The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/No. 1/Asirvadam the Brahmin
|The Atlantic Monthly
Asirvadam the Brahmin
Who put together the machinery of the great Indian revolt, and set it going? Who stirred up the sleeping tiger in the Sepoy's heart, and struck Christendom aghast with the dire devilries of Meerut and Cawnpore?
Asirvadam the Brahmin!
Asirvadam is nimble with mace or cue; at the billiard-table, it is hinted, he can distinguish a kiss from a carom; at the sideboard (and here, if I were Mr. Charles Reade, I would whisper, in small type) he confounds not cocktails with cobblers; when, being in trade, he would sell you saltpetre, he tries you with flax-seed; when he would buy indigo, he offers you indigo at a sacrifice. Yet, in Asirvadam, if any quality is more noticeable than the sleek respectability of the Baboo, it is the jealous orthodoxy of the Brahmin. If he knows in what presence to step out of his slippers, and when to pick them up again with his toes, in jaunty dandyisms of etiquette, he also makes the most of his insolent order and its patent of privilege, and wears the rue of his triple cord with a demure and dignified difference. High, low, or jack, it is always "the game" with him; and the game is--Asirvadam the Brahmin,--free tricks and Brahmins' rights,--Asirvadam for his caste, and everything for Asirvadam.
The natural history of our astute and accomplished friend is worth a page or two. And first, as to his color. Asirvadam comes from the northern provinces, and calls the snow-turbaned Himalayas cousin; consequently his complexion is the brightest among Brahmins. By some who are uninitiated in the chemical mysteries of our metropolitan milk-trade, it has been likened to chocolate and cream, with plenty of cream; but the comparison depends, for the idea it conveys, so much on the taste of the ethnological inquirer, as to the proportion of cream, and still so much more, as in the case of Mr. Weller's weal pies, on the reputation of "the lady as makes it," that it will hardly serve the requirements of a severe scientific statement. Copper-color has an excess of red, and sepia is too brown; the tarry tawniness of an old boatswain's hand is nearer the mark, but even that is less among man-of-war's men than in the merchant-service, and is least in the revenue marine; it varies, also, with the habits of the individual, and the nature of his employment for the time being. The flipper of your legitimate shiver-my-timbery old salt, whose most amiable office is piping all hands to witness punishment, has long since acquired the hue of a seven-years' meerschaum; while the dandy cockswain of a forty-gun frigate lying off the navy-yard, who brings the third cutter ship-shapely alongside with a pretty girl in the stern-sheets, lends her--the pretty girl--a hand at the gangway, that has been softened by fastidious applications of solvent slush to the tint of a long envelope "on public service." "Law sheep," when we come to the binding of books, is too sallow for this simile; a little volume of "Familiar Quotations," in limp calf, (Bartlett, Cambridge, 1855,) might answer,--if the cover of the January number of the "Atlantic Monthly" were not exactly the thing.
Simplicity, convenience, decorum, and picturesqueness distinguish the costume of Asirvadam the Brahmin. Three yards of yard-wide fine cotton cloth envelope his loins, in such a manner, that, while one end hangs in graceful folds in front, the other falls in a fine distraction behind. Over this, a robe of muslin, or silk, or piña cloth--the latter in peculiar favor, by reason of its superior purity, for high-caste wear--covers his neck, breast, and arms, and descends nearly to his ankles. Asirvadam borrowed this garment from the Mussulman; but he fastens it on the left side, which the follower of the Prophet never does, and surmounts it with an ample and elegant waistband, beside the broad Romanesque mantle that he tosses over his shoulder with such a senatorial air. His turban, also, is an innovation,--not proper to the Brahmin,--pure and simple, but, like the robe, adopted from the Moorish wardrobe, for a more imposing appearance in Sahib society. It is formed of a very narrow strip, fifteen or twenty yards long, of fine stuff, moulded to the orthodox shape and size by wrapping it, while wet, on a wooden block; having been hardened in the sun, it is worn like a hat. As for his feet, Asirvadam, uncompromising in externals, disdains to pollute them with the touch of leather. Shameless fellows, Brahmins though they be, of the sect of Vishnu, go about, without a blush, in thonged sandals, made of abominable skins; but Asirvadam, strict as a Gooroo when the eyes of his caste are on him, is immaculate in wooden clogs.
In ornaments, his taste, though somewhat grotesque, is by no means lavish. A sort of stud or button, composed of a solitary ruby, in the upper rim of the cartilage of either ear,--a chain of gold, curiously wrought, and intertwined with a string of small pearls, around his neck,--a massive bangle of plain gold on his arm,--a richly jewelled ring on his thumb, and others, broad and shield-like, on his toes,--complete his outfit in these vanities.
