CHRISTOPHER DAWSON ON THE RELIGION AND CULTURE OF INDIA
by Edward V. King
This is the third installment of the project to which Mr. Edward
V. King has devoted himself over the last several years. That is, of
identifying the nature of the work of the scholars of the Oriental
religious and cultures upon whom Christopher Dawson relied in
forming his own interpretation of the significance of these
The two preceding installments in this project of Mr. King were
published in The Dawson Newsletter of Volume VII, No. 2 -
"Christopher Dawson and the Great European Orientalists" and
the issue of Volume VII, No. 4 - "China in the Thought of
Christopher Dawson." This current issue contains the first part of
Installment three of this project.
THE WORLD OF SCHOLARSHIP--THE TRANSLATORS AND HISTORIANS
"The world of true Being which is man's spiritual home is the
world that knows no change. The world of time and change is the
material world from which man must escape of he would be saved.
For all the works of men and the rise and fall of kingdoms are
but the fruits of ignorance and lust - - and
even the masters of the world must recognize in the end the
vanity of their labours like the great Shogun Hideyoshi who
wrote on his deathbed:
'Alas, as grass I fade
As the dew I vanish
Even Osaka castle
Is a dream within a dream.'"
('The Kingdom of God and History' in H.G. Woods et al, 1938, p. 200-201).
We are fortunate in that the world of the Western Indologists
has been explored to a greater degree than that of the Western
sinologists who studied Chinese culture.
1. Pere Henri de Lubac S.J. has traced the history of the impact
of Buddhist thought on the West over a two thousand year period in his
study, (1952). An American
scholar, Guy Richard Welbon in his book, (1968), has chapters on some of the key scholars
upon who Dawson relied in his study of Buddhism - F. Max Mueller, H.
Oldenberg, T.W. Rhys Davids & L. de la Vallee Poussin.
The period 1780 - 1880 in Europe has been studied in depth by
Raymond Schwab in his classic work, (1948),
which has been recently translated into English by two American scholars,
(1984). Finally another American professor
Carl T. Jackson, does for America in the 19th century what Schwab did for
Europe, with less focus on the world of scholarship and more on the
literary and theological writers - (1981). in both books the word 'oriental'
refers mostly to the religion and philosophy of India.
II - The translators on whom Dawson relied in his reading on the
Hindu and Buddhist texts were all distinguished scholars in England.
Friedrich Max Mueller (1823-1900) was the editor of the and translated the volumes on the Vedic hymns, some of the
Upanishads and the from the Pali Buddhism.
Thomas William Rhys Davids (1848-1922), founded the Pali Text
Society in 1881 and also translated for the
some of the key Pali texts of Buddhism. In addition, his wife Carolyn was
a noted Buddhist scholar.
Lionel David Barnett (1871-1960), had a vast knowledge of Indian
languages and dialects which he put to use as administrator and
bibliographer at the British Museum. He taught Sanscrit at University
College London from 1906 to 1917 and subsequently at the London School of
Oriental Studies from 1917 to 1948. Most of his translations were from the
Sanscrit texts and these were the ones used by Dawson. His son Richard
David followed in his footsteps.
III - In his personal library Dawson's historical guides were all
very cautious scholars who refused to generalize beyond the sources,
whether from art, archeology, coins, or inscriptions, etc.
During the period of study - 1912 to 1930 - he had acquired
Vincent Arthur Smith's (1848-1920) (third edition, 1914). Like so many
British indologists Smith had a background in the Indian Civil Service
where he had a chance to study Indian art and archeology at first hand.
Edward James Rapson (1861-1937), was a leading authority on
Indian coins and medals which he drew upon in his book. (1916). He also edited the
first volume of the
Finally, Dawson also bought Louis de la Vallee Poussin's (1869 -
1938) first of three volumes on India in the series
entitled, (1924). La Vallee Poussin's field was Buddhist philosophy and
religion from which he "submitted the ancient history of India to his
During the later period - 1946 to 1960 - he acquired three
pioneer works of synthesis on Southeast Asia and South India. Geoges
Coedes (1887-1969), was the great French authority on Southwest Asia, the
director of the Ecole Francaise de L'Extreme Orient, whose first general
work of synthesis appeared in 1948, covering the period 100 B.C. to 1600 A.D..
Nilakanta Sastri (1892-1975), summed up a lifetime of regional
studies on South Indian history in his study,
(1955). Unfortunately I was unable to locate any information on his life
and where he taught.
