Comparative Religion

Comparative Religion

J. Estlin Carpenter
J. Estlin Carpenter

Author: Carpenter, J. Estlin (Joseph Estlin), 1844-1927
Comparative Religion







            “Those first affections,
    Those shadowy recollections,
    Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain light of all our day,
Are yet a master light of all our seeing;
    Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence.”

“To the philosopher the existence of God may seem to rest on a syllogism; in the eyes of the historian it rests on the whole evolution of human thought.”—MAX MÜLLER.




Over the chancel-arch of the church at South Leigh, a few miles west of Oxford, is a fresco of the Last Judgment and the Resurrection, of the type well known in mediæval art. On the adjoining south wall stands the stately figure of the archangel Michael. In his right hand he holds a pair of scales. In one scale is the figure of a soul in the attitude of prayer; beside it is Our Lady carrying a rosary. The other contains an ox-headed demon blowing a horn. This scale rises steadily, though another demon has climbed to the beam above to weigh it down, and a third from hell’s mouth below endeavours to drag it towards the abyss. The same theme recurs in several other English churches; and it is carved over the portals of many French cathedrals, as at Notre Dame in Paris.
Unroll a papyrus from an Egyptian tomb of the Eighteenth Dynasty before the days of Moses, and you will see a somewhat similar scene. The just and merciful judge Osiris, “lord of life and king of eternity,” sits in the Hall of the two goddesses of Truth. Hither the soul is brought for the ordeal which will determine his future bliss or woe. Before forty-two assessors he declares his innocence of various offences: “I am not a doer of what is wrong; I am not a robber; I am not a slayer of men; I am not a niggard; I am not a teller of lies; I am not a monopoliser of food; I am no extortioner; I am not unchaste; I am not the causer of others’ tears….” Then he is led, sometimes supported by the two goddesses of Truth, to the actual trial. Resting on an upright post is the beam of a balance. It is guarded by a dog-headed ape, symbol of Thoth, “lord of the scales.” Thoth has various functions in the ancient texts, and even rises into a kind of impersonation of the principle of intelligence in the whole universe. Here as the computer of time and the inventor of numbers he plays the part of secretary to Osiris. In one scale is placed the heart of the deceased, the organ of conscience. In the other is sometimes a square weight, sometimes an ostrich plume, symbol of truth or righteousness. Thoth stands beside the scales, tablet in hand, to record the issue as the soul passes to the great award.
The scenes and the persons differ; but the fundamental conception of judgment is the same, and it is carried out by the same method. Is this an accidental coincidence of metaphor? The figure of the balance was naturally suggestive for the estimate of worth, and the Psalmist cried in bitterness of heart—
Surely men of low degree are vanity,
And men of high degree are a lie,
In the balances they will go up;
They are altogether lighter than vanity.

The mysterious hand wrote upon the wall of Belshazzar’s palace the strange word Tekel, which contained the dreadful sentence, “Thou art weighed in the balances and art found wanting.” To early Indian imagination, before the days of the Buddha (500 B.C.), the ordeal of the balance was part of the outlook into the world beyond. In the ancient Persian teaching, Rashnu, the angel of justice, before the shining “Friend,” the mediator Mithra, presided over the weighing of the spirits at the bridge of destiny, over which they would pass to heaven or hell.
Is Michael the heir of Thoth or Rashnu? He passed into the Christian Church from the Jewish Synagogue, where he was specially connected with the destinies of the dead. He guided the souls of the just to the heavenly world, where he led them into the mystic city, the counterpart of Jerusalem below; or he stood at the gate as the angel of righteousness to decide who should be admitted. So for the Greeks Hermes was the guardian of the spirits of the departed, whom he conducted to the judgment in the under-world. In this respect, then, Hermes and Michael were akin. But Hermes also played many other parts, and the Greeks identified him with the Egyptian Thoth. When the destinies of Hector and Achilles were weighed against each other, ere the last mortal combat, the vase-painter could represent Hermes as holding the balance in the presence of Zeus, much as Thoth had presided over it before Osiris. The Etruscan artists depicted Mercury, the Italian equivalent of Hermes, fulfilling the same function. True, the purport of the test was different. But the symbol was the same; and when Hermes gave place to Michael, as Christianity was carried to the West, the scales passed from the Hellenic to the Jewish Christian figure, though they had in the one case been used to decide the allotment of fate, and in the other were employed for judgment. Why they remained so long unused in Christian symbolism is obscure. The revival of intercourse with the East through the Crusades may have given new force to the idea as part of the great judgment-process; and the figure to which it was most natural to assign it was that of Thoth-Hermes-Michael.

