From Keshub Babu to Maestro Wagner via The Salvation Camp
Theosophist, February, 1883
But a few days since Friend of India and Statesman gave room to the reflections of a reverential correspondent, deploring the disrespectful familiarity with which the average swashbuckler of the Salvation Army speaks of his God. The reader was told that it—
“is not so easy to get over the shock caused by the very unceremonious way in which these men speak of the most sacred things and names, and their free and easy manner of addressing the Deity.”
No doubt. But it is only as it should be; and in fact, it could hardly have been expected otherwise. Familiarity breeds contempt—with “the most sacred things” equally with the profane. What with Guiteau, the pretended dutiful son and agent of God, who claimed but to have carried out his loving Father’s will in murdering in cold blood President Garfield; and Keshub Babu, the Minister of the New Dispensation, who in marrying his daughter to a popular, rich, and highly cultured young Raja, gives us to understand that he only blindly followed the verbal instructions received by him from God, there is but a temperamental difference in the results of their common cause of action. The aesthetic feelings of the Statesman writer, therefore, ought to be quite as much, if not more, ruffled by finding that the Almighty has been degraded in public print into the khidmatgar, ayah, cook, treasurer, munshi, and even the bhisti (water carrier) of Babu K. C. Sen,1 as by learning from the American papers how, coquetting with his Parent under the shadow of the gallows and with the rope around his neck, Guiteau—innocent babe!—crowed and lisped, addressing his “Father in Heaven” as his “Gody” and “Lordy.”
For years the combat has been deepening between religion and science, priestcraft, and lay radicalism; a conflict which has now assumed a form which it would never have taken but for priestly interference. The equilibrating forces have been their intolerance, ignorance, and absurdity on the one hand, and the people’s progressive combativeness, resulting in rank materialism, on the other. As remarked by somebody, the worst enemies of religion in every age have been the Scribes (priests), Pharisees (bigots), and Sadducees (materialists)—the latter word being applied to any man who is an anti-metaphysician. If theologians—Protestant casuists as well as Jesuits—had left the matter alone, abandoning every man to his own interpretation and inner light, materialism and the bitter anti-religious spirit, which now reigns supreme among the better educated classes, could have never gained the upper hand as they now have. The priests embroiled the question with their dead letter, often insane, interpretations enforced into infallible dicta; and men of science, or the so-called philosophers, in their attempts to dispel the obscurity and make away with every mystery altogether, intensified the obfuscation. The “distinguos” of the former—which Pascal held up to so much ridicule—and the physical, often grossly materialistic explanations of the latter, ruined every metaphysical truth. While the Pharisees were tampering with their respective Scriptures, the Sadducees were creating “infidelity.” Such a state of things is not likely to come to a speedy end, the conflagration being ever fed with fresh fuel by both sides. Notwithstanding the near close of a century justly regarded as the age of enlightenment, truth seems to shine as far away as it ever did from hoi polloi of humanity; and falsehood—lucky all of us, when it can be shown but simple error!—creeps out hideous and unabashed, in every shape and form from as many brains as are capable of generating it. This conflict between Fact and Superstition has brought a third class of “interpreters” to the front—mystical dramatic authors. The latter are a decided improvement upon the former, in so far as they help to transform the crude anthropomorphic fictions of fanatical religionists into poetical myths framed in the world’s sacred legends. We speak of the recent revivals of the old Aryan and Greek religious dramas, respectively in India and Europe; of those public and private theatricals called “Mysteries,” dropped in the West ever since the Mediaeval Ages, but now revived at Calcutta, Oberammergau, and Bayreuth. Unfortunately, from the sublime to the ridiculous there is but one step. Thus, from “Parsifal”—the poetical new opera of Wagner, performed for the first time in July last, at Bayreuth (Bavaria), before an audience of 1500 people composed of crowned heads, their scions, and suite—we tumble down into the Bengali “New Dispensation” Mystery. In the latter religious performance, the principal female part, that of the “mother-goddess,” is enacted by Babu K. C. Sen. The Brahmo Public Opinion represents the inspired minister as appearing on the stage clad in the traditional sari, with anklets, armlets, nose-rings, and jingling bangles; dancing as though for dear life, and surrounded by a cortege of disciples, one of whom had adorned his person—as a sign of devotion and humility, we should think—with a necklace of old shoes. Farce for farce, our personal preference inclines toward “General” Booth and “Major” Tucker, fencing on the Salvation Army stage with “Mr.” Devil. As a matter of aesthetics and choice, we prefer the imaginary smell of brimstone and fire to the malodorous perfume of old shoe leather from the cobbler’s shop. While the naive absurdities in the “War Cry” make one laugh to tears, the religious gush and cant generally found in Liberty and the New Dispensation, provoke a sickening feeling of anger at such an abuse of a human intellect mocking at the weaker intellects of its less favoured readers.
