India (part V)

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The Occident of the Middle Ages, the Occident of the fortresses and the Romanesque buildings, is certainly less out of place in the hierarchical India of the north than in the democratic India of the south. In one place as in the other, the abstraction descends from the dominating classes to crush the miserable classes beneath the petrified symbol of its external power. But the Hellenic Occident where, on the contrary, the abstraction rose from the masses to express its inner power through the voice of the heroes—the Hellenic Occident and also the Gothic Occident would more easily recognize the trace of their dream if they followed the torrent of ideas that crossed the mountains, the swamps, the virgin forests, and the sea, to spread to the peninsula of Indo-China, to the Dutch Indies, and to Java. The spread of Indian ideas is witnessed in the gigantic temples that cover Java; it is seen even more in the fortresses, the palaces, and the temples absorbed little by little by the jungles of Cambodia, the home of the mysterious race of the Khmers. They lived in a country less overwhelming than India, for, despite the denseness of the forests, the undergrowth was certainly less redoubtable, the fruits were more abundant, the rivers more full of fish, and life was easier and freer. Moreover, the metaphysical and moral life of China had come to give something of its peace to the troubled and heavy atmosphere of tropical nature. Finally, five or six hundred years after the disappearance of Buddhism from Hindustan, perhaps about the tenth century of our era, the Khmer people were still Buddhists, as were the people of Java. Among the latter the decorative sculpture of eastern Asia, sending forth one of its most heavily laden branches, causes the monuments of Java to blossom from top to bottom with bas-reliefs as mobile as paintings. The moral epic of Buddha unrolls in them amid perfumed forests crowded with fruit, with birds, and with beasts, among choruses and musicians who furnish accompaniment to the nonchalant and lascivious grace of the women that pray and dance and people the intoxicated sleep of the god with abundant dreams. But the Khmer people, in its Buddhism, betokened a preoccupation with moral balance and with harmony that is practically unknown to the sculptors of the grottos of Ellora and of the pyramidal temples.

The orgy of ornament, to be sure, never went farther. This was a necessary result of the still denser, more flowery, and more populous forests of the country, of the humidity which is warmer, and of the fever which is more intoxicating. But the ornament obeys a splendidly balanced rhythm. Twining lines of flowers, of fruits, of vines, of palms, and rich plants creep over the walls from top to bottom, over the sloping surfaces, over the tops of the doors, and up to the summit of the four sides of the high tiaras of Brahma which here replace the Indo-Persian cupola and the Dravidian pyramid; but the decorative forms marry so well with the line of the architecture that they lighten it and seem to lift it to an aerial level of leaves, of winding stems, of hanging foliage that together form a silent, whirling rain of petals and perfumes.

The Khmer sculptor gives a form to all those things which, as a rule, strike our inner sensibility only through what we hear, what we taste, and what we feel. His carving tells of the murmurs, the gleams, and the odors of the forest, the cadenced sound of marching troops, low tones of birds that coo their love song, the hoarse, dull rattle in the throats of wild beasts as they roam through the jungles, and the invisible fluid that circulates in the nerves of the women who dance when the music drones and when voluptuous feeling mounts in their veins. The secret heart of the world beats, tumultuously and regularly, in the crowds that pass under impenetrable branches, whether they sing all together or prepare for massacres or the feast, for death, for justice, or for the building of palaces. And yet, in that inner order which gives these sculptural symphonies so much rhythmical strength, everything interpenetrated without a break. The transmigration of the thinkers of India causes the rock itself to quiver. Animal forms and vegetable forms pass one into the other, vines blossom into figures; reptiles, feet, and hands sprout and become lotus flowers. What matter? The luxuriant universe is good, since the divine countenance of him who consoles appears behind every leaf, since he loved everything, down to the snakes themselves. The heroes, the elephants, and the tigers that guard the temples or border the avenues, the immense cobras with seven heads stretched out, that frame the pediments or creep along the balustrades, have an indulgent visage and a welcoming smile, despite their clubs, their claws, and their teeth. Buddha is all love. The forces of the earth have penetrated him to spread humanity throughout his being. And so, on the highest branch of black trees, full of poisonous juices and swarming from roots to leaves with beasts that distil death, there is a flower.

The story of Sakyamuni, from his birth to his sleep in Nirvana, flowers on the walls of the sanctuaries. The Khmer sculptor grows tender over the god man of the Orient even as, at about the same time, the Gothic artisan grows tender as he recounts the birth and passion of the god man of the Occident. Everywhere we find smiles of goodness, everywhere open arms, heads inclining on friendly shoulders, hands clasping gently, and the ingenuous impulse toward abandon and confidence. Man is everywhere in search of man. The spirit of evil, Ravana, with the hundred hands from which plants and grasses are born, whose feet traverse forests peopled with animals— the spirit of evil may come upon the scene, innumerable figures of men may struggle under avalanches of flowers, like the spirit besieged by the seductions of the earth. What matter? Against backgrounds of heavy trees, armies march. Rama advances across forests. Man will end by attaining, were it only for a moment, the accord between his social life and his most tyrannical instincts. Neither bestiality nor asceticism. Not only are the heroes of the will surrounded by friendly flowers and the fruits they may easily pluck from the branches that bend over their passing, but there are even garlands of naked bayaderes who await them at the end of their road, each one different and all the same, dancing yet almost motionless, as they mark the rhythm of the music that one guesses, the inner pulsation of the wave that runs through them. For the second time since the origin of man, intellectual effort and the joy of the senses seem to agree for the space of an hour. Furtive, no doubt, and more summary, but also fuller, more musical, more clogged with matter, heavier laden, and moving against a background of trees and flowers, the modeling of Greece seems to suggest itself here and there.

Thus, eternally balanced between its heroism and its sensuality, passing at every moment and without transition from the extreme of moral love to the extreme of material intoxication, from the highest aristocracy of culture to the most impulsive satisfactions of instinct, the Indian soul wanders across living forests of sentiment and system in search of the law. In its ensemble, and in spite of its oases of hope and of cool sentiment, it is pessimistic and cruel. The men of India have no more need to inflict pain or death than other men. They are of the true human clay; they are kneaded with weakness, they are armored with iron and gold, they are swept along to love at one moment, to death at another, according as the air they breathe brings them the odor of the trees, of the oceans, or of the deserts. In every case, here as elsewhere, the loftiest energy and brute matter wed constantly. The manifestations of instinct, which is hurled with all its strength into the immensity of life, arouse the loftiest sentiment of superior natures. If, after much suffering, the Indian sages rise above good and evil to gain indifference, it is because the crowd, in India, had plunged into the intoxication or the horror of life without knowing either good or evil.

As balance, for them, could be realized only at brief moments in the average life of society, they sought it outside the conditions of that society, in the bosom of an immeasurable harmony, where life and death, whose origins and ends we do not know, mingle their equal powers and know no other limits than themselves. Let life, then, exhaust itself with living until death comes! Let death, in its putrefaction, cause life to flower and reflower! Why should one try to infuse the energies of nature into the harmony of consciousness? Disciplined for a moment, the energies of nature will take the upper hand again, and once more will roll the will and the hopes of man into the confused intoxication of their regenerated youth.

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