Vedic gods stand tall against rea­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Barry Hill’s

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.

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