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Letter XXII[1]

The island was a tiny one, and so overgrown with tall reeds that, from a distance, it looked like a pyramidal basket of verdure. With the exception of a colony of monkeys, who bustled away to a few mango trees at our approach, the place seemed uninhabited. In this virgin forest of thick grass there was no trace of human life. Seeing the word “grass” the reader must not forget that I mean Indian grass, which is far from being an European lawn, and even far from being a Russian grass; the grass under which we stood, like insects under a burdock leaf, waved its feathery many-colored plumes much above the head of Gulab-Sing (who, according to common saying, “stood six feet and a half in his stockings” [1.98 m]), and of Narayan, who measured hardly a vershok [4.45 cm, 1.75 in] less. From a distance it looked like a waving sea of black, yellow, blue, and especially of rose and green. On landing, we discovered that it consisted of separate thickets of bamboos, mixed up with the gigantic sirka reeds, which rose as high as the tops of the mango and other trees.

It is impossible to imagine anything prettier and more graceful than the bamboos and sirka. The isolated tufts of bamboos show, in spite of their size, that they are nothing but grass, because the least gush of wind shakes them, and their green crests begin to nod like heads adorned with long ostrich plumes. There were some bamboos up to five and often to eight vershoks [22-35 cm, 8.75-14 in] in diameter at root, and 50 to 60 feet [15-18 m] high with joints every two or three feet [61-91 cm], each with a thick fringe of long thin leaves. From time to time we heard a light metallic rustle in the reeds, but none of us paid much attention to it, being buzy with arranging overnight stays.

Whilst our coolies and servants were busy clearing a place for our tents, pitching them and preparing the supper, we went to meet the monkeys. It was the funniest thing we have ever seen. Without exaggeration there were up to 200 of them. While preparing for their nightly rest the monkeys behaved like decorous and well-behaved people; every family chose a separate branch and defended it from the intrusion of strangers lodging on the same tree, but this defence was without a battle, content only with threatening grimaces. There were many mothers with babies in arms amongst them; some of them treated the children tenderly, and lifted them cautiously, with a perfectly human care; others ran up and down, heedless of the child hanging at the end of their tail, third party was preoccupied with something, discussing something, and stopping every moment to quarrel with other monkey ladies – a true picture of chatty old gossips on a market day, repeated in the animal kingdom. The bachelors kept apart, absorbed in their athletic exercises, performed for the most part with the ends of their tails. One of them, especially, attracted our attention by dividing his amusement between sauts périlleux[2] and teasing a respectable looking grandfather, who sat under a tree hugging two little monkeys. Swinging backward and forward from the branch, the bachelor jumped at him, bit his ear playfully and made faces at him, chattering all the time... We cautiously passed from one tree to another, afraid of frightening them away; but evidently the years spent by them with the fakirs, who left the island only a year ago, had accustomed them to human society. They were sacred monkeys, as we learned, and so they had nothing to fear from men. They showed no signs of alarm at our approach, and, having received our greeting, and some of them even a piece of sugar-cane, they calmly stayed on their branch-thrones, crossing their arms, and looking at us with a good deal of dignified contempt in their intelligent hazel eyes.

But the sun went down, and everything instantly started to stir in the trees. We were called for supper and all turned “homewards,” except the Babu. The main feature of his character, in the eyes of orthodox Hindus, being a tendency to “blasphemy”, he could never resist the temptation to justify their opinion of him. Climbing up a high branch he crouched there, imitating every gesture of the monkeys and answering their threatening grimaces by still uglier ones, to the unconcealed disgust of our pious coolies.

As the last golden ray disappeared on the horizon, a gauze-like veil of pale lilac fell over the world. But as every moment decreased the transparency of this tropical twilight, the tint gradually lost its softness and became darker and darker. It looked as if an invisible painter, unceasingly moving his gigantic brush, swiftly laid one coat of paint over the other, ever changing the exquisite background of our islet... The phosphoric candles of the fireflies began to twinkle here and there, shining brightly against the black trunks of the trees, and lost again on the silvery background of opalescent evening sky... But in a few minutes more thousands of these living sparks, precursors of Queen Night, played round us, pouring like a golden cascade over the trees, and dancing in the air above the grass and the dark lake...

Everything sleeps in nature; but man is awake, to be witness to the beauties of this solemn evening hour. We were awake. Sitting round the fire we talked, lowering our voices as if afraid of awaking this sleeping nature. We were only six: the colonel, the four Hindus and myself, because Mr. W*** and Miss B*** had long since settled down, and no one was holding them back. Snugly sheltered by the five-sazhen [10.6 m, 35 ft] high “grass,” we had not the heart to spend this magnificent night in prosaic sleeping. Besides, we were waiting for the “concert” which the Thakur had promised us.

“Be patient,” said he, “the musicians will appear right before the moon rises...”

