Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/December 1882/Entertaining Varieties


—— Hindoo Ascetics.—Hindostan is the native land of religious fanaticism. Burke ascribes it to the impressive grandeur of Nature (Himalayas, great rivers, East Indian tornadoes, etc.); Jacquemont, to subjective peculiarities of the East Aryan races; but the fact itself admits of no dispute: the Hindoos, as a nation, have always shown a remarkable tendency to sacrifice reason to faith, earth to heaven, and the welfare of the body to the fancied interests of the soul. The cave-temples of Ellora are said to have been excavated by volunteer armies of laborers; and, in a country where large hospitals full of eupeptic monkeys can be supported by voluntary contributions, such things are by no means impossible. During the yearly assemblies on the "God-field," at the junction of the Jumna and Ganges, many devotees sought a grave in the depths of the twice-holy flood, and Father Ricot, who witnessed one of these festivals, ascribes the extravaganzas of the pilgrims to the momentary inspiration of religious frenzy; but the achievements of the fakirs prove that even the modern Hindoos are capable of the most deliberate self-sacrifice. At the court of Baroda the spectators often leave the circus-games of the Guicowar to witness the stranger performances of a self-torturer, who, "for the edification of the pious," skewers, scorches, or mutilates himself in a way from which no mortal could recover. Nepaul, the border-land of Buddhism and Brahmanism, swarms with fakirs as Spain with begging friars. On the highway from Goorkha to Benares the traveler meets them at every cross-road. Some of them content themselves with sitting bare-headed in the open sun; others hang, head downward, from a bar, which they clasp with their hands and knees; others exhibit self-inflicted wounds, gashed faces, bared and splintered ribs, hands and feet bristling with tenpenny nails, as if they had undergone crucifixion. In the larger cities, where the public is used to such trifles, the more ambitious ascetics load themselves with wagon-chains, or bend their bodies in the form of a right angle, till the inflection of the spine becomes permanent. Nay, a not unfrequent "penance" consists in tying the hands to the ankles, and turning round and round like a cart-wheel. Near Goruckpoor the train of Lord Dalhousie met dozens of these animated monocycles, some of whom had rolled along for a distance of several hundred miles!

The Buddhists, with their superior talent for organization, have whole convents full of martyr-maniacs, who vie in the rigor and extravagant absurdity of their penances. Even novices forswear clothes in winter and cold water in summer, and sleep on gravel-piles. The sanctity of the presbyters is computed by the quantity of nauseous drugs they can swallow. Some of them emulate Dr. Tanner, and eat only once a day, and at certain seasons only once a week. Near Rangoon, at the mouth of the Irrawaddy, a society of penitents have located their convent in a pestilential swamp, and point with pride to their open windows, that admit every variety of troublesome insects. A thousand miles farther north the Thibetan monastery of Sookung braves the ice-storms of the eastern Himalayas at an elevation of fourteen thousand five hundred feet. The monks subsist on the charitable contributions of the neighboring towns, and are often in danger of freezing to death before they reach their castle in the clouds; but their home-life is said to be comparatively comfortable, especially in winter-time, when visitors are rare, for asceticism of the more persistent kind seems somehow to depend a good deal on public approbation. Simon Stylites bad visitors from all parts of the Christian world, who admired and at last almost worshiped him. Besides sticking to his pillar, he had a trick of doubling himself up till his forehead almost touched his narrow pedestal. At evening prayers he often treated the spectators to a variety of Talmagian gymnastics, and, if they implored him to come down, his only answer was a grunt of stern defiance. In a lonely desert he probably would have anticipated their wishes. If there is anything meritorious in self-torture, the Indian fakirs, too, get all the encouragement they deserve. A Hindoo, who might dismiss an ordinary beggar with a kick, would share his last rice-cake with a mendicant presenting himself with a drag-chain round his neck and a bull-ring in his nose. The inventor of a new torture can count upon a liberal share of public patronage. The English garrison of Cawnpoor was once honored by the presence of a bikschu, or religious devotee, who had stationed himself in a corner of their parade-ground, and promoted the welfare of his soul by squatting down between two blazing fires, while the sun inflicted its caloric on his shaven head. A crowd of natives watched him with respectful admiration, and, whenever one of his fires threatened to go out, they fetched in a fresh supply of fuel, to further the progress of the good work.

