OLD DIARY LEAVES, Second Series (1878-83)
by Henry Steel Olcott
BENARES THE HOLY
WE had our first opportunity to know at first hand the tenets of the Brahmo Samaj, on the next day after the Shalimar Garden fçte, Babu Protap Chandra Mozumdar giving a lecture which we attended together. Our first impressions were probably identical with those of the thousands and tens of thousands who have heard his eloquent and scholarly addresses. Like all visitors to India, we were amazed at the command of English attained by an educated Hindu and sat under a sort of charm until he had finished. But then we began to cast up the account, and found that there was more music than solid nourishment in the discourse, for us: it was rhetorical rather than erudite, and we came away with a dissatisfied feeling, as one would after a dinner of Meringues-á-la-créme. He certainly defined very clearly the nature of his Society and its principles, the theme being "The Brahmo Samaj and Its Relations with Hinduism and Christianity". He spoke extemporaneously, or at any rate without MS., and not only never hesitated for a word but never failed to use the very best synonym to express his meaning. Herein he resembled Mrs. Besant. The Brahmo
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Samaj, he told us, takes all that is good in the Vedas, Upanishads, Purânas, Bhârata, and Gîtâ, as well as in Christianity and other religions, and rejects only the dross. For a long time the "Brahmo Dharma Book" contained only extracts from the Upanishads, and I thought it a pity they had not stuck to it. They agree with the Christians in their view of man's helplessness and dependence upon a personal God, and, standing outside the door of one of their conventicles and listening to their service, I could not fail to be struck with the flavor of Nonconformism that it had. They practise some sort of Yoga and are decidedly following the Bhakti Marga along which the Salvationists go marching with their sounding brasses and tinkling cymbals. A confirmed Theist, Protap Babu spoke of Jesus as something more glorious than any other character of history, yet still a man.
A vivid contrast to this experience was afforded by the Viceregal Durbar that Lord Ripon held on 15th November under canvas. A vast room was constructed by suspending horizontally on poles, great sheets of blue-striped canvas, closing it in with canvas screens, laying the ground with crimson carpets, and lighting it with gaudy chandeliers. The Viceroy sat upon a silver gilt throne, dressed in full court costume with a profusion of gold lace and embroidery, white knee-breeches, white silk stockings, and the blue ribbon of the Bath crossing his breast amid a blaze of orders, like a blue streamlet between jewelled banks. Behind him swarth Punjabi servants in Eastern dress, waving Indian fans covered
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with crimson and embroideries of the Royal arms; two others holding fly brushes (chamars) of the white tails of the Tibetan yak, and two more with cornucopias—all emblems of sovereignty: altogether a highly decorative get-up to American eyes.
The assemblage were seated in parallel rows of chairs facing each other, the Europeans on His Excellency's right, the Indians on his left, leaving a broad path open from the door to the throne. The Indian Rajahs, Maharajahs, and other Princes were assigned places in order of rank, the highest nearest the Viceroy. As each one drove up to the door be received an artillery salute; the t,ropps presented arms, the band played; the Master of Ceremonies, Mr. (now Sir Alfred) Lyall, in, diplomatic uniform, received and escorted him to the foot of the throne; the Prince held out a nuzzur (an offering of a certain number of gold coins), which the Viceroy" touched and, remitted" (that is, did not take it); both bowed, and, then the Prince was conducted to his seat and the, next man's turn came. Fancy how monotonous it must have been to sit there for hours while this humbuggery went tediously on. I wondered the Viceroy could help yawning in their faces, towards the end. But it was a brave show and something worth seeing once. The Princes being all received, the Viceroy had to go through the ceremony of giving handsome presents of jewelry, silver-mounted arms, saddles, etc., etc., which the Princes" touched," and left the things to be carried out by the servants. No greater contrast could have been possible than that between the magnificent dresses and jewelled turbans
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of the Princes, and the commonplace, sombre, and inelegant costumes of the non-military European onlookers.
Two days later I left H. P. B. at Lahore and went to Multan to fill an engagement to lecture. Five years previously, on that very evening, I gave my Inaugural Address before the newly-born T. S. at New York.
