The Romany Rye, by George Borrow

Chapter 3

Necessity of Religion — The Great Indian One — Image-Worship — Shakespeare — The Pat Answer — Krishna — Amen

Having told the man in black that I should like to know all the truth with regard to the Pope and his system, he assured me he should be delighted to give me all the information in his power; that he had come to the dingle, not so much for the sake of the good cheer which I was in the habit of giving him, as in the hope of inducing me to enlist under the banners of Rome, and to fight in her cause; and that he had no doubt that, by speaking out frankly to me, he ran the best chance of winning me over.

He then proceeded to tell me that the experience of countless ages had proved the necessity of religion; the necessity, he would admit, was only for simpletons, but as nine-tenths of the dwellers upon this earth were simpletons, it would never do for sensible people to run counter to their folly, but, on the contrary, it was their wisest course to encourage them in it, always provided that, by so doing, sensible people could derive advantage; that the truly sensible people of this world were the priests, who, without caring a straw for religion for its own sake, made use of it as a cord by which to draw the simpletons after them; that there were many religions in this world, all of which had been turned to excellent account by the priesthood; but that the one the best adapted for the purposes of priestcraft was the popish, which, he said, was the oldest in the world and the best calculated to endure. On my inquiring what he meant by saying the popish religion was the oldest in the world, whereas there could be no doubt that the Greek and Roman religion had existed long before it, to say nothing of the old Indian religion still in existence and vigour, he said, with a nod, after taking a sip at his glass, that, between me and him, the popish religion, that of Greece and Rome, and the old Indian system were, in reality, one and the same.

‘You told me that you intended to be frank,’ said I, ‘but, however frank you may be, I think you are rather wild.’

‘We priests of Rome,’ said the man in black, ‘even those amongst us who do not go much abroad, know a great deal about church matters, of which you heretics have very little idea. Those of our brethren of the Propaganda, on their return home from distant missions, not unfrequently tell us very strange things relating to our dear mother: for example, our first missionaries to the East were not slow in discovering and telling to their brethren that our religion and the great Indian one were identical, no more difference between them than between Ram and Rome. Priests, convents, beads, prayers, processions, fastings, penances, all the same, not forgetting anchorites, and vermin, he! he! The Pope they found under the title of the Grand Lama, a sucking child surrounded by an immense number of priests. Our good brethren, some two hundred years ago, had a hearty laugh, which their successors have often re-echoed; they said that helpless suckling and its priests put them so much in mind of their own old man, surrounded by his cardinals, he! he! Old age is second childhood.’

‘Did they find Christ?’ said I.

‘They found him too,’ said the man in black, ‘that is, they saw His image; He is considered in India as a pure kind of being, and on that account, perhaps, is kept there rather in the back-ground, even as He is here.’

‘All this is very mysterious to me,’ said I.

‘Very likely,’ said the man in black; ‘but of this I am tolerably sure, and so are most of those of Rome, that modern Rome had its religion from ancient Rome, which had its religion from the East.’

‘But how?’ I demanded.

‘It was brought about, I believe, by the wanderings of nations,’ said the man in black. ‘A brother of the Propaganda, a very learned man, once told me — I do not mean Mezzofanti, who has not five ideas — this brother once told me that all we of the Old World, from Calcutta to Dublin, are of the same stock, and were originally of the same language, and —’

‘All of one religion,’ I put in.

‘All of one religion,’ said the man in black; ‘and now follow different modifications of the same religion.’

‘We Christians are not image-worshippers,’ said I.

‘You heretics are not, you mean,’ said the man in black; ‘but you will be put down, just as you have always been, though others may rise up after you; the true religion is image-worship; people may strive against it, but they will only work themselves to an oil; how did it fare with that Greek Emperor, the Iconoclast, what was his name, Leon the Isaurian? Did not his image-breaking cost him Italy, the fairest province of his empire, and did not ten fresh images start up at home for every one which he demolished? Oh! you little know the craving which the soul sometimes feels after a good bodily image.’

‘I have indeed no conception of it,’ said I; ‘I have an abhorrence of idolatry — the idea of bowing before a graven figure.’

‘The idea, indeed,’ said Belle, who had now joined us.

‘Did you never bow before that of Shakespeare?’ said the man in black, addressing himself to me, after a low bow to Belle.

‘I don’t remember that I ever did,’ said I, ‘but even suppose I did?’

