HERE is a fairy tale which I found in an old Hindoo manuscript.
As the title shows, it is a solar myth. Literally translated, its name is: The glory of the Going Down of the Sun. But this is only the exoteric, physical envelope of the inner, mystical meaning, which is: The Divine Lustre a of the Descent (Incarnation) of Him Who took Three Steps: i.e. Wishnu, or the Sun, the later Krishna, or Hindoo Apollo. And this epithet of the Sun is explained by the well-known passage in the Rig-Weda (I. 22. 17 b), 'Three steps did Wishnu stride: thrice did
he set down his foot.' A mythological expression for the rise, the zenith, and the set of the Sun. But the old magnificent simplicity of the Rig-Weda was perverted by subsequent Pauranik glosses; and Wishnu, according to the new legend, was said to have cheated his adversary, Bali, by striding, in his Dwarf Incarnation, over the three worlds. In our title, a different turn is given to the old idea, which we may express by saying that the steps commence, not with the rise, but the set of the Sun: his Going Down, his mysterious period of Darkness, his Rising again. This is the inverted Race, or Cycle of the Sun, which so much exercised the mind of primitive man, and seemed to be a symbol of the mystery of Birth and Death.
And ours is a strange story; which seemed to the translator not unworthy of being clothed in an English dress, containing as it did so much in little bulk that, as the French say, donne à penser. Absolutely Hindoo in its form and spirit, it is for an Englishman full of associations, and instinct with that philosophical mythology, scraps and fragments of which are familiar to him in the story of the Fall and the poetry of Milton, in many an old fairy tale, in some touches of Pythagoras and Plato, and some old religious legends. Lux in tenebris: a dazzling light, in the most profound darkness: the night of the sun: a heavenly body, doomed to put on mortality and suffer for a period in this lower world of darkness, birth and death: in some such ways as these we may express its central idea. But for the reader
not acquainted with Sanskrit it may be worth while to point out that there runs throughout it a veiled allegory which he would not be apt to detect, to the teaching of the Sánkhya Philosophy of Kapila, (who is older than Thales;) according to which it is the duty of PURUSHA, the archetype of the spirit of man, the Primæval Male, to hunt for and pursue PRAKRITI, the feminine personification of material Nature, the Eternal Feminine, till he finds her: when instantly she disappears 'like an actress c.' In this respect, the story somewhat recalls the Gita-Gowind of Jayadewa, which according to one school of interpreters, deals with the Soul, personified as the lovely Rádhá, in its search after the Divine. For among the Hindoos, the earthly and the heavenly love are always confounded.
And let not anyone suppose, that the lesson embodied to these pages is obsolete or dead in the India of to-day. I wrote the last lines of this translation late one evening, and I walked out in the dusk to the bridge across the river, about half a mile away. There was not a breath of air. It was a night as still as that which long ago Medea chose on which to work her spells: nothing moved save the twinkling stars; all below was plunged
in sleep, every tree a picture, every leaf seemed carved in stone: only, every now and then, a flying fox burst screeching from a branch. And as I stood upon the bridge, I could hear a faint din of tom-toms coming from the distant city of the Peshwas. I looked westwards, up the river. The sun had set, leaving behind it a ruddy glare which faded higher up the sky into the darkness: and exactly on the confines of the colours, in that bath of nilalohita, that purple-red, which is a favourite epithet of the god Shiwa, hung, like a thing in a dream, the lovely streak of the new moon, one day old. All was reflected in the still mirror of the broad sheet of water formed by the river Bund, or dam.
I turned round. On the eastern side, below the bridge, the river runs in disconnected pools. All was buried in dark and gloom. But about two hundred yards away, on the right bank, there was a red spot and leaping flames. They were burning on the bank a corpse, whose former owner had died of plague. For here in Poona it is now, as it was of old in the days of Homer, αἰεὶ δὲ πυραὶ νεκύων καίοντο θαμειαί. . . .
Suddenly a voice said behind me: They burn well on a cold night. I looked round. Beside me stood a Hindoo, whose real name I do not think it lawful to mention. His white clothes were stained and splashed all over with red, for the Holi festival had left its mark on him.
Why, Wishwanáth, I said, what are you doing here?
Or have you come, like me, merely dekhne ke wáste, to see the sun set, and 'eat air'?
Wishwanáth cast a careless glance at the sky. Yes, he said, it looks well from here: but then I have seen it so often. It was a new moon yesterday.
And very soon it will be old. Look, Wishwanáth, here is a strange thing. See, there on that side is the moon, following the sun to rest in a bath of fire, and they will both appear to-morrow all the better for it. But now, look down there. There is another thing passing, away in the fire. But how will it be with that?
And I pointed to the burning pyre on the other side.
The Hindoo looked steadily at it for a moment, and then at me. It will be just the same, he said.
What! you think that that will come back again, like sun and moon?
He did not answer for a moment. Then he said slowly, in a low voice, as if speaking rather to himself than me: How should it not return? na jáyate mriyate wa kadáchit d.
I looked at him, but said nothing. He continued to gaze steadily at the burning pyre, in silence, and I did the same. The flames were dying down: their work was done.
Metempsychosis, transmigration, everlasting incarnation and re-incarnation of the immortal soul in body after body, birth after birth: all Hindoo literature is but the kaleidoscopic reiteration of this one identical idea, whose beauty is such that no logic will ever destroy it or oust it in favour of another. For the Sanskrit language is a kind of shrine, consecrated to the embodiment and immortalisation of this philosophical myth. The Hindoos are possessed by it; it is their hereditary heirloom, Kramágatam, the legacy from an immemorial past: it is all that they have left. And nations, like the characters in our story, cling desperately, in periods of degradation and eclipse, to all that reminds them of a former state of ideal prosperity, which lingers in their literature and echoes in their souls, like dim recollections of a forgotten paradise, or faint reminiscences of a former birth. Distance lends enchantment, and time effaces detail, and endows stern realities with dreamy beauty; and thus a rugged stony past fades gradually into a picture, blue, soft, and unutterably beautiful, like some low barren island, seen far away in the haze, over a hot and glittering sea.
March 25, 1903.
ix:a Shrí also means a Sacred Lotus, and it is the name of the twelfth Digit of the Moon: thus indicating the position of this story in the series to which it belongs: for an account of which, and the manuscript, I may refer the reader to the preface to her predecessor Shashiní, entitled A Digit of the Moon.
ix:b Cp. also I. 154, 155, and elsewhere. It should be observed that learned doctors differ as to the interpretation of the three strides: but this is not the place to examine their views.
xi:c From this point of view, the period of Night would be the reign of Tamas, one of the three great categories of that philosophy: the Quality of Darkness, as opposed to Light, Ignorance, as opposed to Knowledge, Evil, as opposed to Good, the World Below, as opposed to the World Above.
xiii:d From the Bhagwad-Gítá: IT is never born and never dies.