Freethought in Ancient India

by John M. Robertson

[From A Short History of Freethought, Watts and Co., 1915]

              When religion has entered on the stage of quasi-civilized organization, with fixed legends or documents, temples, and the rudiments of hierarchies, the increased forces of terrorism and conservatism are in nearly all cases seen to be in part countervailed by the simple interaction of the systems of different communities. There is no more ubiquitous force in the whole history of the subject, operating as it does in ancient Assyria, in the life of Vedic India and Confucian China, and in the diverse histories of progressive Greece and relatively stationary Egypt, down through the Christian Middle Ages to our own period of comparative studies.

              In ages when any dispassionate comparative study was impossible, religious systems appear to have been considerably modified by the influence of those of conquered peoples on those of their conquerors, and vice versa. Peoples who while at arm's length would insult and affect to despise each other's Gods, and would deride each other's myths, Footnote appear frequently to have altered their attitude when one had conquered the other; and this not because of any special growth of sympathy, but by force of the old motive of fear. In the stage of natural polytheism no nation really doubted the existence of the Gods of another; at most, like the Hebrews of the early historic period, it would set its own God above the others, calling him "Lord of Lords." But, every community having its own God, he remained a local power even when his own worshippers were conquered, and his cult and lore were respected accordingly. This procedure, which has been sometimes attributed to the Romans in particular as a stroke of political sagacity, was the normal and natural course of polytheism. Thus in the Hebrew books the Assyrian conqueror is represented as admitting that it is necessary to leave a priest who knows "the manner of the God of the land" among the new inhabitants he has planted there.

              Similar cases have been noted in primitive cults still surviving. Fear of the magic powers of " lower " or conquered races is in fact normal wherever belief in wizardry survives; and to the general tendency may be conjecturally ascribed such phenomena as that of the Saturnalia, in which masters and slaves changed places, and the institution of the Levites among the Hebrews, otherwise only mythically explained. But if conquerors and conquered thus tended to amalgamate or associate their cults, equally would allied tribes tend to do so; and, when particular Gods of different groups were seen to correspond in respect of special attributes, a further analysis would be encouraged. Hence, with every extension of every State, every advance in intercourse made in peace or through war, there would be a further comparison of credences, a further challenge to the reasoning powers of thoughtful men.

              A concrete knowledge of the multiplicity of cults, then, was obtruded on the leisured and travelled men of the early empires and of such a civilization as'that of Hellas; and when to such knowledge there was added a scientific astronomy (the earliest to be constituted of the concrete sciences), a revision of beliefs by such men was inevitable. Footnote It might take the form either of a guarded skepticism or of a monarchic theology, answering to the organization of the actual earthly empire; and the latter view, in the nature of the case, would much the more easily gain ground. The freethought of early civilization, then, would be practically limited for a long time to movements in the direction of co-ordinating polytheism, to the end of setting up a supreme though not a sole deity; the chief God in any given case being apt to be the God specially affected by the reigning monarch. Allocation of spheres of influence to the principal deities would be the working minimum of plausible adjustment, since only in some such way could the established principle of the regularity of the heavens be formally accommodated to the current worship; and wherever there was monarchy, even if the monarch were polytheistic, there was a lead to gradation among the Gods. A pantheistic conception would be the highest stretch of rationalism that could have any vogue even among the educated class. All the while every advance was liable to the ill-fortune of overthrow or arrest at the bands of an invading barbarism, which even in adopting the system of an established priesthood would be more likely to stiffen than to develop it. Early rationalism, in short, would share in the fluctuations of early civilization; and achievements of thought would repeatedly be swept away, even as were the achievements of the constructive arts.

