The Theosophist and Hindu Pantheism
Theosophist, December, 1881
It is upon the above subject 1 that we find Mr. Henry Atkinson, of Boulogne, France, treating in the Philosophic Inquirer of Madras. This gentleman is an able and widely-known writer, generally perfectly clear and definite in his ideas. It, therefore, surprises us the more, to be unable to find out his motive for dragging the Theosophists into the above-named article. Having condensed from Professor Flint’s “Anti-Theistic Theories”, the author’s analysis of the Vedanta system, which led him to conclude that the negation of the reality of the worlds, along with the affirmation that Parabrahma is an impersonal deity—is a kind of Pantheism which is Acosmism, Mr. Atkinson confirms the remark by adding that “Pantheism is just as likely to issue in Atheism.” Not that we know of—is our answer. As taught by the ablest and most learned Vedantins of Benares, Pandits and Sanskrit scholars, their Pantheism has quite a contrary result. But we must not digress from the direct subject. Says the writer:—
“From this virtual atheism there is but a step to avowed atheism. The Sankhya philosophy and Buddhism are the Hindu exemplifications of this tendency of pantheistic speculation. “It takes for granted that material atoms existed from eternity. The reasoning by which the belief in creation is set aside by Hindu philosophers is ever substantially that which we find thus expressed in a Sutra of the Sankhya system: There cannot be the production of something out of nothing; that, which is not, cannot be developed into that which is: the production of what does not already exist potentially is impossible; be cause there must, of necessity, be a material out of which a product is developed, and because everything cannot occur everywhere at all times; and because anything possible must be produced from something competent to produce it.”
This quotation is immediately followed by the wholly unexpected—hence rather startling—question. “Now do the Theosophists ask us to return to such self-refuting, dreamy abstractions—such wilful wandering of an early unscientific age and country,” (?) and—that is the only reference we find to the THEOSOPHISTS in the whole letter.
We fail, therefore, to perceive the relevancy of the query in relation to anything in Mr. Atkinson’s article; nor do we see that the quotation from the Sutra has anything so “unscientific” in it; nor yet, the possible bearing upon theosophy the writer finds in the case in hand, in general. What have the “Theosophists” to do with Professor Flint’s speculations, with Vedantism, the Sankhya, or even with Buddhism in this application? The Theosophists study all the systems and—teach none, leaving everyone to think and seek out truth for himself. Our members but help each other in the common work, and everyone of us is open to conviction, wherever the probable truth of any given hypothesis is demonstrated to him by the light of modern science, logic, or reason. Less than all, does anyone of the Theosophists “ask anyone else to return to, remain in” or proceed in “self-refuting, dreamy abstractions” and “wilful wandering of an early unscientific age”––unless such “wandering” is necessitated by the far greater wandering, and many an unproved speculation of our own “scientific” age—modern science ever balancing on one leg at the brink of “impassable chasms.” If Science, to enable herself to put two and two together so as not to make of it five, had to return to the atomic theory of old Democritus and the heliocentric system of the far older Pythagoras—both of whom have lived in ages which are generally regarded as “unscientific”—we do not see why the Theosophists should not wander in such ages in quest of the solution of the most vital problems which, do what he may, no modern philosopher has yet succeeded in even approaching. But what we do ask and most decidedly, is that people should study, compare and think for themselves before they definitely accept anything upon secondhand testimony. Hence we protest against more than one authoritative and as arbitrary assumption of this our so-called “enlightened and scientific age.” Till now, our daily accumulative and joint experience shows to us the adjective no better than a vain boast and a misnomer; and we feel quite ready to maintain our position, inviting and promising to feel grateful to Mr. Atkinson or anyone else who will disprove it.
Why should we, to begin with, call our age a “scientific” age, in preference to, or with any better claim to it than, the age of Alexander the Great, or even that of Sargon the Chaldean? Our century is a period which gave birth to many scientific men; to a still greater number of those who fancy themselves very scientific, but could hardly prove it in a crucial test; and—to teeming millions of “innocents” who are quite as ignorant, as superstitious, and as mentally weak and uneducated now as any of the citizens in the days of the Hyksos, of Pericles, or of Rama ever were—then. No one will deny that to every genuine man of science, there are, at least, one hundred sciolists—pretenders to learning—and ten millions of thorough ignoramuses throughout the world. Nor could anyone contradict the assertion that to every enlightened and thoroughly well-educated person in society, we have to throw in several hundreds of half-educated boobies, with no more than a superficial society-varnish to conceal their gross ignorance. Moreover Science, or rather Knowledge, and Ignorance are relative terms as all other contraries are in nature—antagonistic, yet rather proving than disproving each other. Thus, if the Scientist of today knows infinitely more in one direction than the Scientist who flourished in the days of the Pharaoh Tuthmosis, the latter knew probably immeasurably more in another direction than all our Tyndalls and Herbert Spencers know, proof of the above being shown in the “lost” arts and sciences. If this age of ours is one of wonderful achievement in physical sciences, of steam and electricity, of railroads and telegraphs, of telephones and what not, it is also one in which the best minds find no better, no more secure or more reasonable refuge, than in Agnosticism, the modern variation on the very ancient theme of the Greek philosopher—“All I know is that I know nothing.” With the exception of a handful of men of science and cultured people in general, it is also an age of compulsory obscurantism and wilful ignorance—as a direct result, and the bulk of the present population of the globe is no less “unscientific” and quite as grossly superstitious as it was 3,000 years back.
Is Mr. Atkinson or anyone else (but a Christian) prepared to deny the following very easily verified assertion—that one million of uneducated Buddhists chosen at random––those, who hold to the “good law” as taught in Ceylon, ever since it was brought there by King Asoka’s son Mahinda, in the “unscientific” age of 200 B.C.—are a hundred times less credulous, superstitious, and nearer to scientific truths in their belief, than a million of Christians, equally chosen at random and instructed in this “scientific” age? We would advise any person, before he undertakes to contradict what we say, to first get Colonel Olcott’s “Buddhist Catechism”—intended for the poor, ignorant children of as ignorant and unscientific Sinhalese parents, and placing along with it the Roman Catholic Catechism, or the highly elaborate Westminster Confession of Faith, or yet the Church of England 39 Articles—compare notes. Let him read and take these notes by the light of science and then tell us which—the Buddhist or Christian dogmas—are nearer to the teachings of Modern Science? And let us bear in mind in this connection that Buddhism, as now taught, is identically the same as it was preached during the first centuries which followed Buddha’s death, namely, from 550 B.C to A.D. 100 in the “early and unscientific age and country” of early Buddhism, while the above-named expositions of the Christian faith—especially the two Protestant works—are the elaborately revised and corrected editions, the joint productions of the most learned theologians and the greatest scholars of our “scientific” age. That they are, moreover, the expression and the profession of a faith, deliberately accepted by the post cultured classes of Europe and America. Thus, while this kind of teaching remains in authority for the bulk of Western population—both for the learned as well as for the unlearned—we feel entirely justified in saying, that our age is not only “unscientific” on the whole, but that the Western religious world is very little ahead, indeed, of the fetish-worshipping savage.
1. See “The ‘Philosophy of Spirit’”, Theosophist, December, 1881, p. 62. [ED.]