In Light of India- II


Octavio Paz (1997). In Light of India. Translated from the Spanish by Eliot Weinberger. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company

Religions, Castes and Languages


(pp.37) The presence of the strictest and most extreme form of monotheism alongside the richest and most varied polytheism is, more than a historical paradox, a deep wound.

(pp.38) Of course, Islam has experienced divisions within itself, but these have been neither as profound nor as numerous as those within Hinduism, which accepts not only a plurality of gods but also of doctrines (darshanas), sects, and congregations of believers. Some of these brotherhoods of believers- true religions themselves within the great pluralistic religion of Hinduism- approach Christian monotheism; for example, among the followers of Krishna. Others recall the original polytheism of the Indo-Europeans: worshiping deities who are the guardians of cosmic order, warrior gods, and gods of agriculture and commerce. In one case, a creator god; in the other, the wheel of successive cosmic eras with its procession of gods and civilizations… Are they two civilizations occupying a single territory, or are they two religions nurtured by a single civilization? It is impossible to say.

(pp.40) [O]ne of the historical paradoxes of Muslim India: it flourished at the decline of Islamic civilization. It is well known that Indian music deeply influenced that of the Arab world and central Asia. Music was one of the things that united the two communities. Exactly the opposite occurred with architecture and painting. Compare Ellora with the Taj Mahal, or the frescoes of Ajanta with Mughal miniatures. These are not distinct artistic styles, but rather two different visions of the world.

(pp.41) [A]lthough the Sufism [during the Delhi Sultanate] did not transgress the limits of orthodoxy, the end of the Sultanate also marked a fusion of Hindu and Sufi mysticism. Among the Hindus, there was a movement of popular devotion to a personal god (bhakti). For the believer, this personal deity incarnates the Absolute, and to unite with this god is to reach liberation (moksha), or at least to experience the joy of the divine… The three gods whom these sects worshiped were Vishnu, Shiva, and Devi, the great goddess in her various manifestations. The cult of Vishnu, in turn, had two forms: devotion to Krishna or to Rama, both avatars of the same god.

(pp.42) Becoming one with Krishna or with the Goddess, the devotee unites with a manifestation of the Absolute, not with a creator God. Krishna is not a unique god, exclusive of others, as Allah is in Islam. Nevertheless, the affirmation that the road to God is neither through ritual, the axis of Hinduism, nor through understanding, the basis of all the darshanas, but through love, has an undeniable similarity to Sufi doctrine.

(pp.53) The 1857 Mutiny was not a national revolt, because the idea of a nation had not yet penetrated Indian consciousness. Nationhood was a modern concept, imported by the British. The revolt of 1857 was a doomed and chaotic attempt to return things to the way they had been before the British arrived. The Independence of 1947 was the triumph of British ideas and institutions…without the British.


(pp.55) As far as its complexity is concerned, one need only note that there are more than three thousand castes, each with its own characteristics, gods and rituals, rules of kinship, and taboos of sex and food.

(pp.57) The four varnas are categories essential to the idea of caste, but they are not its basis. The caste [jati] themselves are much smaller than the varnas. Various qualities define them. First, origin or blood: one is born into this or that caste. Then, the place or area where one lives; one’s trade or profession; kinship rules (a man of caste X may marry a woman of caste Y but not of caste A or Z); diet, which ranges from strict vegetarianism of the Brahmans to the possibility, among the Untouchables, of eating beef.

(pp.59) This fabric of religious, economic, political, territorial, linguistic, and familial relations gives the castes their extraordinary solidity… The caste, unlike our classes and associations, is not a conglomeration of individuals, but a circle of families…that encloses the individual: one is born, lives, and dies within one’s caste. There is only one way out of a caste, other than death: renouncing the world.

(pp.60) To renounce one’s caste is like leaving the maternal belly that warms and shelters us from the outside world. Caste is a protection, but it is not a vehicle for social mobility…The caste as a whole, rather than any particular individual, can climb the social ladder, [which is in any case exceptional].

(自我膨胀,是为了涨破传统社会的硬壳,引出开放式的个人—社会关系,以适应市场需要。这壳固然是限制,却也是自我的保护壳。裸露的自我,固然在一定范围内有选择的自由,却增添了选择的焦虑:自行建立的与社会的关系,远不是毫无精神代价的。 赵毅衡 :《有个半岛叫欧洲》)

(pp.62) Caste is one of the links in the chain of births and rebirths that make up existence, a chain of which all living things are part. Brahmans and Kshatriyas are superior because they have been born as humans at least twice: they have already traveled part of the way on the difficult road of births and rebirths.


(pp.67) According to the 1927 Linguistic Survey of India (the most comprehensive and reliable edition on this subject. Censuses taken since Independence are markedly inferior), 179 languages and 544 dialects were spoken at that time.

Extended Readings:

In Light of India: Introduction

In Light of India- III: A Project of Nationhood

In Light of India- IV: The Full and The Empty


4 responses »

  1. Pingback: In Light of India | Bria Yifei Yan

  2. Pingback: In Light of India- III | Bria Yifei Yan

  3. Pingback: In Light of India- IV | Bria Yifei Yan

  4. Pingback: A Light Called India | Bria Yifei Yan

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