India, Mother of Nations
Theosophical Forum, May, 1904
It is a hundred years now since Schopenhauer foretold that India and the genius of India would produce an effect on the spirit of western peoples, equal to, perhaps greater than, the effect of the Renaissance on the mediaeval world. A hundred years have passed; and for a long time it seemed that Schopenhauer’s prophecy would not come true. The sudden outburst of enthusiasm for India, which marked the end of last century and the beginning of this, seems to have died out with the school of Sir William Jones and Colebrooke, whose splendid labours called it forth. The Calcutta School had no successors; the work they began fell into abeyance, or passed to the German philologists, who did much excellent work in most scholarly fashion, but offered no interpretation of India to the non-scholastic intellectual world. But within the last few years, a change has taken place. The breath of India once more begins to stir the souls of men in the Western world; and a wide, deep spirit of enquiry, of tentative interest in India is beginning to be felt in both Europe and America; an interest, almost an enthusiasm for India, first as a country of old historic fame; a country full of physical hardships, perhaps, for the Western dwellers there, but nevertheless a country of unforgetable beauty, full of magic glamour that enchains the eyes and captivates the imagination. But even more than this, there is an enthusiasm for India as an ideal, as a unique achievement in intellectual and spiritual life, an enthusiasm for the secret of India,—the recognition of the inner light of the soul, as found in the Upanishads; for the method of India—the recognition of the moral law as found in the teachings of Buddha. This growing enthusiasm for India, this recognition of India’s place in the aristocracy of the nations, is as yet but the first breath of spring; the first stirring of nascent life; and yet a stirring of life so fresh and widespread that it bids fair to become in reality what Schopenhauer prophesied it would be,—a spiritual awakening not less potent than the revival of learning in the middle ages; an influence which may leave its distinctive colour, to the last years of our century, and may meet, with growing brightness, the opening eyelids of the next.
Strongest perhaps in Germany and America—where it was the most notable feature of the Parliament of Religions,—this growing enthusiasm for India is less felt in England, and, least; of all, perhaps, among the European dwellers in India, whose too great nearness to the India of today shuts out the majesty and unique value of the India of the past. The intellectual life of the European dwellers in India lags a little behind the thought of the Western world. Our letters come from Europe in three weeks, but our thoughts still seem to follow the old path round the Cape; they take three months to go; or perhaps three years. Yet it is certain that this rapid expansion of the space that India fills in the world’s horizon; this opening enthusiasm for India as a mighty land; for India as an ideal, cannot fail in time to touch the European dwellers in India also; to kindle in them some of that fire of admiration for India, some of that recognition of India’s unique spiritual achievement, which is beginning to glow so brightly in idealist Germany, and hardly less idealist America; and which has begun to glimmer and gleam across the mind of prosaic, practical Britain. If one were to ask these idealist Germans, these hardly less idealist Americans, what feature or fact in the India of today most strongly appeals to their imaginations and most strongly awakes their curiosity, they would undoubtedly say that the Brahmins, the Brahminical hierarchy, fill the largest part of their field of view, and offer the strongest provocation to their spirit of enquiry. Phrases like these are continually on their lips, the wisdom of the Brahmins, the philosophy of the Brahmins, the ideals of the Brahmins. One could easily gather a thousand phrases like these from the American newspapers and the German magazines; and the first question invariably put by these idealist Germans and Americans touches on the knowledge and discipline of the Brahminical caste.
Thinking over this matter it has seemed to me that there is room for a close study of the Brahmins and their ideals, from the earliest days when they dawn upon history, down to the dark ages of today, which would satisfy in some degree the growing spirit of enquiry in the Western world; and, by holding up to the Brahmins of today a picture of their earlier greatness, might, perhaps, help them to return to that ideal of theirs which made them such a unique achievement in the world’s history; that ideals of theirs from which they have, in more respects than one, degenerated and fallen away. For such a picture of the Brahmins, there is ample material; and their history naturally falls into some half dozen periods, each with its own character; each with its own distinctive achievement. First in chronological order, first perhaps also in difficulty of treatment, is the rise of Brahminical power in the Vedic age. Much light can be shed on it by the Vedic hymns; and a curious side-ray falls from some five or six passages in the Upanishads. Leaving the Vedic age, we come to the days of Rama; and after Rama, to the time of the Great War of the Mahabharata. And the Brahminical power in those days may, perhaps, be gathered into a single picture. In dealing with these old days, so long passed into the hall of silence, we must be guided, as to their time and duration, rather by the traditions of India than by the conjectural dates of Western scholars; based, as these latter are, on the work of the Calcutta school, whose chronologic ideas and theories were thoroughly vitiated by the Rabbinical tradition which still lay like a cloud over the intellectual life of Europe.
