Studies from an eastern home
The ship of flowers
IT is empty now, the place on my desk where the little ship of flowers has stood all day. But out on the chill edge of the Ganges, as darkness comes on, the tiny bark lies drifting, hither and thither, scarcely determined betwixt ebb and flow, as we with a few of the children launched it an hour ago. It was early still when we went down to the riverside, and as we turned away only one worshipper had arrived besides ourselves--a solitary girl of eleven or twelve--to send her offering out to the Great Unknown. We stayed awhile then and watched her, as she carefully removed the sacramental food from the birch-bark vessel, set in the stern the little light, and then floated it boldly out upon the waters. And after that, what could we do but stay and watch and watch, with breathless interest, as long as ever the star shone clear in the fragile craft which, we knew, with the turn of the tide, would reach the main current and be carried far out to sea? O! innumerable fleet of little nameless boats, floating on ponds and rivers, in all the villages of Bengal to-night,
each bearing its twinkling lamp into the all-enshrouding dark, how like ye are to life, how like to death!
For this is the last day of the Bengal month of Pous. It is the old-time day for pilgrimage to Ganga-Sagar--that island where the river meets the sea, And more than this, it is the day of prayer for all travellers, all wanderers from their homes, for all whose footsteps at nightfall shall not lead to their own door. It was in a crowded street this morning, as I passed the end of a small bazaar, that I noticed the eager faces and hurrying feet of men and women, hastening to carry to those at home the ships of flowers. They were rude enough, these little ships, that I too bought, to load with spoil of loving thought. Roughly pinned together they were, made of the shining white core of the plantain-stalk, and masted and arched from stem to stern with splinters of bamboo, run through the hearts of yellow marigolds. Here and there the dealers had made feint to imitate more closely, with coloured paper flags and string, the sails and cordage of the old country boats. But for the most part they were mere suggestions, glistening vessel and burning-hearted flowers.
Mere suggestions, truly--but of what! Can we not see the quiet women, sitting absorbed before the symbol at their feet, loading it with offerings
[paragraph continues] --bel-leaves, flowers, the consecrated fruits and grain, and praying with each fresh gift for some beloved life, that through the coming year it might go safe amidst whatever tide, that even now, if peril somewhere threaten it, it may be led safe home? Have we not here to-day the perfect picture of Humanity--Man battling on the distant frontier-line of toilsome life; and Woman--for love's sake, not for God's--holding fast to prayer?
One thinks of the cry of the Jew, sonorous through the ages--the Jew, who loved not the sea, but lifted his eyes to the hills, to find his help, and lost himself, between "I" and "thee," in an inflood of blessedness: "The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in, from this time forth, and even for evermore." One thinks of the churches of Brittany, and the small model of a ship, barque de ma vie, that hangs before every altar and in every private oratory. And there comes back the echo of the sailor's cry, amid surf and storm, Sainte Anne! Sainte Anne!
Here too, in Bengal, we have a maritime people, once great among the world's seafarers, and here, on the last day of Pous, we celebrate the opening of the annual commercial season, the old-time going forth of merchant enterprise and exploration. It was a traffic cut off from that of Phoenicia, and all the well-omened
peoples of the Middle Sea, but unmistakably great in the East. China and Japan, Cambodia and Burma, have welcomed the coming of the Bengal mariners to their ports, being glad to win honour and wealth thereby. Fa Hian, Hiouen-Tsang, and I-Ching are but three names, out of countless hosts to whom they belonged, who sought the shores of India, or left them, in the name of the knowledge and impulse that she had power to send to other and less favoured peoples. But why cast our memory so far back? It is little more than a hundred years since Indian shipbuilding was famous through the world. Even now the wooden shipping that still plies between the small countries of north-western Europe is in great part discarded craft of Indian building and of Indian teak. And how should these eastern vessels have won renown if the merchants and sailors of India had not been great to man and use?
All day long, from the altar-shelf above my desk, the marigolds, like an arch of sanctuary-lamps, have shone down upon me, and stirred a maze, a multitude, of dreams and memories in heart and brain. "The Lord bless--the Lord bless--going out--coming in--even for evermore!" Do we not stand, even as here, on the river shores of life, and watch the going forth of beloved souls into the perils of the world's high seas, yea, into the far space and mystery of death?
[paragraph continues] Yet hold we by that very light, so like a star, they carry at their prow, that how distant soever be the journey set, they shall not pass beyond the reach of this our love and prayer, nor break outside the encircling barriers of the heart of God.
Printed by BALLANTYNE, HANSOM & Co.
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.