Freda Bedi Cont'd (#2)

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Part 1 of 2

Natural Theology and Natural Religion
Copyright © 2020 by Andrew Chignell <>; Derk Pereboom <>
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
First published Mon Jul 6, 2015; substantive revision Fri Jul 17, 2020



On what criterion then shall we decide his [Richard Brothers'] merits? to what authority shall we appeal? His own answer is,

Search the Scriptures yourselves. As Christians, You must acknowledge them to be the perfect sources of all veracity, and let them be the touchstone of my assertions.

Here let us pause for a moment, and reflect, that if we take him at his word, we are once more consigned to the mysterious depths of Daniel, Esdras, and of the Revelations, where so many ingenious interpreters, and athletic commentators, have been already shipwrecked. How shall we scape a similar calamity? If it be possible on this sea ever to make a safe harbour, we must certainly strike out some new course, and take for our compass the following considerations on the nature and properties of prophetic writing.

ll prophecies are neither more nor less than true genuine aenigmas, in which the meaning is so nicely and artificially enveloped by ambiguity of sense and of expression, that until we be furnished by the inventor himself with the proper clue to unravel them, they are calculated to appear as a tissue of the most incongruent absurdities. Of these prophetical compositions, some are compact and close, like the greater part of the Pagan oracles, and others more copious and diffuse. In the former case, every word, I had almost said every letter, comes in for its share of meaning; and the key that does not precisely fit every one of them is good for nothing. No allowance is to be admitted for any thing superabundant or extraneous. In the longer compositions a greater latitude prevails: among several sentences, or distinct members of one sentence, the meaning is all contained in a single phrase only, which is to be construed with all the minute precision and undeviating consistency required in the former case, while the other parts are only thrown in to mislead the observer. Just as if the real objects to be represented in a picture were softened down, melted away, and obscured in the distances of the back ground, while the prominent features of the design, that occupy the front of the canvas, should be formed of adventitious or frivolous representations, of no consequence or necessity to the piece. Instances of both kinds will occur as we proceed; and frequent specimens of each may be found in the different prophecies of the Old Testament, which are acknowledged by all sound critics and expositors to allude to the coming and sufferings of the Messiah.

In this place it may not be superfluous to mention, that in the occupation of decyphering mysterious and allegorical modes of composition, I am far from being undisciplined. If I have been rather negligent of our own sacred writings, I have at least been in the habit of bestowing unwearied attention on those of the old Hindus; writings not widely dissimilar in style and manner from the prophetical treatises in our own Bible.

Nor have my researches been altogether fruitless, since I have been fortunate enough to discover the true meaning couched under the Hindu triad of Energies or powers, called Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, which I affirm to be nothing more than poetical personifications of matter, space, and time, and I say, that by the proper application of these three terms, all the surviving remains of genuine Brachmanical mythology may be truly elucidated.

Fortified therefore with this pre-acquired aptitude for such studies, I sat down with pleasure to the task recommended by Mr. Brothers, namely, to read the modern history of Europe in the prophetic records of the Old and New Testament.

For this purpose, nothing was requisite, but to examine, by the test of human sagacity, whether the clue furnished by him were in gross and in all its parts perfectly commensurate to the whole tenor and purport of the mysteries to be unraveled; for if it failed in any one particular, or were found too long or too short in its application to any one instance—actum esset de toto— The works of God are all without flaw; and for this clue to possess that degree of perfection, it must necessarily have proceeded from God himself, who constructed the visions of the prophecies at first, to the very intent that they never should become intelligible, until, at the time destined by his holy will and pleasure, the true mot de l'aenigme [puzzle word] should be revealed to his creatures; and when once this clue should come to be known, any man whatever, with a competent share of learning and industry, might comprehend and expound all the secrets to which it applies, as well as the very man to whom it was originally imparted.

To make this point more intelligible, I shall observe, that with respect to the four beasts in the vision of Daniel (and the same in any other case) it might happen, and probably has happened, that some man or other should form a very probable guess as to the meaning of a single beast, or even two. But what has never been done, and what never could have been done, but by direct revelation from God, is to find a key, one and indivisible, that should apply perfectly and equally well to all the four: so that taking each of them severally, or the whole in a mass, the true meaning should be no less perspicuous and palpable in their union than in their separation. And so with regard to the Babylon mentioned in the Revelations. The Portrait of Rome is so evident in that part where Rome is really meant, that not a single commentator of the hundreds who have handled the passage has ever once mistaken it. But they have all erred in supposing that Babylon universally, and in all cases, signified the same Rome: and I have no doubt, but that very clear and intelligible description of Rome in one place, was expressly inserted for the sole purpose of misguiding, and putting to fault, their conjectures on other parts of the prophecy, where a different city is alluded to under the same title. And this is agreeable to the ordinary conduct of God's providence towards mankind. He has not totally denied them light; but the ray which he has graciously imparted to them, only serves to lead them astray, if they for a moment give loose to the wanderings of their own imaginations.

This then is the question:—Has Richard Brothers possession of this clue, and has he declared it in his book? I answer, Yes; because I am sure I found it there. But at the same time, I affirm, he makes very little use of it, because he comes at his knowledge a shorter way.

He indeed pretends to an immediate and direct inspiration from God. And I take upon myself to prove, by the ordinary exertion of human sagacity, that he is really inspired. And I shall prove it in this manner.

He tells us in a dry, concise, unqualified assertion, that such a thing is so and so—as he has it from God; but he gives us no reason why it should be so; and we see at once that he repeats his lesson by hear-say. I will take his clue, and lead you on step by step through the different degrees of analysis, till you come at the very conclusion with which he sets out:—shewing you by scientifical process, and almost ocular demonstration, all the predicaments which he has totally omitted:—and so connect my arguments with his affirmations, that they shall mutually support, corroborate, and confirm each other. The analysis, on my part, shall give evidence to the authenticity of his inspiration; and the assertion, on his part, shall è converso [conversely] bear witness to the fidelity of my exposition.

And now, to give some previous testimonial of my own pretensions in this mode of investigation, conformable indeed to the general line of Mr. Brothers's declarations, but not explicitly mentioned in any part of them—I affirm from my own discoveries, that the prophet Daniel positively and particularly denounces annihilation to the British navy in this war. And on proof of this proposition, in the course of my Essay I am content to rest my whole pretensions to penetration.

If we consult the map of Europe, it will be found to comprehend little more than the dominions of the following sovereigns—

The Emperor of Germany, and the Princes of the Empire.

The Empress of Russia.

The Pope.

The Kings of England, France, Spain, Prussia, and Sardinia.

To every one of these has Mr. Brothers prognosticated a fatal catastrophe; and I assert that of myself, without any assistance from him, (for, when I called upon him expressly to beg explanation and satisfaction, he had no other answer for me, than that I must examine the scriptures) I have discovered the fate of every one of these to be unequivocally announced in the prophecies of Daniel and Esdras. If I succeed in fully establishing these points only, and I shall do more, there is an end of altercation: we very fairly may, nay, we ought, and by the most rigid rules of sound criticism and logic we must, give him credit for all the rest of his predictions— ex pede Herculem [Hercules on foot].

-- Testimony of the Authenticity of the Prophecies of Richard Brothers, and of His Mission to Recal the Jews, by Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, M.P.

The term “natural religion” is sometimes taken to refer to a pantheistic doctrine according to which nature itself is divine. “Natural theology”, by contrast, originally referred to (and still sometimes refers to)[1] the project of arguing for the existence of God on the basis of observed natural facts.

In contemporary philosophy, however, both “natural religion” and “natural theology” typically refer to the project of using all of the cognitive faculties that are “natural” to human beings—reason, sense-perception, introspection—to investigate religious or theological matters. Natural religion or theology, on the present understanding, is not limited to empirical inquiry into nature, and it is not wedded to a pantheistic result. It does, however, avoid appeals to special non-natural faculties (ESP, telepathy, mystical experience) or supernatural sources of information (sacred texts, revealed theology, creedal authorities, direct supernatural communication). In general, natural religion or theology (hereafter “natural theology”) aims to adhere to the same standards of rational investigation as other philosophical and scientific enterprises, and is subject to the same methods of evaluation and critique. Natural theology is typically contrasted with “revealed theology”, where the latter explicitly appeals to special revelations such as miracles, scriptures, and divinely-superintended commentaries and creedal formulations. (See DeCruz and DeSmedt 2015)

Philosophers and religious thinkers across almost every epoch and tradition (Near Eastern, African, Asian, and European) have engaged the project of natural theology, either as proponents or critics. The question of whether natural theology is a viable project is at the root of some of the deepest religious divisions: Shi’ite thinkers are optimistic about reason’s ability to prove various theological and ethical truths, for instance, while Sunnis are not; Roman Catholic theologians typically think that reason provides demonstrations of the existence of God, while many Protestant theologians do not. Unlike most of the topics discussed in an encyclopedia of philosophy, this is one over which wars have been fought and throats have been cut.

The most active discussions of natural theology in the West occurred during the high medieval period (roughly 1100–1400 C.E.) and the early modern period (1600–1800 C.E.). The past few decades have witnessed a revival of natural theological debate in the public sphere: there are now institutes promoting “Intelligent Design Theory”, popular apologetics courses, campus debates between believers and agnostics, a “New Atheist” movement, Youtube debates between apologists and atheists regarding new books in natural theology (such as the one between Nathan Lewis and Bernie Dehler on the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology),[2] and TED talks by famous atheists on how to resist natural religion (such as the one by Richard Dawkins in February 2002).[3]

Among professional philosophers (who aren’t typically part of these more popular debates), arguments over our ability to justify positive or negative answers to religious questions have become fairly technical, often employing sophisticated logical techniques in an effort to advance the discussion instead of retreading the same old ground. The prestigious Gifford Lectures series hosted by a consortium of Scottish universities, however, has tried to feature new but still accessible work in natural theology for over 100 years (it too has a Youtube channel!)[4]

In this article, we aim to avoid most the more recent complexities but also explain their origins by focusing on some central developments in the early modern period that helped to frame contemporary natural theological debates. We are focused here only on theoretical arguments (both a priori and a posteriori or empirical ones). It is controversial whether moral arguments are also part of natural theology, but we set them aside here (see also the entry on God, arguments for the existence of: moral arguments).

1. Prolegomenal Considerations

Theologians often follow Immanuel Kant’s example and address various “prolegomena” or preliminary questions before trying to do any substantive metaphysics. These include questions about the nature of religious language and about whether or not we are in principle able to access and understand religious truths.

1.1 Religious Language and Concepts

Again, we will use the term “natural theologian” to refer to someone who aims to use ordinary human cognitive faculties (reason, sense-perception, introspection) to establish positive truths about the existence and nature of God and other religiously significant, supersensible beings or states of affairs. Such a person presupposes that sentences in human language (or at least sentences in the language of human thought) can express some theological truths, even if other such truths are beyond us.

Critics of natural theology sometimes challenge these semantic presuppositions. They provide reasons to think that our thoughts, concepts, or sentences are incapable of expressing theological truths, because they are incapable of referring adequately to the transcendent entities that play an important role in many religious doctrines—entities such as Judaism’s YHWH, Neo-Platonism’s One, Vedanta’s Brahman, Mormonism’s Heavenly Father, and so on. The debate surrounding these issues is often designated “the problem of religious language”, but it is usually as much about human concepts as it is about sentences in natural languages.

In the western tradition, there have been a few periods of especially active discussion of these prolegomenal issues. The Neo-Platonic era was one (see the discussion of negative theology in the entry on Plotinus), the high medieval period (1100–1400 or so) was another, the Enlightenment movement in 17th–18th century Europe (especially the empiricist portion of it) was a third. More recent discussions have involved both analytic and continental figures: A.J. Ayer, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Antony Flew, Norman Malcolm, Emmanuel Levinas, and William P. Alston have each discussed, in very different ways, the question of whether and how our language might succeed in referring to transcendent entities. However, since the 1970s, analytic philosophers have turned away from a focus on language to a revival of metaphysics, and the “problem of religious language” has been much less prominent.

1.2 Rational Access

In addition to questions about what religious language refers to and how (if at all) religious concepts apply, the natural theologian faces another set of preliminary questions about our ability to generate sound arguments about such entities or facts. Our sense-perceptual and rational faculties are clearly limited and fallible. There are presumably many facts about the natural universe that we are incapable of grasping due to their complexity or inaccessibility. So why should we think that our natural faculties can deliver truths about even more remote or transcendent entities?

A related debate concerns whether natural theology is the only method by which we can have access to the domain of truths about supersensible realities of religious interests. Some practitioners (call them rationalists) argue that only propositions that can be justified by unaided human reason are candidates for permissible belief. Others (call them hybridists) allow that our natural faculties can take us a certain distance—to knowledge of the basic nature and even existence of God, say—but argue that we must ultimately appeal to revelation and faith when it comes to more specific doctrines regarding the divine nature, acts, and intentions. This is the canonical Roman Catholic position on faith and reason developed in authors such as Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and revived in the natural scientific context of the Renaissance by Catalan scholar Raymond Sebond (1385–1436). Sebond’s Latin work, Theologia Naturalis (1434–1436), became famous when Michel de Montaigne translated it into French in 1569 and made it the subject of the longest of his renowned Essays (‘Apology for Raymond Sebond’), in 1580.

There are many kinds of hybridists: while they all think a turn to faith is necessary at some point, some seek to establish little more than the bare existence of God before turning to faith for greater details. Others think it is possible to develop a more robust understanding of God from within the bounds of reason and sense-perception. Indeed, in recent years the so-called “ramified natural theology” movement has sought to use our natural faculties to demonstrate (or show to be highly probable) robust doctrines that go well beyond bare theism—for example, specifically Christian doctrines such as that of the Trinity, the resurrection, or the historical authenticity of certain miracles or biblical prophecies (Swinburne 2003; Newman et al. 2003; Gauch Jr. 2011; see section 4 below).

Opponents of natural religion or theology, by contrast, deny that reason and our other ordinary perceptual capacities can justify religious beliefs. Some of these opponents are fideists (e.g., on some readings, Tertullian, Blaise Pascal, Pierre Bayle, J.G. Hamann, F.H. Jacobi, and Søren Kierkegaard) who hold these same beliefs as articles of faith rather than as teachings of reason (see the entry on fideism). Pascal, for instance, was a preeminent mathematician with strong interests in natural theology, but ultimately concluded (during what he called a “night of fire” in November 1654) that unaided reason is more likely to lead us to the false god “of philosophers and scholars” than to the true “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob”. The 20th century Reformed theologian Karl Barth opposed natural theology for much the same reason, and made his opposition to Emil Brunner’s version of the hybridist project clear in a book titled simply “Nein!” (Barth 1934). In his Gifford Lectures (which were endowed by Lord Gifford to be a lecture series about natural theology), contemporary theologian Stanley Hauerwas espouses a fideistic view in the tradition of Pascal and Barth but claims (somewhat perversely) that his project (which incorporates biblical texts and specifically Christian doctrines) counts as “natural theology” all the same (Hauerwas 2001: 15ff).

Other opponents of natural theology are agnostics who do not find the fideist’s turn to faith appealing. They deny that our natural faculties succeed in justifying any positive or negative substantial (i.e., non-analytic) theistic beliefs, and consequently suspend belief. Agnostics differ, however, as to whether unaided reason could in principle but does not in fact justify such beliefs (thus Bertrand Russell’s famous response to a question about what he would say if he were to die and then confront God on judgment day: “not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence!”), or whether our unaided faculties are not even in principle adequate to the task.

Still other opponents of natural theology are atheists. Atheists agree with fideists and agnostics that our natural faculties cannot establish the existence of God or other religious entities. But that’s because they think those faculties provide reasons to believe that such entities do not exist at all (see the entry on atheism and agnosticism). One such reason is the negative one that we cannot produce any sound arguments for theistic claims. But atheists also often maintain that there are positive reasons to believe that God does not exist—the incoherence of the concept of God, for instance, or the incompatibility of God’s existence and the existence of horrendous suffering and evil (see the entry on the problem of evil).

There are many ways to approach a survey of natural theology. Here we have chosen to focus largely on the classic historical discussions, and in particular on the debates in the medieval and Enlightenment (17th–18th century) periods in the west. We will consider versions of the two basic kinds of positive argument in favor of religious theses: a priori arguments and a posteriori arguments. There are species of each of these.

2. A priori arguments

2.1 Ontological arguments

A priori arguments are those that do not require an appeal to particular sense-perceptual experiences in order to justify their conclusions. Immanuel Kant gave the name “ontological” to a priori arguments that aim to prove the existence of an object from a concept or an idea of that object (see the entry on ontological arguments). But the argument over whether such a strategy can establish the existence of God began well before Kant’s time.

2.1.1 Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109)

An early and now-canonical formulation of the ontological argument is found in the second book of St. Anselm’s Proslogion (Anselm 1077–78). Anselm begins by characterizing God as the “being than which none greater can be thought” and then seeks to show that such a being does and indeed must exist.