As often as Asirvadam honors us with his morning visit of business or ceremony, a slight yellow line, drawn horizontally between his eyebrows, with a paste composed of ground sandal-wood, denotes that he has purified himself externally and internally, by bathing and prayers. To omit this, even by the most unavoidable chance to appear in public without it, were to incur a grave public scandal; only excepting the reason of mourning, when, by an expressive Oriental figure, the absence of the caste-mark is accepted for the token of a profound and absorbing sorrow, which takes no thought even for the customary forms of decency. The disciple of Siva crossbars his forehead with ashes of cow-dung or ashes of the dead; the sectary of Vishnu adorns his with a sort of trident, composed of a central perpendicular line in red, and two oblique lines, white or yellow. But the true Brahmin knows no Siva or Vishnu, no sectarian distinctions or preferences; Indra has set no seal upon his brow, nor Krishna, nor Devendra. For, ignoring celestial personalities, it is the Trimurti that he grandly adores,--Creation, Preservation, Destruction triune,--one body with three heads; and the right line alone, or _pottu_, the mystic circle, describes the sublime simplicity of his soul's aspiration.
When Asirvadam was but seven years old, he was invested with the triple cord, by a grotesque, and in most respects absurd, extravagant, and expensive ceremony, called the _Upanayana_, or Introduction to the Sciences, because none but Brahmins are freely admitted to their mysteries. This triple cord consists of three thick strands of cotton, each composed of several finer threads; these three strands, representing Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva, are not twisted together, but hang separately, from the left shoulder to the right hip. The preparation of so sacred a badge is entrusted to none but the purest hands, and the process is attended with many imposing ceremonies. Only Brahmins may gather the fresh cotton; only Brahmins may card and spin and twist it; and its investiture is a matter of so great cost, that the poorer brothers must have recourse to contributions from the pious of their caste, to defray the exorbitant charges of priests and masters of ceremonies.
It is a noticeable fact in the natural history of the always insolent Asirvadam, that, unlike Shatriya, the warrior, Vaishya, the cultivator, or Soodra, the laborer, he is not born into the full enjoyment of his honors, but, on the contrary, is scarcely of more consideration than a Pariah, until by the Upanayana he has been admitted to his birthright. Yet, once decorated with the ennobling badge of his order, our friend became from that moment something superior, something exclusive, something supercilious, arrogant, exacting,--Asirvadam, the high Brahmin,--a creature of wide strides without awkwardness, towering airs without bombast, Sanscrit quotations without pedantry, florid phraseology without hyperbole, allegorical illustrations and proverbial points without sententiousness, fanciful flights without affectation, and formal strains of compliment without offensive adulation.
When Asirvadam meets Asirvadam in the way, compliments pass: each touches his forehead with his right hand, and murmurs twice the auspicious name of Rama. But the passing Vaishya or Soodra elevates reverently his joined palms above his head, and, stepping out of his slippers, salutes the descendant of the Seven Holy Penitents with _namaskaram_, the pious obeisance. _Andam arya_! "Hail, exalted Lord!" he cries; and the exalted lord, extending the pure lilies of his hands lordliwise, as one who condescends to accept an humble offering, mutters the mysterious benediction which only Gooroos and high Brahmins may bestow,--_Asirvadam_!
The low-caste slave who may be admitted to the distinguished presence of our friend, to implore indulgence, or to supplicate pardon for an offence, must thrice touch the ground, or the honored feet, with both his hands, which immediately he lays upon his forehead; and there are occasions of peculiar humiliation which require the profound prostration of the _sashtangam_, or abasement of the eight members, wherein the suppliant extends himself face downward on the earth, with palms joined above his head.
If Asirvadam--having concluded a visit in which he has deferentially reminded me of the peculiar privilege I enjoy in being admitted to social converse with so select a being--is about to withdraw the light of his presence, he retires backward, with many humbly gracious salaams. If, on the other hand, I have had the honor to be his distinguished guest at his garden-house, and am in the act of taking my leave, he patronizes me to the gate with elaborate obsequiousness, that would be tedious, if it were not so graceful, so comfortable, so gallantly vainglorious. He shows the way by following, and spares me the indignity of seeing his back by never taking his eyes from mine. He knows what is due to his accomplished friend, the Sahib, who is learned in the four Yankee Vedas; as to what is due to Asirvadam the Brahmin, no man knoweth the beginning or the end of that.
When Asirvadam crosses my threshold, he leaves his slippers at the door. I am flattered by the act into a self-appreciative complacency, until I discover that he thereby simply puts me on a level with his cow. When he converses with me, he keeps respectful distance, and gracefully averts from me the annoyance of his breath by holding his hand before his mouth. I inwardly applaud his refined breeding, forgetting that I am a Pariah of Pariahs, whose soul, if I have one, the incense of his holy lungs might save alive,--forgetting that he is one to whose very footprint the Soodra salaams, alighting from his palanquin,--to whose shadow poor Chakili, the cobbler, abandons the broad highway,--the feared of gods, hated of giants, mistrusted of men, and adored of himself,--Asirvadam the Brahmin.
