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Chapter 4 – Al-Biruni’s Arabic Account of the Hindu Religion

1030 A.D.

One of the most famous of the historic accounts of India is that written in Arabic by al-Biruni

nearly a thousand years ago. This learned man was a native of the Transcaspian district of Khwarizm, corresponding to the modern Khanate of Khiva, but he lived at the court of Mahmud of Ghazni and died there in 1048 A.D. His scientific work entitled “Chronology of Ancient Nations,” dedicated to Mahmud in 1030 A.D., would alone have sufficed to render his name renowned. But it was folloived by a still more important volume, “India,” which was the outcome of several years of travel and residence in the land between the Indus and the Ganges, where he studied under Brahman teachers and thus became acquainted with the Sanskrit language and their ancient sacred law. The value of this interesting book for all matters appertaining to the geography, history, and culture of the Hindus has been well brought out by its translator, Sachau, from whose version selections relating to the

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Hindu religion and to pilgrimages made to sacred shrines are here given.

‘The belief of educated and uneducated people differs in every nation; for the former strive to conceive abstract ideas and to define general principles, while the latter do not pass beyond the apprehension of the senses and are content with derived rules, without caring for details, especially in questions of religion and law, regarding which opinions and interests are divided.

With regard to God, the Hindus believe that he is one, eternal, without beginning and end, acting by free will, almighty, all-wise, living, giving life, ruling, and preserving; one who is unique in his sovereignty, beyond all likeness and unlikeness, and neither resembling anything nor having anything resemble him. In order to illustrate this, we shall produce some extracts from the _Hindu literature, lest the reader should think that our account is nothing but hearsay.

In the book of Patanjali the pupil asks: “Who is the worshipped one, by the worship of whom blessing is obtained?” The master says: “It is he who, being eternal and unique, does not for his part stand in need of any human action for which he might give as a recompense either a blissful repose, which is hoped and longed for, or a troubled existence, which is feared and dreaded. He is unattainable to thought, being sublime beyond all unlikeness which is abhorrent and all likeness which is sympathetic. By his essence he knows from all eternity. Knowledge, in the human sense of

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the term, has as its object that which was unknown before, whilst not knowing does not apply to God at any time or in any condition.”

Further the pupil asks: “Do you attribute other qualities to him besides those you have mentioned?” The master says: “He is height, absolute in the idea, not in space, for he is sublime beyond all existence in any space. He is the pure, absolute good, longed for by every created being. He is the knowledge free from the defilement of forgetfulness and not-knowing.”

The pupil asks: “Do you attribute to him speech or not?” The master says: “As he knows, he doubtless also speaks.” The pupil asks: “If he speaks because he knows, what, then, is the difference between him and the knowing sages who have spoken of their knowing?” The master says: “The difference between them is time, for they have learned in time and spoken in time, after having been not-knowing and not-speaking. By speech they have transferred their knowledge to others. Therefore their speaking and acquiring knowledge take place in time. And as divine matters have no connection with time, God is knowing and speaking from eternity. It was he who spoke to Brahma and to others of the first beings in different ways. On the one he bestowed a book; for the other he opened a door, a means of communicating with him; a third he inspired so that he obtained by cogitation what God bestowed upon him.”

The pupil asks: “Whence has he this knowing?” The master answers: “His knowing is the same from

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The God Brahma

From Moor’s Hindu Pantheon.

all eternity, for ever and ever. As he has never been not-knowing, he is knowing of himself, having never acquired any knowledge which he did not possess before. In the Veda which he sent down upon Brahma he says: ‘Praise and celebrate him who has spoken the Veda, and was before the Veda.’ ”

The pupil asks: “How do you worship him to whom the perception of the senses cannot attain?” The master says: “His name proves his existence, for where there is a report, there must be something to which it refers; and where there is a name, there must be something which is named. He is hidden to the senses and unperceivable by them. However, the soul perceives him, and thought comprehends his qualities. This meditation is identical with worshipping him exclusively, and by practising it uninterruptedly beatitude is obtained.”

In such a manner the Hindus express themselves in that very famous book. The following passage is taken from the conversation between Vasudeva (Krishna) and Arjuna in the Bhagavadgita:–

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“I am the universe, without a beginning by being born, and without an end by dying. Whatever I do I do not aim at any recompense. I do not specially belong to one class of beings to the exclusion of others, as if I were the friend of one and the enemy of others. I have given to each one in my creation what is sufficient for him in all his functions. Therefore, whoever knows me in this capacity, and tries to become similar to me by keeping desire apart from his action, his fetters will be loosened and he will be saved and freed.”

Further Vasudeva says in the same book:–

“It is desire which causes most men to take refuge with God for their wants. But if you examine their case closely, you will find that they are very far from having an accurate knowledge of him; for God is not apparent to every one so that he might perceive him with his senses. Therefore they do not know him. Some of them do not pass beyond what their senses perceive; and while some pass beyond this, they stop at the knowledge of the laws of nature, without learning that above them there is one who did not give birth nor was born, the essence of whose being has not been comprehended by the knowledge of any one, while his own knowledge comprehends everything.”

This is what educated people believe about God. They consider the unity of God as absolute, but that everything beside God which may appear as a unity is really a plurality of things. The existence of God they consider as a real existence, because everything that exists, exists through him. It is not impossible to think

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The God Krishna, or Vasudeva

that the existing beings are not and that he is, but it is impossible to think that he is not and that they are.