The religion of the ancient Hindus was founded, as every one knows, upon the venerable hymns collected into one sacred book under the name of the Rig Veda. These hymns, 1017 in number, containing over 10,000 verses, are now arranged in ten books, twice the number of the divisions of the Hebrew Psalter. Like most of the Psalms they are traditionally ascribed to different poets, in whose families they were sung; and their authors were regarded as Rishis, bards, or sages. Of their real origin nothing is definitely known; their composition probably extends over many generations, perhaps over several centuries; and dim suggestions of their super-earthly origin already appear in some of the latest poems. They became the peculiar treasure of the priestly order; the most laborious efforts were devised for the study and preservation of the sacred text; the methods of pronunciation, the rules of grammar, the principles of metre, the derivations of words, were all elaborated with the utmost minuteness into different branches of Vedic lore. Two other smaller Vedas, collections of sacrificial formulæ and hymns, were very early placed beside the main work, and a fourth collection gained similar rank much later. With the development of the great schools of Hindu philosophy, especially after the decline of Buddhism, the whole question of authority as the foundation of belief and reasoning was forced to the front, and this in due time was applied to the Veda. Brahmanical speculation had been long concerned with its divine origin. It sprang from one of the mysterious figures in which the ancient theologians expressed their sense of the real unity of the heavenly powers, Prajāpati, the “lord of creatures,” through the medium of Vach, or sacred Speech. As such it was “the firstborn in the universe.” But as proceeding from Prajāpati it issued from the world of the an-anta, the “un-ending” or “infinite,” which was likewise the sphere of the a-mrita, the “im-mortal” or “deathless.” So it belonged to the realm of the eternal, where it could be beheld, not indeed with the eye of sense, but with the higher discernment of the holy Seer. The philosophical schools occupied themselves accordingly with the defence of the eternity and consequent infallibility of the Veda. Elaborate arguments were devised to explain the relation of words to things, and of sound in the abstract to uttered speech or again to show how behind individuals which had their origin in time there existed species (even of the gods) which belonged to the timeless order transcending our experience. So the conclusion was reached, in the words of the great philosopher Çankara (A.D. 788-820), that “the authority of the Veda with regard to the matters stated by it is independent and direct; just as the light of the sun is the direct means of our knowledge of form and colour.”
Just at this era, by a singular coincidence, a remarkable controversy was raging in the schools of Mohammedan theology. Mohammed died in A.D. 632. He had himself recorded nothing; the traditions about him are not even agreed whether he could read or write. His oracles were taught to his disciples, who began to note down some of them during the prophet’s life; soon after his death the formal collection of them was undertaken; and under Caliph Othman (651) four copies were deposited in the cities of Mecca, Cufa, Basra, and Damascus. We know the work under the name of the Koran (Qurān = reading), one of the numerous expressions which Mohammed was said to have coined for the revelation imparted to him from on high. Later generations attached the title exclusively to the utterances fixed in literary form, and discerned in them a unity designed by the prophet; but it seems more consonant with his view to regard each of the 114 discourses (suras) as a unit in itself, and the whole as only a fragment of his teaching. Many passages raise a claim to specific divine origin; others allude to the uncreated Scripture, umm-al-kitab, “the mother of the book.”
On such hints was founded the remarkable doctrine that the Koran was eternal in its essence as the word of God, a necessary attribute of the Most High. First formulated in the middle of the eighth century (A.D. 747-748), it roused extraordinary interest outside the theological schools. It was fostered by the early Caliphs, for it supported their political authority, and the emphasis which it placed on the doctrine of predestination supplied them with a potent weapon. Opposition arose on the ground of free will; the passages enforcing the principle of predestination were evaded by the handy method of allegorical interpretation, and the revolt of the moral consciousness led, as it has done elsewhere, to rationalism. Public debates were held amid general excitement, when the Caliph Ma’mun (813-833) unexpectedly espoused the rationalist cause, and issued a decree forbidding the discussion. The popular forces, however, were in the long run triumphant. In 847 a new Caliph came into power, inclined for political reasons to the higher doctrine. Lectures were instituted in the mosques on the attributes of God, and vast audiences—the historians report twenty and even thirty thousand hearers—listened eagerly while the theologians disputed whether God’s word could be conceived distinct from his absolute being. Faith in the prophet triumphed; the exaltation of the product reacted on that of the person; and the Arabian shepherd could be regarded as the inerrant, sinless, uncreated light, sent forth from Deity himself, who for his sake spread out the earth and arched the heavens, and proclaimed the great confession “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.”