              The process thus deducible from the main conditions is found actually happening in more than one of the ancient cultures, as their history is now sketched. In the RigVeda, which if not the oldest is the least altered of the Eastern Sacred Books, the main line of change is obvious enough. It remains so far matter of conjecture to what extent the early Vedic cults contain matter adopted from non-Aryan Asiatic peoples; but no other hypothesis seems to account for the special development of the cult of Agni in India as compared with the content and development of the other early Aryan systems, in which, though there are developments of fire worship, the God Agni does not appear. Footnote The specially priestly character of the Agni worship, and the precedence it takes in the Vedas over the solar cult of Mitra, which among the kindred Aryans of Iran receives in turn a special development, suggest some such grafting, though the relations between Aryans and the Hindu aborigines, as indicated in the Veda, seem to exclude the possibility of their adopting the fire cult from the conquered inhabitants, Footnote who, besides, are often spoken of in the Vedas as “non-sacrificers," and at times as " without Gods." But this is sometimes asserted even of hostile Aryans. In any case the carrying on of the two main cults of Agni and Indra side by side points to an original and marked heterogeneity of racial elements; while the varying combination with them of the worship of other deities, the old Aryan Varuna, the three forms of the Sun-God Aditya, the Goddess Aditi and the eight Adityas, the solar Mitra, Vishnu, Rudra, and the Maruts, imply the adaptation of further varieties of hereditary creed. The outcome is a sufficiently chaotic medley, in which the attributes and status of the various Gods are reducible to no code, the same feats being assigned to several, and the attributes of all claimed for almost any one. Here, then, were the conditions provocative of doubt among the critical; and while it is only in the later books of the Rig-Veda that such doubt finds priestly expression, it must be inferred that it was current in some degree among laymen before the hymn-makers avowed that they shared it. The God Soma, the personification of wine, identified with the Moon-God Chandra, hurls the irreligious into the abyss. This may mean that his cult, like that of his congener Dionysos in Greece, was at first forcibly resisted, and forcibly triumphed. At an earlier period doubt is directed against the most popular God, Indra, perhaps on behalf of a rival cult. Footnote Later it seems to take the shape of a half -skeptical, half -mystical questioning as to which, if any, God is real.

From the Catholic standpoint, Dr. E. L. Fischer has argued that "Varuna is in the ontological, physical, and ethical relation the highest, indeed the unique, God of ancient India "; and that the Nature Gods of the Veda can belong only to a later period in the religious consciousness (Heidenthum und Offenbarung, 1878, pp. 36-37). Such a development, had it really occurred, might be said to represent an movement of primitive freethought from an unsatisfying monotheism to a polytheism that seemed better to explain natural facts. A more plausible view of the process, however, is that of von Bradke, to the effect that "the old Indo-Germanic polytheism, with its pronounced monarchic apex, which constituted the religion of the pre-Vedic [Aryan] Hindus, lost its monarchic apex shortly before and during the Rig-Veda period, and set up for itself the so-called Henotheism [worship of deities severally as if each were the only one], which thus represented in India a time of religious decline; a decline that, at the end of the period to which the Rig-Veda hymns belong, led to an almost complete dissolution of the old beliefs. The earlier collection of the hymns must have promoted the decline; and the final redaction must have completed it. The collected hymns show only too plainly how the very deity before whom in one song all the remaining Gods bow themselves, in the next sinks almost in the dust before another. Then there sounds from the Rig-Veda (x, 121) the wistful question: Who is the God whom we should worship? "(Dydus Asura, Ahuramazda, und die Asuras, Halle, 1885, p. 115; cp. note, supra, p. 30). On this view the growth of monotheism went on alongside of a growth of critical unbelief, but, instead of expressing that, provoked it by way of reaction. Dr. Muir more specifically argues (Sanskrit Texts, v, 116) that in the Vedic hymns Varuna is a God in a state of decadence; and, despite the dissent of M. Barth (Religions of India, p. 18), this seems true. But the recession of Varuna is only in the normal way of the eclipse of the old Supreme God by a nearer deity, and does not suffice to prove a growth of agnosticism.
M. Fontane (Inde Vedique, 1881, p. 305) asserts on other grounds a popular movement of negation in the Vedic period, but offers rather slender evidence. There is better ground for his account of the system as one in which different cults had the upper hand at different times, the devotees of Indra rejecting Agni, and so on (pp. 310-11).

              To meet such a doubt, a pantheistic view of things would naturally arise, and in the Vedas it often emerges. Thus " Agni is all the Gods "; and " the Gods are only a single being under different names.” Footnote For ancient as for more civilized peoples such a doctrine had the attraction of nominally reconciling the popular cult with the skepticism it had aroused. Rising thus as freethought, the pantheistic doctrine in itself ultimately became in India a dogmatic system, the monopoly of a priestly caste, whose training in mystical dialectic made them able to repel or baffle amateur criticism. Such fortifying of a sophisticated creed by institutions – of which the Brahmanic caste system is perhaps the strongest type – is one of the main conditions of relative permanence for any set of opinions; yet even within the Brahmanic system, by reason, presumably, of the principle that the higher truth was for the adept and need not interfere with the popular cult, there were again successive critical revisions of the pantheistic idea.


