Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Hindoo System of Religion.

The Hindoo system is this. A great divine spirit or essence, 'Brahma', pervades the whole universe; and the soul of every human being is a drop from this great ocean, to which, when it becomes perfectly purified, it is reunited. The reunion is the eternal beatitude to which all look forward with hope; and the soul of the Brahman is nearest to it.


If he has been a good man, his soul becomes absorbed in the 'Brahma'; and, if a bad man, it goes to 'Narak', hell; and after the expiration of its period there of limited imprisonment, it returns to earth, and occupies the body of some other animal. It again advances by degrees to the body of the Brahman; and thence, when fitted for it, into the great 'Brahma'.[1]


From this great eternal essence emanate Brahma, the Creator, whose consort is Sarasvatī;[2] Vishnu, the Preserver, whose consort is Lakshmī; and Siva, alias Māhadēo, the Destroyer, whose consort is Pārvatī. According to popular belief Jamrāj (Yamarāja) is the judicial deity who has been appointed by the greater powers to pass the final judgement on the tenor of men's lives, according to proceedings drawn up by his secretary Chitragupta.


If men's actions have been good, their souls are, as the next stage, advanced a step towards the great essence, Brahma; and, if bad, they are thrown back, and obliged to occupy the bodies of brutes or of people of inferior caste, as the balance against them may be great or small. There is an intermediate stage, a 'Narak', or hell, for bad men, and a 'Baikunth', or paradise, for the good, in which they find their felicity in serving that god of the three to which they have specially devoted themselves while on earth. But from this stage, after the period of their sentence is expired, men go back to their pilgrimage on earth again.


There are numerous Dēos (Devas), or good spirits, of whom Indra is the chief; [3] and Daityas, or bad spirits; and there have also been a great number of incarnations from the three great gods, and their consorts, who have made their appearance upon the earth when required for particular purposes. All these incarnations are called 'Avatārs', or descents. Vishnu has been eleven times on the globe in different shapes, and Siva seven times.[4]


The avatārs of Vishnu are celebrated in many popular poems, such as the Rāmāyana, or history of the Rape of Sitā, the wife of Rāma, the seventh incarnation;[5] the Mahābhārata, and the Bhāgavata [Purāna], which describe the wars and amours of this god in his last human shape.[6] All these books are believed to have been written either by the hand or by the inspiration of the god himself thousands of years before the events they describe actually took place.


'It was', they say, 'as easy for the deity to write or dictate a battle, an amour, or any other important event ten thousand years before as the day after it took place'; and I believe nine-tenths, perhaps ninety-nine in a hundred, of the Hindoo population believe implicitly that these accounts were also written.


It is now pretty clear that all these works are of comparatively recent date, that the great poem of the Mahābhārata could not have been written before the year 786 of the Christian era, and was probably written so late as A.D. 1157; that Krishna, if born at all, must have been born on the 7th of August, A.D. 600, but was most likely a mere creation of the imagination to serve the purpose of the Brahmans of Ujain, in whom the fiction originated; that the other incarnations were invented about the same time, and for the same object, though the other persons described as incarnations were real princes, Parasu Rāma, before Christ 1176, and Rāma, born before Christ 961.


In the Mahābhārata Krishna is described as fighting in the same army with Yudhishthira and his four brothers. Yudhishthira was a real person, who ascended the throne at Delhi 575 B.C., or 1175 years before the birth of Krishna.[7] Bentley supposes that the incarnations, particularly that of Krishna, were invented by the Brahmans of Ujain with a view to check the progress of Christianity in that part of the world (see his historical view of the Hindoo astronomy). That we find in no history any account of the alarming progress of Christianity about the time these fables were written is no proof that Bentley was wrong.[8]


When Monsieur Thevenot was at Agra [in] 1666, the Christian population was roughly estimated at twenty-five thousand families. They had all passed away before it became one of our civil and military stations in the beginning of the present century, and we might search history in vain for any mention of them (see his Travels in India, Part III).


One single prince, well disposed to give Christians encouragement and employment, might, in a few years, get the same number around his capital; and it is probable that the early Christians in India occasionally found such princes, and gave just cause of alarm to the Brahman priests, who were then in the infancy of their despotic power.[9]


During the war with Nepal, in 1814 and 1815,[10] the division with which I served came upon an extremely interesting colony of about two thousand Christian families at Betiyā in the Tirhūt District, on the borders of the Tarāi forest. This colony had been created by one man, the Bishop, a Venetian by birth, under the protection of a small Hindoo prince, the Rājā, of Betiyā.[11] This holy man had been some fifty years among these people, with little or no support from Europe or from any other quarter.


The only aid he got from the Rājā was a pledge that no member of his Church should be subject to the Purveyance system, under which the people everywhere suffered so much,[12] and this pledge the Rājā, though a Hindoo, had never suffered to be violated. There were men of all trades among them, and they formed one very large street remarkable for the superior style of its buildings and the sober industry of its inhabitants.


The masons, carpenters, and blacksmiths of this little colony were working in our camp every day, while we remained in the vicinity, and better workmen I have never seen in India; but they would all insist upon going to divine service at the prescribed hours. They had built a splendid pucka[13] dwelling-house for their bishop, and a still more splendid church, and formed for him the finest garden I have seen in India, surrounded with a good wall, and provided with admirable pucka wells.


The native Christian servants who attended at the old bishop's table, taught by himself, spoke Latin to him; but he was become very feeble, and spoke himself a mixture of Latin, Italian, his native tongue, and Hindustānī. We used to have him at our messes, and take as much care of him as of an infant, for he was become almost as frail as one. The joy and the excitement of being once more among Europeans, and treated by them with so much reverence in the midst of his flock, were perhaps too much for him, for he sickened and died soon after.


