“Between the conquering Aryas and the Buddha: a thousand years and not a single object. Not a stone, not a seal, not a city wall. Wood: burned, rotted, decayed. Yet the texts speak of paintings and jewels. Immensely complex metrics – and the void. One thousand and twenty-eight hymns collected in the Rig Veda. Not a trace of dwelling. Rites described in the most meticulous detail. Not a single ritual object that has survived. Those who glorified the leftover left nothing over themselves, except what was filtered through the word.”

— From 'Ka', by Roberto Calasso.

What distinguished Roberto Calasso, the rare writer-scholar, was not his infinite knowledge of myth and history, but how his sight cut through to what is centric in them, indicating the constellations that form a civilisation’s way of seeing. Ka is a monumental accomplishment, a retelling of the Hindu myths of origin and more, passing through stories, the Vedas and arriving finally at the Buddha. A compressed and illuminated book.

Calasso has two works that look at Hindu myths and texts, Ka, and the later Ardor born more from the Rig Veda and the Satpatha Brahmana, and some parts of Literature and the Gods. His oeuvre is vast and includes The Ruin of Kasch, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, which are inspired by Greek myths, as well as many others– – Tiepolo’s Hound, The Celestial Hunter, to name a few, and the most recent The Unnameable Present.

I will concentrate my attention here on the Indic work. In Ka, Calasso tells the myths anew and relates them always to the human condition. With an inventive blending of fiction and philosophical sight and ambition of scope, he begins at the beginning, with Prajapati and the world coming into existence, and ends with the Buddha. Calasso handles this vast arc of time and mythic and historical events with a lightness that only someone who has understood their essence can do.

Calasso’s unusual achievement is to create a future from the past. Throughout Ardor, for example, he brings the Vedic in continuity with other later figures, Yajnavalkya is yoked with Kafka, there is Breugel, Proust. “Remembrance of Things Past, in fact, can be read as an immense Brahmana, devoted to expounding and illuminating the fabric of time within that long ritual…that was the life of its author.” This placing of unlikely things next to one another gives life to distant things and helps to melt away the apparently recondite nature of Vedic thinking.

Through Ka and Ardor Calasso moves towards the centre of what, according to him, is the greatest contribution of Vedic thought.

“Then Atri spoke again: ‘Just as some claim that every true philosopher thinks but one thought, the same can be said of a civilisation: from the beginning the Aryas thought, and India has ever continued to think, the thought that dazzled us is: the simple fact of being conscious.

“Viswamitra said: ‘…One thought that was the arrow buried itself within us – and that penetrated deeper and deeper into our brains and into every gesture we made. Until ultimately it became our only thought, ultimately would almost dull the minds it had too brightly illuminated. How to describe it? The recognition that the history of the universe is a secondary and derivative fact with respect to the existence of the mind… It was strange, how it happened. We forfeited history for that thought. As though, the moment it took shape, a sabre had swept down from the sky and cut off our hands.”

In a conversation with him in Delhi, I remember Calasso being perplexed about why there were hardly any contemporaries in India reinterpreting the myths, teasing out the very significant elements in the Vedas. Vedic philosophy, he has said in an interview, “…is so radically different from what we live by today in the mainstream at least, that it is a pure shock. If only for that reason it should be read and studied.”

But of course it is more than pure shock. Calasso holds the Vedic immersion in consciousness as diametrically opposed to Kant’s cogito, which has marked and shaped modern Western philosophy. “This term makes the I a single subject. And it becomes immensely useful and effective and from this is built all power, all technology. And through this all knowledge becomes a sort of prosthesis.” Whereas for the Vedic philosophers, there was “the pure fact of consciousness, of being awake.” A field of being as opposed to a single subject.

Ka is more a book of stories that speak of fallible gods with their conflicts, jealousies, eroticism and capaciousness. Ardor leans towards being a work of philosophical enquiry, an attempt to understand the strictly prescribed rituals in the Satpatha Brahmana, written with poetic lucidity. The second one takes further and in a way completes the first. “The whole of Vedic India was an attempt to think further.”

