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LET us first of all consider the conception of Deity which was formed by these ancestors, simultaneously with the Egyptians, or, as is much more probable, before them. Their traditions may lay claim to at least five or six thousand years, and they themselves received these traditions from peoples who to-day have disappeared, their last trace in the memory of man dating back, according to Timæus and the "Critias" of Plato, one hundred and twenty centuries.
I must apologize to the reader for the inextricable nomenclature of Oriental mythology and the multiplicity of those anthropomorphic divinities whom the priests of India, like those of Egypt and of Persia, and indeed of all times and countries, were compelled to create in order to satisfy the demands of popular idolatry. I shall also spare him the ostentation of a facile scholarship, lavish of unpronounceable names, in order at once to proceed to and consider only the essential conception of the First Cause, as we find it in the remotest sources, which, if not withheld from the common people, ceased gradually to be understood by them, until it became the Great Secret of the elect among the priests and initiates.
Let us at once give ear to the "Rig-Veda," the most authentic echo of the most immemorial traditions; let us note how it approaches the formidable problem:
"There was neither Being nor non-Being. There was neither atmosphere nor heavens above the atmosphere. What moved and whither? And in whose care? Were there waters, and the bottomless deep?
"There was then neither death nor immortality. The day was not divided from the night. Only the One breathed, in Himself, without extraneous breath, and apart from Him there was nothing.
"Then for the first time desire awoke within Him; this was the first seed of the Spirit. The sages, full of understanding, striving within their hearts, discovered in non-Being the link with Being.
"Who knoweth and who can tell where creation was born, whence it came, and whether the gods were not born afterwards? Who knoweth whence it hath come?
"Whence this creation hath come, whether it be created or uncreated, He whose eye watches over it from the highest heaven, He alone knoweth: and yet doth He know?" 1
Is it possible to find, in our human annals, words more majestic, more full of solemn anguish, more august in tone, more devout, more terrible? Where could we find at the very foundation of life, a completer and more irreducible confession of ignorance? Where, from the depths of our agnosticism, which thousands of years have augmented, can we point to a wider horizon? At the very outset it surpasses all that has been said, and goes farther than we shall ever dare to go, lest we fall into despair, for it does not fear to ask itself whether the Supreme Being knows what He has done — knows whether He is or is not the Creator, and questions whether He has become conscious of Himself.
Now let us hear the "Sama-Veda," confirming and elucidating this magnificent confession of ignorance:
"If thou sayest, 'I have perfect knowledge of the Supreme Being,' thou deceivest thyself, for who shall number His attributes? If thou sayest, 'I think I know Him; I do not think I know Him perfectly, nor that I do not know Him at all; but I know Him in part; for he who knows all the manifestations of the gods who proceed from Him knows the Supreme Being'; if thou sayest this, thou deceivest thyself, for not to be wholly ignorant of Him is not to know Him.
"He, on the contrary, who believes that he does not know Him, is he that does know Him; and he who believes that he knows Him is he that does not know Him. Those who know Him best regard Him as incomprehensible and those who know nothing at all of Him believe that they know Him perfectly."
To this fundamental agnosticism the "Yadjur Veda" brings its absolute pantheism:
"The sage fixes his eyes upon this mysterious Being in whom the universe perpetually exists, for it has no other foundation. In Him this world is contained; it is from Him that this world has issued. He is entwined and en-woven in all created things, under all the varied forms of life.
"This sole Being, to whom nothing can attain, is swifter than thought; and the gods themselves cannot comprehend this Supreme Mover who has preceded them all. He is remote from all things and close at hand. He fills the entire universe, yet infinitely surpasses it.
"When man has learned to behold all creatures in this Supreme Spirit, and his Supreme Spirit in all His creatures, he can no longer despise anything whatsoever.
"Those who refuse to believe in the identity of all created things have fallen into a profound darkness; those who believe only in their individual selves have fallen into a much profounder darkness.
"He who believes in the eternal identity of created beings wins immortality.
"All creatures exist in this Supreme Spirit, and this Supreme Spirit exists in all creatures.
"All creatures appear to Him as they have been from all eternity, always resembling themselves."
Our ancestors did their best thoroughly to examine this tremendous confession of ignorance, to people this abysmal void, in which man could not draw breath; and sought to define this Supreme Being, whom a tradition more prehistoric than themselves had not ventured to conceive. No spectacle could be more absorbing than this struggle of our forefathers of five to ten thousand years ago with the Unknowable; and in order to convey some idea of this struggle, I shall borrow their own voices, reproducing only the almost despairing terms by which they expressed themselves in the most ancient and authentic of their sacred books, which we must read without allowing ourselves to be alarmed by that incoherence of the Images employed which is, as Bergaigne remarks, the daily bread of Vedic poetry.
God, they tell us, is Being. He is all things, existing and in Himself; unknowable, and the cause without a cause of all causes. He is infinitely ancient, infinitely unknown. He is all things and in all things, the eternal soul of all created beings, whom no one can comprehend. He is the unification of all material, intellectual, and moral forms of all existing beings. He is the sole primordial germ, undisclosed by all, the unknown deep, the uncreated substance of the unknown. "No, No, is His name"; and all things waver perpetually between "All things are" and "Nothing exists." "The sea alone knows the depths of the sea; space alone knows the extent of space; God alone can know God." He contains all things, yet is unknown to all; He is non-existent because He is absolute Being — that which is nothing while it is nevertheless all things. "He who is, yet is not, the eternal cause that is nonexistent; the Undiscovered and the Undiscoverable, whom no created being can understand," says Manu. He is no definite thing; He is no known or visible being, nor can we bestow upon Him the name of any object. He is the secret of all secrets; He is It, the passive and latent element. The world is His name, His image; but it is only His former existence, which contains all things in itself, that is actually existent. This universe is He; it comes from Him, it returns to Him. All the worlds are one with Him, for they exist only by His will; an everlasting will, inborn in all created things. This will is revealed in what we call the creation, preservation, and destruction of the universe; but there is no creation properly so-called, for, since all things have from all time existed in Him, creation is but an emanation of that which is in Him. This emanation, merely renders visible to our eyes what was not visible. Similarly there is no such thing as destruction, this being but an inhalation of that which has been exhaled; and this inhalation, in its turn, does no more than render invisible that which was aforetime seen; for all things are indestructible, being merely the substance of the Supreme Being who Himself has neither beginning nor end, whether in space or in time.
To have explored thus profoundly and comprehensively, since what our ignorance calls the beginning, the infinite mystery of the unknowable First Cause, must obviously presuppose a civilization, an accumulation of ideas and meditations, an experience, a degree of contemplation and a perception of the universe, which are well calculated to amaze and humiliate us. We are now barely regaining the heights whence these ideas have come down to us — ideas in which pantheism and monotheism are confounded, forming only a single complex in the incommensurable Unknown. And who knows whether we could have recovered them without their aid? Less than a century ago we still knew nothing of these definitions in their original majesty and lucidity; but they had spread in all directions, and were floating like wreckage on the subterranean waters of all the religions, and above all on those of the official religion of Egypt, in which the Nu is as unknowable as the Hindu It, and in which, according to the occultist tradition, the supreme revelation at the close of the final initiation consisted of these terrible words, dropped casually into the ears of the adept: "Osiris is a dark god!" that is, a god who can not be understood, who will never be understood. They were found, likewise, adrift in the Bible; or if not in the Vulgate, in which they become unrecognizable, at least in the versions of the Hebraizers, such as Fabre d'Olivet, who have restored its actual meaning, or believe themselves to have done so. Fitfully, too, they showed beneath the mysteries of Greece, which were merely a pale and distorted reproduction of the Egyptian mysteries. They were visible, too, though nearer the surface, beneath the doctrines of the Essenes, who, according to Pliny, had lived for thousands of centuries by the shores of the Dead Sea: "Per seeculorum millia," which is obviously exaggerated. They drifted through the cabala, the tradition of the ancient Hebrew initiates, who claimed to have preserved the oral law which God gave to Moses on Sinai and which, passing from mouth to mouth, were written down by the learned rabbis of the middle ages. They might be glimpsed behind the extraordinary doctrines and dreams of the Gnostics, the probable heirs of the undiscoverable Essenes; beneath the teachings of the Neoplatonists, and those of the early Christians; as in the darkness in which the unhappy medieval Hermetics lost their way, amid texts which bear the marks of an ever-increasing mutilation and corruption, following gleams of light that grew more and more perilous and uncertain.
