At the Heart of Hinduism


by Roberto Calasso, translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 420 pp., $35.00
Ferdinando Scianna /Magnum Photos
Roberto Calasso in his house in Milan with a sculpture of an Indian snake, 1989

Every year, on a certain Tuesday in October, worshipers of the Golden Goddess, Paidi Talli, gather in a grove of trees somewhere outside the small town of Vizianagaram in southern India. Which grove is chosen depends on the goddess, who will have appeared to her main priest in a dream and announced to him: “I am growing as a tamarind tree in such and such a place.” Always the instructions are specific and detailed.

They lovingly apply healing turmeric to the goddess-tree, which (or, rather, whom) they then cut down after exposing her roots. She is carried into the town and lies there, in the street, worshiped by passersby, fermenting internally, and maturing for some days before she is attached to a wooden cart-like contraption called the Sirimanu.

During her festival, the priest, now embodying this goddess, will sit on a wooden seat fixed at the end of the tree-pole, and will be bounced high into the sky while some half a million devotees throw bananas at him-her. “Why bananas?” we asked during the festival in 2003. The answer we received was: “Do you think we should be throwing coconuts?”1

Quite similar, and not by chance, is the ritual of choosing the tree that will become the sacrificial post, yūpa, to which the animal victim is tied in the ancient Vedic ritual that marks the beginning of Indian civilization. As Roberto Calasso tells us in Ardor, this highly important act reveals the “mystery of election.” Why this tree and not another? We can be sure that the choice is immensely consequential. The ritualist is directed by the Vedic text to choose a tree “on the nearer side of the farther” and “on the farther side of the nearer.” The phrases ring out with the characteristically enigmatic, almost teasing tone of the Vedic ritual system. Calasso rightly wonders, “Where in the forest does the farther begin? Where does the nearer reach its limit?” Once the choice has been made, the tree is informed: “We favor you, O divine lord of the forest.”

It is an axiom of what we call Hindu religion that it has always been, and still is, utterly informed and shaped by the Veda, a continuous, and continually self-transforming, tradition going back over three thousand years. There is an impressive link between the ancient post for sacrifice and the Golden Goddess-as-Tree of Vizianagaram. In fact, neither of the two is really conceivable, or intelligible, without the other. One still thinks with the Veda, perhaps unconsciously, more often within some unstated set of powerful ideas and images, insofar as we can understand the tantalizing conceptual universe that found expression in the ancient Vedic hymns and ritual acts.

These works, beginning with the collection of 1,028 hymns to…

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