In Light of Paz

July 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

In Light of India (Paz, Octavio)

At some point in my life, someone I know had told me how much he hated reading this book. “Don’t read it,” I was assured. “It’s terribly derogatory. The man hasn’t a clue.” I recalled these words when I picked it up a few weeks ago, and spent a few fruitless moments trying to remember who the critic was, because I discuss books with several people, many of whose views I do not agree with. Memory failed me in this case, which was fortunate, as I was then able to read the book from cover to cover without adding to the considerable number of pre-conceptions I already have as baggage, considering the subject matter of the book and my own identity.

In Light of India is an essay about India, in which Octavio Paz ambitiously attempts to understand the nation by studying its poetry, its history, its architecture, its people, its politics, its food and its religions. To understand the book, therefore, one must attempt a Pazian study of Paz:  one must attempt to read his poetry, trace the history of his life and understand his politics and religion – then, perhaps we will get somewhere in our quest to understand his writing.

Mexican Obsidian (courtesy

Paz (1914-1998) was an intellectual, a celebrated poet (the 1990 Literature Nobel laureate) and the Mexican ambassador to India between 1962 and 1968. Most of his musings in this book are a product of his studies during this period. It is important to note, however, that the book itself was first published in 1995 in the original Spanish (as Vislumbres de la India) and was translated into English in 1997.

Paz’s grandfather was a prominent liberal intellectual and one of the first authors to write a novel with an expressly Native Indian theme. Paz’s early education was supplied by his grandfather’s extensive library. In 1937, as a young writer, he travelled to Valencia in Spain to participate in an Anti-Fascist congress. In 1968, he abruptly cut short a successful diplomatic career, resigning in protest against his government’s heavy-handed suppression of student demonstrations in Mexico. Paz’s poetry, for which he is best known, revolves around two major themes: the nature of Time, and the complex Mexican national identity with interwoven European and pre-Columbian sources. In summary, he lived his life in an upright, consistent manner – protesting against totalitarianism and championing diversity in all respects.

And so on to the book itself – the psycho-analysis of India. For such an ambitious theme, the book is a mere 209 pages, but is by no means a breezy despatch drawn from momentary impressions, despite Paz’s exaggerated protests to the contrary:

“To return to the lacunae in this book: they are numerous, and they range from poetry, philosophy and history to architecture, sculpture and painting….These are merely glimpses of India: signs seen indistinctly, realities perceived between light and shadow. This book is not for the experts. It is the child not of knowledge but of love.”

Of course there are lacunae: at one point, he calls Sikhism a religion close to Islam (debatable). He also claims that 19th century Hindu nationalism invented a mythology of monotheism to replace the original polytheism, while reality is far more nuanced, as Romila Thapar has successfully pointed out in her seminal History of India.  Elsewhere, surveying the states of India, he calls Tamils separatists, clearly confusing the Tamils of Sri Lanka with those of India. But these are errors that can be excused, because they are not central to his argument, because his erudition shows through elsewhere, and because one cannot but be impressed at the sheer effort he has clearly taken to catalogue, comprehend and document his subject. One may argue that his considerable knowledge of Mughal and British-era Indian history is easily attained. His quotations from Visakhadatta, Bhavabhuti and Dharmakirti are more impressive, and his discourses on the Hindu caste system and the Bhagavad Gita must have been pretty difficult to come by, for a foreigner.

The controversial aspect of the book is therefore not the factual errors, but the points of analysis and the conclusions drawn that are not always complimentary of Indian culture – Hindu or Muslim. The English-educated Indian has of late been fed a steady diet of self-praise of the “India shining” variety, and so finds the critical views of a foreigner jarring. The instinctive response is to dismiss the author as an Indophobe and either a racist or an ignoramus; a more appropriate one, I hope, is to analyze each controversial argument on its merit, and to accept criticism where it is just.

For instance, it hurt at first to read Paz declare that “nationhood was a modern concept, imported by the British”, that “The Independence of 1947 was the triumph of British ideas and institutions…without the British”. On reflection, I feel this is substantially true in a political sense, but only marginally so from a socio-cultural perspective. This is, of course, a much bigger topic than can be done justice to in this post, but I will hopefully return to it some day.

