An alternately illuminating and baffling exploration of the primary texts of Indian philosophy and religion.
Whether he’s dealing with Greek mythology (The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, 1993), Franz Kafka (K., 2006) or the French Symbolists (La Folie Baudelaire, 2012), Calasso is always concerned with the ways his subjects alter the consciousness of their times. His latest book gives him more than enough to work with: the Vedas, the ancient compilations of Sanskrit hymns, mythology and philosophy that are the only remaining artifacts of a lost world of ancient India, a civilization “in which the invisible prevailed over the visible.” Millennia before Descartes, the Vedic authors and poets were fully aware of mankind as the thinking animal. “For the Vedic people,” writes Calasso, “everything came from consciousness, in the sense of pure awareness devoid of any other attribute.” The author pursues his own quest for enlightenment by questioning, treading carefully and humbling himself before a body of knowledge that has not always been well-served by his Western predecessors. (“Is it possible to hold that ‘our way of thinking’ is so barren and desolate that it doesn’t embrace, at least to some extent, thinking in images?”) He’s more interesting exploring this world than interpreting its texts; he tends to go off into the ether when in expository mode, and his thoughts don’t always naturally evolve. He’s more eloquent when he’s examining how this old world informs our concepts of sacrifice and the morality of killing and what the loss of transcendence means to modern life. He asks, in the end, whether religion has been adequately replaced by a “secularized society that can no longer see nature or any other power beyond itself and believes it is itself the answer for everything.”
“The whole of Vedic India was an attempt to think further,” writes Calasso. He demands no less from his readers.