The Veda as word, wisdom and world


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EVERY year, on a certain Tuesday in October, worshipers of the Golden Goddess, Paidi Talli, gather in a grove of trees somewhere outside the small town of Vizianagaram in southern India. During her festival, the priest, embodying this goddess, will sit on a wooden seat fixed at the end of the tree-pole, and will be bounced high into the sky while some half a million devotees throw bananas at him-her. ‘Why bananas?,’ we asked during the festival in 2003. The answer we received was: ‘Do you think we should be throwing coconuts?’1

Quite similar, and not by chance, is the ritual of choosing the tree that will become the sacrificial post, yûpa, to which the animal victim is tied in the ancient Vedic ritual that marks the beginning of Indian civilization. As Roberto Calasso tells us in Ardor, this highly important act reveals the ‘mystery of election.’ Why this tree and not another? We can be sure that the choice is immensely consequential. The ritualist is directed by the Vedic text to choose a tree ‘on the nearer side of the farther’ and ‘on the farther side of the nearer.’ The phrases ring out with the characteristically enigmatic, almost teasing tone of the Vedic ritual system. Calasso rightly wonders, ‘Where in the forest does the farther begin? Where does the nearer reach its limit?’ Once the choice has been made, the tree is informed: ‘We favour you, O divine lord of the forest.’

It is an axiom of what we call Hindu religion that it has always been, and still is, utterly informed and shaped by the Veda, a continuous, and continually self-transforming, tradition going back over three thousand years. There is an impressive link between the ancient post for sacrifice and the Golden Goddess-as-Tree of Vizianagaram. In fact, neither of the two is really conceivable, or intelligible, without the other. One still thinks with the Veda, perhaps unconsciously, more often within some unstated set of powerful ideas and images, insofar as we can understand the tantalizing conceptual universe that found expression in the ancient Vedic hymns and ritual acts.

These works, beginning with the collection of 1,028 hymns to the gods in the Rig Veda and continuing into another three such collections, and then into the Brâhmana texts on ritual performance, the Âranyaka ‘Forest Books’, and the famous meditations on reality known as Upanishads, collectively comprise the Veda, literally, ‘knowledge’. They are ascribed, first, to visionary sages, rishis, who ‘saw’ the pre-existing texts, which are by definition authorless, in their hearts. The later strata are the work of ritualists, highly articulate, astonishingly creative thinkers concerned with mapping and making sense of the ancient rites – and, by doing so, with offering us a ramified grid of theories about the way the cosmos came into being and about the evolving faculties, perceptions, and yearnings of the human mind.

These two – cosmos and mind – are organically related, each both reflecting and enacting the other. The entire corpus was preserved orally with razor-sharp precision for three millennia, as if it had been engraved in the neurons of the Brahman families committed to reciting and preserving it. Much of early Indian science, above all the hypertrophied development of linguistics, was generated by the need to stabilize the text of the Veda and its ancillary materials, including the rules for ritual performances that lay at its heart. By the early centuries of the first millennium BC, the basic corpus existed in something very close to its present form, and the Vedic sciences were already working out their rules of operation.


At the heart of the Vedic world we find a highly structured system of sacrificial offerings of animals (cattle, goats, the occasional horse, or their various substitutes) to the gods. The simplest, prototypical offering is the twice-daily pouring of milk into fire; and the mysterious, hallucinogenic soma plant, crushed, ‘sacrificed’, and squeezed of juice that was subsequently imbibed by the participants, is also a central element in the rituals. The potent juice is strongly linked to the composition of Vedic poetry and to riddle-like contests among the poets who had drunk it.

The system evolved from very ancient roots, some common to both protohistoric Iran and ancient India, in the course of the second millennium BC and assumed its classic form in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent when Sanskrit-speaking tribes gradually migrated there from somewhere to the north, perhaps from the Iranian plateau and its Central Asian extensions.