If we now pass from the ideas of the educated people among the Hindus to those of the common people, we must first state that they present a great variety. Some of them are simply abominable, but similar errors occur also in other religions. Nay, even in Islam we must decidedly disapprove of the anthropomorphic doctrines, the teachings of the Jabriyya sect, the prohibition of the discussion of religious topics, and such like. Every religious sentence destined for the people at large must be carefully worded, as the following example shows. Some Hindu scholar calls God “a point,” meaning to say thereby that the

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qualities of bodies do not apply to him. Now some uneducated man reads this and imagines that God is as small as a point, and he does not find out what the word “point” in this sentence was really intended to express. He will not even stop with this offensive comparison, but will describe God as much larger, and will say, “He is twelve fingers long and ten fingers broad.” Further, if an uneducated man hears what we have mentioned, that God comprehends the universe so that nothing is concealed from him, he will at once imagine that this comprehending is effected by means of eyesight; that eyesight is only possible by means of an eye, and that two eyes are better than only one; and in consequence he will describe God as having a thousand eyes, meaning to describe his omniscience.

Similar hideous fictions are sometimes met with among the Hindus, especially among those castes who are not allowed to occupy themselves with science, of whom we shall speak hereafter.

As the word of confession, “There is no god but God, Mohammed is his prophet,” is the shibboleth of Islam, the Trinity that of Christianity, and the institution of the Sabbath that of Judaism, so metempsychosis is the shibboleth of the Hindu religion. Therefore he who does not believe in it does not belong to them, and is not reckoned as one of them. For they hold that the soul, as long as it has not risen to the highest absolute intelligence, does not comprehend the totality of objects at once. Therefore it must explore all particular beings and examine all the possibilities

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A Hindu cave temple at Ellora

of existence; and as their number is, though not unlimited, still an enormous one, the soul requires an enormous space of time in order to finish the contemplation of such a multiplicity of objects. The soul acquires knowledge only by the contemplation of the individuals and the species, and of their peculiar actions and conditions. It gains experience from each object, and thereby gathers new knowledge.

However, these actions differ in the same measure as the three primary forces differ. Besides, the world is not left without some direction, being led, as it were, by a bridle and directed toward a definite scope. Therefore the imperishable souls wander about in perishable bodies conformably to the difference of their actions,

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The Golden Temple and Lake Amritsar.

From a Photograph

as they prove to be good. or bad. The object of the migration through the world of reward (i.e. heaven) is to direct the attention of the soul to the good, that it may become desirous of acquiring as much of it as possible. The object of its migration through the world of punishment (i.e. hell) is to direct its attention to the bad and abominable, that it may strive to keep as far as possible aloof from it.

The migration begins from low stages and rises to higher and better ones, not the contrary, as we state on purpose, since the one is a priori as possible as the other. The difference of these lower and higher stages depends upon the difference of the actions, and this again results from the quantitative and qualitative diversity of the temperaments and the various degrees of combinations in which they appear.

This migration lasts until the object aimed at has been completely attained both for the soul and matter; the lower aim being the disappearance of the shape of matter, except any such new formation as may appear desirable; the higher aim being the ceasing of the desire of the soul to learn what it did not know before, the insight of the soul into the nobility of its own being and its independent existence, its knowing that it can dispense with matter after it has become acquainted with the mean nature of matter and the instability of its shapes, with all that which matter offers to the senses, and with the truth of the tales about its delights. Then the soul turns away from matter; the connecting links are broken, and the union

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is dissolved. Separation and dissolution take place, and the soul returns to its home, carrying with itself as much of the bliss of knowledge as sesame develops grains and blossoms, never afterwards separating from its oil. The intelligent being, intelligence and its object, are united and become one.

It is now our duty to produce from Hindu literature some clear testimonies as to this subject, together with cognate theories of other nations.

In the Bhagavadgita Vasudeva urges Arjuna on to battle, whilst they stand between the two lines, in the following words: “If you believe in predestination, you must know that neither they nor we are mortal, and do not go hence without returning, for souls are immortal and unchangeable. They migrate through the bodies, while man changes from childhood into youth, into manhood, and into infirm age, the end of which is the death of the body. Thereafter the soul proceeds on its return.” Further he says: “How can a man think of death and being killed who knows that the soul is eternal, not having been born and not perishing; that the soul is something stable and constant; that no sword can cut it, no fire burn it, no water extinguish it, and no wind wither it? The soul migrates from its body, after it has become old, into another, a different one, as the body, when its dress has become old, is clad in another. What then is your sorrow about a soul which does not perish? If it were perishable, it would be more becoming that you should not sorrow about a thing which may be dispensed with, which

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A buddhist funeral urn

does not exist, and does not return into existence. But if you look more to your body than to your soul, and are in anxiety about its perishing, you must know that all that which is born dies, and that all that which dies returns into another existence. However, both life and death are not your concern. They are in the hands of God, from whom all things come and to whom they return.”

In the further course of conversation Arjuna asks Vasudeva: “How did you dare thus to fight Brahma, Brahma who was before the world was and before man was, whilst you are living among us as a being whose birth and age are known?” Thereupon Vasudeva answered: “Externity (pre-existence) is common both to us and to him. How often have we lived together when I knew the times of our life and death, whilst they were concealed from you! When I desire to appear in order to do some good, I array myself in a body, since one cannot be with man except in a human shape.”