Anselm’s argument can be reconstructed in various ways (see the entry on Saint Anselm), but here is one:

1. By “God” we understand something than which nothing greater can be thought. [premise]
2. When we understand the term “God”, God is in the understanding. [premise]
3. Therefore, something than which nothing greater can be thought is in the understanding. [by (1) and (2)]
4. What is in the understanding and in reality is greater than what is in the understanding alone. [premise]
5. Therefore, God exists in the understanding and in reality. [by (3) and (4)]

In support of (2), Anselm notes that

[T]he fool has said in his heart that “There is no God”. But when this same Fool hears me say “something than which nothing greater can be thought”, he surely understands what he hears; and what he understands exists in his understanding, even if he does not understand that it exists [in reality]. (Anselm 81–2)

So according to Anselm, even the “foolish” atheist understands the term “God” when he argues that God does not exist. By this Anselm simply means that the atheist has the idea of God, and thus has God “in his understanding”.

Premise (4) presupposes that things can exist in a number of different ways or modes. One of those ways is as the object of an idea—i.e., existence “in the understanding”. Another way for it to exist is “in reality”. (4) articulates a comparative value judgment about these ways of existing: it is greater for something to exist in both ways than it is to exist merely in the first way.

In order to deduce (5) from (3) and (4), Anselm uses a reductio ad absurdum argument:

And surely that than which a greater cannot be thought cannot exist only in the understanding. For if it exists only in the understanding, it can be thought to exist in reality as well, which is greater. (Anselm 82)

More explicitly:

a. Suppose a certain being, B1, is conceived of as God is in the proof, and B1 is in the understanding alone. [supposition for reductio]
b. But we can conceive of another being, B2, that is exactly like B1, except that B2 exists in reality as well as in the understanding. [introspection]
c. Thus, B2 is greater than B1. [by (4)]
d. It is impossible to conceive of a being that is greater than B1. [by (a) and (1)]
e. Contradiction. [by (c) and (d)]
f. Therefore, (a) is false: If B1 is conceived of as God is in the proof, then B1 must exist in reality as well as in the understanding. [by (e)]

Philosophers and theologians have made numerous efforts to revive or demolish Anselm’s argument over the centuries. The most influential proponents include René Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, Charles Hartshorne, Norman Malcolm, Robert M. Adams, and Alvin Plantinga. Its main detractors include Anselm’s contemporaneous interlocutor—a monk named Gaunilo—as well as Thomas Aquinas, Descartes’ correspondents Johannes Caterus, Marin Mersenne, and Antoine Arnauld, Immanuel Kant, and, more recently, David Lewis (1970), Peter van Inwagen (1977), and Graham Oppy (1996, 2009). In what follows, a number of the relevant moves in the early modern discussion will be considered, as well as some contemporary developments of the 17th century modal argument.

2.1.2 René Descartes (1596–1650)

Descartes’ ontological argument, first presented in the Fifth Meditation, aims to prove the existence of God from the idea of God (Descartes 1641, cited below from the edition by Adam and Tannery (1962–1976) and referred to as “AT”). Here is one way to formulate the argument (compare Pereboom 1996, 2010; for alternatives see the entry on Descartes’ Ontological Argument):

1. When I have an idea of an object, the object really has whatever characteristics I clearly and distinctly understand it to have. (premise)
2. I have an idea of God in which I clearly and distinctly understand God as the being that has all perfections. (premise)
3. Therefore, God has all perfections. [by (1) and (2)]
4. Everlasting existence is a perfection. (premise)
5. Therefore, God has everlasting existence. [by (3) and (4)]
6. Therefore, God exists. [by (5)] (AT 7.63–71)

One prominent way of resisting this argument is to reduce it to absurdity by appeal to “parity of reasoning”. Johannes Caterus, for instance, objected to Descartes that by a precisely parallel form of reasoning we could prove the real existence of the object of an idea of an existent lion (AT 7.99). Gaunilo’s reply to Anselm centuries earlier was similar: by parity of reasoning, one can prove the existence in reality (and not just in the understanding) of the maximally perfect island (Anselm 102).

The objection aims to show that, like the idea God, the idea of the existent lion and the idea of the maximally perfect island include existence, and thus the existence of these objects can be established via an ontological argument. But the claim that the existence of Caterus’s lion and Gaunilo’s island can be established in this way is absurd, and thus the same holds for the theistic ontological argument. Note that this parity argument via a reductio ad absurdum, if successful, would show that the ontological argument is unsound, but without indicating which step in the reasoning is at fault.

A second objection, anticipated by Descartes in the Fifth Meditation, is that truly predicating a property of something without specifying any conditions or intentional contexts involves an affirmation that the thing exists. So from the truth of “Macron is the President of France”, one can conclude that Macron exists. As a result, “Pegasus is a winged horse” is strictly speaking false, though by using the intentional context “according to the myth” we can say, truly, “According to the myth, Pegasus is a winged horse”. This suggests that premise (3) above is subject to a decisive challenge, and Descartes can legitimately claim only, for instance “According to the idea of God, God has all perfections”, or “If God exists, then God has all perfections”. But then all that follows in step (6) is the unspectacular conclusion that “According to the idea of God, God exists”, or, even less impressively, “If God exists, then God exists”.

A third problem, raised in the Second Objections by Father Marin Mersenne, is that the argument would be sound only if a maximally perfect being is really possible, or, equivalently, only if there is a genuine divine essence. But this, Mersenne complains, has not been established (AT 7.127). (Side note: Gaunilo and Mersenne are good examples of how devout theists might still take issue with natural theological efforts to prove God’s existence.)

Descartes’ reply to these objections involves the notion of a “true and immutable nature” (“TIN”) (AT 7.101ff.). Only some of our ideas of things that have TINs. Moreover, TINs themselves exist in some way, although they need not exist in concrete or empirical reality. Perhaps they are abstract objects, like numbers or sets (Descartes explicitly compares them to Plato’s Forms). In any case, the kind of existence TINs have is sufficient to undermine the second objection above: the divine essence—God’s nature—is a true and immutable nature, and thus we do not need to prefix anything like the phrase “According to the idea of God” to premise (3). Rather, Descartes thinks we can clearly and distinctly perceive that God’s nature is a TIN, and that this TIN contains all perfections. Thus we can conclude that “God has all perfections”. That would make the inference to (6) a valid one.

Descartes’ challenge, then, is to show that God’s nature is a TIN and that the natures of an “existent lion” and “the maximally perfect island” are not TINs. In the Fifth Meditation Descartes maintains that TINs are different from fictitious ideas in that TINs are in some sense independent of the thought of their conceivers. For example, the nature of a triangle is a TIN because it contains properties that we don’t grasp when we first form the idea of a triangle, and deducing these further properties is a process “more like discovery than creation”. God’s nature also has this feature—we obviously don’t grasp all of the properties of the maximally perfect being when we first form an idea of it. The problem, however, is that it is not clear how this criterion would rule out the natures of a most perfect island or an existent lion as TINs, since in those cases we also don’t grasp all of the properties when we first form the idea.

Later, Descartes (AT 7.83–4) characterizes a TIN as having a unity such that it cannot be divided by the intellect. He thinks that having this feature shows that is hasn’t been simply put together by the intellect or imagination, and is thus a genuine nature. Accordingly, the idea of an existent lion does not correspond to a TIN because I can coherently conceive of a lion that doesn’t exist. Likewise I can coherently conceive of a maximally perfect island having one fewer coconut tree but one more mango tree, and so on. But it also seems that I can conceive of some of the divine perfections without others (i.e. of an omnipotent being that is lacking maximal benevolence). So by this standard it appears that the idea of God also fails to correspond to a true and immutable nature. Note: Descartes himself seems to resist this objection by arguing that all of the divine perfections ultimately boil down to sovereignty or omnipotence.

To the third problem, concerning the real possibility of God, Descartes replies that our clear and distinct ideas of TINs—produced in us by reason—are reliable. Since we can (supposedly) see clearly and distinctly that there is no contradiction in our idea of God’s nature, the denial that God is really possible is on equal footing with the denial that the angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles (AT 7.150–1).

2.1.3 Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716)

Leibniz addresses several of the central objections to Descartes’ ontological argument (in, e.g., Leibniz 1676 [PP]: 167–8; 1677 [PP]: 177–80; 1684 [PP]: 292–3; 1692 [PP]: 386; 1678 [PE]: 237–39; 1699 [PE]: 287–88; Adams 1994: 135–56). These include:

A. the claim that the essence of a most perfect being includes its existence—that existence is a perfection—hasn’t been substantiated;
B. the claim that all this argument can establish is the conditional “If an object of the concept of God exists, then God exists”; and
C. the claim that the real possibility of a most perfect being cannot be demonstrated

In several places Leibniz addresses (A) by arguing that by “God” we understand a necessary being, and that from this it follows that the essence of God involves necessary existence. In this way we supposedly avoid altogether the premise that existence is a perfection. (One wonders, however, whether the argument for including “necessary existence” in the idea of God will need to rely on the premise that necessary existence is a perfection.)

In some writings Leibniz tries to bypass (B) by presenting an argument with a different conditional as its conclusion (see Adams 1994: 135–42):

1. If there is a divine essence, then the divine essence involves necessary existence. [premise]
2. If God is a possible being, then there is a divine essence. [premise]
3. If God is a possible being, then the divine essence involves necessary existence. [by (1), (2)]
4. If God is a possible being, then God necessarily exists. [by (3)]
5. Therefore, if God is a possible being, then God actually exists. [by (4)]

What has yet to be dealt with, clearly, is Mersenne’s problem above—(C), that the real possibility of a most perfect being cannot be demonstrated. Leibniz offers several types of arguments against this. One relies on the fact that other things are clearly possible, together with the claim that only a necessary being provides a satisfactory ground or explanation for the possible existence of contingent beings. So on the assumption that contingent beings possibly exist, it must be at least possible for God, as a necessary being, to exist (for more on this kind of argument from possibility, see section 2.3 below).

A second type of Leibnizian argument for God’s real possibility returns to the thesis that God is the most perfect being, and adds that perfections are positive and simple, unanalyzable qualities. So, for example, consider any proposition of the form “A and B are incompatible”, where A and B are any two perfections. Two properties are incompatible only if they are logically incompatible, according to Leibniz. Thus “A and B are incompatible” will be true only if one of these perfections turns out to be the negation of the other (as in omniscient and non-omniscient), or if their analyses reveal simpler properties, one of which is a negation of another. But on the assumption that all the divine perfections are positive, simple, and thus unanalyzable, neither of these scenarios can obtain. Consequently, “A and B are compatible” is always true for any two perfections, and thus a being with all perfections is really possible (Leibniz 1678 [PE]: 238–39; Adams 1994: 142–48).

A third Leibnizean response to Mersenne’s objection is that it is rational to presume the real possibility of the things we can conceive, at least until their impossibility has been demonstrated.

2.1.4 Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)

Kant’s most famous criticism of the ontological argument is encapsulated in his claim that “existence” (or “exists”) is not a positive determination or “real predicate” (Kant 1781/1787: A592/B619ff). Alternatively, “existence” is not “a predicate that is added to the concept of the subject and enlarges it” (A598/B626; see Stang 2016 and Pasternack 2018 for discussion). Kant’s idea here is that since “existence” is not a real predicate, existing cannot be one of God’s perfections.

One way to interpret the objection is as follows:

1. Suppose A and B are two entities, and A is greater than B at t1. [premise]
2. If B becomes as great as A at t2, then B changes. [by (1)]
3. For every entity x, if x changes, then:
a. there is a time t1 at which x has (or lacks) some property P, and
b. there is a later time t2 at which x lacks (or has) P as a result of x’s acting or being acted upon. [premise]
4. For every entity x, if x comes into existence in reality, conditions (3a) and (3b) are not satisfied. [premise]
5. Therefore, when an entity comes into existence in reality, it doesn’t change. [by (3), (4)]
6. Therefore, B cannot become as great as A solely in virtue of B’s coming into existence in reality. [by (2), (5)]
7. Therefore, A cannot be greater than B solely in virtue of existing in reality. [by (6)]

(4) is the key premise in this formulation—does coming into existence involve a genuine change? There is clearly a technical sense in which saying that a concept applies to something does not enlarge the concept or change our conception of the being it refers to. But it might remain open that a being that has all perfections but does not exist is not as great as a being that has all perfections and also exists.

Kant’s objection can perhaps be avoided altogether by proposing that the perfection at issue is necessary existence, and not mere existence. Adding necessary existence to our concept of a being would presumably involve changing it (and thus enlarging its concept). This is effectively a modal version of the ontological argument (see section 2.1.5).

Kant’s most pressing criticism, in our view, goes back to the issue raised by Mersenne: we cannot determine whether God (conceived as having necessary existence or not) is really possible. Kant grants to Leibniz that the notion of a most perfect being may not involve a logical contradiction, but he argues that this is not enough to show that it is really possible, for there are ways of being impossible that do not involve logical contradictions (A602/B630). The implication for the ontological argument is that we cannot know or rationally presume that it is really possible for the divine perfections to be jointly exemplified even if we know that they involve no contradiction.

For how can my reason presume to know how the highest realities operate, what effects would arise from them, and what sort of relation all these realities would have to each other? (Kant LPT [AK 28:1025–26])

2.1.5 Contemporary Modal Versions

Versions of the ontological argument discussed by Leibniz and Kant have been elaborated by Robert M. Adams (1971), Alvin Plantinga (1979), Peter van Inwagen (1977, 2009) and others. These versions employ contemporary modal semantics and metaphysics to motivate the following two assumptions:

(Assumption 1): “It’s possible that God exists” means “there is some possible world in which God exists”.

(Assumption 2): “God necessarily exists” means “God exists in every possible world” (i.e., “there is no possible world in which God doesn’t exist”).

The argument then proceeds as follows:

1. It’s possible that God exists. [premise]
2. Therefore, God exists in some possible world (call it w*). [by (1), (Assumption 1)]
3. If God exists, then God necessarily exists. [by definition of “God”]
4. Therefore, in w* God necessarily exists. [by (2), (3)]
5. Therefore, in w* God is such that God exists in every possible world [by (4), (Assumption 2)]
6. The actual world is one of the possible worlds [premise]
7. Therefore, in w* God is such that God exists in the actual world [by (5), (6)]
8. Therefore, God exists in the actual world [by (7)]

Critics have resisted numerous aspects of the argument (for comprehensive discussion, see Oppy 1996). The inference to (7), for instance, assumes that the actual world is possible relative to w*. But that assumption is only legitimate on some models of how talk of modality (i.e. of possibility and necessity) works. Thus, the critic claims, it hasn’t been shown that w* has the relation to the actual world that licenses the conclusion that God actually exists.

The most significant disagreement, however, is again the one that Mersenne raised against Descartes. How can the claim about metaphysical possibility in (1) be justified? Adams (1994: ch.8), following Leibniz, claims that we are rationally permitted, in the absence of strong reasons to the contrary, to presume the real possibility of most things, including God. Others argue that no such presumption of metaphysical possibility is justified, especially regarding supersensible things.

2.2 The argument from necessary truths

Leibniz’s argument for God’s existence from the existence of the necessary truths crucially involves the premises that all truths are true in virtue of something distinct from them (they need what contemporary metaphysicans sometimes call a “truth-maker”). Since necessary truths would be true even if there were no finite minds to think them, such truths cannot be true in virtue of facts about human psychology. Against the Platonic suggestion that they are true in virtue of Forms existing outside of any mind whatsoever, Leibniz argues that some of the truths are about abstract entities, which are not the kinds of things that could have mind-independent existence. The only contender that remains, then, is that these truths are true in virtue of the ideas in an infinite and necessarily existent (divine) mind (Leibniz 1714 [PP]: 647; Adams 1994: 177ff.).

Leibniz’s argument stakes out one position on the grounding of necessary truths, but there are many rival views that do not invoke the existence of a necessary and eternal divine mind. A Platonist might respond by claiming that it hasn’t been shown that abstract entities do not have mind-independent existence, while Humeans would argue that necessary truths are all analytic, and that therefore only the structure of language or of our conceptual schemes is required to ground their truth.

2.3 The argument from possibility

A third sort of a priori proof argues from facts about the mere possibility of something (or of some collection of things) to the existence of a “ground of possibility” that somehow explains them. An early version of such an argument can be found in Augustine and the Neo-Platonic tradition, but the canonical presentations of this sort of “possibility proof” are in Leibniz’s Monadology (1714) and, much more elaborately, in Kant’s book-length treatise called The Only Possible Basis for a Demonstration of the Existence of God (1763). Note that if truths about what is possible are necessary truths, as they indeed seem to be, then this might be a more specific version of the argument from necessary truths (see 2.2).

Kant’s version of the argument is based on the claim that there are real possibilities that are not grounded in the principle of non-contradiction, but that nevertheless must have a ground or explanation (Kant 1763 [AK 2: 63ff]). If they are not grounded in the principle of non-contradiction, then they are not grounded in God’s thinking them rather than their negations, which is how Leibniz had proposed that all such possibilities are grounded. Put the other way around, Kant thinks that some impossibilities are grounded not in the law of non-contradiction, but in a non-logical kind of “real repugnance” between two or more of their properties. Kant maintains, for instance, that it is impossible for a material being to be conscious, even though no logical contradiction exists between material and conscious (Kant 1763 [AK 2: 85–6]). It follows that this impossibility is not grounded in divine thought, for God can think any proposition that does not involve a contradiction. So facts about some real possibilities and real impossibilities can only be grounded in a necessary being that somehow exemplifies (rather than merely thinking) every combination of fundamental properties whose joint exemplification is really possible. That being, of course, is supposed to be God. (For discussion, see Fisher and Watkins 1998; Adams 2000; Chignell 2009, 2012, 2014; Stang 2010; Abaci 2014; Yong 2014; Hoffer 2016; Abaci 2019; Oberst 2018, 2020).

