Page images
PDF
EPUB

LECTURE XIX.

ON CUSTOMS AND LAWS.

Materials for the Study of Customs and Laws. T HE consideration of the materials for the study

1 of Natural Religion which may be discovered in language and mythology, has occupied us for a long time. It would not have been enough simply to enumerate these materials. It was necessary at the same time to show how they have been obtained, and how they could and should be used. The ore in this case is not, as it were, to be found on the surface, but has first to be brought to light, and to be sifted and purified before it can be made to serve our own purposes.

It is different with Customs and Laws. Here there can be little doubt as to where the materials can be found or how they should be used. Many of the ancient laws and customs have been collected and have received a place among the Sacred Books. You will find rich materials in the translations of the • Sacred Books of the East,' for instance, in the Brâhmanas (Nos. XII, XXVI), the Grihya-sûtras (Nos. XXIX, XXX), the Sacred Laws of the Aryas (Nos. II, XIV, XXV), for Hinduism ; in the Vinaya texts (Nos. XIII, XVII, XX) for Buddhism ; in the Avesta (Nos. IV, XXIII, XXXI) for Zoroastrianism ; and in several of the books of Confucius for China In other countries we must depend either on ancient codes of law, or on the descriptions found in the works of travellers, explorers, and missionaries.

Still, it must not be supposed that the study of manners and customs and laws is without its difficulties, a mere amusement for casual readers and compilers. It is difficult for travellers to observe and describe customs and laws correctly; it is still more difficult for the student to discover their real origin and their true purport.

Customs based on Religious Ideas. Even if we confine our study to customs and laws which bear a religious character, we shall find it by no means easy to distinguish between those which are based on religious ideas and those which have served as a basis for religious ideas.

The custom of prayer, for instance, springs, no doubt, from a religious source, and the same may be said of simple libations and offerings to the gods which accompanied such prayers. Nothing is more natural than such a prayer at the rising and the setting of the sun, and a midday prayer also would soon find its legitimate place between the two. These three prayers we find in the Old Testament as well as in the Veda, and among many of the so-called savage races. But soon these three prayers, and any observances connected with them, begin to serve another purpose also, namely the division of the day and of the labours of the day, and this purpose may in time become so prominent in the eyes of the people as to obscure altogether the original meaning of the three daily prayers and libations (Tri-sandhyâ).

We have read a great deal lately about the Vedic prayers being later than the Vedic sacrifices. No doubt, an ancient rite may have suggested a corresponding prayer, but an ancient prayer may likewise have suggested a corresponding rite. And in the nature of things a mute morning, noon, and evening rite is hardly conceivable, while a spontaneous prayer to the Dawn might surely have been composed without any reference as yet to any definite rite. To suppose, as Bergaigne did, that the hymns addressed to Agni, the Dawn, the Asvins, and the Sun at the prâtaranuvâka, the âsvin a-sâstra, and similar collections of Vedic morning prayers, were all originally composed for liturgical purposes, is like supposing that all the psalms of the Old Testament were meant from the beginning for the morning and evening services of the Temple. Some of them may have been ; our final collections of Vedic hymns and Hebrew psalms also may have been the result of a practical want. But why religious poetry alone should never have been spontaneous is difficult to understand, and the very character of some of the later psalms and of some of the later Vedic hymns shows that they were fashioned after more ancient originals. That religion has often become the mother of laws, and that in ancient times particularly many laws received their sanction from religion is a well-known fact. Themis was represented by Hesiod as the wife of Zeus, by Pindar as the πάρεδρος Διός ξενίου. Colotes declared that religion (ń tepi Dev dóća) was the first and most important thing in the constitution of laws 1

In the Old Testament, also, the Ten Commandments are spoken by God, and the first four are of a purely religious character. They do not appeal to any but

" Plutarch, adr. Coloten, cap. 31.

a divine authority, and the punishments threatened for disobedience are likewise believed to come from God.

Customs generating Religious Ideas. But it has been too often overlooked that in many cases customs, at first purely secular and serving a very definite practical purpose, have assumed a religious character at a later time, and have even given rise to entirely new religious ideas. What is called totemism, for instance, was at first a purely civil institution. The totem was meant as a sign of recognition and no more. During an early state of society such signs of recognition were absolutely necessary, and we find traces of them almost everywhere, either in the shape of banners, or emblems on shields, or peculiar kinds of dress and armour, or other symbolic signs. When, however, a so-called totem, chosen by a family or a tribe as a sign of recognition, became surrounded, as the colours of a regiment are even now, by a halo of many recollections, what was more natural than that, if the totem happened to be an animal, that animal should be looked upon as the guardian of a family or tribe, nay, in time, even as its ancestor. If people called themselves Bears, and had chosen the bear for their totem or their crest, why should they not look upon a bear as their ancestor? And, when they had once done so, is it so strange that they should have felt a certain reluctance to kill or to eat the bear, their ancestor, their protector, and, possibly, their god ? In this way a useful secular institution might become a religious custom, and lead on to religious ideas which could never have sprung up without it.

The same applies to ever so many domestic customs, which grew up in connection with marriages, births, initiation, name-giving, illness, and death, and which, particularly if their original purpose had been forgotten, assumed invariably a sacred character.

The observation of the changes of the moon, of the annual return of the sun, of the succession of the seasons, the months, the weeks, the days and hours, was one of the most fundamental conditions of a civilised life. Many of the mythological and religious ideas of antiquity are closely connected with what we should call the calendar. In ancient, and even in modern times, many of the greatest holy days and festivals betray a similar origin. But in all such cases we shall find it very difficult to say whether the establishment of the calendar led to mythological and religious ideas, or whether mythological and religious ideas proved helpful towards the establishment of a civil calendar. One thing only we must never forget, namely that customs and laws, however meaningless or even irrational they may appear, must all originally have had a meaning and a rational purpose.

Sollennis. In early times usages grew up and were maintained simply because they were thought to be useful to a community, whether small or large. What was seen to be more or less useful to all, became a usage, and the mere fact that it was a usage, that it had been repeated again and again, and that it had existed for several generations, sufficed to give it in time a respected, venerable, and sacred character. What we call solemn, what the Romans called sollennis, was originally no more than what takes place every year (from

« PreviousContinue »