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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

Strange Gods and Their Worship

G. Winfred Hervey

From The Story of Baptist Missions in Foreign Lands, 1884

The care of the Brahmins in preserving the lives of certain animals is not dictated by humane tenderness, but by religious convictions and the exigencies of their ceremonials. The annals of martyrdom afford the best illustrations of the atrocity of the Brahmins, while meeting the demands of their ritualism.

The cruelty and inhumanity of the Hindu worship are illustrated not only by the custom of immolating widows, but in the worship of Kali, the goddess of robbery and murder. One of the most celebrated temples in India is the temple of Kali, about three miles from Calcutta, at Kali Ghat.

Kali, according to the Hindu belief, is the wife of the third god of the triad, Shiva, the great Destroyer. She is variously represented. Sometimes she is pictured as a woman of dark blue color, in the act of trampling under her feet her prostrate and supplicating husband. She holds the bloody head of a giant in one hand, and in the other an exterminating sword.

Her lips, eyebrows and breast are stained with the blood of her victims, whom she is supposed to devour by thousands. The ornaments of her ears are composed of human carcasses; the girdle around her waist consists of the bloody hands of giants slain by her in single combat. Her necklace, which hangs down to her knees, is composed of their skulls. Sometimes she is represented on a lion. Then she is painted yellow and dressed in red clothes.

In some districts in Bengal she is depicted as holding her half-severed head in her left hand, with streams of blood gushing from the throat into the month. This is intended to show her thirst for blood; for on one occasion, as the sacred legend tells us, being unable to procure any of the giants for her prey, in order to quench her thirst, she cut her own throat, that the blood issuing from thence might spout into her mouth.

Accord-hug to one of the Brahminical books, the Kolika Purana, the blood of different creatures has different degrees of virtue in slacking her thirst. The blood of a fish satisfies her one month; the blood of a wild boar or antelope twelve years; the blood of a buffalo or tiger, one hundred; of a lion, a reindeer or of a man, a thousand; the blood of three men slain in sacrifice, a hundred thousand years.

Formerly many human victims were offered in sacrifice to this goddess. Mr. Caleb Wright, who travelled in India some forty years since, says that during his sojourn in Calcutta a human victim was offered up at a temple of Kali in the immediate vicinity of the town.

That murderous class of robbers, the Thugs, who make a conscience of plunder and assassination, believe that their profession is of divine origin, and instituted by Kali. In some of the festivals of this goddess, as that of the Durga, the Brahmins of the highest caste, or holy teachers, take no active part, leaving its ceremonials to be performed by their servants of the Sudra caste. But they have composed its ritual and the legends that popularize it. They likewise contribute largely towards the expense of it, and countenance everything as applauding spectators.

The worship of Juggernaut ("King of the World") was once attended with the annual loss of many lives. The great temple of the god is at Puri, and in the days of Dr. Carey it was computed that a hundred and twenty thousand lives were in some years lost by the fatigues and privations to which the pilgrims were exposed in their long journeys. Twelve festivals were celebrated every year. The roads leading to Puri are in many places lined with the bones of pilgrims, while dogs and vultures are seen here and there devouring the flesh of such as have recently died. Mr. Lacey informed the traveller, Mr. Caleb Wright, that in 1825 he counted ninety dead bodies in one place, and his colleague at the same time counted one hundred and forty more in another place. The number that once cast themselves under the wheels of the towering car has never, so far as we know, been estimated.

Dr. Buchanan gives an account of one instance in which it was not a transport of wild fanaticism, but a calm determination, that must have nerved the victim to sacrifice his life. In this case, the pilgrim announced to the throng that he was ready to offer himself: "He laid himself down on his face in the track of the towering car, with his arms stretched forward. The multitude pressed round him, leaving the space clear, and he was crushed to death by the wheels of the tower. A shout of joy was raised to the god; he is said to smile when such a libation of blood is made. The people threw cowries, or small pieces of money, upon the body of the victim, in approbation of the deed.”

The interior of the temple of Juggernaut at Puree, like that of Mahomet at Mecca, cannot be safely entered except by the faithful. The only foreigner who ever saw the inside of this temple was an English officer, about sixty years ago. He gained admission by painting and dressing himself like a native. When the Brahmins found out that their holy place had thus been defiled, they raised a mob and so threatened the English residents of Puri that they all fled for their lives. Suspecting, however, their pursuers to be more avaricious than revengeful, they tried the artifice that vanquished Atalanta. They strewed the way with pieces of silver, and while the natives stopped to pick them up, made good their escape.

But the sanctity of this place is ceremonial, and not moral. In two of the three temples placed in juxtaposition, the deva dasi, or dancing girls, devoted alike to Juggernaut and to vice, display their professional skill for the amusement of the idols that are enthroned in the largest of the three. It is the old story of the partnership of Cruelty and Lust told once more.

