In an hour's time we stopped at the gate of a large bungalow, and were welcomed by the beaming face of our bareheaded Bengali. When we were all safely gathered on the verandah, he explained to us that, knowing beforehand that our "American pigheadedness" would not listen to any warning, he had dodged up this little scheme of his own and was very glad he had been successful.
"Now let us go and wash our hands, and then to supper. And," he added, addressing me, "was it not your wish to be present at a real Hindu meal? This is your opportunity. Our host is a Brahman, and you are the first Europeans who ever entered the part of his house inhabited by the family."
Who amongst Europeans ever dreamed of a country where every step, and the least action of everyday life, especially of the family life, is controlled by religious rites and cannot be performed except according to a certain programme? India is this country. In India all the important incidents of a man's life, such as birth, reaching certain periods of a child's life, marriage, fatherhood, old age and death, as well as all the physical and physiological functions of everyday routine, like morning ablutions, dressing, eating, et tout ce qui s'en suit, from a man's first hour to his last sigh, everything must be performed according to a certain Brahmanical ritual, on penalty of expulsion from his caste. The Brahmans may be compared to the musicians of an orchestra in which the different musical instruments are the numerous sects of their country. They are all of a different shape and of a different timbre; but still every one of them obeys the same leader of the band. However widely the sects may differ in the interpretation of their sacred books, however hostile they may be to each other, striving to put forward their particular deity, every one of them, obeying blindly the ancient custom, must follow like musicians the same directing wand, the laws of Manu. This is the point where they all meet and form a unanimous, single-minded community, a strongly united mass. And woe to the one who breaks the symphony by a single discordant note! The elders and the caste or sub-caste councils (of these there are any number), whose members hold office for life, are stern rulers. There is no appeal against their decisions, and this is why expulsion from the caste is a calamity, entailing truly formidable consequences. The excommunicated member is worse off than a leper, the solidarity of the castes in this respect being something phenomenal. The only thing that can bear any comparison with it is the solidarity of the disciples of Loyola. If members of two different castes, united by the sincerest feelings of respect and friendship, may not intermarry, may not dine together, are forbidden to accept a glass of water from each other, or to offer each other a hookah, it becomes clear how much more severe all these restrictions must be in the case of an excommunicated person. The poor wretch must literally die to everybody, to the members of his own family as to strangers. His own household, his father, wife, children, are all bound to turn their faces from him, under the penalty of being excommunicated in their turn. There is no hope for his sons and daughters of getting married, however innocent they may be of the sin of their father.
From the moment of "excommunication" the Hindu must totally disappear. His mother and wife must not feed him, must not let him drink from the family well. No member of any existing caste dares to sell him his food or cook for him. He must either starve or buy eatables from outcasts and Europeans, and so incur the dangers of further pollution. When the Brahmanical power was at its zenith, such acts as deceiving, robbing and even killing this wretch were encouraged, as he was beyond the pale of the laws. Now, at all events, he is free from the latter danger, but still, even now, if he happens to die before he is forgiven and received back into his caste, his body may not be burned, and no purifying mantrams will be chanted for him; he will be thrown into the water, or left to rot under the bushes like a dead cat.
This is a passive force, and its passiveness only makes it more formidable. Western education and English influence can do nothing to change it. There exists only one course of action for the excommunicated; he must show signs of repentance and submit to all kinds of humiliations, often to the total loss of all his worldly possessions. Personally, I know several young Brahmans, who, having brilliantly passed the university examinations in England, have had to submit to the most repulsive conditions of purification on their return home; these purifications consisting chiefly in shaving off half their moustaches and eyebrows, crawling in the dust round pagodas, clinging during long hours to the tail of a sacred cow, and, finally, swallowing the excrements of this cow. The latter ceremony is called "Pancha-Gavya," literally, the five products of the cow: milk, curds, butter, etc. The voyage over Kalapani, the black water, that is to say the sea, is considered the worst of all the sins. A man who commits it is considered as polluting himself continually, from the first moment of his going on board the bellati (foreign) ship.
Only a few days ago a friend of ours, who is an LL.D., had to undergo this "purgation," and it nearly cost him his reason. When we remonstrated with him, pointing out that in his case it was simply foolish to submit, he being a materialist by conviction and not caring a straw for Brahmanism, he replied that he was bound to do so for the following reasons:
"I have two daughters," he explained, "one five, the other six years old. If I do not find a husband for the eldest of them in the course of the coming year, she will grow too old to get married, nobody will think of espousing her. Suppose I suffer my caste to excommunicate me, both my girls will be dishonored and miserable for the rest of their lives. Then, again, I must take into consideration the superstitions of my old mother. If such a misfortune befell me, it would simply kill her ..."
But why should he not free himself from every bond to Brahmanism and caste? Why not join, once for all, the ever-growing community of men who are guilty of the same offence? Why not ask all his family to form a colony and join the civilization of the Europeans?
All these are very natural questions, but unfortunately there is no difficulty in finding reasons for answering them in the negative.
There were thirty-two reasons given why one of Napoleon's marshals refused to besiege a certain fortress, but the first of these reasons was the absence of gunpowder, and so it excluded the necessity of discussing the remaining thirty-one. Similarly the first reason why a Hindu cannot be Europeanized is quite sufficient, and does not call for any additional ones. This reason is that by doing so a Hindu would not improve his position. Were he such an adept of science as to rival Tyndall, were he such a clever politician as to eclipse the genius of Disraeli and Bismarck, as soon as he actually had given up his caste and kinsmen, he would indubitably find himself in the position of Mahomet's coffin; metaphorically speaking, he would hang half-way between the earth and the sky.
It would be an utter injustice to suppose that this state of things is the result of the policy of the English Government; that the said Government is afraid of giving a chance to natives who may be suspected of being hostile to the British rule. In reality, the Government has little or nothing to do with it. This state of things must be attributed entirely to the social ostracism, to the contempt felt by a "superior" for an "inferior" race, a contempt deeply rooted in some members of the Anglo-Indian society and displayed at the least provocation. This question of racial "superiority" and "inferiority" plays a more important part than is generally believed, even in England. Nevertheless, the natives (Mussulmans included) do not deserve contempt, and so the gulf between the rulers and the ruled widens with every year, and long centuries would not suffice to fill it up.
