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From Gautama Buddha to the Triumph of Christianity

From Gautama Buddha to the Triumph of Christianity

by Mircea Eliade

In volume 2 of this monumental work, Mircea Eliade continues his magisterial progress through the history of religious ideas. The religions of ancient China, Brahmanism and Hinduism, Buddha and his contemporaries, Roman religion, Celtic and German religions, Judaism, the Hellenistic period, the Iranian syntheses, and the birth of Christianity—all are


In volume 2 of this monumental work, Mircea Eliade continues his magisterial progress through the history of religious ideas. The religions of ancient China, Brahmanism and Hinduism, Buddha and his contemporaries, Roman religion, Celtic and German religions, Judaism, the Hellenistic period, the Iranian syntheses, and the birth of Christianity—all are encompassed in this volume.

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Library Journal
This third volume by the preeminent historian of religions, who died in April 1986, concludes his masterly survey of the field. The arrangement of the volumes is roughly chronological. This volume examines the later developments of Jewish thought, the spread of Christianity, and the rise and diffusion of Islam. Like the other two volumes, it reflects the author's interest in folk beliefs, heresies, and cults of secret wisdom. It concludes with a long and extremely useful bibliographical analysis, ``Present Position of Studies.'' As the crowning achievement to an unparalleled scholarly career this series of books represents a valuable synthesis for specialists and generalists alike. Paul E. Muller-Ortega, Religious Studies Dept., Michigan State Univ., East Lansing

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A History Of Religious Ideas, Volume 2

From Gautama Buddha to the Triumph of Christianity

By Mircea Eliade, Willard R. Trask

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1982 Mircea Eliade
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-20403-1


The Religions of Ancient China

126. Religious beliefs in the Neolithic period

For the historian of culture as well as for the historian of religions, China represents an unusually advantageous field of research. The earliest Chinese archeological documents, for example, go back to the sixth and fifth millenniums, and in at least some cases it is possible to follow the continuity of the different prehistoric cultures and even to define their contribution to the forming of classical Chinese civilization. For, just as the Chinese people arises from many and various ethnic combinations, its culture constitutes a complex and original synthesis in which the contributions of several sources can nevertheless be discovered.

The earliest Neolithic culture is that of Yang Shao, so termed from the name of the village in which vessels of painted clay were discovered in 1921. A second Neolithic culture, characterized by a black pottery, was discovered near Lung Shan in 1928. But it was not until after 1950 that, as a result of the numerous excavations made during the preceding thirty years, it became possible to classify all the phases and the general outlines of the Chinese Neolithic cultures. By the help of radiocarbon dating, the chronology was substantially modified. At Pan Po (in Shensi Province) the earliest site belonging to the Yang Shao culture was brought to light; radiocarbon dating indicates ca. 4115 or ca. 4365. In the fifth millennium the site was occupied for 600 years. But Pan Po does not represent the earliest stage of the Yang Shao culture. According to Ping-ti Ho, the author of the latest synthetic study of Chinese prehistory, the agriculture practiced in the sixth millennium was a local discovery, as were the domestication of certain animals, ceramics, and the metallurgy of bronze. Yet, only recently, the development of the Chinese Neolithic cultures and Bronze Age was explained by a dissemination of agriculture and metallurgy from several centers in the ancient Near East. It is not our part to take sides in this controversy. It seems indubitable that certain techniques were invented or radically modified in China. It is no less probable that protohistorical China received numerous cultural elements of Western origin, disseminated across Siberia and the Central Asian steppes.

The archeological documents can give us information about certain religious beliefs, but it would be wrong to conclude that those beliefs represent all the religious beliefs of the prehistorical populations. Their mythology and theology, the structure and morphology of their rituals, can scarcely be made out solely on the basis of the archeological finds. Thus, for example, the religious documents revealed by the discovery of the Neolithic Yang Shao culture refer almost entirely to ideas and beliefs connected with sacred space, fertility, and death. In the villages the communal building is placed at the center of the site, surrounded by small houses half underground. Not only the orientation of the village but the structure of the house, with its central mud pit and its smokehole, indicates a cosmology shared by many Neolithic and traditional societies (cf. §12). Belief in the survival of the soul is illustrated by the utensils and foodstuffs placed in the graves. Children were buried, close to the houses, in large urns having an opening at the top to permit the soul to go out and return. In other words, the funerary urn was the dead person's "house," an idea that found ample expression in the cult of ancestors in the Bronze Age (the Shang period).

