Friday, October 26, 2007

The meanings law, order and truth mingle in a single Sanskrit word: rita

Front Page > Opinion > THE NEED FOR VEDIC WORDS - A modern word may express a thought formulated long ago ROBERTO CALASSO The Telegraph Sunday, December 25, 2005
Before setting off for this journey, I wondered what you would have asked yourselves the moment we would have met. And the likeliest supposition I came out with was this: why an Italian writer, who has devoted books to subjects so specifically European as the President Schreber or Kafka or Greek mythology, has also felt the urge to write? and write again? on Indian matters, especially Vedic? As a point of fact, the longest book the I've published up to now, Ka, is a vision of India? from the Vedas to the Buddha and the Mahabharata? as a single immense forest of stories caught in an instant? which lasts thousands of years? by the eye of the divine bird Garuda flying between sky and earth. And I wish to mention here that I've now been working for years on another book on Indian topics, which probably won't be less bulky, but about which I'd rather add nothing else, on account of a superstition to which I hold fast.
India made its entry in my life very early, before I was twenty, as a shocking meteor. This happened when I read for the first time the early Upanisads, the Chandogya Upanisad and the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, and the Bhagavad Gita. At the time I was inclined to think that the sharpest point reached by thought was to be found in Greece, somewhere between Parmenides and Plato. And the last great European philosopher, Martin Heidegger, encouraged us to believe that the natural language of thought was the Greek of the pre-Socratics. But the Upanisads challenged all this. Those texts weren't philosophy in the Western sense. But they had an essential point in common with the fragments of the pre-Socratics: they aimed at knowledge? and nothing else but knowledge. Indeed, in India, starting from the very word 'veda', knowledge seemed to be the hinge on which everything revolved: not only thought, but life itself.
It so happened that many years later, around 1980, the plan of a work in three parts, each completely different and secretly connected to the others, started to flash in my mind. The first volume has appeared in 1983 with the title, The Ruin of Kasch. The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony followed in 1988, Ka in 1996 and K in 2002. I'm now writing the fifth part? and I try to refrain from further predictions, because in the course of time I've assessed that they turn out to be invariably wrong.
But what is The Ruin of Kasch about? When I'm asked this question, I never know how to answer? so I go back to a very witty definition given by Italo Calvino in his essay on the book. He says: "The Ruin of Kasch has two subjects: the first on is Talleyrand, the second one is everything else." When people hear the name Talleyrand, they usually react in two ways: either with indignation, or with admiration, the latter while considering him a genius of diplomacy. And the same happened with me.
And now let's come to India. the title "The Ruin of Kasch" refers to an African legend of Sudan, recorded by the great anthropologist, Leo Frobenius, as it was narrated to him by an unknown camel driver in 1911. The legend is about an ancient kingdom which was based on the periodical sacrifice of the king, decided by the priests in relation to the positions of certain stars in the sky. One day, a stranger coming from the East? which implies coming from the Indian Ocean and possibly being himself and Indian? appears in this kingdom. His name is Far-li-mas and he is a great story-teller. The power of his stories is so overwhelming that the priests forget to look at the sky in order to decide when it?s the right moment to sacrifice the king. So their regime is overturned and a new era starts, when there will be no more sacrifices of the king. But this era too doesn't last long, because some envious neighbours invade the kingdom of Kasch and make the new regime collapse. So this is the ruin of Kasch.
From the theme of this legend you may already guess that we are heading towards India, if only because of the theme of sacrifice. Yajna, 'sacrifice', is indeed an ubiquitous word in Vedic texts, especially in the Brahmanas. For the Vedic seers, speaking about sacrifice was equivalent to speaking about the ultimate essence of all. And the whole book happens, so to say, under their very Eastern eyes.
So the legend of the ruin of Kasch is the frame of the book with the same title: a book which is a sort of discontinuous narrative centred on various episodes going roughly from the years of the French Revolution to the outbreak of the First World War and further, up to today. But including as well various long sections on the metaphysics implied in Vedic sacrifice. In fact, one of the arguments of the books is that one cannot fully understand what happened since the beginning of the French Revolution and up to today if one doesn't take into account the very complicated and deep thoughts of the ancient risis on violence and the act of killing, which are both part of their theory of sacrifice. So the book is at the same time a narrative and a tentative reading of the metaphysical texture of modern history. All this is presented in a sequence of tableaux? and the function of Talleyrand in the book is to guide us from one to them to another, as a sort a master of ceremonies.
Why has an Italian writer of the last decades of the 20th century felt the need to refer to rita, an obscure Vedic word, when talking about the Congress of Vienna and Talleyrand? In dealing with the political masterpiece of Talleyrand, which was to invent and to implement a new sense of the word legitimacy, I wanted to go back to its origin. And my search didn't stop until I got to the notion of rita. No Latin, no Greek word was a comparable help. Because 'legitimacy' is only a timid and modern way of referring to something which must be at the same time a law and an order. And only rita is a word which is capable of conflating these two meanings. And that is not all.
One of the greatest Indologists of the last century, Heinrich Luders, spent some decades working on a big work called Varuna, which he left unfinished. One of the major points of the book is the analysis of the word rita, which comes to the conclusion that the first meaning of the word is not 'order' but 'truth'. This theory of Luders was, for a while, hotly discussed by Indologists, but what seems by now more plausible is that both Luders and some of his opponents were right, in so far as the word rita refers to a frame of thought for which the notion of truth and order simply cannot be divided, while on the other hand, in the course of time, they split and the word rita itself was superseded by two other words: satya for 'truth' and dharma for 'law' and 'order'.
Now, you see already what is appearing in front of us: going back from the intensely modern and technical word 'legitimacy' we are getting into a very ancient area where the meanings law, order and truth mingle in a single Sanskrit word: rita. And my point is that I had to reach that obscure and fascinating area if I wanted to understand the origin of our everyday notion of legitimacy. It was not the whim and eccentricity of a Western writer of today which made me refer to this word.
Now, one of the reasons why I believe that Talleyrand was such an admirable politician and diplomat is that he was the one who managed to give a new meaning to the word 'legitimacy', where a subtle resonance of the meaning of rita (of which, by the way, he couldn't possibly know anything) was still perceivable. And, after all, precisely to that word European history owes the fact that it could keep a precarious balance for a hundred years, until it collapsed in August 1914. And if there is a moment in which the word 'legitimacy' would urgently require to be used, finding new meanings and applications, now that the frame of international law is obviously and, possibly, forever shattered, well that moment is exactly today.
So you see how easily, and how quickly, one can skip from the destiny of a man who was the quintessence of the West to a seminal Vedic word and back. It is not out of goodwill or ?worse? humanitarianism that the West should look to India or India to the West, but in order to understand thoroughly what is happening under our eyes? and possibly referring to thoughts which were first formulated and practised thousands of years ago. ROBERTO CALASSO

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