"They, the Brahmin Asirvadam, to him, Phaldasana, who is obedient, who is true, who has every faithful quality, who knows how to serve with cheerfulness, to submit in silence, who by the excellent services he renders the Brahmins has become like unto the stone Chintamani, the bringer of good, who by the number and variety and acceptableness of his gifts shall attain, without further trials, to the paradise of Indra: _Asirvadam_!
"The year Vikarj, the tenth of the month Phalguna: we are at Benares in good health; bring us word of thine. It shall be thy privilege to make sashtangam at the feet--which are the true lilies of Nilufar-- of us the Lord Brahmin, who are endowed with all the virtues and all the sciences, who are great as Mount Meru, to whom belongs illustrious knowledge of the four Vedas, the splendor of whose beneficence is as the noon-flood of the sun, who are renowned throughout the fourteen worlds, whom the fourteen worlds admire.
"Having received with both hands that which we have abased ourself by writing to thee, and having kissed it and set it on thy head, thou wilt read with profound attention and execute with grateful alacrity the orders it contains, without swerving from the strict letter of them, the breadth of a grain of sesamum. Having hastened to us, as thou art blessed in being bidden, thou shalt wait in our presence, keeping thy distance, thy hands joined, thy mouth closed, thine eyes cast down,--thou who art as though thou wert not,--until we shall vouchsafe to perceive thee. And when thou hast obtained our leave, then, and not sooner, shalt thou make sashtangam at our blessed feet, which are the pure flowers of Nilufar, and with many lowly kisses shalt lay down before them thy unworthy offering,--ten rupees, as thou knowest,--more, if thou art wise,--less, if thou darest.
"This is all we have to say to thee. _Asirvadam_!"
In the epistolary style of Asirvadam the Brahmin we are at a loss which to admire most,--the flowers or the force, the modesty or the magnificence.
Among the cloistral cells of the women's quarter, which surround the inner court of Asirvadam's domestic establishment, is a dark and narrow chamber which is the domain of woman's rights. It is called "the Room of Anger," because, when the wife of the bosom has been tempted by inveigling box-wallahs with a love of a pink coortee, or a pair of chased bangles, "such darlings, and so cheap," and has conceived a longing for the same, her way is, without a word beforehand, to go shut herself up in the Room of Anger, and pout and sulk till she gets them; and seeing that the wife of the bosom is also the pure concocter of the Brahminical curry and server of the Brahminical rice, that she is the goddess of the sacred kitchen and high-priestess of pots and pans, it is easy to see that her success is certain. Poor little brown fool! that twelve feet square of curious custom is all, of the world-wide realm of beauty and caprice, that she can call her own.
When the enamored young Asirvadam brought to her father's gate the lover's presents,--the ear-rings and the bangles, the veil and the loongee, the attar and the betel and the sandal, the flowers and the fruits,--the lizard that chirped the happy omen for her betrothal lied. When she sat by his side at the wedding-feast, and partook of his rice, prettily picking from the same leaf, ah! then she did not eat,--she dreamed; but ever since that time, waiting for his leavings, nor daring to approach the board till he has retired to his pipe, she does not dream,--she feeds.
Around her neck a strange ornament of gold, having engraved upon it the likeness of Lakshmee, is suspended by a consecrated string of one hundred and eight threads of extreme fineness, dyed yellow with saffron. This is the Tahli, the wife's badge,--"Asirvadam the Brahmin, his chattel." They brought it to her on a silver salver garnished with flowers, she sitting with her betrothed on a great cushion; and ten Brahmins, holding around the happy pair a screen of silk, invoked for them the favor of the three divine couples,--Brahma with Sarawastee, Vishnu with Lakshmee, Siva with Paravatee. Then they offered incense, to the Tahli, and a sacrifice of fire, and they blessed it with many mantras, or holy texts; and as the bride turned her to the east, and fixed her inmost thought on the "Great Mountain of the North," Asirvadam the Brahmin clasped his collar on her neck, never to be loosened till he, dying, shall leave her to be burned, or spurned.
No man, when he meets Asirvadam the Brahmin, presumes to ask, "How is the little brown fool today?" No man, when he visits him, ventures to inquire if she is at home; it is not the etiquette. Should the little brown fool, having a mind of her own, and being resolved not to endure this any longer, suddenly make Asirvadam ridiculous some day, the etiquette is to hush it up among their friends.
As Raja, the warrior, sprang from the right arm of Brahma, and Vaishya, the cultivator, from his belly, and Soodra, the laborer, from his feet,--so Asirvadam the Brahmin was conceived in the head and brought forth from the mouth of the Creator; and he is above the others by so much as the head is above arms, belly, and feet; he is wiser than the others, inasmuch as he has lain among the thoughts of the god, has played with his inventions, and made excursions through the universe with his speech. Therefore, if it be true, as some say, that Asirvadam is an ant-hill of lies, he is also a snake's-nest of wisdom, and a beehive of ingenuity. Let him be respected, for his rights are plain.