And now to “Parsifal,” the new Christian opera-drama of Maestro Wagner. From a musical standpoint, it may be indeed “the grandest philosophical conception ever issued from mortal brain.” As to the subject and its philosophical importance, our readers will have to judge for themselves.
As the musical world is aware, Professor Wagner is under the special patronage of the Bavarian King—the greatest melomaniac of Europe, who has spent millions upon his eccentric protegé for the privilege of having him all to himself. At every first performance, the audience is composed of the King alone, his selfish majesty not allowing even a confidential chamberlain, or a member of his own family to come in for a share of artistic enjoyment. Parsifal is not the first, nor—as to the subject of the drama upon which it is built—the best opera that has been produced by the Maestro. Indeed, it is childish in the extreme. Why then did its libretto alone, which appeared far in advance of its performance, and could give no idea of its musical merits, attract such an extraordinary concourse of nearly all the crowned heads of Europe? We learn that, besides the old Emperor Wilhelm, there were among other guests the Grand Dukes of Russia, the Princes of Germany and England, and nearly all the petty sovereigns, the Kings and Queens of Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Württemberg, etc. For the last forty years, Wagner has fought tooth and nail with the conservative musical lights of Europe for the recognition and acceptance of his new style of operatic music—the “music of the future,” as it is called. Yet his revolutionary ideas have hitherto found but a partly responsive echo in the West. The author of “The Flying Dutchman,” “Rienzi,” “Tannhauser,” and “Lohengrin,” seemed doomed to present failure, his interminable apotheoses breaking the patience alike of the sanguine Frenchman and the phlegmatic Englishman. This string of failures culminated last year, at London, in the gigantic fiasco of his “Great Tetralogy,” the “Ring des Nibelungen.” But “Parsifal” has now saved the situation.
Why? The reason for it, we think, lies in the subject chosen for the new opera. While “Lohengrin,” “Tannhauser,” the “Ring des Nibelungen,” are productions based on popular heathen myths, on German legends conceived in, and drawn from, the days of paganism and mythology, when Jupiter and Venus, Mars and Diana, were under their Teutonic names the tutelary gods of Germania—“Parsifal” is the hero around whom centre the New Testament legends, accepted by the audience as forming a portion of the State-religions of Christendom. Thus the mystery of the extraordinary success lies in a nutshell. What is our own fiction, must be—nay, is HISTORY; that of our heathen neighbours, the “devil-worship” of the Gentiles—fables. The subject matter of “Parsifal” is the theatrical representation of good and evil, in a supreme struggle: it is our universe, saved through atonement; it is sin redeemed through grace; the triumph of faith and charity. All that is fantastical in it, is mixed up with, and built upon (thus say the Christian papers)—the purest revelations of Christian legends. We will give a brief summary of the subject.
The events of the drama occur in the dreary solitude of the mountains of Spain, during the supremacy of the Saracen conquerors. Spain boasts of the possession of the “Graal”—the cup in which Christ, during the Last Supper, is said to have performed the mystery of the Transubstantiation; changing the bread and wine into flesh and blood. Into this very cup, says the legend, Joseph of Arimathea had also collected the blood that streamed from the wounds of the Saviour. After a certain lapse of time the angels, who, by some mysterious ways not mentioned in the pious tradition, had got hold of the cup, presented it along with the spear that had transpierced the side of the Crucified, to a certain saint by the name of Titurel. With a view of preserving the priceless relics, the Saint (who, being a Saint, of course had plenty of cash) built a fortified palace and founded the “Order of the Knights of the Holy Graal;” recouping himself for his trouble by proclaiming himself the King and High-Priest thereof. Becoming advanced in age, this enterprising Saint abdicated in favour of his son Amfortas: a detail, proving, we love to think, that the Saint was possessed besides the said genuine relics, of an equally genuine legitimate wife. Unfortunately the junior Saint fell a victim to the black art of a wicked magician named Klingsor; and allowing the sacred spear to pass into the latter’s hands, he received therewith an incurable wound. Henceforth and on to the end of the piece, Amfortas becomes a moral and physical wreck.