I have to dwell upon all this to give my readers a clear idea on the subject. And so it is no wonder the ill-fated Hindus prefer temporary humiliations and the physical and moral sufferings of the "purification," to the prospect of general contempt until death. These were the questions we discussed with the Brahmans during the two hours before dinner.
Dining with foreigners and people belonging to different castes is, no doubt, a dangerous breach of Manu's sacred precepts. But this time, for once, it was easily explained. First, the stout Patel, our host, was the head of his caste, and so was beyond the dread of excommunication; secondly, he had already taken all the prescribed and advisable precautions against being polluted by our presence. He was a free-thinker in his own way, and a friend of Gulab-Lal-Sing, and so he rejoiced at the idea of showing us how much skillful sophistry and strategical circumspection can be used by adroit Brahmans to avoid the law in some circumstances, while adhering at the same time to its dead letter. Besides, our good-natured, well-favored host evidently desired to obtain a diploma from our Society, being well aware that the collector of his district was enrolled amongst our members.
These, at any rate, were the explanations of our Babu when we expressed our astonishment; so it was our concern to make the most of our chance, and to thank Providence for this rare opportunity. And this we accordingly did.
Hindus take their food only twice a day, at ten o'clock in the morning and at nine in the evening. Both meals are accompanied by complicated rites and ceremonies. Even very young children are not allowed to eat at odd times, eating without the prescribed performance of certain exorcisms being considered a sin. Thousands of educated Hindus have long ceased to believe in all these superstitious customs, but, nevertheless, they are daily practised.
Sham Rao Bahunathji, our host, belonged to the ancient caste of Patarah Prabhus, and was very proud of his origin. Prabhu means lord, and this caste descends from the Kshatriyas. The first of them was Ashvapati (700 B.C.), a lineal descendant of Rama and Prithu, who, as is stated in the local chronology, governed India in the Dvapara and Treta Yugas, which is a good while ago! The Patarah Prabhus are the only caste within which Brahmans have to perform certain purely Vedic rites, known under the name of the "Kshatriya rites." But this does not prevent their being Patans, instead of Patars, Patan meaning the fallen one. This is the fault of King Ashvapati. Once, when distributing gifts to holy anchorites, he inadvertently forgot to give his due to the great Bhrigu. The offended prophet and seer declared to him that his reign was drawing near its end, and that all his posterity would perish. The king, throwing himself on the ground, implored the prophet's pardon. But his curse had worked its fulfilment already. All that he could do to stop the mischief consisted in a solemn promise not to let the king's descendants disappear completely from the earth. However, the Patars soon lost their throne and their power. Since then they have had to "live by their pens," in the employment of many successive governments, to exchange their name of Patars for Patans, and to lead a humbler life than many of their late subjects. Happily for our talkative Amphitryon, his forefathers became Brahmans, that is to say "went through the golden cow."
The expression "to live by their pens" alludes, as we learned later on, to the fact of the Patans occupying all the small Government posts in the Bombay Presidency, and so being dangerous rivals of the Bengali Babus since the time of British rule. In Bombay the Patan clerks reach the considerable figure of five thousand. Their complexion is darker than the complexion of Konkan Brahmans, but they are handsomer and brighter. As to the mysterious expression, "went through the golden cow," it illustrates a very curious custom. The Kshatriyas, and even the much-despised Shudras, may become a sort of left-hand Brahmans. This metamorphosis depends on the will of the real Brahmans, who may, if they like, sell this right for several hundreds or thousands of cows. When the gift is accomplished, a model cow, made of pure gold, is erected and made sacred by the performance of some mystical ceremonies. The candidate must now crawl through her hollow body three times, and thus is transformed into a Brahman. The present Maharaja of Travankor, and even the great Raja of Benares, who died recently, were both Shudras who acquired their rights in this manner. We received all this information and a notion of the legendary Patar chronicle from our obliging host.
Having announced that we must now get ready for dinner, he disappeared in the company of all the gentlemen of our party. Being left to ourselves, Miss X--- and I decided to have a good look at the house whilst it was empty. The Babu, being a downright, modern Bengali, had no respect for the religious preparations for dinner, and chose to accompany us, proposing to explain to us all that we should otherwise fail to understand.
The Prabhu brothers always live together, but every married couple have separate rooms and servants of their own. The habitation of our host was very spacious. There were small several bungalows, occupied by his brothers, and a chief building containing rooms for visitors, the general dining-room, a lying-in ward, a small chapel with any number of idols, and so on. The ground floor, of course, was surrounded by a verandah pierced with arches leading to a huge hall. All round this hall were wooden pillars adorned with exquisite carving. For some reason or other, it struck me that these pillars once belonged to some palace of the "dead town." On close examination I only grew more convinced that I was right. Their style bore no traces of Hindu taste; no gods, no fabulous monster animals, only arabesques and elegant leaves and flowers of nonexistent plants. The pillars stood very close to each other, but the carvings prevented them from forming an uninterrupted wall, so that the ventilation was a little too strong. All the time we spent at the dinner table miniature hurricanes whistled from behind every pillar, waking up all our old rheumatisms and toothaches, which had peacefully slumbered since our arrival in India.
The front of the house was thickly covered with iron horseshoes - the best precaution against evil spirits and evil eyes.
At the foot of a broad, carved staircase we came across a couch or a cradle, hung from the ceiling by iron chains. I saw somebody lying on it, whom, at first sight, I mistook for a sleeping Hindu, and was going to retreat discreetly, but, recognizing my old friend Hanuman, I grew bold and endeavored to examine him. Alas! the poor idol possessed only a head and neck, the rest of his body was a heap of old rags.
On the left side of the verandah there were many more lateral rooms, each with a special destination, some of which I have mentioned already. The largest of these rooms was called "vattan," and was used exclusively by the fair sex. Brahman women are not bound to spend their lives under veils, like Mussulman women, but still they have very little communication with men, and keep aloof. Women cook the men's food, but do not dine with them. The elder ladies of the family are often held in great respect, and husbands sometimes show a shy courteousness towards their wives, but still a woman has no right to speak to her husband before strangers, nor even before the nearest relations, such as her sisters and her mother.
