Religion Roberto Calasso Ardor

ISBN 13: 9780374182311

Ardor

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9780374182311: Ardor

In a meditation on the wisdom of the Vedas, Roberto Calasso brings ritual and sacrifice to bear on the modern world

In this revelatory volume, Roberto Calasso, whom The Paris Review has called "a literary institution," explores the ancient texts known as the Vedas. Little is known about the Vedic people, who lived more than three thousand years ago in northern India: They left behind almost no objects, images, or ruins. They created no empires. Even the soma, the likely hallucinogenic plant that appears at the center of some of their rituals, has not been identified with any certainty. Only a "Parthenon of words" remains: verses and formulations suggesting a daring understanding of life.
"If the Vedic people had been asked why they did not build cities," writes Calasso, "they could have replied: we did not seek power, but rapture." This is the ardor of the Vedic world, a burning intensity that is always present, both in the mind and in the cosmos.
With his signature erudition and profound sense of the past, Calasso explores the enigmatic web of ritual and myth that defines the Vedas. Often at odds with modern thought, these texts illuminate the nature of consciousness more vividly than anything else has managed to till now. Following the "hundred paths" of the Satapatha Brahmana, an impressive exegesis of Vedic ritual, Ardor indicates that it may be possible to reach what is closest by passing through that which is most remote, as "the whole of Vedic India was an attempt to think further."

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About the Author:

Roberto Calasso is the publisher of Adelphi Edizioni in Milan and is the author of many books. Ardor is the seventh part of a work in progress, following The Ruin of Kasch, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Ka, K., Tiepolo Pink, and La Folie Baudelaire.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

I

REMOTE BEINGS

 

They were remote beings. Remote not only from modern man but from their ancient contemporaries. Distant not just as another culture, but as another celestial body. So distant that the point from which they are viewed becomes almost irrelevant. Nothing much changes whether that point is today or a hundred years ago. For those born in India, certain words, certain forms, certain objects may seem familiar, like an invincible atavism. But they are scattered fragments of a dream whose story has been blotted out.

We cannot be sure when or where they lived. When: more than three thousand years ago, though dates vary considerably between one scholar and another. Area: the north of the Indian subcontinent, but with no exact boundaries. They left no objects or images. They left only words. Verses and formulas that marked out rituals. Meticulous commentaries that described and explained those same rituals. At the center of which appeared the soma, an intoxicating plant that has not been identified with any certainty, even today. Even then they spoke of it as a thing of the past. They could, it seems, no longer find it.

Vedic India had neither a Semiramis nor a Nefertiti. And not even a Hammurabi or a Ramses II. No Cecil B. DeMille has managed to film it. It was the civilization in which the invisible prevailed over the visible. Like few others, it was liable to be misunderstood. There is no point looking for help from historical events, since there is no trace of them. Only texts remain: the Veda, the Knowledge. Consisting of hymns, invocations, incantations in verse. Of ritual formulas and prescriptions in prose. The verses form part of highly complex ritual actions. They range from the double libation, agnihotra, which the head of the family has to carry out alone, each day, for almost his entire life, to the most impressive sacrifice—the “horse sacrifice,” asvamedha—involving hundreds and hundreds of men and animals.

The Aryas (“the nobles,” as Vedic men called themselves) ignored history with a disdain unequaled in the annals of any other great civilization. We know the names of their kings only through mention in the gveda and anecdotes in the Brahma as and the Upani ads. They had no concern for leaving a record of their conquests. And those events about which we do have information deal not so much with exploits—military or administrative—but with knowledge.

When they spoke of “acts,” they were thinking mostly about ritual acts. It is no surprise that they never founded—nor ever attempted to found—an empire. They preferred to think about the essence of sovereignty. They identified it in its duality, in its division between brahmins and k atriyas, between priests and warriors, auctoritas and potestas. These are the two keys, without which no door is opened, no kingdom governed. The whole of history can be considered in the light of these relations, which are constantly changed, adjusted, concealed—in the double-headed eagles, in the keys of St. Peter. There is always a tension that wavers between harmony and deadly conflict. On this diarchy, and its endless implications, the Vedic civilization focused its attention with supreme and subtle clear-sightedness.

