Ernest Binfield Havell.

Benares, the sacred city: sketches of Hindu life and religion online

. (page 3 of 11)
Online LibraryErnest Binfield HavellBenares, the sacred city: sketches of Hindu life and religion → online text (page 3 of 11)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

in the course of many centuries a number of beautiful
legends — such as that of Savitri, the devoted wife who
j I by her insistence released her husband's spirit from

;| 1 the hands of Death — moral discourses, and religious

treatises, including the famous Bhagavat Gtta, which
is virtually the Hindu Bible of the present day.
[ The Mah&bhdrata, as it now stands, contains in

poetic form a moral and religious code which is part
and parcel of Hindu practice and belief.
1 mv The Rdmdyana refers to a later period, supposed

f ! I to be about 1000 b.c, when the Kosalas, another


' • Digitized by

Goog le


branch of the Aryan family which claimed descent
from the sun, had pushed down to the present Oudh
and north Behar, and established there a great city,
Ayodhya, which is described as the centre of Aryan
culture and religion. The Kasis, as before mentioned,
were at this time in the district of Benares. While the
Mah&bh&rata stirs the imagination with tales of mighty
warriors and political strife, the RAmAyana is pervaded
with tender sentiments of domestic virtue and affection,
tried by many sufferings and misfortunes.

The first part describes the boyhood and youth of
RAma, son of Dasaratha, king of Ayodhya, by his
first queen, KausalyA, and heir-apparent; his exploits
at the tournament, where he breaks the famous bow
of Shiva and wins for his bride the fair SltA, daughter
of Janaka, king of the Videhas. She was miraculously
born of a field-furrow. Dasaratha was about to re-
sign the throne in favour of RAma, when an intrigue
of the Queen Kaikeyl inveigles him into naming
Bharat, his younger son by Kaikeyl, as his heir, and
a decree of fourteen years' banishment against the

RAma and SltA, accompanied by Lakshman, another
half-brother, then wander into the forests of Central
India and take refuge with a holy hermit, called
Valmiki, the reputed author of the poem. Dasaratha
shortly afterwards dies of grief. Bharat, who had
refused to accept the regency to. which he was not
justly entitled, followed RAma to his retreat, and
having endeavoured, without success, to persuade him
to come back, returned himself to Ayodhya with
RAma's sandals to place on the throne as a symbol
of the rightful king's authority. The three exiles then

digitized by G00gk





wander farther south beyond the Vindhya mountains
to a hermitage on the banks of the Godavari, where
another famous Rishi dwelt There they lived in a
hut the faithful Lakshman had built of bamboos and
branches of trees, enjoying the peace and beauty of
the primeval forest and performing the holy rites of
their religion. *

" And they prayed to gods and fathers with each rite and duty done,
And they sang the ancient mantra to the red and rising sun." 1

Their happiness was soon, however, rudely dis-
turbed by the abduction of SltA by RAvana, the king
of the demons, who appeared before her in the disguise
of an anchorite, while R&ma and Lakshman were
absent, and carried her through the air on his magic,
car to his royal palace in Ceylon. The rest of the
* J ] ' ' story describes SltAs despair and sufferings in the

demon king's palace, the wanderings of RAma and
Lakshman in search of her, and the discovery of her
by the help of Hanuman, the monkey king of the
Nilgiri' mountains. With Hanuman and his monkey

\ ■ troops R&ma attacks and kills RAvana and his demon

chieftains, and takes his stronghold by storm. Finally
the exiles, accompanied by Hanuman, retqrn to Ayod-
hya on the magic car taken from RAvana, and RAma

jj \ * and SltA are crowned amidst the rejoicings of gods

and men.

A sequel, of later date than the original story, gives
a sad ending to the RAmAyana. Some slanderous
tongues in Ayodhya began to whisper suggestions
regarding SttAs conduct while in the palace of
RAvana, and RAma's jealousy was aroused by finding

i- 1


I 1 li


1 R. C Datt's abridged timndatioo of the RimlyuML







\ Digitize





1. 1





Digitized by


rAma and sItA 29

a drawing of RAvana which SltA had scrawled on the
floor while conversing with her handmaids about her
captivity. SltA was banished to the forest, where she
gave birth to two sons, Lava and Kusha, who were
brought up by the hermit Valmiki. They were
recognized by Hanuman as the sons of RAma.
According to one version, SltA and her sons then
returned to Ayodhya and passed the rest of her days
in happiness with her husband; but another story is
that the boys wandered into Ayodhya accidentally,
and were recognized and acknowledged by RAma,
who sent for SltA, and in public assembly called upon
her to attest her innocence.