Here, then, is a great truth; the first of all truths, the fundamental truth, that lies at the root of things, to which we have now returned; the unknowable nature of the causeless cause of all causes. But of this cause, or this God, we should never have known anything had He remained self-absorbed, had He never manifested Himself. It was necessary that He should emerge from His inactivity, which for us was equivalent to nothingness, since the universe seems to exist, and we ourselves believe that we live, in Him. Freed from the creeper-like entanglements of the theogonic and theological theories that quickly invaded it on every hand, the First Cause, or rather the Eternal Cause — for having no beginning it can be neither first nor second, — has never created anything. There was no creation, since all has existed, within this Cause, from all eternity, in a form invisible to our eyes, but more real than it could be if they beheld it, since our eyes are so fashioned as to behold illusions only. From the point of view of this illusion, this all, that exists always, appears or disappears in accordance with an eternal rhythm beaten out by the sleeping and waking of the Eternal Cause. "Thus it is," say the "Laws of Manu," "that by an alternation of awakening and repose the immutable Being causes all this assemblage of creatures, mobile and immobile, eternally to return to life and to die." 2 He exhales himself, or expels his breath, and spirit descends into matter, which is only a visible form of spirit and throughout the universe innumerable worlds are born, multiply and evolve. He himself inhales, indrawing his breath, and matter enters into spirit, which is but an invisible form of matter: and the worlds disappear, without perishing, to reintegrate the Eternal Cause, and emerge once more upon the awakening of Brahma — that is, thousands of millions of years later; to enter into Him again when He sleeps once more, after thousands of millions of years; and so it has been and ever shall be, through all eternity, without beginning, without cessation, and without end.
Here again we have a tremendous confession of ignorance; and this new confession, the oldest of all, however far back we go, is also the most profound, the most complete, and the most impressive. This explanation of the incomprehensible universe, which explains nothing, since one cannot explain the inexplicable, is more acceptable than any other that we could offer, and is perhaps the only one that we could accept without stumbling at every step over insurmountable objections and questions to which our reason gives no reply.
This second admission we find at the origin of the two mother-faiths. In Egypt, even in the superficial and exoteric Egypt which is all that we know, and without taking into account the secret meaning which probably underlies the hieroglyphs, it assumes a similar form. Here, too, there is no creation properly so called, but the externalization of a latent and everlasting spiritual principle. All beings and all things exist from all eternity in the Nu and return thither after death. The Nu is the "deep" of Genesis, a divine spirit hovers above it vaguely, bearing within it the total sum of future existences; whence its name, Turn, whose meaning is at once Nothingness and Totality. When Turn wished to create within his heart all that exists, he rose up amid what things were present in the Nu, outside the Nu, and all lifeless things: and the sun, Ra, was, and there was light. But there were not three gods — the deep, the spirit in the deep, and light without the deep. Turn, exteriorized by virtue of his creative desire, became Ra the sun-god, without ceasing to be Turn and without ceasing to be Nu. He says of himself: "I am Turn; I am that which existed alone in the abyss. I am the great God, self-created; that is, I am Nu, the father of the gods." He is the total sum of the lives of all created beings. And to express the idea that the demiurge has created all things of his own essence, the famous Leyden papyrus explains: "There was no other God before Him, nor any beside Him; when He decreed His likeness, there was no mother for Him, who was self-named [in Egyptian naming is equivalent to creating]: no father for Him who uttered this name, saying: 'It is I who have created thee.' " 3
In order to create, the Egyptian first thinks and then utters the world. (Here already is the "Word," the famous Logos of the Alexandrian philosophers, which we shall encounter again later on.) His supreme intelligence assumes the name of Phtah; his heart, which is the spirit that moves him, is Horus, and the Word, the instrument of creation, is Thoth. Thus we have Phtah-Horus-Thoth; the Creator Spirit-Word, the trinity in unity of Tum. Subsequently, as in the Vedic, Persian, and Chaldean religions, the supreme and unknowable Deity was gradually relegated to oblivion, and we hear only of his innumerable emanations, whose names vary from century to century and occasionally from city to city. Thus, in the "Book of the Dead," Osiris, who becomes the best-known god of Egypt, states that he is Turn.
In Mazdeism, or Zoroastrianism, which is merely an adaptation of Vedism to the Iranian temperament, the supreme Deity is not the omnipotent Creator who could fashion the world as he desired; he is subject to the inflexible laws of the unknown First Cause, which is perhaps himself. In Chaldea, that crossroads where the religions of India, Egypt, and Persia meet, matter self-existent and still uncreated, gives birth to all things; not creating because all things have their being in it, but manifesting itself periodically, when its image is reflected in the world visible to our eyes. In the Cabala the last echo, the blurred copy of the esoteric doctrines of Chaldea and Egypt, we find the same confusion; the Eternal Spirit, increate and unknowable, not understood in its pure essence, contains in itself the principle of all that exists, manifesting itself and becoming visible to man only by its emanations.
Lastly, if we open the Bible — not its restricted, superficial, and empirical translation, but a version which goes to the heart of the inner meaning, essential and radical, of the Hebrew words such as that which Fabre d'Olivet attempted, — we find, in the first verse of Genesis: "In the first beginning which is to say before all, He, Elohim, God of Gods, the existing Being, created — which does not mean made something out of nothing, but drew from an unknown element, caused to pass from its principle to its essence, the Very Self of the heavens and the Very Self of earth."
"And the earth existed, a contingent power of being in the dominion of being, and the darkness (a compressive and indurating force) was over the face of the deep (the universal and contingent power of being); and the breath of the God of Gods (an expansive and dilating force) moved with generative power upon the face of the waters (universal passivity)." 4
Is it not interesting to note that this literal translation brings us very close to India, to the idea of the unknown origin, and closer still to the Hindu creation; the passing from principle to essence, the expansion of the Being of Beings who contains all things, and, of the externalization, upon his awakening, of the power that was latent within him during his sleep? Let us remember that in 1875 Max Müller wrote, "Fifty years ago there was not a single scholar who could translate a line of the 'Veda.' " We must therefore believe, despite the assertion of the great Orientalist, either that Fabre d'Olivet was capable of translating it, or that he had divined the spirit of it in the traditions of the cabala, which he could not have known save for the very incomplete and inaccurate Kabbala Denudata of Rosenroth; or else that the Hebrew text, if it really says what he makes it say, as everything seems to prove, reproduces the Hindu sources in a singular fashion, for his translation, the fruit of long previous labors, appeared in 1815; that is, ten or twenty years before any one had learned to read Sanskrit and the Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Is it possible to-day, with all that we believe we know, or rather with all that we have at last realized that we do not know, to give a more comprehensive, more profoundly negative idea of divinity than that conveyed by these religions at the beginnings of the human race, or one that corresponds more closely with the vast and hopeless ignorance which will always characterize our discussions as to the First Cause? Do we not find ourselves now at an enormous height above the more or less anthropomorphic gods that followed the supreme Unknowable of that religion which was the misappreciated mother of all the rest? Is it not to her nameless enigma that we are returning at long last, after all our protracted wanderings; after wasting so much energy and so many centuries, after committing so many errors, so many crimes, in seeking for her where she was not, far from the aboriginal summits on which she has awaited us for so many thousands and thousands of years?
But this admission of ignorance had to be embellished and peopled; the fathomless gulf had to be filled; an abstraction which surpassed the bounds of understanding, with which mankind could never be content, had to be quickened into life. And this all religions endeavored to accomplish, beginning with that one which first made the venture.
Once more I brush aside the brambles of the theogonies, simple at their origin but soon inextricable, to follow the broad outlines. In the primitive religion, as we have already seen, the unknown Cause, at a given moment of the infinity of time, beginning once more what it has done from all eternity, awakes, divides itself, becomes objective, is reflected in the universal passivity, and becomes, until its approaching slumber, our visible universe. Of this unknown self-existent cause which divides itself into two parts, to render visible that which was latent in it, are born Brahma or Nara, the father, and Nari, the universal mother, of whom is born in his turn Viradj, the son, the universe. This primitive triad, assuming a more anthropomorphic form, becomes Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer and regenerator. In Egypt we have Nu, Turn, and Ra; then Phtah, Horus, and Thoth; who then became Osiris, Isis, and Horus.
