People in all ages, all the world over, cling with varying degrees of tenacity to the views and practices which have come to them from their fathers. Jeremiah said, "Pass over the isles of Chittim, and see; and send unto Kedar, and consider diligently, and see if there be such a thing. Hath a nation changed their gods, which are yet no gods?" Hinduism in its present form is comparatively modern; but the people generally know nothing of its history, and they regard it as an inheritance from the most ancient times. It comes to them as the gifts of gods and sages, which it would be sacrilege to reject. There is much in the religion itself to bind the people to it. Its numerous ceremonies, sustained by the largest promises, give the assurance of a great reward. In discharging their religious duties they have often to endure toil, undergo privation, and make sacrifices; but the more they do and suffer, the greater is the complacency with which they regard their religious position. There is one thing Hinduism does not demand of its devotees. It does not demand a radical change of character or of life. Its every requirement may be met without abandoning evil dispositions and practices. It can be easily supposed how strong a hold a religion like this has on its votaries, and how especially strong its hold must be in the city where it has been enthroned for ages.
In our day much is said about heredity. Facts illustrative of its power over the features, character, and life, not only of individuals but of communities, are patent to all. Whatever heredity can do it does in infusing the spirit of Hinduism into the very blood of the people of Benares, who have been so long dominated by it. The mastery it has obtained over them is shown by the whole tone of their minds and the whole bearing of their life. If sincerity and enthusiasm be the essential requisites in religion, the inhabitants of this city have all they need, for these qualities are possessed by them in a high degree. Then, in such a city there is felt the almost overpowering influence of thousands from day to day, and of vast multitudes on occasion of high festival, performing the same rites, worshipping the same gods, and animated by the same spirit. The peculiar thrill of pleasure given by a great assembled eager host to every individual composing it; the sense of importance it gives to each, as if on him rested the concentrated honour of the gathering, does much to bind people to a religion which receives such services from millions. If for a single year these daily services and periodical gatherings were intermitted, Hinduism would be greatly weakened.
[Sidenote: SECULAR AND SACRED INFLUENCES.]
In addition to the domestic, social, and public influences which guard and uphold the existing state of things, there is the tremendous power of personal gain and honour. The honour, the wealth, the very subsistence of large influential classes, are bound up with the maintenance of idolatry. The Pundits, the guardians and expositors of their sacred books; the Pundas who minister in the temples; the Gungaputrs who serve at the river side; the Purohits, the family priests; the Gurus, the father confessors and guides of the people; and the Jyotishees, the astrologers, with their families and relations, would be stripped of their honour and gain, of their very means of living, if Hinduism was at once abandoned. Benares is a great commercial as well as religious city. If it ceased to be Hindu, we cannot suppose its commerce would be paralyzed; but as a considerable part of its ordinary trade is dependent on the thousands of pilgrims who resort to it, on the money they expend on food, on gifts to the priests, and on the purchase of articles exposed for sale, great loss would be in the first place incurred. The many artisans now employed in making images of stone and brass, would find no purchasers for their goods. In addition to the pecuniary loss which directly and indirectly would fall on all classes, the whole community would feel the glory of Kasee, the Splendid City, had departed, when, stripped of its sacredness, crowds of pilgrims no longer filled its streets, frequented its temples, or bathed at its ghats. They would feel as the Jews did in their dark and disastrous days, when the ways to Zion were untrodden, and there was the silence of desolation within its gates.
When the peculiarities of Benares are in any degree realized, the work of making known the gospel to its inhabitants may appear formidable to the extent of hopelessness.
It is formidable, very formidable, but it can appear hopeless only when we forget the command of our Saviour to preach the Gospel to every creature, when we forget the power of the truth, the adaptation of the Gospel to the human heart, its past triumphs, and the promised aid of the Holy Spirit. The very strength of this fortress of idolatry should call forth the courage of Christ's soldiers by directing their eyes to Him as their great and glorious Leader. Such was the courage of the Apostles and their immediate successors, when instead of going to small towns and villages, and working from them towards the cities where the Gospel might be expected to meet with the most determined opposition, they assailed at once with their spiritual weapons the high places of idolatry, of power which claimed worship as well as homage, and of learning which aimed in its own strength, and aimed unsuccessfully, at the solution of the deepest questions which affect mankind. They went to Ephesus, to Rome, and to Athens, and secured in them a measure of success, which prepared the way for a mighty revolution throughout the Roman Empire.
Towards the end of the last century, when there was a great awakening of the missionary spirit, devoted Christians, animated by apostolic example, formed the purpose of going with the Gospel to Benares. Robert Haldane sold a fine estate, that with a band of chosen companions he might preach the Gospel to its inhabitants. He was obliged to abandon the enterprise by the prohibition of the East India Company; and then, in company with his brother and others similarly minded, he turned to home mission work, which for a time was prosecuted by them with ardent zeal and great success.