Between the Great War and Buddhism there is a space very difficult to fill, a space which, Indian tradition says, must have occupied two milleniums. But in the days of Buddha, in the scriptures of Buddha’s religion, we have a picture of the Brahmins, full of definiteness and minute detail; though a picture full of hostility to the Brahminical order. To this may be added much from the works of the Greeks whose knowledge was gained through Alexander’s campaign and Megasthenes, a few generations after Buddha. Then, the last great event in the life of Brahminism will call for record; the latest, and, perhaps most remarkable achievement of Brahminical genius; the rise of Shankaracharya and his school, who have left the deepest mark on all that is best in the Brahminism of today. As Plato summed up in himself the Hellenic spirit and the Hellenic genius, with its wonderful lucidity, its wonderful sense of beauty; so Shankaracharya summed up in himself the flower and perfection of Brahminism, and towered above his order as Plato towered above the Greeks. After Shankaracharya, there is little to read of the Brahmins which is of world wide import and universal value. Its chief worth is given to later Brahminism by the fidelity with which the Brahminical order, and especially the Smarta sect has followed in Shankara’s footsteps; the tenacity with which they have clung to the light which Shankara caught in his lucid spirit—the light which was the last departing ray of India’s Golden Age. If this tenacity of the Brahmin caste has sometimes become too exclusive; if they have guarded, sometimes too jealously, the treasures committed to their care, we can hardly blame them, for that policy of exclusion had its roots in bitter experience. It is needless to call to memory the blows that the Brahmins bore from the earliest Moslem invaders; the numerous pains undergone that might have sealed their lips once for all as to the secrets of their philosophy, the mysteries of their religion. It is better to forget old griefs, and to point only to the brighter side of the picture; the fair episode of Akbar’s openness to India’s wisdom, and Dara Shukoh’s studies in India’s sacred books. From these studies arose that first translation of the Upanishads which, rendered into Latin by Duperron, kindled in Schopenhauer such enthusiasm for India, and drew from him the prophecy of the Indian Renaissance. It is a fact that we must with shame confess that the griefs the Brahmins suffered at the hands of the Moslems were not lightened—were indeed rather darkened—by the Moslems’ Christian successors; the cruelties of the Portugese “Christians” might again have sufficed to close the lips of the Brahmins; yet the Brahmins were once again willing to impart their knowledge, to teach their sacred language and their Vedas to the scholars of the Calcutta School; and this willingness of theirs gave the first spark of life to the now mighty light of Orientalism. One must add, it is to be feared, to the causes and justifications of Brahminical silence the philistinism which marks too often the English administration in India; a philistinism sometimes as marked as that of the Roman soldiers who played at dice on the pictures of Zeuxis; or the Gallic conquerors who stabled their horses among Leonardo da Vinci’s frescoes. These three facts, Moslem intolerance, Portuguese cruelty, and British philistinism, are enough and more than enough to explain and amply excuse the exclusive, secretive spirit that is sometimes a reproach to the Brahmins of India today; an exclusive spirit which only genuine appreciation of India’s genius, and warm gratitude to the order which handed that secret down through the ages, can melt away.
That the Brahmins gave us the Upanishads, is enough to excuse and cover up with oblivion far greater faults than we can charge them with. Besides the Upanishads, they have given us some of the works, a part of the system, of the greatest student of the Upanishads the philosopher, Shankaracharya. But the nearness of Shankara’s days, the greatness of his work, and the high honour in which he is held by the Brahmins would lead us to believe that, if they have given much, they have not given us all. There must be, in the maths like Shringiri, the center of Shankara’s guruparampara chain, a far completer picture of the life and work of that great philosopher than has yet been given to the world in which his times must be as clearly pictured as the times of Hellenic Plato. Perhaps the Brahmins of Shringiri may once more forget their injuries and generously give to the world a more perfect picture of their great patron Shankara, who towers like a giant above his order; and, even imperfectly presented as he is, finds a place among the choicest intellectual aristocracy of the world. In tracing the history of their order, from the fading Vedic days, we see that the Brahmin caste has been a repository, a casket of precious records through long centuries of darkness and suffering. And if, from the rust of ages and the churlish hand of time, the casket is somewhat hard to open, we gladly forget its reluctance in gratitude for the treasures held within.