In a meditation on the wisdom of the Vedas, Roberto Calasso brings ritual and sacrifice to bear on the modern world
In this revelatory volume, Roberto Calasso, whom The Paris Review has called "a literary institution," explores the ancient texts known as the Vedas. Little is known about the Vedic people, who lived more than three thousand years ago in northern India: They left behind almost no objects, images, or ruins. They created no empires. Even the soma, the likely hallucinogenic plant that appears at the center of some of their rituals, has not been identified with any certainty. Only a "Parthenon of words" remains: verses and formulations suggesting a daring understanding of life.
"If the Vedic people had been asked why they did not build cities," writes Calasso, "they could have replied: we did not seek power, but rapture." This is the ardor of the Vedic world, a burning intensity that is always present, both in the mind and in the cosmos.
With his signature erudition and profound sense of the past, Calasso explores the enigmatic web of ritual and myth that defines the Vedas. Often at odds with modern thought, these texts illuminate the nature of consciousness more vividly than anything else has managed to till now. Following the "hundred paths" of the Satapatha Brahmana, an impressive exegesis of Vedic ritual, Ardor indicates that it may be possible to reach what is closest by passing through that which is most remote, as "the whole of Vedic India was an attempt to think further."
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
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About the Author
Roberto Calasso is the publisher of Adelphi Edizioni in Milan and is the author of many books. Ardor is the seventh part of a work in progress, following The Ruin of Kasch, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Ka, K., Tiepolo Pink, and La Folie Baudelaire.
Read an Excerpt
By Roberto Calasso, Richard Dixon
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2015 Roberto Calasso
All rights reserved.
They were remote beings. Remote not only from modern man but from their ancient contemporaries. Distant not just as another culture, but as another celestial body. So distant that the point from which they are viewed becomes almost irrelevant. Nothing much changes whether that point is today or a hundred years ago. For those born in India, certain words, certain forms, certain objects may seem familiar, like an invincible atavism. But they are scattered fragments of a dream whose story has been blotted out.
We cannot be sure when or where they lived. When: more than three thousand years ago, though dates vary considerably between one scholar and another. Area: the north of the Indian subcontinent, but with no exact boundaries. They left no objects or images. They left only words. Verses and formulas that marked out rituals. Meticulous commentaries that described and explained those same rituals. At the center of which appeared the soma, an intoxicating plant that has not been identified with any certainty, even today. Even then they spoke of it as a thing of the past. They could, it seems, no longer find it.
Vedic India had neither a Semiramis nor a Nefertiti. And not even a Hammurabi or a Ramses II. No Cecil B. DeMille has managed to film it. It was the civilization in which the invisible prevailed over the visible. Like few others, it was liable to be misunderstood. There is no point looking for help from historical events, since there is no trace of them. Only texts remain: the Veda, the Knowledge. Consisting of hymns, invocations, incantations in verse. Of ritual formulas and prescriptions in prose. The verses form part of highly complex ritual actions. They range from the double libation, agnihotra, which the head of the family has to carry out alone, each day, for almost his entire life, to the most impressive sacrifice—the “horse sacrifice,” asvamedha—involving hundreds and hundreds of men and animals.
The Aryas (“the nobles,” as Vedic men called themselves) ignored history with a disdain unequaled in the annals of any other great civilization. We know the names of their kings only through mention in the gveda and anecdotes in the Brahma as and the Upani ads. They had no concern for leaving a record of their conquests. And those events about which we do have information deal not so much with exploits—military or administrative—but with knowledge.
When they spoke of “acts,” they were thinking mostly about ritual acts. It is no surprise that they never founded—nor ever attempted to found—an empire. They preferred to think about the essence of sovereignty. They identified it in its duality, in its division between brahmins and katriyas, between priests and warriors, auctoritas and potestas. These are the two keys, without which no door is opened, no kingdom governed. The whole of history can be considered in the light of these relations, which are constantly changed, adjusted, concealed—in the double-headed eagles, in the keys of St. Peter. There is always a tension that wavers between harmony and deadly conflict. On this diarchy, and its endless implications, the Vedic civilization focused its attention with supreme and subtle clear-sightedness.