Every great historical religion passes through numerous phases, as it is brought into contact with different cultures, and evokes various forms of speculative thought and inward experience. Buddhism has been no exception to this rule. It sprang up in a moral revolt against the claims of the Brahmanical teachers, and in the midst of the discussions of the sophists turned its back on metaphysics and sought to concentrate attention on the Noble Path of the good life. It offered a way of deliverance from the weary round of births and deaths by the victory over ignorance and sin, and sought to overcome selfishness by eliminating the idea that man has, or is, a Self. Accordingly it presented its founder Gotama (500 B.C.), as the man who had attained the Truth, who had by a long series of lives devoted to the higher righteousness acquired the insight into the causes and meaning of existence, and imparted it to his followers with instructions to carry it forth for the welfare of their fellow-men. For this end he founded a union or order; he instituted a discipline, and committed his teaching to a body of disciples whose successors gradually bore it into distant lands. He himself passed away, leaving no trace behind. His memory was cherished with dutiful devotion. Pilgrimages to the scenes of his birth and Buddhahood, commemorative festivals and pious rites, kept the image of the Teacher before the mind of the believer. But no prayer was offered to him; no worship created any bond of fellowship between the departed Gotama and the community which he had left on earth.

But in the course of several generations remarkable changes took place. Environed by philosophical speculations, Buddhism could not remain wholly unaffected by the great ideas of metaphysics. While one branch, now surviving in Ceylon, Burma and Siam, remained faithful to the Founder’s exclusion of all such conceptions as being, substance, and the like, others began to interpret the person of the Buddha in terms of the Absolute, and identified him with the Eternal and the Self-Existent, who from time to time for the welfare of the world took on himself the semblance of humanity, and appeared to be born, to attain Enlightenment, and die. The great aim of the deliverance of all sentient beings from error, suffering, and guilt, expressed itself further in the association with him of numerous other holy forms sharing the same purpose of the world’s salvation.
Among these was the Buddha Amitâbha, the Buddha of Boundless Light,[1] who had made a wondrous vow in virtue of which a blessed future of righteousness and joy in the Western Paradise was secured for all who put their trust in him. Carried into China, this devotion acquired great popularity, and centuries later it passed into Japan. There, while Europe was sending its warriors to win back from the Crescent the city of the Cross, while Bernard and Francis and Dominic were awakening new enthusiasm for the monastic life, two famous teachers, Honen (1133-1212) and Shin-ran (1173-1262), developed the doctrine of “salvation by faith.” Honen was the only son of a military chief who died of a wound inflicted by an enemy. On his deathbed he enjoined the boy never to seek revenge, and bade him become a monk for the spiritual enlightenment both of his father and his father’s foe. So the lad passed in due time into one of the great Buddhist monasteries on mount Hiei. Long years of laborious study followed, till in 1175 he reached the conviction that faith in Amida[2] was the true way of salvation. A deep sense of human sinfulness and the belief in an All-Merciful Deliverer were the essential elements of his religion. Three emperors became his pupils, and his life, compiled by imperial order after his death, resembles that of a mediæval Christian saint. Visions of Amida and of the holy teachers of the past were vouchsafed to him. He preached—like another St. Francis—to the serpents and the birds. His person was mysteriously transfigured, and a wondrous light filled his dwelling.

