The Gnostics and Their Remains, by Charles William King, , at sacred-texts.com
For the sake of comparison with the above-described systems, all based upon the doctrine of successive Emanations from One First Principle, the means of escaping from the bondage of Matter, and the struggles of the souls towards ultimate absorption into its original source, I shall subjoin a very brief sketch of the principal features of the Buddhistic theosophy. * Here also we find a First Buddha in his proper state of eternal repose (the Indolentia of Epicurus) corresponding to the Zoroastrian "Boundless Time," and the Valentinian "Bythos." While in this state termed "Nevriti," wishing to create the universe he produced the Five divine Buddhas, the makers of the Elements, who in their turn produced the Five Buddhasativas, and by their agency created the material world. The grand aim of this religion is to effect the release of the soul from its connection with Matter. All things, according to the Buddhists, exist only in illusion, consequently they can only return into non-existence or repose by means of True Knowledge (compare the Gnosis we
are considering). * "Illusion" is the belief in the reality of the eternal world; the degradation of the soul towards Matter is the effect of a succession of acts; and therefore its release is effected by relinquishing the belief in the reality of external objects.
The Buddhists of Nepal, who have preserved the original doctrines of the religion in their greatest purity, teach the following cosmogony: Padnapani, one of the original Five Emanations, created Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, or the Principles of Creation, Preservation, and Destruction. Adi-Buddha first created thirteen mansions for his own eternal abode, and for the dwelling-place after death of Buddha's followers. Below these are eighteen mansions made by Brahma; lower yet are six made by Vishnu; and lowest of all--three, the work of Siva. These three series of abodes receive the souls of the followers of their respective creators.
Below all these lie the mansions of the Planetary gods, Indra and Chandra; and after these there comes the Earth floating upon the face of the waters like a boat. Below these waters are the Seven Patala, or regions of Hell, the abode of evil spirits and the damned. This arrangement presents the most striking resemblance to the construction of the Ophite Diagramma (to be given further on), which Origen has described from the original, and which M. Matter has reconstructed from Origen's description to illustrate his treatise in his Plate X.
The promulgation of these Indian speculations from so remote a source--a difficulty at first sight insurmountable--may nevertheless be readily explained. The spirit of this religion was the spirit of proselytism; the Buddhists from the very beginning sent out their missionaries (some of whose narratives, full of interest, are extant and have been translated from the Chinese) with all the zeal of the old Propaganda. From the
mainland they converted Ceylon, Japan, and the recesses of Tartary; and penetrated into regions where their former presence and tolerated existence are now little dreamed of. * That Buddhism had been actually planted in the dominions of the Seleucidæ and the Ptolemies (Palestine belonging to the former) before the end of the fourth century, at least, before our era is shown by a clause in the Edicts of Asoka. This prince was grandson to Chandragupta (the Sandracottus of the Greeks, contemporary and friend of Seleucus I.), who, at the head of an army of 60,000 men, had conquered all India within the Ganges. Asoka, at first a licentious tyrant, had embraced the newly preached doctrines of Buddhism, a Brahminical Protestantism, and propagated them by persuasion and by force through the length and breadth of his immense kingdom, with all the usual zeal of a new convert.
The Edicts referred to are graven on a rock tablet at Girnur in Guzerat. To quote the words of the Indian Archæologist Prinsep, to whom the discovery is due, (article xvii. 'Indian Antiquities'). "I am now about to produce evidence that Asoka's † acquaintance with geography was not limited to Asia, and that his expansive benevolence towards living creatures extended, at least in intention, to another quarter of the globe, that his religious ambition sought to apostolize Egypt, and that we must look hereafter for traces of the introduction of Buddhism into the fertile valley of the Nile, so productive of metaphysical discussions from the earliest ages. The line which I allude to is the fifth from the bottom. 'And the Greek King (Yoniraja) ‡ besides, by whom the Chapta (Egyptian) Kings, Ptolemaios,
and Gonkakenos (Antigonus Gonatas) have been induced to allow that both here and in foreign countries everywhere the people may follow the doctrine of the religion of Devanipya, wheresoever it reacheth." The "Essenes," so like to Buddhist Monks in many particulars (for which see the minute description of this ascetic rule as given by Josephus, 'Antiq. Jud.' xv. 10), had been established on the shores of the Dead Sea for "thousands of ages" before Pliny's time. "On the West its shores, so far as they are unhealthy, are shunned by the Esseni, a solitary race, and wonderful beyond all others on the globe; without woman, renouncing all usual enjoyment, without money, associates of the palm-trees, from day to day they are recruited by the flocks of new-comers: all those flocking in numerously whom the world drives from itself, all tempest-tossed by the waves of fortune. In this way, incredible to tell, the race wherein no birth ever takes place, has endured for thousands of years, so prolific for them is other people's disgust at the world" (Hist. Nat. v. 15). The great Naturalist's "thousands of years" must be allowed as one of his favourite oratorical tropes, but nevertheless serves for testimony to the belief in the great antiquity of the sect. Perhaps they may have been a continuation of those early ascetic associations known as the "Schools of the Prophets."
