OLD DIARY LEAVES, Fourth Series (1887-92)
by Henry Steel Olcott
THE CONVENTION OF 1888
OUR friends were delighted with their cordial reception at Bombay, and, like all strangers, struck with the picturesqueness of the city and its swarming and motley inhabitants. Our Branch members did—as they invariably do—all that lies within their power to make new-coming colleagues feel welcome. It is in some respects a model Branch, having had the good fortune to possess energetic, intelligent, and devoted officers from the beginning. When I look at this group, it seems strange to me that so long as our T. S. Headquarters remained there the Branch was almost inert. I made frequent desperate attempts to infuse life into it, but without encouraging success. Perhaps it was because the members felt that within arm’s length of them were the Founders, and that at any time a half-hour’s stroll would take them into the presence of H. P. B., whose average conversation was more instructive and stimulative of thought than any number of dull meetings, at which no one person could claim to be much more advanced in knowledge
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than the others. But when we shifted to Adyar, and the responsibility for the Branch’s activity was definitively thrown upon Tookaram Tatya, Rustomji A. Master and two or three more, the latent life in the Branch suddenly showed itself. We left the group in 1882 with a majority of Hindu members, whereas now, and for some time past, they have kept away, and the Branch is preponderatingly Parsi. Yet the selfsame studies have been pursued, the identical Theosophical ideas been taught and accepted, until now there cannot be found, the world over, a more thoroughly Theosophical group than the Bombay T. S.
All the party save myself went to Elephanta to see the caves, and were taken to see the other Bombay sights. On the 12th of November we had a public reception, Mr. K. M. Shroff presiding, and our welcome was warm enough to prove that the public were as ready as ever to see us back and hear us speak. Messrs. Johnston and Harte made addresses, and I lectured on “Thought-reading”. The next day we left for Madras; our colleagues at Poona and Gooty meeting us at their stations, and bringing flowers, fruits, and delicious fresh milk. Adyar was reached on the 15th, and the newcomers showed great delight with the house and grounds; more especially, even, with the home-like feeling of the place; for I have ever tried to give visiting members the impression that they are not my guests, nor the Society’s, nor anybody’s, but just co-proprietors of the property, coming to their own home. H. P.B. and I always
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followed that policy, and I have tried to keep it up.
The Executive Council met as usual on the following Sunday, and passed resolutions thoroughly approving of my doings in Europe. Tranquil days of work and pleasant conversation followed, but before long I began to see signs of discontent spreading to some extent among certain few Branches, the result of underhand schemings by one or two malcontents who were unfriendly to H. P. B. This passed off in time, although a desperate attempt was made at that year’s Convention to make trouble for me. The Bombay Branch sent me, on November 30th, a resolution recommending that T. Subba Row, who had resigned, be asked to comeback to us, but I have positively refused to lower the Society’s dignity in any similar case, however influential might be the seceder—my conviction having always been that the cause we stood for is so infinitely greater and more majestic than any man or woman engaged in the T. S. work, that it would have been a lowering of my self-respect to beg anybody to stand by us against his inclinations. To my apprehension, a man could not enjoy a higher honor than the chance to help the Teachers in their benevolent plan for the uplifting of contemporary humanity.
On 3rd December, Mr. Noguchi, a representative of the Committee of patriotic Japanese who had sent me an invitation to visit their country in the interests of Buddhism, arrived. On the 18th I served, at the request of the Madras Government, as a Judge at
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a public trial of ploughs at the Saidapet Agricultural College Farm, thus, after thirty years, resuming my practical interest in agricultural questions. H. E. the Governor of Madras, the Earl of Jersey, and other important personages were present, and expressed their satisfaction with the Committee’s awards. The Earl and Countess of Jersey came one day and saw the Library and took tea with us, a hospitality which they subsequently returned to me both in England and at Sydney, where Lord Jersey was Governor at the time of my visit.
