It was said that the eclipse of the sun will be visible from Benares. But it needed more than smoked glass to see it; the eye of faith was also indispensable. That, alas, we did not possess. Partial to the point of being non-existent the eclipse remained, for us at least, unseen. For it was not to look at the moon’s silhouette that we had rowed out that morning on the Ganges; it was to look at the Hindus looking at it. The spectacle was vastly more extraordinary.
There were, at the lowest estimate, a million of them on the bathing ghats that morning. A million. All the previous night and day they had been streaming into the town. We had met them on every road, trudging with bare feet through the dust, an endless and silent procession. In bundles balanced on their heads they carried provisions and cooking utensils and dried dung for fuel, with the new clothes which it is incumbent on pious Hindus to put on after their bath in honour of the eclipsed sun. Many had come far. The old men leaned wearily on their bamboo staves. Their children astride on their hips, the burdens on their heads automatically balanced, the women walked in a trance of fatigue. Here and there we would see a little troop that had sat down to rest casually, as is the way of Indians in the dust of the road and almost under the wheels of the passing vehicles.
And now the day and the hour had come. The serpent was about to swallow the sun. (It was about to swallow him in Sumatra, at any rate. At Benares it would do no more than nibble imperceptibly at the edge of the disc. The serpent, one should say, was going to try to swallow the sun). A million of men and women had come together at Benares to assist the Light of Heaven against his enemy.
The ghats go down in furlong-wide flights of steps to the river, which lies like a long arena at the foot of enormous tiers of seats. The tiers were thronged today. Floating on the Ganges we looked up at acres upon acres of humanity.
On the smaller and comparatively unsacred ghats the crowd was a little less densely packed than on the holiest steps. It was at one of these less crowded ghats that we witnessed the embarkation on the sacred river of a princess. Canopied and curtained with glittering cloth of gold, a palanquin came staggering down through the crowd on the shoulders of six red-liveried attendants. A great barge, like a Noah’s ship, it’s windows hung with scarlet curtains, floated at the water’s edge. The majordomo shouted and shoved and hit out with his rod of office; a way was somehow cleared. Slowly and with frightful lurchings, the palanquin descended. It was set down and in the twinkling of an eye a little passage way of canvas had been erected between the litter and the door of the barge. There was a heaving of the cloth of gold, a flapping of the canvas, the lady – the ladies, for there were several of them in the litter – had entered the barge unobserved of any vulgar eye. Which did not prevent them a few minutes later when the barge had pushed out into the mid-stream, from lifting the scarlet curtain and peering out with naked faces and unabashed curiosity at the passing boats and our inquisitive camera. Poor princesses! They could not bathe with their plebeian and unimprisoned sisters in the open Ganges. Their dip was to be in the barge’s bilge water. The sacred stream is filthy enough under the sky. What must it be like after stagnating in darkness at the bottom of an ancient barge?
We rode on towards the burning ghats. Stretched out on their neat little oblong pyres, two or three corpses were smouldering. They lay on burning faggots, they were covered by them. Gruesomely and grotesquely, their feet projected, like the feet of those who sleep uneasily on a bed too short under exiguous blankets.
A little further on we saw a row of holy men sitting like cormorants on a narrow ledge on masonry just above the water. Cross-legged, their hands dropped limply, palm upwards, on the ground beside them, they contemplated the brown and sweating tips of their noses. ... The noise of an assembled million filled the air but no sound could break the meditative sleep of the nose-gazers.
At a given moment the eye of faith must have observed the nibblings of the demoniacal serpent. For suddenly and simultaneously all those on the lowest steps of the ghats threw themselves into the water and began to wash and gargle, to say their prayers and blow their noses, to spit and drink. A numerous band of police abbreviated their devotion and their bath in the interest of the crowds. The front of the waiting crew was a thousand yards wide; but a million people were waiting. The bathing must have gone on uninterruptedly the whole day.
Time passed. The serpent went on nibbling imperceptibly at the sun. The Hindus counted their beads and prayed, made ritual gestures, ducked under the sacred slime, drank and were moved on by the police to make room for another instalment of the patient million. We rowed up and down, taking snapshots. West is west.
In spite of the serpent the sun was uncommonly hard on our backs and after a couple of hours on the river we decided that we had had enough and landed. The narrow lanes that lead from the ghats to the open streets in the centre of the town were lined with beggars, more or less holy. They sat on the ground with their begging bowls before them. The charitable, as they passed, would throw a few grains of rice into each of the bowls. By the end of the day, the beggars might with luck have accumulated a square meal. We pushed our way slowly through the thronged alleys. From an archway in front of us emerged a sacred bull. The nearest beggar was dozing at his post – those who eat little sleep much. The bull lowered its muzzle to the sleeping man’s bowl, made a scouring movement with its black tongue, and a morning’s charity had gone. The beggar still dozed. Thoughtfully chewing, the Hindu totem turned back the way it had come and disappeared.
Being stupid and having no imagination, animals often behave far more sensibly than men. Efficiently and by instinct, they do the right appropriate thing at the right moment – eat when they are hungry, look for water when they are thirsty, make love in the mating season, rest and play when they have leisure. Men are intelligent and imaginative; they look backwards and ahead; they invent ingenious explanations for observed phenomena; they devise elaborate and roundabout means for the achievement of remote ends. Their intelligence, which has made them masters of the world, often causes them to act like imbeciles. No animal, for example, is clever and imaginative enough to suppose that an eclipse is the work of a serpent devouring the sun. That is the sort of explanation that could occur only to the human mind. And only the human mind would dream of making ritual gestures in the hope of influencing, for his own benefit, the outside world. While the animal, obedient to its instinct, goes quietly about its business, man being endowed with reason and imagination wastes half his time and energy in doing things that are completely idiotic. In time, it is true, experience teaches him that magic formulas and ceremonial gestures do not give him what he wants. But until experience has taught him – and he takes a surprisingly long time to learn – man’s behaviour is in many respects far sillier than that of the animals.
So I reflected as I watched the sacred bull lick up the rice from the dozing beggar’s bowl. While a million people undertake long journeys, suffer fatigue, hunger and discomfort in order to perform in a certain stretch of dirty water, certain antics for the benefit of a fixed star ninety million miles away, the bull goes about looking for food and fills its belly with what it can find. In this, it is obvious the bull’s brainlessness causes it to act much more rationally than its masters.
To save the sun (which might, one feels, very safely be left to look after itself) a million of Hindus will assemble on the banks of the Ganges. How many, I wonder, would assemble, to save India? An immense energy, which if it could be turned into political channels, might liberate and transform the country, is wasted in the name of imbecile superstitions. Religion is a luxury, which India, in its present condition, cannot possibly afford. India will never be free until the Hindus and Moslems are as rabidly enthusiastic about their religion as we are about the Church of England. If I were an Indian millionaire, I would leave all my money for the endowment of an Atheist mission.