Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Roberto Calasso and the frig vedas (sorry, couldn’t resist!)

The decision to publish a Hindi translation of Roberto Calasso’s Ka is an intriguing one. Rajkamal Prakashan have just completed work on the translation and while their representatives don’t think there will be a controversy, I don’t see how one can be avoided. To begin with, this is a less-than-conformist interpretation of ancient Indian texts by a non-Indian, now to be made available to a Hindi-reading audience: that combination alone should incense many of our renowned culture-guardians. Add to this Calasso’s taking a few liberties with the text of the Vedas – reshuffling the chronology of selected myths and using a novelistic framework to emphasise the "eternal cyclical tangle" that is Indian mythology.

And then of course there’s the sexual explicitness.

I’ve always been very interested in what our Gods really get up to in their antechambers when they aren’t being sanitised by the Hindutva brigade or turned into cardboard-cutout soap actors with Colgate smiles by Ramanand Sagar and others. So I was gladdened by, for instance, a passage in Ka where a marathon copulation session between Shiva and Parvati is interrupted by the other Gods nervously knocking on the bedroom door. Shiva strides to the door, opens it and is so bemused by the expression on the faces of the other celestial beings that he fails to notice that "his phallus was squirting out its seed". Lord Agni now lunges forward and takes said seed in his mouth, thereby saving the world from certain destruction.

Now I’m reasonably sure Calasso isn’t making any of this up, though he may have added a few creative flourishes of his own (Shiva smiles at the writhing Agni and says, "Isn’t that what you came here for?"). It’s been easy enough to read between the lines in the mythological texts I’ve encountered before this (even in the translations done by relatively conservative Indian scholars; cleaning up the language is one thing but you can’t bowdlerize all the raunchy bits without losing the essence of some of these stories).

Anyway, Ka has a few thrilling little moments like that one, along with has some long, dreary passages that read like they were written by a more erudite, more sophisticated Paulo Coelho. All told, however, if you have a lot of patience, you might want to check it out. I appreciated the retellings of some of the stories (especially the Garuda one), as I did Calasso’s view of the Mahabharata as "an overwhelming demonstration of the futility of conflict" (as opposed to a straightforward morality tale). And his central conceit – that of naming the book after the Rig Veda refrain "Who (Ka) is the god to whom we should offer our sacrifice?" – is also noteworthy.

I met Calasso yesterday, if you can call it a meeting. It was part of a generally bad day for me, one interview after another being delayed or scrapped – which meant several hours of running around with almost nothing to show for it. In Calasso’s case I had to wait nearly an hour because his appointment schedule, much like Shiva’s seed, had spilled over, and when my turn finally came he dusted me off after 10 minutes because a friend was waiting for him. In those 10 minutes we did talk a little about the sanitising of ancient texts and the doublethink in modern-day religious worship. Since we were both obviously on a Shiva trip, the subject also turned to how many devout people in contemporary Indian families don’t even know what the linga represents.

Sexual conservatism has been a part of India’s societal framework for a very long time, the reasons for it are many and complex and they go back a long way – and it’s difficult to outright condemn attitudes that have been ingrained in millions of families over centuries. But an even bigger problem in my view is the blind faith people have in traditions as they have been handed down to them. This affects their ability to be open-minded about religion, to see the often-dubious roots of the customs they take for granted. It also, crucially, builds up too many sacred cows and stilts their sense of humour. (Of course, much of this is my personal perspective as an atheist, but there are many believers who succeed in staying away from religious dogmatism even while continuing to maintain their own private faith in a higher power.)

All the best to Rajkamal for their new project, though I won’t be too surprised if it raises a few eyebrows, or even a minor storm, in the coming days.


  1. Jai interesting analysis fascinating reading, including your graphic metaphor of interviews spilling over !
    I never know how to respond to these interpretations and commentaries - many of them seem to be such labours of love. Every now and then you dig up some fasinating tid bit but then that's all - who reads them ? ( besides reviewers ?

  2. What meaning could a tradition have apart from the meaning it accumulates as it is handed down?

    What happens when history meets faith? One must imagine that. Imagine that, imagine, those who have faith are free to imagine.

  3. "... and stilts their sense of humor."

    Right, that's very dangerous, it's not a huge leap from that to the Taliban?

    BTW, I'm surprised you didn't mention the Ashwamedha Yagna. Sex is commonplace (the birds do it, the bees do it, the flowers are it), but bestiality? Tsk, tsk...

  4. You are so right about people not knowing what the lingam represents. I came to know only in my mid-teens, and then, ironically, through a Raj-era novel by a British author, which had sterotypical descriptions of 'village women praying to the erect phallus of Lord Shiva'. For quite some time, I couldn't even figure out what the author was referring to, and when I did, I was by turn astounded, repelled and fascinated. And then angry that nobody had ever told me this, though I grew up in a neighbourhood where women kept strict shivaratri fasts were generally quite in awe of the shivalingam.

  5. hmmm I personally think the culture vultures mistake some Victorian values for ancient Hindu values.

    Soundaryalahiri, is a composition by Adi Shankar. And some years I read an English translation by Ramakrishna Mutt Publication.
    The description of the Goddess didnt just stop with her breasts.
    Similarly when I read the translation of Gita Govind(??)Ashtapathi by Jayadev, I was suprised.
    It doesnt mean that these are just about sex.
    But to me it does show that some centuries ago, many werent uncomfortable about sex.

    oh i wont be suprised by a minor storm.

  6. Just an aside -

    But an even bigger problem in my view is the blind faith people have in traditions as they have been handed down to them.

