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The Coffee-House of Surat

(After Bernardin de Saint-Pierre)

In the town of Surat, in India, was a coffee-house where many travellers
and foreigners from all parts of the world met and conversed.

One day a learned Persian theologian visited this coffee-house. He
was a man who had spent his life studying the nature of the Deity,
and reading and writing books upon the subject. He had thought,
read, and written so much about God, that eventually he lost his
wits, became quite confused, and ceased even to believe in the
existence of a God. The Shah, hearing of this, had banished him
from Persia.

After having argued all his life about the First Cause, this
unfortunate theologian had ended by quite perplexing himself, and
instead of understanding that he had lost his own reason, he began
to think that there was no higher Reason controlling the universe.

This man had an African slave who followed him everywhere. When the
theologian entered the coffee-house, the slave remained outside, near
the door, sitting on a stone in the glare of the sun, and driving
away the flies that buzzed around him. The Persian having settled
down on a divan in the coffee-house, ordered himself a cup of opium.
When he had drunk it and the opium had begun to quicken the workings
of his brain, he addressed his slave through the open door:

"Tell me, wretched slave," said he, "do you think there is a God, or not?"

"Of course there is," said the slave, and immediately drew from under
his girdle a small idol of wood.

"There," said he, "that is the God who has guarded me from the day
of my birth. Every one in our country worships the fetish tree,
from the wood of which this God was made."

This conversation between the theologian and his slave was listened
to with surprise by the other guests in the coffee-house. They
were astonished at the master's question, and yet more so at the
slave's reply.

One of them, a Brahmin, on hearing the words spoken by the slave,
turned to him and said:

"Miserable fool! Is it possible you believe that God can be carried
under a man's girdle? There is one God--Brahma, and he is greater
than the whole world, for he created it. Brahma is the One, the
mighty God, and in His honour are built the temples on the Ganges'
banks, where his true priests, the Brahmins, worship him. They know
the true God, and none but they. A thousand score of years have
passed, and yet through revolution after revolution these priests
have held their sway, because Brahma, the one true God, has
protected them."

So spoke the Brahmin, thinking to convince every one; but a Jewish
broker who was present replied to him, and said:

"No! the temple of the true God is not in India. Neither does God
protect the Brahmin caste. The true God is not the God of the
Brahmins, but of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. None does He protect
but His chosen people, the Israelites. From the commencement of the
world, our nation has been beloved of Him, and ours alone. If we
are now scattered over the whole earth, it is but to try us; for God
has promised that He will one day gather His people together in
Jerusalem. Then, with the Temple of Jerusalem--the wonder of the
ancient world--restored to its splendor, shall Israel be
established a ruler over all nations."

So spoke the Jew, and burst into tears. He wished to say more, but
an Italian missionary who was there interrupted him.

"What you are saying is untrue," said he to the Jew. "You attribute
injustice to God. He cannot love your nation above the rest. Nay
rather, even if it be true that of old He favored the Israelites, it
is now nineteen hundred years since they angered Him, and caused Him
to destroy their nation and scatter them over the earth, so that
their faith makes no converts and has died out except here and
there. God shows preference to no nation, but calls all who wish to
be saved to the bosom of the Catholic Church of Rome, the one outside
whose borders no salvation can be found."

So spoke the Italian. But a Protestant minister, who happened to be
present, growing pale, turned to the Catholic missionary and exclaimed:

"How can you say that salvation belongs to your religion? Those only
will be saved, who serve God according to the Gospel, in spirit and
in truth, as bidden by the word of Christ."

Then a Turk, an office-holder in the custom-house at Surat, who was
sitting in the coffee-house smoking a pipe, turned with an air of
superiority to both the Christians.

"Your belief in your Roman religion is vain," said he. "It was
superseded twelve hundred years ago by the true faith: that of
Mohammed! You cannot but observe how the true Mohammed faith
continues to spread both in Europe and Asia, and even in the
enlightened country of China. You say yourselves that God has
rejected the Jews; and, as a proof, you quote the fact that the Jews
are humiliated and their faith does not spread. Confess then the
truth of Mohammedanism, for it is triumphant and spreads far and
wide. None will be saved but the followers of Mohammed, God's
latest prophet; and of them, only the followers of Omar, and not of
Ali, for the latter are false to the faith."