After these first subdivisions of the unknown Cause the primeval Pantheons are filled by the serried hosts of gods who are merely intermittent emanations, transitory representatives, ephemeral offshoots of the First Cause; personifications, more and more human, of its manifestations, its purposes, its attributes or powers. We need not examine these here, but it is interesting to note, in passing, the profound truths which these immemorial cosmogonies and theogonies almost always discover, and which are gradually being confirmed by science. Was it, for example, mere chance that decreed that the earth should proceed from chaos, take shape and be covered with life precisely in the order which they describe? According to the "Laws of Manu" the ether engenders the atmosphere; the atmosphere, transforming itself, engenders light; the atmosphere and light, giving rise to heat, produce water; and water is the mother of all living creatures. "When this world had emerged from the darkness," says the "Bhagavata Purana," which according to the Hindus is contemporary with the "Veda," "the subtle elementary principle produced the vegetable seed which first of all gave life to the plants. From the plants life passed into the fantastic creatures which were born of the slime in the waters; then, through a series of different shapes and animals, it came to man." "They passed in succession by way of the plants, the worms, the insects, the serpents, the tortoises, cattle and the wild animals — such is the lower stage," says Manu again, who adds: "Creatures acquired the qualities of those that preceded them, so that the farther down its position in the series, the greater its qualities." 5
Have we not here the whole of Darwinian evolution confirmed by geology and foreseen at least six thousand years ago? On the other hand, is not this the theory of the Akahsa, which we more clumsily call the ether, the sole source of all substances, to which our physical science is returning? 6 One might give an infinite number of these disquieting examples. Whence did our prehistoric ancestors, in their supposedly terrible state of ignorance and abandonment, derive those extraordinary intuitions, that knowledge and assurance which we ourselves are scarcely reconquering? And if their ideas were correct upon certain points which we are able by chance to verify, have we not reason to ask ourselves whether they may not have seen matters more correctly and farther ahead than we did in respect of many other problems, as to which they are equally definite in their assertions but which have hitherto been beyond our verification? One thing is certain, that to reach the stage at which they then stood they must have had behind them a treasury of traditions, observations, and experiences — in a word, of wisdom — of which we find it difficult to form any conception; but in which, while waiting for something better, we ought to place rather more confidence than we have done, and by which we might well benefit, assuaging our fears and learning to understand and reassure ourselves in respect of our future beyond the tomb and guiding our lives.
We have just seen that the primitive religions, and those which derive therefrom, are in agreement as to the eternally unknowable nature of the First Cause; and that their explanations of the transition from non-being to being, from the passive to the active, and of the generative division which gives rise to the triad, are almost identical.
Let us here note the strange defect of logic which dominates and spreads its shadow over the whole problem of religion. The mother-religions, or rather the mother-religion, tells us that the Cause of Causes is unknowable; that it is impossible to define, comprehend, or imagine it; that it is It and nothing more; that it is non-existence. While it is yet preeminently and essentially Being, eternal, infinite, occupying all time and space; indeed it is all time and space, having neither shape nor desire nor any particular attribute, since it has all. Now, from this unconditioned Something, this absolute of the absolute, of which we cannot say what it is, and even less what it purposes — of this, the very source of the undefinable, and the unknowable, religion calls forth emanations which immediately become gods, perfectly comprehended, perfectly defined, acting very definitely in their respective spheres, manifesting a personal power and will, promulgating laws and a whole moral code with which man is enjoined to comply. How can entities so completely comprehended emerge from an entity essentially unknown? How, if the whole is unknowable, can a part of this whole suddenly become familiar? In this illimitable and inconceivable Something, the only thing admissible, for it is to this that science is leading us back, where is the point whence the gods who have been imposed upon us emerge? Where is the link? Where the affinity? Where and at what moment was the incomprehensible miracle performed of the transubstantiation of the unknowable? Where is the transition which justifies this formidable change from unfathomable obscurity, not to the possible or the probable merely, but to the known, described even to its smallest details?
Does it not seem as though the mother-religion — and after it all the other faiths, which are but its offspring, more or less disguised — must have wilfully split itself in two, or rather that it must have taken a stupendous and wilfully blind leap into the gulf of unreason? Is it not possible that it has not dared to deduce all the consequences of its tremendous admission? And would it not, for that matter, have deduced the consequences elsewhere, and precisely in the secret doctrines whose traces we are still vainly seeking, and whose revelation sealed forever the lips of the great initiates?
This suspicion, which will recur more than once as we probe more deeply into these religions, would explain the dread cry of occultist tradition, of which we have already spoken: "Osiris is a dark god!" Can it be that the great, supreme secret is absolute agnosticism? Without speaking of the esoteric doctrines, of which we are ignorant, have we not an all but public avowal in the word Maya — the most mysterious of Indian words, which means that all things, even the universe and the gods who create, uphold, and rule it, are but the illusion of ignorance, and that the uncreated and the unknowable alone are real?
But what religion could proclaim to its faithful: "We know nothing; we merely declare that this universe exists, or, at least appears to our eyes to exist. Does it exist of itself, is it itself a god, or is it but the effect of a remote cause? And behind this remote cause must we not suppose yet another and remoter cause, and so forth indefinitely, to the verge of madness: for if God is, who created God?
"Whether He is cause or effect matters little enough to our ignorance, which in any case remains irreducible. Its blind spots have merely been shifted. Traditions of great antiquity tell us that He is rather the manifestation of a Cause even more inconceivable than Himself. We accept this tradition, which is, perhaps, more inexplicable than the riddle itself as we perceive it, but which seems to take into account its apparently transitory or perishable elements, and to replace them by an eternal foundation, immutable and purely spiritual. Knowing absolutely nothing of this Cause we must confine ourselves to noting certain propensities, certain states of equilibrium, certain laws, which seem to be its will. Of these, for the time being, we make gods. But these gods are merely personifications, perhaps accurate, perhaps illusory, perhaps erroneous, of what we believe ourselves to have observed. It is possible that other more accurate observations will dethrone them. It is possible that a day will come when we shall perceive that the unknown Cause, in some respect a little less unknown, has had other intentions than those which we have attributed to it. We shall then change the names, the purposes, and the laws of our gods. But in the meantime those whom we offer you are born of observations and experiences so wise and so ancient that hitherto none have been able to excel them."
While it was impossible thus to address its faithful, who would not have understood its confession, it could safely reveal the secret to the last initiates, who had been prepared by protracted ordeals and whose intelligence was attested by a selection of inhuman severity. To certain of these, then, it admitted everything. It probably told them: "In offering mankind our gods we had no wish to deceive them. If we had confessed to them that God is unknown and incomprehensible; that we cannot say what He is or what He purposes; that He has neither shape nor substance nor dwelling-place, neither beginning nor end; that He is everywhere and nowhere; that He is nothing because He is everything: they would have concluded that He does not exist at all, that neither laws nor duties have any existence, and that the universe is a vast abyss in which all should make haste to do as they please. Now even if we know nothing we know that this is not so and cannot be so. We know, in any case, that the Cause of Causes is not material, as men would understand it, for all matter appears to be perishable, and perishable it cannot be. For us this unknown Cause is actually our God, because our understanding is capable of perceiving it as having a scope which is limited only by our finite imagination. We know, with a certainty that nothing has power to shake, that this Cause, or the Cause of this Cause, and so forth indefinitely, must exist, although we are aware that we can never know it or understand it. But very few men are capable of convincing themselves of the existence of a thing which they can never hope to touch, feel, hear, know, or understand. This is why, instead of the nothingness which they would think that we were offering them were we to tell them how ignorant we are of all things, we offer them as their guide certain apparent traces of purpose which we believe ourselves to have detected in the darkness of time and space."
This confession of absolute ignorance in respect of the First Cause and the essential nature of the God of Gods will be found likewise at the root of the Egyptian religion. But it is very probable that once it was lost to sight — for humanity does not care to linger in hopelessness and ignorance — it would have been necessary to repeat it to the initiates, to state it definitely, to emphasize it and to deduce its consequences; and, thus revealed in its entirety, it may have become the foundation of the secret doctrine. We find, in fact, that the makers of the subsequent theogonies were eager to forget the confession recorded on the first pages of the sacred books. They no longer took it into account; they thrust it back into the darkness of the beginning, the night of the incomprehensible. No longer was it discussed, for men concerned themselves now only with the gods who had issued from it, forgetting always to add that having emanated from the inexpressible unknown they must necessarily, essentially and by definition, participate in its nature, and must be equally unknown and unknowable. It may therefore be the case that the secret doctrine reserved to the high priests led them to a more accurate conception of the primordial truth.
There was in all probability no need to add further explanations to this confession since it destroys the very grounds of all possible explanations. What, for example, could the initiates be told on the subject of the first and most formidable of all enigmas, which is encountered immediately following that of the Cause of Causes — the origin of evil? The exoteric religions solved the riddle by dividing and multiplying their gods. This was a simple and easy procedure. There were gods of light who represented, and did, good; and there were gods of darkness who represented, and did, evil; they fought one another in all the worlds, and although the good gods were always the more powerful they were never completely victorious in this world. We shall find the most definite types of this dualism in the mythology of the "Avesta," in which they take the names of Ormuz and Ahriman; but by other names, and in other shapes, and indefinitely multiplied, we shall find them in all religions — even in Christianity, in which Ahriman becomes the prince of devils.