Finally, D.G.E. Hall (1891-1979), who had taught courses on the
history of Asia at the University of Rangoon in Burma during the twenties,
was appointed in 1949 to the newly established chair of the History of
South East Asia in the University of London. (1955), was the first attempt in any language to cover all the
cultures of this area. In 1959 he was invited to teach on South East Asian
history at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. 
1. In his library, Dawson has his book (1953,
English trans.), three chapters, notes and glossary.
2. Dawson has two of his books: (1903, French
3. The English edition has an excellent bibliography which is also the
case with Jackson's study.
4. Dawson has the two Max Mueller translations from the Upanishads, vols.
I & XV in the (1900).
5. Dawson quotes from Rhys David's translation in the first set of
Gifford lectures, (1948).
6. Dawson has his books: (1911); (1913).
7. Also in his library is Smith's
(1909, 2nd edition).
8. H. Durt in his article on Poussin in M. Eliade (ed.) (1987), vol. 8, 462.
9. There is an English translation of the second revised edition of 1964,
(1968) with a short
editor's note by W.F. Vella. In 1962 Coedes published which was translated in 1966 with the
misleading title, The Making of South East Asia. It brings the
history of the Indo Chinese cultures up to the nineteenth century.
10. There is an interesting biographical sketch of Hall by C.D. Cowan
in: C.D. Cowan & O.W. Wolters (eds.) pages 11-23. It
includes a photograph of him.
11. Information on the other English orientalists from Max Mueller to
Rapson can be found in the
THE INDOLOGISTS AND THE STUDY OF INDIAN CULTURE
A. The Period 1912 to 1932
"The Indians picture the whole life process as an endless wheel
of lives and deaths gripped in the claws of the monster Kama or
desire; to be freed from that wheel is the end of their effort.
'Through birth and rebirth's endless round,
Seeking in vain, I hastened on,
To find who framed this edifice;
What misery! Birth incessantly.'
"But how can man escape from the domination of this power
which seems the very power of life itself? Only, it was said, by
turning his back on life, by seeing in the whole sensible world
nothing but illusion, and by leaving the finite and the known for
the unknown infinite....
"The classical expression of this attitude to life is found in
Buddhism, which excelled all other Indianreligions in the
simplicity of its reasoning and in the austerity of its morals.
`Two things only do I teach,
sorrow and the ending of sorrow,'
said the Buddha, rebuking those who would know whether
Nirvana was existence or non-existence." (The Nature and Destiny
of Man, 1920).
From the period 1920 to 1932 there are numerous references in
Christopher Dawson's writings to the history and religious
experience of India - especially the era of the Upanishads and the
Buddha. These writings can be classified in the following manner:
I - PARTS OF GENERAL PHILOSOPHICAL - HISTORICAL ESSAYS AND BOOK REVIEWS:
A) Extended discussion.
1) 'The Nature and Destiny of Man', 1920, (most of section II of
this essay; it includes two quotations; it is found on pages 322- 326 in
2) Book reviews of A.B. Keith, 'The Religion and Philosophy of
the Veda and the Upanishads' and P. Dahlke, 'Buddhism and Its Place in the
Mental Life of Mankind' ( October, 1928, No. 367,
3) 'The Revolt of the East and the Catholic Tradition', ( July, 1928, No. 366, especially pages 5-7 & 12- 14. There
is a quote from Sir C. Eliot, vol I, page ix.).
4) 'The Dark Mirror', ( October, 1930, No.
375, especially pages 187-190. One quotation.)
5) 'The Claim of Christianity', chapter III in his book,
1931, pages 51-58 & 82-84. (four
B) Brief mention.
1) 'Progress and Decay in Ancient and Modern Civilization', January, 1924, vol xvi, No. 1, especially pages
2) 'Civilization and Morals', July,
1925, vol. xvii, No. 3, page 177. (Quotes Ananda Coomaaraswamy, 1911, page 59.)
II - HISTORICAL OUTLINES AND STUDIES OF CULTURAL GROWTH AND DIFFUSION.
A) 'The Life of Civilization', 1922,
vol. xiv, (the section on Ages III & IV).
B) Book reviews of W.J. Perry, and G.
Slater. (April & October, 1924, pages 158-161 &
C) 'Religion and the Life of Civilization', January, 1925, vol. 244, (the section on 'The Coming of
the World Religions').
d) 1928, chapters II, IV, V, VIII.