The moon rose late, almost at ten o'clock at night. Just before her arrival, when the horizon began to grow perceptibly brighter, and the opposite shore to assume a milky, silvery tint, a air became cooler and a sudden wind rose. The waves, that had gone quietly to sleep at the feet of gigantic reeds, awoke and tossed uneasily, till the reeds swayed their feathery heads and whispered, as if passing orders to each other... Suddenly, in the general stillness and silence, we heard again the same musical notes, which we had passed unheeded, when we first reached the island, as if a whole orchestra were trying their musical instruments before playing some great composition. All round us, and over our heads, vibrated strings of violins, and thrilled the separate notes of a flute. In a few moments came another gust of wind tearing through the reeds, and the whole island resounded with the strains of hundreds of Aeolian harps[3]... And suddenly there began a wild unceasing symphony... It swelled in the surrounding woods, filling the air with an indescribable melody, charming even our spoiled European ears. Sad and solemn were its prolonged strains; they sounded smoothly like a funeral march, then, changing into a trembling thrill, they shook the air like the song of a nightingale, they hummed like fairy-tale gusli-self-playing[4], and died away in a long sigh... Here they resembled a long–drawn howl: mournful, sad, like an orphaned she-wolf who lost her cubs; there they rang like Turkish bells, sounded like a cheerful fast tarantella; further, a mournful song like a human voice was heard, smooth cello sounds were carried, ending either with a sob, or with a hollow laugh... And all this was echoed from the forest on all four direction by a mocking echo, like the voice of a hundred wooing leshiis[5] suddenly awakened in their green oak forests, and answered the appeal of the wild musical coven of witches!..

The colonel and I glanced at each other in our great astonishment. “What a charm!” “What a witchcraft!..” exclaimed we at the same time. The Hindus smiled, but did not answer us. The Thakur smoked his gargari as peacefully as if he was deaf.

There was a short interval, after which the invisible orchestra started again with renewed energy. The sounds poured and rolled in unrestrainable, overwhelming waves. We had never heard anything like this inconceivable wonder... Do you hear? Like a storm in the open sea, the wind tearing through the rigging, the swish of the maddened waves rushing over each other, or the whirling snow wreaths on the silent steppes...

Like a beast the gale is howling

And now wailing like a child![6]

And then the majestic notes of the organ thundered... Its powerful notes now rush together, now spread out through space, break off, intermingle, and become entangled, like the fantastic melody of a delirious fever, some musical phantasy born of the howling and whistling of the wind.

Alas! the charm of these sounds is soon exhausted, and you begin to feel that they cut like knives through your brain. A horrid fancy haunts our bewildered heads; we imagine that the invisible artists strain our own veins, and not the strings of imaginary violins; their cold breath freezes us, blowing their imaginary trumpets, shaking our nerves and impeding our breathing...

“For God's sake stop this, Thakur! Enough, enough!..” shouted the colonel, at the end of his patience, and covering his ears with his hands. “Gulab-Sing... order them to stop!..”

After these words the three Hindus burst out laughing; and even the grave face of the Thakur lit up with a merry smile.

“Upon my word,” said he, laughing merrily, “It seems to me that you really take me for the great Parabrahm or at least for a Marut, the lord of the storm and the elements. Do you think it is in my power to stop the wind or instantly uproot the whole bamboo forest?.. Ask for something easier!..”

“Why stop the wind? What bamboo?.. Aren't we hearing all this under psychic influence?..”

“So sorry to disappoint you, my dear colonel; but you really must think less of psychology and electrobiology. This develops into a mania with you. Don't you see that this wild music is a natural acoustic phenomenon?.. Each of the reeds around us – and there are several thousands on this island – hides a natural musical instrument in itself; and our world-wide musician, wind, comes here daily to try his art after sunset – especially during the last quarter of the moon.”

“Hmm… The wind?.. Well... But this music begins to change into a dreadful roar… Very unpleasant... Is there no way out of it?” our slightly confused president inquires.

“Really, I don’t know... But keep up your patience, you will soon get accustomed to it. And have a rest in those intervals when the wind falls.”

We were told that there are many such natural orchestras in India. The Brahmins know well their wonderful properties, and calling this kind of reed vina-devi, the lute of the gods, keep up the popular superstition and say the sounds are divine oracles. To this peculiarity of the reed,[7] the fakirs of idolatrous sects added their own art. As a result, the island we were on is considered especially sacred.

“Tomorrow morning,” said the Thakur, “I will show you what deep knowledge of all the laws of acoustics was in the possession of our fakirs. They enlarged the holes made by the beetle according to the size of the reed, sometimes shaping it into a circle, sometimes into an oval. These reeds in their present state can be justly considered as the finest illustration of mechanism applied to acoustics. However, this is not to be wondered at, because some of the most ancient Sanskrit books about music minutely describe these laws, and mention many musical instruments which are not only forgotten, but totally incomprehensible in our days… And now, if the too close neighbourhood of this musical reeds is too much for your gentle ears, I think I'll take you to a glade near the shore – away from our orchestra. After midnight the wind will fall, and you will sleep undisturbed... In the meantime, let's go see how the "sacred bonfires" light up. As soon as the surrounding residents hear the distant voices of the "gods" in the reeds, they immediately begin to converge in whole villages on the shore, light bonfires and perform "puja" (worship of the island).”[8]

“How is it that the Brahmins manage to keep up such an evident cheat?” asked the colonel. “The stupidest man cannot fail to see in the long run who made the holes in the reeds, and how they come to give forth music!..”