To this the Persian theologian, who was of the sect of Ali, wished
to reply; but by this time a great dispute had arisen among all the
strangers of different faiths and creeds present. There were
Abyssinian Christians, Llamas from Thibet, Ismailians and
Fireworshippers. They all argued about the nature of God, and how
He should be worshipped. Each of them asserted that in his country
alone was the true God known and rightly worshipped.

Every one argued and shouted, except a Chinaman, a student of
Confucius, who sat quietly in one corner of the coffee-house, not
joining in the dispute. He sat there drinking tea and listening to
what the others said, but did not speak himself.

The Turk noticed him sitting there, and appealed to him, saying:

"You can confirm what I say, my good Chinaman. You hold your peace, but
if you spoke I know you would uphold my opinion. Traders from your
country, who come to me for assistance, tell me that though many religions
have been introduced into China, you Chinese consider Mohammedanism the
best of all, and adopt it willingly. Confirm, then, my words, and tell
us your opinion of the true God and of His prophet."

"Yes, yes," said the rest, turning to the Chinaman, "let us hear what
you think on the subject."

The Chinaman, the student of Confucius, closed his eyes, and thought
a while. Then he opened them again, and drawing his hands out of
the wide sleeves of his garment, and folding them on his breast, he
spoke as follows, in a calm and quiet voice.

Sirs, it seems to me that it is chiefly pride that prevents men
agreeing with one another on matters of faith. If you care to
listen to me, I will tell you a story which will explain this by an
example.

I came here from China on an English steamer which had been round the
world. We stopped for fresh water, and landed on the east coast of the
island of Sumatra. It was midday, and some of us, having landed, sat
in the shade of some cocoanut palms by the seashore, not far from a
native village. We were a party of men of different nationalities.

As we sat there, a blind man approached us. We learned afterwards
that he had gone blind from gazing too long and too persistently at
the sun, trying to find out what it is, in order to seize its light.

He strove a long time to accomplish this, constantly looking at the
sun; but the only result was that his eyes were injured by its
brightness, and he became blind.

Then he said to himself:

"The light of the sun is not a liquid; for if it were a liquid it
would be possible to pour it from one vessel into another, and it
would be moved, like water, by the wind. Neither is it fire; for if
it were fire, water would extinguish it. Neither is light a spirit,
for it is seen by the eye; nor is it matter, for it cannot be moved.
Therefore, as the light of the sun is neither liquid, nor fire, nor
spirit, nor matter, it is--nothing!"

So he argued, and, as a result of always looking at the sun and
always thinking about it, he lost both his sight and his reason.
And when he went quite blind, he became fully convinced that the sun
did not exist.

With this blind man came a slave, who after placing his master in
the shade of a cocoanut tree, picked up a cocoanut from the ground,
and began making it into a night-light. He twisted a wick from the
fibre of the cocoanut: squeezed oil from the nut in the shell, and
soaked the wick in it.

As the slave sat doing this, the blind man sighed and said to him:

"Well, slave, was I not right when I told you there is no sun? Do
you not see how dark it is? Yet people say there is a sun. . . . But
if so, what is it?"

"I do not know what the sun is," said the slave. "That is no
business of mine. But I know what light is. Here I have made a
night-light, by the help of which I can serve you and find anything
I want in the hut."

And the slave picked up the cocoanut shell, saying:

"This is my sun."

A lame man with crutches, who was sitting near by, heard these
words, and laughed:

"You have evidently been blind all your life," said he to the blind
man, "not to know what the sun is. I will tell you what it is. The
sun is a ball of fire, which rises every morning out of the sea and
goes down again among the mountains of our island each evening. We
have all seen this, and if you had had your eyesight you too would
have seen it."

A fisherman, who had been listening to the conversation said:

"It is plain enough that you have never been beyond your own island.
If you were not lame, and if you had been out as I have in a
fishing-boat, you would know that the sun does not set among the
mountains of our island, but as it rises from the ocean every
morning so it sets again in the sea every night. What I am telling
you is true, for I see it every day with my own eyes."

