LOTUSES ON THE SURFACE
Savitrid Devi, Chapter 12 of L'Etang aux lotus (
It is beautiful because mediocrity is rare there, because quality is preserved over quantity, birth over fortune, the highest human values over those one can buy.
[Image: Goddess Lakshmi (Shri) seated atop a lotus floating on the primordial ocean, from which she was born.]
It is not that Indians are, by nature, better than other men; they only have, alongside intellectual aptitudes equal to those of the most gifted peoples, a long spiritual heritage that gives them a priori the capacity to know a whole world of essences, more subtle and vast than that of logical relations, a world that other "intellectual" peoples no longer know. They know how to keep the richness of intuition while acquiring the advantages of reason as much as the others. And this is thanks to that permanent culture of the heart, which is, for them, the Hindu religious atmosphere.
Something of it always remains in the personality, if not in the ideas:
something imponderable, a hidden generosity, an
elegant attitude, even in evil. It is possible that a Hindu, exiled as a
youth and raised, far from India, in a totally different place, becomes worse
than a European -- worse from all points of view, because his nature leads him
to extremes -- but he will never become vulgar. And, without a doubt, there are
It has a pious horror of the artificial equality of men and races, cheap sentimentalism, the vulgarization of precious knowledge, international fashion, and proselytizing religions, in a word, all that contributes, near and far, to creating a standardized human type.
It despises the careerists, the pretentious, the "simplistic," the devotees of "progress," the idolaters of science applied to material success, the idolaters of thought applied to leveling, the weak, people in a hurry. It has the strength of those for whom neither material losses, nor the opinion of the crowd, nor time matter. Somebody said that it takes a thousand years to form a true English "Gentleman." One needs ten thousand to form a Hindu of noble race, representing the most perfect of a humanity that he has surpassed.
Below this elite, there are the increasingly deep levels of the ignorant and miserable masses, apathetic through the force of overwhelming pressure, submissive, silent, unknowable; levels that are stacked, one upon another, until gradually, imperceptibly joining the most primitive of the aborigines of the land of India, bound for a hundred thousand years to their immutable, barely human existence. It is an enormous reservoir of unorganized forces, burning and vague aspirations, oppressive vital concerns, remote cosmic intuitions. It is a burgeoning of increasingly vegetative life, comparable with that of the humid and shady soil of the tropical forest, with the mysterious valleys of the ocean festooned with tangled algae and animated flowers -- with the greenish, teeming bottom of a pond.
The incomparable elite plunges its long roots there.
The elite, which realizes the most stable human equilibrium, not through the tyrannical crushing of fertile animality, the matrix of the world, but through its symbolic stylization, its internal organization -- its sublimation -- resembles the beautiful immaculate lotuses which, their flexible stems intertwined in the nutritive mud, touch the very heart of Mother Earth, while on the quiet surface of the dark water, they open their blue petals to the sun ... its uninterrupted creation seems to be the raison d'ętre of India.
The Hindu elite is not a minority of skilful people; what it is remains always more important than what it does. It is an aristocracy of character, culture, and spirituality. Divine incarnations form a part of it. Hindus whose lives are quite unobtrusive in the world form a part of it too. The most famous are not necessarily the most perfect. Sri Vivékananda said that the greatest yogis are silent. And before the Gautama Buddha, whom five hundred million men revere, there were other Buddhas whose names are not even mentioned in legend.
However, moral beauty and, in a general manner, the value of the person
on planes other than intelligence and action, insufficient though they may be
to make a man a leader, are in India, along with the other qualities required
everywhere, essential conditions of success and popularity. All the great men
Another consequence of the same spirit, essentially Hindu, that shines
in ordinary life is the esteem everyone accords to Brahmins, rich or poor --
and sometimes, alas, regardless of a recognized lack of value. It is not that
one venerates there the man, personally, but the Brahmin, i.e. the elite that
this man is seen to represent. It is that, in principle, the Brahmin is
a spiritual king. He is, in effect, always treated as if he were one. He feels
that nobility carries obligations, and he deserves the honors he is given. It
should be recognized, and on the whole the Brahmins feel it, that there is in
It should be noted, as well, that
It is often said: "India has no history," meaning that the material facts that mark its development are badly dated or are not dated at all and, consequently, difficult to classify chronologically.
It is almost made into a reproach. No one hesitates to blame it on the lack of organization inherent in Oriental civilizations, and to see there, moreover, a proof that India has as great a need as Europe to submit to European methods and swallow its sense of order.
But historical intuition, however little one has, must try to get closer
to the bottom of things. Those aspects of life, without which history would
lack interest, are not of equal importance to all peoples. It is necessary to
It is because, for it, material facts count little. It is the
experience, for which they could be the occasion, that
counts. The experience alone is preserved. What good is it to preserve the memory
of contingent facts? What good to put what is secondary in the foreground? What
good to make enduring what is by nature transitory? The Earth itself changes
form. But experience leads to supreme knowledge, to the knowledge of the
permanent. In a hundred ways, with various expressions and symbols,
For those who sense the soul of a country behind the adventures of its destiny in time, the imposing vision of Indian epics indeed retains, in this respect, priority over the muddled chronologies of princes, Chalukyas or Yadavas -- or Rajputs -- even accounts of the immortal defeats that not only gave the land to the Afghans, Turks, or Mongols, but also sent the gold of successive Empires overseas.