Worship was entrusted to the brahmins. Government to the k atriyas. The rest was built on this foundation. But, like everything else that happened on earth, even this relationship had its model in heaven. A king and a priest were there as well: Indra was the king, B haspati the brahmin of the Devas, the chaplain to the gods. And only the alliance between Indra and B haspati could guarantee life on earth. But from the very beginning, between the two, there was a third figure: Soma, the object of desire. Another king, as well as an intoxicating juice. One who would behave ungraciously and elusively toward the two representatives of sovereignty. Indra, who fought to gain the soma, would in the end be banished by the very gods to whom he had presented it. And what of B haspati, the inapproachable brahmin with a voice of thunder, “born in the cloud”? King Soma, “arrogant with the supreme sovereignty he had acquired,” abducted B haspati’s wife Tara and had intercourse with her. From his seed she gave birth to Budha. When the child was born, she laid him on a bed of muñja grass. Brahma then asked Tara (and it was the height of shame): “Tell me, my daughter, is this the son of B haspati or of Soma?” Tara then had to tell the truth, that he was the son of King Soma, that she had betrayed her husband. And she, the model for all wives, had to admit it, for otherwise no woman would have been believed again (though repercussions of the event continued to be felt, from eon to eon). And a bitter war had to be fought between the Devas and the Asuras, the anti-gods, before Soma was finally persuaded to return Tara to B haspati. The gveda says: “Terrible is the wife of the brahmin, if she is abducted; such a thing creates disorder in the highest heaven.” That should have been enough for shortsighted humans, who sometimes asked why, and over what, the Devas and Asuras fought each other in the heavens, in those constant battles of theirs. Now they knew: over a woman. Over the most dangerous woman: over the wife of the most important of brahmins.

*   *   *

There were no temples, no sanctuaries, no walls. There were kings, but they had no safe and clearly defined kingdoms. From time to time they moved around on chariots with spoked wheels. Those wheels were their great innovation: before them, the kingdoms of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro had known only hard, solid, slow wheels. Whenever they stopped, their first concern was to build fires and to kindle them. Three fires: one circular, one square, and one the shape of a half moon. They knew how to bake bricks, but used them only for building the altar that was central to one of their rites. It was the shape of a bird—a hawk or an eagle—with outstretched wings. They called it the “fire altar.” They spent most of their time in an empty, gently sloping clearing where they busied themselves around the fires murmuring words and singing fragments of hymns. It was an unfathomable way of life, requiring long training. Their minds teemed with images. Perhaps this was also why they had no interest in fashioning and sculpting figures of the gods. As if, already surrounded by them, they felt no need to add others.

When the people of the Veda descended into the Saptasindhu, the Land of the Seven Rivers, and then onto the Ganges plain, much of the area was covered by forest. They opened the way with fire, which was a god: Agni. They let him draw a web of burnt scars. They lived in temporary villages, in huts built on pillars, with cane walls and straw roofs. They followed the herds, moving continually eastward. Stopping sometimes before vast expanses of water. It was the golden age of the ritualists.

Groups of men could then be seen some distance away from the villages, each group—of around twenty—some distance from the other, moving over bare spaces, around fires permanently lit, with a hut close by. A murmuring of voices could be heard from afar, scored with chants. Every detail of life and death was at stake, in that coming-and-going of men absorbed in their activity. But all this would not have been obvious to an outsider.

There are very few tangible remains of the Vedic period—no buildings survive, no ruins or traces of buildings. At most, a few meager fragments on show in various museums. Instead, they built a Parthenon of words: the Sanskrit language, since sa sk ta means “perfect.” So said René Daumal.

What was the underlying reason for not wanting to leave any traces? The Westerner, with his usual euhemeristic presumption, would immediately suggest the materials have perished in the tropical climate. But the reason is another—and it is mentioned by the ritualists. If the only event of any importance is the sacrifice, then what should be done with Agni, the altar of fire, once the sacrifice is finished? They replied: “After the completion of the sacrifice, it rises up and enters that bright [sun]. Therefore do not worry if Agni is destroyed, since he is then in that yonder orb.” Every construction is temporary, including the fire altar. It is not a fixed object, but a vehicle. Once the voyage is complete, the vehicle can be destroyed. Thus the Vedic ritualists did not develop the idea of the temple. If such care was given to constructing a bird, it was to make it fly. What remained on earth was an inert shell of dust, dry mud, and bricks. It could be left behind, like a carcass. It would soon be covered once more with vegetation. In the meantime, Agni was in the sun.

*   *   *

The world was divided into two parts, village and forest. Each followed different rules. What applied to one was not true of the other—and vice versa. All villages would one day be abandoned by their communities, as their seminomadic existence slowly moved on. No sacred places were fixed, umbilical, created once and for all, like temples. The sacred place was the scene for the sacrifice. It had to be chosen each time following set criteria: “As well as being on high ground, that place shall be flat; and as well as being flat, it shall be firm; and as well as being firm, it shall slope eastward, since east is the direction of the gods; or otherwise it should face northward, as north is the direction of men. It shall be raised slightly to the south, because that is the direction of the ancestors. If it had been lower to the south, the sacrificer would have soon passed into the underworld; in this way the sacrificer will live long: that is why it is slightly raised to the south.”

High, flat, firm: these are the first requirements for the place of sacrifice. As if the intention was to define a neutral surface, a backdrop that brings perfect clarity to the action. This is the origin of the stage as a place ready to accommodate all possible meanings. How modern—indeed, the very stage of modernity. The place must, first, be high. Why? Because the gods leave the earth from high ground. And men must imitate them. Then firm. Why? So that it has prati ha, “foundation.” Then the place must slope eastward: once again, because east is the direction of the gods. But most important: slightly raised to the south, as if turning away from the direction of the ancestors. The dead lie there and the officiants would quickly slide toward death if the ground were to slope southward. In just a few words, by marking out an ordinary space in the mind’s eye, among brushwood and stones, the blank setting has been described for every action. It is the first locus—and here, at one and the same time, we are told how the world is made, where the gods have gone, and where death lies. What else do we have to know, before any gesture starts? The ritualists were obsessive in their instructions, but never bigoted.

*   *   *

On the sacrificial ground there is little to see. It is bare, monotonous. But most of what happens cannot be seen: it is a journey into the invisible, fraught with danger, anguish, risk of ambush—a hazardous voyage, like that so loved by Conrad, with a ship ill-matched to face the demands of the forces of nature. And it was one of Conrad’s characters who explained the difference between the carefree manner of people living on land and the precision of anyone living at sea. Only the latter understand that one wrong step, one badly tied knot, could mean disaster. But an error on land can always be put right. The sea alone denies us that “sense of security” which leads to miscalculation.

Though they must have had no great experience of oceans, but rather of majestic rivers, the Vedic people loved referring to an “ocean,” samudrá, salilá, whenever they spoke of anything to do with heaven. For the sky itself was the real ocean, the Milky Way, which continued right onto the earth. And there they found the first image of that continuum from which all ceremonial gestures and words sprang. Like prudent and wary seamen, they thought of that boat, that voyage, during various times of the rituals—for example, at the beginning of a certain chant: “The bahi pavamana chant is in truth a boat heading toward heaven: the priests are its mast, and its oars are the means they use to reach the heavenly world. If one of them is unworthy, he alone will make [the boat] sink: he will make it sink in the same way that someone boarding a boat already full will make it sink. And in fact every sacrifice is a boat sailing heavenward: and so an unworthy priest must be kept away from any sacrifice.”

