THE DEISM OF TO-DAY
Church, India, Caste, Society, Religion, Reformers
And thus one arrives at modern deism, not as the result of new influences emanating from Christian teaching, but rather as the legitimate successor of that deism which became almost monotheistic in the first centuries after our era, and has ever since varied with various reformers between two beliefs, inclining now to the pantheistic, now to the unitarian conception, as the respective reformers were influenced by Ved[=a]nta or S[=a]nkhya (later Mohammedan) doctrine.
The first of the great modern reformers is R[=a]mmohun Roy, who was born in 1772, the son of a high-caste Krishnaite Brahman. He studied Persian and Arabic literature at Patna, the centre of Indic Mohammedan learning. When a mere boy, he composed a tract against idolatry which caused him to be banished from home. He lived at Benares, the stronghold of Brahmanism, and afterwards in Tibet, the centre of Buddhism. "From his earliest years," says Williams, "he displayed an eagerness to become an unbiassed student of all the religions of the globe." He read the Vedas, the P[=a]li Buddhist works, the Kur[=a]n, and the Old Testament in the original; and in later years even studied Greek that he might properly understand the New Testament. The scholastic philosophy of the Hindus appeared to him, however, as something superior to what he found elsewhere, and his efforts were directed mainly to purifying the national faith, especially from idolatry. It was at his instigation that the practice of widow-burning was abolished (in 1829) by the British. He was finally ostracized from home as a schismatic, and retired to Calcutta, uniting about him a small body of Hindus and Jains, and there established a sort of church or sect, the [=A]tm[=i]ya Sabh[=a],'spiritual society' (1816), which met at his house, but eventually was crushed by the hostility of the orthodox priests. He finally adopted a kind of Broad-church Christianity or Unitarianism, and in 1820, in his 'Precepts of Jesus' and in one of his later works, admits that the simple moral code of the New Testament and the doctrines of Christ were the best that he knew. He never, however, abjured caste; and his adoption of Christianity, of course, did not include the dogma of the trinity: "Whatever excuse may be pleaded in favor of a plurality of persons of the Deity can be offered with equal propriety in defence of polytheism" (Final Appeal). Founded by him, the first theistic church was organized in 1828 at Calcutta, and formally opened in 1830 as the Br[=a]hma Sam[=a]j; ('the Congregation of God'). In doing this he wished it to be understood that he was not founding a new sect, but a pure monotheistic worship. The only creed was a confession of faith in the unity of God. For himself, he abandoned pantheism, adopted the belief in a final judgment, in miracles, and in Christ as the 'Founder of true religion.' He died in 1833 in England. His successor, Debendran[=a]th T[=a]gore, was not appointed leader of the Br[=a]hma Sam[=a]j; till much later; after he had founded a church of his own ('the Truth-teaching Society'), which lasted for twenty years (1839-1859), before it was united with the Br[=a]hma Sam[=a]j. In the meantime Debendran[=a]th become a member of the latter society (1841). He established the covenant of the Sam[=a]j, a vow taken by every member to lead holy lives, to abstain from idolatry, to worship no created object, but only God, the One without a second, the Creator, Preserver, Destroyer, the Giver of Emancipation.
The church was newly organized in 1844 with a regularly appointed president and minister, and with the administration of the oath to each believer. This is the [=A]di Br[=a]hma Sam[=a]j, the First Congregation, in distinction from the schism which soon took place. The first quarrel in this church was due to a difference of opinion in regard to the authority of the Vedas. Some members rejected them, others maintained their infallibility; while between these extremes lay various other opinions, some members questioning the infallibility of the Vedas but maintaining their authority. By a majority vote it was eventually decided that the Vedas (and Upanishads) were not infallible.
In the meantime in other provinces rival Sam[=a]jas had been formed, and by 1850 there were several of these broad-minded Congregations, all trammelled by their environment, but doing their best to be liberal.