People tell a tale of a king, whose name I have forgotten, who ordered his people to bury his body, after his death, on a spot where never before had a

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dead person been buried. Now they sought for such a spot, but could not find it; finally, on finding a rock projecting out of the ocean, they thought they had found what they wanted. But then Vasudeva said unto them: “This king has already been burned on this identical rock many times But now do as you like; for the king sought only to give you a lesson, and his aim has now been attained.”

Vasudeva says: “He who hopes for salvation and strives to free himself from the world, but whose heart is not obedient to his wish, will be rewarded for his action in the worlds of those who receive a good reward; but he does not attain his last object on account of his deficiency, therefore he will return to this world, and will be found worthy of entering a new shape of a kind of beings whose special occupation is devotion. Divine inspiration helps him to raise himself in this new shape by degrees to that which he already wished for in the first shape. His heart begins to comply with his wish; he is purified more and more in the different shapes, until at last he obtains salvation in an uninterrupted series of new births.”

Further, Vasudeva says: “If the soul is free from matter, it is knowing; but as long as it is clad in matter, the soul is not-knowing, on account of the turbid nature of matter. It thinks that it is an agent, and that the actions of the world are prepared for its sake. Therefore it clings to them, and it is stamped with the impressions of the senses. When, then, the soul leaves the body, the traces of the impressions of the

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Ruins at Ujjain, said to have been the native town of Varamihira

senses remain in it and are not completely eradicated, as it longs for The world of sense and returns toward it. And since in these stages it undergoes changes entirely opposed to each other, it is thereby subject to the influences of the three primary forces. What, therefore, can the soul do, its wing being cut, if it is not sufficiently trained and prepared?”

In the Vishnu-Dharma, Markandeya, speaking of the spiritual beings, says: “Brahma, Karttikeya, son of Mahadeva, Lakshmi, who produced the Ambrosia, Daksha, who was beaten by Mahadeva, and Umadevi, the wife of Mahadeva, each of them has lived in the middle of this present age, and they have already been the same many times.” In similar vein the astronomer Varahamihira speaks of the influences of the comets,

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and of the calamities which befall men when they appear. These calamities compel them to emigrate from their homes, lean from exhaustion, moaning over their mishap, leading their children by the hand along the road, and saying to each other in low tones: “We are punished for the sins of our kings;” whereupon others answer: “Not so. This is the retribution for what we have done in the former life, before we entered these bodies.”

The following passage is taken from the book of the philosopher Patanjali: “The soul, being tied on all sides to ignorance, which is the cause of its being fettered, is like rice in its cover. As long as it is there, it is capable of growing and ripening in the transition stages between being born and giving birth itself. But if the cover is taken off the rice, it ceases to develop in this way, and becomes stationary. The retribution of the soul depends on the various kinds of creatures through which it wanders, upon the extent of life, whether it be long or short, and upon the particular kind of its happiness, be it scanty or ample.”

The pupil asks: “What is the condition of the spirit when it has a claim to a recompense or has committed a crime, and is then entangled in a kind of new birth either in order to receive bliss or to be punished’?” The master says: “It migrates according to what it has previously done, fluctuating between happiness and misfortune, and alternately experiencing pain or pleas- ure.”,

The pupil asks: “If a man commits something

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which necessitates a retribution for him in a different shape from that in which he has committed the thing, and if between both stages there is a great interval of time and the matter is forgotten, what then?” The master answers: “It is the nature of action (i. e. karma) to adhere to the spirit, for action is its product, whilst the body is only an instrument for it. Forgetting does not apply to spiritual matters, for they lie outside of time, with the nature of which the notions of long and short duration are necessarily connected. Action, by adhering to the spirit, frames its nature and character into a condition similar to that one into which the soul will enter on its next migration. The soul in its purity knows this, thinks of it, and does not forget it; but the light of the soul is covered by the turbid nature of the body as long as it is connected with the body. Then the soul is like a man who remembers a thing which he once knew, but then forgot in consequence of insanity or an illness or some intoxication which overpowered his mind Do you not observe that little children are in high spirits when people wish them a long long life, and are sorry when people imprecate upon them a speedy death? And what would the one thing or the other signify to them, if they had not tasted the sweetness of life and experienced the bitterness of death in former generations through which they had been migrating to undergo the due course of retribution? “

The Hindus call the world loka. Its primary division consists of the upper, the low, and the middle.

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The upper one is called svargaloka, i. e. paradise; the low, nagaloka, i. e. the world of serpents, which is hell, and which is also called naralOka, and sometimes also patala, i. e. the lowest world. The middle world, the one in which we live, is called madhyaldka and manushyaloka, i. e. the world of men. In the latter, man has to earn his reward which he receives in the upper, whilst in the low he receives punishment. A man who deserves to come to svargaloka or nagaloka there receives the full recompense of his deeds during a certain length of time corresponding to the duration of his deeds, but in either of these worlds there is only the soul, the soul free from the body.

For those who do not deserve to rise to heaven or to sink as low as hell, there is another world called tiryagloka, the irrational world of plants and animals, through the individuals of which the soul has to wander in metempsychosis until it reaches the human being, rising by degrees from the lowest kinds of the vegetable world to the highest classes of the sensitive world. The stay of the soul in this world has one of the following causes: either the award which is due to the soul is not sufficient to raise it into heaven or to sink it into hell, or the soul is in its wanderings on the way back from hell; for they believe that a soul returning to the human world from heaven at once adopts a human body, whilst that one which returns there from hell has first to wander about in plants and animals before it reaches the degree of living in a human body.