The exploits of a sensational bikschu become the boast of his native place. Rass-el-Shork and Rass-el-Hissam, two suburbs of Delhi, had several riots about the respective merits of their fakirs. The matter was finally referred to a Mohammedan umpire, and the men of Hissam proved that their hero had passed forty-eight hours in tenter-hooks, and glorified Brahma by eating a three-pound bundle of wormwood, while the Shork party claimed the prize of virtue for a saint who had swallowed a gallon of cajeput-oil, and turned somersaults till the arithmetic of the suburb failed to express the number of thousands. He had also rolled himself from Delhi to Agra, fasted a full week, and abstained from drinking water while he counted the number of grains in a two-bushel measure of millet-seeds. But all his labors proved in vain when the umpire learned that the Hissam champion had once sat two days and a night in a nest-hill of the Formica rufa (a kind of red horse-ants).

Our word fakir is derived from the Arabian fakhar, a pauper, a mendicant. The Mohammedan dervishes, however, do not entirely part with their reason, though the Sufi sect believes in the sanctifying influence of celibacy and solitude. The Brahmans and Buddhists are both ultra-ascetic, but with this difference: that the former practice their penances as an expiation of some special sin; the others on general principles, and with a view of subduing the vitality of the body, for the world-blighting dogma of the antagonism of body and soul seems to have been first promulgated by Buddha Sakya-Muni, the Nepaul arch-pessimist.

—— In the columns of the "Catholic World" for August, the Rev. J. F. Callahan, D. D., discusses the "Cincinnati Pastoral" and its critics: "Liberty," says the Rev. J. F. C, D. D., "never did exist except under the shadow of the cross. Equality has no home except at the altar on which the shadow of that cross falls. Take the Catholic Church out of the world, and liberty would sink into an eternal grave. If Protestant nations are free, it is because they once were Catholics. If a republic was built in this New World, Catholic principles were the architect."

The absolute truth of the above rivals the candor of Dr. Christlieb's "Short Method with Infidels." Evidently the "persecuted classes," as the "Bavarian Brewers' Union" calls the Romanists and liquor-dealers, are learning the art of turning the tables against their aggressors. The next issue of the "B. B. U." will probably contain the following counterblast against the recent amendment of the Iowa Constitution: "Happiness never did exist except in an atmosphere of alcohol. Health has no home except at a fireside redolent with the smell of that atmosphere. Take distilleries out of the world, and manhood would sink into an eternal grave. Wherever a healthy constitution has been built up, alcoholic stimulants were the architect. If total abstainers are healthy, it is because their fathers were topers."

—— In "graphic descriptions" one touch of nature is worth a page of imaginary details: hence the realism of rustic poetry. The Ettrick Shepherd had passages of that sort that redeem all his barbarisms, and beat Goethe and Wordsworth at their own tricks. E. g., his description of a Lanarkshire snow-storm that cost the life of a Scotch Leander:

"But the snaw was so deep, and his heart it grew weary,
And he sank down to sleep on the moorland so dreary.
Oh, soft was the couch and embroidered the cover,
And white were the sheets she had spread for her lover;
But his couch is more white, and his canopy grander,
And sounder he sleeps where the hill-foxes wander."

—— "A false system with a fabulous historical record, and enforced by preposterously wrong methods," Diderot calls a certain anti-natural religion.

—— "Voltaire came before the Revolution like lightning before thunder."

"Experience is like a persistent coquette. Tears pass before you can win her, and, if you finally may call her your own, you are both superannuated, and have no use for one another."