At a Council meeting in the same month, a resolution was unanimously passed to convert itself into an Advisory body and restore to me the full executive powers which, in 1885, I had consented to have curtailed, to satisfy some who thought it would be better to have several bosses instead of one. The thing did not work well enough to continue it, and all my colleagues were but too glad to reshift the responsibility to my shoulders rather than keep it themselves. It was all the same to me, for even during the interval I virtually had to do all the work, and the Council meetings grew more and more perfunctory—as Council meetings usually do when there is some leader who may be counted on to pull the stroke-oar and get the boat on the straight course when cross winds blow.
I took Mr. Noguchi to the State Ball at Government House on the night of the 21st, and thoroughly enjoyed his expressions of wondering interest in everything
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he saw, from the dazzling military uniforms, the gold-bestrewn court dress of the Governor, the dresses of the ladies, the dancing, the polished white columns and walls of the Banqueting Hall, the life-sized portraits of the Queen and other dignitaries, and the picturesque liveries of the turbaned servants, down to the supper-table in its inviting array—all complete novelties to him. The Governor was very pleased to see and talk with so intelligent a representative of his grand nation of heroes, and asked him various questions about the state of religion in Japan and the reason for my proposed visit. He was a nice fellow, was Noguchi, and made himself very popular at Headquarters and among the Hindu community in general, whom he electrified with his speech at our Anniversary celebration.
The Convention Delegates began arriving on the 24th of December. On Christmas Day I got a foolish cablegram from H. P. B. threatening the resignation of herself and the entire Blavatsky Lodge should Cooper Oakley be readmitted to membership, the act showing the state of nervous excitement into which the Subba Row imbroglio had thrown her. She used the name of the Blavatsky Lodge and of certain of its members so often in her letters, as condemning me utterly and backing her views unreservedly, that it became at last tiresome. Considering our personal relations, the identity of our ages, and our joint relationship to our Guru, it seemed to me ridiculous that she should imagine that the dicta of a group of junior colleagues, however warm partisans of hers, should influence me
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to act against my own judgment in questions of management. I wrote her at last that if she sent me any more round robins or protests from the same quarter I should neither read nor answer her letters: our affairs must be settled between ourselves without the interference of third parties. Answering me, she admitted the correctness of my argument, and the exasperating documents ceased to arrive.
Our newcomers were much gratified on hearing a concert of Indian music given us by the Madras Gayan Samaj, under the management of our old member and friend Mr. Bulwant Trimbak Sahasrabuddi, of Poona. This gentleman, seeing the decadence of the ancient musical science, and the substitution of frivolous and sometimes immoral airs and songs, undertook, in or about the year 1878, the heavy task of trying to revive the Aryan melodies; to do which he formed, at Poona, the first Gayan Samaj. Undaunted by obstacles, he bravely stuck to his work, giving time, labor, and money, enlisting the sympathies of successive Governors of Bombay and Madras, and of other influential gentlemen, official and private. His self-denial has been rewarded by seeing this national movement getting foothold, and I hope he may live to see full success crown his endeavors.
The attendance of Delegates was small at that year’s Convention, partly because of so many of our best men having been drawn to the political Congress at Allahabad, and in part because of the transient disaffection in the Bombay Branch. Tookaram Tatya
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and the other Bombay friends stayed away, but still the affair went off successfully.
Consistently with my policy to give every chance to my colleagues to try experiments which seemed to them to promise well for the Society’s interests, I acceded to their wish that we should try what effect the complete abolition of entrance fees and annual dues, and the trusting for the Society’s support to voluntary contributions, would have. Personally, I did not believe in the scheme, though I officially supported it, for our fee-list was so modest that it seemed as if anybody who should object to paying them could not have any real sympathy for our movement, and it would leave us to throw upon our more generous members virtually the whole responsibility of keeping the Society going. But the Convention voted for the change, upon the motion of the representatives of the British and American Sections present; I concurred, and issued the necessary Executive Notices, to clear the way.
