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Letter IV[1]

It is an early morning near the end of March. Bright cloudless sky. A light breeze caresses with its velvety hand the sleepy faces of the pilgrims; and the intoxicating perfume of tuberoses[2] and jasmine mingles with the pungent odors of the bazaar. Crowds of barefooted Brahmin women, stately and well-formed, in colorful sari, direct their steps, like the biblical Rachel, to the well, with brass lotti (water pots) bright as gold upon their heads. There are sacred tanks (pools), filled with muddy water, in which Hindus of both sexes perform their prescribed morning ablutions. Under the hedge of a garden somebody's tame marmot-sized mongoose is devouring the head of a cobra. The headless body of the snake convulsively, but harmlessly, beats against the thin flanks of the little animal, which regards these vain efforts with an evident delight. Side by side with this group of animals is a group of Hindus. A completely naked mali (gardener), offering betel and salt to a monstrous stone idol of Shiva, with the view of pacifying the wrath of the “Destroyer,” excited by the death of the cobra, one of His servant gods. A few steps before reaching the railway station, we meet a modest Catholic procession, consisting of a few newly converted pariahs and some of the native Portuguese. Under a baldachin[3] is a litter, on which swings to and fro a dusky Madonna dressed after the fashion of the native goddesses, with a ring in her nose (sic!). In her arms she carries the holy Babe, clad in yellow pyjamas and a red Brahmanical turban. “Hari, hari, devaki!” (“Glory to the holy Virgin!”) exclaim the converts, unconscious of any difference between the Devaki, mother of Krishna, and the Catholic Madonna. All they know is that, excluded from the temples by the Brahmins on account of their not belonging to any of the Hindu castes, they are admitted sometimes into the Christian pagodas, thanks to the padri[4]. In addition, I must say that in order to please some converted Brahmin (in Catholicism, or Protestantism, but not Christianity), Catholic as well as Protestant missionaries very often do not allow converted parias to enter into the church, “so that they do not immediately and in vain insult the sentiments of the highborn Brahmin caste.”[5]

At last, our garri[6] – native two-wheeled vehicles drawn by a pair of strong bullocks with the huge straight horns – approached to the porch of the station. English employees open wide their eyes at the sight of Europeans travelling about the town in gilded native chariots. But we are Americans, and we have come hither to study India, not Europe with its local products on native ground.

If the tourist casts a glance on the shore opposite to the port of Bombay, he will see a dark blue mass rising like a wall between himself and the horizon. This is Parbul, a flat-topped mountain 2,250 feet high. Its right slope leans on two sharp rocks covered with a dense coniferous forest up to the top. The highest of them, Mataran, is the object of our trip. The railroad wanders round the foot of the most charming little hills, skirts hundreds of pretty lakes, and pierces with more than twenty tunnels the very heart of the rocky ghats[7].

We were accompanied by three familiar Hindus. Two of them once belonged to a high caste, but were expelled from it and “excommunicated” from their pagoda for association and friendship with us, unworthy foreigners. At the station our party was joined by two more pals from natives, with whom we had been in correspondence for many a year. All were members of our Society, reformers of the Young India, enemies of Brahmins, castes, prejudices, and were to be our fellow-travelers and visit with us the annual fair at the temple festivities of Karli, stopping on the way at Mataran and Khanduli. One was a Brahmin from Poona, the second – a moodeliar, a landlord from Madras; the third – a Singalese from Kegalla; the fourth – a zemindar, a Bengali landowner; and the fifth – a gigantic Rajput, independent Thakur from Rajasthan[8], whom we had known for a long time by the name of Gulab-Lal-Sing, and had called simply Gulab-Sing. I shall dwell upon his personality more than on any of the others, because the most wonderful and diverse stories were in circulation about this strange man. It was asserted that he belonged to the sect of Raj-Yogis, and was an initiate of the mysteries of magic, alchemy, and various other occult sciences of India. He was rich and independent, and rumour did not dare to suspect him of deception, the more so because, though quite full of these sciences, he never uttered a word about them in public, and carefully concealed his knowledge from all except a few friends.

Thakurs are, almost without exception, descended from the Surya (sun), and are accordingly called Suryavansa, descendants of the sun. They are prouder than any other nation in the world. They have a proverb, “The dirt of the earth cannot stick to the rays of the sun,” i. e. to Rajputs, that is why they do not despise any sect, except the Brahmins, and honor only the bards who sing their military achievements.[9] Englishmen are afraid of them awfully and did not dare to disarm, as they did with the rest of the Indian nations, so Gulab-Sing came accompanied by vassals and shield-bearers.

Possessing an inexhaustible knowledge of legends, and being evidently well acquainted with the antiquities of his country, Gulab-Sing proved to be the most interesting of our companions.

