The history of religions (1928) by Edward Washburn Hopkins - PDF ebook

The history of religions  

The history of religions

In the language of one of the savage races mentioned in this volume, the word religion means the sacred tree. Although innocent of allegory, yet. as in many other regards, in this definition, the savage has suggested a profound truth.

 For religion is, as it were, a tree. Its roots lie deep in the darkness of primeval earth; its growth must precede its sheltering foliage, and its unripened fruits are not pleasant. Yet, watered by a living spring, it has risen out of soil black and even gruesome, since blood too has fertilized it, but risen nevertheless it has, slowly exalting itself heavenward; and under it sits nearly all mankind. In the course of this volume, we shall study the roots and the higher growth of this tree, which through its age-long development, as any tree changes its earth-drawn sustenance into something more ethereal, has transmuted terror into reverent awe, hunger into hope, lust into love. 

We shall trace the slow progress of such roots of religion as bear today the names taboo, fetishism, totemism; see how taboo invested with spiritual power the moral command, insured the home and made for civilization; how fetishism confirmed the thought that man depends on a spiritual something, gave faith in a power that helped, and made that power the judge of right and wrong; how totemism linked man in communion with the divine and in conjunction with seasonal nature- worship founded ritual in the recurrent form necessary to religious stability.

 We shall see in short that the higher not only is above the lower but that it has ascended out of the lower. Savagery did not give place to civilization but developed into it, was already civilization in the germ. So Egypt merely intensified the idea of communion when it made the soul the Osiris and burgeoned into the mysticism which became the mystery of human brotherhood in divine sonship. All these ideas remained conserved in the higher growth, and others as well; the belief that the single-member might be cut off for the good of the whole, that evil like good had assumed a personal form, that law was established on divine will, and even that the moral was more important than the ritual law : " There are the forty- nine rites to be practiced but to be pure of heart is better," said one who lived some centuries before our era. 

Naturally, therefore, the question arises: If religion is all one tree, and even the acorn an embryonic oak, is there anything essential that makes the limb which shelters us different from others, such as the noble, if narrow, branch called Mohammedanism; the broad bough of Vishnuism, with its devotion to a personal Lord and its belief that this Lord once lived on earth as a man; or Buddhism, with its gentle yet exalted faith; or Zoroastrian- ism, which gave the world its virgin-born savior, archangels, Ahriman, and an eschatology still potent under another name? That a sacred tree may have one Golden Bough is another truth adumbrated by savagery, and such a bough is surely different from others. 

The inquiry then is not futile, though it can here be answered only by pointing out salient distinctions. Nowhere in Zoroastrianism is there escape from the round of ceremonies and iteration of creed. Mohammedanism sufficed for its time and place, but its fruit never ripened in the sun. Vishnuism freed itself from form; but its chief fruit, which was loving faith, either became rotten with erotic mysticism, a form of decay which once threatened the fruit of the Golden Bough also, or shriveled into a dry husk: the sinner dies forgiven who expires ejaculating Rama's Name. As the fruit of our bough is different from this, so it is not that of its nearest spiritual neighbor. 

Buddhism, either in the primitive atheistic form or in the nihilistic idealism whose crowning fruit is the Void. For, as this is no real fruit but its negation, Buddhism is left with nothing but the barren leaves of rites and the thornless twigs of its passive doctrine, not to injure others. But the fruit of the Golden Bough is active love, not passive pity; its very dogma is that dogma is insufficient; its pure religion and undefiled is this, to serve others; and no bough can be broader: " 

In every nation, he that fears God and works righteousness is accepted of Him." In a word, historically the essence of the difference lies here: All higher religions are a complex of early and late growths; they all are either intense or broad as compared with their origins. But one religion is more intense and broader than any other. Other religions have been liberal, not only Vishnuism but Zoroastrianism; others have been intense, vital, like Mohammedanism; but only one has concentrated upon the love of God in man and defined every man as a brother. Christianity came not to destroy, but to fulfill, to change Buddha's negative kindness into actual devotion; to enlarge as well as to intensify the vision of ages. Virile as Mohammedanism, gentle as Hinduism, catholic as Greek mysticism, ethical as Hebraism; it differs, shall we say, in surpassing; or is that to prejudge the case?


  • Definitions, Sources, Classifications of Religions 
  • general Characteristics of Primitive Religions 14
  • African Religions i, Spirit- Lore .... 24
  • , Fetish and Idol 35
  •  The religion of the Ainus and Shamans .... 46
  • Polynesian Religions i. Spirits, Myths . . 59
  • Mana and Taboo 67
  • Religions of North America 75
  •  Religions of Mexico, Central and SouthAmerica 94
  • The religion of the Celts 120
  • The religion of the Slavic Peoples 138
  •  The religion of the Teutons 149
  • Religions of India. From the Vedas to Buddha 
  • Buddhism 183 ^'--
  • Hindu Sectarian Religions 
  • Religions of China. Pre-Confucian Religion 
  • Confucius, Lao-tse, Taoism
  •  Religions of Japan, Shintoism and Buddhism
  • The Religion of Egypt 309
  •  Babylonian and Assyrian Religion ..
  • The Religion of Israel 414
  • The Religion of Mohammed 
  •  Greek Religion
  • The Religion of the Romans . . . . . . 
  • The religion of Christ and Christianity. 

Edward Washburn Hopkins, Ph.D., LL.D., American Sanskrit scholar, was born in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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