Distill religion, strip away ritual and tradition, and you find myth. Reduce mythology to its elementary narratives, the ur-stories, and you're left with Eros and Thanatos. It follows that the world's great religious epics can also be distilled to stories of fucking and death. At least that's the presumption of Italian author Roberto Calasso's encyclopedic new work, Ka (Knopf), which tackles the most slippery, rambling, and enigmatic of fables, The Mahabharata.
Of course, it's inherently presumptuous to rewrite the sacred text of a major religion as a glorified romance novel. It would be downright insolent if Calasso were not so reverent of the intricate, layered nature of myth. In his previous work, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, he turned the stories of the ancient Greeks into a graceful meditation on the roots of Western philosophy. Like that book, Ka seeks to reduce mythology to its essential narrative, an original myth.
Yet Calasso's new work is even more ambitious in scope. Its historical source, an Indian epic written around 200 B.C.E., makes the Old Testament look like light reading. Hinduism is itself a notoriously complex theology, and its founding myth is really a mélange of the best bits of philosophy and story collected from 4,000 years of Indian civilization. It would be preposterous to even attempt to forge a coherent narrative from the dizzying deluge of myths and gods in the Hindu pantheon. Wisely, Calasso doesn't try to make sense of it all, to fit everything into a neat story with a limited cast of characters and a clear resolution. Instead he follows the evolution of Hindu thought from its archaic origins.
Like any good religion, Ka begins at the beginning. The relatively minor deity Garuda is winging over the primordial depths, recalling his birth and the creation of the world. He thinks of his mother, Vinata, and her quest for the soma, a mysterious liquid godhead belched from the churning ocean. Garuda also considers his father, Prajapati, an enigmatic pre-deity who grew lonely with the nonexistence around him and puked up the universe. "Unlike the gods," writes Calasso, "who have a shape and a story, or even many shapes and many stories, who overlap perhaps, perhaps merge together, or swap over, but always with names and shapes unlike the gods, Prajapati never lost his link with the nameless and shapeless, with that which has no identity."
For Calasso, the figure of Prajapati becomes a metaphor for the central paradox of ancient Aryan philosophy: that the universe exists only within the mind but can be recognized only through the negation of the self. To explain the concept of the Ka, the precursor of the mind, he invokes Kafka, the Jeremiah of the modern. Like the first tales of The Mahabharata, Calasso writes in an authorial aside, "Kafka's stories were always the stories of a stranger, unknown to gods and men, [who was] the origin of gods and men."
Thankfully, Ka segues quickly into more familiar territory. After glossing over the creation of the world, the introduction of sex, and the birth of Death, Calasso delves into the juicy stuff: the erotic adventures and political intrigues of the gods. In turn, Siva, Vishnu, and Brahma scour the earth causing mischief and searching for the secret of Ka--i.e., the meaning of life. As the historical epoch shifts from Aryan to Vedic, the cast of characters multiplies and the tone of the stories changes. So, too, does Calasso's storytelling style. The disorienting jump cuts of the early chapters give way to a more controlled third-person narrative composed of tales that overlap and merge. Calasso takes delight in the telling, letting his prose flow in a loose flood of detail.
The strangest of Ka's various tales involves the sacrifice of a horse to Prajapati. Crowning the endless cycle of offerings to the gods, a king would choose an unlucky steed from his stable and have it killed. Apparently oblivious to the adage that you can't beat a dead horse, the king would then command his wife to mount the animal and fornicate. Next the horse would be butchered and the sacrificers, in turn, sacrificed. Somewhere in this nauseating pastoral scene, says Calasso, the concept of storytelling was born. "Knowledge," he writes, "is not an answer but a defiant question: Ka? Who? Knowledge is the last ruse, which allows us to escape being killed, to obtain a provisional stay of execution. Which was another reason why one celebrated the sacrifice of the horse."
If Calasso delights in the lurid details of the rituals and sexual dalliances of the gods, he offers insight into the spiraling patterns of Indian thought. Nevertheless, the evolving theology is as hard to follow as the litany of seductions and sacrifices. Hindu philosophy tends toward paradox rather than syllogism, and Ka often sputters for want of more exegesis. In the end, it takes the arrival of the Buddha to simplify things. Tossing out the old gods and the notion of ritual sacrifice, the enlightened one reduces the ancient pairing of sex and death to death alone.
If a 4,000-year-old religion can be distilled to the stuff of the novel, it shouldn't be hard to rewrite a piece of religious history. Especially if that history is as blood-soaked, bawdy, and enticingly exotic as the story of the Muslim crusader Saladin. Tariq Ali's new, loosely historical novel, The Book of Saladin, (Verso) recounts this celebrated subject's battlefield and bedroom adventures with lusty abandon, effectively turning Saladin into the sultan of swingers.