The main street of Multan is broad, paved with bricks, and lined with shops that compare well with those of other Indian cities. There are manufacturers of enamelled silver work, silk goods, cotton and woolen carpets, etc. There was a large local Arya Samaj and also a Branch of our own Society, headed by one of the best men in India, Dr. Jaswant Roy Bhojapatra. I lectured on two successive evenings, and during the day was taken about the town to see the sights, among them one which matches the grave of Adam for pathetic suggestiveness! It is the temple of the Narasinha Avatar of Vishnu, his appearance, to wit, under the farm of a man-lion for the purpose of protecting virtue and punishing wicked people. The story (and what "story," to be sure) is that Vishnu split open one of the iron pillars of the bad king's durbar hall, emerged from it, and tore the tyrant into pieces. Well, they actually show the identical Pillar in this Multan, temple. What could one have better than that: unless it be the grave of Adam, over which Mark Twain—to his praise be it said—wept honest tears for the loss of that respectable ancestor, and set an example to the whole regenerate race of mankind!
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When I got back to Lahore I found poor H. P. B. tossing in a Punjab fever, and the faithful boy Babula nursing her. She was restless, burning up with heat, and complaining of a feeling of suffocation. I sat up with her all night, but she would not let me send for a doctor, saying that it would be all right in the morning. It was all wrong, however, and the best physician in the place being called, he pronounced it a severe case and prescribed quinine and digitalis. I had to lecture that evening and did so; after which I turned nurse again, and the medicines gave H. P. B. a sound night's rest. The next day the crisis passed and the doctor pronounced her out of danger. Another good night followed for her, and the following day she gave unmistakable proofs of her convalescence by buying an hundred rupees' worth of shawls, embroideries, and other things from one of those Indian pedlars called box-wallahs, who besiege every sojourner in a dâk bungalow. She was interested in a simple mesmeric experiment I made that evening on some of my Hindu visitors who wished to know which was most sensitive to mesmeric influence. I made them stand with their faces to a wall, their toes touching it, and their eyes shut, while I stood silently behind each in turn, and, holding the palms of my hands towards his back but without touching him, concentrated my will-power and caused him to fall over backward into my outstretched arms. She watched their faces to see fair play and I did the "drawing". I should like to know how hypnotists who deny the existence of a mesmeric aura would explain this simple yet striking
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experiment. Not one of the subjects had the least acquaintance with mesmeric science, nor did I utter a word to suggest my purpose.
Whatever the cause—whether her purchases or not—H. P. B. had a relapse of fever and passed a bad night, tossing about, moaning, and getting flighty now and then. She was better again in the morning, and consoled herself with more purchases! In the afternoon we held a meeting and organized a local Branch under the name of the Punjab Theosophical Society. I remember an amusing incident connected with it. A gentleman and his son, both orthodox Hindus, and both much interested in our views, though maintaining secrecy, called separately to talk with me. Each wanted to join the Society without the other's knowing it; so I appointed that the son should meet the other applicants in H. P. B.'s room, and the father come to me in mine, a quarter of an hour earlier than the fixed time. I had H. P. B. keep the others in conversation while I received and duly admitted to membership the elder man. Then, excusing myself to him for a half-hour and leaving him a book to read, I went to H. P. B.'s room and initiated the other candidates, and excused myself to them for five minutes. Then I returned to the father, told him that we were forming a Branch, and got him to come along with me and participate in the election of officers. Imagine his surprise to see his son squatting on the floor with the others, a full-fledged F. T. S.! There was but a moment's embarrasment, followed by a peal of hearty laughter when I explained the facts, and H. P. B. was the most amused of all over
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the dénouement. We took train that evening for Ambala, and thence moved on to Cawnpore, where we had long metaphysical discussions, and I gave two lectures, after which we went back to Allahabad and our dear friends the Sinnetts.
Leaving my colleague with them, I went over to Benares as the guest of the late venerable Maharajah, whose title is so often mentioned in the Hindu and Buddhist works, and is consequently of great antiquity. He sent a carriage for me to the station and some of his suite to welcome me in his name. I was quartered in a garden-house near his palace and by a large tank, in whose placid waters a splendid temple of his erection reflected itself.
