By Octavio Paz
Translated from the Spanish by Eliot Weinberger
New York: A Harvest Book, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995
ISBN # 0-15-100222-3
209 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
September 2011

Octavio Paz first arrived in India in 1951 as a low-ranking embassy official for Mexico and immediately began to explore India and try to get some understanding of it. However, his stay was short and soon he was transferred to the Mexican mission in Tokyo.

He must have pleased the Mexican officials because a mere 11 years later, in 1962, he returned as ambassador of India as well as Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Afghanistan.

Later in life Paz decides to write this book of essays on India. He is careful to tell us that this is not a memoir.

“I am not writing a memoir. These pages, although they touch on autobiography, are an introduction to my attempts to answer the question that India poses to everyone who visits it.”

What follows is an engaging intellectual trip through India, trying to understand the complexity of this sub-continent which wasn’t really a “country” in any normal sense of the term until the British Raj of the 19th century. But, two competing cultures and religions, Buddhism and Islam, dominated the sub-continent for centuries before.

Paz’s dominant theme of “his” India is that it is a nation made up of two very different religions and cultures, the Hindu and the Islamic, and that their interface and history have shaped India.

Hinduism has existed in India since at least 2000 B.C. and Islam came as an invading army of the 8th century, which established the Mughal (sic) empire by 1526. It created a high Islamic civilization in India.

The rivalry of these two religions/cultures has defined much of India:

“They have lived together, but their coexistence has been one of rivalry, full of suspicions, threats, and silent resentments that frequently have turned into bloodshed.”

A third major force – England -- comes to India along with other western European nations looking for expansion in the 18th century, and wins out over other western powers, founding the Viceroyalty in 1868.

The essays, then, try to explain these two dominant religions as they exist in India, the cultures they bred, the wars and discord that led to the role of England in the midst of these struggles.

It is a difficult and complex task he has set, and given that this is a book of only 209 pages, it can be seen as little more than a very interesting and well-written introduction. It can, and does, only sketch the bare bones of this nation’s history and conflicts.

He tackles each of the two religion/cultures separately, and then turns to the meaning and role of the British in India.

His main thrust is the complex story of India’s ancient Hindu roots. He believes the cast system is central to understanding India and is rooted in a particular view of the cosmos as without beginning or end, running in an eternal circle of birth, death and rebirth without leaving the circle of return.

Paz explains the four main groupings of Hindu society and how this gives some sense of “place” to the believers of this world view.

While there are some 4,000 castes, the author holds that four dominate:

  1. Brahmins -- priests
  2. Kshatriyas -- warriors
  3. Vaishyas -- merchants and businessmen
  4. Shudres -- peasants, workers, servants
He believes it is crucial to understand caste as a religious, not an economic notion.
“Castes are mutual as societies. They are not only cooperatives, such as ours, but also solidarity groups, genuine fraternities.”

“. . . the caste system is ahistorical; its function is to oppose history and its permutations with an immutability reality.”

He deals less fully with the Islamic religion and argues that while the early dominate versions of Islam were Shari’a (sic) and Sufi, today Sunni Islam dominates the Muslims.

However, what is clear is that bitter division has plagued India for more than 1300 years over religion.

A more modern force in India has been England. In the main, England ignored the notion of trying to seriously influence India with Christian religion, but instead sought military and political power.

Paz cites Lord Macauly’s plan: Educate an elite class in English. He quotes Macauly:

“It is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educated the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in tastes, opinions, morals and in intellect.” (about 1835)

The irony is that it was that very class of “selected” Indians which was the root of the independence movement. At the same time England also gave India a universal language -- English. Paz claims that a 1927 survey claimed there were 179 languages, with 544 dialects, though the Indian government itself only recognized 14 languages. Despite resistance to English rule, English or what Paz calls “Indian English,” has emerged as the language of the economy and state.

The situation of England is rather strange. It has basically ruled the country and brought a good deal of law, order and the first organized state that touched most of the nation. Yet it was always resisted as an illegitimate invader, and was eventually driven out in the post-WWII revolution which brought Mahatmas Gandhi to prominence.

Despite the non-violence and ideology of return-to-village-simplicity, in the post-revolutionary state, and after the death of Gandhi in 1948, India has moved toward a modern state. Yet the dominant notion of modernism with democratic liberalism, secularism and nationalism are all opposed to the Hindu caste system and to the more radical religious notion of Islam in India.

This is a difficult contradiction for India to create a modern state. It is being built on the shoulders of ancient cultures which are in contradiction to modernity.

At the end of this engaging book of essays, Paz returns to more familiar ground for him – poetry, and writes a long, interesting but very difficult chapter on the role of ancient Indian poetry on the forming of Indian culture.

Further he has a rather hilarious chapter about the role of “chilies” in Indian and Mexican cuisine, which, on his account, brought about fascinating culture contrasts and similarities of these two cultures which is revealed in their use of chilies, which:

“In the global gastronomic geography the two cuisines share a single place that can only be called eccentric: they are both imaginative and passionate infractors of the two great cannons of taste, French and Chinese cuisine.”

I simply loved that sentence!

At the end of the book Paz presents a rather difficult philosophical / speculative essay on the notions of TIME which can illuminate the differences between Hindu India and the Western conception of time. He sees two totally different conceptions of time in India and the East versus that of the West. Time for most of the West is directional, with beginning, middle and end (as in Christianity), a journey of individual and cultural direction. He sees an Indian vision of a circular sense of unending time, without beginning nor ending.

He asks at the end, what sort of time do we live in? But he doesn’t really answer it. I must say, I did find that chapter rather unsatisfying and unclear.

He ends the book with a FAREWELL, explaining his split with the Mexican government over policy differences which made it impossible for him to continue on in any capacity of service to the government. The books ends just two years before he died.

Paz would be the first to say he is touching only the surface of this gigantic nation and its complex history. Yet he is an intelligent observer, a serious student of both history and religion, and a great writer to boot. Thus he gives us a challenge and engaging set of essays. Often the essays are too short on detail, and at the same time so broad in scope that it is hard to grasp the central point. That’s less a problem with Paz himself, than the difficulty and gigantic scope of time and space that India encompasses. Despite that small quarrel, this is a book well worth reading and engaging in a way that makes it hard to put it down.

Bob Corbett


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