Worship was entrusted to the brahmins. Government to the katriyas. The rest was built on this foundation. But, like everything else that happened on earth, even this relationship had its model in heaven. A king and a priest were there as well: Indra was the king, B haspati the brahmin of the Devas, the chaplain to the gods. And only the alliance between Indra and B haspati could guarantee life on earth. But from the very beginning, between the two, there was a third figure: Soma, the object of desire. Another king, as well as an intoxicating juice. One who would behave ungraciously and elusively toward the two representatives of sovereignty. Indra, who fought to gain the soma, would in the end be banished by the very gods to whom he had presented it. And what of B haspati, the inapproachable brahmin with a voice of thunder, “born in the cloud”? King Soma, “arrogant with the supreme sovereignty he had acquired,” abducted B haspati’s wife Tara and had intercourse with her. From his seed she gave birth to Budha. When the child was born, she laid him on a bed of muñja grass. Brahma then asked Tara (and it was the height of shame): “Tell me, my daughter, is this the son of B haspati or of Soma?” Tara then had to tell the truth, that he was the son of King Soma, that she had betrayed her husband. And she, the model for all wives, had to admit it, for otherwise no woman would have been believed again (though repercussions of the event continued to be felt, from eon to eon). And a bitter war had to be fought between the Devas and the Asuras, the anti-gods, before Soma was finally persuaded to return Tara to B haspati. The gveda says: “Terrible is the wife of the brahmin, if she is abducted; such a thing creates disorder in the highest heaven.” That should have been enough for shortsighted humans, who sometimes asked why, and over what, the Devas and Asuras fought each other in the heavens, in those constant battles of theirs. Now they knew: over a woman. Over the most dangerous woman: over the wife of the most important of brahmins.
* * *
There were no temples, no sanctuaries, no walls. There were kings, but they had no safe and clearly defined kingdoms. From time to time they moved around on chariots with spoked wheels. Those wheels were their great innovation: before them, the kingdoms of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro had known only hard, solid, slow wheels. Whenever they stopped, their first concern was to build fires and to kindle them. Three fires: one circular, one square, and one the shape of a half moon. They knew how to bake bricks, but used them only for building the altar that was central to one of their rites. It was the shape of a bird—a hawk or an eagle—with outstretched wings. They called it the “fire altar.” They spent most of their time in an empty, gently sloping clearing where they busied themselves around the fires murmuring words and singing fragments of hymns. It was an unfathomable way of life, requiring long training. Their minds teemed with images. Perhaps this was also why they had no interest in fashioning and sculpting figures of the gods. As if, already surrounded by them, they felt no need to add others.
When the people of the Veda descended into the Saptasindhu, the Land of the Seven Rivers, and then onto the Ganges plain, much of the area was covered by forest. They opened the way with fire, which was a god: Agni. They let him draw a web of burnt scars. They lived in temporary villages, in huts built on pillars, with cane walls and straw roofs. They followed the herds, moving continually eastward. Stopping sometimes before vast expanses of water. It was the golden age of the ritualists.
Groups of men could then be seen some distance away from the villages, each group—of around twenty—some distance from the other, moving over bare spaces, around fires permanently lit, with a hut close by. A murmuring of voices could be heard from afar, scored with chants. Every detail of life and death was at stake, in that coming-and-going of men absorbed in their activity. But all this would not have been obvious to an outsider.
There are very few tangible remains of the Vedic period—no buildings survive, no ruins or traces of buildings. At most, a few meager fragments on show in various museums. Instead, they built a Parthenon of words: the Sanskrit language, since saskta means “perfect.” So said René Daumal.
What was the underlying reason for not wanting to leave any traces? The Westerner, with his usual euhemeristic presumption, would immediately suggest the materials have perished in the tropical climate. But the reason is another—and it is mentioned by the ritualists. If the only event of any importance is the sacrifice, then what should be done with Agni, the altar of fire, once the sacrifice is finished? They replied: “After the completion of the sacrifice, it rises up and enters that bright [sun]. Therefore do not worry if Agni is destroyed, since he is then in that yonder orb.” Every construction is temporary, including the fire altar. It is not a fixed object, but a vehicle. Once the voyage is complete, the vehicle can be destroyed. Thus the Vedic ritualists did not develop the idea of the temple. If such care was given to constructing a bird, it was to make it fly. What remained on earth was an inert shell of dust, dry mud, and bricks. It could be left behind, like a carcass. It would soon be covered once more with vegetation. In the meantime, Agni was in the sun.
* * *
The world was divided into two parts, village and forest. Each followed different rules. What applied to one was not true of the other—and vice versa. All villages would one day be abandoned by their communities, as their seminomadic existence slowly moved on. No sacred places were fixed, umbilical, created once and for all, like temples. The sacred place was the scene for the sacrifice. It had to be chosen each time following set criteria: “As well as being on high ground, that place shall be flat; and as well as being flat, it shall be firm; and as well as being firm, it shall slope eastward, since east is the direction of the gods; or otherwise it should face northward, as north is the direction of men. It shall be raised slightly to the south, because that is the direction of the ancestors. If it had been lower to the south, the sacrificer would have soon passed into the underworld; in this way the sacrificer will live long: that is why it is slightly raised to the south.”
