Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India

Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India

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by Roberto Calasso, Tim Parks

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"A giddy invasion of stories—brilliant, enigmatic, troubling, outrageous, erotic, beautiful." —The New York Times Book Review

"So brilliant that you can't look at it anymore—and you can't look at anything else. . . . No one will read it without reward."
The Boston Globe

With the same narrative fecundity


"A giddy invasion of stories—brilliant, enigmatic, troubling, outrageous, erotic, beautiful." —The New York Times Book Review

"So brilliant that you can't look at it anymore—and you can't look at anything else. . . . No one will read it without reward."
The Boston Globe

With the same narrative fecundity and imaginative sympathy he brought to his acclaimed retelling of the Greek myths, Roberto Calasso plunges Western readers into the mind of ancient India. He begins with a mystery: Why is the most important god in the Rg Veda, the oldest of India's sacred texts, known by a secret name—"Ka," or Who?
    What ensues is not an explanation, but an unveiling. Here are the stories of the creation of mind and matter; of the origin of Death, of the first sexual union and the first parricide. We learn why Siva must carry his father's skull, why snakes have forked tongues, and why, as part of a certain sacrifice, the king's wife must copulate with a dead horse. A tour de force of scholarship and seduction, Ka is irresistible.

"Passage[s] of such ecstatic insight and cross-cultural synthesis—simply, of such beauty."  —The New York Review of Books

"All is spectacle and delight, and tiny mirrors reflecting human foibles are set into the weave,turning this retelling into the stuff of literature." —The New Yorker

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The very best book about Hindu mythology that anyone has ever written...A magnificent reading of Hindu texts. Its power arises in part through strong, vivid writing and in part through stunning, unexpected metaphors."
—Wendy Doniger, The New Republic

"Magnificent...A moving, exhillarating, extraordinary book...An astonishing synthesis of myths and legends, philosophical inquiry, and speculative narrative"
—Shashi Tharoor, Washington Post Book World

"A scintillatingly challenging book...Its opening sentences are as startling as any in all of literature."
—Thomas McGonigle, Los Angeles Times

"All is spectacle and delight, and -tiny mirrors reflecting human foibles are set into the weave, turning this retelling into the stuff of literature...Calasso's erudition and his capacity for invention appear to be limitless."        
The New Yorker

"To read Ka is to experience a giddy invasion of stories—brilliant, enigmatic, troubling, outrageous, erotic, beautiful."
—Sunil Khilnani, New York Times Book Review

"A buoyant, expansive narrative that captures, with earthy vigor, scrupulous scholarship, and epic breadth, the Indian cultural ethos."
Kirkus Reviews

"This riveting performance (rendered beautifully into English by Tim Parks) is the fruit of a union between serious scholarship and a mercurial imagination."
—Donna Seaman, Booklist

"Calasso has certainly managed to open a new road through the old landscape of literature."
—John Banville, New York Review of Books