This Prologue is followed by a long string of acts, the sacred “mystery” being full of miracles and allegorical pictures. Act I begins with the rising sun, which sings a hymn to itself from behind a fringe of aged oaks, which, after the manner of trees, join in the chorus. Then comes a sacred lake with as sacred a swan, which is wounded by the arrow of Parsifal. At that period of the opera our hero is still an innocent, irresponsible idiot, ignorant of the mission planned for him by Providence. Later on in the play he becomes the “Comforter,” the second Messiah and Saviour foretold by the Atonement. In Act II we see a vaulted hall, under whose dome light battalions of winged and fingerless cherubs sing, and play upon their golden harps. Then comes the mystic ceremony of knights at their supper table. At each boom of a big bell, the holy knights pour down their throats gigantic goblets of wine and eat big loaves of bread. Voices from above are heard shouting: “Take and eat of the bread of life!—Take and drink of my blood!”—the second part of the injunction being religiously carried out by the knight-monks. The ceremony comes next of the opening of the relic-box, in which the “Graal” shines with a phosphoric light enough to dazzle the pious Brotherhood, every member of which, under the effect of that light (or perchance of the wine) falls prostrate before the relic-box.
“Graal” is a cup, and yet a singing and reasoning creature in the miraculous legend. Withal, it is a forgiving one; since, forgetting the crime of Parsifal, who is guilty of the death of the sacred swan, it chooses that man, simple in heart and unburdened with intellect, as its weapon and agent to conquer Klingsor, the wicked sorcerer, and redeem the stolen spear. Hence the supreme struggle between proud Intellect, personified by the magician—the Spirit of Evil and Darkness, and simple Faith—the embodiment of innocence, with its absence of all intelligence, as personified by the half-witted “Parsifal,” chosen to represent the spirit of Good and Light. Thus, while the latter is armed for the ensuing combat but with the weapon of blind Faith, Klingsor, the sorcerer, selects as his ally Kundry, a fallen woman, accursed by God and the embodiment of lust and vice. Strangely enough Kundry loves good—by nature and in her sleep. But no sooner does she awake in the morning than she becomes awfully wicked. We have personally known other persons who were very good—when asleep.
The papers are full of descriptions of the enchanting scenes of the second act of Parsifal, which represent the fairy gardens and castle of the magician Klingsor. From the top of his tall tower he sees Parsifal arrayed as a knight approaching his domain and—the wicked sorcerer is supposed to show his great intellect by disappearing from sight through the floor of his room. The scene changes and one sees everywhere but the enchanting gardens full of women, in the guise of—animated flowers. Parsifal cuts his way through and meets Kundry. Then follows an unholy ballet or nautch of women-flowers, half-nude, and in flesh-coloured tights. The dances are meant as lures of seduction, and Kundry—the most beautiful and fascinating of those animated plants, is chief daughter of the Wagnerian “Mara.” But even her infernal powers of seduction fail with the half-witted but blindly believing knight. The ballet ends with Parsifal snatching the holy spear out of the hands of Klingsor, who has joined by that time in the general tamasha, and making with it over the whole unclean lot of the bewitched nautches the sign of the cross. Thereupon, women-flowers and Kundry, imps and sorcerer, all disappear and vanish underground, presumably into the tropical regions of Christian Hell. After a short rest, between two acts, during which time forty or fifty years are supposed to elapse, Parsifal, armed with the holy spear that travelled over the whole world, returns as great a simpleton as ever—but a giant in a strength developed by his blind, unreasoning faith. Once back on the territory of “Graal,” he finds the Order abolished, the knights dispersed, and Amfortas as seedy as ever from the effects of his old wound. “Graal,” the communion cup, has hidden itself in the vast coffers of the monastery of some inimical and rival sect. Parsifal brings back the holy spear and heals therewith on the homeopathic principle of similia similibus curantur, the uncurable wound of the old king-priest once made by that same spear, by thrusting it into his other side. As a reward, the king abdicates his throne and priesthood in his favour. Then appears Kundry again, well stricken in years, we should say, if we had to judge of the effects of time according to natural law, but, as fascinating and beautiful as ever, as we are asked to believe by the Christian legend. She falls in love with Parsifal, who does not fall in love with her, but allows her to wash his feet and wipe them Magdalene-like with the tresses of her long hair, and then proceeds to baptize her. Whether from the effects of this unexpected ceremony or otherwise, Kundry dies immediately, after throwing upon Parsifal a long look of love which he heeds not, but recovers suddenly his lost wits! Faith alone has performed all these miracles. The “Innocent” had by the sole strength of his piety, saved the world: Evil is conquered by Good. Such is the philosophico-moral subject of the new opera which is preparing—say the German Christian papers—to revolutionize the world and bring back the infidels to Christianity. Amen.
