Thursday, October 16, 2008

Roberto Calasso's "Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India"

Calasso retells the Indian myths in this book, and makes them gripping, probing and mysterious. In the first story, Garuda, the eagle, is born to save his mother from slavery to her own sister. The method of the myths and of the retelling is described by Garuda himself: "So many things happening, so many stories one inside the other, with every link hiding yet more stories . . . And I've hardly hatched from my egg."

After freeing his mother, Garuda decided to devote himself to reading the Vedas in the Rauhina tree. Reading hymn one hundred and twenty-one in the tenth book of the Rig Veda, he found the question that gave the book its title: "Who (Ka) is the god to whom we should offer our sacrifice?"

Estuary to a hidden ocean, that syllable (Ka) would go on echoing within him as the essence of the Vedas. Garuda stopped and shut his eyes. He had never felt so uncertain, and so close to understanding. Never felt so light, in that sudden absence of names. When he opened his eyes, he realized that the nine stanzas were followed by another, this one separated by a space that was slightly larger. . . . The tenth stanza, without any question. And here was a name, the only name in the hymn, the only answer. Garuda couldn't remember ever having seen that name before: Prajapati.

The next chapter takes up the story of Prajapati who is a kind of Progenitor of all things, including the gods. Prajapati was the mind before anything existed. The mind did not even know whether it existed or not. The mind desired, with a desire that was "continuous, diffuse, undefined." It desired

what was definite and separate, what had shape. A Self, atman--that was the name it used. And the mind imagined that Self as having consistency. Thinking the mind grew red hot. It saw thirty-six thousand fires flare up, made up of mind, made with mind.


This fire was tapas, the same fire that burned in the gods, and in the holy men. Desire, in this myth, is longing for the Other; it is longing for form.

Chapter Three describes the desire of this Father for his daughter Dawn (Usas). Their union was disrupted by a son and god, Rudra, who fired an arrow into his father's groin, causing him to squirt his seed onto the ground. This triangular relationship, according to this chapter, is repeated with different names in different stories down the ages.

In Chapter Four, Brhama takes over the role of Creator and Father. The problem with his creation was that all were born exclusively of the mind, and no one died. Immortality proved to be oppressive. To solve that problem Brahma created Death. To solve the problem of mind, he created sex. When asked by the gods why bother with another mode of production, Brahma answered, "To preserve the world's gloss."

The triangle between father, daughter and son returns in Chapter Five. Daksa, a stand-in for Brahma, loved his favorite daughter, Sati, who, in turn, loves Siva. Whe Daksa refused to invite his son-in-law to his priestly sacrifice, Sati returned to her father's household, and rebuked him by self-combusting. Sati is, of course, the immolation of a widow on her husband's funeral pyre. Following his wife's death, Siva wrecked Daksa's sacrifice. The narrator draws this moral from the story:

The premise was a simple breach of etiquette, of terrifying eloquence. If Siva was not invited, sacrifice could no longer bring together the totality of the real. Thus he who was excluded took revenged. And the form of revenge he chose was once again the sacrifice. But this time a funereal sacrifice. The victim honored that day was sacrifice itself, the ceremony.


Chapter VI narrates the love affair between Siva and Parvati, the daughter of Himavat (Himalayas?). To capture Siva's heart, Parvati left her royal life to practice tapas in the forest. The god accepted her offer, and united with her, making her a goddess. Kalidasa, the Sanskrit poet, makes an appearance in this chapter. He was sneaking a look at their love-making before chased away by Parvati.

Parvati also discovered Siva had many lovers, one of whom lived as water in his hair, Ganga. In the story-within-a-story, Ganga was initially a proud woman who thought she could sweep Siva away like a straw. She plunged from the Milky Way on top of Siva's head.

But no sooner had she brushed against that head than Ganga felt lost. Siva's hair was a forest. And what was a forest? Her waters were constantly being diverted, divided, humiliated in tiny streams. They settled in huge lakes, surrounded by a thick darkness that was no longer darkness of the sky. Huge angry waves kept beating down on Siva. And Siva gathered himself in one spot, From there, like silk from a spider, his maya spun out, the sticky enchantment of his mind. Siva held back the waters, wound around she who winds around all, multiplied the meanders that would soak her up. . . . Ganga didn't know it, but her fury enhanced her splendor. Streaming down Siva's hair, she saw a corner of the god's mouth lift, in a hint of a smile. That made her even madder. As she renewed her attack, boiling in obscure little ditches, a few drops of foam spurted out beyond the forest. For a moment they found themselves suspended in the void, surprised. Finally they tasted a sharp, dry flavor. It was the earth. Those drops formed Lake Bindusaras, the Lake of Drops. From there they flowed into a bed that seemed to have been made for them. Men called that river Ganga.


The story is enchanting. It is a charming explanation of how the great Ganges came into being. It is a striking extended metaphor. It is also very sexy.

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