OLD DIARY LEAVES, Sixth Series (1896-98)
by Henry Steel Olcott
THE SOUTH INDIAN PARIAH
THREE days after my return, my friends Mr. and Mrs. Kirkpatrick and their son, coming from Australia and en route for London, paid me a visit for a few days.
The problem of the origin and religious heredity of the Pariahs of Southern India was so important, that I determined to bring the communities into relation with the High Priest Sumangala, so that in case they were proved1 to have been original Buddhists their communities might be brought into close connection and under surveillance of the Buddhists of Ceylon. Mr. Iyothee Doss, the native physician already mentioned in this narrative, and P. Krishnaswami, a teacher in my first Pariah school were chosen by the Pariah communities to represent them at Colombo, and on the 1st of July I left Madras with these two for Colombo, via
1They were not.—Ed.
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Tuticorin and reached our destination on the second day. I presented the delegates to the High Priest, who was delighted to see them and on the same evening brought them before a monster meeting, whose feelings were highly excited by the addresses of the delegates themselves, and of the High Priest, myself and Dharmapala. The remarks of the High Priest were very dignified and noble. He told the delegates to remember that, although they had been degraded to the lowest social level under the caste system of India, at the moment when they became Buddhists all these arbitrary social distinctions were stript off their shoulders; they became free men, entitled to their own self-respect and of whom it was expected by every Buddhist that they would do nothing to lower the dignity of their new condition. Then taking me as their sponsor he gave them the Pancha Sila with great impressiveness. The whole audience listened with the closest attention to the pronunciation of the words and when the fifth Precept was completed, they gave vent to their restrained enthusiasm in a great shout of “Sadhu ! Sadhu !” The Sinhalese are an emotional people, easily aroused by anything which touches upon their religion, so that, when they realized that these two black men were the chosen delegates of an outcaste Indian community numbering five millions of people, that it was claimed for them that they had
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been Buddhists at the time of the emperor Asoka, that they had been mercilessly persecuted and tortured to compel them to become converted, that, yielding to force majeure, the once independent community had been reduced to a state of degradation and slavery, and that, at this moment these delegates and their associate leaders of the Pariahs nourished the hope that with the help of the Sinhalese Buddhists they might recover their religion, build temples and establish monasteries for the support of the Bhikshus who might be sent over to take them under their spiritual charge, the outbreak of enthusiasm at this meeting need surprise nobody.
The next day I sent the delegates under good escort to Kelani Temple and spent the day in town, visiting Mrs. Higgins and Madame Canavarro, and going with Dharmapala to see his Raja Giri estate, where he had made a failure of an attempt to establish a Buddhist college. Our young friend has a marked tendency to fly kites, the strings of which persist in getting broken; he lets them go and they are out of sight. Dharmapala could not see the absurdity of the proposal he made me after the scheme had hopelessly failed, viz., that as I was growing old and had placed the Buddhists under enormous obligations, I should now retire from the management of The Theosophical Society,
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settle down at Raja Giri and pass my remaining days in dignified retirement. Stript of all covering of fine talk, the idea was simply that I should pull his chestnuts out of the fire—so illogically and impulsively does his mind work.
Before retiring that night I dictated to Mr. Jayatilaka a draft of a reply for the High Priest to make to the Pariah petition, and the next day went over it with Sumangala, got his approval, had the printers set it up and the same evening read the proofs.
That same day Mr. Harry Banbery came down from Kandy to escort us to the Mountain Capital. On Wednesday (the 6th July) we went there, were received at the railway station by a number of friends, among them Mr. Kobbekaduwa, a Kandian noble, whose family had great influence at the time of the native sovereignty before the British occupation. I took the delegates to pay their respects to the Mahâ Nayakas, High Priests of the royal temples of Malwatte and Asgeriya, and the High Priest of the Ramanna Nikaya. In the evening there was a very big and demonstrative meeting to welcome the delegates, and speeches were delivered by Kobbekaduwa, Dr. Iyothee Doss, myself and others. There being no important priest present I gave the Pancha Sila to the assembly and the Pariah delegates had the opportunity for the first time of joining with their new co-religionists in this act of Buddhist worship.
