"Indian Adventure" (1766): Another philosophical tale by Voltaire

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Ricky Joseph

Pythagoras (1), in his stay in the Indies, learned, as everyone knows, in the school of gymnosophists (2), the language of animals and plants. Walking one day through a meadow near the coast, he heard these words:

- How unfortunate am I that I was born grass! Barely two inches high, and behold a ravenous monster, a horrible beast, which crushes me with its broad feet; its mouth is armed with a row of sharp scythes, with which it cuts, tears, and swallows me. Men call this monster a ram. I do not believe there is in the world a more abominable creature.

Pythagoras advanced a few steps; he found, on a small rock, an oyster opening. He had not yet accepted that admirable law according to which it is forbidden to eat animals, our fellow creatures. He was about to swallow the oyster when it uttered these lovely words:

- O nature, how happy is the grass, which, like me, is your work! When cut, it is reborn, it is immortal; and we poor oysters are in vain protected by double armour; perfidious men eat us by the dozen at lunch, and it is a thing of no return. What a dread fate is that of the oysters, and how barbarous are men!

Pythagoras shuddered; he felt the enormity of the crime he was about to commit: he asked forgiveness of the oyster, in tears, and placed it very consciously on the rock.

As he schemed deeply on such an adventure on returning to the city, he saw spiders eating flies, swallows eating spiders, and hawks eating swallows. "All these people, he said, are not philosophers."

Pythagoras, on entering there, was pushed, struck, run over by a crowd of thieves and thieves who ran screaming:

- Well done, well done! They had it coming!

- Who? what? said Pythagoras getting up. And the people kept running and shouting: - Ah! how much pleasure we will have to see them well cooked!

Pythagoras thought there was talk of lentils or any other vegetable; nothing of the kind, they were two poor Indians. "Ah! no doubt," said Pythagoras, "they are two great philosophers who have grown weary of life; they are well disposed to be reborn in another form (4); there is pleasure in moving house, though we are always badly housed; about tastes there is no arguing."

He went forward with the mob into the public square, and there he saw a great fire burning, and over against the fire a platform which they called court , and upon this platform judges, and these judges all held in their hands a cow's tail and bore on their heads a cap perfectly similar to the two ears of the animal which bore Silenus when he had once visited the country by the side of Bacchus (5), after he had crossed the Eritrean Sea without getting his feet wet and had stopped the course of the sun and the moon, as is faithfully recounted in the Orphic Hymns (6).

There was among these judges a good man, well known to Pythagoras. The sage of India explained to the sage of Samos what was the theme of the feast that was to be given to the Hindu people.

- The two Indians, he said, have no desire at all to be burned; my severe confreres condemned them to such a torture; one for having said that the substance of Shakyamuni is not the substance of Brahma (7); and the other for having suspected that it would be possible to please the Supreme Being by virtue without holding, at the hour of death, a cow by the tail: for, he said, one can be virtuous all the time and notThe good women of the town were so frightened by these two heretical statements that they gave the judges no rest until they had decreed the torture of these unfortunates.

Pythagoras judged that, from grass to man, there was much matter of woe. He, however, argued before the judges and even the devotees: and it was something that only happened that one time.

Then he went to preach tolerance in Crotona (9); but an intolerant set fire to his house: he was burned - he, who had snatched two Hindus from the flames. Save yourself if you can!

Source: VOLTAIRE. Romans et contes (Org.: Henri Bénac), Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1957, pp. 481-483.

(Original text also here.)



(1) Greek sage, born on the island of Samos, famous for his love of mathematics and his religious inclinations (especially with regard to esotericism), lived between 570 and 495 BC. There is little reliable information about the life of Pythagoras, but it is known that he made long journeys to Africa and the East, where he met several priests and thinkers. In this short story,Voltaire imagines an episode in the life of this philosopher at the time he was in India.

(2) Gymnosophists were Indian ascetics who, out of contempt for materiality, lived naked.

(3) One of the best known data of the life of Pythagoras was his vegetarianism, treated by Voltaire, like many other doctrines of the ancient philosophers, with sarcasm, as if it were a form of naiveté.

(4) Another fundamental belief of Pythagoras and his followers was that of metempsychosis or transmigration of souls, probably borrowed from the Hindus. According to this idea, all living beings would be endowed with souls, ranging from the most imperfect (those of plants) to the most perfect (those of celestial beings). In each existence, the soul could take for "dwelling" a different kind of living being, fromNote that this theory was not dear to Voltaire either.

(5) Bacchus, Greek god of wine and drunkenness, and Silenus, the eldest and most illustrious of his followers, were often pictured together. The drunken Silenus' mount was an ass.

(6) The Orphic Hymns were a collection of chants expressing devotion to some gods of Greek paganism, attributed to the mythical poet and musician Orpheus. They were one of the central elements of the Orphic mystery religion, an initiatory cult with ascetic rigors that had rituals and practices that differed from the popular religion of the Greeks. Voltaire was not interested in the content of Orpheism, however. When mentioningthat, according to certain myths, Silenus had been able to cross the sea on a donkey, having stopped the course of the stars, the author throws light on episodes of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures in which similar events are related. In fact, they say that Jesus walked on the waters of the Sea of Galilee and that God stopped the movement of the Sun and the Moon so that Joshua and the Israelites could defeat the Amorites.The question which Voltaire intends to put on the table, in this tale which speaks of fanaticism, is more or less as follows: if one considers as true the extraordinary facts and the irruptions of the supernatural which concern one's religion, why does he judgeFalse are the miracles and wonders that animate other cults?

(7) Shakyamuni ("the sage of the Shakya people") is one of the epithets of the Buddha; Brahma is the creator deity of the universe, according to Hindus. The controversy alluded to in the text (a questioning of the divine nature of the Buddha) should be understood as an indirect reference to European culture itself, in which certain theological polemics within Christianity led to wars and persecutionsreligious.

(8) The comic reference to the necessity of having a cow near one at the instant of passing away does not relate to Hindu beliefs (which Voltaire did not even know well), and it is rather more likely that it was a joke directed against the Catholic recommendation of confession before death.

(9) City of Calabria (southern Italy), where Pythagoras founded his school of philosophy, around 530 BC.

Translated by Donato Ferrara

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