III - DETAILED SOCIOLOGICAL - PHILOSOPHICAL - HISTORICAL ANALYSIS.
A) 'The Rise of the World Religions', chapter VI in 1929.
B) (16 page
lecture, 1929?). A condensed version is in J. Oliver & C. Scott
(eds.) 1974, Part One, chapter 5,
'Mysticism in India'.
Amongst all these writings I think four are worth focusing on -
I) the 'Chronological Chart'; II) III) The
sixteen page lecture, and IV) 'The Rise of the World Religions'
The Chronological Chart which accompanies Dawson's lecture on
'The Life of Civilization' is important because it is the only outline we
have giving us his view of the different significant cultures in the
history of India, and the diffusion of Indian civilization in relation to
his theory of cultural growth and decay. It appeared in 1922, the same
year that saw the publication of one of the great works of the European
orientalists on the earlier history of India - "Ancient India", edited by
E.J. Rapson - the first volume of the
AGE III - 1200 B.C. TO 580 A.D..
A) 1200-580 B.C.
Proceeding on the chart from West to East, India is the only section
B) 600-25 B.C.
1 - The Intellectual Awakening:
- The Early Upanishads, 7th & 6th centuries.
- Rise of Indian Philosophy.
2 - The Expansion of the West (corresponds with):
- The Maurya Dynasty from 321
- Asoka, 269-227. Spread of Buddhism.
- Contacts with Hellenism.
3 - Era of Imperialism:
- The Greeks in the Punjab 200-25 B.C..
C) 30 B.C. - 580 A.D..
1 - Rise of the World Religions: 30 B.C. - 250 A.D..
- Indo Scythian Empire: 40-226 A.D.
- Rise of Mahayana Buddhism and Neo Hinduism.
2 - Flowering of Religion Cultures: 250-550 A.D..
- Gupta Empire: 320 to 6th century.
- Religious Art / the drama / the Great Buddhist Doctors / the Puranas.
3 - Material Decline and Barbarian Invasions:
- The White Huns / Fall of Gupta Empire.
AGE IV: THE MODERN WORLD: 500 - PRESENT
1 - Fertilization of the Daughter Cultures: 500-750 A.D..
- Rise of Rajput and Dravidian Kingdoms.
- Extension of Indian culture to Cambodia and Java.
2 (A) The First Flowering of the Daughter Cultures. 9th century
- Early Medieval Period.
(i) Temples of Ellura, Elphanta and Orissa.
(ii) Sankara the Philosopher, 9th century.
2 (B) The Second Flowering of the Daughter Cultures.
12th century etc..
- Later Medieval Period:
(i) The Great Temple Building Period, 11th & 12th centuries.
(ii) Ramanuja the Philosopher, (d. 1137).
(iii) Angkor Wat in Cambodia, 12th century.
3 - Ruin of the Ancient (Age 111) Culture Centres.
- 1190-1206. Moslem Conquest of North India.
1 - The Intellectual Awakening, 1350-1600.
- The Mughal Renaissance in India; Akbar to Shah Jahan (1550-1660).
- Mughal Architecture & Art.
2 - The Expansion of the West, 1500-1750. Progress of Science.
- European Influence in India.
- Hindu Reaction to Islam.
3 - The Era of Revolution, 1750-1900. Economic Change.
Conquest and Exploitation.
- British Conquest and Administration.
The Crisis of the New Order and the Reawakening of the East.
- Indian Nationalism.
In his first published book, (1928), Dawson
situates India in relation to a series of different cultures and their
diffusions, which fill in the blank shown on his 'Chronological Chart'
before the first millennium B.C.. The first of these is the Hunting
Culture of the Paleolithic Age which was subsequently diffused through
India to Southeastern Asia and Australasia and through Siberia to North
America - (Chapter II, 39- 40 and chapter IV, 65). Another is the
mysterious megalith culture which also has a wide extension from the West
of Europe to the far East of Asia. Its settlements were situated mostly in
Central and Southern India as well as in Assam and Manipur -
(chapter III, 51 and chapter IX, 195,206).
Then there is the pastoral nomadic warrior culture of the Indo
European invaders - the Aryans - whose rapid diffusion spread over the
vast continental region between Northern Europe and India and East
Turkestan - (chapter XI, 254-257).