“There, against the blue sky,” said Gulab-Lal-Sing, “you behold the majestic Bhao Mallin. That deserted spot was once the abode of a holy hermit; now it is visited yearly by crowds of pilgrims. According to popular silly belief,” he added with a smile, “the most wonderful things happen there – miracles. At the top of the mountain of 2,000 feet in height, is the platform of a fortress. Behind it rises another rock of 270 feet, and at the very summit of this peak are to be found the ruins of a still more ancient fortress, which for seventy-five years served as a shelter for this hermit. Whence he obtained his food will for ever remain a mystery. It could be that he ate the roots of wild plants, but upon this barren rock there is no vegetation though. The only mode of ascent of this perpendicular mountain consists of a rope, and holes, just big enough to receive the toes of a man, cut out of the living rock. One would think such a pathway accessible only to acrobats and monkeys. Surely fanaticism must provide wings for the Hindus, for no accident has ever happened to any of them. Unfortunately, about forty years ago, a party of Englishmen conceived the unhappy thought of exploring the ruins, but a strong gust of wind arose and carried them over the precipice. After this, General Dickinson gave orders for the destruction of all means of communication with the upper fortress, and the lower one (the siege of which cost the Bombay army, in the first times of their invasion, so much blood and loss) is now completely abandoned and serves as a lair for tigers and eagles...”

Meanwhile, an Englishman with long red mustache and appears to be in the excited state burst into our carriage, spreading a strong smell of vodka. He sniffed the air, looked at us with searching and a little contemptuous eyes, held up, thought a little and got out of the carriage.

“Hey, conductor!” we heard his hoarse voice at the wagon step. “Hey, is there not here another carriage, where I could sit alone without "those Negros"?..”

And proudly swaying, drunken representative of the “higher race” went into another car.

“Drunken swine!” An American blurted out after him.

The English boast and take great pride before the world in civilization they introduced in the country and in education they provided “young India” with. Meanwhile, they arranged all this in such a way that neither the former, nor the latter will profit India. The Hindu, however wise he is and belongs to a higher caste does not dare, for example, take the first class railway ticket; any Englishman gives himself the right to turn out any native in the most unceremonious manner, even travelling in the second class, and the railway administration holds the entire payment for the second class while it makes him go in the third class. Not long ago, some officer ordered a richly-dressed native to leave the second class carriage, because the officer “wanted to sleep.” The Hindu who served as a judge in one of the highest authorities politely refused, showing the ticket and noticing about his right for the place. The officer called conductors and the Hindu judge was chucked out. He complained, but the matter was hushed up. Two weeks ago the same event happened. The editor of one of the Calcutta Newspapers was likewise chucked out the carriage. “Might is right” became here a proverb.

“Kali Yuga!”[10] cry old conservative Hindus with grim despair. “The one can not strive against the Kali Yuga (dark age)!”

This fatalism, the certainty that nothing good can be expected now, the conviction that even the powerful god Shiva himself can neither appear nor help them until the end of Kali Yuga, are all deeply rooted in the minds of the old generation and justifies in their eyes even the bloodiest grudges. As for the younger men, they receive their education in high schools and universities, learn by heart Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, Darwin and the German philosophers, and entirely lose all respect, not only for their own religion, but for any. The young “educated” Hindus are materialists almost without exception, and often achieve the last limits of Atheism. They seldom hope to attain to anything better than a situation as “chief mate of the junior clerk,”[11] and either become sycophants[12], disgusting flatterers of their present lords, or (which is still worse, or at any rate sillier) begin to edit a newspaper full of cheap liberalism, which gradually develops into a revolutionary organ, until finally the editor of this finds himself in prison, lucky enough if he does not finish his career there...

But all this is only by the way. Compared with the mysterious and grandiose past of India, the ancient Aryavarta, her present is a natural Indian ink background, the black shadow on a bright picture, the inevitable evil in the cycle of every nation. India has become decrepit and has fallen down, like a huge memorial of antiquity, prostrate and broken to pieces. But the most insignificant of these fragments will for ever remain a treasure for the archaeologist and the artist, and, in the course of time, may even afford a clue to the philosopher and the psychologist. “Ancient Hindus built like giants and finished their work like goldsmiths,” exclaims Archbishop Heber, describing his travel in India. In his description of the Taj Mahal of Agra, that veritable eighth wonder of the world, he calls it “a poem in marble.” He might have added that it is difficult to find in India a ruin, in the least state of preservation, that cannot speak, more eloquently than whole volumes, of the past of India, her religious aspirations, her beliefs and hopes.

There is not a country of antiquity, not even excluding the Egypt of the Pharaohs, where the development of the subjective ideal into its demonstration by an objective symbol has been expressed more graphically, more skillfully, and artistically, than in India. The whole pantheism of the Vedanta is contained in the symbol of the bisexual deity Ardhanari. It is surrounded by the double triangle, known in India under the name of the sign of Vishnu. By his side lie a lion, a bull, and an eagle. In his hands there rests a full moon, which is reflected in the waters at his feet. The Vedanta has taught for thousands of years what some of the German philosophers began to preach at the end of last century and the beginning of this one, namely, that everything objective in the world, as well as the world itself, is no more than an illusion, a Maya, a phantom created by our imagination, and as unreal as the reflection of the moon upon the surface of the waters. The phenomenal world, as well as the subjectivity of our conception concerning our Egos, are nothing but, as it were, a mirage. The true sage will never submit to the temptations of illusion. He is well aware that man will attain to self-knowledge, and become a real Ego, only after the entire union of the personal fragment with the All, thus becoming an immutable, infinite, universal Brahma. Accordingly, he considers the whole cycle of birth, life, old age, and death as the sole phantasm of imagination.

Generally speaking, Indian philosophy, split up as it is into numerous metaphysical teachings, possesses, when united to Indian ontological[13] doctrines, such a well developed logic, such a wonderfully refined psychology, that it might well take the first rank when contrasted with the schools, ancient and modern, idealist or positivist, and eclipse them all in turn. That positivism expounded by Lewis, that makes each particular hair on the heads of Oxford theologians stand on end, is ridiculous child's play compared with the atomistic school of Vaisheshika, with its world divided, like a chessboard, into six categories of everlasting atoms, 9 substances, 24 qualities, and 5 motions. And, however difficult, and even impossible may seem the exact representation of all these abstract ideas, idealistic, pantheistic, and, sometimes, purely material, in the condensed shape of allegorical symbols, India, nevertheless, has known how to express all these teachings more or less successfully. She has immortalized them in her ugly, four-headed idols, in the geometrical, complicated forms of her temples, and even in the entangled lines and spots on the foreheads of her sectaries.

We were discussing this and other topics with our Hindu fellow-travellers when a Catholic padre, a teacher in the Jesuit College of St. Xavier in Bombay, entered our carriage at one of the stations. Soon he could contain himself no longer, and joined in our conversation. Smiling and rubbing his hands, he said that he was curious to know on the strength of what sophistry our companions could find anything resembling a philosophical explanation “in the fundamental idea of the four faces of this ugly Shiva, crowned with snakes,” pointing with his finger to the idol at the entrance to a pagoda.

“It is very simple,” answered the Bengali Babu. “You see that its four faces are turned towards the four cardinal points – South, North, West, and East – but all these faces are on one body and belong to one god.”

“Would you mind explaining first the philosophical idea of the four faces and eight hands of your Shiva,” interrupted the padre.

“With great pleasure. Thinking that our great Rudra[14] is omnipresent, we represent him with his face turned simultaneously in all directions. Eight hands indicate his omnipotence, and his single body serves to remind us that he is One, though he is everywhere, and nobody can avoid his all-seeing eye, or his chastising hand.”

The padre was going to say something when the train stopped; we had arrived at Narel.



  1. Moscow News, № 317, 13.12.1879, p. 4; Russian Herald, January 1883, Supplement, vol 163, pp. 44-50. In V. Johnston edition here starts the chapter “On The Way To Karli”.
  2. Tuberose – a perennial herb with a strong desirable scent. – Ed.
  3. Baldachin is an ornamented canopy supported by columns or suspended from a roof. – Ed.
  4. All missionaries here are called indifferently (probably from the first Catholic Portuguese missionaries) – padre.
  5. The reply of a missionary in Madras, published in the New York Herald.
  6. Garevalli in another edition. – Ed.
  7. Ghats is a term, derived from one or other of the Dravidian tongues, and used in India by the English-speaking British, this term means a group of stepped hills separated by valleys. – Ed.
  8. This name literally means “abode or land of kings,” from two words: raja is a king or prince, and sthan is a land, abode and possession.
  9. Of the latter Colonel Tod writes somewhat as follows:

    “The magnificence and luxury of the Rajput courts in the early periods of history were truly wonderful, even when due allowance is made for the poetical license of the bards. From the earliest times Northern India was a wealthy country, and it was precisely here that was situated the richest satrapy of Darius. At all events, this country abounded in those most striking events which furnish history with her richest materials. In Rajasthan every small kingdom had its Thermopylae, and every little town has produced its Leonidas. But the veil of the centuries hides from posterity events that the pen of the historian might have bequeathed to the everlasting admiration of the nations. Somnath might have appeared as a rival of Delphi, the treasures of Hind might outweigh the riches of the King of Lydia, while compared with the army of the brothers Pandu, that of Xerxes would seem an inconsiderable handful of men, worthy only to rank in the second place.”

  10. The Hindu system contains a kalpa or great period of time, consisting of 4,320,000,000 years, which they divide into four smaller yugas, distributing them as follows:
    1) Satya Yuga consisting of 1,728,000 years
    2) Treta Yuga – 1 296 000 years
    3) Dvapara Yuga – 864,000 years
    4) Kali Yuga – 432,000 years
    Total: 4,320,000 years.
    All this together constitutes one divine age – the Maha Yuga.
  11. Russian idiom for the lowest occupation. – Ed.
  12. Sycophant (Greek συκουάντης) – informer, slanderer, blackmailer. – Ed.
  13. Ontology – the nature of being, the study of existence. – Ed.
  14. The name of the god in Vedas.