One way out of this argument is simply to claim that some real possibilities are primitive or ungrounded. This appears to be an option for Kant in his critical period insofar as he is no longer committed to rationalist principles such as the Principle of Sufficient Reason (see Abaci 2019). Still, even in his critical period (i.e., after 1770 or so), Kant never repudiated the earlier proof—and supposedly claimed in a lecture from the 1780s that it “can in no way be refuted” (Kant LPT [AK 28: 1034]). This suggests that in his critical period Kant still held that God’s existence is the only available ground for real possibility, but that the explanatory point may justify at most a kind of theoretical belief (Glaube) rather than full demonstrative knowledge (see Chignell 2009, Stang 2016, and Oberst 2020).

3. A posteriori Arguments

3.1 The classical cosmological argument

An a posteriori argument involves at least one premise whose justification essentially appeals to some sort of empirical fact or experience. The main demonstrative a posteriori argument is what Kant dubbed “the cosmological argument”. It is motivated by the familiar question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and goes from the empirical fact of the existence of something (or of the cosmos as a whole, perhaps) to the existence of a first cause or ground of that cosmos that is, at least in part, not identical to that cosmos. Cosmological arguments are found across almost every philosophical tradition, and find prominence in the West in the writings of Aristotle, Avicenna, al-Ghāzāli, Maimonides, Aquinas, Locke, Leibniz, Samuel Clarke, and David Hume. Here we will start with Avicenna, but then focus largely on the early modern period.

Avicenna (980–1037), whose Arabic name is Ibn Sina, sets out cosmological arguments in a number of works, but a detailed version is found in his Remarks and Admonitions (Kitab al-Isharat wa l-Tanbihat) (Avicenna [ISR]; Mayer 2001). He begins with a claim about contingently existing things: since it is possible for a contingent thing either to exist or not to exist, whether it exists or not hangs in the balance. But then, if a contingent thing does exist, there must be something external to it, a cause, that accounts for its existing rather than not. This establishes a principle crucial to the argument: “the existence of every contingent is from other than it.”

Avicenna next considers the aggregate of all the existing contingent individual things, the existence of each of which is accounted for by its causal antecedents. He then proposes and evaluates four options for accounting for the aggregate’s existence. The first is that the existence of the aggregate does not require a cause. However, given the principle that the existence of any contingent thing must have a cause, the aggregate would then have to exist necessarily. But the aggregate’s existing necessarily is ruled out by the fact that all of the individuals in it are contingent things. On the second option, the cause of the existence of the aggregate is “the individuals all together.” But then the aggregate would cause itself to exist, which is ruled out by the principle that the existence of any contingent thing requires a cause other than it. The third option is that the cause of the aggregate is one of the individuals in it. But all of those individuals are caused to exist by other things in the aggregate, so no one individual is qualified to be the cause of the existence of the entire aggregate. The only remaining option is that the existence of the aggregate has a cause external to the aggregate. Because all of the contingently existing things are in the aggregate, the cause must be a necessarily existing thing (Mayer 2001). Avicenna is fully aware that the argument shouldn’t end here, since it must be shown that the necessarily existing thing is God, and he provides a number of considerations in favor of this claim (Adamson 2013).

Avicenna’s cosmological argument from the contingency of the world contrasts with another major type of argument for God’s existence in Islamic natural theology, one that aims to demonstrate the existence of God from the beginning of the world in time. Al-Ghazali (1056-1111), in The Incoherence of the Philosophers, develops this type of argument in two steps. The first aims to establish, against a prominent Aristotelian tradition, that the world is not eternal but has a beginning in time. The second step reasons that for any being that begins to exist at a time, there must be something that determines that it comes to exist at that time. And thus, because the world begins to exist at a time, there must be something which determines that it comes to exist at that time. As al-Ghazali puts it, “every being which begins has a cause for its beginning; now the world is a being which begins; therefore, it possesses a cause for its beginning.” He then argues that it must be God who by free choice determines that the world comes to exist at the time it does, and we can thus conclude that God exists. These argumentative themes are characteristic features of the Ash’arite theological tradition in Islam; in recent times, al-Ghazali’s argument has been defended by William Lane Craig (1979).

Leibniz’s cosmological argument (Leibniz 1697 [PE]: 149–55; 1714 [PP]: 646, [PE]: 218–19) does not assume or attempt to establish that the world, the collection of all actual contingent beings, has a beginning in time, and in this respect it more closely resembles Avicenna’s argument than al-Ghazali’s. Leibniz argues as follows: suppose that in fact the world has no beginning in time, and that each being in the world has an explanation in some previously existing being(s). Two demands for explanation might still arise: Why is there a world at all rather than none? and: Why does this world exist and not some other world? Neither explanation can be provided by appealing solely to entities within the world (or within time). Leibniz’s conclusion is that there must be a being that is not merely hypothetically, but absolutely necessary, and whose own explanation is contained within itself. This being is God. (A similar cosmological argument is advanced around the same time by Samuel Clarke (1705), see also the entry on Samuel Clarke).

David Hume puts forward three main objections to the type of cosmological argument offered by Leibniz and Clarke (Hume 1779, Part IX, and the entry Hume on religion). The first is that the notion of (absolutely) necessary existence itself is problematic. Suppose that some being is absolutely necessary—then its nonexistence should be absolutely inconceivable. But, says Hume, for any being whose existence we can conceive, we can also conceive its nonexistence, and thus it isn’t a necessary being. Hume anticipates the objection that if we truly understood the divine nature, we would be unable to conceive God’s nonexistence. He replies that an analogous point can be made about matter: for all we know, if we truly understood the nature of matter, we would be unable to conceive its nonexistence. This would show that the existence of matter is not contingent after all, and that it does not require an external explanation. Thus, by parity, the cosmological argument does not establish that God is the necessary being who is responsible for the rest of the cosmos.

Hume’s second objection is that God cannot be the causal explanation of the existence of a series of contingent beings that has no temporal beginning, since any causal relation “implies a priority in time and a beginning of existence” (Hume 1779, Part IV). In reply, it seems quite possible to conceive of a non-temporal causal relation, and thus to conceive of God, from outside of time, causing a series of contingent beings that has always existed. Indeed, this view is common in the theological tradition. Moreover, as Kant along with numerous contemporary metaphysicians argue, we can coherently conceive of a relation of simultaneous causation. If this is right, then even a God who is in time could ground the existence of a series of contingent beings with no temporal beginning.

Hume’s third objection is that in a causal series of contingent beings without a temporal beginning, each being will have a causal explanation by virtue of its predecessors. Since there is no first being, there will be a causal explanation for every contingent being on the basis of previously existing contingent beings. However, if each individual contingent being has a causal explanation, then the entire causal series has an explanation. For wholes are nothing over and above their parts:

did I show you the particular causes of each individual in a collection of twenty particles of matter, I should think it very unreasonable should you afterwards ask me what was the cause of the whole twenty. (Part IV)

A reply to this last objection might be that even if one has explained in this way the existence of each individual in the contingent series, one still has not answered the two questions mentioned earlier: Why is there a world at all rather than none? and: Why does this world exist and not some other world? (for further discussion, see Rowe 1975; Swinburne 2004; Pruss 2006; O’Connor 2008).

Kant, too, objects to the cosmological argument, but mainly on the grounds that it delivers an object that is inadequate to the classical conception of God. Any effort to turn the ultimate ground into the most perfect of all beings, Kant says, will have to smuggle in some sort of ontological argument (see Pasternack 2001; Forgie 2003; Proops 2014; and the entry on Kant’s philosophy of religion).

In general, objections to the cosmological argument (both historical and contemporary) take one of the following forms:

a. not every fact requires explanation, and the fact that the cosmological arguer is pointing to is one of those;
b. each being in the cosmos has an explanation, but the cosmos as an entire series does not require an additional explanation, over and above the explanations of each member of the series;
c. the sort of explanation required to explain the empirical data cited by the cosmological arguer does not amount to a supernatural explanation (e.g., the Big Bang could suffice);
d. the sort of explanation required to explain the empirical data cited by the cosmological arguer is not going to deliver anything as august as the God of traditional religious doctrine but rather, in Hume’s terms, a somewhat “mediocre deity”.
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Part 2 of 2

3.2 Teleological or design arguments

The Greek word “telos” means “end” or “purpose”. The a posteriori arguments in natural theology that are referred to as “teleological” claim that the natural world displays some sort of purposive or end-directed design, and that this licenses the conclusion that the natural world has a very powerful and intelligent designer (see the entry on teleological arguments for God’s existence). Earlier authors dubbed this sort of non-demonstrative, inductive argument a “physico-theological” argument (see, e.g., William Derham 1713).

Teleological arguments can be found in numerous traditions and time periods, including the classical Greek and Roman context (see Sedley 2008) and the Indian philosophical tradition (see Brown 2008). In the west the argument is primarily associated with William Paley (1743–1805), although in fact this type of argument was discussed by numerous early modern figures before him (see Taliaferro 2005, DeCruz and DeSmedt 2015). The fact that Paley’s 1802 book was called Natural Theology is no doubt part of why natural theology as a whole is sometimes equated with the a posteriori investigations of nature for the purposes of supporting religious theses. In the analogy that made Paley’s argument famous, the relationship between a watch and a watch-maker is taken to be saliently similar to the relationship between the natural world and its author. If we were to go walking upon the heath and stumble upon a watch, a quick examination of its inner workings would reveal, with a high probability, that “its several parts were framed and put together for a purpose” by what must have been “an intelligence” (1802: 1–6). Likewise with the universe as a whole.

Earlier teleological arguments can be found in the works of post-Cartesian atomists like Pierre Gassendi, Cambridge Platonists like Walter Charleton and Henry More, and mechanists like Robert Boyle. Charleton, for instance, argues in his The Darkness of Atheism Dispelled by the Light of Nature: A Physico-Theological Treatise (1652) that the modern rejection of Aristotelianism establishes an even greater need to appeal to a designer to explain how inert atoms under mechanical laws can be fashioned into an intelligible and purposive order (see Leech 2013).

A different kind of teleological argument is developed by George Berkeley (1685–1753), for whom natural, physical objects do not exist independently of minds, but consist solely in ideas. Given the regularity, complexity, and involuntariness of our sensory ideas, their source (Berkeley argues) must be an infinitely powerful, benevolent mind that produces these ideas in us in a lawlike fashion. God’s existence can also be demonstrated from the harmony and beauty that the ideas of the world display (Berkeley 1710: §146). Since according to Berkeley our ordinary experience is a type of direct divine communication with us, our relationship with God is in this respect especially intimate. Thus he frequently remarks, quoting St. Paul, that “in God we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

3.2.1 Hume on the teleological argument

Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion pre-date Paley, of course, but they feature an especially influential and elegant critical discussion of teleological arguments (1779), a discussion of which Paley was no doubt aware. (In fact, Paley may have restyled his argument as an inference-to-best explanation in an effort to avoid some of Hume’s criticisms.)

Hume’s assault on the teleological argument begins by formulating it as follows (compare Pereboom 1996, 2010):

1. Nature is a great machine, composed of lesser machines, all of which exhibit order (especially adaptation of means to ends). [premise]
2. Machines caused by human minds exhibit order (especially adaptation of means to ends). [premise]
3. Nature resembles machines caused by human minds. [by (1), (2)]
4. If effects resemble each other, their causes resemble each other as well. [premise]
5. The cause of nature resembles human minds. [by (3), (4)]
6. Greater effects demand greater causes (causes adequate to the effects). [premise]
7. Nature is much greater than machines caused by human minds. [premise]
8. The cause of nature resembles but is much greater than human minds. [by (5), (6), (7)]
9. The cause of nature is God. [by (8)]
10. Therefore, God exists. [by (9)]

Hume’s objections to this argument include the claims that the analogies on which it is dependent are not exact, and thus that there are alternative explanations for order and apparent design in the universe. One response to these objections is that the teleological argument should be conceived as an argument to the best explanation, on the model of many scientific arguments. In that case the analogy need not be exact, but might still show that a theistic explanation is best (and again, Paley himself may have recognized this). Hume, in the voice of his character Philo, concedes

that the works of nature bear a great analogy to the productions of art is evident; and according to all the rules of good reasoning, we ought to infer, if we argue at all concerning them, that their causes have a proportional analogy. (Part XII)

But Philo also affirms that we cannot infer any important similarities between humans and the author of nature beyond intelligence, and in particular we cannot infer some of the divine attributes that are most important for sustaining traditional theistic religion (Part V). Most significantly, given the evil that there is in the universe, we cannot conclude that its designer has the moral qualities traditional religion requires God to have (Part X). Thus, again, we are left with a rather “mediocre deity”.

One of Hume’s neglected objections to the teleological argument is that it generates an absurd infinite regress (Part IV). If order and apparent design in the material universe are explained by divine intelligence, what explains the order and apparent design that give rise to intelligence in the divine mind? By dint of the reasoning employed in the teleological argument, it would have to be a super-divine intelligence. But what explains the order and apparent design that give rise to super-divine intelligence? An absurd infinite regress results, and to avoid it one might well suppose the material world “contain[s] the principle of order within itself”.

To this Hume has the theist Cleanthes reply that

even in common life, if I assign a cause for any event, is it any objection that I cannot assign the cause of that cause, and answer every new question which may incessantly be started?

This seems right: in scientific theorizing it is no decisive objection against an explanation that it contains entities that are themselves not fully explained. Crucial to the value of scientific explanations is that they supply an explanatory advance, and we can reasonably believe that a theory does so without our having in hand complete explanations for all of the entities it posits.

3.2.2 The teleological argument from fine-tuning

In recent decades, some natural theologians have developed an inductive argument for the existence of God that appeals to the fact that the fundamental features of the universe are fine-tuned for the existence of life. According to many physicists, the fact that the universe can support life depends delicately on various of its fundamental characteristics, notably the values of certain constants of nature, the specific character of certain fundamental laws, and aspects of the universe’s conditions in its very early stages. The core claim of the argument is that without an intelligent designer, it would be improbable that the constants, laws, and initial conditions were fine-tuned for life.

William Lane Craig (see e.g., Craig 1990, 2003) develops a version of this argument, which proceeds as follows. The world is conditioned principally by the values of the fundamental constants:

• a: the fine structure constant, or electromagnetic interaction;
• mn/me: proton to electron mass ratio;
• aG: gravitation;
• aw: the weak force; and
• as: the strong force.

When one imagines these constants being different, one discovers that in fact the number of observable universes, that is to say, universes capable of supporting intelligent life, is very small. Just a slight variation in any one of these values would render life impossible. For example, if the strong force (as) were increased as much as 1%, nuclear resonance levels would be so altered that almost all carbon would be burned into oxygen; an increase of 2% would preclude formation of protons out of quarks, preventing the existence of atoms. Furthermore, weakening the strong force by as much as 5% would unbind deuteron, which is essential to stellar nucleosynthesis, leading to a universe composed only of hydrogen. It has been estimated that the strong force must be within 0.8 and 1.2 its actual strength or all elements of atomic weight greater than four would not have formed. Or again, if the weak force had been appreciably stronger, then the Big Bang’s nuclear burning would have proceeded past helium to iron, making fusion-powered stars impossible. But if it had been much weaker, then we should have had a universe entirely of helium. Or again, if gravitation aG had been a little greater, all stars would have been red dwarfs, which are too cold to support life-bearing planets. If it had been a little smaller, the universe would have been composed exclusively of blue giants, which burn too briefly for life to develop. This gives us reason to believe that there is an intelligent designer who fine-tuned the universe as we actually find it.

The debate surrounding the fine-tuning argument is technically complex (a detailed summary is available in the entry on fine-tuning). Here we discuss some of the most pressing issues.

As noted, a core claim of the argument as widely understood is that the fine-tuning for life of the constants, laws, and initial conditions would be deeply improbable without an intelligent designer of the universe. One question concerns the notion of probability at work in this claim. Contemporary accounts usually appeal to an epistemic notion of probability (e.g., Monton 2006), by contrast with physical and logical alternatives. On this reading, the core claim is that fine-tuning for life without an intelligent designer is improbable in the sense that we should not expect it without such a being, or that without such a being we should be surprised that there is such fine-tuning.

Given this understanding of the core improbability claim, some critics (e.g., Carlson and Olsson 1998) have argued that the fine-tuning at issue requires no explanation. Any specific sequence of heads and tails in a long series of coin tosses is improbable in this sense; that is, any one sequence would be one we wouldn’t and shouldn’t expect. But no specific sequence requires an explanation other than that it was randomly generated. So why should the finely-tuned actual array of constants, laws, and initial conditions require an explanation other than an appeal to randomness? Many, however, disagree, and argue that the availability of explanatory hypotheses with intuitive pull, such as an intelligent designer or a multiverse (discussed below), indicates that a more substantive explanation for fine-tuning is required (e.g., Leslie 1989).

A number of critics press the objection that we should not be surprised that we observe features of the universe that are required for our own existence. If the constants, laws, and initial conditions were incompatible with our existence, we would not be here to observe this. In Elliot Sober’s (2003) analysis, what’s at work here is the observer selection effect, which tends to result in a certain bias. In this case, our observations are biased toward fine-tuning because we would not have existed to make these observations had the universe not been fine-tuned for life. But any bias resulting from an observer selection effect should be factored out and set aside, and this is so for the fine-tuning at issue.