Certain clay vessels, painted red and decorated with the so-called death pattern, are especially interesting. Three icono-graphic motifs—triangle, chessboard, and cowrie—are found only on funerary vessels. But these motifs are bound up with a rather complex symbolism that associates the ideas of sexual union, birth, regeneration, and rebirth. It may be supposed that this decoration indicates the hope of survival and of a rebirth in the other world.

A design figuring two fishes and two anthropomorphic figures probably represents a supernatural being or a "specialist in the sacred," a sorcerer or priest. But its interpretation is still doubtful. The fishes certainly have a symbolism that is at once sexual and connected with the calendar (the fishing season corresponds to a particular period of the yearly cycle). The distribution of the four figures may suggest a cosmological image.

According to Ping-ti Ho (pp. 275 ff.), the societies of the Yang Shao period obeyed the laws of matrilineal descent. In contrast, the following period, that of Lung Shan, indicates passage to a patrilineal society, characterized by the predominance of the ancestor cult. Following other scholars, Ho interprets certain stone objects and their reproductions on painted vases as phallic symbols. Like Karlgren, who saw the derivation of the pictogram tsu, designating the ancestor, from the drawing of a phallus, Ho sees in the multiplication of phallic emblems the importance attained by the ancestor cult. The "death pattern," as we have seen, certainly involves a sexual symbolism. But Carl Hentze explains the various "phallic" objects and designs as representing a "house of the soul"; certain ceramics from Yang Shao represent models of little huts—which are at the same time funerary urns—comparable to the similar documents from European prehistory and to the Mongol hut. These "little houses of the soul," abundantly attested to in the prehistory of China, are the forerunners of the "ancestor tablets" of historical times.

In short, the Yang Shao and Lung Shan cultures reveal the beliefs that are typical of other Neolithic civilizations: solidarity among life, fertility, death, and the afterlife and hence the conception of the cosmic cycle, illustrated by the calendar and actualized in the rites; the importance of the ancestors, a source of magico-religious power; and the "mystery" of the conjunction of contraries (also proven by the "death pattern"), a belief that in a way anticipated the idea of the unity/totality of cosmic life, which will be the dominating idea in later periods. It is important to add that a great part of the Neolithic heritage was until recent times preserved, with the inevitable changes, in the religious traditions and practices of the Chinese villages.

127. Religion in the Bronze Age: The God of Heaven and the ancestors

We are decidedly better informed about Chinese history from the time of the Shang dynasty (ca. 1751–1028). The Shang period corresponds in general to the protohistory and the beginning of the ancient history of China. It is characterized by the metallurgy of bronze, the appearance of urban centers and capital cities, the presence of a military aristocracy, the institution of royalty, and the beginnings of writing. As for the religious life of the period, the documentation is comparatively full. First of all we have a rich iconography, best exemplified by the magnificent bronze ritual vessels. In addition, the royal tombs provide information concerning certain religious practices. But it is especially the countless oracular inscriptions, incised on animal bones or tortoise shells, that are a precious source. Finally, some later works (for example, The Book of Odes), which Karlgren calls "free Chou texts," contain much ancient material. We should add, however, that these sources give us information concerning thebeliefs and rituals of the royal clan; as in the Neolithic period, the mythology and theology remain for the most part unknown.