"The secret of every power consists in the knowledge that others are still greater cowards."

"Our time is not favorable to logic. So many candles need snuffing, that there is no chance for clear-seeing."

"All men love freedom. But the just demands it for all, the unjust for himself alone."—Ludwig Böene.

—— Some people seem born to be lucky in spite of themselves. General Skobeleff was originally destined for the bar, but before he was too old his pugnacious disposition caused his expulsion from college, and thus drove him into his right career, and by a series of equally well-timed scrapes at last into a field where he could follow his penchant with glory, as well as impunity. His pet project was a war against Prussia, and the timely accession of a Pan-Slavistic Czar enabled him to achieve popularity by a free expression of his anti-German sentiments. He became the idol of his nation, and died in time to escape the horrible thrashing that will follow the attempt to realize his favorite project.

—— There is nothing new under the sun; even our forestry associations had their prototypes in pagan Borne and Moorish Spain. Al Moctader, the Caliph of Bagdad (1094-1117), also planted millions of forest-trees; and it is a distressing fact that then, as now, many clear-sighted men foretold the consequences of reckless forest-destruction, and that their protests had no appreciable influence in checking the evil. The trouble seems to be that tree-felling is directly profitable and only eventually injurious, while tree-planting is directly expensive and only indirectly advantageous. Forest-destruction has ruined our earthly paradise, and the scientific authorities of all really enlightened nations have denounced it again and again; but, before such arguments can influence the masses, they must cease to seek their paradise in the clouds and their authorities in Palestine.

—— In the general diffusion of knowledge, only the newspaper-educated natives of our Northeastern cities can compare with the Saracens of the thirteenth century. Under her last caliphs, Cordova alone had fourteen lyceums and nine hundred and fifty primary schools; the transcription of the ancient classics employed an army of copyists, and the provincial governors vied in patronizing men of letters. From Leon to Granada every hamlet had its own library, and the lord of every castle a private cabinet of curios or an astronomical observatory. But during the next two centuries a horde of ecclesiastic Vandals marched in the wake of the Christian armies, and special commissioners of the Casa Santa traveled from place to place, burning Unitarians and destroying Arabian manuscripts.

What literary treasures may have perished in that way! The Spanish Moriscoes, the last free and manly nation of the Old World, succumbed to the hirelings of the Holy Inquisition; but Providence generally remedies a calamity of that sort, and the fall of Granada coincided with the discovery of a New World.

—— A Maori Cosmogony.—Richard Oberländer, in his "Strange Peoples," gives the following as a cosmogony of the New-Zealanders: Maui was a hero who performed as wonderful labors as the Grecian Heracles. He was not only the inventor of the arts of making boats and building houses and the like, but he appointed the paths of the sun and the moon, and was the creator of the earth, which he fished out of the sea in this way: He said one day to his five brothers, who were devoted fishermen, that he would go with them and catch so large a fish that they would not be able to hold him. Now, because they knew what an enchanter he was, and were afraid of his art, they were not willing to take him in the boat with them. Nevertheless, Maui went with them. He changed himself into a bird, flew into the canoe, and did not make himself known till they had got into the open sea. When they had got far out into the sea, Maui wanted to fish; he had a precious fish-hook with him, which he had made out of his grandfather's jaw-bone; but his brothers, to keep him from fishing, refused to give him any bait. Then Maui beat his face till his nose bled, and soaked some tow that he found in the canoe with the blood. That was the bait. Maui threw out his hook, and it was not long before he had a bite, with a tug that made the brothers afraid the boat would be upset. So they cried out, "Let go, Maui!" "Maui never lets go of what he holds," was the answer, and it has become a proverb with the Maoris. He pulled and pulled at the line till he pulled up a land. "Ranga whenna!" exclaimed the brothers, "the fish is a land!" Maui asked them if they knew the name of the fish, and, when they said no, he told them "Haha whenna" (the looked-for land.) After the fish was pulled up, the brothers hastened to divide it among themselves; they pulled and tore in every direction; hence come the inequalities of the island. The canoe was stranded by the rising of the land, and the Maoris say now that it lies on the top of Mount Ikaurangi, near the eastern cape of the island, where Maui is also buried. After this story, the northern island of New Zealand is called Ahi na Maui (the fish of Maui).

