Chapter 41: An Idyl in South India
“You are the first Westerner, Dick, ever to enter that shrine. Many others have tried in vain.”
At my words Mr. Wright looked startled, then pleased. We had just left the beautiful Chamundi Temple in the hills overlooking Mysore in southern India. There we had bowed before the gold and silver altars of the Goddess Chamundi, patron deity of the family of the reigning maharaja.
My companion and I1 were spending the month of November, 1935, as guests of the State of Mysore. The Maharaja, H.H. Sri Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV, is a model prince with intelligent devotion to his people. A pious Hindu, the Maharaja has empowered a Mohammedan, the able Mirza Ismail, as his Dewan or Premier. Popular representation is given to the seven million inhabitants of Mysore in both an Assembly and a Legislative Council.
The heir to the Maharaja, H.H. the Yuvaraja, Sir Sri Krishna Narasingharaj Wadiyar, had invited my secretary and me to visit his enlightened and progressive realm. During the past fortnight I had addressed thousands of Mysore citizens and students, at the Town Hall, the Maharajah’s College, the University Medical School; and three mass meetings in Bangalore, at the National High School, the Intermediate College, and the Chetty Town Hall where over three thousand persons had assembled. Whether the eager listeners had been able to credit the glowing picture I drew of America, I know not; but the applause had always been loudest when I spoke of the mutual benefits that could flow from exchange of the best features in East and West.
Mr. Wright and I were now relaxing in the tropical peace. His travel diary gives the following account of his impressions of Mysore:
“Brilliantly green rice fields, varied by tasseled sugar cane patches, nestle at the protective foot of rocky hills—hills dotting the emerald panorama like excrescences of black stone—and the play of colors is enhanced by the sudden and dramatic disappearance of the sun as it seeks rest behind the solemn hills.
“Many rapturous moments have been spent in gazing, almost absent-mindedly, at the ever-changing canvas of God stretched across the firmament, for His touch alone is able to produce colors that vibrate with the freshness of life. That youth of colors is lost when man tries to imitate with mere pigments, for the Lord resorts to a more simple and effective medium—oils that are neither oils nor pigments, but mere rays of light. He tosses a splash of light here, and it reflects red; He waves the brush again and it blends gradually into orange and gold; then with a piercing thrust He stabs the clouds with a streak of purple that leaves a ringlet or fringe of red oozing out of the wound in the clouds; and so, on and on, He plays, night and morning alike, ever-changing, ever-new, ever-fresh; no patterns, no duplicates, no colors just the same. The beauty of the Indian change in day to night is beyond compare elsewhere; often the sky looks as if God had taken all the colors in His kit and given them one mighty kaleidoscopic toss into the heavens.
“I must relate the splendor of a twilight visit to the huge Krishnaraja Sagar Dam,2 constructed twelve miles outside of Mysore. Yoganandaji and I boarded a small bus and, with a small boy as official cranker or battery substitute, started off over a smooth dirt road, just as the sun was setting on the horizon and squashing like an overripe tomato.
“Our journey led past the omnipresent square rice fields, through a line of comforting banyan trees, in between a grove of towering coconut palms, with vegetation nearly as thick as in a jungle, and finally, approaching the crest of a hill, we came face-to-face with an immense artificial lake, reflecting the stars and fringe of palms and other trees, surrounded by lovely terraced gardens and a row of electric lights on the brink of the damand below it our eyes met a dazzling spectacle of colored beams playing on geyserlike fountains, like so many streams of brilliant ink pouring forth—gorgeously blue waterfalls, arresting red cataracts, green and yellow sprays, elephants spouting water, a miniature of the Chicago World’s Fair, and yet modernly outstanding in this ancient land of paddy fields and simple people, who have given us such a loving welcome that I fear it will take more than my strength to bring Yoganandaji back to America.
“Another rare privilege—my first elephant ride. Yesterday the Yuvaraja invited us to his summer palace to enjoy a ride on one of his elephants, an enormous beast. I mounted a ladder provided to climb aloft to the howdah or saddle, which is silk-cushioned and boxlike; and then for a rolling, tossing, swaying, and heaving down into a gully, too much thrilled to worry or exclaim, but hanging on for dear life!”