We know rather little about the political order in place in early Vedic times – probably it was built around bands of mobile, nomadic warriors – but by the time the details of the sacrifice were recorded in the surviving Brâhmana texts there were royal figures who patronized and paid for the rites and priests who specialized in the intricacies of ritual performance.

These priests were further defined according to their distinctive roles: one chanted the mantras of the Veda, others were charged with various pragmatic tasks, including making the libations and taking the life of the animal or plant to be sacrificed; a critical, somewhat haunting presence was that of a priest referred to as the ‘Brahman’ who silently witnessed the proceedings, mending in his mind whatever was not carried out to perfection.

The strong link thus established between the royal patron, the yajamâna, and the priest who masterminded his patron’s ascent to the world of the gods and safe return to earth in the course of the sacrifice was later replicated in the mutual dependence of kings and Brahmans in the classical Indian state. Together these two figures constituted the structural core of Indian politics. Vedic sacrificial rituals – invariably with vegetal substitutes for animal victims – continue to be performed by Brahman specialists even today, mostly in relatively remote parts of India, but the more complex rites, including the Agnicayana, the building of the sacrificial altar, have become exceedingly rare.


Roberto Calasso, well known for his lyrical meditations on Greek mythology (The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony) as well as on Baudelaire, Kafka, and Tiepolo, offers us in Ardor a reading of the Vedic metaphysical world, which he somewhat romantically thinks is the most remote culture from our own and no less remote from the cultures of its ancient contemporaries. He has also written a book dealing with classical Indian mythology, Ka – somewhat less successful, in my view, than this brave attempt to come to grips with the Vedic mind. ‘Brave’ because, as he rightly says, in the world of Vedic ritual ‘everything was always too much.’ Is it even possible for us to penetrate deeply into this system of strange metaphysical equivalences, called bandhus or ‘knots’, and intricate ritual acts driven, it appears, by a life-and-death urgency? Calasso cites the greatest modern scholar of the Veda, Louis Renou, addressing the relentless seriousness and inner tension that colour all of these texts: ‘The Veda moves in a state of panic.’

To the uninitiated, and even to the initiated, the Vedic sacrificial ritual, as recorded in the Brâhmanas and Upanishads, reveals a mind-boggling complexity and an often elusive inner logic. It may well be the most complicated ritual system ever documented. The great fire altar built in the shape of a huge bird as the acme of the sacrificial order was composed of over 11,000 bricks, each one of them meticulously situated in a metaphysical plan meant to model the cosmos and to reconstitute the fragmented body of the creator god, Prajâpati, who fell apart in the course of creating our world.

So mysterious are the explanations offered by the texts for acts such as building the altar that another perceptive and experienced modern scholar, the late Frits Staal, came to the conclusion that these rites were entirely devoid of meaning. In his view, they were performed in relentless detail and compulsive repetition simply for their own sake, as if following a kind of mathematical or musical score. There is no way that Staal could have been right about this, but anyone who has read the texts can understand the temptation to give up any attempt to ferret out their meanings.


Calasso tells us that his original plan was to write a commentary on the Satapatha Brâhmana, the ‘Secret of the Hundred Paths’, the longest and most detailed of all the Vedic ritual texts and no less baffling than any of the others. In place of that probably impossible commentary, a gesture worthy of Borges, we have the present book. Calasso articulates, through a lengthy set of shifting perspectives, some of what might be called the incorrigible assumptions, or the primary intuitions, motivating Vedic ritual praxis. His insights are of great value, and often moving to read: ‘How can we know something that doesn’t let itself be known? In only one way: by becoming to some extent that thing itself.’

Here is, without doubt, one operative principle at work throughout the sacrificial system. One knows, in non-mechanical ways, by embodying what is there to be known – the universe, for example, with its inherent and devastating tendency toward entropy, toward losing connectivity; or the god who is that universe as well as the latent self of the ritualist at work and, indeed, of every woman or man. An underlying principle of profound unity between cosmos and the self contends with a no less radical sense of continuous incipient fragmentation. Calasso has got it right – no small achievement when it comes to the Veda.


