Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 22.djvu/275

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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