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When I was in the city of Benarez, on the borders of the Ganges, the country of the ancient Brahmins, I endeavored to instruct myself in their religion and manners. I understood the Indian language tolerably well. I heard a great deal, and remarked everything. I lodged at the house of my correspondent Omri, who was the most worthy man I ever knew. He was of the religion of the Brahmins: I have the honor to be a Mussulman. We never exchanged one word higher than another about Mahomet or Brahma. We performed our ablutions each on his own side; we drank of the same sherbet, and we ate of the same rice, as if we had been two brothers.

One day we went together to the pagoda of Gavani. There we saw several bands of Fakirs. Some of whom were Janguis, that is to say, contemplative Fakirs; and others were disciples of the ancient Gymnosophists, who led an active life. They all have a learned language peculiar to themselves; it is that of the most ancient Brahmins; and they have a book written in this language, which they call the Shasta. It is, beyond all contradiction, the most ancient book in all Asia, not excepting the Zend.

I happened by chance to cross in front of a Fakir, who was reading in this book.

"Ah! wretched infidel!" cried he, "thou hast made me lose a number of vowels that I was counting, which will cause my soul to pass into the body of a hare instead of that of a parrot, with which I had before the greatest reason to flatter myself."

I gave him a rupee to comfort him for the accident. In going a few paces farther, I had the misfortune to sneeze. The noise I made roused a Fakir, who was in a trance.

"Heavens!" cried he, "what a dreadful noise. Where am I? I can no longer see the tip of my nose,—the heavenly light has disappeared."

"If I am the cause," said I, "of your not seeing farther than the length of your nose, here is a rupee to repair the great injury I have done you. Squint again, my friend, and resume the heavenly light."

Having thus brought myself off discreetly enough, I passed over to the side of the Gymnosophists, several of whom brought me a parcel of mighty pretty nails to drive into my arms and thighs, in honor of Brahma. I bought their nails, and made use of them to fasten down my boxes. Others were dancing upon their hands, others cut capers on the slack rope, and others went always upon one foot. There were some who dragged a heavy chain about with them, and others carried a packsaddle; some had their heads always in a bushel—the best people in the world to live with. My friend Omri took me to the cell of one of the most famous of these. His name was Bababec: he was as naked as he was born, and had a great chain about his neck, that weighed upwards of sixty pounds. He sat on a wooden chair, very neatly decorated with little points of nails that penetrated into his flesh; and you would have thought he had been sitting on a velvet cushion. Numbers of women flocked to him to consult him. He was the oracle of all the families in the neighborhood; and was, truly speaking, in great reputation. I was witness to a long conversation that Omri had with him.

[1] Boodhism, is described in Webster's Dictionary as "a system of religion in Eastern Asia, embraced by more than one third of the human race. It teaches that, at distant intervals, a Boodh, or deity, appears, to restore the world from a state of ignorance and decay, and then sinks into a state of entire non-existence, or rather, perhaps, of bare existence without attributes, action, or consciousness. This state, called Nirvana, or Nicban, is regarded as the ultimate supreme good, and the highest reward of virtue among men. Four Boodhs have thus appeared in the world, and passed into Nirvana, the last of whom, Gaudama, became incarnate about 500 years before Christ, from his death, in 543 B.C., many thousand years will elapse before the appearance of another; so that the system, in the mean time, is practically one of pure atheism."

The serpent has ever been a significant emblem in religion and mythology. Being "the most subtle beast of the field," it was naturally accepted as the emblem of wisdom. With its tail in its mouth it formed a circle, which was regarded by the ancients as the emblem of eternity. Moses set up a brazen serpent on a cross in the wilderness as an emblem of healing. Ęsculapius, the god of medicine, is seen on ancient statues with a serpent twining around a staff by his side, symbolizing health, prudence and foresight. Hygiea, the goddess of health, is represented in works of art as a virgin dressed in a long robe and feeding a serpent from a cup. Mercury is always shown holding in his right hand a wand with two twined serpents. The nine coiled serpents in the above engraving, correspond with the nine muses in the Grecian mythology. The cobra, whose poison is death, is an emblem of the destroying power, and destruction, or rather change, symbolizes new formation, renovation or creation. Thus eternal formation, proceeds from eternal destruction. The serpent also figures in a beautiful allegory concerning the introduction of knowledge among mankind, i.e., "the knowledge of good and evil."—E.


The most earnest and zealous advocates of modern Christianity are, undoubtedly, to be found in the ranks of that grotesque organization known as the "Salvation Army"; but the wildest efforts of these misguided propagandists fall far short of the intense religious fervor displayed by the zealous followers of Brahma.

A contributor to Cassell's Illustrated Travels describes a religious festival which he witnessed a few years ago at Hurdwar on the Ganges, while on an elephant shooting expedition in the Dehra Dhoon, Northern India, which vividly illustrates the folly and fanaticism of these degraded religious devotees, and which is only second in repulsiveness to the horrible ceremonies of Juggernaut.

"There is," says this writer, "a religious festival every year at Hurdwar, but every sixth year the ceremonies are more holy and the crowd of pilgrims larger. The Koom Mela, a religious feast of great holiness in native eyes, occurs every eleven years, and the pilgrims on such occasions arrive from every part of India. The crowd usually numbers over two millions. But it is when the festivals occurring at intervals of six years and at intervals of eleven years happen to meet in the same year that the crowd is the largest, the importance of the fair greatest, and the concourse of fanatic fakirs and holy Brahmins, from every hole and corner of India, the most striking and remarkable. Merchants arrive from the most distant countries; not from different parts of India only, but from Persia, Thibet, China, Afghanistan, and even from Russia. It was one of these festivals and giant fairs that we had the good fortune to see.