[Sidenote: HINDUISM AND CHRISTIANITY.]
In 1781 the city and district of Benares, which had for some time paid tribute to our Government, were brought directly under our rule. We are sure no Christian missionary would have been previously tolerated in Benares for a day. He could not speak of Jesus Christ as the Lord of all and the Saviour of the world without implying that Mahadeo and the other gods of Benares were no God. His teaching would be speedily discerned in its antagonism to the genius of the place, and would ensure his speedy expulsion, if not his death. To the present hour no missionary is allowed to plant his foot in Mecca, or Medina, the sacred cities of the Muhammadans. Till a very recent period, when the Pope's political power came to an end, no Protestant minister was allowed to open his mouth in proclaiming the Gospel in Rome. The mild Hindu can be as fanatical as the Muhammadan and the Roman Catholic in resenting an attack on his religion, and in persecuting its opponents.
We have no historical records from which we can learn how Buddhism was overthrown in India; but, as we have already observed, we have reason to conclude it was not overthrown by argument and persuasion, but by fire and sword. The intense hatred shown to the Gospel by those who are imbued by the spirit of Hinduism will not allow us to doubt that, if they had the power, they would forbid all Christian effort, and especially such effort in their sacred city. They were long under the rule of the Muhammadans, and were subjected by them to grievous indignities, which they were helpless to avert or resent; but their attachment to Hinduism, instead of being diminished, was inflamed by the treatment they received, and during the semi-independent position they held previous to coming under our sway they had both the power and the will effectually to prevent the entrance of a new antagonistic religion. The superior strength and daring of the English were so signally shown in the overthrow of Rajah Cheit-Singh by Warren Hastings, that opposition to the new regime was seen to be hopeless, and the people quietly submitted to their new rulers. So far as they knew the temper and policy of the English, they might conclude their religion would at their hands not only be safe from violence, but protected from every attempt at proselytism. The policy which would have left Hinduism undisturbed was successfully opposed by the Christian feeling of England, and the way was opened for the Christian missionary into the very fortress of Hindu idolatry. For this entrance we are not in any way indebted to the mildness of Hindu religionists, but to the resolute, persevering, courageous effort of men of God, who contended successfully against the worldly selfishness which would have doomed the millions of India to perpetual night.
[Sidenote: STREET PREACHING.]
We have observed that mission operations were tentatively begun in Benares in the second decade of this century. The work was carried on in a very quiet unostentatious manner. Some time elapsed before any open aggressive effort was put forth. If Bishop Heber's counsel had been followed there would have been no departure from the first timid mode of action. He says in his journal, "The custom of street preaching, of which the Baptist and other Dissenting missionaries in Bengal are very fond, has never been resorted to by those employed by the Church Missionary Society, and never shall be so long as I have any influence or authority over them. I plainly see it is not necessary, and I see no less plainly that though it may be safe among the timid Bengalees, it would be very likely to produce mischief here. All which the missionaries do is to teach schools, read prayers, and preach in their churches, and to visit the houses of such persons as wish for information on religious subjects." If the good man had lived a few years longer he would have seen ministers of his own Church forward in modes of action which he disapproved, and would doubtless have wished them God-speed, as his successors in the diocese of Calcutta have done. The Bishop of Lahore, Dr. French, took a prominent part for years in outdoor preaching.
The missionary has of course met with opposition in many forms; the opposition has often been keen and bitter, but it has not taken the form of violence to person or injury to property. The Gospel has been for many years proclaimed in the most public places in Benares, crowds have heard it, and no hand has been raised against the preacher. In the memoirs of the Rev. William Smith, of the Church Mission, who was indefatigable in evangelistic labour, than whom none was better known in Benares, it is mentioned that on a few occasions mud was thrown at him, but it did him no harm. On one occasion, after a very keen discussion, when my Hindu opponents had been extremely angry, on coming out from the place a native Christian by my side was struck on the head by a stone, which was evidently intended for me. Happily the young man speedily recovered from the blow. The night was dark, and the act was not brought home to any one. The people present expressed indignation at the deed. On another occasion a man drew his sword half-way out of the scabbard (it was the fashion of the time to go about armed), and said he would gladly cut off my head, because I was trying to turn away his people from their religion; but he knew if he did he would be hanged, and as he wished to live a little longer he restrained himself. He gave me a scowl, which showed how ready he was for the crime if he could commit it with impunity. On another occasion most vigorous drumming was carried on above our heads, which made speaking and hearing impossible. As after many years spent in Benares I cannot recollect any more violent acts than those I have mentioned, the reader may infer how little reason we have to complain of danger to life or limb.
[Sidenote: POSITION OF THE MISSIONARY IN BENARES.]
