The Enigmas of India

by Kenneth Champeon, Dec 9, 2002 | Destinations: India / New Delhi

According to the newspapers, India is a place of bizarre religious rituals and constant communal violence, appalling poverty, and incurable despair. And it is. But it is also a place of spiritual exhilaration, sublime beauty, and childlike joie de vivre. India is possibly the most enchanting and intriguing place on earth - and the most unearthly. It is bottomless, and its most levelheaded visitors come away from India changed, charged, and often unhinged by its contradictions.

Winner of the 1990 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Mexican Octavio Paz served as his country's ambassador to India for six years. Though known chiefly as a poet, Paz is also an essayist of the first rank, and in 1995 he published Vislumbres de la India, a collection of informed and erudite essays subsequently published in English as In Light of India. Himself being a product of a culture at once European and primeval, Paz brings to his subject a sympathy rarely to be found in Western treatments of the erstwhile Jewel. "To a certain extent," he writes, "I can understand what it means to be Indian because I am Mexican."

India, writes Paz, poses one question "to everyone who visits it." He does not articulate the question, but I suspect it may be phrased thus: What is man's proper relation to the cosmos? Or, as Wendell Berry put it, what are people for?

India humbles and exalts you simultaneously. The individual is identical to the universal, and therefore he is everything; but as an individual he is reduced to nothing.

First visitors to India are often compelled to summarize or generalize their first impressions, but the task is daunting. Instead they find themselves compiling quite random lists of sightings and experiences. Paz includes a breathless two-page "poem" beginning with "waves of heat" and ending helplessly with "crows, crows, crows...." And he experiences mood swings that anywhere else would be characterized as insane. "Human kind," he concludes, "cannot bear much reality." In India the cosmos is all there to behold. Paz calls India an "immense cauldron" and Hinduism "an enormous metaphysical boa [that] slowly and relentlessly digests foreign cultures, gods, languages and beliefs."

Like V.S. Naipaul, Paz believes that the Muslim conquest of northern India is best described as a "deep wound." Islam imposed its Puritanism, abstraction, and monotheism upon the eroticism, ritualism, and polytheism of ancient India. The god Krishna rides in Arjuna's chariot, whereas Allah is separated from humans by "an uncrossable abyss." The Koran is an almost unbearably angry and sterile book, a coagulation of bad vibes, a book that could have been written only in a scorched and lifeless desert. Ancient Indian literature is cheerful, sensual, tropical - abounding with flowers, chatty animals, and women's breasts. "The activity of the universe," writes Paz, "is sometimes seen as an enormous divine copulation"; melancholy is entirely lacking from Sanskrit poetry. In the Koran, war seems to be the dominant metaphor, and rage the dominant emotion. Islam's austerity is ill suited to the vibrancy of the subcontinent, a wilting dry wind introduced into a greenhouse.

In the modern West, time is linear, and the goal of human endeavor is progress, whatever that may mean. In India, time, insofar as it exists at all, is circular, and the goal of human endeavor is liberation. This is not merely a philosophical quibble. It explains why, for example, Westerners are more horrified than the Indians at the prospect of nuclear war in South Asia. It also explains why Westerners are generally more anxious and irritable, always fearful of being behind the times.

As ambassador to India, Paz was probably called upon to explain how India could tolerate its extreme social injustice, and particularly the caste system that perpetuates it. His answer is that the Indian philosophical tradition lacks a notion of the "just society." Justice does not liberate, and equality does not enlighten. As for caste, Paz accepts that it may be a cause of impoverishment, but not the cause. And after all is not poverty, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder?

Rather than compare India to one of its polar opposites - America, say - Paz compares it to his native Mexico. In Hinduism there is no equivalent of the Catholic idea of sin, and in Indian sculpture and poetry sex is peaceful and pleasurable, not cruel or punishable. And while India is a stew of cultural influences, pre-Hispanic America was more like a homogeneous broth. Until the British, India's foreign invaders arrived on foot, continuously; America's might as well have arrived by spaceship, and all of a sudden. But in both peoples Paz notes a consciousness of "their difference from other people." Anyone who has traveled through India will recognize the truth of this. Indians will inquire about your marital status in order to defend India's resilient system of arranged marriages. They are aware that they are out of step with Western mores but they see no very compelling reason to change.

To acquit an idea it is enough to condemn its opposite. "To mitigate a little the hypocritical horror [caste] provokes among our contemporaries," Paz shares his disillusionment with some of the products of Western civilization. More so than religion, for example, television "will end up anaesthetizing the human race, sunk in an idiotic beatitude." Promising equality and fraternity, modernism instead makes people more uniform and alone. Echoing Tocqueville, Paz writes: "Indifference (and, I would add, envy) is one of democracy's greatest defects."

There is a danger in glamorizing India, just as there is a danger, as Nehru pointed out, in deifying poverty. But many commentators on India fail to appreciate that India's life as a nation is miniscule compared to its life as a civilization. Though the nation may make a small but unsettling contribution to current events, world culture would be impoverished without the contributions of its civilization. In Light of India suggests that the world could benefit by judging itself by Indian standards rather than the other way round. For India may yet contribute to "what man will be / when he has served the sentence of hard labor" and becomes, at last, a god.

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Review of Octavio Paz's In Light of India, Harvest, 1998.

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