As to the Hindu widows, they really are the most wretched creatures in the whole world. As soon as a woman's husband dies she must have her hair and her eyebrows shaven off. She must part with all her trinkets, her earrings, her nose jewels, her bangles and toe-rings. After this is done she is as good as dead. The lowest outcast would not marry her. A man is polluted by her slightest touch, and must immediately proceed to purify himself. The dirtiest work of the household is her duty, and she must not eat with the married women and the children. The "sati," the burning of the widows, is abolished, but Brahmans are clever managers, and the widows often long for the sati.
At last, having examined the family chapel, full of idols, flowers, rich vases with burning incense, lamps hanging from its ceiling, and aromatic herbs covering its floor, we decided to get ready for dinner. We carefully washed ourselves, but this was not enough, we were requested to take off our shoes. This was a somewhat disagreeable surprise, but a real Brahmanical supper was worth the trouble.
However, a truly amazing surprise was still in store for us.
On entering the dining-room we stopped short at the entrance - both our European companions were dressed, or rather undressed, exactly like Hindus! For the sake of decency they kept on a kind of sleeveless knitted vest, but they were barefooted, wore the snow-white Hindu dhutis (a piece of muslin wrapped round to the waist and forming a petticoat), and looked like something between white Hindus and Constantinople garcons de bains. Both were indescribably funny, I never saw anything funnier. To the great discomfiture of the men, and the scandal of the grave ladies of the house, I could not restrain myself, but burst out laughing. Miss X--- blushed violently and followed my example.
A quarter of an hour before the evening meal every Hindu, old or young, has to perform a "puja" before the gods. He does not change his clothes, as we do in Europe, but takes off the few things he wore during the day. He bathes by the family well and loosens his hair, of which, if he is a Mahratti or an inhabitant of the Dekkan, he has only one long lock at the top of his shaven head. To cover the body and the head whilst eating would be sinful. Wrapping his waist and legs in a white silk dhuti, he goes once more to salute the idols and then sits down to his meal.
But here I shall allow myself to digress. "Silk possesses the property of dismissing the evil spirits who inhabit the magnetic fluids of the atmosphere," says the Mantram, book v., verse 23. And I cannot help wondering whether this apparent superstition may not contain a deeper meaning. It is difficult, I own, to part with our favorite theories about all the customs of ancient heathendom being mere ignorant superstitions. But have not some vague notions of these customs being founded originally on a true knowledge of scientific principles found their way amongst European scientific circles? At first sight the idea seems untenable. But why may we not suppose that the ancients prescribed this observance in the full knowledge that the effect of electricity upon the organs of digestion is truly beneficial? People who have studied the ancient philosophy of India with a firm resolve to penetrate the hidden meaning of its aphorisms have for the most part grown convinced that electricity and its effects were known to a considerable extent to some philosophers, as, for instance, to Patanjali. Charaka and Sushruta had propounded the system of Hippocrates long before the time of him who in Europe is supposed to be the "father of medicine." The Bhadrinath temple of Vishnu possesses a stone bearing evident proof of the fact that Surya-Sidhanta knew and calculated the expansive force of steam many centuries ago. The ancient Hindus were the first to determine the velocity of light and the laws of its reflection; and the table of Pythagoras and his celebrated theorem of the square of hypotenuse are to be found in the ancient books of Jyotisha. All this leads us to suppose that ancient Aryans, when instituting the strange custom of wearing silk during meals, had something serious in view, more serious, at all events, than the "dismissing of demons."
Having entered the "refectory," we immediately noticed what were the Hindu precautions against their being polluted by our presence. The stone floor of the hall was divided into two equal parts. This division consisted of a line traced in chalk, with Kabalistic signs at either end. One part was destined for the host's party and the guests belonging to the same caste, the other for ourselves. On our side of the hall there was yet a third square to contain Hindus of a different caste. The furniture of the two bigger squares was exactly similar. Along the two opposite walls there were narrow carpets spread on the floor, covered with cushions and low stools. Before every occupant there was an oblong on the bare floor, traced also with chalk, and divided, like a chess board, into small quadrangles which were destined for dishes and plates. Both the latter articles were made of the thick strong leaves of the butea frondosa: larger dishes of several leaves pinned together with thorns, plates and saucers of one leaf with its borders turned up. All the courses of the supper were already arranged on each square; we counted forty-eight dishes, containing about a mouthful of forty-eight different dainties. The materials of which they were composed were mostly terra incognita to us, but some of them tasted very nice. All this was vegetarian food. Of meat, fowl, eggs and fish there appeared no traces. There were chutneys, fruit and vegetables preserved in vinegar and honey, panchamrits, a mixture of pampello-berries, tamarinds, cocoa milk, treacle and olive oil, and kushmer, made of radishes, honey and flour; there were also burning hot pickles and spices. All this was crowned with a mountain of exquisitely cooked rice and another mountain of chapatis, which are something like brown pancakes. The dishes stood in four rows, each row containing twelve dishes; and between the rows burned three aromatic sticks of the size of a small church taper. Our part of the hall was brightly lit with green and red candles. The chandeliers which held these candles were of a very queer shape. They each represented the trunk of a tree with a seven-headed cobra wound round it. From each of the seven mouths rose a red or a green wax candle of spiral form like a corkscrew. Draughts blowing from behind every pillar fluttered the yellow flames, filling the roomy refectory with fantastic moving shadows, and causing both our lightly-clad gentlemen to sneeze very frequently. Leaving the dark silhouettes of the Hindus in comparative obscurity, this unsteady light made the two white figures still more conspicuous, as if making a masquerade of them and laughing at them.
The relatives and friends of our host came in one after the other. They were all naked down to the waist, all barefooted, all wore the triple Brahmanical thread and white silk dhutis, and their hair hung loose. Every sahib was followed by his own servant, who carried his cup, his silver, or even gold, jug filled with water, and his towel. All of them, having saluted the host, greeted us, the palms of their hands pressed to-gether and touching their foreheads, their breasts, and then the floor. They all said to us: "Ram-Ram" and "Namaste" (salutation to thee), and then made straight for their respective seats in perfect silence. Their civilities reminded me that the custom of greeting each other with the twice pronounced name of some ancestor was usual in the remotest antiquity.
