"And who, in God's name, is He?" A Book Review on 'Ka'

By N.S.Jagannathan

Ka: Roberto Calasso. Translated from original Italian by Tim Parks. Vintage Paperback 1999 Pages 448. Price $ 3.


Amidst the deafening din of post-Colonial chatter on the dark designs of Orientalists “colonising the source texts”, of the colonised, I am all the time nagged by a niggling doubt: how literate are these critics in Sanskrit and other native Indian languages? Alleging that these hegemonistic foreigners have enslaved native minds (which might well have happened in many cases, including theirs) they say that native modes of thinking and aesthetic canons have been supplanted in Indian minds by imposed patterns of perception and judgments Here are Susie Tharu and Lalitha:

“Formulations that set up the problem of translation as one judging how faithful a translation has been to the original or how well it reads in the target language divert attention from the fact that translations takes place where two, invariably unequal, worlds collide, and that there are always relationships of power involved when one world is represented for another in translation”

Fair enough. But how many nativists know their Sanskrit –and Vedic Sanskrit, at that — well enough to have read the original to be able to assert without hypocrisy that such and such is the real meaning and such and such is the imperialist colouration in the translation? How knowledgeable are they of the Rasa-Dwani paradigms of Sanskrit poetics or of the thinai contextualisation in Tamil aesthetics as found in the original texts? And how often have they themselves applied them to provide alternative readings of the literary texts that the Orientalists has subverted? In an extremely perceptive recent article, K.Sachidanandan quotes a few instances of such effort like P.K.Balakrishnan on Kumara Asan’s poetry in Malayalam and Balachandra Nemade on the Marathi novel as such efforts. More power to their elbow (Incidentally, the use of this idiom is itself an instance of a colonised mind, but let that pass.!)

This polemical outburst is perhaps the best way to introduce a work that once again sharply focuses the perennial agonies over inter-cultural encounters and transfers of ideas and feelings. If only our cultural amnesia were not as nearly total as in fact it is; if only Sanskrit and ancient Tamil were not so difficult to master for most of us; if only the ‘educated ‘ Indian’s acquaintance with his own roots were at least as complete as the ‘uneducated’ Indian’s (who at least has the benefit of the continuity provided by oral traditions and of the relatively unimpaired ritualistic praxis, we should be in a better position to cope with the undoubted cultural subversions and deprivations imposed on us by western indoctrination during and after the British interlude in our history.

Ka is an excellent text for regurgitating these issues. It is an extraordinary book. Written originally in Italian, it has been translated into English by Tim Parks, himself a bilingual novelist of note. Sub-titled “The Stories of the mind and gods of India,” the book is a mind-boggling, torrential stream of ideas and stories about the origin of the universe and its inhabitants as told in the riddles and paradoxes of the Rig Veda and other scriptures, Indian mythological stories, epics such as Mahabharata and Bhagavata down Buddhist classics It is part narration, part exposition, part interpretation

Calasso is one of those formidable polymaths, with an astonishing mastery over languages and literatures, and an awesome capacity for internalising civilisations, his own and others’. Ka is the third in a series such exploration of ancient cultures interpreted in hindsight and the light of modern knowledge His first such book was The Ruin of Kasch, recreating to the point of reinventing “the birth of the modern and the collapse of the classical world.” As he himself puts it, “it is the story of the passage from one world to another, from one order to another and of the ruin of both” The second book, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony continues the same narrative strategy, this time recreating ancient Greece embedded in the Greek myths, the epics Iliad and Odyssey and the great tragedies. And now in Ka, he explores the ancient Indian mind and psyche in the same manner. The “Mind of Man” as revealed in some of the civilisations of the past is the eternal theme of all these works. As Calasso himself puts it, “we live in a warehouse of casts that have lost their moulds

It is one of the most complex books I have read, combining itself the qualities of a gripping novel and daring philosophical speculation. It is probably the most ambitiously original effort at decoding some of the most elusive paradoxes of ancient Indian texts I shall give just two examples to get the flavour of the book. These two are typical of hundred such in the richness of their texture, their involuted but lucid analysis of ideas of extraordinary subtlety, and above all, their seductive literary grace. The first is an example of his “story telling” and the second of his own linking philosophical gloss

Ka begins beguilingly thus, setting the tone of his half-novel half- exegesis hybrid form, more fully discussed later.

“Suddenly an eagle darkened the sky. Its bright black, almost violet feathers made a moving curtain between clouds and earth. Hanging from its claws, likewise immense and stiff with terror, an elephant and a turtle skimmed the mountaintops. It seemed the bird meant to use the beaks as pointed knifes to gut its prey. Only occasionally did the eagle’s eye flash out from behind the thick fronds of something held tight in its beak: a huge branch. A hundred strips of cowhide would not have sufficed to cover it.

