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An Historical Sketch

Chapter I - Religions Of India And Eastern Asia

The countries with which this work deals are roughly speaking India with Ceylon; Indo-China with parts of the Malay Archipelago; Japan and China with the neighbouring regions such as Tibet and Mongolia. All of them have been more or less influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism and in hardly any of them is Mohammedanism the predominant creed[1], though it may have numerous adherents. The rest of Asia is mainly Mohammedan or Christian and though a few Buddhists may be found even in Europe (as the Kalmuks) still neither Hinduism nor Buddhism has met with general acceptance west of India.

In one sense, the common element in the religion of all these countries is the presence of Indian ideas, due in most cases to Buddhism which is the export form of Hinduism, although Brahmanic Hinduism reached Camboja and the Archipelago. But this is not the element on which I wish now to insist.

I would rather enquire whether apart from the diffusion of ideas which has taken place in historical times, there is any common substratum in the religious temperament of this area, any fund of primitive, or at least prehistoric ideas, shared by its inhabitants. Such common ideas will be deep-seated and not obvious, for it needs but little first-hand acquaintance with Asia to learn that all generalizations about the spirit of the East require careful testing and that such words as Asiatic or oriental do not connote one type of mind. For instance in China and Japan the control of the state over religion is exceptionally strong: in India it is exceptionally weak.

The religious temperaments of these nations differ from one another as much as the Mohammedan and European temperaments and the fact that many races have adopted Buddhism and refashioned it to their liking does not indicate that their mental texture is identical. The cause of this superficial uniformity is rather that Buddhism in its prime had no serious rivals in either activity or profundity, but presented itself to the inhabitants of Eastern Asia as pre-eminently the religion of civilized men, and was often backed by the support of princes. Yet one cannot help thinking that its success in Eastern Asia and its failure in the West are not due merely to politics and geography but must correspond with some racial idiosyncrasies.

Though it is hard to see what mental features are common to the dreamy Hindus and the practical Chinese, it may be true that throughout Eastern Asia for one reason or another such as political despotism, want of military spirit, or on the other hand a tendency to regard the family, the clan or the state as the unit, the sense of individuality is weaker than in Western Asia or Europe, so that pantheism and quietism with their doctrines of the vanity of the world and the bliss of absorption arouse less opposition from robust lovers of life. This is the most that can be stated and it does not explain why there are many Buddhists in Japan but none in Persia.

But apart from Buddhism and all creeds which have received a name, certain ideas are universal in this vast region. One of them is the belief in nature spirits, beings who dwell in rocks, trees, streams and other natural objects and possess in their own sphere considerable powers of doing good or ill. The Nagas, Yakshas and Bhutas of India, the Nats of Burma, the Peys of Siam, the Kami of Japan and the Shen of China are a few items in a list which might be indefinitely extended. In many countries this ghostly population is as numerous as the birds of the forest: they haunt every retired spot and perch unseen under the eaves of every house. Theology has not usually troubled itself to define their status and it may even be uncertain whether respect is shown to the spirits inhabiting streams and mountain peaks or to the peaks and streams themselves[2].

They may be kindly (though generally requiring punctilious attention), or mischievous, or determined enemies of mankind. But infinite as are their variations, the ordinary Asiatic no more doubts their existence than he doubts the existence of animals. The position which they enjoy, like their character, is various, for in Asia deities like men have careers which depend on luck. Many of them remain mere elves or goblins, some become considerable local deities. But often they occupy a position intermediate between real gods and fairies.

Thus in southern India, Burma and Ceylon may be seen humble shrines, which are not exactly temples but the abodes of beings whom prudent people respect. They have little concern with the destinies of the soul or the observance of the moral law but much to do with the vagaries of rivers and weather and with the prosperity of the village. Though these spirits may attain a high position within a certain district (as for instance Maha Saman, the deity of Adam's Peak in Ceylon) they are not of the same stuff as the great gods of Asia.

These latter are syntheses of many ideas, and centuries of human thought have laboured on their gigantic figures. It is true that the mental attitude which deifies the village stream is fundamentally the same as that which worships the sun, but in the latter case the magnitude of the phenomenon deified sets it even for the most rustic mind in another plane. Also the nature gods of the Veda are not quite the same as the nature spirits which the Indian peasants worship to-day and worshipped, as the Pitakas tell us, in the time of the Buddha.