SitA in an agonized appeal invokes her Mother
Earth to come to her aid and be witness of her purity.

44 Then the earth was rent and parted, and a golden throne arose;
Held aloft by jewelled Nagasas the leaves enfold the rose,
And the mother in embraces held her spotless, sinless child."

SltA sank back into the earth, and RAma in despair
sacrificed himself in the river Sarayu.

Mr. Romesh Chandra Dutt, whose abridged English,
translation I have quoted, says of the MahAbhArata
and RAmAyana: "It is not an exaggeration to say
that the two hundred millions of Hindus of the present
day cherish in their hearts the story of their ancient
epics. The Hindu scarcely lives, man or woman,
high and low, educated or ignorant, whose earliest
recollections do not cling round the story and the
characters of the great epics. An almost illiterate
oil -manufacturer of Bengal spells out some modern
translation of the MahAbhArata to while away his leisure
hour. The tall and stalwart peasantry of the north-

digitized by GoO<

| I'.'l:


■ !

. il









west know of the five Pandav brothers and of their
friend the righteous Krishna. . . . The morals in-
culcated in these tales sink into the hearts of a
naturally religious people, and form the basis of their
t » moral education.**

i| The sentiment of hero-worship is still as strong

I in the Hindu mind as it was three thousand years

' ago, and the philosophy of Hinduism finds nothing

!» \' unreasonable in according divine honours to a man,

!, I woman, or child, alive or dead, who is considered

}| to have manifested in some special sense the nature

i of the supreme soul which is believed to be a part

' ,; of every individual.

The extremes to which this doctrine can be pushed
by Hindus of the present day is described by Mr.
,|[! j }, ij H. H. Risley in the report of the last census: —

* '*' p " Priests and priestesses, pious ascetics and suc-

cessful dacoits, Indian soldiers of fortune and British
men of action, bridegrooms who met their death on
their wedding-day and virgins who died unwed, jostle
each other in a fantastic Walpurgis dance, where new
performers are constantly joining and old ones seldom
go out . . .

" In 1884 Keshub Chandra Sen, the leader of the
Brahmo Somaj, narrowly escaped something closely
resembling deification at the hands of a section of his
disciples. A revelation was said to have been received
enjoining that the chair used by him during his life
should be set apart and kept sacred, and the legal
member of the Viceroy's council was invited to arbitrate
in the matter. Sir Courtenay Ilbert discreetly refused
' to deal with testimony of a kind inadmissible in a
court of justice 9 . . . . Sivaji, the founder of the

Digitized by



I Mahratta confederacy, has a temple and image in

* one of the bastions of the fort at Malvan in the

Ratnagiri district, and is worshipped by the caste of

fishermen. This seems to be a local cult imperfectly

developed, as there are no priests and no regular

ritual . . . Portraits of Yashvantrao, a subordinate

revenue officer in Khandesh, who ruined himself by

promiscuous alms -giving and sacrificed his official

position to his reluctance to refuse the most impossible

. requests, are worshipped to-day by thousands of devout

' householders. Far down in the south of India I have

! come across cheap lithographs of a nameless Bombay

< ascetic, the Swami of Akalkot in Sholapur, who died

about twenty years ago. In life the Swami seems to

have been an irritable saint, for he is said to have

pelted with stones any ill-advised person who asked

questions about his name and antecedents. As he

was reported to be a Mutiny refugee, he may have

had substantial reasons for guarding his incognita

He is now revered from the Deccan to Cape Comorin

as Dattatreya, a sort of composite incarnation of

Brahmft, Vishnu, and Shiva, and has a temple and

monastery of his own"

It should be stated, however, that the original
Dattatreya, who has gained so much veneration, is
not the Swami of Akalkot, but a much older saint,
or previous incarnation, who is said to have been a
son of one of the Vedic Rishis.