Sunil Khilnani
To read Ka is to experience a giddy invasion of stories — brilliant, enigmatic, troubling, outrageous, erotic, beautiful. . . .Whenever we get tird of worrying away at their meanings, we can always settle doen to listen to the stories they . . .tell.
New York Times Book Review
New Yorker
. . . All is spectacle and delight, and tiny mirrors reflecting human foibles are set into the weave, turning this retelling into the stuff of literature.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
That Greco-Roman mythology should shape a contemporary novel is hardly unusual, but the way this breathtakingly ambitious work shapes -- and reshapes -- classical mythology is remarkable indeed. Calasso, publisher of the intellectual Milanese house Adelphi, revisits the theogonies set forth by Hesiod, Homer, Ovid et al. and then recasts them for a postmodern audience. Gods and men enact the cosmic mysteries as the narrator comments aphoristically on the progress of ancient and divine history ('With time, men and gods would develop a common language made up of hierogamy and sacrifice.... And, when it became a dead language, people started talking about mythology'). Calasso presents the abduction of Europa by a bull, analyzes the Trojan war, discusses the meaning of the word 'tragedy' and charts the fall of classical Athens. Into this elegant chronology he also interpolates quotations from and allusions to a pantheon of classical writers, in the same weightless manner in which those writers made use of standard formulaic tropes; he extends his territory by planting modern points of reference ('Jason would have preferred to live a bourgeois life at home, just as Nietzsche would have preferred to be a professor in Basel, rather than God'). Readers who don't know their Theseus from their Thyestes shouldn't be discouraged -- Calasso's work bridges the perceived distance from the origins of Western culture.
Library Journal
A reconsideration and recombination of Greek mythology, this scholarly tome -- which is being billed as both fiction and mythology by the publisher -- reaches back extensively through the works of Plutarch, Ovid, Homer, and Plato, to name only a few of the classical writers referenced here. This interweaving of gods and goddesses and of their actions moves back and forth in time, with many comments from Calasso about both the action and its interpretation by scholars. The storytelling style is interesting, but novices of Greek mythology will soon find themselves awash in names and places and activities that are exceedingly difficult to keep straight. An extensive 'family tree' of characters, an index, and even chapter titles, none of which are included, would have served as useful guideposts. -- Olivia Opello, Onondaga County Public Library, Syracuse, New York
Jon Spayde
...Calasso's text is an unstable mixture of Indian content and European perspective....[The book] dosn't systematize, organize, or "make clear" mythological structure; it just thrusts us into the stories....At its best, the effort proceeds with a paradoxical combination of boldness and humility.
Utne Reader
Kirkus Reviews
At once novel, cultural essay, mythology, and collection of linked stories, Italian writer Calasso's newest is a buoyant, expansive narrative that captures, with earthy vigor, scrupulous scholarship, and epic breadth, the Indian cultural ethos. In crisply written prose, Calasso (The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony) seeks depths, and encourages questions, that become a pleasure to ponder. The title sets the tone. 'Ka'—a word that refers to any originating source—is really a question, both personal and vast: 'Who?' In the 15 sections that comprise the work (along with a helpful glossary of names and terms), Calasso narrates different phases of creation—how did time happen to us? who made death?—each concluded with a fresh narrative mystery. What may have been originally just phrases or illuminating parables are here woven together to form one coherent 'story,' rich in insight and drama, that is gently helped along by Calasso's brief expository passages. The result is a multi-layered, engaging composition that entertainingly draws the reader through a sophisticated system of thought. The result, though, isn't a handbook: Calasso knows that not ideas but characters are what make stories work, and that we understand best when we sympathize most. He's populated his story with Indian gods who, each with unique passions, anxieties, lusts and errors, are immediately available to any reader. With phrases often culled from original literature (frequently the Rg Veda), such figures as Prajapati (the first Ka), Daksa (the craftsman) with 'furrows on each side of a hooked nose, hollow cheeks and a thick, pendulous lower lip'), and the Buddha are fully realizedindividuals, not 'human-sized' figurines. While the characters enliven the pages, it's the thematic persistence of mysteries both cosmic and existential—Ka?—that piques our interest and generates the deeper resonances here. In a book that may as easily be browsed as read at length, Calasso seems to have written with the Buddha's last words in mind: 'Act without inattention.'

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage International Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.13(w) x 7.97(h) x 0.94(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

                           Suddenly an eagle darkened the sky. Its bright black, almost violet feathers made a moving curtain between clouds and earth. Hanging from its claws, likewise immense and stiff with terror, an elephant and a turtle skimmed the mountaintops. It seemed the bird meant to use the peaks as pointed knives to gut its prey. Only occasionally did the eagle's staring eye flash out from behind the thick fronds of something held tight in its beak: a huge branch. A hundred strips of cowhide would not have sufficed to cover it.

Garuda flew and remembered. It was only a few days since he had hatched from his egg and already so much had happened. Flying was the best way of thinking, of thinking things over. Who was the first person he'd seen? His mother, Vinata. Beautiful in her tininess, she sat on a stone, watching his egg hatch, determinedly passive. Hers was the first eye Garuda held in his own. And at once he knew that that eye was his own. Deep inside was an ember that glowed in the breeze. The same he could feel burning beneath his own feathers.

