Christopher Dawson on the Religion and Culture of
Parts III and IV
By Edward V. King
(Part I of this essay can be found in the Winter 1994 issue of The Dawson Newsletter--Volume
XII, No. 1 and Part II can be found in the Winter 1995 issue-Volume XIII, No 1.)
In lecture IX on 'The Divine Order and the Spiritual Life' the religion and culture of India
dominate - of the 18 pages, the last 14 are devoted to India and the diffusion of Buddhism to North,
East & South Asia.
In his discussion of the ascetic ideal in India and the radical questioning and negation of the whole
social-cultural scale of values, Dawson has a wonderful quote from the story which forms the
introduction to the , since it gives a "singularly forcible statement" of the
fundamental psychological attitude which inspires the whole movement of world renunciation and
world transcendence. It is a long quote - one and a half pages - and I will give a couple of passages
which illustrate this attitude.
" 'O Saint, what is the use of the enjoyment of pleasures of this offensive pithless body,a
mere mass of bones, skin, sinews, marrow, flesh, seed, blood, mucus, tears, phlegm, ordure,
water, bile and slime!
What is the use of the enjoyment of pleasures in this body which is assailed by lust, hatred,
greed, delusion, fear, anguish, jealousy, separation from what is loved, union with what is
not loved, hunger, thirst, old age, death, illness, grief, and other evils?
.....In such a world as this, what is the use of the enjoyment of pleasures, if he who has fed
on them is seen to return (to this world) again and again! Deign therefore to take me out!
In this world I am like a frog in a dry well.
O Saint, thou art my way, thou art my way.' "
(, XV, 287-90; translator, F. Max Mueller). Dawson, 180-
Dawson remarks that this attitude represents in an extreme and paradoxical form an experience that is
fundamental in the natural religious experience of mankind, occurring even in those cultures such as
ancient Greece and ancient China where the dominant religion ignores this element.
The peculiar character of the Indian development is due to the way this attitude was connected
with i) the doctrine of the transmigration of the soul from body to body & from existence to existence
& ii) to the ideas of retribution () & release (). Here he was going over
familiar ground in his discussion of the various paths of deliverance ending up with a description of
- the way of knowledge or metaphysical intuition - the classical solution of the great
Then follows a section on early Buddhism & its influence on the civilization of South, East &
Central Asia. Early Buddhist doctrine is marked by a "severely practical & rational spirit" very unlike
that of the Brahamanas & the Upanishads. Everything is brought down to a few very simple truths
whereby the whole of religion, of philosophy & of human life are reduced to the interior way of moral
& mental discipline (184).
This leads to the familiar paradox of Buddhism as a cultural force & Dawson's suggested
solution. As he says, how can a religious doctrine which is so lacking in theological beliefs & so
negative & pessimistic in its attitude to human life, provide the motive power necessary for effective
The solution seems to be that Buddhism embodies a much larger element of positive religion than
its philosophy seems to suggest. Dawson proceeds to single out two positive religious elements: i) as a
discipline of salvation it becomes a religious absolute - "the way to an absolute good which transcends
human life and human knowledge" (185); ii) the figure of the Buddha 'the Enlightened One' becomes
an object of religious devotion & worship, since he alone has found the way of salvation & release
from the wheel of existence & the law of retribution. He then quotes from the 'delightful story" in the
(trans. Rhys Davids) about the futility of cosmological inquiries and the
importance of the way of perfection (186-187).
This leads to the section on the two movements within Buddhism & Hinduism which replace the
older ways of salvation with the ways of devotion. With the rise of the Mahayana system in the first
centuries of the Christian era we have the open worship of the Buddha as God in China & Central
Asia, and he suggests the geographical source of this transformation in the Kushen Empire which
extended from the river Oxus to the Jumna & could therefore represent a fusion of Indian & Iranian
religious influences. At the same time the points to a similar transformation
taking place in Hinduism & he quotes a passage from Barnett's translation to illustrate his point (188).
Both movements, however, did not displace the older disciplines of salvation and he gives examples
from India & the Far East.
Dawson at this point asserts the unity of religious experience in Eastern religion which I have
quoted to introduce this article. He outlines three steps in this 'interior way of perfection' culminating
in divine union of identity in which the soul is merged in eternal & absolute Being. It is a "negative
intuition" of transcendence which he described in his second lecture developed systematically as the
goal of the religious life (190). He then raises the question whether it is possible to maintain that what
is known in the West as mysticism is as much a part of Natural Theology as the belief in the moral law
& the law of nature.
"If prayer is natural to man, there is no reason to reject the evidence that the movement of introversion
& concentration by which the soul seeks the way to a transcendent absolute reality in its own depths is
not peculiar to a single religion or a single cultural tradition but is a universal form of religious
Here the religious experience of India forms part of a universal pattern approximately coterminous
with the higher cultures & the world religions.
He concludes the lecture with a wonderful quote from the Buddhist in
order to show the danger in religions of pure contemplation of a divorce from historical reality & the
social order which deprives them of spiritual efficacy & creativity in the order of culture.