    I really do not see how else would 'faith' work but be blind. ( I sense a redundancy here ). And it is true of many of the 'beliefs' that we have today. Take, for example, the question of 'capitalism' and 'free markets'. We just seem to have faith in the belief that they would work and work well in the long run. Consider the spirit of scientific enquiry - it could be argued that people have nothing else but a similar 'belief' in its efficacy and meaningfulness in the long run. There seems to be a distortion somewhere, a kind of compression and decompression of the timeline. The present tends to skew any notion of scale that we might have, to be able to appreciate what happened, when, how and why. Communism was thought to be a radical 'solution' once upon a time. One state has collapsed and another is on the verge of altering its national identity now...

    I guess the point that I am trying to make is that we just do not know well enough how good or 'enlightened' our beliefs / faith might be ( and in the context of what ), to be able to hold water through the ages. Not too many people question / investigate / examine / understand the notions of 'liberty' or 'freedom' these days. These are, likewise, a-given. We have had bloggers crying themselves hoarse over notions such as 'freedom of expression / speech' and the like ( and fighting over them :). But we just do not know if they are meaningful terms in the long run and how they would morph into something else with age. For all you know, these could be the 'sacred cows' of the future.

    The game is way too big and complex for us to be able to assimilate or comprehend adequately...


  7. There can be no religion without dogma, so obviously religions promote it. How else then do you get followers to conform?
    I don't condone dogma, but most people are perfectly willing to accept what they're told to think. Most don't care, and many don't know any better.
    Blind faith can't be good, but when religions demand it, what can people do?
    As an atheist, watching people perform rituals that are mostly meaningless to them merely out of a sense of duty bothers me too. But if it's helping many, then why not? Religion is, afterall, the opium of the masses.
    That said, the extent to which some people will go in the name of traditon/religion, the lack of moderation is quite appalling. Especially when religion seeps out of temples to form national/local policy.

  8. Sonya: thanks. Idealistic though it sounds, if I really feel like writing about something I go ahead and do it. Any readership is a bonus. (In this case though, there's an added incentive. I'm also writing about the Calasso interview for work - so writing this provides the raw material for the article.)

    Cheshire cat: ah yes, the dead horse and the king's first wife under the sheets together. Thought I'd leave something for readers of the book to discover for themselves!

    Nina: those are good points, thanks - especially the "opium of the masses" bit. Guess I'm just prejudiced against the whole edifice.

    Willothewisp: very true, very true, nothing can ever be truly comprehended until the Day of Reckoning, when Siva will spill his last seed.

    Cinephile: hmmm.

  9. Marauder: "Astounded, repelled, fascinated" - yup,
    that's the gamut alright.

    (BTW, ask your hub what he thinks of the frig veda bit - it comes directly from our days at the Today copy desk together!)

    Donkey: absolutely, they certainly aren't just about sex, but they're certainly much more relaxed about the subject than most of us are.

  10. *runs a trident through your blasphemous, culture hating, little body*

  11. Wow..that was thought provoking..its absurd how there r so many things we take for granted or just plainly ignore.

    Liked your toungue in cheek style of writing this account.

    Although I don't think there would be much of a furor on this one.

  12. hey I did'nt mean your review - that was actually very interesting reading
    Reading your review "Ka", the book seems to be in the genre of those awfully well intentioned, massively researched somewhat meandering volumes one encounters.
    And I often wonder who reads these books ?

  13. :)

    This, as well, is tangential....

    The funny thing that I have noticed is that, over the ages, there have always been sets of believers ( in whatever might be "IN" at that particular moment in history ) who have looked down upon others, not realising that they share the same kind of life and fate. There isn't much to distinguish one from the other.

    There is something to be said for traditional rituals though ... some kind of an emotional attunement that one undergoes as you immerse yourself in them. Yes, one needs to have undergone a particular kind of upbringing to be able to sense what I am linking to here. ( It is also amazing to note that a lot of devotional music has the ability to make a listener transcend his troubles, for some time at least ). Though I am not making a case for divinity here, I feel that one needs to be circumspect before dismissing mythology ( and particularly Indian ) out of hand. Yes, some of those stories are fabular and do not need to be taken literally. Yet those who trash them also run the risk of doing so on precisely the same basis - taking them literally. There is a lot to be said for the metaphorical and the metaphysical subtext. Its a bit like reading Alice in Wonderland as a child and then subsequently as an adult... ( I have not yet met anyone who could discuss it this way, other than a few pages on the net. )...

  14. Sonya: sorry, I goofed up there! But no, Ka isn't one of those obscure tomes written only for reviewers/researchers. It's an acclaimed, well-known work (widely regarded one of the major interpretations of Indian mythology) and Calasso himself is a leading Italian author/scholar.

  15. It's like one of my friends so succinctly put it: Our ancestors were veeery loving people. (I'm sorry that loses a bit in the translation, but it still fits.)

    BTW, another very loving text is the Vikram & Vetal thingy. The day I found it was the day I started loving my school library. A 'pair of upturned pitchers' is still one of the most vivid descriptions I can imagine.

  16. I really doubt that the source material is Vedic. It may be Puranic. As far as I know, the Vedas are a collection of hymns/invocations to the gods/elements (and all these gods have a psychological symbolism). The Puranas, which came much later, are the stuff of what Amar Chitra Katha was made of.

  17. I've written a brief review of Ka, if there's any interest in what a non-Indian with only an academic knowledge of Hindu mythology makes of it.

  18. Says more about the reviewer than about the book. Was there a storm after all?
    In the last 16 years I have read all of Calasso's translated works and enjoyed them immensely although I am your conventional Indian.