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Letter XVI[1]

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 divine general en chef[2] (Hanuman) deprived of his cradle and, together with his rag body, stowed away under the stairs. Decidedly, the Hindus of the XIX century are a degenerate and blaspheming race!

It appeared 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. Our two gentlemen had spent this night even worse than we did. They slept in an empty tower that was once the gapar (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 bat, happened to be a “spirit”, as they learned too late, to their great misfortune. This is how it happened.

Noiselessly hovering about the tower, the vampire from time to time alighted on the sleepers, waving 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, legs, or breast. At last Mr. Y*** managed somehow to catch him by the wing and broke his neck...

In the morning, feeling perfectly innocent, the gentlemen boasted of the heroic deed to their host, and instantly seemed to draw 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? When we learned the cause of all this, there was no limit to our confusion. By certain mysterious signs, known only to the family Brahmin, it had been decided that the soul of our host's elder brother (the son of raging old woman) had incarnated in this blood-thirsty vampire-bat right in the death day. For nine years the late man existed under this new shape, carrying out the laws of metempsychosis. He spent the hours in sleep between sunrise and the sunset in an old pipal-tree before the tower (dwelling for spirits from the ages of old), hanging with his head downwards. But at night he visited the old tower and hunted the insects that sought rest in this out-of-the-way corner. So the vampire lived, gradually redeeming old sins committed in the shape of a Prabhu “patan”. And now? Now his breathless body lay in the dust at the entrance of tower, and his wings were half devoured by the rats... The poor old woman 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 muddled and tragic. The comical side of it disappeared before the sincerity and the intensity of her sorrow. The crowd stood around; silent and serious, obviously not daring to express their real feelings to the English “saabs”, but looking at us not very cordially. The family priest and astrologer stood by the old lady with Shastras in hand, ready to begin the ceremony of tower purification. He already gave the order to cover the corpse of disgusting vampire with a piece of new linen, and so hid from our eyes the sad remains on which ants were literally swarming...

Y*** was still standing, whistling coolly and with both hands in his pockets. Approaching, Miss B*** was not embarrassed by the presence of the English-speaking host, loudly orated (absolutely a l'anglaise[3]) of the gross, ignorant superstition of this "fallen race". Y*** made no answer, but smiled rather contemptuously. Our host approached the colonel with respectful “salaams” and courteously invited us to follow him for “a few minutes to talk”.

“Well,” I thought to myself, “we are going to be expelled!..”

But we were 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, the host, 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 us.

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 thought very much about 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[4], from the jelly-like moneron[5]; this moneron, through the ameoba[6], the zinamebia[7], the ascidian[8], the brainless and heartless amphioxus[9], and so on, transmigrates in the eighth remove into the lamprey[10], is transformed, at last, into a vertebrate amniote[11], into a premammalian[12], into a marsupial animal. The vampire, in its turn, belongs to the species of vertebrates... You, being well read people, cannot contradict this statement.”

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[13] teachings of our Manu. Of this I am perfectly convinced, and ready to prove with books in hand. Our ancient law-giver speaks in short 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 became 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’) gradually transformed itself into the anthropoid[14], 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 follower Haeckel, I cannot agree with their final conclusions, especially with the conclusions of the latter,” continued speechify 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 in all its changes... The son of Swayambhuva (“uncreated”) 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,’ and adds ‘but, once it has become a Brahma (that is to say it reached the highest point of transmigration in a form of human being), it will enter the cycle of conscious transmigrations.' In other words, 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[15] to another till he reaches Brahmaloka, or, on the other, owing to his sins, will be thrown back by the law of retribution. In this case, he will be obliged to return to the former, already once unconsciously passed animal form. Both Darwin and Haeckel lose sight of this, so to speak, second volume of their incomplete theory, which was wisely included in Manu teaching, but still neither of them advances any argument to prove it false. Is it not so?”

“It seems they don’t.”

“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, which, in turn, literally confirm with scientific conclusions at least the first half (the evolution of the physical world) of the teachings of Manu. – 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 complete scientific theories are ‘superstitions’, and we ourselves are the sons of a ‘fallen inferior race’?..”

And poor Shamrao even had tears in his eyes at the memory of undeserved insult from a tactless Englishwoman. We were at a loss what to answer him, being confused.

“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, as I heard, Miss X*** is a spiritualist, so she believes in spirits, 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's an Englishwoman," we said, "and you can't change her: she didn't want to offend anyone, but simply expressed thoughtlessly slander about superstitions..." and so on.

Little by little we succeeded in pacifying our host. He had just begun to reveal to us more zealously 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... but Mr. Y*** suddenly almost spoiled the whole business:

“The old woman has gone demented!..” he screamed over the yard, “she keeps on cursing us and says that the murder of this vampire is only the forerunner of a whole series of misfortunes brought on her house by her son – you, Sham Rao,” said he, hastily addressing the bewildered follower of Haeckel. “She says you have polluted your Brahminical holiness by inviting us, bellati, to share supper with you and to spend a night in your house... Colonel, you had better send for the elephants, or we shall be expelled.”

