A SUDDEN chime of bells, a blaze of lights waved before an altar--while without, the watching stars and purple blackness of the midnight sky look down--such is the solemn moment of the Birth of Krishna.
Surely it is only in this country, where a temple perforce takes the form of a verandah, that Nature wholly mingles herself with worship, to bring the sense of the Divine to man. The Western monk chants his Hours--Lauds and Prime and Matins, and Terce and Sext and Vespers and Nones--but those footfalls of the Sun that he commemorates were trodden long ago in the deserts of the Thebaid, and he sings within closed doors, holding himself snug against the chill winds without. Here in India, however, we practise the Faith in the very land, and every day we realise afresh the cosmic events that gave it birth. Who has felt the stillness that falls on lawn and river at the moment of noon? Who, watching through long hours, has heard the distant music of the
flute arise by the Ganges side with the first ray of dawn? Who has wandered in field and forest at the time of cowdust, and known the sudden touch of twilight on the soul, without understanding why the village bells ring and prayers are enjoined at the stated hours? For that which in one man's eyes is superstition, another may know to be but an added firmness of sensation. But surely of all the worships in the Hindu cycle, none has the power and force of those celebrated at midnight. When slumber has fallen on men, gathered together in the great hive of Night; when even the wild creatures are still, each in his place on hillside or bough; when all that is trivial and personal has been blotted out with the passing of the sunlight, till, in the sound of the river, we can almost hear that of the far-off sea--then the lamps of the altar shine as though they were in truth the heart of the universe; then the worshipper feels himself to be but one of an innumerable host of stars and worlds, all of which wait with him for the dawn in the darkness of Light Ineffable. And most of all this is true of the midnight service of the Birth of Krishna.
Among the higher castes in Bengal it is customary that each house shall contain a private chapel of its own, and only the poor and the lowly betake themselves to temples for the observance of the great festivals; but to my own
household, perhaps as a proof of our perversity of disposition, this is rather a reason for frequenting them than otherwise. We love to see the band of simple worshippers, for the most part women, who arrive now and again and seat themselves to watch the ceremony in the outer court, while an elderly priest gives informal religious instruction during the preliminary stages of the function. We like, too, to listen to that religious instruction itself, and to the questions which now and again it has to meet. And so one night we sat on the steps of a certain temple of Kali, which stands at a corner hard by and looks far across the Ganges with the hay boats drawn up in line beneath the bank, on and on to the edge of the world in the distant North-West. The temple is old, and the corner rounded off with the wisdom and beauty peculiar to the old Indian method of laying out a town, and the image that dwells there, under a sheltering bo-tree, is known as "the Kali of the Hay-merchants." Only a few years ago the spot was at the extreme end of Calcutta, but to-day this can no longer be said, though there is still a large open space opposite, where a great tree stands, and now and then gives a long shivering cry, as if to warn the neighbourhood of coming storm.
All the evening through the street had been full of passers up and down. And sudden bursts of
singing and sounding of shankh and gongs had disturbed the ordinary quiet in all directions. For we are early old-fashioned folk in the Hindu quarter of Calcutta. Lights are out and noises hushed, as a rule, before ten o’clock; and by eleven o’clock, even on the Janmastami, everything was closed except the temples. Here, by the light of his own altar, an Uriya priest still sat chanting the tale of the Holy Birth from a palm-leaf book. There, a few Brahmins chatted late round the foot of an image at which presently they would be offering worship. But the bamboo mats were all up and padlocked in front of the shops, and only the lamplights from the open shrines streamed across the curb.
It was thus that we waited for the moment of the Birth. The temple had disappeared. The tones of the kindly old priest sounded dim and far away. Centuries had rolled back. The walls of a prison closed about us, and we waited once more with the royal victims, Devaki the mother and Vasudev the father, for the coming of the Holy Child. Once more, as on the first Day of the Birth, the rains seemed to fall and the winds to blow, and the only sound that reached us besides the violence of the storm was the heavy breathing of the guards, smitten into slumber by spirits, carrying to the prison of Kangsa the commission of the Most High. Surely never was the
anguish of motherhood so great as on that night! Seven times had Devaki given life, and seven times had it been snatched away by the cruel king her brother, as soon as given--for had it not been told that one of her babes should be his enemy and take his life? And now at the coming of the eighth child, especially named in the prophecy, and looked for with concentrated passion of fierceness and jealousy--how, in that seven-times wounded heart, could there be room for joy?
Heavy moments are these, full of bitterest anguish of expectancy and dread; full of the agony of love that longs to save, but finds no means for protection of the Beloved, and yet at the same time moments in which is mingled a sense of lofty faith, a growing awe, an intuition of infinite tenderness and triumph.
It was over at last. Before them lay the Babe Himself, all laughter, all radiance. One more had been added to the "wretched births" of the Avataras, and even in a prison the mystery of Incarnation made itself felt.
The books say that it was the new-born child who instructed Vasudev to wrap him in his cloak, and pass out of the prison to the village on the far side of the Jumna, and then substitute him for the new-born girl of Nanda the cowherd and return. Was it so, indeed? Or was it overwhelming
clearness of vision that came with the presence of the Divine and seemed life speech?
However that be, it met with prompt and eager obedience from the royal prisoners. No mother's weakness of Devaki, no masculine scepticism of Vasudev, was put forward to check for one moment the course of events. Concealing under his mantle the shining Child, the father turned to make his way through darkness and storm. The guards slept soundly; the prison doors opened silently of their own accord. And none had ever seen the Lord of the Worlds save him who carried Him. Terrible was the storm, and full of terror the flood of the Jumna when the moment came for crossing it. Here and there Vasudev tried, but it was impossible to find means, when suddenly a jackal passed in before him, and he, guided by this lowliest of beasts, forded the stream in safety and reached the hut of Nanda the cowherd. Here, too, sound sleep had fallen upon all, and Yasoda herself, when she awoke in the morning, did not know that the Boy in her arms was a changeling, nor dreamed that he was in truth of the royal house.
In the prison; however, a terrible scene had been enacted. The infuriated sovereign, Kangsha, informed of the occurrence at last of the long-expected birth, had come in person to visit the prisoners. Suspecting foul play when he saw a
female child, but unable to substantiate his suspicions, he seized the infant by the feet to dash it to pieces against the wall. But the girl was an incarnation of Yogmaya, and the king suddenly found his clenched fingers empty, while over above him, illuminating the chamber with her glow, stood the great Goddess. "Your enemy is even now growing to manhood," she said, "in the village of the cowherds," and then the vision faded out and there was none with them.
Poor fate-maddened king--doomed by each act only to fill deeper the cup of his iniquities till the destined champion should appear, and in single combat avenge the wrongs of his people and his blood--how sad and yet how necessary was the part that he played in the story of Brindaban and the wondrous childhood! How strange--but at this point a movement among the priests interrupted our memories and recalled us to the present. The mystical moment of midnight had come. The Holy Child was born once more among men, and here, not in a prison but in a temple, and amidst the music of bells, with flowers, and lights, and incense, we were to celebrate that old-time coming of the Lord of Worlds. Many minutes passed in silence and prostration, and then we slipped away through the chime-broken hush of the quiet street to our own door.
But as we reached it we lingered for a moment
regretfully on the threshold. "Ah surely," said we, "this is no accustomed scene. For in truth we have come through wind and storm across the Jumna, and, bearing the Holy Babe beneath our cloak, we are but now arrived at the hut of Nanda the cowherd in the village of Gokul."