For the Vedic deities are such forces as fire and light, wind and water. This is nature worship but the worship of nature generalized, not of some bold rock or mysterious rustling tree. It may be that a migratory life, such as the ancient Aryans at one time led, inclined their minds to these wider views, since neither the family nor the tribe had an abiding interest in any one place. Thus the ancestors of the Turks in the days before Islam worshipped the spirits of the sky, earth and water, whereas the more civilized but sedentary Chinese had genii for every hamlet, pool and hillock.

It is difficult to say whether monotheism is a development of this nature worship or has another origin. In Japanese religion the monotheistic tendency is markedly absent. The sun-goddess is the principal deity but remains simply prima inter pares. But in the ancient religion of China, T'ien or Heaven, also called Shang-ti, the supreme ruler, though somewhat shadowy and impersonal, does become an omnipotent Providence without even approximate rivals. Other superhuman beings are in comparison with him merely angels. Unfortunately the early history of Chinese religion is obscure and the documents scanty. In India however the evolution of pantheism or theism (though usually with a pantheistic tinge) out of the worship of nature forces seems clear.

These gods or forces are seen to melt into one another and to be aspects of one another, until the mind naturally passes on to the idea that they are all manifestations of one force finding expression in human consciousness as well as in physical phenomena. The animist and pantheist represent different stages but not different methods of thought. For the former, every natural object which impresses him is alive; the latter concurs in this view, only he thinks the universe is instinct with one and the same life displaying itself in infinite variety.

One difficulty incidental to the treatment of Asiatic religions in European languages is the necessity, or at any rate the ineradicable habit, of using well-known words like God and soul as the equivalents of Asiatic terms which have not precisely the same content and which often imply a different point of view. For practical life it is wise and charitable to minimize religious differences and emphasize points of agreement.

But this willingness to believe that others think as we do becomes a veritable vice if we are attempting an impartial exposition of their ideas. If the English word God means the deity of ordinary Christianity, who is much the same as Allah or Jehovah—that is to say the creator of the world and enforcer of the moral law—then it would be better never to use this word in writing of the religions of India and Eastern Asia, for the concept is almost entirely foreign to them. The nature spirits of which we have been speaking are clearly not God: when an Indian peasant brings offerings to the tomb of a deceased brigand or the Emperor of China promotes some departed worthy to be a deity of a certain class, we call the ceremony deification, but there is not the smallest intention of identifying the person deified with the Supreme Being, and odd as it may seem, the worship of such "gods" is compatible with monotheism or atheism.

In China, Shang-ti is less definite than God[3] and it does not appear that he is thought of as the creator of the world and of human souls. Even the greater Hindu deities are not really God, for those who follow the higher life can neglect and almost despise them, without, however, denying their existence. On the other hand Brahman, the pantheos of India, though equal to the Christian God in majesty, is really a different conception, for he is not a creator in the ordinary sense: he is impersonal and though not evil, yet he transcends both good and evil.

He might seem merely a force more suited to be the subject matter of science than of religion, were not meditation on him the occupation, and union with him the goal, of many devout lives. And even when Indian deities are most personal, as in the Vishnuite sects, it will be generally found that their relations to the world and the soul are not those of the Christian God. It is because the conception of superhuman existence is so different in Europe and Asia that Asiatic religions often seem contradictory or corrupt: Buddhism and Jainism, which we describe as atheistic, and the colourless respectable religion of educated Chinese, become in their outward manifestations unblushingly polytheistic.

Similar difficulties and ambiguities attend the use of the word soul, for Buddhism, which is supposed to hold that there is no soul, preaches retribution in future existences for acts done in this, and seeks to terrify the evil doer with the pains of hell; whereas the philosophy of the Brahmans, which inculcates a belief in the soul, seems to teach in some of its phases that the disembodied and immortal soul has no consciousness in the ordinary human sense. Here language is dealing with the same problems as those which we describe by such phrases as the soul, immortality and continuous existence, but it is striving to express ideas for which we have little sympathy and no adequate terminology. They will be considered later.

But one attitude towards that which survives death is almost universal in Eastern Asia and also easily intelligible. It finds expression in the ceremonies known as ancestor worship. This practice has attracted special attention in China, where it is the commonest and most conspicuous form of religious observance, but it is equally prevalent among the Hindus, though less prominent because it is only one among the many rites which engage the attention of that most devout nation. It is one of the main constituents in the religions of Indo-China and Japan, though the best authorities think that it was not the predominant element in the oldest form of Shinto. It is less prominent among the Tibeto-Burmese tribes but not absent, for in Tibet there are both good and evil ghosts who demand recognition by appropriate rites. It is sometimes hard to distinguish it from the worship of natural forces.

