Throes of a vertigo

Sylvan Levi (1863-1935), the French indologist visited Kathmandu Valley – then capital of a truly forbidden kingdom at turn of century, seeking long-lost Buddhist texts that may have been preserved in mountain isolation. He wrote a three volume report and memoir, Le Nepal: Etude historique d'un royaume hindou (1905-1908), based on his trip. The unpublished manuscript of the work's flamboyant English translation will be published by Himal Books in 1999. We print here an excerpt from Levi's work, where he discusses the Subcontinents lack of history in general, and then highlights the 'countries' of Ceylon, Cashmere and Nepal and how they differ from 'India'.

India , in her Whole, is a world without history: she created herself, gods, doctrines, laws, sciences, arts, but she has not divulged the secret of their formation or of their metamorphosis. One must be well initiated in Indian ways to know at the expense of what patient toil, the learned men of Europe have established far distant connecting links in the obscurity of an almost impenetrable past; what strange combinations of heteroclitic date have enabled to edify a tottering chronology, even now thoroughly incomplete.

Civilised nations have preoccupied themselves in general, by conveying a durable remembrance to posterity; organised in community, they have directly extended to the group the instinctive sentiments of the individual. They have desired to decipher the mystery of their origin and to survive in the future. The priests, the poets, the erudites have offered themselves to this very powerful need. The Chinese have their annals, as the Greek have Herodote and the Jews their Bible. India has nothing.

The exception is so singular that it has, at the very outset, caused surprise and given rise to interpretations. One has especially alleged as a decisive argument, the transcendental indifference of the Hindu feeling penetrated by universal vanity, the Hindu surveys with superb disdain the illusive course of phenomena; to better humble the human smallness, his legends and his cosmogonies drown the years and the centuries into incommensurable periods that involve the imagination in the throes of a vertigo. The sentiment is exact; but in India as elsewhere, the highest doctrines have had to adapt themselves to the incurable failings of humanity. The commemorative inscriptions and panegyrics carved out of stone that are strewn over India, prove that from an early date, kings and other distinguished individuals have safeguarded themselves against being forgotten. The long and pompous genealogies that frequently serve as a preliminary to royal deeds even show that the chanceries were setting up in their archives an official history of the dynasty. But the political administration of India condemned these crude materials as they were most likely to disappear and with fatal results. If contented peoples had no history, then anarchy also had none, and India had exhausted herself in perpetual anarchy. Foreign invasions and internal rivalry have never ceased to overthrow the order of things.

Sometimes, at long intervals, a genius would rise and knead in his strong hands the amorphous mass of kingdoms and principalities, and make of India an empire, but the work perished with the workman; the empire gets dislocated and self-made soldiery proceeds in the work of her dismemberment into states of lesser importance. Too large to adapt herself to a monarchy, India is wanting in natural divisions that would assure her of a stable partition; hegemony wanders haphazardly over the stretch of this vast territory and travels from the Indus to the Ganges, from the Ganges to the Deccan. Capitals spring up, shine with effulgence and go out; marts, warehouses and sea-ports of the day before, are deserted, empty and forgotten on the morrow.

From time to time a surge passes over this upheaval and gradually breaks all in its fall. Alexander enters the Punjab and the distant Ganges shakes off the yoke of its powerful rulers; the English land on the coast and the Mogal empire is shaken. India which is imagined as ordinarily absorbed in her marvellous dream and separated from the rest of the world, is in reality a vulgar prey on which rushed the cupidity of the fascinated universe. The Vedic Aryans, the Persians under Darius, then the Greeks and Scythians, and the Huns, and the Arabs, and the Afghans, and the Turks, and the Mogals, and the Europeans unchained in emulation; Portuguese, Dutch, French, English; the history of India is almost totally blended with the history of her conquerors.

If India, by the abuse of her instability, was condemned to be deprived of a political history, she could at least have acquired a religious one. Buddhism nearly gave her that one. Born from a vigorous personality which a mythical disguise could not effectively mask, propagated by a succession of patriarchs, regulated by councils, patronised by illustrious sovereigns, the Church of Buddha reminds herself of the stages of her growing greatness; having appeared and having been published in the course of time, she did not hope for a stunning eternity. She fixed her duration to a definite period and eager to lead men to salvation, she measured with sadness, centuries travelled over, and centuries still open before her.

The Buddhist priests, solitary in their convents, contemplated, without doubt, the storms of the world, alike deceiving mirages of universal nothingness; however, as members of a community and answerable for its interest, they carefully kept the register of donations and of privileges granted by the favour of kings. The church had her annals; the convent had her diary. But a sweeping tempest swept away Buddhism, the monasteries and the monks together with their literature and traditions. Left alone and face to face with invading Islam, opposed to the fanaticism of the conqueror, the resources of his indiscernible suppleness;  he disdained history which contradicted his ideals and gainsaid his beliefs, he created himself heroes to suit his taste and sheltered with them in the past of legends.

