Buddhist Priests and the Title “Reverend”
The Madras Times, May 28, 1879
To the Editor,
Sir,—My writing is prompted by the legitimate curiosity of a foreigner, who is studying the value of English words and their relative meaning in more ancient languages. It was aroused in me upon reading in your influential paper of May 2nd the notice of our President Olcott’s recent address in Framjee Cowasjee Hall, Bombay, upon the Theosophical Society and its Rules. Will you then kindly help me out of my present difficulty, and, unlike your Anglo-Indian police, which would perversely see in this great thirst for learning only a coming search after forbidden information in the interests of Russia—relieve my perplexity by explaining what follows?
The writer of the learned notice—or shall I rather say criticism?—in which his first mistake is calling Theosophy a religion, whereas it is but an analytical science—becomes rather facetious over the application of the title “Reverend” to the names of our two respected Sinhalese members of the general council, the Rev. H. Sumangala and the Rev. Mohottiwatte Gunananda. “They look queer,” he remarks, “to say the least, when decked in Christian prefixes” (the italics are mine). He wants to know what his “right reverendship,” the Bishop of Lincoln, “would say to the yellow-robed, shaven-headed, and bare-shouldered priests of Gautama Buddha being so described.”
I do sincerely hope that his “Right Reverendship,” unless he has quite forgotten his Johnson, and never consulted Webster, would have very little, if anything, to say about it. Unless the world at large, and the two great lexicographers in particular, have all this time been labouring under a delusion, the title of Reverend is derived from the Latin reverere, “to regard one with fear mingled with respect and affection” (Webster); or, perhaps Coleridge comes nearer to the mark in saying that “reverence” is “the synthesis of love and fear.” However this may be, I want to be informed whether this title is, in fact, purely a “Christian prefix” and why the yellow-robed, shaven-headed, and bare-shouldered priests of Śakya Muni have not as legitimate a right to it, whether in their own language or in English, as the black-robed, tonsured and surpliced “Lamas of Jehovah” (see Abbé Huc’s Travels in Thibet) and other padris of the multitudinous sects of Christendom. The Jews—to quote the immortal rejoinder of a Californian John Chinaman—“killed the joss of the Christians,” and yet no bigoted newspaper, clergyman or layman has ever questioned the right of Jewish rabbis to the title of “Reverend.”
The etymological side of the question being thus disposed of, it then appears to me that the priest of any religion, whether Buddhist, Hindoo, Mussulman or any other, may, with equal propriety be given this prefix, provided, always, he inspires and deserves the synthetic feeling of reverential awe and affection. Vice versa no cassocked or white-cravated priest or padri can be made “reverend” by simply affixing the title, if his secret life is one that shames morality and outrages common decency. Therefore, as we have yet to learn that our Brothers in Theosophy, Messrs. Sumangala and M. Gunananda, are less worthily styled “reverend” than the highest among the Christian clergy, we beg leave to protest against this insult. Let our critic, if he can, prove by the statistics of Ceylon, that that “spicy” isle has ever been the theatre of such disgraceful clerical crimes among the “heathen” and such shameful trials as have of late years rung throughout Christian America, not to say all Christendom. I need not go outside the law courts for statistics. Liar, embezzler, adulterer, poisoner, forger, seducer, incendiary, hypocrite—these are the “affixes” which the law has branded upon foreheads of many Christian clergymen. I have made a collection of newspaper cuttings, the last three years, and speak by the book.
I would like to know, therefore, if you will kindly ask the Bishop of Lincoln, whose feelings you seem so afraid of hurting, whether by the test of any morality whatever, New Testament included, our two Sinhalese exemplars of the noble ethics of Śakya Muni, are, in the opinion of his “right reverendship,” less worthy of reverence than, for instance—the American Rev. H. W. Beecher, who was proved adulterer and perjurer, and only saved from prison by a disagreement of the jury, under the pressure of the cleverest counsel in America. Or than the “right reverend” Samuel MacCroskey, Episcopal Bishop of Michigan, who last year seduced his thirteen-year old adopted daughter. Or, again, the “reverend” Mr. Hayden, who tried to conceal his crime of seduction and adultery, by cutting the throat of his paramour and disembowelling her. Or, as perhaps the noble Bishop takes exception to methodist and other nonconformist clergymen being called “reverend,” I had better submit for his decision the most recent case of the “Very Right Reverend” Roman Catholic Archbishop Purcell, who, in league with his brother Edward, also a “reverend”—has just stolen six million dollars (Rs. 1,20,00,000) from the poor fund of his diocese? Last week’s mail, also, brings us word that the “reverend” T. de Witt Talmage, of Brooklyn—long recognized by the majority of the American press as the rankest blasphemer and most catch-penny montebank that ever trod pulpit (and yet lately the honored host of the poet Martin Farquhar Tupper)—is now on trial before the Presbytery for alleged “lying, stealing, forgery, and deceiving his congregation.” But enough; the Bishop ought not to ask for more excerpts from my scrapbooks.
So, gently, if you please, our critic. Come outside your own crystal palace before throwing the hard rocks of your wit at “yellow-robed, shaven-headed, bare-shouldered ‘reverends,’” or even heathen Theosophists.
H. P. Blavatsky.
Corresponding Secretary of the Theosophical Society.