For instance in China and southern India most villages have a local deity who is often nameless. The origin of such deities may be found either in a departed worthy or in some striking phenomenon or in the association of the two.

The cult of ghosts may be due to either fear or affection, and both motives are found in Eastern Asia. But though abundant examples of the propitiation of angry spirits can be cited, respect and consideration for the dead are the feelings which usually inspire these ceremonies at the present day and form the chief basis of family religion.

There is no need to explain this sentiment. It is much stronger in Asia than in Europe but some of its manifestations may be paralleled by masses and prayers for the dead, others by the care bestowed on graves and by notices in memoriam. As a rule both in China and India only the last three generations are honoured in these ceremonies. The reason is obvious: the more ancient ancestors have ceased to be living memories. But it might be hard to find a theoretical justification for neglecting them and it is remarkable that in all parts of Asia the cult of the dead fits very awkwardly into the official creeds. It is not really consistent with any doctrine of metempsychosis or with Buddhist teaching as to the impermanence of the Ego.

In China may be found the further inconsistency that the spirit of a departed relative may receive the tribute of offerings and salutations called ancestor worship, while at the same time Buddhist services are being performed for his deliverance from hell. But of the wide distribution, antiquity and strength of the cult there can be no doubt. It is anterior not only to Brahmanism but to the doctrines of transmigration and karma, and the main occupation of Buddhist priests in China and Japan is the performance of ceremonies supposed to benefit the dead. Even within Buddhism these practices cannot be dismissed as a late or foreign corruption.

In the Khuddaka-pâṭha which, if not belonging to the most ancient part of the Buddhist canon, is at least pre-Christian and purely Indian, the dead are represented as waiting for offerings and as blessing those who give them. It is also curious that a recent work called Raymond by Sir O. Lodge (1916) gives a view of the state after death which is substantially that of the Chinese. For its teaching is that the dead retain their personality, concern themselves with the things of this world, know what is going to happen here and can to some extent render assistance to the living[4]. Also (and this point is specially remarkable) burning and mutilation of the body seem to inconvenience the dead.

Early Chinese works prescribe that during the performance of ancestral rites, the ghosts are to be represented by people known as the personators of the dead who receive the offerings and are supposed to be temporarily possessed by spirits and to be their mouthpieces.

Possession by ghosts or other spirits is, in popular esteem, of frequent occurrence in India, China, Japan and Indo-China. It is one of the many factors which have contributed to the ideas of incarnation and deification, that is, that gods can become men and men gods. In Europe the spheres of the human and divine are strictly separated: to pass from one to the other is exceptional: a single incarnation is regarded as an epoch-making event of universal importance.

But in Asia the frontiers are not thus rigidly delimitated, nor are God and man thus opposed. The ordinary dead become powers in the spirit world and can bless or injure here: the great dead become deities: in another order of ideas, the dead immediately become reincarnate and reappear on earth: the gods take the shape of men, sometimes for the space of a human life, sometimes for a shorter apparition.

Many teachers in India have been revered as partial incarnations of Vishnu and most of the higher clergy in Tibet claim to be Buddhas or Bodhisattvas manifest in the flesh. There is no proof that the doctrine of metempsychosis existed in Eastern Asia independently of Indian influence but the ready acceptance accorded to it was largely due to the prevalent feeling that the worlds of men and spirits are divided by no great gulf. It is quite natural to step into the spirit world and back again into this.

It will not have escaped the reader's attention that many of the features which I have noticed as common to the religions of Eastern Asia—such as the worship of nature spirits and ancestors—are not peculiar to those countries but are almost, if not quite, universal in certain stages of religious development. They can, for instance, be traced in Europe. But whereas they exist here as survivals discernible only to the eye of research and even at the beginning of the Christian era had ceased to be the obvious characteristics of European paganism, in Asia they are still obvious.

Age and logic have not impaired their vigour, and official theology, far from persecuting them, has accommodated its shape to theirs. This brings us to another point where the linguistic difficulty again makes itself felt, namely, that the word religion has not quite the same meaning in Eastern Asia as in Mohammedan and Christian lands. I know of no definition which would cover Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism and the superstitions of African savages, for the four have little community of subject matter or aim. If any definition can be found it must I think be based on some superficial characteristic such as ceremonial. Nor is there any objection to refusing the title of religion to Buddhism and Confucianism, except that an inconvenient lacuna would remain in our vocabulary, for they are not adequately described as philosophies.