“In America stupid men may be as clever as that; I don't know,” answered the Thakur, with a smile; “but not in India. If you took the trouble to show, to describe, and to explain how all this is done to any Hindu, be he even comparatively educated, he will still see nothing. He will tell you that he knows as well as yourself that the holes are made by the beetles and enlarged by the fakirs. But what of that? The beetle in his eyes is no ordinary beetle, but one of the gods incarnated in the insect for this special purpose; and the fakir is a holy martyr, who has acted in this case by the order of the same god. That will be all you will ever get out of us. Fanaticism and superstition took centuries to develop in the masses, and now they are as strong as a necessary physiological function. Kill these two and the crowd will have its eyes opened, and will see truth, but not before. As to the Brahmins, India would have been very fortunate if everything they have done were as harmless... Let the crowds adore the muse and the spirit of harmony. This adoration is not so very wicked, after all.”

The Babu told us that in Dehra-Dun this kind of reed is planted on both sides of the central street, which is more than a mile long. The buildings prevent the free action of the wind, and so the sounds are heard only in time of east wind, which is very rare. A year ago Swami Dayananda happened to camp off Dehra-Dun. Crowds of people gathered round him every evening. One day he delivered a very powerful sermon against superstition. Tired out by this long, energetic speech, and, besides, being a little unwell, the Swami sat down on his carpet and shut his eyes to rest as soon as the sermon was finished. But the crowd, seeing him so unusually quiet and silent, all at once imagined that his soul, abandoning him in this prostration, entered the reeds – that had just begun to sing their fantastical rhapsody – and was now conversing with the gods through the bamboos. Many a pious man in this gathering, probably anxious to show the teacher in what fulness they grasped his teaching and how deep was their respect for him personally, knelt down before the singing reeds and performed a most ardent “puja”...

“What did the Swami… what did he say to that?”

“He did not say anything... You obviously don't know our Swami yet,” laughed the Babu. “He simply jumped to his feet, and, uprooting the first sacred reed on his way, gave such a lively European bakshish[9] to the pious puja-makers, that they instantly took to their heels. The Swami ran after them for a whole mile, giving it hot to everyone in his way. Then he spat and left further. He is wonderfully strong is our Swami, and no friend to useless talk, I can tell you.”

“But in this way,” said the colonel, “instead of turning them to the path of truth, he only disperses the crowd.”

“This shows that you know our people as little as your ally Swami… As soon as he had arrived in Patni (a place 35 or 40 miles [56-64 km] from Dehra-Dun) than a crowd of some 500 people came in a deputation from the city, bowing at his feet and begging him to return. Among leaders of this deputation there were several of those with their backs covered with bruises. They brought him back with no end of pomp, mounting him on an elephant and spreading flowers all along the road. Once in Dehra-Dun, he immediately proceeded to found a samaj (society), and the Dehra-Dun Arya-Samaj now counts at least two hundred members, who have renounced idol-worship and superstition for ever.”

“And I was present,” said Mulji, “two years ago in Benares, when Dayananda broke to pieces about a hundred idols in the bazaar, and the same stick served him to beat a Brahmin with. He caught the latter in the hollow idol of a huge Shiva. The Brahmin was quietly sitting there talking to the devotees in the name, and so to speak, with the voice of Shiva, and asking money for a new suit of clothes the idol wanted...”

“Is it possible the Swami had not to pay for this new achievement of his?”

“Oh, yes. The Brahmin dragged him into a law court, but the judge had to pronounce the Swami in the right, because of the crowd of sympathizers and defenders who followed the Swami. But still he had to pay for all the idols he had broken. So far so good; but the Brahmin died of cholera that very night, and of course, the opposers of the reform said his death was brought on by the djadu (sorcery) of Dayananda Saraswati. This vexed us all a good deal.”

“And you, Narayan, do you know anything about Swamiji?.. Do you accept him as your ‘guru’?” asked I.

“I have only one guru and only one god on earth, as in heaven,” answered Narayan unwillingly, “and there will never be another.”

“Who is this guru and who is your god?.. is it a mystery?..”

“Thakur Sahib of course!..” exclaimed the quick-tongued Babu. “In his person both coincide...”

“You ought to be ashamed to talk such nonsense, Babu,” coldly remarked Gulab-Sing. “I do not think myself worthy of being anybody's Guru and less a god. I must ask you not to blasphemy. But, here we are!” added he more cheerfully, pointing to the carpets spread by the servants on the shore, and evidently desirous of changing the topic. “Let us sit down!”

We arrived at a small glade, which was two or three hundred steps away from the bamboo forest. The sounds of the magic orchestra reached us still, but considerably weakened, and only from time to time. We sat to the windward of the reeds, and so the harmonic rustle we heard was exactly like the low tones of an Aeolian harp, and had nothing disagreeable in it. On the contrary, the distant murmur only added to the beauty of the whole scene around us.

We sat down, and only then I realized how tired and sleepy I was – and no wonder, after being on foot since four in the morning. The gentlemen went on talking, and I soon became so absorbed in my thoughts that their conversation reached me only in fragments...

“Wake up!” the colonel was pushing me. “The Thakur says that sleeping in the moonlight will do you harm...”

I was not asleep; I was simply thinking, though exhausted and sleepy. But wholly under the charm of this enchanting night, I could not shake off my drowsiness, and did not answer the colonel...

“Wake up, for God's sake!” the colonel continued to annoy me. “Wake up and look at the moon… at the landscape before us. Have you ever seen anything to equal this magnificent panorama? Look...”

