OLD DIARY LEAVES, Third Series (1883-87)
by Henry Steel Olcott
CREMATION CEREMONY IN CEYLON
How much was done by us, in the first decade of the Society's existence, towards realising the objects of its formation, will be seen in a few statistics. The Theosophist was founded in October, 1879, and there appeared in its first ten volumes 429 pages (Royal 8vo) of translations from the Sanskrit, and 935 pages of original articles on Eastern religious, philosophical, and scientific subjects, mainly by writers of Oriental birth; several hundred lectures were given by myself, besides hundreds more by our colleagues in India, America, and Ceylon; the Buddhistic educational movement was started and vigorously pushed in Ceylon; a number of Sanskrit and Anglo-Sanskrit schools were begun in India; H. P. B. visited Europe once, and I several times; Branches and Centres were established in Europe and America; a considerable number of books were published in different languages; I travelled thousands of miles in India and went to most of the villages in the Maritime Provinces of Ceylon; a heavy correspondence was kept up with all parts of the world, and as we crossed the threshold of the eleventh year, the erection of the building for the Adyar Oriental Library was begun at the lovely Headquarters which had been
348 OLD DIARY LEAVES
bought for the Society and paid for. In my Diary of 1886 the entry for January 1st says:
"In the name of the Masters and for the sake of their cause, I, Henry S. Olcott, President of the Theosophical Society, this day turned the first sod for the Sanskrit Library and Museum at Adyar. The only witnesses present were T. Vijiaraghava Charlu and two of the gardeners. The impulse to do it came so strongly—after staking out the ground for the building—that I did not call any of the other people in the house."
A very simple affair, one will see: no speeches, no music, no processions, no humbug of any sort, just a real beginning of what is meant to be a great work, accompanied by a declaration of the motive at bottom: one which, though not heard by more than two or three spectators, yet certainly must have been heard and noted in the quarter where the Wise Ones sit and watch the actions of men.
Work was not begun on the building for some little time, however, as plans had to be perfected, money provided for, and materials bought. On the 8th I consulted Mr. C. Sambiah, F.T.S., a retired Sub-Engineer and most excellent colleague of ours, about the building, and he agreed to take it in charge in conjunction with "Ânanda" and myself. I made myself personally responsible for the money, and we were soon ready. But there were first the religious prejudices of the bricklayers to be considered; they would not begin a new work save at the auspicious hour, whatever temptations might be offered.
CREMATION CEREMONY IN CEYLON 349
Saturday morning, the 16th, proved to be the critical moment, so a Brahman was called, and at the northeast corner of the ground, where I had started the trench, he recited slokas, laid out a broken cocoanut, red powder, betel nuts, saffron and mango-leaves, on a tray; then he burnt camphor and threw into the thick, smoky flame seeds of various varieties of gram (pulse), sprinkled the place with drops of water from mango-leaves, and recited many Sanskrit man trams of supposed fiend-smiting potency. Bits of ripe plantain, roasted gram, chopped rice, and brown sugar were laid about the fire for the benefit of any hungry bhutas and pisachas who might be idling about, and, finally, flowers were showered into the trench and the ceremony came to an end. After that, the masons were ready for work, and so we set them at it. Mr. Sambiah took professional charge and opened a book of accounts in which every load of bricks, sand, lime, and other materials, every foot of teak timber, and every day's "coolie" (work) was entered with scrupulous care and integrity. He and we two others (T. V. Charlu and myself) have always been in close accord upon every work of construction or repairs that the exigencies of our corporate property have demanded, and have used the utmost economy possible. It is necessary that this should be stated, because it has sometimes been uncharitably said—of course by those who never had practical experience in the owning and care of real estate like that of our Society—that I have wasted money in bricks and mortar: such people have no idea of the
350 OLD DIARY LEAVES
cost of keeping up such large buildings, bought when they were some forty years old, nor realise that as a Society grows it must have increased accommodations, the same as a family. However, this need not be dwelt upon further,
In my entry of January 3rd I find it recorded that our friend Judge P. Sreenivas Row, F.T.S., "generously pays not only the cost of feeding the delegates, but also for the pandals, decorations, and lights used at the Convention." He had drafted for me the Dwaita Catechism for my proposed series of elementary handbooks of the ancient religions, and at this time I received from him the MS. and edited it for publication.