We all sat down, the Hindus calm and stately, as if preparing for some mystic celebration, we ourselves feeling awkward and uneasy, fearing to prove guilty of some unpardonable blunder. An invisible choir of women's voices chanted a monotonous hymn, celebrating the
glory of the gods. These were half a dozen nautch-girls from a neighboring pagoda. To this accompaniment we began satisfying our appetites. Thanks to the Babu's instructions, we took great care to eat only with our right hands. This was somewhat difficult, because we were hungry and hasty, but quite necessary. Had we only so much as touched the rice with our left hands whole hosts of Rakshasas (demons) would have been attracted to take part in the festivity that very moment; which, of course, would send all the Hindus out of the room. It is hardly necessary to say that there were no traces of forks, knives or spoons. That I might run no risk of breaking the rule I put my left hand in my pocket and held on to my pocket-handkerchief all the time the dinner lasted.
The singing lasted only a few minutes. During the rest of the time a dead silence reigned amongst us. It was Monday, a fast day, and so the usual absence of noise at meal times had to be observed still more strictly than on any other day. Usually a man who is compelled to break the silence by some emergency or other hastens to plunge into water the middle finger of his left hand, which till then had remained hidden behind his back, and to moisten both his eyelids with it. But a really pious man would not be content with this simple formula of purification; having spoken, he must leave the dining-room, wash thoroughly, and then abstain from food for the remainder of the day.
Thanks to this solemn silence, I was at liberty to notice everything that was going on with great attention. Now and again, whenever I caught sight of the colonel or Mr. Y---, I had all the difficulty in the world to preserve my gravity. Fits of foolish laughter would take possession of me when I observed them sitting erect with such comical solemnity and working so awkwardly with their elbows and hands. The long beard of the one was white with grains of rice, as if silvered with hoar-frost, the chin of the other was yellow with liquid saffron. But unsatisfied curiosity happily came to my rescue, and I went on watching the quaint proceedings of the Hindus.
Each of them, having sat down with his legs twisted under him, poured some water with his left hand out of the jug brought by the servant, first into his cup, then into the palm of his right hand. Then he slowly and carefully sprinkled the water round a dish with all kinds of dainties, which stood by itself, and was destined, as we learned afterwards, for the gods. During this procedure each Hindu repeated a Vedic mantram. Filling his right hand with rice, he pronounced a new series of couplets, then, having stored five pinches of rice on the right side of his own plate, he once more washed his hands to avert the evil eye, sprinkled more water, and pouring a few drops of it into his right palm, slowly drank it. After this he swallowed six pinches of rice, one after the other, murmuring prayers all the while, and wetted both his eyes with the middle finger of his left hand. All this done, he finally hid his left hand behind his back, and began eating with the right hand. All this took only a few minutes, but was performed very solemnly.
The Hindus ate with their bodies bent over the food, throwing it up and catching it in their mouths so dexterously that not a grain of rice was lost, not a drop of the various liquids spilt. Zealous to show his consideration for his host, the colonel tried to imitate all these movements. He contrived to bend over his food almost horizontally, but, alas! he could not remain long in this position. The natural weight of his powerful limbs overcame him, he lost his balance and nearly tumbled head foremost, dropping his spectacles into a dish of sour milk and garlic. After this unsuccessful experience the brave American gave up all further attempts to become "Hinduized," and sat very quietly.
The supper was concluded with rice mixed with sugar, powdered peas, olive oil, garlic and grains of pomegranate, as usual. This last dainty is consumed hurriedly. Everyone nervously glances askance at his neighbor, and is mortally afraid of being the last to finish, because this is considered a very bad sign. To conclude, they all take some water into their mouths, murmuring prayers the while, and this time they must swallow it in one gulp. Woe to the one who chokes! Tis a clear sign that a bhuta has taken possession of his throat. The unfortunate man must run for his life and get purified before the altar.
The poor Hindus are very much troubled by these wicked bhutas, the souls of the people who have died with ungratified desires and earthly passions. Hindu spirits, if I am to believe the unanimous assertions of one and all, are always swarming round the living, always ready to satisfy their hunger with other people's mouths and gratify their impure desires with the help of organs temporarily stolen from the living. They are feared and cursed all over India. No means to get rid of them are despised. The notions and conclusions of the Hindus on this point categorically contradict the aspirations and hopes of Western spiritualists.
"A good and pure spirit, they are confident, will not let his soul revisit the earth, if this soul is equally pure. He is glad to die and unite himself to Brahma, to live an eternal life in Svarga (heaven) and enjoy the society of the beautiful Gandharvas or singing angels. He is glad to slumber whole eternities, listening to their songs, whilst his soul is purified by a new incarnation in a body, which is more perfect than the one the soul abandoned previously."
The Hindus believe that the spirit or Atma, a particle of the GREAT ALL, which is Parabrahm, cannot be punished for sins in which it never participated. It is Manas, the animal intelligence, and the animal soul or Jiva, both half material illusions, that sin and suffer and transmigrate from one body into the other till they purify themselves. The spirit merely overshadows their earthly transmigrations. When the Ego has reached the final state of purity, it will be one with the Atma, and gradually will merge and disappear in Parabrahm.
But this is not what awaits the wicked souls. The soul that does not succeed in getting rid of earthly cares and desires before the death of the body is weighed down by its sins, and, instead of reincarnating in some new form, according to the laws of metempsychosis, it will remain bodiless, doomed to wander on earth. It will become a bhuta, and by its own sufferings will cause unutterable sufferings to its kinsmen. That is why the Hindu fears above all things to remain bodiless after his death.
"It is better for one to enter the body of a tiger, of a dog, even of a yellow-legged falcon, after death, than to become a bhuta!" an old Hindu said to me on one occasion. "Every animal possesses a body of his own and a right to make an honest use of it. Whereas the bhutas are doomed dakoits, brigands and thieves, they are ever watching for an opportunity to use what does not belong to them. This is a horrible state - a horror indescribable. This is the true hell. What is this spiritualism they talk so much of in the West? Is it possible the intelligent English and Americans are so mad as this?"
And all our remonstrances notwithstanding, he refused to believe that there are actually people who are fond of bhutas, who would do much to attract them into their homes.
After supper the men went again to the family well to wash, and then dressed themselves.
Usually at this hour of the night the Hindus put on clean malmalas, a kind of tight shirt, white turbans, and wooden sandals with knobs pressed between the toes. These curious shoes are left at the door whilst their owners return to the hall and sit down along the walls on carpets and cushions to chew betel, smoke hookahs and cheroots, to listen to sacred reading, and to witness the dances of the nautches. But this evening, probably in our honor, all the Hindus dressed magnificently. Some of them wore darias of rich striped satin, no end of gold bangles, necklaces mounted with diamonds and emeralds, gold watches and chains, and transparent Brahmanical scarfs with gold embroidery. The fat fingers and the right ear of our host were simply blazing with diamonds.
