Vedic gods stand tall against reason
The Italian intellectual and publisher Roberto Calasso, a bella figura on the world stage of literature, has once again plundered the ancient Indian treasure troves. ‘‘Rapture’’ has become his operative term.
His previous lush act of unabashed Orientalist recovery was Ka: Stories of the Wind and the Gods of India ( 1998). Ardor is its sequel. It is also about the gods — more particularly, the gods of the Vedic peoples who inhabited the Indus plain about 3000 years ago. Their rapture hinged on fire ceremonies and sacrifices that sustained the links between the human and the divine.
For Vedic wisdom had it that we kill in order to live: thus propitiations and expiations were essential to the moral sustenance of life. Calasso, exulting in this harsh prehistoric truth, offers an intimate, ravishing text designed to revivify the Vedic mind. Ardor is both mythic archeology and a rapturous, supreme fiction on the author’s part.
In fact, we know little about the lived beliefs of these northern Indian peoples. They were pastoralists, wanderers — Calasso calls them ‘‘central-Asian adventurers’’. Their civilisation left behind almost no objects, images or ruins.
However, what we do have are the 1028 hymns to the gods in the classic text the Rig Veda, and the verse fragments on ritual performances known as the Brahmanas, which pre-date the philosophical elaborations to be found in the Upanishads, and which pertain to what was sacrificed in the deep past: human beings perhaps, various animals, food offerings. At some point in history the horse became the object of sacrifice, and, further along the mysterious river of archaic substitution, it was milk, which was poured into the fire.
The whole scene embedded in the ancient verses involves the ennobling endeavour of sanctifying whatever had to be consumed. And it is on this rhapsodic note that Calasso’s rich text begins: with an adagio on the remote beings, on the deep, intimate history of man and animals (how the death of the latter injected guilt in the former), and the knowledge that belonged to the figure of Yajnavalkya, the god of sacrifice, who received his learning from the sun, along with the proposition: ‘‘ To know, one must burn.’’
‘‘Otherwise,’’ Calasso goes on, ‘‘all knowledge is ineffective. One therefore must practise tapas. Tapas means ‘ardor’ — it means the heart within the mind but also cosmic heat.’’ Ardor, this burning book, proceeds thus: as an incantatory set of paraphrases, with Calasso writing himself into it Magus-like.
Ardor is much dependent on the earlier Vedic scholarship of Louis Renou and Frits Staal. Calasso hardly cites them directly, because his own method relies as much on invocation as interrogation. He mainly wants to elaborate on the obsessively intelligent nature of the Vedic rituals, on the cosmic order generated through gesture, song and performances. It was an unreal world, yet the acts of the symbolic imagination were tantamount to reality.
The enactments were play, but they served reality, by bringing it into life on the field of living. A web of correspondences sustained the sacrificial vision that leads, in Calasso’s hands, to the slow, ruminative chapter, The Act of Killing, which is as bracing a piece of writing I have read for some time.
Vedic knowledge was embedded in the rituals, which enacted an awareness beyond ‘‘knowledge’’ as we have come to know it from the Greeks. For Vedic practices were meant to encourage human beings to, in Calasso’s swooning parlance, think further. To think not with rational Greek detachment, but to know from within the forms of sacrifice, which involved total wakefulness. Thus, Ardor, lit as it is by desire, serves the elemental vitalities of consciousness: the fire in things, the energy of first things, the slow burning, the tapis of the world.
The rounds of ritual, in the company of the hymns, constituted the rounds of life and death. The rituals would hold the world together and the verses would mend any rent that occurred in the cosmos. That was their power. Interpenetrating all is the dialectic of sovereignty in Vedic culture, the politics of which is of acute interest to Calasso. Brahmin castes and warrior castes co-existed in creative tension. As it should be, in Calasso’s mind. The Vedic mind was sovereign, but it did not exult in acts of power.
Calasso’s further instructional point is to remind us that the Vedic firmament included not just Agni, the god of fire, but Soma, the god of the intoxicating plant that was itself ‘‘sacrificed’’ to make the ceremonial drink the rituals demanded. Hence the centrality of the rapture to which the text keeps returning, and which its title embodies.
The premise throughout Vedic practices is that ‘‘most things remain hidden’’. Even language ‘‘throws an inaccessible shadow much larger than itself’’. More often than not, the language of the Vedic verses was mantric, and this too was as it should be. Calasso can argue this without appearing to doubt his own highly intellectual and prose dependent cast of mind. The more Calasso’s elaborations are reduced to summary, the more mystificatory he sounds, naturally. He does not fret. Vedic knowledge was not propositional, just as breathing is not propositional, any more than lines of verse. Like Mallarme, Calasso links writing ultimately to Orphic poetry, to which much of his own prose harkens. This brings one to the passionate provocation at the heart of Ardor.
The truth is that Calasso exalts Vedic enactments because he sets himself against the Enlightenment. He revealed this in another brilliant book, The Ruin of Kasch (1994), which was also about sacrifice, and where the Vedic religion was used as an exemplary case of civilised understanding. Ardor quietly advances a polemic against reason’s lucidity, the objectivity and detachment that has ushered in much utopian science, destructive technology, the blood of war and revolution. Hence the carnage of modernity, the spoliations of its sacrifices, the Ebola of its politics.
It turns out that the more intimate we become with Ardor’s Vedic consciousness, the wider the door Calasso wants open to the archaic and aristocratic. Ardor’s dream: that the right rituals might be reinvigorated, at least imaginatively. If I am right, Calasso is a nostalgic reactionary thinker of the first order, perhaps even a priest-loving dreamer, who is to know? Better an ancient cognisance of sacrifice, he cries, his mind at fiery play, than our degenerate pseudo-sacrificial chaos.
In any case, Ardor is a mesmerising text of great elegance, depth and sophistication. No wonder Joseph Brodsky remarked that ‘‘Calasso is the only man on the continent with whom conversation is totally rewarding’’. As soon as I finished this book, I felt I had to read it again, like putting my cold hands back near the fire.
most recent prose work is Peacemongers, an exploration of Rabindranath Tagore.