« PreviousContinue »
preserved in various parts of the country, have been calculated to go back between four and five thousand years.
It is a recognized fact that some individuals have temperaments more inclined than others to veneration and mysticism; and the remark is equally applicable to nations. The Hindoos are peculiarly ardent and susceptible, and as usual with such organizations, they have strong devotional tendencies. We find their wise men of ancient time neg. lecting historical records, and paying comparatively slight attention to the external sciences, but meditating earnestly, in the loneliness of stately forests, on the origin and destiny of the human soul. Ecstatic delight in nature, exuberant wealth of imagination, a pervading reverence for the supernatural, characterize every department of their literature. The same religious impress is on their history, They have been patient and docile under every foreign yoke, so long as they were unmolested in usages deemed sacred; but the moment there was any interference with devotional practices, they were roused at once, and defended them with the ferocity of tigers.
The first question which perplexed the old sages of India, standing as they did on the threshold of time, was one which no subtilty of human intellect has yet been able to solve. They asked, Whence came Evil ? Conceiving, as we do, that the Great First Cause of all things must be good, they knew not how to account for disease and wickedness. They did not ascribe them to a Bad Spirit, almost as powerful as God himself; but they supposed that Matter was Evil, and that the union of Spirit with Matter was the origin of all sin, sickness, and sorrow. This visible world, including mortal bodies, they regarded as mere phantasmagoria, without any reality; a magiclantern show, by which the Divine Mind, for inscrutable purposes, deludes us into the belief that we are independent existences, and that the things around us are real. Hence they called creation Maya, or Illusion.
This theological theory, acting on temperaments naturally plaintive and poetic, produced melancholy views of life, and a strong inclination toward religious ecstasy; while at the same time warmth of climate and facility of procuring sustenance predisposed to lassitude and gentle reverie. In times ancient beyond conjecture, there were men among them who withdrew altogether from the labours and pleasures of the world, and in solitary places devoted themselves entirely to religious contemplation. This lonely existence on the silent mountains, or amid the darkness of immense forests, infested by serpents and wild beasts, and as they believed by Evil Spirits also, greatly excited popular imagination. The human soul, unsatisfied in its cage of finite limitation, is always aspiring after the good and the true, always eagerly hoping for messengers from above, and therefore prone to believe in them. Thus these saintly hermits came to be objects of extreme veneration among the people. Men travelled far to inquire of them how sins might be expiated, or diseases cured; for it was believed that in thus devoting themselves to a life beyond the tumult of the passions, occupied solely with penance and prayer, they approached very near to God, and received direct revelations of his divine wisdom.
In the beginning, these anchorites were doubtless influenced by sincere devotion, and made honest efforts to attain what seemed to them the highest standard of purity and holiness. Their mode of life was simple and austere in the extreme. They lived in caverns, or under the shelter of a few boughs, which they twisted together in the shadow of some great tree. Their furniture consisted merely of an antelope skin to sleep on, a vase to receive alms, a pitcher for water, a basket to gather roots and wild berries, a hatchet to cut wood for sacrifices, a staff to help them through the forest, and a rosary made of lotus seeds, to assist in repeating their numerous prayers. The beard and nails were suffered to grow, and to avoid trouble with their hair, it was twisted into peculiar knots, resembling the close curls of an African. In later times, they shaved their heads, probably from motives of cleanliness. However high might have been their caste in the society
of the world, they retained no ornament, or badge of distinction. They wore simply a coarse yellowish red garment made of the fibres of bark. Their food consisted of wild roots, fruit, and grain; and of these they must eat merely enough to sustain life. They might receive food as alms, or even ask for it, in cases of extreme necessity; but they must strive to attain such a state of indifference, that they felt no regret if refused, and no pleasure if they received it. They were bound to the most rigid chastity, in thought as well as deed. So far as they coveted the slightest pleasure from any of the senses, so far were they from their standard of perfect sanctity. Some made a vow of continual silence, and kept a skull before them to remind them constantly of death. Their occupations were to cut wood for sacrifices by fire; to gather roots and berries for daily food, deducting a portion to be offered on the altars; to recite prayers three times a day, morning, noon, and evening, always preceded by ablution; to repeat sacred sentences; to go through daily ceremonies for the spirits of departed ancestors; to offer sacrifices at the new moon and full moon, at morning and evening twilight.