Baron Ernest von Weber had gone on a short tour at the close of the Convention, but returned on 11th January and sailed for Calcutta on the 17th. He was a good-natured man, and heartily entered into a joke of mine for the amusement and instruction of the resident Indian members of the Headquarters staff. On the evening of the 15th he donned his gold-embroidered court dress, with his orders, cocked hat, silk stockings, pumps, sword, and all, and pretended to have been sent to me as special Ambassador from his Sovereign, to convey to the President of the Theosophical Society His Majesty's compliments and congratulations on the completion of our first decade. I made the Hindus take up positions to the right and left in the vestibule, advanced as Marshal of Ceremonies to the columned front entrance to receive and conduct the Ambassador, led him up the vestibule, and announced
CREMATION CEREMONY IN CEYLON 351
his name, dignities, and functions; then wheeled around to face him as P.T.S., heard his (coached) address, responded to it with solemn gravity, and hung on the Baron's button a small tin shield emblazoned with H. P. B.'s escutcheon, to which I gave the dignity of an order with a fanciful name, and begged him to wear it as a proof to his august Master of the value I placed upon his brotherly message. The mock levee being then broken up, the Baron and I had to laugh heartily on seeing the unsophisticated wonder displayed by the auditory at his whole "outfit," every article of which they successively inspected and asked about. His white kid gloves surprised them quite as much as anything else: they did not know what to make of them, but said they were very strange things to wear, "very soft and smooth". Of course, I know that this innocent bit of tomfoolery will be deprecated by those of our members who take life lugubriously and fancy that the P.T.S. must be a yogi-ascetic, but it would have been just the thing to suit H. P. B.'s temperament, and she would have entered into it with zest. In how much of such harmless nonsense did she not indulge in those old days, when we laughed and joked while carrying our heavy burden up hill! In truth, but for our light-heartedness it would perhaps have crushed us: a good laugh is more restful than laudanum, and mirth than morphia. I know Mahatmas, my lugubrious friend, who actually laugh!
On the day of Baron von Weber's departure, a British army captain called and asked permission to
352 OLD DIARY LEAVES
look at the River Bungalow, in which he had been born. This will give an idea of the necessary age of the Adyar buildings.
On the 19th occurred the annual "floating festival" at the Mylapore temple tank, and we went to see it. It is a very striking picture of Indian national life. Symbolically, it typifies the floating of Vishnu on the face of the waters at the beginning of a Manvantara or new cosmic period. The ascending steps on the four sides of the tank, which mount from the water's brim, are lit up with chirâgs, or clay lamps; and the small temple at the tank's centre blazes with light, while its white stucco of chunam is turned into the semblance of old ivory by the soft light of the silvery moon. On a raft of catamaran fishing-boats, that has been prepared by the coast fishermen as an act of time-honored feudal service, the temple idol has been placed in a small pagoda covered with glittering tinsel. Its hereditary attendant Brahmans, naked to the waist, but with two white cloths, one wrapped about them from the waist downward, the other folded into a strip and laid across the shoulders, chant slokas. Standard-bearers wave their quaint banners. Devadasis, or temple nautch-girls, sway before the idol in graceful motions. Colored fires of all bright hues blaze at the corners of the raft. Musicians waken the echoes with their strident sounds, and the floating raft is poled seven times around the tank, in the presence of a vast multitude of dark-skinned people who watch it from the bank, the disturbed water reflecting back
CREMATION CEREMONY IN CEYLON 353
the while the shining splendor of the earthly lamps and fires, and the silver radiance of the moon and stars far up in the blue vault. Anything more picturesque in the way of a human festival would be hard to find.
On the 23rd of the month I gave my first and only lecture in India on practical agriculture, at the Saidapet Agricultural College—a Government institution. It was a pleasant break into the monotony of perpetual lectures on religious and metaphysical subjects, and aroused my old interest in the great problem of helping the earth to fully nourish mankind. The President of the College presided, and the whole thing went off very nicely. But as this subject properly belongs to the pre-Theosophical portion of my life, it need not be mixed up with the present one, the history of whose chief events we are now tracing.
On the 27th Mr. Leadbeater and I sailed for Colombo to take up a lecturing tour on behalf of the Buddhist National Education Fund that I had promised to make. The sea was smooth, the weather pleasant, the ship's officers old acquaintances of other voyages, and the stretch of 640 miles from port to port was made in due course. On arrival we were met on board ship, at the jetty steps, and at the new quarters of the Colombo Buddhist Theosophical Society, where a hymn of welcome was sung by some of our school children. I found Mr. (now Sir) Edwin Arnold, his wife, and daughter, in town, and at once set to work to organise a fitting public reception to one who had laid the whole
354 OLD DIARY LEAVES
Buddhist world under deep obligations by the writing of his Light of Asia. But a very few Sinhalese knew this, however, although Sir Edwin was happily ignorant of the fact, and I had to get my intelligent Colombo Buddhist colleagues to go with me to the priests and secure their co-operation. Fortunately the Ceylon Observer made a virulent attack upon him for his sympathy with Buddhism, which made our task a light one. With the High Priest Sumangala we arranged that the reception should be given at his College on the second day thereafter, and fixed just where the priests and visitors should sit on the platform and what the High Priest should say. A copy of the proposed address was given Sir Edwin at his request, and the function duly came off with complete success. My next neighbor on the platform was George Augustus Sala, who chanced to be passing homeward from Australia. When the guests had departed, Mr. Leadbeater and I were asked by the High Priest to address the people, and did so.
