Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday Jan. 30, 2011

This year I was invited to Jaipur Literature Festival once again to converse with Roberto Calasso, the author of the famous book, Ka, that brought Indian thought so dramatically to Western audiences a few years ago. Last year we spoke on the esoteric dialogue between Janaka and Yagnavalkya. This year we spoke on his new book, written in Italian called L’Ardore (even Ka is written in Italian, what we read is an English translation approved by Roberto). I asked him what the title of the book meant, and he said, “Tapas.”

So here is an elderly Italian aristocratic scholar in conversation with a not-so-young-anymore Indian mythologist at a literature festival that, despite accusations of racism (too many white writers and too few local writers) and omnipresence of our very own William (White Mughal) Dalrymple, remains an intellectual delight. We spoke for an hour, before an audience of 300, on finer details of the Shatapatha Brahmana, an obscure ritual manual, 2500 pages long, written 3000 years ago, rarely read in its entireity, and often dismissed as the complex and crazy writings of ritualists.

Tapas is commonly translated (wrongly) as penance, mortification, even austerity by early European translations. But Roberto pointed out to the more correct translation, heat generated when one reflects on life. Reflection, introspection, contemplations, deliberation are uniquely human traits. For thousands of years, after the evolution of man, Roberto said, man was the naked prey who lived in fear of the predator. Then, man discovered the ability to domesticate fire and create weapons. He became the supreme predator, master of the world around him. With this shift in power came guilt and shame and wonderment, which spurred reflection. Though such reflections were universal, only in India were these thoughts revered, recorded and transmitted through rituals and gestures and stories, and kept alive, in some measure, till today.

One of the most profound ideas that emerges from this reflection is the idea of consciousness. Very subtly, it appears in an enigmatic form, in the earliest of Indian scriptures, Rig Veda itself, as the tale of two birds on a tree, one who eats the fruit while the other that watches the bird eating the fruit. The two are very similar yet very different. In later texts, the fruit-eating bird is identified with Aham (the self that seeks validation from the external world) and the bird-watching bird is identified with Atman (the self that does not seek validation from the external world).

Roberto spoke at length about how modern neuroscience is just beginning to understand the idea of consciousness, which is the bird behind the bird. He believes what now exists is only a ‘stammering’ of wisdom. Why, he wonders, do these scholars not look at the vast literature written by ancient Vedic Indians 3000 years ago which only wonders on this theme. Unlike most religious scriptures which tend to be prescriptive, these texts were reflective, contemplative, meditative. Ritual and gesture was merely the medium of expression. Later, this medium became stories.

Rarely does an audience hear a writer speak of the pelt of the black buck on which the Vedic sacrificer had to sit in order to perform yagna. Or the practice of libation, pouring milk into fire during the ritual of Agnihotra. Or the visualization of the sacrifice as a sexual act with the altar shaped like the body of a beautiful woman. Wisdom, said Roberto, in modern times is reduced to a prosthetic that can be separated from the body like dentures. We, despite all our technological advances, are afraid to accept it, internalize it. Wisdom can be a frightening thing. It is the fire that incinerates the soul.