Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India by Roberto Calasso

By Richard Rosen  |  

The sacred literature of Hinduism is traditionally divided into two “families.” In the older of the two are the books of revelation, held in highest esteem by all orthodox worshipers. These books are called shruti (“hearing”) because they contain the perennial wisdom “heard” by the ancient rishis (“seers”) in states of heightened awareness. The rishis, though typically represented as human figures with godlike abilities, are really neither human nor divine, but incarnations of cosmic forces that appear at the dawn of each world age to establish its framework of order and truth. Chief among their creations for our current age are the four collections of hymns and prayers, sacrificial formulas, and chants known together as the Vedas (literally, “knowledge”).

The younger family, in contrast, is called smriti, books “remembered” and so composed by human teachers. While widely read and admired by the Hindu community, these books have less authority than shruti. Smriti includes various sutra texts, the two great national epics (the Mahabharata and the Ramayana), and the encyclopedic Puranas, the “stories of the olden days,” which record the creation of the world and the lives and adventures of gods, goddesses, and other supernatural beings.

For the Western student of yoga, these books present a formidable challenge. Consider, for starters, the sheer size of these two families. Just the Rig Veda, the most venerable of the four Vedic collections, contains more than 1,000 hymns and prayers; the Mahabharata is three times longer than the Bible. Where do we even begin the study of so much material? Do we need to read all of it, or can we reasonably put some or most of it aside? Then there’s the strangeness of it all. The Rig Veda, for example, is now estimated by some Western scholars to be at least 5,000 years old, and that’s just in its written form; no one knows for sure how far back into prehistory its oral antecedents reach. How are we Westerners to understand these poems and narratives, conceived by people so far removed from us in time and place? More importantly, how should the teachings in these books guide our own practices and lives?

These questions have been addressed in a number of excellent contemporary works, such as Wisdom of the Ancient Seers: Mantras of the Rig Veda by David Frawley (Morson Publishing, 1992), and The Gods of India: Hindu Polytheism by Alain Daniélou (Inner Traditions, 1985). Now we can also turn for answers to a most remarkable new book, Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India (Knopf, 1998), by Italian writer-publisher Roberto Calasso, translated by Tim Parks.

The “stories” in Ka are drawn from a variety of both shruti and smriti sources. Some are familiar, such as the “churning of the ocean” by the gods and demons to extract the elixir of immortality, or the life of Krishna; others, like the romance of King Pururavas and the nymph Urvashi, are less well known. Calasso neatly weaves all of these seemingly disparate elements together, beginning with the “world before the world,” the dream-time that precedes the creation of the cosmos, and ending with the life and death of the Buddha. In the process, he does two things: He shows us that ultimately all these stories are but smaller or larger chapters in a “huge and divine novel,” communally written by a thousand and one anonymous sages across many generations; and he provides us with a “map,” itself cast in story form, by which we can locate ourselves in and navigate our way through these stories.

At the heart of this story is a question, ka, which in Sanskrit is an interrogative pronoun meaning “Who?” (and also “what?” or “which?”). This little word becomes a recurring symbol, or mantra, of enormous power, as its meaning subtly shifts and ramifies as the story progresses. At the outset it’s one of the three syllables (a, ka, ho) of creative energy uttered by the progenitor, Prajapati (Lord of Creatures), from whom the three worlds (Earth; the “space between”; and sky, or Heaven) “stormed into existence.” Though he gathers “every name, every other being who could claim to be a subject, within himself,” Prajapati is also “elusive, indistinct, faceless.” So while he holds the world and its creatures in his embrace, he also transcends it and is therefore the eternal outsider—to men, gods, even to himself. When one of the gods approaches him and begs, “Make me what you are, make me great,” Prajapati can only reply, “Then who, ka, am I?” With this the word becomes the creator’s secret name and invocation.

Of course, the attempt by the sages over the centuries to answer this question is the inspiration for all shruti and smriti stories, as it is for all the yogas with their manifold practices. The question is undeniably as relevant today as it was five millennia ago. As the great contemporary “knowers” (jnanis) Ramana Maharishi (1879-1950) and Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897-1981) taught, “Who am I?” is really the “secret name and invocation” for us all—for, like Prajapati, each of us is the “inexpressible, boundless, and overflowing” architect of our own world. This question is the root of all self-investigation, self-transformation, and self-understanding, and the paradox at the core of our being: The answer to the fundamental question we must inevitably ask ourselves about ourselves is discovered in the asking of the question itself. Ka is the sound that echoes everlastingly as the “essence of the Vedas,” the author and end of all the wisdom in every story ever told. “Knowledge,” says Calasso, “is not an answer but a defiant question: Ka? Who?”

Ka is gradually revealed as divine knowledge (veda) itself, and “mind” or consciousness as both the seed and container of that knowledge. The stories, as Calasso arranges them, chronicle the awakening of that mind, which is the “raw extension of whoever is awake and knows himself alive.” They not only reflect how mind thinks about itself and the world, but in their very formulation and telling, they encourage mind to inquire further into itself, to interrupt its “deep sleep” and open wide its eyes. To illustrate this, Ka is cleverly framed by the stories of two seminal awakenings: the awakening to bare existence of Prajapati, at the very inception of our current world age countless eons ago, and the awakening to the “detachment from the existent world” of the Buddha, the “awakened one,” 500 years before the birth of Jesus.

Calasso acknowledges that Westerners may have some difficulty comprehending these stories. We show up now and again in his narrative as shadowy “strangers” or “foreign guests” who are, as the rishi Narada dryly reminds his companions, “attached to habits quite different from our own.” Our presence is a signal that Ka isn’t solely about the “mind and gods of India”; instead, beneath the recurring themes and images of distinctly Indian origin, it’s a story of mind as it stirs, grows, and matures through all the beings of this world—animal, human, saintly, and divine. While Calasso suggests that our contemporary reality is “sick,” that our culture and its mind have gone astray, he also assures us that we can find the way back, by always remembering the pivotal question of the stories and the last words of the Buddha, “Act without inattention.”

In this translation, Ka is not always easy to read, but is well worth the effort. Calasso is right near the top of my list as one of the most insightful Western writers on the subject of consciousness.

Contributing editor Richard Rosen is deputy directory of the Yoga Research and Education Center in Sebastopol California, and teaches public classes at The Yoga Room, in Berkeley, and Piedmont Yoga, in Oakland.