Nothing approaching the treatment of Dr. Kalley by the Popish priests of Madeira has been ever experienced by any missionary in Benares at the hand of Hindu priests. The perfect security, with which in ordinary times we went about our work, is in marked contrast to the experience of many a labourer in the home mission-field, not only in the early days of Methodism, but down to our own time, to say nothing of the violence to which the Salvation Army has been exposed. The fact that we belong to the ruling race, and that it is understood by all an attack on us will be promptly and severely punished, has had, no doubt, much to do in enabling us to carry on our operations so quietly and safely. There has been an ebullition at times on the occasion of baptisms, but it has soon subsided. Gradually the people have come to understand us sufficiently to be convinced we are bent on promoting their good, and they regard us in consequence with a friendly feeling. Most pleasant proof has been given that many of the inhabitants of Benares have come to look on missionaries not only with respect but affection. I well remember gratifying acts of courtesy and kindness, which could not have been prompted by sinister motives.
I must not omit to say that while missionaries have carried on their work openly and boldly, they have felt themselves bound to treat the people courteously, and to abstain from the use of violent and abusive words. There are places where they do not deem themselves entitled to declare their message -- such as sacred places where worship is being carried on. Mr. Smith, of the Church Mission, once mentioned to me that he had for a short time taken his stand close to one of the bathing places, but the priests and people were greatly excited by his presence, and he deemed it proper to retire.
While at Benares the Gospel has to encounter peculiar opposition, it has some marked advantages as a mission-field. The missionary, as he moves about, meets with people from all parts of India. While these speak different languages, many know enough of the languages spoken at Benares to admit of a measure of intelligent intercourse with them. Vast multitudes come from the widely extended region over which the Hindustanee and Hindee prevail. While many go to Benares, we may suppose the great majority, urged by the gregarious feeling so powerful all the world over, happy to find themselves among the multitude, hoping to get some religious benefit, and sure at any rate, as they acknowledge, of amusement, we cannot doubt there are among them earnest souls -- how many it is impossible to say -- who are ill at ease, and have a craving for rest and satisfaction. These persons are in the state of mind to which the Gospel is specially adapted, and it is very desirous for the missionary to come into contact with them. Missionaries have fallen in with persons of this class, and among them there have been pleasing instances of conversion. There are individuals now in distant parts of India living Christian lives, who were led to embrace Christ as their Saviour by what they heard at Benares. Many Christian books have been circulated among pilgrims to the sacred city. These are taken to their homes, we may hope sooner or later to be read by them to their spiritual benefit. Again and again bread cast on the waters has been found after many days.
The greed of the Pundas and Gungaputrs of Benares is notorious. Many a poor pilgrim has suffered from their exactions, and we may suppose that reverence for the sacred city has received a shock under such treatment similar to that which Luther experienced on his visit to Rome. While Hinduism is no doubt greatly strengthened by the resort of the people to Benares, much done and endured there is well fitted to alienate the more thoughtful of the visitors; and so far as they are alienated from the prevailing superstition, the more likely they are to listen patiently and candidly to the Christian preacher.
[Sidenote: PROSPECT OF SUCCESS.]
I conclude these remarks on Benares as a mission sphere by observing that marked success there would have a marvellous effect on the evangelization of India. The news would soon spread that Hinduism was drying up at its fountain, and that its power could not be much longer maintained. We know that Hinduism itself has undergone great, we may say radical, changes, since Kasee became one of its principal seats, if not its head-quarters. There Buddhism was first preached, and from it Buddhism went forth to all Eastern Asia. There it was for a time predominant, but Hinduism again obtained supremacy, and drove its rival from the field. For centuries, Hinduism under the form of devotion to Shiva Mahadeo, the Great God, as they delight to call him, has had full sway. Is his dominion to last for ever? Are the people to be for ever in the slough of idolatry and superstition? We cannot believe that they are, until we abandon all trust in Him who rightly claims all human hearts, and whose grace is sufficient to enforce these claims. We know not when, we know not how, but we do know that even in Benares, as all the world over, our blessed Saviour will take to Himself His great power and reign. Even now entrance has been gained for the truth of God, hearts have been won by it, and Christian churches have been formed. The first-fruits have been gathered, and the harvest will come. Are we allowing imagination to take the reins at the expense of judgment, when we indulge the hope, that as in former days Buddhist preachers went forth from Benares to the millions of Eastern Asia with the lessons of Gautama, the Brahmans of Benares, accepting Jesus as their Saviour, will go forth with His Gospel to diffuse it far and wide among the nations of India, and then, with their converts, make their way to the remotest East? Let us not say, "If the Lord would make windows in heaven, might this thing be?" but rather, "Who hath despised the day of small things?" The Messiah "shall build the temple, and He shall bear the glory."