To mention a few more of the intuitions Calasso has cogently formulated. ‘Pouring milk into the fire – every morning, every evening – meant accepting that what appears disappears and that what has disappeared serves to give sustenance to something else, in the invisible.’ ‘In front of the fire, the sacrificer [undoubtedly both the patron, observing the rite carried out on his behalf, and the ritualist who actually performs the offering] feels he is being observed, stared at. The eye that is studying him is the eye of the fire. Before he himself formulates a desire, he feels it is the fire that desires him, his flesh… The sacrificer offers food to avoid becoming food himself.’ Sometimes we are given by Calasso laconic apercus that cut through centuries of elaborate commentary: ‘Divine omniscience does not extend to itself.’ ‘Alongside an I there will always be a Self – and as well as the Self there will always be an I.’

The single most enduring, eternally unresolved problem of classical Indian thought is all there in this last statement. Who are we anyway? And who is God? In a well known Vedic hymn as understood by the commentators, this interrogative pronoun, ‘who’ (ka), actually becomes the god’s true name: ‘Who is the god we worship.’ Note the space that opens up in the mind with a name that is itself an open-ended question. When the Vedic ritualist performs the sacrifice, his patron ascends – literally – to the world of the gods, defined as the domain of truth.

He does not, however, want to remain there. He wants to live a long life on earth. Each time he ascends to heaven, he creates another small part of what will become his daiva âtman, his ‘divine self-body’ that will patiently await his arrival there after death. Meanwhile he descends back to our world, the domain of untruth, where he is told to utter the necessarily paradoxical words ‘I am who I am.’ Saying these words in this world, he is, by definition, speaking a sort of true lie, like the Cretan liar; if the words are true, they must be false (but not necessarily vice versa). He is, like all the rest of us, a volatile amalgam of godly and ungodly words and parts, though for a fleeting moment he had managed, in heaven, to coincide wholly with truth. Strange to say, that moment barely leaves a trace in his awareness, just as listening, say, to Bach generally, and surprisingly, fails to make us other than who we are, at least in any lasting way. As Calasso nicely says, ‘Truth is an unnatural state for man.’


You can see what an interpreter of the Veda is up against. As Calasso puts it, these Brâhmana texts ‘give instructions above all about ceremonies whose inner meaning, already obscure, often becomes even more obscure due to the explanations the Brâhmanas seek to provide.’ One has to learn how to read them; and Calasso is a very good reader. I’m no specialist in the Veda, but at some points he seems to me to go off track. Like scholars before him, he thinks Vedic sacrifice holds within it a principle of ‘metaphysical evil, inherent in everything that is forced to destroy a part of the world in order to survive.’

That is, although the sacrifice is said to keep the world on course, it requires killing some living being, thus taking away something from the living whole; and exactly the same idea holds for the everyday business of eating something that was once alive in order to go on living ourselves, a process explicitly classed as a ‘sacrifice’ to the fire burning within the stomach. As a result, Calasso suggests, the ritual itself is riddled with guilt; taking life in an act of sacrificial violence must require expiation – and indeed, the ancient texts offer various modes of ridding oneself of the substantial moral burden that builds up in the patron of the rite, the yajamâna.2

Jan Heesterman, one of the most original of the modern Vedic scholars, developed a plausible theory around this problem; he suggested that the oldest, original form of Vedic sacrifice required a continuous alternation in roles between the patron and the officiant, who passed back and forth the dark residue called pâpman, the unwelcome side effects of sacrifice – the unavoidable burden of killing – just as they would repeatedly exchange between themselves the beneficial results of the rite, sri (wealth, cows, royal power). Thus in any given sacrificial ritual, one of the two ends up with sri while his partner is laden with pâpman; in the next – and each sacrifice necessarily generates another – the roles are reversed.


