Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Roberto Calasso's "Ka" 2

After a long interval, I finished reading Calasso's retelling of the Indian myths. I summarized the first six chapters in this blogpost. This post will be briefer on the next nine chapters.

Chapter VII describes the sacrifice of the horse, the "king of all sacrifices," Calasso writes, for he who celebrated it became king of all kings and would obtain everything he desired. Before the horse died, it was allowed to wander any land it wished, protected by four hundred armed guards. During the wait, stories (pariplavas) of the deeds of gods and kings were endlessly recited. Narrative thus became

. . . a way of preventing the relationship with the wandering horse from being broken. The narrative wandered around like the horse. The secret thought of the narrative is the horse. The secret thought of the horse is the narrative.

When the horse returned, it was strangled, and then the king's first wife lay with the dead horse, its phallus introduced into her vulva. When morning came, the queen returned to her feet. The horse was cut up while the priest asked who was cutting it up, and answered himself, Ka

Chapter VIII is organized as a collection of stories about and sermons by the rsis, the holy men. Here's a beautiful example of the philosophizing of these men, this by Bharadvaja:

Why should the mind be before and after every other thing? Because it can never be found in the world. You can open up any body, any element, with the finest of metal points, you can turn everything inside out and expose all that has been hidden, until matter becomes a whirr of dragonflies. To no end: you will never find so much as trace, not even the tiniest, of the mind. The banner of its sovereignty is precisely this: its not being there. 

Chapter IX recounts the story of the old rsis Cyavana who got the divine twins the Asvins to return him his youth, in exchange for a chance to win the favor of his wife, Sukanya. 

Chapter X is about the soma, the drink that gives gods and men immortality, the "one quantity that was also quality." "The stories of the soma tell of repeated conquest, repeated loss," writes Calasso, and as an instance he narrates the quest of Indra, king of the gods, for that divine substance. The soma in Chapter X is associated with knowledge, as conveyed through a parable strikingly similar to Plato's cave. In Chapter XI, the soma is linked to desire, imaged in circulating waters. So the most beautiful of Apsaras, Urvasi, distracted the gods Mitra and Varuna from their ritual, and so was cursed to fall in love with a mortal, Pururavas. 

In Chapter XII, Krsna (Krishna) is the protagonist. He steals butter from his mother, and hearts from the gopis, the cowgirls. In Chapter XIII the mature Krsna joined Arjuna as a bosom friend, but not before Arjuna won Princess Draupadi for his wife, and the enjoyment of all five Pandava brothers. All that is preface to the Indian epic Mahabharata. Of its narrative frame, Calasso writes, quite wonderfully:

There is no story so complicated as the Mahabharata. And not just because of its length, three times as long as the Bible, seven times as long as the Iliad and the Odyssey put together. But why did Vyasa choose this of all ways to tell the tale of a war fought between cousins in a plain of northwest India? Why is the frame in which the narrative is set so complicated that it alone would be enough to generate a sense of vertigo? Was it an artifice to allude to the infinite complication of existence? That would be banal--and wouldn't have required such an enormous effort. Even a tenth of the stories would be enough to generate the same impression. . . . The war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas is a "knot" (and the books that make up the Mahabharata are called parvans, "knots"), just one of the innumerable stitches in the weave of everything with everything. Going back in time to what came before it, or forward a little, after it ended, we encounter a net that brushes against us on every side--and immediately we are struck by the conviction that we will never see the edges of that net, because there are no edges. And already this is a less obvious reflection: that end and beginning, terms the mind is ever toying with, don't, in themselves, exist at all. When the seers speak of the beginning, and push as far back as they can to where the existent and the nonexistent hadn't as yet been separated, even this point is not a beginning but a consequence. A residue. Something happened before--a whole other world happened before--in order to bring about that lump that drifts like flotsam on the waters. The beginning is a shipwreck. Such was the unspoken premise of the seers. And likewise of the Mahabharata

Again, on the beginning of stories:

The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge looked like a single tree: when the branches rustled, that was the Vedas who were its leaves, speaking; hen the air was still soma dripped from its trunk, offering life without end. Look at that huge plant carefully, you saw that there was in fact two trees, inextricably twisted together. One thrust its branches upward, the other towards the ground. They were a sami and an asvattha. It was hard to see which was which. On opposite branches, at the same height, two birds could be made out, "inseparable friends." One was eating a berry, the other was watching it intensely. To light a fire you need to rub a twig of asvattha against a twig of sami. Pushing out its aerial roots, the asvattha slowly strangles the sami. Consciousness slowly strangles life. But life exists--or is perceived to exist--only to the extent that it allows the parasite of consciousness to grown upon it. 

In a later passage, Calasso links Krsna and Arjuna to these two birds of the Vedic hymn, no longer on opposite branches of the same tree, but on a war chariot. Arjuna the archer was the bird that ate the berry, while Krsna the charioteer watched, like the other bird, "without eating." 

And, yet again, on the beginning of stories:

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. It's either a snake that covers a spring of water with its coils or a lump, a knot drifting on the waters, a circular cushion bearing a divine figure as it slithers across the waves. Or a snake coiled around a trunk growing out of the water. And you can also find all this by looking inside yourself, as the Katha Upanishad claims some people did long ago . . . . 

The second to last chapter is about the Buddha. Try as Calasso may, to show how the Buddhist teachings flow from, and react against, the Hindu myths, Chapters XIV is just not as interesting as the earlier ones. The problem seems to be the lack of stories, the emptiness of characters. Nirvana, in other words. The story of the Buddha's awakening is a well-trodden path, and Calasso adds little that is new. The aridity of these chapters is consonant with the Buddha's avoidance of imagery, and his love for analysis, repetition and numbers: four noble truths; the path is eightfold; the objects of grasping are five. In Calasso, what makes the Buddha humanly graspable is his blundering disciple and cousin, Ananda. It was Ananda who persuaded the Buddha to admit women into the priesthood. It was Ananda who feared death and lusted after women. Ananda means joy. 

Chapter XV, the final chapter, is a brief recapitulation of the themes: earth, beginning, residue, the Self, being, wakefulness. The book ends with its beginning, Garuda awakening from his sleep, his claws still grasping hymn number 121 of the tenth book of the Rg Veda,  his eyes still focused on the syllable from which everything had issued forth: Ka. 

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