Critics of this line of reasoning cite examples in which it appears to goes awry. In John Leslie’s (1989) example, you are dragged before a firing squad of 100 trained marksmen. The command is given; you hear the deafening sound of the guns. But then there you are, surprised to be observing the aftermath, and that you are still alive. Now consider the hypothesis that the marksmen intended to miss, which seems a reasonable option for explaining why you’re still alive. But notice that this case features an observation selection effect analogous to the one Sober proposes for fine-tuning: you can’t observe the aftermath unless you survive the firing squad. On Sober’s recommendation, observation selection effects should be factored out and set aside. But on this recommendation your still being alive wouldn’t require an explanation, and we wouldn’t have reason to accept the explanation that the marksmen intended to miss. So, according to the critics, there must be something wrong with Sober’s analysis.

Leslie contends you should in fact be surprised that you observe that you are still alive. That you are alive is in the relevant sense epistemically improbable, and requires an explanation. Similarly, we should be surprised that we observe that the universe is fine-tuned for life, and this also requires an explanation. One way to account for Leslie’s contention is that the epistemic probability of fine-tuning should be judged from the point of view of a reasoner who brackets or sets aside that she is alive (and that there is any life at all), and then asks whether we should expect that the universe is fine-tuned for life, or whether this should be surprising (see Howson 1991, Collins 2009, and Kotzen 2012 for views of this sort). Similarly, in the firing-squad case, I should judge whether my surviving is epistemically probable from a point of view in which I bracket or set aside that I am still alive, and then ask whether I should expect that I am still alive or whether this should be surprising.

Leslie (1989) proposes that the hypothesis of multiple universes, i.e., of the multiverse, would provide an explanation for fine-tuning for life. Here is his analogy (which involves guns again, oddly). You are alone at night in an extremely dark forest when a gun is fired from far away and you are hit. If you assume that there is no one out to get you, this would be surprising. But now suppose that you were not in fact alone, but instead part of a large crowd (which you do not see because it’s so dark). In that case, Leslie suggests, you would be less surprised at being shot, since it seems at least somewhat likely that a gunman would be trying to shoot someone in the crowd. Leslie suggests that this story supports the multiverse explanation for the universe being fine-tuned for life.

Roger White (2000) contends that there is a problem with Leslie’s account. While the multiverse hypothesis would explain why there is some universe or other that is fine-tuned for life, since it would raise the probability of that hypothesis, it would not similarly explain why this universe is fine-tuned for life. He contends that supposing that the gunman was firing at random, being part of a large crowd explains—raises the probability—that someone or other is shot, but not that you are shot. By contrast, the hypothesis that the gunman was aiming at you, as opposed to firing at random, does explain in this way that you are shot. Similarly, the multiverse hypothesis explains that there is some universe or other that is fine-tuned for life, but not that this universe is fine-tuned for life. By contrast, in White’s view the hypothesis of an intelligent designer does explain why—raises the probability—that this universe is fine-tuned for life. White argues:

Postulate as many other universes as you wish, they do not make it any more likely that ours should be life-permitting or that we should be here. So our good fortune to exist in a life-permitting universe gives us no reason to suppose that there are many universes (White 2000: 274; see Rota 2005 for another theistic response to the multiverse hypothesis).

See the fine-tuning entry for more detail on this exchange, and on other issues raised in the debate.

3.3 Arguments from religious experience

Arguments for the existence of God from a special kind of experience are often called “arguments from religious experience”. Some philosophers and theologians have argued that our ordinary human cognitive faculties include what John Calvin called a special “sense of divinity” that, when not impeded or blocked, will deliver immediately justified beliefs about supernatural entities (Plantinga 1981, 1984). Some such thinkers, then, might construe an argument from religious experience as belonging to the category of natural religion or natural theology. Others, however, insist that “characteristic of the Continental Calvinist tradition is a revulsion against arguments in favor of theism or Christianity” (Wolterstorff 1984: 7; see also Sudduth 2009). In any case, most authors who write about religious experience generally construe it as caused by something other than our ordinary faculties and their intersubjectively available objects, and thus do not think of it as one of the topics of natural theology (see Davis 1989, Alston 1991, Kwan 2006).

See the entry on religious experience for expansive discussion of this issue.

4. “Ramified” Natural Theology

Some supporters of natural religion or natural theology seek to use our ordinary cognitive faculties to support theses that are more robust and specific than those of generic or “perfect-being” theism. This project has recently been dubbed “ramified” natural theology by Richard Swinburne (see Holder 2013). A few of these efforts involve a priori argumentation: an ancient argument for the Trinity (found in St. Augustine (De Trinitate, c. 399–419, Book IX), and Richard of St. Victor (De Trinitate, c. 1162–1173, III.1–25)) is that any supreme being would have to be a supremely loving being, and any omnipotent supremely loving being would ultimately have to emanate from itself something that is both other and yet just as supreme and lovable as itself, and that a third such person would be necessary as a kind of product of that love between the first two. Marilyn McCord Adams’s books on theodicy (Adams 2000, 2006) and Eleonore Stump’s Gifford Lectures (Stump 2010) constitute an effort to consider the a priori problem of evil from within the context of a ramified (and thus in this case more robustly Christian) kind of natural theology.

But most ramified natural theology is inductive in spirit: thus Hugo Grotius divides his De veritate religionis Christianae (1627) into a first book that deals with classical natural theology but then later books that deal specifically with the truth of Christianity. John Locke (1695) argued for the “Reasonableness of Christianity” using a broadly historical, probabilistic approach. William Paley (1794) further developed this approach, and much more recently Swinburne argued for the conclusion that Bayesian-style reasoning justifies belief in the resurrection of Jesus with a probability of 97% (Swinburne 2003). Numerous other philosophers (and also many natural scientists) appeal to historical and scientific data as well as empirical and statistical principles of reasoning to support the authenticity of various biblical claims, the probability of various miracle stories, and so forth (see e.g., Olding 1990; Polkinghorne 2009; Gauch Jr. 2011). Note that this is a way of appealing to the content of sacred texts and special revelation which is consistent with the methods of natural theology: the prophetic or historical claims of those texts are evaluated using public evidence and accepted canons of inductive reasoning. Still, even optimistic natural theologians like Locke, Paley, Swinburne, and these others count as hybridists insofar as they think there are some important doctrines about the divine that cannot be justified by our natural cognitive faculties. Thus even they will at some point be willing (in Kant’s famous phrase) to “deny knowledge in order to leave room for faith” (1787, Bxxx).


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Hoffman, Joshua, and Gary Rosenkrantz, 2002, The Divine Attributes, Oxford: Blackwell.
Holder, Rodney, 2013, “Why We Need Ramified Natural Theology”, Philosophia Christi, 15(2): 271–82.
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Kant, Immanuel, 1763, Der einzig mögliche Beweisgrund zu einer Demonstration des Daseins Gottes (The Only Possible Basis for a Demonstration of the Existence of God). Collected in AK 2, pp. 63–163.
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Re: Freda Bedi Cont'd (#2)

Postby admin » Sat Oct 03, 2020 7:26 am

Part 1 of 2

Forging Indian Religion: East India Company Servants and the Construction of ‘Gentoo’/‘Hindoo’ Scripture in the 1760s
by Jessica Patterson
First published: 10 September 2020
© 2020 The Author. Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies

-- Interesting Historical Events, Relative to the Provinces of Bengal, and the Empire of Indostan. With a Seasonable Hint and Persuasive to the Honourable The Court of Directors of the East India Company. As Also The Mythology and Cosmogony, Fasts and Festivals of the Gentoo's, Followers of the Shastah. And a Dissertation on the Metempsychosis, commonly, though erroneously, called the Pythagorean Doctrine, Parts I, II, and III, by J.Z. Holwell, Esq.

-- India Tracts, by Mr. J. Z. Holwell, and Friends.

-- History of Hindostan; From the Earliest Account of Time, To the Death of Akbar; Translated From the Persian of Mahummud Casim Ferishta of Delhi: Together With a Dissertation Concerning the Religion and Philosophy of the Brahmins; With an Appendix, Containing the History of the Mogul Empire, From Its Decline in the Reign of Mahummud Shaw, to the Present Times, by Alexander Dow., Volumes I & II

-- Ezourvedam: A French Veda of the Eighteenth Century, Edited with an Introduction by Ludo Rocher


This article demonstrates how, in the 1760s, two British East India Company servants, John Zephaniah Holwell and Alexander Dow, constructed a particular interpretation of India's ancient religious past through creative misrepresentations of mysteriously sourced texts. This had broad ramifications for contemporary understandings of Indian religion, and has important implications for the historiography of Orientalism in this period. Just as forgeries in the literary sphere challenged notions of history, introducing scepticism, alternative narratives and national mythologies, so in the field of Orientalist letters they shaped an idea of Indian religion that could both challenge European assumptions and facilitate imperial ideologies.

In 1767 the following text was presented by the East India Company servant John Zephaniah Holwell as the opening lines of what he described as the ‘Gentoo Bible’.1 This text was given the title of the Chartah Bhade Shastah of Bramah, and dated to 3,100 BCE:

God is ONE*. ‐Creator of all that is. – God is like a perfect sphere, without beginning or end. – God rules and governs all creation by general providence resulting from first determined and fixed principles […]2

In 1768 another Company servant, Alexander Dow, offered three alternative texts, which he said formed the core scriptures of the ‘Hindoo’ religion: the Dirm Shashter, the Bedang Sashter and the Neadrisen Shaster. The first contained the unifying doctrines of the religion. In a section provided by Dow this took the form of a dialogue between Narud, who was taken to be representative of ‘human reason’, and Birmha, the allegorical depiction of ‘Wisdom’ and the ‘genitive of case of Birmh’, which Dow takes to be ‘one of the thousand names of God’:

O thou first of God! Who is the greatest of all Beings?
BRIMH; who is infinite and almighty.
Is he exempted from death?
He is: being eternal and incorporeal.
Who created the world?
God by his power.3

Despite the intricate detail presented in both offerings, however, these ‘extracts’ have proved difficult to trace. Holwell's Shastah has been thought by a number of scholars to have been a forgery, the evidence for which has been outlined most extensively by Urs App.4 Dow's texts are also dubious in origin. The original manuscript which Dow claimed as the Dirm Shashter, for example, is currently in the British Library and consists of fragments in Sanskrit (which he could not read) and Bengali (which he could), and do not appear to be a coherent text.5 And yet both Holwell and Dow claimed to have achieved an unprecedented degree of insight into the mysteries of Brahminical philosophy. Moreover, this claim was widely accepted by their readership. In the 1760s, when both accounts were published, the idea of an indigenous and ancient Indian religion was greeted with interest by Enlightenment thinkers. Finding themselves with privileged access to Indian languages and advisers, British East India Company servants became instrumental in delivering information about South Asian religions to European audiences. While the knowledge produced by Company Orientalists has been most closely associated with Sir William Jones (1746‐1794), the works of Holwell and Dow were the first to circulate to a significant European reception. Holwell was hailed by Moses Mendelssohn as the first author ‘to see through the eyes of a native Brahmin’.6 Dow was similarly highly regarded by Voltaire, who cited him as an authority in a number of works.7 This article considers the construction of Indian theology that these readers were met with more critically, suggesting that Holwell's and Dow's accounts, including their translations of ancient texts, were compiled from a number of different intellectual sources, not the least of which was their own creative licence.

In 1767 Holwell described the central tenets of the ‘Gentoo’ religion as ‘short, pure, simple and uniform’, arguing that the multiple gods associated with it were merely figurative.8 A year later Dow declared that the ‘Hindoo religion’ was orientated towards a belief in a singular ‘Supreme Being’.9 Both were providing an outline of what they perceived to be India's ancient and original religion, the essence of which they believed was monotheistic. In their discussion of its doctrines, each author related his account of Indian philosophy to contemporary European theological debates. Holwell was concerned with theodicy, providence and the nature of God. In the Shastah he identified a set of lost doctrines, principally relating to the idea of reincarnation, which he believed provided a more reasonable account of the origin and nature of earthly suffering. Dow, on the other hand, was keen to point to basic reasonableness at the core of the religion, stressing the ‘symbolical’ nature of Hindoo religious imagery. Although both Holwell and Dow certainly drew on genuine Indian sources, aspects of their accounts were deliberately constructed. Holwell, who told an elaborate tale of lost and found manuscripts, has also been accused of falsifying aspects of a different publication, A Genuine Narrative, which was widely regarded as a foundational text in establishing a colonial mythology around the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’.10 Detailing Siraj ud‐Daulah's capture of the Company's base at Fort William in 1756, Holwell's accounts of that ‘dreadful night’, particularly the number of people whom he claimed to have perished, have been questioned by historians.11 Dow, who at the same time as preparing his dissertation of the ‘Hindoo’ religion was sharing his London lodgings with the author and accused hoaxer James Macpherson, obscured certain details about the origin and mode of transmission of the sacred ‘Hindoo’ text which is quoted at length in its pages.12

This article will therefore deal with those aspects of Holwell's and Dow's published works that could be described as forged. It will trace the foundations of this process by exploring the origins of these texts and the ways in which Holwell and then Dow constructed their authority, as well as the religious ideas that underpinned their particular approaches. That dissenting and heterodox religious attitudes shaped their interpretation of Indian religion is a familiar argument in the historiographical treatment of Holwell and Dow. Stemming from the suggestion of P. J. Marshall and Wilhelm Halbfass that their work was characteristic of a ‘deist perspective’, many have repeated this claim.13 Since these initial observations, however, much has been questioned in the usage of the term ‘deism’ as a simple signifier of a set of beliefs.14 Indeed, there was much separating Holwell and Dow, both in their own religious outlook and in their accounts of Indian theology. This article therefore considers the specifics of their religious heterodoxy, associating their thought with deism only in the sense that their claims to have discovered ancient texts that revealed the reasonableness of Indian theology, in contrast to the apparent superstition inherent in contemporary ceremonies, upheld deist conceptions of an original pure and reasonable religion that had degenerated into superstition via the mechanism of priestcraft.15

It also considers the implications of what identifying these texts as fabrications means for our understanding of European intellectual engagement with India in the eighteenth century, in the dual contexts of empire and Enlightenment thought. In considering their work as ‘deist’, scholars have often also tied it to a ‘sympathetic’ approach to Indian culture, according to a pervasive distinction between Orientalist and Anglicist attitudes to India among British writers, with the former standing for an admiring approach to Indian culture, as opposed to a more starkly imperialist intolerance of cultural difference.16 Scholarship on William Jones, for example, has tended to stress his empathetic admiration for India's cultural productions and his working relationships with indigenous scholars. As more recent work in the archives has emphasised, though, for Jones and his contemporaries an enthusiasm for Sanskrit literature did not necessarily inhibit expressions of contempt for Indian peoples and mores.17 Likewise, in the case of Holwell and Dow, as well as later Company interpreters of Indian religion, neither does a sympathetic approach to Indian religion preclude an instrumental one. Though often implicitly, this conception of sympathetic orientalism has been thought to challenge Edward Said's theoretical exposition of ‘Orientalism’ as an ‘irresistible impulse always to codify, to subdue the infinite variety of the Orient’.18 Studies such as Jürgen Osterhammel's Unfabling the East, for example, have pointed to the complexity of engagement between Europe and Asia in the Enlightenment, prior to the developed script of nineteenth‐century imperialism.19 And yet the role of forgery in Orientalist writings renders the division between sympathetic and instrumentalising approaches to knowledge problematic. While both Holwell's and Dow's accounts were infused with genuine knowledge and insight into Indian religion, and at times it is difficult to tell what is a deliberate misrepresentation and what is simply an example of a person interpreting unfamiliar ideas through more familiar concepts, there are also clear moments of falsification. Where the recovery of complexity is necessary, so too is a thorough account of the ways in which India was not simply discovered but constructed by European interpreters, for various ends.

