Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Courteous reader, observe, in the first place, that Father Thomassin, one of the most learned men of modern Europe, derives the Brachmans from the Jewish word barac, by a c — supposing, of course, that the Jews had a c. This barac, says he, signified to fly; and the Brachmans fled from the towns — supposing that there were any towns.

Or, if you like it better, Brachmans comes from barak by a k, meaning to bless or to pray. But why might not the Biscayans name the Brahmins from the word bran? which expresses — I will not say what. They had as good a right as the Hebrews. Really, this is a strange sort of erudition. By rejecting it entirely, we should know less, but we should know it better.

Is it not likely that the Brahmins were the first legislators, the first philosophers, the first divines, of the earth? Do not the few remaining monuments of ancient history form a great presumption in their favor? since the first Greek philosophers went to them to learn mathematics; and the most ancient curiosities, those collected by the emperors of China, are all Indian, as is attested by the relations in Du Halde’s collection.

Of the Shastah, we shall speak elsewhere. It is the first theological book of the Brahmins, written about fifteen hundred years before the Vedah, and anterior to all other books.

Their annals make no mention of any war undertaken by them at any time. The words “arms,” “killing,” “maiming,” are to be found neither in the fragments of the Shastah that have reached us, nor in the Yajurvedah, nor in the Kormovedah. At least, I can affirm that I have not seen them in either of these two latter collections; and it is most singular that the Shastah, which speaks of a conspiracy in heaven, makes no mention of any war in the great peninsula between the Indus and Ganges.

The Hebrews, who were unknown until so late a period, never name the Brahmins; they knew nothing of India till after Alexander’s conquests and their own settling in that Egypt of which they had spoken so ill. The name of India is to be found only in the book of Esther, and in that of Job, who was not a Hebrew. We find a singular contrast between the sacred books of the Hebrews and those of the Indians. The Indian books announce only peace and mildness; they forbid the killing of animals: but the Hebrew books speak of nothing but the slaughter and massacre of men and beasts; all are butchered in the name of the Lord; it is quite another order of things.

We are incontestably indebted to the Brahmins for the idea of the fall of celestial beings revolting against the Sovereign of Nature; and it was probably from them that the Greeks took the fable of the Titans; and lastly, from them it was that the Jews, in the first century of our era, took the idea of Lucifer’s revolt.

How could these Indians suppose a rebellion in heaven without having seen one on earth? Such a leap from the human to the divine nature is difficult of comprehension. We usually step from what is known to what is unknown.

A war of giants would not be imagined, until some men more robust than the rest had been seen to tyrannize over their fellow-men. To imagine the like in heaven, the Brahmins must either have experienced violent discords among themselves, or at least have witnessed them among their neighbors.

Be that as it may, it is an astonishing phenomenon that a society of men who had never made war should have invented a sort of war carried on in imaginary space, or in a globe distant from our own, or in what is called the firmament — the empyrean. But let it be carefully observed, that in this revolt of the celestial beings against their Sovereign, there were no blows given, no celestial blood spilled, no mountains thrown at one another’s heads, no angels cleft in twain, as in Milton’s sublime and grotesque poem.

According to the Shastah, it was only a formal disobedience of the orders of the Most High, which God punished by relegating the rebellious angels to a vast place of darkness called Onderah, for the term of a whole mononthour. A mononthour is a hundred and twenty-six millions of our years. But God vouchsafed to pardon the guilty at the end of five thousand years, and their Onderah was nothing more than a purgatory.

He turned them into Mhurd, or men, and placed them on our globe, on condition that they should not eat animals, nor cohabit with the males of their new species, on pain of returning to the Onderah.

These are the principal articles of the Brahmin faith, which has endured without intermission from time immemorial to the present day.

This is but a small part of the ancient cosmogony of the Brahmins. Their rites, their pagods, prove that among them all was allegorical. They still represent Virtue in the form of a woman with ten arms, combating ten mortal sins typified by monsters. Our missionaries were acute enough to take this image of Virtue for that of the devil, and affirm that the devil is worshipped in India. We have never visited that people but to enrich ourselves and calumniate them.

The Metempsychosis of the Brahmins.

The doctrine of the metempsychosis comes from an ancient law of feeding on cow’s milk as well as on vegetables, fruits, and rice. It seemed horrible to the Brahmins to kill and eat their feeder; and they had soon the same respect for goats, sheep, and all other animals: they believed them to be animated by the rebellious angels, who were completing their purification in the bodies of beasts as well as in those of men. The nature of the climate seconded, or rather originated this law. A burning atmosphere creates a necessity for refreshing food, and inspires horror for our custom of stowing carcasses in our stomachs.

The opinion that beasts have souls was general throughout the East, and we find vestiges of it in the ancient sacred writings. In the book of Genesis, God forbids men to eat “their flesh with their blood and their soul.” Such is the import of the Hebrew text. “I will avenge,” says he, “the blood of your souls on the claws of beasts and the hands of men.” In Leviticus he says, “The soul of the flesh is in the blood.” He does more; he makes a solemn compact with man and with all animals, which supposes an intelligence in the latter.

In much later times, Ecclesiasticus formally says, “God shows that man is like to the beasts; for men die like beasts; their condition is equal: as man dies, so also dies the beast. They breathe alike. There is nothing in man more than in the beast.” Jonah, when he went to preach at Nineveh, made both men and beasts fast.

All ancient authors, sacred books as well as profane, attribute knowledge to the beasts; and several make them speak. It is not then to be wondered at that the Brahmins, and after them the Pythagoreans, believed that souls passed successively into the bodies of beasts and of men; consequently they persuaded themselves, or at least they said, that the souls of the guilty angels, in order to finish their purgation, belonged sometimes to beasts, sometimes to men. This is a part of the romance of the Jesuit Bougeant, who imagined that the devils are spirits sent into the bodies of animals. Thus, in our day, and at the extremity of the west, a Jesuit unconsciously revives an article of the faith of the most ancient Oriental priests.

The Self-burning of Men and Women among the Brahmins.

The Brahmins of the present day, who do all that the ancient Brahmins did, have, we know, retained this horrible custom. Whence is it that, among a people who have never shed the blood of men or of animals, the finest act of devotion is a public self-burning? Superstition, the great uniter of contraries, is the only source of these frightful sacrifices, the custom of which is much more ancient than the laws of any known people.

The Brahmins assert that their great prophet Brahma, the son of God, descended among men, and had several wives; and that after his death, the wife who loved him the most burned herself on his funeral pile, that she might join him in heaven. Did this woman really burn herself, as it is said that Portia, the wife of Brutus, swallowed burning coals, in order to be reunited to her husband? or is this a fable invented by the priests? Was there a Brahma, who really gave himself out as a prophet and son of God? It is likely that there was a Brahma, as there afterwards were a Zoroaster and a Bacchus. Fable seized upon their history, as she has everywhere constantly done.

No sooner does the wife of the son of God burn herself, than ladies of meaner condition must burn themselves likewise. But how are they to find their husbands again, who are become horses, elephants, hawks, etc.? How are they to distinguish the precise beast, which the defunct animates? how recognize him and be still his wife? This difficulty does not in the least embarrass the Hindoo theologians; they easily find a distinguo — a solution in sensu composito — in sensu diviso. The metempsychosis is only for common people; for other souls they have a sublimer doctrine. These souls, being those of the once rebel angels, go about purifying themselves; those of the women who immolate themselves are beatified, and find their husbands ready-purified. In short, the priests are right, and the women burn themselves.

This dreadful fanaticism has existed for more than four thousand years, amongst a mild people, who would fear to kill a grasshopper. The priests cannot force a widow to burn herself; for the invariable law is, that the self-devotion must be absolutely voluntary. The longest married of the wives of the deceased has the first refusal of the honor of mounting the funeral-pile; if she is not inclined, the second presents herself; and so of the rest. It is said, that on one occasion seventeen burned themselves at once on the pile of a rajah: but these sacrifices are now very rare; the faith has become weaker since the Mahometans have governed a great part of the country, and the Europeans traded with the rest.

Still, there is scarcely a governor of Madras or Pondicherry who has not seen some Indian woman voluntarily perish in the flames. Mr. Holwell relates that a young widow of nineteen, of singular beauty, and the mother of three children, burned herself in the presence of Mrs. Russell, wife of the admiral then in the Madras roads. She resisted the tears and the prayers of all present; Mrs. Russell conjured her, in the name of her children, not to leave them orphans. The Indian woman answered, “God, who has given them birth, will take care of them.” She then arranged everything herself, set fire to the pile with her own hand, and consummated her sacrifice with as much serenity as one of our nuns lights the tapers.

Mr. Charnock, an English merchant, one day seeing one of these astonishing victims, young and lovely, on her way to the funeral-pile, dragged her away by force when she was about to set fire to it, and, with the assistance of some of his countrymen, carried her off and married her. The people regarded this act as the most horrible sacrilege.

Why do husbands never burn themselves, that they may join their wives? Why has a sex, naturally weak and timid, always had this frantic resolution? Is it because tradition does not say that a man ever married a daughter of Brahma, while it does affirm that an Indian woman was married to a son of that divinity? Is it because women are more superstitious than men? Or is it because their imaginations are weaker, more tender, and more easily governed?

The ancient Brahmins sometimes burned themselves to prevent the pains and the languor of old age; but, above all, to make themselves admired. Calanus would not, perhaps, have placed himself on the pile, but for the purpose of being gazed at by Alexander. The Christian renegade Peregrinus burned himself in public, for the same reason that a madman goes about the streets dressed like an Armenian, to attract the notice of the populace.

Is there not also an unfortunate mixture of vanity in this terrible sacrifice of the Indian women? Perhaps, if a law were passed that the burning should take place in the presence of one waiting woman only, this abominable custom would be forever destroyed.

One word more: A few hundreds of Indian women, at most, have furnished this horrid spectacle; but our inquisitions, our atrocious madmen calling themselves judges, have put to death in the flames more than a hundred thousand of our brethren — men, women, and children — for things which no one has understood. Let us pity and condemn the Brahmins; but let us not forget our miserable selves!

Truly, we have forgotten one very essential point in this short article on the Brahmins, which is, that their sacred books are full of contradictions; but the people know nothing of them, and the doctors have solutions ready — senses figured and figurative, allegories, types, express declarations of Birma, Brahma, and Vishnu, sufficient to shut the mouth of any reasoner.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25