Then Garuda looked around. Opposite Vinata, likewise sitting on a stone, he saw another woman, exactly like his mother. But a black bandage covered one eye. And she too seemed absorbed in contemplation. On the ground before her, Garuda saw, lay a great tangle, slowly heaving and squirming. His perfect eye focused, to understand. They were snakes. Black snakes, knotted, separate, coiled, uncoiled. A moment later Garuda could make out a thousand snakes' eyes, coldly watching him. From behind came a voice: "They are your cousins. And that woman is my sister, Kadru. We are their slaves." These were the first words his mother spoke to him.

Vinata looked up at the huge expanse that was Garuda and said: "My child, it's time for you to know who you are. You have been born to a mother in slavery. But I was not born into slavery. I and my sister Kadru were brides of Kasyapa, the great rsi, the seer. Slow, strong, and taciturn, Kasyapa understood everything. He loved us, but apart from the absolute essentials took no care of us. He would sit motionless for hours, for days--and we had no idea what he was doing. He held up the world on the shell of his head. My sister and I longed to be doing something with ourselves. An angry energy drove us from within. At first we vied for Kasyapa's attention. But then we realized that he looked on us as clouds do: equally benevolent and indifferent to both. One day he called us together: it was time for him to withdraw into the forest, he said. But he didn't want to leave without granting us a favor. Immediately we thought of ourselves all alone, amid these marshes, these woods, these brambles, these dunes. Kadru needed no prompting: she asked for a thousand children, of equal splendor. Kasyapa agreed. I too was quick to decide: I asked for just two children, but more beautiful and powerful than Kadru's. Kasyapa raised his heavy eyelids: `You will have one and a half,' he said. Then he set off with his stick. We never saw him again."

    Vinata went on: "My child, I have kept watch over your egg for five hundred years. I didn't want the same thing to happen to you as happened to your brother Aruna. Impatience got the better of me, and I opened his egg too soon. Only then did I understand what a rsi from a distant land, a pale and angular seer, will say one day: that impatience is the only sin. Thus was the lower half of Aruna's body left unformed. No sooner had he seen me than my first child cursed me. I would be my sister's slave for five hundred years. And at the end of that time I would be saved by my other child, by you. This said, Aruna ascended toward the sun. Now you can see him cross the sky every day. He is Surya's charioteer. He will never speak to me again."

Vinata went on: "We were the only human beings, myself and Kadru, with a thousand black snakes about us, all of them the same, and your egg maturing imperceptibly in a pot of steaming clay. Already we loathed each other, we two sisters. But we couldn't do without each other. One evening we were squatting down on the shore of the ocean. You know that I am also called Suparni, Aquilina, and perhaps that's why I'm your mother. There's nothing my eye doesn't see. Kadru has only one eye, she lost the other at Daksa's sacrifice--oh, but that's a story you could hardly know ... Yet she too has very keen sight. One evening we were heading in the same direction, bickering and bored as ever, our eyes scanning the waters of the ocean, seeking out the creatures of the deep, the pearls. A diffuse glow in the depths led us on. We didn't know where it came from. Then we turned to gaze at the ocean's end, where sea joins sky. Two different lights. A sharp line separated them, the only sharp line in a world that was all vain profusion. Suddenly we saw something take shape against the light: a white horse. It raised its hooves over waters and sky, suspended there. Thus we discovered amazement. Beside the bright horse we glimpsed something dark: a log? its tail? Everything else was so distinct. That was what the world was made of, as we saw it: the expanse of the waters, the expanse of the sky, that white horse."

    Garuda stopped her: "Who was the horse?" "I knew nothing at the time," Vinata said. "Now I know only that this question will haunt us forever, until time itself dissolves. And that final moment will be announced by a white horse. All I can tell you now, of the horse, is what it is called and how it was born. The horse is called Uccaihsravas. It was born when the ocean was churned." Listening to his mother, Garuda was like a schoolboy who for the first time hears something mentioned that will loom over his whole life. He said: "Mother, I shall not ask you any more about the horse, but how did it happen, what was the churning of the ocean?" Vinata said: "That's something you'll have to know about, and you'll soon understand why. You are my son--and you were born to ransom me. Children are born to ransom their parents. And there is only one way I can be ransomed by giving the soma to the Snakes. The soma is a plant and a milky liquid. You will find it in the sky; Indra watches over it, all the gods watch over it, and other powerful beings too. It's the soma you must win. The soma is my ransom."