A crucial instance of the difference in the ideas prevalent in Europe and Eastern Asia is the fact that in China many people belong to two or three religions and it would seem that when Buddhism existed in India the common practice was similar. Paganism and spiritual religion can co-exist in the same mind provided their spheres are kept distinct. But Christianity and Islam both retain the idea of a jealous God who demands not only exclusive devotion but also exclusive belief: to believe in other Gods is not only erroneous; it is disobedience and disloyalty. But such ideas have little currency in Eastern Asia, especially among Buddhists.

The Buddha is not a creator or a king but rather a physician. He demands no allegiance and for those who disobey him the only punishment is continuance of the disease. And though Indian deities may claim personal and exclusive devotion, yet in defining and limiting belief their priests are less exacting than Papal or Moslim doctors. Despite sectarian formulas, the Hindu cherishes broader ideas such as that all deities are forms and passing shapes of one essence; that all have their proper places and that gods, creeds and ceremonies are necessary helps in the lower stages of the religious life but immaterial to the adept.

It does not follow from this that Hindus are lukewarm or insincere in their convictions. On the contrary, faith is more intense and more widely spread among them than in Europe. Nor can it be said that their religion is something detachable from ordinary life: the burden of daily observances prescribed and duly borne seems to us intolerable.

But Buddhism and many forms of Hinduism present themselves as methods of salvation with a simplicity and singleness of aim which may be paralleled in the Gospels but only rarely in the national churches of Europe. The pious Buddhist is one who moulds his life and thoughts according to a certain law: he is not much concerned with worshipping the gods of the state or city, but has nothing against such worship: his aims and procedure have nothing to do with spirits who give wealth and children or avert misfortune. But since such matters are of great interest to mankind, he is naturally brought into contact with them and he has no more objection to a religious service for procuring rain than to a scientific experiment for the same purpose.

Similarly Confucians follow a system of ethics which is sufficient for a gentleman and accords a decorous recognition to a Supreme Being and ancestral spirits. Much concession to superstition would be reprehensible according to this code but if a Confucian honours some deity either for his private objects or because it is part of his duties as a magistrate, he is not offending Confucius. He is simply engaging in an act which has nothing to do with Confucianism. The same distinction often applies in Indian religion but is less clear there, because both the higher doctrine as well as ordinary ceremonial and mythology are described under one name as Hinduism. But if a native of southern India occasionally sacrifices a buffalo to placate some village spirit, it does not follow that all his religious notions are of this barbarous type.

Asiatic ideas as to the relations between religions are illustrated by an anecdote related to me in Assam. Christianity has made many converts among the Khasis, a non-Hindu tribe of that region, and a successful revival meeting extending over a week was once held in a district of professing Christians. When the week was over and the missionaries gone, the Khasis performed a ceremony in honour of their tribal deities. Their pastors regarded this as a woeful lapse from grace but no disbelief in Christianity or change of faith was implied.

The Khasis had embraced Christianity in the same spirit that animated the ancient disciples of the Buddha: it was the higher law which spoke of a new life and of the world to come. But it was not understood that it offered to take over the business of the local deities, to look after crops and pigs and children, to keep smallpox, tigers and serpents in order. Nobody doubted the existence of spirits who regulate these matters, while admitting that ethics and the road to heaven were not in their department, and therefore it was thought wise to supplement the Christian ceremonies by others held in their honour and thus let them see that they were not forgotten and run no risk of incurring their enmity.

My object in this chapter is to point out at the very beginning that in Asia the existence of a duly labelled religion, such as Buddhism or Confucianism, does not imply the suppression of older nameless beliefs, especially about nature spirits and ghosts. In China and many other countries we must not be surprised to find Buddhists honouring spirits who have nothing to do with Buddhism. In India we must not suppose that the doctrines of Râmânuja or any other great teacher are responsible for the crudities of village worship, nor yet rashly assume that the villager is ignorant of them.

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- Footnotes:


The Malay countries are the only exception.


Thus Motoori (quoted in Aston's Shintō, p. 9) says "Birds, beasts, plants and trees, seas and mountains and all other things whatsoever which deserve to be dreaded and revered for the extraordinary and pre-eminent powers which they possess are called Kami."


This impersonality is perhaps a later characteristic. The original form of the Chinese character for T'ien Heaven represented a man. The old Finnish and Samoyede names for God—Ukko and Num—perhaps belong to this stage of thought.


See the account of the Faunus message in this book.

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