Studies from an eastern home
The Sacred Year
WHETHER or not it is true, as some have held, that all sacred years are built out of the wreckage of more ancient civil years, it is certain beyond any possibility of cavil or question that behind the Hindu sacred year lies another, a weather-year, full of the most loving and delicate observation of nature. Each great day as it comes round is marked by its own particular glinting of sunlight on the leaves, its own rare bite of the morning air, or its own dancing of the blood at noon. When, in the early autumn, the tiny, jonquil-like flowers are found fallen at dawn from the shephalika bushes, and the children pick them up blossom by blossom for worship, men say with something of the gladsomeness of childhood itself, "Mother is coming! Mother is coming!" for they remind them of the festival of Durga, by this sign near at hand. In springtime, when the asoka tree begins to adorn itself with its bunches of red flowers, that are said never to bud till the tree has heard the footsteps of a beautiful woman, and the long slender buds of
the leaf-almond begin to appear, the low castes are glad, for now is coming Holi, the Easter of the primitive peoples. On the birthday of Krishna, late in the summer, it must rain, in memory of the night so long ago when the Lord of All was carried as a babe, by Vasudeva, through wind and storm. The Kali Puja, with its myriads of tiny open lamps, seems always to happen on the night of some marriage-flight amongst the insects, and always the little winged creatures suffer death by fire on these altars of the Mother.
But there is no nature-festival to be compared with that of Ras. All through the growing moon of the beautiful month of Kartik, the women have gone to the Ganges-side at evening, night after night, with flowers and lamps to offer vows. Now has come the full moon. It is the first of the cold weather. The winter flowers are beginning to bloom. The world is full of relief from the lessening of the long heat. The very trees seem to rejoice in the unwonted coolness, and this was the moment at which Krishna went with the cowherds to the forest. Throughout the rains the cattle have been kept in the villages, and now they are taken to the distant pastures. Oh, the joy of the forests: the long moonlight nights, the whispering trees, the enfolding dark, the presence of the Cowherd, who is in truth the Lord Himself! In those temples
which have the necessary buildings the image of Krishna is taken at evening out of its sanctuary, and conveyed in procession to a little Chapel of the Exposition, there to be worshipped publicly until the morning. Here for three days in the small hours of the night, when the moon has scarcely yet begun to wane, come the women to sit and worship, or to go round and round the altar in a circle, silently praying. And choirs of priests chant the while. And the image-sellers drive a brisk though almost silent trade, and the precincts of the temple are thronged with life, imagining itself out in the forest amongst the cowherds, playing with the Lord.
Every full moon has its own special morsel of lore. To-night, at some hour or other, the sweet goddess Lakshmi will enter the room, and we must on no account sleep lest we miss her visit. Again, it is unlucky this month for the heads of the family to see the moon. Therefore they must not look out of the window, and this is well, for to-night is the orchard-robbing festival, when the boys of the village have right to enter the garden and carry off ripe fruit. What wonderful coincidence fixed it to fall when the harvest of the jack-trees is ready for gathering?
The whole of Hinduism is one long sanctification of the common life, one long heart and
relating of soul to the world about it; and the love of pilgrimage and the quest of sacred shrines speak of that same desire to commune with nature as the village feasts. The holiness of nature is the fundamental thought of Hindu civilisation. The hardships of life in camp and forest are called austerity; the sight of grass and trees is called worship. And the soothing and peace that come of a glimpse of a great river is held a step on the road to salvation and the freeing of the soul.
