With amazement, and not without a sense of kinship, do we close J. B. Danquah's The Akan Doctrine of God, (1) for here is revealed the Akan (2) conception of Deity which squares with the profoundest reaches of Theosophy.
A native African by birth, son of Emmanuel Yao Boakye Dan-quah, Court-Drummer to the King of Akyem Abuakwa, that is "interpreter of the traditional history and poetry" of the Ashantis, the younger Danquah absorbed from infancy the wisdom of his people, and hence speaks with an authority and depth of perception that no outsider, however well versed in European anthropology or so-called "primitive" faith, could hope to equal, much less surpass. As the elder Danquah joined the Basel Missionary Society at the age of forty, his son received the benefits of a Western education as well, later successfully qualifying for entrance at the University of London, where he received the degrees of Doctor of Philosophy and Bachelor of Laws. Danquah likewise won a John Stuart Mill Scholarship in Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College, London, and at present is Panel Lecturer in Twi at the London School of Oriental Studies.
The author's original intention was to publish a three-volume work of 640 pages, entitled: "Gold Coast Ethics and Religion," which
set forth the Akan idea of the good, or the supreme good, and examined for the purpose, all the anthropological evidence available: the Akan gods, the "fetishes," the customs, the maxims or proverbs (3,680 of them), the festivals, the religious observances, the calendars, folklore, the family system, the social and moral codes, racial history, racial fears and hopes (i.e, the philosophy of their life). — p. ix
In view of the accurate exposition of theosophical doctrine contained in the one small volume before us, originally part three, one wonders whether the "mysterious power" which Dr. Danquah is convinced preserved this third volume from destruction, did not also have a hand in withdrawing from the light, temporarily at least, the knowledge contained in the first two. Of this we may never know, but the fact remains that on January 29, 1941, while working on the bibliography of the entire work, surrounded by "ancient note-books and old rare books and the two MSS. volumes on the table of my study," Dr. Danquah went outside for a breath of air. In the twinkling of an eye, flames had consumed his house, burning to ashes its entire contents. The third volume, providentially in the hands of a friend, was saved, and became the present book.
A brilliant critique of the Akan doctrine of God as expounded by European scholars and anthropologists opens the book. For the magnificent researches of the Rev. J. G. Christaller, who was commissioned by the Basel Evangelical Missionary Society to "study the Akan language and translate the Bible and other religious books into the principal Gold Coast language," Danquah has the most generous praise, regarding his "Dictionary of the Asante and Fante Language called Tshi (Twi)," his collection of some 3,680 Maxims or Proverbs, and his Twi Bible, as classics, proving Christaller to have indeed been "as great a missionary as he was philologist, anthropologist, scientist, philosopher, moralist, and a man of genius." (p. 185)
About the work of other Europeans, such as Rattray and Wester-mann, the author is not enthusiastic, for dogmatic bias dims the luster of self-sacrificing and earnest labor. It is inconceivable to him, and quite naturally, that anthropologists and scholars who profess to search for truth without prejudice should be so influenced by the dominant conviction that their own religion, in this case the Christian, is God's one and only, and that all other beliefs, particularly that of the "primitive savage," are at best but gropings of the immature soul. Arrogance coupled with blindness is not a happy combination. Even when tempered with energetic and benevolent action fruiting itself in hospitals, schools, railroads and other engineering marvels, we find that the dominant urge during the last seventy years has not been primarily to help the "heathen," but to "win for Jesus Christ the moral supremacy of the world" — to quote Edwin W. Smith, Gold Coast missionary, in The Golden Stool, 1926, p. 314.
Dr. Danquah's kindly yet penetrating diagnosis of the European attitude, his development of the Akan faith, his brilliant intellectual abilities, should convince us that the so-called "primitive belief is by no means inferior to the Christian, but in many respects leagues ahead of its dogmatic interpretation.
As the title indicates, the work centers around the Akan conception of God, a three-in-one, or one-in-three Divinity, not dissimilar to the Three Logoi of the Greek, called Onyame, Onyankopon, and Odomankoma. Section II merits careful study; but a few titles chosen at random will indicate the character of the threefold deity:
Onyame (also spelled Nyame) is the Shining Power, the Giver of Light or Sun, or Rain and Repletion; the universal power which is "behind or beneath things, the ultimate irreducible Godhead."
Onyankopon (also spelled Nyankopon) is the "Knowing Principle," the Greater Supreme Being; "he is there from ancient times," and that power that keeps the spiritual integrity of man and cosmos.