Then an Indian who was of our party, interrupted him by saying:

"I am astonished that a reasonable man should talk such nonsense.
How can a ball of fire possibly descend into the water and not be
extinguished? The sun is not a ball of fire at all, it is the Deity
named Deva, who rides for ever in a chariot round the golden
mountain, Meru. Sometimes the evil serpents Ragu and Ketu attack
Deva and swallow him: and then the earth is dark. But our priests
pray that the Deity may be released, and then he is set free. Only
such ignorant men as you, who have never been beyond their own
island, can imagine that the sun shines for their country alone."

Then the master of an Egyptian vessel, who was present, spoke in his turn.

"No," said he, "you also are wrong. The sun is not a Deity, and does
not move only round India and its golden mountain. I have sailed much
on the Black Sea, and along the coasts of Arabia, and have been to
Madagascar and to the Philippines. The sun lights the whole earth,
and not India alone. It does not circle round one mountain, but rises
far in the East, beyond the Isles of Japan, and sets far, far away in
the West, beyond the islands of England. That is why the Japanese call
their country 'Nippon,' that is, 'the birth of the sun.' I know this
well, for I have myself seen much, and heard more from my grandfather,
who sailed to the very ends of the sea."

He would have gone on, but an English sailor from our ship
interrupted him.

"There is no country," he said "where people know so much about the
sun's movements as in England. The sun, as every one in England
knows, rises nowhere and sets nowhere. It is always moving round
the earth. We can be sure of this for we have just been round the
world ourselves, and nowhere knocked up against the sun. Wherever
we went, the sun showed itself in the morning and hid itself at
night, just as it does here."

And the Englishman took a stick and, drawing circles on the sand,
tried to explain how the sun moves in the heavens and goes round the
world. But he was unable to explain it clearly, and pointing to the
ship's pilot said:

"This man knows more about it than I do. He can explain it properly."

The pilot, who was an intelligent man, had listened in silence to
the talk till he was asked to speak. Now every one turned to him,
and he said:

"You are all misleading one another, and are yourselves deceived.
The sun does not go round the earth, but the earth goes round the
sun, revolving as it goes, and turning towards the sun in the course
of each twenty-four hours, not only Japan, and the Philippines, and
Sumatra where we now are, but Africa, and Europe, and America, and
many lands besides. The sun does not shine for some one mountain,
or for some one island, or for some one sea, nor even for one earth
alone, but for other planets as well as our earth. If you would
only look up at the heavens, instead of at the ground beneath your
own feet, you might all understand this, and would then no longer
suppose that the sun shines for you, or for your country alone."

Thus spoke the wise pilot, who had voyaged much about the world, and
had gazed much upon the heavens above.

"So on matters of faith," continued the Chinaman, the student of
Confucius, "it is pride that causes error and discord among men. As
with the sun, so it is with God. Each man wants to have a special
God of his own, or at least a special God for his native land. Each
nation wishes to confine in its own temples Him, whom the world
cannot contain.

"Can any temple compare with that which God Himself has built to
unite all men in one faith and one religion?

"All human temples are built on the model of this temple, which is
God's own world. Every temple has its fonts, its vaulted roof, its
lamps, its pictures or sculptures, its inscriptions, its books of
the law, its offerings, its altars and its priests. But in what
temple is there such a font as the ocean; such a vault as that of
the heavens; such lamps as the sun, moon, and stars; or any figures
to be compared with living, loving, mutually-helpful men? Where are
there any records of God's goodness so easy to understand as the
blessings which God has strewn abroad for man's happiness? Where is
there any book of the law so clear to each man as that written in
his heart? What sacrifices equal the self-denials which loving men
and women make for one another? And what altar can be compared with
the heart of a good man, on which God Himself accepts the sacrifice?

"The higher a man's conception of God, the better will he know Him.
And the better he knows God, the nearer will he draw to Him,
imitating His goodness, His mercy, and His love of man.

"Therefore, let him who sees the sun's whole light filling the world,
refrain from blaming or despising the superstitious man, who in his own
idol sees one ray of that same light. Let him not despise even the
unbeliever who is blind and cannot see the sun at all."

So spoke the Chinaman, the student of Confucius; and all who were
present in the coffee-house were silent, and disputed no more as to
whose faith was the best.

Leo Tolstoy