But what could the initiates have been told? The modern theosophists who profess to unveil at least a portion of the secret doctrines, by subdividing in a similar fashion the manifestations of the unknown origin, do no more than reproduce in another shape the too facile explanations of exoteric religion, so that they remain as far removed from the source of the enigma as the exoteric doctrine itself; and in the whole domain of occultism we do not find even a shadow of the beginning of an explanation which differs otherwise than in its terms from those of the official religions. We do not know, then, what was revealed to them; and it is likely enough that, just as in the case of the mysterious First Cause, they had to be told that no one knew anything. In all probability it was impossible to tell them anything that the optimistic philosophies of to-day could not tell us; namely, that evil does not exist of itself, but only from our point of view; that it is purely relative, that moral evil is but a blindness or a caprice of our judgment, while physical evil is due to a defective organization or an error of sensibility; that the most terrible pain is only pleasure incorrectly interpreted by our nerves, just as the keenest pleasure is already pain. This may be true; but we wretched human beings, and above all the lower animals whose only life is this one, have a right to demand a few supplementary explanations, if, as is only too often the case, this life is merely a tissue of intolerable suffering.
The initiated must have been given such explanations. They were referred to reincarnation, to theories of expiation and purification. But these hints, valuable enough if we admit the hypothesis of intelligent gods whose intentions are known, are less defensible when we are dealing with an unknowable Cause, to which we cannot attribute intelligence or will without denying that they are unknown. If the adepts were ever given any other explanation, of a nature to impose itself upon them, this explanation should have contained the sovereign key of the enigma; it should have revealed all the mysteries. But not even the shadow of this chimerical key has come down to us.
Uncertain though its foundations may be, since they rest only on the unknowable, the fact remains that this primitive religion has handed down to us an incomparable body of doctrine touching the constitution and evolution of the universe, the duration of the transformations of the stars and the earth, time, space, and eternity, the relations between matter and mind, the invisible forces of nature, the probable destiny of mankind, and morality. The esoterism of all the religions, from that of Egypt perhaps, and in any case from those of Persia and Chaldea, and the Greek mysteries, down to the Hermetics of the middle ages, benefited by this doctrine, deriving from it the most important and most reliable elements of its prestige, by attributing them to a secret revelation, until the discovery of the sacred books of India made known their actual source and propounded a fresh enigma. Fundamentally esoterism was never anything more than a more learned cosmogony, a more rational, more majestic, and purer theogony, a loftier morality than that of the vulgar religions; moreover it possessed, for the preservation or defense of its doctrines, the secret, painfully transmitted and often terribly obscured, of the manipulation of certain forgotten forces. To-day we are able, beneath all its deformations, all its disguises, and all its masks, which are sometimes dreadfully distorted, to recognize the same countenance. From this point of view it is certain that since the publication and translation of the authentic texts, occultism, as it was still understood scarcely more than fifty years ago, has lost three fourths of its richest territories. Notably it has lost almost all doctrinal interest except as a means of verification, since we are now able to learn, at the very source from which it used to flow so grudgingly, all that it used secretly to teach: on the subject of God or the gods; the origin of the world; the immaterial forces which govern it; heaven and hell, as understood by the Jews, Greeks, and Christians; the constitution of the body and the soul, the destiny of the latter, its responsibilities, and its life beyond the tomb.
On the other hand, if these ancient and authentic texts having at last been translated, prove that nearly all the affirmations of occultism, from the doctrinal point of view, were not purely imaginary but were based on real and immemorial traditions, they permit us likewise to suppose that all its assertions in other respects, and especially with regard to the utilization of certain unknown energies, may be not purely chimerical; and in this way it gains on the one hand what it loses on the other. In fact, while we possess the more important of the sacred books of India, it is almost certain that there are others with which we are not yet acquainted, just as it is highly probable that we have still to fathom the hidden meaning of many of the hieroglyphs. It may therefore be a fact that the occultists became acquainted with these writings or these oral traditions by infiltrations such as those which we have remarked. It would seem that the traces of such infiltrations are perceptible in their biology, their medicine, their chemistry, their physics, their astronomy, and especially in all that touches on the existence of the more or less immaterial entities who appear to live with and around us. In this connection occultism still retains an interest and deserves an attentive and methodical study which might effectively support and perhaps participate in the investigations which the independent and methodical metapsychists have on their part undertaken in respect of the same subject.
As for the primitive tradition, while it has lost the prestige attaching to occultism, and while on the other hand its foundations are inadmissible in that it derives all its precepts and all its affirmations from a source which it has itself declared to be forever inaccessible, incomprehensible, and unknowable, it is none the less true, if we ignore this defective foundation, that these affirmations and precepts are the most unlooked-for, the loftiest, the most admirable and the most plausible that mankind has hitherto known.
we the right, for example, to reject a priori, as a puerile fancy,
wholly unsupported, the conception of the Fall of Man, which we
cannot verify, when close beside it, almost contemporary with it, we
find another disaster, equally general; that of the world-wide,
prehistoric deluges and cataclysms which the geologists have actually
verified? With what profound truth may not this legend of a
super-humanity, happier and more intelligent than ours, correspond?
So far we know nothing of it; but neither did we know what
corresponded with the tradition of the great catastrophes before the
annals of these upheavals, inscribed in the bowels of the earth,
revealed to us what had occurred. I might mention a large number of
traditions of this sort, the intuitions of genius or immemorial
truths, to which science is to-day returning, or is at least
discovering their vestiges. I have already spoken of the successive
appearance of the various forms of life precisely in the order
assigned to them by the paleontologists. To these we must add the
preponderant part played by the ether, that cosmic, imponderable
fluid, the bridge between mind and matter, the source of all that
which the primitive religion called Akahsa, and which by
constant repetition, becomes the Telesma of Hermes
Trismegistus, the living fire of Zoroaster, the generative fire of
Herodotus, the ignis subtillissimus of Hippocrates, the astral light
of the cabala, the pneuma of Gallien, the quintessence or
azote of the alchemists, the spirit of life of St. Thomas Aquinas,
the subtle matter of Descartes, the spiritus simus of Newton,
the Od of Reichenbach and Carl du Prel, "the infinite
ether, mysterious and
Our forebears had also an unexpected tradition concerning yet another problem, more awe-inspiring and more essential, since it involves the fundamental law of our universe. Of this tradition humanity will never be able to verify more than an infinitesimal portion. They tell us that the cosmos, the visible manifestation of the unknown and invisible Cause, has never been and will never be other than an uninterrupted sequence of expansions and contractions, of evaporations and condensations, of sleeping and waking, of inspirations and expirations, of attractions and repulsions, of evolution and involution, of materialization and spiritualization, "of interiorization and exteriorization" as Dr. Jaworski observes, who has discovered an analogous principle in biology.
The unknown Cause awakens, and for thousands of millions of years suns and planets radiate energy, dispersing and scattering themselves, spreading throughout space; it sleeps again, and for thousands of millions of years the same worlds, hastening from every point of the horizon, attracting one another, concentrating, contracting, and solidifying until they form — without perishing, for nothing can perish — only one sole mass, which returns to the invisible Cause. It is precisely in one of these periods of contraction or inhalation that we are living. It is ruled by that vast, mysterious law of gravitation, of which no one can say whether it is electricity or magnetism or a spiritual force, although it is predominant over all the other laws of nature. If all bodies — so Newton tells us — had from all eternity, without beginning, mutually attracted one another in direct proportion to their mass, and inversely as the squares of their distances, all the substance of the universe ought by now to form nothing but an infinite mass, unless we presuppose an absolute and immovable equilibrium which would amount to eternal immobility. In the perpetual motion of the heavenly bodies, in which the displacement of an atom would disturb it, it does not seem possible that this equilibrium could exist. As a matter of fact, it is almost certain that it does not exist, and the Apex, that mysterious spot in the celestial sphere, not far from Vega, toward which our solar system is hurling itself with all its retinue of planets, may possibly be, as far as we are concerned, its point of rupture and one of the first phases of the great contraction, which, according to the latest calculations of the astronomers, will take place in 400,000 years' time.
if it is fact that this terrible contraction must almost inevitably
occur, the universe will one day be no more than a monstrous mass of
The imagination, the intuition, the observations, or the traditions of our forefathers passed this dead point. Behind their mythical or mystical phraseology they pondered the universe, regarding it as an electrical phenomenon, or rather as a vast source of subtle and incomprehensible energy, obeying the same laws as those which control magnetic energy, in which all is action and reaction; in which two antagonistic forces are always face to face. When the poles of the magnet are reversed attraction is followed by repulsion, and centripetal by centrifugal force; while gravitation is opposed by another law which as yet is nameless, but which redistributes matter and the worlds, in order to recommence a new day of Brahma. This is the solve et coagula of the alchemists.
This, obviously, is merely a hypothesis, some aspects of which cannot be maintained save by certain electrical and magnetic phenomena, and the properties of radioactive bodies, and which as a whole cannot of course be verified. But it is interesting to note once again that this hypothesis, the most majestic, the boldest, and also the most ancient, being indeed the first of all, is perhaps the only one to which science might rally without derogation. Here again have we not the right to ask ourselves whether our forefathers were not more far-sighted, more perspicacious than we, and whether we ourselves are capable of imagining so vast and so probable a cosmogony as theirs?
