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

While not always easy to read, this translation of Ka is well worth the effort—and authored by one of the most insightful writers on the subject of consciousness today.

By Richard Rosen

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."

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