Roberto Calasso:

"Ka" (1996)

(Copyright © 2014 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
"Ka" is a retelling of ancient Indian myths the way "The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony" (1988) was a retelling of ancient Greek myths. For somebody like me who strongly dislikes this unscientific, improvised, casual, incoherent way of studying myth, this book is actually better than the former one. There are two reasons: 1. As arbitrary as the interpretation might be, at least here we get a coherent narrative; 2. This time Calasso is more interested in philosophy than in mythology, the goal being the emergence of consciousness over the course of human prehistory.

Calasso annoyingly begins by misinterpreting a passage in the Rig Veda and making a big deal of the term "Ka" (who?) but then starts doing what he does best, telling stories. Most of them are arbitrarily taken from the Rig-Veda, the Brahmanas, the Upanishads, the Mahabharata and the Puranas, but there are also brief incursions in the Buddhist scriptures. Calasso rarely mentions the specific source of the legend that he is retelling in his own words (there are countless variations on each story, in most cases contradicting each other, and Calasso picks one out of the many, usually the oldest).

Calasso seems to view the ancient prehistoric and pre-rational world as a better world (or, at least, he emanates nostalgia whe describing the mythical life of those ages), where myths gave meaning to human life, and seems to blame Buddhism with introducing the rational and the historical elements that would eventually disrupt the harmony of human existence (obviously, he didn't live in prehistory otherwise he would have a different view of the "harmony" of those prescientific times). For Calasso the Mahabharata is the ultimate book ("too complete").

Some background. The hymsn of the Rig Veda were "written" by rishi/rsis, the "seers" (in theory, they didn't write the hymns, they only "saw" them). The Brahmanas mention the "Seven Rishis" (the "Saptarshi"): Gautama (or Uddalaka Aruni), Bharadvaja, Vishvamitra, Jamadagni, Vashista, Kashyapa, Atri. Other rsis include: Gritsamada, Vamadeva, Kava and Chyavana. Atharvan and Angiras wrote ("saw") the Atharva Veda. There are also female rishikas: Romasha, Lopamudra, Apala, Kadru, Visvavara, Ghosha, Juhu, Vagambhrini, Paulomi, Yami, Indrani, Savitri, Devayani, Nodha, Akrishtabhasha, Sikatanivavari and Gaupayana. The Mahabharata has its own list of rsis, that adds Marici, Pulaha, Kratu, Pulastya, etc.

The Rig Veda lists 33 devas/deities, and Yajnavalkya in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad divides them in 3 groups (earth, atmosphere and sky) of 11 each, but who belongs to which category is debatable. Later (in the Brahmanas and Puranas) deva/sura has become the name for the benevolent deities, whereas the evil ones are now called asura (Vritra, for example). However, some of these deities (Agni, Varuna, Mitra, Rudra) are also called "asura" in the Vedas, which probably simply meant "powerful" in those earlier days. Anyway, the Brahmanas now neatly divide the devas into: Prajapati, Indra, the 12 Adityas, the 11 Rudras (avatars of Shiva), and the 8 Vasus (Agni, Vayu, Dyaus, Surya, Soma, etc). The different enumerations are always inconsistent: whichever way you organize the devas, either one is missing or there's an extra one.

Calasso begins the story with Prajapati. To be fair, the Rig Veda seems to imply that Varuna was once the supreme ruler of the Vedic pantheon (and possibly the progenitor of Zoroaster's god Ahura Mazda), but Prajapati is probably a more interesting character to a Western mind because it is from his self-sacrifice that the world originates. This story parallels the story of Purusha, the primordial cosmic man: in Rig Veda 10.90 it is Purusha's self-sacrifice that creates the world. According to the Brahmanas, the fire god Agni is not properly a "first-born" (as Calasso writes) but a second self that Prajapati generates and that continuously regenerates Prajapati himself (and the identification of Prajapati with fire is crucial in priestly rituals).

Note that, far from being consistent, the Rig Veda contains multiple hymns about "creator deities", one being Prajapati, but others being Hiranyagatbha, Savitr, Dhatr, and Tvastar The Rig Veda applies the attribute "visvakarman" (loosely, creator power) to Indra, Surya, Agni and Tvastar. Tvastar, despite having no hymn dedicated to him, is credited by the Atharva Veda as the one who invented life, and generally as the architect and craftman of the universe (and mentioned more than 60 times in the Vedas as a fecundating deity). Indra (Hymn 18 of Mandala IV of the Rig Veda), inebriated with soma and brandishing Tvastar's thunderbolt, established his rule over the world by slaying the demonic monster Vritra and thus liberating the rivers that Vritra had seized. However, the most famous creation hymn, the Nasadiya Sukta (Rigveda 10:129), does not mention any creator.

