The Coffee-House of Surat (Kokielov)

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There was a coffee-house in the Indian town of Surat, whither came passer-bys and foreigners from all around the world and where they often disputed.

Once a learned Persian theologian happened by it. He had studied the essence of deity all his life, and read and wrote books about it. He thought, read, and wrote about God for a long time, his mind went all apart, everything in his head became confused, and he got to disbelieving in God.

The king found out about it and expelled him from the Persian domain.

Just so, thinking about the prime mover, the poor theologian became entangled, and, instead of understanding that he was bereft of reason, thought that the world was bereft of the higher reason that governed it.

This theologian had an African slave who followed him everywhere. When the theologian entered the coffee-house, the African stayed outside, without invitation, and sat down on a rock beneath the burning sun; there he sat chasing flies from his face. The theologian himself lay down on a sofa in the coffee-house and asked for a cup of opium. When he had drunk the cup and when the opium quickened his mind, he turned to his slave.

"So, you wretch," the theologian said, "tell me, do you think there is a God?"

"Of course there is!" said the slave and took a little wooden idol off his belt. "Here," said the slave, "here is the god who watches over me since I was born. This god is made from the bough of the sacred tree that we worship in my country."

The others in the coffee-house heard these words between the theologian and his slave, and were wonder-struck. They wondered at the master's question and wondered yet more at the slave's answer.

A brahmin who heard the slave's words addressed him, saying:

"Poor deviate! How can you think that God is behind your belt? God is one - the Brahma. And the Brahma is bigger than the world, since he made the world. Brahma is the single, magnificent God, the God of the hallows on the shores of the Ganges, the God whose worshippers are his sole priests -- the brahmins. They and only they know the real God. Twenty thousand years is past, and for all the upheavals in the world those priests are the same as they always were, because Brahma, the only true God, patronizes them.

The brahmin spoke thus, hoping to convince all the present; but here a present Jewish change-maker spoke against him.

"No," he said. "The temple of the true God is not in India!.. And God doesn't patronize the brahmin caste! The true God is not the brahmins' God, but Abraham's, Isaac's, and Jacob's God. And the true God patronizes only his singular nation of Israel. From the birth of the world, without pause, loved and loves only our people. And even if our people is scattered about the earth, then it is only a trial, and God, just as he promised, will gather his people in Jerusalem again, so that the ancient miracle, the Jerusalem temple, might be resurrected, and Israel might rule over all nations."

The Jew said those words and wept. He wanted to say more, but a present Italian man interrupted him.

"You're not telling the truth," said the Italian man to the Jew, "you are consigning an injustice to God. God can't love one people more than another. Au contraire, if even he patronized Israel before, now a thousand eight hundred years have passed since God grew angry, and in token of his anger broke Israel and scattered the people about the earth, so that your faith not only isn't spreading, but glimmers just here and there. God doesn't prefer any nation, but calls to himself all those who would be saved, to the hearth of the sole Roman Catholic church, without which there is no salvation.

The Italian said those words. But a present pastor paled and answered him:

"How do you say, that there is no salvation but in your faith? Know that the only salvation is for the followers of God according to the spirit and truth of Christ."

Then a Turk, a customs officer at Surat, who sat near and smoked a pipe, addressed the Christians with a face.

"You're sure of the verity of your Roman faith, but in vain," he said. "Your faith was displaced six hundred years ago by the true faith of Mohammed. You see for yourself that Mohammed's true faith is spreading ever more, in Europe, in Asia, and even in enlightened China. You admit of yourself that the Jews are cast off from God, and as proof you recall that the Jews are in dejection and their faith isn't spreading. Admit, then, the verity of Mohammed's faith, because it stands in grandeur and is always spreading. Only those who believe in God's last prophet Mohammed will be saved. And then only Omar's followers (Sunnis - trans.) and not Ali's; Ali's followers are unfaithful."

