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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER IX. MY SECOND YEAR IN BENARES.

Life And Work In Benares And Kumaon 1839-1877 by James Kennedy

CHAPTER IX. MY SECOND YEAR IN BENARES.

In beginning this chapter it is fitting I should mention that shortly after entering on my second year an event occurred of transcendent importance to me, which has contributed to my personal comfort and missionary usefulness as nothing else could have done -- my marriage with the object of my choice, who has been, through God's great goodness, spared to me through all the intervening years.

Before the close of my first year I had a striking illustration of the vicissitudes of Indian life, and of consequent difficulty in prosecuting the missionary enterprise. On reaching Benares at the end of March, 1839, I found three missionaries of our society, Messrs. Buyers, Shurman, and Lyon. Within a month of my arrival we were joined by a German missionary and his wife, Dr. and Mrs. Sommers. Towards the end of autumn Mr. and Mrs. Lyon left, owing to the failure of Mrs. Lyon's health. They were followed three months afterwards by Dr. and Mrs. Sommers, owing to Mrs. Sommers' illness. My second year was advanced only a few months, when Mr. and Mrs. Buyers, after a residence of nearly ten years, departed for Europe. Dr. Sommers had remained too short a time to render any service. Mr. Lyon had made excellent progress in the language, and promised to be a very efficient missionary; but, to our great regret, he was obliged to leave. Mr. Buyers was in his prime, and was well equipped for service. Thus within eighteen months the staff of the mission was reduced from five to two, and one of these too young and inexperienced to do anything more than help his senior brother. In June, 1841, we were joined by the Rev. D. G. Watt, and early in 1842 by the Rev. J. H. Budden. These much-esteemed brethren still survive, and have done excellent service in the cause of Christ; but both suffered much from the climate, and their stay at Benares was too short to admit of their doing there what their hearts were bent on doing.

[Sidenote: THE FAILURE OF HEALTH.]

I have not the means of comparing our Indian missions with missions in other parts of the world, but I believe our losses by the failure of health have greatly exceeded theirs. The climate of the South Sea Islands, of South Africa, and of the West Indian Islands, is far more favourable to European health than that of the parts of India in which most of our missions are. The longevity of many of the South African missionaries bears remarkable testimony to the salubrity of their climate.

This failure of health and consequent abandonment of the work is one of the greatest trials missions in India have had to encounter, and is a formidable obstacle to success. Instances have not been rare when, after great expense has been incurred, the missionary or his wife has suddenly broken down -- the wife perhaps more frequently than the husband -- and a speedy return to England has been the result. The name appears in the Report as an agent, but no work has been, or could have been, accomplished. In other cases the stay has been too brief to have admitted of efficient service. A considerable time must elapse before the missionary, however zealous and able, can acquire such an acquaintance with the language and people as will enable him to do his work in a satisfactory manner. When one has fully entered on the work, there is frequent interruption from illness and weakness induced by the severity of the climate. When I transfer myself in thought to my first two years in Benares, and from my vivid remembrance of the vicissitudes of our mission during these years look down through all the succeeding years not only of our mission, but of other missions in Northern India with which I am well acquainted, I am painfully struck with the bitter disappointments of missionary Societies in the prosecution of their work. They have responded to the urgent appeal for reinforcement, and in not a few cases no sooner has the reinforcement been gained than it has been lost. The Societies formed of late years for Zenana work have suffered from this cause more than even the older Societies. They have suffered in a degree which must have been very discouraging to their managers and supporters. Happily a considerable number of all Societies have been able to remain at their post, and some have remained so long as to give an average length of missionary service, which hides the fact of the extreme brevity of the period spent by many in the foreign field.

The question here suggests itself, Has this speedy abandonment of the work been always necessary? Has there been the endurance demanded of those who have professed themselves consecrated to a missionary life? Has the return to England been accepted only when the compulsion of circumstances left no alternative, and then accepted most reluctantly? With every desire to think of others as favourably as possible, without any breach of charity, it must be acknowledged there have been cases of departure, where I think a more resolute spirit would have kept persons at their post. This I trust holds true of only a few. I know some who soon left to whom the abandonment of the work was a bitter trial. Nothing but the thought that to remain would have been to fight against Providence took them away. To go back to the cases of failure during my early period at Benares, I may mention that the departure of Mr. and Mrs. Lyon was absolutely necessary; and those who know the subsequent career of my friends, Messrs. Watt and Budden, need not be told that if health had permitted Benares would have been for many years the sphere of their labours.