The interpretation of these iconographic documents is not always certain. Scholars agree in recognizing a certain analogy with the motifs documented on the painted pottery of Yang Shao and, in addition, with the religious symbolism of the following periods. Hentze (Bronzegerät, pp. 215 ff.) interprets the conjunction of polar symbols as illustrating religious ideas related to the renewal of Time and to spiritual regeneration. No less important is the symbolism of the cicada and of the t'ao-t'ieh mask, which suggests the cycle of births and rebirths, of light and life emerging from darkness and death. No less remarkable is the union of antagonistic images (feathered snake, snake and eagle, etc.), in other words the dialectic of contraries and the coincidentia oppositorum, a central theme for the Taoist philosophers and mystics. The bronze vessels represent urnhouses. Their form is derived either from ceramics or from prototypes in wood. The admirable animal art revealed by the bronze vessels probably originated in wood engravings.

The oracular inscriptions inform us of a religious conception that was absent (or imperceptible?) in the Neolithic documents, namely, the preeminence of a supreme celestial god, Ti (Lord) or Shang Ti (The Lord on High). Ti commands the cosmic rhythms and natural phenomena (rain, wind, drought, etc.); he grants the king victory and insures the abundance of crops or, on the contrary, brings on disasters and sends sicknesses and death. He is offered two kinds of sacrifices: in the sanctuary of the ancestors and in the open fields. But, as is the case with other archaic celestial gods (see our A History of Religious Ideas, vol. 1, §§14 ff.), his cult shows a certain diminution of religious primacy. Ti is found to be distant and less active than the ancestors of the royal lineage, and he is offered fewer sacrifices. But he alone is invoked in matters of fecundity (rain) and of war, the sovereign's two chief preoccupations.

In any case, Ti's position remains supreme. All the other gods, as well as the royal ancestors, are subordinate to him. Only the king's ancestors are able to intercede with Ti; on the other hand, only the king can communicate with his ancestors, for the king is the "one man." The sovereign strengthens his authority with the help of his ancestors; belief in their magico-religious power legitimized the domination of the Shang dynasty. In their turn the ancestors depend on the offerings of cereals, blood, and flesh that are brought to them. It is futile to suppose, as certain scholars do, that, since the ancestor cult was so important for the reigning aristocracy, it was gradually adopted by the other social strata. The cult was already thoroughly implanted, and very popular, in the Neolithic period. As we have just seen (pp. 5 ff.), it formed an essential part of the religious system (structured around the anthropocosmic cycle) of the earliest cultivators. It is the preeminence of the king, whose first ancestor was supposed to descend from Ti, that gave this immemorial cult a political function.

The king offers two series of sacrifices: to the ancestors and to Ti and the other gods. Sometimes the ritual service is extended over 300 or 600 days. The word "sacrifice" designates the "year," since the annual cycle is conceived as a complete service. This confirms the importance of the calendar, which guarantees the normal return of the seasons. In the great royal tombs near Anyang, exploration has revealed, in addition to animal skeletons, numerous human victims, presumably immolated in order to accompany the sovereign into the other world. The choice of victims (companions and servants, dogs, horses) emphasizes the considerable importance of the hunt (ritual hunt?) for the military aristocracy and royal clan. A number of questions preserved by the oracular inscriptions are concerned with the advisability and the chances for success of the king's expeditions.

The tombs had the same cosmological symbolism and performed the same function as the urn-houses: they were the houses of the dead. A similar belief could explain human sacrifice offered at the time when buildings were newly begun, especially temples and palaces. The victims' souls insured the durability of the construction; it could be said that the building that was raised served as a "new body" for the victim's soul. But human sacrifice was also practiced for other purposes, about which our information is scanty; it can be supposed that the end sought was the renewal of time or the regeneration of the dynasty.

Despite the gaps, we can make out the principal lines of religion in the Shang period. The importance of the celestial god and the ancestor cult is beyond doubt. The complexity of the sacrificial system (bound up with a religious calendar) and of techniques of divination presupposes the existence of a class of "specialists in the sacred"—diviners, priests, or shamans. Finally, the iconography shows us the articulations of a symbolism, at once cosmological and soteriological, that is still inadequately understood but that seems to anticipate the chief religious conceptions of classical China.