How did this passion for nature become fixed and ritualised, in the series of the year's fasts and feasts? Here opens out a field of most fruitful study. A fixed system of universal consent always presupposes some central authority, which persisted long enough not only to pronounce authentically on disputable matters, but also to radiate as custom what had been thus determined. This central authority exists in India as the empire whose seat for nearly a thousand years was Pataliputra. 1 By its rulings was Hinduism, in so far as it is universal throughout the country, shaped and determined, and in order to know exactly what this was in its daily working, it would be necessary to study in.
detail the worships of Madras and the South. For here we have, more or less in its purity, the Hinduism which grew up, antithetically to Buddhism, during the Buddhist period. It differs in many ways from that of Bengal, since there the faith went through a much longer period of elaboration. Pataliputra was succeeded by Gour, the Guptas by the Sens, and in the year A.D. 728 Adisur Sen, Emperor of the five Gours, as was his title, brought to his capital, and established there for the good of his people in matters of faith and scholarship, the celebrated five Brahmins of Kanauj. And they made the face of Bengal to shine--which is a brief way of saying, probably, that this king established an ecclesiastical college of reference at Gour, which went on impressing its influence on the life of Bengal, long after the original five, and their king, had been gathered to their fathers. Even after the Hindu sovereigns had fallen altogether, and the Mohammedan rulers had taken their place, this Brahminical influence went on living and working. It was in fact the Bengali form of Papacy, and before we rebel against it too much, before we asperse it too bitterly for the cerecloths of orthodoxy which it bound upon the people, we ought to know what were the problems that it had to solve. It gave continuity to the social development of the community, in the face of the most appalling revolutions.
[paragraph continues] It made the faith a strong ground of taste and manners and gave it consciousness of its strength. It made the village into a true civic unit, in spite of complexity of caste and origins. It maintained the growth of literature and the epic-making faculty. And above all--the supreme gift of Hinduism--it went on deepening and widening the education of the people by that form of mind-cultivation which is peculiar to India, the form that she knows not as secular schooling but as devotional meditation, the power to which she will one day owe her recovery, should it be given to her to recover her footing at all, in the world of nations.
The power of the Brahmin was never broken in Bengal till modern education brought new tests to try men by. Mohammedanism had never touched it. The new religion of Chaitanya was not even defiant of it. Automatically it had gone on working and growing. The world is always ready to call any overthrowal of the old by the name of reformation, because in anything long established there is always much that needs overthrow. Pruning and weeding are a parable of necessary processes in thought and society also. But how can we call this a reformation unless we know what new ideals are to be substituted for the old? That destruction has taken place is indisputable, but does destruction
alone constitute reformation? In any case, Bengal owes her own solidarity, her unity in complexity, her Hinduistic culture and the completeness of her national assimilation, more perhaps to Adisur and the Brahminical college that he established than to any other single fact of these many centuries.
If this theory be correct, if the wider Hinduistic formalism was the work of the Guptas of Pataliputra, and the orthodoxy of Bengal more especially that of the Sen kings of Gour, a wonderful amount of history lies in the study of the differences between the two. We shall in that case expect to find more ancient and less homogeneous fragments of the faith lying outside of Bengal. We shall look, moreover, to study the development of the popular faith in parallelism with Buddhism outside. For here a long obscuring process has been superposed upon the other. Those elements of Hinduism in which it has marked affinities with the classical and pre-classical religions of Europe must, for the most part, be sought outside, in distant provinces, and at the conservative centres of the great pilgrimage shrines. But for the potentialities of Hinduism, for its power to bind and unite, for its civilising and liberalising effect, we cannot do better than go to Bengal. Here we may disentangle gradually the long story of the influences
that have made it what it is. Did the first image-makers come from China? And when? In what order were the main worships introduced? What was the original place of the planetary deities, of snakes and of trees, in the scheme of things? Who were Satya-Pir and Satya-Narayan? These questions, and a thousand like them, have to be answered before we can understand and assign time and source to all the elements that have gone to the making of the sanatan dharma in Bengal. Yet wherever we go--north, east, or west--we shall always find that India herself has been the inspiration of Hinduism, and that the faith without the land is a name without a person, a face without a soul.
29:1 Pataliputra, on the site of the modern Patna, in Behar; capital of the ancient kingdom of Magadha, described by Megasthenes; in the third century B.C. the metropolis of the Emperor Asoka.
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.