Bernier in Banaras

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Bernier, who had come to Benares in 1660, begins his account of the city thus:

The town of Benares, seated on the Ganges, in a beautiful situation, and in the midst of an extremely fine and rich country, may be considered the general school of the Gentiles. It is the Athens of India, whither resort the Brahmens and other devotees; who are the only persons who apply their minds to study. (334)

He could not apply words more positive towards a city of alien culture and continent, than the epithet “Athens of India”. He belonged to that part of the world where Athens of the classical age was (and is) seen as the site from where the Western traditions of philosophy, literature, art etc. arise. He does not continue in the same vein for long. The beginning of his tone of admiration is also its end. In the sentences that follow, he starts essentializing the Orient by calling the disposition of the students learning Sanskrit in the city generally “indolent”, “owing, in a great measure, to their diet and the heat of the country. Feeling no spirit of emulation, and entertaining no hope that honours or emolument may be the reward of extraordinary attainments, as with us, the scholars pursue the studies slowly” (335).

His critical mind sifted what was logically and historically trustworthy from what he saw as merely a glorified yarn. He states that Sanskrit is definitely not, as Hindus assert, hundreds of thousand years old. Yet, he readily concedes to the idea of its being “extremely old”  and records his having seen the books written in that language of antiquity on “philosophy, works on medicine written in verse, and many other kinds of books, with which a large hall at Benares is entirely filled” (335). His interest in the country and in its corpus of knowledge is reflected in his attempt to obtain a copy of the veds and from the tone of frustration generated out of his failure.

He is perceptive enough to mention the reason behind the scarcity: a fear “lest they should fall into the hands of the Mahometans, and be burnt, as frequently has happened” (336). The admirable way in which he applies reason over the things he hears in India finds its contrast in the way he lets his prejudices speak on the pages, as in his comment about the Snaskrit students: “I have already intimated that they are of a slow and indolent temper” (336).

He then mentions the various schools of philosophy prevalent in the country then: six in the mainstream and one an outcast. He was confused, as any one (like me) first exposed to the Hindu streams of philosophy would be. His perceptive mind did discern some similarities between the classical Greek philosophy and that of the Hindus. It would have been a sound method had he accepted his beginner status and then had kept his tone soft. Instead, he goes on opining freely about the philosophical texts. He hits at the core of the Hindu epistemology and metaphysics:

opinions are expressed in so loose and indeterminate a manner that it is difficult to ascertain their meaning; and considering the extreme ignorance of the Pendets, those even reputed the most learned, it may be fairly doubted whether this vagueness be not rather attributable to the expounders than to the authors of the books (337).

All he writes about what he experiences in the city is not methodically wrong. When he mentions the aversion of Hindus of the city from studying anatomy by performing dissections etc. he has his fingers upon the right pulse. And then, his mention of astronomy and its balanced analysis are praiseworthy too:

In regard to astronomy, the Gentiles have their tables, according to which they foretell eclipses, not perhaps with the minute exactness of European astronomers, but still with great accuracy. They reason, however, in the same ridiculous way on the lunar as on the solar eclipse (339).

In the end, however, he points towards the lack of the part played by reason in the development of theories of what is now known as science. He criticizes their tendency to convert everything one sees into some kind of a deity and to attribute characteristics to them. He also points out the loopholes in their geography that he finds mere fiction. He ridicules in his blunt manner when “They believe that the world is flat and triangular; that it is composed of seven distinct habitations” (340). Who would call him wrong when he makes fun of the absurd notions like the causes of the earthquakes being the movement of the elephants who bear the burden of the earth? Especially when they don’t know anything about the various myths of the classical antiquity of the Western civilizations. But then, Bernier had apparently never discovered anything equally ridiculous in them.

Reference:

Bernier, Francois. Travels in the Mogul Empire: A.D. 1656-1668. Tr. Archibald Constable. Westminster: Archibald Constable & Co., 1891.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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