, Poland, Ukraine etc., Imperial and Maoist China attempted “Sinification” in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia as well as Tibet and Xinjiang (Sinkiang, East Turkestan). Russification succeeded partially but backfired in general. Similarly, Sinification succeeded naturally in Manchuria and without much difficulty in Inner Mongolia. But it has backfired and backfired very badly in Tibet and Xinjiang, and may be expected to do so always.
In India, our soft state and indolent corrupt apparatus of political parties constitute nothing like the organized aggressive war-machine that China has tried to make of its state apparatus, and we have much more freedom of all sorts. India does not prohibit or control peasant farmers or agricultural labourers from migrating to or visiting large metropolitan cities; villagers are as free as anyone else to clog up all city life in India with the occasional political rally ~ in fact India probably may not even know how to ban, suppress or repress most of the things Communist China does.
Hindu traditions were such that as long as you did not preach sedition against the king, you could believe anything ~ including saying, like the Carvaka, that hedonism and materialism were good, spiritualism was bunkum and the priestly class were a bunch of crooks and idiots. Muslim and British rulers in India were not too different ~ yes the Muslims did convert millions by offering the old choice of death or conversion to vanquished people, and there were evil rulers among them but also great and tolerant ones like Zainulabidin of Kashmir and Akbar who followed his example.
India’s basic political ethos has remained that unless you preach sedition, you can basically say or believe anything (no matter how irrational) and also pretty much do whatever you please without being bothered too much by government officials. Pakistan’s attempts to impose Urdu on Bengali-speakers led to civil war and secession; North India’s attempts to impose Hindi on the South led to some language riots and then the three-language formula ~ Hindi spreading across India through Bollywood movies instead.
China proudly says it is not as if there are no declared non-Communists living freely in Beijing, Shanghai etc, pointing out distinguished individual academics and other professionals including government ministers who are liberals, social democrats or even Kuomintang Nationalists. There are tiny state-approved non-Communist political parties in China, some of whose members even may be in positions of influence. It is just that such (token) parties must accept the monopoly and dictatorship of the Communists and are not entitled to take state power. The only religion you are freely allowed to indulge in is the ideology of the State, as that comes to be defined or mis-defined at any time by the Communist Party’s rather sclerotic leadership processes.
During China’s Civil War, the Communists apparently had promised Tibet and Xinjiang a federation of republics ~ Mao later reneged on this and introduced his notion of “autonomous” regions, provinces and districts. The current crisis in Tibet reveals that the notion of autonomy has been a complete farce. Instead of condemning the Dalai Lama and repressing his followers, a modern self-confident China can so easily resolve matters by allowing a Dalai Lama political party to function freely and responsibly, first perhaps just for Lhasa’s municipal elections and gradually in all of Tibet. Such a party and the Tibet Communist Party would be adequate for a two-party system to arise. The Dalai Lama and other Tibetan exiles also have a natural right to be issued Chinese passports enabling them to return to Tibet~ and their right to return is surely as strong as that of any Han or Hui who have been induced to migrate to Tibet from Mainland China. Such could be the very simple model of genuine autonomy for Tibet and Xinjiang whose native people clearly do not wish to be assimilated in the same way as Inner Mongolia and Manchuria. India’s federal examples, including the three-language formula, may be helpful. Once Mainland China successfully allows genuine autonomy and free societies to arise in Tibet and Xinjiang, the road to reconciliation with Taiwan would also have been opened.
First published in two parts in The Sunday Statesman, Oct 29 2006 and The Statesman Oct 30 2006, Editorial Page Special Article.
At the advent of Islam in distant Arabia, India and Kashmir in particular were being visited by Chinese Buddhist pilgrims during Harsha’s reign. The great “Master of Law” Hiuen Tsiang visited between 629-645 and spent 631-633 in Kashmir (“Kia-chi-mi-lo”), describing it to include Punjab, Kabul and Kandahar. Over the next dozen centuries, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and again Hindu monarchs came to rule the 85 mile long 40 mile wide territory on the River Jhelum’s upper course known as Srinagar Valley, as well as its adjoining Jammu in the upper plains of the Punjab and “Little Tibet” consisting of Laddakh, Baltistan and Gilgit.
In 1344, a Persian adventurer from Swat or Khorasan by name of Amir or Mirza, who had “found his way into the Valley and in time gained great influence at the Raja’s court”, proclaimed himself Sultan Shamsuddin after the death of the last Hindu monarchs of medieval Kashmir. Twelve of his descendants formed the Shamiri dynasty including the notorious Sikander and the just and tolerant Zainulabidin. Sikander who ruled 1386-1410 “submitted himself” to the Uzbek Taimur the Lame when he approached Kashmir in 1398 “and thus saved the country from invasion”. Otherwise, “Sikander was a gloomy ferocious bigot, and his zeal in destroying temples and idols was so intense that he is remembered as the Idol-Breaker. He freely used the sword to propagate Islam and succeeded in forcing the bulk of the population to conform outwardly to the Muslim religion. Most of the Brahmins refused to apostatise, and many of them paid with their lives the penalty for their steadfastness. Many others were exiled, and only a few conformed.”
Zainulabidin who ruled 1417-1467 “was a man of very different type”. “He adopted the policy of universal toleration, recalled the exiled Brahmins, repealed the jizya or poll-tax on Hindus, and even permitted new temples to be built. He abstained from eating flesh, prohibited the slaughter of kine, and was justly venerated as a saint. He encouraged literature, painting and music, and caused many translations to be made of works composed in Sanskrit, Arabic and other languages.” During his “long and prosperous reign”, he “constructed canals and built many mosques; he was just and tolerant”.
The Shamiri dynasty ended in 1541 when “some fugitive chiefs of the two local factions of the Makri and the Chakk invited Mirza Haidar Dughlat, a relation of Babar, to invade Kashmir. The country was conquered and the Mirza held it (nominally in name of Humayan) till 1551, when he was killed in a skirmish. The line… was restored for a few years, until in 1559 a Chakk leader, Ghazi Shah, usurped the throne; and in the possession of his descendants it remained for nearly thirty years.” This dynasty marks the origins of Shia Islam in Srinagar though Shia influence in Gilgit, Baltistan and Laddakh was of longer standing. Constant dissensions weakened the Chakks, and in 1586, Akbar, then at Attock on the Indus, sent an army under Raja Bhagwan Das into Srinagar Valley and easily made it part of his Empire.