After these words the Persian theologian, who used to be a Shiite, wanted to object. But presently a great quarrel happened in the coffee-house between all the present foreigners of different faiths and doctrines. There were , and Zoroastrians.

They all argued about God's essence and about how to make obeisance to him. Each one insisted that God is known and properly worshipped only in his country.

They all argued and shouted. Only one Chinese man present here, a disciple of Confucius, sat quaintly in the curner of the coffee-house and didn't take up arguing. He drank tea, listened to what was said, but sat quietly.

The Turk saw him amidst the argument and addressed him, saying:

"At least you vouch for me, my good man of China. You sit quiet, but you could say something in support of me. I know that nowadays different faiths are visiting you in China. Your traders told me, and not once, that your Chinese people set Islam before every other faith and accept it gladly. So hold me up and say that you think about the true God and his prophet."

"Yes, tell us what you think," said the others.

The disciple of Confucius closed his eyes, thought upon it, then opened them, shook his hands free of his hollow sleeves, folded them up on his chest and spoke in a quiet and still voice.Sirs, it seems to me that it is chiefly pride that prevents men agreeing with one another on matters of faith. If you care to listen to me, I will tell you a story which will explain this by an example. I came here from China on an English steamer which had been round the world. We stopped for fresh water, and landed on the east coast of the island of Sumatra. It was midday, and some of us, having landed, sat in the shade of some coconut palms by the seashore, not far from a native village. We were a party of men of different nationalities. As we sat there, a blind man approached us. We learned afterwards that he had gone blind from gazing too long and too persistently at the sun, trying to find out what it is, in order to seize its light. He strove a long time to accomplish this, constantly looking at the sun; but the only result was that his eyes were injured by its brightness, and he became blind. Then he said to himself: “The light of the sun is not a liquid; for if it were a liquid it would be possible to pour it from one vessel into another, and it would be moved, like water, by the wind. Neither is it fire; for if it were fire, water would extinguish it. Neither is light a spirit, for it is seen by the eye; nor is it matter, for it cannot be moved. Therefore, as the light of the sun is neither liquid, nor fire, nor spirit, nor matter, it is—nothing! ”So he argued, and, as a result of always looking at the sun and always thinking about it, he lost both his sight and his reason. And when he went quite blind, he became fully convinced that the sun did not exist. With this blind man came a slave, who after placing his master in the shade of a cocoanut tree, picked up a cocoanut from the ground, and began making it into a night-light. He twisted a wick from the fiber of the cocoanut: squeezed oil from the nut in the shell, and soaked the wick in it. As the slave sat doing this, the blind man sighed and said to him: “Well, slave, was I not right when I told you there is no sun? Do you not see how dark it is? Yet people say there is a sun. . . . But if so, what is it? “I do not know what the sun is,” said the slave. “That is no business of mine. But I know what light is. Here I have made a night-light, by the help of which I can serve you and find anything I want in the hut. ”And the slave picked up the cocoanut shell, saying: “This is my sun.”me man with crutches, who was sitting nearby, heard these words, and laughed: “You have evidently been blind all your life,” said he to the blind man, “not to know what the sun is. I will tell you what it is. The sun is a ball of fire, which rises every morning out of the sea and goes down again among the mountains of our island each evening. We have all seen this, and if you had had your eyesight you too would have seen it. ”A fisherman, who had been listening to the conversation said: “It is plain enough that you have never been beyond your own island. If you were not lame, and if you had been out as I have in a fishing-boat, you would know that the sun does not set among the mountains of our island, but as it rises from the ocean every morning so it sets again in the sea every night. What I am telling you is true, for I see it every day with my own eyes. ”Then an Indian who was of our party, interrupted him by saying: “I am astonished that a reasonable man should talk such nonsense. How can a ball of fire possibly descend into the water and not be extinguished? The sun is not a ball of fire at all, it is the Deity named