The Silent and Desolate Land


…..That desolate land in which thou didst wander, oh Titan! with thy beautiful and mysterious companion, where silent cities strewed the desert, in which no life stirred, and no voice was heard in the streets, but all was death and desolation; where everything lay still or petrified; where gigantic ruins lay around, and the colossal forms of a by-gone life stared out on thee from stone, with an impress of solemn and eternal beauty, uttering a moan to the first beams of the rising sun, offers a true type of this mournful world. For what, in truth, is this earth but one immense ruin, or heap of ruins – a land of death and desolation -a desert strewn with the fragments of an extinct past?

If we contemplate external nature, we find in its stupendous mountain-chains, its gigantic volcanic peaks shooting up aloof into the sky – its abrupt masses of scarped rock and table-lands – scattered, solitary, gigantic stones, far from their parent mountains – its tremendous clefts, and chasms, and valleys, the evidences and traces of immense convulsions in past ages. The whole earth appears a vast assemblage of sublime ruins.

When we consult more closely the materials which form these ruins, we find with astonishment that they too are composed of other ruins; we find everywhere the marks of an extinct world. A gigantic vegetation of consummate beauty in its forms; broken fragments, too, of a creation of living creatures, colossal in size, wonderful in structure, and aweful in power, surround us everywhere. The dead faces of extinct organisations look out on us from stone on every side with their sad, eternal beauty; and, as every fresh sun dawns upon the world of ruins, a mournful plaint is wailed forth from all past creations to greet his rising, which recalls to them their own former being…

If we turned, continued the Rishi, from external nature to what is called the living world, we look in vain for life. Death meets us at every turn. The terrible Yama is everywhere. The whole animal creation appears upon the scene, merely to pass away by some form of violent death. To the peaceful herds grazing on the hillside, Yama comes in the guise of the tiger; to the innocent bleating sheep, as wolf or hyaena. The snake seizes the frog from his moist bed, and drags him into his hole, or his crevice among the stones, crushing his limbs in the traction. The hawk pierces with his cruel beak the poor sparrow; the sparrow, in turn, transfixes or carries off the grub. Bird preys on bird; fish on fish, as it is written in the Mahabharata: –

The stronger fishes, after their kind, prey
on the weaker fish.
This is ever our means of living, appointed
to us eternally.

But man himself is the most terrible incarnation of Yama. He plunges with a savage joy into the thicket of bamboo or sugar-cane, to attack and slay the boar. He pursues over the plain the timid and graceful antelope; his arrows outstrip his fleetness; and the exhausted creature, that erst bounded in beauty and freedom, falls sobbing to the earth, and expires in torture. He gathers the dumb and patient sheep, and the helpless lambs, from the pastures where they bleated in joy, and consigns them to the slaughter-house.

Behold yon porters passing even now the court gate with baskets on their heads full of the beautiful plumage of the Cingalese cocks gathered from the villages round Lanka, sitting happy together, all unconscious of their coming doom. They are bearing them to the camp to feed the military followers. The festivity of man is the signal of death to the humbler creatures of the earth; he rejoices, or weds, and they die as the materials of joy, victims immolated to his household gods. Even those creatures, upon whose flesh he has not yet learned to feed, he harasses to death by more protracted and painful means.

The horse, that in his youth bore him in the day of battle or the pompous ceremonial, is, when age advances, and his fire abates, consigned to the merciless Vaisha, who trades in hired chariots, and you behold thousands of those wretched creatures, lean, lacerated, and panting, driven by male Durgas (furies) through the city, without respite from sunrise till midnight, till at last they drop and expire in harness, or are rudely taken out and cast aside into some corner to die unseen and unpitied.

And the dog, the honest friend of man; and the cat, self-adorning, playful, capricious, coy, timid, watchful, secretive, house-loving, but ever affectionate when gently treated, the friend and… the playfellow of children, the household Numen, and hieroglyphic of domestic life, – what becomes of these? Who sees their end? Into what by-way solitudes, what holes and corners do they creep, led by a mournful instinct of nature to conceal their agonies and yield up their breath?

Ah! how many tragedies of animal agony daily take place not far from the dwelling of man, and he knows it not, or knowing, lays it not to heart, or laughs in scorn of sympathy for animal suffering! And yet all creatures, Manu teaches, have their life in that awful Spirit in whom man, too, lives, and in them as in man that Spirit liveth –

Sarvabhuteshu chatmanam, sarvabhutani chatmani
Saman pashyan

In all creatures the SPIRIT, and all creatures
in the SPIRIT,
Alike beholding.

And let us look at man himself. Is life to be found in his dwelling? Alas! from the cradle to the cemetery where his body is laid upon the pyre, is not his course one long cry of suffering, and sorrow, and terror – one long reminiscence and fortaste of death? The householder in the prime of manhood, and his blooming, comely matron, who stand on the mid ridge of life, look down on either side upon two valleys of mourning. In one are the cherished memories of beloved parents; she weeping for the beloved father, he for the poor tender mother. In the other, the idolized forms of children snatched prematurely from their arms, and wept alike by both; by her in loud lamentation, by him in stifled sobs and hidden tears. The mother dies giving birth to her babe, or lives to weep ere long over its corpse. Disease haunts man from his birth.

Go into the mighty city of Lanka. In every street there passes you a funeral procession, with its red powder, its lugubrious flowers, its mournful rolling ulalatus, and in its rear the mourning women stand before the door in a circle, beating their breasts. In every house there is a cry and a grief – an old man expiring; a child struggling; a strong man agonized; a woman weeping; a little girl with frightened and tearful face. And, as if the terrible avenger Yama had not imposed on humanity a sufficient measure of suffering and death, man goes forth himself in gold, and plumes, and gay caparisons, to crush the limbs, and dash out the brains, and pierce the heart and bowels of his fellow-man. And on the battle-field are left horrible sights, terrible cries, and fearful smells of death. And in the city the women weep, and break their bangles, and shave their heads, and put on grey unbleached or russet garments, and are thenceforth held to be of evil omen.

Oh tragic man! whence is all this death in thy life? Alas! it is because an inward moral death reigns throughout all, that it must have this outward manifestation also. Men’s souls are dead when they are born: this life is the autopsy, and the disease is made manifest to all. One died mad of pride: one phrenetic with anger; one leprous with sensuality; one had the fever of ambition; one suffered from the insatiable craving of greed; one from the malignant venom of revenge; one from the jaundice of jealousy; one from the eating cancer of envy; one from a surfeit of self-love; one from the paralysis of apathy. Many were the diseases, but death into this world the common result of all.

Yes, death is triumphant here – death, physical and moral. The dead bring forth the dead; the dead bear the dead to the funeral pyre; the dead walk about the streets and greet each other, and bargain, and buy and sell, and marry, and build – and know not all the time that they are but ghosts and phantasms! That land of silence and shadows; of desolation and ruins, of sorrow and death, in which thy soul walked in the vision, oh Titan! is the WORLD in which thy dead body now walks waking. Renounce and annihilate it, oh king! by asceticism and divine gnosis, and thus return to real life.

[From The Dream of Ravan, Concord Grove Press, – first published in The Dublin University Magazine in 1853-54.)


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