Vinata had withdrawn deep within herself. She spoke with her eyes on the ground, almost unaware of the majestic presence of her son, his feathers quivering. But she roused herself and began talking again, as though to a child, struggling both to be clear and to say only the little that could be said at this point: "In the beginning, not even the gods had the soma. Being gods wasn't enough. Life was dull, there was no enchantment. The Devas, the gods, looked with hatred on the other gods, the Asuras, the antigods, the first-born, who likewise felt keenly the absence of the soma. Why fight at all, if the desirable substance wasn't there to fight for? The gods meditated and sharpened their senses, but there would come the day when they wanted just to live. Gloomily, they met together on Mount Meru, where the peak passes through the vault of the heavens to become the only part of this world that belongs to the other. The gods were waiting for something new, anything. Visnu whispered to Brahma, then Brahma explained to the others. They had to stir the churn of the ocean, until the soma floated up, as butter floats up from milk. And this task could not be undertaken in opposition to the Asuras, but only with their help.

The pronouncement ran contrary to everything the Devas had previously thought. But in the end, what did they have to lose, given that their lives were so futile? Now they thought: Anything, so long as there be a trial, a risk, a task."

Vinata fell silent. Garuda respected her silence for a long time. Then he said: "Mother, Mother, you still haven't told me how you became a slave to your sister." "We were looking at the white horse. The more it enchanted me, the greater the rancor I felt for my sister. I said: `Hey, One-Eye, can you see what color that horse is?' Kadru didn't answer. The black bandage leaned forward. Then I said: `Want to bet? The one who gets the horse's color right will be mistress of the other.' The following morning, at dawn, we were together again, watching the sky. And once again the horse appeared against the background of sea and sky. I shouted: `It's white.' Silence. I repeated: `Kadru, don't you think it's white?' To this day I have never seen such a malignant look in her eye. Kadru said: `It's got a black tail.' `We'll go and see,' I said, `and whichever of us is wrong will be the other's slave.' `So be it,' Kadru said.

    "Then we split up. Later I learned that Kadru had tried to corrupt her children. She had asked them to hang on to the horse's tail, to make it look black. The Snakes refused. For the first time Kadru showed her fury. She said: `You'll all be exterminated ...' One day you'll realize," Vinata went on in a quieter voice, "that nothing can be exterminated, because everything leaves a residue, and every residue is a beginning ... But it's too soon to be telling you any more ... Just remember this for now: Kadru's curse was powerful. One far-off day it will happen: the Pandavas and the Kauravas will fight, almost to the point of extinction, their own and that of the peoples allied to them, so that a sacrifice of the Snakes may fail, so that people recognize that the Snakes cannot be exterminated. That will happen at the last possible moment ... Kadru is calamitous, her word is fatal." Vinata's eyes were two slits. "But where was I? Now we had to get to the horse. We took flight, side by side. The creatures of the deep flashed their backs above the waters, surprised to see these two women in flight. We paid no attention. The only thing in the world that mattered to us was our game. When we reached the horse, I stroked its white rump. `As you see,' I said to Kadru. `Wait,' said One-Eye. And she showed me a few black hairs her deft fingers had picked out from among all the white ones of the creature's tail. For no apparent reason, they were wrapped around a pole. Some say that those hairs were Snakes, faithful to their mother. Or that there was only one black hair, the Snake Karkotaka. Others say that Uccaihsravas has black hairs mixed in with the white. It's a dispute that will never be settled. `I've beaten you. The sea is my witness. Now you are my slave,' said Kadru. It was then that I sensed, in a sudden rending, what debt is, the debt of life, of any life. For five hundred years I would feel its weight."