Three countries only have cherished the memory of their real past; due South, Ceylon, surrounded by the sea, due North, Cashmere, and Nepal in the mountains. All three have a common character in contrast with India: nature has traced them a well-defined horizon, that the eye can compass without being able to overcome. Separated from India, they can never mingle with her, and pursue their destinies by themselves, surrounded by a fatal circle.

Ceylon, ancient and always flourishing metropolis of Buddhism, grew proud of a continuous chronicle which covers over 2000 years; from the time that the son of Emperor Asoka came to erect the first monastery, about 250 before the Christian era, his monks have not ceased to range methodically in didactic poetry, the annals of the Singhalese Church. Their exactitude submitted to the control of Greeks and Chinese has succeeded brilliantly in the double test. But Ceylon is a little world set apart; her politics, which sometimes express the truth, separates, even today, Ceylon from the Empire, Anglo-Indian, to reconnect her immediately to the British crown. The peninsula belongs to Rama, the hero of the Brahmins; but the island, subdued by his weapons for a short time, nevertheless remains to his antagonist, the demon Ravana. The maritime routes of the East that open out like a fan around her, have poured in all the races of the world, Arabs, Persians, Malay and African negroes and white men from Europe and yellow men from China. India stretches towards her almost to touching point, but what an India! Dark India, Dravid-ian India, where Brahminism has always had to divide the empire with the indigenous religions, with Buddhism, with Islam, with the Christians under Saint Thomas, with the Jesuits under Madoure. Ceylon is an annexation of India, she is not a province, less even a reduced image.

Cashmere, which is inland, acts like a pendant to the great island. The mountains surround her but do not imprison her. Passable defiles connect her with Tibet at Kashgar, at the valleys of Pamir; accessible passes slope down to the Punjab, towards this historical threshold of India, where all the invaders have had to pitch their first battle. Ceylon is advanced sentinel at the crossways of the Indian ocean, Cashmere penetrates like an angle under the pressure of India, to the very heart of Asia. But, welded to India, she shares her destinies; conquered, like her, by the Turks of Kaniska, and the Hunds of Mihira Kula, she pursues like her, a period of splendour and of might between the Vlth and the Xth century, then, exhausted by her struggles against the barbarians of the West, she succumbs to the efforts of Islam. A chronicle composed in the Xlth century, alone reminds one today, of the glories of the past; but it has sufficed to make these immortal. The Sanskrit literature that the kings of Cashmere had protected and often even studied has worthily repaid their good offices; the Raja-tarangini of the poet Kalahana has saved their names and exploits from oblivion. Others have wished later on, to take up the threads again, and pursue the work of Kalahana; but the interest of the subject had vanished. Cashmere has escaped the Hindu genius and was no more but an obscure annexation of Mohameddan India.

Nepal had a history, alike Cashmere and Ceylon, her history is a very modest one. Entrenched between her glaciers and her impenetrable forests, isolated like an undefined dominion between Hindustan and Tibet, she has never known the refined civilisation of Cashmerean courts, or the opulent activity of the great Buddhistic island. Her annals do not remind one either of Mahavamsa paii, or of the Sanskrit Raja-tarangini; their very shape betray their contrast; they consist in dynastic lists (Vamsavalis) combined with the lists of endowments and royal donations; the compilers who have gathered and founded them have not attempted to raise them above to the dignity of a literary work. The usual language sufficed them, they had chosen to speak in the half-Tibetian of the Newars or the Aryan dialect of Hinduised Nepalese. Their narratives, poor and usually meagre, dwell, with complaisance, only on miracles and prodigies. It only swells into details at the mythical period and at the modern period. The strength of recent souvenirs only is able to withstand the dazzling brilliancy of a legendary past. Heroes and gods cradled by popular belief move from century to century, always truer and more real, proportionate, as each generation gives it, its soul and its faith. One sees them, one feels them everywhere present; man is the blind instrument of their wills and caprices.

The revolution of 1768 which gave Nepal to the Ghurkhas is only, to the chroniclers, but the sequel of a treaty first arranged in heaven. History propagated in this way is reduced to a pious epic, mounted on an apparatus of suspicious chronology. Science, happily has at its disposal other ways to control and complete the tradition. The epigraphy already substantial and which dates back from the Vth century; the ancient manuscripts, numerous in Nepal where the climate has better preserved them than in India; the literature of local origin; the narrations of pilgrims and of Chinese envoys, the informations taken from history and from the Indian literature, in short the enquiries gathered by European travellers, since the XVIIth century. All these documents of various ages, origins, languages, sentiments, once compared, criticised and coordinated, make up a harmonious setting where the attention can easily encompass the destinies of an Asiatic tribe, subdued by contact with India during a period of duration of at least 20 centuries.

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