Friday, December 11, 2009

Romain Rolland: The Way of the East, The Way of the West

Reading The Life of Ramakrishna by Romain Rolland this morning, I came across a beautiful passage which I felt I should share with my readers. For those who are not familiar with Romain Rolland, he is a Frenchman and a Nobel Prize winner for literature, whose magnum opus is the giant Jean Christophe, acknowledged as one of the greatest works of modern literature. Rolland’s original book on Sri Ramakrishna is in French and what is given below is from an English translation by E. F. Malcolm-Smith, Ph.D.


“The age-long history of the spirit of India is the history of a countless throng marching ever to the conquest of supreme Reality. All the great peoples of the world, wittingly or unwittingly, have the same fundamental aim; they belong to the conquerors, who age by age go up to assault the Reality of which they form a part, and which lures them on the strive and climb; sometimes they fall out exhausted, then with recovered breath they mount undaunted until they have conquered or been overcome. But each one does not see the same face of Reality. It is like a great fortified city, beleaguered on different sides by different armies, who are not in alliance. Each army has its own tactics and weapons to solve its own problems of attack and assault. Our western races storm the bastions, the outer works. They desire to overcome the physical forces of Nature, to make her laws their own, so that they may construct weapons therefrom for gaining the inner citadel, and forcing the whole fortress to capitulate.

“India proceeds along different lines. She goes straight to the centre, to the Commander-in-Chief of the unseen General Headquarters, for the Reality she seeks is transcendental. But let us be careful not to put Western ‘realism’ in opposition to Indian ‘idealism’. Both are ‘realisms’. Indians are essentially realists in that they are not easily contented with abstractions, and that they attain their deal by the self-chosen means of enjoyment and sensual possession. They must see, hear, taste, and touch ideas. Both in sensual richness and in their extraordinary imaginative power they are far in advance of the west.

“How then can we reject their evidence in the name of Western reason? Reason, in our eyes, is an impersonal and objective path open to all men. But is reason really objective? To what degree is it true in particular instances? Has it no personal limits? Again, has it been carefully noted that the ‘realizations’ of the Hindu mind, which seem to us ultra-subjective, are nothing of the kind in India, where they are the logical result of scientific methods and of careful experiment, tested throughout the centuries and duly recorded? Each great religious visionary is able to show his disciples the way by which without a shadow of doubt they too may attain the slave visions. Surely both methods, the Eastern and the Western, merit an almost equal measure of scientific doubt and provisional trust.”


What Romain Rolland says is no more than the truth. Yet it is fascinating to watch a man like Romain Rolland seeing so clearly this truth about Indian that vast sections of us Indians miss ourselves.

To appreciate fully the magnitude of Rolland’s perception, we must remember that his words were written when India was a slave nation to the West, a colony of the British. It indeed needs great perceptiveness on the part of a Westerner to see this and great courage to say this about a slave nation.


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