In reconsidering the nature of European intellectual engagement with Indian thought, through the examples of Holwell and Dow, we might look to scholarship on the relationship between literary forgery and the writing of history in the eighteenth century, in which Dow's housemate Macpherson has featured prominently.20 Just as forgeries and fakes in the literary sphere challenged notions of history, presenting scepticism as well as alternative narratives, while at the same time also generating national mythologies, in the field of Orientalist letters in the mid‐eighteenth century they helped shape an idea of ‘Hinduism’ that was initially a challenge to European assumptions, but which also facilitated imperial ideologies and practices.21 On the one hand, these forgeries were designed to self‐critique, utilising the apparent superiority and greater antiquity of Indian religion to challenge European assumptions. In this sense we are presented with the complex problem of the nature and role of truth and authenticity in Enlightenment thought and literature. Taken in the context of other satirical contrivances such as Diderot's Supplément au voyage de Bougainville (1796) and Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy, written for the purposes of holding up a critical mirror to European practice and prejudice, their accounts certainly seem to appeal to this wider culture of criticism. Indeed, by the 1770s India and its ancient religion had come to occupy the intellectual space that Chinese Confucianism had once held for Enlightenment thinkers such as Leibniz, as an intellectual counterfoil to European civilisation.22 From a religious perspective too it is conceivable that these authors saw their falsifications as minor in relation to the more essential insights that they were serving: authentic fakes that captured an important religious perspective or truth.23 On the other hand, in order to hold up this mirror to European assumptions these accounts of Indian religion also necessitated a construction of Indian religion and history that had implications for India. In emphasising ancient and original scriptures and contrasting them with modern superstition and decline, these authors were laying the foundations for some of the ideological arguments that were used to legitimised British rule.24

I Constructing ‘Gentoo’ Religion

In the mid‐eighteenth century British writers used two terms, ‘Gentoo’ and ‘Hindoo’, to describe what they understood to be the native religion of Hindostan. As Catherine A. Robinson has neatly summarised, the term ‘Hindu’ is generally thought to derive from the Sanskrit ‘Sindhu’, which means both ‘river’ in general and the River Indus in particular. The suggestion is that this passed into other usages through the Persian word ‘Hindu’ and other cognate terms, such as the Greek ‘Indos’, and came to denote the people and the way of life that existed in in the geographical area surrounding the Indus.25 Geography and religion have, therefore, long been bound up in the various terms used to describe religious ideas and customs in India. In the eighteenth‐century British use of the term, ‘Hindoo’ was again used to mean a ‘native’ inhabitant of Hindostan, a definition that merged geography with religion yet again, because ‘native’ could also implicitly suggest ‘not followers of Islam’, in distinction from the characterisation of their Mughal rulers as a foreign power.26 By contrast, ‘Gentoo’ was a derivative of the Portuguese word for ‘gentile’, gentio, stemming from the Latin word gentilis, and was therefore always a religious term in nature.27 Its application to Indian religious traditions, and the related terms ‘Gentilism’ and ‘Gentooism’, were initiated by the significant Catholic missionary presence in southern India from the sixteenth century, the materials of which would prove a long‐standing resource for European knowledge of Indian religion until the eighteenth century.28 While some thinkers, including the Jesuit missionary Roberto de Nobili and the Lutheran minister Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, explicitly acknowledged the diversity in Indian religious practices, other attempts to identify the common beliefs of ‘the gentiles of India’ sought to generalise what were unifying beliefs and practices.29 The interchangeable use of these terms by Europeans in the period considered in this article thus continued a longer convention of homogenising Indian religious practices and culture.

The term ‘Hinduism’ itself can be traced to the 1780s. The evangelical Company man Charles Grant mentions ‘Hindooism’ in a letter in 1787, and again in 1792.30 The writers considered in this article, however, published much earlier and thus employed either ‘Gentoo’ or ‘Hindoo’ to describe the religion and the people they viewed as native to ‘Hindostan’ or ‘Hindustan’, as it was variously spelt. John Zephaniah Holwell, whose work was published first, from 1764 to 1779, adopted the term ‘Gentoo’. Alexander Dow, on the other hand, whose first book was published in 1768, used ‘Hindoo’ for the same purposes. This was not merely a matter of the former going out of fashion, as in 1777 Nathaniel Brassey Halhed's A Code of Gentoo Laws once again referred to the ancient religion of India and its people as ‘Gentoo’, as well as using ‘Hindoo’ to describe the inhabitants of India. The most famous British Orientalist before William Jones, Charles Wilkins, however, preferred the use of ‘Hindoo’ in referring to the ‘Mahabarat’ (Mahābhārata) as ‘an ancient Hindoo poem’. One term, however, that these writers did use in common, was ‘Brahmin’. The idea of the Brahmin as the representative of Indian religion was a consistent theme in their work. Each cast the Brahmins as the priests of Indian religion, at once praising their learning and also blaming them for the superstitions of the vulgar. For Holwell and Dow this depended on a distinction between learned Brahmins and lower, less scrupulous examples. This meant that, alongside the tendency to homogenise the religious beliefs and practices of India, these authors also shared a bias towards textual sources and Brahminical authority.

Any discussion of the terminologies and epistemologies that have contributed to modern understandings of ‘Hinduism’ necessarily treads on the larger and more controversial question of whether ‘Hinduism’ has been invented.31 The various answers in the affirmative roughly trace a story whereby Western exploration meant the imposition of the category of ‘religion’ on Eastern practices and beliefs (a construct perpetuated by the nomenclature of ‘world religions’, attributable to the emergence of comparative religion as a category of scholarship). For S. N. Balagangadhara, Orientalism is cast as the ideology of a Christian theological framework, which forced the idea of Hinduism as a religion, the secular variants and residues of which remain within India as a product of a ‘colonial consciousness’.32 Yet there is also a wealth of evidence that points to a much older history of Hinduism. As David Lorenzen has pointed out, for example, Hindu religion as expressed in the theological and devotional practices surrounding the Bhagavad Gītā and other texts places a self‐conscious religious identity or ‘pre‐colonial consciousness’ of Hinduism much earlier.33 This debate has become all the more contentious since it became loaded with some considerably fraught political propositions in the wake of the rise of Hindu nationalist movements, drawn to a version of Hindu tradition conceived of as entirely unified and original to historical India.34 This article is not and cannot be a direct intervention into this debate, the scope of which is beyond the specific set of characters and circumstances explored here. Nevertheless, it is an account of how a particular idea of Indian religion was constructed by British writers for their European audience in the mid‐ to late eighteenth century.

Specifically, it argues that the religious concerns and preoccupations of these authors shaped their presentation of Indian thought, through the construction of scriptural authority and privileged access to scared texts. As A. J. Droge does in his much broader discussion of the concept of the forgery and fraud in the study of religion, reflecting on Arnaldo Momigliano's aphorism that ‘Pious frauds are frauds, for which one must show no piety – and no pity’, such an account must pay an attention to the author and intended audience of these texts. For Droge this is to ‘insist on discussing the temporal, situated, interested, and human dimensions of “holy books”, whether they were discovered hidden in a temple or fallen from heaven’.35 In some senses, then, this is a story of invention, since Holwell and Dow did, as we shall see, engage in varying degrees of contrivance in their accounts of Indian religion. This is in no way intended as a challenge to the longer chronology of Hindu ideas and traditions posited by Lorenzen. In fact, as this article will show, the materials and ideas selected by these writers were part of the fabric of the Indian thought and culture that they encountered, often presented to them as specialist pandit knowledge. Rather, by historicising the construction of an indigenous Indian religion in a particular moment of the British presence in India, it throws into question the tendency to imply an unbroken line of continuity in the colonial construction of Hinduism, despite the varieties of colonialism and the ideological frameworks underpinning them.

II J. Z. Holwell

John Zephaniah Holwell, whose career in the Company began as a ship's surgeon, is better known for his account of the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ in A Genuine Narrative (1758). This first publication described the imprisonment and death of those who were taken captive in Nawab Siraj‐ud‐Daulah's seizure of Fort William.36 The dramatic account is replete with exaggerations, the veracity of which has been challenged by historians since.37 Nevertheless, the basic narrative took hold of the public and became one of the founding myths of British empire in India.38 From the beginning, then, we can see Holwell's preference for grand narrative over accurate detail. A few years later Holwell became just as well known for his work on Indian history and philosophy, offering his discoveries over the course of three volumes, each instalment making bolder statements than the last about the significance of ‘Gentoo’ doctrines. In the first few pages of the first volume of Interesting Historical Events (1765) Holwell defended what he termed ‘Gentoo’ religion, which he saw as having been tarnished by ‘imperfect and unjust’ accounts.39 In the second volume (1767) he declared the religion's ‘principle tenets’ to be ‘satisfactory, conclusive and rational’.40 Finally, in the third volume (1771), Holwell set out what he believed to be the significance of ‘Gentoo Bible’, the Shastah, for resolving some of the obscurities and problems within Christian theology. It is to this supposed Shastah we must turn to understand what was forged in Holwell's account and why.

1. Scripture and Authority

In the opening to the first volume of Interesting Historical Events Holwell claimed to have owned two ‘very correct and valuable copies’ of the first and, according to Holwell, most original of the three ‘Gentoo’ scriptures that he identified as containing the religion's central theological tenets. This was the Chartah Bhade Shastah of Bramah, which he claimed to have spent ‘eighteen months hard labour’ translating. Disastrously, both the valuable manuscript and the translation were lost in ‘the capture of Calcutta’ in 1756. This ‘fatal catastrophe’ prevented him from achieving the ‘complete translation’ that would have been ‘a valuable acquisition for the learned world’. In the last eighteen months of his time in Bengal, freed from the business of government, Holwell was able to return to his researches and apparently, by some ‘unforeseen and extraordinary event’, eventually recover ‘some manuscripts’ from his original collection. Despite suggesting that he might possibly recite the details of those events, unfortunately their recovery is not elaborated in any part of the three volumes of Interesting Historical Events.41 Moreover, Holwell is elusive as to what these manuscripts contain, stating merely that they enabled him to undertake the task that he had assigned himself, variously outlined in the preface as the ‘elucidation’ of Bengal and its people (which, he explained in a footnote, meant ‘the Gentoos only’).42 The singular hint given to how he would achieve this is the comment at the beginning of the preface that his account will be based on ‘facts, just observations, and faithful recitals’.43 When the reader arrives at the sections of text that are presented as quotations of the Shastah, in vol. II, it is left unsaid whether these extracts are translated from the recovered texts or a recitation of the lost work from memory. Moreover, since Holwell did not directly claim to have mastered Sanskrit, it is left unclear whether these extracts, and the original fruits of his long hours of labour, were the products of direct translation, pandit instruction or translation from a Persian or Bengali account of a Sanskrit text.44 In addition to the muddled origin story of Holwell's Shastah, the form in which it is presented also raises some questions. This second attempt at conveying the contents of this manuscript copy of ancient text, after the loss of the original, is divided into sections I‐V, followed by a section VIII on ‘Birmahah’ (Brahman).45 Again, it is unsaid, but we are left to assume that sections VI and VII were either not recovered or not well enough remembered by Holwell.

This is not to say, however, that what is presented was entirely fabricated, or a complete product of Holwell's imagination. The work itself is littered with Hindu ideas as well as English transliterations of Sanskrit words, or Bengali renderings of Sanskrit words. Some have suggested that Holwell's title of the Shastah of Bramah may have been referring to the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa.46 Yet, aside from the name, the two texts share few similarities. Thomas Trautmann has pointed to further issues with Holwell's terminology, explaining that in Sanskrit the Chartah Bhade Shastah would read something like Catur Veda Śāstra. This presents an odd combination of two distinct types of Sanskrit literature: the Vedas and the Śāstras.47 As we shall see below, Holwell attempted to distance his text from the Vedas, so he was evidently unaware of the presences of this amalgamation of terms in his title. This is not to say that he did not own antique Indian manuscripts. In fact, the Company did compensate him for those lost in the capture of Fort William at Calcutta.48 Nevertheless, while it seems Holwell had gained some genuine insights into Indian theology, possibly through pandit instruction, the extracts themselves remain difficult to place, particularly in relation to his claims about their significance as scriptures. These layers of obfuscation, mixed with genuine knowledge, have thus unsurprisingly been described by scholars as ‘rather dubious’, ‘murky’ and ‘distorted’.49 Urs App has even suggested that Holwell's basic source was not Indian in origin at all, but a work by Diogo do Couto, Decada Quinta da Asia, from 1612. Based on the observation that Holwell himself confessed to holding heterodox religious views, particularly a conviction in the prophecies of the gnostic preacher Jacob Ilive (1705‐1763), App has traced how Holwell found symmetry between Indian ideas and Ilive's account of an earth populated by fallen angels in do Couto's description of the Vedas, and modelled his Shastah accordingly.50 To this, the discussion below will add some further detail about the orientation of Holwell's own religious beliefs in order to account for the variety of European sources he brought to bear on his construction of the Shastah.

Many scholars have thus expressed varying degrees of scepticism when it comes to the authenticity of Holwell's original sources, and it seems that no one has stepped in to mount a robust defence. Where there is scope to alleviate the charge of deliberate falsification, however, is via consideration of the possibility that Holwell had himself been duped by a forgery. Many have cited the infamous case of Francis Wilford (1761‐1822), whose too‐good‐to‐be‐true discoveries of several confirmations of biblical history in Sanskrit texts served as a cautionary tale about unscrupulous pandits. Wilford's researches were an attempt to reconstruct the ancient geography of Egypt and Ethiopia through a selection of Sankrit sources, which he characterised as ‘historical poems’ and ‘legendary tales’ collected for him by his pandits. It seemed a remarkable discovery then when, selecting evidence from the Puranas, he was able to identify a patriarchal figure who had survived a great flood and had three sons, whose names bore a remarkable similarity to the biblical progeny of Noah. The Japeth, Ham and Shem of Genesis appeared to be the JyaPeti, Charma and Sharma of the Padma Purana. In 1792 he first published these astonishing findings, effectively folding Sanskrit history into a Judaeo‐Christian mythography.51 In 1805, however, Wilford was forced to retract these claims, having realised that his pandit, who had received an outline of the scared geography from his patron, had placed into the manuscripts these satisfying findings.52 Such instances open up the possibility that Holwell was fooled, but there are some important differences in these examples, as well discrepancies in Holwell's story. In Wilford's case, the passages were inserted over the course of an ongoing relationship with a pandit scholar, who adapted existing materials to meet the expectations of his patron. In contrast, Holwell claimed to have procured two copies of the ‘Gentoo’ Shastah himself, which he then spent considerable time translating. Moreover, if Holwell had been sold a fake manuscript, the broker of which claimed it was an authentic original, it seems a great coincidence that it happened to correspond with Holwell's already established convictions about the origins of the world and the state of human existence within it.

In fact, the question of Holwell's use of indigenous scholarship and knowledge is another questionable component of his account. Holwell certainly suggests that he had conversations with pandit informants, though, as in the case of the lost and found manuscripts, the details are vague. Wilford's employment of pandit scholarship came at a significantly different point in the Company's rise to political power in Bengal. It was after the Company's manoeuvre to ‘stand forth’ as a significant administrative power in 1772, and claiming with it responsibility for juridical matters, that the need for extensive consultation with pandits and maulvis (or mawlawis) on, respectively, Hindu and Muslim law cemented institutional relations of patronage. By the 1780s and 1790s the erosion of their traditional sources of sponsorship meant that pandits became involved in a host of occupations outside the strictly legal sphere.53 Christopher Bayly thus explained Wilford's case as relating to the historical working practices of his pandits, who, used to creating new Sanskrit genealogies at the behest of their princely Martha employers, were now negotiating offering alternative services to a new market‐place of British patronage.54 In contrast, Holwell, who gathered his materials in the 1750s, was writing much before an established system of patronage and offers various different claims about the source of his information. Principally, it seems he had sought assistance from members of what he terms the Koyt (kāyasth), or ‘tribe of writers’, in determining the antiquity and varying standards of authority of the ‘Gentoo’ scriptures. Conveniently for Holwell, these members of the laity were, according to his judgement, ‘often better versed in the doctrines of their Shastah than the common run of Bramins themselves’.55 They had confirmed for him ‘in various conferences’ that his text, the Chartah Bahde Shastah, was the oldest and most original. Interestingly, Holwell added this detail about the kāyasth advisers at the end of a long section of text, given in quotation marks, about the date and provenance of the Shastah. He had introduced this section as a ‘recital’, received from ‘learned Bramins’.56 If this was his original source, why did he need to check it with a ‘tribe of writers’? It is unclear if Holwell had consulted these Brahmins directly, or whether this was merely their perspective as confirmed by the kāyasth, although elsewhere in the text Holwell repeats the claim that he had consulted with ‘some learned Brahmins’, but again without more detail.57 Likewise, what does this recited passage mean for our understanding of the next section of the book, which presents sections from the Shastah in precisely the same manner, with quotations marks? It could be that this is to be similarly understood as a recital, although he also refers to it as a ‘cited passage’.58

The suggestion that Holwell was duped into believing a fake raises more questions than it answers, and most of the ambiguities in the text are a product of Holwell's own misdirection rather than a gullible presentation of inauthentic manuscript. All in all, the reader is left confused as to the origins of this text, which we have been told is very rare, both in the sense that Holwell found it difficult to procure his extremely valuable copy and according to the story of its transmission through Indian antiquity, which rendered it only intelligible to ‘three or for Goysen families’ and ‘Batteezaaz Bramins’.59 We know that its history has been explained to him by ‘Koyts’, and possibly also ‘learned Bramins’, but it remains unclear whether the passages presented are a translation, a recital or are cited from Holwell's memory of a translation. If it was a translation, Holwell does not tell us from what language, though we are led, by his claims to have been ‘drinking from the fountain head’, to believe that it must be from Sanskrit. Indeed, this is what many of his readers came to conclude. Voltaire assumed so, given Holwell's claims to have laboured for many months over a translation.60 Accepting that Holwell's ‘Gentoo’ religion was an invention, albeit imbued with some elements of Indian religion and philosophy, removes the problem of authenticity. The question of why Holwell chose to present it in that form, however, remains pertinent. The most obvious answer is the recognition that Holwell's invention of the Shastah sits in relation to a situation where religion as a category was largely confined by European paradigms relating to doctrine and scripture. We can thus understand Holwell's emphasis on the importance of the Shastah as an authoritative basis for defining ‘true’ ‘Gentoo’ doctrine as part of what religious studies calls the literary or textual bias in European conceptions of religion.61 The fact that Holwell's discovery was referred to in reviews as the ‘Gentoo bible’ or ‘Gentoo Scriptures’ is a clear example of this.62 Indeed, rather ironically, Holwell devoted considerable space to explaining how the only valid grounds for interpreting Indian religion were linguistic expertise and textual analysis. Whereas previous authors had relied on ‘unconnected scraps and bits’, Holwell offered a ‘complete translation’ of important ‘Gentoo’ manuscripts. A basic colloquial grasp of the local language was not adequate; the outsider must also be able to ‘sufficiently trace the etymology of their words and phrases’.63

