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Letter XV[1]

Hindus take their food only twice a day (we are talking about the rich people), 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 invocations being considered a sin. Thousands of educated Hindus have long ceased to believe in all these superstitious customs, but, nevertheless, they have to obey them.

Sham Rao Bahunathji, our host, belonged to the ancient caste of Patarah Prabhus (Pátáres Prabbhus), and was very proud of his origin. Prabhu (i.e. lords) are the descends from the kshatriyas (wariers). 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.[2] For them alone Brahmins have to perform certain purely Vedic rites, known under the name of the “kshatriya rites.” Nowadays they are called patans (i.e. the “fallen ones”), instead of patars. 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 had cursed him and declared that his reign was drawing near its end, and that all his posterity would perish. Then 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. As a consequence of this, 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 (the fallen ones), and to lead a humbler life than milions of their late subjects. Happily for our talkative Amphitryon[3], his forefathers became Brahmins, 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 that since the time of British rule the patans occupy all the small Government posts in the Bombay Presidency, as the Bengali babus do in north-east provinces. In Bombay alone their number counts up to 5,000. Their complexion is darker than the complexion of Konkan Brahmins, but they are handsomer and brighter. As to the mysterious expression, “went through the golden cow,” it means the following. The Kshatriyas, and even the much-despised Shudras, may become a sort of “collateral” Brahmins. This metamorphosis depends on the will of the real Brahmins, 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 Brahmin. 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 historically-legendary Patar chronicle from our obliging host with great courtesy.

Having announced that we must now get ready for dinner, the honourable Shamrao disappeared, taking away all the gentlemen of our party. Being left to ourselves, Miss B*** 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 for explanations.

The “prabhu” (if there are several brothers) always live in one bungalow, but every married brother have separate room (or even a separate house on the yard) and servants of their own. The habitation of our host was very spacious, surounded by small annexes, occupied by his brothers, and a chief building containing rooms for visitors, the general dining-room, a small chapel, a lying-in ward room, another one for deceased and so on. Like all native bungalows, the entire lower floor was surrounded by a veranda (covered gallery), from which entrances with arches and without doors led to a large hall, occupying the entire lower floor. Around this room, at all its four sides there were wooden columns with magnificent carvings, supporting the ceiling of the upper floor and replacing the walls in this case. For some reason or other, it struck me that these pillars once could belong to some palace of the “dead town.” Their style bore no traces of Hindu taste; no gods, no fabulous monster animals, only arabesques and elegant leaves and flowers. 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.

An extension was attached to the right side of the facade – a high room, called “ozri”. In all native houses in such “ozri” there are stairs (carved, like everything else) leading upstairs, at the foot of which there is 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 our old friend Hanuman, I grew bold and endeavored to examine him... Alas! the poor idol possessed only a head, 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. So one of them served as that for puerperas; the other one – for the unfortunate widows, the third one – for the dead and, finally, there was a large room called “wattan” – a room for the fair sex, women who 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 his sisters and 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 forever. She must part with all her trinkets, her earrings, her nose jewels, her bangles and all the finger-rings and toe-rings. She is literally dead as for her family, so for entire world. Even a mang 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 Brahmins are clever managers, and the widows often long for the bonfire.

At last, having examined the last room – Hindu sanctuary – the “chapel”, full of idols, which had flowers before them and burning candles and icon-lamps, and incense smoking from the rich bronze vases, and tulasi[4] and other aromatic herbs covering its floor, we went to dress up. After washing our faces and hands, we were asked to take off our shoes: this is the custom, and we had to choose whether to submit and take part in the Brahmin’s dinner or to refuse and miss the opportunity. 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[5], and looked like something between white Hindus and Constantinople garcons de bains[6]. Both were indescribably funny, I never saw anything funnier then Europeans in such a dress. 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. Forty-five-year-old Miss B *** tried to blush, but immediately followed my example. The worst has happened; let’s see what comes next...

Ceremonies and the rites which have just been spoken of, reach among the Hindus a complete climax before every lunch and dinner. 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, but takes off the few things he wore during the day. He bathes by the well (i.e. washes hands, feet and face) and loosens his long hair lock at the top of his shaven head.[7] To cover the body or the head whilst eating would be sinful for Hindus. Wrapping his waist and legs in a white silk dhuti,[8] he goes once more to salute the idols and then sits down to his meal.

