Christopher Dawson on the Religion and Culture of India (Part 1)

Author: Edward King


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 cultures.

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 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).[1] 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,[2] 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).[3] 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.[4]

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.[5]

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.[6]

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.[7]

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 (1922).

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 Nagarjunian criticism."[8]

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..[9]

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.[10] [11]


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 trans.); (1923).

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



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:


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 1933).

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, pages 293-296).

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 quotations).

B) Brief mention.

1) 'Progress and Decay in Ancient and Modern Civilization', January, 1924, vol xvi, No. 1, especially pages 7-8.

2) 'Civilization and Morals', July, 1925, vol. xvii, No. 3, page 177. (Quotes Ananda Coomaaraswamy, 1911, page 59.)


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 & 364-365.).

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.


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' chapter.

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 left blank.

B) 600-25 B.C.

1 - The Intellectual Awakening:

- The Early Upanishads, 7th & 6th centuries. - Buddha. - 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.



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 etc..

- 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, 80).

"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 117).

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 sword....

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 penance.

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 personalities.

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 Alone:

"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 ascetic.

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 lucid sentence:

"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, (139-142).

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 of rebirth:

"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 of nature:

(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, Editor