Skip to content

Notes from India

– Sergiu Al-George –

Everybody knows that India is undergoing in our times the supreme ordeal – the trial by fire: her time-honoured values are confronted with the deep-going restructurings that are everywhere being wrought by the technological revolution. Although the meaning of the ordeal by fire is that truth with stands the flames, that not all values have a thermal point beyond which they cease to exist, India’s friends look on all these with a wincing heart.

In Indian world, the strength of tradition has had a say in the confrontation of forms with time, rendering the elimination of the perishable ones slower than elsewhere. Nowadays, however, tradition no longer seems to play the same part as it used to, and age-old creations are now facing the test of time alone and unassisted.

To be honest, when I left for India, I was harbouring the fear that I might not find there anything of the world I had dreamed of all my life, a world inspired by books. Flying over the plains of Eurasia, mistily awake in the night, I had decided that, should disappointment await me, I would keep the secret entirely to myself. I only stayed for a month but it was enough to make me feel ashamed of the doubts I had had. Everything was significant there: the street, my conversations with great philosophers and Sanskritists in New Delhi, Benares, Calcutta, Santiniketan, Madras or Hyderabad, as well as with yogis or wandering ascetics. I have come to feel however that the most meaningful experience was my encounter with the street.

Once released from the genuine, albeit comfortable, captivity of the big airplane, with the sharpened senses of the liberated slave who is rediscovering the world, you come under the immediate impact of the street. You are staggered by the spectacle, which becomes ever more overwhelming, ever denser, as you advance towards the heart of the Capital. You will not recover until you have settled down in the familiar universe of the hotel. Spellbound, you hasten to return to the street as soon as possible. As a pedestrian, you can delve more deeply into its intimacy and you are surprised to discover that the feeling of the unusual is mixed with that of the déjà vu, déjà connu. Livresque apperception, paramnesia or maybe something else. The dominant sensation at the start is that of intense light and of the air which enfolds you like a warm, humid plasma, with its insipide, sweetish aroma, vaguely reminding you of the smell in a cancer ward. It is only later that you begin to discern and understand the significances of this experience. It is a difficult effort, a gradual process which continues to work on you long after you have returned to your country. Yet the street begins to exert its fascination even before you understand it.

I have read and heard many things about the Indian street. To give a true testimony of it, one would have to go beyond the superficial level of pure impressions and descend much deeper, because the street is a critical zone, the place where the forms of the Indian world are undergoing a borderline experience. Like any individual experience of the limit – impending death, the loss of freedom or the splittings of consciousness – this experience is revealing and gives the full measure of the individual undergoing it.

The particular impact of the Indian street is to a large extent due to its antinomies. The old adage of India as a land of contrasts is meaningless unless you understand that the terms of the Indian antinomies do not have equal signifying weight. As in a charade, you must make out for yourself which of the terms of these oppositions carries the true meaning of the Indian world. Whoever fails to solve the charade, either because of unability or idleness, will be more confused when they go back than when they first arrived.

I would begin by the antinomy of dress. Men’s clothes are heteroclite, variegated. The traditional dhoti is more like a white sheet, conceived according to purely functional criteria so as to meet the climatic conditions, with the effect that masculinity of design is entirely sacrificed. This is why it yields to various other combinations, among which European dress tends to prevail, sometimes under hybrid forms. The military uniforms of Anglo-Saxon origin, in perfect chromatic harmony with the men’s olive complexion, are the only outfit which restores their dignity and severe slimness. By contrast, the traditional sari, the uniform attire of the women, strikes you at once as a perfect form which could never in this world be superseded by any other. The sari is endowed with the supreme authority of that perfect gracefulness which abolishes all other dressing formulas and contradicts the idea of fashion itself. Draped closely around the body, leaving bare only the arms and the waist, the sari amplifies in a superb manner the elaborate eurhythmics of walking. All Western women of genuine femininity residing in India adopt it in a gesture of self-defence. When taken out of the national landscape, the beauty of this garment becomes even more fascinating in the contexts created by civilization, as when it flutters behind an Amazon riding on the back of a scooter, or when it descends from a limousine or from an airplane.

The sari is the first reassuring evidence that India has discovered certain absolute forms beyond the sway of time and history, which exert the same fascination – that of perfection – as the silhouette of the vases (unchanged from prehistoric times to the present day), the Sanskrit language or the great philosophical utterances.

