The Immortal Family
Theosophical Forum, February, 1902
Which of us knows much about the corals of Lake Baikal or the warm springs of Lake Issyk Kul; about the two strange seas that unite to form Lob-Nor, and how, when the one is full, the other is empty; or about the rivers of Kashgar that flow hopelessly into the Tarim sands; or the buried cities of the Gobi Desert? Which of us has even heard the names of such peoples as the Buriats, the Chukchi, the Tunguz? Have we even heard of the rich and populous provinces of Ussuria and Amuria, which rival California in mineral wealth and are not unlike its northern districts in climate?
These names may suggest something of the wealth of a great world of which we know so little, and which has been diligently explored by generations of Russians and Poles, the names of a few only of whom are known to us only because of a fancied relation between their explorations and English policy in Northern India. To a vast library of works already existing in Russian on the subject of these enormously extended and little known regions of Asia, a very valuable volume has recently been added by the Imperial Geographical Society of St. Petersburg, on the subject of Corea, its manners, customs, life, religion, and future commercial possibilities. It was only after reading passages of this very elaborate work that we realized how complete our own ignorance of Corea had been, in spite of the interest aroused in that remote kingdom by the Chino-Japanese War and the events that have followed it. We will not attempt to give a full account of the Russian explorer’s information, but will be content to take up only two subjects which have close analogies in Indian life, namely, the practice of ancestor worship, and the social position of women. It is not too much to say that the whole fabric of Corean society is built on the idea of the family—the theory of descent from a common ancestor. In each family group there are two really important members, one dead and one living, and everything else revolves around these two. It is not to be questioned, moreover, that the dead ancestor of the family vastly outweighs in consideration its living head. The dead ancestor is the real or mythical male founder of each large family or clan; and the living head is his eldest male descendant in the senior line. This strict following of the law of primogeniture brings about the fact that the head of the family may be a mere boy, whose uncles, grand-uncles, and even great grand-uncles are subject to him in many important particulars. The chief function of the head of the family is the celebration of the yearly sacrifice to the shade of the departed ancestor to whom the family ascribes its foundation; and, for the purposes of this funeral sacrifice and festival, the head of the family receives a double share of the inheritance, and is further entitled to annual contributions from collateral branches of the clan.
Now, here comes in the most interesting point of correspondence with India. We all know what an important part in Indian social life is played by the Shraddha offering of cakes and water to the ancestors in nine degrees of ascent. We know also that the fact that a particular individual has offered the Shraddha is deemed sufficient evidence that he is the lawful heir; and we further know that, theoretically, the heir receives the inheritance, in order that he may be in a position to meet the expenses of the Shraddha rites. So that the analogy with Corea is very close. The Russian writer does not make it clear how far the subsequent descendants of the founder of the house are sharers in the merit of the sacrifice, like the nine generations in the Indian rite. The point of especial interest here is that this matter of the Shraddha sacrifice is the very kernel of one of the most important elements of the Hindu religion—that element, namely, which is to be derived distinctively from the Brahmins and their traditional beliefs. We need not enquire what was the origin of this reverence for the dead ancestor; whether it arose from the necessity of preserving purity of race, among a mixed population, as was the case, for instance, in Sparta; whether it arose from the eminence of some national hero, whose sons and grandsons became the founders of a singularly successful community, as was the case with the twelve tribes of Israel, that is, the descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob. Or the custom may have had a purely religious basis, the founder of the family being a man endowed with a halo of supernatural power, like the Rishis of Vedic India, and the belief being that a share of this power, and the influence over the gods which it was supposed to confer, descended to his sons in the form of certain secret incantations, magical formulas, or mantras. Whatever may have been its origin, it is certain that this ancestor-worship was the kernel of the distinctively Brahminical religion as distinguished from the religion of the Kshattriyas or Rajanyas, with its teaching of re-incarnation, or development through a series of lives on earth, and a series of resting-times in Paradise. Of this doctrine of re-incarnation the Brahminical faith knew nothing till the Rajanya King revealed it to the father of Shvetaketu the Brahmin, with the words: “This teaching, before thee, came not to any Brahmin, but was in all lands the secret doctrine of the Kshattriya alone.” There is no trace of it in the Vedic Hymns, which made up the distinctively Brahminical ritual, or were the source of it, as it existed in the Sama and Yajur Vedas. And we find the Brahminical belief reappearing to the present day, when, as we have seen, it forms the basis of the Law of Inheritance. So that the analogy with Corea, in the connection between ancestor-worship and inheritance is unusually interesting and complete.
The position of women in Corean society is practically what it is under Brahminical law. A Corean girl loses her freedom when she reaches her seventh birthday. Thenceforward she is practically a prisoner in her father’s house, until transferred to equal bondage under her husband. She must never show her face to any other man; she must be concealed in a thick-curtained palanquin, or heavily veiled, when she goes beyond the threshold of her house—her husband’s house, or her father’s, that is, for she would never dream of claiming it as her own. She is hardly permitted to speak in her husband’s presence, and it is considered that he would lose caste if he mourned for her death. One more analogy: widows are not permitted to marry a second time, though widowers are by no means similarly restricted. Further, besides his legitimate wife, a man may have four lawful concubines, while any departure from the strictest letter of the law is punished, in the case of woman, generally with death. The children of concubines are legitimate, and inherit on a footing of perfect equality with the children of the wife, except in the one matter of the head of the family, who has certain obligations touching the offerings to the dead, which are compensated by special privileges, in the matter of inheritance. Finally, marriages are made wholly without consulting the bridegroom and bride; they are a matter of contract between their fathers, and, in the choice of the wedding day, astrology plays a very important part. Readers familiar with Hindu law and custom will see how close this all is to the Sanatana Dharma of Manu, and the present day. They have only to refer to the first book of the Bhagavad Gita to find Arjuna describing just such a system, in the two respects of ancestor-worship and restriction of woman’s rights, as existing already in his day. The loss of caste, consequent on mixed marriages, would form a third very interesting analogy had we space to examine it.