It is his right to be taught the Vedas and the mantras, all the tongues of India, and the sciences; to marry a child-wife, no matter how old he may be,--or a score of wives, if he be a Kooleen Brahmin, so that he may drive a lively business in the way of dowries; to peruse the books of magic, and perform the awful sacrifice of the Yajna; to receive presents without limit, levy taxes without law, and beg with insolence.
It is his duty to study diligently; to conform rigorously to the rules of his caste; to honor and obey his superiors without question or hesitation; to insult his inferiors, for the magnifying of his office; to get him a wife without loss of time, and a male child by all means. During his religious minority he is expected to bathe and sacrifice twice a day, to abstain from adorning his forehead or his breast with sandal, to wear no flowers in his hair, to chew no betel, to regard himself in no mirrors.
Under Hindoo law, which is his own law, Asirvadam the Brahmin pays no taxes, tolls, or duties; corporal punishment can in no case be inflicted upon him; if he is detected in defalcation or the taking of bribes, partial restitution is the worst penalty that can befall him. "For the belly," he says, "one will play many tricks." To smite his cheek with your leathern glove, or to kick him with your shoe, is an outrage at which the gods rave; to kill him would draw down a monstrous calamity upon the world. If he break faith with you, it is as nothing; if you fail him in the least promise, you take your portion with Karta, the Fox, as the good Abbé Dubois relates.
"Karta, Karta!" screamed an Ape, one day, when he saw a fox feeding on a rotten carcass, "thou must, in a former life, have committed some dreadful crime, to be doomed to a new state in which thou feedest on such garbage."
"Alas!" replied the Fox, "I am not punished more severely than I deserve. I was once a man, and then I promised something to a Brahmin, which I never gave him. That is the true cause of my being regenerated in this shape. Some good works, which I did have, won for me the indulgence of remembering what I was in my former state, and the cause for which I have been degraded into this."
Asirvadam has choice of a hundred callings, as various in dignity and profit as they are numerous. Under native rule he makes a good cooly, because the officers of the revenue are forbidden to search a Brahmin's baggage, or anything that he carries. He is an expeditious messenger, for no man may stop him; and he can travel cheaply for whom there is free entertainment on every road. "For the belly one will play many tricks"; and Asirvadam, in financial straits, may teach dancing to nautch-girls; or he may play the mountebank or the conjurer, and with a stock of mantras and charms proceed to the curing of murrain in cattle, pip in chickens, and short-windedness in old women,--at the same time telling fortunes, calculating nativities, finding lost treasure, advising as to journeys and speculations, and crossing out crosses in love for any pretty dear who will cross the poor Brahmin's palm with a rupee. He may engage in commercial pursuits; and in that case, his bulling and bearing at the opium-sales will put Wall Street to the blush. He may turn his attention to the healing art; and allopathically, homoeopathically, hydropathically, electropathically, or by any other path, run a muck through many heathen hospitals. The field of politics is full of charms for him, the church invites his taste and talents, and the army tempts him with opportunities for intrigue; but whether in the shape of Machiavelisms, miracles, or mutinies, he is forever making mischief. Whether as messenger, dancing-master, conjurer, fortune-teller, speculator, mountebank, politician, priest, or Sepoy, he is ever the same Asirvadam the Brahmin,--sleekest of lackeys, most servile of sycophants, expertest of tricksters, smoothest of hypocrites, coolest of liars, most insolent of beggars, most versatile of adventurers, most inventive of charlatans, most restless of schemers, most insidious of jesuits, most treacherous of confidants, falsest of friends, hardest of masters, most arrogant of patrons, cruelest of tyrants, most patient of haters, most insatiable of avengers, most gluttonous of ravishers, most infernal of devils,--pleasantest of fellows.
Superlatively dainty as to his fopperies of orthodoxy, Asirvadam is continually dying of Pariah roses in aromatic pains of caste. If in his goings and comings one of the "lilies of Nilufar" should chance to stumble upon a bit of bone or rag, a fragment of a dish, or a leaf from which some one has eaten,--should his sacred raiment be polluted by the touch of a dog or a Pariah,--he is ready to faint, and only a bath can revive him. He may not touch his sandals with his hand, nor repose in a strange seat, but is provided with a mat, a carpet, or an antelope's skin, to serve him for a cushion in the houses of his friends. With a kid glove you may put his respectability in peril, and with your patent-leather pumps affright his soul within him. To him a pocket-handkerchief is a sore offence, and a tooth-pick monstrous. All the Vedas could not save the Giaour who "chews"; nor burnt brandy, though the Seven Penitents distilled it, purify the mouth that a tooth-brush has polluted. Beware how you offer him a wafered letter; and when you present him with a copy of your travels, let it be bound in cloth.