High, flat, firm: these are the first requirements for the place of sacrifice. As if the intention was to define a neutral surface, a backdrop that brings perfect clarity to the action. This is the origin of the stage as a place ready to accommodate all possible meanings. How modern—indeed, the very stage of modernity. The place must, first, be high. Why? Because the gods leave the earth from high ground. And men must imitate them. Then firm. Why? So that it has pratiha, “foundation.” Then the place must slope eastward: once again, because east is the direction of the gods. But most important: slightly raised to the south, as if turning away from the direction of the ancestors. The dead lie there and the officiants would quickly slide toward death if the ground were to slope southward. In just a few words, by marking out an ordinary space in the mind’s eye, among brushwood and stones, the blank setting has been described for every action. It is the first locus—and here, at one and the same time, we are told how the world is made, where the gods have gone, and where death lies. What else do we have to know, before any gesture starts? The ritualists were obsessive in their instructions, but never bigoted.
* * *
On the sacrificial ground there is little to see. It is bare, monotonous. But most of what happens cannot be seen: it is a journey into the invisible, fraught with danger, anguish, risk of ambush—a hazardous voyage, like that so loved by Conrad, with a ship ill-matched to face the demands of the forces of nature. And it was one of Conrad’s characters who explained the difference between the carefree manner of people living on land and the precision of anyone living at sea. Only the latter understand that one wrong step, one badly tied knot, could mean disaster. But an error on land can always be put right. The sea alone denies us that “sense of security” which leads to miscalculation.
Though they must have had no great experience of oceans, but rather of majestic rivers, the Vedic people loved referring to an “ocean,” samudrá, salilá, whenever they spoke of anything to do with heaven. For the sky itself was the real ocean, the Milky Way, which continued right onto the earth. And there they found the first image of that continuum from which all ceremonial gestures and words sprang. Like prudent and wary seamen, they thought of that boat, that voyage, during various times of the rituals—for example, at the beginning of a certain chant: “The bahipavamana chant is in truth a boat heading toward heaven: the priests are its mast, and its oars are the means they use to reach the heavenly world. If one of them is unworthy, he alone will make [the boat] sink: he will make it sink in the same way that someone boarding a boat already full will make it sink. And in fact every sacrifice is a boat sailing heavenward: and so an unworthy priest must be kept away from any sacrifice.”
Though the sacrificial stage, to an outsider, seems like any other place, a tremendous concentration of forces dwells there—and focuses on few objects: they are fragments of the “thunderbolt,” vajra, that supreme and mysterious weapon with which Indra defeated V tra, the enormous monster who kept the waters captive within himself. One object is the wooden sword that the officiants hold. Another is an element of terrifying simplicity: the post. But the cart that transports the rice is also a sacrificial force. And the arrow used by the warriors recalls the breaking of the vajra as it struck V tra. The separation of these objects between brahmins and katriyas, between priests and warriors, is also a shrewd division of powers between the two forms of sovereignty whose balance is always at risk: the brahmins are responsible for the wooden sword and the post; and the katriyas for the cart and the arrow. Two against two: the katriyas closer to everyday life (the cart and the arrow are required by the tribe on the move and in battle); the brahmins more abstract, but none the milder for this (the wooden sword, the solitary post). The most incongruous object, much like a toy—the sphya, the “wooden sword”—is given to the brahmin. But it is also the only one of the four objects that represents the thunderbolt in its totality, as it was once brandished by Indra. Only a brahmin can hold the wooden sword, since it “is the thunderbolt and no man can hold it: so he holds it with the help of the gods.” When one reaches closest proximity to the gods, only a brahmin can act. The story of Indra’s thunderbolt, however, explains why, from the beginning, power is never whole, but is split into two irreducible parts.
* * *
The fabric of relationships between auctoritas and potestas, between spiritual and temporal power, between brahmins and katriyas, between the priest and the king: a perpetual and boundless theme in India from the gveda to the Mahabharata (which is all a story of plots and variants within these relationships) and to the Pura as (“Antiquities”). Complementary and sometimes hostile relationships: but such conflict was never expressed in the crude terms of a struggle between spirit and force. The brahmins’ ancestors were “seers,” the is—and first among them, the Seven Seers, the Saptar is, who dwelt in the seven stars of the Great Bear and held terrible destructive power. They were capable of swallowing up, parching, hurling thunderbolts at whole portions of the cosmos. The armies of a king were never as devastating as the tapas, the ardor of a i.
The katriyas, on the other hand, were eager not just for power. On many occasions, especially in the Upani ads (but also in the Brahma as), we meet katriyas who enlighten illustrious brahmins on certain extreme doctrines, on points that the brahmins themselves could not fathom.