If now from these heights we return to mankind we shall discover intuitions or convictions of no less remarkable a nature. Without venturing ourselves amid the complexity of subdivisions which, after all, are of later date and would lead us too far afield, we shall confine ourselves to saying that in all the primitive doctrines, which agree in a most remarkable fashion, man is composed of three essential parts: a perishable physical body; a spiritual principle, a shadow or astral double, likewise perishable, but much more durable than the body, and an immortal principle which, after more or less protracted developments, returns to its origin, which is God.
Now we can prove that in the phenomena of hypnotism, magnetism, mediumship, and somnambulism, in all that concerns certain extraordinary faculties of the subconsciousness, which seem independent of the physical body, and also in certain manifestations from beyond the grave, which to-day can hardly be denied, our metaphsychical sciences are in a sense obliged to admit the existence of this astral double, which everywhere extends beyond the physical entity and is able to leave it, to act independently of it and at a distance, and in all probability to survive it, which seems once again, and in an extremely important connection, to justify the almost prehistoric intuitions of our Hindu and Egyptian ancestors.
As I have only too often repeated, we might multiply such instances; and when our science has thus confirmed one of these intuitions or traditions it would be only sensible to regard such as are still awaiting this confirmation with a little more confidence. The greater the number of instances in which it has been proved that they were not mistaken, the greater the chances that they are in the right in respect of other instances which cannot yet be verified. Very often these latter are the most important, being those which affect us most directly and profoundly. We must not as yet draw too general or too hasty conclusions; rather let us, as a result of these first confirmations, or beginnings of confirmations, accord a provisional and vigilant credit to the other hypotheses. When we have finally verified these first instances we shall not be out of the wood; but we shall be a great deal nearer the open sky than we were, which is as much as we have the right to hope or demand from any religious or philosophical system, or even from any science; to say nothing of the fact that the least advance here, at the center of all things, is of incomparably greater importance than an advance along a diameter or on the circumference; since from this hub or center spring all the spokes of that vast wheel of which science has barely examined the outer rim.
It must be admitted once for all that we cannot understand or explain anything; otherwise we should be no longer men but gods: or rather the one God. Apart from a few mathematical and material proofs whose essential drift we cannot after all perceive, all is hypothetical. We have nothing but hypotheses on which to order our lives, if we cease to count upon certainties which will probably never emerge. It is therefore of great importance that we should select our vital hypotheses carefully, accepting only the noblest, the best, and the most credible; and we shall find that they are almost invariably the most ancient. In the hierarchy of evolution we shall never know that central or supreme Being, nor His latest thought; but for all that we must do our best to learn a great deal more than we do know. That we cannot know everything is no reason for resigning ourselves to knowing nothing; and if branches of knowledge other than science, properly or improperly so called, are able to help us, to lead us farther or more rapidly, we shall do well to interrogate them, or at least not to reject them beforehand without due investigation, as has hitherto been done only too readily and only too often.
Among these assertions and these doctrines that cannot be verified we shall consider only those that concern us most intimately, and notably those which touch upon the conduct of our lives; on the sanctions, the responsibilities, the compensations, and the moral philosophy that proceed therefrom; on the mysteries of death, the life beyond the tomb, and the final destinies of mankind.
Hitherto almost all the doctrines which touch upon these points have been, for us Europeans, esoteric, hidden away in the scrolls of the cabala or the gnosis, the persecuted, humble, and haggard heirs of the Hindu, Egyptian, Persian, and Chaldean wisdom. But since the Sanskrit texts have been deciphered they are so no longer, at least in their essential elements; for although, as I have already stated, we are far from being acquainted with all the sacred books of India, and are perhaps even farther from having grasped the secret meaning of the hieroglyphs, nevertheless it is by no means likely that any fresh revelation or complete explanation would be of a nature seriously to unsettle what we already know.
No rule of conduct, no moral philosophy could be derived from the unknowable First Cause, the one unmanifested God. It is indeed impossible to know what He desires or intends, since it is impossible to know Him. To discover a purpose in the Infinite, in the universe, or in the Deity, we are compelled to cast ourselves adrift on the unprovable, and to cross great gulfs of illogic of which we have already spoken, evoking from this Cause, which to manifest itself has divided itself, one god or many, emanations from the Unknowable, who suddenly become as familiar as though they had issued from the hands of man. It is obvious that the ethical basis resulting from this arbitrary procedure will always be precarious,1 offering itself merely as a postulate which must be accepted with closed eyes. But it is worthy of note that, following upon this preliminary operation, or concurrently with it, in all the primitive religions, we shall find another which is, as it were, its necessary and, in any case, its invariable consequence: the voluntary sacrifice of one of these emanations of the Unknowable, Who becomes incarnate, renouncing His prerogatives, in order to deify humanity by humanizing God.
Egypt, India, Chaldea, China, Mexico, Peru — all know the myth of the child-god born of a virgin; and the first Jesuit missionary to China discovered that the miraculous birth of Christ had been anticipated by Fuh-Ke, who was born 3468 years before Jesus. It has very truly been said that if a priest of ancient Thebes or Heliopolis were to return to earth he would recognize, in Raphæl's painting of the Virgin and Child, the picture of Horus in the arms of Isis. The Egyptian Isis, like our own Immaculate Virgin, was represented standing on a crescent moon and crowned with stars. Devaki also is depicted for us bearing in her arms the divine Krishna, while Istar, in Babylon, holds the infant Tammuz on her knees. The myth of the Incarnation, which is also a solar myth, is thus repeated from age to age, under different names, but it is in India, where it almost certainly originated, that we find it in its purest, loftiest, and most significant form.
Without lingering over the doubtful incarnations of the Hermes, the Manus, and the Zoroasters, which cannot be historically verified, let us consider, among the many incarnations of Vishnu, the second person of the Brahman Trinity, only the two most famous: the eighth, which is that of Krishna, and the ninth, which is that of Buddha. The approximate date of the earlier incarnation is given us by the "Bhagavat-Gita," which gives prominence to the wonderful figure of Krishna. The Catholic Indianists, fearing with all their too narrow point of view, that the incarnation of Krishna might endanger that of Christ, admit that the "Bhagavat-Gita" was written before our era, but maintain that it has since been revised. As it is difficult to prove such revisions, they add that if it is actually proved that the "Bhagavat-Gita" and other sacred books of an equally embarrassing character are really anterior to Christ, they are the work of the devil, who, foreseeing the incarnation of Jesus, purposed by these anticipations to lessen its effect. However this may be, the purely scientific Indianists — William Jones, Colebrooke, Thomas Strange, Wilson, Princeps, et al agree in the opinion that it dates from at least twelve or fourteen centuries before our era. It is in fact commented upon and analyzed in the Modana-Ratna-Pradipa, (a selection from the texts of the most ancient lawmakers), in "Vrihaspati," in "Parasara," in "Narada," and in a host of other works of indisputable authenticity. According to other Orientalists, since the truth must be told, the poems upon Krishna are no older than the "Mahabharata," which after all takes us back two centuries before Jesus Christ.
As for the incarnation of Siddartha Gautama Buddha, or Sakya-Muni, no doubt is any longer possible. Sakya-Muni was a historical personnage who lived in the fifth century before Christ.
All this, moreover, is well enough known; it is needless to labor the point. But what can be the secret meaning of a myth so immemorial, so unanimous, so disconcerting? The unknown Cause of all causes, subdividing itself, descending from the heights of the inconceivable, sacrificing itself, circumscribing itself, and becoming man that it might make itself known to men! Would not all the possible interpretations be unreasonable did we refuse to see, beneath this incomprehensible myth, yet another confession, this time more indirect, better disguised, more profoundly concealed, of the fundamental agnosticism, the sublime and invincible ignorance of the great primitive teachers? They knew that the unknowable could give birth to nothing but the unknown. They knew that man could never know God; and this is why, no longer searching in a direction in which all hope was impossible, they directly approached humanity, as the only thing with which they were acquainted. They said to themselves: "It is impossible for us to know what God is, or where He is, or what He purposes; but we do know that, being everywhere and everything, He is necessarily in man, and that He is man: it is therefore only in man and through man that we can discover His purpose." Under the symbol of the Incarnation they thus conceal the great truth that all the divine laws are human; and this truth is only the reverse of another truth, of no less magnitude; namely, that in mankind is the only god that we can ever know. God manifests Himself in nature, but He has never spoken to us save by the voice of mankind: Do not look elsewhere; do not seek in the inaccessible infinity of space the God whom you are eager to find; it is in you yourself that He is hidden and it is in you yourself that you must find Him. He is there, within you, no less than in those in whom He appears to be incarnated in a more dazzling fashion. Every man is Krishna, every man is Buddha; there is no difference between the God incarnate in them and Him who is incarnate in you; but they found Him more easily than you have done. Imitate them and you will be their peer; and if you cannot keep up with them you can at least give ear to what they tell you, for they can but tell you what the God who is within you would tell you, if you had learned to listen to Him as they have listened.