Shivaism and Islam both flourished, and Hindu ascetics and Sufi saints were revered by all. Far from Muslims and Hindus forming distinct nations, here they were genetically related kinsmen living in proximity in a small isolated area for centuries. Indeed Zainulabidin may have had a vast unspoken influence on the history of all India insofar as Akbar sought to attempt in his empire what Zainulabidin achieved in the Valley. Like Zainulabidin, Akbar’s governance of India had as its “constant aim” “to conciliate the Hindus and to repress Muslim bigotry” which in modern political parlance may be seen as the principle of secular governance ~ of conciliating the powerless (whether majority or minority) and repressing the bigotry of the powerful (whether minority or majority). Akbar had made the Valley the summer residence of the Mughals, and it was Jahangir, seeing the Valley for the first time, who apparently said the words agar behest baushad, hamee in hast, hamee in hast, hamee in hast: “if Heaven exists, it is here, it is here, it is here”. Yet like other isolated paradises (such as the idyllic islands of the Pacific Ocean) an accursed mental ether can accompany the magnificent beauty of people’s surroundings. As the historian put it: “The Kashmiris remained secure in their inaccessible Valley; but they were given up to internal weakness and discord, their political importance was gone…”
After the Mughals collapsed, Iran’s Turkish ruler Nadir Shah sacked Delhi in 1739 but the Iranian court fell in disarray upon his death. In 1747 a jirga of Pashtun tribes at Kandahar “broke normal tradition” and asked an old Punjabi holy man and shrine-keeper to choose between two leaders; this man placed young wheat in the hand of the 25 year old Ahmed Shah Saddozai of the Abdali tribe, and titled him “Durrani”. Five years later, Durrani took Kashmir and for the next 67 years the Valley was under Pashtun rule, a time of “unmitigated brutality and widespread distress”. Durrani himself “was wise, prudent and simple”, never declared himself king and wore no crown, instead keeping a stick of young wheat in his turban. Leaving India, he famously recited: “The Delhi throne is beautiful indeed, but does it compare with the mountains of Kandahar?”
Kashmir’s modern history begins with Ranjit Singh of the Sikhs who became a soldier at 12, and in 1799 at age 19 was made Lahore’s Governor by Kabul’s Zaman Shah. Three years later “he made himself master of Amritsar”, and in 1806 crossed the River Sutlej and took Ludhiana. He created a fine Sikh infantry and cavalry under former officers of Napoleon, and with 80,000 trained men and 500 guns took Multan and Peshawar, defeated the Pashtuns and overran Kashmir in 1819. The “cruel rule” of the Pashtuns ended “to the great relief of Kashmir’s inhabitants”.
The British Governor-General Minto (ancestor of the later Viceroy), seeing advantage in the Sikhs staying north of the Sutlej, sent Charles Metcalfe, “a clever young civilian”, to persuade the Khalsa; in 1809, Ranjit Singh and the British in the first Treaty of Amritsar agreed to establish “perpetual amity”: the British would “have no concern” north of the Sutlej and Ranjit Singh would keep only minor personnel south of it. In 1834 and 1838 Ranjit Singh was struck by paralysis and died in 1839, leaving no competent heir. The Sikh polity collapsed, “their power exploded, disappearing in fierce but fast flames”. It was “a period of storm and anarchy in which assassination was the rule” and the legitimate line of his son and grandson, Kharak Singh and Nao Nihal Singh was quickly extinguished. In 1845 the Queen Regent, mother of the five-year old Dalip Singh, agreed to the Khalsa ending the 1809 Treaty. After bitter battles that might have gone either way, the Khalsa lost at Sobraon on 10 February 1846, and accepted terms of surrender in the 9 March 1846 Treaty of Lahore. The kingdom had not long survived its founder: “created by the military and administrative genius of one man, it crumbled into powder when the spirit which gave it life was withdrawn; and the inheritance of the Khalsa passed into the hands of the English.”
Ranjit Singh’s influence on modern J&K was even greater through his having mentored the Rajput Gulab Singh Dogra (1792-1857) and his brothers Dhyan Singh and Suchet Singh. Jammu had been ruled by Ranjit Deo until 1780 when the Sikhs made it tributary to the Lahore Court. Gulab Singh, a great grand nephew of Ranjit Deo, had left home at age 17 in search of a soldierly fortune, and ended up in 1809 in Ranjit Singh’s army, just when Ranjit Singh had acquired for himself a free hand to expand his domains north of the River Sutlej.
Gulab Singh, an intrepid soldier, by 1820 had Jammu conferred upon him by Ranjit Singh with the title of Raja, while Bhimber, Chibal, Poonch and Ramnagar went to his brothers. Gulab Singh, “often unscrupulous and cruel, was a man of considerable ability and efficiency”; he “found his small kingdom a troublesome charge but after ten years of constant struggles he and his two brothers became masters of most of the country between Kashmir and the Punjab”, though Srinagar Valley itself remained under a separate Governor appointed by the Lahore Court. Gulab Singh extended Jammu’s rule from Rawalpindi, Bhimber, Rajouri, Bhadarwah and Kishtwar, across Laddakh and into Tibet. His General Zorawar Singh led six expeditions into Laddakh between 1834 and 1841 through Kishtwar, Padar and Zanskar. In May 1841, Zorawar left Leh with an army of 5000 Dogras and Laddakhis and advanced on Tibet. Defeating the Tibetans at Rudok and Tashigong, he reached Minsar near Lake Mansarovar from where he advanced to Taklakot (Purang), 15 miles from the borders of Nepal and Kumaon, and built a fort stopping for the winter. Lhasa sent large re-inforcements to meet him. Zorawar, deciding to take the offensive, was killed in the Battle of Toyu, on 11-12 December 1841 at 16,000 feet.
