Akhnaton and the World of To-day
|With Tutankhamen began for the Western
World an era of spiritual regression which is lasting still. Sincere and
serious as it is, this opinion of ours may at first sight appear as a mere
paradox. But it is not so. Whatever one may think of Akhnaton's Teaching,
one has to concede at least three points concerning it. First, the Religion
of the Disk was a universal religion, as opposed to the former local or
national religions of the ancient world. The supreme Reality round which
it was centred -- call it the Soul of the Sun, the Energy within the Disk,
or give it any other name -- was not only Something worthy of the adoration
of all men, but also Something actually worshipped, knowingly or unknowingly,
by all creatures, including plants. And all creatures, brought forth and
sustained by the One Source of life -- the Sun -- were one in Him. Never
in the world west of India had the idea of universal Godhead been so emphatically
stressed, and the brotherhood of all living beings more deeply felt. And
never were those truths to be stressed again more boldly in the
Secondly, it was a rational and natural religion -- not a dogmatic one. It was neither a creed nor a code of human laws. It did not pretend to reveal the Unknowable, or to regulate in details the behaviour of man, or to offer means to escape the visible world and its links. It simply invited us to draw our religious inspiration from the beauty of things as they are: to worship life, in feeling and in deed; or, to put it as an outstanding nineteenth-century thinker [Nietzsche] has done, to be "true to the earth." Based as it was, not upon any mythology, nor any metaphysics, but upon a broad intuition of scientific truth, its appeal would have increased with the progress of accurate knowledge -- instead of decreasing, like that of many a better-known religion.
Finally -- and this was perhaps its most original feature -- it was, from the very start, a Teaching that exalted individual perfection (life in truth) as the supreme goal, and at the same time a State-religion. Not only the religion of a State, but a religion for the State -- for any and every State -- no less than for the individual. It was a Teacliing in which (if we may judge by the example of its Founder) the same idea of "truth" that was to inspire personal behaviour through and through was also to determine the attitude of a monarch towards the friends and foes of his realm, to guide his decisions regarding peace and war; in one word, to dominate international relations. It implied, not the separation of private and public life, but their identity -- their subjection to the same rational and aesthetic principles; their common source of inspiration; their common goal.
Such was the message of Akhnaton, the only great religious Teacher, west of India, who was at the same time a king; and perhaps the only undoubtedly historic originator of a religion on earth, who, being a king, did not renounce kingship but tried to tackle the problems of State -- particularly the problem of war -- in the light of religious truth.
The thirteen years of Akhnaton's personal rule were but a minute in history. But that minute marks a level of perfection hardly ever approached in subsequent years (save perhaps in India, during the latter part of the reign of Asoka, or under Harshavardhana, or again, after many centuries, in the latter part of the reign of Akbar).
From the far-gone days of Tutankhamen down to the time in which we live, the history of the Western world -- that is to say, roughly, of the world west of India -- presents an ever-broadening gap between the recognised religions and rational thought; a more and more complete divorce, also, between the same recognised religions and life, especially public life.
When, under the pressure of his masters, the priests of Amon, Tutankhaton, renamed Tutankhamen, signed the decree reinstalling the national gods of Egypt in their former glory, he opened an era of intellectual conflict and moral unrest which has not yet to-day come to an end. Before Akhnaton, the world -- the Western world at least -- had worshipped national gods, and had been satisfied. After him, it continued to worship national gods, but was no longer fully content with them.
For a minute, a new light had shone; great truths -- the universality of the supreme Essence; the oneness of all life; the unity of religious and rational thought -- had been proclaimed in words, in song and in deeds, by one of those men who appear once in history. The man had been cursed, and it was henceforth a crime even to utter his name. He was soon forgotten. But there was no way to suppress the fact that he had come. The old order of blissful ignorance was gone for ever. Against its will, the world dimly remembered the light that the priests had sought to put out; and age after age, inspired men of various lands set out in search of the lost treasure; some caught a glimpse of it, but none were able to regain it in its integrity. The Western world is still seeking it -- in vain.