“Now rising golden moon...”[10]

– started spinning in my head. And indeed this was a “golden moon”. At this moment she radiated rivers of golden light, poured forth liquid gold into the tossing lake at our feet, and sprinkled with golden dust every blade of grass, every pebble, as far as the eye could reach, all round us. Her disk of silvery yellow swiftly glided upward amongst the big stars, on their dark blue ground. No matter how many moonlit nights you have to see in India, there will be new and unexpected effects every time.... It is no use trying to describe these feerique pictures, they cannot be represented either in words or in colors on canvas, they can only be felt – so fugitive is their grandeur and beauty! In Europe, even in the south, the full moon eclipses the largest and most brilliant of the stars, so that hardly any can be seen for a considerable distance round her. In India it is quite the contrary; she looks like a huge pearl surrounded by diamonds, rolling on a blue velvet ground. Her light is so intense that one can read a letter written in small handwriting; one even can perceive the different greens of the trees and bushes – a thing unheard of in Europe. The effect of the moon is especially charming on tall palm trees. From the first moment of her appearance her rays glide over the tree downwards, beginning with the feathery crests, then lighting up the scales of the trunk, and descending lower and lower till the whole palm is literally bathing in a sea of light. Without any metaphor the surface of the leaves seems to tremble in liquid silver all the night long, whereas their under surfaces seem blacker and softer than black velvet. But woe to the thoughtless novice, woe to the mortal who gazes at the Indian moon with his head uncovered. It is very dangerous not only to sleep under, but even to gaze at the chaste Indian Diana[11]. Fits of epilepsy, madness and often death are the punishments wrought by her treacherous arrows on the modern Actaeon[12] who dares to contemplate the cruel daughter of Latona[13] in her full beauty. The Hindus never go out in the moonlight without their topis or pagris. Even our invulnerable Babu, having been cooling off for whole days with his head uncovered under the sun, always wore a kind of white cap during the night.

The fires, as Thakur foretold us, lit up one after the other, and the black silhouettes of the worshippers moved about on the opposite shore. Their sacred songs and loud exclamations, “Hari, Hari, Maha-deva!”[14] resounded loud and clear from another bank. And the reeds, shaken in the wind, answered them with tender musical phrases... The whole stirred a vague feeling of uneasiness in my soul, a strange intoxication crept gradually over me, and in this enchanting place the idol-worship of these passionate, poetical souls, sunk in dark ignorance, seemed more intelligible and less repulsive. A Hindu is a born mystic, and the luxuriant nature of his country has made of him a zealous pantheist.

Sounds of alguja, a kind of reed-pipe with seven openings, struck our attention; their music was wafted by the wind quite distinctly from somewhere in the wood. They also startled a whole family of monkeys in the branches of a tree over our heads. Two or three monkeys carefully slipped down, and looked round as if waiting for someone.

“What kind of Orpheus[15] is it, who charms even human beings?” asked we.

“Some fakir probably. The alguja is generally used to invite the sacred monkeys to their meals. The community of fakirs, who once inhabited this island, have removed to an old pagoda in the forest near this place. Their new resting-place brings them more profit, because there are many passers by; thus they left the island...”

“But may be because they became deaf,” expressed her innocent opinion Miss B***, who just woke up and came to us.

“As for Orpheus,” asked the Thakur, “do you know that the lyre of this Greek demigod was not the first to cast spells over people, animals and even rivers? Kui,[16] a certain Chinese “musical artist” (as they are called in England) expresses something to this effect: 'When I play my kynga the wild animals hasten to me, and range themselves into rows, spellbound by my melody.' This Kui lived one thousand years before the supposed era of Orpheus.”

“Where did you read this?”

“I could read this even in some works of your Western Orientalists, since this information is there also. But I personally found it in an ancient Sanskrit book, translated from the Chinese in the second century before your era. But the original is to be found in a very ancient work, named The Preserver of the Five Chief Virtues. It is a kind of chronicle or treatise on the development of music in China. It was written by the order of Emperor Hoang-Tee several hundred years before your era.”

“Do you think, then, that the Chinese ever understood anything about music?” said the colonel, with an incredulous smile. “In California and other places I heard some traveling artists of the Celestial Empire... Their musical cacophony would drive any one mad right in place...”

“That is exactly the opinion of many of your Western musicians on the subject of our ancient Aryan, as well as of modern Hindu, music. But, in the first instance, the idea of melody is perfectly arbitrary; and, in the second, there is a good deal of difference between the technical knowledge of music, and the creation of melodies fit to please the educated, as well as the uneducated, ear. According to technical theory, a musical piece may be perfect, but the melody, nevertheless, may be above the understanding of an untrained taste, or simply unpleasant. For example, your most renowned operas sound for us, Hindus, like a wild chaos, like a rush of strident, entangled sounds, in which we do not see any meaning at all, and which give us headaches. I have visited the London and the Paris opera; I have heard Rossini and Meyerbeer; I was resolved to render myself an account of my impressions, and listened with the greatest attention. I must confess that I prefer the simplest of our native melodies to all productions of the best European composers. The former are quite accessible to me, and the latter I don't understand at all, and they touch me as little as our national tunes do you. But leaving all kind of “tunes” aside, I can assure you that our ancestors, as well as the ancestors of the Chinese, were far from inferior to the modern Europeans, if not in technical instrumentation, at least in musical “technology” and especially in abstract notions of music.”

