True irreverence is disrespect for another man's god.
--Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar.
It was in Benares that I saw another living god. That makes two.
I believe I have seen most of the greater and lesser wonders of the
world, but I do not remember that any of them interested me so
overwhelmingly as did that pair of gods.
When I try to account for this effect I find no difficulty about it.
I find that, as a rule, when a thing is a wonder to us it is not because
of what we see in it, but because of what others have seen in it. We get
almost all our wonders at second hand. We are eager to see any
celebrated thing--and we never fail of our reward; just the deep
privilege of gazing upon an object which has stirred the enthusiasm or
evoked the reverence or affection or admiration of multitudes of our race
is a thing which we value; we are profoundly glad that we have seen it,
we are permanently enriched from having seen it, we would not part with
the memory of that experience for a great price. And yet that very
spectacle may be the Taj. You cannot keep your enthusiasms down, you
cannot keep your emotions within bounds when that soaring bubble of
marble breaks upon your view. But these are not your enthusiasms and
emotions--they are the accumulated emotions and enthusiasms of a thousand
fervid writers, who have been slowly and steadily storing them up in your
heart day by day and year by year all your life; and now they burst out
in a flood and overwhelm you; and you could not be a whit happier if they
were your very own. By and by you sober down, and then you perceive that
you have been drunk on the smell of somebody else's cork. For ever and
ever the memory of my distant first glimpse of the Taj will compensate me
for creeping around the globe to have that great privilege.
But the Taj--with all your inflation of delusive emotions, acquired at
second-hand from people to whom in the majority of cases they were also
delusions acquired at second-hand--a thing which you fortunately did not
think of or it might have made you doubtful of what you imagined were
your own what is the Taj as a marvel, a spectacle and an uplifting and
overpowering wonder, compared with a living, breathing, speaking
personage whom several millions of human beings devoutly and sincerely
and unquestioningly believe to be a God, and humbly and gratefully
worship as a God?
He was sixty years old when I saw him. He is called Sri 108 Swami
Bhaskarananda Saraswati. That is one form of it. I think that that is
what you would call him in speaking to him--because it is short. But you
would use more of his name in addressing a letter to him; courtesy would
require this. Even then you would not have to use all of it, but only
Sri 108 Matparamahansrzpairivrajakach,aryaswamibhaskaranandasaraswati.
You do not put "Esq." after it, for that is not necessary. The word
which opens the volley is itself a title of honor "Sri." The "108"
stands for the rest of his names, I believe. Vishnu has 108 names which
he does not use in business, and no doubt it is a custom of gods and a
privilege sacred to their order to keep 108 extra ones in stock. Just
the restricted name set down above is a handsome property, without the
108. By my count it has 58 letters in it. This removes the long German
words from competition; they are permanently out of the race.
Sri 108 S. B. Saraswati has attained to what among the Hindoos is called
the "state of perfection." It is a state which other Hindoos reach by
being born again and again, and over and over again into this world,
through one re-incarnation after another--a tiresome long job covering
centuries and decades of centuries, and one that is full of risks, too,
like the accident of dying on the wrong side of the Ganges some time or
other and waking up in the form of an ass, with a fresh start necessary
and the numerous trips to be made all over again. But in reaching
perfection, Sri 108 S. B. S. has escaped all that. He is no longer a
part or a feature of this world; his substance has changed, all
earthiness has departed out of it; he is utterly holy, utterly pure;
nothing can desecrate this holiness or stain this purity; he is no longer
of the earth, its concerns are matters foreign to him, its pains and
griefs and troubles cannot reach him. When he dies, Nirvana is his; he
will be absorbed into the substance of the Supreme Deity and be at peace
The Hindoo Scriptures point out how this state is to be reached, but it
is only once in a thousand years, perhaps, that candidate accomplishes
it. This one has traversed the course required, stage by stage, from the
beginning to the end, and now has nothing left to do but wait for the
call which shall release him from a world in which he has now no part nor
lot. First, he passed through the student stage, and became learned in
the holy books. Next he became citizen, householder, husband, and
father. That was the required second stage. Then--like John Bunyan's
Christian he bade perpetual good-bye to his family, as required, and went
wandering away. He went far into the desert and served a term as hermit.
Next, he became a beggar, "in accordance with the rites laid down in the
Scriptures," and wandered about India eating the bread of mendicancy. A
quarter of a century ago he reached the stage of purity. This needs no
garment; its symbol is nudity; he discarded the waist-cloth which he had
previously worn. He could resume it now if he chose, for neither that
nor any other contact can defile him; but he does not choose.