I had my first interview with His Highness the next morning, Babu Pramada Dâsâ Mittra, the able and respected Sanskritist, and the not respected Raja Sivaprasad, coming to conduct me there. This being the young Prince's birthday, there was a grand nautch at the place. The white-haired, white-moustached Maharajah, as handsome a patriarch as one would care to meet, received me very kindly, making me sit with himself and his son under a baldaquin of embroidered Cashmere shawls supported by four fluted silver rods, the feet of which rested on crimson and silver footstools. He was dressed in a green Cashmere gown, with silk trousers and undercoat, and a cap of brocade. His son wore a figured green brocade interwoven with gold, together with a cap adorned with a diamond aigrette and feathers.
The Indian nautch is the most doleful of amusements, one to set a Western man yawning. Here
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were three pretty, young, and richly costumed girls' and one old one, moving about to the sound of Indian musical instruments in an interminable series of posturings, floor-stampings with their little feet, and turnings about; with wavings of hands and snake-like motions of fingers, and the singing of inflammatory songs in Hindi, and lewd gesture eye-winkings, until one felt the creeps all over and longed to get away to the garden for a quiet smoke. But the old Maharajah seemed to like it, and beamed benevolently on us all through his gold spectacles, so I sat and bore it as best I could. In front of him stood a monster silver chillum, or water-pipe, with a very long flexible tube enwrapped in white silk, and terminating in a jewelled mouth-piece, at which he kept assiduously pulling. When, at the last, I was permitted to take my leave, he put about my neck a braided garland of gold-worked red ribbon, poured Indian perfumes on my hands, and expressed his great pleasure at seeing me. He arranged that I should move into town to his large palace known as the Mint House, and lecture on the following Tuesday.
The Mint House is so called from its having formerly been the place where his ancestors coined their money. It is a great rambling structure, almost reminding one of the Palace of Versailles in petto, and an ideal flitting-ground for ghosts. I felt so, indeed, that night, when I was left quite alone in a great chamber larger than many a lecture-hall, and was quite prepared to be aroused from sleep by a detachment of mischievous phantoms. But none
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came and I was left in peace. The erudite Dr. G. Thibaut, Principal of Benares College, came and dined with me, and spent the evening in profitable conversation. I returned his visit the next day, and also called on Raja Sivaprasad and Babu Pramada Dâsâ Mittra. The next day we went to pay our respects to Majji, the female ascetic, or Yogini, and found her very amiable, and communicative about religious questions. Later in the day we visited, in his garden retreat, the naked and lovable old Yogi Bhaskaranda Swami, with whom I was delighted. At 6 p.m. I lectured on "India" in the town hall to a crowded audience of—as they told me— "all the aristocracy and learning of Benares". The old Maharajah and his son were present, and Raja Sivaprasad served me as translator with great ability; his knowledge of English having been perfect whatever his demerits may have been. He is dead now, and nothing said, whether good or bad, can affect him, but he was throughout life a supple courtier, who curried favor with every European official, played the sycophant, and got titles, estates, and honors of sorts, earned the contempt of his compatriots and, at the same time, that of the whites to whom he "bent the pregnant hinges of the knee that" —well, that he might get what he coveted. I shall never forget how Dr. Thibaut looked at me when the late Raja left us after telling us how, during Lawrence's Punjâb campaign, he had got into Runjit Singh's camp and counted his guns for Lord Lawrence. Elevating his eyebrows, the quiet German Orientalist said: "Der Radja Sahib has ferry peculiar notions of patriotism!"
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in which sentiment I agreed. We three were driving back from a morning sail on the Ganges along the river front to see that unique spectacle, the morning ablutions of tens of thousands of pious Hindus. They crowded the steps of the crumbling ghâts and half-ruined palaces that line the river's edge; they sat praying on the wooden platforms, sheltered by awnings or palm-leaf roofs; they stood knee-deep in the water; they beat their washed cloths on the stone steps: ascetics smeared their bodies with sacred ashes; the women polished with mud their bright brass jars until they looked like new gold, filled them with Ganges water, and walked away with them on their left hips; they thronged the burning-ghât, where corpses were being consumed on the pyres and others waited their turn; and the morning sun shone bright on sparkling brasses, red cloths, white turbans, and the seething multitudes that pressed up and down the broad staircases that rose to the level of the crowded city streets, while peacock-prowed quaint craft rode at their moorings or floated down the stream. Such a scene is visible nowhere else as this at Holy Benares in the early hours of the day.
