Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Letter CXXVI
Rica to ——
IT is a puzzling thing in all religions to give any idea of the pleasures ordained for those who live well. It is easy to terrify the wicked with a long list of the torments which await them; but who knows what to promise the virtuous? Joys seem by nature to be of short duration, the imagination can hardly picture them otherwise.  1
  I have seen descriptions of Paradise sufficient to make all sensible people give up their hopes of it: some make the happy shades play incessantly on the flute; others condemn them to the torture of an everlasting promenade; while others, who represent them as dreaming on high of their mistresses below, are of opinion that a period of a hundred millions years is not sufficient to overcome a taste for the pains of love.  2
  I remember, in this connection, a story which I heard told by a man who had been in the country of the Mogul; it shows that the Indian priests are as fertile as others in their ideas of the pleasures of Paradise.  3
  A woman who had just lost her husband, went in due form to the governor of the city demanding permission to burn herself; but since, in the countries subject to the Mohammedans, they have abolished to the best of their ability that cruel custom, he refused her absolutely.  4
  When she saw that her prayers were in vain, she flew into a transport of rage. “Look you,” said she, “how you torment me! A poor woman is not even allowed to burn herself when she has a mind to! Did one ever see the like! My mother, my aunt, my sisters, were all decently burnt! And, when I come to ask permission of this confounded governor, he gets angry, and begins raging like a madman.”  5
  A young bonze 1 happened to be present. “Infidel,” said the governor to him, “is it you who have set on this woman to commit this folly?” “No,” said he, “I never spoke to her; but if she believes as I do, she will complete her sacrifice; she will perform an action pleasing to the god Brahma: she will also be well rewarded, for she will find her husband in the other world, and begin with him a second marriage.” “What do you say?” cried the woman, astonished. “I shall find my husband again? Ah! I will not burn myself then. He was jealous, peevish, and besides, so old, that if the god Brahma has not brought about some improvement in him, assuredly he has no need of me. Burn myself for him!… not even the end of my finger to take him from the bottom of hell. Two old bonzes who misled me, and who knew what kind of life I led with him, took care to tell me nothing of this; if the god Brahma has no other present to make me, I renounce this felicity. Mr. Governor, I will be a Mohammedan. And for you,” turning to the bonze, “you can, if you like, go and tell my husband that I am very well.”

  PARIS, the 2d of the moon of Chalval, 1718.
Note 1. Bonzes are the Buddhist priests of China, whom Montesquieu seems to have confounded with the Brahmins of India. [back]

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