Deva, who rides for ever in a chariot round the golden mountain, Meru. Sometimes the evil serpents Ragu and Ketu attack Deva and swallow him: and then the earth is dark. But our priests pray that the Deity may be released, and then he is set free. Only such ignorant men as you, who have never been beyond their own island, can imagine that the sun shines for their country alone. ”Then the master of an Egyptian vessel, who was present, spoke in his turn. “No,” said he, “you also are wrong. The sun is not a Deity, and does not move only round India and its golden mountain. I have sailed much on the Black Sea, and along the coasts of Arabia, and have been to Madagascar and to the Philippines. The sun lights the whole earth, and not India alone. It does not circle round one mountain, but rises far in the East, beyond the Isles of Japan, and sets far, far away in the West, beyond the islands of England. That is why the Japanese call their country ‘Nippon,’ that is, ‘the birth of the sun.’ I know this well, for I have myself seen much, and heard more from my grandfather, who sailed to the very ends of the sea. ”He would have gone on, but an English sailor from our ship interrupted him. “There is no country,” he said “where people know so much about the sun’s movements as in England. The sun, as everyone in England knows, rises nowhere and sets nowhere. It is always moving round the earth. We can be sure of this for we have just been round the world ourselves, and nowhere knocked up against the sun. Wherever we went, the sun showed itself in the morning and hid itself at night, just as it does here. ”And the Englishman took a stick and, drawing circles on the sand, tried to explain how the sun moves in the heavens and goes round the world. But he was unable to explain it clearly, and pointing to the ship’s pilot said: “This man knows more about it than I do. He can explain it properly. ”The pilot, who was an intelligent man, had listened in silence to the talk till he was asked to speak. Now everyone turned to him, and he said: “You are all misleading one another, and are yourselves deceived. The sun does not go round the earth, but the earth goes round the sun, revolving as it goes, and turning towards the sun in the course of each twenty-four hours, not only Japan, and the Philippines, and Sumatra where we now are, but Africa, and Europe, and America, and many lands besides. The sun does not shine for someone mountain, or for someone island, or for someone sea, nor even for one earth alone, but for other planets as well as our earth. If you would only look up at the heavens, instead of at the ground beneath your own feet, you might all understand this, and would then no longer suppose that the sun shines for you, or for your country alone. ”Thus spoke the wise pilot, who had voyaged much about the world, and had gazed much upon the heavens above. “So on matters of faith,” continued the Chinaman, the student of Confucius, “it is pride that causes error and discord among men. As with the sun, so it is with God. Each man wants to have a special God of his own, or at least a special God for his native land. Each nation wishes to confine in its own temples Him, whom the world cannot contain. “Can any temple compare with that which God Himself has built to unite all men in one faith and one religion? “All human temples are built on the model of this temple, which is God’s own world. Every temple has its fonts, its vaulted roof, its lamps, its pictures or sculptures, its inscriptions, its books of the law, its offerings, its altars and its priests. But in what temple is there such a font as the ocean; such a vault as that of the heavens; such lamps as the sun, moon, and stars; or any figures to be compared with living, loving, mutually-helpful men? Where are there any records of God’s goodness so easy to understand as the blessings which God has strewn abroad for man’s happiness? Where is there any book of the law so clear to each man as that written in his heart? What sacrifices equal the self-denials which loving men and women make for one another? And what altar can be compared with the heart of a good man, on which God Himself accepts the sacrifice? “The higher a man’s conception of God, the better will he know Him. And the better he knows God, the nearer will he draw to Him, imitating His goodness, His mercy, and His love of man. “Therefore, let him who sees the sun’s whole light filling the world, refrain from blaming or despising the superstitious man, who in his own idol sees one ray of that same light. Let him not despise even the unbeliever who is blind and cannot see the sun at all. ”So spoke the Chinaman, the student of Confucius; and all who were present in the coffee-house were silent, and disputed no more as to whose faith was the best.