‘Suppose you did,’ said the man in black: ‘shame on you, Mr. Hater of Idolatry; why the very supposition brings you to the ground; you must make figures of Shakespeare, must you? then why not of St. Antonio, or Ignacio, or of a greater personage still? I know what you are going to say,’ he cried, interrupting me as I was about to speak. ‘You don’t make his image in order to pay it Divine honours, but only to look at it, and think of Shakespeare; but this looking at a thing in order to think of a person is the very basis of idolatry. Shakespeare’s works are not sufficient for you; no more are the Bible or the legend of St. Anthony or St. Ignacio for us, that is for those of us who believe in them; I tell you, Zingaro, that no religion can exist long which rejects a good bodily image.’

‘Do you think,’ said I, ‘that Shakespeare’s works would not exist without his image?’

‘I believe,’ said the man in black, ‘that Shakespeare’s image is looked at more than his works, and will be looked at, and perhaps adored, when they are forgotten. I am surprised that they have not been forgotten long ago; I am no admirer of them.’

‘But I can’t imagine,’ said I, ‘how you will put aside the authority of Moses. If Moses strove against image-worship, should not his doing so be conclusive as to the impropriety of the practice; what higher authority can you have than that of Moses?’

‘The practice of the great majority of the human race,’ said the man in black, ‘and the recurrence to image-worship, where image-worship has been abolished. Do you know that Moses is considered by the Church as no better than a heretic, and though, for particular reasons, it has been obliged to adopt his writings, the adoption was merely a sham one, as it never paid the slightest attention to them? No, no, the Church was never led by Moses, nor by one mightier than he, whose doctrine it has equally nullified — I allude to Krishna in his second avatar; the Church, it is true, governs in his name, but not unfrequently gives him the lie, if he happens to have said anything which it dislikes. Did you never hear the reply which Padre Paolo Segani made to the French Protestant, Jean Anthoine Guerin, who had asked him whether it was easier for Christ to have been mistaken in His Gospel, than for the Pope to be mistaken in his decrees?’

‘I never heard their names before,’ said I.

‘The answer was pat,’ said the man in black, ‘though he who made it was confessedly the most ignorant fellow of the very ignorant order to which he belonged, the Augustine. Christ might err as a man,’ said he, ‘but the Pope can never err, being God. The whole story is related in the Nipotismo.’

‘I wonder you should ever have troubled yourselves with Christ at all,’ said I.

‘What was to be done?’ said the man in black; ‘the power of that name suddenly came over Europe, like the power of a mighty wind; it was said to have come from Judea, and from Judea it probably came when it first began to agitate minds in these parts; but it seems to have been known in the remote East, more or less for thousands of years previously. It filled people’s minds with madness; it was followed by books which were never much regarded, as they contained little of insanity; but the name! what fury that breathed into people! the books were about peace and gentleness, but the name was the most horrible of war-cries — those who wished to uphold old names at first strove to oppose it, but their efforts were feeble, and they had no good war-cry; what was Mars as a war-cry compared with the name of ——? It was said that they persecuted terribly, but who said so? The Christians. The Christians could have given them a lesson in the art of persecution, and eventually did so. None but Christians have ever been good persecutors; well, the old religion succumbed, Christianity prevailed, for the ferocious is sure to prevail over the gentile.’

‘I thought,’ said I, ‘you stated a little time ago that the Popish religion and the ancient Roman are the same?’

‘In every point but that name, that Krishna and the fury and love of persecution which it inspired,’ said the man in black. ‘A hot blast came from the East, sounding Krishna; it absolutely maddened people’s minds, and the people would call themselves his children; we will not belong to Jupiter any longer, we will belong to Krishna; and they did belong to Krishna, that is in name, but in nothing else; for who ever cared for Krishna in the Christian world, or who ever regarded the words attributed to him, or put them in practice?’

‘Why, we Protestants regard his words, and endeavour to practise what they enjoin as much as possible.’

‘But you reject his image,’ said the man in black; ‘better reject his words than his image: no religion can exist long which rejects a good bodily image. Why, the very negro barbarians of High Barbary could give you a lesson on that point; they have their fetish images, to which they look for help in their afflictions; they have likewise a high priest, whom they call —’

‘Mumbo Jumbo,’ said I; ‘I know all about him already.’

‘How came you to know anything about him?’ said the man in black, with a look of some surprise.

‘Some of us poor Protestant tinkers,’ said I, ‘though we live in dingles, are also acquainted with a thing or two.’

‘I really believe you are,’ said the man in black, staring at me; ‘but, in connection with this Mumbo Jumbo, I could relate to you a comical story about a fellow, an English servant, I once met at Rome.’