The next day we took train for Kalutara with some of our Colombo members, to attend the cremation of Ambagahawatte Indasabha, Nayaka Terunnanse, the learned founder of the Ramanya Nikaya (sect) of Ceylon Buddhism. The occasion was so striking that I think I may as well give some of its details from an account which I wrote for the Theosophist while the circumstances were fresh in my mind.1
1 See the issue for May, 1886, p. 494.
CREMATION CEREMONY IN CEYLON 355
As it has been more than once explained, the Buddhist sects of Ceylon are not at variance as to dogma, they have the same books and the same beliefs; their distinction from each other is in the several sources of their priestly ordination (upasampada), one brotherhood getting it from Siam, the other from Amarapoora, in Burma. Buddhism originally went to those countries from Ceylon, but a series of wars of invasion and conquest, waged by kings of India against the rulers of Ceylon, caused the almost complete extinction of the religion of Buddha in that country. To so low an ebb had it come, that when, finally, a Sinhalese warrior-king drove out the Tamil invaders and recovered his ancestral throne, he could find no worthy monks to conduct public worship and preach the Dhamma. He accordingly sent to the King of Siam for learned bhikkus to come and re-establish the religion, and the best of the Sinhalese candidates were duly ordained. This formed what is known as the Siam Nikaya. The priests, being mainly of high social rank, would not confer ordination upon candidates of lower caste, so the more energetic and learned of these went to the King of Burma and got what they sought from the chief priests. This formed the Amarapoora Nikaya. But in the course of time that happened which always happens in the religious affairs of men: piety relaxed, learning became confined to the minority, idleness and sanctimoniousness prevailed, and now and again a monk who grieved over the decay of true religion would break out in protest, and either start a new
356 OLD DIARY LEAVES
sub-sect or withdraw into the jungle for a life of seclusion and meditation. Ambagahawatte was one of these protesting rebels; he gave up his connection with the Amarapoora Nikaya, went abroad and took a fresh ordination, and founded the Ramanya Nikaya, just before H. P. B. and I came to the Island, if I remember aright. On 23rd June, 1880, he joined the priests' division of what I called the Buddhist section of the T. S., the other division being that of the laymen who formed our Ceylon Branches. Four days earlier the great leaders of all the other sects and sub-sects—Sumangala, Subhuti, Weligama, Bulatgama, Piyaratana, Potuwila, and Megittuwatte, the silver tongued orator, par excellence, of Ceylon, had preceded him in entering our Society; and thus were united on our common platform those leaders who had been hitherto divided more or less seriously. Ambagahawatte was learned, ascetic, a great stickler for the minute observance of every detail of rule of conduct prescribed for the Sangha in Vinaya Pitaka. His head was of a highly intellectual type, his eye full of thought and power, his manner gentle and repressed, and his private conduct blameless. We were great friends, for I fully sympathised with his yearning for reformation of the bhikkus and extension of Buddhism throughout the world. Naturally, therefore, I was invited by his followers to attend the cremation of his body at Kalutara, and gladly went to pay the last act of respect to his memory. He had died on January 30th, and his cremation occurred on February 3rd. Meanwhile
CREMATION CEREMONY IN CEYLON 357
the body had lain in state at his own monastery, five miles from the town of Kalutara, whence it was borne in procession on a catafalque erected on a decorated car, to the place of cremation. Mr. Leadbeater and I with our Colombo friends saw everything. Before the coffin was removed from the Dharmasala (preaching hall) where it was lying, the assembled priests, to the number of some two hundred, filed thrice in silence around it, faced inward with joined palms raised to the forehead, knelt, and laid their faces to the ground, as if paying their final homage to their dead chief. The coffin was then raised by the senior disciples, borne outside the house, and laid upon the car. Native musicians then, with booming drum and wailing pipe, thrice circumambulated the bier, the people cast flowers, roasted grains, and sweet waters upon the coffin; the village headmen closed in about the car, gorgeous in gold lace and buttons and towering combs of shell; the yellow-robed friars extended in single file before and behind the car, each with his fan, his cadjan sunshade, and his begging-bowl slung at his back. The line of march was then taken up in a glare of hot sunshine that made vivid the colors of vestments and gold lace, of amber-yellow robes, and of the gaudily bedecked catafalque on wheels. Behind the rear end of the line of bhikkus walked hundreds of men and women bearing the spices, the citronella and sandalwood oils, and other portable materials which they were contributing towards the pyre.
