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Maori and Polynesian: their origin, history and culture

South Asiatic Mysticism and Tendency to Monotheism — are Evident in the more Obscure Worships

South Asiatic Mysticism and Tendency to Monotheism
are Evident in the more Obscure Worships

(9) But there is an esoteric phase of Polynesian religion that must come from the south of Asia, and by preference from Northern India. It is the religion that is hinted at in those magnificent fragments of mystical, semi-metaphysical poetry that White gives as headings to the earlier chapters of his "Ancient History of the Maori," and also to some extent in the hymns of Hawaii and the Marquesas, and in the poetry and myth collected by Wyatt Gill in the Hervey group. Here we have the ideas of the later Vedic or earlier Hindoo religion, when Buddhism was about to be begotten, and the idea of a supreme and only God struggled with half-scientific, half-crude ideas that philosophised the origin of the universe and man, when, in short, monotheism struggled with a philosophic pantheism. For Buddhism was not merely a revolution and reform from excess of ceremony and priesthood, but an evolution. There was even in the early Vedic religion a tendency to single out one god or another as supreme, and this grows as we approach the birth of Buddhism. It is this tendency that is apparent in the Polynesian religious poetry. It speaks of "the One Supreme" and "the soul of the Supreme," the "soul of power, soul of earth and heaven," "above in all creation's space." This is undiluted Hindoo philosophy of the half-dozen centuries before our era, when the Olympus of mythology and the paraphernalia of ceremonial and priesthood threatened to fall page 132into ruins, and before the pantheon of Vishnuism and Sivaism, with the versions of old aboriginal gods and their cruel rites, arose.

(10) The one doubt that enters the mind is that these fine relics of a higher religious world came from Christianised Polynesia, and chiefly from Christianised priests, who felt, like the writers of the "Edda," that, though the old gods were silenced and sad, they had still power of life and death over them, and were stimulated by the pathos and romance of the pantheon they were abandoning to sublimate it with the ideas they had acquired from the new religion and its teachers. But over against this doubt must be placed the rare and obscure references to an ancient and primal deity, called in New Zealand and Mangaia, Io, and in Tahiti, Ihoiho, who was before all creation, and, as far as one can see, precedent to the whole of the Polynesian Olympus. White says: "The oldest Maori prayers were those addressed to the sacred Io." In Mangaia, although the word means generally "a god," it also means "the core," like Maori "iho," and "the soul"; whilst Motoro, who was called "Te Io Ora," or "The Living Spirit," was distinguished from other gods by having no human or living sacrifices offered to him. In New Zealand the primevally savage and commonplace and the sublimely mystical shoulder each other with regard to this god, as in so many features of their life. Io was the name given to omens taken from the involuntary twitching of any part of the body. And again, he is the subject of ecstatic religious imagination, as for example in an incantation to him at the planting of the kumara:

O god of man! Deprive my enemies of power.
O Io! O god of man!

O Io! O cloud! Descend from Rehia, and lightnings flash,
Whilst I my offering make, and chant my sacred song
to him, the One Supreme!

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And in an ancient incantation over invalids, there is the monotheistic idea, even where Io is not addressed:

Stay, omens, stay. The One Supreme has come.
Soul of power, soul of earth and heaven, accept delight and ecstasy unlimited.
Hold all beauty; let it spread around.
The soul now climbs and high ascends, the soul of the Supreme and his disciples.
O Heaven! The soul is far above, above in all Creation's space.
In light supreme, in blaze of day.

These mystical incantations have no echo of the Bible, not even of the Old Testament, in them; they are instinct with the half-chaotic higher philosophy in the native mind. The productions that come closest to them, not only in form, but in spirit, are the hymns of the Rig-veda. They display the same mystical exaltation, the same wealth of figurative speech, the same formless ideas and the same inchoate philosophy. Take any one of the hymns to Agni or Indra or to Ushas the dawn, and the sense of affinity to these Maori incantations is manifest. None of them are the mere inarticulate utterances of the savage mind. They reveal that half-poetic, half-philosophic attitude toward existence and its phenomena which is the mark of an early but rapidly advancing culture. The first Greek philosophers have it. But there is in them none of the mysticism that marks off the Vedic hymns and the Maori laments and incantations from those of all other primitive peoples.