Page images

have fallen into decay and perished, her sun has never gone down; on the contrary, for long ages past it has shone with almost meridian splendour. Her illustrious name has descended from generation to generation, and has ever been a household word, venerated and beloved by the vast Hindu family. Notwithstanding her destruction by fire, applied by the hand of Krishņa, which may or may not be true, and the manifestations, in her physical aspects, of repeated changes, shiftings of site, and resuscitations, yet, as a city, no sign of feebleness, no symptom of impending' dissolution, so far as I am aware, is apparent in any of the numberless references to her in native records. As a queen, she has ever received the willing homage of her subjects scattered over all India; as a lover, she has secured their affection and regard.

Hiouen Thsang, the celebrated Chinese traveller, who, as a Buddhist pilgrim, visited India in the seventh century of the Christian era, describes Benares as a kingdom "about four thousand li (six hundred and sixty-seven miles) in circumference. To the west is the capital,-near the Ganges,—which is from eighteen to nineteen li (three. miles and upwards) long, and from five to six li (about one mile) broad. The villages lie very near together, and contain a numerous population. Families of great wealth, whose houses are filled with rare and precious things, are to be seen. The people are gentle and polished, and esteem highly those who are devoted to a studious life. The greater portion of them believe in the heretical doctrines (of Hinduism), and few have respect for the Law (religion) of Buddha. The climate is temperate, grain is in abundance, the fruit-trees are luxuriant, and the earth is covered with tufted vegetation. There are thirty (Buddhist) monasteries, containing about three thousand monks. .... There are a hundred temples of the (Hindu) gods, and about ten thousand heretics (Hindus), who, for the most part, worship the god Ta-tseu-thsai (Maheswara). Some cut off their hair; others preserve a tuft upon the crown of the head, go naked, and are destitute of any kind of clothing. Some besmear their bodies with ashes, and practise zealously severe austerities, in order to obtain release from life and death (that is, from transmigration). In the capital there are twenty (Hindu) temples of the gods.” 1

And now, after the lapse of so many ages, this magnificent city still maintains most of the freshness and all the beauty of her early youth. For picturesqueness and grandeur, no sight in all the world can well surpass that of Benares as seen from the river Ganges. Macaulay's graphic description of her appearance towards the close of the last century is, for the most part, applicable to her present state. He speaks of her as “a city, which, in wealth, population, dignity, and sanctity, was among the foremost of Asia. It was commonly believed that half a million of human beings: was crowded into that labyrinth of lofty alleys, rich with shrines, and minarets,

See Appendix B. * This conjecture regarding the population of Benares is not correct. The Government census gives less than two hundred thousand; but this is too low an estimate. The number of pilgrims annually visiting the city, moreover, is very large, being one hundred and fifty or two hundred thousand, and perhaps more, while the population of the surrounding villages is exceedingly dense.

[ocr errors][merged small]


and balconies, and carved oriels, to which the sacred apes clung by hundreds. The traveller could scarcely make his way through the press of holy mendicants, and not less holy bulls. The broad and stately flights of steps which descended from these swarming haunts to the bathing-places along the Ganges, were worn every day by the footsteps of an innumerable multitude of worshippers. The schools and temples drew crowds of pious Hindus from every province where the Brahminical faith was known. Hundreds of devotees came thither every month to die; for it was believed that a peculiarly happy fate awaited the man who should pass from the sacred city into the sacred river. Nor was superstition the only motive which allured strangers to that great metropolis. Commerce had as many pilgrims as religion. All along the shores of the venerable stream lay great fleets of vessels laden with rich merchandize. From the looms of Benares went forth the most delicate silks that adorned the balls of St. James's and of Versailles; and in the bazaars, the muslins of Bengal and the sabres of Oude were mingled with the jewels of Golconda and the shawls of Cashmere.” 1

The connexion of Benares with the religious history of one half the human race, inhabiting the countries of Eastern Asia, is a subject of surpassing interest. Previously to the introduction of the Buddhist faith into India, she was already the sacred city of the land, the centre of Hinduism, and chief seat of its authority. Judging from the strong feelings of veneration and affection with which the native community regard her

· Macaulay's Warren Hastings, p. 55.


in the present day, and bearing in mind that the founder of Buddhism commenced his ministry at this spot, it seems indisputable that, in those early times preceding the Buddhist reformation, the city must have exerted a powerful and wide-spread religious influence over the land. Throughout the Buddhist period in India, — a period extending from seven hundred to a thousand years,—she gave the same support to Buddhism which she had previously given to the Hindu faith. Buddhist works of that era have abundant allusions to Benares, and clearly establish the fact that the Buddhist of those days regarded the city with much the same kind of veneration as the Hindu does now. The sacred writings of Ceylon, called the Játakas, which contain an immense number of tales relating to the life of Buddha and to the early history of his religion, are replete with references to Benares ; indeed, each Játaka is almost invariably connected with a Brahmadatta, king of Benares. When Buddha delivered his first discourse at Ísipattana, near Benares, not only the five Bhikshus, as already stated, but also Yasu, son of Sujáta, and bis fifty-four royal companions or princes, embraced the new religion, and became believers in Buddha. Thus these sixty persons were the first, or amongst the first, disciples of this remarkable personage; and to them he gave instructions to proceed in different directions, and announce to the world that the Supreme Buddha had appeared. Starting from the sacred city, these emissaries of Buddhism, in obedience to his injunctions, went forth, and became the forerunners and pioneers of that wonderful missionary enterprise to other cities and



towns, and to other and distant lands, which terminated in the conversion to the Buddhist creed of the vast and densely-peopled countries of Eastern Asia.

When the immense influence which he has exerted upon mankind is considered, it may be safely affirmed that the career of S'ákya Muni or Buddha is unparalleled in mere human history. That he, a solitary man, prince of a royal house, becoming an ascetic, and, seating himself down under a tree, should have remained there in meditation for five years and upwards, pondering over the religion, the priestcraft, false dogmas, loose morality, uncertainty, doubt, and confusion of his times, under which the nation groaned ; that he should have come to the conclusion that the existing religion was a delusion, baseless and pernicious; that he should have devised an entirely new system, of which himself was the centre, should have thought it out and put it in order, so as to be able to meet objectors and to overcome their arguments ; that, at the expiration of this period, he should have risen up and journeyed to Benares, and there delivered his primary discourse respecting the new doctrine ; should have thence gone forth to the gradual conquest of India, until the whole land substantially became converted to Buddhism, and sent forth missionaries to Ceylon and other parts, by whose agency that island, the ėmpire of China, Japan, Burmah, Nepal, and Tibet, with their four or five hundred millions of people, received the extraordinary dogma, the gigantic blasphemy, that there was no separate, self-existent Supreme God, but that each individual man, by contemplation, could rise into the divinity; that all this



« PreviousContinue »