There we have the foundation of the whole of the Vedic religion, and of all the esoteric religions which have sprung from it. But at its source the truth will hardly be enwrapped in symbols or transparent myths. There is nothing secret about it; often, indeed, it declares itself aloud, without reticence and without disguise. "When all the other gods are no more than disappearing names," says Max Müller, "there are left only the Atman, the subjective self, and Brahma, the objective self; and the supreme knowledge is expressed in these words: 'Tat Twam, Hoc tu'; 'That is You'; you, your true self, that which cannot be taken from you when all has disappeared that seemed for a time to be yours. When all created things vanish like a dream your true ego belongs to the Eternal Self: the Atman, the personality within you, is the true Brahma: that Brahma from whom birth and death divided you for a moment, but who receives you again into his bosom, so soon as you return to him." 7
"The 'Rig-Veda,' or the 'Veda' of the hymns, the true 'Veda,' the 'Veda' par excellence," continues Max Müller, "ends in the 'Upanishads,' or, as they were afterwards called, the 'Vedanda:' Now the dominant note of the 'Upanishads' is 'Know thyself'; that is, Know the being who is the upholder of your ego; learn to find Him and to know Him in the Eternal and Supreme Being, the One Alone, who is the upholder of the whole universe."
"This religion at its ultimate height, the religion of the Vanaprastha, that is, of the old man, the man who has paid his three debts, whose eyes have beheld 'the son of his son' and who withdraws into the forest, becomes purely mental; and finally self-examination, in the profoundest meaning of the word, that is, the recognition of the individual self as one with the Eternal Self, becomes the only occupation which is still permitted to him."
"Search for the Me hidden in your heart," says the "Mahabharata," the final echo of the great doctrine; "Brahma, the True God, is you yourself." This, let me repeat, is the foundation of Vedic thought, and it is from this thought that all the rest proceeds. To recover it we have no need of modern theosophy, which has but confirmed it by less familiar texts whose authority is less assured. It was never secret, but by its very magnitude it escaped the gaze of those who could not understand it, and little by little, as the gods multiplied and stepped down to the level of mankind, it was lost to sight. Its very nobility made it esoteric. In the heroic age of Vedism, when almost all men, having done their duty to their parents and their children, used to withdraw into the forest, there peacefully to wait for death, retiring within themselves and seeking there the hidden god with whom they were soon to be confounded, it was the thought of a whole people. But the peoples are not long faithful to the heights. To avoid losing all touch with them it was forced to descend, to conceal its features, to mingle with the crowd in a thousand disguises. Nevertheless we always discover it beneath the increasingly heavy veils with which it cloaks itself. "Man is the key to the universe," declared the fundamental axiom of the medieval alchemists, in a voice stifled beneath the litter of illegible texts and undecipherable conjuring-books, as Novalis, perhaps without realizing that he was rediscovering a truth many thousands of years old, indeed almost as old as the world, once more repeated it in a form scarcely altered, when he taught that, "our first duty is the search for our transcendental ego."
Abandoned in an infinite universe in which we cannot know anything but ourselves, is not this, as a matter of fact, the only truth that has survived, the only one that is not illusory, and the only one to which we might still hope to return, after so many misadventures, so many erroneous interpretations in which we failed to recognize it?
God, or the First Cause, is unknowable; but being everywhere He is necessarily within us: it is therefore within ourselves that we shall succeed in discovering what it behooves us to know of Him. These are the two supporting piers of the arch sustaining the primitive religion and all those religions which spring therefrom, or, at least, the actual though secret doctrine of all those religions: that is, of all the religions known to us, apart from the fetishism of utterly barbarous peoples. It found these points of support in the beginning, or rather in what we call the beginning, which must have had behind it a past of thousands, perhaps millions, of years. We have found no others; we never shall find others, failing an impossible revelation — impossible in fact if not in principle, — for nothing that is not human or divinely human can reach us. We have returned to the point whence our forefathers set out; and the day on which humanity discovers another such point will be the most extraordinary day that will have shone upon our planet since its birth.
The incarnations of God, in primitive religious thought, are merely periodical and sporadic externalizations, dazzling manifestations, synthetic and exceptional, of the God who is in every human being. This incarnation is universal, and latent in each of us; but while the incarnation is regarded as a privilege for the man in whom it occurs, it is considered a sacrifice on the part of the god. Vishna willingly sacrifices himself when he descends to earth in the person of Krishna or Buddha. Has he likewise sacrificed himself by descending to earth in the rest of mankind? Whence comes this idea of sacrifice? It is a mysterious idea, dating assuredly from traditions of great antiquity; in any case, it does not appear to be purely rational, like the two previous conceptions. Nowhere is it explained why it is necessary that an emanation of God should descend into man, who is already a divine emanation. Here is a gap which is not bridged by the myth of the Fall, a myth which is likewise unexplained, unless the idea in question is based merely upon the declaration that every man who surpasses his fellows, whose sight is keener than theirs, and who teaches them what they cannot yet understand, is necessarily misunderstood, persecuted, a hapless sacrifice.
This idea, whether it can or cannot be explained, is none the less of great importance; for it seems to have steered primitive morality into one of its principal highways. Indeed, the conception of the unknowable, while it set free those courageous thinkers who adventured upon its naked peaks, was powerless to afford more than a negative doctrine. To be sure, it dispersed the little anthropomorphic and almost always maleficent gods, but in their place it left only a vast and silent void. On the other hand, pantheism, being as comprehensive as agnosticism, taught that as God was everywhere and all things were God, all things ought to be loved and respected; but it followed that evil, or at least that which man is forced to call evil, was divine, just as goodness is divine, so that it must be loved and respected equally with goodness. The idea was too stark, too illimitable, over-arching the two poles of the universe in too colossal a fashion; man did not dare to involve himself, did not dare to select a pathway.
Lastly, the search for the god hidden in each of us, which is one of the corollaries of pantheism, if it be left without guidance, could only have perilous consequences. There are within us all kinds of gods; that is, all sorts of instincts, thoughts, or passions, which may be taken for gods. Some are good and some evil, and the evil gods are often more numerous, and in any case more readily discoverable than the good. The true God, the supremest Deity and the most immaterial, reveals Himself only to a few. This God being thus revealed — 'who is, after all, no more than the best thoughts,' of the best of us, — He had to call upon Himself the attention of other men, to make Himself known to them, to impose Himself upon them; and it is perhaps for this reason that this singular myth, which fundamentally is probably no more than the recognition of a natural and human phenomenon, has little by little obtruded itself, struck root, and developed. It is indeed probable enough, like everything else connected with the evolution of mankind, that it did not suddenly spring from a single mind, but dimly took shape, slowly assuming a definite form in the course of unnumbered centuries of tentative experiments.
Without lingering longer over this enigma we shall confine ourselves to considering its influence on primitive morality, by directing the latter from the very outset toward other pinnacles than those to which the understanding pointed the way. In its absence the primitive morality which believed itself to be listening to a hidden God, but which in truth was only giving ear to human reason, would have been no more than a morality of the brain that might have been deflected toward a barren contemplation or a cold, rigid, austere, and implacable rationalism; for the reason alone, even when it reaches the loftiest heights and is taken for the voice of God, is not enough to guide mankind toward the summits of abnegation, goodness, and love. The example of an initial sacrifice curbed its severity, launching it in another direction and toward a goal of which it might perhaps in the end have caught a glimpse, but which it would not have reached until very much later, after many grievous mistakes.
Is it upon this myth of incarnation that the dogma has grafted itself, although properly speaking there are no dogmas in the Oriental religions — the dogma of reincarnation in which are found all the sanctions and all the rewards of the primitive religion? The essential principle of man, the basis of his ego, being divine and immortal, after the disappearance of the body which has for the time being divorced it from its spiritual origin, should logically return to that origin. But, on the other hand, the invisible God having through the medium of the great incarnations introduced into morality the conception of good and evil, it did not seem admissible that the soul, which had not listened to its own voice or to that of the divine teachers, and which had become more or less soiled by its earthly life, should be able, at once and without previous purification, to return to the immaculate ocean of the Eternal Spirit. From incarnation to reincarnation there was only a step, which, without doubt, was taken all but unconsciously; from reincarnation to successive reincarnations and purifications the transition was even simpler; and from these proceeds the whole of the Hindu moral philosophy, with its Karma, which after all is only the judicial record of the soul, a record which is always up to date, becoming worse or better in the course of its palingeneses, until the attainment of Nirvana; which is not, as it is too often described, an annihilation or a dispersal in the bosom of the Deity, nor yet, on the other hand, a reunion with God, coinciding with the perfecting of the human spirit freed of matter, an absolute acquiescence in the law, an unalterable tranquillity in the contemplation of that which exists, a disinterested hope in that which ought to be, and repose in the absolute, that is, in the world of causes in which all the illusions of the senses disappear; but a more mysterious state which is neither perfect happiness nor annihilation, but, properly speaking and once again, the Unknowable. "That Perfection exists after death," says a text contemporary with the Buddha, revealing the meaning of Nirvana, which had then become esoteric: — "That Perfection both exists and does not exist after death, that likewise is not true." 8
As Oldenberg says very truly, citing this passage among several others in which the same admission is made: "This is not to deny Nirvana or Perfection, or to conclude that it does not exist at all. Here the spirit has reached the brink of an unfathomable mystery. Useless to seek to disclose it. If one were finally to renounce a future Eternity one would speak in another fashion; it is the heart that takes refuge behind the veil of the mystery. From the mind that hesitates to admit eternal life as conceivable it seeks to wrest the hope of a life that passes all understanding." 9
All this amounts to a repetition of the old fundamental admissions that in respect of essentials we know nothing and can know nothing, while it is also a fresh proof of the magnificent sincerity and the lofty and sovereign wisdom of the primitive religion.