We pause here in the compilation of the data recorded in this paragraph to assert, independently of Professor Williams, who has given us the historical facts, but would doubtless not wish to have imputed to himself the following judgment which we are led to pass, that the next step of the Sam[=a]j; placed it upon the only ground where the objects of this church can be attained, and that in the subsequent reform of this reform, which we shall have to record below, a backward step has been taken. For Debendran[=a]th changed the essential character of the Sam[=a]j from pantheistic theism to pure deism. The inner circle of the society had a narrower declaration of faith, but in his Br[=a]hma Dharma, published about 1850, Debendran[=a]th formulated four articles of faith, to subscribe to which admitted any one into the Sam[=a]j. These articles read as follows: (t) Brahma (neuter) alone existed in the beginning before the universe; naught else existed; It created all the universe. (2) It is eternal, intelligent, infinite, blissful, self-governed (independent), without parts, just one (neuter) without a second, all-pervading, the ruler (masculine noun) of all, refuge of all, omniscient, omnipotent, immovable, perfect, without parallel (all these adjectives are neuter). (3) By worship of this One alone can bliss be obtained in the next world and in this. (4) The worship of this (neuter) One consists in love toward this (One) and in performing works pleasant (to this One).
This deism denies an incarnate God, scriptural authority, and the good of rites and penance; but it teaches the efficacy of prayer and repentance, and the belief in God as a personal Creator and Heavenly Father. Intellectual—anything but emotional—it failed to satisfy many worshippers. And as a church it was conservative in regard to social reforms.
In 1858 Keshub Chunder Sen, a Vishnuite by family, then but twenty, joined the Sam[=a]j, and being clever, young, eloquent, and cultivated, he, after the manner of the Hindus, undertook to reform the church he had just entered, first of all by urging the abolition of caste-restrictions. Debendran[=a]th was liberal enough to be willing to dispense with his own thread (the caste-mark), but too wisely conservative to demand of his co-religionists so complete a break with tradition and social condition. For the sacred thread to the Hindu is the sign of social respectability. Without it, he is out of society. It binds him to all that is dearest to him. The leader of the older Sam[=a]j; never gave up caste; the younger members in doing so mix religion with social etiquette, and so hinder the advance they aim at. Sen urged this and other reforms, all repugnant to the society in which he lived, changes in the rite at the worship of ancestors, alterations in the established ritual at birth-ceremonies and funerals, abolition of polyandry and of child-marriages, and, worst of all, granting permission to marry to those of different castes. His zeal was directed especially against caste-restrictions and child-marriages. Naturally he failed to persuade the old Sam[=a]j to join him in these revolutionary views, to insist on which, however sensible they seem, cannot be regarded otherwise than as indiscreet from the point of view of one who considers men and passions. For the Sam[=a]j, in the face of tremendous obstacles, had just secured a foot-hold in India. Sen's headlong reforms would have smashed to pieces the whole congregation, and left India more deeply prejudiced than ever against free thought. Sen failed to reform the old church, so in 1865 he, with some ardent young enthusiasts, reformed themselves into a new church, ceremoniously organized in 1866 as the Br[=a]hma Sam[=a]j; of India, in distinction from the Calcutta Sam[=a]j, or [=A]di Sam[=a]j. A futile effort was made to get all the other local congregations to join the new Sam[=a]j, the last, of course, to be the first and head of the organization.
The new Sam[=a]j renounced caste-restrictions and Brahmanism altogether, but it was tainted with the hysterical bhakti fervor which Sen inherited from his childhood's religion, and which (if one may credit Williams' words) "brought the latest development of Indian Theism into closer harmony with Christian ideas." The chief leader of this Sam[=a]j besides Sen was his cousin Prot[=a]p Chunder Mozoomdar, official secretary of the society. Its literary organ is the Indian Mirror.