The sacrifice of infants to the Ganges was once annually made at the great festival called Gunga Saugor, the name of an island at the mouth of the Ganges. The infants were cast into the water either in obedience to some vow or in the hope of securing some future blessing. When the Serampore brethren commenced their mission in India, this festival was kept with the cruel rite of casting infants into the river, usually to be devoured by alligators. The influence of the mission was brought to bear on the English officials, but, for many years, nothing was done to put down this species of religious murder. At length, however, the religion of Jesus gained the victory. The festival is still held in January, but infanticide is no longer permitted. Upon the occasion of the annual return of the Gunga Saugor, a British officer with fifty native soldiers (Sepoys) is stationed here to prevent these human sacrifices.

While Dr. Thomas was residing at Maids, in the early years of the Baptist mission, an infant that had been exposed in a basket, suspended from the branch of a tree, fell, or rolled, out on the ground, and was immediately seized by a jackal. The Doctor happened to pass that way just in time to prevent the child from being devoured. He had the satisfaction of presenting it alive to its mother. At another time, while passing under the same tree, he found a basket suspended from its branches containing the skeleton of an infant, the flesh having been devoured by white ants. In such cases, the infant is generally visited and fed by its mother for three days. Then, if it be not devoured by ants or birds of prey, nor die through exposure to the cold or the rain, it is afterwards taken home. This cruel custom is said to grow out of the belief that when a child is sickly it must be under the influence of some evil spirit, to appease the wrath of whom the mother suspends it in a basket from the limb of the tree in which the evil spirit is supposed to reside.

Some missionaries, whose powers and spheres of observation are very limited, come home and tell us that they never saw anything of the kind, and that previous accounts must be exaggerated. But writers who would evidently show us the bright side of Hindu life frankly admit that infanticide is still committed in many parts of India. They go too far, however, when they assert that the priests never sanctioned the abominable practice. They forget the Gunga Baugor. Very sensibly do they account for many instances of infanticide. They are partly due to the enormous cost of wedding feasts, the mistaken notion that the daughters are disgraced if they remain husbandless, and the forbidding of widows to marry again. The degradation of women by polygamy and servitude lends plausibility to apologies for murdering them in infancy.

The disgraceful truth must be told, that the East India Company set itself in practical opposition to the progress of Christianity in Hindustan. Being a great mercantile corporation, like Venice when in full blossom, it persecuted the true servants of God, while it patronized superstition and vice. At one time Birmingham numbered among its inhabitants men unprincipled enough to manufacture idols to send out to India.

We never learned that the ships of the honorable Company were forbidden to transport them. And in India itself, Government papers, as orders and other documents, were printed so as to commence with an invocation to Ganesa, the God of Wisdom, whose red images have the head of a white elephant, with a rat at his feet, on which it is said to perform its journeys.

Worship of Kali, the goddess of robbers and murderers, was formerly patronized by the Company. In Ward's journal we find the following record. “Last week a deputation of the Government went in procession to Kali Ghat and made a thank-offering to this goddess of the Hindus, in the name of the Company, for the success which the English had lately obtained in this country. Five thousand rupees were offered. Several thousand natives witnessed the English presenting their offerings to this idol."

And while the Government derived a large revenue from its tax on the pilgrims to pagan temples and idols, it made very liberal grants to some of the temples of idolatry. As late as 1834, one holy place in Poona received 3,600 rupees per annum; another, 25,000; Trimbuck, 6,000; Jejury, 40,000. For many years after the Serampore brethren commenced their work, the East India Company patronized the Hindu idolatries so liberally and in so many forms that millions of the ignorant natives had good reason to believe that their British conquerors and governors rendered sincere homage to their cruel and abominable religion.

The Serampore brethren attacked the Hindu religion in the way that is required by the Great Commission—by preaching the Gospel and by teaching the commands of Christ. Robertson of Brighton, and some of his disciples, would have us pursue a different course. They would require us first to get at the core of Hinduism and see what we discover there that is in substantial unity with the true faith. Having thus found out the valuable parts of the Hindu system, we are to apply our-selves to the work of inducing the poor idolater to make use of these parts in building up the new and better system that is found in the religion of Christ.

This is a very plausible theory. St. Paul applied it when he preached his famous sermon at Athens, but not with very remarkable success. A few were indeed converted, but of the mass of his audience some mocked, and others said, "We will hear thee again of this matter." (Acts 17:32) It is well worthy of notice that the great Apostle to the Gentiles could not found a church in Athens. The students of comparative religion, in their search after the vital core or germ of a system of idolatry or superstition, too frequently miss their way. We commend to them the profound saying of Pascal: "We think ourselves much more capable of reaching the centre of things, than of grasping the circumference. But it does not require less capacity to trace something down to nothing than up to totality. The capacity in either case must be infinite."

The most successful missionaries in all lands have found that whenever they preached the atonement of Jesus, and the love of the Father in giving His Son to die as our propitiatory sacrifice, the regenerating energies of the Holy Spirit have attended the message. Then the converts from the most venerable and most fascinating superstitions have exclaimed, "What have we to do any more with idols?"