There are several other stages, I believe, but I do not remember what
they are. But he has been through them. Throughout the long course he
was perfecting himself in holy learning, and writing commentaries upon
the sacred books. He was also meditating upon Brahma, and he does that
White marble relief-portraits of him are sold all about India. He lives
in a good house in a noble great garden in Benares, all meet and proper
to his stupendous rank. Necessarily he does not go abroad in the
streets. Deities would never be able to move about handily in any
country. If one whom we recognized and adored as a god should go abroad
in our streets, and the day it was to happen were known, all traffic
would be blocked and business would come to a standstill.
This god is comfortably housed, and yet modestly, all things considered,
for if he wanted to live in a palace he would only need to speak and his
worshipers would gladly build it. Sometimes he sees devotees for a
moment, and comforts them and blesses them, and they kiss his feet and go
away happy. Rank is nothing to him, he being a god. To him all men are
alike. He sees whom he pleases and denies himself to whom he pleases.
Sometimes he sees a prince and denies himself to a pauper; at other times
he receives the pauper and turns the prince away. However, he does not
receive many of either class. He has to husband his time for his
meditations. I think he would receive Rev. Mr. Parker at any time. I
think he is sorry for Mr. Parker, and I think Mr. Parker is sorry for
him; and no doubt this compassion is good for both of them.
When we arrived we had to stand around in the garden a little while and
wait, and the outlook was not good, for he had been turning away
Maharajas that day and receiving only the riff-raff, and we belonged in
between, somewhere. But presently, a servant came out saying it was all
right, he was coming.
And sure enough, he came, and I saw him--that object of the worship of
millions. It was a strange sensation, and thrilling. I wish I could
feel it stream through my veins again. And yet, to me he was not a god,
he was only a Taj. The thrill was not my thrill, but had come to me
secondhand from those invisible millions of believers. By a hand-shake
with their god I had ground-circuited their wire and got their monster
battery's whole charge.
He was tall and slender, indeed emaciated. He had a clean cut and
conspicuously intellectual face, and a deep and kindly eye. He looked
many years older than he really was, but much study and meditation and
fasting and prayer, with the arid life he had led as hermit and beggar,
could account for that. He is wholly nude when he receives natives, of
whatever rank they may be, but he had white cloth around his loins now, a
concession to Mr. Parker's Europe prejudices, no doubt.
As soon as I had sobered down a little we got along very well together,
and I found him a most pleasant and friendly deity. He had heard a deal
about Chicago, and showed a quite remarkable interest in it, for a god.
It all came of the World's Fair and the Congress of Religions. If India
knows about nothing else American, she knows about those, and will keep
them in mind one while.
He proposed an exchange of autographs, a delicate attention which made me
believe in him, but I had been having my doubts before. He wrote his in
his book, and I have a reverent regard for that book, though the words
run from right to left, and so I can't read it. It was a mistake to
print in that way. It contains his voluminous comments on the Hindoo
holy writings, and if I could make them out I would try for perfection
myself. I gave him a copy of Huckleberry Finn. I thought it might rest
him up a little to mix it in along with his meditations on Brahma, for he
looked tired, and I knew that if it didn't do him any good it wouldn't do
him any harm.
He has a scholar meditating under him--Mina Bahadur Rana--but we did not
see him. He wears clothes and is very imperfect. He has written a
little pamphlet about his master, and I have that. It contains a wood-
cut of the master and himself seated on a rug in the garden. The
portrait of the master is very good indeed. The posture is exactly that
which Brahma himself affects, and it requires long arms and limber legs,
and can be accumulated only by gods and the india-rubber man. There is a
life-size marble relief of Shri 108, S.B.S. in the garden. It
represents him in this same posture.
Dear me! It is a strange world. Particularly the Indian division of it.
This pupil, Mina Bahadur Rana, is not a commonplace person, but a man of
distinguished capacities and attainments, and, apparently, he had a fine
worldly career in front of him. He was serving the Nepal Government in a
high capacity at the Court of the Viceroy of India, twenty years ago. He
was an able man, educated, a thinker, a man of property. But the longing
to devote himself to a religious life came upon him, and he resigned his
place, turned his back upon the vanities and comforts of the world, and
went away into the solitudes to live in a hut and study the sacred
writings and meditate upon virtue and holiness and seek to attain them.
