India as Object of Mircea Eliade’s Gaze

Sonia Elvireanu, Centre for the Research of the Imaginary, Alba Iulia, Romania


Exotism is one of the blue prints of European literature in the 20th century, says Jean-Marc Moura in La littérature des lointains. Histoire de l’exotisme européen au XXe siècle. (Moura 1). He defines this desire of the other as “the totality of Europe’s debt to other cultures” (Halen: web). Thereby he acknowledges the permanent change of Europe’s literary map though the integration of other cultures. Exotism equals a favourable or desirous perception of alteriy. This paper sets exotism in polarity to access to India as to an imagined community, pointing to orientalist Mircea Eliade, historian of religions, as an example in point.

[Key Words : Mircea Eliade, colonial India, Memoirs, Erotic Mystic]


Pierre Halen distinguishes three types of alterity in which the West is grounded: Roman, Greek, and Bzyantine. To them Jean-Marc Moura adds a fourth, which was generated by colonial imperialism, taking the form of « ekphrastic exotism », whereby he understands the ”description of an alien art work, real or imaginary, in a piece of fiction” (Halen: web).

The founding of European colonies in India, by Portugal, England, the Netherlands spawned a rich harvest of exotic literature, especially in English and French, which included : Edward Morgan Forster (A Passage to India), Rudyard Kipling (Kim), Paul Scott (The Jewel in the Crown, The Day of the Scorpion , The Towers of Silence, A Division of the Spoils, Pierre Lotti (L’Inde sans les anglais), André Chevrillon (Dans l’Inde, Sanctuaires et Paysages d’Asie), Romain Rolland (Gandhi), André Malraux (Antimémoires), Marguerite Duras (Le Vice-consul, India Song), Catherine Clément (La Reine des cipayes), Alexandra David-Néel (L’Inde où j’ai vécu). Famous are also American Louis Bromfield (Night in Bombay, The Rains Came), Italian Pier Paolo Pasolini (L’odore dell’India), Alberto Moravia (Un’idea dell’India), and German Hermann Hesse (Carnets indiens, Siddharta). Fascination with India took Romanian Mircea Eliade on a three-year journey to initiation in Orientalistics. It ascended from exterior initiation (the discovery of the unknown Oriental space), through affective intiation (revelation of love as the royal way to the absolute), to anagogic initiation (philosophy, theology, yoga).

Mircea Eliade and India

Mircea Eliade’s presence in India is not related to the traveller’s or the explorer’s curiosity but by a desire to be initiated into Orientalism, not through bookish studies but through unmediated contact.

He was only fourteen when he took up the study of Sanskrit, Persian and Hebrew. In 1928 he received a scholarship from a Maharajah to study Sanskrit and Hindu philosophy with Professor Surendranath Dasgupta. He was also initiated into Hindu theology and Yoga practices. His Indian adventure came to an end three years later, in 1931, when he returned to Romania for military service.

Upon his return, Eliade published two books about his adventure in the East : India and The Maharajah’s Library. He reports on his unusual experiences, inroads into the jungle or into the Indian metropoles, liminal experiences (moments of excitement, of anxiety, of disenchantment or shocking discoveries for the European coming from Eastern Europe, from a different culture, encounters with outstanding Indian personalities : his benefactor, Manindra Chandra Nandy, the Kazimbazar Maharajah, known in Bengali for his magnanimity, Ghandi, the leader of the movement for non-violent liberation from the British rule, poet Rabindranath Tagore, who spoke to him about the gap between the East and the West.

India is Eliade’s notebooks of the 1928-1931 period, where he jotted down his impressions, experiences and reflections. In the preface to the book, published in 1934, the author specifies that this is no travelogue or book of memoirs but off-hand jottings about the visited places, giving back a fragmented image of the Oriental space he had discoverd : ”This book is made of fragments on India ; some of them were written on the spot, others were recollections, and a third group were taken out of an intimate notebook. This is not a unitary book on India […] I chose to replace adventure with reportage, and reportage with narrative. (Eliade a. 5). Here and there description makes room for reflection or for narratives of adventures in various Oriental places.

Ceylon was Eliade’s gate of entry into India. The encounter with the jungle world is overwhelming. He is taking in the exotic landscape through hightened visual and olfactive perceptions, being overwhelmed by the abundant vegetation, dizzy with its piercing flavours. He experiences at first hand a nightmare which, to a western man, is unimaginable.

His body, the first receptacle of sensations, is almost crushed by their force which carries him from agony to exhilaration. The epithets convey this organic resonance, the ceaseless threshing of the senses: ”a breaze pervaded by the fragrance of the sapful tree trunks”, ”an atmosphere saturated with strong and ravishing perfumes” (Eliade a. 13).

The jungle is working its power over the European soul with such force as to impose itself on the young man even when he has given it up as a form of posession: ”The terrifying rush of saps makes you a prisoner, dragging you into the midst of their cruel slaughter, stirring and mocking you in your traveller modesty.”( Eliade a. 17).

The jungle is the very image of creation, the endless show of the war between life and death and of their mix, the topos of a vitalist experience of sorts, and a permanent challenge to the senses: “This act of nature permanently spewing life, senselessly, for the mere joy of creation, for the joy of breathing in the sun and crying out its victory, makes one dizzy, makes one dumb” (Ibid.).

Eliade perceives the exotic miracle through sensations, the first step in the oriental space cognition being of a sensuous nature. His body is showered by sensations before his consciousness begins to reflect on the jungle experience: ”You return to the world of men with the sense of having witnessed a miracle, something monstrous or something sacred, exceptional and irrational, which you can neither judge nor imitate” ( Eliade a. 18)…Access Full Text of the Article

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