In Light of India- IV


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

The Full and The Empty


(pp.137) India did not enter me through my mind but through my senses.

(pp.140) The way in which the great temples at Ellora, Ajanta, Karli, and other sites were built, carved out of mountains: a double and grandiose design: to sculpt mountains, to construct edifices of reasoning, based on a reflection of the abyss. There is an absolute correspondence of Hindu thought, its architecture, and its sculpture.

(pp.145) Classical Sanskrit was a language spoken by a cultivated minority, alongside the popular dialects and languages (Prakrit). An expression of and vehicle for this linguistic reality, the poetry of ancient India contained the same virtues and limitations: an enormous richness of vocabulary, a complex syntax, the ability and flexibility to combine various words and ideas into a single word- much like German but with greater amplitude and complexity.
Indian literature is divided into three genres: plays; Mahakavya, the long poem, usually on a historical or mythological theme; and kavya, the short poem.

(pp.153) In Indian poetry, there is a feeling that is rare in ours: luxuriousness, that moment in which the body, without losing its composure, seems to waver, enveloped by extreme pleasure, and falls into a delicious swoon. The poem becomes a naked body adorned with the jewels, lying conquered. Luxuriousness is an effluvium that glows and vanishes. It is also an agent of metamorphosis: the male body, weakened by an excess of pleasure, twists into that of a woman; in turn, the female body, goaded by desire, leaps on top like a tiger.


(pp.165) The key word of Western eroticism- I am refering to the modern West, from the eighteenth century to the present- is violation, which is an affirmation of the moral and psychological order. For Hindus, the key word is pleasure. Similarly, in Christian ascerticism, the central concept is redemption; in India, it is liberation.
The Gospels themselves do not condemn sex or the body. In the Greek philosophical tradition, however, adopted by the fathers of the Church and the medieval scholasticists, the condemnation of the body is explicit.

(pp.170-171) To condemn the body and human sexuality in a tradition like Hinduism would be to condemn the gods and goddesses, the manifestations of a powerful cosmic sexuality. Hindu chastity and asceticism must have another source…
Chastity was a recipe for longevity and, according to some, immortality. This idea is fundamental to yoga and Tantrism, and it is central to Taoism…Pleasure is desirable but finite; it does not save us from death or free us from future incarnations. Chastity gives strength for the great battle: breaking the chain of rebirths.


(pp.171-172) According to traditional ethics, human life has four goals: artha, kama, dharma and moksha. Artha refers to the world of success and material gain… The four goals are all legitimate, but on the scale of values pleasure is superior to business, duty to pleasure, and liberation to the other three…
The Christian triad: Creation, Original Sin, Redemption; The Indian triad: Samsara, Karma, Moksha.

(pp.174) Liberation is not salvation in the Christian sense. There is no person or soul to be saved: the liberated is liberated from the illusion of the ego…moksha liberates us from the burden of karma that makes the wheel of samsara turn… Moksha is a gnosis and praxis. Moksha is self-knowledge. To understand oneself, one must practice introspection and eliminate the superfluous: karma and all that goes with it, enthusiasms, dislikes, nostalgia, affection, ego, personal consciousness…It is also emptiness. It is neither an I nor a you nor a he nor a she.

(pp.176) Archaicism and subtlety, gnosis and praxis, moksha is a paradoxical state that is both negative and positive. Negative because it is a liberation from the ties that bind us to the world and to time; positive because the Absolute is beatitude.
The idea of a just society forms no part of the Hindu philosophical tradition. It has been argued that the concept of dharma compensates for this omission, but I disagree: dharma is an ethic, not a politics. The difference from the Christian ideal is even greater and more radical: to save oneself, for a Christian, is to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. A kingdom is a collective entity, and heaven is a perfect society of the blessed and the saintly. It is the opposite of the solitary liberated Hindu.

(pp.178) The Buddha? He is not a god made flesh in order to save mankind; he is a man who renounced being a god in order to teach mankind the way toward solitary liberation.

(pp.180) Not only is such freedom incompatible with the caste system, but India lacks a tradition of thinking critically. 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.
But a sannyasi who renounces ordinary existence for a life of asceticism and meditation is not a redeemer, nor does he want to save the world: he knows that the world is already condemned.

(pp.184) The superhuman disinterest that Krishna preaches has another face: the indifference to the suffering of other. The detachment of Arjuna is a personal act, a renunciation of himself and of his appetites, an act of spiritual heroism, yet one that does not reveal a love of one’s neighbor… Krishna preaches a disinterest without philanthropy. He teaches Arjuna how to escape karma and save himself, not how to save the others.

(pp.185) At times it [the Indian genius] is rich, at others, prolix. It fascinates us and tires us.


(pp.187) Every cycle (kalpa) is compossed of four ages (yugas). In the current kalpa, we are now living in the fourth and last of these ages, the Kali yuga.

(pp.189) For Hinduism, time has no meaning, or, more exactly, it has no meaning other than its obliteration by total Being, as Krishna tells Arjuna. This conception of time explains the absence of a historical consciousness among Hindus. India has had great poets, philosophers, architects, and painters, but it has never, until modern times, had a great historian. Among the various means of negating time among the Hindus, there are two that are particularly astonishing: metaphysical negation and social negation.The first prevented the birth of that literary, scientific, and philosophical genre we call history. The second, the institution of the caste, immobilized society.


Extended Readings:

In Light of India: Introduction

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

In Light of India- III: A Project of Nationhood


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- II | Bria Yifei Yan

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

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