Will all living beings end by attaining Nirvana? What is to happen in that case, and why is it, since all things exist from all eternity, that all have not already reached it? To these questions and others of a like nature the "Vedas" vouchsafed only a disdainful silence; but some of the Buddhist texts, and among them the following, discreetly reply to those who would know too much:
"This the Sublime One has not revealed, because it does not minister to salvation, because it is no help to the devout life, because it does not conduce to detachment from earthly things, to the annihilation of desire, to cessation, to repose, to knowledge, to illumination, to Nirvana; for this reason the Sublime has revealed nothing relating to it."
Whatever the value of these hypotheses, it is indubitable that the moral system which we find proceeding from this boundless agnosticism and pantheism is the noblest, the purest, the most disinterested, the most sensitive, the most thoroughly investigated, the most fastidious, the clearest, the completest that we have as yet known and doubtless could ever hope to know.
This morality, as well as the enigma of incarnation and sacrifice of which we have just been speaking, and many other points which we have only touched upon, ought to be subjected to a special examination which does not enter into our design. It will suffice to recall the fact that it is based on the principle of successive reincarnations and of Karma.
The world, properly speaking, was not created; there is no word in Sanskrit that corresponds with the idea of creation, just as there is none that corresponds with the conception of nothingness. The universe is a momentary and doubtless illusory materialization of the unknown and spiritual Cause. Divided from the Spirit which is its proper essence, actual and eternal, matter tends to return to it through all the phases of evolution. Starting from beneath the mineral stage, passing through plant and animal, ending in man, and outstripping him, it is transformed and spiritualized until it is sufficiently pure to return to its point of origin. This purification often demands a long series of reincarnations, but it is possible to reduce their number, and even to set a term to them, by an intensive spiritualization, heroic and absolute, which at death, and sometimes even during life, leads the soul back to the bosom of Brahma.
This explanation of the inexplicable, despite the objections which suggest themselves, notably in respect of the origin and necessity of matter, or of evil, which remain obscure, is as good as any other, and has the advantage of being the earliest in date, apart from the fact that it is the most comprehensive, embracing all that can be imagined, setting out from the great spiritual principle to which, in the absence of any other of an acceptable nature, we are more and more imperiously compelled to return.
In any case, as it has proved, it has favored more than any other the birth and development of a morality to which man had never attained, and which, so far, he has never surpassed.
To give a sufficient idea of this morality would require more space than is at my disposal, and destroy the scheme of this inquiry.
The wonderful thing about this morality, when we consider it near its source, where it still retains its purity, is that it is wholly internal, wholly spiritual. It finds its sanctions: and its rewards only in our own hearts. There is no Judge awaiting the soul on its release from the body; no paradise and no hell, for hell was a later development. The soul itself, the soul alone, is its Judge, its heaven, or its hell. It encounters nothing, no one. It has no need to judge itself, for it sees itself as it is, as its thoughts and actions have made it, at the close of this life and of previous lives. It sees itself, in short, in its entirety, in the infallible mirror which death holds up to it, and realizes that it is its own happiness, its own misery. Happiness and suffering are self-created. It is alone in the infinite; there is no God above it to smile upon it or to fill it with terror; the God whom it has disappointed, displeased, or satisfied is itself. Its condemnation or its absolution depends upon that which it has become. It cannot escape from itself to go elsewhere where it might be more fortunate. It cannot breathe save in the atmosphere which it has created for itself; it is its own atmosphere, its own world, its own environment; and it must uplift and purify itself in order that this world and this environment may be purified and uplifted, expanding with it and around it.
"The soul," says Manu, "is its own witness; the soul is its own refuge; never despise your soul, the sovereign witness of mankind!
"The wicked say: 'No one sees us'; but the gods are watching them, as is the Spirit enthroned within them."
"O man when thou sayest to thyself: 'I am alone with myself,' there dwells forever in thy heart this supreme Spirit, the attentive and silent observer of all good and all evil.
"This Spirit enthroned in thy heart is a strict judge, an inflexible avenger; he is Yama, the Judge of the Dead." 10
Between birth and death, which is but a new birth, the "Laws of Manu" distinguish five stages: conception, childhood, the novitiate (or period of studying the sciences, divine and human), fatherhood, and, last of all, the stage of the anchorite preparing for death. Each of these periods has its duties, which must be accomplished before a man may look forward to withdrawal into the forest. While awaiting this hour, desired above all, "resignation," says Manu, "the act of returning good for evil, temperance, honesty, purity, chastity, repression of the senses, knowledge of the sacred books, worship of truth, and abstention from anger: such are the ten virtues of which duty consists." 11
The aim of our life on this earth is to set a limit to our reincarnations, for reincarnation is a punishment which the soul is compelled to inflict upon itself for so long as it does not feel that it is pure enough to return to God. "To, attain the last phase," says Manu, "never again to be reborn upon this earth — that is the ideal. To be assured of eternal happiness — assured that the earth shall no longer behold the soul returning to cloak itself once again in its gross substance!"
This purification, this progressive dematerialization, this renunciation of all egoism, begins when life begins and is continued through all the phases of existence; but one must first of all accomplish all the duties of this active existence. "For all of you must know," say the sacred books, "that none of you shall achieve absorption into the bosom of Brahma by prayer alone; and the mysterious monosyllable will not efface your latest defilement, except you reach the threshold of the future life laden with good works; and the most meritorious of these works will be those which are based upon the motives of charity and love for one's neighbor."
"One single good action," says Manu further, "is worth more than a thousand good thoughts, and those who fulfil their obligations are superior to those who perceive them."
"Let the sage constantly observe the moral obligations (Yamas) more attentively than the religious duties (Niyamas) for he who neglects the moral duties is losing ground even if he observes his religious obligations."
There are in the life of man two plainly distinguished periods: the active or social phase during which he establishes his family, assures the fate of his posterity, and tills the soil with his own hands, fulfilling the humble duties of everyday life toward his relatives and those about him. For these yet ungodly days abound in the most angelic precepts of resignation, of respect for life, of patience and love.
"The ills which we inflict upon our neighbor " says Krishna, "pursue us as our shadows follow our bodies.
"Just as the earth upholds those that trample it underfoot and rend its bosom with the plow, so we should return good for evil.
"Let all men remember that self-respect and love for one's neighbor stand above all things.
"He who fulfils all his obligations to please God only and without thinking of future reward is sure of immortal happiness. 12
"If a pious action proceeds from the hope of reward in this world or the next, that action is described as interested. But that which has no other motive than the knowledge and love of God is said to be disinterested." 13 (Let us reflect for a moment upon this saying, many thousands of years old: one of those sayings which we can repeat to-day without the change of a syllable, for here God, as in all the Vedic literature, is the best and eternal part of ourselves and of the universe.)
"The man whose religious actions are all interested attains the rank of the saints and the angels [Devas]. But he whose pious actions are all disinterested divests himself forever of the five elements, to acquire immortality in the Great Soul."
"Of all things that purify man purity in the acquisition of wealth is the best. He who retains his purity while becoming rich is truly pure, not he who purifies himself with earth and water."
"Learned men purify themselves by the forgiveness of trespasses, alms, and prayer. The understanding is purified by knowledge."
"The hand of a craftsman is always pure while he is working."
"Although the conduct of her husband be blameworthy, although he may abandon himself to other loves and may be without good qualities, a virtuous woman must always revere him as a god."
"He who has defiled the water by some impurity must live upon alms only for a full month."
"In order not to cause the death of any living creature, let the Sannyâsî 14 [that is, the mendicant ascetic], by night as well as by day, even at the risk of injury, walk with his gaze upon the ground." 15
"For having on one occasion only, and without any ill intention, cut down trees bearing fruit, or bushes, or tree-creepers, or climbing plants, or crawling plants in flower, one must repeat a hundred prayers from the 'Rig-Veda.' "
"If a man idly uproots cultivated plants or plants which have sprung up spontaneously in the forest, he must follow a cow for a whole day and take no food but milk."