To make our thought clear to all, let us follow the evolution of the West from the overthrow of Akhnaton's work to the present day. By "West" we mean Europe, Europeanised America (and Australia), and the countries that stand at the background of European civilisation -- that is to say, Greece and a great part of the Middle East.
With the earliest "physiologoi" of lonia -- eight hundred years after Akhnaton -- rational thought made its second appearance in the West. And this time it did not wither away after the death of one man, but found its mouthpieces in many. Generations of thinkers whose ambition was intellectual knowledge -- the logical deduction of ideas and the rational explanation of facts -- succeeded one another. Among them were such men as Pythagoras and Plato, who united the light of mystic insight to the clear knowledge of mathematics, and who transcended the narrow religious conceptions of their times.
But the Greek world could never transcend them; and Socrates died "for not believing in the gods in whom the city believed" -- the national gods -- though there had been no more faithful citizen than he. Those gods, adorned as they were with all the graces that Hellenic imagination could give them, were jealous and revengeful in their way. They would have been out of date (and harmless) had men accepted, a thousand years before, the worship of the One Essence of all things, with all it implied. But they had not; and the conflict between the better individuals and the religion of the State had begun. Rational thought was left to thrive; but not so the broad religious outlook that was linked with it. Theoretically -- intellectually -- any universal God (First Principle, supreme Idea of Goodness, or whatever it be) was acceptable. But the conception of Something to be loved more than the State and worshipped before the national gods was alien to Greece, to Rome, and in general to all the city-minded people of the Mediterranean. Seen from our modern angle of vision, there was a strange disparity between the high intellectual standard of the Hellenes of classical times -- those creators of scientific reasoning -- and their all-too-human local gods, in no way different from those of the other nations of the Near East.
There appears, also, to have been in their outlook a certain lack of tenderness. One can find, it is true, in the Greek tragedies, magnificent passages exalting such feeling as filial piety or fraternal love. But the other love -- that between man and woman -- they seem to have conceived as little more more than a mainly physical affair, a "sickness," as Phaedra says in Euripides' Hippolytus. And their relation to living nature, outside man, seems to have been confined to an aesthetic interest. Bulls being led to the sacrifice and horses carrying their youthful caviliers in the Panathenaic procession are admirably sculptured on the frieze of the Parthenon. But apart from some really touching verses in Homer (such as those which refer to Ulysses' faithful old dog, who recognises him after twenty years' absence) there is hardly an instance, in classical Greek literature, in which a friendly feeling for animals is expressed -- not to speak of attributing to them yearnings akin to ours.
Christianity is the next great wave in the history of Western consciousness. And one can hardly conceive a sharper contrast than that which exists between the clear Hellenic genius and the spirit of the creed destined to overrun Hellas, Europe, and finally America and Australia. It was originally -- as preached by Paul of Tarsus, the Apostle of the Gentiles -- an irrational and unaesthetic creed, fed on miracles, bent on asceticism, strongly stressing the power of evil, ashamed of the body and afraid of life. But its God was a universal God and a God of love. Not as universal, it is true, as might have been expected from a supreme Being proposed to the adoration of a rationally-trained people; nor as impartially loving as a follower of the long-forgotten Religion of the Disk would have imagined his God to be. It was a God who, in fact, never shook off entirely some of the crude attributes which he possessed when worshipped by the Jews as their tribal deity; a God who, of all living creatures, gave man alone an immortal soul, infinitely precious in his eyes, for he loved man in the same childishly partial way as old Jehovah loved the Jewish nation; a democratic God who hated the well-to-do, the high-born, and also those who put their confidence in human intellect instead of submitting to the authority of his Gospel; who hid his truth "from the wise and the learned, but revealed it to the children."
Still, with all its shortcomings, the mere fact of Christianity's being a creed to be preached "to all nations," in the name of a God who was the Father of all men, was an immense, advantage over the older popular religions. The element of love and mercy that the new worship undoubtedly contained -- however poor it might be, compared, for instance, to that truly universal love preached in India by Buddhism and Jainism -- was sufficient to bring it, in one way at least, nearer to the lost religious ideal of the West even than the different philosophies of the Hellenes (if we except from them Pythagorism and Neo-Pythagorism).