A Laddakhi rebellion resulted against Jammu, aided now by the advancing Tibetans. A new army was sent under Hari Chand suppressing the rebellion and throwing back the Tibetans, leading to a peace treaty between Lhasa and Jammu signed on 17 September 1842: “We have agreed that we have no ill-feelings because of the past war. The two kings will henceforth remain friends forever. The relationship between Maharajah Gulab Singh of Kashmir and the Lama Guru of Lhasa (Dalai Lama) is now established. The Maharajah Sahib, with God (Kunchok) as his witness, promises to recognise ancient boundaries, which should be looked after by each side without resorting to warfare. When the descendants of the early kings, who fled from Laddakh to Tibet, now return they will not be stopped by Shri Maharajah. Trade between Laddakh and Tibet will continue as usual. Tibetan government traders coming into Laddakh will receive free transport and accommodations as before, and the Laddakhi envoy will, in turn, receive the same facilities in Lhasa. The Laddakhis take an oath before God (Kunchok) that they will not intrigue or create new troubles in Tibetan territory. We have agreed, with God as witness, that Shri Maharajah Sahib and the Lama Guru of Lhasa will live together as members of the same household.” The traditional boundary between Laddakh and Tibet “as recognised by both sides since olden times” was accepted by the envoys of Gulab Singh and the Dalai Lama.
An earlier 1684 treaty between Laddakh and Lhasa had said that while Laddakh would send tribute to Lhasa every three years, “the king of Laddakh reserves to himself the village of Minsar in Ngarees-khor-sum, that he may be independent there; and he sets aside its revenue for the purpose of meeting the expense involved in keeping up the sacrificial lights at Kangree (Kailas), and the Holy Lakes of Mansarovar and Rakas Tal”. The area around Minsar village near Lake Mansarovar, held by the rulers of Laddakh since 1583, was retained by Jammu in the 1842 peace-treaty, and its revenue was received by J&K State until 1948.
After Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839, Gulab Singh was alienated from the Lahore Court where the rise of his brothers and a nephew aroused enough Khalsa jealousy to see them assassinated in palace intrigues. While the Sikhs imploded, Gulab Singh had expanded his own dominion from Rawalpindi to Minsar ~ everywhere except Srinagar Valley itself. He had apparently advised the Sikhs not to attack the British in breach of the 1809 Treaty, and when they did so he had not joined them, though had he done so British power in North India might have been broken. The British were grateful for his neutrality and also his help in their first misbegotten adventure in Afghanistan. It was Gulab Singh who was now encouraged by both the British and the Sikhs to mediate between them, indeed “to take a leading part in arranging conditions of peace”, and he formally represented the Sikh regency in the negotiations. The 9 March 1846 Treaty of Lahore “set forth that the British Government having demanded in addition to a certain assignment of territory, a payment of a crore and a half of rupees, and the Sikh Government being unable to pay the whole”, Dalip Singh “should cede as equivalent to one crore the hill country belonging to the Punjab between the Beas and the Indus including Kashmir and the Hazara”.
For the British to occupy the whole of this mountainous territory was judged unwise on economic and military grounds; it was not feasible to occupy from a military standpoint and the area “with the exception of the small Valley of Kashmir” was “for the most part unproductive”. “On the other hand, the ceded tracts comprised the whole of the hereditary possessions of Gulab Singh, who, being eager to obtain an indefeasible title to them, came forward and offered to pay the war indemnity on condition that he was made the independent ruler of Jammu & Kashmir.
A separate treaty embodying this arrangement was thus concluded between the British and Gulab Singh at Amritsar on 16 March 1846.” Gulab Singh acknowledged the British Government’s supremacy, and in token of it agreed to present annually to the British Government “one horse, twelve shawl goats of approved breed and three pairs of Kashmir shawls. This arrangement was later altered; the annual presentation made by the Kashmir State was confined to two Kashmir shawls and three romals (handkerchiefs).” The Treaty of Amritsar “put Gulab Singh, as Maharaja, in possession of all the hill country between the Indus and the Ravi, including Kashmir, Jammu, Laddakh and Gilgit; but excluding Lahoul, Kulu and some areas including Chamba which for strategic purposes, it was considered advisable (by the British) to retain and for which a remission of Rs 25 lakhs was made from the crore demanded, leaving Rs 75 lakhs as the final amount to be paid by Gulab Singh.” The British retained Hazara which in 1918 was included into NWFP. Through an intrigue emanating from Prime Minister Lal Singh in Lahore, Imamuddin, the last Sikh-appointed Governor of Kashmir, sought to prevent Gulab Singh taking possession of the Valley in accordance with the Treaty’s terms. By December 1846 Gulab Singh had done so, though only with help of a British force which included 17,000 Sikh troops “who had been fighting in the campaign just concluded”. (Contemporary British opinion even predicted Sikhism like Buddhism “would become extinct in a short time if it were not kept alive by the esprit de corps of the Sikh regiments”.)
The British in 1846 may have been glad enough to allow Gulab Singh take independent charge of the new entity that came to be now known as the “State of Jammu & Kashmir”. Later, however. they and their American allies would grow keen to control or influence the region vis-à-vis their new interests against the Russian and Soviet Empires.
Science, Religion, Art & the Necessity of Freedom: Reason’s Response to Islamism
Subroto Roy, PhD (Cantab.), BScEcon (London)
(A public lecture delivered as the Wincott Visiting Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham on August 24 2004, based on a keynote address to the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, Manila, November 16 2001.)
I am most grateful to the University of Buckingham for allowing me to refresh and carry forward my research these last several months. For some 25 years I have been learning of and reflecting upon the work of two great modern British philosophers, John Wisdom (1904-1993) and Renford Bambrough (1926-1999). In the 1980s in America, I came to apply their thinking in Philosophy of Economics (Routledge 1989), a book which got me into a lot of trouble there. Returning to Britain in 2004, I am dismayed to find their work almost forgotten or unknown today, even at the Ancient University that had been their home. “Orientalists” from the West once used to comprehend and highlight the achievements of the East for the peoples of the East who were unaware of them; I am happy to return the favour by becoming an “Occidentalist” in highlighting a little of the work of two of Britain’s finest sons of which she has become unaware. Wisdom and Bambrough played a kind of modern-day Plato and Aristotle to the Socrates played by Wittgenstein (1889-1951); the knowledge they achieved in their lives and have left behind for us to use and apply to our own problems make them, in terms of Eastern philosophy, rather like the “Boddhisatvas” of Mahayana Buddhism. I do not expect anyone to share such an extravagant view, and will be more than satisfied if I am able to suggest that we can have a grasp of the nature and scope of human reasoning thanks to their work which may help resolve the most intractable and seemingly irreconcilable of all current international problems, namely the grave cultural conflicts made apparent since September 11 2001.