128. The exemplary dynasty: The Chou

In ca. 1028 the last Shang king was conquered by the duke of Chou. In a famous proclamation, the latter justified his revolt against the king by the order he had received from the Celestial Lord to put an end to a corrupted and odious domination. This is the first statement of the famous doctrine of the "Heavenly Mandate." The victorious duke became king of the Chou; he inaugurated the longest dynasty in the history of China (ca. 1028–256). For our purpose it would be useless to summarize its moments of greatness, its crises, and its decadence. We need only point to the fact that, despite wars and general insecurity, it is from the eighth to the third centuries before Christ that traditional Chinese civilization flowered and philosophic thought attained its highest point.

At the beginning of the dynasty the celestial god T'ien (Heaven), or Shang Ti (The Lord on High), shows the characteristics of an anthropomorphic and personal god. He resides in the Great Bear at the center of the heavens. The texts bring out his celestial structure: he sees, observes, and hears everything; he is clairvoyant and omniscient; his decree is infallible. T'ien and Shang Ti are invoked in agreements and contracts. Later the omniscience and all-seeingness of Heaven are celebrated by Confucius and by many other philosophers, moralists, and theologians of all schools. But for these the God of Heaven increasingly loses his religious nature; he becomes the principle of cosmic order, the warrant for moral law. This process of abstraction and rationalization of a supreme god is frequent in the history of religions (cf. Brahman, Zeus, the God of the philosophers during the Hellenistic period, and the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).

But Heaven (T'ien) remains the protector of the dynasty. The king is the "son of T'ien" and the "regent of Shang Ti." This is why, in principle, only the king is fit to offer him sacrifices. He is responsible for the normal progression of the cosmic rhythms; in case of disaster—drought, prodigies, calamities, floods—the king subjects himself to expiatory rites. Since every celestial god rules the seasons, T'ien also has a role in agrarian cults. Thus, the king must represent him during the essential moments of the agrarian cycle (cf. §130).

In general, the ancestor cult carries on the structures established during the Shang period (but our information extends only to the rituals practiced by the aristocracy). The urn-house is replaced by a tablet, which the son deposited in the temple of the ancestors. Ceremonies of considerable complexity took place four times a year; cooked foods, cereals, and various drinks were offered, and the ancestor's soul was invoked. The soul was personified by a member of the family, usually one of the dead man's grandsons, who shared out the offerings. Similar ceremonies are not uncommon in Asia and elsewhere; a ritual that involved a person representing the dead man was very probably practiced in the Shang period, if not as early as prehistory.

The chthonic divinities and their cults have a long history, concerning which we are scantily informed. It is known that, before being represented as a mother, the earth was experienced as an asexual being or bisexual cosmic power. According to Marcel Granet, the image of Mother Earth first appears "under the neutral aspect of the Sacred Place." A little later "the domestic Earth was conceived under the features of a maternal and nourishing principle." In ancient times the dead were buried in the domestic enclosure, where the seed was kept. For a long time, the guardian of seeds continued to be a woman. "In Chou times, the seeds destined to sow the royal field were not kept in the Son of Heaven's room but in the apartments of the queen" (Granet, p. 200). It is only later, with the appearance of the agnate family and seigneurial power, that the sun became a god. In the Chou period there were many gods of the soil, organized hierarchically: gods of the familial soil, god of the village, gods of the royal soil and the seigneurial soil. The altar was in the open air, but it comprised a stone tablet and a tree—relics of the original cult consecrated to Earth as cosmic power. The peasant cults, structured around the seasonal crises, probably represent the earliest forms of this cosmic religion. For, as we shall see (§130), the earth was not conceived only as source of agrarian fertility. As complementary power to the sky, it revealed itself to be an integral part of the cosmic totality.


Excerpted from A History Of Religious Ideas, Volume 2 by Mircea Eliade, Willard R. Trask. Copyright © 1982 Mircea Eliade. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

Mircea Eliade (1907–1986) was the Sewell L. Avery Distinguished Service Professor at the Divinity School and professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He was one of the most influential scholars of religion of the 20th century and one of the world’s foremost interpreters of religious symbolism and myth. Eliade was the author of many works of scholarship and fiction, including A History of Religious Ideas and ten novels.

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