The Indian Renaissance
Theosophical Forum, May, 1901
At the close of the nineteenth century, the scientific ideal was already visibly losing its power. Very strange; yet an undoubted truth.
The Titans of the last generation have gone down into the darkness, and none of like stature have arisen, to take their place. The great new fields have all been entered; and the fresh enthusiasm of conquest is dulled. So we find our ardor growing somewhat cooler; we ask whether all the promises of the men of science have been kept; and love that falls to questioning is love already on the wane.
In the heyday of youth, we were told that science had two gifts: utility, and truth. We have begun to doubt the former; we have utterly ceased to believe in the latter.
After all, the material ends of science come to this,—the well-being of our bodies. And with all the triumphs of mechanics, this purpose does not seem to be so very well served. We take thought for our bodies; yet we are less and less at home in the natural world; lifted on the pedestal of scientific culture, we are losing our touch with the fair, green earth; and, Antæus-like, are feeling our ebbing strength. As we once tortured ourselves, in the saving of our souls, so we are now tormented with a passion for saving our bodies; we are grown somewhat hectic and feverish, in consequence, but not greatly happier, so far as one can see. It is a question we are coming to face, whether, with all our science, we have not defeated our own ends, and for the sake of living, lost the aim of life.
We are animals, to begin with; related to the natural world through muscular effort, and through the air and sunshine; and our science, in doing away with this direct relation, threatens to turn us into ineffectual and moping animals, imprisoned in cages of our own ingenuity.
And the second claim of science,—to give us truth,—we no longer listen to it. The very creed of science, Agnosticism, is a confession of bankruptcy. Hear the words of the high priest, militant and triumphant: “In perfect strictness, we know nothing of anything as it really is.” Not a particle of truth absolute.
Our material science had no true sense of human life. We look at its account of man; of the human heart; of its sorrows and its beauties and its hopes; of the wonder and the mystery of our life; of passion and delight; and we are instantly conscious that the account is a false one. The boy bathing in the pond has a truer sense of nature; the beggar by the wayside has a deeper insight into life.
So the scientific ideal is slipping away from us, and losing its charm and power.
Whence, then, the almost irresistible vogue of science, only a generation ago? It arose because science was the last step of the Renaissance; the work of the liberation of our spirits; it rid us of something, rather than gave us something. Therefore it was made welcome to the modern world.
The Renaissance of the Greek spirit has been so complete, that it has hardly left us any material of comparison from the Dark Age which it put to flight. Yet we can still picture to ourselves that dark, medieval world, cramped, chilled, narrow, bitter; it is the world of Dante, souls damned, or purged, or saved; but no living men and women; a hell, a purgatory, a paradise; but no fair natural earth, with the grass, and the sunlight, and the blue sky overhead. Here is an echo of that contest, from the very dawn of the new days: Aucassin, when threatened with the pains of hell, if he loves Nicolette his mistress, declares that he sees on the road to heaven only a feeble company of aged priests, clinging day and night to the chapel altars, barefoot, or in patched sandals. With, or even without, Nicolette, his sweet mistress, whom he so much loves, he, for his part is ready to start on the way to hell, along with the good scholars, and the actors, and the fine horsemen dead in battle, and the men of fashion, and the fair courteous ladies, ‘who had two or three chevaliers apiece, besides their own true lords,’ all gay with music, in their gold and silver and beautiful furs.
That is the revolt of the human heart from its monastic cell; the long-sealed fountains bursting forth, towards the joy of sensuous life; the gayety, the lightness, the freedom of the Greek spirit; the rebirth of that spirit, in the Renaissance. So utter and perfect has been that new birth, that we hardly credit how much we owe to Greece; as honest debtors, let us try to draw up a true account.
Against the dark blackness of the middle ages, the Greek world broke forth in a many-colored dawn. The serene statues of Phidias; the sunny beauty of the Parthenon; the gracious outlines of the vases, almost austere in their simple black and red; but above all, the records of poets and seers; the authentic word of Homer and Plato,—these were the revelations of the humam spirit, from that happiest and most luminous time.