“For goodness' sake!” exclaimed poor Sham Rao, “have some consideration for my feelings. She is an old woman, she might have 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 relatives 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 Brahmin 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 Brahmin-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 plan, as he said. 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 “plan.” We proceeded slowly. Our gentlemen were visibly out of temper. Miss B*** was speechifying, 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 Brahmin nodded in all directions, 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...

“There is nothing he can do 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.... but ten he took.” And he laughed again.

Finally, he explained to us the following trick invented by him, which gives us a clear idea of the Brahmin holiness. He knew that all the metempsychoses depend on the imagination of the family “gurus,” who receive for their kind offices from 100 to 150 rupees a year. Such Brahmins are at the same time astrologers and managers of all established religious ceremonies in the family. Every rite is accompanied by a more or less considerable addition to the purse of the insatiable family Brahmin, but the happy events pay better than the sad ones. Knowing all this, the Babu asked the Brahmin 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 bat, that he was tired of that grade of transmigration, that he longed for death in order to attain a higher position, 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 Brahmin was expecting a calf, and that the Brahmin was yearning to sell it to Sham Rao, but he denied to purchase. What is to be better? Let the Reverend Guru announce (under the influence of the same samadhi) that the freed spirit intends to inhabit the body of the future baby-buffalo and the old lady will force Sham Rao to buy the new incarnation of her eldest son. This announcement will be followed by rejoicings and by new rites and the noble Brahmin will benefit the whole bunch of rupees on the case.

At first the Guru had some misgivings, and swore by everything sacred that the vampire bat was veritably inhabited by the son of the house. 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 do not prove the possibility of such a transmigration. Therefore he agreed and demanded only 10 rupees and a promise of silence… So the business was done and old woman came down.

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. But then he became even more friendly and cheerful and begged us "out of pure love to science" to go with him that evening to the religious tamasha[16]. Known throughout the neighborhood jaduvalla (charmer, sorceress) was at that time under the influence of seven goddesses, seven sisters, who are all took possession of her one by one and prophesied through her mouth...

We gladly agreed and began to look forward to the evening.



  1. Moscow News, № 69, 10.03.1880, pp. 2-3; Russian Herald, January 1883, Supplement, vol 163, pp. 148-156.
  2. General in Chief has been a military rank or title in various armed forces around the world. Here it is used in a meaning of a “main general”. – Ed.
  3. In the English manner (Fr.). – Ed.
  4. Plastids are semi-autonomous organelles (permanent components of the cell, vital for its existence) of higher plants, algae and some photosynthetic protozoa. – Ed.
  5. Monera is the name proposed by Haeckel for an intermediate link between inanimate and living matter (single-celled organism). – Ed.
  6. Amoeba is a genus of microscopic unicellular protozoa, length up to 0.5 mm. – Ed.
  7. Zinamebia is the name proposed by Haeckel for the primitive amoeba-like organism. – Ed.
  8. Ascidia are marine invertebrate bottom animals, length from 0.1 mm to 30 cm. – Ed.
  9. Amphiox (lancelet) is a small, no more than 5 cm long, transparent vertebrate animal which some classify as a fish, and some as the only representative of a very special class of tube-hearted vertebrates. – Ed.
  10. The sea lamprey is an aquatic vertebrate animal of the cyclostomes class with a long naked serpentine body. Zoologists do not consider lampreys classic fish due to their unique morphology and physiology. – Ed.
  11. Amniotes are higher vertebrates (reptiles, birds and mammals). – Ed.
  12. Promamalia are the alleged ancestors of mammals. – Ed.
  13. Palingenesis (ancient Greek πάλιν – again and γένεσις – origin, occurrence) in biology means the appearance in the embryo of signs, characteristic of adult forms of distant ancestors. – Ed.
  14. Anthropoid (Gr.) is “human-like”, meaning “ape” here. – Ed.
  15. There are seven major lokas in Hindu religion and many lesser significant ones!.. "Loka" means a country, a place. Lokas in general are purification worlds, and some sects see them in the stars. Not very sinful souls or liberated from earthly transmigrations ones go to these worlds, gradually passing from one to another, but always in the form of a human, although this image grows and improves with each new "loka". Such spirits liberated from earthly matter become, according to the concepts of the Hindus, pitris and devas, who are worshiped and sacrificed under the name of "the soul of the ancestors" (pitris). The latter correspond to those described by medieval Kabbalists as planetary spirits. (See Heinrich Kunrath Amphitheatrum etc., works by Paracelsus, etc.).
  16. Tamasha (lit. entertainment, theatrical performance) is one of the most popular types of Indian musical and dance performances. – Ed.