“Unlike the Greeks, Romans or Chinese, ancient India had no notion of history.” Here, I suspect Paz got carried away by the poetic, simplistic and oft-repeated aphorism that Time, to the ancient Indians, is a  “dream of Brahma“, Maya, an illusion.  To the extent that ancient historiography in all cultures is not very different from mythography, I feel the Mahabharata and the Puranas are as rich with lineages of kings and gods and their convoluted exploits as anything by Homer,  Euripides or Virgil. To the extent that the Greeks evolved a secular tradition of historiography after Herodotas and Thucydides, I could point to countless Buddhist texts detailing their times, and to the later chronicles of Bana Bhatt or Kalhana, to name a few. In addition, the ravages of time and numerous invasions may not have been as conducive to the preservation of written records, as the unbroken Chinese tradition, and so I do think the criticism is a bit unfair.

Next comes Paz’s criticism of Hinduism and Islam as lacking a modern critical tradition in their cultures. He says, devastatingly: “Neither Hinduism nor Islam had a Renaissance as in Europe and thus they had no Enlightenment.” I cannot speak for Islam, though I am certain others can, vociferously; Hinduism, I feel, is continually undergoing change – something that even Paz acknowledges elsewhere – by absorption of other cultures and religions. This constant dialogue, this argumentative process of self-examination, is certainly an Indian trait, as Amartya Sen establishes. What passes for devout Hindu behaviour in my generation is different, in subtle but important ways, from what passed for it in my grandfather’s times.  Not being a messianic, written-and-revealed religion with a single Pope-like head, it is open to interpretative metamorphosis and so, I contend, it does not need an Enlightenment era as a one-time clean-up act. Having said that, I cannot argue with the following words, written in the context of the iniquities of the caste system: “In its most genuine and most rigorous form, criticism can flourish only in a society that conceives of freedom as a good to be shared by all citizens.” I ask myself repeatedly: do most Indians conceive of freedom – or anything else – as something to share with other castes and creeds, or even with the family down the street? I wish I could say yes with conviction. It is possibly true, I must admit reluctantly, that civic-minded selfless public service does not come naturally to Hindu culture – Gandhi, Vinobha Bhave and a handful of exceptions aside. An overwhelming majority of our medical nurses, even today, hail from a Christian persuasion, seldom from a Brahmannical one. If, as I have suggested, Hindu thought is constantly evolving, I hope there will be a change for the better in this aspect in the near future.

This theme of a slightly selfish streak is developed further by Paz. He traces it back to the concept of Moksha, of world-renouncing as the highest ethic, as opposed to changing the world and helping others. Finally, he homes in on the Bhagawad Gita – Krishna’s exhortation to action, of Arjuna – as the only example he could find in Indian tradition, of advocacy of worldly action. Here, too, he finds that the action is “not one of redemption but of the preservation of the universal order”. Thomas Aquinas was clearer, he continues, when he said “it was a sin to kill, but there are just wars.” In Paz’s opinion, Krishna preaches disinterest, not philanthropy. “He teaches Arjuna how to escape Karma and save himself, not how to save the world.” I say: true enough – but one is only expected to renounce the world in one’s old age, after having led a full life as a householder. And to the earlier point, Aquinas – and every other religious author in history – has also been predominantly interested in the preservation of the universal order as defined by his faith. Surely the ‘just wars’ condoned by Aquinas or Augustine involve the attempt of exactly such a preservation?

Despite my points of disagreement with Paz, I am convinced that his is not a case of triumphalism or supremacism. Paz is a humanist, and he is equally critical of shortcomings in his own culture as well. He is scrupulously consistent in his distinction of right and wrong.

Above all, Paz’s recurring theme is the deploration of a Hindu nationalism that, at the time of publication of the book, was threatening to dominate and crush all divergent streams of thought and ideology. This is entirely consistent with his own personal beliefs and political philosophy, and his concerns were extremely valid in mid-nineties India, lurching from Babri Masjid to riots and reprisals. His despairing remarks are possibly born out of bitter frustration. He lived to see Hindutva come to power, only just, and thankfully, did not live to hear of Godhra.

As an Indian, reading this book was like looking into a mirror of polished obsidian. It reflected the main silhouette perfectly, while being hazy with some of the specifics. Are the unflattering contortions because of inherent flaws in the workmanship, or are those really warts on my face? There is no way of telling, but however unhappy it makes me, I cannot blame the mirror. Because I am nothing but the sum of all my images in all the mirrors I have looked into in my life.


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