The Hindus speak in their traditions of a large number

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The torments of hell

From an Indian edition of the Mahabharata

of hells, describing their qualities and their names, and for each kind of sin they have a special hell. The number of hells is eighty-eight thousand according to the Vishnu Purana. We quote what this book says on the subject:–

“The man who makes a false claim or bears false witness, he who helps these two, and he who ridicules people, come into the Raurava hell. He who sheds innocent blood, who robs others of their rights and plunders them, and who kills cows, comes into Rodha. Those also who strangle people come here. Whoso kills a Brahman, he who steals gold, princes who do not look after their subjects, and he who commits adultery with the family of his teacher, or who lies down with his mother-in-law, come into Taptakumbha. Whoso connives at the shame of his wife for greed, commits adultery with his sister or the wife of his son, sells his child, or is stingy toward himself with his property in order to save it, comes into Mahajvala. Whoso is disrespectful

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to his teacher and is not pleased with him, despises men, commits impurity with animals, contemns the Veda and Puranas, or tries to make gain by means of them in the markets, comes into Sabala.”

The same book continues its enumeration as follows:–

“A man who steals and commits tricks, who opposes the straight line of conduct of men, who hates his father, who does not like God and men, who does not honour the gems which God has made glorious and who considers them to be like other stones, comes into Krimisa. Whoso does not honour the rights of parents and grandparents, and whoso does not do his duty toward the angels, and the maker of arrows and spear-points, come to Lalabhaksha. The maker of swords and knives comes to Visasana. He who conceals his property, being greedy for the presents of the rulers, and the Brahman who sells meat or oil or butter or sauce or wine, comes to Adhomukha. He who rears cocks and cats, small cattle, pigs, and birds, comes to Rudhirandha.”

A further passage in the Vishnu Purana also says:–

“Public performers and singers in the markets, those who dig wells for drawing water, a man who cohabits with his wife on holy . days, who throws fire into the houses of men, or betrays his companion and then receives him, being greedy for his property, come to Rudhira. He who takes the honey out of the beehive comes to Vaitarani. Whoso takes away by force the property and women of others in the intoxication of youth comes to Krishna. Whoso cuts down the trees

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comes to Asipatravana. The hunter and the maker of snares and traps come to Vahnijvala. He who neglects the customs and rules, and he who violates the laws – and he is the worst of all – come to Sandamsaka.”

We have given this enumeration only in order to show what kinds of deeds the Hindus abhor as sins. Some Hindus believe that the middle world, the one for earning rewards, is the human world, and that a man wanders about in it because he has received a reward which does not lead him into heaven, but at the same time saves him from hell. They consider heaven as a higher stage, where a man lives in a state of bliss which must be of a certain duration on account of the good. deeds he has done. On the contrary, they consider the wandering about in plants and animals as a lower stage, where a man dwells for punishment for a certain length of time, which is thought to correspond to the wretched deeds he has done. People who hold this view do not know of any hell but this kind of degradation below the degree of living as a human being.

All these degrees of retribution are necessary for the reason that the seeking for salvation from the fetters of matter frequently does not proceed on the straight line which leads to absolute knowledge, but on lines chosen by guessing Or chosen because others have chosen them. Not one action of man shall be lost, not even the least of all; it shall be brought to his account after his good and bad actions have been balanced against each other. The retribution, however, is not according to the deed, but according to the intention

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A group of women and children in the shade of plam-trees

which a man had in doing it; and a man will receive his reward either in the form in which he now lives on earth, or in that form into which his soul will migrate, or in a kind of intermediary state after he has left his present shape and has not yet entered a new one.

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Here, now, the Hindus quit the path of philosophical speculation and turn aside to traditional fables as regards the two places where reward or punishment is given, saying, for instance, that man exists as an incorporeal being in the world beyond the present, and that, after having received the reward of his actions, he again returns to a bodily appearance and human shape in order to be prepared for his further destiny. Some, therefore, do not consider the reward of paradise a special gain, because it has an end and is not eternal, and because this kind of life resembles the life of this our world; for it is not free from ambition apd envy, having in itself various degrees and classes of existence, whilst cupidity and desire do not cease save where there is perfect equality.

We have already said that, according to the belief of the Hindus, the soul exists in these two places without a body. But this is only the view of the educated among them, who understand by the soul an independent being. However, the lower classes, and those who cannot imagine the existence of the soul without a body, hold very different views concerning this subject.

One is this, that the cause of the agony of death is the soul’s waiting for a shape which is to be prepared. It does not quit the body before a cognate being of similar functions has originated, one of those which nature prepares either as an embryo in a mother’s womb or as a seed in the bosom of the earth. Then the soul quits the body in which it has been staying.

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Others hold the more traditional view that the soul does not wait for such a thing, but that it quits its shape on account of its weakness while another body has been prepared for it out of the elements. This body is called ativahika, “that which grows in haste,” because it does not come into existence by being born. The soul stays in this body a complete year in the greatest agony, no matter whether it has deserved to be rewarded or to be punished. For this reason the heir of the deceased must, according to Hindu usage, fulfil the rites of the year for the deceased, duties which end with the end of the year, for then the soul goes to that place which is prepared for it.

It is well known that the popular mind leans toward the sensible world and has an aversion to the world of abstract thought, which is understood only by highly educated people, of whom there are but few in any time and any place. And as common people will acquiesce only in pictorial representations, many of the leaders of religious communities have so far deviated from the right path as to give such imagery place in their books and houses of worship. These words of mine would at once receive a sufficient illustration if a picture were made of the Prophet, for example, or of Mecca and the Ka`ba, and were shown to an uneducated man or woman. Their joy in looking at the thing would bring them to kiss the picture, to rub their cheeks against it, and to roll themselves in the dust before it, as if they were seeing not the picture, but the original, and were performing the rites of pilgrimage, the great

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An inscribed Buddhist sculpture from Hashtnagar, dated 384 A.D.

and small ones, as if they were present in the holy places.