It was after reading in a dozen papers rapturous accounts of the new opera and laudatory hymns to its pious subject, that we felt moved to give our candid opinion thereupon. Very few people to the Westward will agree with us, yet there are some who, we hope at least, will be able to discern in these remarks something more serious than journalistic chaff upon the ludicrous events of the day. At the risk of being once more misunderstood, we will say that such a handling of the “most sacred truths”—for those for whom those things and names are truth—is a sheer debasement, a sacrilege, and a blasphemy. Whether presented in the poetical garb of an operatic performance on the stage of a royal theatre, with the scenic accessories of all the modern paraphernalia of European luxury and art, and before an audience of crowned heads; or in the caricatured representation of fair goddesses by old men, in Hindu bungalows, and for the personal delectation of Rajas and Zemindars; or again—as done by the Salvationists before ignorant mobs—under the shape of grotesque fights with the devil; such “a free and easy manner” of treating subjects, to many holy and true, must appear simply blasphemous harlequinades. To them truth is dragged by its own votaries in the mire. Thus far, Pilate’s “What is truth?” has never been sufficiently answered but to the satisfaction of narrow-minded sectarians. Yet, truth must be somewhere, and it must be one, though all may not know it. Hence, though everyone ought to be permitted unmolested to search for, and see it in his own light; and discuss as freely the respective merits of those many would-be truths, called by the name of creeds and religions, without anyone taking offence at the freedom, we cannot help showing a profound sympathy for the feelings of “Observer,” who has a few remarks upon the Salvationists in the Pioneer of December 21. We quote a paragraph or two:
“That this eccentric religious deformity will, sooner or later, vanish into the ample limbo of defunct fanaticisms, is, of course, a conclusion which need not be demonstrated for educated people. But meanwhile it might be well if applications for help from the leaders of this vulgar crusade were declined by that numerous class who are ready to subscribe money for any organization whose professed aim is to “do good,” but who are too indifferent, or too indolent, to investigate the principles and methods of such organization.
“At one period in the history of Christendom one of the central features in pulpit teaching was the presentation of Satan in every imaginable shape which could inspire terror.
“But, in process of time, in the religious plays, Satan came to be represented by the clown. And the association in the popular mind of the grotesque and ridiculous with what had once suggested awe and terror, resulted in widespread disbelief in the reality of Satan’s existence. To what extent this scepticism was an indication of the emancipation of the human mind from ecclesiastical terrorism need not be discussed here. But the power of association of ideas in moulding belief is the point emphasized by this reference.
“And if the founder of the Christian religion is presented to the imagination of the populace surrounded with the images of the modern music hall, if crowds are roused up to emotional display by means of a Bacchanalian chorus which proclaim that “He’s a jolly good Saviour,” and by Christy Minstrel manipulations of the tambourine and the banjo, it does not need a very profound insight to foresee that the utter degradation of that sublime ideal which, amidst all the changes of beliefs and opinions that have convulsed Christendom for eighteen hundred years, still appears to the view of the world’s best men, unbelieving as well as believing, a spectacle of unapproachable moral beauty, must be the result in the case of those who are brought under the action of such a demoralizing influence.”