All through Homer, we are haunted by the sense of man as a hero; of heroic passion, and a beauty and stature as of the immortals; of a divine power to suffer, as silver-slippered Thetis wept, by the shores of the much-sounding sea; of a divine power of wrath, as of Achilles, destructive, bringing myriad evils to the Achæans; of heroic daring; of a divine pathos, as when the messengers say to Priam: ‘And thou too, old man, we have heard thou once wert happy.’ Add the lovely imagery of the natural world; the wine-colored sea; the whiteness of the waves; Iris, with rainbow plumes; the rose-fingered dawn; and all the bravery of the world. Such is the gift of Homer.
The spirit of man, in dire conflict with fate; fierce destiny of sorrow, and madness, and pain; nemesis, the black shadow of human wrong; the whole, wrapped in a high and austere beauty; this is the message of Greek tragedy.
Let the same human heart ripen in to wisdom; as the golden glow comes over the fruit in autumn. Passion grown calmer; joy and sorrow blended in strong serenity; something of the greater world, bearing down from within, upon the heart of man, to remind him of his divinity; the same joyous beauty gleaming over all. This is the gift of Plato; a man so great that we cannot tell whether he is poet, or philosopher, or orator, or historian; a man with a high and majestic sense of human life.
The service of Greece to our spirits is twofold: to give us, in large beneficence of beauty, a deeper, truer, sense of our own lives; as the Greek spirit, with its vividness, its grace, its joy, touches the dark, unexplored regions of our souls, where the shadows of night and oblivion still linger. Then, by showing us a fair, living world, across the ages of the deserted past, to bring us a truer sense of the great life of mankind, in which our own day is but one of myriads that have gone, of myriads that are to me. A true sense of man; a true insight into the human heart.
This is what was reborn in the Renaissance; and the whole power of the reaction lay in this: the Dark Age had given an account of human life, which, with all its poignant and penetrating truth in certain regions of moral law, was yet terribly inadequate; terribly shrunken, bitter, narrow, intolerant. An ideal of life, which left out the passion and the joy; the delight of beauty and color; Mother Nature’s whole sensuous gift. The sky was darkened by the fumes of the nether pit.
And now the Renaissance has run its course, and fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf. We are once more confronted with a wholly inadequate ideal of life; a shallow and false understanding of the heart of man.
Hectic man, in his cage of machinery is the last decrepitude of the return to nature; this is where the revolt has led him, from the penitential durance of the Dark Age,—from one prison to another.
And, as twin sister to the cry for science, we have the cry for realism in art. Here again, the Renaissance turned sour. We recognize the caricature, and the spell is broken. We turn from the lurid ugliness of the novelist, feeling that this is not life. And we turn from the ideal of science, with its wall of crucibles, its clangor of machines, and feel that this also is not our proper life.
The Greek Renaissance has ended; the Indian Renaissance has dawned. Let us take this text for its message:
What, verily, is the light of man? The sun is the light of man, and the moon, and fire, and the voice that guides him. But when the sun is gone, and the moon has set, and the fire has sunk down, and the guiding voice is still, what then is the light of man? The Soul, verily, is then his light.
The Greek spirit gave us a complete and rounded manhood; a rich and sufficient personality. The Indian spirit brings a deeper note. It brings the sense of the brooding divinity, behind and above our personal life; an overshadowing, insistant presence; a mysterious figure standing behind us, felt, but never seen; a strong hand held in the darkness; a voice from a hidden speaker, uttering counsels of our nobility; a present sense of our birthright; our genius calling us to inherit deep, inner worlds.
We are called away from this sensuous life, by a voice, very winning, or sternly insistant; we have strong, grave admonitions of a profounder being than the gracious personality of the Greeks. We are on the shore of a hidden ocean; the ocean of the waters of life. Its waves refresh our souls; the murmur of it, and the music, summon us away to the unknown.