2. The September 11 attacks aimed to cripple one of the world’s largest and most important countries in a new kind of act of war. The perpetrators apparently saw themselves — subjectively in their own minds — acting in the name of one of the world’s largest and most important religions. Since the attacks, the world has become an unusually bewildering place, as if notions of freedom, tolerance and the rule of law have been proven a lie overnight, as if virtues like patience, common reasoning and good humour have all become irrelevant, deserving to be flushed away in face of a resurgence of ancient savageries. The attackers and their friends taunt the West saying their love of death is greater and more powerful than the West’s love of life; the taunts and the counter-taunts of their powerful adversaries have had the effect of spraying panic, mutual fear, hatred or destruction across the surface of everyday life everywhere, so we now have bizarre scenes of people taking off their shoes and clothes and putting them on again while travelling, and of the British public being advised on how to cope with nerve gas attacks when they might have much rather been watching “reality TV” instead. An Age of Unreason appears upon us.
The very simple proposition I put forward here is this: there are, indeed there cannot be, any conflicts that are necessarily irresoluble. To put it differently, the logical scope of common reasoning is indefinite and limitless. There is no question to which there is not a right answer. If I was asked to answer in one sentence what has been the combined contribution to human thought of Wittgenstein, Wisdom and Bambrough, indeed of modern British philosophy as a whole, I would say it has been the proof that there are no unanswerable questions, that there is no question to which there is not a right answer.
By “common reasoning” I shall mean merely to refer to the structure of any conversation well-enough described by F. R. Leavis’s operators in literary criticism:
“This is so, isn’t it?,
My “yes” to your “This is so, isn’t it?” indicates agreement with what you have said while my “but…” tells you I believe there may be something more to the matter, some further logical relation to be found, some further fact to be investigated or experiment carried out, some further reflection necessary and possible upon already known and agreed upon facts. It amounts to a new “This is so, isn’t it?” to which you may respond with your own, “Yes, but…”; and our argument would continue. Another set of operators is:
“You might as well say…”;
“But this is different…”
This was how Wisdom encapsulated the “case-by-case” method of argument that he pioneered and practised. It requires intimate description of particular cases and marking of similarities and differences between them, yielding a powerful indefinitely productive method of objective reasoning, distinct from and logically prior to the usual methods of deduction and induction that exhaust the range of positivism. We are able to see how common reasoning may proceed in practice in subtle fields like law, psychology, politics, ethics, aesthetics and theology, just as objectively as it does in natural science and mathematics. Wittgenstein had spoken of our “craving for generality” and our “contemptuous attitude towards the particular case”. Wisdom formalised the epistemological priority of particular over general saying: “Examples are the final food of thought. Principles and laws may serve us well. They can help us to bring to bear on what is now in question what is not now in question. They help us to connect one thing with another and another and another. But at the bar of reason, always the final appeal is to cases.” And “Argument must be heard”.
In all conflicts – whether within a given science, between different sciences, between sciences and religion, within a given religion, between different religions, between sciences and arts, within the arts, between religion and the arts, between quarrelling nations, quarrelling neighbours or quarrelling spouses, whether in real relationships of actual life or hypothetical relationships of literature and drama – an approach of this kind tells us there is something further that may be said, some improvement that can be carried out, some further scope for investigation or experiment allowing discovery of new facts, some further reflection necessary or possible upon known facts. There are no conflicts that are necessarily irresoluble. Where the suicide-bombers and their powerful adversaries invite us to share their hasty and erroneous assumption that religious, political or economic cultures are becoming irreconcilable and doomed to be fights unto death, we may give to them instead John Wisdom’s “Argument must be heard.”
Parties to this or any conflict may in fact fail to find in themselves enough patience, tolerance, good humour, courage to take an argument where it leads, or they may fail to find enough of these qualities in adequate time, as Quesnay and the Physiocrats failed to find solutions in adequate time and were swept away by the French Revolution. But the failures of our practical human powers and capabilities do not signal that the logical boundaries of the scope of reason have been reached or even approached or come to be sighted.
3. The current conflict is said to be rooted in differences between religious cultures. We may however wish to first address whether any religious belief or practice can survive the devastating onslaught of natural science, the common modern adversary of all religions. What constitutes a living organism? What is the difference between plants and animals? What is the structure of a benzene ring or carbon atom or subatomic particle? What is light? Sound? Gravity? What can be said about black holes or white dwarfs? When did life begin here and when is it likely to end? Are we alone in being the only form of self-conscious life? Such questions about the world and Universe and our place in it have been asked and answered in their own way by all peoples of the world, from primitive tribes in hidden forests to sophisticated rocket scientists in hidden laboratories. Our best common understanding of them constitutes the state of scientific knowledge at a given time. Once we have accounted for all that modern science has to say, can any reasonable explanation or justification remain to be given of any religious belief or practice from any time or place?
Bambrough constructed this example. Suppose we are walking on the shore of a stormy sea along with Homer, the ancient Greek poet, who has been restored to us thanks to a time machine. We are walking along when Homer looks at the rough sea and says, “Poseidon is angry today”. We look at the waves loudly hitting the rocks and nod in agreement saying, “Yes, Poseidon is angry today”. We may be using the same words as Homer but Homer’s understanding of and expectations about the words “Poseidon is angry today” and our understanding of and expectations about the same words would be utterly different, a difference moreover we are able to understand but he may not. To us with our modern meteorology and oceanography, and the results of the television cameras of Jacques Cousteau and David Attenborough, we know for a fact there is no god-like supernatural being called Poseidon living within the ocean whose moods affect the waves. But to Homer, Poseidon not only exists in the ocean but also leaves footprints and descendants on the land, when Poseidon is angry the sea is vicious, when Poseidon is calm the seas are peaceful. We use the words “Poseidon is angry today” as an accurate description of the mood of an angry sea; Homer uses the same words to mean there was a god-like supernatural being inside the ocean whose anger was being reflected in the anger of the waves.
