Andre Malraux meets Nehru, and Discusses Ghandi, the Ramakrishna, and Elephants
Andre Malraux


"I still don't know how Buddhism died," Nehru said, "but I think I have an inkling why. The genius of the Buddha has to do with the fact that he is a man. The originator of one of the most profound systems of thought, in the history of humanity, an inflexible spirit and the most noble compassion. An accuser, vis-à-vis the teeming multitude of the gods. When he became deified, he merged with that multitude, which closed round him."

I thought of the king's path struggle (nearly always omitted from Western versions to insure his son's happiness. Each of the four "encounters" brings out a more and more desperate affection.

    Wishing to keep the prince ignorant of pain and of evil, the king has a wall built round the Palace, pierced by a single door with heavy bars.

When, for the first time, Prince Siddhartha wants to go through the town to see the gardens, the king has scented waters poured on the earth:

    Line the avenues with many-colored lanterns, put urns of clear water at the crossroads!

Nevertheless, the prince discovers old age, and then, the second time he goes, disease. But the king transforms the palace into an enchanted place,

    and the round of pleasure goes on there day and night, and the finest singer sings him the Song of the Forest.

Then Siddhartha goes out for the third time, finds a motionless body, and his equerry tells him,

    Prince, that is what is called a dead man.

I quoted the sentence, and Nehru answered with the one spoken by the king, who has just learned that Siddhartha wishes to leave the world after meeting the aesthetic.

    Abandon this decision, my son, for I must soon leave my kingdom and retire into the solitude of the forests, and you must succeed me.

§     §     §

I remembered how it went on, and Nehru had certainly not forgotten it: after putting on the earth-colored robe the prince goes into the forest, and answers his father's envoy, "A gilded house in flames, such is kingship."

He had quoted, "...and you must succeed me."

And one day he had said to Ostrorog, no doubt in the same tone of voice, "Gandhi had a successor."

"Both of us admire the Buddha," I said, "but we don't pray to him. We don't believe in his divinity. In other words, it's as though our supreme value were Truth, and yet..."

I told him about about Villefranche-de-Rouergue, and my fruitless rereading of St. John.

"It may be Truth is my supreme value," he replied. "I don't know, but I can't do without it. You remember Gandhi's saying, 'I have said that God was truth, and now I say truth is God.'"

"What did be mean by God, in that context? The Vedic rita?"

He said something like 'God is not a person: God is the law.' He said, the immutable law."

"It's the same as Einstein's affirmation: The most extraordinary thing is that the world certainly has a meaning. It remains to be established why that meaning should concern itself with men."

"Certainly. But Gandhi also used to say, I can only look for God in the heart of humanity. And again, I am a seeker after Truth. With us, the identity between the meaning of the world and the meaning of man --- what you would call the soul of the world and the soul of man --- is taken for granted. To the same extent, it seems to me, as Christianity assumes the existence of the soul, and its survival. But do you know that Narayana, who only died in about 1925, had had the images of the gods on the sacrificial stones in the temples replaced by mirrors?"

I did not know this. It struck me as a symbol on a par with the Dance of Death and Gandhi's march to the ocean. The sacrificial tables sunk in the walls were still present in my memory, with their idols barely visible beneath the tuberoses. The divine character of the Madurai statues, like that of the statues in our cathedrals, obviously came from their incorporations in the temple, where the stream of ephemeral men passed by. I imagined my newlyweds before the altar of Shiva, bemusedly contemplating, in the depths of the sacred gloom, their double image merged with the dance of the gods above the avalanche of flowers. I adore thee, 0 God who art only the image of mvself.

Although this sadly smiling head of state, more gentleman than British, did not merge with India as Gandhi had done, he was India; although there remained an enigmatic distance between India and him, although he did not believe in the divinity of the Ganges, he carried the Ganges in his heart. He had the reputation of being an intellectual (and was), because he had written a great deal. But his speeches belonged to the realm of action; his memories, a few family memories aside, were memories of stubborn action. He admired originality of thought, and saluted it with a passing smile, as a lover of painting might have saluted a fine picture. But intellectuals enjoy such originality for its own sake; I believe that Nehru enjoyed it only when it was linked to action.