* * *
There is an enormous variance between the rudimentary physical remains of the Vedic civilization and the complexity, difficulty, and boldness of its texts. In the cities of the Indus, bricks were used for construction; storehouses and vast water tanks were created. The Vedic people knew about bricks and used them, but only for piling up on the fire altar. A whole theology was developed around “bricks,” iaka, which were associated with “oblation,” ii. And building itself was first and foremost a ritual. The elements of daily life could not have been simpler, but their meanings appeared overwhelming. Though reduced to the minimum, everything was always too much. Even a cautious and laconic scholar like Louis Renou recognized that “the Veda moves in a state of panic.” In contrast to all priestly rigor, the hymns seemed to him to be not just “poems composed in ‘cold blood,’” but “frenetic works, produced in an atmosphere of oratorical jousting, where victory is gained by best formulating (or: most rapidly guessing) the mystical-ritual-based enigmas.” And where defeat could mean a sentence of death. Heads burst into pieces, with no need of an executioner. There is no lack of documented cases.
* * *
Among all those who belonged to the Indus civilization, we know one name alone: Su-ilisu, an interpreter. He appears as a dwarf, or a child, on an Akkadian seal. He is sitting on the lap of a person wearing rich, heavy ornaments. The words carved over the image read: “Su-ilisu, translator of Meluhha.” Other seals speak of merchandise from Meluhha, from that Indus civilization whose territory was bigger than that of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Persia, and which lasted at least a thousand years, finally dying out, for reasons entirely unknown, around 1600 B.C.E. The names are lost. The only one that remains is that of Su-ilisu, interpreter of a language that still resists all attempts to decipher it—assuming that it is a language, a point over which there is still dispute.
For several years there have been feverish attempts to unearth horse bones in the Punjab. Brandished as blunt weapons, they were supposed to have been used to defeat and disperse the odious Indo-Europeans who were said to have come from outside, from beyond the Khyber Pass. Thus it would be proved that their innovation—the horse—was already to be found in those regions. For—according to some—all that is most ancient and memorable must necessarily grow on Indian soil. And the undeciphered script of Harappa should already contain quite enough to make it clear that Sanskrit and the gveda descend from there. None of this has been supported by the archaeological evidence, and it goes against what is said in the Vedic texts. The soma, whatever it might have been, grew in the mountains, which aren’t part of the landscape of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. As for warriors riding on chariots with horses, there is no trace of them in the seals of the Indus civilization. If one compares it with the gveda, it is difficult to avoid the impression that they are two parallel worlds. And yet they must have come into contact in some manner. But in some manner that still remains unclear.
* * *
In Vedic India, history was not something worthy of note. Historiography makes its appearance much later, not just many centuries after Herodotus and Thucydides, but at the time when the medieval chronicles were being written in the West. The chronology to which the ritualists refer is generally a time of the gods and of what took place before the gods. Only in rare cases is reference made to something “antiquated,” so as to indicate a passage to the time of mankind. And invariably it relates to changes within a ritual. For example, in the most complicated and impressive ritual, the asvamedha, the “horse sacrifice”: “That asvamedha is, so to speak, an antiquated sacrifice, for what part of it is celebrated and what part not?” After having followed the meticulous, bewildering instructions on the hundreds of animals to be sacrificed during the asvamedha and on the various ways they had to be treated, on the beads to be threaded into the mane of the horse and on the “ways of the knife” that had to be followed when cutting into the flesh of the horse, making a sudden change of course it is said that the “asvamedha is an antiquated sacrifice” (or “abandoned,” utsannayajña). Perhaps the speculations of the liturgists already related to a glorious lost past, when there was still a perfect link between the chants, the numbers, and the animals killed. Perhaps they already felt like seventeenth-century scholars waging a war of quotations over some long-gone event. But the fewer the references to the pure, corrosive sequence of time, the more devastating are their effects. And any attempt to establish an immediate, simple, and unambiguous relationship between the texts of the Vedic ritualists and any factual reality will appear all the more futile. Unlike the Egyptians, the Sumerians, or the Chinese of the Zhou dynasty, they avoided linking events to the years. Verum ipsum factum did not apply. Liturgical acts were the only factum connected to a verum. All that was carried out before and outside the ritual belonged to the vast frayed realm of untruth.
* * *
Vedic India is founded on a rigorous exclusivity (only those who take part in the sacrifice can be saved) and at the same time on a need for total redemption (extending not only to all humans, but to all living beings). This twofold claim, which will sound unreasonable to the other great religions (which are more closely bound to secular good sense) reappears in the picture of an ancient, endless feast: “But those creatures that are not admitted to the sacrifice are lost; he therefore admits to the sacrifice those creatures here on earth who are not lost; behind mankind are the beasts; and behind the gods are the birds, the plants and the trees; and so whatever exists here on earth is admitted to the sacrifice. And verily, both gods and men and their forebears drink together, and this is their feast; in ancient times they drank together visibly, but now they do so in the invisible.”