These wise words apply thoroughly to the cases in hand. If we are answered—as many a time we have been answered—that notwithstanding all, the Salvationists as well as the New Dispensationists are doing good, since they help to kindle the fast extinguishing fires of spirituality in man’s heart, we shall answer that it is not by fencing and dancing in grotesque attire, that this spirituality can ever be preserved; nor is it by thrusting one’s own special belief down a neighbour’s throat that he can ever be convinced of its truth. Smoke also can dim the solar rays, and it is well known that the most worthless materials, boldly kindled and energetically stirred, often throw out the densest masses of murky vapour. Doubt is inseparable from the constitution of man’s reasoning powers, and few are the men who have never doubted, whatever their sectarian belief; a good proof that few are quite satisfied—say what they may to the contrary—that it is their creed and not that of their brother which has got the whole truth. Truth is like the sun; notwithstanding that the blackest clouds may obscure it temporarily, it is bound, ever and anon, to shine forth and dazzle even the most blind, and the faintest beam of it is often sufficient to dispel error and darkness. Men have done their best to veil every beam and to replace it with the false glare of error and fiction; none more so than bigoted, narrow-minded theologians and priests of every faith, casuists and perverters through selfishness. It is against them, never against any religion, or the sincere belief of any man in whatsoever he chooses, that we have and do protest. And here we will take the opportunity of answering our innumerable detractors.
By these we have been repeatedly called “Nastika” and atheist. We are guilty, in their opinion, of refusing to give a name to THAT which, we feel sure, ought never to have received a name; nay—which cannot have an appellation, since its nature or essence is absolutely incomprehensible to our human mind, its state and even being, as absolutely a blank, and entirely beyond the possibility of any proof—unless simple and unphilosophical assertions be such. We are taken to task for confessing our firm belief in an infinite, all-pervading Principle, while refusing recognition of a personal God with human attributes; for advocating2 an “abstraction,” nameless and devoid of any known qualities, hence—passionless and inactive. How far our enemies are right in their definition of our belief, is something we may leave to some other occasion to confess or deny. For the present we will limit ourself to declaring that, if denial of the existence of God as believed in by the Guiteaus, Dispensationists and Salvationists, constitutes a Nastika, then—we plead “guilty” and proclaim ourself publicly that kind of ATHEIST. In the Aleim addressed by their respective devotees as “Father-God, or God-Brahma, or God-Allah, or God-Jehovah:” in those deities, in a word, who, whether they inspire political murders, or buy provisions in the Calcutta bazaars, or fight the devil through female lieutenants to the sound of cymbals and a bass drum at thirty shillings the week, or demand public worship and damn eternally those who do not accept them, we have neither faith nor respect for them; nor do we hesitate to express our full contempt for such figments of ecclesiastical imagination. On the other hand, no true Vedantee, Advaitee, nor genuine esoteric philosopher, or Buddhist, will ever call us Nastika, since our belief does not differ one iota from theirs. Except as to difference in names, upon whatever appellation all of these may hang their belief, ours is a philosophical conception of that which a true Advaitee could call “Narayana.” It is that same Principle which may be understood and realized but in our innermost thought, in solemn silence and in reverential awe. It is but during such moments of illumination that man may have a glimpse of it, as from and in the Eternity. It broods in (not over) the Waters of Life, in the boundless chaos of cosmic Ether as the manifested or the unmanifested universe—a Paramanu as it is called in the Upanishads, ever-present in the boundless ocean of cosmic matter, embodying within self the latent design of the whole universe. This Narayana is the 7th principle of the manifested solar system. It is the “Antaratma,” or the latent spirit everywhere present in the five tanmatras, which in their admixture and unity, constitute what is called by Western occultists the pre-adamite earth. This principle or Paramanu is located by the ancient Rishis of India (as may be seen in Maha Narayanum or Taittiriya Upanishad) in the centre of astral fire. Its name of Narayana is given to it, because of its presence in all the individual spiritual monads of the manifested solar system. This principle is, in fact, the Logos, and the one EGO of the Western Occultists and Kabalists, and it is the Real and Sole deity to which the ancient Rishis of Aryavarta addressed their prayers, and directed their aspirations. If neither believers in a butler-god, nor those who fight the battles of their deity with Satan, nor yet the rut-running sectarians, will ever be capable of understanding our meaning, we have at least the consolation of knowing that it will be perfectly clear to every learned Advaitee. As to the unlearned ones, they had better join the “Dvaitees, or the Salvationists,” who invoke their Fetish with the clanging bell and the roll of kettle-drums.
1. Vide New Dispensation for 1881; Art.: “What God is doing for me,” by Babu K. C. Sen.
2. Which we do not, nor ever will; claiming but the right equally with every other responsible or reasoning human being, to believe in what we think proper, and reject the routine ideas of other people.