"I'll go and win this soma, Mother," said Garuda with his most solemn expression. "But first I must eat." They were squatting down face-to-face. Garuda, a mountain of feathers; Vinata, a minute, sinuous creature. "Go to the middle of the ocean," said Vinata. "There you'll find the land of the Nisadas. You can eat as many of them as you want. They don't know the Vedas. But remember: Never kill a brahman. A brahman is fire, is a blade, is poison. Under no circumstances, even if seized by anger, must you hurt a brahman." Garuda listened, ever more serious. "But what is a brahman, Mother?" he said. "How do I recognize one?" So far Garuda had seen nothing but black, coiled snakes and those two women who hated each other. He did not know what his father looked like. A brahman? What on earth can that be? wondered Garuda. "If you feel a firebrand in your throat," said Vinata "that's a brahman. Or if you realize you've swallowed a hook." Garuda stared straight at her and thought: "So you can't tell a brahman until you've almost swallowed him." But already he was stretching his wings, eager to be gobbling up the Nisadas.

. . .

Caught by surprise, the Nisadas didn't even see Garuda coming. Blinded by wind and dust, they were sucked by the thousands into a dark cavity that opened behind his beak. They plunged down there as if into a well. But one of them managed to hang on to that endless wall. With his other hand he held a young woman with snaky hair tight by the waist, dangling in the void. Garuda, who was gazing ahead with his beak half open, just enough to swallow up swarms of Nisadas, suddenly felt something burning in his throat. "That's a brahman," he thought. So he said: "Brahman, I don't know you, but I don't mean you any harm. Come out of my throat." And from Garuda's throat came a shrill, steady voice: "I'll never come out unless I can bring this Nisada woman with me, she's my bride." "I've no objections," said Garuda. Soon he saw them climbing onto his beak, taking care, fearful of getting hurt. Garuda was intrigued and thought: "Finally I'll know what a brahman looks like." He saw them sliding down his feathers. The brahman was thin, bony, dusty, his hair woven in a plait, his eyes sunken and vibrant. His long, determined fingers never let go of the wrist of the Nisada woman, whose beauty immediately reminded Garuda of his mother and his treacherous aunt Kadru. This left him bewildered, while he reflected that quite probably he had already swallowed up thousands of women like her. But by now those two tiny beings were hurrying off, upright, agile, impatient, as if the whole world were opening before them. Garuda was more puzzled than ever. He felt an urgent need to talk to his father, whom he'd still not seen. As his wings stretched, another whirlwind devastated the earth.

Kasyapa was watching a line of ants. He paid no attention to his son, nor to the crashing that announced his arrival. But Garuda wasn't eager to speak either. He was watching Kasyapa, his wrinkled, polished skull, his noble arms hanging down in abandon. He studied him for a while. He thought: "Now I know what a brahman is. A brahman is one who feeds himself by feeding on himself." After a day's silence, Kasyapa looked up at Garuda. He said: "How is your mother?" then immediately went on to something else, as if he already knew the answer. "Seek out the elephant and the turtle who are quarreling in a lake. They will be your food. The Nisadas aren't enough for you. Then go and eat them on Rauhina, that's a tree near here, a friend of mine. But be careful not to offend the Valakhilyas ..."

