Books Quarterly: All the Myths of India in One Book

Well, not quite. But Roberto Calasso comes close.

Roberto Calasso's first book to be published in English, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, was old wine in new bottles, a repackaging of the familiar corpus of Greek myth: ironic and post-modern in tone, true, but no more so than Ovid's Metamorphoses. Colasso's latest is something else again. Like The Marriage, Ka is a "reading" of a mythological corpus, but the myths in question are those of the Indian subcontinent in all their endless, inspiring, self-contradictory immensity. No one on earth, certainly not a middle-aged contemporary Italian moonlighting from his day job as a publisher, can master the materials of even a single tradition within Indian religion/thought/literature/philosophy, let alone produce a single-volume "popularization" that captures its essence. The sheer impossibility of his task has liberated Calasso: He goes to work on the inextricable tangle with a machete, cutting his own path through the Vedas, Brahmanas, and Upanishads, the epic Mahabharata and the Buddhist Sutras as fancy and instinct take him. The result is a crowded ever-shifting panorama of an alternate intellectual and emotional universe. In the course of the book's 400 pages, Calasso makes it seem as plausible as our own. Ka

by Roberto Calasso

Knopf, $27.50 The authors of the Indian tradition were as obsessed with the magical power of words as contemporary European literary intellectuals are. Calasso's generation has watched while every form of human assertion—from logic to prayer—has been analysed, undermined, and deprived of certainty by the acid of "deconstruction." All that is left them, in the wreck of post-structuralism, is a flotsam of "narratives," none more ultimately valid than another. Truth is something that exists only in the telling. As for "reality," well. . . . Classical Indian thought is like cool water for souls trapped in such a desert of doubt. Bless your hearts, the old Brahmins would say, of course there's no such thing as reality: Did not the sage Vasistha remark to his students, "The world is like the impression left by the telling of a story"? Now let's get on with screwing, murdering, being born, dying, singing, and praising the gods. Calasso quotes Vasistha's dictum as an epigraph to Ka. He also quotes Spinoza: "For ideas are nothing other than narrations, natural histories of the mind if you will." That's the last Western-tradition landmark until Marcel Proust abruptly turns up as a Vedic seer hundreds of pages later. Calasso begins his book not only in medias res but in midair: "Suddenly an eagle darkened the sky. Its bright black, almost violet feathers made a moving curtain between clouds and earth. Hanging from its claws, likewise immense and stiff with terror, an elephant and a turtle skimmed the mountaintops. . . ." This eagle is named Garuda, he has just hatched, and already he is in a peck of trouble. It seems his (human) mother, Vinata, made an incautious bet with her one-eyed sister, Kadru, about the color of a horse, resulting in her enslavement, which can only be lifted when someone steals the nectar of the gods and gives it to Kadru's children—who are snakes, by the way, but never mind that. So Garuda promises his mother to raid heaven, but first he needs something to eat, which explains the turtle and the elephant, although not until several more pages of wild adventures in the borderlands between the sea and sky. Only an expert in ancient Indian literature could disentangle the retelling from the invention from the quotation in Calasso's headlong narrative. (Though he seems to know his stuff: Wendy Doniger, a world-renowned expert in this material, is one of his fans.) For the general reader, the distinction really doesn't matter: The story is all that counts, and Calasso maintains its momentum so skillfully that you hardly notice that an age of animals and fantasy is giving way to an age of gods, then an age of seers and conjurers, among whom a new kind of god, Siva, both death dealer and lifegiver, moves among men (and particularly women), then, after a break for a colloquium on Vedic philosophy, to the adventures of a half-human deity named Krishna, the world-destroying wars of the Mahabharata, finally to be awakened from sumptuous dreams by the cool indifferent compassion of the Buddha. Like all the "characters" in Ka, the Buddha is both a figure of tradition and the promulgator of an abiding style of thought: the analytic style, which breaks existence down in an arid succession of ever more elemental either/ors, in none of which the essence of life is to be found. The Buddha, in short, is a stand-in for the Scientist, the embodiment of anti-Life for Calasso's generation of intellectual humanists. As it happens, his implied indictment is a canard against science, but valuable for reminding us once again of the gulf between late-20th-century literary humanism and the reality of contemporary scientific thought. The universe that emerges from the equations of Hawking and Penrose, of space and time as a potent void vibrant with infinite incipient variety, has more affinity to Calasso's version of ancient Vedic cosmology than to the inspirational mush of a dozen Fritjof Capras telling us how 13th-century Tibetans anticipated quantum theory. Seattle Weekly senior editor Roger Downey is completing a book on Kennewick man.

 
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