The women, who waited on us during the meal, disappeared afterwards for a considerable time. When they came back they also were luxuriously overdressed and were introduced to us formally as the ladies of the house. They were five: the wife of the host, a woman of twenty-six or twenty-seven years of age, then two others looking somewhat younger, one of whom carried a baby, and, to our great astonishment, was introduced as the married daughter of the hostess; then the old mother of the host and a little girl of seven, the wife of one of his brothers. So that our hostess turned out to be a grandmother, and her sister-in-law, who was to enter finally into matrimony in from two to three years, might have become a mother before she was twelve. They were all barefooted, with rings on each of their toes, and all, with the exception of the old woman, wore garlands of natural flowers round their necks and in their jet black hair. Their tight bodices, covered with embroidery, were so short that between them and the sari there was a good quarter of a yard of bare skin. The dark, bronze-coloured waists of these well-shaped Women were boldly presented to any one's examination and reflected the lights of the room. Their beautiful arms and their ankles were covered with bracelets. At the least of their movements they all set up a tinkling silvery sound, and the little sister-in-law, who might easily be mistaken for an automaton doll, could hardly move under her load of ornaments. The young grandmother, our hostess, had a ring in her left nostril, which reached to the lower part of the chin. Her nose was considerably disfigured by the weight of the gold, and we noticed how unusually handsome she was only when she took it off to enable herself to drink her tea with some comfort.
The dances of the nautch girls began. Two of them were very pretty. Their dancing consisted chiefly in more or less expressive movements of their eyes, their heads, and even their ears, in fact, of the whole upper part of their bodies. As to their legs, they either did not move at all or moved with such a swiftness as to appear in a cloud of mist.
After this eventful day I slept the sleep of the just.
After many nights spent in a tent, it is more than agreeable to sleep in a regular bed, even if it is only a hanging one. The pleasure would, no doubt, have been considerably increased had I but known I was resting on the couch of a god. But this latter circumstance was revealed to me only in the morning, when descending the staircase I suddenly discovered the poor general en chef, Hanuman, deprived of his cradle and unceremoniously stowed away under the stairs. Decidedly, the Hindus of the nineteenth century are a degenerate and blaspheming race!
In the course of the morning we learned that this swinging throne of his, and an ancient sofa, were the only pieces of furniture in the whole house that could be transformed into beds.
Neither of our gentlemen had spent a comfortable night. They slept in an empty tower that was once the altar of a decayed pagoda and was situated behind the main building. In assigning to them this strange resting place, the host was guided by the praiseworthy intention of protecting them from the jackals, which freely penetrate into all the rooms of the ground floor, as they are pierced by numberless arches and have no door and no window frames. The jackals, however, did not trouble the gentlemen much that night, except by giving their nightly concert. But both Mr. Y--- and the colonel had to fight all the night long with a vampire, which, besides being a flying fox of an unusual size, happened to be a spirit, as we learned too late, to our great misfortune.
This is how it happened. Noiselessly hovering about the tower, the vampire from time to time alighted on the sleepers, making them shudder under the disgusting touch of his cold sticky wings. His intention clearly was to get a nice suck of European blood. They were wakened by his manipulations at least ten times, and each time frightened him away. But, as soon as they were dozing again, the wretched bat was sure to return and perch on their shoulders, heads, or legs. At last Mr. Y---, losing patience, had recourse to strong measures; he caught him and broke his neck.
Feeling perfectly innocent, the gentlemen mentioned the tragic end of the troublesome flying fox to their host, and instantly drew down on their heads all the thunder-clouds of heaven.
The yard was crowded with people. All the inhabitants of the house stood sorrowfully drooping their heads, at the entrance of the tower. Our host's old mother tore her hair in despair, and shrieked lamentations in all the languages of India. What was the matter with them all? We were at our wits' end. But when we learned the cause of all this, there was no limit to our confusion.
By certain mysterious signs, known only to the family Brahman, it had been decided ten years ago that the soul of our host's elder brother had incarnated in this blood-thirsty vampire-bat. This fact was stated as being beyond any doubt. For nine years the late Patarah Prabhu existed under this new shape, carrying out the laws of metempsychosis. He spent the hours between sunrise and the sunset in an old pipal-tree before the tower, hanging with his head downwards. But at night he visited the old tower and gave fierce chase to the insects that sought rest in this out-of-the-way corner. And so nine years were spent in this happy existence, divided between sleep, food, and the gradual redemption of old sins committed in the shape of a Patarah Prabhu. And now? Now his listless body lay in the dust at the entrance of his favorite tower, and his wings were half devoured by the rats. The poor old woman, his mother, was mad with sorrow, and cast, through her tears, reproachful, angry looks at Mr. Y---, who, in his new capacity of a heartless murderer, looked disgustingly composed.
But the affair was growing serious. The comical side of it disappeared before the sincerity and the intensity of her lamentations. Her descendants, grouped around her, were too polite to reproach us openly, but the expression of their faces was far from reassuring. The family priest and astrologer stood by the old lady, Shastras in hand, ready to begin the ceremony of purification. He solemnly covered the corpse with a piece of new linen and so hid from our eyes the sad remains on which ants were literally swarming.
Mr. Y--- did his best to look unconcerned, but still, when the tactless Miss X--- came to him, expressing her loud indignation at all these superstitions of an inferior race, he at least seemed to remember that our host knew English perfectly, and he did not encourage her farther expressions of sympathy. He made no answer, but smiled contemptuously. Our host approached the colonel with respectful salaams and invited us to follow him.
"No doubt he is going to ask us to leave his house immediately!" was my uncomfortable impression.
But my apprehension was not justified. At this epoch of my Indian pilgrimage I was far, as yet, from having fathomed the metaphysical depth of a Hindu heart.
Sham Rao began by delivering a very far-fetched, eloquent preface. He reminded us that he, personally, was an enlightened man, a man who possessed all the advantages of a Western education. He said that, owing to this, he was not quite sure that the body of the vampire was actually inhabited by his late brother. Darwin, of course, and some other great naturalists of the West, seemed to believe in the transmigration of souls, but, as far as he understood, they believed in it in an inverse sense; that is to say, if a baby had been born to his mother exactly at the moment of the vampire's death, this baby would indubitably have had a great likeness to a vampire, owing to the decaying atoms of the vampire being so close to her.