"Who can these Valakhilyas be?" thought Garuda, flying along, the elephant and the turtle tight in his claws. "No sooner does one thing seem to get clearer than another, bigger thing turns up that's completely obscure." While Garuda was thinking this over, puzzled again, his wing skimmed the huge free Rauhina. "By all means rest on a branch and eat," said the tree's voice. "Before you were born you sat here on me, along with a companion of yours, exactly like yourself. Perched on opposite branches, at the same height, you never left each other. You were already eating my fruit back then. And your companion watched you, though he didn't eat. You couldn't fly about the world then, because I was the world." Garuda settled on a branch. Surrounded by the foliage that enfolded his feathers, he felt at home and couldn't understand why. Of his birthplace he could remember only sand, stone, and snakes. Whereas this tree protected him on every side with swathes of emerald that softened the merciless light of the sky. Hmm ... In the meantime he might as well devour the elephant and the turtle, now on their backs on this branch that was a hundred leagues long. He concentrated a moment. He was choosing the spot where he would sink his beak--when there came a sudden crash. The branch had snapped. Shame and guilt overcame Garuda. He knew at once that he had done something awful, without having meant to. And it was all the more awful because he had not meant it. A vortex opened up in the tree, and Garuda flew out with the broken branch in his beak, the elephant and the turtle still in his claws. He was lost. He didn't know where to go. He sensed he was in danger of making a fatal mistake. From the branch came a hiss. At first he thought it was the wind. But the hissing went on, peremptory and fearfully shrill. He looked at the twigs. Upside down among the leaves, like bats, dangled scores of brahmans, each no taller than the phalanx of a thumb. Their bodies were perfectly formed and almost transparent, like flies' wings. Used as they were to hanging motionless, the flight was upsetting them terribly. Garuda thought: "Oh, the Valakhilyas ..." He was sure it was they, sure of the enormity of his crime. "Noble Valakhilyas," said Garuda, "the last thing I want is to hurt you." He was answered by a mocking rustle. "That's what you all say ..." Now he made out a voice. "The indestructible is tiny and tenuous as a syllable. You should know that, being made of syllables yourself. The tiny is negligible. So it is neglected ..." "Not by me," said Garuda. And now he began to fly in the most awkward fashion, taking the greatest possible care not to shake the branch he held in his beak. Despondent, he studied the mountains, looking for a clearing large and soft enough for him to put down the Valakhilyas. But he couldn't find one. Perhaps he would waste away in the sky, circling forever. It was then that a huge mountain, the Gandhamadana, began to take shape ahead, and Garuda thought that he might attempt a last exploration. He was flying around the summit, slowly and cautiously, when he recognized the polished head of his father, Kasyapa, sitting by a pond on the slopes of the Gandhamadana. Garuda hovered over him, without making a sound. Kasyapa said nothing, paid no attention, though the whole of Gandhamadana was veiled in shadow. Then he said: "Child, don't be distressed, and don't do anything rash that you might regret. The Valakhilyas drink the sun, they could burn your fire ..." Garuda was still hovering above his father, terrified. Then he heard Kasyapa's voice change. He was speaking to the Valakhilyas, on familiar terms, whispering. "Garuda is about to perform a great deed. Take your leave of him now, I beg you, if you still think well of me ..." A little later, Garuda saw the Valakhilyas detaching themselves from the branch, like tiny, dry leaves, gray and dusty. They turned slowly in the air and slowly settled next to Kasyapa. Soon they had disappeared among the blades of grass, heading toward the Himalaya.

    Garuda had watched the scene unfold with overwhelming anxiety. Now he felt moved. Long after the last of the Valakhilyas had disappeared in the vegetation, he said: "Father, you saved me." Without looking up, Kasyapa answered: "I saved you because I saved myself. Listen to the story. One day I had to celebrate a sacrifice. I had told Indra and the other gods to find me some wood. Indra was coming back from the forest, loaded with logs. He was feeling proud of his strength, and he knew he would be back first. As he was walking along, his eyes fell on a puddle. Something was moving in it: the Valakhilyas. They were trying to ford it, which was hard going for them. Moving in single file, they held a blade of grass on their shoulders, like a log, and at the same time were struggling to get out of the mud. Indra stopped to watch and was seized with laughter. He was drunk with himself. Just as they were about to get out, he pushed those Valakhilyas back in the puddle with his heel. And laughed.

    "The following day I got a visit from the Valakhilyas. They said: `We've come to give you half our tapas, the heat that has baked our minds since times long past. It's the purest tapas, never corroded by the world, never poured out into the world. Now we want to pour some into you so that you can pour out your seed and generate a being who will be a new Indra, who will be the scourge of Indra, the arrogant, the uncivilized, the cowardly Indra. Such a one shall be your son.' `Indra was brought into the world by the will of Brahma. He cannot be ousted by another Indra,' I objected. `Then he shall be an Indra of the birds. And he shall be the scourge of Indra.' I agreed.

    "That night I felt the Valakhilyas' tapas flowing into me. I became transparent and manifold, a veil and a bundle of burning arrows. Your mother, Vinata, took fright when I came to her bed. The following morning she told me how, while pleasure had been invading her pores and curling her nails, something dark had raised her to a mattress of leaves, on the top of a huge tree--and she had seen a glow flare up from beneath. Down the trunk ran drop after drop of a clear liquid. She felt sure that that liquid came from an inexhaustible reserve."