He has the Mantalini idiosyncrasy as to dem'd unpleasant bodies; and when he hears that his mother is dead, he straight-way jumps into a bath with his clothes on. Many mantras and much holy-water, together with incense of sandal-wood, and other perfumery, regardless of expense, can alone relieve his premises of the deadness of his wife.
For a Soodra even to look upon the earthen vessels wherein his rice is boiled implies the necessity of a summary smash of the infected crockery; and his kitchen is his holy of holies. When he eats, the company keep silence; and when he is full, they return fervent thanks to the gods who have conducted him safely through a complexity of dangers;--a grain of rice, falling from his lips, might have poisoned his dinner; a stain on his plantain-leaf might have turned his cake to stone. His left hand, condemned to vulgar and impolite offices, is not admitted to the honor of assisting at his repasts; to the right alone, consecrated by exemption from indecorous duties, belongs the distinction of conducting his happy grub to the heaven of his mouth. When he would quench his thirst, he disdains to apply the earth-born beaker to his lips, but lets the water fall into his solemn swallow from on high,--a pleasant feat to see, and one which, like a whirling dervis, diverts you by its agility, while it impresses you by its devotion.
It is easy to perceive, that, if our friend Asirvadam were not one of the "Young Bengal" lights who do not fash themselves with trifles, his orthodox sensibilities would be subjected to so many and gross affronts from the indiscriminate contacts of a mixed community, that he would shortly be compelled to take refuge in one of those Arcadias of the triple cord, called _Agragramas_, where pure Brahmins are met in all the exclusiveness of high caste, and where the more a man rubs against his neighbor the more he is sanctified. True, the Soodras have an irreverent saying, "An entire Brahmin at the Agragrama, half a Brahmin when seen at a distance, and a Soodra when out of sight"; but then the Soodras, as everybody knows, are saucy, satirical rogues, and incorrigible jokers.
There was once a foolish Brahmin, to whom a rich and charitable merchant presented two pieces of cloth, the finest that had ever been seen in the Agragrama. He showed them to the other Brahmins, who all congratulated him on so fortunate an acquisition; they told him it was the reward of some deed that he had done in a previous life. Before putting them on, he washed them, according to custom, in order to purify them from the pollution of the weaver's touch, and hung them up to dry, with the ends fastened to two branches of a tree. Presently a dog, happening to pass that way, ran under them, and the Brahmin could not decide whether the unclean beast was tall enough to touch the cloth, or not. He questioned his children, who were present; but they were not quite certain. How, then, was he to settle the all-important point? Ingenious Brahmin! an idea struck him. Getting down on all fours, so as to be of the same height as the dog, he crawled under the precious cloths.
"Did I touch it?"
"No!" cried all the children; and his soul was filled with joy.
But the next moment the terrible conviction took possession of his mind, that the dog had a turned-up tail; and that, if, in passing under the cloths, he had elevated and wagged it, their defilement must have been consummated. Ready-witted Brahmin! another idea. He called the cleverest of his children, and bade it affix to his breech-cloth a plantain-leaf, dog's-tail-wise, and waggishly. Then resuming his all-fours-ness, he passed a second time under the cloth, and conscientiously, and anxiously, wagged.
"A touch! a touch!" cried all the children, and the Brahmin groaned, for he knew that his beautiful raiment was ruined. Thrice he wagged, and thrice the children cried, "A touch! a touch!"
So the strict Brahmin leaped to his feet, in a frightful rage, and, tearing the precious cloth from the tree, rent it in a hundred shreds, while he cursed the abominable dog and the master that owned him. And the children admired and were edified, and they whispered among themselves,--
"Now, surely, it behooveth us to take heed to our ways, for our father is particular."
Moral: And the Brahmin winked.
The Samaradana is an institution for which our friend Asirvadam entertains peculiar veneration. This is simply an abundant feast of Brahminical good things, to which the "fat and greasy citizens" of the caste are bidden by some zealous or manoeuvring Soodra,--on occasion of the dedication of a temple, perhaps, or in a season of drought, or when a malign constellation is to be averted, or to celebrate the birth or marriage of some exalted personage. From all the country round about, the Brahmins flock to the feasting, singing Sanscrit hymns and obscene songs, and shouting, _Hara! hara! Govinda!_ The low fellow who has the honor to entertain so select a company is not suffered to seat himself in the midst of his guests, much less to partake of the viands he has been permitted to provide; but in consideration of his "deed of exalted merit," and his expensive appreciation of the beauties and advantages of high-caste society, as expressed in all the delicacies of the season, he may come, when the last course has been discussed, and, prostrating himself in the sashtangam posture, receive the unanimous asirvadam of the company.
If, in taking leave of his august guests, he should also signify his sense of the honor they have done him, by presenting each with a piece of cloth or a sum of money, he is assured that he is altogether superior in mind and person to the gods, and that, if he is wise, he will not neglect to remind his friends of his munificence by another exhibition of it within a reasonable time.