“The Aryan nations of antiquity, perhaps; but I hardly believe this in the case of the Turanian Chinese!” said our president doubtfully.

“But the music of nature has been everywhere the first step to the music of art. We prefer the former, and therefore we have been holding on to it for centuries. Our musical system is the greatest art, if – pardon me this seeming paradox – avoid all artificial. We do not allow in our melodies any sounds that cannot be found amongst the living voices of nature; whereas Chinese do not follow this. The Chinese system comprises eight chief tones, which serve as a tuning-fork to all derivatives; which are accordingly classified under the names of their generators. These eight sounds are: metal, stone, silk, bamboo, pumpkin, earthenware, leather and wood. So that they have metallic, wooden, earthen, pumpkin, leathern, bamboo and stony tunes. Therefore they cannot produce any melody, but confusion; their music consists of an entangled series of separate notes. Their imperial hymn, for instance, is a series of endless unisons. But we Hindus owe our music only to living nature, and in nowise to inanimate objects. In a higher sense of the word, we are pantheists, and so our music is, so to speak, pantheistic; but, at the same time, it is highly scientific. Coming from the cradle of humanity, the Aryan races, who were the first to attain manhood, listened to the voice of nature, and concluded that melody as well as harmony are both contained in our great common mother. Nature has no false and no artificial notes; and man, the crown of creation, felt desirous of imitating her sounds. In their multiplicity, all these sounds – according to the opinion of some of your Western physicists – make only one tone, which we all can hear, if we know how to listen, in the eternal rustle of the foliage of big forests, in the murmur of water, in the roar of the storming ocean, and even in the distant roll of a great city. This tone is the middle F, the fundamental tone of nature. In our melodies it serves as the starting point, which we embody in the key-note, and around which are grouped all the other sounds. Having noticed that every musical note has its typical representative in the animal kingdom, our ancestors found out that the seven chief tones correspond to the cries of the goat, the peacock, the ox, the parrot, the frog, the tiger, and the elephant. So the octave was discovered and founded. As to its subdivisions and measure, they also found their basis in the complicated sounds of the same animals.”

“I am no judge of your ancient music,” said the colonel, “nor do I know whether your ancestors did, or did not, work out any musical theories, so I cannot contradict you; but I must own that, listening to the songs of the modern Hindus, I could not give them any credit for musical knowledge.”

“No doubt it is so, because you have never heard a professional singer. When you have visited Poona, and have listened to the Gayan Samaj[17], we shall resume our present conversation. Until then, it is in vain to argue...”

“The music of the ancient Aryans,” suddenly intervened Babu for the honor of his homeland, “is an antediluvian plant and almost disappeared from India, but nevertheless it is well worth studying, and deserves every consideration. This is perfectly proved now by a compatriot of mine, the Raja Surendronath Tagor[18], who has proved, according to the best music critics of England, that ancient India has every right to be “called the mother of music science”. Every school, whether Italian, German or Aryan, saw the light at a certain period, developed in a certain climate and in perfectly different circumstances. Every school has its characteristics, and its peculiar charm, at least for its followers; and our school is no exception. You Europeans are trained in the melodies of the West, and acquainted with Western schools of music; but our musical system, like many other things in India, is totally unknown to you. So you must forgive my boldness, colonel, when I say that you have no right to judge...”

“Don't get so excited, Babu,” said the Thakur. “Every one has the right, if not to judge, then to ask questions about a new subject. Otherwise no one would ever get know the truth... If Hindu music belonged to an epoch as little distant from us as the European (as Babu states), and if, besides, it included all the virtues of all the previous musical systems, which the European music assimilates; then no doubt it would have been better understood by experts, and better appreciated than it is. But our music belongs to prehistoric times. In one of the sarcophagi at Thebes, Bruce found a harp with twenty strings, and, judging by this instrument, we may safely say that the ancient inhabitants of Egypt were well acquainted with the mysteries of harmony. But, except the Egyptians, we were the only people possessing this art, in the remote epochs, when the rest of mankind were still struggling with the elements for bare existence. We possess hundreds of Sanskrit manuscripts about music, which have never been translated, even into modern Indian dialects. Some of them are 4,000 and 8,000 years old. Whatever your Orientalists may say to the contrary, we will persist in believing in their antiquity, because we have read and studied them, while the European scientists have never yet set their eyes on them. There are many of these musical treatises, and they have been written at different epochs; but they all, without exception, show that in India music was known and systematized in times when the modern civilized nations of Europe still lived as savage tribes. However true, all this does not give us the right to grow indignant when Europeans say they do not like our music, as long as their ears are not accustomed to it, and their minds cannot understand its spirit yet... To a certain extent we can explain to you its technical character, and give you a right idea of it as a science. But nobody can create in you, in a moment, what the Aryans used to call rakti, or the capacity of the human soul to receive and be moved by the combinations of the various sounds of nature. This capacity is the alpha and omega of our musical system, but you do not possess it, as we do not possess the possibility to fall into raptures over Bellini.”

“But why should it be so? What are these mysterious virtues of your music, that can be understood only by yourselves, Asians? Our skins are of different colors, but our organic mechanism is the same. In other words, the physiological combination of bones, blood, nerves, veins and muscles, which forms a Hindu, has as many parts, combined exactly after the same model as the living mechanism known under the name of an American, Englishman, or any other European. They come into the world from the same workshop of nature; they have the same beginning and the same end. From a physiological point of view we are duplicates of each other...”