Southern India, rich with historical and archaeological remains, is a land of definite and yet indefinable charm. To the north of Mysore is the largest native state in India, Hyderabad, a picturesque plateau cut by the mighty Godavari River. Broad fertile plains, the lovely Nilgiris or “Blue Mountains,” other regions with barren hills of limestone or granite. Hyderabad history is a long, colorful story, starting three thousand years ago under the Andhra kings, and continuing under Hindu dynasties until A.D. 1294, when it passed to a line of Moslem rulers who reign to this day.
The most breath-taking display of architecture, sculpture, and painting in all India is found at Hyderabad in the ancient rock-sculptured caves of Ellora and Ajanta. The Kailasa at Ellora, a huge monolithic temple, possesses carved figures of gods, men, and beasts in the stupendous proportions of a Michelangelo. Ajanta is the site of five cathedrals and twenty-five monasteries, all rock excavations maintained by tremendous frescoed pillars on which artists and sculptors have immortalized their genius.
Hyderabad City is graced by the Osmania University and by the imposing Mecca Masjid Mosque, where ten thousand Mohammedans may assemble for prayer.
Mysore State too is a scenic wonderland, three thousand feet above sea level, abounding in dense tropical forests, the home of wild elephants, bison, bears, panthers, and tigers. Its two chief cities, Bangalore and Mysore, are clean, attractive, with many parks and public gardens.
Hindu architecture and sculpture achieved their highest perfection in Mysore under the patronage of Hindu kings from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries. The temple at Belur, an eleventh-century masterpiece completed during the reign of King Vishnuvardhana, is unsurpassed in the world for its delicacy of detail and exuberant imagery.
The rock pillars found in northern Mysore date from the third century B.C., illuminating the memory of King Asoka. He succeeded to the throne of the Maurya dynasty then prevailing; his empire included nearly all of modern India, Afghanistan, and Baluchistan. This illustrious emperor, considered even by Western historians to have been an incomparable ruler, has left the following wisdom on a rock memorial:
This religious inscription has been engraved in order that our sons and grandsons may not think a new conquest is necessary; that they may not think conquest by the sword deserves the name of conquest; that they may see in it nothing but destruction and violence; that they may consider nothing as true conquest save the conquest of religion. Such conquests have value in this world and in the next.
Asoka was a grandson of the formidable Chandragupta Maurya (known to the Greeks as Sandrocottus), who in his youth had met Alexander the Great. Later Chandragupta destroyed the Macedonian garrisons left in India, defeated the invading Greek army of Seleucus in the Punjab, and then received at his Patna court the Hellenic ambassador Megasthenes.
Intensely interesting stories have been minutely recorded by Greek historians and others who accompanied or followed after Alexander in his expedition to India. The narratives of Arrian, Diodoros, Plutarch, and Strabo the geographer have been translated by Dr. J. W. M’Crindle3 to throw a shaft of light on ancient India. The most admirable feature of Alexander’s unsuccessful invasion was the deep interest he displayed in Hindu philosophy and in the yogis and holy men whom he encountered from time to time and whose society he eagerly sought. Shortly after the Greek warrior had arrived in Taxila in northern India, he sent a messenger, Onesikritos, a disciple of the Hellenic school of Diogenes, to fetch an Indian teacher, Dandamis, a great sannyasi of Taxila.
“Hail to thee, O teacher of Brahmins!” Onesikritos said after seeking out Dandamis in his forest retreat. “The son of the mighty God Zeus, being Alexander who is the Sovereign Lord of all men, asks you to go to him, and if you comply, he will reward you with great gifts, but if you refuse, he will cut off your head!”
The yogi received this fairly compulsive invitation calmly, and “did not so much as lift up his head from his couch of leaves.”
“I also am a son of Zeus, if Alexander be such,” he commented. “I want nothing that is Alexander’s, for I am content with what I have, while I see that he wanders with his men over sea and land for no advantage, and is never coming to an end of his wanderings.