This is the cause which leads to the manufacture of the idols, which are originally monuments in honour of certain much venerated persons, prophets, sages, and angels, destined to keep alive their memory when they are absent or dead, and to create for them a lasting place of grateful veneration in the hearts of men when they die. But when much time passes by after the setting up of the monument, its origin is forgotten, it becomes a matter of custom, and its veneration is developed into a rule for general practice. This being deeply rooted in the nature of man, the legislators of antiquity tried to influence them from this weak point of theirs. Therefore they made the veneration of pictures and similar monuments obligatory on them, as is recounted in historic records, for the times both before and after

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the Deluge. Some people even pretend to know that all mankind were one large idolatrous body before God sent them his prophets.

Among the famous idols of Hindustan was that of Multan, dedicated to the sun, and therefore called Aditya. It was of wood covered with red Cordovan leather and in its two eyes were two red rubies. It is said to have been made over two hundred thousand years ago. When Mohammad ibn Kasim ibn al-Munabbi conquered Multan, he inquired how the town had become so very flourishing and how so many treasures had there been accumulated, and then he found out that this idol was the cause, for pilgrims came from all sides to visit it. Therefore he thought it best to have the idol where it was, but he hung a piece of cow’s flesh on its neck by way of mockery. On the same place a mosque was built. When the Karmathians occupied Multan, Jalam ibn Shaiban, the usurper, broke the idol into pieces and killed its priests. The city of Thanes-war is highly venerated by the Hindus. The idol of that place is called Cakrasva-min, “the owner of the discus.” It is of bronze and is nearly the size of a man. It is now lying in the hippodrome in Ghazni, together with another idol of vile form. This Cakrasvamin is said to have been made in the time of Bharata as a memorial of wars connected with his name. In Inner Kashmir, about two or three days’ journey from the capital toward the mountains of Bolor, there is a wooden idol called Sarada, which is much venerated and frequented by pilgrims.

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The Martanda Temple of the Sun in Kashmir

We shall now communicate a whole chapter from the Brihat-Samhita of Varahamihira relating to the construction of idols, which will help the student thoroughly to comprehend the present subject. This authority says:–

“If the figure is made to represent Rama the son of Dasaratha, or Bali the son of Virocana, give it the height of one hundred and twenty digits,” i. e. of idol digits, which must be reduced by one-tenth to become common digits, in this case one hundred and eight. To the idol of Vishnu give eight hands, or four, or two, and on the left side under the breast give him the figure of the woman Sri. If you give him eight hands, place in the right hands a sword, a club of gold or iron, and an arrow, and make the fourth hand as

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if it were drawing water; in the left hands give him a shield, a bow, a discus, and a conch. If you give him four hands, omit the bow and the arrow, the sword and the shield. If you give him two hands, let the right hand be drawing water, the left holding a conch. If the figure is to represent Baladeva, the brother of Narayana, put earrings into his ears and give him the eyes of a drunken man.

“If you make both figures, Narayana and Baladeva, join with them their sister Bhagavati, the wife of Siva, her left hand resting on her hip a little way from her side, and her right hand holding a lotus. If you make her four-handed, place in the right hands a rosary and a hand drawing water; in the left hands, a book and a lotus. If you make her eight-handed, place in the left hands a pot, a lotus, a bow, and a book; in the right hands, a rosary, a mirror, an arrow, and a water-drawing hand. If the figure is to represent Samba, the son of Vishnu, put only a club in his right hand. If it is to represent Pradyumna, the son of Vishnu, place in his right hand an arrow, in his left hand a bow. And if you make their two wives, place in their right hands a sword, in the left a buckler.

“The idol of Brahma has four faces toward the four sides, and is seated on a lotus. The idol of Skanda, the son of Mahadeva, is a boy riding on a peacock, his hand holding a sakti, a weapon like a double-edged sword, which has in the middle a pestle like that of a mortar. The idol Indra holds in its hand a diamond

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The God Skanda, also called Kartikeya

weapon called vajra. It has a handle similar to the sakti, but on each side it has two swords which join at the handle. On his front place a third eye, and make him ride on a white elephant with four tusks. Likewise, make on the front of the idol of Mahadeva a third eye right above, on his head a crescent, in his hand a sword and a weapon called sala, similar to the club but with three branches; and let his left hand hold his wife Gauri, the daughter of Him- avant (the Himalayas), whom he presses to his bosom from the side.

“To the idol Jina (Buddha) give a face and limbs as beautiful as possible; make the lines in the palms of his hands and feet like a lotus; represent him seated on a lotus; give him gray hair; and portray him with a placid expression, as if he were the father of creation. If you make Arhant, the figure of another aspect of Buddha, represent him as a naked youth with a fine face and with beautiful hands reaching down to his knees, and with the figure of Sri, his wife under his left breast. The idol of Revanta, the son of the sun, rides on a horse like a huntsman. The idol of Yama, the angel of death, rides on a buffalo and holds a club in his hand. The idol of Kubera, the treasurer, wears a crown, has a big stomach and wide hips, and rides on a man. The idol of the Sun has a red face like the pith of the red lotus, beams like a diamond, protruding

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limbs, rings in the ears, the neck adorned with pearls which hang down over the breast, a crown of several compartments, two lotuses in the hands, and the dress of the Northerners which reaches down to the ankle.