Nothing else was as serious, for gods just as much as for men, as being excluded from the sacrifice. Nothing was so certain to bring loss of salvation. Life, alone, was not enough to save life. There had to be a form, a sequence of gestures, a constant endeavor to avoid perdition. And for salvation to happen, it had to extend to everything, it had to carry everything with it. There was no salvation of the individual—being or species. Behind mankind could be glimpsed the incalculable multitudes of beasts, united with man by their being pasu, potential sacrificial victims. Whereas behind the gods rustled all the trees and shrubs, with their inhabitants, the birds, which had easier access to the sky.
This overwhelming vision is offered in few words—and has no equivalent in any of the other great ancient civilizations. There is no trace of it in any Greek (not to mention Roman) texts, it is certainly not a biblical view (where man, since the very beginning in the Garden of Eden, is branded as the dominator), nor in any Chinese texts. Only the cruel Vedic people, as they relentlessly devoted themselves to bloody sacrifices, thought about how to save the trees, the plants, and all other living beings, together with themselves. And they thought it could be done in only one way: to admit all those creatures to the sacrifice. They also thought it was the only way of overcoming the toughest challenge—the perpetuation of that invisible feast which had once been visible to all, and in which all took part.
* * *
As we become more familiar with the Vedic world, we soon have the impression of finding ourselves in a self-sufficient, self-segregated world. Its neighbors? What was there before? How was it formed? There is room for doubt on everything. This explains a certain perverse pleasure among the great Vedists about the object of their studies: they know that once they have entered, they will never leave. A master like Louis Renou made an implicit reference to this in 1951, on one of the rare occasions when he allowed himself to speak in general terms: “Another reason for this decline in interest [for Vedic studies] is the isolation of the Veda. Nowadays our attention is centered on cultural influences and points of contact between civilizations. The Veda provides little of this sort of material, for it developed in isolation. Yet perhaps it is really more important to begin by studying certain individual manifestations in and for themselves, and to examine their own internal structure.” But this is exactly what Abel Bergaigne, founder of the glorious dynasty of French Vedists, was doing back in the nineteenth century: studying the gveda as a complete world in itself, which found justification in itself alone. An inexhaustible study, as Renou himself well knew: he was to publish seventeen volumes of his Études védiques et paninéennes, in which he gradually translated and interpreted the hymns of the gveda, considering them each time from varying angles, but without ever completing the task. Neither Egypt, nor Mesopotamia, nor China, nor least of all Greece (with its provocative lack of liturgical texts) can offer anything even remotely comparable to the Vedic corpus in terms of the rigor of its formal structure, its exclusion of all reference to time—whether as history or chronicle—the intrusiveness of its liturgy, and, finally, in terms of the refinement, profusion, and meticulousness of the internal links between the various parts of the corpus.
There have always been, and continue to be, plenty of strongly held theories about the origins of those who described themselves as Aryas and composed the Vedic corpus. But the enormity and uniqueness of their textual undertaking is all the more remarkable if the description of their historical existence is reduced to the few certain elements, as Frits Staal once formulated them: “More than three thousand years ago, small groups of semi-nomadic peoples crossed the mountain regions that separate Central Asia from Iran and the subcontinent of India. They spoke an Indo-European language, which developed into Vedic, and imported the rudiments of a social and ritual system. Like other speakers of Indo-European languages, they celebrated fire, called Agni, and like their Iranian relatives, they adopted the cult of Soma—a plant, probably hallucinogenic, that grew in the high mountains. The interaction between these Central-Asian adventurers and earlier inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent gave birth to the Vedic civilization, named after the four Vedas, oral compositions that have been transmitted by word of mouth up to the present day.” These words of Staal, in their spareness of tone, as though written to meet the requirements of a popular encyclopedia, transmit something of that wonder that anyone should feel before the unprecedented and unparalleled undertaking of these (few) “Central-Asian adventurers.” From the very beginning, it was an undertaking concerned not so much with territorial conquest (unclearly definable, unimpressive, not supported by any strong political structure, lacking even the invention of the “city,” nagara, a word that is more or less absent from the oldest texts—and in any event does not correspond to any documentable evidence: there is no trace of any Vedic city). Instead, it involved a cult, closely bound up with texts of extreme complexity, and an intoxicating plant. A state of awareness became the pivot around which turned thousands and thousands of meticulously codified ritual acts. A mythology, as well as the boldest speculation, arose out of the fateful and dramatic encounter between a liturgy and rapture.
* * *
Ya evaveda, “he who knows thus,” is an oft-recurring formula in the Veda. Knowing—and knowing thus, in a certain way that was distinct from all other knowing—was evidently something most important for Vedic men. Power, conquest, pleasure appeared as secondary factors, which were part of knowledge, but certainly couldn’t supplant it. The Vedic vocabulary is extremely subtle and highly distinctive in defining everything to do with thought, inspiration, exaltation. They practiced the discernment of spirits—as certain Western mystics would say many centuries later—with an astonishing assurance and perspicacity that make any attempt at translation look clumsy. What is dhi? Intense thought, vision, inspiration, meditation, prayer, contemplation? From time to time, all of these. And in any event the assumption was the same: the supremacy of knowledge over every other path to salvation.