‘It would be quite unnecessary,’ said I; ‘I would much sooner hear you talk about Krishna, his words and image.’

‘Spoken like a true heretic,’ said the man in black; ‘one of the faithful would have placed his image before his words; for what are all the words in the world compared with a good bodily image?’

‘I believe you occasionally quote his words?’ said I.

‘He! he!’ said the man in black; ‘occasionally.’

‘For example,’ said I, ‘upon this rock I will found my Church.’

‘He! he!’ said the man in black; ‘you must really become one of us.’

‘Yet you must have had some difficulty in getting the rock to Rome?’

‘None whatever,’ said the man in black; ‘faith can remove mountains, to say nothing of rocks — ho! ho!’

‘But I cannot imagine,’ said I, ‘what advantage you could derive from perverting those words of Scripture in which the Saviour talks about eating His body.’

‘I do not know, indeed, why we troubled our heads about the matter at all,’ said the man in black; ‘but when you talk about perverting the meaning of the text, you speak ignorantly, Mr. Tinker. When He whom you call the Saviour gave His followers the sop and bade them eat it, telling them it was His body, He delicately alluded to what it was incumbent upon them to do after His death, namely, to eat His body.’

‘You do not mean to say that He intended they should actually eat His body?’

‘Then you suppose ignorantly,’ said the man in black; ‘eating the bodies of the dead was a heathenish custom, practised by the heirs and legatees of people who left property, and this custom is alluded to in the text.’

‘But what has the New Testament to do with heathen customs,’ said I, ‘except to destroy them?’

‘More than you suppose,’ said the man in black. ‘We priests of Rome, who have long lived at Rome, know much better what the New Testament is made of than the heretics and their theologians, not forgetting their Tinkers, though I confess some of the latter have occasionally surprised us — for example, Bunyan. The New Testament is crowded with allusions to heathen customs, and with words connected with pagan sorcery. Now, with respect to words, I would fain have you who pretend to be a philologist, tell me the meaning of Amen?’

I made no answer.

‘We of Rome,’ said the man in black, ‘know two or three things of which the heretics are quite ignorant. For example, there are those amongst us — those, too, who do not pretend to be philologists — who know what “amen” is, and, moreover, how we got it. We got it from our ancestors, the priests of ancient Rome; and they got the word from their ancestors of the East, the priests of Buddh and Brahma.’

‘And what is the meaning of the word?’ I demanded.

‘“Amen,”’ said the man in black, ‘is a modification of the old Hindoo formula, Omani batsikhom, by the almost ceaseless repetition of which the Indians hope to be received finally to the rest or state of forgetfulness of Buddh or Brahma. A foolish practice, you will say, but are you heretics much wiser, who are continually sticking amen to the end of your prayers, little knowing when you do so that you are consigning yourselves to the repose of Buddh? Oh, what hearty laughs our missionaries have had when comparing the eternally sounding Eastern gibberish of Omani batsikhom, Omani batsikhom, and the Ave Maria and Amen Jesus of our own idiotical devotees.’

‘I have nothing to say about the Ave Marias and Amens of your superstitious devotees,’ said I; ‘I dare say that they use them nonsensically enough, but in putting amen to the end of a prayer we merely intend to express, “So let it be.”’

‘It means nothing of the kind,’ said the man in black, ‘and the Hindoos might just as well put your national oath at the end of their prayers, as perhaps they will after a great many thousand years, when English is forgotten, and only a few words of it remembered by dim tradition without being understood. How strange if, after the lapse of four thousand years, the Hindoos should damn themselves to the blindness so dear to their present masters, even as their masters at present consign themselves to the forgetfulness so dear to the Hindoos. But my glass has been empty for a considerable time, perhaps, Bellissima Biondina,’ said he, addressing Belle, ‘you will deign to replenish it?’

‘I shall do no such thing,’ said Belle, ‘you have drank quite enough, and talked more than enough, and to tell you the truth, I wish you would leave us alone.’

‘Shame on you, Belle!’ said I; ‘consider the obligations of hospitality.’

‘I am sick of that word,’ said Belle; ‘you are so frequently misusing it. Were this place not Mumpers’ Dingle, and consequently as free to the fellow as ourselves, I would lead him out of it.’

‘Pray be quiet, Belle,’ said I. ‘You had better help yourself,’ said I, addressing myself to the man in black; ‘the lady is angry with you.’

‘I am sorry for it,’ said the man in black. ‘If she is angry with me, I am not so with her, and shall be always proud to wait upon her; in the meantime I will wait upon myself.’

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51