In the creed of Asirvadam the Brahmin, the drinker of strong drink is a Pariah, and the eater of cow's flesh is damned already. If, then, he can tell a cocktail from a cobbler, and scientifically discriminate between a julep and a gin-sling, it must be because the Vedas are unclasped to him; for in the Vedas all things are taught. It is of Asirvadam's father that the story is told, how, when a fire broke out in his house once, and all the pious neighbors ran to rescue his effects, the first articles saved were a tub of pickled pork and a jar of arrack. But this, also, no doubt, is the malicious invention of some satirical rogue of a Soodra. Asirvadam, as is well known, recoils with horror from the abomination of eating aught that has once lived and moved and had a being; but if, remembering that, you should seek to fill his soul with consternation by inviting him to inspect a fig under a microscope, he would quietly advise you to break your nasty glass and "go it blind."
But there is one custom which Asirvadam the Brahmin observes in common with the Pariah, and that is the solemn ceremonial of Death. When his time comes, he dies, is burned, and presently forgotten; and it is a consolation for his ever having been at all, that some one is sure to be the richer and happier and freer for his ceasing to be. True, he may assume new earthly conditions, may pass into other vexatious shapes of life; but the change must ever be for the better in respect of the interests of those who have suffered by the powers and capabilities of the shape which he relinquishes. He may become a snake; but then he is easily scotched, or fooled out of his fangs with a cunning charmer's tom-tom;--he may pass into the foul feathers of an indiscriminately gluttonous adjutant-bird; but some day a bone will choke him;--his soul may creep under the mangy skin of a Pariah dog, and be kicked out of compounds by scullions; he may be condemned to the abominable offices of a crow at the burning ghauts, a jackal by the wells of Thuggee, or a rat in sewers; but he can never again be such a nuisance, such a sore offence to the minds and hearts of men, as when he was Asirvadam the Brahmin.
Fortunate indeed will he be, if the low, deep curses of all whom he has oppressed, betrayed, insulted, shall not have availed against him in his last hour. "Mayest thou never have a friend to lay thee on the ground when thou diest!"--no imprecation so fierce, so fell, as that; even Asirvadam the Brahmin abates his cruel greed, when some poor Soodra client, bled of his last anna, thinks of his sick wife, and the darling cow that must be sold at last, and grows desperate. "Mayest thou have no wife to sprinkle the spot with cow-dung where thy corpse shall lie, and to spread the unspotted cloth; nor any cow, her horns tipped with rings of brass, and her neck garlanded with flowers, to lead thee, holding by her tail, through pleasant paths to the land of Yama! May no Purohita come to strew thy bier with the holy herb, nor any next of kin be near to whisper the last mantra!"
Horrid Soodra! But though thy words make the soul of Asirvadam shiver, they are but the voice of a dog, after all, and nothing can come of them. Asirvadam the Brahmin has raised up lusty boys to himself, as every good Brahmin should; and they shall bind together his thumbs and his great toes, and lay him on the ground, when his hour is come,-- lest the bed or the mat cling to his ghost, whithersoever it go, and torment it eternally. His wife shall spread beneath him a cloth that the hands of Kooleen Brahmins have woven. Lilies of Nilufar shall garland the neck of the happy cow that is to lead him safely beyond the fiery river, and the rings shall be golden wherewith her horns are tipped. A mighty concourse of clients shall follow him to the place of burning,--to "Rudra, the place of tears,"--whither ten Kooleen Brahmins will bear him; and as often as they set down the bier to feed the dead with a morsel of moistened rice, other Brahmins shall sing his wisdom and his virtues, and celebrate his meritorious deeds. When his funeral pyre is lighted, his sons, and his sons' sons, and his daughters' husbands, and his nephews, shall beat their breasts and rend the air with lamentations; and when his body has been consumed, his ashes shall be given to the Ganges,--all save a certain portion, which shall be made into a paste with milk, and moulded into an image; and the image shall be set up in his house, that the Brahmins and all his people may offer sacrifices before it.
On the tenth day, his wife shall adorn her forehead with a scarlet emblem, blacken the edges of her eyelids with soorma, deck her hair with scarlet flowers, her neck and bosom with sandal, stain her face, arms, and legs with turmeric, and array her in her choicest robes and all her jewels, and follow her eldest son, in full procession, to the tank hard by the "land of Rudra." And the heir shall take three little stones, that were planted there in a row by the Purohitas, and, going down into the water as deep as his neck, shall turn his face to the sun and say, "Until this day these three stones have stood for my father, that is dead. Henceforth let him cease to be a carcass; let him enter into the joys of Swarga, the paradise of Devendra, to be blessed with all conceivable blessings so long as the waters of Ganges shall continue to flow;--so shall the dead Brahmin not prowl through the universe, afflicting with evil tricks stars, men, and trees; so shall he be laid."
But who shall lay the quick Asirvadam, than whom there walks not a sprite more cunning, more malign?
