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