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On Thursday (the 7th July) we returned to Colombo and in the evening the Buddhist Theosophical Society entertained the delegates and myself at dinner at headquarters. I happened to drop in the afternoon upon a meeting that was being held there and where it was very persistently urged by Dharmapala to eliminate the word “Theosophical” from the title of the Colombo Branch and break its relations with our Society. The young advocate of secession made the protest that our Society was in reality hostile to Buddhism and that the connection between the two was doing harm to the religion. This was the beginning of an agitation that this ambitious young man has been carrying on ever since with the real object of bringing himself into notoriety and weakening the influence of our Society in the Island. At the meeting in question he and his few sympathizers explained to me that they had no desire or intention of altering my personal relations with the Sinhalese people, but should expect me to go on as before as their leader. I exposed their sophistry and repudiated their proposal with scorn, showing them the base ingratitude that underlay the plot, and telling them that, while they were perfectly at liberty to expunge the word “Theosophical” from the title of their Branch, if they did it I should immediately break my relation with them and never answer another appeal for help,
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whether coming through their High Priest or any other channel : a people so devoid of the sense of gratitude were not worth my while to waste any more time over. Needless to say, nothing more was heard of the proposal at that time.
On the 8th of July our good-byes were said and we sailed for Tuticorin in the B. I. Steamer, Kapurthala. The sea was rough, the delegates very sick and the next morning on our arrival they looked about as miserable as human beings could, yet rejoicing over the success of their mission. On the morning of the 10th I reached Adyar and found awaiting me a copy of my Sorgho and Imphee book on the sugar-canes of China and Africa, which I had written in 1857, which has passed through seven editions and of which I had not seen a copy for many years, until my friend, Mr. Gould, editor of Notes and Queries, had procured me one after inserting a paragraph in his excellent magazine.
The next few days were crowded for me in the way of foreign correspondence and the writing of editorial paragraphs and articles. On the 14th a letter came from Banbery reporting that the Kandian public were enthusiatic over our recent visit and that as one result he had got several new scholars for the Buddhist High School of which he was Principal.
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A fund, known as the “Olcott Pension Fund”, which had been started some time previously without my consent and which, though most kindly conceived, was, in my case useless, lying idle in bank and earning a small interest. I thought the money would be much better employed by turning it into a fund for the upkeep of the Panchama School, so on the 16th of July I drafted a public notice of its transfer to the credit of the “Olcott Free School” as invested capital for its support.
As it was decided that Miss Edger should make the tour of Southern India I left home for Coimbatore on the 19th and began the work. I was met at Podanur Junction by a committee and was put up in a large empty house that had been kindly loaned for the occasion. At 3-30 p.m. Miss Edger arrived from Ooty with our Parsi friend, Mr. Panday, of Bombay, and Mr. K. Narayanaswamy Iyer, Inspector of our Branches in Southern India. In the evening she held a conversazione at the Coimbatore College Hall, received an address of welcome and was garlanded in the usual poetical Hindu fashion. In the evening she gave her first public lecture at the same place on the subject: “Will Theosophy help the world?” On the next day there was an E. S. T. meeting, another conversazione which lasted from 2 till 5 p.m. and in the evening a lecture on “God in Man and Nature”.
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On the next morning before 10 a.m. there was another E. S. T. meeting and conversazione: at 2 p.m. I took her to see the old temple at Perûr and examined the many monolithic pillars carved with huge figures of Indian gods and rearing hippogriffs, of which there are so many splendid examples at Madura and the other chief temples of Southern India. The three grand carved portals that we now have at Adyar are of the same pattern.
Miss Edger found, during that night, that travel in India is not without its disagreeable features, for the old house where we lodged was alive with a certain kind of vermin of a most persistent character which feasted on her fresh Australian body to her great dissatisfaction. However she had the moral courage to take things as they came and keep in view the great object of the tour without paying too much attention to these unpleasant details.
At 7-27 the next morning we left for Palghat, our westernmost objective point, where we were nicely received and put up in the very good Government Rest-House. Miss Edger held a conversazione in the afternoon and at 4-30 p.m. lectured to a packed house on “Theosophy in Theory and Practice”.