—— "They sow not, they reap not, they trust in Providence, and honor you by sharing the fruits of your worldly industry," is the gist of St. Francis of Assisi's argument in favor of the mendicant friars. The Hindoos are consistent enough to grant the same privileges to monkeys and crocodiles. In Lucknow there are two large monkey-hospitals, and several mahakhunds, where swarms of able-bodied Entellus-apes ("Honumans") and Rhesus baboons are fed at the expense of true believers. They get rice-pudding and sirup for dinner, while many hard-working but less sacred bipeds have to eat their rice "straight." But during the Sepoy rebellion the Mohammedan insurgents destroyed one of these establishments and expelled the inmates, including several venerable specimens of the white-headed Entellus, the holiest animal in the menagerie of the Hindoo Pantheon. For many weeks these long-tailed saints perambulated the streets in quest of cold lunch; and an eye-witness, Mrs. Allen Mackenzie, describes the indignation of the orthodox natives, who organized relief committees and monkey soup-houses, though the protracted siege had almost exhausted their own resources. To make matters worse, the streets swarmed with profane monkeys who had to forage for a living, and had no hesitation in black-mailing their sacred relatives. The Honumans had to submit to such outrages; nay, some of them learned to eat their rice-pudding without sirup, and probably consoled themselves with the hope of a better hereafter. They wandered from house to house, and in their great distress even accepted the assistance of unbelievers, but they absolutely refused to work.

—— A Cheerful Summer Resort.—On the hunting-grounds of the lower Lena, where the Fahrenheit thermometer often remains for weeks at 45° below zero, the Russian convicts are dressed in linen jackets, and wear tretschki (rawhide shoes) without stockings. And yet they form the élite corps of the Siberian exiles murderers, forgers, and highway robbers. Political offenders are sent to the mines of Berezov, where the average duration of life, or rather of slow death, is eight years and four months. The majority of the convicts die in less than five years. Minors work there from 6 a. m. till noon, and from 2 to 6 p. m.; adults from 6 a. m. to 6 p. m., without intermission. They have no Sunday, and only one holiday in the year, the birthday of the Czar. Their rations are those of a private soldier, viz., rye-bread and salt beef. After dark they are confined in log-pens, and have to pass the nights of the long Siberian winter between two army-blankets, the one covering the rough-hewed logs of the floor, the other their starved bodies, wrapped in the coarse linen uniform which they are permitted to change only once a month. Chimney-fires are allowed during the supper-hour, i. e., from 6 to 7 p. m., but the majority swallow their food in the dark, and devote the short interval of light and warmth to—entomological researches. The discipline is that of a dog-kennel—kicks and cudgel-blows—and malingering is discouraged by a simple and effective method: the sick (wounded excepted) are put on quarter-rations. Attempts at flight are less frequent than riots, for recaptured fugitives were knouted; mutineers are only shot.

Human beings can get used to worse things than Siberian rye-bread, but never to Siberian frosts, and the monthly fuel rations of the Berezov convicts are limited to one stavsnik (about half a cord) per cabin, though near the mines of the western slope the same mountain-range abounds with densely timbered districts. In an interview with the commander of Berezov, a correspondent of the "Cologne Gazette" suggested the propriety of removing the settlement to the timber-region. "It would probably please the prisoners," replied the commander, but the comfort of their keepers was of more consequence, and all his subalterns agreed that, on account of the trout-streams and cranberry-brakes of the eastern slope, Berezov was a more pleasant summer resort.