Odomankoma is the carver, originator, hewer of all beings; "infinitely manifolding," of an overwhelming intensity and depth; whose maxims are "many and everywhere visible." (p. 59) "He is God in you and in others . . . in the things you see — the shining firmament, the wide solid earth, the unfailing source of the waters"; likewise called the creator of the "Days of the Seven Eras," which comprehends a correlation with seven planets, seven days of the week, seven honorific names, and seven qualities or powers, (p. 47)
Section III, "Ethical Canons of the Doctrine," is a masterly unfolding of Akan-theosophical doctrines of Reincarnation and Karman in their relation to the moral progress of the race. The ideal of the family, the community, the one historic social race, with one blood flowing through all from the Hierarch or Nana down to the smallest insect, is stressed: an ideal with which the modern Theosophist is in complete sympathy.
Sections IV and V, called respectively "The Eight Akan Postulates," and "Universal Utility of the Postulates," develop the relation of man's composite nature with the composite structure of the Universe. All beings have Esu, a physical basis of life, before mind becomes kindled; but men, not beasts, likewise have Nkara (or Okara), the "Chosen Soul," comparable to the Greek Nous, in which karman, called by the Akan the Nkrabea or Hyebea, inheres. This Nkara or Okara, two aspects of Nous, coming in contact with Esu, brings forth the Sunsum or "Experiencing Soul," the Greek Psyche, the personality, considered by the Akan as an "inadequate expression of the full capacities of the Okara." In the Sunsum evil exists, not foreordained, but as an undeveloped energy resident therein which delays the entry of the Okara into the Sunsum. (cf. pp. 87, 113)
Finally, Honhom, the Spirit, the Greek Monad, leads man to union with the Honhom of "purest perfection': Onyame-Onyankopon-Odomankoma. This union of Sunsum with Okara, of Okara with Honhom, is made possible through a succession of reincarnations, in which Hyebea or Nkrabea — fate, destiny, karman — is fulfilled. But this Nkrabea is not a punishment of sins, but the author emphasizes is "full of feeling," compassionately urging on the fulfilment of the soul's destiny which is union with Honhom.
Danquah is at a loss to understand why his people who have such beautiful and logical beliefs should be forced to embrace the teachings of original sin, eternal damnation and Divine Grace. He cannot see that such ideas are in anyway superior to the "heathen" faith. To say we fully sympathize with the author is hardly necessary.
The Ashanti conception of Death is interesting, and while we heartily agree that death is not the negation of life, nor its "destructive opposite," but rather an extended sleep, and the other pole of birth, we do not understand his statement that death itself is an unnatural phenomenon, and evidence that "something has gone wrong with some part of the integrated organism." (p. 160) It is possible that we have not caught the author's original idea, or that poorly expressed the words mislead. We do agree with him that if all parts of the organism lived in perfect harmony with Honhom, death would be neither possible nor desirable. The fact of the matter is that the very force of evolution demands change, growth, development, hence death of bodies in order that the spirit within may have newer and better bodies to work through. We heartily concur in this statement: "Man, an incomplete god, has to die to discover his completeness in the undying god." (p. 161)
If the reader does nothing else, he should peruse carefully the 200-odd Maxims or Proverbs which form Appendix I, and observe for himself the marvelous reaches of philosophy contained in a few words. Appendix II, "Notes and Glossary of Akan Terms" will also be of great help in understanding the Akan philosophy.
Finally, our gratitude goes to the Lutterworth Library in London, for including as Number Four in their "Missionary Research Series" this contribution from the heart of Africa, for its publication not only evidences a recognition by the Christian West of its splendid worth, but likewise affords one more proof of the fact that the Archaic Wisdom of the Gods was universally diffused at the opening of the drama of human life, and that each race has partaken in some measure of the self-same Pierian Spring.
1. The Akan Doctrine of God. By J. B. Danquah, Lutterworth Press, London, 1944. 14s. 206 pp. (return to text)
2. In explanation of the term Akan, we can do no better than to quote a few lines from the author's "Notes and Glossary".
"Akan — One of the principal races in West Africa, inhabiting the Gold Coast, the Ivory Coast, some parts of French West Africa, up to the old Kingdom of Ghana (near present Timbuktu), and speaking the Twi (Twui) language. . . . The original form of the name, Akane or Akana, led to its corruption by the early Arabs of the Sudan into Ghana and by early Europeans who visited the Coast of West Africa into Guinea " — p. 198. (return to text)