The cigarette smoker and the scene at Gaya – Jules Verne

by 21cstories

Ganges River, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India.

A few days ago, in the 21st century:

At the paan vendor’s kiosk, the poor man in plain clothes puffed on the cigarette as he looked at his friend with fixed eyes. The smoke had done its work, with his mind ready to take off at a tangent. But not for him. Raising the hand that held the cigarette, he pointed the burning end at his friend.

“I will leave this… I will quit smoking… once I go to Gaya. Only once, let me come back, and that will be it,” he said, shaking the pointed end like a dart player prepares for a throw. The determination on his face supported his words.

What is it about Gaya that excited the man, and held him in such awe and binding obligation? The tradition, the sentiment, the stories he heard in childhood, the grandmother’s undying belief in its sacredness? Could such a man live his life without this simple faith? Bereft of this only solace, what would differentiate him from lifeless stones and brute animals?

The scene is not different from Europe, where centuries ago, Casanova asked Voltaire – what would you replace superstition with? And Voltaire, who fought against superstitions, said he would simply abolish them and wouldn’t want to replace it with anything.

Here is how a man of science describes the scene at Gaya – in the 19th century:

When we reached that part of the river Phalgou which bathes the rock of Gaya, the prodigious assemblage of pilgrims lay before us in its full extent. There, in indescribable confusion, was a heaving, huddling, jostling crowd of men and women, old men and children, citizens and peasants, rich baboos and poor ryots, of every imaginable degree…What a mob! Exclaimed Captain Hood.

“The water of the Phalgou will not be fit to drink this evening,” observed Banks. “Why not?” inquired I.

“Because its waters are sacred, and this unsavoury crowd will go and bathe in them, as they do in the Ganges.”

… We passed on through thousands of natives massed together in comparatively small space. The ear was struck by a discordant noise of chains and small bells. It was thus that mendicants appealed to public charity. Infinitely varied specimens of this vagrant brotherhood swarmed in all directions. Most of them displayed false wounds and deformities, but although the professed beggars only pretend to be sufferers, it is very different with the religious fanatics. In fact it would be difficult to carry enthusiasm further than they do.

Some of the fakirs, nearly naked, were covered with ashes; one had his arm fixed in a painful position by prolonged tension, another had kept his hand closed until it was pierced by the nails of his own fingers.

Some had measured the whole distance of their journey by the length of their bodies. For hundreds of miles they had continued incessantly to lie down, rise up, and lie down again, as though acting the part of a surveyor’ chain.

Here some of the faithful, stupefied with ‘bhang’, were suspended on branches of trees, by iron hooks plunged into their shoulders. Hanging thus, they whirled round and round until the flesh gave way, and they fell into the waters of the Phalgou.

Others, in honour of Siva, had pierced their arms, legs, or tongues through and through with little darts, and made serpents lick the blood which flowed from the wounds.

Such a spectacle could not be otherwise repugnant to a European eye. I was passing on in haste, when Banks suddenly stooped me saying, “The hour of prayer!”

At the same instant, a Brahmin appeared in the midst of the crowd. He raised hsi right hand, and pointed towards the rising sun, hitherto concealed behind the rocks of Gaya.

The first ray darted by the glorious luminary was the signal. The all but naked crowd entered the sacred waters. There were simple immersions, as in the early form of baptism, but these soon changed into water parties of which it was not easy to perceive the religious character. Perhaps the initiated who recited shlokas or texts, which for a given sum the priest dictated to them, thought no more of the cleansing of their bodies than their souls….I ought to add besides, that they never forgot to pull out at least one hair for every sin they had committed.

A good many deserved to come forth bald from the waters of the Phalgou!

From: The End of Nana Sahib, Jules Verne