The illustrations that head each chapter of Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India by Roberto Calasso (Knopf, $27.50) reveal a lot about this idiosyncratic retelling of Indian mythology and theology. The images don’t come directly from the vast treasury of Indian religious art; they’re European redrawings of Indian motifs, culled from books published in Leiden and Paris and London in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. All are products of a European fascination with India that began about the time the Dutch, French, and British empires reached the Indies. And like his pictures, Calasso’s text is an unstable mixture of Indian content and European perspective.
Europe’s Indomania–chronicled brilliantly by the French man of letters Raymond Schwab in The Oriental Renaissance–reached from the salons of pre-revolutionary France to the university towns that birthed German romanticism to the Concord of Thoreau and Emerson. From there, of course, it would influence American popular culture via turn-of-the-century occultism and the sitar-driven 1960s. Along the way it gave birth to serious poetry, philosophy, and scholarship (Schwab holds that romanticism would have been impossible without the influence of India on German thinkers) as well as nutty faddism.
So Calasso’s Indian excursion comes with a respectable pedigree. Like his well-received recasting of Greek mythology, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1993), it doesn’t systematize, organize, or “make clear” mythological structure; it just thrusts us into the stories. When the great god Shiva’s consort Parvati flames with jealousy because the maiden Ganga (who is also the Ganges River) insists on flowing sexily through Shiva’s hair, we’re eavesdroppers on a nasty squabble: “‘Who is that damn woman hiding in your hair?’ said Parvati. ‘The sickle moon,’ said Shiva, as though thinking of something else. . . . ‘I’m not speaking about the moon, I’m speaking about your girlfriend,’ said Parvati, snarling.”
Although here and elsewhere Calasso’s (or translator Tim Parks’) ear for the colloquial is a little on the wooden side, this kind of tabloid intimacy with the deities is enjoyable–and solidly within the Indian tradition. The loves of the gods are at once sublime metaphysical principles, religious truths, and beloved stories replayed in cheesy films and TV shows.
But then you have these sentences a few lines later: “Shiva and Ganga met as two excesses. Shiva allowed the celestial river to break over his head before touching the earth, which otherwise could not have survived the impact. And in ever bathing the motionless Shiva’s head, ever flowing in streams down his face, Ganga stopped the scorching god from withering up the whole world.” Here, in an explanatory gloss that’s typical of Calasso, we get a mixture of something that sounds like hip European anthropological theory (“two excesses”) with what might be a traditional Indian understanding of Ganga’s love for Shiva. Then again, it might be a whole lot of Calasso–or a bit of all the above. Rather than risk the smoothness of his narrative voice, Calasso avoids writing anything as pedestrian as “according to medieval Indian commentators.” Elsewhere, too, Calasso plays with themes that clearly fascinate him–the role of sacrifice, the passage from the vague, shapeless gods of the Vedas toward well-defined personages like Vishnu and Kali–in language that moves from the vocabulary of ethnology into a poetic voice that blurs the line between Calasso and classical India.
Bringing the literary and philosophical treasures of the old civilizations of Asia into the West is a great endeavor that someday will be seen as part of a two-way Renaissance that’s been going on since the heyday of Indomania. At its best, the effort proceeds with a paradoxical combination of boldness and humility. It’s thrilling that Calasso, in company with so many other Western writers old and new, feels moved enough by the Indian tradition to join it to his own intellectual landscape; and his portrayal of Indian mythology lacks nothing in color, complexity, and fascination. But in blurring the line between what is his own, what belongs to Western scholarship, and what comes from the texts themselves, he rubs out the difficulties and pitfalls of the process of cross-cultural interpretation. What he gains in vividness and flow he loses in necessary humility before the task–and before one of the oldest and richest traditions on the planet.