“If you represent the Seven Mothers, group several of them together in one figure, Brahmani with four faces toward the four directions, Kaumari with six faces, Vaishnavi with four hands, Varahi with a hog’s head on a human body, Indrani with many eyes and a club in her hand, Bhagavati sitting as people generally sit, and Camunda ugly, with protruding teeth and a slim waist. Furthermore, join with them the sons of Mahadeva, Kshetrapala with bristling hair, a sour face, and an ugly figure, and Vinayaka with an elephant’s head on a human body with four hands.”

The worshippers of these idols kill sheep and buffaloes with axes, that they may nourish themselves with their blood. All idols are constructed according to certain measures determined by “idol-digits” for every single limb, but sometimes they differ regarding the measure of a limb. If the artist keeps the right measure and does not make anything too large nor too small, he is free from sin, and is sure that the being which he represents will not visit him with any mishap. “If,” Varahamihira continues, however, “he makes the idol one cubit high, or two cubits together with the throne, he will obtain health and wealth. If he makes it higher still, he will be praised. But he must know. that making the idol too large, especially that of

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the Sun, will hurt the ruler, and making it too small will hurt the artist. If he gives it a thin belly, this helps and furthers famine in the country; if he gives it a lean belly, this ruins property. If the hand of the artist slips so as to produce something like a wound, he will have a wound in his own body which will kill him. If the idol is not completely even. on both sides, so that one shoulder is higher than the other, his wife will perish. If the artist turns the eye upward, he will be blind for life; if he turns it downward, he will have many troubles and sorrows.”

If the statue is made of some precious stone, it is better than if it is made of wood, and wood is better than clay. The Brihat-Samhita accordingly says: “The benefits of a statue of precious stone will be common to all the men and women of the empire. A golden statue will bring power to him who erects it, a statue of silver will bring him renown, one of bronze will bring him an increase of his rule, and one of stone the acquisition of landed property.”

The Hindus honour their idols on account of those who erect them, not on account of the material of which they are made. We have already mentioned that the idol of Multan was of wood. In like manner, the idol which Rama erected when he had finished the war with the demons was of sand, which he had heaped up with his own hand. But since the astrologically correct moment for the erecting of the monument fell before the moment when the workmen had finished the cutting of the stone monument which Rama had originally

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Ruins of a temple to Hanuman, Rama’s ally, in Southern India

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ordered, the figure became petrified all at once. Rama likewise gave very minute instructions regarding the building of the temple and its peristyle, the cutting of the trees of four different kinds, the astrological determination of the favourable moment for the erection of the shrine, and the celebration of the rites due on such an occasion. Furthermore, he ordered that servants and priests should be nominated from different classes of the people to minister to the idols. “To the idol of Vishnu are devoted the class called Bhagavata; to the idol of the Sun, the Maga; to the idol of Mahadeva (Siva), a class of saints, anchorites with long hair, who cover their skin with ashes, hang bones of dead people on their persons, and swim in the pools. The Brahmans are devoted to the Eight Mothers, the Shamanians (Buddhists) to Buddha, and the class called Nagna (i. e. the naked Jains) to the Arhant. On the whole, to each idol are devoted certain people who constructed it, for they best know how to serve it.” Our object in mentioning all this is to teach the reader the accurate description of an idol, if he happens to see one, and to illustrate what we have said before, that such idols are erected only for uneducated low-class people of little understanding; for the Hindus never made an idol of any supernatural being, much less of God.’

Al-Biruni in a later chapter, the seventy-third, describes the various ways in which the bodies of the dead were disposed of in India and elsewhere, and he mentions certain ideas associated with these rites. The

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A Zoroastrian Dakhmah, or Tower of Silence

The Zoroastrians are forbidden by their religion to burn or bury their dead, or to consign them to the rivers, lest the sacred elements, fire, earth, and water, should in any way be defiled. Their sacred books enjoin upon them to expose corpses upon dokhmah.” or Tower of Silence, to be devoured by the fowls of the air. The bones denuded of the ‘flesh’liA crumble into dust beneath the parching tropical sun. At Bombay the vulture-haunted towers stand in a beautiful garden of waving palms on Malabar Hill. overlooking the city.

section is inserted here on account of its direct connection with what has gone before in this and in the preceding chapter.

‘In the most ancient times in India the bodies of the dead were exposed to the air by being thrown on the fields without any covering; sick people also were exposed on the fields and in the mountains, and were left there. If they died there, they had the fate just mentioned; but if they recovered, they returned to their dwellings. Thereupon there appeared a legislator who ordered people to expose their dead to the wind. In consequence, they constructed roofed buildings with walls of rails, through which the wind blew, passing over the dead, something like the grave towers of the Zoroastrians. After the Hindus had practised this custom for a long time, Narayana bade them hand the dead over to the fire, and ever since they have been in the habit of burning them, so that nothing remains of them, and every defilement, dirt, and smell is annihilated at once, so as to leave scarcely a trace behind.

Nowadays the Slavonians, too, burn their dead, whilst the ancient Greeks seem to have had both customs, that of burning and that of burying. To the former method Galen makes a distinct allusion in his commentary to the apothegms of Hippokrates where he says: “It is generally known that Asklepios was raised to the angels in a column of fire, the like of which is also related of Dionysos, Herakles, and others, who laboured for the benefit of mankind. People say that God did thus with them in order to destroy the mortal

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and earthly part of them by fire, and afterwards to attract to himself the immortal part of them, and to raise their souls to heaven.” In these words there is a reference to burning as a Greek custom, but it seems to have been in use only for the great men among them. The Hindus express themselves in a similar way. There is a point in man by which he is what he is. This point becomes free when the mixed elements of the body are dissolved and scattered by combustion.