"Is not this an exact interpretation of the Darwinian school?" he asked.
We modestly answered that, having traveled almost incessantly during the last year, we could not help being a bit behindhand in the questions of modern science, and that we were not able to follow its latest conclusions.
"But I have followed them!" rejoined the good-natured Sham Rao, with a touch of pomposity. "And so I hope I may be allowed to say that I have understood and duly appreciated their most recent developments. I have just finished studying the magnificent Anthropogenesis of Haeckel, and have carefully discussed in my own mind his logical, scientific explanations of the origin of man from inferior animal forms through transformation. And what is this transformation, pray, if not the transmigration of the ancient and modern Hindus, and the metempsychosis of the Greeks?"
We had nothing to say against the identity, and even ventured to observe that, according to Haeckel, it does look like it.
"Exactly!" exclaimed he joyfully. "This shows that our conceptions are neither silly nor superstitious, as is maintained by some opponents of Manu. The great Manu, anticipated Darwin and Haeckel. Judge for yourself; the latter derives the genesis of man from a group of plastides, from the jelly-like moneron; this moneron, through the ameoba, the ascidian, the brainless and heartless amphioxus, and so on, transmigrates in the eighth remove into the lamprey, is transformed, at last, into a vertebrate amniote, into a premammalian, into a marsupial animal.... The vampire, in its turn, belongs to the species of vertebrates. You, being well read people all of you, cannot contradict this statement." He was right in his supposition; we did not contradict it.
"In this case, do me the honor to follow my argument ..."
We did follow his argument with the greatest attention, but were at a loss to foresee whither it tended to lead us.
"Darwin," continued Sham Rao, "in his Origin of Species, re-established almost word for word the palin-genetic teachings of our Manu. Of this I am perfectly convinced, and, if you like, I can prove it to you book in hand. Our ancient law-giver, amongst other sayings, speaks as follows: ‘The great Parabrahm commanded man to appear in the universe, after traversing all the grades of the animal kingdom, and springing primarily from the worm of the deep sea mud.' The worm be-came a snake, the snake a fish, the fish a mammal, and so on. Is not this very idea at the bottom of Darwin's theory, when he maintains that the organic forms have their origin in more simple species, and says that the structureless protoplasm born in the mud of the Laurentian and Silurian periods - the Manu's `mud of the seas,' I dare say - gradually transformed itself into the anthro-poid ape, and then finally into the human being?"
We said it looked very like it.
"But, in spite of all my respect for Darwin and his eminent follower Haeckel, I cannot agree with their final conclusions, especially with the conclusions of the latter," continued Sham Rao. "This hasty and bilious German is perfectly accurate in copying the embryology of Manu and all the metamorphoses of our ancestors, but he forgets the evolution of the human soul, which, as it is stated by Manu, goes hand in hand with the evolution of matter. The son of Swayambhuva, the Self Becoming, speaks as follows: ‘Everything created in a new cycle, in addition to the qualities of its preceding transmigrations, acquires new qualities, and the nearer it approaches to man, the highest type of the earth, the brighter becomes its divine spark; but, once it has become a Brahma, it will enter the cycle of conscious transmigrations.' Do you realize what that means? It means that from this moment, its transformations depend no longer on the blind laws of gradual evolution, but on the least of a man's actions, which brings either a reward or a punishment. Now you see that it depends on the man's will whether, on the one hand, he will start on the way to Moksha, the eternal bliss, passing from one Loka to another till he reaches Brahmaloka, or, on the other, owing to his sins, will be thrown back. You know that the average soul, once freed from earthly reincarnations, has to ascend from one Loka to another, always in the human shape, though this shape will grow and perfect itself with every Loka. Some of our sects understood these Lokas to mean certain stars. These spirits, freed from earthly matter, are what we mean by Pitris and Devas, whom we worship. And did not your Kabalists of the middle ages designate these Pitris under the expression Planetary Spirits? But, in the case of a very sinful man, he will have to begin once more with the animal forms which he had already traversed unconsciously. Both Darwin and Haeckel lose sight of this, so to speak, second volume of their incomplete theory, but still neither of them advances any argument to prove it false. Is it not so?"
"Neither of them does anything of the sort, most assuredly."
"Why, in this case," exclaimed he, suddenly changing his colloquial tone for an aggressive one, "why am I, I who have studied the most modern ideas of Western science, I who believe in its representatives - why am I suspected, pray, by Miss X--- of belonging to the tribe of the ignorant and superstitious Hindus? Why does she think that our perfected scientific theories are superstitions, and we ourselves a fallen inferior race?"
Sham Rao stood before us with tears in his eyes. We were at a loss what to answer him, being confused to the last degree by this outburst.
"Mind you, I do not proclaim our popular beliefs to be infallible dogmas. I consider them as mere theories, and try to the best of my ability to reconcile the ancient and the modern science. I formulate hypotheses just like Darwin and Haeckel. Besides, if I understood rightly, Miss X--- is a spiritualist, so she believes in bhutas. And, believing that a bhuta is capable of penetrating the body of a medium, how can she deny that a bhuta, and more so a less sinful soul, may enter the body of a vampire-bat?"
I own, this logic was a little too condensed for us, and so, avoiding a direct answer to a metaphysical question of such delicacy, we tried to apologize and excuse Miss X---'s rudeness as well as we could.
"She did not mean to offend you," we said, "she only repeated a calumny, familiar to every European. Besides, if she had taken the trouble to think it over, she probably would not have said it ..."
Little by little we succeeded in pacifying our host. He recovered his usual cheerfulness, but could not resist the temptation of adding a few words to his long argumentation. He had just begun to reveal to us certain peculiarities of his late brother's character, which induced him to be prepared, judging by the laws of atavism, to see their repetition in the propensities of a vampire bat, when Mr. Y--- suddenly dashed in on our small group and spoiled all the results of our conciliatory words by screaming at the top of his voice: "The old woman has gone demented! She keeps on cursing us and says that the murder of this wretched bat is only the forerunner of a whole series of misfortunes brought on her house by you, Sham Rao," said he, hastily addressing the bewildered follower of Haackel. "She says you have polluted your Brahmanical holiness by inviting us. Colonel, you had better send for the elephants. In another moment all this crowd will be on us ..."