The first effect was that angry protests broke out in both the Western Sections; H. P. B. wrote me a violent letter, denouncing me as a vacillator, and liberally reporting what so and so, her friends and colleagues, said about my inconsistency, after having just effected the organisation of a British Section and giving it the right to levy the customary entrance fees and annual dues; while Judge and his party openly revolted, and refused to comply with the new order of things. Secretly, I was rather amused to see how much of a
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mess was being made by marplots eager to have a finger in the pie, and was disposed to give them the rope to hang themselves with. It was not long before the experiment failed and we returned to the old method, as will be seen later.
The other important thing done by the Convention of 1888 was the adoption of the policy of reorganising the Society’s work on the line of autonomous Sections: this having been the motive prompting me originally to grant, in 1886, a Charter to the American. Section, and, later, one to the new Section at London. The plan had proved an entire success in America, and after two years of testing it in practice it seemed but fair to extend it to all our fields of activity. It was an admirable plan in every respect; local autonomy imposed local responsibility and local propaganda, and involved much personal exertion; the creation of Sections minimised the burden of dull details which had previously so hampered my command of time; and the Society changed from a quasi-autocracy to a constitutional Federation, each part independent as to its internal affairs, but responsible to every other part for its loyal support of the movement and its ideals, and of the Federal Centre, which bound the whole together, like the fasces of the lictor, into an unbreakable bundle. Under this plan the formation of a new Section adds but little to the work of the Adyar staff, but increases to a marked degree the collective strength of the Society, as the house’s foundation becomes stronger and
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stronger with each squared stone that is built into its mass.
In reporting to the Convention of 1888 the passage of the resolution in Council, recommending the change of its functions from an executive to an advisory character, I made in my Annual Address the following declaration of intention: “My offer to retire was rejected by unanimous vote by the Convention of 1885, and I was told that I must serve the Society during my life. I yielded my own inclinations to the sense of duty, and the time has come when I should say, most distinctly and unequivocally, that since I am to stay and be responsible for the progress of the work, I shall not consent to any plan or scheme which hampers me in the performance of my official duty. That duty is, first, to the unseen yet real personages personally known and quite recently seen by me and talked with, who taught me the way of knowledge, and showed me where my work lay waiting a willing worker; next, to my colleague, friend, sister, and teacher, who, with myself and a few others, founded this Society, and has given her services to it these past thirteen years without fee or hope of reward; and, thirdly, to my thousands of other associates in all parts of the world, who are counting upon my steadfastness and practical management for keeping the Society moving forward in its chosen line of usefulness.” In short, if I was to be again responsible, I meant to manage things as my experience in public affairs showed to be best, and “to be obedient and loyal to the Teacher we two
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personally know, and loyal and staunch to the colleague you and I and all of us know, and a few appreciate at her true worth. This is my last word on that subject; but in saying it, I do not mean to imply that I shall not freely use my own judgment, independently of Madame Blavatsky’s, in every case calling for my personal action, nor that I shall not be ever most willing and anxious to receive and profit by the counsel of every true person who has at heart the interests of the Society. I cannot please all; it is folly to try; the wise man does his duty as he can see it before him”.
My voyage to Japan was one of the most important events in our Society’s history; and as we shall be coming to it presently, and the results of the tour were astonishing, it will be as well if the clear statement of Mr. Noguchi, the special Delegate sent to persuade me to accept the invitation of the Japanese Buddhists, and to be my escort, as to the then religious condition of Japan, and his fraternal appeal for the sympathies of the Indian public, which so deeply moved his hearers at the Anniversary celebration in Pachiappah’s Hall, Madras, should be included in this narrative. Mr. Noguchi spoke in his own language, but an English translation was read on the occasion. He said:
“Brother Theosophists and Hindu Friends—I am very happy and much honored to address you on the occasion of my first visit to India, a land sacred in the eyes and dear to the hearts of the Japanese and all other Buddhists, as the birthplace of the Founder of
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our religion, and the country where his eloquent voice uttered its precious teachings. I come from the ‘land of the Rising Sun,’ which lies twenty days’ sail from here by the ocean, in the fastest steamers. Yet it is not to be considered as further away than a single yojana, or even the width of this hall, when we realise the fact that the tie of a common brotherly love really binds us together in a golden chain. That tie is our common interest in a great movement for the revival of religion; the resuscitation of the morality taught and illustrated by our ancestors, and strictly illustrated in their own lives. This movement is that which was begun and has, during the past thirteen years, been directed by the Founders of the Theosophical Society. I am not here to prove that Buddhism is a better religion than yours, but to tell you something about the religious and moral state of my dear country.
