Christopher Dawson on the Religion and Culture of India: Part II

Author: Edward V. King

Christopher Dawson on the Religion and Culture of India: Part II

by Edward V. King

(Part I of this essay will be found in the Winter 1994 issue of The Dawson Newsletter--Volume XII, No. 1) This part deals with Volume I of the Gifford Lectures, delivered at the University of Edinburgh from 1947 to 1948. Published in two volumes in 1948 and 1950.)

"The Western student of Eastern religion and especially of Mahayana Buddhism is apt to be oppressed and bewildered by the tropical luxuriance of its development. He is lost in a jungle of metaphysical systems and sacred literatures which have become inextricably interwoven in the course of ages, so that in spite of the immense spiritual energy that has been expended, he is often brought back to the point from which he set out, without any clear knowledge of what has been achieved.

"Nevertheless, underlying all this complex development there is a unity of religious experience which is no less striking than the unity in diversity which characterizes the conception of the ritual order in the different archaic civilizations."

Religion & Culture, 1948, Volume I of the Gifford Lectures, pp 189-190)

There are numerous references to the culture of India in the first series of Gifford Lectures, but it is only in lectures V and IX that we have an extended analysis of the religious tradition of India. Thus a simple descriptive listing of references in the other lectures is probably the best way to give the reader an idea of how often India is brought into the discussion.

i) In lecture I on "Natural Theology and the Scientific Study of Religion" Dawson mentions the Evenings at St. Petersburg of Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) and the book On the Language and Wisdom of the Indians (1808) by Friedriech von Schlegel (1772-1829) as examples of writers who turned to the religion and philosophy of India in order to combat the "abstract a priori constructions" of 18th century rationalism (13-14)

ii) In lecture II on "God and the Supernatural" he criticizes the attempt of John Dewey in the first of his Gifford lectures to construct a sociological rationalization of the Vedanta in terms of the caste system (34-35). Such an explanation is far too superficial to explain so general and so profound a teaching in human thought as the intuition of transcendent spiritual being. In a footnote he singles out Pere G. Dandoy's "remarkable essay" entitled An Essay on the Doctrine of the Unreality of the World in the Advaita (1919) and further on he quotes a passage from it to show how Eastern philosophy started with the principle of Transcendent Being in contrast to Western philosophy which began with the Hellenic conception of Nature (35-37).

In the concluding section of the lecture he refers to the religious literature of India where one can trace (i) a highly specialized class devoted to the study of sacred formulas and ritual techniques and (ii) a movement of theological thought and speculation concerning ultimate religious truths. When this point is reached one can indeed speak of Natural Theology; nevertheless, the Vedanta itself claims the authority of revelation in the strict sense of the word and he quotes a passage from the Vedanta Sutras of Sankara to prove his point, giving the reader some background on the latter in a footnote (42- 43).

iii) In lecture III on "The Relation between Religion and Culture" Dawson at the end of the lecture highlights the paradox of Buddhism which he will later repeat in lecture IX. At first sight Buddhism seems entirely indifferent to culture since it appears to represent a turning of the mind away from life. Nevertheless, as lndologists would be the first to point out, Buddhism was "emphatically a way of life" in that it created communities and institutions and had "a more far-reaching influence on the culture of Eastern and Southern Asia than any other movement" (60).

He gives as two striking examples the Buddhist cultures of Tibet and Mongolia in which the monks transferred intact the "extremely subtle and elaborate" structure of Buddhist metaphysics from Sanscrit to Tibetan and then later from Tibetan to Mongolian so that the whole of Eastern Central Asia is dominated by what he terms "this secondary derivative Buddhist culture."

"Thus by a strange irony of history the most aggressive warrior people of Asia--the Mongols--came to adopt a religion of non-aggression and universal compassion; and if, as seems probable, this event gradually led to a change in the character and habits of the people which contributed to the cessation of the age-long drive of the peoples of the steppes to East and West, it may be reckoned as one of the turning points in world history. On the other hand it is equally clear that the native tradition of Tibet and Mongolia had a powerful influence on the higher religion of Buddhism and this shows the other side of the relation between religion and culture displayed "on a colossal scale in time and space"." (60-61).

iv) In lecture VI on Kingship as one of "The Sources of Religious Knowledge and the Religious Organs of Society", he includes the Indians of the Vedic Age as one of a series of peoples who are preoccupied with blood and lineage who believe in the divine origin of kings (113).

v) In lecture VII on Sacred Science as a manifestation of "The Divine Order and the Order of Nature" Dawson brings India into the picture in his discussion of the main source from which the idea of a cosmic order developed. The cosmic order is brought out "with exceptional perfection and detail" in the ritual theology of the Brahamanas. But it is far older than this since the idea already finds expression in the hymns of the Rig Veda which Dawson praises for their literary beauty in two consecutive paragraphs:

"The religion of the Rig Veda is perhaps the most perfect example of a polytheistic religion of the divine powers of nature that we know, and it is expressed with a poetic power and imagination which is unequaled except in Greek literature."