Palghat is inclosed in a strip of the Western Coast of India, lying between the southern chain of the Ghats and the ocean and is probably more
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tropical in its character than almost any part of India. The mountain chain fences in moisture-laden breezes of the Ocean with the result that a luxurious vegetation makes the country appear as though it were a strip of the sea-begirt Island of Ceylon. The inhabitants having no part in the feverish activity of the other portions of India, have kept to their ancient customs and beliefs with peculiar tenacity; the folklore is very rich in tales of the interference of the invisible powers with men, practitioners of sorcery abound and some of the worst aspects of black magic, such, for instance, as lycanthropy—the changing of the sorcerer’s astral body into the appearance of wolves and other wild animals—are said to be rife. If the reader will consult my translation of D’Assier’s book L’Humanité Posthume he will find among the replies to the circular of enquiry which I issued to correspondents throughout India, what the inhabitants of this Western Coast have to say on these interesting subjects. It was this Western Coast that in remote historic and prehistoric centuries was visited by the adventurous merchants of Arabia, Egypt and Venice, who made themselves rich by the enormous traffic which they carried on. It was to Cochin, capital of the native state of the same name, that came Albuquerque, the Portuguese admiral, in the year 1503. Of course he built a
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fortress, and founded the first European colony, which comprised, equally of course, a lot of bigoted Roman Catholic priests who brought a train of disasters in their wake. The doom of the country as an independent kingdom was sealed, for—after the Portuguese—came, on the 6th January, 1663, the Dutch, who proceeded forthwith to strengthen the fort, but consecrated most of their force to the laying of the basis of an active trade in Indian commodities, which enriched the merchants of Amsterdam and Rotterdam and created in them a thirst for Eastern conquest, that is not even now, after the lapse of four centuries, assuaged (e.g., the Dutch East Indian politics).
While we are at Palghat and are resting from our railway journey, I may say in parenthesis, that nowhere are the difficulties of my poor friends, the Pariahs, so merciless as in this strip of a physical paradise. The hatred of the caste people is so exaggerated that, if a Pariah is walking on a public road and sees a caste man approaching at a distance, he is obliged to give utterance to a peculiar cry of warning and before the caste man reaches him, must turn off into a field beside the road, turn his back and hold his hands over his mouth, so that by chance not even a whiff of his breath might be wafted in the direction of the other. If a Pariah should ever read Bishop
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Heber’s “Missionary Hymn”, when he came to the lines:
Where every prospect pleases
And only man is vile;
he might almost be excused for saying, “That means the West Coast”. This however is one of the points which go to make up the picture on the reverse of the medal, and which a casual traveller like Miss Edger is not likely to have forced upon her attention, so we will return to our narrative.
Palghat presented to us a smiling appearance in its tropical aspect, and our pleasure was enhanced by the kind treatment given us by our local friends. I founded here one of those Bala Samajas or Hindu boys’ societies which I made for the purpose of interesting the younger generation in their religion, while at the same time giving them a training in the administration of public affairs. My idea was that the boys should be taught the lesson of self help, and the plan I pursued was to propose at a public meeting, after a lecture on education, that the boys of the town should join together and manage their own affairs, looking to their elders only for encouragement and practical help such as the supply of books, the rent of a meeting place and advice as to the best course to pursue in emergencies. I found no difficulty in enlisting the sympathy of the juvenile public and of their parents and
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guardians, and I am happy to say that the seed thus sown has since borne a good harvest.
At 4 p.m. on the 25th July Miss Edger gave her final lecture, and at 7-30 p.m. we left by train for Salem. The night was passed in the train and in the morning we reached our destination and were most charmingly received. The Branch with which we now came in contact was one of the most energetic and useful in the Indian Section. Its presiding officer, Mr. T. N. Ramachandra Iyer, B.A., Deputy Collector, was a man of exceptional ability and force of character. He took hold of the Branch with the same energy which he gave to the direction of the affairs of his own bureau, with the result that a nest of capable workers was soon established and the influence of the group spread over a wide area of the country.
It is the custom of India, as my readers know, to present addresses to visitors along with those fragrant garlands of flowers that express the poetical temperament of the people. The Salem Branch on this occasion presented to Miss Edger a nicely-worded address, enclosed in a silver tube highly ornamented on the outside and having at the two extremities figures of Hindu gods.
Our people put up Miss Edger in a bungalow and myself in a tent close by. From 8 to 9 a.m. there was a conversation meeting at our Branch rooms,
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and at 6 p.m. at the Town Hall, a lecture by Miss Edger on “A Bird’s-Eye View of Theosophy”, to a great crowd. Despite the intense heat I wrote many letters. On the next day, the 27th, we had the same routine, a morning conversation, a reception of visitors at fixed hours and an evening lecture, very much applauded by an audience as large as the capacity of the hall would allow. The routine of the following day was varied by the giving of lectures to Hindu boys by both of us and the forming of a “Boys’ Society”. At 10 p.m. we went to the station, escorted by our friends, dismissed them—not without difficulty, so anxious they seemed to enjoy our company to the last—settled ourselves down in the two waiting rooms for a bit of rest and at 3-30 the next morning took the train for our next station, Karur.