My second story is from 7th century AD located here in Buckingham, from a spot a few hundred yards behind the Economics Department of the University where there is St Rumbwald’s Well. In 650 AD — just a short while after The Recital of the Prophet of Islam (570-632AD) had been written down as The Q’uran, and just a little while before the Chinese pilgrim I-Ching (635-713AD) would be travelling through India recording his observations about Buddhism – here 12 miles from Buckingham was born the babe known as Rumwold or Rumbwald. England was hardly Christian at the time and the first Archbishop of Canterbury had been recently sent by the Pope to convert the Anglo-Saxons. Rumbwald’s father was a pagan prince of Northumbria; his mother the Christian daughter of the King of Mercia. St Rumbwald of Buckingham or Brackley is today the patron saint of fishermen at Folkestone, and he has been historically revered at monasteries in Mercia, Wessex and distant Sweden. Churches have been dedicated to him in Kent,Essex, Northamptonshire, Lincolnshire, Dorset and North Yorkshire. Pilgrims have washed themselves at St Rumwald’s Well over centuries and it is said Buckingham’s inns originated in catering to them. What is the legend of St Rumbwald? It is that on the day he was born he declared three times in a loud voice the words “I am a Christian, I am a Christian, I am a Christian”. After he had been baptised, he, on the second day of his life, was able to preach a sermon on the Trinity and the need for virtuous living, and foretold his imminent death, saying where he wished to be buried. On the third day of his life he died and was buried accordingly.
When we hear this story today, we might smile, wishing newborn babes we have known waking up in the middle of the night might be more coherent too. Professor John Clarke has shown Catholic hagiography over the centuries has also registered deep doubts about the Rumbwald story. We might be tempted to say the whole thing is complete nonsense. If a modern person took it at face value, we would look on it sympathetically. We know for a fact it is impossible, untrue, there has to be some error.
At the bar of reason, all religions lose to science where they try to compete on science’s home grounds, which are the natural or physical world. If a religious belief requires that a material object can be in two places at the same time, that something can be made out of nothing, that the Sun and planets go around the Earth to make Night and Day, that the Earth is flat and the sky is a ceiling which may be made to fall down upon it by Heavenly Wrath, that the rains will be on time if you offer a prayer or a sacrifice, it is destined to be falsified by experience. Natural science has done a lot of its work in the last few centuries; all the major religions pre-date this expansion so their physical premises may have remained those of the science understood in their time. In all questions where religions try to take on scientific understanding head on, they do and must lose, and numerous factual claims made by all religions will disappear in the fierce and unforgiving heat of the crucible of scientific reasoning and evidence.Yet even a slight alteration of the St Rumbwald story can make it plausible to modern ears. Just the other day Radio 4 had a programme on child prodigies who were able to speak words and begin to master language at age of one or two. It is not impossible a child prodigy of the 7th Century AD in his first or second year of life spoke the words “I’m a Christian”, or that as a toddler with a devout Christian mother, he said something or other about the Holy Trinity or about virtue or that he wished to be buried in such and such place even if he had had no real understanding of what he was talking about. If such a prodigious infant of royal blood then died from illness, we can imagine the grief of those around him, and how word about him might spread through a countryside in an era 1200 years before the discovery of electricity and invention of telecommunications, and for that information to become garbled enough to form the basis of the legend of St Rumbwald through the centuries.
The Rumbwald story is a typical religious story that has its parallels in other times and places including our own. It is impossible for it to have been factually true in the way it has come down to us, but it is completely possible for us with our better knowledge of facts and science today to reasonably explain its power over the beliefs of many generations of people. And if we are able to reasonably explain why people of a given time and place may have believed or practised what they did, we have not reason to be disdainful or scornful of them. The mere fact such religious stories, beliefs, experiences and practices of human beings over several thousand years across the globe have been expressed in widely different and far from well-translated or well-understood languages – Egyptian, Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Hawaiian, Samoan, Apache, Kwa Zulu, Hausa, Swahili – let aside English, Arabic, Yiddish or a thousand others, provides more than ample explanation of how miscomprehension and misapprehension can arise and continue, of how a vast amount of mutual contempt and scorn between peoples of different cultures is able to be irrationally sustained. The scope for the reasonable “demythologisation” of all these stories in all these languages from all these religions, in the way we have sought to “demythologise” the Rumbwald story here obviously remains immense and indefinite.
Next consider religious practice in the modern world, and the universal act of praying. (Economists have not seemed to look much at this before though a lot of mankind’s energy and resources are rationally spent towards it every day across the world.) Some weeks ago, on the 60th Anniversary of D-Day, Lady Soames, the daughter of Churchill, recalled the incredible fear and tension and uncertainty felt during the buildup to the invasion of Normandy; she said that when she finally heard the roar of the aeroplanes as they started across the English Channel: “I fell to my knees and prayed as I’d never prayed before or since” (BBC 1 June 6 2004, 8.40 am). A policeman’s wife in Costa Rica in Central America is shown making the sign of the cross upon her husband before he goes to work in the morning into a crime-ridden area from which he might not return safely at the end of the day. Footballers and boxers and opening batsmen around the world say a prayer before entering the field of contest. So do stockbrokers, foreign exchange dealers, businessmen, job-candidates and students taking examinations, and of course hospital-patients entering operating theatres. Before a penalty shootout between England and Portugal or Holland and Sweden, many thousands of logically contradictory prayers went up.
All this praying is done without a second thought about the ultimate ontological character of the destination of such prayers, or even whether such a destination happens or happens not to exist at all. The universal ubiquitous act of praying might be a rational human response to fear, uncertainty, hopelessness, and despair, as also to unexpected joy or excessive happiness.
Blake said: “Excess of joy, weeps, Excess of sorrow, laughs”. When there is excess of sorrow or excess of joy, praying may contribute mental resources like courage, tranquillity and equanimity and so tend to restore emotional equilibrium in face of sudden trauma or excitement. A provisional conclusion we may then register is that religious beliefs and practices of people around the world are open to be reasonably comprehended and explained in these sorts of straightforward ways, and at the same time there is a good sense in which progress in religious understanding is possible and necessary to be made following growth and improvement of our factual understanding of the world and Universe in which we live.