"The great verse of the , 'The verse of the great wisdom, the unsurpassed
verse, the verse that extinguishes all pain' is also the epitaph on Buddhism as a living and creative
'O Wisdom gone away, gone, gone to the other shore, landed on the other shore,
Svaha.' " (193)
(He doesn't' give the translator).
In the last paragraph he repeats the point he had made on the world religions of negation & pure
contemplation in (1929, pp. 138-39), using the same image of the jungle
swallowing up the great Buddhist cities of ancient Ceylon,
"As Walt Whitman, the most aggressive booster of the West, proclaimed, the great
adventure of Western Man, the discovery of the New World, is at the same time a passage to
India and more than India; the voyage of the mind's return to its first wisdom,the
understanding of the past and the comprehension of the whole, and the meeting of the two
opposite poles of the globe in a united humanity." ('The Relevance of European History' in
y Vol. VI, No. 9, Sept. 1956, Page 611.)
In 1959 a number of lectures and articles dealing with the relation between Asia and the West in
recent centuries were included in Dawson's book, . Four of
them discuss the civilization of India in some detail.
1) In 'The Fall of the Oriental Empires' (chapter 8), he highlights the uniqueness of the British
experience in India. The decay of the Mogul Empire in continental India created a political vacuum
which was filled by the economic power of the East India company out of which arose the British
Empire in India. British rule in India differed in important respects from all the other imperial and
colonial empires in history; not only from the Roman and Spanish empires, but also from the Dutch
and French colonial movements.
In the political, economic & social spheres the East India company was conservative. It was in
the sphere of education that it was revolutionary. There were two phases in this movement: i) the
foundation of the college at Fort William by Lord Wellesly was "epochmaking" since it led to the first
use of the vernacular languages in education; ii) the increasing demand and the need for the study of
English led to the creation of a standardized type of secular higher education in the English language
throughout the country. This common education eventually become the basis of modern Indian
nationality. He has a long quote from an Indian historian K.M. Panikkar - (1955) - to show that Indian nationalists themselves admit this fact (124-126).
However, Dawson points out that Panikkar does not make it sufficiently clear that the
transformation of Indian culture through this new system of education was foreseen and planned by the
founders of the system.
Dawson also draws attention to the important role of the Protestant missionaries in this movement
as he did in the case of China. It was they who provided the teachers and linguists and their religious
propaganda resulted in the reformist movements in Hinduism such as the Brahmo Samaj & the Arya
Samaj. Many of them were of humble origin. "The great pioneer in India", William Carey (1761-
1834), was a village shoemaker while Joshua Marshman (1768-1837) was the son of a weaver.
In contrast to the Protestants, the period of the 18th century was a period of decline "and even of
catastrophe" for the Catholic missions, due to the suppression of the Jesuits by the Papacy in 1773 and
the French Revolution which practically put an end to Catholic missions for a generation.
"The discouragement and defeatism which was caused by these events finds expression in the which the Abbe Dubois published after his return to Europe in
1823 from a mission that had lasted for thirty years, and in which he regards the conversion of the
higher castes of Hinduism as a hopeless task." 134).
Nevertheless, the 19th century witnessed "a great revival" of Catholic missions which was
different in approach from Protestant ones. The Catholics favored strong local Christian communities
while the Protestants focused on broadcast propaganda designed to reach the broadest possible
audience. He underlines the fact that it was the missionaries above all who attacked "the fundamental
social problem of India" - the question of caste - and who were the first who attempted to raise the
social and intellectual position of the Untouchables (137).
The other side of the picture was the ruthless exploitation of their economic opportunities by the
English traders and bankers in India in the 18th century and other European traders in the 19th
century, which aroused strong moral resistance, since the privileged position of the foreign merchant
& money lender is alien to the traditions of Asiatic peoples. This is the note on which he ends the
chapter as it provides the setting for the growth of anti-Western sentiment which ultimately became a
dominant factor in the relations of East and West.
2) In chapter 9, 'The Rise of Oriental Nationalism' (originally a lecture: 'Christianity and the Orient',
1956), India forms part of an international movement which he explores in some detail. In Asia
during the past, nationality and the state in its contemporary form hardly existed. There was kingship
and empire, and the ideal of a universal monarchy had its roots in the distant past, in the period of the
King of Kings and even back to Sargon of Akkad. The most important functions of the modern
Western State were performed in India by the sub-caste.
In theory politics was the business of kings but in practice, as Dawson points out, it was often an
affair of intrigues by the eunuchs of the court or conspiracies by mercenary soldiers.
He traces the roots of the nationalist movement to a new class, which had experienced the military
and economic power of the West and, in order to survive, had to learn the secrets of Western technical
efficiency. This involved some degree of Western education but it proved impossible to limit it to
purely technical subjects:
"Western techniques were inseparable from Western ideas, and the students who were trained in
Europe and America or under Western teachers became converts to the Western way of life, and
apostles of Western social and political ideas. Thus there grew up all over the East, and in a later
period in Africa also, a new educated class which was entirely alienated from the old learned classes -
the Confucian scholars in China, the Brahmins in India and the Ulema in Islam - and which shared the
culture of the student class of the West and especially of the liberal and revolutionary intelligentsia."
