India: A Wounded Civilization

by V.S. Naipaul
(Knopf; $7.95)

V.S. Naipaul is one of the masters of the contemporary novel. He knows how to tell a story and how to describe characters, and he has a wonderful command of the power and the subtlety of the English language. He also has a uniquely cosmopolitan scope, which is hardly surprising in view of his background and biography. Of Hindu antecedents, born and raised in Trinidad, now living in England, Naipaul moves with ease from one culture to another, seemingly at home everywhere and yet always retaining the critical distance of the stranger. And then there is something else, perhaps best described as his surgical eye. Naipaul's vision of the world and of people is harsh, precise, even merciless. All these qualities were amply illustrated in his latest novel, Guerrillas (published in this country in 1975), a complex and harrowing story about cultural disintegration and political violence in an imaginary Caribbean country. Now Naipaul has come out with a non-fiction work that had been anticipated for some time, a book of reminiscences and reflections about his ancestral homeland (which he only came to know as an adult). It is a fascinating book, also a disturbing one, and it raises questions that go beyond the validity of its particular interpretation of India.

India, as Naipaul sees it, is a civilization that has come to be profoundly marked by defeat. The book begins with an account of the desecration of a Hindu temple by British soldiers, and for a while it seems that the defeat perceived by Naipaul is simply the result of many centuries of foreign domination, not only that of the British Raj but of the long period of Muslim rule before that. Naipaul does not have much to say about the Muslims, but he is second to none in his contempt for the racial and cultural arrogance of British colonialism. Readers of his earlier works (certainly of Guerriilas) will know, however, that Naipaul is no purveyor of fashionable third world ideology. And, sure enough, as the hook unfolds it becomes clear that the wound perceived by Naipaul is much deeper than the injuries inflicted by alien conquerors. In the end the wound is seen to be self-inflicted: India is a defeated civilization because it is a civilization shaped by Hinduism.

I hasten to add that Naipaul never says this in so many words—perhaps because he does not want to say it, perhaps (which would be more interesting) because he does not see this as the necessary implication of his own interpretation. But the implication is unavoidable. Hindu civilization, Naipaul tells us, provided for its people a world in equilibrium, in which human life as a whole and each of its details was uniquely ordered. This, of course, has been a recurrent view of India—for instance, by Max Weber, who saw it as the most completely ordered culture in human history, or more recently by Louis Dumont, who interpreted it as the perfect expression of homo hierarchicus, the most complete antithesis to modern ideals of liberty and equality. The world of Hinduism, then, is a world of pervasive stability. The paradox, as Naipaul sees it, is that this very stability cannot withstand change. Once the equilibrium is disturbed, as it was by the foreign conquerors, it is either shattered or it becomes petrified in immobility. The petrification is an act of panic, a desperate retreat from confronting the forces of change and the chaos of a loss of self. This is why, according to Naipaul, hysteria is always close to the surface in India.

Naipaul returns to this interpretation repeatedly throughout the book—in reporting casual conversations with Indians from various walks of life, in analyzing contemporary Indian novels. In a long and sharply critical discussion of Gandhian ideology (Naipaul shows respect for Gandhi himself, though he will certainly offend the Mahatma's admirers; he has only scorn for the current utilization of Ghandianism in Indian politics). The final ramifications of this interpretation come out most clearly in a chapter entitled "A Defect of Vision," which consists of an intriguing juxtaposition of Gandhi's biography and a recent novel, by U.R. Anantamurti, of the collapse into despair of a Brahmin religious leader. Naipaul approvingly quotes the views of Sudhir Kakar, a New Delhi psychotherapist. According to Kakar, the Indian ego is "underdeveloped": "The world of magic and animistic ways of thinking lie close to the surface. . . . There seems to be a different relationship to outside reality, compared to one met with in the West." Kakar understands this relationship to reality as being regressive, close to childhood; because of it, the Indian's grasp of reality is supposed to be "relatively tenuous." To hold the world together, therefore, the Indian needs the ordering forces of caste and clan, of the minute ritualization of everyday life. This world, though, is always threatened; hence the overriding Indian concern becomes the protection of the self in a universe of chaotic change Kakar tells us: "We Indians use the outside reality to preserve the continuity of the self amidst an ever changing flux of outer events and things." This, it now appears, is the deepest wound from which, as Naipaul sees it, Indian civilization suffers. To recover from it, Indians will have to liberate themselves from their deep-rooted "defect of vision" and acquire that sense of "human possibility" (Naipaul's term) which allows individuals to act decisively in history.