[1] Also called Amitâyus, the Buddha of Boundless Life.
[2] The Japanese form of the Sanskrit Amitâbha.

His disciple Shin-ran carried the doctrine of his master yet a little farther. Filled with adoring gratitude to the Buddha of Boundless Light, who, as the deliverer, was also the Buddha of Boundless Life, he argued that infinite mercy and infinite wisdom must belong to him; and these in their turn implied the power to give effect to his great purpose. He passed from village to village through the Eastern provinces, rousing enthusiasm by the hymns into which he wrought his new faith. They are still sung in the temples at the present day. But whereas Honen had recognised a value in good works, and had enjoined the duty of constant repetition of the sacred name of Amida, Shin-ran insisted that all element of “self-exertion” must be purged away, and faith in the merits of Amida—”the exertion of another”—should alone remain. Some of the conceptions of Western teaching thus present themselves in Japan in the midst of modes of life and thought of purely Indian origin. Christian theologians had debated whether faith was to be regarded as an opus or a donum, a “work” or a “gift,” was it something to be attained by man or was it bestowed by God? The Japanese answer was unhesitating. Faith was not earned by effort, or achieved by merit, it was granted out of immeasurable love. “The Buddha,” we read, “confers this heart. The heart which takes refuge in his heart is not produced by oneself. It is produced by the command of Buddha. Hence it is called the believing heart by the Power of Another.” The natural corollary was that in due course this grace would be bestowed on all. The Buddha of Boundless Light and Life would overcome the darkness of ignorance and death; and this type of Buddhism, now the most active and influential in Japan, preaches the doctrine of universal salvation. The student finds here a whole series of parallels to the Evangelical interpretation of Christianity. Both schemes are founded on the same essential ideas, man’s need of a deliverer, and the attainment of salvation by no human conduct but by faith in a divine person.

The foregoing sketches raise many problems. What are the actual features in different religions which are susceptible of comparison? How can we distinguish between resemblances which are deep-seated and spring from the fundamental principles of two given faiths, and those which are only on the surface, and probably accidental? How far can such parallels be ascribed to suggestion through historical contact, and, if they lie too far apart for possibilities of any form of mutual dependence, out of what common types of experience are they derived, what forces of thought have shaped them, what feelings do they express?
The student of Comparative Religion seeks answers to these and similar questions. A vast field of inquiry is at once opened before him. It embraces practically every continent, people, and tribe on the face of the globe. It begins in the last period of the great ice age, when men lived in this country in the company of the elephant, the rhinoceros, and the mammoth, and hunted their game through Germany, Belgium, and France. In dim recesses of the caves they painted the deer, the bison, the antelope and the wild boar, under conditions which imply some kind of mysterious or holy place. They buried their dead with care, and though we can ask them no questions we may infer with much probability that they celebrated some kind of funeral meal, and deposited implements and ornaments in the grave for the use of the departed in the world beyond. In one case hundreds of shells were found buried with the skull of a little child. Similar usages may be traced through the slow advances of culture to the present day. Death is an element of universal experience; and it is not unreasonable to suppose that if the negroid peoples of Western Europe had worked out some view of its meaning and consequences, there were other things to be done or avoided out of fear or reverence for the Unseen.
The first objects of comparison are thus found in the outward acts which fall more or less clearly within the sphere of religion, the places where these are performed, the persons who do them, the means required for them, the occasions to which they are attached. These all belong to th

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