[Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor of this site, scanned and edited Wilkie Collins's "A Sermon for Sepoys," which originally appeared in Household Words: A Weekly Journal 414 (27 February 1858): 244-247. Follow for Professor Allingham's introduction.]
HILE we are still fighting for the possession of India, benevolent men of various religious denominations are making their arrangements for taming the human tigers in that country by Christian means. Assuming that this well-meant scheme is not an entirely hopeless one, it might, perhaps, not be amiss to preach to the people of India, in the first instance, out of some of their own books — or, in other words, to begin the attempt to purify their minds by referring them to excellent moral lessons which they may learn from their own Oriental literature. Such lessons exist in the shape of ancient parables, once addressed to the ancestors of the sepoys, and still quite sufficient for the purpose of teaching each man among them his duty towards his neighbour, before he gets on to higher things. Here is a specimen of one of these Oriental apologues. Is there reason why it should not be turned to account, as a familiar introduction to the Christian sermon addressed to pacified native congregation in the city of Delhi?
In the seventeenth century of the Christian era, the Emperor Shah Jehan — the wise, the bountiful, the builder of thenew city of Delhi — saw fit to appoint the pious Vizir, Gazee Ed Din, to the government of all district of Morodabad.
The period of the Vizir's administration was gratefully acknowledged by the people whom he governed as the period of the most-precious blessings they had ever enjoyed. He protected innocence, he honoured learning, he rewarded industry. He was an object for the admiration of all eyes, — a subject for the praise of all tongues. But the grateful people observed, with grief, that the merciful ruler who made them all happy, was himself never seen to smile. His time, in the palace, passed in mournful solitude. On the few occasions when he appeared in the public walks, his face was gloomy, his gait was slow, his eyes were fixed on the ground. Time passed, and there was no change in him for the better. One morning the whole population was astonished and afflicted by the news that he had resigned the reins of government and had gone to justify himself before emperor at Delhi.
Admitted to the presence of Shah Jehan, the Vizir made his obeisance, and spoke these words: — [Page 244 ends here.]
"Wise and mighty Ruler, condescend to pardon the humblest of your servants if he presumes to lay at your feet the honours which you have deigned to confer on him in the loveliest country on the earth. The longest life, oh bountiful Master, hardly grants time enough to man to prepare himself for death. Compared with the performance of that first of duties, all other human employments are vain as the feeble toil of an ant on the highway, which the foot of the first traveller crushes to nothing! Permit me, then, to prepare myself for the approach of eternity. Permit me, by the aid of solitude and silence, to familiarise my mind with. the sublime mysteries of religion; and to wait reverently for the moment when eternity unveils itself to my eyes, and the last summons calls me my account before the Judgment Seat."
The Vizir said these words, knelt down, laid his forehead on the earth, and was silent. After a minute of reflection, the emperor answered him in these terms: —
"Faithful servant! Your discourse has filled my mind with perplexity and fear. The apprehensions which you have caused me are like those felt by a man who finds himself standing, unawares, on the edge of a precipice. Nevertheless, I cannot decide whether the sense of trouble that you have awakened within me is justified by sound reason or not. My days, like yours, however long they may be, are but an instant compared with eternity. But, if I thought as you do; if all men capable of doing good followed your example, who would remain to guide faithful? Surely the duties of government would then fall to the share of those men only who are brutally careless of the future awaits them beyond the grave — who insensible to all feelings which are not connected with their earthly passions and their earthly interests? In that case, should I not be — should you not be — responsible before the Supreme Being for the miseries, without number, which would then be let loose on the world. Ponder that well, Vizir! And while I, on my side, consider the same subject attentivel y, depart in peace to the abode which I have prepared to receive you, since your arrival in this city. May Heaven direct us both into the way which it is safest best to take!"
The Vizir withdrew. For three days he remained in his retirement, and received no message from the emperor. At the end of the third day, he sent to the palace to beg for a second audience. The request was immediately granted.
When he again appeared in the presence of his sovereign, his countenance expressed the tranquility of his mind. He drew a letter from his bosom, kissed it, and presented it to the emperor on his knees. Shah Jehan having given him permission to speak, he expressed himself, thereupon, in these words: —
"Sovereign Lord and master! The letter which you have deigned to take from my hands has been addressed to me by the sage, Abbas, who now stands with me in the light of your presence, and who has lent me the assistance of his wisdom to unravel the scruples and perplexities which have beset my mind. Thanks to the lesson I have learned from him, I can now look back on my past life with pleasure, and contemplate the future with hope. Thanksto the wisdom which I have imbibed from his teaching, I can now conscientiously bow my head before the honours which your bounty showers on me, and can gladly offer myself again to be the shadow of your power in theprovince ofMorodabad.
Shah Jehan, who had listened to the Vizir with amazement and curiosity, directed that the letter should be given to the sage, Abbas, and ordered him to read aloud the words of wisdom that he had written to Gazee Ed Din. The venerable man stood forth in the midst of the Court, and, obeying the Emperor, read these lines : —
"May the pious and merciful Vizir, to whom the wise generosity of our sovereign lord and master has entrusted the government of a province, enjoy to the end of his days the blessing of perfect health!
"I was grieved in my inmost heart when I heard that you had deprived the millions of souls who inhabit Morodabad of the advantages which they enjoyed under your authority. Modesty and respect prevent me from combating your scruples of conscience while you were describing them in the presence of the Emperor. I hasten, therefore, to write the words which I could not venture to speck. Mypurpose is to clear your mind of the doubts which now darken it, by relating to you the history of my own youth. The anxious thoughts which trouble you, were once the thoughts which troubled me also. May your soul be relieved of the burden that oppresses it, as mine was relieved in the byegone time!
"My early manhood was passed in studying the science of medicine. I learnt all the secrets of my art, and practised it for the benefit of my species. In time, however, the fearful scenes of suffering and death which perpetually offered themselves to my eyes, so far affected my mind as to make me tremble for my own life. Wherever I went, my grave seemed to be yawning at my feet. The awful necessity of preparing myself for eternity, impressed itself upon my soul, and withdrew my thoughts from every earthly consideration. I resolved to retire from the world, to despise the acquisition of all mortal knowledge, and to. devote my remaining days to the severest practices of a purely religious life. In accordance with this idea, I resolved to humble myself by suffering the hardship of voluntary poverty. After much consideration, I came to the conclusion that those who stood in need of my money were the persons [Page 245 ended here.] who were least worthy of being benefited by it; and that those who really deserved the exercise of my charity were too modest, or too high-minded, to accept my help. Under the influence ofthis delusion, I buried in earth all the treasure that I possessed; and took refuge from human society in wildest and most inaccessible mountains of my native country. My abode was in the darkest corner of a huge cavern; my drink was the running water; my food consisted of the herbs and fruits that I could gather in the woods. To add to the severe self-restraint which had now become the guiding principle of my life, I frequently passed whole nights in watching — on such occasions, keeping my face turned towards the East, and waiting till the mercy of the Prophet should find me out, and unveil the mysteries of Heaven to my mortal view.
"One morning, after my customary night of watching, exhaustion overpower me, at the hour of sunrise; and I sank prostrate in spite of myself, on the ground at the entrance of my cave.
"I slept, and a vision appeared to me.
"I was still at the mouth of the cave, and still looking at the rays of the rising Suddenly a dark object passed between me and the morning light. I looked at it attentively, and saw that it was an eagle, descending slowly to the earth. As the bird floated nearer and nearer to the ground, a fox dragged himself painfully out of a thicket near at hand. Observing the animal, as he sank exhausted close by me, I discovered that both his fore legs were broken. While I was looking at him, the eagle touched the earth, laid before the crippled fox a morsel of goatÕs flesh that he carried in his talons, flapped his huge wings, and, rising again into the air, slowly disappeared from sight.
"On coming to my senses again, I bowed my forehead to the earth, and addressed my thanksgivings to the Prophet for the vision which be had revealed to me. I interpreted it, in this manner. 'The divine Power,' I said to myself, 'accepts the sacrifice that I have made in withdrawing myself from contaminations of the world; but reveals to me, at the same time, that there is still some taint of mortal doubt clinging to my mind, and rendering the trust which it is my duty to place in the mercy of Heaven less absolute find unconditional than it ought to be. So long as I waste even the smallest portion of mytime in the base employment of providing for my own daily wants, so long my confidence inProvidence be imperfect, and my mind be incapable of wholly. abstracting itself from earthly cares. This is what the vision is designed to teach me. If the bounty of Heaven condescends to employ an eagle to provide for the wants of a crippled fox, how sure may I feel that the same mercy will extend the same benefits to me! Let me wholly devote myself, then, to the service of my Creator, and commit the preservation of my life to the means which His wisdom is sure to supply.