[Sidenote: CELIBATE OR MARRIED MISSIONARIES?]

As the withdrawal of missionaries has often been caused by the failure of the health of their wives, some have thought it would be well to have celibate missionaries in a country which has so severe a climate. To this there is the obvious reply that missionaries, like others, are human beings, and a restriction on them which wars with human nature would be found very pernicious, as it has ever been. Then, the wives of missionaries, when they are what they ought to be, are very efficient and, indeed, necessary missionary workers, and in many cases their labours are as useful as those of their husbands. In well-ordered missionary families the people see what a happy Christian home is, and they are assured of a sympathy in their trials and cares which they could not expect from unmarried missionaries. Some Societies, our own among the number, have accepted as missionaries to India persons engaged to be married, but they have required them to remain for a year or two unmarried after going out to test their fitness for the climate; and, in the event of the test being successfully stood, to give them an experience which will enable the newly married wife to enter with less strain on her Indian life. This may be a wise arrangement, and yet there is often a restlessness till the marriage takes place, and time spent in going to the port of debarkation, which carries with it some disadvantages.

We dare not retreat from this great work of evangelizing India on account of the vicissitudes of which I have been speaking, or on account of other very formidable obstacles which oppose us. To do so would be to act a craven part. Agents must be found for the prosecution of the work, and we must hope with the improved advantages of an Indian career the failures will be fewer than in the past; but whatever they may be, the Christian Church must go forward. One obvious inference from the facts I have stated, is the extreme desirableness of a native agency. The natives of the land, when found fit for the work, have always been highly prized. Many of this class are now labouring in different parts of India, and there is every reason to hope that in coming years the native agency will grow largely in extent and efficiency.

[Sidenote: IMPRESSION OF THE SECOND YEAR.]

During my second year in Benares I entered on every department of mission work, and had many opportunities for intercourse with the people. In my turn I preached to the native Christian congregation, went with the missionaries and catechists to the city, and engaged in teaching the boys attending our primary schools. I saw the great gatherings of the people at their religious festivals, and realized their character, and the nature of the work to which I had devoted my life, more than I had previously done. Instead of following chronological order, my object in these reminiscences will be best attained by endeavouring to present to my readers those aspects of Indian and mission life which, during my second year, made a deep impression on my mind, an impression which was deepened by subsequent experience.

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CHAPTER X.

THE RELIGIOUS GATHERINGS OF THE HINDUS.

Crowds pass through the temples of Benares every day, pay obeisance, and present offerings; but on ordinary occasions there is no combined act of worship conducted by a leader, as is common in Christian assemblies. On occasions of special urgency -- the failure of rain, its unseasonable fall, the fear of famine, or the dread of a great calamity coming on the community in some other form -- sacrifices are offered up by priests in the presence of great multitudes, in which all present unite. These are very special and occasional services, for, as a rule, all over India persons and families act apart.

Hindus are, however, eminently social, and in their religious services full play is given to the social feeling. This is shown by their melas, or religious gatherings, which are held all over the country, and are extremely popular. Some of these melas are local, and have only a local attendance. Those to which crowds from places far and near resort are held in so-called sacred spots. Many are periodical, and are held at fixed periods of the year in honour of their gods, and in celebration of their exploits. Others, again, are held on special occasions, and of these eclipses are the most attractive.

[Sidenote: THE SATURNALIA OF THE HINDUS.]

In the course of my second year I saw a good deal of these festivals. I have a vivid and very unpleasant recollection of the Holee of that year, the Saturnalia of the Hindus, which is held at the setting in of the hot weather. It lasts for several days, during which the people act as if freed from every moral restraint. There is a general cessation of labour; the people wander about, indulge in the wildest freaks, address to women who venture out the vilest words, leap and dance as if possessed of the spirit of licence, and throw red colouring-matter on those they meet, without respect of persons; till all seen in the streets, with their besmeared faces and soiled clothes, have a most disreputable appearance. The night is rendered hideous, and sleep well-nigh impossible, by the drumming, fifing, and shouting of the revellers, kept up till break of day. During this period many think themselves at liberty to do what at another time they would deem very culpable. Not a few partake of intoxicating drink, and if native statements be true they give themselves over to the grossest licentiousness. Europeans, as a rule, except it be necessary for them to go abroad, remain quietly in their homes while the Holee lasts, and mission work is for the time well-nigh suspended. When, however, Europeans have occasion to go out they have little reason to fear insult, as even in the Holee season they are regarded, if not with respect, at least with a dread which restrains the revellers. The hurtful influence of this season of licence can be conceived. I have always observed that for some time afterwards the boys in our schools were sleepy and listless.

On the night of the Diwalee mela, held in honour of Lakshmee, the goddess of wealth, the whole city is illuminated, tiny lamps are seen everywhere, friends give presents to each other, sweetmeats and parched grain are distributed among the poor. High and low give the night to gambling. The belief is entertained that if they fail to spend the night in this manner they will in their next birth be turned into frogs, or some vile reptile.

The most popular festival of the year at Benares and over the North-Western Provinces is the Ram Leela, the Play of Ram, when the life of Ram, a very popular incarnation of Vishnu, is dramatized. This drama is acted in the open air in different parts of the city, in the presence of admiring thousands. The people see Ram and his faithful spouse Seeta forced to leave their royal home by the intrigue of his mother-in-law; they see them in the forest, where Ram leads the life of a hunter; they see Seeta carried off by Rawan, the Demon King of Lunka (Ceylon); they hear Ram's cries of bitter distress on finding his beloved Seeta gone; they see him informed that Rawan is the ravisher; they see him setting out with the divine monkey Hanuman, and his army of monkeys for the rescue; and they rejoice with him in the taking of Lunka, the destruction of Rawan, and the rescue of Seeta. The story furnishes abundant material for a drama, and the people enter with the greatest zest into the different scenes. A huge figure of Rawan is made of wood and paper; it is set on fire, and the crowds, looking on, make the air resound with their shouts. During this mela two things are united which in Hindu estimation well agree -- amusement and devotion. They regard the Ram Leela as a religious service, which they are bound to render to the conqueror of Rawan, and while rendering it they are at once performing duty and receiving pleasure. They continually call such a service tumasha, show, fun, and they regard its life and sprightliness a pleasing contrast to the sombre and staid services of the Christian Church.

[Sidenote: ECLIPSE OF THE MOON.]

Before the conclusion of my second year an eclipse of the moon occurred, which drew to the city the greatest assemblage of human beings I had ever seen. The Hindus place high among their deities the sun and moon, and render to them daily worship. Between the gods and the demons there is perpetual war, and victory inclines at one time to one side, at another time to another. In Hindu mythological annals many instances are recorded of the gods having been reduced to the utmost extremity. We are told that eclipses are caused by the demons endeavouring to swallow the sun and moon; and religious services on these occasions have a double benefit -- the worshipper secures a high degree of merit, of which he will reap the reward one day; and the demons are driven off from their prey by the drumming, the shouts, and the merit of the assembled people, to the great relief of the endangered gods. The most extravagant promises are held out to those who bathe in the Ganges, at any time in any part of it; but bathing on the occasion of an eclipse, and especially in so sacred a place as Benares, is meritorious in a degree which is incalculable. The Pundits, the religious leaders of the people, have, it appears, access to the council of the demons, for the exact time of the coming attack is known by them so long before hand that the people far and near are prepared for its approach. In fact, if it did not come on, if the demons withdrew from their intention, there would be great disappointment. Brahman missionaries go great distances to inform the people the eclipse is to take place, and to press on them the benefit they will receive by bathing at Benares on that occasion. On their return they are accompanied by those whom they have succeeded in persuading. Leaving the mythological for the scientific platform, we had better mention that the Hindu astronomers have for ages been able to calculate eclipses; and now they need not trouble themselves to make calculations, as European almanacks are in their hands to give the requisite information.

For a few days previous to the eclipse of which I am now to speak, the unusual number of strangers in the city made it evident some great event was about to occur. From the morning of the appointed day the people poured into the city in a constant stream. As evening came on I made my way into the city on foot, but before reaching its centre I found the streets so blocked that I despaired of getting to the riverside. I retraced my steps, and by a road skirting the city made my way to Raj Ghat at the northern end. There I remained till the eclipse commenced. Many were near, but they were few compared with the crowds pressing towards the chief bathing places. When I arrived at Raj Ghat the confused sound of a great multitude fell on my ear, but no sooner did the eclipse begin than the thousands on the river's brink and crowded on the ghats, as with one voice raised a shout so loud and prolonged, that I should think it must have been heard for miles. I was on a high bank of the river, and could see distinctly the people below rushing into the stream. I could not but think of what must be occurring where the crowd was so dense that individual motion was well-nigh impossible. It was reported next morning that three or four hundred persons had been trampled to death or drowned in the rush to the river when the eclipse began. This was afterwards declared to be an exaggerated statement, but it is certain many lives were lost, though how many was not ascertained, as a number were carried away by the stream. Special care was afterwards taken by the authorities to prevent such catastrophes. After stopping some time at Raj Ghat I returned to my home, musing on what I had seen, and longing for the time when the millions of India will seek cleansing and life, where alone they can be found.

[Sidenote: MELA AT ALLAHABAD.]

Towards the end of 1840 I went to Allahabad, seventy miles north-west of Benares, to take part in evangelistic work at a great mela held there annually, as I thought I might be able to render some help to my brethren. Allahabad, called Pryag by the Hindus, is at the confluence of the Ganges and the Jumna, and all such places are deemed sacred. It is said there is a third river, the Suruswatee, once visible but now underground, and the place is therefore called Tribeni -- the threefold stream. Pryag has been for many years a famous place of pilgrimage, and every year a mela is held, which is at its height for some seven days, but is kept on for weeks. It is held in the cold weather, December or January; and, next to Hurdwar, where the Ganges issues from the mountains, draws a greater crowd than any other mela in Northern India. Bathing at Tribeni is peculiarly meritorious in some years, and in these there is a vastly increased attendance. Except on the occasion of eclipses there is no such gathering even at Benares; but very many who go to Allahabad, before returning to their home, often a distant home, pay a visit to the sacred city.

At one time the Government imposed a tax on pilgrims to this mela, but it was taken off in 1838 or 1839.

The mela is held below the fort, on the land lying between the Ganges and the Jumna at their point of meeting, on a great stretch of sand, which is covered in the rainy season. In December and January the west wind blows freshly over the place, and as there is incessant movement, soon all present are so covered with dust that they look like millers.

[Sidenote: EVANGELISTIC SERVICES.]

A gathering like this at Allahabad is always embraced for evangelistic purposes. Missionaries and native brethren are thankful for the opportunity afforded them of preaching the Gospel to many who have come from places to which no missionary has ever gone. The missionaries at Allahabad gladly welcome and hospitably entertain the brethren of other missions who join them at these annual gatherings. Large tents are put up, with the front open towards the road, and there the preachers from morning till evening, preacher succeeding preacher, address the people, while hearers succeed hearers. A few individuals stop a long time, as if rapt up in what they hear, as if they were drinking in every word; others stop a considerable time; while many, after looking on and gaping for a few minutes, hold on their way. Every now and then questions are asked, objections are started, and a discussion ensues. When the questions are in any measure serious and reasonable, much benefit results from such discussion. The interest of the people is quickened, and opportunity is afforded for explaining, defending, and enforcing the truth as it is in Jesus. Sometimes the questioner is neither serious nor reasonable, and then the danger is of the discussion turning into a wrangle, which does more harm than good. Prominent transgressors in this line are the Pundas, specially interested in the mela, who do all in their power to set the people against us. At this first great gathering which I attended -- I found it was the case afterwards on similar occasions -- there was less mere idle discussion than there is where the missionary carries on his work from day to day. In addition to preaching-stations, there were bookstalls where portions of the Scriptures and Christian tracts and books were disposed of. On to the time of this mela there was a large gratuitous distribution among persons who from their look and manner were deemed suitable recipients; but for many years it has been found best to charge a small price, without adopting a hard and fast line against giving away.

It is very difficult, rather impossible, to estimate the effect produced by evangelistic services on such occasions. They have not been fruitless as to conversion, but if we look simply at results of this kind it must be acknowledged they are very limited. Instances have occurred of persons having been so impressed that they have followed missionaries to places far away from Allahabad; but their courage has failed them, and they have after a short time disappeared. One advantage is secured -- the Gospel is kept before the minds of the people, and some knowledge of it is carried to the remotest parts of the land. Books and tracts are taken to places which missionaries have never visited. It cannot be doubted that such services have their part in preparing the people for the new and better state of things which every Christian longs for and expects.

At Allahabad I had an opportunity of observing the peculiarities of a great Hindu mela. The morning was devoted to bathing and the performance of religious rites. As the forenoon came on, the merchants of every class set out their wares in tents erected on sites appointed for them, with their opening, so far as possible, away from the side exposed to the wind. Goods of every description, useful and ornamental, cloth, grain, cooking vessels, trinkets, and sweetmeats, were exhibited to tempt purchasers, and buying and selling went on as vigorously as if the people had come together solely for that end. Crowds were in constant motion, going from place to place to see what could be seen, and stopping where there was any special attraction, or, as happens in our own crowded streets, stopping where a few were incidentally collected. By the afternoon, singers, experts in tricks, and show-people of every description, commenced their operations, and were sure of admiring crowds. The merry-go-rounds were largely patronized. Hour after hour was thus spent.

[Sidenote: COOKING AND MERRYMAKING.]

A few cooked food early in the day, but the vast majority staved off hunger -- in some cases by partaking of cakes reserved from the previous evening meal; the greater number, I believe, by partaking of sweetmeats made with flour, sugar, and melted butter, of which an enormous quantity was offered for sale. As evening came on they scattered themselves over the ground lying between the Ganges and the Jumna, and set to the preparation of their one proper meal for the twenty-four hours. The plain was alight with their fires. Nothing can be simpler than their cooking. They make what they call a choola, an elevation in the shape of a horseshoe of a half-foot or a little more of moistened mud, or stone if they can get it. If the traveller be of a respectable caste, he takes care to make no use of the choolas which former travellers have left. They may have been set up by impure hands, and so he makes one for himself. It is convenient to have two such choolas, that they may put on the one a small pot with rice or dal, a kind of pea, in it, and on the other a girdle for bannocks of unleavened dough. Cooking is, of course, largely women's work, but men are as expert at it as women, and are continually seen preparing their meal. I have never travelled with a native who seemed to think he was called to an unusual or unpleasant work, when required to cook his food. All he needs is a couple of small cooking vessels, which he carries with him, a little fuel, good water, meal, and a spot on which he may set up his humble hearth. I have seen this work done by pundits, learned men, who showed no indication of shrinking from it as if it trenched on their dignity. Indeed the pundit in a party that has few facilities for cooking has, as I remember well in one instance, this honour conferred on him on account of his caste being higher than that of those who are with him. All of every caste can eat what he has prepared, but he helps himself first, and eats apart.

To return to the mela. The evening is well advanced before the repast is over. We might suppose that after the stir of the day all would be ready for sleep, and no doubt many lie down and sleep soundly; but quite a number are too eager for the enjoyment of the fair to give themselves to rest. Singing, drumming, and boisterous mirth go on till the small hours of the morning, as I have known to my unpleasant experience -- not at Allahabad, but elsewhere when I have been in their close neighhourhood.

How do the vast multitudes who attend a mela, such as that of Allahabad, dispose of themselves at night? Their arrangements are of the simplest kind. Many wrap themselves in their sheet or blanket, if they have one, and lie down on the ground without any idea they are enduring hardship. Others rig out a temporary tent with sticks and a blanket over it, creep under this, and deem themselves luxuriously accommodated. This gathering at Allahabad is in the cold weather, and if the nights be very cold, as they sometimes are at that season, no doubt many suffer severely. Every now and then heavy rain falls, and then, as may be supposed, the suffering is extreme. Sanitary precautions are of the utmost importance where such vast crowds meet and remain together for days, and these are taken by the authorities. They cannot, however, provide against suffering caused by bad weather. Occasionally cholera breaks out, and then the scenes witnessed are appalling. At the mela of 1840 the weather was good, and there was no indication of disease among the people. Some years afterwards we were travelling towards Allahabad at an early period of the mela, and met crowds fleeing from it on account of the outbreak of cholera. Here and there we saw corpses at the side of the road, occasionally without one person near, at other times with a weeping group around, who were preparing to carry off the body to some rivulet to have it burnt, or, as it often happens, to have it scorched, and then left to be devoured by jackals and vultures. Some had held on their way with weary limbs till the fell disease seized them, and then they succumbed, lay down, and died. We remember stopping where a young man was dying, with two or three sorrowful ones around him. We spoke to him, but got no reply. His glazed eye told he was beyond all human help.

One of the first things I saw at this Allahabad mela was a quantity of human hair, and was told that it had been cut off after the fulfilment of vows, reminding one of a custom to which we find frequent reference in both the Old and New Testaments. I also saw a very disgusting sight -- men in stark nudity, sitting in a very composed dignified fashion, and women approaching them with folded hands, and paying them profound homage. These were deemed men of great sanctity, whose blessing brought signal benefit, while their curse entailed terrible calamities. At an early period of our residence at Benares we sometimes met these naked creatures in the streets; but for many years they have disappeared, as there is a magisterial order that they be flogged for their indecency, however loud may be their pretension of sanctity. At Allahabad there were many devotees with their tangled hair, besmeared bodies, and very scanty clothing -- if what they had on could be called clothing. These are yet seen all over the country. The time has not yet come for stringent orders in these cases.

[Sidenote: HINDU SOCIAL FEELING.]

On the occasion of a gathering such as that of Allahabad a stranger sees no sign of the separating influence of caste. The people move about and mix with each other as freely as people do in Europe when assembled in large numbers. There is nothing in caste to prevent people conversing with each other and being on friendly terms; but the friendliness must not go the length of eating together or of intermarriage. There are indeed large classes deemed so low, so outside the pure Hindu castes, that, so far as is possible, their touch is shunned, and they are not allowed to enter temples; but even these may be spoken to and caste purity retained. We have not in Northern India a class so low that they must hide themselves when a Brahman appears, as Pariahs have to do in some parts of Southern India. In fact, at Hindu melas one receives a pleasing impression of the social character of the people, when he observes their good humour and friendly intercourse.

We do not wonder at the popularity of these gatherings. The social feeling is as strong among the Hindus as among any people on the face of the earth. The vast majority lead lives of monotonous toil in places where there is no excitement greater than that of ordinary village and hamlet life, and to them it must be a great pleasure to resort to the gatherings of their people, where religion, business, and amusement are very happily combined, and where there is so much to interest, exhilarate, and gratify them. These times are to them the red-letter days of the year, without which life would be intolerably dull. Resort to these gatherings no doubt involves them in toil, in expense, and sometimes in great suffering; but they do not shrink from the cost, as they anticipate the expected benefit.

[Sidenote: CHRISTIAN SOCIAL FEELING.]

There cannot be a doubt that Hinduism is greatly strengthened by these melas. Judaism was greatly strengthened by the people according to the Divine command going up thrice every year, at appointed times, to the place where the name of the Lord was, and by their repairing in vast numbers once a year to their sacred capital after they had become widely scattered among the nations. Muhammadans, by long journeys and perilous voyages, make their way to Mecca and Medina, their sacred cities, and make it a point to be present at the most sacred season, when many thousands are assembled. These pilgrims return to their homes more devoted than ever to Islam. It would be strange if Christianity, which above every other religion aims at producing and sustaining the feeling of universal brotherhood, did not avail itself of this social feeling, to which so much scope is given in human religions, and which is so potent in confirming the devotion of their adherents. Our blessed Saviour, the Head of the Church, has by the institution of Churches, and the instruction given to them through His Apostles, provided for the fellowship of His people; and the occasional gathering of the members of different Churches, to which the principles of the Gospel point, and to which it gives the fullest sanction, presents precious opportunities for the manifestation and exercise of the brotherliness so characteristic of the kingdom of heaven which our Lord came to set up on the earth.

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