Finally there are the Higher city civilizations which Dawson,
following W.J. Perry, calls the 'Archaic Culture', They span the area from
the Mediterranean to India and seem to possess a fundamental community
alike in type and in origin - (chapter VI, 117-118). In three chapters, IV
V and VI, Dawson discusses India's relation to this movement. The
important discoveries made in 1924 revealed the existence of an ancient
civilization in the Indus valley dating back at least to the early part of
the third millennium. It was not a peasant culture but rather a true city
civilization resembling that of the Sumerians - (chapter IV, 68-70, 72-74,
"Certainly it is in India alone that the sacred city, like the
religion of the Mother Goddess, has survived down to the present
day, so that the temples of Puri, and Madura and Benares, seem
to carry us back four or five thousand years to the House at
Erech, or the temple of the Lord of the Earth at Nippur." (page
This mention of the Religion of the Mother Goddess does situate
India in relation to the peasant culture since she is worshipped in the
villages no less than in the temple cities of the South. There is a
wonderful quote from a modern Bengali poet to show that the worship of the
Great Mother sometimes tends to supersede the other great Hindu deities -
(chapter V, 104).
"I have searched the Vedas and the Vedantas, the Tantras and the
Mantras, yet nowhere I found thy fulness. As Rama thou dost take
the bow, as Sayama the Black (Krishna) thou dost seize the
O Mother, Mother of the Universe, art thou male or female? Who
can say? 'Who knows thy form? Nilkantha's mind ever thinks of
thee as chief of Creators." **********
"This doctrine of unity - of non dualism - as the Hindus call it,
is the fundamental teaching of the Upanishads and indeed of all the later
religion of India. As professor de la Vallee Poussin has said, 'It was the
great discovery which has remained for at least twenty five centuries the
capital and most cherished truth of the Indian people' (p. 27).
"The man who cannot understand this, cannot understand the
religion of India nor the civilization with which it is so intimately
connected." (`The Civilization of the East Aryan Peoples...." page 11).
In his lecture on he gives a
detailed analysis of the religion and society of the Vedic Age (6 pages)
and the Age of the Upanishads (10 pages), the latter which he labels, 'The
Rise of Brahmanism."
"Unfortunately we know nothing, Dawson says, of the early history
of India, but we do have the literature of that time." (page 2). Basing
his lecture on the literary and archeological evidence and using extensive
quotations from the former, Dawson proceeds to describe the religion and
culture of the two ages - the Veda and the Upanishads. The sociological
picture of the Vedic Age is that of a pastoral warrior society living in
villages in conflict with the ancient city civilization of the Archaic
culture and the natives of 'Rig Veda' is a polytheistic nature religion in
which we find the powers of nature personified. It provides many parallels
with the same type of religion in ancient China and Greece and Dawson
provides many quotes from Greek literary sources.
Two important deities are associated with the priestly class -
Agni, the sacrificial fire and Soma, the sacred drink. It is this class
which determines the course of the religious development of India from the
nature worship of the Vedic period to the Brahmanism of the Upanishads.
The rise of Brahmanism is connected with a concentration on
ritual in which the sacrifice overshadows the gods and becomes the
ultimate force in the world. This development is due to a new class, the
ascetics or hermits who withdraw from society into the forest to study the
inner meaning of rites and legends and to practice austerities and
They seem to be non - Aryan and come from the native Indian
culture; they become the most characteristic figure in Indian religion up
to the present: the muni, the sannyasi, the Sadhu, the Yogi.
The sacred writings known as the Upanishads reveal the higher
stage of Indian religion. They are known as 'Vedanta' - the end of the
Vedas. Their date is uncertain but they are closely connected with the
Brahamanas and they are earlier than Buddhism - i.e. previous to 500
B.C.. They are due to a new movement of thought connected with some great
This movement was inspired by a desire to attain absolute
reality; not merely to get behind the material world, but to get beyond
the personal gods of the Vedic age, and even to transcend the sacred rites
as interpreted by the Brahamanas,
- (p. 9, his emphasis).
Two words describe this ultimate reality: Brahman (Mind) and
Atman (Self) and he quotes from the &
Upanishads to illustrate their meaning.
In addition to this development there marks the first appearance
in Indian literature of the idea of reincarnation and the idea of karma
which were to govern the whole future of Indian thought. The concept of
reincarnation is not in the Rig Veda nor the Brahamanas but is rather to
be found in the beliefs of the aboriginal population. In the Upanishads it
first received philosophical treatment and was completed by the ideas of
'karma' and 'moksha' (retribution and deliverance). It is at this point
that Dawson inserts the quotation from de la Vallee Poussin which I have
used to introduce this lecture.