Regarding the return of the immortal soul to God, the Hindus think that it is effected partly by the rays of the sun, the soul attaching itself to them and ascending with them, and partly by the flame of the fire, which raises it to God. Some Hindus used to pray that God would make his road to himself as a straight line, because this is the nearest road, and there is no other road upwards save the fire or the ray. Similar to this is the practice of the Ghuzz Turks with reference to a drowned person; for they place the body on a bier in the river, and make a cord hang down from the foot of the corpse, throwing the end of the cord into the water. By means of this cord the spirit of the deceased is to raise himself for resurrection. The belief of the Hindus on this head was confirmed by the words of Vasudeva, which he spoke in the Bhagavadgita regarding the sign of him who is liberated from the fetters of bodily existence. “His death takes place during the northern revolution of the sun from the winter solstice to the summer solstice, and during the white half of the month, between lighted lamps, that is to say between

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Surya, The Hindu Sun-God

From Moor’s Hindu Pantheon.

conjunction and opposition (new moon and full moon), in the seasons of winter and spring.” A similar view is recognized in the following words of Mani: “Other religious bodies blame us because we worship the sun and moon, and represent them as an image. But they do not know their real nature; they do not know that the sun and moon are our path, and the door whence we march forth into the world of our existence into heaven, as has been declared by Jesus.” So he maintains. People relate that Buddha ordered the bodies of the dead to be thrown into flowing water. Therefore his followers, the Shamanians, throw their dead into the rivers.

According to the Hindus, the body of the dead has the claim upon his heirs that they are to wash and embalm it, wrap it in a shroud, and then burn it with as much sandal and other wood as they can get. Part of the burned bones are brought to the Ganges and thrown into it, that the Ganges may flow over them as it flowed over the burned bones of the children of Sagara, thereby releasing them from hell and bringing them to paradise. The remainder of the ashes is thrown

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On the banks of the Ganges in Benares

into some brook of running water. On the spot where the body has been burned, they raise a monument similar to a mile-stone, plastered with gypsum. The bodies of children under three years are not burned. Those who fulfil these duties toward the dead afterwards wash both themselves and their clothing for two days, because they have become unclean by touching the dead. Those who cannot afford to burn their dead throw them either somewhere on the open field or into running water.

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Now as regards the right of the body of the living, the Hindus would not think of burning it save in the case of a widow who chooses to follow her husband, or in the case of those who are tired of life, and are distressed over some incurable disease of body, some irremovable bodily defect, or old age and infirmity. This, however, no man of distinction does, but only Vaisyas and Sudras, especially at those times which are prized as the most suitable for a man to acquire in them, for a future repetition of life, a better form and condition than that in which he happens to have been born and to live.

Burning oneself is forbidden to Brahmans and to Kshatriyas by a special law. Such being the case, if they wish to dispose of themselves by committing suicide, they do so at the time of an eclipse in some other manner, or they hire somebody to drown them in the Ganges, keeping them under water till they are dead.

At the junction of the two rivers Yamuna (Jumna) and Ganges there is a great tree called Prayaga, a tree of the species called Vata (?). It is peculiar to this kind of tree that its branches send forth two species of twigs, some directed upwards, as is the case with all other trees, and others directed downward like roots, but without leaves. If such a twig enters into the soil, it is like a supporting column to the branch whence it has grown. Nature has arranged this on purpose, since the branches of this tree are of an enormous extent and require to be supported. Here the Brahmans and Kshatriyas are in the habit of committing suicide by

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climbing up the tree and throwing themselves into the Ganges.’

There is space for a single other citation from al-Biruni in connection with the religion of the Hindus; it is taken from his sixty-sixth chapter, in which he treats of Hindu pilgrimages and of the visits which they pay to certain sacred places as a part of their religious duty.

‘Pilgrimages are not obligatory upon the Hindus, although they are facultative and meritorious. A man sets off to wander to some holy region, to some much venerated idol, or to some of the holy rivers. He worships in them, adores the idol, makes presents to it, recites many hymns and prayers, fasts, and gives alms to the Brahmans, the priests, and others. He shaves the hair of his head and beard, and returns home. The much venerated holy ponds are in the cold mountains round Meru. The following information regarding them is found in both the Vayu and the Matsya Puranas:– “At the foot of Meru is Arhata, a very great pond, described as shining like the moon. In it originates the river Zanba (Jambu ?), which is very pure, flowing over the purest gold. Near the mountain Sveta is the pond Uttaramanasa, and around it twelve other ponds, each of them like a lake. Thence come two rivers which flow to Kimpurusha. Near the mountain Nila is a pond adorned with lotuses. Near the mountain Nishada is the pond Vishnupada, whence comes the river Sarasvati (Sarsuti). Besides, the river Gandharvi comes from there. In the mountain Kailasa is

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A shrine of Narsimba in the Bombay Presidency

the pond Manda, as large as a sea, whence comes the river Mandakini. Northeast of Kailasa is the mountain Chandraparvata, and at its foot the pond whence comes the river Acud. Southeast of Kailasa is the mountain Lohita, and at its foot a pond called Lohita. Thence comes the river Lohitanadi. South of Kailasa is the mountain Sarayusati, and at its foot the pond Manasa. Thence comes the river Sarayu. West of Kailasa is

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the mountain Aruna, always covered with snow, which cannot be ascended. At its foot is the pond Sailoda, whence comes the river Sailoda. North of Kailasa is the mountain Gaura with the pond of golden sand at its foot.