"By a confession made in public, by repentance, by piety, by the recitation of sacred prayers, a sinner may be acquitted of his offense, as well as by giving alms, when he finds it impossible to perform the other penance."
"In proportion as his soul regrets a bad action, so far his body is relieved of the burden of this perverse action."
"Success in all worldly affairs depends upon the laws of destiny, controlled by the actions of mortals in their previous lives, and the conduct of the individual; the decrees of destiny are a mystery; we must accordingly have recourse to means which depend upon man."
"Justice is the sole friend who accompanies man after death, since all affection is subject to the destruction suffered by the body." 16
"If he who strikes you drops the staff which he has used, pick it up and return it to him without complaint."
"You will not abandon animals in their old age, remembering what services they have rendered you." 17
"He who despises a woman despises his mother. The tears of women draw down the fire of heaven upon those that make them flow."
"The upright man may fall beneath the blows of the wicked, as does the sandal-tree, which, when it is felled, perfumes the ax that lays it low." 18
"To carry the three staves of the ascetic, to keep silence, to wear the hair in a plait, to shave the head, to clothe one's self in garments of bark or skins, to say prayers and perform ablutions, to celebrate the Agnihotra, to dwell in the forest, to allow the body to become emaciated — all this is useless if the heart is not pure."
"He who, whatever pains he may spend on himself, practises tranquillity of mind, who is calm, resigned, restrained, and chaste, and has ceased to find fault with others, that man is truly a Brahman, a Shraman [an ascetic], a Bhikshu [a mendicant friar]."
"O Bharata, of what avail is the forest to him who has mastered himself, and of what avail is it to him who has not mastered himself? Wherever there lives a man who has mastered himself, there is the forest, there is the hermitage."
"If the wise man stay at home, whatever care he may take of himself, if all the days of his life he is always pure and full of love, he is delivered from all evil."
"It is not the hermitage that makes the virtuous man; virtue comes only with practice. Therefore let no man do unto others that which would cause pain to himself."
"The world is sustained by every action whose sole object is sacrifice; that is, the voluntary gift of self. It is in making this voluntary gift that man should perform the action, without respect of usage. The sole object of action should be to serve others. He who sees inaction in action and action in inaction is wise among men: he is attuned to the true principles, whatever action he may perform. Such a man, who has renounced all interest in the result of his action, and is always content, depending upon no one, although he may perform actions, is as one who does not perform them. All his thoughts, stamped with wisdom, and all his actions, consisting of sacrifice, are as though faded into air." 19
There, taken at random, from an enormous treasury which is still partly unknown, are a few words of counsel, thousands of years old, which, long before the advent of Christianity, guided men of good will to the border of the forest. Then, as Manu says, "when the head of the family sees his skin grow wrinkled and his hair turn white, when he beholds the son of his son"; when he has no further obligations to fulfil; when no one has further need of his assistance, then, whether he be the richest merchant of the city or the poorest peasant of the village, he may at last devote himself to things eternal, leaving his wife, his children, his kinsfolk, his friends, and, "taking a gazelle-skin or a cloak of bark," may withdraw into solitude, burying himself in the vast tropical forest, forgetting his body and the vain ideas born of it, and giving ear to the voice of the God hidden in the depths of his being; the voice "of the unseen traveler," in the words of the "Brahman of the Hundred Paths"; "the voice of him who, understanding, is not understood; of the thinker of whom none thinks; of him who knows but is not known; of the Atman, the inner guide, the imperishable, apart from whom there is only suffering." He may meditate on the infinity of space, the infinity of reason, and "the non-existence of nothing"; may seize the moment of illumination which brings with it "the deliverance which no one can teach, which each must find for himself, which is ineffable," and may purify his soul in order to spare it, if that be possible, yet another return to earth.
Having reached this stage, "let him not wish for death; let him not wish for life. Like a harvester who, at the fall of night, waits quietly for his wages at his master's door, let him wait until the moment has arrived."
"Let him meditate, with the most exclusive application of the intellect, upon the subtle and indivisible nature of the Supreme mind, and on its existence in the bodies of the highest and lowest of created things."
"Meditating with joy upon the Supreme Being, having need of nothing, inaccessible to any desire of the senses, without other society than his own soul and the thought of God, let him live in the constant expectation of eternal bliss."
"For the chiefest of all his obligations is to acquire knowledge of the Supreme Mind; and this is the first of all the sciences, for this alone confers immortality upon man."
"Thus the man who discovers the Supreme Mind in his own mind, and present in all living creatures, will show himself the same to all, and will thus assure himself of the happiest fate, that of being finally absorbed into the bosom of Brahma." 20
"Having thus abandoned all pious practices and acts of austere devotion, applying his intellect solely to the contemplation of the great First Cause, exempt from all evil desires, his soul is already on the threshold of Swarga, while his mortal envelope is still flickering like the last glimmer of a dying lamp." 21
Almost all the foregoing, let us remember, is long previous to Buddhism, dating from the origins of Brahmanism, and is directly related to the "Vedas." Let us agree that this system of ethics, of which I have been unable to give more than the slightest survey, while the first ever known to man, is also the loftiest which he has ever practised. It proceeds from a principle which we cannot contest even to-day, with all that we believe ourselves to have learned; namely, that man, with all that surrounds him, is but a sort of emanation, an ephemeral materialization, of the unknown spiritual cause to which it must needs return, and it merely deduces, with incomparable beauty, nobility, and logic, the consequences of this principle. There is no extra-terrestrial revelation, no Sinai, no thunder in the heavens, no god especially sent down upon our planet. There was no need for him to descend hither, for he was here already, in the hearts of all men, since all men are but a part of him and cannot be otherwise. They question this god, who seems to dwell in their hearts, their minds; — in a word, in that immaterial principle which gives life to their bodies. He does not tell them, it is true — or perhaps he does tell them, but they cannot understand him — why, for the time being, he appears to have divorced them from himself; and we have here a postulate — the origin of evil and the necessity of suffering — as inaccessible as the mystery of the First Cause: with this difference, that the mystery of the First Cause was inevitable, whereas the necessity of evil and suffering is incomprehensible. But once the postulate is granted, all the rest clears up and unfolds itself like a syllogism. Matter is that which divides us from God; the spirit is that which unites us to Him; the spirit therefore must prevail over matter. But the spirit is not merely the understanding; it is also the heart; it is emotion; it is all that is not material; so that in all its forms it must needs purify itself, reaching forth and uplifting itself, to triumph over matter. There never was and never could be, I believe, a more impressive spiritualization than this, nor more logical, more unassailable, more realistic, in the sense that it is founded only on realities; and never one more divinely human. Certain it is that after so many centuries, after so many acquisitions, so many experiences, we find ourselves back at the same point. Starting, like our predecessors, from the unknowable, we can come to no other conclusion, and we could not express it better. Nothing could excel the stupendous effort of their speech, unless it were a silent resignation, preferable in theory, but in practice leading only to an inert and despairing ignorance.
1 "Rig-Veda"; X, 129.
2 "Laws of Manu"; I, 57.
3 See A. Moret, Les Mysteres Egyptian; pp. xx et seg.; and Pierret, Etudes Egyptologigues; p. 424.
4 Fabre d'Olivet, La Langue Lébraique restituée; Vol. II, PP. 25-27.
5 "Laws of Manu"; I, 20.
6 It is true that the recent theories of Einstein deny the existence of the ether, supposing that radiant energy — visible light, for example — is propagated independently through a space that is an absolute void. But apart from the fact that these theories seem still to be doubtful, it should be noted that the scientific ether, to which our modern scientists have been obliged to resort, is not precisely the Hindu Akahsa, which is much more subtle and immaterial, being a sort of spiritual element or divine energy, space uncreated, imperishable, and infinite.
7 Max Müller, "The Origin of Religion." 73
8 "Sanyatta Nikiya"; Vol. II, fol. 110 and 199.
9 Oldenberg, Le Bouddha; p. 285.
10 "Manu"; VIII, 84, 85, 91, 92.
11 "Mann"; VI, 92.
12 "Manu", 25.
13 Ibid.; XII, 89.
14 Literally, "the abandoner." — TRANS.
15 "Manu"; XII, 90; V, 106, 107, 129, 154; XI. 255; VI, 68.
16 "Manu"; XI, 142, 144, 227, 229; VII, 205.
17 "Sama Veda."
19 "Vanaparva"; 13,445: "Parables of Buddhgosha"; "Cantiparva"; 5951: "Vanaparva; 13,550: "Laws of Yajnavalkya"; III, 65: "Bhaghavat-Gita."
20 "Manu"; VI, 45, 65; 49; XII, 85, 125.
21 Ibid.; VI, 96.