“When you hear the facts you will, I am sure, give me and my co-religionists your loving sympathy and good wishes. For you will at once recognise the truth that Japan is at this moment in almost exactly the same condition as your sacred India was ten years ago, when Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky left America and came to your shores. For ten years they have been helping you to understand, and encouraging you to love, respect, and defend your religion from its unscrupulous enemies.
“They found it lifeless and its followers in despair. They have put life into its enfeebled body and courage into your hearts. You were then almost ashamed to
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confess yourselves Hindus, but now you are proud to be so called. The day of unchallenged slander and misrepresentation of the faith of your forefathers has gone for ever. You now, knowing how much truth it contains, and what is your duty to your children as regards making them understand it, are brave and confident to silence the liar who attacks it. We, Japanese Buddhists, now ask you to lend us this worker of social miracles, this defender of religion, this teacher of tolerance, for a little time, so that he may do for the religion of my country what he and his colleagues have done for the religion of India. We are praying Colonel Olcott to come and help us; to come and revive the hope of our old men, to put courage in the hearts of our young men, to prove to the graduates of our colleges and universities, and to those who have been sent to America and Europe for education, that Western science is not infallible, and not a substitute, but the natural sister of Religion. He is a Buddhist of many years’ standing. He has helped the Buddhists of Ceylon to work a change for the better in their religion so wonderful that no one could believe it without going to that island and talking with the priests and the people. When he first came there, in the year 1880, things were worse for the Buddhists than they were for you in India in 1879.
“Now Buddhism is reviving, the Buddhists are beginning to be full of hope and courage, schools for Buddhist children have sprung up everywhere, societies have been formed, books are freely published, a
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semi-weekly journal has been started and has acquired a great influence, and the Colonial Government has gazetted the Wesak Day of May as a Buddhist national holiday. This is the sort of help we need in Japan as badly as a starving man needs food. Mr. Laurence Oliphant, the English enthusiast, a brilliant writer, of mystical and religious tendencies, formerly a member of the British Parliament, says: ‘A moral pall shrouds this earth’s surface, and it is densest where our Occidental civilisation most prevails. Japan was a relatively pure country until she felt the demoralising touch of Western civilisation, and now how sadly has she deteriorated!’ I am sent here by a very influential national committee to beg Colonel Olcott, our American Brother, to come and give religious food to us. Will you not spare him to do this meritorious work?”
A succinct survey of the names and tenets of the various sects of Japan followed, and his hearers were informed as to the rather demoralised condition of the priesthood, after which Mr. Noguchi closed his address as follows:
“But there are honorable exceptions among the priests; some are really working for Buddhism, but they are few. Where is the higher doctrine? The doctrine is there, but its vital strength is very much reduced. Old Japan is no more; the old grandeur and prosperity of Buddhism, alas! is no more visible. What shall we do? What steps must we take to reform the Buddhists and give life to Buddhism? How shall we wipe off the rust accumulated on the solid gold
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structure of Buddhism, so that it may outshine the new-made brass structure they are trying to erect? The first important step we must make is the unification of all Buddhists, no matter of what sect they are, nor of what country. Of course, it will be a very difficult task. The second step is to begin to make every priest and layman educated; and this, too, is very difficult, and a work of time. The third step is to reconvert the Japanese to Buddhism: needless to speak of its difficulty, in view of what I have above stated. The fourth step is to encourage the Japanese to take all that is good from Europe, and to reject all the bad. Two opposing forces are now working to influence and mould the intellect of the educated Japanese—one asserting that everything European is good, and the other the contrary. The balance of