“Near this pond King Bhagiratha led his anchorite life. His story is as follows: A king of the Hindus called Sagara had sixty thousand sons, all of them bad, mean fellows. Once they happened to lose a horse. They searched for it at once, and in searching they continually ran about so violently that the surface of the earth broke in. They found the horse in the interior of the earth, standing before a man who was looking down with deep-sunken eyes. When they came near him, he smote them with his look, in consequence of which they were burned on the spot and went to hell on account of their wicked actions. The collapsed part of the earth became a sea, the great ocean. A king of the descendants of that king, called Bhagiratha, on hearing the history of his ancestors, was much affected thereby. He went to the above-mentioned pond, the bottom of which was polished gold, and stayed there, fasting all day and worshipping during the night. Finally, Mahadeva (Siva) asked him what he wanted; whereupon he answered: ‘ I want the river Ganges which flows in Paradise,’ knowing that the sins of him over whom its water flows are pardoned. Mahadeva granted him his desire. However, the Milky Way was the bed of the Ganges, and the Ganges was very haughty, for nobody had ever been able to stand against

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A sacred lake in India

it. Now Mahadeva took the Ganges and put it on his head. When the Ganges could not move away,. it became very angry and made a great uproar. However, Mahadeva held it firmly, so that it was not possible for anybody to plunge into it. Then he took part of the Ganges and gave it to Bhagiratha, and this king made the middle one of its seven branches flow over the bones of his ancestors, whereby they became liberated from punishment. Therefore the Hindus throw the burned bones of their dead into the Ganges. The Ganges was also called Bhagiratha, after the name of that king who brought it to earth.”

In every place to which some particular holiness is ascribed, the Hindus construct ponds intended for

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Tank at the cenotaph of Suraj Mal

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their ablutions. In this they have attained a very high degree of art, so that Mohammedans, when they see them, wonder at them, and are unable to describe them, much less to construct anything like them. They build them of great stones of an enormous bulk, joined to each other by sharp and strong cramp-irons, in the form of steps or terraces, like so many ledges; and these terraces run all around the pond, reaching to a height of more than a man’s stature. On the surface of the stones between two terraces they construct staircases rising like pinnacles. Thus the first steps or terraces are like roads leading round the pond, and the pinnacles are steps leading up and down. If ever so many people descend to the pond whilst others ascend, they do not meet each other, and the road is never blocked up, because there are so many terraces, and the ascending person can always turn aside to another terrace than that on which the descending people go. By this arrangement all troublesome thronging is avoided.

In Multan there is a pond which the Hindus worship by bathing themselves, if they are not prevented. The Brihat-Samhita of Varahamihira relates that in Thanesar there is a pond which the Hindus visit from afar to bathe in its water. Regarding the cause of this custom, they say that the waters of all the other holy ponds visit this particular pond at the time of an eclipse. Therefore, if a man washes in it, it is as if he had washed in every single one of all of them. Then Varahamihira continues: “People say that if it were not

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the head which causes the eclipse of sun and moon, the other ponds would not visit this pond.”

The ponds become particularly famous for holiness either because some important event has happened at them, or because there is some passage in the holy text or tradition which refers to them; and the Hindus have some places which are venerated for reasons connected with their law and religion, such as Baranasi (Benares), for their anchorites wander to it and stay there for ever, as the dwellers of the Ka`ba stay for ever in Mecca. They want to live there to the end of their lives, that their reward after death may be the better for it.

They say that a murderer is always held responsible for his crime and punished with a punishment due to his guilt, except in case he enters the city of Benares, where he obtains pardon. Regarding the cause of the holiness of this asylum they relate the following story: “Brahma was four-headed in shape. Now some quarrel happened between him and Sankara (Siva), and the fight which ensued had the result that one of the heads of Brahma was torn off. At that time it was the custom for the victor to take the head of the slain adversary in his hand and let it hang down from his hand as an act of ignominy to the dead and as a sign of his own bravery. Thus the head of Brahma was dishonoured by the hand of Mahadeva, who always took it with him wherever he went and whatever he did. He never once separated himself from it when he entered the towns, till at last he came to Benares.

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Sculptured lions at Sarnath near Benares

After he had entered Benares the head dropped from his hand and disappeared.”

A similar place is Pukara, the story of which is this: Brahma was once occupied there in offering to the fire, when a pig came out of the fire. Therefore they represent his image there as that of a pig. Outside the town, in three places, they have constructed ponds which stand in high veneration, and are places of worship Another place of the kind is Thanesar, which is also called Kurukshetra, or “the land of Kuru,” who was a pious, holy peasant, and worked miracles by divine power. Therefore the country was called after him, and venerated for his sake. Besides, Thanesar is the theatre of the exploits of Vasudeva in the wars of the Mahabharata and of the destruction of the evil-doers. It is for this reason that people visit the place. Mathura, too, is a holy place, crowded with Brahmans. It is venerated because Vasudeva was born and brought up there, in a place in the neighbourhood called Nandagola. Nowadays the Hindus also visit Kashmir, and lastly they used to visit Multan before its idol-temple was destroyed.’

This collection transcribed by Chris Gage
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