All of this gets simplified in Calasso's narrative, initially based on the Shatapatha Brahmana. Prajapati, who was pure mind ("manas") and therefore self-consciousness, had sex with his "daughter" Ushas and that act procreated the world. Rudra avenged the incest by killing his "father" Prajapati. Calasso then assumes that Prajapati simply mutated into Brahma the creator (that's the protagonist of the Upanishads) while Rudra mutated into Shiva the destroyer. Shiva suggested to Brahma that he had also created Mrtyu or Death. Brahma created his son Daksha with the goal that he would populate the world. (Other sources say that Brahma created Daksha, Dharma, Kamadeva and Agni, not just Daksha). Daksha had lots of children. Calasso uses the myth according to which he gave thousands of children to his wife Virini. (Depending on which Purana you read, Daksha had either 89 or 24 daughters from his wife Prasuti and another 116 or 62 from his other wife Panchajani). Then he married them off, for example 27 of his daughters married Soma, and 13 married Kashyapa. In particular, Kashyapa married Aditi (here Calasso is using the puranas, not the vedas), and their children were the Adityas. Calasso uses some arbitrary list of the Adityas. In the Rig Veda there are 8 Adityas: Varuna, Mitra, Aryaman, Bhaga, Ansu, Indra, Dhatr, and the sun-god Martanda (the one that gets discarded); and confusingly Dhaksha is also listed instead of Dhatr ("Daksha sprang from Aditi and Aditi from Daksha"). In the later Bhagavata Purana there are 12 Adityas: Vishnu the preserver (clearly the most important), Indra, Vivasvat, Mitra, Varuna, Bhaga, Aryaman, Dhatr, Savitr, Pushya, Tvashtha, Amshuman. At this point Martanda, Arditi's aborted child, has become Vivasvat, still a manifestation of Surya, the Sun god. Calasso uses 12 but the last 4 are replaced in his list by Pusan, Tvastar, Savitr, Amsa. Kashyapa also married another daughter of Daksha, Muni, and from their union were born (according to the Bhagavata Purana) the apsaras, female spirits such as Urvashi (the first apsara), Menaka, Rambha and Tilottama who act as muses of the various arts.

Meanwhile, Daksha's daughter Sati married Shiva against Daksha's will. (The full story is that Shiva had beheaded the fifth head of Brahma after that head had gone berserk and rejected the Vedas). Following a confrontation with her father, Sati self-immolated in fire. The widowed Shiva went mad. His wrath created two monsters, Virabhadra and Bhadrakali, who killed everybody on the scene of the self-immolation and beheaded Daksha himself. Shiva then performed the Tandava dance with Sati's charred body. Vishnu dismembered Sati's charred body into 51 pieces that fell at various places (hence the 51 holy places of the Shakti cult). Calasso then follows the adventures of Shiva in the deodar forest until he meets Parvati, daughter of Himavat and Mena, who is in turn sister to Dhanya and Kalavati. Meanwhile, Brahma had granted Taraka virtual invulnerability as an award for Taraka's piety.... with a catch: that only a son of Shiva could kill Taraka. Taraka used his superpowers to wreak havoc in the world. The gods felt threatened and asked Kama/Kamadeva (the god of love) for help. Kama caused Shiva to fall in love with Parvati, the two had a son Skanda and Skanda slayed Taraka, thus saving the world from destruction. (Skanda will later become the god of war Karttikeya, replacing the Vedic gods of war Indra and Agni). Calasso briefly mentions the jealousy of Parvati for her elder sister, the river goddess Ganga. Besides Skalda, the couple also had another son, Ganesh.

Chapter 8, one of the longest, is particularly interesting in terms of philosophy. It is structured like a discussion in which the seven rsis (the Saptarshi) speak to the Western reader Vishvamitra, Jamadagni, Atri. Vashista, Gautama, Bharadvaja, Kashyapa. The seven sages take turn at discussing the human condition, leading towards the birth of consciousness. Joining the chorus are Narada, the peripatetic guru mentioned in the Ramayana and the Bhagavata Purana, an intermediary between deities and humans, a sort of reporter on divine life, and finally Yajnavalkya, the author of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad who lived At the court of King Janaka of Mithila, who had two wives but no children, and who, before dying, told his wife Maitreyi the secret of the atman, of the self. The seven rsis agree that thinking is dangerous, and Vashista gets the best quote: "One is what one knows. One becomes what one thinks".

Calasso correctly points out that nothing is left in India of Vedic times: not a temple, not an object, not a stelae. If it weren't for the Vedas, that civilization would have vanished completely.

According to the Rig Veda, Tvastar, the architect and craftman of the universe, married his daughter Saranyu (capable of turning herself into a mare) to Vivasvat (or to the Sun god Surya, according to other versions), and they had several children: the identical twins known as the Ashwini Kumaras or the Ashvins, who are mentioned hundreds of times in the Rig Veda, the identical twins Yama (male) and Yami (female), the former being the first person ever to die (and therefore became Death himself), and Manu. According to the Puranas, the first man, Manu, was the son of Saranyu and of one of the Adityas, Vivasvat or Surya (hence Manu is also known as "Vaivasvata", son of Vivasvati). Among other things, he also saved humankind from the flood (a myth similar to the myths of Gilgamesh and Noah). Manu's granddaughter Sukanya married the rsis Chyavana. The Ashvins, briefly in love with Sukanya herself, helped Chyavana, and in return he included them in a soma ritual, even bending Indra's will. Calasso has Dadhichi (mispelled as Dadhyane), horse-headed son of the rsis Atharvan, narrate the story to the Ashvins. Calasso writes that the soma with the Ashvins was the last time that gods and humans drank together.

In chapter 10 Calasso revisits the myth of the gandharvas, soma and vac, and the story of how Indra slayed the demon Vrtra/Vritra.

There is a relationship among gandharvas, soma and vac. In the Vedas the word Vac refers to both speech and a goddess (created and married to Prajapati). Ditto for Soma, a substance and a deity. Soma makes deities immortal, and Indra and Agni are particularly fond of it. The gandharvas, notably Visvavasu (the one most often mentioned in the Rig Veda), are the celestial messengers between the divine and human worlds; more importantly, they know the secret of the drug soma. In Mahidasa Aitareya's Brahmana the devas traded Vac for Soma. Neither Soma nor Vac is really a personified deity: they are soma, a drug, and vac, speech, and specifically the reciting voice of the priest. The gandharvas are guardians of Soma in the sense that they are the custodians of soma (the drug). Vac offers herself as a naked woman to the Gandharvas in exchange for the precious soma that the devas want in the sense that someone talks the Gandharvas into surrendering the soma drug to them. (Later in the epic poems the gandharvas lose the individual identities that they had in the Vedas, they become just a class of beings. In the Vishnu Purana the gandharvas have become the sons of Brahma, but also confusingly, in the same text, they are the children of Kashyapa. In the Padma Purana the gandharvas are children of Vac. Gandharvas are married to apsaras, the muses, and gandharvas often perform as entertainers at the courts of gods, in particular for Indra). Even more confusingly, in the Brahmanas the goddess Vac becomes identified with Sarasvati, the river goddess of the Rig Veda,

In chapter 11 Calasso retells the legend of Urvashi and Pururavas. According to the Rig Veda (X.95.18), Urvashi (the first apsara), fell in love with a mortal man, the pious king Pururavas.

Chapter 12 leaves the Vedas and enters the era of the epic poems. Calasso thinks that the mythology of Krishna announces a new era, an era in which wars are fought not by wars but by kingdoms, and the rsis have been replaced by ascetics. According to the Bhagavata Purana, Krishna was raised by Yashoda and Nanda in Gokul, where gopis (cow herding girls), notably Radha, fell madly in love with him. Driven by Krishna's flute, the gopis of Vrindavan danced with him the "rasa lila". Krishna left the countryside (and the gopis) and moved to the city of Dvaraka, where he married 8 queens and befriended the sage Narada.

Chapter 13, the longest in the book, deals with the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata was composed by the sage Vyasa, the illegitimate son of the abandoned orphan Satyavati, and then by his pupil Vaishampayana, and recited to the Kuru king Janamejaya, last descendant of the Pandavas, the great-grandson of the hero of the poem, Arjuna. With this epic-length poem, Calasso thinks that literature is born.

The Pandavas were the five sons of Vyasa's son Pandu by his two wives Kunti and Madri, each boy being in reality fathered by a specific deity: Arjuna (Indra), Yudhisthira (Dharma), Bhima (Vayu), plus the twins Nakula and Sahadeva (Ashvin twins). The Mahabharata is about the Kurukshetra War that was fought over a dynastic succession by two groups of cousins in the kingdom of Kuru: the Kauravas and the Pandavas, whose families ruled over the two halves of the kingdom (king Dhritarashtra, Vyasa's blind son, of the Kauravas in his capital Hastinapura, king Yudhishthira of the Pandavas, the eldest son of Pandu and Kunti, in his capital Indraprastha). The eldest Kaurava, Duryodhana, cheated at a game of dice with the eldest Pandava, Yudhishthira, and won the Pandava land. The Pandavas were expelled for thirteen years and, as part of the deal, they had to spend the last year incognito at the court of king Virata. Nonetheless, at the end of the 13 years Duryodhana refused to yield half of the kingdom to the Pandavas.