And it had over them all -- and over the antique Teaching of Akhnaton himself -- the practical advantage of appealing both to the intellectually uncritical, to the emotionally unbalanced, and to the socially oppressed or neglected -- barbarians, to women, to slaves -- that is to say, to the majority of mankind. That advantage, combined with the genuine appeal of a gospel of love and with the imperial patronage of Constantine, determined its final triumph. From the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean, it slowly but spread, as one knows, to the whole of Europe and to all the lands that European civilisation has conquered.
But the Western world could not definitely forget centuries of rational thought. Nor could it renounce for ever that avowed ideal of visible beauty, of strength, of cleanliness, of healthy earthly life -- that had been connected with the various religions of the ancients. As far as it was possible -- and many more things are possible than one can imagine -- it soon re-installed Greek metaphysics and polytheism under a new form in the very midst of Christianity. And later on, the Greek love of song and pleasure, and the deification of the human body, in the plastic arts as well as in life, prevailed in the spiritual capital of Christendom and throughout most Christian countries. The Western man gradually came to realise what an amount of inconsistency that mixture of Hellenic and Hebrew thought (and remnants of popular myths, much older than Greece and Moses) which composed his traditional religion. He then grew increasingly sceptical, and Christianity remained for him little more than a poetic but obsolete mythology, in some ways less attractive than that of Greece and Rome. The tardy reaction of the bold critical spirit of classical Hellas against judeo-scholastic authority had come; and modern Free Thought -- the triumph of Euclid over Moses -- had made its way.
Eight hundred years before the Renaissance, and twelve hundred years before Darwin, a very different, but equally important reaction had taken place in the eastern and most ancient portion of the Western world. And that had given birth to Islam, which one could roughly describe, we believe, without any serious misinterpretation, as Christianity stripped of its acquired Pagan elements -- especially of its Greek elements -- and brought back to the rigorous purity of Semitic monotheism.
The fact that Islam appeared and thrived long before the rebirth of critical thought (and of classical taste) in Europe, and that its whole political history seems to run quite apart from that of most European countries, must not deceive us. If we consider the Western world as a whole (Europe and its background), and not only the small portion of it which one generally has in mind when speaking of "the West," then we have to include in it the countries of the Bible -- Syria, Egypt, Arabia, Iraq -- no less than Greece; for they are the geographical and cultural background of Christianity, the religion of Europe for centuries. And if this be so, we have, in this outsketch of the history of culture, to take account of Islam as one of the most important religious upheavals of the West, however paradoxical this coupling of words may seem.
Like Free Thought -- its latter European parallel -- Islam (at least, as we understand it; we may be mistaken) was a broad movement brought about by the incapacity of Christianity to fully satisfy the exigencies of the human mind. But the weaknesses of the Christian faith that the two reactions were destined to make up for were not the same ones. Free Thought was essentially an intellectual reaction against the dogmatism of the Christian Church and the puerility of the stories (of whatever origin) that go to make up the Christian mythology. Its growth was naturally slow, for man takes time to question the value of his cherished beliefs on intellectual grounds. Only in the nineteenth century did it begin to affect the bulk of the people, and still to-day its influence remains confined to those countries in which elementary scientific education is granted to many individuals.
Islam, on the contrary, was a definitely religious movement -- a wild outcry against every form of polytheism under whatever disguise; a reassertion of the continuity of revealed monotheism through Abraham, Moses, and Jesus of Nazareth; a reaffirmation of the brotherhood of all men, that basic truth taught already by Christ to the Jews, but less and less remembered by the Christians. It appeared more rapidly and more suddenly, for the evils against which it rose were more shocking to the simple sincere man in search of the One God, and therefore easier to detect than logical fallacies or historical inaccuracies -- even than physical impossibilities. It was easier -- not perhaps, recently, for us, but then, for a man of strong beliefs, fed on Jewish tradition -- to detect idolatry under every form of image-worship than to feel, for instance, how ridiculous is such a tale as that of Joshua causing the Sun to stand still.