Indian thinking is not confused, as it is sometimes assumed among the uninitiated, but has evolved from its very beginnings with utmost rigour. This is borne out by the fact that the Indians were the first to discover the concept of „rule“ and also the highly modern one of „metarule“. Both these concepts appeared very early, in ritualistic texts, wherefrom they were subsequently taken over by logical speculation (the term nyaya, „logic“, means primarily „rule“) and especially by grammatical theory. This is how 2500 years ago it became possible for India to give to the world, through Pāṇini, not only the first but also the most pertinent description of a language – Sanskrit – under the perfect form of a 4000-rule system. Whoever is aware of the importance of the concept of „rule“ in Indian thinking, and also happens to be familiar with the system of traffic regulations, is disconcerted by the contact with the Indian street. Many years ago, while I was preparing for my driving test, I acquired a keener interest in traffic regulations because I discovered with delight that they resembled the rule system of Pāṇini’s grammar. Reading Saussure, I had learned that ritual, traffic regulations and language alike are semiotic systems, yet the affinities I had discovered seemed to go beyond this. Pāṇini carries out his analysis of Sanskrit as a descriptive itinerary governed by rules, each rule having the value and even the name of „indicative sign“. The starting point is in the most general rules but, subsequently, every newly-established rule has the capacity to invalidate the preceding one, if the two are in contradiction. The principle at work here, explicitely formulated in the famous meta-rule of contradiction egression can also be encountered in the semiology of traffic, where it functions implicitely: the signs „Stop“ and „Give Way“ contradict and invalidate the general rule of right-hand priority.

Street traffic in India does not seem to follow any rule and traffic signs are virtually non-existent. At the beginning, when you are first being driven around in an Indian automobile, accidents seem to be imminent at every point: you are being cut off unexpectedly, dangerous overtakings are frequent, distances are not kept, cyclists and even pedestrians keep springing from all sides. Yet, the driver, although he keeps hooting his horn, is relaxed and controls the wheel with just one hand, sometimes only with the palm of his hand. However, collisions are very rare (in one month, I only saw two cyclists who were involved in accidents), the reason being that nobody here claims the right of way. In imminent danger of collision, instead of invectives and ontological rejections, the parties exchange cordial smiles and conceding gestures. This motley whirl of vehicles of every possible description – from the oxen-drawn cart, identical to the one in the Mohenjo-Daro representations, to the modern limousines – is not in fact chaotic but partakes of a secret harmony like the one governing the dynamics of a swarm of flies or bees. The mystery of this harmony lies in the relationship between man and machinery, which is different from its Western counterpart. The individual does not become one with the car in a spirit of worship meant to increase his aggressiveness and intolerance. The Indians have not raised the motor-car to the status of a mythical reality, and this is because they have had an intimate access to much more elevated myths. They merely consider it to be an instrument for mastering space and time, not one that should serve for expanding their ego and enabling them to abuse priority whenever it is on their side. You come to understand then that all the rules have been replaced by the golden rule – the absence of any rule – a substitution that is only possible in a world in which priority is first and foremost conceding.

The man behind the steering-wheel will waive his priority claims not only in favour of his fellow-men but also in favour of the animals, of cows in the first place. The status enjoyed by bovines in the Indian street, invoked as an incontrovertible proof of absurdity by those who deplore this aspect of the Indian world, embarassing even for many of those who love India, can only be understood in its particular context. Naturally, its origins are traceable to religious considerations but these have evolved into something more comprehensive and completely different from our representations. The Indian cows are not „cows“ in the proper sense, neither do they carry any of the connotations that we commonly operate with.

In Romanian, when we qualify someone as „cow“ or „ox“, according to gender, or generically as „bovine“, we are conditioned by the way in which we have integrated these creatures in our life. To us, bovines are stupid creatures, whose tragic fate in no way challenges our sensibility (in spite of Esenin’s protest) because, through elaborate but ultimately monstrous artificial selections we have in fact transformed them into mere masses of protein. Such creatures can only occasion ironic, negative metaphors and similes. The biblical manger has turned into a stable.