We still speak of the Sun “rising in the East” and “setting in the West” despite knowing since Copernicus and Galileo and the testimony of Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong that the Sun has in fact never done any such thing. Our understanding of the same words has changed fundamentally. Tycho Brahe thought the Sun went around Earth; his disciple Kepler the opposite; when Tycho Brahe looked East at dawn he understood something different from (and inferior to) what Kepler understood when Kepler looked East at dawn. It is similar to Homer and us with respect to whether Poseidon’s moods affect the waves of the sea. Examples of traditional religious belief and understanding may get modified by our scientific knowledge and understanding such that the same words may mean something quite different as a result and have a new significance for our consciousness.
Indeed it extends well beyond natural science to our understanding of literature, art and psychology as well. With the knowledge we have gained of ourselves — of our conscious waking minds as well as of our unconscious dreaming minds — after we have read and tried to grasp Blake, Goethe, Dostoevsky or Freud, we may quite well realise and comprehend how the thoughts and feelings residing in the constitutions of actual beings, including ourselves, are more than enough to describe and explain good and evil, and without having to refer to any beings outside ourselves residing elsewhere other than Earth. It is like the kind of progress we make in our personal religious beliefs from what we had first learned in childhood. We do not expect a person after he or she has experienced the ups and downs of adult life to keep to exactly the same religious beliefs and practises he or she had as a child at mother’s knee, and we do not expect mankind to have the same religious beliefs today as it did in its early history.
Bambrough concluded: “There is no incompatibility between a refurbished demythologised Homeric polytheism, a refurbished demythologised Christianity, and a refurbished demythologised Islam…. The Creation and the Resurrection, the Ascension and the Virgin Birth…may be very differently conceived without being differently expressed….we can still learn from the plays and poems of the ancient Greeks, although we reject the basis of the mythological structure through which they express their insight and their understanding. The myths continue to teach us something because they are attached to, and grounded in, an experience that we share. It would therefore be astonishing if the Christian religion, whether when considered as a united and comprehensive body of doctrine it is true or false, did not contain much knowledge and truth, much understanding and insight, that remain valuable and accessible even to those who reject its doctrinal foundations. In and through Christianity the thinkers and writers and painters and moralists of two thousand years have struggled to make sense of life and the world and men…. What is more, the life that they wrestled with is our life; the world they have portrayed is the world that we live in; the men that they were striving to understand are ourselves.”
Bambrough was addressing Church of England clergy forty years ago but in his reference to a refurbished demythologised Islam he might as well have been addressing Muslim clergy today — indeed his findings are quite general and apply to other theists as well as to atheists, and provide an objective basis for the justification of tolerance.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam each starts with a “religious singularity”, a single alleged moment in the history of human beings when a transcendental encounter is believed to have occurred: the Exodus of God’s Chosen People led by Moses; the Birth, Life, Death and Resurrection of God’s Only Son, Jesus Christ; the Revelation of God’s Book to His Messenger, Muhammad, Peace Be Unto Him, the Seal of the Prophets. Each speaks of a transcendental Creator, of just rewards and punishments awaiting us in a transcendental eternal life after mortal earthly death.
A different fork in the road says, however, that the wind blowing in the trees may be merely the wind blowing in the trees, nothing more; it is the path taken by Buddhism and Jainism, which deny the existence of any Creator who is to be owed our belief or reverence. It is also the path taken by Sigmund Freud the ultra-scientific rationalist of modern times: “It seems not to be true that there is a power in the universe, which watches over the well-being of every individual with parental care and brings all his concerns to a happy ending…. it is by no means the rule that virtue is rewarded and wickedness punished, but it happens often enough that the violent, the crafty and the unprincipled seize the desirable goods of the earth, while the pious go empty away. Dark, unfeeling and unloving powers determine human destiny; the system of rewards and punishments, which, according to religion, governs the world, seems to have no existence.”
We then seem to have a choice between a Universe Created or Uncreated, Something and Nothing, One and Zero, God and No God. Pascal said we have to bet on the Something not on the Nothing, bet on the One not on the Zero, bet on God being there rather than not being there. Pascal’s reasoning was clear and forms the basis of “decision theory” today: if you bet on God’s existence and God does not exist, you lose nothing; if you bet on God’s lack of existence and God exists, you’ve had it. The philosophies of my own country, India, speak of Zero and One, Nothing or Something, and almost leave it at that. Perhaps we know, or perhaps we do not says the Rg Veda’s Hymn of Creation.. Does our self-knowledge end with our mortal death or perhaps begin with it? Or perhaps just as there is an infinite continuum of numbers between 0 and 1, there is also an infinite continuum of steps on a staircase between a belief in Nothing and a belief in Something, between the atheism of Freud and the Buddhists and the theism of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Generalising Bambrough’s findings, it would be surprising if we did not find each and every religion, whether theistic or atheistic, to contain some knowledge and truth, some understanding and insight, that remains valuable and accessible even to those who may otherwise reject the doctrinal foundations of any or all of them. In and through the religions, the thinkers, writers, painters, poets, sculptors and artists of thousands of years have struggled to make sense of our life and the world that we live in; the men and women they were striving to understand are ourselves.
4. Just after the September 11 attacks, I said in the Philippines that the perpetrators of the attacks would have been surprised to know of the respect with which the religious experience of the Prophet of Islam had been treated by the 19th Century British historian Thomas Carlyle: “The great Mystery of Existence… glared in upon (Mohammad), with its terrors, with its splendours; no hearsays could hide that unspeakable fact, ‘Here am I!’. Such sincerity… has in very truth something of divine. The word of such a man is a Voice direct from Nature’s own Heart. Men do and must listen to that as nothing else; all else is wind in comparison.” Carlyle told stories of Mohammad once not abiding by his own severe faith when he wept for an early disciple saying “You see a friend weeping over his friend”; and of how, when the young beautiful Ayesha tried to make him compare her favourably to his deceased wife and first disciple the widow Khadija, he had denied her: “She believed in me when none else would believe. In the whole world I had but one friend and she was that!” Carlyle’s choice of stories suggested the simple humanity and humility of Mohammad’s life and example, even an intersection between Islamic belief and modern science (”a Voice direct from Nature’s own Heart”). Carlyle quoted Goethe: “If this be Islam, do we not all live in Islam?”, suggesting there might be something of universal import in the message well beyond specifically Muslim ontological beliefs.