"For goodness' sake!" exclaimed poor Sham Rao, "have some consideration for my feelings. She is an old woman, she has some superstitions, but she is my mother. You are educated people, learned people ... Advise me, show me a way out of all these difficulties. What should you do in my place?"
"What should I do, sir?" exclaimed Mr. Y---, completely put out of temper by the utter ludicrousness of our awkward predicament. "What should I do? Were I a man in your position and a believer in all you are brought up to believe, I should take my revolver, and in the first place, shoot all the vampire bats in the neighborhood, if only to rid all your late relations from the abject bodies of these creatures, and, in the second place, I should endeavor to smash the head of the conceited fraud in the shape of a Brahman who invented all this stupid story. That is what I should do, sir!"
But this advice did not content the miserable descendant of Rama. No doubt he would have remained a long time undecided as to what course of action to adopt, torn as he was between the sacred feelings of hospitality, the innate fear of the Brahman-priest, and his own superstitions, if our ingenious Babu had not come to our rescue. Learning that we all felt more or less indignant at all this row, and that we were preparing to leave the house as quickly as possible, he persuaded us to stay, if only for an hour, saying that our hasty departure would be a terrible outrage upon our host, whom, in any case, we could not find fault with. As to the stupid old woman, the Babu promised us to pacify her speedily enough: he had his own plans and views. In the meantime, he said, we had better go and examine the ruins of an old fortress close by.
We obeyed very reluctantly, feeling an acute interest in his "plans." We proceeded slowly. Our gentlemen were visibly out of temper. Miss X--- tried to calm herself by talking more than usual, and Narayan, as phlegmatic as usual, indolently and good-naturedly chaffed her about her beloved "spirits." Glancing back we saw the Babu accompanied by the family priest. Judging by their gestures they were engaged in some warm discussion. The shaven head of the Brahman nodded right and left, his yellow garment flapped in the wind, and his arms rose towards the sky, as if in an appeal to the gods to come down and testify to the truth of his words.
"I'll bet you a thousand dollars, no plans of our Babu's will be of any avail with this fanatic!" confidently remarked the colonel as he lit his pipe.
But we had hardly walked a hundred steps after this remark when we saw the Babu running after us and signaling us to stop.
"Everything ended first-rate!" screamed he, as soon as we could hear. "You are to be thanked ... You happen to be the true saviours and benefactors of the deceased bhuta ... You ..."
Our Babu sank on the ground holding his narrow, panting breast with both his hands, and laughed, laughed till we all burst into laughter too, before learning any-thing at all.
"Think of it," began the Babu, and stopped short, prevented from going on by his exuberant hilarity. "Just think of it! The whole transaction is to cost me only ten rupees ... I offered five at first ... but he would not ... He said this was a sacred matter ... But ten he could not resist! Ho, ho, ho ... "
At last we learned the story. All the metempsychoses depend on the imagination of the family Gurus, who receive for their kind offices from one hundred to one hundred and fifty rupees a year.
Every rite is accompanied by a more or less considerable addition to the purse of the insatiable family Brahman, but the happy events pay better than the sad ones. Knowing all this, the Babu asked the Brahman point-blank to perform a false samadhi, that is to say, to feign an inspiration and to announce to the sorrowing mother that her late son's will had acted consciously in all the circumstances; that he brought about his end in the body of the flying fox, that he was tired of that grade of transmigration, that he longed for death in order to attain a higher position in the animal kingdom, that he is happy, and that he is deeply indebted to the sahib who broke his neck and so freed him from his abject embodiment.
Besides, the observant eye of our all-knowing Babu had not failed to remark that a she-buffalo of the Guru's was expecting a calf, and that the Guru was yearning to sell it to Sham Rao. This circumstance was a trump card in the Babu's hand. Let the Guru announce, under the influence of samadhi, that the freed spirit intends to inhabit the body of the future baby-buffalo and the old lady will buy the new incarnation of her first-born as sure as the sun is bright. This announcement will be followed by rejoicings and by new rites. And who will profit by all this if not the family priest?
At first the Guru had some misgivings, and swore by everything sacred that the vampire bat was veritably inhabited by the brother of Sham Rao. But the Babu knew better than to give in. The Guru ended by understanding that his skillful opponent saw through his tricks, and that he was well aware that the Shastras exclude the possibility of such a transmigration. Growing alarmed, the Guru also grew meek, and asked only ten rupees and a promise of silence for the performance of a samadhi.
On our way back we were met at the gate by Sham Rao, who was simply radiant. Whether he was afraid of our laughing at him, or was at loss to find an explanation of this new metamorphosis in the positive sciences in general, and Haeckel in particular, he did not attempt to explain why the affair had taken such an unexpectedly good turn. He merely mentioned awkwardly enough that his mother, owing to some new mysterious conjectures of hers, had dismissed all sad apprehensions as to the destiny of her elder son, and he then dropped the subject completely.
In order to wipe away the traces of the morning's perplexities from our minds, Sham Rao invited us to sit on the verandah, by the wide entrance of his idol room, whilst the family prayers were going on. Nothing could suit us better. It was nine o'clock, the usual time of the morning prayers. Sham Rao went to the well to get ready, and dress himself, as he said, though the process was more like undressing. In a few moments he came back wearing only a dhuti, as during dinner time, and with his head uncovered. He went straight to his idol room. The moment he entered we heard the loud stroke of a bell that hung under the ceiling, and that continued tolling all the time the prayers lasted.
The Babu explained to us that a little boy was pulling the bell rope from the roof.
Sham Rao stepped in with his right foot and very slowly. Then he approached the altar and sat on a little stool with his legs crossed. At the opposite side of the room, on the red velvet shelves of an altar that resembled an etagere in the drawing-room of some fashionable lady, stood many idols. They were made of gold, of silver, of brass and of marble, according to their importance and merits. Maha-Deva or Shiva was of gold. Gunpati or Ganesha of silver, Vishnu in the form of a round black stone from the river Gandaki in Nepal. In this form Vishnu is called Lakshmi-Narayan. There were also many other gods unknown to us, who were worshipped in the shapes of big sea-shells, called Chakra. Surya, the god of the sun, and the kula-devas, the domestic gods, were placed in the second rank. The altar was sheltered by a cupola of carved sandal-wood. During the night the gods and the offerings were covered by a huge bell glass. On the walls there were many sacred images representing the chief episodes in the biographies of the higher gods.