* * *
Why were Vedic men so obsessed by ritual? Why do all of their texts speak, directly or indirectly, about liturgy? They wanted to think, they wanted to live only in certain states of awareness. Having rejected all else, this remains the only plausible reason. They wanted to think—and above all: they wanted to be aware of thinking. This happens, for example, in performing a gesture. There is the gesture—and there is the attention that is concentrated on the gesture. Attention gives the gesture its meaning.
Ancient Rome was also a highly ritualistic society, but ritual never became so radical. In Rome, over and above ritual was practice, the ability to deal with situations as they arose. Ritual was thus channeled into law, fas was absorbed—or at least attempts were made to absorb it—into ius. But for the Vedic people, the highest concentration of thought was into gesture—and for no ulterior purpose. To think brahman, which is the extreme of everything, means to be brahman. This is the underlying doctrine.
* * *
The more arguments rage over secularization, the easier it is to forget that the West, if that is what we want to call something which was born in Greece, has been secular from the very beginning. Without a priestly class, exposed to the continual risk of being excluded from the light, with no prospects of reward or redemption in other worlds, the Greeks were the first wholly idiosyncratic beings. This resonates through every verse of Sappho or Archilochus. And that which is idiosyncratic acts as the very backbone of secularity. How then do we explain the unbridgeable distance between modernity and the ancient Greeks? The Greeks knew who and what their gods were. More than believing in their gods, they met with them. For the Greeks, an átheos was, above all, someone who is abandoned by the gods, not someone who refuses to believe in them, as the moderns proudly claim—though they cannot avoid fashioning their secular institutions using theological categories. But the sacred, if surreptitiously injected into secularity, becomes a poisonous substance.
Vedic India and ancient Greece mirror each other. In India: all texts are sacred, liturgical, of nonhuman origin, kept and transmitted by a priestly class (the brahmins). In Greece: all texts are secular, often attributed to authors, transmitted outside a priestly class, which does not exist as such. The Eumolpidae, the family who supervised the Eleusinian Mysteries, were not expected to compose texts. When certain figures converge—as in the case of Helen and the Dioscuri, which bears a remarkable similarity to the stories of Sara yu and the Asvins—that affinity indicates that we are approaching something inextricably ingrained in the experience of every mind. They are all stories focusing on the simulacrum (ágalma, eídolon), the reflection (chaya), and the copy (twin resemblance). Stories around stories, since the stories are woven with simulacra and reflections. It is the mythical material that reflects on itself, in the same way that the is often spoke, in the hymns of the gveda, about the verses they were composing. They are moments in which the many whirling rivers of history seem to flow into the same ocean, the ocean that provided the title for a collection of stories that is India’s counterpart to the Thousand and One Nights: the Kathasaritsagara, the Ocean of the Rivers of Stories.
* * *
Quite a number of scholars have recently toned down their descriptions of the Vedic people so far as they could, for fear of being accused of presenting them as blond Aryan predators. They are no longer conquerors who burst forth from the mountains, laying waste to the kingdom of the indigenous tribes and cruelly subjugating them. They are now a group of migrants who filter down to new lands, a few at a time, meeting hardly any resistance, since the previous Indus civilization was already extinct, for reasons that have still to be discovered. A proper correction, supported by the scant archaeological evidence, but one that sometimes arouses a suspicion of excessive zeal. And, to remove any inappropriate scruple, it is enough to recall, in the words of Michael Witzel, that “the Nazis persecuted and murdered hundreds of thousands of the only true Aryans in Europe, the (Rom, Sinti) gypsies. It is well known that they speak an ancient neo-Indian language that has close links with the modern Dardic, Punjabi and Hindi languages.”
The Aryas may not have thrown themselves into crushing conquests, but the realm of imagery, at least, is captivated by the thunder of their horses and their war chariots, unknown before then in the lands of the Indus. As in a cloud of luminous dust, they were preceded by the ranks of the Maruts, the “storming sons of Rudra.” This is how the hymns of the gveda describe them: “Come, O Maruts, with your chariots made of thunderbolts, laden with songs, laden with spears, with horses like wings! Fly to us like birds with the noblest drink, you of beauteous magic!”; “The earth shakes in fear before their surge: like an over-laden ship, quivering”; “Even the vast mountain has taken fright, even the ridge of the sky shakes at your fury. When you Maruts sway armed with lances, you flow like water in the same direction.” It is difficult to think of those who sang of the Marut exploits as mild seminomadic shepherds, worried only about their herds and transhumance. Splendor and terror were with them when they were accompanied by the Maruts, with their flashing lances on their shoulders, studded with colorful decorations, with gold coins fixed to their breasts, united, compact, as if they were all simultaneously yielded up from the sky.
* * *
When Louis Renou published his first translations of the gveda in 1938, he quoted the words of Paul-Louis Couchoud as an epigraph to the Introduction: “Poetry was on the wrong track, [Mallarmé] said with a smile, ‘starting from the great Homeric deviation.’ And if anyone asked him what there was before Homer, he answered: ‘Orphism.’ The Vedic hymns … have something to do with Mallarmé’s Orphism.” Renou didn’t return to this theme in the Introduction, nor did he mention Mallarmé again. But epigraphs are the locus electionis of latent thoughts. That was the right place to suggest that the history of poetry did not end with Mallarmé, but had been Mallarméan at birth. “The Orphic explanation of the Earth,” the ultimate definition of poetry according to Mallarmé, does not apply so much to the late Orphic hymns, but above all to the Vedic hymns from which, a few streets away from rue de Rome, Abel Bergaigne was already unraveling the endless tangle of images. In order to feel the Mallarméan resonance it is enough to open the hymns at random, for example at the beginning of 4.58, the hymn to ghtá, ghee, the clarified butter used in rituals. This is how Renou translated it in 1938: “From the ocean the wave of honey has surged: with the stalk of the soma it has assumed the form of ambrosia. This is the secret name of the ghee: tongue of the gods, navel of the immortal.”
* * *
For a Westerner trained in philology, it is hard to think of anything more frustrating than Indian history. Quicksand in every direction. Dates and figures never certain. Here the centuries move back and forth as months do elsewhere. No passage is entirely convincing. What brought about the passage from the gveda to the Brahma as? And why from the Brahma as to the Upani ads? And from the Upani ads to the Sutras? Every literary genre is already sketched out in what came before. Or else it stands in contrast with what came before. Alternatively—and this is the most disconcerting case—the two genres coexist. How can we unravel this knot? Or how, at least, can we fathom its densest part? The path that takes us farthest is still the self-referential one. The gveda has to be understood through the gveda—and nothing else (as in Bergaigne and in Renou). The Brahma as are understood through the Brahma as—and nothing else (as in Lévi and in Minard). Meanwhile the passage from the gveda to the Brahma as is still uncharted, or barely explored terrain. As if understanding Homer made it impossible to understand Plato—and the other way around. Whereas the whole of Greece must inevitably be seen as stretching between Homer and Plato.
Viewed from the standpoint of the Enlightenment, the Veda is as dark as night, dense, with no apparent inclination toward clarity. It is a world that is self-sufficient, highly tensioned, even convulsive, wrapped up in itself, with no curiosity about any other manner of existence. Streaked by all kinds of violent desires, it has no thirst for objects, vassals, pomp. If we are looking for an emblem of something utterly alien to modernity (however it might be defined), something that might look upon it with complete indifference, we find it in the Vedic people.
In the preface to the first edition of The World as Will and Representation (1818), Schopenhauer wrote that access to the Vedas by means of the Upani ads “is in my view the greatest advantage which this still young century has to show over previous centuries.” Momentous words: in comparison with the century that had just ended, the new period, according to Schopenhauer, offered a wonderful bonus, as the result of a single book, the daring edition of several Upani ads, translated into Latin from a Persian version, published by Anquetil-Duperron in 1801–1802 under the title Oupnek’hat, and later read by Schopenhauer in the 1808 edition. That text alone was enough to tip the balance of knowledge in favor of the nineteenth century.
* * *
Certain details help us understand the strangeness, the intractable Vedic singularity. The first complete commentary that we have of the Veda is that of Saya a, which dates from the fourteenth century. As if the first commentary we had on Homer had been written 2,100 years after the Iliad.
The world of the Veda is made of this: its elements: fire, water; among the animals: the cow, the horse, the goat; an “ocean,” samudrá, which can be heavenly, earthly, in the mind, each having incalculable limits; the word, eros, the liturgy; rocks, mountains; ornaments in clothing or on the body; bands of warriors, stockades torn down, the clash of arms.
Certain key words crop up time and again. With seemingly persistent monotony. And yet each of those words has a profusion of meanings, for the most part coded. If we follow Grassmann’s Vedic dictionary, padá, the cow’s hoof print, also means, in order of importance: “step,” “footprint,” “track,” “sojourn,” “region,” “(metrical) foot.” But you can also add: “radius,” “(single) word,” or “speech.” If we are talking about the “hidden padá,” Renou says it is “the mystery par excellence, which the poet tries to reveal.” Already we are a long way from the cow’s hoof print, which itself is mysterious and venerable, since a special “libation on the hoof print,” padahuti, is dedicated to it.