Other peoples have preserved lists of their kings and ruins of their
temples: they have a history. But they lost the tradition of the essential that
To its history even, it does not attach any other importance than that of an individual experience. Land of burgeoning civilization, of complex religion, with innumerable contradictory aspects, society subdivided to infinity, in which there is place for all, it does not see, in any "special case" that is affirmed in the name of its own value, that unjustified exaggeration of a small part that fails in its role by leaving its place.
It is unaware of national fanaticism, considering itself from the point
of view of
It is unaware, by the same token, of the idolatry of Man and all the stupidities and atrocities that accompany it in civilizations flowering under the sign of "science." It inserts Man in the world of the Living. For it, only that which is universal, of a cosmic universality, is really worth the trouble of exalting. And the Individual, the Nation, Man, the Earth, are points of view on this reality and this supreme value which is expressed in each one of them and exceeds them all: Being.
Its scholars -- its sages -- are those who, further and more deeply than discursive intelligence helped by a somewhat unsure intuition can go, see what is universal. "Darshana": vision; it is the Indian name for any philosophy -- science of Being.
Its artists always designed and still design art -- whatever it be -- not as an imitation of the visible, nor as an exaltation of the self, but as the expression of one beauty and one truth, invisible and intangible, impersonal -- essential; of one "universal," grasped directly in what passes.
Its heroes are those who conquered or defended whole kingdoms while remaining detached from their own action.
They reflect it, while retaining irreducible differences of nuance,
attitude, power, in a word, expression -- as the pale lotuses are reflected on
the surface of the water.
But worship of the universal does not mean exaltation of uniformity. Uniformity -- which, unless it is not mere mediocrityy, is always artificial -- is obtained from the outside; the universal is grasped from the inside; its pursuit does not crush individuality but disciplines it, harmonizes it, "stylizes it"; the individual has to be entirely himself while being more than himself.
Whence this truth, which could seem paradoxical to a "romantic": the most universal individualities are the most original. Compare, indeed, the great anonymous epics of the world to the spirited, bitter, indiscrete creation of the poet-politician, drowned, in fact, even in his passion, in the wake of an epoch. Nothing is more irritating than the talkative patriot who badgers the foreigner with the praises of his country, than the singer who delivers to the public the history his love affairs, than all other insatiable lovers of fast and fleeting publicity.
Individuality, personal or national, is very precious; thus
One of the most popular demonstrations of Indian classicism is the
reserve, the discretion so universal from one end of Hindu society to the
other. One can notice without difficulty, in all
Perhaps, for example, a young Indian left for
Meanwhile, no public embraces, no tears, no effusions, no indiscreet display of sentiment. The whole scene remains dignified, as it should be. The deepest emotions are holy things: it would have been equally out of place to make a ridiculous or a touching spectacle for the travelers and porters in the station. Indians have an innate sense of decency in all that touches the heart.
It is very rare, likewise, to find an Indian who speaks a lot about
himself, and impossible to encounter an Indian woman who is not modest in her
purest joys as well as her sorrows. One can quite easily imagine discussions,
confessional free-for-alls, more or less sincere, between European ladies at
tea. There is no equivalent in
One has the general impression that there is much hidden suffering in
Yet such a national elite seems to flower on a background of immense misery; and likewise, on the background of repressed aspirations, disappointed hopes, daily renunciations, hard duties, seems to be sketched, little by little, during the course of years that resemble each other, a higher and wholly interior life -- the true life -- of the individuals that in Europe one would call "average"; the anonymous Indian life: a "classical" work of art if there ever was one.
The Hindu religion is indeed the most aristocratic there is.
It is even one of the reasons, it seems, for why it never took up residence beyond the limits of the Indian world. The religions that are or can appear egalitarian have the widest success. The crowd loves equality.
Hinduism recognizes and sanctions the inequality of men in their birth, as in their indefinite diversity.
It by no means seeks to reduce one or the other; it insists on the contrary. It inserts each man in his place in a complex social network, in principle according to what they are by nature; according to their aptitudes, their degree of evolution; and it exhorts each one, in this place, to give his best. The contents of the "duty," the mode of worship, are not conceived as uniform. The religion seeks to follow the secret intention of Nature, to assist evolution. What counts, for each one, as it is written, is his "svadharma," i.e., in the broad meaning of the word, his own standard -- which does not necessarily mean the standard that is liked by each, but that which is appropriate to him.
