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An Adventure in India

All the world knows that Pythagoras, while he resided in India, attended the school of the Gymnosophists, and learned the language of beasts and plants.[1] One day, while he was walking in a meadow near the seashore, he heard these words:

"How unfortunate that I was born an herb! I scarcely attain two inches in height, when a voracious monster, an horrid animal, tramples me under his large feet; his jaws are armed with rows of sharp scythes, by which he cuts, then grinds, and then swallows me. Men call this monster a sheep. I do not suppose there is in the whole creation a more detestable creature."

Pythagoras proceeded a little way and found an oyster yawning on a small rock. He had not yet adopted that admirable law, by which we are enjoined not to eat those animals which have a resemblance to us.[2] He had scarcely taken up the oyster to swallow it, when it spoke these affecting words:

"O, Nature, how happy is the herb, which is, as I am, thy work! though it be cut down, it is regenerated and immortal; and we, poor oysters, in vain are defended by a double cuirass: villains eat us by dozens at their breakfast, and all is over with us forever. What an horrible fate is that of an oyster, and how barbarous are men!"

Pythagoras shuddered; he felt the enormity of the crime he had nearly committed; he begged pardon of the oyster with tears in his eyes, and replaced it very carefully on the rock.

As he was returning to the city, profoundly meditating on this adventure, he saw spiders devouring flies; swallows eating spiders, and sparrow-hawks eating swallows. "None of these," said he, "are philosophers."

On his entrance, Pythagoras was stunned, bruised, and thrown down by a lot of tatterdemalions, who were running and crying: "Well done, he fully deserved it." "Who? What?" said Pythagoras, as he was getting up. The people continued running and crying: "O how delightful it will be to see them boiled!"

Pythagoras supposed they meant lentiles, or some other vegetables: but he was in an error; they meant two poor Indians. "Oh!" said Pythagoras, "these Indians, without doubt, are two great philosophers weary of their lives, they are desirous of regenerating under other forms; it affords pleasure to a man to change his place of residence, though he may be but indifferently lodged: there is no disputing on taste."[3]

He proceeded with the mob to the public square, where he perceived a lighted pile of wood, and a bench opposite to it, which was called a tribunal. On this bench judges were seated, each of whom had a cow's tail in his hand, and a cap on his head, with ears resembling those of the animal which bore Silenus when he came into that country with Bacchus, after having crossed the Erytrean sea without wetting a foot, and stopping the sun and moon; as it is recorded with great fidelity in the Orphicks.

Among these judges there was an honest man with whom Pythagoras was acquainted. The Indian sage explained to the sage of Samos the nature of that festival to be given to the people of India.

"These two Indians," said he, "have not the least desire to be committed to the flames. My grave brethren have adjudged them to be burnt; one for saying, that the substance of Xaca is not that of Brahma; and the other for supposing, that the approbation of the Supreme Being was to be obtained at the point of death without holding a cow by the tail; 'Because,' said he, 'we may be virtuous at all times, and we cannot always have a cow to lay hold of just when we may have occasion.' The good women of the city were greatly terrified at two such heretical opinions; they would not allow the judges a moment's peace until they had ordered the execution of those unfortunate men."

Pythagoras was convinced that from the herb up to man, there were many causes of chagrin. However, he obliged the judges and even the devotees to listen to reason, which happened only at that time.

He went afterwards and preached toleration at Crotona; but a bigot set fire to his house, and he was burnt—the man who had delivered the two Hindoos from the flames? Let those save themselves who can![4]

[1] Perhaps it would be impossible at the present day to convince scientists that oysters formerly conversed intelligibly with mankind and protested eloquently against human injustice; but all men are not scientists, and there are many worthy people who still have implicit faith in ancient Semitic records—who firmly believe in miracles and prodigies—and who would consider it rank heresy to doubt that the serpent, though now as mute as an oyster, formerly held a very animated conversation, in the original Edenic language, with the inexperienced and confiding female who then graced with her charming presence the bowers of Paradise; and this sacred narrative of the "maiden and the reptile" is quite as repugnant to modern science as the sentimental fish story of "Pythagoras and the oyster".

As a matter of fact, the doctrine of the metempsichosis, as taught by the Samian sage, was formerly held in great repute by the most civilized nations of antiquity, and it is surely as easy to credit the assertion of our author, that the ancient Gymnosophists "had learned the language of beasts and plants" as to believe the unquestioned and orthodox statement that a certain quadruped, (Asinus vulgaris,) —whose romantic history is recorded in the twenty-second chapter of Numbers,—was once upon a time able to converse in very good Hebrew with Monsieur Balaam, an ancient prophet of great merit and renown.—E.

[2] The resemblance of oysters to mankind, here implied, can only be apparent to the "eye of faith," and lovers of these delicious bivalves will fail to recognize the family likeness.—E.