              Prof. Garbe (Philosophy of Ancient India, section on Hindu Monism) argues that all monistic, and indeed all progressive, thinking in ancient India arose not among the Brahmans, who were conscienceless oppressors, but among the warrior caste; citing stories in the Upanishads in which Brahmans are represented as receiving such ideas from warriors. The thesis is much weakened by the Professor's acceptance of Krishna as primarily a historic character, of the warrior class. But there is ground for his general thesis, which recognizes (p. 78) that the Brahmans at length assimilated the higher thought of laymen. Alax Miller puts it that "No nation was ever so completely priest-ridden as the Hindus were under the sway of the Brahmanic law. Yet, on the other side, the same people were allowed to indulge in the most unrestrained freedom of thought, and in the schools of their philosophy the very names of their Gods were never mentioned. Their existence was neither denied nor asserted ...” ((Selected Essays, 1881, ii, 244). “Sankhya philosophy" [on which Buddhism is supposed to be based], “in its original form, claims the name of an-isvara, ‘lordless’ or ‘atheistic,’ as its distinctive title " (ibid. p.283).

              Of the nature of a freethinking departure, among the early Brahmanists, as in other societies, was the substitution of non-human for human sacrifices – a development of peaceful life conditions whihc, though not primitive, must have ante-dated Buddhism. See Tiele, Outlines, pp. 126-27 and refs.; Barth, Religions of India, pp. 57-59; and Miller, Physical Religion, p. 101. Prof. Robertson Smith (Religion of the Semites, P. 346) appears to hold that animal sacrifice was never a substitute for human; but his ingenious argument, on analysis, is found to prove only that in certain cases the idea of such a substitution having taken place may have been unhistorical. If it be granted that human sacrifices ever occurred – and all the evidence goes to show that they were once universal – substitution would be an obvious way of abolishing them. Historical analogy is in favour of the view that the change was forced upon the priesthood from the outside, and only after a time accepted by the Brahmans. Thus we find the Khrvkas, a school of freethinkers, rising in the Alexandrian period, making it part of their business to denounce the Brahmanic doctrine and practice of sacrifice, and to argue against all blood sacrifices; but they had no practical success (Tiele, p. 126) until Buddhism triumphed (Mitchell, Hinduism, 1885, p. 106; Rhys Davids, tr. of Dialogues of the Buddha, 1899, p. 165).

              In the earliest Upanishads the World-Being seems to have been figured as the totality of matter, Footnote an atheistic view associated in particular with the teaching of Kapila, who himself, however, was at length raised to divine status, though his system continues to pass as substantially atheistic. This view being open to all manner of anti-religious criticism, which it incurred even within the Brahmanic pale, there was evolved an ideal formula in which the source of all things is "the invisible, intangible, unrelated, colourless one, who has neither eyes nor ears, neither hands nor feet, eternal, all-pervading, subtile, and undecaying." At the same time, the Upanishads exhibit a stringent reaction against the whole content of the Vodas. Their ostensible object is " to show the utter uselessness – nay, the mischievousness – of all ritual performances ; to condemn every sacrificial act which has for its motive a desire or hope of reward; to deny, if not the existence, at least the exceptional and exalted character of the Devas; and to teach that there is no hope of salvation and deliverance except by the individual self recognizing the true and universal self and finding rest there, where alone rest can be found.

