Roberto Calasso in conversation with Devdutt Pattanaik
By Jules Evans, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Guest Blogger
Early in the Vedas, the three-thousand-year-old collection of ancient Indian hymns, a story appears of two birds:
Two birds with fair wings, knit with bonds of friendship, in the same sheltering tree have found a refuge.
One of the two eats the sweet fig-tree’s fruit; the other watches only.
It’s an image that goes to the heart of what it means to be human, said Italian author Roberto Calasso, the author of Ardor: ‘Whatever we do, there is someone in us who acts, and someone who looks on the one who acts. We are always two. The one who acts is the ‘I’, and the one who watches is the Atman, the Self. For some, those two birds are always one. For others, there is a moment of detachment, where they discover they are two. That is the discovery of the Vedas. Today it would be very useful for us to rediscover this.’
Indian physician-turned-mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik noted that this image occurs throughout Indian mythology and religion: ‘It’s also there in the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna is the one who acts and suffers. And Krishna is the one who watches.’
The two great mythologists sat together on the morning of the penultimate day of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival to make an impassioned case for the relevance of the Brahmanas, a collection of commentaries on the Vedas, written in the eighth century, which are rarely read or discussed today – indeed, the last recent translation of the Brahmanas was written over a century ago.
‘It’s a big mistake to dismiss the Brahmanas as obscure texts focused on abstruse rituals’, said Calasso. ‘Firstly, they’re the first great example of prose in the world. Secondly, they are fascinating philosophical explorations of consciousness. Modern scientists still know practically nothing about consciousness – if they read the Vedas they would have a shock.’
‘The Brahmanas focus on external rituals, but they’re a means to inner transformation’, said Pattanaik. ‘Today, we’re mainly focused on the material world. No one talks about the development of the mind. The Vedas are searching not for technical breakthroughs but for psychological breakthroughs, how to get from the form of a ritual to formlessness, not in order to conquer the world, but to conquer the mind.’
Both Calasso and Pattanaik have helped to re-connect modern audiences to the ancient world of myths, and both have shown a laudable cosmopolitanism and interest in the myths and stories of other cultures. Calasso has written Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India, while Pattanaik’s most recent book is Olympus: An Indian Retelling of the Greek Myths. Their conversation roamed across the world and up into the stars, noting the similarities and differences between the myths of Rudra and Orion, gods of hunting. In an era when religious myths can be used to promote fundamentalism and chauvinistic nationalism, it was encouraging to see two scholars from different cultures appreciating each other’s cultures and weaving a common human narrative from them.
Photo Credit: Chetan Singh Gill