We thought our human cup was full; that we were familiar with the boundaries of our hearts. We are admonished that our cup is the infinite ocean; that our bounds are the flaming walls of the universe. We are called forth from our narrow day, to inhabit the eternities. Our life is a boundless deep; a reality, present and intimate, yet older than old, and mightier than mighty.
So the Indian spirit stirs in us, and awakes the intuition of the Soul; not a dream of thin cloud, but a mighty power, working through our wills, and, by our wills, uniting us to the omnipotent powers of the world. We feel the dæmonic forces in life; all things flowing towards human destiny, and human will. What seemed adverse fate, we see to be our own deepest purpose; the powers of nature are kin to the soul; and we have hints of a new mastery over the world.
As there is a natural power of the earth, against which, and through which we work, in every bodily effort, so there is an inner and universal power, which we touch directly with our wills; a power, august and omnipotent, whose first dawn is that “something god-like, hindering me even in little things, if I am about to do anything not rightly.”
That divine and dæmonic power which saturates all life has been recognized everywhere, and always. The Indian spirit gives it a new, inspiring name. It is not fate, nor destiny, nor angry deity, but the very heart of our hearts, our own soul, our inmost and highest Self; something nearer to us than all else; and yet mightier than mighty; the spirit that wove the worlds.
This is where we are led by the wisdom and genius of India; to the world at the back of the heavens, the world the seers know.
The Indian wisdom brings back to us a sense of the mystery of life, and a sense of our own high divinity. The real Self in us endures for ever, and has ever endured. It is the Tree of Life, blossoming through innumerable summers, and growing through the unfolding and the fall of leaves innumerable. Each day of our life is as the leaf of the tree; the leaf withers, the flower fades, but the tree is eternal, and endures from everlasting. We are not to await an immortality beyond the tomb, for we are already immortal; though our present immortality is hidden from us by doubt and fear.
Through life, beginningless and endless, the Soul follows its counsels of perfection; gathering power and wisdom in the broad fields of the universe; fields that we have never dreamed of, or, dreaming of them, have long forgotten. And the inspirations of genius, the dream of infinite beauty, the sweetness of immortal song, the serenity of truth, the glad exultation of bliss,—these are the voices of the Soul, for a moment unveiled, and flashing into this our day of life. We have caught sight of the long hid Companion, whose hand we held in the darkness.
This Companion is the infinite Self, the spirit who wakes in the dreamers, molding their dream after dream; this is the bright the immortal, the eternal; this they call the everlasting. In this all the worlds are set, nor does any go beyond it. This is he who holds sovereign sway, the inner Self of all beings; who wears innumerable forms; the wise who behold him within them, have peace eternal. As great as is all the world, so great is the world in our heart of hearts; in it both heaven and earth are set, and the fire and the wind, and the sun, and the moon; all that is, and all that is not, all is set therein. Not with old age does the heart of our hearts grow old; nor with death does it perish away. This is the real, the home of the Eternal, this is the Self which has put all darkness away, and age, and sorrow, and hunger, and death; its desires are potent, and its will is true.
This Self is the bridge between the two worlds, holding them asunder, that they should not flow together. And day and night cross not this bridge, nor age, nor death, nor sorrow; nor good, nor ill. All sin turns back from it, for the realm of the Eternal is free from sin. If a blind man crosses this bridge, he is blind no more; and the stricken is no longer stricken, nor the sore afflicted, afflicted any more. Therefore if even night should cross this bridge, it would be turned into day; for the realm of the Eternal shines, once and forever.
This Self is of all beings the overlord, of all beings the king; as the spokes are fixed in the nave and felloes, so are all beings fixed in the Self; and all gods, all worlds, all lives, all selves. He who, standing within all beings, dwells within all beings, whom all beings know not, who knows all beings; who rules all beings inwardly within, this is the Self, the inner ruler, the immortal.