"...The Dawn which is addressed in some of the most beautiful of all ancient hymns is the real visible dawn rather than a supernatural power." (144).

It would seem that it was the translation of Hermann Oldenberg which conveyed to Dawson the exquisite beauty of these hymns since he refers to volume 46 of the Sacred Books of the East series in two footnotes on the following page, omitting to mention, however, the translator.

vi) Finally in lecture X he concludes with a number of sociological observations on India: in section I: the dualism in the Indian cultural tradition between the Aryan warrior culture and the Archaic Indian culture, (199); in section II: the Jains as an example of extreme other- worldliness combined with economic enterprise and social adaptability, (203-204); in sections III and IV: the paradox of Buddhism again; its positive influence on culture versus its negative influence, (207-208); Buddhism as one of the world religions which regard supernatural revelation as transcending human culture and universal to all peoples, (211-212); Hinduism and Buddhism as two of the five world religions in a secularized civilization which still continue to influence human life but have lost their organic relation to society, (213-214).

In lecture V dealing with the Priesthood and Sacrifice as one of the "Sources of Religious Knowledge and the Religious Organs of Society'", four of the eight sections comprising 10 pages focus on India.

In section III he notes the outstanding importance of India in the specialized development of sacrificial and ritual technique, not only on account of its antiquity and wealth of documentation but still more on account of its intensity and persistence in pursuing this particular tradition. Dawson outlines three stages in the development: i) the primitive conception of the magical potency of the sacred formula; ii) the speculative theory of the creative power of the divine word - the Brahman; iii) the conscious philosophical identification of the enlightened mind with the Atman - the Self and with Brahman, the ultimate transcendent Reality (92).

This development is not a straight-forward progress from magic to religion or from mythology to mysticism since the religious element is more evident in the religious poetry of the Rig Veda than in the ritual technology of the Brahamanas. Dawson yet again praises "the magnificent religious poetry of the hymns of the Rig Veda." (p.93)

In sections III and IV he gives illustrations of this process with a number of quotations from the Satapatha Brahamana and the Brihadaranyaka, Chandogya and Mundaka Upanishads, all in The Sacred Books of the East series (93-98).

In section V it seems at first sight surprising that Dawson would include Buddhism in the lecture on Priesthood and Sacrifice. He justifies this with the argument that not only are the Buddhist monks the lineal descendants of the Brahmins, but also that Buddhism is a kind of sublimated Brahminism in which the rite of sacrifice is replaced by moral asceticism and the priestly caste by the monastic order.

Here he repeats the point made in lecture III about the enormous influence Buddhist monasticism exerted throughout Central Asia, the Far East and the extinct culture of East Turkestan, through its "tireless activity" in the translation and diffusion of a great range of theological, metaphysical and literary works (99-100).

In section VI Dawson concludes his discussion of the religion of the priesthood and sacrifice in India. The latter survived and triumphed over the great secondary disciplines of salvation - Buddhism and Jainism. With the rise of the temple cultus and the theistic developments of Vishnuism and Sivaism associated with it, modern Hinduism resembles the classical type of priestly culture as developed in the Near East..

In addition to this, the doctrine of the sacrifice received its scientific formulation in an independent philosophical school--the Karma Mimamsa--which is parallel to the Vedanta and even more than the latter, is the classical system of orthodox Indian religion (101).

In the last section of the lecture Dawson remarks on the relation between the priest and the man of learning in the higher cultures and these have also tended to be the chief interpreters and intermediaries between different cultures. India furnishes two examples with men like Rammohun Roy, the Bengal Brahmin and religious reformer, "who did more to bridge the gulf between European and Indian culture than any other man of this generation", or Iswar Chandra Vidyasager (1820-1891) who carried on a similar work in the following generation (105).

This article was taken from "The Dawson Newsletter," Winter 1995, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, $8.00 per year.