Engrossed in his father's tale, Garuda had almost forgotten that he was still hovering in the air, claws sinking ever deeper into the elephant and the turtle, who had long been waiting to be eaten. Not to mention that cumbersome branch, still clenched in his beak. Garuda didn't dare do anything further on his own account. If he dropped the branch on one of the nearby mountains, even the most barren, and crushed so much as a single brahman, hidden in the vegetation, what then? "Thinking paralyzes," thought Garuda, motionless in the sky. Kasyapa was eager to put an end to his son's wretched predicament. He would have plenty of time, billions of passing moments, to reflect on his crime: that broken branch. Now his father could help him. "Fly away, Garuda," he said. "Go north. When you find a mountain covered with nothing but ice and riddled with caves like dark eye sockets, you can leave the branch there. That's the only place where there's no risk of killing a brahman. And there you can finally eat up the elephant and the turtle." Garuda flew off at once.

"So many things happening, so many stories one inside the other, with every link hiding yet more stories ... And I've hardly hatched from my egg," thought an exultant Garuda, heading north. At last a place with no living creatures. He would stop and think things over there. "No one has taught me anything. Everything has been shown to me. It will take me all my life to begin to understand what I've been through. To understand, for example, what it means to say that I am made of syllables ..." He was even happier, drenched in joy, when a barrier of pale blue ice and snow filled his field of vision, a sight that would have blinded any other eye. The branch of the tree Rauhina fell with a thud, then down plunged the elephant and the turtle just a moment before Garuda's beak forced a way into flesh already wrapped in a gleaming sepulchre.

"And now the theft, the deed ...," said Garuda. Around him on an endless white carpet lay the stripped remains of the elephant and the turtle. He rose in flight, off to win the soma.

    At that very moment one of the gods noticed something odd in the celestial stasis: the garlands had lost their fragrance, a thin layer of dust had settled on the buds. "The heavens are wearing out like the earth ..." was the silent fear of more than one god. It was a moment of pure terror. What came after was no more than a superfluous demonstration. The rains of fire, the meteors, the whirlwinds, the thunder. Indra hurled his lightning bolt as Garuda invaded the sky. The lightning bounced off his feathers. "How can that be?" said Indra to Brhaspati, chief priest of the gods. "This is the lightning that split the heart of Vrtra. Garuda tosses it aside like a straw." Sitting on a stool, Brhaspati had remained impassive throughout, from the moment the sky had begun to shake. "Garuda is made not of feathers but of meters. You cannot hurt a meter. Garuda is gayatri and tristubh and jagati. Garuda is the hymn. The hymn that cannot be scratched. And then: remember that puddle, those tiny beings you found so funny, with their blade of grass ... Garuda is, in part, their child."

    Still raging though the battle was, its outcome was clear from the start. The gods knew they were going to lose. They hurried to get away. But what infuriated them most were the whirlwinds of dust unleashed in the heavens by every flap of Garuda's wings. Dust in the heavens ... It was the ultimate humiliation ... Even the guardians of the soma were overcome. In vain they loosed their arrows. Just one of Garuda's feathers spun majestic in the sky, severed by an arrow from Krsanu, the footless archer. Garuda took no notice of his enemies. The trial still before him was far harder. On the summit of the heavens he found a metal wheel, its sharp spokes spinning without cease. Behind the wheel he could just see a glow: a gold cup, or rather two cups, one turned upside down upon the other, their rims jagged and sharp. And these cups likewise were moving. They opened and closed in a rocking motion. When they closed, their rims fit perfectly together. Between the wheel and the cups hissed two Snakes. Garuda tossed dust in the Snakes' eyes and concentrated. He must slip between the wheel's blades, he would have to get his beak between the rims of the two cups, he would have to snatch the glow he had glimpsed within. Then escape. But everything had to happen in no more than the blinking of an eye. On that tiny fraction of time depended the fate of his mother, indeed of the world. Garuda did it. It didn't occur to him to drink the soma that dripped from his beak as he headed back to earth. He was thinking of the Snakes, and of his mother.