The influence of Jewish Essenism upon primitive Christianity (as to rules of life at least) is a thing that will not be disputed by any who have read, with a wish to learn the truth, not to evade it, the account of it given by Josephus. But over the semi-Christian Gnostics of Syria such long-established authority must have had a still stronger influence. It is easy to discover how the source of the slavish notions about the merits of asceticism, penances, and self-torture (of which Simon Stylites is the most conspicuous illustration), was the same one whence the Indian fakirs drew their practice--for even in their methods they were identical. Simon's celebrated life-penance (which gives him his title), undergone upon the summit of a lofty pillar, had been practised in the same regions many generations before his time. The pseudo-Lucian, in his amusing description of the famous Temple of the "Syrian
[paragraph continues] Goddess" at Emesa ('De Dea Syria'), particularly notices the phallus or obelisk, 300 feet high, planted in front of the edifice, upon the apex of which the devotee sat without sleep for one and twenty days and nights, keeping himself awake by constantly ringing a handbell. Ideas like these pervade the Christianity of the Lower Empire, nay, they constitute the very essence of the religion. Neither is it difficult to see upon how many points Manes, with his rigid Buddhistic tenets, came into collision with the humane and rational law of Zoroaster (the brightest system of natural religion ever promulgated), and what good causes Varanes, with his spiritual advisers, had for condemning his heresy.
In our investigation of this particular subject it must never be forgotten that so long as philosophy was cultivated in Greece; (even from the times of the Saurian sage, inventor of the name), India was often regarded as the ultimate and purest source of the "True Wisdom," the knowledge of things divine. Even so late as Lucian's time, the middle of the second century, that author concludes his evidently true history of Antiphilus and Demetrius, by making the latter, a cynic philosopher by profession, resign all his property to his friend, and depart for India, there to end his life amongst the Brachmanes, ('Toxaris,' 34). In the same century the well-known pilgrimage of Apollonius of Tyana, and his deep conference with the Indian philosophers, as recorded by his companion Damis, go to prove the same thing; and although the meagre journal of the sage's travelling companion may have been largely supplemented and embellished by the fancy of his editor, Philostratus, * the main features of the narrative are doubtless authentic. The great thaumaturgist's proceedings, as there detailed, show how the apparent difficulty of such a pilgrimage vanishes upon a better knowledge of the circumstances. Apollonius presents himself, first of all, to the Parthian Ring, Bardanes (a "Philhellene" as he yet boasts himself upon his coinage), and as warns an admirer of Grecian savants as any of his Achamænian predecessors,
from whom he obtains a firman securing to him protection and entertainment, everywhere within the limits of his rule, which extended then, probably, as far as the Indus. Thenceforward his letters of recommendation from the "King of Kings" to the various native princes his allies, secure to the traveller an equally favourable reception. A safe and regular communication between the extreme points of the Persian Empire had been from the beginning the great care of its mighty rulers (the first institutors of highways, posting-stages, and post-horses), passing through what was not, as now, a series of deserts infested by robber-tribes, but a populous and well-cultivated country; so favoured, with a passport from the sovereign, the pilgrim would find his journey both expeditious and agreeable.
The same facilities were necessarily made use of by the natives of Hindustan. It is curious to observe how the occasional "Brachman" who found his way into Greece was received as a model philosopher--like that Zarmanes Chagan, who, coming from Bargose (Baroche), finally burnt himself alive upon a pyre at Athens, in the reign of Augustus; of which edifying spectacle Nicolaus Damascenus was eye-witness (Strabo XV.). Before him, we have Calanas the "gymnosophist" (a happy Greek expression for fakir) in high repute at Alexander's court, and who similarly chose to leave earth in a "chariot of fire." Their example was followed by the "Peregrinus Proteus," so happily ridiculed by Lucian in his book thus entitled; Proteus, to give his apotheosis as much celebrity as possible, chose for its scene the occasion of the Olympic games. This last worthy had been a philosopher, then a Christian teacher, and lastly had started a new religion of his own invention. That the sect so celebrated by the ancients under the name of "Brachmanes" was Buddhistic, not Brahminical, may be inferred from their locality, Bactria; and yet more from a circumstance mentioned by Strabo (Book XV.). He speaks of their devoting thirty years to the study of Theology, living in a community (a vihar or monastery), sequestered from the world in the midst of forests in the neighbourhood of the different cities, and totally abstaining from sexual intercourse,
and all animal food; on the contrary, the Brahmins hold that to leave children behind them is a most sacred duty, and one upon which their admission into heaven depends. Whether the Buddhists be the true representatives of the primal religion * of their country, or only the Reformers of the more ancient Brahminical Church, it is the natural weapon of all dissenters from an established creed, to ridicule and even to pronounce damnable, the favourite tenets of their adversaries. Witness Martin Luther with his invectives against vows of virginity, and his well-known motto
[paragraph continues] Similarly we find the Essenes running counter to the ancient prejudices of their nation, and spontaneously embracing what the Mosaic Law had denounced as the greatest of curses--the leaving no offspring behind to keep up their name in Israel.