Garuda flew and remembered………”

Then follows the ancient tale of the birth of Garuda, the divine eagle and the steed of Vishnu in later legends, (see the cover picture), as told him by his mother Vinata, and her life long slavery, as a result of a lost wager, to her sister, Kadru. Garuda then sets out on his mission to end his mother’s bondage and encounters many adventures. In the course of his wanderings, he also studies the Vedas where he stumbles on the hymn Ka (Who?) in the tenth book of the Rig Veda:

“Buried deep among the tree Rauhina’s branches, Garuda read the Vedas. It was years before he raised his beak. Those beings he had terrorised in the heavens, who had scattered like dust on his arrival, who had tried in vain to fight him, he knew who they were now: with reverence he scanned their names and those of their descendants. The Adityas, the Vasus, the Rudras, Varuna, Mitra, Aryaman, Bhaga, Tvastr, Pusan, Visvavat, Savitr, Vishnu, Dhatir, Amsa …… Thirty three in all. But each had many names ….. The names whirled in silence. Perfectly motionless, Garuda experienced a sense of vertigo and intoxication; the hymns blazed within him. Finally he reached the tenth book of The Rig Veda. And here he smelt a shift in the wind. Along with the names came a shadow now, a name never uttered. What had been affirmative tended to the interrogative. The voice that spoke was more remote. It no longer celebrated. It said what is. Now Garuda was reading hymn one hundred and twenty one in Trishub meter. There were nine stanzas, each one ending with the same question: “Who (Ka) is the god to whom we should offer our sacrifice?” Estuary to a hidden ocean that syllable (ka) would go on echoing within him as the essence of the Vedas. Garuda stopped and shut his eyes. He had never felt so uncertain, and so close to understanding. Never felt so light, in that sudden absence of names. When he opened his eyes, he realised that the nine stanzas were followed by another; this one separated by a space that was slightly larger. The writing was a little more uneven, minute. A tenth stanza, without any question. And here there was a name. The only name in the hymn, the only answer. Garuda couldn’t remember ever having seen the name before: Prajapati”

This Prajapati, the primordial progenitor, is sure of nothing He does not even know whether he existed or not His own speculation about his own origin and what he himself subsequently created (mentally ) is always qualified by “the particle ” as if” ( iva)) The nature of consciousness is a recurring theme in early Hindu speculation and in successive chapters, Calasso explores the explorations The myriad enigmatic gnomic utterances ( Sutras) of the Vedas are put through the wringer of a modern sensibility that seems to have thoroughly internalised, at least at the intellectual level, the ancient modes of ontological and teleological discourse and .the symbolism of the mimetic rituals in which these ideas found expression.

The second passage seeks to explain the recurring motif of “story telling” in the course of an on-going sacrificial ritual. And the consequential birth of the latter day epics and what later came to be designated as “Literature.”.

“There came a day, as the times grew dark, when it became evident that the Four Vedas did not exhaust every form of knowledge. The hymns and ritual gestures went on, self-sufficient in their meaning. But, in the space between one ritual act and another, time was penetrated by the act of someone telling a story…. In the beginning, stories were no more than appendices to knowledge, but gradually the time given over to them grew in the gaps in that knowledge like grass between the bricks of the altar of fire, expanded and multiplied in stories that generated more stories, until they covered the whole construction of knowledge in which they had made their first furtive appearance as no more than an intermezzo. Thus literature began. Literature is what grows in the intervals of the sacrifice.”


Among the intriguing aspects of Ka (and its predecessors) is their structure that defies description in terms of conventional genres. Calasso himself has been quoted as calling Ka a “novel” It is part fictional narrative, part exegesis of some of the deepest philosophical concepts in the Hindu tradition. In such works, the conventional frontiers of “story telling” and discourse on ideas are erased with varying degrees of abandon. Hybridisation of genres such as we find in Calasso’s works is an increasing presence in modern fiction In a review in the New York Review of Books, John Banville mentions some Continental European works as antecedents to Calasso’s Ka, ” (Glaudio Magris’s Danube and the Microcosm, Herman Broch’s The Death of Virgil. And Milan Kendra’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being “.I am familiar only with the last in English translation.)

Such innovations in form seeking to expand the horizons of the novel are not new. At least from the days of Aldous Huxley, the Novel of Ideas” has been in vogue Proust and Joyce are the forebears of much of the magical realist fiction of today. There is no trace of magical realistic fantasisation in Ka, except to the extent the old legends recounted are themselves in that mode. Its narrative coherence is conventional enough. But the multiple story lines derived from Hindu mythology are interspersed with extended discussion of the philosophical ideas embedded in them, sometimes as the views of the characters and at other times as authorial hermeneutics unobtrusively merging with the stories themselves.