Holwell needed to position his account in a market‐place of competing texts and interpretations, including the Ezour Vedam, a French translation of what was supposedly one of the Vedas, introduced to a wide European audience by Voltaire from 1760 onwards. Ludo Rocher believes the Ezour Vedam, another forged piece of Indian ‘scripture’, to have been composed by a Jesuit for the purposes of suggesting parallels between the two religious on which a missionary agenda could be fulfilled.64 At the same time, Voltaire was able to take the same text and present it as evidence of the Bible's flawed chronology and Christianity's faded significance against the backdrop of other world religions. In this sense, Holwell's Shastah was a continuation of the practice of fashioning Hindu ideas to suit a European religious message. Thus, according to Holwell, reports that the ‘Veidam’ was the ‘Gentoo's’ central text were erroneous. In fact, his original text, the Chartah Bhade Shastah of Bramah, has been followed be three other increasingly adulterated texts: the Chatah Bhade of Bramah which did not appear until 2,100 BCE, followed 500 years by the Aughtorrah Bhade Shastah. Finally, there was one more text, so chronologically distant from the other three that Holwell refers to its creation as a schism: the Viedam (Veda). Holwell thus distanced himself from all former authors and texts associated with the Vedas (e.g., the seventeenth‐century Dutch chaplain Abraham Roger, the Jesuits and the Ezour Vedam) in order to establish the Shastah as an alternative source of authority.65 As Holwell put it, ‘in place of drinking at the fountain head’ as he had, these other authors had merely ‘swallowed the muddy streams which flowed from’ the later scriptures.66 Despite its crudity, this approach was an apparent success, with Voltaire accepting Holwell's claim by repeating that ‘The Shastah is older than the Veda’.67

Yet, although Holwell did have critics, these were mainly concerned with his apparent approval of ‘Gentoo’ doctrines, rather than the actual authenticity of his account. Knowledge of India at this time was sufficiently limited for Holwell's linguistic authority to be convincing. The Scottish poet William Julius Mickle, for example, dismissed Holwell's enthusiasm for ‘Gentoo’ tenets as a predictable cliché: like ‘every liberal mind, who has conversed with the world’, Holwell had become seduced by the mystical East. Despite this, though, Mickle still summarised that, of the existing studies of Indian religion, ‘Mr. Holwell's account, upon the whole, is the most authentic’.68 In another twist, Holwell's claims about language and textual authority also made his construction of ‘Gentoo’ religion seem more authentic precisely on the basis that they afforded him a certain degree of objectivity. Thus, as well as the Jesuit authors, Holwell accused the Dutch minister Philippus Baldaeus (1632‐1671) of being led by the ‘mistaken zeal of a Christian divine’ into producing ‘a monster that shocks reason and probability’ in his communication of the ‘Gentoo’ doctrines. In contrast, Holwell deliberately constructed the persona of a detached observer, urging his readers to resist the tendency to regard things through the lens of ‘our own tenets and customs […] to the injury of others’.69
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Part 2 of 2

2. Christian Deism and Hinduism

The above explains how Holwell established an authority through the invention of the Shastah, but the question of why he did so remains. The answer lies in his religious outlook. At a basic level Holwell's comments that all different approaches to the deity should be regarded as ‘divine worship’ and that people of other religions, on encountering a different practice, should ‘revere it still’ certainly suggest that he adopted a latitudinarian position to the point of universalism.70 This has led many to suggest he was a deist.71 Others, such as App, have suggested that Holwell's creation of the Shastah was designed to service a Christian ‘reformist ideology’ according to Holwell's confession in the text that, before he arrived in India, he had already become ‘a thorough convert’ to the hypotheses of the neo‐Gnostic prophet of eighteenth‐century London, Jacob Ilive.72 But while Ilive did indeed have an impact on the shape of Holwell's thought, Holwell's Dissertation drew on a range of religiously heterodox European discourses which covered Locke and Leibniz, as well as exploring in greater detail the ideas of various theologians, such as Capel Berrow (1716‐1782) and the Cambridge Platonists.73 Moreover, we have to take seriously Holwell's claim in the third volume (1771) of Interesting Historical Events that his was the perspective of a ‘Christian deist’. To understand what he meant by this we have to consider the title of the first edition of the text, which promised both an account of ‘The Mythology and Cosmogony, Facts and Festivals of the Gentoos, Followers of the SHASTAH’ and ‘A Dissertation on the doctrine of METEMPSYCHOSIS’.

To Ilive's central claim, that this earth was designed for the rehabilitation of banished angels, Holwell added ‘the doctrine of Metempsychosis’, of which Ilive had been ignorant.74 Metempsychosis, a term taken from Greek philosophy, refers to the movement of the soul between bodies after physical death. According to Holwell, these ideas had originated with the Shastah, spread by both Pythagoras and Zoroaster, and ‘truly bore the stamp of divine!’. In subsequent years, however, the adaptation of these theories to diverse religious interests and innovations resulted in them becoming ‘wild and incomprehensible!’. The spread and eventual obscurity of the doctrine of metempsychosis thus features as a parallel narrative of decline, outside India, to that of the ‘Gentoo’ religion away from the original Shastah within.75 The Shastah that Holwell laid out before the public was thus a creation story. It revealed that ‘the Eternal One’ had created the triumvirate of Birmah, Bistnoo, Sieb (Brahmā, Viṣṇu, Śiva) and then Maisasoor (taken from the ‘buffalo demon’ figure Mahīśāsura), followed by a host of angelic beings.76 In Holwell's account Maisasoor instigated a rebellion among the lower deities, the Debtah‐Logue (devatāloka), in response to which the ‘Eternal One’ condemned them to eternal punishment. With the intervention of Bistnoo this was altered to offer the prospect of returning to grace by earning salvation through successive states of existence, transmigrating through eighty‐eight different forms, the last two stages of which were Ghoji (cow) and Mhurd (man).77 Consequently, humanity was in fact made up of the spirits of delinquent angels, whose duty it was to purify themselves through a virtuous life (which included vegetarianism). This was the doctrine of metempsychosis. For Holwell it had the advantage of solving some troublesome theological problems, such as the not so insignificant matter of theodicy. The idea that earthly punishments were the just consequences of a pre‐existent lapse, in the form of an angelic rebellion, solved the seemingly incongruous idea of a benevolent God and the admission of moral evil into the world. Thus, in offering his commentary in 1767, he admits that he had ‘hitherto met with no solution of this interesting enquiry, so satisfactory, conclusive, and rational, as follows from the doctrine before us’.78

The contents of the Shastah that confirm this tale are what make up the bulk of vol. II of Interesting Historical Events. The dissertation in which Holwell offers his commentary on the merits of these lost theological truths did not appear until the third and final volume, of 1771. It is in the ‘Dissertation on Metempsychosis’ that Holwell describes himself as a ‘CHRISTIAN DEIST’.79 What Holwell means by this is complex. In his case for a ‘radical Enlightenment’, Jonathan Israel has described this ‘trend towards a “Christian deism”’ by separating moderate rationalising tendencies in religion from radical scepticism according to varying degrees of commitment to certain doctrines.80 Further inspection of Holwell's work, though, indicates that, although this rationalising trend in religion was something he was keen to invoke, what he actually meant when he described himself as a Christian deist was something quite different, particularly when it comes to his account of where the Shastah fits in. The complete title of the 1771 dissertation on metempsychosis included the suggestion that it would feature ‘an occasional comparison between them [the doctrine of the ‘Gentoos’] and the Christian Doctrines’. This was, however, somewhat misleading since this ‘occasional comparison’ actually spanned most of the 227‐page volume. It contained Holwell's reasoning and logical conclusion of his commentary on the Shastah in 1767 that Christianity was not simply compatible with early ‘Gentoo’ doctrines but was in fact derivative of them. Holwell suggested that what was true in the simple Christianity of Jesus had already been part of the original tenets of the Brahmins and that therefore ‘it is not violence to faith, if we believe that Birmah and Christ is one and the same individual celestial being’. Furthermore, Holwell suggested that this one celestial being had, in the style of a Hindu avatar, ‘appeared at different periods of time, in distant parts of the earth, under various mortal forms’ to deliver the primitive truths of religion. Thus, in a clever twist of rhetoric Holwell suggested that it was ‘by the mouth of Christ (styled Birmah by the easterns)’ that God delivered to creation the moral guidelines for their restoration.81

This equation of Christ and Birmah is, on the one hand, the ultimate expression of Holwell's universalism and, on the other, the logical consequence of his adherence to a certain set of contemporary heterodoxies. For Holwell, this belief in ‘the transmigration of souls’ not only explains how there are several Hindu incarnations of different divine beings, ‘in such ways as Elijah and St. John the Baptist’ are ‘one and the same spirit, from the intimation of the prophet Malachi’, but also solved several other theological problems, principal of which was the question of human and animal suffering.82 It also allows him to develop a particularly idiosyncratic Christology, which is certainly anti‐Trinitarian but neither Socinian nor Arian. Instead, Holwell undercuts Christ's particular divinity on the grounds that not just Christ but all humanity were once celestial beings. In a similar manner, referring to Tindal's Christianity as Old as the Creation (1730), Holwell proclaimed that the issue, raised by Tindal, of whether or not Christianity could claim to be as old as the creation was entirely resolved. Tindal's radical challenge to religion based on revelation, and therefore biblical history, was that for Christianity to be true it must be coextensive with the truths that human reason can separately conclude for itself, and that consequently must be ‘as old as the creation’.83 Holwell's unique religious heterodoxy thus shines through when he concludes that ‘Christianity is, bona fide, as old as the creation’, because when what we mean by ‘Christianity’ also incorporates the Shastah, then the origins of the truths it contains certainly seem to belong to the remotest antiquity of human reason.84

Holwell's ‘Christian Deism’ is, therefore, Christian in a restricted sense. This much was noted by reviewers, who nearly all considered the contents of his ‘whimsical Dissertation on the Metempsychosis’ to be nothing short of bizarre.85 Nevertheless, this was the system of thought behind the discussion in 1767 of ‘Gentoo’ religion and his presentation of the Shatsah, which did become an important part of the fabric of eighteenth‐century intellectual culture. Voltaire, for example, had what Daniel Hawley has described as ‘an enthusiasm for Holwell’ that became ‘more and more marked each time he cited him’, until he was eclipsed by later writers, including Dow.86 What we are left with, then, is the strange detail that the beginning of British contributions to Enlightenment accounts of Indian religion as a philosophically sophisticated monotheism was based on an eccentric account of the origin of sin.

III Alexander Dow

Alexander Dow's biographical trajectory is divided between the pursuit of literary fame and a frustrated career in the East India Company. In 1757, leaving an apprenticeship in Eyemouth with the notorious smuggling family the Nesbits, Dow joined the King of Prussia, a private ship of war, as a midshipman.87 Dow entered the Company's military service in Bengal in 1760, and in 1764 was appointed captain. After participating in the officers' association to protest against Clive's measure to abolish the double field allowance (1766), Dow found himself stripped of his position.88 His military career frustrated, Dow wrote to the Company's Board of Directors requesting a new position on account of ‘the progress he has made in the oriental tongues, and his knowledge of the political state of Hindostan’.89 Unsuccessful in these appeals, he turned his attention to literary fame.

Dow's literary turn occurred during the period in which he was sharing London lodgings with James Macpherson, between 1768 and 1769. This was included in the period when the authenticity of Macpherson's collection of translated Gaelic poems, supposedly found in texts dating to Scotland's early dark ages, was still the subject of a heated debate. David Hume's surviving letters also reveal that he and Dow were correspondents, for whom ‘a discussion over an evening fire’ was not unfamiliar.90 Indeed, it appears that at this time both Dow and Macpherson were frequent visitors to Hume's lodgings in Brewer Street, London.91 While in London, Dow published, as well as a collection of Oriental tales, the first edition of The History of Hindostan in 1768.92 This loose translation of, the Tārikh‐i‐Firishta, a history of Muslim rule in India by Muhammad Kasim Farishta (1560‐1620), went into three editions between 1768 and 1792. The second volume of the first edition included an essay titled ‘A Dissertation Concerning the Customs, Manners, Language, Religion and Philosophy of the Hindoos’.93 This account of what Dow termed the ‘Hindoo’ or Brahmin religion caught the imagination of the public. The Monthly Review remarked that Dow had ‘gained a more accurate knowledge of the religion and philosophy of the Brahmins, than any who have preceded him’.94 The dissertation was translated into French and published in Paris the following year (1769), as was a partial translation of the History, which was what also won Dow the attention of Voltaire.95

1. Scripture and Authority

Dow appealed to a similar concept of ‘authority’ to that established by Holwell, the basis of which was an explicit rejection of travel accounts and missionary literature on two points: their lack of objectivity and their insufficient grasp of native languages. While this was not an accurate or fair account of missionary literature, in particular, it was a powerful assertion. Trautmann has described British engagement with Oriental languages as precipitating a ‘titanic shift of authority’ from the seventeenth‐century Jesuit lettres édifiantes.96 Yet, while Trautmann focuses on the eventual discovery of Sanskrit by Charles Wilkins, Holwell and Dow were the first British authors to make such claims and should therefore be seen as instrumental in developing this new authority. Indeed, Dow imitated Holwell's dismissal of the existing literature by declaring it ‘fiction’, designating ‘modern travellers’ with a ‘talent for fable’ as the main culprits. He also, like Holwell, blamed religious prejudice, or what he called ‘common partiality’ for one's religion. In contrast, he presented himself as a detached observer whose main motivation was to rescue the ‘Hindoos’ from the ‘very unfair account’ that had previously prejudiced European understanding.97 Finally, he underlined that such fallacies were the result of these authors' ignorance of language and text, suggesting that they had formed their judgements according only to ‘external ceremonies of the Hindoos’.98 He even singled out Holwell, suggesting that he must have conversed ‘only with the inferior tribes, or with the unlearned part of the Brahmins’.99

Yet, in another imitation of Holwell, Dow's claim to unique authority on the basis of linguistic skill was not all it seemed. Although Dow did take a significant step in providing a key to the Sanskrit alphabet, he also relayed how his attempts to master the language by hiring ‘a Pandit, from the University of Benaris, well versed in the Shanscrita’ were unsuccessful owing to lack of time.100 Instead Dow relied on Persian and what he described as ‘the vulgar tongue of the Hindoos’ (Bengali). Nevertheless, he was still determined to pursue his enquiries, and so ‘procured some of the principal SHASTERS’, with the aim of informing himself ‘as much as possible, concerning the mythology and philosophy of the Brahmins’. Dow claimed that it was from these texts that ‘his pandit’ adviser, who goes unnamed, explained numerous passages, so ‘as to give him a general idea of the doctrine which they contain’.101 As noted in the case of Holwell, while pandit instruction was to become an important feature of British Orientalist scholarship, this private appointment on the part of Dow was less usual at the time.102 Indeed, most contemporary European depictions of the Brahmins suggested that they were mistrustful of such curiosity. This is a perception Dow certainly traffics in to heighten the importance of his discoveries, referring to the ‘impenetrable veil of mystery with which the Brahmins industriously cover their religious tenets’.103 This was also part of a larger account of the decline of the original religion's purity into contemporary superstition through priestcraft, which also caused him, after Holwell, to distinguish between ‘learned’ and the ‘common run of Brahmins’, and accuse previous authors of having been misdirected by the latter.104

Nevertheless, it seems that most of Dow’s insights into Indian religion came from informant sources. In particular, Dow offers some detailed and accurate information about the Nyāya school of philosophy, of which little was known before. The Nyāya Vaisheshika branch of philosophy was particularly cultivated in Benares, from where Dow’s pandit was hired.105 Dow also gained much of his insight through Persian language sources. The dissertation on the ‘Hindoo’ religion does, after all, appear in his translation of Farishta's history of the Mughal empire. Thus, Dow's patchy understanding of ‘Hindoo’ chronology is, for example, reliant on Mughal accounts of the Mahābhārata, which he describes as a ‘historical poem’ translated into Persian during the reign of Akbar. In his own construction of his authority, however, Dow is keen to dismiss the accounts of ‘Hindoo’ religion given by ‘the followers of Mahommed’ on the same grounds as his dismissal of Christian commentators, in that ‘their prejudice makes them misrepresent’ its tenets. In an ironic twist he also denounces these sources as unsatisfactory on the grounds of their ‘ignorance of the Shanscrita language’.106 From these insufficient sources, though, Dow is able to piece together some interesting and perceptive insights into Indian philosophical and theological traditions. Despite his disingenuous claims to have surpassed other authors on the basis of linguistic ability, there is nothing inherently fraudulent about this – except that, like Holwell, Dow decided to include extracts from the three texts that he identified as the central scriptures of the ‘Hindoo’ religion and, like Holwell, declines to explain whether these are direct translations or clarify the language of the original text.