“Go and tell Alexander that God the Supreme King is never the Author of insolent wrong, but is the Creator of light, of peace, of life, of water, of the body of man and of souls; He receives all men when death sets them free, being in no way subject to evil disease. He alone is the God of my homage, who abhors slaughter and instigates no wars.
“Alexander is no god, since he must taste of death,” continued the sage in quiet scorn. “How can such as he be the world’s master, when he has not yet seated himself on a throne of inner universal dominion? Neither as yet has he entered living into Hades, nor does he know the course of the sun through the central regions of the earth, while the nations on its boundaries have not so much as heard his name!”
After this chastisement, surely the most caustic ever sent to assault the ears of the “Lord of the World,” the sage added ironically, “If Alexander’s present dominions be not capacious enough for his desires, let him cross the Ganges River; there he will find a region able to sustain all his men, if the country on this side be too narrow to hold him.4
“Know this, however, that what Alexander offers and the gifts he promises are things to me utterly useless; the things I prize and find of real use and worth are these leaves which are my house, these blooming plants which supply me with daily food, and the water which is my drink; while all other possessions which are amassed with anxious care are wont to prove ruinous to those who gather them, and cause only sorrow and vexation, with which every poor mortal is fully fraught. As for me, I lie upon the forest leaves, and having nothing which requires guarding, close my eyes in tranquil slumber; whereas had I anything to guard, that would banish sleep. The earth supplies me with everything, even as a mother her child with milk. I go wherever I please, and there are no cares with which I am forced to cumber myself.
“Should Alexander cut off my head, he cannot also destroy my soul. My head alone, then silent, will remain, leaving the body like a torn garment upon the earth, whence also it was taken. I then, becoming Spirit, shall ascend to my God, who enclosed us all in flesh and left us upon earth to prove whether, when here below, we shall live obedient to His ordinances and who also will require of us all, when we depart hence to His presence, an account of our life, since He is Judge of all proud wrongdoing; for the groans of the oppressed become the punishment of the oppressor.
“Let Alexander then terrify with these threats those who wish for wealth and who dread death, for against us these weapons are both alike powerless; the Brahmins neither love gold nor fear death. Go then and tell Alexander this: Dandamis has no need of aught that is yours, and therefore will not go to you, and if you want anything from Dandamis, come you to him.”
With close attention Alexander received through Onesikritos the message from the yogi, and “felt a stronger desire than ever to see Dandamis who, though old and naked, was the only antagonist in whom he, the conqueror of many nations, had met more than his match.”
Alexander invited to Taxila a number of Brahmin ascetics noted for their skill in answering philosophical questions with pithy wisdom. An account of the verbal skirmish is given by Plutarch; Alexander himself framed all the questions.
“Which be the more numerous, the living or the dead?”
“The living, for the dead are not.”
“Which breeds the larger animals, the sea or the land?”
“The land, for the sea is only a part of land.”
“Which is the cleverest of beasts?”
“That one with which man is not yet acquainted.” (Man fears the unknown.)
“Which existed first, the day or the night?”
“The day was first by one day.” This reply caused Alexander to betray surprise; the Brahmin added: “Impossible questions require impossible answers.”
“A man will be beloved if, possessed with great power, he still does not make himself feared.”
“How may a man become a god?” 5
“By doing that which it is impossible for a man to do.”
“Which is stronger, life or death?”
“Life, because it bears so many evils.”
Alexander succeeded in taking out of India, as his teacher, a true yogi. This man was Swami Sphines, called “Kalanos” by the Greeks because the saint, a devotee of God in the form of Kali, greeted everyone by pronouncing Her auspicious name.
Kalanos accompanied Alexander to Persia. On a stated day, at Susa in Persia, Kalanos gave up his aged body by entering a funeral pyre in view of the whole Macedonian army. The historians record the astonishment of the soldiers who observed that the yogi had no fear of pain or death, and who never once moved from his position as he was consumed in the flames. Before leaving for his cremation, Kalanos had embraced all his close companions, but refrained from bidding farewell to Alexander, to whom the Hindu sage had merely remarked:
“I shall see you shortly in Babylon.”