But the two reactions -- the early medieval and the modern, the religious and the intellectual, the one of Semitic origin and the other started by thinkers mostly of Aryan blood and speech -- failed to give the world west of India the feeling that a goal had been reached. They failed even to give it, for more than a century or two, the impression that it was on its way to reach a state of intellectual and emotional equilibrium preferable to that attained in a relatively recent past.
True, for many generations, the Islamic portion of what we have broadly called "the West" seems to have enjoyed, through all the vicissitudes of its political history, the mental peace that a few definite, simple, overwhelming religious convictions bring to people in whose life religion holds the first place. True, the problem of religion and State -- that the Free-thinkers of Europe never had the opportunity (or the power) to tackle in a practical manner -- was for a short time solved, to some extent, under the early Khalifs. But rationalism, strengthened by the fact of modern science, even when it has not altogether shaken the basis of their faith, seems to be influencing more and more many an educated Muslim of the present day in a sense similar to that in which it influenced so many Christians, from the sixteenth century onwards. The result of that influence upon the most liberal of the contemporary Turks, Persians, Egyptians, and even some of the Muslims of India, is obvious. On the other hand, the solution of the problem of religion and State as put forward by the Khalifs, in the early days of Islam, is too closely linked with a particular religious faith to be extended, at the present day, to all countries. It rests upon a somewhat strictly theocratic conception of the State, and upon a rigid line of demarcation between all men who have accepted the revelation of the Prophet -- the faithful -- and the others. And, rightly or wrongly, the modern world seems evolving in the sense of the separation of the State from religious questions of purely dogmatic interest.
Now, if we turn to the latter reaction against the shortcomings of Christianity -- namely, Free Thought -- we find that it has left the people who have matured under its influence in a state of moral unrest far greater than that of those Mussulmans whom their inherited medieval outlook on life no longer satisfies.
Thanks to the undeniable influence of Free Thought, the conclusions of intellectual investigation are not to-day subordinate to Christian theology as they once were. When a scientific hypothesis concerning the texture of atoms or the origin of man is put forward, it matters little whether it tallies or not with the narrative of the Genesis. Even good Christians are ready to accept it, provided it explains facts. Moral questions, too, have been nearly completely freed from the overshadowing idea of a supernatural imperative. Right behaviour is valued because it is thought to be right -- no longer because it is the behaviour ordained by God.
But that is about all the difference between the modern "rationalist" outlook and the Christian outlook before the Renaissance. Theoretically, it may seem considerable. In life, it is hardly felt. Important as it is, the fact that, in the field of pure knowledge, thought is now independent from clerical or scriptural authority, plays little part in the formation of the spirit of our times. Thoughts, opinions, intellectual conclusions are, indeed, constructive only to the extent they determine our reactions in the field of behaviour. And there we fail to see how the old authorities have ceased to hold their sway. Except for sexual morality -- in regard to which the modern man has become more and more lenient because it suits his fancy, but has not yet, however, outdone the magnificent toleration of many a cardinal of the sixteenth century -- the behaviour styled as "right" is precisely that which is in accordance with Christian standards; that which approaches the charitable, democratic, and somewhat narrow ideal of the Christian Gospel; that which obeys the Commandment: "Love thy neighbour as thyself."
The builders of the Parthenon had not gone even as far as that, it is true. But modern rationalism has never gone further than that. It may have, to some extent, taught the present day Westerner to think in terms of Cosmic Realities. But has not yet taught him to feel in terms of cosmic values. It has denounced Christian metaphysics as obsolete; but it still clings to the no less obsolete man-centred conception of right and wrong. It no longer maintains that man alone has an immortal soul, and it has forsaken the naive idea that world and all it contains was purposely created for man. But it seems to see no harm in man's exploiting, destroying, even torturing for his own ends the beautiful innocent creatures, animals and plants, nourished by the same sunshine as himself in the womb of the same mother earth. For all practical purposes, it seems to consider them no more worthy of attention than if they were, indeed, created for him -- by that very God who caused the fig-tree in the Gospel to wither in order to teach a lesson to Christ's disciples, and who allowed the evil spirits to enter the Gadarene swine in order to relieve a human being from their grip.