Though the sacrificial stage, to an outsider, seems like any other place, a tremendous concentration of forces dwells there—and focuses on few objects: they are fragments of the “thunderbolt,” vajra, that supreme and mysterious weapon with which Indra defeated V tra, the enormous monster who kept the waters captive within himself. One object is the wooden sword that the officiants hold. Another is an element of terrifying simplicity: the post. But the cart that transports the rice is also a sacrificial force. And the arrow used by the warriors recalls the breaking of the vajra as it struck V tra. The separation of these objects between brahmins and k atriyas, between priests and warriors, is also a shrewd division of powers between the two forms of sovereignty whose balance is always at risk: the brahmins are responsible for the wooden sword and the post; and the k atriyas for the cart and the arrow. Two against two: the k atriyas closer to everyday life (the cart and the arrow are required by the tribe on the move and in battle); the brahmins more abstract, but none the milder for this (the wooden sword, the solitary post). The most incongruous object, much like a toy—the sphya, the “wooden sword”—is given to the brahmin. But it is also the only one of the four objects that represents the thunderbolt in its totality, as it was once brandished by Indra. Only a brahmin can hold the wooden sword, since it “is the thunderbolt and no man can hold it: so he holds it with the help of the gods.” When one reaches closest proximity to the gods, only a brahmin can act. The story of Indra’s thunderbolt, however, explains why, from the beginning, power is never whole, but is split into two irreducible parts.

*   *   *

The fabric of relationships between auctoritas and potestas, between spiritual and temporal power, between brahmins and k atriyas, between the priest and the king: a perpetual and boundless theme in India from the gveda to the Mahabharata (which is all a story of plots and variants within these relationships) and to the Pura as (“Antiquities”). Complementary and sometimes hostile relationships: but such conflict was never expressed in the crude terms of a struggle between spirit and force. The brahmins’ ancestors were “seers,” the is—and first among them, the Seven Seers, the Saptar is, who dwelt in the seven stars of the Great Bear and held terrible destructive power. They were capable of swallowing up, parching, hurling thunderbolts at whole portions of the cosmos. The armies of a king were never as devastating as t...

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Descripción Farrar Straus Giroux, 2014. Hardback. Estado de conservación: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. In a meditation on the wisdom of the Vedas, Roberto Calasso brings ritual and sacrifice to bear on the modern world In this revelatory volume, Roberto Calasso, whom The Paris Review has called a literary institution, explores the ancient texts known as the Vedas. Little is known about the Vedic people, who lived more than three thousand years ago in northern India: They left behind almost no objects, images, or ruins. They created no empires. Even the soma, the likely hallucinogenic plant that appears at the center of some of their rituals, has not been identified with any certainty. Only a Parthenon of words remains: verses and formulations suggesting a daring understanding of life. If the Vedic people had been asked why they did not build cities, writes Calasso, they could have replied: we did not seek power, but rapture. This is the ardor of the Vedic world, a burning intensity that is always present, both in the mind and in the cosmos. With his signature erudition and profound sense of the past, Calasso explores the enigmatic web of ritual and myth that defines the Vedas. Often at odds with modern thought, these texts illuminate the nature of consciousness more vividly than anything else has managed to till now. Following the hundred paths of the Satapatha Brahmana, an impressive exegesis of Vedic ritual, Ardor indicates that it may be possible to reach what is closest by passing through that which is most remote, as the whole of Vedic India was an attempt to think further. Nº de ref. de la librería NLF9780374182311

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Descripción Farrar Straus Giroux, 2014. Hardback. Estado de conservación: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. In a meditation on the wisdom of the Vedas, Roberto Calasso brings ritual and sacrifice to bear on the modern world In this revelatory volume, Roberto Calasso, whom The Paris Review has called a literary institution, explores the ancient texts known as the Vedas. Little is known about the Vedic people, who lived more than three thousand years ago in northern India: They left behind almost no objects, images, or ruins. They created no empires. Even the soma, the likely hallucinogenic plant that appears at the center of some of their rituals, has not been identified with any certainty. Only a Parthenon of words remains: verses and formulations suggesting a daring understanding of life. If the Vedic people had been asked why they did not build cities, writes Calasso, they could have replied: we did not seek power, but rapture. This is the ardor of the Vedic world, a burning intensity that is always present, both in the mind and in the cosmos. With his signature erudition and profound sense of the past, Calasso explores the enigmatic web of ritual and myth that defines the Vedas. Often at odds with modern thought, these texts illuminate the nature of consciousness more vividly than anything else has managed to till now. Following the hundred paths of the Satapatha Brahmana, an impressive exegesis of Vedic ritual, Ardor indicates that it may be possible to reach what is closest by passing through that which is most remote, as the whole of Vedic India was an attempt to think further. Nº de ref. de la librería NLF9780374182311

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