Digitized by CjOOQIC




j! || We have brought down the development of modern

jj ! ' Hinduism to the time when the great epics began to

(I j assume their present shape, and when speculation as

to the future life and the origin of the soul had cul-
minated in the philosophy of the U pan i shads. . We
).'• now arrive at the time, which may be fixed roughly

,: from 800 to 500 b.c, when we begin to get on firmer

J % historical ground, and approach to the great parting of

the ways which came with the advent of Buddha. It
is necessary to explain briefly the differences which
led to the breach between Buddha and the orthodox
teaching of his day. In the basis of his philosophic
teaching Buddha was* a Hindu of the Hindus. The
Brahmins of his time taught the whole theory of the
transmigration of souls; Buddha's doctrine was but a
slight modification of it They held that human suffer-
ing was to be destroyed by the termination of the
j ; cycle of re-births; Buddha taught practically the same.

I The main point of difference between the two was, that

whereas the Brahmanas, which contain the essence of
the sacerdotal doctrine, declare that M sacrifice in its
totality is the bark which carries one to heaven ", and
that the Brahminical teaching is the only means of

1 1
1 :

« 1:

; i

• i

1 *


Digitized by



salvation, Buddha denied the divine authority of the
Vedas, rejected the theory of sacrifice, and declared
that the Eight-fold Path was the way by which all
suffering was annihilated, through right views, right
resolve, right speech, right actions and living, right
effort, right self-knowledge, and right meditation.

To realize the revolution which Buddha effected in
the whole development of Hinduism, it is necessary to
understand something of the tyranny of rites and pen-
ances, with which the priestly class had then enveloped
the spiritual teaching of the people. The original pro-
cess of Vedic sacrifice was based on the theory that
gods and men shared between them the ordering of
the universe, and that the one party was bound to assist
the other. If no rain fell on the earth, it was because
the gods needed refreshment They were refreshed
with Soma, the nectar of the gods, and with milk
from the earthly cows, which had their counterpart
in the heavenly cattle — the clouds of the sky. The
god Agni — Fire and Light — was brought down to
the earth by the friction of two sticks, and refreshed
with oblations of clarified butter (ghee), which he
licked up with his seven tongues. The gods came
down from heaven to attend the sacrifices, and took
their seats on the place spread with the sacred tttsha
grass. The Brahmanas declare that formerly the
gods and men on one side, and the fti/ris, ances-
tors of men, on the other, sat and feasted there to-;
gether. At one time the gods and ///rr* were visible;
they still are present, but invisible. " The gods sub-
sist on what we offer them here below, just as men
subsist on the gifts which come from heaven." As
nourishment for the gods, and as thank-offerings for

Digitized by

x Google




favours received, men must give presents of what
they valued most, both to the gods themselves and to
j f the priests whose knowledge of the sacred lore brought

the gods to earth.

The presents to the gods were the victims which
were sacrificed. The Aryans at some very remote
period of their history offered human victims, the first-
born of the family, as the supreme sacrifice. The
horse was next in value, and after that the cow. As
the science of the Aryan ritual became more developed,
it was not considered necessary to actually sacrifice
the victims. They were formally offered ancf then
released. The Brahmanas describe the gradual de-
velopment of a more humane ritual as follows: — "The
gods, at the beginning, sacrificed man as victim; when
/}//• he was sacrificed, the sacrificial virtue which was in

him left him. It entered into the horse. They sacri-
ficed a horse; when it was sacrificed, the sacrificial
virtue left it and entered into a cow. When the cow
was sacrificed, the sacrificial virtue which it had left it
and entered into a sheep. When the sheep was sacri-
ficed, the sacrificial virtue which it had left it and
entered into a goat. The sacrificial virtue has re-
mained in the goat the longest" The goat is the
victim now most frequendy offered to Durgd and
Kilt \

Another passage in the Brahmanas describes how
the sacrificial virtue passed from the goat into the
earth. The gods dug in the earth to get it, and
found it in rice and barley. This is the explanation
given for the oblations of rice and barley now made
to Shiva the Destroyer.

The essential accompaniments to the sacrifices were,

Digitized by VjOOQIC



first, suitable prayers, the correct composition of which
was a matter of vital importance. The gods did not
enter into communication with everybody, but only
with a Brahmin, a Kshatriya, or a Vaisya. 1 The
next were the presents to the priests. These
gave the sacrifice the force which carried it to the
abode of the gods. The value of the presents was
regulated by the importance of the sacrifice, and the
scale for the more important sacrifices was so high
that none but the richest could undertake them. The
third essential was faith in the efficacy of the sacrifice.