This mighty one, the Self, who has the form of thought among the lives; this world that there is, in the heart within, in it dwells the king of all, the master of all, the overlord of all; he is not increased by righteous deeds, nor made less by evils; he is the king of all, overlord of beings, shepherd of all beings.
The Indian wisdom finds the first intimation of the higher Self in the moral sense. The dearer is one thing; the better is another; these two draw a man in opposite ways. It is well for him who follows the better. He fails of his aim who follows the dearer. And beginning thus, in the moral sense, the Indian wisdom tells us many secrets of the hidden Self. It is the voice of this Self which speaks in conscience, warning us what is seemly for our greater life. It is the voice of this hidden Self which speaks in every revelation of genius, winning us back to the unearthly beauty of our old home. It is the voice of this Self which speaks in every revelation of religion, with high and solemn admonition that we are of the eternal; that we should so order our ways, as becomes the dread power that made the worlds.
And the Indian wisdom tells us much of the pilgrimage of the soul: how it fancies itself to be poor, orphaned, and insignificant; how it finds its way through form after form, through life after life on its pathway back to infinite power. How every life brings some fruit of wisdom, of strength, of brave endurance; something gained, of the infinite lost inheritance. How the conflict of the world wearies it, and it sinks to rest in death, as the birds return to their nests at nightfall. How gentle peace hovers over it, and the memory of an immortal hope, and soft restfulness after its day of sorrow; and how it is lulled into new strength, and once more awakes, and is born anew in the world, to take up again that quest, for the hidden something that all have been seeking for ever, though no tongue can give it a name. And the souls come thus again to the gates of birth, according to their deeds, according to the light that they have gained; and so their work goes on. Nor are any left behind, or any deserted; but every smallest matter in their lives is the doing of the Self, for the ends and purposes of the Self. This is the spirit that obtains all things wisely through endless years. And as the measure of a man’s life is, and the measure of his aspiration, so is the mead of his rest, under the wings of peace, when he passes through the gateway of death. As the measure of his need is, so shall it be for him; for all is guided by the Soul, the inmost Self of all beings; all, whether it be in the world of work, or the world of rest, or the world of the eternal.
And a part of the work is this, that a man shall find that deeper self within him, the light of the infinite Self; and that, finding it, he shall know himself to be the infinite Self, the fearless, the immortal. And a second part of his work is, that he should know that Self in him to be lord over the world, and lord over nature; and it is ever the dim memory of this task that leads him forth to conquer the natural world; to wrestle with it, and subdue it; and at last he shall learn to bend it to his will, without moving hand or foot, but by the will only; and this, whether it be this world, or any other. And the third part of his task shall be, to find the Self in all beings, and first of all in these his other selves, who beset his life on every side. And that part of his task is the greatest of all, and its reward is greatest. For the reward of the first task is knowledge, and the reward of the second is power, but the reward of the third is joy.
So there is a promise for us, of a realm of boundless life; veil after veil rent, showing the hidden infinities; till we rise from the ashes of our dead selves, ready to enter the place of our divinity.
And there is a promise for us of real mastery over nature, directly, through the will; and not through outer expedients. And all that the East has told us of miraculous power, of marvels of healing, of the lightnings called forth, and the waves subdued, and the wild winds hushed, is but the faint prophecy of the truth; the dawn of the coming day. Man is to be the lord of nature, in a manner hitherto undreamed of.
Then the last promise, weightiest of all, that unlocks the old, dear secret of our humanity. The Self within, the shepherd of our life, the great Companion felt through the darkness, is the Self, not of one, but of all; the inmost Self of all beings. Therefore shalt thou love thy neighbor as thyself, because thy neighbor is thyself: and his own self will no man otherwise than love. Thy neighbor is thyself, not in a vague, poetical figure, tinged with soft emotion, but in the vivid reality of daily life. Try to injure that other self, and the great Companion that is the Self of both, rises up with strong insistence, till the wrong be made right. This is the leader that shall right the evils of the world, and make the true balance between rich and poor, strong and weak; the great Companion, who is the Self of all.