There are, of course, free-thinkers who have personally gone beyond the limits of Christian love and embraced all life in their sympathy. Many a broad-hearted Mohammedan saint, also (such as Abu-Hurairah, the "Father-of-cats"), has shared the same conception of truly universal brotherhood. But these individual cases cannot blind us to the fact that neither of the two great movements that sprang up, so as to say, to supersede Christianity, has actually emphasised that fundamental truth of the unity of all life (with its practical implications) which the Christian Scriptures had omitted to express. There are, no doubt, remarkable Christians -- for instance, Saint Francis of Assisi -- who have grasped that truth and lived up to it. Still, in the omission of the Gospel to put the slightest stress upon it lies, in our eyes at least, the main weakness of Christianity compared with the great living religions of the East -- Vedantism, Buddhism, Jainism -- and also, nearer its birthplace, with the lost Religion of the Disk. The only two large-scale attempts ever made west of India to restore to men the consciousness of that all-important truth were Pythagorism (and, later on, Neo-Pythagorism) in Antiquity, and nowadays Theosophy -- both movements that owe much to direct or indirect Indian influence. The interest shown for the latter by many of our educated contemporaries points out how much ordinary Free Thought -- a scientific conception of the world, plus a merely Christian-like ideal of love and charity -- is insufficient to meet the moral needs of the most sensitive among us.
There is more to say. Modern Free Thought has completely dissociated, in the minds of most educated people, the idea of positive knowledge -- of science -- from that of worship. Not that a man of science cannot be, at the same time, a man of faith -- he often is -- but he considers the two domains as separate from each other. Their objects, he thinks, cannot be interchanged any more than their aims. One does not know God as one knows the data of sensuous experience or the logical conclusions of an induction; and however much one may admire the supremely beautiful picture of visible reality that modern science gives us, one cannot worship the objects of scientific investigation -- the forms of energy, the ninety-two elements, or such.
And the tragedy is that, once a rational picture of the world has imposed itself upon our mind, the usual objects of faith appear more and more as poetic fictions, as hidden allegories, or as deified moral entities. We do not want to do away with them altogether; yet we cannot help regretting the absence, in them, of that character of intellectual certitude that makes us cling so strongly to science. We feel more and more that moral certitude is not enough to justify our wholehearted adoration of any supreme Principle; in other words, that religion without a solid scientific background is insufficient.
On the other hand, there are moments when we regret the lost capacity of enjoying the blessings of faith with the simplicity of a child -- without the slightest mental reservation, without strain, without thought. We wonder, at times, if the men who built the Gothic cathedrals were not, after all, happier and better men than our contemporaries; if the tremendous inspiration they drew from childish legends was not worth all our barren "rational" beliefs. We would like to experience, in the exaltation of the "realities" which we value, the same religious fervour which they used to feel in the worship of a God who was perhaps an illusion. But that seems impossible. Men have tried it and failed. The cult of the Goddess Reason put forward by the dreamers of the French Revolution, and the cult of Humanity, which Auguste Comte wished to popularise, could never make the Western man forget the long-loved sweetness of his Christian festivals, interwoven with all the associations of childhood. How could one even think of replacing the tradition of Christmas and Easter by such dry stuff as that? Science, without the advantages of religion, is no more able to satisfy us than religion without a basis of scientific certitude. Prominent as some of them may be, the men who nowadays remain content with Free Thought are already out of date. The twentieth century is growing more and more aware of its craving for some all-embracing truth, intellectual and spiritual, in the light of which the revelations of experience and faith, the dictates of reason and of intuition -- of science and religion -- would find their place as partial aspects of a harmoniously organic whole. The evolution that one can follow in the outlook of such a man as Aldous Huxley is most remarkable as a sign of the times.
