- Recognizing the Leper:Hindu Myth, British Medicine, and the Crisis of Realism in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Mark of the Beast”
It is an awful thing to think that each soul has to work out its own salvation and more awful to know that if it sits down to think about that salvation, it is in deeper danger of losing it.—Rudyard Kipling, 6 March 1890
When rudyard kipling penned these lines, in a letter to an unidentified recipient (Letters 2: 11), he was in the throes of a serious depression, brought on by the ending of his engagement to Caroline Taylor. Early in February 1890, Kipling, writing to Edmonia Hill, confessed, “My head has given out and I am forbidden to work and I am to go away somewhere. This is the third time it has happened—last time was on the Honam on the Canton river, but this time is the completest” (Letters 2: 9). Barely a month later, Kipling’s angst had acquired a metaphysical edge. As his letter suggests, established belief systems, whether scientific or religious, now offered little support for his lost soul. This theme, of the self-conscious imperial subject traumatized by a loss of epistemological confidence amid strange gods and alien faiths, becomes central to “The Mark of the Beast,” published later that year in the 12 and 14 July 1890 editions of the Pioneer. Published in Allahabad and established by George Allen “as a mouthpiece for conservative and business opinion” (Lycett 30), the Pioneer was qualitatively superior to its sister publication, the Lahore-based Civil and Military Gazette, at which Kipling began his career in India as an editorial assistant. The latter, in Kipling’s own words, belonged to the “decent obscurity of an outlying province,” with a readership that was “a specialized community who did not interest any but themselves” (Something of Myself 68).
Kipling’s move from Lahore to Allahabad in 1887 brought him into contact with an ancient Hindu culture that had flourished for thousands of years on the Indo-Gangetic plain and appears to have exacerbated his fears and anxieties over nascent Hindu nationalism. Hinduism, with its myths, icons, and rituals, was considerably more esoteric and disconcerting than Islam to the Protestant Victorian sensibility. Kipling’s was no exception, [End Page 89] as he famously confessed to Margaret Burne-Jones, in a letter dated 28 November 1885–11 January 1886: “I prefer Mussalmans to Hindus; they’re a better lot roughly speaking” (Letters 1: 100). In his autobiography, Something of Myself, he recorded his distaste for Hinduism, Allahabad, and Benares, attributing this reaction partially to having spent his early adulthood in the predominantly Muslim city of Lahore. In 1888, Allahabad was the venue for the Annual Conference of the Indian National Congress, at the time, largely under Hindu liberal leadership. The Indian National Congress, founded in 1885 by theosophist Alan Octavian Hume and Parsi and Hindu liberals such as Dadabhai Naoroji, Surendranath Bannerjee, and Mahadev Govind Ranade, initially focused on advocacy for better Indian representation on legislative councils and improved access for Indians to the Indian Civil Service. The event drew unfavourable coverage by Kipling in the Pioneer (see Kipling, “A Study” 1; McLane 3). Lycett notes that Hume wrote to the governor of the North Western Provinces complaining that the Congress was opposed by “a tiny knot of Anglo-Indians, mostly officials, whose organs [were] the Englishman, the Pioneer and the Civil and Military Gazette” (168). Anxieties, both manifest and latent, over Hindu challenges to British authority were therefore very much a part of Kipling’s newspaper world at the time of the publication of “The Mark of the Beast.”
“The Mark of the Beast” centres on the misadventures of an Englishman named Fleete, who desecrates a statue of Hanuman, the Monkey God, in the company of two friends who were part of an imperial fraternity’s New Year Revels held earlier in the evening. Fleete besmirches the idol with his cigar stub, declaring the imprint to be “the mark of the Beast,” an allusion to the figure of the Antichrist, prophesied in the Book of Revelation. Fleete’s act triggers a series...