This sort of religion resembles ours. Christ recommended the rich to
give away all their property and follow Him in poverty, not in worldly
comfort. American and English millionaires do it every day, and thus
verify and confirm to the world the tremendous forces that lie in
religion. Yet many people scoff at them for this loyalty to duty, and
many will scoff at Mina Bahadur Rana and call him a crank. Like many
Christians of great character and intellect, he has made the study of his
Scriptures and the writing of books of commentaries upon them the loving
labor of his life. Like them, he has believed that his was not an idle
and foolish waste of his life, but a most worthy and honorable employment
of it. Yet, there are many people who will see in those others, men
worthy of homage and deep reverence, but in him merely a crank. But I
shall not. He has my reverence. And I don't offer it as a common thing
and poor, but as an unusual thing and of value. The ordinary reverence,
the reverence defined and explained by the dictionary costs nothing.
Reverence for one's own sacred things--parents, religion, flag, laws, and
respect for one's own beliefs--these are feelings which we cannot even
help. They come natural to us; they are involuntary, like breathing.
There is no personal merit in breathing. But the reverence which is
difficult, and which has personal merit in it, is the respect which you
pay, without compulsion, to the political or religious attitude of a man
whose beliefs are not yours. You can't revere his gods or his politics,
and no one expects you to do that, but you could respect his belief in
them if you tried hard enough; and you could respect him, too, if you
tried hard enough. But it is very, very difficult; it is next to
impossible, and so we hardly ever try. If the man doesn't believe as we
do, we say he is a crank, and that settles it. I mean it does nowadays,
because now we can't burn him.
We are always canting about people's "irreverence," always charging this
offense upon somebody or other, and thereby intimating that we are better
than that person and do not commit that offense ourselves. Whenever we
do this we are in a lying attitude, and our speech is cant; for none of
us are reverent--in a meritorious way; deep down in our hearts we are all
irreverent. There is probably not a single exception to this rule in the
earth. There is probably not one person whose reverence rises higher
than respect for his own sacred things; and therefore, it is not a thing
to boast about and be proud of, since the most degraded savage has that--
and, like the best of us, has nothing higher. To speak plainly, we
despise all reverences and all objects of reverence which are outside the
pale of our own list of sacred things. And yet, with strange
inconsistency, we are shocked when other people despise and defile the
things which are holy to us. Suppose we should meet with a paragraph
like the following, in the newspapers:
"Yesterday a visiting party of the British nobility had a picnic at Mount
Vernon, and in the tomb of Washington they ate their luncheon, sang
popular songs, played games, and danced waltzes and polkas."
Should we be shocked? Should we feel outraged? Should we be amazed?
Should we call the performance a desecration? Yes, that would all
happen. We should denounce those people in round terms, and call them
And suppose we found this paragraph in the newspapers:
"Yesterday a visiting party of American pork-millionaires had a picnic in
Westminster Abbey, and in that sacred place they ate their luncheon, sang
popular songs, played games, and danced waltzes and polkas."
Would the English be shocked? Would they feel outraged? Would they be
amazed? Would they call the performance a desecration? That would all
happen. The pork-millionaires would be denounced in round terms; they
would be called hard names.
In the tomb at Mount Vernon lie the ashes of America's most honored son;
in the Abbey, the ashes of England's greatest dead; the tomb of tombs,
the costliest in the earth, the wonder of the world, the Taj, was built
by a great Emperor to honor the memory of a perfect wife and perfect
mother, one in whom there was no spot or blemish, whose love was his stay
and support, whose life was the light of the world to him; in it her
ashes lie, and to the Mohammedan millions of India it is a holy place; to
them it is what Mount Vernon is to Americans, it is what the Abbey is to
Major Sleeman wrote forty or fifty years ago (the italics are mine):
"I would here enter my humble protest against the quadrille and
lunch parties which are sometimes given to European ladies and
gentlemen of the station at this imperial tomb; drinking and dancing
are no doubt very good things in their season, but they are sadly
out of place in a sepulchre."
Were there any Americans among those lunch parties? If they were
invited, there were.
If my imagined lunch-parties in Westminster and the tomb of Washington
should take place, the incident would cause a vast outbreak of bitter
eloquence about Barbarism and Irreverence; and it would come from two
sets of people who would go next day and dance in the Taj if they had a
As we took our leave of the Benares god and started away we noticed a
group of natives waiting respectfully just within the gate--a Rajah from
somewhere in India, and some people of lesser consequence. The god
beckoned them to come, and as we passed out the Rajah was kneeling and
reverently kissing his sacred feet.
If Barnum--but Barnum's ambitions are at rest. This god will remain in
the holy peace and seclusion of his garden, undisturbed. Barnum could
not have gotten him, anyway. Still, he would have found a substitute
that would answer.