[3] Pythagoras was born at Samos, about 590 years before the Christian era. He received an education well calculated to enlighten his mind and invigorate his body. He studied poetry, music, eloquence and astronomy, and became so proficient in gymnastic exercises, that in his eighteenth year he won the prize for wrestling at the Olympic games. He then visited Egypt and Chaldea, and gaining the confidence of the priests, learned from them the artful policy by which they governed the people. On his return to Samos he was saluted by the name of Sophist, or wise man, but he declined the name, and was satisfied with that of philosopher, or the friend of wisdom. He ultimately fixed his residence in Magna Gręcia, in the town of Crotona, where he founded the school called the Italian.

This school became very prosperous, and hundreds of pupils received the secret instructions of Pythagoras, who taught by the use of ciphers or numbers, and hieroglyphic writings. His pupils were thus enabled to correspond together in unknown characters; and, by the signs and words employed, they could discover among strangers those who had been educated in the Pythagorean school. All the pupils of the philosopher greatly reverenced their teacher, and deemed it a crime to dispute his word. One of their expressions "thus saith the Master," has been adopted by modern sects.

The Samian sage taught the doctrine of the metempsichosis, or the transmigration of the soul into different bodies, which he had probably learned from the Brahmins; who believed that, in these various peregrinations, the soul or thinking principle was purged from all evil, and was ultimately absorbed into the Divine substance from which it was supposed to have emanated.

Godfrey Higgins in the Anacalypsis cites authorities to prove that the doctrine of the metempsichosis was held by "many of the early fathers of the Christians, which they defended on several texts of the New Testament. It was held by Origin, Calcidius, Synesius, and by the Simonians, Basilidians, Valentiniens, Marcionites, and the Gnostics in general. It was also held by the Pharisees among the Jews, and by the most learned of the Greeks, and by many Chinese, Hindoos and Indians.

"When all the circumstances relating to Pythagoras and to his doctrines, both in moral and natural philosophy, are considered," continues Higgins, "nothing can be more striking than the exact conformity of the latter to the received opinions of the moderns, and of the former to the moral doctrines of Jesus Christ."

"The pupils of Pythagoras," says Eschenburg, Manual of Classical Literature, "soon amounted to 600, dwelt in one public building, and held their property in common. Under philosophy, the Italic school included every object of human knowledge. But Pythagoras considered music and astronomy of special value. He is supposed to have had some very correct views of astronomy, agreeing with the true Copernican system. The beautiful fancy of the music of the spheres is attributed to him. The planets striking on the ether, through which they pass, must produce a sound; this must vary according to their different magnitudes, velocities, and relative distances; these differences were all adjusted with perfect regularity and exact proportions, so that the movements of the bodies produced the richest tones of harmony; not heard, however, by mortal ears."

Pythagoras taught, and his followers maintained, the absolute equality of property, "all their worldly possessions being brought into a common store". The early Christians had also "all things in common," and the doctrines of Jesus and Pythagoras have many points of resemblance. Both were reformers, both sought to benefit the poor and the oppressed, both taught and practised the doctrines now known as Communism, and both, for their love to the human race, suffered a cruel martyrdom from an orthodox and vindictive priesthood.

In obedience to an oracle, the Romans, long after the death of Pythagoras, erected a statue to his memory as the wisest of mankind.—E.

[4] Godfrey Higgins in the Anacalypsis draws aside the veil of Isis, and explains in a satisfactory manner the reason why Pythagoras, like Socrates and Jesus, was condemned to death by the established priesthood. Each of these great reformers had been initiated into the sacred mysteries, and each taught his followers by secret symbols or parables that contained a hidden meaning; so "that seeing the uninitiated might see and not perceive, and hearing might hear and not understand." The reason that Jesus gave for following this method was "because it is given unto you (i.e. the initiated) to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them (i.e. the people) it is not given." (Matt. XIII: II.) The mass of mankind, being excluded from this secret knowledge, were kept in a state of debasement as compared with the favored few who were acquainted with the jealously guarded secrets of the Cabala; and the earnest desire of these great reformers—of these noble men who cheerfully gave their lives to benefit their race—was, without divulging the secrets of their initiation, to teach mankind to partake of the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge, and to learn "that a virtuous life would secure eternal happiness." Such philanthropic doctrines were denounced as wicked and heretical by the orthodox priesthood, who instinctively oppose human progress, and who, like the silversmith of Ephesus, described by St. Paul, felt that "this our craft is in danger" should the people become enlightened. They therefore, excited a popular clamor, and aroused the worst passions and prejudices of their followers; who, inspired with fanatic zeal, cruelly and wickedly burned Pythagoras of Crotona, poisoned Socrates of Athens, and crucified Jesus of Nazareth.—E.


Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire