Travel: India – In And About Calcutta

In Calcutta there is enough to be seen to employ one’s time for many days. The bazaars and markets are places of interest. In the city there are fewer temples of great renown than in others which we shall visit. Six miles from the city is the famous Kali ghat (gawt), where is located the temple of Kali, the black and terrible wife of Siva. My visit to this gruesome place was made just at nightfall. A line of street-cars runs out to the place, and it was their annoying sluggishness that made my arrival so late.

I found myself in a disgusting scene of filth and blood, surrounded by vicious-looking priests and worshipers, and entirely without a guide or a friend. I arrived at the hour when the temple was closed to give the idol a chance to take a nap, at the end of that time she was awakened, and the orgies began. Goats and other victims are slain to appease her wrath. Thousands of pilgrims from a11 India throng this awful shrine from day to day, and in times past, human victims have been sacrificed to the bloody deity. Her image is as black as night, she wears a necklace of human skulls, in her left hand she holds a reeking skull by the hair, and in her right the implements of destruction and death. To make the picture more horrid her tongue protrudes and rests upon her breast.

Such is the object before which millions of our fellow-beings to-day are bowing in abject fear, and to which they are making offerings to appease her wrath and avert calamities. It was with a great sense of relief that I left this place, dimly lighted with lamps, and reeking with the blood and filth of heathendom. At times the worship of this goddess is polluted not only with physical but with moral filth.

When leaving the place, I met a religious devotee crawling upon his hands and knees toward the temple, and was told that lie had come for hundreds of miles in that way to show his devotion. This class of men is very celebrated for their piety, which is shown chiefly by the most severe forms of painful penance. They may be seen sitting or standing with one or both arms held straight upward, in which position these members have been held until they become as rigid and dry as a stick. For perhaps fifteen or twenty years these arms have never been moved from that position. Others wear iron collars around their necks, from which long branches protrude, preventing their lying down. Some will sit for years upon a pillar from which they never come down. I saw them sitting in the mud of the Ganges with no other clothing on than a thick coat of clay, and there they will sit for months, admired and worshiped by the credulous people who attribute almost divine honor to such devotion.

These characters are called ” fakirs.” Many of them are men of thought and education, so far as their heathen philoso phy can be said to educate the mind. They reason with great volubility on the virtue of their works, and reject with scorn any intimation that their sacrifice has no merit for the cleansing of sin. It is the old doctrine of salvation by works wrought out to its ultimate conclusion, which may be seen in the asceticism of monkery and the penances of the Catholic Church. Any attempt at working out salvation, or obtaining it in any other way than by the grace and mercy of God through Christ, will only sink the individual deeper in the mire of human helplessness. Obedience to God’s law is the correct criterion of righteousness, but this can be wrought in us only by the power of faith, and through the merits of Him in whose righteousness alone it is possible for us ever to be made perfect.

The most interesting scenes in Calcutta are to be witnessed on the banks of the sacred river which flows by the western portion of the city. For miles the banks are composed of bathing ghats (steps), whither, early in the morning, tens of thousands of devoted worshipers throng to wash away their sins in the waters of ” Mother Ganges.” It is an interesting sight to see men and women thus engaged, some in sport and others in devotion. Upon the banks sit the priests with pots of paint, ready to mark the bathers as they emerge, with the sign of the god whom they particularly espouse. These marks consist of small dots or stripes of paint upon their forehead or right arm. They offer an oblation of water at the foot of the sacred bo-tree, or at some of the shrines which abound in the vicinity, and return to their homes bearing a little cruse of the sacred water.

Not far from the great bridge which crosses the river to the city of Howrah, is a burning ghat where the Hindu dead are disposed of. It is a small inclosure measuring perhaps one hundred feet by forty in size. Through the middle a row of fires is kept burning nearly all the time, for on the average, not less than sixty bodies are consumed here every day. At the time of my visit, there were four fires in different stages of burning. At one place a woman was stoically poking the remains of a half-burned body which, we were told, was the remains of her little girl. At the farther end a funeral pyre was in preparation. The wood was in readiness, and the corpse of a young wife lay upon a stretcher beside it. The husband was being shaven of every hair upon his head except a small scalp-lock which the Brahman never loses. This being done, the corpse was carried to the water and washed, its clothing changed, and after immersion in the sacred river, returned to the altar and placed thereon. Wood was added until the body was entirely covered. Dry rushes and kindling material had been placed beneath the wood, and when all was ready, the husband took a bunch of long, dry reeds, which he lighted at the sacred fire kept for the purpose. Holding the fire over the body, he passed several times swiftly around the pile, then thrust the blaze into the kindling, and the whole mass was soon afire. The terrible sights and worse smells having by this time thoroughly demoralized nerves and stomach, a hasty retreat was necessary.

During all the time, a voluble priest was extolling the excellences of the Hindu systern to the disparagement of the Christian religion. I asked how it was possible for the mother and the husband to perform such tasks with so little manifestation of feeling. The reply was that the souls having immediately left the bodies after death, were now visiting other realms, and would soon inhabit other creatures. Indeed, the whole system rests largely upon the doctrine of metempsychosis, or transmigration of souls. The ordinary Hindu believes that there are several million transformations through which he must pass, before he will be absorbed into deity, though by meritorious acts the journey is greatly shortened.

Evil spirits and good spirits act a very prominent part in all the affairs of life. All these being representatives of gods, they become the real objects of worship. Thus through demonology, spiritualism, transmigration, and various other manifestations, the theory of the natural immortality of man contributes to this great deception, as indeed it does to nearly every other system of error, the foundation and substance of superstitious beliefs. The counterpart of modern Spiritualism is found in those oriental religions. It is the evident work of Satan with signs and lying wonders.

The only sure antidote for such deadly poison, either in heathen or in Christian countries, is the great truth of immortality and eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ alone. When man fell from the favor of God, he lost his right to the tree of life and to immortality. Cherubim guarded the way to that life-giving tree, lest man should put forth his hand and take of the tree of life, eat, and live forever. Then the gospel of salvation and eternal life through Christ was revealed, in which we are taught that he that hath the Son of God hath eternal life, and without him there is no life. The Bible plainly teaches that the dead know not anything, that death is a sleep, that the grave is a state of utter unconsciousness. Therefore, every form of error built upon the existence of disembodied spirits falls hopelessly to the ground. If men would believe this great truth, nine tenths of all the superstition and error in religion would disappear.

But we are not, therefore, to conclude that there is no immortality, that eternal life is a myth. It is a glorious reality. The apostle Paul tells us that to those who by patient continuance in well-doing seek for immortality, eternal life will at last be rendered. And again we are told that this will be bestowed at the second appearing of Christ. ” We shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump, for the trump shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.” It is to the resurrection then that we must look for immortality. The Bible never attributes the principle of an immortal existence to man in his present condition, and the Scriptures are totally against the idea of conscious existence between death and the resurrection. Having accepted this testimony, there is no room left for the vagaries of heathenism, and no foundation for the great majority of the errors of the Christian world.

Right in the center of Calcutta is a beautiful little park called Dalhousie Square, which contains a large tank, or reservoir, of water. Around and near this are the government offices. On the west is a general post-office, one of the finest and most prominent buildings in the city, while extending across the north side is the Secretariat, or office of the secretary of state, a fine structure of stone.

A few blocks south of Dalhousie Square is the Maidan, a very large open common, bounded by prominent streets and traversed by fine drives. Upon the east runs Chowringha Road, upon which is located the national museum, one of the most celebrated institutions of the East. Its vast halls are filled with treasures of antiquity illustrative of oriental history. The view on page 191 is taken from the Maidan.

Adjacent to the Maidan are the Eden Gardens, the most beautiful within the city limits. In the center is a quaint old pagoda of carved wood. On the Howrah side of the river, and three or four miles below, is the famous Botanical Garden. The principal attraction here to the stranger will probably be a great banyan tree, said to be one hundred years old, and having the shape of a great, round pavilion. The ground it covers is eight hundred and fifty feet in circumference. It is forty-five feet around the main trunk. There are thousands of branch trunks extending from the limbs to the ground, where they take root. These trees are common in India, though this is the largest one I saw.

The Zoological Garden, on the opposite side of the river, presents a very large collection from the animal world. This is particularly true of the reptile and the monkey departments. There are many venomous serpents in the country, the most dreaded being the cobra, whose bite causes death in a very short time. As the feet of the natives are not protected, they are very liable to be bitten, and each year many thousands are victims to these reptiles.

In Calcutta and vicinity several very pleasant acquaintances were made with missionary people, who receive strangers with the utmost kindness. Among those in the city were Mr. Messmore, editor of the Indian Witness, and Mr. Conklin, manager of the Methodist Episcopal publishing work. The work of the American Methodists and Baptists has been very successful, especially for the last few years and among the lower castes. The former denomination occupies the northern central provinces principally, and the Baptists are working in the provinces south of Calcutta.

A few miles out of the city, at Dum Dum, was the home of Mr. J. R. Brodhead, superintendent of the Wesleyan mission for the Bengal district. The kindness of this gentleman and his wife could hardly be exceeded by an own brother. In his company, a very pleasant Sabbath was spent. I also accompanied him to a native camp-meeting, which was a unique affair. The principal tent consisted of a motley collection of cloths, which gave only a partial shelter from the sun, for of rain there was no danger. Near by stood a dwelling or two and a few other family tents. Upon matting, in the center of the tent, sat the master of ceremonies, a convert to Christianity who had been a hard character in the past. He played a violin. About him were other violinists, or “fiddlers” per haps, and a tom-tom. This latter is a small drum, beaten by the hand and fingers, and the two heads are strung to a different pitch, giving the music (?) a weird character. This instrument is very much admired in India, and is everywhere heard in temples and processions. A fine class of girls from Mr. Brodhead’s training school joined in singing with the leader. After singing a verse, or perhaps in the midst of a stanza, the song would be broken off by a speech or exhortation by the leader. And as suddenly the remarks would cease, and the singing be resumed. The missionaries sitting near, watched the exercises, and from time to time spoke such words as would give the proper turn to the meeting. This was kept up nearly all day and into the night. Early in the day there were perhaps fifty present, but later the people gathered in quite large numbers.

Here I met Mr. J. A. Me Donald, secretary and editor for the Christian Literature Society. These devoted missionaries related many interesting particulars of their experiences. Mr. Brodhead went to India without friends or money. Beginning his missionary work without a home, he took up his abode under a spreading tree, and there remained until he was found and taken in by an English police officer who gave him a home. It was through this gentleman, Colonel Lacey, now of Torquay, England, a personal friend, that an acquaintance with these Christian workers was formed. For seven years, Mr. Me Donald labored without seeing a soul embrace the Christian religion. And when at last all support was about to be withdrawn from what seemed to be a fruitless field, in answer to earnest prayer success began to dawn, and now a large number have been raised up in what was once a stronghold of iniquity.

Some missionaries and many visitors to India become disgusted at what seems to be the incorrigible nature of the natives. One is apt to form the opinion that they are all liars and thieves, and perhaps he would not lay himself liable to prosecution for libel if he said that they are such. But we have already observed that those people have not been educated according to our standard of morality. It is quite true that to their minds the harm in stealing consists in getting caught, and as for the harm in lying, they have not discovered it. Even after it is told them, it takes time and patience to inculcate the doctrine that honesty is the best policy. It is not taken as an insult if one of them is called a liar, it never excites more than a smile of acquiescence. A missionary connected with a school related that upon one occasion a student came to him, showing by his countenance that he had a serious grievance. He reported that a fellow-student had called him a liar. The teacher treated the offense lightly, remarking that it was no matter since that was a very common thing among them. ” Yes,” said the young man, ” but he called me a liar in English.” That was another thing to his mind. If a servant be sent out to obtain change for a bank-note, very likely he will be an anna or two short, and when told of it, he simply unrolls the coin from a corner of his garment and hands it over without any show of compunction or shame. At the same time your house, or watch, or purse would be perfectly safe in their keeping.