But here I shall allow myself to digress for the sake of unintentionally comming question: whether this apparent superstition about spirits and silk may not contain a deeper meaning. It is difficult, I own, to part with favorite among scientinsts theories about all the customs of ancient heathendom are based on mere ignorance and gross 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 long ago? 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 pro-pounded 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[9]. More recently, Western mathematicians pointed to Hipparchus of Nicaea as the father of trigonometry, although everything they ever could learn about him was learned from the words of his disciple Ptolemy; and now an ancient manuscript has been found here, proving that the “equation of the center” (equation du center)[10] was known to the Indians long before B.C.. Even in our times (in 1880) now lives in India and humbly works as an assistant judge in some remote place a certain Dinanaf Atmaram Dalvi (M.A. L.L.B., that is, master of science and a bachelor of jurisprudence), perhaps the greatest mathematical genius in the world. According to the director of public education in India – Payle – he, Dalvi, proved (three years ago) that the great Newton in his “Rules for Imaginary Roots” was mistaken from beginning to end, and that the application of this Newtonian rule did not achieve the goal at all. The same Dalvi upset the theorems of one of the greatest English mathematicians Professor Sylvester to the smithereens...[11]

All this leads us to suppose that ancient Aryans, when instituting the strange custom of wearing silk dhuti during meals, had something more serious in view, than the dismissing of “demons.” Although it is strange that even in our enlightened age there are learned doctor-spiritualists who (like Dr. Eugene Crowell, in New York) write entire scientific dissertations, proving that the so-called “mediums” have one salvation from evil kikimora spirits – to wear tightly tied silk scarves on his head and chest, and although the venerable Crowell has not yet clearly proved to the scientific world that kikimoras in general (especially American) tremble before the production of silkworms, but he clearly and logically explains the role of silk matter in relation to electricity. And therefore ...

Our host came for us, and we went to the dining room.

Having entered the “refectory,” we immediately noticed what were the Hindu precautions against their being polluted. 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. Aside there was yet a third square to contain Hindus of a different caste. Except for this light barrier, both halves were the same. 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 tika (butea frondosa): larger dishes of several leaves pinned together with thorns, plates 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 strictly vegetarian food. The beaf, fowl, eggs and fish were banished from this menu. There were chutneys[12] preserved in vinegar and honey, fruit and vegetables, panchamrits[13], 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, etc.. All this was crowned with a mountain of exquisitely cooked rice and another mountain of chapatis – flat cakes like Georgian “chureks”. 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 in seven queer shaped chandeliers, which represented the trunk of a tree with a seven-headed cobra wound round it and spread its heads around. 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 Brahminical 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 together and touching the forehead, the breast, and then the floor. They all said to us: “Ram-Ram” and “namaste”,[14] and then made straight for their respective seats in perfect silence and sat down with their legs tucked under them. Their civilities reminded me that the custom of greeting each other with the twice pronounced name of the 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. Suddenly an invisible choir of half a dozen nautch-girls (singers and dancers in pagodas)[15] chanted a monotonous hymn, celebrating the glory of the gods. To this accompaniment we began satisfying our appetites, being hungy and tiered. Thanks to the Babu's instructions, we took great care to eat only with our right hands. 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 natives 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 had an opportunity 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 and green brooks of pickles flew on his breast and on clumsily tucked knees. But unsatisfied curiosity happily came to my rescue, and I went on watching the quaint proceedings of the Hindus. I will try to describe the curious details of their manner of having lunch and dinner.

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 he chanted 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 finally 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 seconds, 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, and probably wishing to honor India, the colonel tried to imitate all these movements. He also was leaning far forward with his whole body, but, alas! – the venerable belly turned out to be a serious obstacle. Losing his balance, he almost fell off his bench face straight into the dishes, happily escaping tragedy this time, only his glasses flew into sour milk with 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 (deamon or spirit of the deceased) 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 souls of the people who have died with ungratified desires and earthly passions (Hindus don’t recognize other restless dead). 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 are despised to get rid of them and to calm down the unbridled bhutas. 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 say, “will not let his soul revisit the earth, if this soul is equally pure. He is glad to die and unite his spirit (atma) to Brahma, to live an eternal life in svarga (heaven) and enjoy the society of the beautiful gandharvas (singing angels or cherubs). He is glad to slumber whole eternities, listening to their celestial songs, whilst the soul (jiva) continues to be purified of earthly dirt in a body that is more pure and more perfect than that she just left.”[16]

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 the most horrible state – a horror indescribable. This is the true hell on our opinion. What kind of spiritualism is that in the West? Is it possible the intelligent English and Americans are so mad as this?”