In addition to this routine, they prescribed to themselves tasks more or less severe, according to the degree of holiness they wished to attain, or had courage to pursue. Some fasted to the very verge of dissolution. In summer they exposed themselves to the scorching sun, or surrounded themselves with fires. In winter they wore wet garments, or stood up to the chin in water. They went forth uncovered amid frightful tempests. They stood for hours and days on the point of their toes, with arms stretched upward, motionless as a tree. They sat on their heels, closing their ears tight with their thumbs, their eyes with the forefingers, their nostrils with the middle fingers, and their lips with the little fingers; in this attitude they remained holding their breath till they often fell into a swoon.
These terrible self-torments resulted from their belief that this life was merely intended for expiation; that the
body was an incumbrance, and the senses entirely evil; that relations to outward things entangled the soul in temptation and sin; that man's great object should be to withdraw himself entirely from Nature, and thus become completely absorbed in the eternal Soul of the Universe, from which his own soul originally emanated.
Penances undertaken for sins committed were supposed to procure no other advantage than the remission of future punishment for those sins; but sufferings voluntarily incurred, merely to annihilate the body, and attain nearness to the divine nature, were believed to extort miraculous gifts from supernatural beings, and ultimately enable man to become God
Aiming at this state of perfection, they gradually attained complete indifference to all external things. They no longer experienced desire or disappointment, hope or fear, joy or sorrow. Some of them went entirely naked, and were reputed to subsist merely on water. The world was to them as though it did not exist. In this state the words they uttered were considered divine revelations. They were believed to know everything by intuition; to read the mysteries of past, present, and future; to perceive the thoughts of whoever came into their presence; to move from one place to another by simply willing to do so; to cure diseases, and even raise the dead. Some of this marvellous power was supposed to be imparted even to the garments they wore, and the staffs with which they walked. The Hindoo Sacred Writings are filled with all manner of miracles performed by these saints. There are traditions that some of them were taken up alive to heaven; and impressions on the rocks are shown, said to be footprints they left when they ascended. By extraordinary purification and suffering, some were reputed to have obtained such power, even over the gods, that they could compel them to grant whatever they asked. For this reason it was supposed the deities were not well pleased when a hermit vowed himself to remarkable efforts; and they strove to seduce bim from his purpose by all manner of temptations. Hindoo poems abound with legends of beautiful nymphs sent on such missions, and often proving successful. The holy hermit Visvamitra was so fascinated by the nymph Menaka, that five years passed in her society seemed to him but a single moment. “Alas!" exclaimed he, “what has become of my wisdom, my penitence, my firm resolution ? Behold all destroyed at once by a woman! Seduced by the sin which pleased Indra, I see myself deprived of the advantages I had gained by all my austerities."
But the mission of these nymphs was a dangerous one for themselves also; for if the holy recluse did withstand their attractions, and pronounce a curse upon them, his words must inevitably take effect, however terrible they might be. Thus the nymph Rambba, striving to seduce Visvamitra, was, by the force of his imprecations, changed to a pillar of stone for a thousand years. The most powerful kings feared the malediction of these highly sanctified mortals, and sought their blessing as the greatest earthly good. One of the sacred legends thus describes the reception given to some of these celebrated anchorites, by the king of Lilipa :"Penetrated with inexpressible joy and reverence, he bowed his face to the earth before them. Having caused them to be seated, he washed their feet, drank a portion of the water, and poured the remainder on his head. Joining his hands upon his forehead, he made a profound obeisance, and thus addressed them :'The happiness I this day enjoy can only be in reward for some good works I have performed in a previous state of existence. I possess all desirable good in seeing your sacred feet. My body is now perfectly pure, since I have had the happiness to behold you. You are the gods whom I serve. I recognize no others but you. Henceforth, I am as pure as the waters of Ganges.'”
The site chosen for hermitages was usually in the midst of picturesque scenery, on the side of mountains commanding an extensive prospect, or amid the cool shadows of majestic groves. It was considered peculiarly desirable