Indian cows are different from ours – they are smaller, more delicate, positively graceful. In the urban scenery, their lingering immobility appears statuesque, hieratic. Their gaze is not dumb but conveys that tender melancholy bestowed by a half-participation in the world and which is similar to that of the characters of Buddhist essence in the Ajanta caves; this is why the analogies they have inspired run contrary to the ones they have engendered in our culture. Which one of our poets has ever dared to use the metaphor of the cow’s gaze to express the melancholy tenderness of a woman’s eyes? Yet the metaphor is frequent in Sanskrit poetry. Moreover, a cursory glance at a Sanskrit dictionary will make you realize, from the multiplicity of the senses, as well as the nature of the semantic values attached to the bovines, that the analogies are in this case positive and affectionate. To a similar extent, these are present in religious representations, in the metaphors of the most refined lyrical poetry as well as in the behaviour of the „technical“ man – the professional of the steering-wheel, severed from the sacred and almost surely ignorant of Sanskrit poetry.

Driving around Calcutta, in the company of one of those intellectuals at odds with their own tradition, we once stopped, as was often the case, in front of some cows that were blocking our way. I was then able to realize how superficial was in fact his hostility towards the traditional respect accorded to the cows, judging from the ease with which he accepted my counterargument: regardless of its materializations, it is only a question of promoting an abstract principle to which the individual must from time to time defer so as to be reminded that he is not the supreme value of this world.

But what is at issue here is more than cows and their sacredness; they are merely an illustration of the relationship between man and the great wide world of the Indian street. The dog, for instance, was not sacralized by the Brahmanic religion and its worshipping in neighbouring Persia is only faintly reflected in Indian texts. Nevertheless, in this world which is far from the affluence of the West, even stray dogs have a more prosperous air. They lack that distressing look of cachectic, frightened creatures, wandering about apprehensively along the middle of the road and keeping an illusory distance from the Scylla and Charybdis of the two pavements. On the contrary, a dog-lover myself, I was happy to find them, if not always chubby, at least eutrophic, rarely suffering from dermatitis, enjoying the respect and tolerance offered by the Indian street. Following the cows’ example, the dogs plop down in areas of heavy traffic, giving – when seen from a distance – the painful impression of road kills. Usually avoided by vehicles, whenever they are hooted away, they move slowly, with apparent reproach at not being accorded a similar status to that of the cows.

The next discovery awaiting the pedestrian Westerner is the incredible intimacy between the Indians and the birds. The cautious, distant crows approach you here without fear; if incidentally they see you eating seeds, they insist on having their share. My mind boggled at a scene somewhere on the periphery of Calcutta (a city famous for the hardships it has endured) in which a poor seed-pedlar made no attempt to chase away the crows and sparrows that were pecking at the merchandise laid out to dry near the stall. The meaning of this intimacy between man and birds can only be grasped in the context of an organic cosmic harmony: trees that were planted for urbanistic reasons tend to become miniature yet living replicas of the cosmos. Even along the main streets of the large Indian cities, such as the Janpath Marg in New-Delhi, the big trees have been restored to their primordial function, that of a life containing other lives. Under their shade passers-by lie down to rest, pedlars selling cigarettes, fruit and pan display their merchandise, the shoemaker mends your sandal while you wait by his „workshop“, the barber practises his time-honoured trade in the open air. All the while, in the foliage overhead and all around them there is a noisy flutter of crows and multicoloured birds (mena and tota) and sprightly, little grey squirrels.

One feels that in this microcosm the creatures, one and all, do not ignore but communicate with one another, thus making possible such wise dialogues as those occurring in the ancient Indian tales, many of which begin by the well-known formula: „Once upon a time, there was a tree…“ The spectacle that is sometimes offered by the tree, here, amid the bustling city-life, is enough to persuade you that its symbolic virtues certainly extend beyond those mentioned in the treatises on the history of religions, that it is possible to discover further reasons that should establish it as a symbol of a living cosmos.

Should I now confess that in India I could not bring myself to give money to a beggar, the fact might seem incomprehensibile but it might also indicate that our terms may have new references there. As I was climbing – barefoot as the custom required – the hot stone steps of a temple situated on an eminence, a man gave me a compassionate smile, full of the most genuine sympathy. He addressed me in an almost Oxonian English and advised me that it was pointless to pursue my ascent. I found his countenance of such singular distinction and his whole appearance so intriguing that I obeyed, mostly because I wanted to find out more about him. He continued to be just as communicative and confirmed my impression that he was a wandering ascetic and lived on charity. I provoked a discussion on some topics of Vedanta philosophy and the effect was so impressive, the man’s dignity so overpowering that in the end I was simply ashamed to give alms to him. I merely resorted to the most distinguished and heartfelt politeness formulas that could be addressed to a gentleman.

