In Light of India- III


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

A Project of Nationhood


(pp.75) India is a reality that is far easier to delineate than to define.

(pp.82-83) [cute Mexican way of explaining “chapati”] Instead of bread, Indians eat a kind of tortillas, called “chapatis”, that are very similar to ours, though made from wheat flour instead of corn. The chapati, like the tortilla, serves as a spoon: an edible spoon!


(pp.98-99) One belief united all [pre-Hispanic Mexicans]: cosmic war and the sacrifice. The gods battled and sacrificed themselves to create the world (or, more exactly, to re-create it, since the myths speak of previous worlds)…Blood, like rain, is life-giving. Christianity offered them a sublimation of that belief: the sacrifice of a god who became a man and spilled his blood to redeem the world. This idea had scandalized the Greeks and Romans, as later, when they learned of it, it scandalized the Hindus and Chinese: a condemned god, God as victim! But for the Mexicans this idea was a bridge between their ancient religion and Christianity.

(pp.100) One of the great creations of Mexican Catholism was the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe to a Mexican Indian, on the same hill where, before the Conquest, a pre-Hispanic goddess had been worshiped. Catholicism was able to take root in Mexico by transforming the ancient gods into the saints, virgins, and devils of the new religion. Nothing similar could occur in India with Muslim monotheism or Protestant Christianity, both of which saw the cult of images, of saints  and virgins, as idolatry.
Spanish Catholicism has often proved to be intolerant because it has been possessed with the spirit of crusade. It was a religion formed during centuries of struggle against an equally intransigent monotheism: Islam. Nevertheless, as an heir of Rome, it possessed a capacity to assimilate foreign cults which the far more rigid Protestanism lacked.


(pp.102) The Christianity imported by the British was a modern version of the religion: separation of church and state, abolition of the cult of images, freedom to interpret the Scriptures, and the other principles of the Reformation. A religion poor in rites and ceremonies, but full of moral and sexual rigidity. In other words: the exact opposite of popular Hinduism.

(pp.104) [T]he imposition of the Spanish language on the indigenous population had two goals, one political-administrative and the other religious. Neither goal was intended by Macaulay or the British administration.

(pp.105) The participation in British culture, common to both, had separated rather than united the Hindus and Muslims, perhaps because their respective interpretations of modern culture did not entail an abandonment of their religions. It would take two generations before there were truly secular and agnostic figures, such as Nehru. Indian intellectuals saw modern European culture not as a universal critical way of thinking, but as a way to purify their traditions, which had been deformed by centuries of ignorance, intellectual stagnancy, and millennarian superstition.

(pp.106-107) Swami Vivekananda, in a speech given in 1899, lamented the weakness of the Hindus, who had unconsciously accepted Western customs. He urged them to return to the ancient rites and beliefs: Hindus should “embrace on another like true brothers”, without caste distinctions. Apart from his evangelical zeal, this exhortation contained a triple heresy: an embrace between different caste members (a contamination), brotherhood among men (a denial of karmic law), and the postulation of the existence of a creater God. To defend Hinduism against the criticism of the missionaries, the reformers Christianized it. [W]ithout knowing or wanting so, they had adopted [Christianity] values.
The rediscovery of Hinduism by these Anglophilic Brahmans and intellectuals, beyond the rigor and exactitude of their interpretations of the Vedas and other sacred texts, led them to discover that they were the heirs of a great civilization. At the same time, many spritually discontented Europeans, the unhappy children of modernity, discovered in the Asian doctrines a previously unknown fountain of wisdom.

(pp.110) Tilak decided to celebrate two festivals in the Maratha region, one in honor of the elephant god Ganesha and the other in memory of Shivaji, the Maratha hero who fought against Aurangzeb. It was a revival of the traditional struggle against Islam: the date of the celebration of Ganesha coincided with that of a Muslim religious festival.

(pp.112) Nonviolence in India has a double basis: one, political and ethical, which is Western; the other, religious, which is Jain.

(pp.113-114) In an impious century such as ours, the figure of Gandhi is almost a miracle… It is not easy to agree with many of Gandhi’s political and philosophical ideas…But we ought not to judge him. Saints are not judged, they are venerated.

(pp.116) Hindu nationalism has fallen into a kind of caricature of monotheism by replacing its original pluralism and polytheism with the adoration of a single ideological god: the nation.

(pp.117) Neither Hinduism nor Islam had a Renaissance, as in Europe, and thus they had no Enlightenment.


(pp.124) [Nehru is a] contradictory figure, like the age itself: an aristocrat who was a socialist; a democrat who exercised a kind of peaceful dictatorship; an agnostic governing a nation of believers; a man of moral ideals who did not, at time, disdain alliances and commitments that were less than impeccable.

(pp.125) As a sentiment and as a historical reality, nationalism is as old as humanity: there has never been a society that did not feel itself united by a land, a language, and customs. As an idea, however, it is an invention of the modern Europeans, and it is an ideology as much as a sentiment.

(pp.126) 插播Paz爷爷认为墨西哥城最漂亮的街道是改革大道Paseo de la Reforma.


Extended Readings:

In Light of India: Introduction

In Light of India- II: Religions, Castes and Languages

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


One response »

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

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