According to Heesterman, a calculus of moral action rooted in sacrifice eventually led both to the theory of karma – the notion that each act, indeed every word and passing thought, has consequences for the actor and may pursue him or her through more than one lifetime – and to the revolutionary notion of the renouncer who leaves the world and all social bonds behind him and heads for the wilderness to meditate or mortify himself in order to escape this unending cumulation of unwelcome metaphysical weight. The wilderness is the proper setting for such ascetic innerness, defined as tapas, literally ‘heat’, a calculated intensification of the fire always burning within us – hence Calasso’s apt title, Ardor.


But ‘evil’ and ‘guilt’ may be the wrong words. They are saturated with familiar, rather gloomy, Mediterranean-monotheistic associations. The deeper problem is not that we load ourselves down with evil just by eating other beings, to say nothing of the harm we inflict on the world by plowing the soil and going to war and cultivating hatred in our hearts. The Veda, especially in its later strata, like all the classical Indian schools, is fascinated by questions relating to freedom, of various kinds and intensities. One could argue that the Upanishads are largely concerned with activating and realizing modes of an inner freedom that is ours a priori, though we do everything in our power not to know it.

Given this fundamental perception, there is much to be said for the rituals that are organized, in some sense, to address the human dilemmas of amhas, ‘confinement’, the inability to move or breathe or grow, and, of course, of mortality itself. Sacrifice makes a little room, momentarily holding the cosmic entropy at bay and reordering our lived reality, and it does so by taking life. The cost is apparent, indeed in some sense overwhelming, but to class it as ‘guilt’ is to drastically reduce its meaning and to distort the impulse driving the ritual order as a whole. Later philosophers of the Mimamsa school, who struggled to think through and systematize Vedic ritual and its axioms, asserted that sacrificial killing is not actually a form of violence, himsâ, at all.

Should we feel guilty because we are not as free as we should be, or because the world closes in on us and robs us of space? I doubt it. It would be more fitting to feel sorrow – that constant fire within us – as the Vedic poets clearly often did. We might also sense that there is something not very right, or easy, about a world, external or internal, that keeps taking itself apart and needs to be continually put back together. But is this ‘evil’? When the sun sets each evening, we are told, it shatters into millions of fragments, which we see in the fires that each household lights at night.


At dawn the Vedic ritualist reassembles these splinters of sunlight into a whole by the meditative and pragmatic business of offering milk into the flames – and because the ritual is performed each day by all those who tend the fires, the sun indeed rises in the morning. Who are we to say that this vision of reality is untrue? Who are we to doubt the goodness of reconnecting the broken pieces of our own selves in the patterned and effective ways the ritual makes possible?

We are faced with an arcane, archaic system strongly oriented toward a pragmatic programme for producing change in the cosmos and, as a necessary correlate, in our own minds or selves. Can we make sense of the language in which this project is couched? I am sure we can, if we listen attentively. (In our generation, Charles Malamoud has certainly come the closest.3) As we saw, the Veda insists on formulating ‘knots’ or bandhus, that is, links between items on one plane of existence and corresponding items on some other plane: ‘The sacrificial post is the sun.’

A world that constantly falls apart requires these knots if it is to have any hope of becoming whole, for at least a moment. It has to be tied together, from the inside, by the reflective mind in action; the Vedic world has no external boundary, no Archimedean point of reflexive observation that is outside itself. What it does have is holes, rips, tears, wobbly connections, loose and frayed ends in its existential fabric; things fall apart, heaven and earth become separated, and we no longer recognize the linkages that should hold the multiple dimensions of reality together.

The ritualist sets out to repair these gaps. The knots he ties in order to do so are, as Calasso recognizes, in no sense symbolic or to be understood as ‘metaphor’. In enacting the mechanics of Vedic sacrifice, they are something one needs to know, indeed to meditate upon and explore, because they are true, and because they work. Knowing them enables one to heal a god or a goddess, to reassemble him or her, and this entirely pragmatic and realistic endeavour also helps in healing the engaged and ritually active mind.