To exemplify the severe discipline maintained in the Brahman communities, Strabo mentions that the mere act of blowing the nose, or spitting, caused the offender to be excluded for that day, as incontinent, from the society of his fellow-recluses. Similarly Josephus particularises, amongst other Essenian rules, the obligation of abstaining from all natural evacuations upon the Sabbath day. But even their rigour is surpassed, and in our day too, by a certain sect of Indian Yogis, who profess to have completely emancipated themselves from all such defiling necessities of nature. This they effect by living entirely upon milk, which, after retaining a short time in the stomach, they throw up again by swallowing a ball fastened to a string; and maintain the animal expenditure solely through the nutriment imbibed by the system during the continuance of the liquid in the stomach; and which consequently leaves no residuum to descend into the lower bowels. A doctrine this, the finest
possible reductio ad absurdam of the notion of meritorious continence, and exhibiting on the ludicrous side the mischief of being too logical in matters of religion.
As for the profundity of the philosophical speculations of the Orientals, even at a very late period, the Byzantine Agathias quotes a very remarkable example. Chosroes (better known to us as Nushirwan the Just), besides giving an asylum, as to his brethren, to the last Athenian philosophers, when expelled from their chairs by the stupid bigot Justinian, caused all Plato's works to be translated into Persian, and professed to be himself able to comprehend even the mysteries of the 'Timæus.' The Greek sophist is naturally indignant at the impudence of the foreigner who could pretend that "his own barbarous and rustic language" was capable of expressing the divine thoughts of the Athenian sage; for he little suspected that the great King, or at any rate the Magi and "Sufis" about him, were masters of the sources whence Plato may have ultimately drawn his inspiration whilst planning that inscrutable composition. The religious instruction of the Persian princes had from the beginning been carefully attended to, and proficiency therein was a matter of pride: thus Cyrus the younger puts forward his superior knowledge of Theology (in his manifesto upon claiming the kingdom) as a just cause why he should be preferred to his elder brother.
Leaving out of the question the now received theory as to the immigration of the "Indo-Germanic" race into the farthest recesses of Europe, modern history furnishes the example of extensive migration, effected under infinitely greater difficulties, by the hordes of low-caste Hindoos, who, flying from the invasion of Tamerlane, spread themselves all over Europe as Gipsies, still retaining their native language and habits, and to the present day claiming "Sind" or "Sindha" for their national name.
The facts adduced in the foregoing sketch will suffice to indicate the manner in which the germs of the various Gnostic doctrines were imported from the East, how they were engrafted upon previously existing notions, and how vigorously they flourished when transplanted into the kindly soil of Alexandria and Ephesus. To complete the general view of the subject,
before proceeding to consider the tangible monuments left us by these ideas, it will be necessary to give some account of the forms in which they attained to their fullest development. For this purpose I shall select the three principal systems, represented by historians as the parents of all the rest, those of Simon Magus, Basilides, and the Ophites; the most satisfactory manner of doing which will be to transcribe the exact words of the well-informed and impartial Hippolytus.
49:* Buddhism was founded in the fifth century before our era, by Sakya Muni, son of the Raja of Kapila. At the age of twenty-nine he began to study religion, and by force of prayer became the embodiment of the Supreme Deity when thirty-five years old. He chose Benares for the centre of his mission, whence in the space of forty-five years his doctrines were diffused over the fairest districts of the Ganges from the Delta to Agra and Cawnpore. His death is placed by some writers in B.C. 477.
50:* The Buddhist "Confession of Faith," regularly set up in the temples, engraven on a stone tablet, runs thus: "Of all things proceeding from Cause their causes hath the Tathâgatha explained. The Great Sarmana hath likewise explained the causes of the cessation of existence." The essence of the religion therefore is Perfect Knowledge; the object of Virgil's aspiration-
51:* Two Chinese pilgrims, Fa Hian and Hiouen Thsang, visited Benares at the beginning of the fifth, and at the middle of the seventh centuries of our era. These keen and sagacious observers have left records of their travels in India of the utmost importance to the historian and antiquary. Their narratives are, for the most part, plain matter-of-fact productions, free from the haze and uncertainty of Hindoo writings; and whenever they have been tested by extraneous evidence, have been found to be to a large extent singularly correct. See 'Mémoires de Hiouen Thsang,' translated from the Chinese by Stanislas Julien.
51:† Asoka's zeal was so ardent that he sent his son and daughter, Mahendra and Saugamitra, as missionaries to Ceylon; who in a short time effected the conversion of the island to their new religion.
51:‡ The Persian envoy in Aristophanes’ Acharnians used the same word, Ἱαόναυ, for the Greek nation.
53:* Who composed his very interesting 'Life of Apollonius' at the request of the Empress Julia, about a century after the death of the philosopher.
55:* Which of course their theologians claim to be, and treat the Brahmins as corrupters of the true faith. For example Hionen Thsang: "They reckon (in the kingdom of Benares) a hundred temples of gods, inhabited by about ten thousand heretics, who for the most part are worshippers of Siva." And yet he candidly owns that the Buddhists possessed no more than thirty monasteries, numbering only three thousand members, in the same place.