The word „beggar“ has a different meaning in India. Certainly, I am not referring to the youngsters who stalk you insistently as you browse about the bazaars, nor to the cripples that belong to a universal human panopticon but to the countless, apparently millions of individuals who live on people’s charity. The institution of begging is older even than that of the castes and it would seem that Indian society has from its very inception provided for the status of the wandering ascetics, of those individuals who strive to obtain the supreme wisdom or holiness outside the bonds of social obligations. The most elementary treatise on the history of Indian culture is likely to inform that it was from amongst the wandering ascetics that arose the great non-conformist spiritual élites that have contested and indirectly, by means of dialogue, stimulated the thinking of the orthodox élites. Both Carvaka materialism and Yoga, as well as the philosophic and artistic treasures of the Buddhist world, can be said to represent, in a sense, the expression of that spontaneous charity that has accompanied the individual’s striving for perfection, at the risk of fostering at the same time imposture or moral turpitude.

The story and the myth of the Buddha express the Indian meaning of the wandering ascetic’s condition, a condition more privileged than that of sovereign: forgoing his throne for the ascetic’s alms-bowl, Prince Śākyamuni gained enlightenment and the sovereignty of the universe.

One must evoke these consecrated significances in order to understand why nobody chases away or in any way disturbs the pilgrims lying in the shade, wrapped in their sheets, on the marble tombs of the Nizams of Hyderabad.

On the great subcontinent the city is not an important form of life; according to an ancient urbanistic tradition, functionality receives its validation only in relation to cosmologic significances. Even when it tends to become a metropolis, the Indian city preserves the imprint of the archaic community in which the individual communes with nature and his fellow-men in a harmonious union, the indelible mark which neither the aggravation of daily hardships nor the encroaching technology can ever remove. In the Indian cities, you can sometimes perceive a strange beauty, an ambiguous melancholy pathos, that of history under the sway of eternity, a pathos which fills your whole being with longing for this world, but also with longing for the supreme peace.

As I dipped more deeply into the atmosphere of the Indian street and such mixed feelings swept over me, I realized that these feelings weren’t altogether new. Memories of the city of Iași kept springing to my mind but I dared not make the connection which I somehow considered to be too subjectively determined. Sometimes however, through some synchronicity in the manner of Poe, life meets the most profound reveries midway. An Indian artist, who had travelled through Europe and had also visited our country and some of our more important medieval towns, once confessed to me that, of all the cities he had been to, Iași was the only place where he had felt he would have liked to end his days. A troubling and telling choice, bespeaking our deep affinities with India!

Iași is first and foremost the city of Eminescu. The city’s true face is not to be found in the nostalgic and minor lyricism of, let say, Ionel Teodoreanu but in the major melancholy of the philosopher-poet, who also marked our first encounter with the Indian pathos. The ancient princely citadel, surrounded by its charming, rustic slums – history and ahistorical transcendence (unlike the Transylvanian medieval towns which remain pure history) – bears the stamp of that transpersonal and ambiguous pathos which can be equally that of life, of love or of death.

The fear voiced by some people that the Indian world – once desacralized – will not be able to regain its human coordinates, seems ill-founded to me because, unlike other cultures, India’s participation in the sacred values of the Cosmos has had enough time to evolve, along millennia of uninterrupted tradition, into an affective participation, a universal sympathy. I would even venture to say that the great humane messages conveyed by the Indian spirituality – Upaniṣadic or Buddhist – have been engraved in the behavioural traits of the people and seem to have become part of their genetic message.

The kingdom of the dumb creatures gives a mute testimony – and thereby even more convincing that words could express – about the dignity of a humaneness that goes beyond the human. Whoever wants to get more closely acquainted with it has all the great museums at their disposal: the sculptures of the past bespeak the tenderness and the warm fervour informing animal representations in Indian art.

India is now accepting with serenity the ordeal of the technological revolution and does not flinch from the fire of history. In the Bhagavad-gītā (Book XI), Time the Almighty, destroyer of the worlds, is the fire spurting out from Viṣṇu’s mouth. Its flames consume the entire world but at the same time fill it with blazing glory (in Sanskrit the word tejas means „flame“ and also „brilliance“, „glory“). India knows well that Time and History devour but at the same time immortalize, as they bestow an ever-growing light on perennial values.

Published inUncategorized