Knowing, however, frequently has a more specific resonance in the ritualists’ texts. ‘He who knows thus’, ya evam veda, is repeatedly promised many happy results, such as (always temporary) immortality. But what exactly is one supposed to know? It is likely that Yitzhak Freedman has now resolved this question, usually thought by scholars to imply discursive metaphysical axioms (such as ‘The Self contains all’ or ‘A person is made up of five concentric sheathes’).4


In practice, the person most likely to become immortal is the one who knows how to perform the sacrifice correctly, overcoming the panic that Renou rightly knew to be integral to action in this mode. We have to put aside useless labels like ‘magical thinking’ and, for that matter, even the attempt to elicit structured philosophical arguments from the labyrinth of these ancient techniques. The ritualist, as Freedman shows, is laboriously modelling his cosmos in mind and deed and thereby acting upon it, taking it apart under laboratory conditions, exploring it, playing with the terms and vectors of its composition, and at last putting it together again. But one has to know how to do it.


One could also possibly reformulate the workings of the Vedic system as a kind of grammar, with its attached syntax, which would have room for skeptical and paradoxical statements, for irony, and above all for the tension built into nearly all forms of speech in classical India – between an overpowering urge to express the self, vivakshâ, and a no less powerful resistance to speaking and to the necessary inadequacy of the word. In his ‘Essay on Time’, the great Sanskrit philosopher of language Bhartrihari, in the fifth century AD, called these ever-present contrary vectors ‘readiness’ (abhyanujñâ) and ‘blockage’ or ‘occlusion’ (pratibandha).

One could also think of them as an intense hunger for meaning and a simultaneous fascination with the supra-semantic, wordless languages of music, desire, and tears.

I can’t help mentioning a minor quibble. After so much eloquent exegesis, 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 which have a veritable antiquity, from al-Biruni in the eleventh century right up to the present. The Veda is not a work of historiography, but this hardly means that its authors were uninterested in the past, or in facts.

For linguists, we can now recommend the new philological translation of the entire Rig Veda by Joel Brereton and Stephanie Jamison, a monumental achievement of modern Vedic scholarship, though in its own way, like the Veda, a little daunting for ordinary mortals.5 What tends to be missing from scholarly translations of the Veda is the unsettling, often surreal poetic force of the verses and the no less vivid expressive power of the narrative parts of Vedic prose. The great translator A.K. Ramanujan told me, not long before his death, that he was intending to produce a volume of poetic translations from the Rig Veda; such a book would have been a revelation. I doubt that there is anyone who can do it today.


Calasso has truly captured something of the unearthly resonance that these ancient texts offer even, or especially, to a modern reader. He has also, perhaps alone along modern scholars of India, grasped the essence of what is meant by ‘writing’ in this culture – that is, writing not as a technical act of inscribing on palm leaf or stone or on the pathways of the mind but as fixing a word or an utterance in eloquent gestures unfolding in open space. He thus knows that the ‘flavour’ of the Satapatha Brâhmana lies first of all in the uninterrupted sensation of ‘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.


* Ardor by Roberto Calasso, translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

** A version of this article appeared in The New York Review of Books as ‘At the Heart of Hinduism’ on 8 January 2015. Excerpted from The New York Review of Books. Copyright 2015 by David Shulman.


1. The Paidi Talli rituals are discussed in detail by Don Handelman, One God, Two Goddesses, Three Studies of South Indian Cosmology. Brill, 2014.

2. Calasso has developed this theme at length in his earlier work on European modernity: The Ruin of Kasch, translated by William Weaver and Stephen Sartarelli, Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1994, pp. 134-147: ‘Sacrifice is guilt – the only one.’

3. See his superb collection of essays, Cuire le monde. Rite et pensée dans l’Inde ancienne. La Découverte, Paris, 1989. In English: Cooking the World: Ritual and Thought in Ancient India, translated by David White. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1996.

4. See Yitzhak Freedman, ‘Altar of Words: Text and Ritual in Taittirîya Upanishad 2’, Numen 59(4), 2012.

5. The Rig Veda, edited and translated by Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton. Oxford University Press, 2014.