Two Birds in Jaipur

Indian Mythology 12 Comments

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.

  • I felt like the bird watching the bird eating (me looking at devdutt contemplating)

    As the author felt like the same with Calasso

    Sure, the reader of this comment would read into me the same way

    and life goes on……..

  • Devji

    could u please put up the entire discussion online..

  • vijay

    I have read the discussion between Yagnavalkya and King Janaka in the Brihadaranyakaupanishad.Once Janaka called for a congress of all elite people to discuss on esoteric things that were not known to common people.He wanted to make it open to everyone but subtle nature of such things makes it unreachable to everyone.Janaka announced that he would offer lots of cows to the one who could answer questions on nature of the ultimate reality etc…Yagnavalkya asked his disciple to drive all the cattle to his home being very confident of answering every question which he would be posed.Many questions were posed to him like what is the that which is inside and outside?What is its nature?Then he gives the description of antaryami brahmana – the all pervading Brahman.Yagnavalkya also delienated the vaishnava theology of Ramanuja sampradaya based on the dctrine of interconnected consciousness.Consciousness can be only one.Even the modern science would not agree the duality of consciousness which yaganvalkya or shankara known for their prudence could do it some thousand years back.Everything is connected with everything else.Nothing in the universe is a local event.Even the thoughts that we think privately inside our heads are not local events which some how influence the atmosphere around us.(not necessarily the physical atmosphere.)Finally one day,king Janaka offered everything he has to Yagnavalkya,also submitted himself and asked the sage to initiate him into the knowledge of Brahaman.Such were the great kings of our India who valued wisdom more than fame,property or kingship.Yagnavalkya’s discussion with his consort Maitreyi when he decides to renounce the world is also very enlightening.He is the one who produced krishna Yajurveda.I heartfully thank Devduttji for doing these excellent work.I strongly feel that this wisdom communicated through generations is what that makes India stand in stark contrast with the West.Expecting more of these from you…Could you please write a few words about that Satapatha Brahmana as well…

  • Can we watch the video or read the transcript of the discussion please?

  • Sandhya

    Devdutt, Correct me if I’m wrong, but I see a very gradual tonal shift in your writing….from practical and purpose-driven to more spiritual and philosophical. You writing started like, your line drawings, as allegorical, but you seem to be internalizing some of your learnings and interpreting them in metaphysical ways, and for that, I’m very happy for you.

    • Devdutt


  • Happy

    Here is the entire conversation online:

  • D Balasubramaniam

    The reflection on events that turned a predator fearing being to a predator itself is the control to preserve our ecosystem. The gradual erosion of the same has given rise to organized groups to protect us from ourselves! … I hope..


  • pallavi

    where are these boks which we say are written 3000 years ago.are they in any physical form.

    • Devdutt

      Of course, check out Max Mueller’s Sacred books of the East

  • Rina Sen

    Devduttji,would you be aware if the Hindi translation of L’ardore is already under way,& if so,who has undertaken it? At JLF 2011 R.Calasso said he wanted a direct italian-hindi translation of Ardore,instead of english version-hindi translation as had been done with his earlier books.He was kind enough to gift me an italian copy of Ardore(as I read italian),so I’ve been wondering about the Hindi translation & if you are informed about it.I also take this opportunity to compliment you on your excellent book Mithya :)

    • Devdutt

      that is a brilliant idea….but have no clue as to who is doing it.