The Rājā died soon after him, and in all probability the flock has disappeared. No Europeans except a few indigo planters of the neighbourhood had ever before known or heard of this colony; and they seemed to consider them only as a set of great scoundrels, who had better carts and bullocks than anybody else in the country, which they refused to let out at the same rate as the others, and which they (the indigo lords) were not permitted to seize and employ at discretion.


Roman Catholics have a greater facility in making converts in India than Protestants, from having so much more in their form of worship to win the affections through the medium of the imagination.[14]


Notes:


1. Men are occasionally exempted from the necessity of becoming a Brahman first. Men of low caste, if they die at particular places, where it is the interest of the Brahmans to invite rich men to die, are promised absorption into the great 'Brahma' at once. Immense numbers of wealthy men go every year from the most distant parts of India to die at Benares, where they spend large sums of money among the Brahmans. It is by their means that this, the second city in India, is supported. [W. H. S.] Bombay is now the second city in India, so far as population is concerned.


2. Brahma, with the short vowel, is the eternal Essence or Spirit; Brahmā, with the long vowel, is 'the primaeval male god, the first personal product of the purely spiritual Brahma, when overspread by Maya, or illusory creative force', according to the Vedanta system (Monier Williams, Religious Thought and Life in India, p. 44).


3. Indra was originally, in the Vedas, the Rain-god. The statement in the text refers to modern Hinduism.


4. The incarnations of Vishnu are ordinarily reckoned as ten, namely, (1) Fish, (2) Tortoise, (3) Boar, (4) Man-lion, (5) Dwarf, (6) Rāma with the axe, (7) Rāma Chandra, (8) Krishna, (9) Buddha, (10) Kalkī, or Kalkin, who is yet to come. I do not know any authority for eleven incarnations of Vishnu. The number is stated in some Purānas as twenty-two, twenty-four, or even twenty-eight.


Seven incarnations of Siva are not generally recognized (see Monier Williams, Religious Thought and Life in India, pp. 78-86, and 107-16). For the theory and mystical meaning of avatārs, see Grierson, J.R.A.S., 1909, pp. 621- 44. The word avatār means 'descent', scil. of the Deity to earth, and covers more than the term 'incarnation'.


5. Sitā was an incarnation of Lakshmī. She became incarnate again, many centuries afterwards, as the wife of Krishna, another incarnation of Vishnu [W. H. S.]. Reckoning by centuries is, of course, inapplicable to pure myth. The author believed in Bentley's baseless chronology.


6. For the Mahābhārata, see ante, note 11, Chapter 1. The Bhāgavata Purāna is the most popular of the Purānas, The Hindi version of the tenth book (skandha) is known as the 'Prem Sāgar'. The date of the composition of the Purānas is uncertain.


7. The dates given in this passage are purely imaginary. Parts of the Mahābhārata are very ancient. Yudhishthira is no more an historical personage than Achilles or Romulus. It is improbable that a 'throne of Delhi' existed in 575 B.C., and hardly anything is known about the state of India at that date.


8. It is hardly necessary to observe that this grotesque theory is utterly at variance with the facts, as now known.


9. The existing settlements of native Christians at Agra are mostly of modern origin. Very ancient Christian communities exist near Madras, and on the Malabar coast. The travels of Jean de Thevenot were published in 1684, under the title of Voyage, contenant la Relation de l'Indostan.


The English version, by A. Lovell (London, 1687), is entitled The Travels of Monsieur de Thevenot into the Levant, in three Parts. Part III deals with the East Indies, The passage referred to is: 'Some affirm that there are twenty-five thousand Christian Families in Agra, but all do not agree in that' (Part III, p. 35). Thevonot's statement about the Christians of Agra is further discussed post in Chapter 52.


10. The war with Nepal began in October, 1814, and was not concluded till 1816. During its progress the British arms suffered several reverses.


11. The Betiyā (Bettiah of I. G., 1908) Rāj is a great estate with an area of 1,824 square miles in the northern part of the Champāran District of Bihār, in the Province of Bihār and Orissa. A great portion of the estate is held (1908) on permanent leases by European indigo-planters.


12. For discussion of this system see post, Chapter 7.


13. 'Pucka' (pakkā) here means 'masonry', as opposed to 'Kutcha' (kachchā), meaning 'earthen'.


14. Native Christians, according to the census of 1872, number 1,214 persons, who are principally found in Bettiā thāna [police-circle]. There are two Missions, one at Bettiā, and the other at the village of Chuhārī, both supported by the Roman Catholic Church.


The former was founded in 1746 by a certain Father Joseph, from Garingano in Italy, who went to Bettiā on the invitation of the Mahārāja. The present number of converts is about 1,000 persons. Being principally descendants of Brahmans, they hold a fair social position; but some of them are extremely poor.


About one-fourth are carpenters, one- tenth blacksmiths, one-tenth servants, the remainder carters. The Chuhārī Mission was founded in 1770 by three Catholic priests, who had been expelled from Nepal [after the Gōrkha conquest in 1768]. There are now 283 converts, mostly descendants of Nepālis. They are all agriculturists, and very poor (Article 'Champāran District' in Statistical Account of Bengal, 1877).


The statement in I.G. 1908, s.v. Bettiah, differs slightly, as follows:


'A Roman Catholic Mission was established about 1740 by Father Joseph Mary, an Italian missionary of the Capuchin Order, who was passing near Bettiah on his way to Nepāl, when he was summoned by Rājā Dhruva Shah to attend his daughter, who was dangerously ill. He succeeded in curing her, and the grateful Raja invited him to stay at Bettiah and gave him a house and ninety acres of land.'


The Bettiah Mission still exists and maintains the Catholic Mission Press, where publications illustrating the history of the Capuchin Missions have been printed. Father Felix, O.C., is at work on the subject.