Ever since the Solitaries, odious by their black arts to princes and people, were slain or driven out,--fifteen centuries and more,-- Asirvadam the Brahmin has been selfish, wicked, and mischievously busy,--corrupting the hearts, bewildering the minds, betraying the hopes, exhausting the moral and physical strength of the Hindoos. He has taught them the foolish tumult of the Hooly, the fanatical ferocities of the Yajna, the unwhisperable obscenities of the Saktis, the fierce and ruinous extravagances of the Doorga Pooja, the mutilating monstrosities of the Churruck, the enslaving sorceries of the Atharvana Veda, the raving mad revivals of Juggernath, the pious debaucheries of Nanjanagud, the strange and sorrowful delusions of Suttee, the impudent ravishments of Vengata Ramana,--all the fancies and frenzies, all the delusions and passions and moral epilepsies that go to make up a Meerut or a Cawnpore.
Of the outrageous insolence of the Seven Penitents he omits nothing but their sincerity; of the enlightened simplicity of the anchoret philosophers he retains nothing but their selfishness; of the intellectual influence of the Gooroo pontiffs he covets nothing but their dissimulation. He has taught his gaping disciples that a skilfully compounded and plausibly administered lie is a goodly thing,-- except it be told against the cause of a Brahmin, in which case no oxyhydrogeneralities of earthly combustion can afford an idea of the particular hotness of the hell devised for such a liar. He has solemnly impressed them with the mysterious sacredness of the Ganges, and its manifold virtues of a supernatural order; to swear falsely by its waters, he says, is a crime for which Indra the Dreadful has provided an eternity of excruciations,--except the false oath be taken in the interest of a Brahmin, in which case the perjurer may confidently expect a posthumous good time. For the rich to extort money from the poor, says Asirvadam, is an affront to the Gooroos and the Gods, which must be punished by forfeiture to the Brahmins of the whole sum extorted, the poor client to pay an additional charge for the trouble his protectors have incurred; the same when fines are recovered; and in cases of enforced payment of debts, three-fourths of the sum collected are swallowed up in costs. Being a Brahmin, to pay a bribe is a foolish act; to receive one--a necessary circumstance, perhaps. Not being a Brahmin, to offer or accept a bribe is a disgraceful transaction, requiring that both parties shall be made an example of;--the bribe is forfeited to the Brahmins, and the poorer party fined; if the fine exceed his means, the richer party to pay the excess.
As the Brahminical interpretation of an oath is not always clear to prisoners and witnesses of other castes, it is usual to illustrate the definition to the obtuser or more scrupulous unfortunates by the old-fashioned machinery of ordeals: such as compelling the conscientious or obdurate inquirer to promenade without sandals over burning coals; or to grasp, and hold for a time, a bar of red-hot iron; or to plunge the hands into boiling oil, and keep them there for several minutes. The party receiving these illustrations and practical definitions of the Brahminical nature of an oath, without discomfort or scar, is frankly adjudged innocent and reasonable.
Another pretty trick of ordeal, which borrows its more striking features from the department of natural history, is that in which the prisoner or witness is required to grope about for a trinket or small coin in a basket or jar already occupied by a lively cobra. Should the groper not be bitten, our courtly friend, Asirvadam, is satisfied there has been some mistake here, and gallantly begs the gentleman's pardon. To force the subject to swallow water, cup by cup, until it burst from mouth and nose, is also a very neat ordeal, but requiring practice.
Formerly, Asirvadam the Brahmin "farmed" the offences of his district;-- that is, he paid a certain sum to government for the right to try, and to punish, all the high crimes and misdemeanors that should be committed in his "section" for a year. Of course, fines were his favorite penalties; and although most of the time, expenses for meddlers and perjurers being heavy, the office did not pay more than a fair living profit, there would now and then come a year when, rice being scarce and opium cheap, with the aid of a little extra exasperation, he cut it pretty fat. "Take it year in and year out," said Asirvadam the Brahmin, "a fellow couldn't complain."
Asirvadam the Brahmin is among the Sepoys. He sits by the well of Barrackpore, a comrade on either side, and talks, as only he can talk to whom no books are sealed. To one, a rigid statue of thrilled attention, he speaks of the time when Arab horsemen first made flashing forays down upon Mooltan; he tells of Mahmoud's mace, that clove the idol of Somnath, and of the gold and gems that burst from the treacherous wood, as water from the smitten rock in the wilderness; he tells of Timour, and Baber the Founder, and the long imperial procession of the Great Moguls,--of Humayoon, and Akbar, and Shah Jehan, and Aurengzebe,--of Hyder Ali and Tippoo Sultan,-- of Moorish splendor and the Prophet's sway; and the swarthy Mussulman stiffens in lip-parted listening.