What makes it more impressive is the fact that this same scene has been repeated daily from earliest ages; such as it is now it was when the Krishna Avatara moved among men. But how long it will survive no man can foretell. The hand of Time is already laid upon the structures that line the shore. Some of the finest, most majestic palaces and bathing-ghâts are falling into ruin. Great masses of masonry,
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undermined by river floods, have fallen in upon each other or their foundation courses have sunk below the surface of the water; the stucco has dropped from palace-walls, leaving the bricks exposed; a grand mosque of Islam, whose dome and minarets dominate the scene, was built of the stones of ancient temples which the conquerors had demolished; the burning-ghât is a disgraceful desolation, where the pyres are built on slopes of debris; all the very castemen who are seen at their morning devotions along the city front, seem for the most part to be doing them in a perfunctory way as if to be seen of men, not moved by deep religious impulse. "Ichabod" seems written upon this holiest of old Aryan shrines by the hand of that Western Progress which despiritualizes nations while enriching them: which empties the heart while filling the pocket.
My good friends Babu Pramada Dâsâ Mittra and Ram Rao kindly took me to see a noted Yogî, whose name was, unfortunately, not entered in my Diary. He sat in the open air in a triangular courtyard of a house by the bank of the Ganges, with a throng of some fifty or sixty persons, gathered about him. He was a large, handsome man of venerable aspect, seemingly engaged in meditation and partially entranced. His personal cleanliness presented a pleasing contrast with the repulsive dirt and squalor of the majority of Sannyâsis. I was told that he was deeply versed in the system of Patanjali, and had for many years been regarded as one of the foremost Yogîs of India. Of course, being new to India, I took him at the public
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valuation, and coming forward saluted him respectfully in the ancient fashion. I had some conversation with his disciples and came away. My illusions were, however, soon dispelled, for I learnt that he was actually at that moment engaged in a lawsuit for 70,000 rupees, which he was pushing on with all possible vigor. A Yogi hungry after rupees was indeed an anomaly, and, needless to say, I did not repeat my call.
From there I went to a meeting of the Society of Benares Pandits held in my honor, at which I again urged their consideration of the project to appoint a suitable committee to undertake the coinage of Sanskrit equivalents to our Western, Greek, and Latin scientific and other terms. They promised, of course, and, equally of course, never did anything.
The following day I met Pandit Bâlâ Shastri for the first time. Dr. Thibaut ranked him as the greatest Sanskrit scholar in all India. He was the Guru of several of the chief Indian Princes and universally respected. Since then he has died and the country thus suffered a loss that seems irreparable. I wish our Western literati could have seen him as I saw him that day. A pale man, of slight figure and medium height, calm and dignified in manner, the expression of his face mild and captivating, no trace of animalism or sordid passion there—the face of a poet or a sage, of one who lived in the world of thought and was in but light touch with the bustling world; and, lighting it up with a radiance of intellect, a pair of eyes black, brilliant, mild, serene, the memory of which haunts me after all these sixteen
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years. Another Pandit, the Librarian of Benares College, accompanied him and took part in the discussion. I did my best to impress on their minds the crying need for a revival of Sanskrit Literature for the sake of its priceless contents, which were so necessary at the present time when the world's spiritual hopes were being swamped in the sea of materialism. I was bold enough to tell Bâlâ Shastri that if Hindu religion and philosophy were suffered to go into eclipse he would be largely responsible for the disaster, since he, more than any other man, was able to stem the current. I proposed that he and I, as representatives of the Pandit class, on the one hand, and of the world-covering agency of propaganda, on the other, should join forces; I asked him to convene a. private meeting of the principal Benares Pandits and let me address them, to which he assented, and we left it to Babu Pramada Dâsâ Mittra to make the necessary arrangements.
At 4 o'clock that day H. P. B. arrived from Allahabad by the slow train, and we were as glad to see each other as if we had been long separated.