              And the critical development does not end there. "In the old Upanishads, in which the hymns and sacrifices of the Veda are looked upon as useless, and as superseded by the higher knowledge taught by the forest-sages, they are not yet attacked as mere impositions. That opposition, however, sets in very decidedly in the Sutra period. In the Niruka (I, 15) Yska quotes the opinion of Kautsa, that the hymns of the Veda have no meaning at all”. In short, every form of critical revolt against incredible doctrine that has arisen in later Europe had taken place in ancient India long before the Alexandrian conquest. And the same attitude continued to be common within the post-Alexandrian period; for Panini, who must apparently be dated then, " was acquainted with infidels and nihilists"; and the teaching of Brillaspati, Footnote on which was founded the system of the Kharvkas-apparently one of several sections of a freethinking school called the Lokyatas Footnote or Lokyatikas – is extremely destructive of Vedic pretensions. “The Veda is tainted by the three faults of untruth, self-contradiction, and tautology The impostors who call themselves Vedic pandits are mutually destructive The three authors of the Vedas were buffoons, knaves, and demons: All the well-known formulas of the pandits, and all the horrid rites for the queen commanded in the Asvamedha – these were invented by buffoons, and so all the various kinds of presents to the priests; while the eating of flesh was similarly commanded by night prowling demons.” (Muller)

              To what extent such aggressive rationalism over spread it is now quite impossible to ascertain. It seems probable that the word Lokyata, defined by Sanskrit scholars as signifying "directed to the world of sense," originally, or about 500 B.C., signified " Nature-lore," and that this passed as a branch of Brahman learning. Significantly enough, while the lore was not extensive, it came to be regarded as disposing men to unbelief, though it does not seem to have suggested any thorough training. At length, in the eighth century of our era, it is found applied as a term of abuse, in the sense of "infidel," by Kumrila in controversy with opponents as orthodox as himself; and about the same period Sankara connects with it a denial of the existence of a separate and immortal soul; though that opinion had been debated, and not called Lokayata, long before, when the word was current in the broader sense. Utterly, in the fourteenth century, on the strength of some doggrel verses which cannot have belonged to the early Brahmanic Lokyata, it stands for extreme atheism and a materialism not professed by any known school speaking for itself. The evidence, such as it is, is preserved only in Sarva-darsana-samgraha, a compendium of all philosophical systems, compiled in the fourteenth century by the Vedntic teacher Mdhavachra. One source speaks of an early text-book of materialism, the Sutras of Brihaspati; but this has not been preserved. Thus in Hindu as in later European freethought for a long period we have had to rely for our knowledge of freethinkers' ideas upon the replies made by their opponents. It is reasonable to conclude that, save insofar as the arguments of Brihaspati were common to the Khrvkas and the Buddhists, such doctrine as his or that of the later Lokyatikas cannot conceivably have been more than the revolt of a thoughtful minority against official as well as popular religion; and to speak of a time when “the Aryan settlers in India had arrived at the conviction that all their Devas or Gods were mere names” (Muller) is to suggest a general evolution of rational thought which can no more have taken place in ancient India than it has done today in Europe. The old creeds would always have defenders; and every revolt was sure to incur a reaction. In the Hitopadesa or " Book of Good Counsel " (an undated recension of the earlier Panchatantra, " The Five Books," which in its first form may be placed about the fifth century of our era) there occur both passages disparaging mere study of the Sacred Books and passages insisting upon it as a virtue in itself and otherwise insisting on ritual observances. They seem to come from different hands.

        The phenomenon of the schism represented by the two divisions of the Yazur Veda, the " White " and the " Black," is plausibly accounted for as the outcome of the tendencies of a new and an old school, who selected from their Brahmanas, or treatises of ritual and theology, the portions which respectively suited them. The implied critical movement would tend to affect official thought in general. This schism is held by Weber to have arisen only in the period of ferment set up by Buddhism; but other disputes seem to have taken place in abundance in the Brahmanical schools before that time. (Cp. Tiele, Outlines, p. 123; Weber, Hist. Ind. Lit., pp. 10, 27, 232; Max Muller, Anthropol. Relig., 1892, pp. 36-37; and Rhys Davids, Buddhism, p. 34.) Again, the ascetic and penance bearing hermits, who were encouraged by the veneration paid them to exalt themselves above all save the highest Gods, would by their utterances of necessity affect the course of doctrine. Compare the same tendency as seen in Buddhism and Jainism (Tiele, pp. 135, 140).