“Physiologically yes, and even psychologically, if education did not interfere, which, after all is said and done, could not but influence the mental and the moral direction taken by a human being. Sometimes it extinguishes the divine spark; at other times it only increases it, transforming it into a lighthouse which becomes man's lifelong lodestar for his mind capacities.”

“This is so. But the influence it has over the physiology of the ear cannot be so overpowering after all.”

“You are quite wrong again. If, physically or rather physiologically, the Hindu, considered as a human machine, does not differ in any way from the European, then due to a completely peculiar upbringing, mentally and psychically, especially psychically, both differ diametrically from each other, representing as it were two different species in nature. Only remember what a strong influence climatic conditions, food and everyday surroundings have on the complexion, vitality, capacity for reproduction, and so on, and you will get the answer to your question (If I am not mistaken, the “everyday surroundings” is the newest scientific mask of your materialists for the most convenient ignoring of the more abstract mysteries of existence). Apply this same law of gradual transformation to the purely psychic element in man, and you will see the same result. By changing the education of soul you change its capacities. If it used to enjoy, seeing something quite inaccessible to an otherwise educated soul, so, having different education, it can not feel anything but boredom and chaos in the same subject… For instance, you believe in the powers of gymnastics, – and your belief based on proven century-old experience, – you believe that special exercise, strengthening muscles, not only develops the human body, but is also able to regenerate it. We go one step higher. The experience of centuries shows that gymnastics exist for the soul as well as for the body. This is our secret, the secret of the Hindus humiliated and enslaved by animal force alone, and we will not allow anyone to penetrate this secret except a handful of the chosen, but it can be proved to you in due time... What is it that gives to the sailor the sight of an eagle, that endows the acrobat with the skill of a monkey, and the wrestler with muscles of iron? Practice and habit alone – would be your answer. Then why should not we suppose the same possibilities in the soul of the man as well as in his body? Perhaps on the grounds of modern science – which either dispenses with the soul altogether, or does not acknowledge in it a life distinct from the life of the body...”

“Please do not speak in this way, Thakur. You, at least, ought to know that I believe in the soul and in its immortality...”

“We believe in the immortality of spirit, not of soul... However, this has nothing to do with the present discussion. And so you agree to the proposition that every dormant possibility of the soul may be led to perfected strength and activity by practice, and also that if not properly used it may grow numb and even disappear altogether. Nature is so zealous that all her gifts should be used properly, that it is in our power to develop or to kill in our descendants any physical or mental gift. A systematic training or a total disregard will accomplish both in the lifetime of a few generations...”

“But that does not explain to me the secret charm of your national melodies...”

“These are details and particulars. Why should I dwell on them when you must see for yourself that my reasoning gives you the clue, which will solve many similar problems? Centuries have accustomed the ear of a Hindu to be receptive only of certain combinations of atmospheric vibrations; whereas the ear of a European is used to perfectly different combinations. Hence the soul of the former will be enraptured where the soul of the latter will be perfectly indifferent. I hope my explanation has been simple and clear, and I might have ended it here were it not that I am anxious to give you something better than the feeling of satisfied curiosity. As yet I have solved only the physiological aspect of the secret, which is as easily admitted as the fact that we Hindus eat by the handful spices which would give you inflammation of the intestines if you happened to swallow a single grain. Our aural nerves, which, at the beginning, were identical with yours, have been changed through different training, and became as distinct from yours as our complexion and our stomachs. Add to this that the eyes of the Kashmir weavers, men and women, are able to distinguish 300 shades more than the eye of a European – this is according to the testimony of your most learned physicists and Lyon manufacturers. The force of habit, the law of atavism, if you like... But things of this kind practically solve the apparent difficulty. You have come all the way from America to study the Hindus and their religion; but you will never understand the latter if you do not realize how closely all our sciences are related, not to the modern ignorant Brahmanism, of course, but to the philosophy of our primitive Vedic religion.”

“But what, for example, does music have in common with the Vedas?”

“It has a good deal – almost everything. As it was with the ancient Egyptians and the Chinese, so it was with us: all the sounds of nature, and, in consequence, of music, are directly allied to astronomy and mathematics; that is to say, to the planets and the signs of the zodiac, to the sun and moon rotation and numbers. Above all, they depend on the akasha, the ether of space, of the existence of which your scientists have not made perfectly sure as yet. The doctrine of the 'music of the spheres' first saw the light here in India, and not in Greece or Italy, whither it was brought by Pythagoras after he had studied under the Indian Gymnosophists. And most certainly this great philosopher – the only one among Western sages, who revealed to the world the heliocentric system before Copernicus and Galileo – knew better than anyone else how dependent are the least sounds in nature on akasha and its interrelations. One of the four Vedas, namely, the Sama-Veda, entirely consists of hymns. This is a collection of mantrams sung during the sacrifices to the “gods”, that is to say, to the elements. Our ancient priests were hardly acquainted with the modern methods of chemistry and physics; but, to make up for it, they knew a good deal which has not as yet been thought of by modern scientists. So it is not to be wondered at that, sometimes, our priests, so perfectly acquainted with natural sciences as they were, forced the elementary “gods”, or rather the blind forces of nature, to answer their prayers by various portents. Every sound of these mantrams has its meaning, its importance, and stands exactly where it ought to stand; and, having a reason, it does not fail to produce its effect. Remember Professor Leslie, who says that the “science of sound is the most subtle, the most unseizable and the most complicated of all the series of physical sciences.” And if ever this teaching was worked out to perfection it was in the times of the “rishis,” our philosophers and saints, who left to us the Vedas.”