The nature of these sacrificial rites had gradually
been corrupted from the simple Aryan forms of offer-
ings and prayers into a science of divine magic, prac-
tised both by gods and men, through which it was
believed that the whole creation originated, and the
whole universe was controlled. The gods had become
gods through sacrifice, and men were also capable of
becoming immortal if they acquired sufficient know-
ledge of the sacred wisdom. To protect their do-
minions from the invasions ofrnen, the gods concluded
a bargain with Death that no man should become
immortal without first surrendering his body to him.
They were constantly watching to introduce errors
into the sacrifites performed on earth. Hence the
necessity for extreme care and attention to every de-
tail. Finally, sacrifice itself became a god, and the
greatest of all gods.

The recitation and chanting of the hymns or man-
tras, which accompanied and formed part of the sacri-
fices, was no less abstruse and complicated a science
than the sacrifice proper. The Vedic hymns were first

1 The three highest chases, afterwards castes.

(B4») O

Prized by GOO*

' r








i» •






arranged in a series according to metre, which had a
mystic significance and power in each of the three
worlds, the earth, the atmosphere, and the abode of
the gods. The Brahmanas compare the imaginary
journey of the sacrifice and sacrificer to the heavenly
regions to an earthly journey which the traveller
makes by stages, taking fresh horses and oxen at each
stage. In the same way the sacrificer must use fresh
metres at every stage of the sacrifice to carry him on
his journey heavenwards. The number of verses used
together, the accent and intonation, all had a share in
the efficacy of the rites.

A form of recitation is given in the Aitareya Bmh-
mana which is called the rite of dftrohana, or the
ascent into heaven. " After the invocation, the ascent
of dfirohana is made. At first the reciter makes a
pause at every quarter-verse. He thus starts from
this world. Then he makes a pause at every half-
verse; by this means he reaches the atmosphere.
Then he makes a pause at every three-quarters of a
verse. He arrives now in the celestial regions. By
then reciting the whole verse without pausing he
arrives in the solar world which shines up above."
The priest now reverses the order of recitation, and
brings the sacrificer back to earth, "just as one who
seizes the bough of a tree ". If the sacrificer, how-
ever, prefers to remain in the solar world after his
arrival there, the priest omits the last part of the rite,
but the sacrificer is sure to die soon afterwards. 1 The
solar world, according to Hindu theories, is the abode
of spirits who have completed their earthly incar-


Digitized by



As the ultimate aim was to render humanity im-
mortal, and the sacrificial science was based on an
imaginary science of the celestial world, everything
abnormal, weird, and uncanny was believed to have
a special virtue. Everything human and normal was
opposed to the success of the sacrifice. The opposi-
tion between the terrestrial sphere and the heavenly
world was so pronounced that " no " for the gods was
"aye " for men. Even at the present day many com-
mon Indian customs and practices are exacdy the
reverse of those in Europe.

The complication of the Brahminical rites became
almost inconceivable. The great Horse - sacrifice,
generally undertaken only by kings, especially to pro-
cure offspring, was said to conquer all sin, to render
the sacrificer invulnerable and certain of victory over
his enemies; but the risk of errors creeping in must
have deterred many from attempting it, for it was a
ceremony which took several years to complete, re-
quired the attendance of hundreds of priests and at-
tendants, the recitation of thousands of prayers and
mantras* endless rites, and the most lavish presents.
The blessings to be gained and the evils to be avoided
by the performance of appropriate rites were both
material and spiritual. The B rah m anas provide the
necessary mantras for destroying Rakshasas (demons),
or human enemies, for the removal of sin, to recover
lost property or to bring success to the gambler, and
to avert the evil influence of an animal sitting down,
trembling, or running away at the time of the sacrifice.