Indra tried to stop Garuda as he flew toward the earth. He found an accommodating and contrite expression. "There's no point in our being enemies," said Indra. "We are too powerful to be enemies," he added. Then he started to cajole: "Ask me anything you want, I have something I want to ask you: don't let the Snakes get hold of the soma." "But I have to ransom my mother," said the obstinate Garuda. "To ransom your mother all you have to do is deliver the soma to the Snakes. You don't have to do any more than that. But I don't want the Snakes to possess the soma. I'll tell you what to do ..." "If that's how things stand. ...," said Garuda. He was intimidated by Indra's self-confidence, and his reasonableness too. "After all," thought Garuda, "this is the king of the gods talking."

    "And now tell me what you want ...," said Indra. He was growing insistent. "That the Snakes be my food, forever and ever," said Garuda. Whatever it took, he didn't want to risk swallowing a brahman again. And then he liked eating the Snakes. But now he fell silent a moment, out of shyness. He was about to announce his deepest desire, something he had never uttered before: "I would like to study the Vedas." "So be it," said Indra.

The Snakes had arranged themselves in a circle to await Garuda's return. They saw him coming like a black star, a point expanding on the horizon, until his beak laid down a delicate plant, damp with sap, upon the darbha grass. "This is the soma, Snakes. This is my mother's ransom. I deliver it to you. But before you drink of this celestial liquid, I would advise a purificatory bath." In disciplined devotion, the Snakes slithered off toward the river. For a moment, the only moment of tranquillity the earth would ever know, the soma was left, alone, on the grass. A second later Indra's rapacious hand had swooped from the heavens, and already it was gone. Gleaming with water, aware of the gravity of the moment, the Snakes could be seen returning through the tall grass. They found nothing but a place where the grass had been bent slightly. Hurriedly they licked at the darbha grass where Garuda had laid the soma. From that moment on the Snakes have had forked tongues.

Garuda said: "Mother, I've paid your ransom. You're free now. Climb on my back." They wandered over forests and plains, over the ocean, leisurely and blithe. Every now and then Garuda would fly down to earth to snatch bunches of Snakes in his beak. On his back, Vinata bubbled with pleasure. Then Garuda took leave of his mother. He said his time had come. Once again he flew to the tree Rauhina. He hid among the tree's branches to study the Vedas.

Buried deep among the tree Rauhina's branches, Garuda read the Vedas. It was years before he raised his beak. Those beings he had terrorized in the heavens, who had scattered like dust at his arrival, who had tried in vain to fight him, he knew who they were now: with reverence he scanned their names and those of their descendants. The Adityas, the Vasus, the Rudras. Varuna, Mitra, Aryaman, Bhaga, Tvastr, Pusan, Vivasvat, Savitr, Indra, Visnu, Dhatr, Amsa, Anumati, Dhisana, Soma, Brhaspati, Gungu, Sarya, Svasti, Usas, Ayu, Sarasvati. And others too. Thirty-three in all. But each had many names--and some gods could be replaced by others. The names whirled in silence. Perfectly motionless, Garuda experienced a sense of vertigo and intoxication. The hymns blazed within him. Finally he reached the tenth book of the Rg Veda. And here he smelled a shift in the wind. Along with the names came a shadow now, a name never uttered. What had been affirmative tended to the interrogative. The voice that spoke was more remote. It no longer celebrated. It said what is. Now Garuda was reading hymn one hundred and twenty-one, in tristubh meter. There were nine stanzas, each one ending with the same question: "Who (Ka) is the god to whom we should offer our sacrifice?" Estuary to a hidden ocean, that syllable (ka) would go on echoing within him as the essence of the Vedas. Garuda stopped and shut his eyes. He had never felt so uncertain, and so close to understanding. Never felt so light, in that sudden absence of names. When he opened his eyes, he realized that the nine stanzas were followed by another, this one separated by a space that was slightly larger. The writing was a little more uneven, minute. A tenth stanza, without any question. And here there was a name, the only name in the hymn, the only answer. Garuda couldn't remember ever having seen that name before: Prajapati.

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A perfect work like no other. [Calasso] has re-created... the morning of our world.

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Roberto Calasso lives in Milan, Italy.

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Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Perfect in every way possible!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lays down on her bed