“Now, I think I begin to understand the origin of all the mythological fables of the Greek antiquity,” thoughtfully said the colonel; “the syrinx of Pan, his pipe of seven reeds, the fauns, the satyrs, and the lyre of Orpheus himself... I know that the ancient Greeks knew little about harmony; and the rhythmical declamations of their dramas (which probably never reached the pathos of the simplest of modern recitals) could hardly suggest to them the idea of the omnicharming lyre of Orpheus. I feel strongly inclined to believe what was written by some of our great philologists: Orpheus must be an emigrant from India; his very name ὀρφός, or ὀρφνός, which means dark-skinned, shows that, even amongst the tawny Greeks, he was remarkably dark. This was the opinion of Lempriere and others...”

“Some day this opinion may become a certainty. There is not the slightest doubt that the purest and the highest of all the musical forms of antiquity belongs to India. All our legends ascribe magic powers to music; it is a gift and a science coming straight from the gods. As a rule, we ascribe all our arts to divine revelation, but music stands at the head of everything else. The invention of the vina, a kind of guitar, belongs to Narada, the son of Brahma. You will probably laugh at me if I tell you that our ancient undgatris (singing priests), whose duty it was to sing during the yadais (sacrifices), were able to produce phenomena that could not but be considered by the ignorant as signs from supernatural powers; and this, remember, without a shadow of trickery, but simply with the help of their perfect knowledge of nature and certain combinations well known to them. The phenomena produced by the undgatris and the raj-yogis are perfectly natural for the initiate – however miraculous they may seem to the masses.”

“But do you... really mean that you have no faith what-ever in the spirits of the dead?” timidly asked Miss B***, who was always ill at ease in the presence of the Thakur.

“With your permission, I have none.”

“And... in mediums?..”

“Still less, dear lady. But I do believe in the existence of many psychic diseases, and, amongst their number, in mediumism, for which we have got a queer sounding name from time immemorial. We call it bhuta-dak, literally a “hostelry for devils”[19]. I sincerely pity the real mediums, and do whatever is in my power to help them. As to the charlatans, I despise them, and never lose an opportunity of unmasking such...”

The witch's den near the “dead city” suddenly flashed into my mind; the fat Brahmin, who played the oracle in the head of the Sivatherium, caught and rolling down the hole; the witch herself suddenly taking to her heels. And with this recollection also occurred to me what I had never thought of before: Narayan had acted under the orders of the Thakur...

“Our anga-tyene,” contitued Thakur, “or ‘possessed’ by this invisible for profane ‘power’ (which the spiritualists believe to be spirits of the dead, while the superstitious see in it the devil, and the sceptics deceit and infamous tricks), true men of science suspect to be a natural force, which has not as yet been discovered) almost in every case are women and children. You try to develop such terrible mental illness even more, but we seek to save them from this ‘force’ you know nothing whatever about, and therefore it is no use discussing this matter now... We, the sons of India, have been in captivity for ten centuries by different and often unworthy peoples... But the nations that conquered us conquered only our bodies, not ourselves.[20] They will never be able to cope with our souls! Mayavirupa[21] of the real Aryan as free as Brahma; and even more than this for us, for, according to our religion and our philosophy, our spirit is Brahma himself, higher than whom there is only the unknowable, the all-pervading, the omnipotent essence of Parabrahm. Neither the English nor even your "spirits" can conquer our mayavirupa. It cannot be made a slave... And now let’s go to bed.”