Alexander left Persia, and died a year later in Babylon. His Indian guru’s words had been his way of saying he would be present with Alexander in life and death.
The Greek historians have left us many vivid and inspiring pictures of Indian society. Hindu law, Arrian tells us, protects the people and “ordains that no one among them shall, under any circumstances, be a slave but that, enjoying freedom themselves, they shall respect the equal right to it which all possess. For those, they thought, who have learned neither to domineer over nor cringe to others will attain the life best adapted for all vicissitudes of lot.” 6
“The Indians,” runs another text, “neither put out money at usury, nor know how to borrow. It is contrary to established usage for an Indian either to do or suffer a wrong, and therefore they neither make contracts nor require securities.” Healing, we are told, was by simple and natural means. “Cures are effected rather by regulating diet than by the use of medicines. The remedies most esteemed are ointments and plasters. All others are considered to be in great measure pernicious.” Engagement in war was restricted to the Kshatriyas or warrior caste. “Nor would an enemy coming upon a husbandman at his work on his land, do him any harm, for men of this class being regarded as public benefactors, are protected from all injury. The land thus remaining unravaged and producing heavy crops, supplies the inhabitants with the requisites to make life enjoyable.” 7
The Emperor Chandragupta who in 305 B.C. had defeated Alexander’s general, Seleucus, decided seven years later to hand over the reins of India’s government to his son. Traveling to South India, Chandragupta spent the last twelve years of his life as a penniless ascetic, seeking self-realization in a rocky cave at Sravanabelagola, now honored as a Mysore shrine. Near-by stands the world’s largest statue, carved out of an immense boulder by the Jains in A.D. 983 to honor the saint Comateswara.
The ubiquitous religious shrines of Mysore are a constant reminder of the many great saints of South India. One of these masters, Thayumanavar, has left us the following challenging poem:
You can control a mad elephant;
You can shut the mouth of the bear and the tiger;
You can ride a lion;
You can play with the cobra;
By alchemy you can eke out your livelihood;
You can wander through the universe incognito;
You can make vassals of the gods;
You can be ever youthful;
You can walk on water and live in fire;
But control of the mind is better and more difficult.
In the beautiful and fertile State of Travancore in the extreme south of India, where traffic is conveyed over rivers and canals, the Maharaja assumes every year a hereditary obligation to expiate the sin incurred by wars and the annexation in the distant past of several petty states to Travancore. For fifty-six days annually the Maharaja visits the temple thrice daily to hear Vedic hymns and recitations; the expiation ceremony ends with the lakshadipam or illumination of the temple by a hundred thousand lights.
The great Hindu lawgiver Manu 8 has outlined the duties of a king. “He should shower amenities like Indra (lord of the gods); collect taxes gently and imperceptibly as the sun obtains vapor from water; enter into the life of his subjects as the wind goes everywhere; mete out even justice to all like Yama (god of death); bind transgressors in a noose like Varuna (Vedic deity of sky and wind); please all like the moon, burn up vicious enemies like the god of fire; and support all like the earth goddess.
“In war a king should not fight with poisonous or fiery weapons nor kill weak or unready or weaponless foes or men who are in fear or who pray for protection or who run away. War should be resorted to only as a last resort. Results are always doubtful in war.”
Madras Presidency on the southeast coast of India contains the flat, spacious, sea-girt city of Madras, and Conjeeveram, the Golden City, capital site of the Pallava dynasty whose kings ruled during the early centuries of the Christian era. In modern Madras Presidency the nonviolent ideals of Mahatma Gandhi have made great headway; the white distinguishing “Gandhi caps” are seen everywhere. In the south generally the Mahatma has effected many important temple reforms for “untouchables” as well as caste-system reforms.