In all sincere converse between two human beings, in earnest hate, just as much as in passionate love, we appeal to that common Self in both hearts; if we did not feel its presence, we could neither hate nor love. Therefore hate is in a certain high sense the fulfilling of the law, as well as love; and therefore good and evil are alike the work of the Self. He who sincerely hates, yields it as true homage as he who passionately loves.
But this world-old secret, known to every simplest heart of man, and which is indeed the light that lightens everyone who comes into the world, has found no name in Palestine, as it found no name in Greece. It found its name in the golden days of India, when they told of the inmost Self of all beings, the self of each and the self of all; the one seer looking forth from all our eyes. Thus the Indian wisdom sets the crown on the martyr’s brow, no longer a crown of thorns, but a garland of the roses of love.
And here we may well say something of that part of the Indian Renaissance which shall bring a new light to the faiths of all peoples and all times; and show in them also the working of the one power, the inmost Self who takes endless forms, and, though one, disposes the desires of many.
As the simplest instance, let us show the light that the Indian wisdom throws on the faith in which we were born, the teaching of the kingdom of Heaven. That was the rallying cry of John the Baptist: the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. But Jesus took it, and gave it new life and meaning; and now it is India’s part to show what that new life meant. Here is the meaning, in a sentence: the parables of the Kingdom are the parables of the Self; the Kingdom is the realm of the inmost Soul of all; and the Self is the king within that kingdom.
Hear the parables, as they are given in the old Indian Books of Wisdom. First the grain of mustard-seed:
The real Self is formed of Mind, and embodied in our life; its nature is radiant; its will is true. Holding all space within itself, doing all things, desiring all things, savoring all things, tasting all things; unspeakable in words; this is my Self in the heart within, smaller than a grain of barley, smaller than a grain of mustard, smaller than a grain a rice, or the kernel of a rice-grain; this is my Self, in the heart within, greater than the earth, greater than the firmament, greater than heaven, greater than all worlds. Doing all things, desiring all things, savoring all things, tasting all things, embracing all things; this is my Self in the heart within, this is the Eternal.
Take the parable of the Treasure hidden in the field:
These our true desires are overlaid with false; of them, though true, there is a covering of falsehood. Therefore, if anyone belonging to us should die, we cannot reach him, to behold him. For those who belong to us, whether the living or the dead, and whatever else we desire, and cannot gain, by entering into the Soul we might find it all, but here our true desires are covered up with false. And, like a treasure of gold, hidden in a field, which men who know not its place walk over and over, and know it not; so, verily, all beings go day by day to the world of the Eternal, and know it not, for they are covered up by untruth. This is the Self in the heart; and when a man rises above this body, and enters into the inner light, he becomes one with the being of the Self, the immortal, the fearless, the Eternal.
Here are two of the parables of the Kingdom, but with their interpretations; the Kingdom of Heaven is within; it is the realm of the Soul, the real Self; and the king is within his kingdom.
One can see what a new light is promised here: how the mystery of our faith may be resolved, and the tears of blood wiped away.
We may therefore count our hopes of the Indian Renaissance, which is, indeed, but one of the innumerable births of the Soul; a new and profound insight into other faiths, and for us chiefly of the faith that came to us from Palestine, the gospel of the Kingdom; the realm of the eternal soul.
And, higher even than this work of interpretation, the spirit of India is to awaken in us the present intuition of the Soul, our own immortal Self, which was from the beginning; showing us our high divinity, our undying inheritance; showing us also our true lordship over the worlds, and how we are to win it; and showing us, at last, our inmost Self looking at us, through the eyes of friend and enemy; alike, our other selves.
And at last all these intuitions shall be blended into one, and we shall live the strong life of the Eternal.