"As the day of the great festival approaches, the fakirs—who by the way are always stark naked, and generally as disgusting specimens of humanity as it is possible to conceive—and the Brahmins, excite their hearers by increasingly-fervent speeches, by self-applied tortures, frightful contortions, and wild dances and gestures, to which the crowd loudly responds by shouts and wild yells. Early on the morning of the day which to their mind is more holy than any other in their whole lifetime, the assembled people to the number of two or even three millions, repair to the ghauts and patiently wait for the signal, to begin their work of regeneration and salvation. This desirable end is attained by each and every individual who within a certain time, during the tinkling of a well-known bell, precipitates himself into the river, washes himself thoroughly, and repeats a short prayer. This done, the pilgrim must leave the river again, and if he has not entered it until the bell began to tinkle, and has succeeded in going through his performance and left the water again before the sound of the bell has ceased, his sins from his birth are remitted and washed away, and his happy future after death is assured, unless he commits some specifically named and very enormous sins. The other pilgrims, who by reason of the great crowd cannot reach the water in time to go through the whole performance as required by the Brahmins, receive blessings commensurate with the length of their stay in the water while the bell was ringing. Even the unfortunate pilgrims who altogether fail to enter the water at the right moment, are consoled by the partial removal of their load of wickedness; but the blessings which accompany a full performance of what the Brahmins require, are so superior to the favors following an incomplete or tardy immersion, that it is not strange extraordinary efforts are made to enter the water at the first sound of the bells and gongs.

"The crowd was made up of men and women of half-a-hundred tribes of nations, in every variety of dress and partial nakedness. Many men wore their loincloths only; the women's hair was loose and flying to the wind; all were newly and hideously painted; many were intoxicated, not only with opium and spirits, but with religious frenzy and impatient waiting. As the exciting moment approached shouts rent the air; the priests harangued louder and louder; the fakirs grew wilder and more incoherent; then gradually the great noise subsided, when suddenly a single bell, immediately followed by a hundred more, broke the silence, and with one accord, shouting like madmen, the people rushed forward and the foremost ranks threw themselves into the water. Then there arose a mighty shout, the many gongs joined in, and the bells redoubled their efforts. But the confusion, the crushing, the struggling for very life, the surging of the mad masses at the water's edge, defy all description.

"As the first rows of men and women reached the water they were upset and overturned by the people in their rear, who passed over them into still deeper water, and in their turn suffered the same fate at the bands of the on-rushing crowd behind them, until deep water was reached.... The shouts of excitement were changed to shrieks and passionate cries for help; the men under water struggled with those above them: weak women were carried out by the stream or trampled on; men pulled each other down, and in their mad fear exerted their utmost strength without object or purpose. Then the survivors, trying to escape from the water, met the yet dry crowd still charging down to death, and this increased the dire confusion. It was a horrid sight, and one I was quite unprepared for, notwithstanding all I had heard before."—E.

"Do you think, father," said my friend, "that after having gone through seven metempsichoses, I may at length arrive at the habitation of Brahma?"

"That is as it may happen," said the Fakir. "What sort of life do you lead?"

"I endeavor," answered Omri, "to be a good subject, a good husband, a good father, and a good friend. I lend money without interest to the rich who want it, and I give it to the poor: I always strive to preserve peace among my neighbors."

"But have you ever run nails into your flesh?" demanded the Brahmin.

"Never, reverend father."

"I am sorry for it," replied the father; "very sorry for it, indeed. It is a thousand pities; but you will certainly not reach above the nineteenth heaven."

"No higher!" said Omri. "In truth, I am very well contented with my lot. What is it to me whether I go into the nineteenth or the twentieth, provided I do my duty in my pilgrimage, and am well received at the end of my journey? Is it not as much as one can desire, to live with a fair character in this world, and be happy with Brahma in the next? And pray what heaven do you think of going to, good master Bababec, with your chain?"

"Into the thirty-fifth," said Bababec.

"I admire your modesty," replied Omri, "to pretend to be better lodged than me. This is surely the result of an excessive ambition. How can you, who condemn others that covet honors in this world, arrogate such distinguished ones to yourself in the next? What right have you to be better treated than me? Know that I bestow more alms to the poor in ten days, than the nails you run into your flesh cost for ten years? What is it to Brahma that you pass the whole day stark naked with a chain about your neck? This is doing a notable service to your country, doubtless! I have a thousand times more esteem for the man who sows pulse or plants trees, than for all your tribe, who look at the tips of their noses, or carry packsaddles, to show their magnanimity."

Having finished this speech, Omri softened his voice, embraced the Brahmin, and, with an endearing sweetness, besought him to throw aside his nails and his chain, to go home with him, and live with decency and comfort.

The Fakir was persuaded, he was washed clean, rubbed with essences and perfumes, and clad in a decent habit; he lived a fortnight in this manner, behaved with prudence and wisdom, and acknowledged that he was a thousand times happier than before; but he lost his credit among the people, the women no longer crowded to consult him; he therefore quitted the house of the friendly Omri, and returned to his nails and his chain, to regain his reputation.


Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire