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Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India

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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.

464 pages, Paperback

First published September 1, 1996

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About the author

Roberto Calasso

62 books397 followers
Roberto Calasso (1941-2021) was an Italian publisher and writer. He was born into a family of the local upper class, well connected with some of the great Italian intellectuals of their time. His maternal grandfather Giovanni Codignola was a professor of philosophy at Florence University. Codignola created a new publishing house called La Nuova Italia, in Florence, just like his friend Benedetto Croce had done in Bari with Laterza. His uncle Tristano Codignola, partigiano during the Resistenza, after the war joined the political life of the new republic, and was for a while Minister of Education. His mother Melisenda – who gave up a promising academic career to raise her three children – was a scholar of German literature, and had worked on Hölderlin’s translations of the Greek poet Pindar. His father Francesco was a law professor, first at Florence University and then in Rome, where he eventually became dean of his faculty. He has been working for Adelphi Edizioni since its founding in 1962 and became its Chairman in 1999. His books have from 1990 been translated into most European languages. After a successful career in publishing he has become a leading intellectual.[citation needed]

He is the author of a work in progress, that started with The Ruin of Kasch in 1983, a book welcome by Italo Calvino, dedicated to the French statesman Talleyrand and to a reflection on the culture of modernity. This was followed in 1988 by The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, a book where the tale of Cadmus and his wife Harmonia becomes a pretext for re-writing the great tales of Greek mythology and reflect on the reception of Greek culture for a contemporary readership. The trend for portraying whole civilizations continues with Ka (where the subject of the re-writing is Hindu mythology). K. instead restricts the focus to one single author(Franz Kafka); this trend continues with Il rosa Tiepolo, inspired by an adjective used by Proust to describe a shade of pink used by Tiepolo in his paintings. With his latest book, La folie Baudelaire, Calasso goes back to the fresco of whole civilisations, this time re-writing the lives and works of the artists that revolutionised our artistic taste, the symbolist poets and impressionist painters.

His essaystic production is collected in a few books: I quarantanove gradini (The Forty-nine Steps, a collection of essays about major authors and thinkers in European modernity addressed to Pierre Klossowski and his wife). His Oxford lessons are collected in Literature and the Gods. In 2005 Calasso published La follia che viene dalle ninfe, a collection of essays on the influence of the nymph in literature, which is discussed through authors ranging from Plato to Nabokov.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 87 reviews
Profile Image for James Murphy.
982 reviews156 followers
March 19, 2012
What Calasso did with western classical mythology in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony he also does with Indian mythology. I was aware that Kali represents death and that Ganesha has the head of an elephant. A few years ago I read The Mahabharata. I have a basic familiarity with the life of Buddha. But that's a weak foundation for understanding the complex nature of Indian mythology. As a westerner I doubt I can properly appreciate in one reading the nuances and richness of their mythic tradition. Fortunately, Calasso's beautiful writing transcends my ignorance. Unable to understand the intricate spiderweb of associations and meanings involved in these stories, I nevertheless relished the poetic prose with which he tells them. As if he realizes some may have diffuculty relating to the material, Calasso occasionally makes a comparison to western references. In this way we learn that Prajapati is like the K. of Kafka's novels or that Proust's Marcel watching Albertine sleep is like a seer experiencing the fusion of the human with the natural world. They are 2 of the mileposts marking the journey Calasso takes us on, one filled with colorful landscapes and characters as enchanting as they are frightening. It's a beautiful and compelling read.
Profile Image for Neha Asthana.
3 reviews14 followers
May 20, 2012
Ka is a work of art, no less by the very brave Roberto Calasso. To bring to book, Indian mythology, ANY mythology, really, is a daring attempt to pick & prod through a dangerous territory of the book keepers of religion, the overlords of cults, the gardeners of religious doctrine & breeders of creeds. Calasso has somehow managed to paint this vast canvas with hues that complement the real picture, and woven a tapestry with many threads converging & diverging to create a regaling picture of the Hindu world's sacred lot. He steps boldly into the world which worships millions of deities, and fearlessly picks the road less traveled, choosing to tell us their origins & their consequent growth, trials & tribulations. Fascinating journeying through the book, I found myself wishing that it never ended, rather than getting to the end. Now my only choice is to keep re-reading it. Such a treat.

Profile Image for Michael.
57 reviews66 followers
July 5, 2015
“A bloody, feverish story has embedded itself in the sky. It reminds us that it will go on happening forever.”

Fitting, that in this retelling of what are some of the oldest stories known to man that Ka translates as ‘the space between,’ or ‘Who?’ For it’s the mystery that we are after in this existence. “Now I know that this question will haunt us forever, until time itself dissolves.” Calasso’s book accounts the gods, as if, in their doings, our own plight is revealed. “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.” It’s overwhelming: “The wheel of time would go on turning to the point where the last, and hitherto mute knowledge would speak.” And, if we are honest with ourselves, frightening: “The surface of the wakeful mind trembles without cease, like the surface of the waters. And like the waters, it assumes the shapes of those forces that press upon it.”

The mind is our protagonist. “The mind. The mind was what transformed and what was transformed. It was the warmth, the hidden flame behind the bones, the succession and dissolution of shapes sketched on the darkness – and the sensation of knowing that was happening.” The world is its antagonist. “Nothing enchants the mind more than the existence of the outside world, of something that resists it and will not obey. Pampered by its own omnipotence, its own capacity to connect and identify everything with everything, the mind needs an obstacle at least as big as the world.”

“The world is a desert: where can we find the expedient that would turn that presence behind the eyes into something before the eyes?” The idea that there is an answer short of the telling of eternity is our flaw. But perhaps this flaw is a blessing or even the vital force in that telling itself. “Is it any surprise, then, if ultimate knowledge can only become manifest through enigma?” The answer is the question. “Neither gods nor men can live without recourse to Ka. To be precise: they may survive but they cannot understand.” And the question becomes: would we have it any other way? “Better to achieve immortality than already to have it, they thought with divine logic.”

A cousin of Vollmann’s, The Ice-Shirt. If you read as a means and not an end, i.e. if you read for meaning, here is a concatenating metaphysical feast that both satisfies and delights. That ‘space between’ knowledge and living, setting and story, desire and death, form and mind. “All that is really required is a scene of blood confined in a perpetual light, and a gaze that follows fleeting signs forming against a shadowy backdrop.”
Profile Image for Keram .
11 reviews
May 18, 2010
Some of the most beautiful prose I have read, let alone in what appears to be a non-fiction book, though that is an impossible qualification considering it is exploring the origins of Hindu mythology. Reading this made my brain feel effervescent, and I often had to put the book down after a paragraph simply to savor what I had just read. And sometime this would last for weeks before I could return to it.
Profile Image for Edmundo Mantilla.
100 reviews
September 10, 2018
Porque prescinde de toda palabra ornamental y porque se trata de una obra sintética, "Ka" es la clase de libro sobre el cual no puedes formar un resumen. He leído que algunas personas consideran "la mitología hindú" como su tema, o bien "la historia de India". No se trata de opiniones mal formadas, sino de pensamientos rendidos a la obligación de ver en una pequeña hoja de loto el mundo entero, porque lo que hace Calasso se asemeja en cierta forma al "Mahabharata" -ese muy extenso poema épico que se formó en el tiempo sacrificial-: dar la paz al mundo y anular las nociones de principio y fin. En efecto, la historia que Calasso conforma a partir de varias fuentes orientales no conoce un inicio, porque tanto Visnu como Ka y Brahma se encuentran perplejos ante la creación y, aunque piensan ser el todo, solo son residuos. De allí que la búsqueda la inmortalidad (el soma) con que comienza el libro, se transforme en interrogante sobre el mundo y los dioses, hasta llegar a la doctrina del nirvana.
Sin embargo, esto pretende ser una reseña y no un análisis de la compleja propuesta de Calasso y del intrincado panorama cultural que ocupa su obra. A favor del libro, todo el arte del autor para presentar una mitología infinita y para volver explícitas muchas conexiones que podrían escapar al profano a esta literatura. Además, el ingenio narrativo de Calasso es precioso: la obra tiene un movimiento interno en espiral que llega a hipnotizar al lector. Existen pasajes de una inteligencia asombrosa y otros de una emotividad conmovedora. No es una obra fácil de leer. Con frecuencia olvidaba los nombres y debía recurrir al glosario o a mis anotaciones. Es un libro que exige mucho del lector porque lo que entrega es un tesoro.
March 16, 2013
Ka is a great book about the gods and religious practices of ancient India. I read this book in Hindi and in a day. It was great to read the interpretation of an outsider. I do not know if anybody has said so much in such brevity on this topic. Although, it covers only minuscule section of Indian myths and stories, still it makes a great reading.
Profile Image for Rishab Katoch.
37 reviews30 followers
April 17, 2020
"Fullness drawn from fullness: this is the Vedic doctrine. Emptiness drawn from emptiness: this is the Buddha's doctrine. The transition from the Upanishads to the Buddha is one from fullness to emptiness. But the shape is the same."

A journey through ancient Indian mythology right from the early vedic gods like Prajapati to the Buddha himself. If you have studied even the basics of Indian philosophy I think this read will interest you, as one can see the evolution of certain ideas told through the many wild adventures of Gods, demons, heavenly beings and sages. This is one of those books that will force you to open wikipedia every now and then in order to read about a particular character or concept. The book does get dense in parts but one is rewarded at the end.
Profile Image for Gopal MS.
64 reviews17 followers
November 29, 2011
Simply brilliant. Most Indians would have heard almost all the tales that are mentioned in this book. But this book strings all the mythological tales together very intelligently and with a perspective that only someone with a wider perspective of human nature and thought processes can give.

There is also something different about Italian writers. They write in a rich and often difficult language that takes time to get used to. But once you are comfortable with the translation, you will realise that they have a knack for presenting complex thoughts in a beautiful way. It is not simple, but it is poetic.

Example: Danube by Claudio Magris and Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.

Profile Image for Mihir Chhangani.
Author 1 book11 followers
January 18, 2023
One of the most interesting and 'rich' books that I have (and probably will) ever read. This book combines a multitude of stories, concepts and philosophies from the Hindu mythology and a LOT of research has gone into it. Took me some time to finish reading it, and I'm pretty sure I wasn't able to properly grasp even half of the concepts which were described in the book.

Having said that, the much that I understood was beautiful and layered and, at times, weird. I should ideally read it again, but I highly doubt that I will. One of the things which bothered me was the disconnect within and across chapters. A recommended read if one is interested in Hindu mythology and beliefs.
Profile Image for Brooke Everett.
336 reviews13 followers
February 15, 2016
Sometimes I force myself to do things that I don’t necessarily want to do because I perceive them as being “good for me.” Recently, I wouldn’t allow myself to leave my own dining room table until I finished a giant salad from Sweetgreen. It took me over an hour to finish that salad and I may or may not have cried a little bit.

I tend to reach for a book I think will be good for my brain to counteract a feeling I get every now and again that the Internet and my life are making me stupid. I’ve referred to it in a past review as “bench presses for my brain.” This book has been in my “to read” stack since September and I thought my brain could use the exercise. I’ve always adored Greco-Roman mythology, and I’m always very interested in the Hindu myths my yoga teachers weave into their dharma talks at the beginning of class. I thought I’d be reading stories like the one about little Hanuman mistaking the sun for a big ripe mango and trying to eat it. No such luck.

Not unlike the salad incident, this book was mostly tortuous and I made myself finish it. I began eagerly, frequently flipping back and forth to the glossary in an attempt to keep everything straight. When the glossary proved to be equally confusing I gave up on that. It also doesn’t help that characters’ names change or are mentioned once in passing and then not again until 20 pages later.

If there were actual stories or a narrative I think it would have been easier to remain engaged, but the text flowed as stream of consciousness on big, weighty, cosmological questions. I assuaged my resulting feelings of being extra dumb by realizing it would be difficult for me, a mere mortal, to understand such matters anyway.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go have cake for dinner at tuck into the Tracy Morgan book.

(There were flashes of brilliance that did sink in, and here they are. Perhaps (hopefully) I absorbed more than I thought.)

“Listening to his mother, Garuda was like a schoolboy who for the first time hears something mentioned that will loom over his whole life.” p. 6

“Pārvatī loved it when she didn’t understand. What attracted her most was obscurity.” p. 99

“There is no nature without illusion, there is no illusion without power, there is no power without nature. As for māyā, rather than ‘illusion’ it would be more apt to call it ‘magic,’ that strange thing that those supposedly of sober mind are convinced does not exist, while actually it would be far more sober to say that nothing in existence can exist without it.” p. 111

“This is the decisive step: awakening. Something invisible that happens within thought. Something that adds a new quality to thought: consciousness.” p. 175

“Arjuna remembered some words Krsna had once hurriedly spoken: ‘Even the curses we undergo must be of use to us.’” p. 308

“There is a point at which having something happen and recounting something converge: they both leave an impression on the mind. Telling a story is a way of having things happen at the highest possible speed, that of the mind.” p. 314
Profile Image for Sonali V.
140 reviews63 followers
January 22, 2022
I had previously read Calasso 's Ardor. It was a slow, difficult, fascinating and very rewarding read for me. After reading this book I realised that I should have read this one first because a lot of his thoughts in' Ardor' are extensions of the philosophy he deals with here a little more simply, through the stories. I loved both books, and I know I shall re-read them, there's so much that I need to go back to & think over again.... The best part was that this morning I re-read a particular poem of Tagore which I had read before and enjoyed deeply. Today while reading it suddenly dawned on me that what I read in Ka, has been poetically, melodiously, within a couple of pages, simply, been conveyed by this 'World Poet' of ours.
Profile Image for Harish Balan.
2 reviews
February 11, 2013
Ka decodes Hindu myth in a style that might be scandalous to the fascists. However, the book reasons out a lot of stories in Hindu myth with a very original idea. Roberto's complex and erotic style of writing might not make the book a terrific page-turner. And still it's probably te best book about Hindu mythology that anyone has ever written.
Profile Image for Jee Koh.
Author 20 books158 followers
December 30, 2008
The Parasite of Consciousness

Calasso retells the Indian myths in this book, and makes them gripping, probing and mysterious. In the first story, Garuda, the eagle, is born to save his mother from slavery to her own sister. The method of the myths and of the retelling is described by Garuda himself: "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."

After freeing his mother, Garuda decided to devote himself to reading the Vedas in the Rauhina tree. Reading hymn one hundred and twenty-one in the tenth book of the Rig Veda, he found the question that gave the book its title: "Who (Ka) is the god to whom we should offer our sacrifice?"

The next chapter takes up the story of Prajapati who is a kind of Progenitor of all things, including the gods. Prajapati was the mind before anything existed. The mind did not even know whether it existed or not. The mind desired, with a desire that was "continuous, diffuse, undefined." It desired

what was definite and separate, what had shape. A Self, atman--that was the name it used. And the mind imagined that Self as having consistency. Thinking the mind grew red hot. It saw thirty-six thousand fires flare up, made up of mind, made with mind.

This fire was tapas, the same fire that burned in the gods, and in the holy men. Desire, in this myth, is longing for the Other; it is longing for form.

Chapter Three describes the desire of this Father for his daughter Dawn (Usas). Their union was disrupted by a son and god, Rudra, who fired an arrow into his father's groin, causing him to squirt his seed onto the ground. This triangular relationship, according to this chapter, is repeated with different names in different stories down the ages.

In Chapter Four, Brhama takes over the role of Creator and Father. The problem with his creation was that all were born exclusively of the mind, and no one died. Immortality proved to be oppressive. To solve that problem Brahma created Death. To solve the problem of mind, he created sex. When asked by the gods why bother with another mode of production, Brahma answered, "To preserve the world's gloss."

The triangle between father, daughter and son returns in Chapter Five. Daksa, a stand-in for Brahma, loved his favorite daughter, Sati, who, in turn, loves Siva. Whe Daksa refused to invite his son-in-law to his priestly sacrifice, Sati returned to her father's household, and rebuked him by self-combusting. Sati is, of course, the immolation of a widow on her husband's funeral pyre. Following his wife's death, Siva wrecked Daksa's sacrifice.

Chapter VI narrates the love affair between Siva and Parvati, the daughter of Himavat (Himalayas?). To capture Siva's heart, Parvati left her royal life to practice tapas in the forest. The god accepted her offer, and united with her, making her a goddess. Kalidasa, the Sanskrit poet, makes an appearance in this chapter. He was sneaking a look at their love-making before chased away by Parvati.

Parvati also discovered Siva had many lovers, one of whom lived as water in his hair, Ganga. In the story-within-a-story, Ganga was initially a proud woman who thought she could sweep Siva away like a straw. She plunged from the Milky Way on top of Siva's head, only to get lost, and spread out among the forest of his hair. The story is enchanting. It is a charming explanation of how the great Ganges came into being. It is a striking extended metaphor. It is also very sexy.

Chapter VII describes the sacrifice of the horse, the "king of all sacrifices," Calasso writes, for he who celebrated it became king of all kings and would obtain everything he desired. Before the horse died, it was allowed to wander any land it wished, protected by four hundred armed guards. During the wait, stories (pariplavas) of the deeds of gods and kings were endlessly recited. Narrative thus became

. . . a way of preventing the relationship with the wandering horse from being broken. The narrative wandered around like the horse. The secret thought of the narrative is the horse. The secret thought of the horse is the narrative.

When the horse returned, it was strangled, and then the king's first wife lay with the dead horse, its phallus introduced into her vulva. When morning came, the queen returned to her feet. The horse was cut up while the priest asked who was cutting it up, and answered himself, Ka.

Chapter VIII is organized as a collection of stories about and sermons by the rsis, the holy men. Here's a beautiful example of the philosophizing of these men, this by Bharadvaja:

Why should the mind be before and after every other thing? Because it can never be found in the world. You can open up any body, any element, with the finest of metal points, you can turn everything inside out and expose all that has been hidden, until matter becomes a whirr of dragonflies. To no end: you will never find so much as trace, not even the tiniest, of the mind. The banner of its sovereignty is precisely this: its not being there. 

Chapter IX recounts the story of the old rsis Cyavana who got the divine twins the Asvins to return him his youth, in exchange for a chance to win the favor of his wife, Sukanya.

Chapter X is about the soma, the drink that gives gods and men immortality, the "one quantity that was also quality." "The stories of the soma tell of repeated conquest, repeated loss," writes Calasso, and as an instance he narrates the quest of Indra, king of the gods, for that divine substance. The soma in Chapter X is associated with knowledge, as conveyed through a parable strikingly similar to Plato's cave. In Chapter XI, the soma is linked to desire, imaged in circulating waters. So the most beautiful of Apsaras, Urvasi, distracted the gods Mitra and Varuna from their ritual, and so was cursed to fall in love with a mortal, Pururavas.

In Chapter XII, Krsna (Krishna) is the protagonist. He steals butter from his mother, and hearts from the gopis, the cowgirls. In Chapter XIII the mature Krsna joined Arjuna as a bosom friend, but not before Arjuna won Princess Draupadi for his wife, and the enjoyment of all five Pandava brothers. All that is preface to the Indian epic Mahabharata. Of its narrative frame, Calasso writes, quite wonderfully:

The war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas is a "knot" (and the books that make up the Mahabharata are called parvans, "knots"), just one of the innumerable stitches in the weave of everything with everything. Going back in time to what came before it, or forward a little, after it ended, we encounter a net that brushes against us on every side--and immediately we are struck by the conviction that we will never see the edges of that net, because there are no edges. 

Again, on the beginning of stories:

The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge looked like a single tree: when the branches rustled, that was the Vedas who were its leaves, speaking; hen the air was still soma dripped from its trunk, offering life without end. Look at that huge plant carefully, you saw that there was in fact two trees, inextricably twisted together. One thrust its branches upward, the other towards the ground. They were a sami and an asvattha. It was hard to see which was which. On opposite branches, at the same height, two birds could be made out, "inseparable friends." One was eating a berry, the other was watching it intensely. To light a fire you need to rub a twig of asvattha against a twig of sami. Pushing out its aerial roots, the asvattha slowly strangles the sami. Consciousness slowly strangles life. But life exists--or is perceived to exist--only to the extent that it allows the parasite of consciousness to grown upon it. 

In a later passage, Calasso links Krsna and Arjuna to these two birds of the Vedic hymn, no longer on opposite branches of the same tree, but on a war chariot. Arjuna the archer was the bird that ate the berry, while Krsna the charioteer watched, like the other bird, "without eating."

The second to last chapter is about the Buddha. Try as Calasso may, to show how the Buddhist teachings flow from, and react against, the Hindu myths, Chapters XIV is just not as interesting as the earlier ones. The problem seems to be the lack of stories, the emptiness of characters. Nirvana, in other words. The story of the Buddha's awakening is a well-trodden path, and Calasso adds little that is new. The aridity of these chapters is consonant with the Buddha's avoidance of imagery, and his love for analysis, repetition and numbers: four noble truths; the path is eightfold; the objects of grasping are five. In Calasso, what makes the Buddha humanly graspable is his blundering disciple and cousin, Ananda. It was Ananda who persuaded the Buddha to admit women into the priesthood. It was Ananda who feared death and lusted after women. Ananda means joy.

Chapter XV, the final chapter, is a brief recapitulation of the themes: earth, beginning, residue, the Self, being, wakefulness. The book ends with its beginning, Garuda awakening from his sleep, his claws still grasping hymn number 121 of the tenth book of the Rg Veda, his eyes still focused on the syllable from which everything had issued forth: Ka.

Profile Image for Avisek Bandyopadhyay.
90 reviews9 followers
April 22, 2020
Damn if I understood it all! I was chasing to understand the rubric of Hinduism better and I came across this highly acclaimed book. The book is an encapsulation of Hindu scriptures from pre-Veda days spanning to the days of Buddha, the 9th avatar of Vishnu.

As exciting as the premise sounds, the book is dense. Hindu scriptures, Veda, Vedanta, Upanishads and Geeta have been admitted as containing all the wisdom one must have to lead a meaningful, purpose-filled life. And, true as that is, what no one blurts out, is they are very difficult to read. So, more often than not, I had to refer to secondary sources to understand my own religion. Ka was such a venture.

Ka starts from the time there was nothing but just a conscience, who was called Ka. From him, everything including 33 Crore Gods, the sub, the moon, the people came to being. And from the very initial days, everyone ruminated on the same thing - What is the purpose of life? Why do we live and what is that we should determine to find out? And, as Calasso explains, the history of Hinduism, probably like any other, has been shaped over misadventures, anger, jealousy, love and most of all sacrifice.

What Calasso tries to do is tie all the books with a common theme, explain some interesting myths, stories rather which deconstructs some of the everyday rituals we do like why Ganesha is called Vinayaka, how do we set up the Yoga, why Brahma has only 4 heads, etc.

I know, I couldn't process most of the information in the book, and that I must read it again, with more patience and focus. It's also clear I must reach out to the original sources one day. Because I can't deny the bliss, the singularity in me while reading the book. Knowing that we are but, just cogs in this whole scheme of things, it takes off the pressure of expectation. For a moment, I could see clearly. I am here to know more and learn more. And, as every great mind has shouted from the rooftop, revel in the present. Don't worry about the future because you can't control it. It's upon itself to happen. Stay in today, make this moment count and you are already richer.
999 reviews7 followers
June 14, 2021
Ja, jag konstaterar att jag definitivt inte tillhörde målgruppen för denna. Faktum var att den största motivationen att fortsätta till nästa sida, var att komma en sida närmare slutet, så att jag kunde lägga boken åt sidan. Samtidigt konstaterar jag att felet inte ligger hos författaren. Hantverket är gott, och jag kan konstatera att boken inte är okunnig alls. Snarare tvärt om. Med hänsyn taget till temat borde jag älska boken, snarare än uppleva motvilja mot den, men det är, trots hantverket, vad jag gör. Underligt.
Profile Image for Oscar Calva.
88 reviews21 followers
May 5, 2013
Ka es un libro fascinante. En la forma es un recuento de mitos hindúes, principalmente tomados de los textos del Rig Veda y el Ramayana, desde el inicio de los tiempos hasta el surgimiento del buda. En el fondo, este libro va mucho más allá de un simple recuento enciclopédico de leyendas e historias, y se adentra a profundidad en el pensamiento y la filosofía hindú a partir del conocimiento profundo y erudito que el autor tiene de dichos textos.

Leer estas historias de la mano de Calasso no es una tarea fácil, pero si muy gratificante. El autor va mucho más allá de presentar de manera simplificada o esquemática las leyendas, historias y mitos, y para leerlo hay que armarse de un conocimiento --aún cuando solo a un nivel elemental-- del pensamiento hindú y los personajes mitológicos; el autor no es nada complaciente con el lector, no concede ningún tipo de explicación de conceptos elementales del pensamiento y el misticismo hindú, las diversas tradiciones mitológicas (védicas, brahmánicas, hinduistas) y su continuidad histórica, y en muchas ocasiones, el texto más que un relato, se vuelve un ensayo y estudio filosófico sobre el pensamiento y filosofía de vida hindú.

Aún así, a pesar de la complejidad del libro, la escritura precisa de Calasso, llena de pasajes literarios sumamente poéticos y de gran belleza, la maestría narrativa, la manera de construir imágenes, y la erudición de su texto hacen de este libro una verdadera obra de arte, disfrutable y memorable.
45 reviews
April 15, 2016
I recommend this book to Indians who have had no exposure to Hindu scriptures. The author takes you through the mystic world of Indian scriptures, the origin of human life and the relationship with gods, the subtle interpretations of intrigues starting from the awe-struck Vinatha in the majestic presence of her son Garuda. The book reads like poetry. I was amazed by the breadth and depth of the author's understanding. It takes time to complete the book, but assure you it is worth every minute of it.
Profile Image for Drusila.
125 reviews6 followers
January 10, 2022
Me tarde 7 años en leer este libro. No puede ser. El balance general es que no me gustó. Se hace muy tedioso después de la segunda mitad. Mete referencias de la cultura europea que nada que ver. Me hace pensar que conforme iba leyendo el Rig Veda y el Mahabharata et al. escribía párrafos. Por lo que me parece más nutricio acudir a las fuentes originales. Oscila entre la narración y el ensayo de forma poco armónica porque aburre y pierde al lector. En fin. Decepcionante.
Profile Image for Joe Olipo.
90 reviews
May 24, 2022
A warning to all devourers of books:
"Thus, from the allusive cipher of the Ṛg Veda and the abrupt, broken narratives of the Brāhmaṇas, [...] one passed to the ruthless redundance of the Purānas, their incessant dilution, their indulgence in hypnotic and hypertrophic detail. […] And the demands on the listener changed too. There was a time when he’d been obliged to solve abrupt enigmas, or find his head bursting. Now he could heap up rewards merely by listening to the stories as they proliferated."
Calasso’s return to the Rig Veda following The Ruin of Kasch. A more systematic approach than his earlier work, though correspondingly bogged in minutia. Discussion of Sacrifice, Engima, and The Modern – interesting themes – Calasso interprets the Rig Vedas as practicing a kind of negative dialectics – ideas which may have a greater impact if this is the reader’s first exposure:

• The insignificant residue conceals the essential

• Possibility weighs heavier than actuality – absence precedes presence in the hierarchical order of things – every lover loves, first and foremost, an absentee

• The etiology of events proceeds backwards from effects to causes. – The action reaches backward for the justification in whose name the act was first performed

• Tragedy loses its salt in quantitative thinking (multiplication)

• One does not get away from sacrifice too easily.


”Why was the residue granted this privilege? Why, rather than representing the insignificant, did it become the place that conceals the essential?”
The task of thought, rephrased:
>”What is the esoteric? The thought closest to the vision things have of themselves.”
(possiblity and actuality):
"Vasiṣṭha said: “This was our axiom: that what was not manifest took precedence over what was manifest, that the manifest was subject to the unmanifest. And since the manifest, insofar as it depended on the unmanifest, was merely a consequence of it, and a consequence, what’s more, that had not been clearly and unambiguously desired, as the events of Brahmā’s early life bear witness, the manifest could be considered as a residue, a leftover, a remnant, the place where whatever was superfluous, and could not be reabsorbed in the realm from which it originated, had gathered."
-> "Every lover loves, first and foremost, an absentee. <- Absence precedes presence, in the hierarchical order of things. Presence is just a special case in the category of absence. Presence is a hallucination protracted for a certain period. "

he challenged the brahman: “I ask you what is the extreme point of the earth. I ask you what is the navel of the world. I ask you what is the seed of the stallion. I ask you what is the supreme home of the word.” Again unhesitating, the brahman replied: “It is the altar (vedi) that is called the extreme point of the earth. It is the sacrifice that is called the navel of the world. It is the soma that is called the seed of the stallion. It is the brahman that is the supreme home of the word.” What had happened? The hotṛ had put forward enigmas. The brahman had solved them. But what were his solutions? Enigmas of a higher order. This alone was enough to suggest that they were the right answers.
What does the world look like? It’s an upturned cup. What’s it made of? Bone. [...] --> What is it that hangs suspended in that upturned cup, that dark and empty hemisphere? The “glory of all forms,” they said. A brain saturated in soma: the mind


One does not get away from sacrifice too easily:
"Everything is within the sacrifice. With the sacrifice one heals the sacrifice. I say this so that you might not imagine it easy to escape from sacrifice. In every sacrifice there is the uncertainty of a journey toward an unknown destination. <- If the brahman doesn’t open his mouth to take the prāśitra [the piece of wounded flesh], the sacrifice will not be able to heal. The brahman eats the guilt, he assimilates it into his circulation. Thus he ‘restores what was torn asunder.’ The tearing is within the ceremony—and the ceremony itself serves to heal it. "
The words spoken to the horse on the sacrificial altar (lies):
You do not die thus. You are not hurt. On easy paths you go to the Gods.” They were the last words the [sacrificed] horse would hear,
Events and their justification:
“On my return, I told everyone of my vision. So today we know why we celebrate the mahāvrata. This is the right sequence of events. The vision comes afterward. First one must arrange the gestures. But without knowing exactly what they mean. The vision throws light on how and why things must happen as they already do. Since everything already happens. But how did it happen?”
A voluntary diminishing of power:
"They thought so much about sovereignty that they no longer dared to exercise it. Their history was one of progressive abdication. Having consumed its every variation, from the most avid to the most austere, in the heat of their minds, they chose to refrain from dominion, and let the first invaders seize it from them. They would put up with anything, so long as they could think. And, if possible, think what the ancients, what the ṛṣis had thought before them." ->"A temple was unacceptable, because that would have meant using something ready-made, once and for all, whereas what you had to do was start from scratch, every day, transforming whatever clearing you found, scattered bushes and all, into a place of sacrifice, choosing one by one the positions for the fires and the altar, measuring out the distances, evoking the whole from an amorphous, mute, inert scene, until the moment when the gods would come down and sit themselves on the thin grass mats that had been carefully unrolled for them."


The Buddha's Enlightenment legacy:
What would one day be called “the modern” was, at least as far as its sharpest and most hidden point is concerned, a legacy of the Buddha. Seeing things as so many aggregates and dismantling them. Then dismantling the elements split off from the aggregates, insofar as they too are aggregates. And so on and on in dizzying succession. An arid, ferocious scholasticism. A taste for repetition, as agent provocateur of inanity. Vocation for monotony. Total lack of respect for any prohibition, any authority. Emptying of every substance from within. Only husks left intact. The quiet conviction that all play occurs where phantoms ceaselessly substitute one for another. Allowing the natural algebra of the mind to operate out in the open. Seeing the world as a landscape of interlocking cogs. Observing it from a certain and constant distance.
“Objective” quantitative thought of so-called Enlightenment Thinking – the Repetition:
"The tragic is the unique and irreversible act. To elude the tragic, the Buddha dilutes every action in a series of actions, every life in a series of lives, every death in a series of deaths. Suddenly everything loses its consistency. Whatever is multiplied is also extenuated. Simultaneous with this gesture came the epistemological denial of the existence of the Self, now reduced to a series of elements that can be added together and unified in conventional fashion.
The practice of Enlightenment Thought against the gods:
“To attribute infinite duration to the gods, or infinite knowledge, or infinite strength, is groveling and superstitious. The gods are simply those who have come closest to brahman. It’s true that, vain and fatuous as they were, they claimed to be responsible for their victory, claimed to originate their own actions. Men do the same, to imitate them. But it is pure boastfulness."


"Impatience got the better of me, and I opened his egg too soon. Only then did I understand what a ṛṣi from a distant land, a pale and angular seer, will say one day: that impatience is the only sin."
Profile Image for Emanuela.
Author 4 books65 followers
January 28, 2014
Mi ero riproposta di rileggere questo libro fra qualche anno. Invece è arrivato in ebook con un daily deal e non ho resistito all'anticipazione.
Di cosa parla sta scritto nella quarta.
Alla fine della lettura, però, non ci si ricorda quasi più niente tanti sono i nomi a cui si cerca di dare una connotazione che poi diventa un'altra cosa rispetto all'immagine che ci si era creati. Un dio è anche umano, ma ha sembianze animali e poi ti accorgi che ha il nome di una costellazione. Cosmogonia, guerre, amori, metamorfosi, nomi che cambiano, rappresentazioni fantasiose e concettualmente efficaci, ecc. Ce ne sono troppi, ma non è colpa dell'autore.
Consiglio di riferirsi al glossario in coda al testo che non è però linkato nell'edizione digitale. Ho poi trovato nel testo cartaceo una fotocopia, presa dalla rivista "Specchio", della mappa dell'Olimpo indiano che mi ha aiutato a ricostruire almeno l'albero genealogico delle trentatre divinità principali.
Sempre nelle ultime pagine c'è una breve guida alla pronuncia dei termini in sanscrito.

Comunque, tutte le vicende narrate dai Rg Veda, dagli Upanishad e Mahabharata, che Calasso riassume e a volte commenta, corrispondono al 60% del testo e servono a capire l'avvento del settimo avatara: il Buddha, con il suo atteggiamento di distacco dalle vicende delle divinità precedenti, che focalizza la propria filosofia sul nirvana (estinzione), anziché sul tapas (ardore). E' questa la parte più fruibile e intensa ed è quella che mi è forse più vicina, anche se non del tutto comprensibile in certe affermazioni, ma è un altro mondo.

Andava riletto perché la volta precedente era successo dopo "Le nozze di Cadmo e Armonia" e, invece, questa volta ho invertito la sequenza. Cercherò, quindi, analogie e diversità.

Due parole sullo stile che non è per niente fluido, sia per i termini originali inseriti, sia per una punteggiatura sincopata. Spesso si deve tornare a rileggere il periodo perché ci si perde facilmente.
Profile Image for John.
26 reviews4 followers
September 7, 2007
I can't say that I learned anything; mostly I let his books seep in over a period of years, kind of like Milorad Pavic. Mostly I just jot down anytime he raises a question, such as "But how did it all begin?"
Profile Image for Oanh.
461 reviews22 followers
September 29, 2011
Less wonderful (for me) than Marriage of Cadmus & Harmony but still great. Perhaps the problem was my lesser familiarity with Hindi mythology / cosmology etc.
443 reviews2 followers
August 21, 2022
If I'm allowed only normal-sized books, then this is 1 of the 5 I'd take to the deserted island.
Profile Image for A. B..
239 reviews6 followers
August 31, 2020
A great introduction to Indian mythology and philosophy: all the way from the Vedic age to the Buddha. Calasso's beautiful poetic prose does the vast mythos justice as does his explanation of the philosophical basis of the myths. References and comparison to the Western corpus also renders it very accessible. Although it might seem to get a bit dense at parts, a quick Wikipedia and Google soon clears it up. From the debt-ridden 'heavy' existence of the Vedic age to the 'lightness' of the Buddha, a book to be savoured.

A chapter-wise summary of the contents follows primarily for my future reference:

I. Garuda and the Vedas.

II. Prajapati (the eponymous KA (Who?)) and the Creation of the universe, Agni, Vac.

III. Prajapati, Usas and Rudra.

IV. Prajapati -> Brahma, Tapas and Kama.

V. Daksha, Sati, Siva, Mrtyu.

VI.Taraka, Parvati & Siva, Ganesha, Ganga, Kama's death, Skanda.

VII. Ashvamedha Yagna: full description of the horse-sacrifice.

VIII. The chapter most dedicated to philosophy, through the mouths of the seven sages. Sabha, the Saptarsis, philosophy, brahman, Gargi, Yagnavalkya etc, atman, unreality of existence.

IX. Sukanya, the Asvins, Dahyanc, Vivasvat.

X. The SamudraManthan (churning of the ocean) to get Soma/Amrita; Gandharas and Soma, Indra's quests, Agni.

XI.King Soma (as the eye) percieving Apsaras (waters) as consciousness, sheer fact of being awake!; Discovery of fire: Pururavas and Urvasi, the two twigs.

XII. Krishna: his exploits,
8th and 9th avatars of Vishnu: Krishna and Buddha. 10th Avatar Kalki not yet here (will arrive at the end of the world) Bhakti cult from cowgirls (gopis =true bhakts, true devotees)

XIII. Mahabharata: Arjun and Krishna, Pandavas and Kauravas, Bhagavad Gita, Ved Vyasa, Buddha's Anatta, Mahabharata as exposing emptiness of Dharma, Nara-Narayana, consciousness and perciever, Kala as time, Yuddhistira's ascent to heaven.

XIV. The Buddha: Tathagata(he-who-says-thus), his renunciation, awakening; the eight-fold path, four noble truths, dharma; omission of caste, God and sacrifice. Upanishads->Buddha= fullness->emptiness =tapas->nirvana. Knowledge and Vedas greater than gods, treated with contempt by both rishis and Buddha. Very modern in the sense of 'lightness of Being'! The eras: Krta to Kali to Pralaya. (Creation to dissolution); Ananda his disciple and his death and propagation of doctrines.

XV. Recreation and cyclical rebirth of the world through sesa(residue of old world), Brahma, Visnu and Garuda.
Profile Image for Scylla.
33 reviews2 followers
November 13, 2021
My thoughts on the book "Ka Stories of the Mind and Gods of India by Roberto Calasso"
I'd give it a 3/5 stars, reasons below.

1. It puts HEAVY emphasis on the male deities as opposed to the goddesses (hardly any mention of the goddesses, for example, Kali has ONE sentence about her, no mention of Durga, Lakshmi has ONE phase (not even a full sentence) about her)

2. It dives RIGHT INTO the stories, no prelude or "author's note",anything like this
The book has a glossary and pronunciation guide, which is great, but honestly, unless the term/god/etc. is in the glossary, it's not going to be found in said book

3. While there are some interesting stories from Hinduism in the book (like Yama's birth, the god of Death), I would NOT recommend this for those totally new to Hinduism, they're going to be horribly lost is my impression with the book. Definitely more for intermediate-advanced students/followers of Hinduism who have at least a basic pre-established vocabulary for Hinduism

4. There's a LOT about Buddhism and Buddhas in the book. While Buddhism is a "break away" group from Hinduism, if you're interested more solely in Hinduism, this might not attract you as much.

Don't get me wrong, I can see the value with this book, just given my own particular set of interests with Hinduism, I personally didn't get as much benefit from this book.
Profile Image for Michael Berens.
Author 3 books12 followers
September 3, 2021
Nuanced and provocative, this book seeks to re-present the mindset of the authors of early Sanskrit texts and the worldview presented therein--its cosmology, pantheon of major gods, and the place of humans in the grand scheme of things. This is not a book for readers not already familiar with the Vedas, the Mahabharahta, and other sources. Those seeking a collection of tales or a synopsis of the gods and heroes of ancient India should look elsewhere. Part recounting, part reflection, part reinterpretation, the book moves freely from telling tales to ruminating on them to speculating on what other meanings their symbols, images and philology might contain, without the author ever signaling when he is moving from one mode of presentation to another. As I read it, I could imagine each chapter being presented as a kind of free-flowing lecture that assumes those in the audience have done their reading assignments in advance. For those willing to stick with it, it does have its rewards of fresh perspectives and revealing insights. Just my bias, but I would have liked a concluding chapter or afterword in which the author pulled together the threads of each chapter into a more comprehensive, cogent big picture or grand vision of Hindu thought, theology and mythology.
Profile Image for Sebastián Urrego.
1 review1 follower
February 8, 2022
«…porque en el fondo los hombres son ante todo el sueño de un dios a la deriva, tendido sobre las vueltas de una serpiente enroscada.»

«La tierra, una hoja de loto, navegaba sobre las aguas. La
«flor», puskara, es también un «ovillo», puskara, según dicen los dioses, «que aman del secreto» y, por eso, gustan de jugar con los sonidos de las palabras. Es también el «nido de las aguas». La vida es una fiebre intermitente entre largos lapsos de quietud, cuando la hoja vaga sobre la superficie de las aguas. Aquella hoja era una cama, un lecho. ¿Quién dormía en ella? El dios adormecido, que acababa de ser creado o se había batido con su enemigo o había adoptado alguna forma para descender al mundo. Los filamentos vegetales podían volverse las espiras de una serpiente, entrelazadas como en una canasta. Sobre ellos se apoyaba blandamente la espalda de Visnu.»
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