              But in the later form of the Vednta, " the end of the Veda," a monistic and pantheistic teaching holds its ground in our own day, after all the ups and downs of Brahmanism, alongside of the aboriginal cults which Brahmanism adopted in its battle with Buddhism; alongside, too, of the worship of the Veda itself as an eternal and miraculous document. "The leading tenets [of the Vedntal are known to some extent in every village."' Yet the Vedntists, again, treat the Upanishads in turn as a miraculous and inspired system's and repeat in their case the process of the Vedas: so sure is the law of fixation in religious thought, while the habit of worship subsists.

              The highest activity of rationalistic speculation within the Brahmanic fold is seen to have followed intelligibly on the most powerful reaction against the Brahmans' authority. This took place when their sphere had been extended from the region of the Punjaub, of which alone the Rig-Veda shows knowledge, to the great kingdoms of Southern India, pointed to in the Sutras, or short digests of ritual and law designed for general official use. In the new environment "there was a well-marked lay-feeling, a widespread antagonism to the priests, a real sense of humour, a strong fund of common sense. Above all there was the most complete and unquestioned freedom of thought and expression in religious matters that the world had yet witnessed." Footnote

              The most popular basis for rejection of a given system-belief in another-made ultimately possible there the rise of a practically atheistic system capable, wherever embraced, of annulling the burdensome and exclusive system of the Brahmans, which had been obtruded in its worst form, Footnote though not dominantly, in the new environment. Buddhism, though it cannot have arisen on one man's initiative in the manner claimed in the legends, even as stripped of their supernaturalist element, was in its origin essentially a movement of freethought, such as could have arisen only in the atmosphere of a much mixed society Footnote where the extreme Brahmanical claims were on various grounds discredited, perhaps even within their own newly adjusted body. It was stigmatized as “the science of reason," a term equivalent to "heresy" in the Christian sphere; and its definite rejection of the Vedas made it anti-sacerdotal even while it retained the modes of speech of polytheism. The tradition which makes the Buddha a prince suggests an upper-class origin for the reaction; and there are traces of a chronic resistance to the Brahmans' rule among their fellow-Aryans before the Buddhist period.


" The royal families, the warriors, who, it may be supposed, strenuously supported the priesthood so long as it was a question of robbing the people of their rights, now that this was effected turned against their former allies, and sought to throw off the yoke that was likewise laid upon them. These efforts were, however, unavailing: the colossus was too firmly established. Obscure legends and isolated allusions are the only records left to us in the later writings of the sacrilegious hands which ventured to attack the sacred and divinely consecrated majesty of the Brahmans; and these are careful to note at the same time the terrible punishments which befel those impious offenders " (Weber, Hist. Ind. Lit., p. 19).

              The circumstances, however, that the Buddhist writings were from. the first in vernacular dialects, not in Sanskrit, and that the mythical matter which accumulated round the story of the Buddha is in the main aboriginal, and largely common to the myth of Krishna, Footnote go to prove that Buddhism spread specially in the nonAryan sphere. Its practical (not theoretic) atheism seems to have rested fundamentally on the conception of Karma, the transition of the soul, or rather of the personality, through many stages up to that in which, by self-discipline, it attains the impersonal peace of Nirvana; and of this conception there is no trace in the Vedas though it became a leading tenet of Brahmanism.


To the dissolvent influence of Greek culture may possibly be due some part of the success of Buddhism before our era, and even later. Ilindu astronomy in the Yedic period was but slightly developed (Weber, Hist. Ind. Lit., pp. 246, 249, 250); and " it was Greek influence that first infused a real life into Indian astronomy. This implies other interactions. It is presumably to Greek stimulus that we must trace the knowledge by Aryabhata (Colebrooke's Essays, ed. 1873, ii, 404; cp. Weber, p. 257) of the doctrine of the earth's diurnal revolution on its axis; and the fact that in India as in the Mediterranean world the truth was later lost from men's hands may be taken as one of the proofs that the two civilizations alike retrograded owing to evil political conditions. In the progressive period (from about 320 B.C. onwards for perhaps some centuries) Greek ideas might well help to discredit traditionalism; and their acceptance at royal courts would be favourable to toleration of the new teaching. At the same time, Buddhism must have been favoured by the native mental climate in which it arose.

              The main differentiation of Buddhism from Brahmanism, again, is its ethical spirit, which sets aside formalism and seeks salvation in an inward reverie and discipline; and this element in turn can hardly be conceived as arising save in an old society, far removed from the warlike stage represented by the Vedas. Whatever may have been its early association with Brahmanism Footnote then, it must be regarded as essentially a reaction against Brahmanical doctrine and ideals; a circumstance which would account for its early acceptance in the Punjaub, where Brahmanism had never attained absolute power and was jealously resisted by the free population. And the fact that Jainism, so closely akin to Buddhism, has its sacred books in a dialect belonging to the region in which Buddhism arose, further supports the view that the reaction grew out of the thought of a type of society differing widely from that in which Brahmanism arose. Jainism, like Buddhism, is substantially atheistic, and like it has an ancient monkish organization to which women were early admitted. The original crypto-atheism or agnosticism of the Buddhist movement thus appears as a product of a relatively high, because complex, moral and intellectual evolution. It certainly never impugned the belief in the Gods; on the contrary, the Buddha is often represented as speaking of their existence, and at times as approving of their customary worship; but he is never said to counsel his own order to pray to them; he makes light of sacrifice; and above all he is made quite negative as to a future life, preaching the doctrine of Karma in a sense which excludes individual immortality. "It cannot be denied that if we call the old Gods of the Veda – Indra and Agni and Yama – Gods, Buddha was an atheist. He does not believe in the divinity of these deities. What is noteworthy is that he does not by any means deny their bare existence... The founder of Buddhism treats the old Gods as superhuman beings" (Max Müller). Thus it is permissible to say both that Buddhism recognizes Gods and that it is practically atheistic.


“The fact cannot be disputed away that the religion of Buddha was from the beginning purely atheistic. The idea of the Godhead was for a time at least expelled from the sanctuary of the human mind, and the highest morality that was ever taught before the rise of Christianity was taught by men with whom the Gods had become mere phantoms, without any altars, not even an altar to the unknown God" (Max
Müller, Introd. to the Science of Religion, ed. 1882, p. 81. Cp.the same author's Selected Essays, 1881, ii, 300).

"He [Buddha] ignores God in so complete a way that he does not even seek to deny him; he does not suppress him, but he does not speak of him either to explain the origin and anterior existence of man or to explain the present life, or to conjecture his future life and definitive deliverance. The Buddha knows God in no fashion whatever " (Bartho1emy Saint-Hilaire, Le Bouddha et sa Religion, 1866, p. v).

"Buddhism and Christianity are indeed the two opposite poles with regard to the most essential points of religion: Buddhism ignoring all feeling of dependence on a higher power, and therefore denying the very existence of a supreme deity” (Müller, Introd. to Sc. of Rel., p. 171).

" Lastly, the Buddha declared that he had arrived at [his] conclusions, not by study of the Vedas, nor from the teachings of others, but by the light of reason and intuition alone " (Rhys Davids, Buddhism, p. 48). "The most ancient Buddhism despises dreams and visions" (1d., p. 177). "Agnostic atheism ...... is the characteristic of his [Buddha'sl system of philosophy " (1d., P. 207).

"Belief in a Supreme Being, the Creator and Ruler of the Universe, is unquestionably a modern graft upon the unqualified atheism of Skya Muni: it is still of very limited recognition. In none of the standard authorities ... is there the slightest allusion to such a First Cause, the existence of which is incompatible with the fundamental Buddhist dogma of the eternity of all existence" (H. H. Wilson,Buddha and Buddhism, in Essays and Lectures, ed. by Dr. B. Rost, 1862, ii, 361. Cp. p. 363).

              On the other hand, the gradual colouring of Buddhism with popular mythology, the reversion (if, indeed, this were not early) to adoration and worship of the Buddha himself, and the final collapse of the system in India before the pressure of Brahmanized Hinduism, all prove the potency of the sociological conditions of success and failure for creeds and criticisms. Buddhism took the monastic form for its institutions, thus incurring ultimate petrifaction alike morally and intellectually; and in any case the normal Indian social conditions of abundant population, cheap food, and general ignorance involved an overwhelming vitality for the popular cults. These the orthodox Brahmans naturally took under their protection as a means of maintaining their hold over the multitude; and though their own highest philosophy has been poetically grafted on that basis, as in the epic of the Mahhbhrata and in the Bhagavat Gt, Footnote the ordinary worship of the deities of these poems is perforce utterly unphilosophical, varying between a primitive sensualism and an emotionalism closely akin to that of popular forms of Christianity. Buddhism itself, where it still prevails, exhibits similar tendencies.


It is disputed whether the Brahman influence drove Buddhism out of India by physical force, or whether the latter decayed because of maladaptation to its environment. Its vogue for some seven hundred years, from about 300 B.C. to about 400 A.C., seems to have been largely due to its protection and final acceptance as a State religion by the dynasty of Chandragupta (the Sandracottos of the Greek historians), whose grandson Asoka showed it special favour. His rock-inscribed edicts (for which see Max Müller, Introd. to Science of Rel., pp. 5-6, 23 ; Anthrop. Relig., pp. 40-43; Rhys Davids, Buddhism, pp. 220-28; Wheeler's Hist. of India, vol. iii, app. 1; Asiatic Society ' s Journals, vols. viii and xii; Indian Antiquary, 1877, vol. vi) show a general concern for natural ethics, and especially for tolerance; but his mention of "The Terrors of the Future" among the religious works he specially honours shows (if genuine) that normal superstition, if ever widely repudiated (which is doubtful), had interpenetrated the system. The king, too, called himself "the delight of the Gods," as did his contemporary the Buddhist king of Ceylon (Davids, Buddhism, P. 84). Under Asoka, however, Buddhism was powerful enough to react somewhat on the West, then in contact with India as a result of the Alexandrian conquest (cp. Mahaffy, Greek World under Roman Sway, ch. ii; Weber's lecture on Ancient India, Eng. tr., pp. 25-26; Indische Skizzen, p. 28 [cited in the present writer's Christianity and Mythology, p. 165]; and Weber's Hist. of Ind. Lit., p. 255 and p. 309, note); and the fact that after his time it entered on a long conflict with Brahmanism proves that it remained practically dangerous to that system. In the fifth and sixth centuries of our era Buddhism in India "rapidly declined" – a circumstance hardly intelligible save as a result of violence. Tiele, after expressly asserting the "rapid decline" (Outlines, p. 139), in the next breath asserts that there are no satisfactory proofs of such violence, and that, "on the contrary, Buddhism appears to have pined away slowly" (p. 140: contrast his Egypt. Rel., p. xxi). Rhys Davids, in his Buddhism, p.246 (so also Max Müller, Anthrop. Rel., p. 43), argues for a process of violent extinction; but in his later work, Buddhist India, he retracts this view and decides for a gradual decline in the face of a Brahmanic revival. The evidences for violence and persecution are, however, pretty strong. (See H. H. Wilson, Essays, as cited, ii, 365-67) Internal decay certainly appears to have occurred. Already in Gautama's own life, according to the legends, there were doctrinal disputes within his party (Müller, Anthrop. Rel., p. 38); and soon heresies and censures abounded (Introd. to Sc. of Rel., p. 23), till schisms arose and no fewer then eighteen sects took shape (Davids, Buddhism, pp.213-18).

              Thus early in our inquiry we may gather, from a fairly complete historical case, the primary laws of causation as regards alike the progress and the decadence of movements of rationalistic thought. The fundamental economic dilemma, seen already in the life of the savage, presses at all stages of civilization. The credent multitude, save in the very lowest stages of savage destitution, always feeds and houses those who furnish it with its appropriate mental food; and so long as there remains the individual struggle for existence, there will always be teachers ready. If the higher minds in any priesthood, awaking to the character of their traditional teaching, withdraw from it, lower minds, howbeit "sincere", will always take their place. The innovating teacher, in turn, is only at the beginning of his troubles when he contrives, on whatever bases, to set up a new organized movement. The very process of organization, on the one hand, sets up the call for special economic sustenance – a constant motive to compromise with popular ignorance – and, on the other hand, tends to establish merely a new traditionalism, devoid of the critical impulse in which it arose. And without organization the innovating thought cannot communicate itself, cannot hold its own against the huge social pressures of tradition.

              In ancient society, in short, there could be no continuous progress in freethinking: at best, there could but be periods or lines of relative progress, the result of special conjunctures of social and political circumstance. So much will appear, further, from the varying instances of still more ancient civilizations, the evolution of which may be the better understood from our survey of that of India.