thought must change towards one scale or the other, and on that the destiny of Japan hangs. What shall we do? This is the echo of the cry which is now reverberating throughout Japan. Our Buddhist brothers have been aroused from their long drowsiness, but there is no help within. To rescue our Buddhists from the thraldom of Western vices we have thought of only one way. I have hinted to you what that is. It is to obtain the unselfish help of Colonel Olcott, the Founder of the Theosophical Society, and Reformer of Religions. We heard of the name of this esteemed and honorable man, and of the good work his Society is doing for Buddhism in Ceylon and elsewhere. All Japanese Buddhists are now waiting his visit, and they
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have named him (Jamashaka) ‘Bodhisat of the Nineteenth Century’. My dear brother and colleague, Kinza Hirai, ex-President of Kin Society, sent letters asking him to give his services to Japan for the advancement of Buddhism. Mr. Hirai and the Reverend Sano, an influential priest, are forming and organising a Branch of the Theosophical Society at Kyoto, and they are working vigorously in its interest. They have sent me to this twice-blessed country to attend the Annual Convention of the Theosophical Society at Madras, and after the close of its Session to escort Colonel Olcott to my country as a guest of this Society. In a few days I shall be leaving this for Japan. My stay here and among my Buddhist brothers in Ceylon has been very agreeable, and I leave you with sorrow. I shall not forget the hospitality that I have received here, nor the brothers with whom I have made lasting friendships. Let us help each other and work mutually for the advancement of our ancient religions. We, Buddhists, must form a strong brotherhood of co-religionists, of all parts of the world; and for the realisation of this grand object, work earnestly, constantly, and willingly. We must do good work for the sake of the world, as our Lord Buddha did, and as Colonel Olcott, in a lesser yet still most useful way, is doing. ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ said Mr. Patrick Henry, the American revolutionary patriot. I will say, ‘Let me die or else do a good work while living.’”
The earnestness of Mr. Noguchi’s delivery seemed to strike a responsive chord in the Indian heart, and
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he carried with him from the hall the best wishes of all. This was the first time that Japan had made an appeal to a foreign nation for religious help since that historical event in 1584, when a company of Japanese ambassadors, themselves of princely birth, were conducted into the presence of the chief pontiff. Escorted by the cavalry and Swiss guard, accompanied by the foreign embassies, all the Roman princes and nobility, with the officials of the cardinals and of the Vatican, they went in a glittering procession through the streets of Rome, the guns of the castle and those of the Vatican thundering their welcome. Prostrating themselves at the Pope’s feet, they declared that they “had come from the extremities of the East to acknowledge in the presence of the Pope, the Vicar of Jesus Christ, and to render obedience to him in the name of the princes of whom they were the envoys”. The reading of the letters of credence was followed by a most fervid discourse by Father Gonzalez, and the whole of Christendom was thrown into agitation by the dramatic aspect of this unique occasion.1 The event was the sequel to the long and adroit labors of Jesuit missionaries, who had skilfully appealed to the Japanese sense of devoted loyalty to their sovereign, and by changing the external aspects of Christianity to conform to those of the ancestral Shinto cult, had made the Japanese believe that the Western religion was, of all others, the best fitted to exalt the
1Cf. Feudal and Modern Japan, by Arthur May Knapp. Boston: L. G. Page & Co., 1897.
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grandeur of the emperor and the happiness and dignity of the nation. But in a little more than three decades the steel hand under the velvet glove was felt to be clutching at the throne and life of the nation, and there followed one of the bloodiest, most remorseless persecutions of perverts to be read of in history; the new religion was extirpated from the land, and its last missionaries swept into the sea. The ports of Japan were then closely sealed, and for two hundred and fifty years she continued to jealously guard herself by strict seclusion from the possibility of further contamination by foreigners. This is the secret of her isolation, known to comparatively few outside the class of sinologues.