Calasso performs another singular task. He takes everything away from an “ism”, even Hinduism, which so grips us now. He is concerned most of all with the philosophical knowledge that comes from the myths, hymns and rituals, and which, to a large extent, remains sedimented, ignored or abandoned here on the sub-continent. He is not concerned as much with belief as with insight and transformation.

“Neither Egypt, or Mesopotamia, nor China, nor least of all Greece…can offer anything even remotely comparable to the Vedic corpus in terms of the rigour of its formal structure, its exclusion of all reference to time – whether as history or chronicle…” 

These are some of the many elements of the Vedas that Calasso points us towards. The scholar David Schulman, writing a review of Ardor in the New York Review of Books, takes exception to this. “It is disconcerting to read a version of the common fallacy that the Vedic Indians (and maybe all subsequent Indians) ‘ignored history’; they were happier, it seems, with their eternal rites and myths. It’s high time we went beyond such simple-minded notions…”

But it is significant that Calasso points this out, without criticism and with a certain wonder. The notion that the Indic civilisation has been ahistorical is as problematic as trying to correct it and saying it was not. What Calasso points out is a fact that comes through the texts. It does say something about the tendency of a civilisation, in this case, that history was not central in its way of knowing.

It does not mean chronological time did not exist for them. But it had perhaps a different place. Just as the scholar D Venkat Rao has said, we had writing since ancient times here, but most ways of expression here are not lithic, but alithic.

Perhaps the point Calasso was trying to make was precisely that a lack of continued concern with linear time can free the mind to make some greater and radical connections.

In terms of form, Calasso is bold and innovative, rather like his Italian contemporary, the pathbreaking Claudio Magris, author of Danube and Microcosms. He is telling stories, evoking characters – the varied gods – narrating conflicts and correspondences, and bringing forth the deepest philosophical tendencies of a civilisation at the same time. There are digressions, essayistic passages, and at times his lines can be pure poetry.

“We are devotees of the distinct and the articulate, but the infinite festers in our bones.”

We owe a great debt to Calasso’s translators, Tim Parks, a singular novelist himself, for Ka, and Richard Dixon for Ardor. Theirs are masterly renderings of a Sanskrit infused Italian into English.

Over e-mail Richard Dixon, who also translated Calasso’s The Unnameable Present and The Celestial Hunter among other works, said: “Each book required much personal research but I was also provided with a large bundle of source material. Calasso was fluent in Latin and Greek and had studied Sanskrit, so that I was required to follow his own Italian translations from these languages, which he would then review. My own ideas about Calasso’s thoughts would be speculative. Much, if not all, of his writing seems directed to the question why every society from earliest times felt the need (and still needs) to find gods or other forms of transcendence. I don’t think I can say whether he ever found an answer.”

Tim Parks said: “I enjoyed translating the narrative element of the books. He was easy to work with in that he knew English very well and was respectful of my translating.”

One particular theme Calasso explores is, I think, extremely relevant to us all who have at one time or another, or much of the time, as the case may be, performed the rituals required of us at a birth, or a wedding or death or a puja. Calasso shines a radiant light on this. He says, “Ritual serves, above all, to resolve through action what thought alone cannot resolve.”

“…thinking the gesture at the very moment when the gesture is performed, without ever abandoning or forgetting it, as if the spark of thought might be released only at that moment in which an individual being moves his body in obedience to a significant course. It would be hard to find other cases where the life of body and mind have coexisted in such intimacy, refusing to detach themselves for even a single instant.”

Calasso looked into the heart of some of the most significant constellations in Indic culture, and brought forth meanings which are not, or no longer, available to most of us. He was not concerned with breaking down, or with adulation. His gaze was clear-eyed and strong as steel and his reasons, for admiring the Vedic people were completely unsentimental. He taught us something that we should be doing more actively – to look at and touch the scaffoldings of civilisation.

As Ashis Nandy has said, “Alternatives are not controlled by tradition. The idea of tradition only facilitates a journey into the interiors of the self – to search for resources that may allow one to transcend the limits set by our times.”