Sleepless and sweaty in the “great heats” of July 1840, Ralph Waldo Emerson reached for something sublime and sensual: “There was nothing for me but to read the Vedas, the bible of the tropics.” The problem was that the “grand ethics” of Vedic mythology, and the “unfathomable power” of Vedic cosmology, were traduced by a fetish for sacrificial rites. A modern seeker had to sift “primeval inspiration” from “endless ceremonial nonsense.”
This sentiment, like many an Emerson original, was already a Romantic commonplace; often, his breathless intuitions sprang whole from the head of Thomas Carlyle, like Athena from Zeus. The saving of living spirit from dead ritual was a common ideal of Enlightenment rationalists, Romantic irrationalists, and the British administrators of India who (as Warren Hastings explained in his preface to the Bhagavad Gita) translated India’s sacred texts, the better to rule the natives. In the 1890s, Max Müller, doyen of Victorian Indology, summarized this Victorian consensus: Vedic wisdom was “indispensable” to “liberal education” and more “improving” than the “dates and deeds of many of the kings of Judah and Israel.”
But only the hymns of the Rig Veda qualified. The later Vedas were a mess of “sacrificial formulas, charms, and incantations.” The priestly commentaries and sacrificial manuals of the Brahmanas should be studied “as a physician studies the twaddle of idiots and the ravings of madmen.”
Roberto Calasso began Ardor as a commentary on one of those “ravings,” the Satapatha Brahmana, but it grew into a lucid panorama of Vedic civilization. Calasso is a stylish dramatist of lost inner lives, one of those increasingly rare writers both erudite enough to comprehend the alien past and stylish enough to make it interesting. He revived the Hindu gods in Ka, and the equally lurid pantheon of European Romantics in The Ruin of Kasch. Miraculously, his The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, on the dead gods of Greece, became a bestseller. His studies of Kafka, Baudelaire, and Tiepolo are treasure chests of epigrammatic insight into modernity. Only George Steiner has foraged so broadly and fruitfully in the weed-choked fields of art and memory. Mysteriously, Calasso has done this without giving up his day job as publisher of Adelphi Editions in Milan.
Neurotics have obsessions; the religious have rituals; and artists have recurring themes. Ardor is the seventh in a sequence, an unfolding altarpiece that envelops the viewer. Calasso’s themes are sacrifice, the act of violence at the heart of religion; and analogy, the evoking of the invisible by the visible. As Yeats wrote in “The Second Coming,” the “blood-dimmed tide” of sacred murder, the oldest and crudest proof of faith, asserts that “some revelation is at hand.” The ardor of the priest is the “passionate intensity” of the fanatic, slaughtering his enemy to ward off his own death; the destruction of the sacred portion evokes the powers of creation.
The Vedas are thematically perfect for Calasso, a reader of Sanskrit, but never before has he sailed so far back in time, and in such murky waters. Veda means “knowledge,” but we know little about the origins of Vedic civilization and how it developed in northwestern India in the second millennium b.c. The priestly authors of the Vedas portray their forefathers as the Arya, the “noble” or “hospitable” conquerors. The Vedic gods, led by Indra, had an equally violent domestic life and were propitiated by animal sacrifices whose volume and complexity suggest that humans had only recently left the altar. In the Asvamedha, or “Horse Sacrifice,” dozens of animals were dispatched under the king’s gaze, and the queen ritually copulated with a dead horse under priestly supervision. The participants in these ritual exertions contacted the gods directly by ingesting a mind-altering brew called Soma. Later, the priests lost the recipe. It is never advisable to write sacred texts on tree bark.