  1. Moscow News, No. 137, 19.05.1880, pp. 4-5, No. 145, 27.05.1880, pp. 5-6; Russian Herald, January 1883, Supplement, vol 165, pp. 241-262.
  2. Perilous jumps (French). – Ed.
  3. Aeolian harp is a musical instrument that is played by the wind. Named for Aeolus, the ancient Greek god of the wind, the traditional Aeolian harp is essentially a wooden box including a sounding board, with strings stretched lengthwise across two bridges. – Ed.
  4. Gusli is the oldest East Slavic multi-string plucked instrument with strings stretched over a flat sounding board; gusli-self-playing (gusli-samogudy) is a fairy-tale version of this instrument, with an ability to play by itself. – Ed.
  5. Leshii is a forest spirit in Slavic myths. – Ed.
  6. Alexander Pushkin, “Winter evening” (1825). – Ed.
  7. This kind of bamboo is constantly attacked by a small bug, which very soon drills large holes in a completely empty reed trunk, where the wind flows.
  8. The following large fragment dawn to the words "We arrived at a small glade..." was added in the second edition of the book (1883). – Ed.
  9. A blow with a reed is called by native people "European bakshish" or "bamboo bakshish"; the latter word is in widespread use in Asia.
  10. Alexander Pushkin, “Nightly Zephyrus” (1824). – Ed.
  11. In Roman mythology Diana is the goddess of flora and fauna, hunting, femininity and fertility, a birth attendant, the personification of the Moon, corresponds to the Greek Artemis and Selene. Later, Diana was also identified with Hecate. – Ed.
  12. Actaeon is a character of ancient Greek mythology, who once, while hunting, accidentally went to the bathing place of Artemis and her nymphs and could not tear himself away from watching their game. Noticing the hunter, the angry goddess turned him into a deer, which tried to escape, but was overtaken and torn apart by his own 50 hunting dogs. – Ed.
  13. Latona is a Roman goddess corresponding in Greek mythology to the Titanide Leto, the mother of Artemis and Apollo from Zeus. – Ed.
  14. Hari is one of the names of Shiva, and "Maha-deva" is the “great god”.
  15. Orpheus is a legendary Greek musician, singer, poet and philosopher who became a hero of myths. – Ed.
  16. What a funny coincidence! Kui is the name of a famous St. Petersburg musician; only neither animals nor people dance to his music. [Cesar Antonovich Cui (1835-1918) was a Russian composer and music critic]
  17. Musical societies are now being organized all over India to revive the national ancient music. One of them is Gayan Samaj (Gaian-Samaj) in Poona.
  18. Raja Surendronath Tagor is a doctor of music, a knight of a great many honorary orders, by the way, from the King of Portugal and the Emperor of Austria, for his work "On the Music of the Aryans".
  19. The word dak means an inn, a hostelry, and bhuta is the evil soul of a deceased person, who, due to its’ sins, is blocked from entering moksha – the heavenly abode – and who is destined to wander on earth. There are no "devils" or fallen angels in Hindu philosophy.
  20. The Vedantins or the followers of Shankaracharya's philosophy, in talking of themselves, often avoid using the pronoun “I”, and say, for example, “this body went,” “this hand took,” and so on, in everything concerning the automatic actions of man. The personal pronouns are only used concerning mental and moral processes, such as, “I thought,” “he desired” and so on. The body in their eyes is just a husk, the outer shell of an inner, invisible person, who is the real "I".
  21. Mayavirupa literally means the body of illusion or maya, the real ego; kama-rupa means the body of desire or will, arbitrarily created by our strong desire (possessing creative power, according to Hindu concepts) – our double, which is where our desire sends it. During the lifetime a person has as many bodies as skins in onion – each of them more subtle and more pure than the preceding; and each of them bears a different name and is independent of the material body. After death, when the earthly vital principle disintegrates, together with the material body, all these interior bodies join together, and either advance on the avenue to moksha, and in this case they are called deva (divine), though it still has to pass many stadia before the final liberation, or is left on earth, to wander and to suffer in the invisible world, and, in this case, is called bhuta, the evil soul. But a deva has no tangible intercourse with the living. Its only link with the earth is its posthumous affection for those it loved in its lifetime, and the power of protecting and influencing them. Love outlives every earthly feeling, and a deva can appear to the beloved ones only in their dreams or as a fleeting illusion (maya), which cannot last long, because the body of a deva undergoes a series of gradual changes from the moment it is freed from its earthly bonds; and, with every change, it grows more intangible, losing every time something of its objective nature. It is reborn, it lives and dies in new spheres or lokas, which gradually become purer and more subjective, and in transitional states, it "sleeps in akasha" – in ether. At last, having got rid of every shadow of earthly thoughts and sins, it becomes nothing from a material point of view. It is extinguished like a flame, and, having become one with Parabrahm, it lives the life of spirit, of which neither our material conception nor our language can give any idea. But the “eternity” of Parabrahm is not the “eternity” of the soul. The latter, according to a Vedanta expression, is an eternity in eternity. However holy, the life of a soul had its beginning and its end, and, consequently, no sins and no good actions can be punished or rewarded in the “eternity of Parabrahm”. This would be contrary to justice, “disproportionate”, to use an expression of Vedanta philosophy. “Spirit alone lives in eternity, and has neither beginning nor end, neither limits nor central point.” The deva lives in Parabrahm, as a drop lives in the ocean, till the next regeneration of the universe from pralaya (a periodical chaos and destruction, or rather a disappearance of the worlds from the region of objectivity). With every new maha yuga (great cycle) the deva separates from that which is eternal, attracted by existence in objective worlds, like a drop of water first drawn up by the sun, then starting again downwards, passing from one region to another, and returning at last to the dirt of our planet. Then, having dwelt there whilst a small cycle lasted, it proceeds again upwards on the other side of the circle. So it gravitates in the eternity of Parabrahm, passing from one minor eternity to another. Each of these “human,” that is to say conceivable, eternities consists of 4,320,000,000 years of objective life and of as many years of subjective life in Parabrahm, altogether 8,640,000,000 years, which are enough, in the eyes of the Vedantins, to redeem any mortal sin, and also to reap the fruit of any good actions performed in such a short period as human life. The individuality of the soul, teaches the Vedanta, is not lost when plunged in Parabrahm, as is supposed by some of the European Orientalists. Only the souls of bhutas – when the last spark of repentance and of tendency to improvement are extinguished in them – will evaporate for ever. Then their divine spirit, the undying part of them, separates from the soul and returns to its primitive source; the soul is reduced to its primordial atoms, and ego plunges into the darkness of eternal unconsciousness. Its’ personality perish. Such is the Vedanta teaching concerning the spiritual man. And this is why no Hindu believes in the disembodied souls voluntarily returning to earth, except in the case of bhutas.