India: A Wounded Civilization

R. K. Narayan
R. K. Narayan; drawing by David Levine


Sometimes old India, the old, eternal India many Indians like to talk about, does seem just to go on. During the last war some British soldiers, who were training in chemical warfare, were stationed in the far south of the country, near a thousand-year-old Hindu temple. The temple had a pet crocodile. The soldiers, understandably, shot the crocodile. They also in some way—perhaps by their presence alone—defiled the temple. Soon, however, the soldiers went away, and the British left India altogether. Now, more than thirty years after that defilement, and in another season of emergency, the temple has been renovated and a new statue of the temple deity is being installed.

Until they are given life and invested with power, such statues are only objects in an image-maker’s yard, their value depending on size, material, and the carver’s skill. Hindu idols or images come from the old world; they embody difficult and sometimes sublime concepts, and they have to be made according to certain rules. There can be no development now in Hindu iconography, though the images these days, under the influence of the Indian cinema and cinema posters, are less abstract than their ancient originals, and more humanly pretty and doll-like. They stand lifeless in every way in the image-maker’s showroom. Granite and marble—and an occasional commissioned bust of someone like a local inspector of police, with perhaps a real spectacle-frame over his blank marble eyes—suggest at first the graveyard, and a people in love with death. But this showroom is a kind of limbo, with each image awaiting the life and divinity that will come to it with purchase and devotion, each image already minutely flawed, so that its divine life, when it comes, shall not be terrible and overwhelming.

Life, then, has to be given to the new image in the once defiled temple. A special effort has to be made. And the method being used is one of the most archaic in the world. It takes us back to the beginning of religion and human wonder. It is the method of the word: in the beginning was the word. A twelve-lettered mantra will be chanted and written fifty million times; and that is what—in this time of Emergency, with the constitution suspended, the press censored—5,000 volunteers are doing. When the job is completed, an inscribed gold plate will be placed below the new idol, to attest to the creation of its divinity and the devotion of the volunteers. A thousand-year-old temple will live again: India, Hindu India, is eternal: conquests and defilements are but instants in time.

About 200 miles away, still in the south, on a brown plateau of rock and gigantic boulders, are the ruins of the capital city of what was once the great Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar. Vijayanagar—vijaya, victory, nagar, city—was established in the fourteenth century; it was conquered, and totally…

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