Sham Rao filled his left hand with ashes, murmuring prayers all the while, covered it for a second with the right one, then put some matter to the ashes, and mixing the two by rubbing his hands together, he traced a line on his face with this mixture by moving the thumb of his right hand from his nose upwards, then from the middle of the forehead to the right temple, then back again to the left temple. Having done with his face he proceeded to cover with wet ashes his throat, arms, shoulders, his back, head and ears. In one corner of the room stood a huge bronze font filled with water. Sham Rao made straight to it and plunged into it three times, dhuti, head, and all, after which he came out looking exactly like a well-favored dripping wet Triton. He twisted the only lock of hair on the top of his shaved head and sprinkled it with water. This operation concluded the first act.
The second act began with religious meditations and with mantrams, which, by really pious people, must be repeated three times a day - at sunrise, at noon and at sunset. Sham Rao loudly pronounced the names of twenty-four gods, and each name was accompanied by a stroke of the bell. Having finished he first shut his eyes and stuffed his ears with cotton, then pressed his left nostril with two fingers of his left hand, and having filled his lungs with air through the right nostril, pressed the latter also. Then he tightly closed his lips, so that breathing became impossible. In this position every pious Hindu must mentally repeat a certain verse, which is called the Gayatri. These are sacred words which no Hindu will dare to pronounce aloud. Even in repeating them mentally he must take every precaution not to inhale anything impure.
I am bound by my word of honor never to repeat the whole of this prayer, but I may quote a few unconnected sentences: "Om ... Earth ... Heaven ... Let the adored light of ... [here follows a name which must not be pronounced] shelter me. Let thy Sun, O thou only One, shelter me, the unworthy ... I shut my eyes, I shut my ears, I do not breathe ... in order to see, hear and breathe thee alone. Throw light upon our thoughts [again the secret name] ... "
It is curious to compare this Hindu prayer with the celebrated prayer of Descartes' "Meditation III" in his L'Existence de Dieu. It runs as follows, if I remember rightly: "Now I shut my eyes, cover my ears, and dismiss all my five senses, I will dwell on the thought of God alone, I will meditate on His quality and look on the beauty of this wondrous radiancy."
After this prayer Sham Rao read many other prayers, holding with two fingers his sacred Brahmanical thread. After a while began the ceremony of "the washing of the gods." Taking them down from the altar, one after the other, according to their rank, Sham Rao first plunged them in the big font, in which he had just bathed himself, and then bathed them in milk in a smaller bronze font by the altar. The milk was mixed up with curds, butter, honey, and sugar, and so it cannot be said that this cleansing served its purpose. No wonder we were glad to see that the gods underwent a second bathing in the first font and then were dried with a clean towel.
When the gods were arranged in their respective places, the Hindu traced on them the sectarian signs with a ring from his left hand. He used white sandal paint for the lingam and red for Gunpati and Surya. Then he sprinkled them with aromatic oils and covered them with fresh flowers. The long ceremony was finished by "the awakening of the gods." A small bell was repeatedly rung under the noses of the idols, who, as the Brahman probably supposed, all went to sleep during this tedious ceremony.
Having noticed, or fancied, which often amounts to the same thing, that they were wide awake, he began offering them his daily sacrifices,
lighting the incense and the lamps, and, to our great astonishment, snapping his fingers from time to time, as if warning the idols to "look out." Having filled the room with clouds of incense and fumes of burning camphor, he scattered some more flowers over the altar and sat on the small stool for a while, murmuring the last prayers. He repeatedly held the palms of his hands over the flame of the tapers and rubbed his face with them. Then he walked round the altar three times, and, having knelt three times, retreated backwards to the door.
A little while before our host had finished his morning prayers the ladies of the house came into the room. They brought each a small stool and sat in a row murmuring prayers and telling the beads of their rosaries.
The part played by the rosaries in India is as important as in all Buddhist countries. Every god has his favorite flower and his favorite material for a rosary. The fakirs are simply covered with rosaries. The rosary is called mala and consists of one hundred and eight beads. Very pious Hindus are not content to tell the beads when praying; they must hide their hands during this ceremony in a bag called gomukha, which means the cow's mouth.
We left the women to their prayers and followed our host to the cow house. The cow symbolizes the "fostering earth," or Nature, and is worshipped accordingly. Sham Rao sat down by the cow and washed her feet, first with her own milk, then with water. He gave her some sugar and rice, covered her forehead with powdered sandal, and adorned her horns and four legs with chains of flowers. He burned some incense under her nostrils and brandished a burning lamp over her head. Then he walked three times round her and sat down to rest. Some Hindus walk round the cow one hundred and eight times, rosary in hand. But our Sham Rao had a slight tendency to freethinking, as we knew, and besides, he was too much of an admirer of Haeckel. Having rested himself, he filled a cup with water, put in it the cow's tail for a moment, and then drank it!
After this he performed the rite of worshipping the sun and the sacred plant tulsi. Unable to bring the god Surya from his heavenly altar and wash him in the sacred font, Sham Rao contented himself by filling his own mouth with water, standing on one leg, and spirting this water towards the sun. Needless to say it never reached the orb of day, but, very unexpectedly, sprinkled us instead.
It is still a mystery to us why the plant tulsi, Royal Basilicum, is worshipped. However, towards the end of September we yearly witnessed the strange ceremony of the wedding of this plant with the god Vishnu, notwithstanding that tulsi bears the title of Krishna's bride, probably because of the latter being an incarnation of Vishnu. On these occasions pots of this plant are painted and adorned with tinsel. A magical circle is traced in the garden and the plant is put in the middle of it. A Brahman brings an idol of Vishnu and begins the marriage ceremony, standing before the plant. A married couple hold a shawl between the plant and the god, as if screening them from each other, the Brahman utters prayers, and young women, and especially unmarried girls, who are the most ardent worshippers of tulsi, throw rice and saffron over the idol and the plant. When the ceremony is concluded, the Brahman is presented with the shawl, the idol is put in the shade of his wife, the Hindus clap their hands, rend everyone's ears with the noise of tom-toms, let off fireworks, offer each other pieces of sugar-cane, and rejoice in every conceivable way till the dawn of the next day.