When Japan was once again opened to foreign intercourse by the American Commodore Perry, and change became the passion of the day, an imperial Commission was ordered to report upon the advisability of adopting Christianity as the State religion, in order to improve the moral condition of the people. “The result,” says Hearn (quoted by Mr. Knapp), “confirmed the impartial verdict of Kämpfer in the seventeenth century upon the ethics of the Japanese. ‘They profess a great respect and veneration for the gods, and worship them in various ways. And I think I may affirm that in the practice of virtue, in purity of life and outward devotion, they far outdo the Christians.’”1 The Commission reported against the adoption of the Western religion “on the ground that, judging, from the moral condition of the West,
1Op. cit., 217.
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Christianity was not there so potent an influence for right living as were in Japan the religions which had so long held sway among the island people”. Neither Mr. Knapp, nor Lafcadio Hearn, nor any other unbiassed modern observer believes that Japan will ever come under the sway of Christianity so long as there survives any hope of independent national existence. During the mighty revolution in every other department of thought and life that the empire has been the scene of, none has occurred in that of religion. “From the benefits of this movement,” says Knapp, “which bore so many features of Western life across the Pacific, Christianity has been the one thing excluded; and it was deliberately excluded because, after full investigation, it was deemed prejudicial to the interests of morality” (p. 218). “It is an open secret that the American commission recently sent to Japan to consider the crisis in mission work there was confronted with problems which the national spirit has evoked, not only in matters of administration, but also in those affecting supposed essentials of Christian belief. It is at least wholly safe to predict that every hope of sectarian aggrandisement on Japanese soil which has been cherished by any of the numberless denominations who have sent their propagandist forces there is doomed to disappointment. The Christianity which gains a foothold or any lasting influence in the empire will be neither Presbyterian, nor Methodist, nor Unitarian Christianity. It will not be even American, nor English, nor German,
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nor Roman Christianity. It will be, if anything at all, an essentially Japanese faith, based upon and assimilated with the old loyalties . . . In her faith, as in her polity, Japan will remain, as always in the past, the unconquered Island Realm” (p. 222).
At the time of the Noguchi commission I had none of my present familiarity with his nation, but I loved them as I do all Oriental peoples, instinctively, and with my whole heart, and in accepting his invitation I felt that with love and sincerity one may unlock all doors that lead to the popular heart. I knew, from experiences in India, Ceylon, and Burma, that modern education but paints a gloss over the outer man, leaving the inner self what heredity and Karma have made it: I felt that even so feeble an agency as one man’s voice must arouse the dormant religious sentiment and call back at least the most earnest of the people from the slimy path of greed and worldly success into the clean, broad road traced out by the Buddha, in which their forefathers had trod for thirteen hundred years. It would not be I, but the resistless power of the Buddha Dharma that would be pitted against the forces of irreligion and moral revolt. When we were driving home from the place of meeting, Noguchi expressed his wonder that so huge an audience had listened to him in such perfect courtesy and silence; saying that I must expect nothing to equal it from my Japanese audiences, who were in the habit of interrupting public speakers with protests and comments, and sometimes making a good deal of disturbance.
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I bade him not distress himself on that score, for it had never happened within my experience to be interrupted when speaking, perhaps because I kept my hearers so busy thinking as to give their thoughts no chance to wander. The result—as will be seen later—proved me to be right, for a more courteous reception than that given me would have been impossible to conceive of.
The last Delegate to the Convention of 1888 left Adyar on the 30th (December), and we of the household enjoyed the calm after the storm of clashing opinions. On the last day I wrote: “Thus closes the year 1888, which has been rife with disagreeable incidents, trials, and obstacles of sorts, yet on the whole prosperous. The resignations of Subba Row, Oakley and others bring evil sequences, among them the discontent, almost rebellion, of Tookaram, who has been misled by hasty judgment prompted by X.’s machinations. The outlook for 1889 is much better. We have got rid of a certain pestiferous fellow who kept us all in misery.”
Thus, then, we roll up the scroll from which our notes of the year’s history have been copied, and lay it on the table of Chitragupta, the Record-keeper of Yama, for production at that future day when the deeds of our lives have to be scrutinised by the Lords of Karma.