Apart from the continental forbears of Calasso’s narrative strategy quoted earlier, the nearest recent example I can readily think of is Sophie’s World, a Norwegian novel by Jostein Gaarder. Sophie’s World is nowhere near Ka in intellectual and technical sophistication. It is nevertheless an interesting novel. At one level, it is an intriguing mystery story with elements of fantasy. This is interspersed with a more or less pedagogic exposition of the ideas of the great philosophers in the western traditions from Plato and Aristotle down to Bergson. Unlike in Ka, this exposition is detachable as a connected history of Western philosophy as told to Sophie, the school girl. But in Ka, the exegesis is part of the texture of the stories; except in two places: The first is an extraordinarily vivid description of the Aswamedha Yaaga or the horse sacrifice as a ritual The other is a very ingenious hermeneutic device of a modern style seminar in which “foreigners” participate and well known Rishis act as “resource persons” expounding the convoluted logic of the Upanishads, as each of them perceives it.

Other parallels for Ka can be found in works like that Zimmer’s The King and the Corpse which is intentionally expository of ancient Hindu myths such as the Vikramaditya tales. The stories are first told and then follow a scholarly discourse on their implications as civilisational myths Zimmer’s story telling is straightforward and academic in tone without any conscious fictional artistry Calasso in contrast is a verbal artist of rare brilliance. Short sentences and simple words tell Vedic and other stories in a gripping manner, even as the exegesis is marked by lucidity and linguistic felicity.


One of the fascinating aspects of Ka is the way in which modern parallels are extrapolated in the text as authorial asides. Kafka, Proust, (“the Vedantic Master”), Baudelaire, Wittgenstein and so on are invoked for illuminating the Hindu ideas explored. Here is a typical example:

“Consciousness, the raw sensation of whoever is awake and knows himself alive: this sensation is more amazing than any marvel the eye will ever see. In this regard the Rishis were not so far away from Wittgenstein: (who said) ‘_that_ the world exists is far more amazing than any _how_ the world exists’ ‘

Equally impressive is his relating of modern ideas to old rituals to illumine both modes of thought. For example, Vedic rituals, which are a major preoccupation of Calasso, is sought to be explained by him in terms of modern Algebra, of symbols substituting for real things.

“Here we see the great cunning of sacrifice: substitution. Sacrificing something that _stands for_ something else sets in motion the very machinery of language and of algebra, the conquering digitality. The deception by which one can, on the altar, slit the throat of a substitute victim and not of the designated victim expands power immeasurably, and this expansion will completely erase from consciousness the need for sacrificial giving. Pure exchange, which systematises substitution, gradually expels uniqueness, the vestige of the primordial victim. In the end, the world will be inhabited only by substitutes.”


There is a great deal more to the book thematically and otherwise than what I have indicated here. Starting with the Vedic texts, and Pournanik tales, Calasso takes a tour d’horizon of the Brahmanas (ritual manuals) upanishadic speculations, the Mahabharata and Bhagavata (but, curiously, not Ramayana) and Buddhist texts (Calasso controversially considers

Buddhism a decline from the lofty heights of the Upanishadic wisdom. There is no space to discuss it here.) His retelling of Krishna legends and of the Mahabharata episodes are among the most fascinating parts of the book, especially to Indian readers with a fallible memory of the details of sub-plots of the epics.

To return to the question with which this review began: How “Orientalist” is Calasso’s Hinduism? Here is a text that has undergone triple transmutation: Culture-specific Hindu philosophical concepts and primordial myths embedded in sacerdotal texts originally written in Sanskrit are recreated in his own language by an Italian who, on the evidence of this work alone, has completely mastered the language of the original and got to the guts of the culture he is talking about; This in turn has been translated into English by some one who knows his Italian but not the culture explored.. In other words, here is a text that has passed through three cultural filters. What are the “treasonable distortions” in translation and hegemonistic subversions that have occurred? Is this a Hinduism distorted by refraction by a self-serving imperialist prism? The trouble is, as someone sagely said, “Whatever you say of Hinduism, the opposite is also true.”

Add to all this an ironic fourth element in the situation: the work is being read by an Indian like me who knows his English but not his Sanskrit sufficiently. His understanding of the ramifications of ancient Hindu thought and practices is rudimentary A major tragedy of the cultural predicament of most modern Indians with intellectual pretensions is their almost total cultural amnesia Unlike his unlettered compatriots who at least have the immemorial continuity of faith, embedded in daily sacerdotal routines, English-educated Indians, who have abandoned these practices, have allowed these capillary life lines to their roots to die. What little they know of these roots is through the mediation of English in which they have read books on Indian philosophy and culture.

In a sense, Calasso is a better Indian than Indians, having so completely internalised the Indian ethos at least at the intellectual level and produced a work that is at once a literary masterpiece and an authentic recreation of the mainsprings of Indian thought and imagination. To the culturally amnesic Indians — which most educated Indians are — Ka is an exciting voyage of discovery of one’s own’ heritage. A.K.Ramanujan once defined a translator’s ideal as making a non-native reader a native one. Calasso has succeeded in making at least one native-Indian reader turned- non-native into a native reader, much to his enrichment.


Special thanks to N.J.Krishnan for permission to share this online.

For more on this book, read Dreaming through ‘Ka‘.

See also