The origin of the caste system, formulated by the great legislator Manu, was admirable. He saw clearly that men are distinguished by natural evolution into four great classes: those capable of offering service to society through their bodily labor ( Sudras); those who serve through mentality, skill, agriculture, trade, commerce, business life in general (Vaisyas); those whose talents are administrative, executive, and protectiverulers and warriors ( Kshatriyas); those of contemplative nature, spiritually inspired and inspiring (Brahmins). “Neither birth nor sacraments nor study nor ancestry can decide whether a person is twice-born (i.e., a Brahmin);” the Mahabharata declares, “character and conduct only can decide.”9 Manu instructed society to show respect to its members insofar as they possessed wisdom, virtue, age, kinship or, lastly, wealth. Riches in Vedic India were always despised if they were hoarded or unavailable for charitable purposes. Ungenerous men of great wealth were assigned a low rank in society.
Serious evils arose when the caste system became hardened through the centuries into a hereditary halter. Social reformers like Gandhi and the members of very numerous societies in India today are making slow but sure progress in restoring the ancient values of caste, based solely on natural qualification and not on birth. Every nation on earth has its own distinctive misery-producing karma to deal with and remove; India, too, with her versatile and invulnerable spirit, shall prove herself equal to the task of caste-reformation.
So entrancing is southern India that Mr. Wright and I yearned to prolong our idyl. But time, in its immemorial rudeness, dealt us no courteous extensions. I was scheduled soon to address the concluding session of the Indian Philosophical Congress at Calcutta University. At the end of the visit to Mysore, I enjoyed a talk with Sir C. V. Raman, president of the Indian Academy of Sciences. This brilliant Hindu physicist was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1930 for his important discovery in the diffusion of light—the “Raman Effect” now known to every schoolboy.
Waving a reluctant farewell to a crowd of Madras students and friends, Mr. Wright and I set out for the north. On the way we stopped before a little shrine sacred to the memory of Sadasiva Brahman,10 in whose eighteenth-century life story miracles cluster thickly. A larger Sadasiva shrine at Nerur, erected by the Raja of Pudukkottai, is a pilgrimage spot which has witnessed numerous divine healings.
Many quaint stories of Sadasiva, a lovable and fully-illumined master, are still current among the South Indian villagers. Immersed one day in samadhi on the bank of the Kaveri River, Sadasiva was seen to be carried away by a sudden flood. Weeks later he was found buried deep beneath a mound of earth. As the villagers’ shovels struck his body, the saint rose and walked briskly away.
Sadasiva never spoke a word or wore a cloth. One morning the nude yogi unceremoniously entered the tent of a Mohammedan chieftain. His ladies screamed in alarm; the warrior dealt a savage sword thrust at Sadasiva, whose arm was severed. The master departed unconcernedly. Overcome by remorse, the Mohammedan picked up the arm from the floor and followed Sadasiva. The yogi quietly inserted his arm into the bleeding stump. When the warrior humbly asked for some spiritual instruction, Sadasiva wrote with his finger on the sands:
“Do not do what you want, and then you may do what you like.”
The Mohammedan was uplifted to an exalted state of mind, and understood the saint’s paradoxical advice to be a guide to soul freedom through mastery of the ego.
The village children once expressed a desire in Sadasiva’s presence to see the Madura religious festival, 150 miles away. The yogi indicated to the little ones that they should touch his body. Lo! instantly the whole group was transported to Madura. The children wandered happily among the thousands of pilgrims. In a few hours the yogi brought his small charges home by his simple mode of transportation. The astonished parents heard the vivid tales of the procession of images, and noted that several children were carrying bags of Madura sweets.
An incredulous youth derided the saint and the story. The following morning he approached Sadasiva.
“Master,” he said scornfully, “why don’t you take me to the festival, even as you did yesterday for the other children?”
Sadasiva complied; the boy immediately found himself among the distant city throng. But alas! where was the saint when the youth wanted to leave? The weary boy reached his home by the ancient and prosaic method of foot locomotion.
1 Miss Bletch, unable to maintain the active pace set by Mr. Wright and myself, remained happily with my relatives in Calcutta.