In opposition to this movement which is modernist, secularist and occidentalist, there has arisen a
number of movements in Asia which are devoted to the defense of cultural and religious tradition. In
India this found expression in the Mahasabha, the party representing Orthodox Hinduism, as well as a
number of Communal national movements like the Sikhs.
Towards the end of the lecture Dawson raises the question of whether all these movements can
lead to world peace or deepen the breach between East and West. He views nationalism as a source of
division since it contains no universal principle of unity or international order. In contrast to this all
the world religions and all the great civilizations of the past alike in East & West agree that there is a
higher law above that of the tribe and nation to which national interest & political power must be
"This belief in the Law of nature and the Law of God is so ancient and so universal that it has
been taken for granted and dismissed as a platitude, or else misinterpreted in accordance with the
philosophical fashions of the moment, and thus denied. Today, however, it has become the vital
principle on which the survival of civilization, and indeed of humanity, depends." (155-156).
It is a tribute to Dawson's honesty & fairness that in the conclusion of the lecture he squarely
faces the objection of the secular idealist who views the fundamental differences between East and
West as being essentially religious and sees in the movement of secularization the cause of the partial
degree of unity attained by the modern world. It is at this point that he brings India into the picture.
The outburst of violence and mass killing which followed the withdrawal of the British from India and
the achievement of national independence was religious rather than political in origin. He admits that
Gandhi's attitude in his last months far transcended political nationalism. "It was religious in the
highest sense of the word." (156).
Nevertheless, it is difficult to deny that Gandhi was responsible in some degree for these
"catastrophic events" since he was the one instrumental in enlisting the religious instincts of the masses
in the cause of nationalism. This is the note on which the lecture ends; the age-old differences of
culture & religion & race exercise "a profound unconscious influence" on the thought and behaviour of
the oriental masses. It is the fundamental problem that Christianity has to face - not just a question of
different nations, "but of different " (157, his italics).
3) In chapter 10, 'Christianity and the Oriental Cultures', the second lecture delivered at Bangor in
Wales in 1956, Dawson refers to two Indian scholars in his analysis of the movement of change
affecting the oriental cultures. In the first part of the lecture he again includes India as an example of
an oriental culture in the past in which the state was unimportant and which expanded in Antiquity and
the Middle Ages to the South, East and North. He repeats the point made in the first set of Gifford
Lectures about Buddhism constituting a fourth great oriental unity, an intermediate civilization between
those of India & China.
This is followed by a sociological analysis of the movement of change in the East showing that it
is still confined to the educated minority which is naturally an urban class. The vast majority of
people in Asia continue to live in their villages and he draws upon the study of an Indian sociologist,
Dr. S. C. Dube's (1955), which illustrates the old village as the dominant factor in
people's lives (168-169). Nevertheless, the modern world is "seeping in by a hundred channels" and
nothing can prevent its ultimate triumph."
This raises the question of what will be the dominant force in the new culture of Asia, and
Dawson underlines the importance of the contribution Catholics can make to the process of study &
criticism & spiritual questioning upon which the peoples of the East are now engaged, a process which
has been going on for more than a century. Here Dawson mentions "the remarkable study", (1955), of Sardar Panikkar for the second time and praises it for taking a
much more universal view than most books on oriental history.
In addition he claims that it is almost unique in the space & attention that it devotes to the
religious aspect of Western expansion in Asia and the importance of Christian missionary action,
quoting a passage to that effect.
On the other hand, Dawson faces Panikkar's assertion that "the attempt to conquer Asia for Christ
has definitely failed", given the national revival of the peoples of Asia which involves the vindication
of the ancient religions & cultures of the East against the intrusion of Western colonial power and
Christian missionary influence. Dawson then proceeds to show how this, however, is a "gross
simplification of a very complex problem" (172). In the first place, it ignores the importance of the
movement inspired by a revolutionary spirit of historical criticism showing no respect for the traditions
of the past. "When social criticism has reached this point, there is no turning back." (174). In the
second place, it ignores the spiritual vacuum in the great cosmopolitan urban centres of Asia which
points to a new religious need that will not be satisfied by the traditional answers of the old religious
At the end of the lecture he raises the question of how Christianity can best take advantage of this
new situation. Sociologically there are three broad classes which provide different avenues of
approach: i) the new Western educated classes; ii) the world of the peasants; iii) the urban
cosmopolitan classes of the great oriental cities. It is the third group which provided the teachers and
martyrs of the faith at the time of Saint Paul and it is this group which Dawson highlights in the
concluding paragraph as the most important today, and he includes Calcutta & Bombay together with
Tokyo, Shanghai, Canton & Singapore as the possible key points of Oriental Christianity in the future.
This article was taken from "The Dawson Newsletter," Summer 1995, P.O. Box 332,
Fayetteville, AR 72702, $8.00 per year.