The portions of ‘translated’ material in Dow's essay on ‘Hindoo’ religion, much like Holwell's Shastah, are untraceable. According to Dow there were three ‘Shasters’: the Bedang Shaster, the Dirm Shaster and the Neadirsen Shaster, which contained the essentials of the ‘Hindoo’ religion.107 To explain the doctrines of the ‘Bedang’, Dow begins with extracts that he claimed were ‘literally translated from the original SHASTER’. He also describes the text as a ‘commentary’.108 Much of this extract contains detailed and almost accurate information about some Hindu concepts. Moreover, in explaining the significance of the ‘Shaster’, or Śāstra, Dow correctly moves away from Holwell's singular Shastah as an equivalent to the Bible, noting that for ‘Hindoos’ it is ‘commonly used to mean a book which treats of divinity and the sciences’, but then confuses this by explaining that the Bedang Shaster is the core text for ‘almost all the Hindoos’ of southern India. Likewise, a very similar extract is presented from the Dirm Shaster, as a ‘translation’.109 Of the Neadrisen, Dow, remarking on the complexity of its subject, says that he chose to stick to translating ‘the literal meaning of the words’ rather than ‘a free translation’, so as to not deviate too much. Again, we are not told the language the translation is from, though Dow refers to the ‘great pains he took to have a proper definition of the terms’ within it.110 Of this Shastah much is merely paraphrased, though readers are treated to the odd quotation as an illustration of its ancient author's philosophical principles, which again offer a fairly accurate representation of the Nyāya philosophy to which the ‘Neadrisen’ is a reference.111 These insights seem to have been gleaned from genuine guidance from a pandit adviser. Although the dialogue form in which they appear is not unfamiliar in Indo‐Persian works and is common in the Sanskrit genre saṃvāda, the texts themselves are difficult to trace.

Dow's claim in the dissertation to have deposited in the British Museum a manuscript copy of the first volume (of seven) of what he called the Neadrisen Shaster, has subsequently been proved to be false.112 The catalogue refers to Dow's ‘erroneous description’ of the text, which is guessed to mean the Nyāya Darśana, describing it instead as a ‘more or less fragmentary’ collection of Sanksrit manuscripts and some Bengali pages.113 Perhaps Dow, who was unable to read Sanskrit, was unaware of this. And yet, what of the ‘literal translation’ he claimed to have taken from it? The most generous interpretation is that possibly Dow's pandit had translated something into Persian, claiming it to be a copy of the Sanskrit manuscript that Dow had procured and believed to be the Neadrisen Shaster, and then Dow copied from this and deposited the Sanskrit fragments in the British Museum none the wiser. Alternatively, perhaps Dow wrote down these passages after his pandit gave an oral explanation of them in Bengali. Dow declines to explain this. In either case, Dow's claim to be presenting these texts as ‘literally translated from the original’ is somewhat duplicitous. Another view would be that Dow invented these extracts to best represent both what he had learned about Hindoo religion and what he wanted it to signify for a European audience. Certainly, there are many ways in which Dow constructed his account of these texts and their significance to fit a particular narrative about the religious composition of India, and the nature of religious belief in general, to which we will turn below.

2. Deism and Hinduism

According to Dow, the ‘Hindoos’ were divided into two principal ‘sects’ or schools, known as ‘the Bedang’ and ‘the Neadrisen’, by which Dow means two of the recognised six orthodox schools of Brahminical philosophy, Vedānta and Nyāya.114 These two ‘sects’ were differentiated not by core doctrines but by two different approaches to those doctrines. The central tenet of Dirm Shaster, revered by both, was ‘the unity of the supreme being’.115 The two sects merely differed in what Dow calls ‘their philosophy’. On the one hand, the ‘Bedang’, the older and more orthodox school, received ‘as an article of their belief, every holy legend and allegory which have been transmitted down from antiquity’. In contrast, the ‘Neadrisen’ ‘look up to the divinity, through the medium of reason and philosophy’. The ‘Bedang’ is Dow’s word for Vedānta, a school concerned with knowledge and insight, rooted in interpretation of the final section of Vedic literature known as the Upaniṣads. The ‘Neadrisen’ stands for Nyāya, the school translated as ‘that by which one is led to a conclusion’ or ‘correct reasoning’, often referred to as ‘the science of reasoning’ (tarkaśātra).116 So, one ‘receives’ its faith from tradition and allegory, and the other ‘looks up’ with reason and philosophy. From the very beginning Dow views Indian religious thought as analogous to a European division between received and rational religion. Indeed, as Dow clearly notes, this division occurs ‘[i]n India, as well as in many other countries’. His ‘two great religious sects’ are not just Indian but represent a universal struggle between orthodox and rational religion. Dow requires his readers to see the followers of the ‘Bedang’ as analogous to those who put their faith in revelation and tradition, and the ‘Neadrisen’ as those forging a more rational form of religious belief, while insisting that both share an essential admiration for a singular divinity.117

Dow cast the Bedang Shaster as a ‘philosophical catechism’, which explored several metaphysical concepts.118 Like the Dirm Shaster, this text is presented by Dow as ‘a dialogue between Birmha, the Wisdom of the Divinity; and Narud or Reason, who is the son of Brimha’. The first topic considers the relationship of the trio, which includes the main interlocutors, ‘Birmha’ (Brahma), ‘Shiba’ (Shiva) and ‘Bishen’ (Vishnu), with God. ‘Birmha’ instructs ‘Narud’: ‘do not imagine that I was creator of the world, independent of the divine mover, who is the great original essence, and creator of all things.’ This ‘trinity’ of deities is thus rendered symbolical and subordinate to ‘the divine mover’, a term that Dow explained in a footnote as the same as ‘The supreme divinity’.119 Thus, while this dialogue reflects certain trends in theistic Hinduism, particularly in the Upanisads,120 Dow's composition was designed to support his assertion that the three divinities represented ‘no more than the symbolical worship of the divine attributes’, designed for the education of the vulgar.121 In summary, according to Dow, the Bedang Shaster, represented as the ‘most orthodox’ of the two sects, was, despite appearances, at its core a pure and essentially reasonable monotheism.

Beyond this, more heterodox European religious concepts also shaped Dow's work, with deist understandings of the nature of belief and God providing a framework for his account of Nyāya philosophy. This was presented not as an extract but rather as a commentary on the nature of the ‘sect’. Occasionally he appears to quote the author of Neadrisen Shaster, whom he identifies as ‘Goutam’, a rendition of Akṣapāda Gautama or Gotama into Bengali dialect, who is indeed considered to be the founder of the Nyāya school (though not the creator of the Nyāya sutras, which have multiple authors).122 ‘Goutam’ is taken to represent an enlightened approach to religion. Thus Dow argues that Goutam, in contrast to the authors of the Bedang texts, ‘does not begin to reason, a priori’, but rather ‘considers the present state of nature, and the intellectual faculties, as far as they can be investigated by human reason; and from thence he draws all his conclusions’.123 In the description of the Neadrisen, Dow deals with the question of Providence, one of the central theological issues that occupied eighteenth‐century religious debate. Dow's account of the Nyāya position bears a remarkable resemblance to the religion of many of the English deists, who, contrary to the popular view that they outright rejected it, maintained the possibility of God's intervention so as not to impede his omnipotence, but ‘denied contemporary active providence’.124 Thus Dow says of Goutam:

with respect to providence, though he cannot deny the possibility of its existence, without divesting God of his omnipotence, he supposes that the deity never exerts that power, but that he remains in eternal rest, taking no concern, neither in human affairs, nor in the course of the operations of nature.125

Alongside these extracts, Dow constructed an account of ‘Hindoo’ religion that fits into a particular narrative of purity and decline, in which rational religion is in conflict with the forces and agents of zealotry and superstition. Throughout The History of Hindostan Dow uses religion as a category of analysis, the proximity of which to either fanaticism or deism is grounds for condemnation or approbation. It is the third Mughal ruler in India, Akbar (Jalal‐ud‐din Muhammad Akbar), who was ‘totally divested of those prejudices for his own religion’, that Dow judges to have been one of that empire's greatest statesmen. Likewise, his son, Jahangir, continuing to uphold the most admirable aspects of the Mughal dynasty, was ‘brought up a deist under the tuition of his father’.126 By contrast, Dow argues elsewhere that it was ‘the passive humility inculcated by Christianity’ that led to the fall of Rome, on the grounds that ‘the spirit and power, and, we may say, even virtue of the Romans, declined with the introduction of a new religion among them’.127 Moreover, in the case of Islam, its promotion of public and private despotism meant ‘that undefined something, called Public Virtue, exists no more’ and despotism is left to flourish.128 In contrast to this and, most strikingly, to the European religious landscape, ‘Hindoo’ religion could be admired for religious toleration. As Dow put it, the ‘Hindoos’ ‘chuse rather to make a mystery of their religion, than impose it upon the world, like the Mahommedans, with the sword, or by means of the stake, after the manner of some pious Christians’.129 The elevated position and influence of the Brahmins, however, meant that superstition was all too common in the version of ‘Hindoo’ religiosity performed by the vulgar. Again, though, this was not a particularly ‘Hindoo’ failing, just as ‘the more ignorant Hindoos’ who, misunderstanding their symbolical nature, ‘think that these subaltern divinities do exist’ could be likened, wrote Dow, to the fact that ‘in the same manner […] Christians believe in Angels’.130 Thus, not only do the three Shasters reflect a the unity of a belief in a singular creator (Dirm), orthodox belief (Bedang), and rational religion (Neadrisen), but these are part of a more universal history in which deism and toleration sit at the more enlightened pole of religion and superstition and enthusiasm at the other. In interpreting and constructing Indian religion, Dow aimed at offering a mirror to European schools of thought, as well as positioning these as part of a universal narrative in which zealotry and superstition could be countered with ‘reason and philosophy’.

IV Conclusion

Holwell and Dow used the possibility of the discovery of the truths of ancient Indian religion and the plausibility of their access to it as Company servants versed in some Indian languages. In doing so, they created their own histories of Indian religion. Holwell's was based on the extreme antiquity of the original Shastah, which contained the lost doctrine of metempsychosis. Dow's pointed to a schism between two schools of thought, orthodox religion and the religion of reason, which reflected the universal struggle between fanaticism and reasoned belief. This fabrication accents Greg Clingham's presentation of forgeries as subversive inventions intended to make space for alternative narratives in history. Where scholars have argued of the famous (and contested) forgeries of Macpherson and Chatterton that such fictionalised historical narratives functioned as alternative national histories, this is not unlike Holwell and Dow's account of an ancient and native history of the ‘Gentoos’ of India.131 Moreover, outside the question of forgery, the politics of translating religion also poses more complex considerations. Scholars like Ziad Elmarsafy have pointed to the subtleties of the intellectual practices involved in interpreting religious material, pointing in particular to the role of translations of the Quran in the development of Enlightenment thought regarding religion, toleration and cultural criticism.132 And yet, when the text in question involves deception, while still arguably being designed to communicate different religious thought in a way that challenges European assumptions, the boundaries between misappropriation and intellectual translation are less clear. Holwell's religion of the ‘Gentoos’, contained within the Shastah, hinged on a complex interplay of personal conviction, theological literature and some insight into Indian beliefs, the origins of which are unclear. Dow's description is similarly a deliberate construction of ‘Hindoo’ religion, assembled from a mixture of genuine Indian philosophical concepts and a large dose of Dow's own religious preoccupation with eighteenth‐century rational religion. This, coupled with the sense that despite their embellishments it is conceivable that each author was still communicating what they took to be the essence of Indian religion as they understood and encountered it, makes interpreting what is authentic uncertain, even if uncovering what is fake becomes clearer.

For their eighteenth‐century European readers, the question of authenticity was posed differently. Significantly, the reception of these texts was centred on the question of the credibility of Indian religion and not the authors. Reviewers were willing to accept the authenticity and antiquity of the scriptures presented to them, but not the conclusion of their translators that they were therefore evidence of some original and pure religious truth. In its mildest form, criticism centred on the accusation that Holwell had spent too much time in India, becoming biased in its favour. One reviewer compared Holwell's ‘admiration’ of the ‘Gentoos’ to both Montesquieu's admiration of the English and a certain Scottish MP ‘who, after a long residence in Holland as a merchant’ began every speech by referring to what the ‘Dutch, a wise people’ had to say on the matter.133 By the time Holwell's more controversial observations appeared in 1771, this incredulity turned to offence, exemplified by the critic who dismissed Holwell's ‘Chartah Bhade Shastah, of Bruma, Bramma, Burma Brumma, Birma, Bramah, or Lord knows who’, adding that in championing the Shastah Holwell had become a victim of ‘the speculative errors of deluded superstition’. Yet, in claiming that the ‘Gentoo’ religion was more ‘a compound of Manicheism, vitiated Christianity, pagan idolatry, superstitious rites, and unintelligible jargon’, the reviewer was taking offence at Holwell's interpretation, and not necessarily the authenticity of his sources.134 Likewise, to Dow's suggestion that many of the deities of the ‘Hindoos’ are really allegorical representations of God's divine attributes, one author conceded that such an ‘apology for the idolatry of the Brahmins is applicable to that of every nation’, but that Dow's further assertion that the logical conclusion of this is ‘that whatever the external ceremonies of religion may be, the self‐same infinite being is the object of universal adoration’ was a step too far.135 This ‘ingenious refinement’ of Dow's was, according to this reader, the position of a ‘metaphysician’ rather than a ‘moral philosopher’.136

And yet it was precisely these philosophical reflections, emphasising the essential reasonableness of Indian religion, that attracted other readers to Holwell and Dow in the 1760s. Moses Mendelssohn used Holwell's work in his controversial work Jerusalem, or On Religious Power and Judaism, which argued that it was possible to conceive of the core of Judaism as a religion founded on reason alone.137 He cited Holwell's allegorical interpretation of the ‘Gentoo’ creation story, and his explanation of the deities as symbolic attributes of ‘the Eternal’ and singular deity, to argue that all religions had begun with such symbolism, the true meaning of which had been lost in those ages in which ‘real idolatry became the dominant religion in every part of the globe’.138 Another important figure of the German Enlightenment, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, used the work of Dow. In his commentary on the controversial Fragments by an Anonymous Writer (1777) Lessing included Dow's account of ‘the sacred books of the Brahmans’ as evidence that the Old Testament did not contain divine wisdom particular to Christianity but presented only the insights of natural religion of the kind that ‘may be contained in any other book of equal antiquity’.139 The ambivalent but potentially heretical tone of this commentary captures the ways in which these accounts of Indian religion held, for some of their European readers, a great deal of subversive potential.

Holwell's and Dow's works were thus never directly challenged on the grounds of authenticity but were rather eclipsed in in the 1780s, when the landscape of British Orientalism shifted once again with the founding of the Bengal Asiatick Society in 1784 and Charles Wilkins's translation of the Bhagavad Gītā directly from Sanskrit in 1785. As a result, they have often been dismissed as unscholarly precursors to the Indology of later writers such as William Jones. Yet these subsequent works had much in common with Holwell's and Dow's original purpose of reconciling Indian religion to Enlightenment concerns. The credit paid to the great sophistication of Indian religion and civilisation by these authors and their readers was soon accommodated into the ideological construction of British empire in India in the later eighteenth century. Arguments about legitimacy often appealed to the notion of an enlightened British administration that would preserve 'native' laws and customs, which involved the translation and (mis)interpretation of authoritative scriptures, as well as playing on the idea that a British government would be a welcome intervention to the previous oppressions of Muslim intolerance.140 It is no coincidence that Wilkins's project was paid for by Governor‐General Warren Hastings, and that William Jones was a jurist on the bench for the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William. Tracing the complex origins of British interpretations of Indian religion, rooted in religious debates and forged texts, which then developed into Company policy, thus offers new problems when conceptualising the relationship between Enlightenment, empire and Orientalism. The invention of ‘Gentoo’ or ‘Hindoo’ religion in this period by British authors represents neither disinterested empathetic scholarship nor the purely instrumental appropriation of knowledge in the service of power. Rather, it shows that British writers and their readers were heavily invested in all sorts of ways in the interpretation of Indian religion for the purposes of serving several different intellectual frameworks, including religion and cultural criticism as well as conceptions of how authority might be structured and exercised in the empire.



1. This article concerns the manufacture of a particular European view of Indian religion in a specific period. I will therefore use the eighteenth-century terms ‘Hindoo’ and ‘Gentoo’, rather than ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’, except for when discussing a wider history.

2. John Zephaniah Holwell, Interesting Historical Events Relative to the Province of Bengal, vol.II (London: T. Becket & P. A. De Hondt, 1767), p.31.

3. Alexander Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn, 2 vols (London: T. Becket & P. A. DeHondt, 1768), vol.

4. Urs App, The Birth of Orientalism (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), p.297-362.

5. British Library [BL], MS 4830. The collection of Sanskrit fragments bears the title, written in English, ‘The Neadrisen Shaster’, with ‘Alex Dow’ written next to it.

6. Moses Mendelssohn, quoted in M. J. Franklin, Representing India: India Culture and Imperial Control, 9 vols (Abingdon: Routledge 2000), vol. I.xii.

7. See Kate Marsh, India in the French Imagination: Peripheral Voices,1754-1815(London:Pickering and Chatto, 2009), p.114-20.

8. John Zephaniah Holwell, Interesting Historical Events Relative to the Province of Bengal, vol. II (London, 1767), p.1, 111.

9. Alexander Dow, ‘A Dissertation Concerning the Customs, Manners, Language, Religion and Philosophy of the Hindoos’, in The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768), vol. I.xxi-lxix, lv.