Along with the divorce of religion from science, we must note the divorce of religion from private and public life. As Aldous Huxley timely points out in one of his recent books [Ends and Means], the saints proposed to our veneration as paragons of godliness are rarely intellectual geniuses; and the intellectual geniuses -- scientists, philosophers, statesmen -- and the artists, poets, writers who have won an immortal name are hardly ever equally remarkable as embodiments of the virtues which religion teaches us to value. So much so that we have ceased to expect extraordinary intelligence in a saint, or extraordinary goodness in a genius according to the world, and least of all in a political genius. For nowhere is the separation of religion from life more prominent (and more shocking) than in the domain of international relations.
The much-quoted injunction of Christ to "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's" illustrates -- as it is generally interpreted -- a division of duties which has survived the belief in dogmatic Christianity. Whether he be a Christian or a Free Thinker -- or a Mussulman, in one of the modern Islamic States that have undergone the influence of European ideas -- the Western man, as a man, is guided, in life, by certain principles different from, and sometimes in contradiction with those that lie at the basis of his outlook as a citizen. Caesar and God are more often than not in conflict with each other. And when this happens -- when there is no way of serving both -- then the Western man generally serves Caesar first, and offers God, in compensation, some scraps of private piety. But more and more numerous are growing those who denounce this duality of ideals as a sinister product of deceitful casuistry.
In the ancient world, as long as religion was a national concern, and connected with practices rather than with beliefs, its actual separation from life was impossible. In one way, that may seem better than what we see now. And the bold ideologists who, in recent years, in Europe, have endeavoured to wipe out altogether the spirit if not the name of Christianity and to raise the Nation -- based on the precise physiological idea of race -- as the object of man's ultimate devotion, those ideologists, we say, may seem wiser and more honest than their humanitarian antagonists. If religion indeed, does not, as it is, respond any longer to the needs of life, it is better to change it. It is far better to openly brush aside two thousand years of errors (if errors they be) and to come back to the national gods of old, and to be true to them to the bitter end, than to keep on rendering divine honours to the Man who said: "Love thy neighbour," and to wage a war of extermination upon men of rival nations whom one has not even the excuse of considering as "infidels" or "heretics."
There is no hypocrisy in the votaries of the religion of Race, as in those of the religion of man. The only weakness one could point out in their creed -- if the latter be artificially separated from the Religion of Life, of which it is, fundamentally, and remains, in the minds of its best exponents, the true expression -- is that it has been transcended, and that therefore it is difficult to go back to it, even if one wishes to. The religion of man itself has been transcended long before its birth. The truth is that both are too narrow, too passionately one-sided, too ignorant of great realities that surpass their scope, to satisfy any longer men who think rationally and who feel the beauty and the seriousness of life, unless they be integrated into the Religion of Life.
To frankly acknowledge a moral ideal still narrower than that of Christianity or humanitarian Free Thought will not ultimately serve the purpose of filling the gap between life and religion. The higher aspirations of the spirit cannot entirely be suppressed. The gap will soon reappear -- this time between the religion of race, nation or class, and the life of the better individuals; a sad result. That gap will always exist, under some form or another, as long as a religion of integral truth, transcending man, and of truly universal love is not acknowledged, in theory and in practice, by individuals and groups of individuals.
Moreover, the mystic of race (or of nation, or of any entity with a narrower denotation than that of "man") is, nay, under its narrowest and least enlightened aspect, unassailable, unless and until the ideology of man, inherited by Free Thought from Christianity, is once and for ever pushed into the background in favour of an ideology of life. For if, indeed, one is to believe that living Nature, with all its loveliness, is made for man to use for his profit, then why should not one admit, with equal consistency, that the bulk of mankind is made for the few superior races, classes or even individuals to exploit at will?
Ultimately, one has to go to the limit, and acknowledge cosmic values as the essence of religion, if religion is to have any universal meaning at all. And if it is to be something more than an individual ideal; if it is no longer to remain separated from the life of States; if truth, in one word, is ever to govern international relations as well as personal dealings, then one has to strive to put power into the hands of an intellectual and moral elite -- to come back to Plato's idea of wise men managing public affairs, makers of laws and rulers of men, uncontested guides of reverentially obedient nations.
The preceding text is excerpted from the concluding chapter of Devi's A Son of God (London, 1946). Subsequent editions have been retitled Son of the Sun. The complete text is now online.