Poems From India 1952-1995
by Octavio Paz.
Edited and translated
by Eliot Weinberger.
111 pp. New York:
New Directions. Paper, $8.
Octavio Paz modestly describes ''In Light of India'' -- and indeed all his prose work on India -- as a footnote to his poetry. Several beautiful and evocative poems included in ''A Tale of Two Gardens'' are from his ''East Slope,'' already well known to his admirers. For six years (1962-68) Mr. Paz, now in his 80's, was the Mexican Ambassador not only to India but to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then called (he resigned because of his Government's 1968 massacre of student demonstrators in Mexico City). That was not his first visit to India. When he first went there, like so many newcomers, he had been overwhelmed and bewildered by the country's vastness and complexity; he had felt ''dizziness, horror, stupor, astonishment, joy, enthusiasm, nausea,'' but also an ''inescapable attraction.'' The apparent unreality of what he saw inspired his long poem ''Mutra,'' written in 1952 -- Muttra, or Mathura, being a Hindu holy city, the birthplace of the god Krishna.
The Spanish title of ''In Light of India'' is ''Vislumbres de la India,'' difficult to translate perhaps, meaning glimpses dimly seen, as in twilight. But, while it is true that the reader who knows India even a little is left wondering about certain omissions (what about the worship of the elephant god Ganesha, for instance, and the dreaded goddess Kali?), the essays in this ambitious book -- translated by Eliot Weinberger, who also edited the book of poems and translated many of them -- are certainly not ''glimpses''; they are the result of long experience and study, beginning with reminiscences of great charm but leading to disquisitions on India's history, its religions, philosophy and such things as caste, Sanskrit erotic poetry, sculpture and architecture. Mr. Paz also contrasts Mexico with India, and this in part is the theme of the title poem in ''A Tale of Two Gardens,'' where he evokes a romantic abandoned garden he had loved as a child and the garden he and his wife, Marie-Jose, had in Delhi. Gardens, trees, birds and flowers recur often in his poems.
The past, as Gandhi clearly saw, has been decisive in shaping modern India. Unlike the Spaniards in Mexico, the British were not concerned with obliterating ancient cults and customs, or in imposing Christianity. Mr. Paz is quite flattering about the British raj. He describes the conquest of India as a colossal historical feat lasting over a hundred years and involving extraordinary and wise personalities. India had never before been united into a single whole. There were certainly some dreadful abuses and cruelty. The mutiny of 1857, more of a revolt than a revolution, failed because it was localized and lacked unity of action. Bloody revenge followed, but in 1858 religious freedom was proclaimed by the British, India became a viceroyalty and Indians were given the right to serve in their own Government. But this also had the effect of removing Muslims from some traditional positions of privilege, in a sense deliberately, since they had been regarded as the main perpetrators of the mutiny.
So, ultimately, the British left democracy and the rule of law as their legacy. As Mr. Paz puts it, independence in 1947 was the triumph of British ideas and institutions, without the British. And here he makes comparisons with Latin American countries, where independence was achieved through wars, which in turn became ''the seedbeds for the caudillos, the local military bosses.'' ''With them,'' he says, ''began the sickness that is endemic to our societies: militarism and its consequences -- coups d'etat, uprisings, civil wars.''
That the British legacy included leaving intact the ancient religions and ethnic and cultural divisions led almost immediately to terrible massacres, and to the old Indian Empire being torn into India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. There is also more recent unrest among the Sikhs, and in Kashmir, where the predominantly Muslim population is ruled by India. This is a huge subject dealt with by Mr. Paz in a suitably concise manner. Understandably, he finds himself unable to answer the question whether Muslims and Hindus are ''two civilizations occupying a single territory, or . . . two religions nurtured by a single civilization.'' The lingua franca, by and large, remains English; it has been reckoned that there are at least 150 languages on the subcontinent, and over 580 dialects. Yet, as Mr. Paz says of Islam and Hinduism, ''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.''
Separateness is most obvious in approaches to architecture. Some of the most sublimely beautiful buildings are from the Islamic Mogul domination in the 16th and 17th centuries -- mostly in Rajasthan. The Taj Mahal could not be more different from the wonderful, exotic and ornate Hindu temples at Ellora, Trichinopoly, Tajore and Madurai, not to mention the amazing, acrobatically erotic sculptures at Khajraho.
Gandhi was a traditional Hindu, but Western thought influenced him profoundly. His campaign for tolerance and nonviolence was acceptable to the Hindu masses, again to quote Mr. Paz, because he ''embodied a figure venerated by all Hindus: the ascetic who renounces the world'' -- incorruptible. But to extremists his efforts to unite Hindus and Muslims made him a heretic, and for this he was assassinated. To us in the West, two of the most baffling aspects of Hindu doctrine are caste and the transmigration of souls. Mr. Paz regards transmigration with a certain dismay and attempts to explain caste, which he says must be dissociated from class. There are over 3,000 castes, each with complicated rules of kinship, each revolving around the immutable principle of purity. He provides a fascinating summary of this obscure subject, but has to leave the shocking problem of the untouchables in the air. An easier subject is the union of eroticism with religion, manifested in literature, art and especially sculpture. Mr. Paz has translated some of the poetry, which may have inspired the passionate love poems to his adored Marie-Jose included in ''A Tale of Two Gardens.''
Much of the last section of ''In Light of India'' is devoted to aspects of Hindu philosophy, explaining, for instance, how the Christian concepts of original sin and redemption would be incomprehensible to the Hindu. The four traditional aims in Hinduism are karma, the domain of pleasure and sexual enjoyment; artha, related to material success; dharma, which represents morals, duty, family obligations and caste; and moksha, self-knowledge and ''liberation from the chains of existence.'' Apart from dying, the only way to break away from caste is to renounce the world and become a yogi, a holy man or hermit. Yet the true yogi ''does not seek to separate his soul from his body . . . he wants to convert it into a weapon of liberation.'' Although pleasure is one of the goals of life, ''the wise man casts it aside and seeks the path of abstinence and solitary meditation. . . . Chastity gives strength for the great battle'' -- emancipating the soul from rebirths and uniting it with the Supreme Being.
Returning to Gandhi, Mr. Paz shows how his faith in dharma -- ''the truth of the humble with no other sword than that of nonviolence'' -- and his dream of the happy, traditional village, plying traditional crafts, have now been smashed. Gandhi once said, ''I am not the enemy of the English; I am the enemy of their civilization.'' He meant he believed in democracy but hated Western technology and industry. Now, Mr. Paz says, the population explosion has meant that ''every village is a pit of misery and despair'' -- mostly, yes, but not entirely true. Mr. Paz, too, recoils from Western materialism, the doctrines of envy, the demon of money, the vulgarity in popular entertainment. He is also horrified by the rise of fundamentalism. ''Why,'' he asks, ''don't they call it by its true name, fanaticism?'' He looks back to 1968, to his last glimpse of India, when he and Marie-Jose went again to the island of Elephanta, near Bombay, to see the glorious sculptures -- ''sexual incarnations of the most abstract thought'' -- above all, Shiva and Parvati, the divine couple, a vision of happiness, eternal. ''It was as though we were leaving ourselves,'' he says. ''Shiva and Parvati: we worship you not as gods but as images of the divinity of man.'' Ahead lay Mexico and the aftermath of the students' struggle for democracy.
This review written by Raleigh Trevelyan, published at nytimes.com. He is the author of ''The Golden Oriole: A Two Hundred-Year History of an English Family in India'' and ''The Companion Guide to Sicily.''