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2 This dam, a huge hydro-electric installation, lights Mysore City and gives power to factories for silks, soaps, and sandalwood oil. The sandalwood souvenirs from Mysore possess a delightful fragrance which time does not exhaust; a slight pinprick revives the odor. Mysore boasts some of the largest pioneer industrial undertakings in India, including the Kolar Gold Mines, the Mysore Sugar Factory, the huge iron and steel works at Bhadravati, and the cheap and efficient Mysore State Railway which covers many of the state’s 30,000 square miles.
The Maharaja and Yuvaraja who were my hosts in Mysore in 1935 have both recently died. The son of the Yuvaraja, the present Maharaja, is an enterprising ruler, and has added to Mysore’s industries a large airplane factory.
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3 Six volumes on Ancient India (Calcutta, 1879).
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4 Neither Alexander nor any of his generals ever crossed the Ganges. Finding determined resistance in the northwest, the Macedonian army refused to penetrate farther; Alexander was forced to leave India and seek his conquests in Persia.
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5 From this question we may surmise that the “Son of Zeus” had an occasional doubt that he had already attained perfection.
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6 All Greek observers comment on the lack of slavery in India, a feature at complete variance with the structure of Hellenic society.
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7 Creative India by Prof. Benoy Kumar Sarkar gives a comprehensive picture of India’s ancient and modern achievements and distinctive values in economics, political science, literature, art, and social philosophy. (Lahore: Motilal Banarsi Dass, Publishers, 1937, 714 pp., $5.00.) Another recommended volume is Indian Culture Through the Ages, by S. V. Venatesvara (New York: Longmans, Green & Co., $5.00).
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8 Manu is the universal lawgiver; not alone for Hindu society, but for the world. All systems of wise social regulations and even justice are patterned after Manu. Nietzsche has paid the following tribute: “I know of no book in which so many delicate and kindly things are said to woman as in the Lawbook of Manu; those old graybeards and saints have a manner of being gallant to women which perhaps cannot be surpassed . . . an incomparably intellectual and superior work . . . replete with noble values, it is filled with a feeling of perfection, with a saying of yea to life, and a triumphant sense of well-being in regard to itself and to life; the sun shines upon the whole book.”
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9 “Inclusion in one of these four castes originally depended not on a man’s birth but on his natural capacities as demonstrated by the goal in life he elected to achieve,” an article in East-West for January, 1935, tells us. “This goal could be (1) kama, desire, activity of the life of the senses (Sudra stage), (2) artha, gain, fulfilling but controlling the desires (Vaisya stage), (3) dharma, self-discipline, the life of responsibility and right action (Kshatriya stage), (4) moksha, liberation, the life of spirituality and religious teaching (Brahmin stage). These four castes render service to humanity by (1) body, (2) mind, (3) will power, (4) Spirit.
“These four stages have their correspondence in the eternal gunas or qualities of nature, tamas, rajas, and sattva: obstruction, activity, and expansion; or, mass, energy, and intelligence. The four natural castes are marked by the gunas as (1) tamas (ignorance), (2) tamas-rajas (mixture of ignorance and activity), (3) rajas-sattva (mixture of right activity and enlightenment), (4) sattva (enlightenment). Thus has nature marked every man with his caste, by the predominance in himself of one, or the mixture of two, of the gunas. Of course every human being has all three gunas in varying proportions. The guru will be able rightly to determine a man’s caste or evolutionary status.
“To a certain extent, all races and nations observe in practice, if not in theory, the features of caste. Where there is great license or so-called liberty, particularly in intermarriage between extremes in the natural castes, the race dwindles away and becomes extinct. The Purana Samhita compares the offspring of such unions to barren hybrids, like the mule which is incapable of propagation of its own species. Artificial species are eventually exterminated. History offers abundant proof of numerous great races which no longer have any living representatives. The caste system of India is credited by her most profound thinkers with being the check or preventive against license which has preserved the purity of the race and brought it safely through millenniums of vicissitudes, while other races have vanished in oblivion.”
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10 His full title was Sri Sadasivendra Saraswati Swami. The illustrious successor in the formal Shankara line, Jagadguru Sri Shankaracharya of Sringeri Math, wrote an inspiring Ode dedicated to Sadasiva. East-West for July, 1942, carried an article on Sadasiva’s life.
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