Arjuna married the beautiful Draupadi, but Kunti forced him to share her with his brothers, and so all the Pandavas were married to the same woman. When Arjuna broke their agreement on how to sleep with Draupadi, he was banned from court and started a journey. He met Krishna and Krishna helped him abduct and marry Krishna's half sister Subhadra, from whom Arjuna had a son, Abhimanyu. Arjuna spent one year at Indra's palace, where Indra offered him the maid Urvashi, Arjuna refused, and Urvashi in revenge turned him into a eunuch for one year. Arjuna spent the year incognito at the court of king Virata, where he rejected the king's beautiful daughter Uttara and instead had her marry his son Abhimanyu. Arjuna also helped repel an attack by the vicious Kauravas.

Armies from all over Bharatha (the Indian subcontinent) joined in one or another alliance. Before the battle Arjuna hesitated because he didn't want to kill his own cousins and friends, but Krishna instigated him to go ahead with the massacre in the name of justice (this dialogue constitutes the "Bhagavad Gita" ("Song of the Blessed One"), adorned with a lot of philosophical excuses). The war lasted only 18 days, as narrated by Sanjaya to Dhritarashtra, and the Pandavas eventually defeated the Kauravas. Krishna was sent by Vishnu himself to rescue "dharma" (justice, law, virtue) and therefore, as Arjuna's main advisor, Krishna plotted to make the war happen (a war that killed millions) and even devised nasty unethical tactics to kill the enemies. Among the casualties of the Pandavas were the four commanders of Duryodhana's army, who also happened to be very dear to them: the old Bhishma (Satyavati's step-son, and beloved grand-uncle of both the Pandavas and the Kauravas), their teacher Drona, their half-brother Karna, and their maternal uncle Shalya. Dhritarashtra and Kunti survived but died in a forest fire. Before dying with them, Dhritarashtra's wife Gandhari, mother of the Kauravas who had all been exterminated, cursed Krishna wishing the extermination of the Yadava race, Krishna's caste; and in fact a few years later the Yadavas, inebriated by alcohol, killed each other in a senseless civil war. Krishna too killed many and was eventually killed. Draupadi and the younger Pandavas trekked north towards heaven but only Yudhishthira made it through taking with him the dog Dharma (Dharma being Yudhishthira's father and dharma being the whole purpose of the war). Yudhishthira passed his final test when he refused to abandon the dog, as Indra asked him upon entering heaven.

Calasso points out that originally there were rituals, and stories told during the intervals between rites. Eventually people got more interested in the stories than in the rituals. In the age of Krishna people yearned for stories, the more complicated the better. In Vedic times, instead, people had been perfectly happy to think that the world was just what happens in between everlasting rites. Calasso lumps together Buddha and Krishna, both avatars of Vishnu. And in fact the last chapter is devoted to Buddha, to whom Calasso attributes the invention of the "modern" via the reductionist method that will become the standard of Western science and an obsessive scholasticism that will replace he exuberant imagination of the old mythology.

Calasso also makes a big deal of the fact that Homer was blind and so was Vyasa's son Dhritarashtra, but that sounds less credible.

There is a brief finale, just three pages long, in which Calasso reaches perhaps the zenith of his evocative style.

I found the retelling of the Vedic myths more informative than a lot of the convoluted ever-changing crap that Indian scholars dump on foreigners. Of course, the reason that Calasso's version of Hinduism is more readable than the confusing Indian textbooks is that Calasso simplified a lot, and chose only one of the many different versions of each myth, thus introducing modern Western linearity in what is really a chaotic incoherent world of myths accumulated over centuries and centuries by illiterate people who relied on word of mouth and that was later turned into religious and philosophical pomp by upper castes whose living depended on the masses believing that this makes sense and (today) on gullible foreigners believing that anybody ever took this stuff seriously.

Nonetheless, Calasso's style can get annoying with vague and unprovable statements such as "In every story, if you go back, as far back as you can, to the point where every horizon disappears, you find a snake, the tree, water" (page 336). Statements like this mean absolutely nothing. He has no way to prove it, and we have no way of disprove it. And my fundamental critique remains, as in "The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony" (1988) , that Calasso is not providing a comprehensive study of a society but handpicks what sounds more interesting to him, potentially misleading the reader about the true character of that ancient civilization.