A “common Hindoo legend” and a religious conversation in India in 1842

A small temple in Midnapore town (circa 1863)

In my last piece, I introduced readers to the journal of Charles Acland, a clergyman who wrote extensively about his tenure as chaplain at “Poree, Cuttack, and Midnapore” from 1842-1845 in Manners and Customs of India. Acland provided some very colorful anecdotes pertaining to the natives of eastern India who were under the administration of the East India Company. One of Acland’s goals in India was proselytization and a translated passage described a very lively conversation between a native recently converted to Christianity and a Hindu “inquirer” who was considering converting to Christianity (p 58-59).

Inquirer: “You say God gave you the Bible, I say God gave us the Shasters. The religion that is good for the white man is not good for the black. God is good, and has given us each a religion proper to ourselves. I say your religion is good and comes from God; why will you not say the same of our Shasters?”

Convert: “God gave white men the Bible because he is very good, and he told them to go and teach it to everyone, because he wishes everyone to be good and happy, and to go to the happy country of heaven when they die; but the Shasters do not come from God.”

Inquirer: “How do you know that?”

Convert: “Listen, brother, Brummah (God) is good, is he not?”

Inquirer: “Yes.”

Convert: “Should not you like to go to Brummah?”

Inquirer: “Yes.”

Convert: “Do not the Shasters of your religion teach you so?”

Inquirer: “Ha! You are very sly. No, but our religion is good for us now. By and by, Vishnoo will come again, and then he will perhaps give us a Bible.”

Convert: “Why not take the Christian Bible and Christian Brummah now?”

Inquirer: “Then I should lose my caste, my wife will leave me, my children will go away, my brother will not smoke with me, my hut will be empty, and the Brahmins will curse me.”

Convert: “If the Brahmins curse you, God is stronger than they are, and he will bless you; if your wife and children run away, Jesus will make you happy in heaven; if your brother will not smoke with you, the great God will give you his peace.”

Inquirer: “Well, I will see. Lend me the book; I will read it and show it to the Brahmins…”

Acland then goes on to describe the demeanor of the local clergymen, who sat quiet for the most part, but got quite excited and whenever the recent convert made a valid point. It is a humorous account.

But perhaps the most humorous account is Acland’s reiteration of a local legend regarding how the hills of Balasore came about. It is worth reading the passage in entirety (p 83).

“Many, many years ago there lived a giant in Ceylon, and this giant fell in love with the daughter of another giant at Lucknow, in Bengal, so he asked her father to let him marry her. But he said No, as the other lived in a little island, and was no real gentleman at all. Upon this Master Ceylon determined that, as her father said No, he would take her without leave, and off he started, seized the young lady, put her on his shoulders, and carried her across to Ceylon. But when the papa found that his daughter was gone, he got into a tremendous rage, and determined to go and punish the Ceyloney. So off he hurried, until he came to the straits which separate the island from the mainland. But when he tried to cross over, he found that he was not quite so tall as the Ceylonese gentleman by a few hundred yards, and that the water was too deep for him. So he stood still, and he scratched his head and wiped his forehead with his handkerchief, and thought and pondered what he should do to get across and punish the wicked thief. At last an idea struck him, and he trotted back all up India until he reached the Himalaya mountains, and, snatching up two of the largest of them, one in each hand, threw them into the straits, and thus made them shallow enough for him to pass over. But as he went along some of the rocks and earth slipped through his fingers, for you may suppose his hands were rather full; and the chains of hills which extend from Balasore for nearly three hundred miles are the pieces which he dropped as he went along.”

The tale does not inform us whether the giant’s daughter was restored to him.

Acland is obviously recounting the gist of the Ramayana. However, due to his lack of knowledge of Oriya, the translation is fatally flawed and Sita’s father (instead of husband Rama) attempts to cross the Palk Strait. Acland perhaps heard pati in Oriya and used his knowledge of Latin (pater for father) in translating. Also, the literal translation of “giant” is another hilarious misinterpretation. In Oriya, as in many other Indian languages a “big person” indicates a person who is rich or famous and not necessarily physically large.

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4 thoughts on “A “common Hindoo legend” and a religious conversation in India in 1842

  1. Wow, that’s a very interesting read (Part 1 & 2). I was wondering if you have come across any other such books, that you could recommend. I am curious to know India Pre and early colonial periods.

    • You know, Gurdit, when I was twenty it would have infuriated me. Over the last few years I’ve lost my connection with the faith of my ancestors and have become somewhat irreligious. That and I’ve found mosques built on temples built on Buddhist shrines built on who-knows-what. I’ve no qualms with spirituality, but organized religions all deliver when it comes to false promises (though some more than others of course).

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