In general, the words and deeds of a spiritual leader of mankind like that of secular or scientific leaders like Darwin, Einstein, Aristotle, Adam Smith or Karl Marx, may be laid claim to by all of us whether we are explicit adherents, disciples or admirers or not. No private property rights attach upon their legacies, rather these remain open to be discussed freely and reasonably by everyone. Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, politics is too important to be left to the politicians, economics is definitely too important to be left to the economists; even science may be too important to be left to the scientists — certainly also, the religions are far too important to be left to the religious.
Yet Mr Osama Bin Laden and his friends, followers and potential followers, indeed any believing Muslims, are unlikely to be impressed with any amount of “external” praise heaped on Islam by a Carlyle or a Goethe, let aside by a President Bush or Prime Minister Blair. They may be wary of outsiders who bring so much praise of Islam, and will tell them instead “If you like Islam as much as you say you do, why not convert? It’s so easy. You have merely to say ‘God is One and Mohammad is the Seal of the Prophets’ – that’s all, you are Muslim, God is Great”.
Indeed Mr Bin Laden and friends are unlikely to be impressed with any kind of economic or carrot-and-stick policy of counter-terrorism, where incentives and disincentives are created by Western authorities like the US 9/11 Commission or the Blair Cabinet telling them: “If you are ‘moderate’ in your thoughts, words and deed you will earn this, this and this as rewards from the Government, but if you are ‘extremist’ in your thoughts, words and deeds then you shall receive that, that and that as penalties from the Government. These are your carrots and here is the stick.” It is Skinnerian behavioural psychology gone overboard. The incentives mean nothing, and the disincentives, well, they would merely have to be more careful not to end up in the modern Gulags.
We could turn from carrot-and-stick to a more sophisticated mode of negative rhetoric instead. If a doctrine C, declares itself to be resting upon prior doctrines B and A, then C’s reliability and soundness comes to depend on the reliability and soundness of B and A. If Islam declares itself to depend on references to a historical Moses or a historical Jesus, and if the last word has not been spoken by Jews, Christians, sceptics or others about the historical Moses or the historical Jesus, then the last word cannot have been spoken about something on which Islam declares itself to depend.
We can be more forceful too. Suicide-bombers combine the most sordid common crimes of theft and murder with the rare act of suicide as political protest. Suicide as political protest is a dignified and noble and awesome thing – many may remember the awful dignity in the sight of the Buddhist monks and nuns of South Vietnam immolating themselves in 1963 in protest against religious persecution by Diem’s Catholic regime, which led to the start of the American war in Vietnam. Six years and half a world away, Jan Palach, on January 19 1969, immolated himself in Wenceslas Square protesting the apathy of his countrymen to the Soviet invasion that had ended the Prague Spring. Socrates himself was forced to commit suicide for political reasons, abiding by his own injunction that it would be better to suffer wrong oneself than to come to wrong others — suicide as political protest is not something invented recently. And certainly not by Bin Laden and friends, whose greed makes their intentions and actions merely ghastly lacking all dignity: they are not satisfied like the Buddhist monks or like Jan Palach with political protest of their own suicides by self-immolation; they must add the sordid cruelty that goes with the very ordinary crimes of theft and mass murder as well.
Yet this kind of negative rhetorical attack too may not cut much ice with Mr Bin Laden and his friends. Just as they will dismiss our praise for Islam as being a suspicious trick, they will dismiss our criticism as the expected animus of an enemy.
To convict Mr Bin Laden of unreason, of contradicting himself, of holding contrary propositions x and ~x simultaneously and so talking meaninglessly and incoherently, we will have to bring out our heaviest artillery, namely, The Holy Q’uran itself, the Recital of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him). We may have to show explicitly how Mr Bin Laden’s own words contradict what is in The Q’uran. He and his followers would then be guilty of maintaining x and its contrary ~x at the same time, of violating the most basic law of logical reasoning, the law of excluded middle, of contradicting themselves, and therefore of speaking meaninglessly, incoherently, nonsensically regardless of their language, culture, nationality or religion. The Q’uran is a grand document and anyone reading it must be prepared to either considering believing it or having powerful enough reasons not to do so. “The great Mystery of Existence”, Carlyle said, “glared in upon (Mohammad), with its terrors, with its splendours; no hearsays could hide that unspeakable fact, ‘Here am I!’. Such sincerity… has in very truth something of divine. The word of such a man is a Voice direct from Nature’s own Heart. Men do and must listen to that as nothing else; all else is wind in comparison.”
Certainly, as in many other religions, the believers and unbelievers are distinguished numerous times in the Prophet’s Recital; believers are promised a Paradise of wine and many luxuries, while unbelievers are promised hell-fire and many other deprivations. But who are these unbelievers? They are the immediate local adversaries of the Prophet, the pagans of Mecca, the hanifs, the local tribes and sceptics arrayed against the Prophet. It is crystal clear that these are the people being named as unbelievers in The Q’uran, and there is absolutely no explicit or implicit mention or reference in it to peoples of other places or other times. There is no mention whatsoever of Anglo-Saxons or Celts, Vikings, Goths, or Gauls, of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Confucians or Shintos, no mention of Aztecs, Incas, or Eskimos. There is no mention of any peoples of any other places or of any later times. Certainly there is no mention of the people of modern America or Israel or Palestine or Britain or India. Yet Mr Bin Laden evidently sent an email to the head of the Taliban on October 3 2001, in which he referred to “defending Islam and in standing up to the symbols of infidelity of this time” (Atlantic Monthly, Sep. 2004). We are then able to say to him or any of his friends: “Tell us, Sir, when you declare a war between believers and unbelievers in the name of Islam, whom do you mean to refer to as “unbelievers”? Do you mean to refer to every person in history who has not been a Muslim, even those who may have been ignorant of Islam and its Prophet? Or do you mean to refer to the opponents and enemies the Prophet actually happened to encounter in his struggles during his mission as a proselytiser, i.e., the Arabic idolaters of Mecca, the hanifs and Qureshis, this local Jewish tribe or that local Christian or pagan tribe against whom the early Muslim believers had to battle strenuously and heroically in order to survive? If it is these local enemies of the Prophet and his early disciples whom you mean to refer to as “unbelievers” destined for Hell’s fires, there is textual evidence in The Recital to support you. But if you mean by “unbelievers” an arbitrary assortment of people across all space and all time, you are challenged to show the verses that give you this authority because there are none. Certainly you may have military or political reasons for wishing to engage in conflict with A or B or C — because you feel affronted or violated by their actions — but these would be normal secular reasons open to normal discourse and resolution including the normal laws of war as known by all nations and all peoples. There may be normal moral arguments to be made by radical Muslims against the US Government or against the Israeli Government or the British or Indian or some other Government — but there are no generalised justifications possible from within The Q’uran itself against these modern political entities. We should expose Mr Bin Laden and his friends’ lack of reason in both maintaining that Prophet Muhammad is the Seal of the Prophets, and also maintaining that they can extrapolate from The Q’uran something that is not in The Q’uran. The Q’uran speaks of no unbelievers or enemies of the Prophet or the early Muslims who are not their local enemies in that time and place.