And he refused to believe that there are actually people who are fond of bhutas and even invite 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 made of thin jaconet[17], 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. That is on regular day, but this evening, probably in our honor, all the Hindus dressed magnificently. Some of them wore darias of rich striped satin, several golden bangles, necklaces mounted with diamonds and emeralds, gold watches and chains, and transparent djanvi, Brahminical 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: hostess, the wife of the stout host, a woman of twenty-six or twenty-seven years of age, then two others looking somewhat younger, and, to our great astonishment, the one who carried a baby, was introduced as the daughter of the hostess; then the old mother of the host and a little girl of seven, the wife 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 long 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 braid. Their costumes consisted of tight-fitting neck and chest embroidered with gold short corsages (chali). Worn on a naked body, they did not reach a whole quarter to the sari – skirt-veil (if you can call skirts these short trousers, the upper part of which serve as a veil for the head together with a mantilla), and bravely opened a swarthy, shining in the fire, as if cast in bronze, slender waists of the beautiful women. 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 beautiful 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 minced at one spot and either did not move at all or moved with such a swiftness as to appear in a cloud of mist...

I slept the sleep of the just.



  1. Moscow News, № 64, 05.03.1880, pp. 4-5; Russian Herald, January 1883, Supplement, vol 163, pp. 136-149.
  2. That was, according to the chronology of the Hindus in the last to the present Kali Yuga and in preceding that yuga, as they divide the Maha Yuga or "great period" into four smaller periods (yugas), or according to purely arithmetic calculation, about two million years ago!!
  3. Amphitrion is a common name of a hospitable host from the play of the same title by the French playwright Molière (1622-1673). - Ed.
  4. Tulasi (Sanskrit tulasī) is Ocimum tenuiflorum, commonly known as holy basil. - Ed.
  5. Dhutis is a piece of muslin wrapped round to the waist and forming a petticoat. – Trans.
  6. Garcons de bains (Fr.) – servants in public baths. – Ed.
  7. Some Bengalis wear short hair, without shaving off anything on their heads; Punjabs also do not shave their hair, but wear it to its full length and they never cut it, hiding their hair only during the day under a white turban. Rajputs also wear long hair, picking it up at the back of their heads. But Marathas and the Deccan inhabitants wear their hair like the Iroquois, leaving one long chub, as the Zaporozhye Cossacks used to do.
  8. “Silk possesses the property of dismissing the evil spirits who inhabit the magnetic fluids of the atmosphere,” says the Mantram, book v., verse 23.
  9. Jyotisha is a Vedic astrology. – Ed.
  10. The equation of the center is the angular difference between the actual position of a body in its elliptical orbit and the position it would occupy if its motion were uniform, in a circular orbit of the same period. – Ed.
  11. In the case (and this case will certainly happen), somebody from our Russian mathematicians, admirers of sir Isaac Newton “get angry” with such unproven (so far) blasphemy against the great mathematician and cast doubt on my statement, I invite each of a dozen disgruntled persons – to contact the editor of the Moscow Vedomosti with a request to let me know at my address on such question. I will without delay send to the editor several brochures of the Atmaram Dalvi in which he lengthy and (according the best professors) irrefutably proves the errors of Newton. Brochures will be sent by me for free out of love of justice and friendship to the author, the genius of whom is lost in vain in an unknown remote place of India. Brochures are printed in English.
  12. Chutney is a large group of traditional Indian sauces that enhance the taste of the main course. Spicy chutneys complement mild dishes well. Chutney is sometimes made from vegetables, but more often from fruit. – Ed.
  13. Panchamrita (Sansk. pañcāmṛta, pañca – five, amṛta – nectar of immortality, ambrosia, the drink of the gods) is a mixture of the five mentioned liquids. – Ed.
  14. The first is the name of the hero deified by them; the second, literally translated from Sanskrit: “I bow down before you.”
  15. Also known as devadasi, which means servant of god, from Sancrit deva – god and dasi – servant. – Ed.
  16. The Hindus believe that the spirit or atma, a particle of the whole, 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 semi-material illusion or maya, that sin and suffer and transmigrate from one body into the other till they purify themselves. The spirit merely overshadows their earthly wanderings. When the Ego has reached the final state of purity, it will be one with the atma (spirit), and gradually will merge and disappear in Parabrahm.
  17. Jaconet is a lightweight cotton cloth. – Ed.