Leaving aside Kakar's quasi-Freudian theorizing (it is hard to understand why this impressed Naipaul), what is being said here is really quite simple: the West has a better, more "developed," relationship to reality; India will never be cured of its ancient wound, unless it succeeds in making this Western reality its own. Now, I want to be meticulously fair here: The statement just made is mine, not Naipaul's, not Kakar's. All the same, it is, I think, the ineluctable conclusion to Naipaul's argument. One may also leave aside here the strange irony of a passionately anti-colonialist writer perceiving India in a way that would have been congenial to the most self-assured ethnocentrics of Victorian England. One should rather turn to the essential questions: What are the presuppositions of this vision of India? And are they viable?

It seems that visitors to India typically react to it vehemently; the vehemence may be positive or negative. I have not been to India, and I cannot predict what my own reaction would be. I'm fairly certain, though, that 1 could not so readily presuppose the self-evident superiority of the Western view of reality, self and history. At the very least, such superiority would have to be argued, not presupposed. If I may put it sharply, the fundamental presupposition of Naipaul's vision of India is that the worldview of the Upanishads is false. For this is where, finally, the peculiarity of the Indian relationship to reality must be placed—in its fundamental religious perceptions, which are indeed diametrically opposed to those perceptions (Hellenic as well as Israelite) that have shaped the worldview of the West. These religious perceptions have nothing to do with defeat and conquest. They antedate, by centuries if not millenia, the coming to India of Islam, of the British, and of the corrosive forces of modernity. The "tenuousness” of reality in the Indian mind is not to be explained by the psychology of a defeated people. It is, rather, the result of a distinctive, at its greatest moments a breathtaking, understanding of the human condition. By contrast with it, to be sure, our Western reality is seemingly nontenuous, devoid of mystery and of the intervention by "magical" powers, and therefore malleable, conducive to the making of history. But can we be so cooly certain that we are right and that they are wrong? Are the Upanishads so clearly "underdeveloped?" And if one wants to take a moral rather than an epistemological line: Have we done so well with our history-making?

By chance I read Naipaul's book right after the new translation by Robert Thurman of The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti, one of the great works of Mahayana Buddhism in India. It is an exceedingly difficult book for a Westerner to read, with its vistas of interpenetrating universes, of myriads of Boddhisatvas, of "inconceivable liberations." Thurman, in his introduction, is perhaps overly optimistic when he tells the Western reader: "Our imaginative visualization of the mental pictures created by the descriptions of the buddha-fields and by the distortions of dimensions, distances, times and spaces will contribute to our sensitivity to the profound and subtle implications of Vimalakirti's eloquent teaching, that we may be so fortunate to come to bear the great lion's roar of his profound silence." But it is not too optimistic to hope that contact with the cosmological imagination of the Indian mind will preclude its categorization as "underdeveloped" (and in psychoanalytic jargon to boot). Minimally, one would hope there will be respect for a view of the universe so utterly different from our own.

Westerners encountering India (and, mutatis mutandis, other non-Western civilizations) tend to alternate between revulsion and adulation, between a mindless sense of modern superiority and an equally mindless conversion to anti-modern romanticism. Naipaul has made a great contribution, in this book as elsewhere, to the repudiation of the latter aberration (in this, incidentally, he is very close to Ruth Jhabvala, another novelist who, with great subtlety, manifests the impact of India on a Western sensibility). It is a pity that, when it comes to a critical view of modern reality, Naipaul reveals an all too common "defect of vision." It is a pity precisely because of Naipaul's outstanding gifts of crosscultural empathy. I believe that the great confrontation between the world civilizations (and this also means the confrontation between the world religions) has barely begun. This confrontation is an urgent task, if the human race is not to have imposed upon itself a dreadful sameness of vision, in a global pseudo-civilization dictated by economics and politics. Such a task will indeed require a surgical eye, but also a humble ear, with the capacity to listen to the roaring of strange lions.

This article originally ran in the July 9, 1977 issue of the magazine