Closely allied to the sacrificial system was the prac-
tice of bodily penances, or mortification of the flesh,
which the Brahmins regarded as a sure way, leading


Digitized by


1 *

■! i




. i

r ;

1 1

!l •■

p ■


I'- ■


i *



to immortality, and infinite worldly advantages both
in this life and in the next The Mah&bh&rata
mentions a princess of Benares who practised fearful
penances in order to revenge herself on Bhishma, and
at last threw herself into the sacrificial fire so that she
might kill him in a future existence. It also relates a
story of two brothers of the race of Asuras, evil
spirits, enemies of the gods, who, in order to conquer
the three worlds, earth, air, and heaven, underwent
frightful austerities; standing for years on their toes,
with arms uplifted and eyes fixed, and throwing pieces
of their own flesh into the sacrificial fire. The gods
were alarmed at the powers they were thus accumu-
lating, and tried to interfere, without success. BrahmA,
the Creator, finally appeared before them, and though

} j he refused to grant them immortality because they

' ] had undergone the penances only from the desire of

sovereignty — an unworthy motive which detracted
from the merit of their penances — he was constrained
to allow that they should be incapable of being killed
by any other being in the universe. They forthwith
proceeded to make war on the region of Indra, and
vanquished the Rakshasas and every creature ranging
the sky. Next they slew the Ndgas, the inmates of
the ocean, and all the tribes of the Mlechchas. 1 Fin-
ally, they slaughtered the Brahmins, destroyed their
sacrifices, and desolated the earth. Brahm& then inter-

i J fered. With the help of Vishvakarma, the heavenly

1 artificer, he created a damsel, whose surpassing charms

I not even gods could resist She was sent to the two

• • I ^ brothers, who, in a violent quarrel over her, killed one

another, much to the relief of the distracted universe.

* Foreigner*, btrbtmni.

Digitized by



It was when this dismal obscurantism and thauma-
turgic priestcraft seemed likely to infect the whole
religious thought of the people, that a new teacher
came to bring back the spirituality of the ancient
Vedic faith into the Aryan religion. It must not be
supposed, however, that Buddha was the first to ques-
tion the authority of the priesthood and to dispute the
efficacy of sacrifices and penances. The hereditary
priestly families had not yet established a monopoly
or undisputed leadership in religious thought The
Kshatriyas, or warrior class, still stood at the head of
Aryan society, and were by no means disposed to
accept the Brahmins as their superiors in spiritual
knowledge. Even among the Brahmins there were
many who did not follow the orthodox priestly doc-
trines. There were, besides, a numerous class of
Bhiksus, or religious devotees, both men and women,
who though living an ascetic life as wandering mendi-
cants, yet performed no sacrifices nor practised pen-
ances. These were the forerunners of the SadAus,
byragis, or fakirs of the present day. There were thus
already many schools of thought outside the orthodox .
priestly families when Buddha's magnetic genius came
to shape their somewhat nebulous theories with a new
philosophy and rule of life.

About the year b.c 557 Siddartha Gautama, son of
the chief of the Sakya clan, was born in Kapilavastu,
the capita] of a petty state in the Nepal Terai. The
story of his early life and of the Great Renunciation,
when he left his wife and child and his father's palace
to adopt a religious life as a Bhiksu, is too familiar to
need repetition. He first attached himself to two
Brahmin teachers, who taught him the theories of


Digitized by


I "?•(!.

I 1

I' f

ir i


Hindu philosophy commonly accepted. Finding no
satisfaction in these, he wandered farther, and spent six
weary years with five disciples in the forests near die
Vindhyan mountains, practising the system of self-
torture and starvation which the orthodox school re-
garded as the road to immortality.
j, ' ' Still dissatisfied, he again resumed the ordinary life

I of a Bhiksu, whereupon his disciples left him in dis-

j J; gust and went to Benares. He himself wandered on to

i : ' the neighbourhood of the present Buddh Gaya. Then

; j) i, there followed, under the shade of the sacred pippal

ji j tree, known hereafter as the tree of wisdom, the

/ ' short period of terrible mental agony which Indian

poets and artists have pictured as his struggle with the
Prince of Evil, Mara, and the wiles of his voluptuous
j }, ; daughters. Everything he had abandoned of worldly

comfort and delight, his home, a loving wife and child,
wealth, power, and pleasure, seemed to beckon to him
to return. But his spiritual nature triumphed at last,
and he arose, with convictions formed and mind at rest,
to preach those cheerful doctrines of love and content-
ment which changed the entire current of Eastern

Having thus become the Buddha — the Enlightened
— he started off to Benares "to establish the kingdom
of righteousness, to give light to those enshrouded in

1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Online LibraryErnest Binfield HavellBenares, the sacred city: sketches of Hindu life and religion → online text (page 3 of 11)