10. Partha Chatterjee, The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012).

11. The most thorough investigations have come from Brijen Kishore Gupta, Sirajuddaullahand the East India Company, 1756 -1757 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1966), and J. H. Little, ‘The Black Hole: Question of Holwell’s Veracity’, Bengal Past and Present XI (Calcutta, 1915), p.75 -105.

12. Dow’s association with Macpherson is detailed in the memoirs of his footman, John Macdonald, Memoirs of an Eighteenth-Century Footman, 1745-1779 (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1927), p.38.

13. P. J. Marshall, The British Discovery of Hinduism in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge :Cambridge University Press, 1970), p.27. Wilhelm Halbfass, India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding, English trans. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1990), p.56. Halbfass’s ‘philosophical essay’ was originally published as Indien und Europa: Perspektiven ihrer Geistigen Begegnung (Stuttgart: Schwabe & Co., 1981).

14. Wayne Hudson, Diego Lucci and Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth (eds), Atheism and Deism Revalued: Heterodox Religious Identities in Britain,1650-1800 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).

15. What James A. Herrick labels ‘Primitive Religion and the Priestcraft Hypothesis’ in The Radical Rhetoric of the English Deists: The Discourse of Scepticism 1680-1750 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1997), p.32.

16. These terms originated with David Kopf, British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance: The Dynamics of Indian Modernization,1773-1835 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1969). For an account of their generalised use in cultural histories of British interactions with India see Joshua Ehrlich, ‘The East India Company and the Politics of Knowledge’, PhD diss., Harvard University, 2018 ( ehrlich-dissertation-2018.pdf).

17. Joshua Ehrlich, ‘Empire and Enlightenment in Three Letters from Sir William Jones to Governor-General John Macpherson’, The Historical Journal 62:2 (2019), p.541-51.

18. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin Books, 2003 [1978 ]), p.78.19. Jürgen Osterhammel, Unfabling the East: The Enlightenments Encounter with Asia, trans. Robert Savage (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).

20. See for example, Ian Haywood, The Making of History (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1996).

21. Greg Clingham, Making History: Textuality and the Forms of Eighteenth-Century Culture (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1998), p.36-7.

22. Marshall, The British Discovery of Hinduism in the Eighteenth Century,p.2.

23. The fluidity of authentic and fake in relation to religion is something explored, in a different context, by David Chidester in, Authentic Fakes: Religion and American Popular Culture (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2005).

24. Lata Mani, for example, has pointed to how in the nineteenth century on the matter of sati, those in favour of abolition and those in favour of a continued ‘orientalist’ policy of toleration argued for their position on the grounds of continuity of custom. Lata Mani, Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998).

25. Catherine A. Robinson, Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gītā and Images of the Hindu Tradition: The Song of the Lord (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), p.6.

26. Dow adopts this view in the general sense that the ‘Hindoos’ are the original peoples of Indostan: see The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768), vol. Holwell is more overt in his categorisation of the Mughals as invaders: see Interesting Historical Events Relative to the Provinces of Bengal and the Empire of Indostan, vol. I (London: T. Becket and P. A. De Hondt, 1765), p.5. For the importance of this discourse at the end of the century, and a turn away from accounts of legitimacy that used the idea of a Mughal constitutions as its base, see Robert Travers, Ideology and Empire in Eighteenth-Century India: The British in Bengal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p.244-9.

27. David N. Lorenzen, ‘Who Invented Hinduism?’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 41:4 (October 1999), p. 630-59. See also Will Sweetman, Mapping Hinduism: ‘Hinduism’ and the Study of Indian Religions, 1600-1776 (Halle: Verlag der Frankeschen Stiftungen zu Halle, 2003), p.56.

28. See Chapter 8, ‘Archives and the End of Catholic Orientalism, in Angela Barreto Xavier and Ines G. Zupanov, Catholic Orientalism: Portuguese Empire, Indian Knowledge (16th-18thCenturies) (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015), p.28 7-330.

29. Will Sweetman, ‘Unity and Plurality: Hinduism and the Religions of India in Early European Scholarship’, Religion 31:3 (2001), p. 209-24. See, for example, Das opiniões, ritos ecerimonias, de todos os gentios da India (Of Opinions, Rites and Ceremonies of All Gentiles in India), attributed to Agostino de Azevedo, an Augustinian friar, included in a report to Philip III in Lisbon in 1603. Published in Documentação para a história das missões do padroado portuguêsdo oriente, India, ed. António da Silva Rego, 12 vols (Lisbon: Centro de Estudos Históricos Ultramarinos, 1960-63), vol. II.

30. Charles Grant, Observations on the State of Society among the Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain (London, 1792), p.139. For details of the 1787 usage see Sweetman, Mapping Hinduism, p.56.

31. For scholarship posing and investigating variations on this question see Brian K. Pennington, Was Hinduism Invented? Britons, Indians, and the Colonial Construction of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); and David N. Lorenzen, “ Who Invented Hinduish?", Comparative Studies in Society and History 41:4 (October 1999), pp. 630-59).

32. S. N. Balagangadhara, “‘Orientaatlism, Colonialism and the ‘“Construction”’ of Religion”’, in E. Bloch, M. Keppens and, R. Hegde (eds), Rethinking Religion in India: the The Colonial Construction of Hinduism, (Oxford: Routledge, 2010); S. N. Balagangadhara, ‘The Heathen in His Blindness…’: Asia, the West and & the Dynamic of Religion, (Leiden: Brill, 1994).

33. Lorenzen, ‘Who Invented Hinduism?’.

34. Christophe Jaffrelot, The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics, 1925 to the 1990s (New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 1996 ), p. 6.

35. A. J. Droge, ‘“The Lying Pen of the Scribes”: Of Holy Books and Pious Frauds’, Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 15:2 (2003), p.143.

36. A Genuine Narrative of the Deplorable Deaths of the English Gentlemen, and Others, who were suffocated in the BLACK-HOLE in FORT-WILLIAM, at CALCUTTA in the Kingdom of BENGAL; in the Night succeeding the 20th Day of June, 1756 (London: printed for A. Miller, 1758 ).

37. Brijen Kishore Gupta, Sirajuddaullah and the East India Company,1756-1757 (Leiden: Brill,1966), p.71.

38. Nicholas B. Dirks, The Scandal of Empire; India and the Creation of Imperial Britain (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), p.1.

39. J. Z. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events Relative to the Province of Bengal, vol. I (London,1765 ), p.5.

40. J. Z. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events Relative to the Province of Bengal, vol. II (London,1767 ), p.39.

41. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events, vol. I.3-4.

42. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events, vol. I.2, 5.

43. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events, vol. I.2.44. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events, vol. I.3-4.45. Holwell describes ‘Birmahah’ (Brahman) as ‘creation’: Holwell, Interesting Historica lEvents, vol. II.106.

46. A. Leslie Wilson, Mythical Image: The Ideal of India in German Romanticism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1964 ), p.24.

47. Thomas R. Trautmann, Aryans and British India (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997), p.68-9.

48. Holwell says this in Interesting Historical Events, vol. I.3. Those requesting compensation for losses sustained in the sack of Calcutta are listed in a letter written by council members at Fort William on 31 January 1757, reprinted in H.N. Sinha (ed.), Fort William–India House Correspondence and Other Contemporary Papers Relating Thereto, vol. II, 1757-1759 (Delhi: National Archives of India, 1962 ), p.192-3.

49. Franklin, Representing India, vol.I.xiii; Trautmann, Aryans and British India, p. 69; Marshall, The British Discovery of Hinduism in the Eighteenth Century, p.18.

50. App, The Birth of Orientalism, p.216-319, 330-34.

51. Francis Wilford, ‘On Egypt and Other Countries, Adjacent to the Cali River, or Nile of Ethiopia, from the Ancient Books of the Hindus’, Asiatick Researches: or Transactions of the Society, vol. III (Calcutta: T. Watley, 1792), p.295-468.

52. For more detail on this see Trautmann, Aryans, p.89-93, and Nigel Leask, ‘Francis Wilford and the Colonial Construction of Hindu Geography, 1799-1822’, in Amanda Gilroy, Romantic Geographies: Discourses of Travel, 1775-1844 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), p.204-222.

53. For a detailed overview of this process see Michael S. Dodson, Orientalism, Empire, and National Culture: India, 1770-1880 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), Chapter 2.

54. C. A. Bayly, ‘Orientalists, Informants and Critics in Benares, 1790-1860’, in Jamal Malik(ed.), Perspectives of Mutual Encounters in South Asian History:1760-1860 (Leiden: Brill, 2000), p.97-127.

55. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events, vol.II.21.

56. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events, vol.II.9.

57. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events, vol.II.32-3.

58. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events, vol.II.32-3.

59. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events, vol.II.15.

60. Voltaire, Fragments Relating to the Late Revolutions in India, the Death of Count Lally, and the Prosecution of Count de Morangies (London: printed for J. Nourse, 1774 ), p. 37, 82.

61. See, for example, Richard King, Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and ‘the Mystic East’ (London and New York: Routledge, 1999 ), p. 62-70.

62. Annual Register, vol. IX (London, 1766), p. 307; The Monthly Review, vol. XXXXV (London,1767 ), p.424-8.

63. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events, vol.II.7-9.

64. Ludo Rocher, The Ezourvedam: A French Veda for the Eighteenth Century (Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing, 1984 ), p.72.

65. Abraham Roger, De Open Deure tot het Verborgen Heydendom (Leiden: Françoys Hackes,1651).

66. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events, vol.II.12-15, 63.

67. As translated by Kate Marsh, India in the French Imagination: Peripheral Voices,1754-1815 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2009), p.117-18. This comment appeared in Voltaire’s ‘Philosophiede l’Histoire’, which became the introduction to the Essai sur les moeurs in 1769.

68. The Lusiad: or Discovery of India. An Epic Poem. Translated from the Portuguese of Luis DeCamoëns. trans. William Julius Mickle, 2nd edn (London, 1778 [1776]), p.323, 327.

69. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events, vol.II.33-4, 97.

70. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events, vol. I.8-9.

71. Wilhelm Halbfass, India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding, (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass,1990), p. 56; Marshall, The British Discovery of Hinduism.

72. App, The Birth of Orientalism, p.363 .73. J. Z. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events Relative to the Province of Bengal, vol. III (London: T. Becket and P.A. de Hondt, 1771 ), p.143, 78. For more on wider discussion of transmigration see Peter Harrison, ‘Animal Souls, Metempsychosis, and Theodicy in Seventeenth-Century English Thought’, Journal of the History of Philosophy 31:4 (1993), p.519-44.

74. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events, vol.III.143.

75. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events, vol.III.27.

76. Charles Phillips, Michael Kerrigan and David Gould (eds), Ancient India’s Myths and Beliefs (New York: Rosen Publishing, 2012), p.98-100.

77. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events, vol.II.35-60.

78. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events, vol.II.53-70, 20, 3 .

79. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events, vol.III.91.

80. Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the making of Modernity1650-1750 (Oxford University Press, 2001), p.470-71.

81. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events, vol.III.72-3, 80.

82. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events, vol.III.82.

83. Stephan Lalor, Matthew Tindal, Freethinker: An Eighteenth-Century Assault on Religion (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), p. 17.

84. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events, vol.III.78.

85. The Critical Review 31-2 (1771), p.131.

86. Daniel Hawley, ‘L’Inde de Voltaire’ ,in Studies in Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, ed. Theodore Besterman (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1974 ), p. 161.

87. Dow’s will names the Nesbit brothers as sole beneficiaries, The National Archives: PRO, PROB 11 /1091, no. 277.

88. Willem G. J. Kuiters, ‘Dow, Alexander (1735 /6-1779 )’, in B. Harrison and H. C. G. Matthew (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). Dow appeared as a witness for plaintiff Captain John Neville Parker in 1769, who brought the charge against Clive that he had illegally detained him to await court-martial following the protest: BL MSS Eur F128 /11.

89. Dow’s letter to the Court of Directors, 18 November 1768, BL, India Office Records, IOR/E/I/51, fol. 232.

90. Hume to Alexander Dow, 1772 .In The Letters of David Hume, ed. J. Y. T. Greig (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932 ) vol. II. 267, Letter 480.

91. Detailed in the memoirs of Dow’s footman, John Macdonald, Memoirs of an Eighteenth-Century Footman, 1745-1779(London: George Routledge and Sons, 1927 ), p. 38.

92. Alexander Dow, Tales, Translated from the Persian of Inatulla of Delhi (London, 1768 ), p. iii. A loose translation of The Bahar-i Danish by the seventeenth-century Persian writer Shaikh Inayat-Allah Kamboh (1608-1671).

93. Alexander Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768 ), vol. I.xxi-lxix, lv.

94. The Monthly Review, or Literary Journal 39 (July 1768 ), p. 377.

95. Alexander Dow, Dissertation sur les Moeurs, les Usages, le Langage, la Religion et la Philosophie des Hindous, trans. Claude-François Bergier (Paris, 1769 ); Alexander Dow, Fragment de l’histoire del’Indostan (Paris, 1769 ); Kate Marsh, India in the French Imagination (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), p.116-18.

96. Trautmann, Aryans and British India, p. 30.

97. Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768 ), vol. I.xxii-xxiii.

98. Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768), vol. I.xx.

99. Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768 ), vol. I xxix, xxxvii.

100. See insert of Sanskrit key in Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768 ),

101. Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768), vol.I.xxi.

102. Dodson, Orientalism, Empire and National Culture, p.53.

103. Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768 ), vol. I. xxii.

104. Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768 ), vol. I.xxxvii.

105. Bayly, ‘Orientalists, Informants and Critics in Benares, 1790-1860 ’, p. 99.

106. Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768), vol. I.1, viii.

107. Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768 ), vol. I.xxxviii; ‘Shaster’ is probably a translation of śāstra.

108. Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768 ), vol. I.xxxix.

109. Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768), vol. I.l-li.

110. Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768), vol. I.p.lvi.

111. Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768 ), vol. I.lix.

112. Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768 ), vol. I.lvi.

113. C. Bendall, Catalogue of the Sanskrit Manuscripts in the British Museum (London: British Museum, 1902 ), p.147. Catalogued in the British Museum as Add. MS 4829; now in the British Library’s Oriental MSS collection as Add. MS 4830. The collection of Sanskrit fragments bears the title, written in English, ‘The Neadrisen Shaster’, with ‘Alex Dow’ written next to it. My own lack of knowledge of Sanskrit limits me in making a judgement on what the text actually contains ,so I leave this to a scholar of superior linguistic abilities to determine.

114. Richard King, Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 1988), p.42.

115. Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768 ), vol. I.lx, lv, li, lv.

116. Sibajiban Bhattacharyya, History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization: Development of Nyaya Philosophy and its Social Context, vol. III, pt 3 (Delhi: Centre for Studies in Civilizations, 2004), p.106.

117. Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768 ), vol. I.lxviii, lxxxvi.

118. Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768), vol. I.xlvi.

119. Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768 ), vol. I.xxxvi.

120. J. L. Brockington, The Sacred Thread: Hinduism in its Continuity and Diversity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996 ), p. 54.

121. Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768 ), vol. I.lxii, lxvii.

122. Theos Bernard, Hindu Philosophy (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass publishers, 1996 [1947 ]),p. 20.

123. Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768 ), vol.I.lii.

124. Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth, Deism in Enlightenment England: Theology, Politics, and Newtonian Public Science (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), p. 207.

125. Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768 ), vol.I.lxv.

126. Alexander Dow, The History of Hindostan; from the Earliest Account of Time, to the Death of Akbar, 2nd edn, vol. III (London: T. Becket and P. A. de Hondt, 177 2 ), p.103-4.

127. Alexander Dow, The History of Hindostan, 2nd edn, 2 vols (London: T. Becket and P. A. deHondt, 1770 ), vol. I.17. Gibbon also read and cited Dow. See Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Dublin, 1788 ), vol. IV, Chapter 57, p.280.

128. Dow, The History of Hindostan, 2nd edn, vol. III (1772), p.xii.

129. Dow, The History of Hindostan , 2nd edn, vol. III (1772), p.xxiii.

130. Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768), vol.I.xlix.

131. Clingham, Making History,p.36-7.

132. Ziad Elmarsafy, The Enlightenment Qur’an: The Politics of Translation and the Construction of Islam, (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009).

133. The Critical Review XX (London 1765 ), p.145. The reviewer is probably referring to Patrick Craufurd, MP for Renfrewshire from 1761 to 1768. Patrick’s father was also a merchant in Holland, and his son was a friend of David Hume. See Lewis Namier and John Brooke, The History of Parliament: House of Commons1754-1790, (London: Secker and Warburg, [1964 ] 1985 ),p. 272-4.

134. The Critical Review XXXII (London, 1771), p.131-6.

135. Dow, The History of Hindostan, 1st edn (1768 ), vol.I.lxxxvi.

136. The Lusiad, ed. Mickle, p. 313.

137. Allan Arkush, Moses Mendelssohn and the Enlightenment, (New York: SUNY Press, 1994), p. 87.

138. Moses Mendelssohn, Writings on Judaism, Christianity and the Bible, ed. Michah Gottlieb (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2011), p.102-3.

139. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Philosophical and Theological Writings, ed. H. B. Nisbet, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p.77.

140. For more, see Travers, Ideology and Empire in Eighteenth-Century India.


Dr Jessica Patterson is an intellectual historian researching empire, Enlightenment and political thought in the long eighteenth century, with a particular focus on Britain and India. She currently holds a lectureship in the History of Political Thought at King's College London.
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