358 OLD DIARY LEAVES
In a grassy basin, bordered at two sides by steep hillocks clothed to the top with forest trees, stood a pyre of logs of mango; cachu, cinnamon, and cocoa-palm, built nine feet square, so as to front the four points of the compass. At each side three heavy posts of about fifteen feet in height were provided to serve as a sort of frame to support the additional fuel that might be brought by friends. Outside all was a quadrangular structure of young areca-palm trees, framed in squares after the native fashion for triumphal arches, and prettily decorated with the split and festooned tender leaves of the cocoanut tree in the charmingly artistic fashion which comes naturally to the Singhalese. On the side facing the road was a canvas screen inscribed with the name, titles, and chronological history of Ambagahawatte; on the east side a larger one painted with emblems; over the pyre stretched a cloth canopy with a painted sun at the centre and stars at the corners; and around the cornice of the, areca framework fluttered crimson pennons and bannerets. At the distance of fifty yards towards the east, a long arbor of cloths upon bamboo supports awaited the occupancy of the monks coming in the procession. Leadbeater and I, who had pushed on ahead by a cross path, sat in a cool shade looking on. Presently we heard the sad, sobbing wail of the pipes and the roll of the bass and kettle drums and the tom-toms, and the procession came into sight and all took their assigned places. The car was drawn to the pyre, the chief disciples mounted the latter, white
CREMATION CEREMONY IN CEYLON 359
cloths were drawn about it as a temporary screen, the coffin was lifted and placed, and then an eloquent, clear-voiced monk recited the Pancha Sila. Response was made by the 5,000 people present in a great volume of sound that produced a most striking effect. The same priest then pronounced an eloquent discourse upon the dead master, and enlarged upon the mysteries of life and death, the working of the law of Karma, and Nirvana as the summum bonum. Turning towards me, he then asked me to make some remarks as a friend of Ambagahawatte and President of our Society, which I did. The contributions towards the funeral pile were then brought forward, and the pyre was built up to a height of nearly-fifteen feet, and gallons upon gallons of fragrant oils and gums were scattered over the logs. All being now ready, the disciples removed the cloth screen, descended to the ground, thrice circumambulated the pyre, reciting prescribed Pali verses, called Piritta, thrice knelt and made obeisance, then slowly, with downcast eyes and grief-stricken countenances, stood back. The firing of the pyre in such cases is the privilege of the chief disciple and the brother of the deceased, but these two paid me the unusual compliment of asking me to apply the torch. I, however declined the honor, as I thought it an intrusion, so the usual course was taken. Presently the great structure was sheeted in curtains of flame, that licked up the wood, the spices, and the oils, and waved long yellow-red streamers towards the clear sky. It was a grand sight: how infinitely nobler than
360 OLD DIARY LEAVES
the ceremony of burial, one could see who had the least poetical instinct in him. After a while the huge pyre was a mass of glowing coals, the corpse was reduced to ashes, and the gifted and courageous founder of the Ramanya Nikaya had passed out of the sight of men whose view is limited to the physical plane, and moved on another stage in his evolutionary orbit.
Cremation was the universal custom of sepulture in Ceylon before the Portuguese conquest, save for the most ignoble class. In the case of a laic the pomp of it was proportioned to the wealth and the consequence of the deceased. This we learn from the ancient Pali and Sanskrit writings. But with the new masters came innovations—the result, in part, of bloody persecutions and the necessity for hiding in the jungle from their savage conquerors. Burial replaced cremation for the laity, until now it is only given to priests and the nobles of the Kandyan districts. Some of the friends of the Sinhalese, myself among them, have urged them to revert to the older and better fashion, and I hope that in time this may be done. No obstacle whatever in the form of ancient custom, social prejudice, or religious prescription stands in the way; the Sinhalese are just stupidly continuing a bad method of sepulture that their forefathers would have regarded as a terrible disgrace, one which was forced upon them by foreign conquerors who were as bigoted as fanaticism could make them, and as cruel as tigers in dealing with the captives to their sword. It is a curious instance of national auto-hypnotism. Some fine day a few leading
CREMATION CEREMONY IN CEYLON 361
men among them will realise that they are doing to the bodies of their deceased relatives just what, in the olden time, the Government would have done to an outcast or criminal—one, in short, who was outside the pale of respectable society and not entitled to better treatment for their carcases than a dog; and then the spell will be broken, ostentatious burials will be given up, and the bodies of the dead will be put into the bosom of the all-purifying fire, to be reduced to their component elements. The embalming of corpses with spices and natron, and the laying of them away underground to turn into poisonous carrion, are customs begotten of false theological beliefs as to the post mortem importance of our mortal shell: cremation, the noblest, most honorable of all forms of sepulture, was the natural outcome of those higher, grander, and more reasonable concepts about the perishable and imperishable parts of the human Ego, which are taught in Brahmanism and Buddhism.