Aryan Origins and the Primeval Savage
Theosophical Forum, April, 1904
In discussing the question of Indian Chronology, and the almost inextricable confusion it had been thrown into by the conjectures of the first generation of Orientalists who were gathered round Sir William Jones and Thomas Colebrooke, these vitiated conjectures forming the basis for further conjectures by the second, the Indo-Germanic School, we were forced to dwell at some length on the cause of this confusion, the prepossession of the minds of our first Sanskrit scholars by the Rabbinical tradition of the creation of man and the world in the year “4004 B.C.” It is worth while for anyone who doubts the all pervading influence of this tradition on the minds of the Calcutta School, to examine the first dozen numbers of the Asiatic Researches, and see how, time after time, the traditional dates of Indian Chronology are forced into accordance with “4004 B.C.,” with a persistent assurance which shows that our earliest Orientalists, in perfect good faith, believed themselves in duty bound to lop and trim everything down to the measure of the Adamite tradition. To look at these old records is a curious study, and almost forces the belief that, in a hundred years hence, much that is now spoken of as the admirable result of modern scientific research may be set down to quite another cause, the myth-making power of the human mind, which is as strong now, though not so poetical, as in the old days which gave birth to the splendid imagery of Agni and Indra, or the Titan Prometheus, and the fable of the Golden Fleece. And it is only right that this should be so, for progress is the very life and soul of knowledge, and without change, without a giving up of old things, progress is impossible. The step in progress which was spoken of, with reference to Indian Chronology, was that by which for the old Rabbinical tradition was substituted a far deeper and more philosophical belief; which gave to the latest age of our world that of sedimentation, by which the crust we know of was formed—a period of hundreds or thousands of millions of years, and to man a period of millions or even tens of millions; while the far vaster periods in which the worlds passed from infancy to maturity, in which was formed the first filmy outline of our earth from the starry stuff of the great solar nebula, (predicated by Laplace,) in which the shadows of the infinite stars hardened into their first solidity, were left dim and indefinite in the vast unmapped regions of eternity.
If the first belief in the Rabbinical tradition of “4004 B.C.” had been more fully examined, we might have seen how the chief blame lay, not so much with the tradition itself but with that myth-making power of the human mind to which allusion has just been made; which may be otherwise described as the turning of things into something else, which they are not, by clothing them with a vesture of fancies. The allegories of the making of the world are very similar in all religions; they contain much that is very philosophical and full of deep wisdom; much that is in harmony with our best knowledge today, and much, perhaps, which is at present out of harmony with our scientific views, but which we may in the future approximate to, by a natural process of progression. The fault, therefore, was not in the allegory, which must be interpreted according to certain rules of symbolism, not quite clear yet, but becoming daily clearer as the comparison of ancient religions becomes deeper and wider; the true fault lay with that myth-making faculty which makes out of one thing something else quite different, and which in this case made out of a philosophical allegory a sort of first reader in physics and zoology; and the date “4004 B.C.,” deduced by a totally illogical process from a perhaps quite logical allegory, was forced upon us with the same assurance with which many a doubtful proposition is today and with which a dozen already discredited scientific theories were forced on us in the last fifty years. Now, the truer views of the tens of millions of years for the age of man and the hundreds of millions of years for the age of the world, (or rather for the age of the last chapter, the period of sedimentation, in the history of the world) can hardly expect to be free from the universal myth-making faculty of the human mind, any more than the views which preceded them. We can discern among them the shadow of a myth, already, in that curious being composed of the shreds and tatters of humanity, who lurks among all these millions of years and peers out at us like some wild, unfamiliar animal, to whom modern science has given the title of primeval man. If Adam, as the myth-making faculty of Rabbinical tradition and ecclesiastical doctrine painted him, is the Scylla, which threatened to suck down and smother the true knowledge of the past, on one side, then primeval man, as the myth-making faculty of much of our science represents him, is the Charybdis which equally threatens shipwreck on the other.
It is not in the conception of primitive man as a step in the stair of human progress that the danger lurks, just as it was not in “Adam,” the type of humanity, that the danger of the Oriental tradition lurked; but it is, in the one case, as in the other, the false precision and definiteness, totally unwarranted by our knowledge, which forms the real source of danger. The beginning of this false precision in the myth of primeval man probably arose with Darwin’s memorable “Descent” and “Origin of Species.” Looking to the gradual change and unfoldment of the living world of forms around him, and particularly to the forms of man and certain man-like apes, whose physical form resembles man’s, he was led to predicate the existence of some other form from which the two diverge. Just this far could true philosophical reasoning carry him, and no further; but then the myth-making power stepped in, and gave preciseness where no preciseness was possible, and we were presented with an ape-like form from which, we were told, man had risen, while the facts of our knowledge would just as well have warranted a man-like form from which the ape had fallen back. But the speculation was too tempting for that side of the myth-making faculty which must have definite assertion and precise definition in regions where they are impossible, and the very same faculty which changed the Berashith—the “in the beginning”—of the Oriental allegory into the quite different proposition “in the year 4004 B.C.,” changed the philosophical and logical belief in the vast antiquity and gradual development of man into a quite different and neither philosophical nor logical one, that man is descended from a monkey; the change from Father Adam to the ape had all the charm of novelty, but not, perhaps the solid satisfaction of truth. Our zoologists are fond of pointing to the fecundity of certain animals, and astonishing us by startling figures which show that, if unchecked, any single species would soon overrun the world. The same thing might be said of myths, for their fecundity is hardly less; and as the myth of the personal Shiva, based on the universal tendency of regeneration through destruction, gave as his consort Kali and the sect of Thugs; so the myth of our ancestor, the ape, falsely deduced from the true belief in man’s antiquity and development, has given us a whole series of others, from the homo pithecoides, and homo alalas of Haeckel, to the title-role of this article, the equally mythical primeval savage.
But to trace these mythical monsters to their lairs in the caves and jungles of mythopœia would be beyond the purpose of this article; we can only point to their influence in a more limited field, the study of human, and more especially Oriental and Indian, antiquity, and leave for another occasion the discussion of the process by which they were built up, under the influence of a false deduction, from the still scanty and fragmentary knowledge we possess of the savage races of mankind today. If the philosophical thought which gives to the life of humanity a period of millions of years, and which marks this whole period as one of gradual development or unfoldment, be a true one, it seems that it carries with it an inevitable and inflexible corollary,—namely, that the earliest condition of mankind must have vanished millions of years ago, and that we can no more expect to find any true primitive man on the face of the earth, today than we expect to find the megatherium or the plesiosaurus in a modern forest or lake. If we have been moving away from primitive man for millions of years, we must have left him behind ages ago, and any attempt to find him today, living somewhere on the earth, is in the highest degree illogical, the pursuit of him must rank with search for the end of the rainbow or, more fitly perhaps, with the hunting of the Snark.