Then he devotes a section of the lecture to the discussion of the
difficulty of the Western mind in understanding the Vedanta, which was the
main subject of his review of Keith's book, October, 1928). The root
of the problem is the fact that the religious development of the West has
followed such a totally different course. The modern Western conception of
religion is ethical and personalist in contrast to the intellectual and
impersonal conception of the Indian tradition,
Consequently many Westerners regard the Indian development as a
retrograde one, a rejection of ethical theism in the interests of an
intellectualist pantheism. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that
the Western admirers of Indian thought like Schopenhauer and Deussen
regard the Upanishads as pure philosophic monism, similar to that of
modern Western metaphysicians.
Nevertheless, it is misleading to interpret the Vedanta along
these lines. The non-dualism of the Vedenta is a religious absolutism in
which only God exists and Dawson quotes from Sankara to back up his point:
(p. 13, transl. Barnett).
It teaches a way of spiritual deliverance, not a philosophic
theory of knowledge and resembles the 'Via Negativa' of the Christian
mystics rather than the metaphysics of Western idealist philosophers.
In the same way the ethical aspect of the Upanishads is that of
the mystic rather than the practical man - the flight of the Alone to the
"Herein the father is no father, the mother
no mother, the worlds no worlds, the Gods no Gods,
the Vedas no Vedas;
herein the thief is no thief, the murderer no
murderer, the outcaste no outcaste, the ascetic no
Good attaches not, evil attaches not;
for then he has overpast all the griefs of the heart."
(p. 15, quoting the Brihadaryanaka Upanishad, 1V;
1V. transl. Max Mueller).
Nevertheless they are the most intellectualist of all forms of
mysticism and are exposed to the characteristic dangers of this type of
thought. The following period witnessed the rise of rationalism and the
denial of the objective reality of absolute being which was the essence of
the teaching of the Upanishads. Dawson sums up the danger in a typically
"The theory of knowledge is apt to be mistaken for the knowledge
itself, and that which was a spiritual experience becomes an
intellectual formula" (p. 16).
In 'The Rise of the World Religions' which forms chapter VI in
his book a considerable portion is devoted to the
Indian tradition. The religion of the Vedic age forms part of the movement
which saw the transformation of the sacred ritual order in the Archaic
culture into a moral law of justice and truth. Then he devotes seven pages
to the search for the absolute in the Upanishads and Buddhism, (127-133).
He introduces and concludes the four pages on Taoism by showing the
parallel with Indian thought, (134,137). This is followed by a description
of the way the worship of the Mother Goddess and the archaic temple cultus
together with primitive forms of animism and magic tend to reabsorb the
higher forms of Indian religion, (138-139). Finally, he draws the parallel
between the Indian higher religions and the Greek view of the world as
exemplified in the Orphic and Pythagorean teachings, Empedocles and Plato,
In reading these passages one is struck by the aptness of
Dawson's quotations from the Upanishads and Buddhism which illustrate
their attitude to reality and their view of life.
I - The search for the absolute in the Upanishads and the
identification with the Atman or Self:
(Pages 129-130, quoting from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad,
III, vii, tr. L.D. Barnett).
It can only be described by negatives:
(p. 129, no source given).
II - The resultant ethic which alone can free man from the penalty
"As is a man's desire, so is his will,
and as is his will so is his deed,
and whatever deed (Karma) he does
that will he reap."....(page 130, from the Brihad-aryanaka
Upanishad, IV, iv, tr. Max Mueller).
"Knowing Brahman a man becomes a saint;
hermits wander forth seeking him for their world.
Understanding this the ancients desired not offspring, 'what
is offspring to us who have this Self for our world.'
So having departed from desire of sons,
from desire of substance and desire of the world,
they went about begging." (page 130, Op. cit. IV, iv,22)
III - Buddhism as the highest expression of the ascetic ideal in
which deliverance is the one vital issue:
(page 132. Dawson gives no
source, but I managed to track it down to the book in his library
by K.J. Saunders, 1914, page 9).
The unreality of the cosmic order as seen in the external course
(page 133, no source given).
The sorrowful wheel of existence driven round by ignorance
and lust and the path of moral deliverance - the VIA NEGATIVA:
(page 133, from
The Questions of King Menander).
Taken from the Winter 1994 issue of "The Dawson
Newsletter." For subscriptions send $8.00 to "The Dawson
Newsletter", P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702. John J. Mulloy,