To the other, a fiery enthusiast, fretting for the acted moral of a tale he knows too well, he whispers of British blasphemy and insolence,--of Brahmins insulted, and gods derided,--of Vedas violated, and the sacred Sanscrit defiled by the tongues of Kaffirs,--of Pariahs taught and honored,--of high and low castes indiscriminately mingled, an obscene herd, in schools and regiments,-- of glorious institutions, old as Mount Meru, boldly overthrown,--of suttee suppressed, and infanticide abated,--of widows re-married, and the dowries of the brides of Brahmins limited,--of high-caste students handling dead bodies, and Soodra beggars drinking from Brahminical wells,--of the triple cord broken in twain, and Brahminee bulls slain in the streets, and cartridges greased with the fat of cows, and Christian converts indemnified, and property not confiscated for loss of caste,--and a frightful falling off in the benighting business generally; and the fierce Rajpoot grinds his white teeth, while Asirvadam the Brahmin plots, and plots, and plots.
Incline your ears, my brothers, and I will sing you softly, and low, a song to make Moor and Rajpoot bite, with their very hearts:
"Bring Soma to the adorable Indra, the lord of all, the lord of wealth, the lord of heaven, the perpetual lord, the lord of men, the lord of earth, the lord of horses, the lord of cattle, the lord of water!"
"Offer adoration to Indra, the overcomer, the destroyer, the munificent, the invincible, the all-endowing, the creator, the all-adorable, the sustainer, the unassailable, the ever-victorious!"
"I proclaim the mighty exploits of that Indra who is ever victorious, the benefactor of man, the overthrower of man, the caster-down, the warrior, who is gratified by our libations, the grantor of desires, the subduer of enemies, the refuge of the people!"
"Unequalled in liberality, the showerer, the slayer of the malevolent, profound, mighty, of impenetrable sagacity, the dispenser of prosperity, the enfeebler, firm, vast, the performer of pious acts, Indra has given birth to the light of the morning!"
"Indra, bestow upon us most excellent treasures, the reputation of ability, prosperity, increase of wealth, security of person, sweetness of speech, and auspiciousness of days!"
"Offer worship quickly to Indra; recite hymns; let the outpoured drops exhilarate him; pay adoration to his superior strength!"
"When, Indra, thou harnessest thy horses, there is no such charioteer as thou; none is equal to thee in strength; none, howsoever well horsed, has overtaken thee!"
"He, who alone bestows wealth upon the man who offers him oblations, is the undisputed sovereign: Indra, ho!"
"When will he trample with his foot upon the man who offers no oblations, as upon a coiled snake? When will Indra listen to our praises? Indra, ho!"
"Indra grants formidable strength to him who worships him, having libations prepared: Indra, ho!"
The song that was chanted low by the well of Barrackpore to the maddened Rajpoot, to the dreaming Moor, was fiercely shouted by the well of Cawnpore to a chorus of shrieking women, English wives and mothers, and spluttering of blood-choked babes, and clash of red knives, and drunken shouts of slayers, ruthless and obscene.
When Asirvadam the Brahmin conjured the wild demon of revolt to light the horrid torch and bare the greedy blade, he tore a chapter from the Book of Menu:--
"Let no man, engaged in combat, smite his foe with concealed weapons, nor with arrows mischievously barbed, nor with poisoned arrows, nor with darts blazing with fire."
"Nor let him strike his enemy alighted on the ground; nor an effeminate man, nor one who sues for life with closed palms, nor one whose hair is loose, nor one who sits down, nor one who says, 'I am thy captive.'"
"Nor one who sleeps, nor one who has lost his coat-of-mail, nor one who is naked, nor one who is dismayed, nor one who is a spectator, but no combatant, nor one who is fighting with another man."
"Calling to mind the duty of honorable men, let him never slay one who has broken his weapon, nor one who is afflicted, nor one who has been grievously wounded, nor one who is terrified, nor one who turns his back."
But Asirvadam the Brahmin, like the Thug of seven victims, has tasted the sugar of blood, sweeter upon his tongue than to the lips of an eager babe the pearl-tipped nipple of its mother. Henceforth he must slay, slay, slay, mutilate and ravish, burn and slay, in the name of the queen of horrors.--Karlee, ho!
Now what shall be done with our dangerous friend? Shall he be blown from the mouths of guns? or transported to the heart-breaking Andamans? or lashed to his own churruck-posts, and flayed with cats by stout drummers? or handcuffed with Pariahs in chain-gangs, to work on his knees in foul sewers? or choked to death with raw beefsteaks and the warm blood of cows? or swinged by stout Irish wenches with bridle-ends? or smitten on the mouth with kid gloves by English ladies, his turban trampled under foot by every Feringhee brat in Bengal?--Wanted, a poetical putter-down for Asirvadam the Brahmin.
"Devotion is not in the ragged garment, nor in the staff, nor in ashes, nor in the shaven head, nor in the sounding of horns.
"Numerous Mahomets there have been and multitudes of Brahmas, Vishnus, and Sivas;
"Thousands of seers and prophets, and tens of thousands of saints and holy men:
"But the chief of lords is the one Lord, the true name of God!"