the secrets about which anthropologists concern themselves can be best learnt, not from books or voyages, but from the ordinary commerce of man with man. The secret of why some savage tribe worships monkeys or the moon is not to be found even by travelling among those savages and taking down their answers in a note-book, although the cleverest man may pursue this course. The answer to the riddle is in England; it is in London; nay, it is in his own heart.I don't know about monkeys, but wild animals and the moon are striking things. Seeing the moon or looking a deer in the eye, say, tends to make you (or me, anyway) stop and temporarily forget whatever else was on your mind. It's like the intrusion of another world into ours, and this sense of being in the presence of (a representative of) a whole world gives a feeling of infinity, and the sense of its being another world gives a feeling of something supernatural. Not in the sense of magical powers, but in the sense of another order, in roughly the way that a foreign culture or a different time might be said to be another world. There's something pleasantly jarring about it. It's the kind of experience that people say "puts things in perspective" or "makes you think," but I don't know what it is supposed to make you think or what the perspective is. My problems mean nothing to this deer, perhaps? I knew that already, and why should I care? But the effect is something like that. You forget yourself and replace, if only for a moment, egoism with an impression of the hugeness, the variety, and the beauty of the world. Although that isn't quite right. It's a kind of disorientation or suspension. I think the word, if it hasn't been overused, is wonder.
It has been argued that this wonder, or at least something like it, is the origin of Hinduism. Surendranath Dasgupta writes:
In the later mythological compositions of the Puranas the gods lost their character as hypostatic powers of nature, and thus became actual personalities and characters having their tales of joy and sorrow like the mortal here below. The Vedic gods may be contrasted with them in this, that they are of an impersonal nature, as the characters they display are mostly but expressions of the powers of nature. To take an example, the fire or Agni is described, as Kaegi has it, as one that "lies concealed in the softer wood, as in a chamber, until, called forth by the rubbing in the early morning hour, he suddenly springs forth in gleaming brightness. The sacrificer takes and lays him on the wood. When the priests pour melted butter upon him, he leaps up crackling and neighing like a horse—he whom men love to see increasing like their own prosperity. They wonder at him, when, decking himself with changing colors like a suitor, equally beautiful on all sides, he presents to all sides his front. All-searching is his beam, the gleaming of his light, His, the all-beautiful, of beauteous face and glance, The changing shimmer like that floats upon the stream, So Agni's rays gleam ever bright and never cease." They would describe the wind (Vata) and adore him and say "In what place was he born, and from whence comes he? The vital breath of gods, the world's great offspring, The God where'er he will moves at his pleasure: His rushing sound we hear—what his appearance, no one [knows?]." It was the forces of nature and her manifestations, on earth here, the atmosphere around and above us, or in the Heaven beyond the vault of the sky that excited the devotion and imagination of the Vedic poets. [my emphasis](Incidentally, Dasgupta also explains that literal sacrifices, e.g. of horses, came to be replaced by meditation on symbols:
As a further development of the Brahmanas however we get the Aranyakas or forest treatises. These works were probably composed for old men who had retired into the forest and were thus unable to perform elaborate sacrifices requiring a multitude of accessories and articles which could not be procured in forests. In these, meditations on certain symbols were supposed to be of great merit, and they gradually began to supplant the sacrifices as being of a superior order. It is here that we find that amongst a certain section of intelligent people the ritualistic ideas began to give way, and philosophic speculations about the nature of truth became gradually substituted in their place. To take an illustration from the beginning of the Brhadaranyaka we find that instead of the actual performance of the horse sacrifice (asvamedhd) there are directions for meditating upon the dawn (Usas) as the head of the horse, the sun as the eye of the horse, the air as its life, and so on. This is indeed a distinct advancement of the claims of speculation or meditation over the actual performance of the complicated ceremonials of sacrifice.I imagine that this goes some way towards explaining the bewildering mysticism discussed here. If you're going to change an ancient practice for something else it's understandable that you might claim that "clearly" you are simply bringing out and acting on the true meaning of the ancient text. But I'm digressing.)
Anyway, I think that Chesterton is right.