Insights Into A Land Of Immense Diversity

In Light of India

By Octavio Paz

Trans. by Eliot Weinberger

Harcourt Brace & Co.

209 pp., $22

Widely considered to be Mexico's most distinguished poet and critic, Octavio Paz was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1990. For more than six decades, Paz has explored important aesthetic, cultural, and political questions with exemplary intelligence and grace.

Among his many interests has been the culture and civilization of India, where he was first sent in 1951 as an attach to the Mexican embassy and later returned to serve as his country's ambassador in the 1960s. His new book, "In Light of India," is an urbanely informal yet highly informative look at the history and culture of that ancient, multifarious land. Written with Paz's hallmark erudition and sophistication, it also displays his remarkable gift for making complicated things accessibly clear, without oversimplifying or cheapening them.

Paz begins with his first impressions of Bombay on arriving there in 1951. A sense of the personal touch lingers throughout the book, as Paz recalls remarks made by Indian friends, evokes a visit to a famed landmark, or describes a meal with Indira Gandhi. But if Paz is personal, he is also admirably self-effacing. He is present in these pages not as a gaudy "personality," but as a questing mind.

An immense and ancient land of many religions, languages, and peoples, India has long been beset by what Paz calls "centrifugal forces," making it difficult to create a unified national state. The most significant of these, Paz notes, is "the coexistence of Hinduism and Islam. The presence of the strictest and most extreme form of monotheism alongside the richest and most varied polytheism," he writes, "is, more than a historical paradox, a deep wound.... In one, the theology is rigid and simple, in the other, the variety of doctrines and sects induces a kind of vertigo. A minimum of rites among the Muslims; a proliferation of ceremonies among the Hindus."

The heroes of India's long history, in Paz's eyes, are those who sought to bring people together - sometimes by searching for common ground amid the divergent belief systems, sometimes by preaching and practicing religious toleration, like the great 16th-century Mughal emperor Akbar and the saintly 20th-century leader Mahatma Gandhi. Those who insisted on the purity of their attitudes and actions have more often than not engendered violence, death, and destruction.

Paz explores many other aspects of Indian culture, including the Hindu caste system; classic Sanskrit poetry; the teachings of Buddha; the influence of 14th- century Sufi mysticism on Hindu and Muslim poets of the 16th and 17th centuries; the importance of the British Raj in laying the groundwork (intentionally or not) for the Indian independence movement. He also finds some fascinating correspondences (and contrasts) between India and his native Mexico, including a surprising degree of similarity in their cuisines.

A sympathetic, often admiring, student of Indian culture, Paz does not hesitate to point out its limitations, weaknesses, and besetting problems. Nor is he afraid to speak out against misguided cultural relativism: "...much as I find barbarous the belief that one race is superior to another, treating all cultures as the same strikes me as a modern superstition. I deeply admire ... Mesoamerican and Incan civilizations, but I recognize the fact that neither of the two has given us creations comparable to the Upanishads..."

"In Light of India" provides lucid explications of Indian culture and beliefs, as well as enlightening discussion of the political problems confronting it - and other modern countries. Readers in search of an introduction to India might well start with this book. Readers already knowledgeable about the subject may well enjoy examining it once again, from Paz's insightful perspective.

* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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