Pritchard, the distinguished Oxford philosopher, once wrote an article called “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” We today may have to ask a similar question “Does Islamist Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?”
5. If all this so far has seemed too clinical and aseptic in approaching the mystical matters of the spirit, I hasten to add finally that a decisive counterattack upon natural science may be made by both religion and art together. Our small planet is a satellite of an unexceptional star in an unexceptional galaxy yet we are still the centre of the Universe in that it is only here, as far as any of us knows, that such things as reason, intelligence and consciousness have come to exist. (Finding water or even primitive life elsewhere will not change this.) We alone have had an ability to understand ourselves and be conscious of our own existence — the great galaxies, black holes and white dwarfs are all very impressive but none of them can do the same. What responsibility arises for us (or devolves upon us) because of this? That is the perfectly good question asked by art and religion on which science remains silent. Life has existed for x million years and will be extinguished in y million more years, but we do not know why it arose at all, or what responsibility falls on those beings, ourselves, who have the consciousness to ask this. Religion and art cannot battle and win on science’s home ground but they can and do win where science has nothing left to say.
That is what DH Lawrence meant when he said the novel was a greater invention than Galileo’s telescope. Other artists would say the same. Art expresses life, and human cultures can be fresh and vigorous or decadent and redolent of death. The culture that evaluates its own art and encourages new shoots of creativity will be one with a vibrant life; the culture that cannot will be vulnerable to a merger or takeover. There is and has been only one human species, no matter how infinitely variegated its specimens across space and time. All have a capacity to reason as well as a capacity to feel a range of emotions in their experience of the world, something we share to an extent with other forms of life as well. And every human society, in trying to ascertain what is good for itself, finds need to reason together about how its members may be best able to survive, grow, reproduce and flourish, and this vitally demands freedom of inquiry and expression of different points of view. The lone voice in dissent needs to be heard or at least not suppressed just in case it is the right voice counselling against a course that might lead to catastrophe for all. To reason together implies a true or right answer exists to be found, and so the enterprise of truth seeking requires freedom as a logical necessity. It takes guts to be a lone dissenter, and all societies have typically praised and encouraged the virtues of courage and integrity, and poured shame on cowardice, treachery or sycophancy. Similarly, since society is a going concern, justice and fairplay in the working of its institutions is praised and sought after while corruption, fraud or other venality is condemned and punished. Leavis spoke of the need for an educated public if there was not to be a collapse of standards in the arts, since it was only individual candour that could expose shallow but dominant coteries.
Freedom is logically necessary to keep all potential avenues to the truth open, and freedom of belief and experience and the tolerance of dissent, becomes most obvious in religion, where the stupendous task facing everyone is to unravel to the extent we can the “Mystery of Existence”. The scope of the ontological questions is so vast it is only wise to allow the widest search for answers to take place, across all possible sources of faith, wherever the possibility of an insight into any of these subtle truths may arise, and this may explain too why a few always try to experience all the great religions in their own lifetimes. A flourishing culture advances in its science, its artistic creativity and its spiritual or philosophical consciousness. It would be self-confident enough to thrive in a world of global transmissions of ideas, practices, institutions and artefacts. Even if it was small in economic size or power relative to others, it would not be fearful of its own capacity to absorb what is valuable or to reject what is worthless from the rest of the world. To absorb what is valuable from outside is to supercede what may be less valuable at home; to reject what is worthless from outside is to appreciate what may be worthwhile at home. Both require faculties of critical and self-critical judgement, and the flourishing society will be one that possesses these qualities and exercises them with confidence. Words are also deeds, and deeds may also be language.
The crimes of September 11 2001 were ones of perverse terroristic political protest, akin on a global scale to the adolescent youth in angry frustration who kills his schoolmates and his teachers with an automatic weapon. But they were not something inexplicable or sui generis, but rather signalled a collapse of the old cosmopolitan conversation with Islam, and at the same time expressed an incoherent cry of stifled people trying to return to an austere faith of the desert. Information we have about one another and ourselves has increased exponentially in recent years yet our mutual comprehension of one another and ourselves may have grossly deteriorated in quality. Reversing such atrophy in our self-knowledge and mutual comprehension requires, in my opinion, the encouragement of all societies of all sizes to flourish in their scientific knowledge, their religious and philosophical consciousness and self-discovery, and their artistic expressiveness under conditions of freedom. Ultra-modern societies like some in North America or Europe may then perhaps become more reflective during their pursuit of material advancement and prosperity, while ancient societies like those of Asia and elsewhere may perhaps become less fearful of their capacity to engage in the transition between tradition and modernity, indeed, may even affect the direction or speed of change in a positive manner. To use a metaphor of Otto Neurath, we are as if sailors on a ship, who, even while sailing on the water, have to change the old planks of the ship with new planks one by one. In due course of time, all the planks get changed one at a time, but at no time has there not been a ship existing in the process — at no time need we have lost our history or our identity.
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