The ancient and persistent caste system, so
much decried and badly understood in
But the abuses prove only the stupidity of men. The principles, drawn
from nature itself and formulated by ancient rishis
who lived in supreme wisdom, are no less perfect. Historically, the caste
system did not contribute much to preserving the integrity of Hindu society in
the midst of all the storms of the past. Philosophically, it expresses in an
admirable way, on the social plane, the subtle and manifold genius of the
Indian heart. It is not to be rejected, but to be applied, according to its
original principle, which is natural and eternal, not according to outdated
requirements of ages that are no more. It is to be rehabilitated in the
The spectacle that Hinduism offers, on the outside, is also a consequence of its genius.
The first impression that one who knows nothing of it in advance must have is, it seems, of vast ensemble, inextricable like a jungle, without defined directives, without unity, without general ideas; that of a luxuriant bouquet of beliefs and practices where one finds the oddest, most shocking, and most sublime things -- pell-mell. Those who abstain from any flesh, and even eggs, in the name of the religion: Hindus. Those who offer goats in sacrifice to the Divinity -- in the middle of the Twentieth century! -- Hindus too. Those who, with offerings of flowers and sweets, prostrate themselves before primitive statues, strange symbols of wood or stone, naive images on printed paper: Hindus as well. Those who, without the assistance of any visible symbol, are engulfed -- directly -- in interior contemplation of the Heart of the World: Hindus still!
Nine times out of ten the foreigner, who understands nothing there, does not even try to understand. He criticizes. Criticism is easy and advantageous: it helps the European to feel conscious of his "superiority." (Despite everything, he ought only to converse just once for an hour with a cultivated Hindu, religious in the true sense of the word!)
But not all men have -- fortunately -- the ideas about the superiority
of civilizations of the Europeans installed in
All the manifestations of Hindu piety, including the most crude, are the natural, sincere, and adequate demonstrations of human piety relative to a certain level of awakening of the soul. No one, in principle, has the right to dismiss any; the soul wakes up gradually. True religion cannot be uniform any more than true culture. Only the external organization of worship, rites, material obligations, etc., could be. But why would they be? Why enforce them? True religion would not have anything to gain there, on the contrary.
It is perhaps because of this that
Moreover, who knows? Nothing proves a priori that modern
Land of fertile contrasts,
It contains life: crude, heavy, overflowing, soft, with all its torpor and all its manifold richness; life unorganized, formless, and free, which, with the irresistible slowness of cosmogonic transformations, exalts itself, purifies itself unceasingly -- stylizes itself -- in the unconscious play of its own forcces. It contains its religious thought and its culture, the most rich and the most beautiful at the same time, which have been, in the course of the centuries, colored successively by all the fulgurations of the less and less disciplined tropical imagination; made true by the experience of the sages; made alive by the uninterrupted creation of the artists; made immortal by the unshakeable fidelity of a whole people.
It contains the science and the poetry of the world.
But it is difficult to embrace in an overall view. He who comes into contact, at the same time, with those who are Someone -- the best of the land -- and the very humble ones barely nourishhed by its inexhaustible soil, has the impression of primitive Chaos on which, and in which, Perfection is sought unceasingly.
All countries are microcosms of humanity, but in more or less striking ways. Here, one is struck by the richness and the relief of the tableau, by the value of contrasts. All that the world contains -- the disparate, the tragic, the calm, the inextricable and the plastic, the shadowy and the luminous, spread out over all the continents and the centuries -- India contains today, collected, concentrated, stylized, completely enhanced with its universal meaning, at one moment of time -- currently -- and in an area smaller than little Europe.
There is nothing to add to the truths that it has discovered. Nothing to add, either, to the human value of its most perfect representatives. If beings of flesh and spirit from another planet could desire to know humanity in its most favorable light, it is one of the best Hindus whom the Earth would send as their ambassador. And there is, likewise, down to the most primitive aspects of Indian popular life, nothing to remove that has not, by itself, slowly evolved in beauty.
Hindu India is also, on more than one side, the sister of a particular
Despite everything that separates it, it is incontestably more like contemporary Europe than it is like either yellow Asia, on the one hand, or, on the other hand, the world Islam. But it is not like the West of today that it acts.
The Western pilgrim who vainly seeks in other climes a living vision of his dream stops, often with a shiver of admiration -- and of emotion -- before the rites and pageantry of Hindu temples.
It is as if the whole soul of old, forgotten Europe, pagan and classical
Europe, long since suppressed, were there, immortal, transposed into the
civilization of a hot country. Something here is close to what came to resemble
the processions of ancient
The Hindu religion in its popular expression, as we have seen, is, all things considered, the Greek religion of before Byzantium; it is also all the old Aryan religions of old Europe: religions of the spirit of tribe or city, at the very least, and, in general, of kindness and respect to all beings besides.
One could almost say that ancient
Do not believe it, Cyril! They live in my
Not such as you see them, clothed in vain forms,
Undergoing human passions in the sky,
Adored by the vulgar and despised by the worthy;
But such as seen by sublime spirits;
In starry space they do not reside,
Forces of the Universe, interior Virtues,
Earth and Sky meeting harmoniously ...
Such are my Gods!
It could be, as well, the response of
The most extraordinarily rich and varied popular religion leading to the most humane and rational philosophy: this is what the Hindu society of today, like yesterday, contains.
But India is cultivated.