Mark Twain’s world lecture tour in the mid-1890s, which he recounts in Following the Equator, was generally unpleasant for him.
Not only did the humiliating stigma of bankruptcy that prompted the voyage haunt him, but while circumventing the globe with his wife Olivia and daughter Clara, Twain frequently suffered illness and depression. In South Africa, for example, Livy noted that her husband “has not as much courage as I wish he had [and] he has been pursued with colds and inabilities of various sorts…He does not believe that any good thing will come, but that we must all our lives live in poverty.”
Yet, there were at least two divine exceptions to the ordeal’s overall hellishness. One, which Twain mentioned to his friend William Dean Howells in a letter, was the “17 days of heaven” he savored while cruising the “vast solitudes of the Indian Ocean.” Twain recorded in his notebook that it was “a good time…to improve the mind, for about us is the peace of the great deep. It invites to dreams, to study, to reflection.”
The other exception to the tour’s general malaise was Twain’s three-month stay (January-April 1896) in what he dubbed “India the Marvelous.” Not only did his time in country boost his spirits, a meeting he had with a Hindu holy man might have influenced him years later during another difficult phase of his life when he wrote the enigmatic final chapter of No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger.
Of Twain’s time on the subcontinent, Albert Bigelow Paine said he “reveled in that amazing land—its gorgeous, swarming life, the patience and gentleness of its servitude, its pleasant pageantry, the magic of its architecture, the maze and mystery of its religions, the wonder of its ageless story.” Clara Clemens noted that in India her father “seemed like a young boy in his enthusiasm over everything he saw” and a “great wave of careless joy spread over the spirits” of their entourage.
In trying to capture adequately the immensity of India, Twain eloquently wrote in Following the Equator:
This is indeed India; the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a thousand nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterdays bear date with the mouldering antiquities of the rest of the nations…the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.
Twain’s Indian sojourn obviously left a positive impression on him. One of his most positive experiences there was his visit with a nude Hindu guru in Benares named Swami Bhaskarananda Saraswati, considered by his followers to be a “living god.” Although Twain downplays Saraswati’s divine status in Following the Equator, he nonetheless admired the “most pleasant and friendly deity” with a “conspicuously intellectual face, and a deep and kindly eye.”
Because Saraswati had attained a “state of perfection” through a long process of reincarnation, Twain writes somewhat longingly that when the holy man dies, “Nirvana is his; he will be absorbed into the substance of the Supreme Deity and be at peace forever.” The two exchanged books: Saraswati gave Twain a copy of his “Hindoo holy writings” while Twain returned the favor by giving him a copy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because “it might rest him up a little to mix it in along with his meditations on Brahma…and I knew that if it didn’t do him any good it wouldn’t do him any harm.” It might be, however, that Saraswati’s “meditations” inspired Twain years later as he composed the final chapter of No. 44 during another challenging time in his life.
Compare, for instance, that chapter’s most controversial statement that “there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a Dream, a grotesque and foolish dream”, with Saraswati’s essential insight into the unreal nature of the existence:
The world is not real. It never existed, it does not exist, and it will not come into existence in future. We all dream, and, while sleeping, we think that the things we see in the dream are real, but as soon as we wake up we perceive the mistake…as soon as true knowledge will dawn on us we shall be able to know that the world is but a dream, a shadow and not substance. (John Campbell Oman, The Mystics, Ascetics, and Saints of India, 1903)
Oman quotes Saraswati’s personal biographer here, who noted that the swami had this revelation after he “saw through the nature of the unreal world, and felt the existence of one Supreme Soul all through the universe.”
Twain couldn’t read the holy writings Saraswati gave him (they were in Sanskrit) and there’s no evidence that he read Oman’s book or the biography he cites. However, like many intellectuals of his time, he was well aware of the Vedantic philosophy Saraswati embraced and was quite informed concerning the holy man’s life.
So, perhaps the “nothing exists” dream of No. 44’s concluding chapter, so often cited as evidence of Twain’s deepening pessimism and nihilism late in life, was instead inspired by the “one Supreme Soul” that Saraswati intuited underlying life’s ultimate unreality. It was a similarly divine intuition that encouraged a forlorn Twain “wandering the empty eternities” at the end of No. 44 to “dream other dreams, and better.”