Written in May 1894 while Kipling was on holiday from Vermont, living near his parents at Tisbury, Wiltshire. Published in the Pall Mall Gazette and the Pall Mall Budget on 18 October 1894, and in the New York World on 14 October, with the title “A Miracle of the Present Day”. In the Pall Mall publication were illustrations by Cecil Aldin, and as heading, “A Song of Kabir”, which is placed at the end of the story in book form. It was collected in The Second Jungle Book in 1895.
The Jungle Book and Second Jungle Book have never been out of print since they were written, and they are available in numerous paperback editions, including annotated editions from Penguin and Oxford, and on Kindle from Amazon.
Purun Dass is a high caste Brahmin, highly educated, and a powerful figure as Prime Minister of one of the semi-independent Native States. Then, at the peak of his career, he casts aside all possessions, takes a staff and begging bowl, and becomes a wandering holy man, ‘Purun Bhagat’, depending on charity to live. At last he comes to the high Himalayas, where his people had come from, and finds a deserted shrine high above a mountain village, where he makes his home. For many years he lives there, fed by the devoted villagers, making friends with the wild creatures round about, monkeys and deer and bear, and pondering on the meaning of existence.
Then one year come weeks and weeks of rain, and one night he is awakened by the wild creatures, and sees that the mountain is falling. He hastens down the hillside in the icy rain. With all the authority of his previous life, he wakes the sleeping villagers, and urges them up to high ground across the valley. They are just in time before a massive landslip. The people are safe, but the Baghat, crippled by his exertions, is dead. They build a shrine in his memory, but no-one knows that, in a previous life, he was Sir Purun Dass.
Andrew Lycett (p. 259) in this story, written while he was living in Vermont, Kipling was to a degree influenced by his experience of America:
Rudyard writes approvingly of the enlightened Sir Purun Dass’s priorities: he has worked and tried to improve the world, before seeing to his religious duties. Rudyard’s observation of American society helped bring about this change of perspective: his revulsion against the excesses of raw capitalism encouraged a new-found respect for India’s ways – but only if mitigated with a British sense of values.
And Harry Ricketts (p. 217) notes: As with Kim, an early version of which he had begun in the autumn of 1892, he drew heavily on his father’s knowledge and expertise in writing it.
One germ of this story may be seen in the verses “Giffen’s Debt” in Departmental Ditties, which tells of a drunken renegade Englishman, living in an Indian village, saving many lives by warning the people of a collapsing dam, and perishing. However, the principal character in the poem is totally different from Purun Dass.
Vasant Shahane in An Indian Response to Kipling’s writing (p. 88) sees this story as:
… one of the most extraordinary stories of
Rudyard Kipling. It is so superbly designed, tightly written, and
dexterously controlled that the apparently sprawling flux of its material falls into shape, the shape of its vision. It seems to
me a masterpiece of Kipling’s art, partly because it
demonstrates the basic process of his creativity. I have propounded
elsewhere in this book, the argument that Rudyard Kipling
is essentially an activist in the late-Victorian tradition, and
that his activism is transformed into art in his fiction and
Writing of Kipling’s religious sensibilities, Philip Mason notes:
“The Miracle of Purun Bhagat”, “The Bridge-Builders”, and much of Kim show Hinduism with sympathy and understanding, and there is a passage about a mosque in Egypt which seems to express the essence of Islam…
Angus Wilson (p. 123) comments:
“The Miracle of the Purun Bhagat” … has been hailed as Kipling’s tribute both to educated India and to the Hindu way of life. And so it is both; but it has also been pointed out that the denouement of the story, when the holy man, up in the foothills of the Himalayas, leaves his anchorite’s rock cell to warn villagers of an impending avalanche, is a tribute to the Western code of action rather than to the Hindu way of passivity. This is surely right, but it is also no chance mistake of Kipling’s. He is attempting to pay tribute to both systems and yet to suggest that the Western creed of human concern will assert itself in a crisis. Whether he is right or not, the story convinces. It is surely a curtainraiser to Kim, in which the Lama’s Wheel and the Great Game (East and West) meet in one man, Purun Bhagat.
Apart from its excellence as a story, the most curious feature of “The Miracle of Purun Bhagat”, to me, is how Kipling’s verbal picture of the Hindu holy man talking with the beasts in his cell, brings to mind some stained glass picture of St Francis and the birds, as it might have been painted by his Uncle Ned Burne-Jones. It is perhaps just a little too delicately beautiful to stand beside Kipling’s other tributes to the Indian natural scene where the fierce roughness of life always shows through. Is this perhaps why he incorporated a story of such adult concern in a book on the surface intended for “juveniles”?
And Mark Paffard notes:
…The knighted Indian Prime Minister who takes up a begging bowl and becomes a pilgrim (a ‘sannyasi’ as laid down by Hindu custom) is an idealised subject, in whom, significantly, the man of action comes finally to the fore as he emerges from his cell to warn the villagers of a landslip. Perhaps we scarcely need to be told that when he is moved along by a policeman in Simla: ‘Purun Bhagat salaamed reverently to the Law, because he knew the value of it, and was seeking for a Law of his own.’
Elliott Gilbert suggests that:
Even such a story as “The Miracle of Purun Bhagat”, which is not about a child and which seems at first glance to have little or nothing to do with the other tales in The Jungle Books, does in fact concern itself with the central theme of all these narratives. For it deals with a man who leaves the life into which he was born and enters upon a new and challenging existence. Like Mowgli, Purun Bhagat is searching for the world to which he truly belongs, and it is his discovery of that world that is the old man’s miracle.
Eric Stokes, writing on ‘Kipling’s Imperialism’, in John Gross (Ed.)
‘The Miracle of Purun Bhagat’ (The Second Jungle Book), which foreshadowed Kim, was one of the most explicit attempts Kipling made to understand the relationship between the two worlds, free of the racial connotation implied in the opposition of East and West. But it achieves its impressive artistic effect by a fairy-tale perfection. To idealize and freeze experience in this way was in the end to kill it, and it is significant that despite the final peroration of Kim, with its message of the fertilizing and healing role of Eastern spirituality for modern man, it marks in effect Kipling’s farewell to India.
©F A Underwood 2008 All rights reserved