The reform of this reform of course followed before long. The new Sam[=a]j was accused of making religion too much a matter of emotion and excitement. Religious fervor, bhakti, had led to "rapturous singing of hymns in the streets"; and to the establishment of a kind of love-feasts ('Brahma-feasts' they were called) of prayer and rejoicing; and, on the other hand, to undue asceticism and self-mortification. Sen himself was revered too much. One of the most brilliant, eloquent, and fascinating of men, he was adored by his followers—as a god! He denied that he had accepted divine honors, but there is no doubt, as Williams insists, that his Vishnuite tendency led him to believe himself peculiarly the recipient of divine favors. It was charged against him that he asserted that all he did was at God's command, and that he believed himself perennially inspired. If one add to this that he was not only divinely inspired, but that he had the complete control of his society, it would appear to be easy to foresee where the next reformer might strike. For Sen "was not only bishop, priest, and deacon all in one," says Williams, "he was a Pope, from whose decision there was no appeal." But it was not this that caused the rupture. In 1877 this reformer, "who had denounced early marriages as the curse of India," yielded to natural social ambition and engaged his own young daughter to a Koch (R[=a]jbanshi) prince, who in turn was a mere boy. The Sam[=a]j protested with all its might, but the marriage was performed the next year, withal to the accompaniment of idolatrous rites. After this Sen became somewhat theatrical. In 1879 he recognized (in a proclamation) God's Motherhood—the old dogma of the female divine. In 1880 he announced, in fervid language, that Christianity was the only true religion: "It is Christ who rules British India, and not the British Government. England has sent out a tremendous moral force in the life and character of that mighty prophet to conquer and hold this vast empire. None but Jesus, none but Jesus, none but Jesus, ever deserved this bright, this precious diadem, India, and Jesus shall have it…. Christ is a true Yogi." He accepts Christ, but not as God, only as inspired saint (as says Williams). More recently, Sen proposed an amalgamation of Hinduism, Mohammedanism, and Christianity as the true religion.
Meanwhile the Sam[=a]j was rent by discord. Sen's opponents, the new reformers, were unable, however, to oust the brilliant leader from the presidency. Consequently they established a new church, intended to be a General Congregation, the fourth development (1878) of the Br[=a]hma Sam[=a]j. And so the fight has gone on ever since. At the present day there are more than a hundred deistic churches, in which the devotional exercises consist in part of readings from the Vedas, Bible, Kur[=a]n, and Avesta. The [=A]rya Sam[=a]j is one of the most important of the later churches, some of which endeavor to obtain undefiled religion by uniting into one faith what seems best in all; others, by returning to the Vedas and clearing them of what they think to be later corruptions of those originally pure scriptures. Of the latter sort is the [=A]rya Sam[=a]j. Its leader, Day[=a]nanda, claims that the Vedas are a true revelation. The last reformer of which we have knowledge is a bright young high-caste Hindu of upper India, who is about to found a 'world-religion,' for which task he is now making preliminary studies. He has visited this country, and recently told us that, if he had time, he could easily convert America. But his first duty lies, of course, in the reformation of India's reformations, especially of the Sam[=a]jas!
The difficulty with which all these reformers and re-reformers have to contend is pitifully clear. Their broad ideas have no fitting environment. Their leaders and thinkers may continue to preach deism, and among their equals they will be heard and understood. They are, however, not content with this. They must form churches. But a church implies in every case an unnatural and therefore dangerous growth, caused by the union either of inferior minds (attracted by eloquence, but unable to think) with those that are not on the same plane, or of ambitious zealots with reluctant conservatists. Many join the church who are not qualified to appreciate the leader's work. They overload the founder's deism with the sectarian theism from which they have not really freed themselves. On the other hand, younger men, who have been educated in English colleges and are imbued with the spirit of practical reform, enter the church to use it as an instrument for social progress. So the church is divided, theists and reformers both being at odds with the original deists; and the founder is lucky if he escapes being deified by one party and being looked upon by the other as too dull.
India is no more prepared as a whole for the reception of the liberal views of the Sam[=a]j; than was the negro for the right to vote. Centuries of higher preliminary education are needed before the people at large renounce their ancestral, their natural faith. A few earnest men may preach deism; the people will remain polytheists and pantheists for many generations. Then, again, the Sam[=a]jas have to contend not only with the national predisposition, but with every heretical sect, and, besides these, with the orthodox church. But thus far their chief foe is, after all, their own heart as opposed to their head. As long as deistic leaders are deified by their followers, and regard themselves as peculiarly inspired, they will preach in vain. Nor can they with impunity favor the substitution of emotion for ideas in a land where religious emotion leads downwards as surely as falls a stone that is thrown.
|Written By Edward Washburn Hopkins|
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