* * *
In the beginning there was a mute king, Mathava of Videha, who kept in his mouth the fire called Agni Vaisvanara, Agni-of-all-men, that form of Agni which all living beings keep inside themselves. Next to him, a perennial shadow, a brahmin, Gotama, who provoked him, first with his questions that remained unanswered, then with his ritual invocations, to which the king, according to the liturgy, should have answered. And the king still remained silent, for fear of losing the fire he had in his mouth. But in the end the brahmin’s invocations succeeded in driving out the fire, making it erupt into the world: “He [the king] was unable to hold him back. That [Agni] erupted from his mouth and fell down to this earth.” And, from the moment Agni fell down to earth, he began to burn it. King Mathava found himself at that moment by the Sarasvati River. Agni then began to burn the land eastward. It marked out a path—and the king and the brahmin followed it. A question remained in the mind of the brahmin, so he asked the king why Agni had fallen from his mouth when he had heard a certain invocation and not before. The king answered: “Because ghee is mentioned in that invocation—and Agni loves it.” That, for the brahmin, was the founding ruse. The first act of history is therefore not that of the ruler, of the katriya, of the warrior. It is an act of the brahmin, of he who kindles every event, who compels the fire to leave its refuge. What immediately follows is a brief outline of what would always happen thereafter: man follows the path left by the fire, which goes before him, scorching the land. This is civilization, before all else: a trail marked by flames. And in the euphoria of conquest there is no need to think that desire or human greed take over. Men always follow: it is Agni who conquers.
The brahmin Gotama’s shrewdness had worked. With his words of enticement—but above all the mere mention of ghee, Agni’s favorite food—he had managed to start the ritual, which in turn had set history in motion. But that story had a precedent, dating back to the period of the relentless conflicts between the Devas and the Asuras. At one time the arrogant Asuras “continued to offer sacrifices in their own mouths,” whereas the Devas preferred to offer them to each other. At that point their father, Prajapati, chose the Devas and gave them the task of offering sacrifices. He preferred them because, even before being entirely sure to whom they had to make their offering, they had agreed that the offering should be external, that it passed from one being to another, rupturing the membrane of self-sufficiency, reminiscent of the formless body of V tra, the primordial monster.
* * *
If Vedic men had been asked why they did not build cities, or kingdoms, or empires (even if they had a concept of cities, kingdoms, empires), they could have replied: we did not seek power, but rapture—if rapture is the word that best describes the effect of soma. They described it like this, in the most direct way: “We have now drunk soma, we have become immortal, we have attained the light, we have found the gods. What can the hatred and malice of a mortal do to us now?” Vedic men wanted nothing more, but also nothing less. They built a huge edifice of rites and formulas to enable them to utter those few words. They were the beginning and the end. Palaces, kingdoms, and vast administrative systems are more a hindrance than a gain for anyone who has attained this. All human glory, all conquerors’ pride, all thirst for pleasure: they were only an obstacle. And the intoxication wrought by soma was not an exultant but uncontrollable state. For they said of soma: “You are the guardian of our body, O soma; you have settled into every limb as a keeper.” Intoxication was a protective shell, which could be broken at any time, but only through the weakness of the individual. He then turned to that substance which was also a king, beseeching favor, as if to a benevolent sovereign: “If we break the holy vow, pardon us like good friends, O god, for our own good.” This physiological familiarity with the divine was such that soma, in invigorating the body from within, sustained it. Not even the Greeks, who were experts in rapture, would have dared to have merged possession and supreme control together into one state, granted by those “glorious” and “salvific drinks,” of which it is said: “Like the harness of the chariot, so you hold together my limbs.” And what will be the ultimate desire, now that it seems almost within grasp? Infinite life: “O King Soma, prolong our days like the sun prolongs the days of spring.” Subtlety, lucidity: the infinite is presented as a gradual, imperceptible expansion of the dominion of light.
Copyright © 2010 by Adelphi Edizioni S.p.A. Milano
Excerpted from Ardor by Roberto Calasso, Richard Dixon. Copyright © 2015 Roberto Calasso. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
I. Remote Beings
IV. The Progenitor
V. They Who Saw the Hymns
VI. The Adventures of Mind and Speech
VIII. Perfect Wakefulness
IX. The Brahma-as
X. The Line of the Fires
XI. Vedic Erotica
XII. Gods Who Offer Libations
XIII. Residue and Surplus
XIV. Hermits in the Forest
XVI. The Sacrifi cial Vision
XVII. After the Flood
XIX. The Act of Killing
XX. The Flight of the Black Antelope
XXI. King Soma
Antecedents and Consequents
Note on Sanskrit Pronunciation
List of Illustrations