"I don't think I'm interested in religion in a fundamental way. Only in its relation to ethics."

"Only India," I said, citing a familiar thesis, "has made religious philosophy the essential and intelligible basis of its popular culture and of its national government."

"Gandhi's India is genuinely based on an ethic; perhaps more so, in some respects, than the West is based on Christian morality. But remember an odd saying of Gandhi's: India must eventually have a true religion."

The basis of the West was individualism; an individualism which was at the same time the crucifix and the atomic reactor.

I had earlier come across the uneasiness of Buddhists in face of the crucifix ("Why do they worship a man being tortured?") and the ambivalence of India in face of the machine: Gandhi's spinning wheels revolved in houses a stone's throw from reactors as threatening as the last incarnation of Shiva. India has adopted Christ as it adopts all the other gods, and readily sees in him an avatar (avatar signifying descent, incarnation). But Christ took on a startling aspect here.

One can see in original sin the source of a universal maya, and in heredity a karma in which the Westerner inherits the ills of his parents as the Hindu suffers the consequences of his past lives; but transmigration is always a suspended sentence, while the Christian plays out his fate once and for all. The atheist too.

Europe has conceived of Indian transmigration as being similar to that which makes a Christian one of the elect or one of the damned, but the damned in this case do not even know that they were once men. In spite of sin, in spite of the devil, in spite of the absurd, in spite of the unconscious, the European thinks of himself as acting, in a world in which change is value, in which progress is conquest, in which destiny is history. The Hindu thinks of himself as acted upon, in a world of commemorations.

The West regards as truth what the Hindu regards as appearance (for if human life, in the age of Christendom, was doubtless an ordeal it was certainly truth and not illusion), and the Westerner can regard knowledge of the the universe as the supreme value, while for the Hindu the supreme value is accession to the divine Absolute. But the most profound difference is based on the fact that the fundamental reality for the West, Christian or athiest, is death, in whatever sense it may be interpreted --- while the fundamental reality for India is the endlessness of life in the endlessness of time: Who can kill immortality?

§     §     §

On top of a bookshelf, there was a large drawing by Le Corbusier: the palace of Chandigarh, surmounted by the, immense Hand of Peace, looking like a cross between an emblem and a giant weathervane; and a model of the Hand, in bronze, about eighteen inches long.

Le Corbusier set great store by it. Nehru, not so much. Le Corbusier had taken me round Chandigarh and had shown me the unfinished building which he had designed down to the wallpaper. In the main square, files of men and women were climbing the inclined planes, like the bowmen of Persepolis, with baskets of cement on their heads. Here, the Assembly! he had said to me briskly, waving his hand toward the distant Pamirs where a solitary goat was passing by. And here (he pointed to the roof of the law courts), the Hand of Peace!

I thought of the glovemaker's sign in Bône, the enormous hand I had seen watching over the town like the sign of life rediscovered; and I looked at the bronze hand with its lines of fate-perhaps the fate of India.

On the occasion of my departure, Nehru came to dine at our embassy. France was about to create a Ministry of Cultural Affairs; he was investigating the creation of a similar institution, and was anxious to know what we had in mind --- in particular, how we conceived of the problems subsumed under so vague a word as culture, for they seemed to him very different "according to whether he thought of Shakespeare or the Ramayana." Ostrorog was the only ambassador in Delhi, capable of providing a gastronome's dinner. I remember a pâté garnished with hibiscus, a conversation about Japan, and Nehru saying, "Japan has many reasons to be sad, and elephants are almost unknown there, I don't know why. So in order to revive the smiles of yesterday, I wanted to take an elephant with me. But I was prevented from doing so."


--- from Anti-Memoirs
© 1968 Henry Holt

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