"Strong in this conviction, I searched the woods no more for the herbs and fruits which had hitherto served me for food. I sat at the mouth of my cavern, and waited through the day, and no heavenly messenger appeared to provide for my wants. The night passed; and I was still alone. The new morning came; and my languid eyes could hardly lift themselves to the light, my trembling limbs failed to sustain me when I strove to rise. I lay back against the wall of my cavern, and resigned myself to die.
"The consciousness of my own existence seemed to be just passing from me, when the voice of an invisible being sounded close at my ear. I listened, and heard myself addressed in these words : —
'"Abbas,' said the supernatural voice, 'I am the Angel whose charge it is to search out and register your inmost thoughts. I am sent to you on a mission of reproof. Vain man! do you pretend to be wiser than the wisdom which is revealed to you? The blindness of your vision and the vainglory of your heart have together perverted a lesson which was mercifully intended to teach you the duties that your Creator expects you to perform. Are you crippled like the fox? Has not nature, on the contrary, endowed you with the strength of the eagle? Rise and bestir yourself! Rise, and let the example of the eagle guide you, henceforth, in the right direction. Go back to the city from which you have fled. Be, for the future, the messenger of health and life to those who groan on the hard bed of sickness. Ill-judging mortal! the virtue that dies in solitude, lives in the world from which have withdrawn. Prove your gratitude to your Creator by the good that you do among his helpless and affli cted creatures. There is the way that leads you from earth to Heaven. Rise, Abbas — rise humbly, and take it !'
"An unseen hand lifted me from ground, an unseen hand guided me back the city. Humbled, repentant, enlightened at last, I drew my treasure from its hiding place, and employed it in helping the poor. Again I devoted all my energies to the blessed work of healing the sick. Years passed and found me contented and industrious in my vocation. As the infirmities of age approached, I assumed the sacred robe, comforted the souls of my fellow-creatures, as I had formerly comforted their bodies. Never have I forgotten the lesson that I learnt in my hermitage on the mountain. You see me now, high in the favour of my Sovereign — Know that I have deserved my honours, because I have done good in my generation, among the people over whom he rules.
"Such, oh, pious Vizir, is the story of my youth. May the lesson which enlightened [Page 246 ended here.] me, do the same good office for you. I make no pretensions to wisdom: I speak only of such things as I know. Believe me, all wisdom which extends no farther than yourself is unworthy of you. A life sacrificed to subtle speculations is a life wasted. Let the eagle be the object of your emulation as he was of mine. The more gifts you have received, the better use it is expected you will make of them. Although the All-Powerful alone can implant virtue in the human heart, it is still possible for you, as the dreaded representative of authority, to excite to deeds of benevolence, even those who have no better motive for doing good, than the motive of serving their own interests. With time, you may teach them the knowledge of higher things. Meanwhile, it will matter little to the poor who are succoured, whether it is mere ostentation or genuine charity that relieves th em. Spread the example, therefore, of your own benevolence, beyond the circle of those only who are wise and good. Widen the sphere of your usefulness among your fellow-creatures, with every day; and fortify your mind with the blessed conviction that the life you will then lead, will be of all lives the most acceptable in the eyes of the Supreme Being.
"Farewell. May the blessings of a happy people follow you wherever you go. May your name, when you are gathered to your fathers, be found written in the imperishable page — in the Volume of the Book of Life!"
Abbas ceased. As he bowed his head, and folded up the scroll, the emperor beckoned him to the foot of the throne, and thanked the sage for the lesson that he had read to his Sovereign and to all the Court. The next day, the Vizir was sent back to his government at Morodabad. Shah Jehan also caused copies of the letter to be taken, and ordered them to be read to the people in the high places of the city. When that had been done, he further commanded that this inscription should be engraved on the palace gates, in letters of gold, which men could read easily, even from afar off: —
THE LIFE THAT IS MOST ACCEPTABLE THE SUPREME BEING, IS THE LIFE THAT IS MOST USEFUL TO THE HUMAN RACE.
Surely not a bad Indian lesson, to begin with, when Betrayers and Assassins are the pupils to be taught?
- An Introduction to "A Sermon for Sepoys"
- Reading and Discussion Questions
- India: An Introduction
- Timeline of British India
- The 1857 Indian Mutiny
- The Epic of Race: The Indian Mutiny, 1857
- Punch on the Mutiny and its aftermath
Last modified 23 June 2004