Education in spiritual values through Bharatanatyam: Part II
- Chandra Anand
November 8, 2014
The religio-philosophic background of Bharatanatyam
Most Indian classical dances, particularly Bharatanatyam, have religious and spiritual beginnings. They have been part of Hindu temple rituals. They follow the Hindu philosophy in attitude. The Hindu philosophy and their teachings are part and parcel of their themes of presentation. Explanation for the phenomena of rasa-experience in Indian classical performing arts has been investigated in the systems of Hindu philosophy.
Spirituality in Bharatanatyam
The Vedas are the very first scriptures of Hindu philosophy and religion. All human beings are the limited manifestation of the Ultimate Being and reunion of the soul with the Absolute Soul should be the goal. This is the truth offered in the Vedas. Inevitably, the Vedas teach the ideal way to lead life to ensure our way back to the source. “The goals of life which are accepted by all Hindus are righteousness or obedience to the moral law (dharma), wealth or material welfare (artha), pleasure (kama), and emancipation (moksha). Dharma prevails throughout life, that is, neither pleasure nor wealth is to be obtained through violation of the rules of morality. Moksha is the ultimate goal to which all men should aspire. This social philosophy is accepted without question by all Hindus.”  These ideals have, since ages, ruled not only our life, lifestyle and outlook but also permeated through the arts; because this ideal way of life “recognizes in every sphere of activity, the kinship of God and man”  .Thus, the underlying idea of practice of Indian classical performing arts is to transcend the 'self' towards a higher plane and achieve bliss through spiritual expression.
Accordingly “all Indian classical dances are a combination of body movements and facial expressions perfectly synchronized to represent a given context, through the perfect vehicle i.e. the human body or human being. Though it is the body that moves, it is man's inner consciousness or soul that directs his movements. This results in a harmonistic dance form that combines music, rhythm and movement, all of which cater to the command of man's inner feelings. In a spiritual country like India, where the realization of consciousness or spirit has been the supreme goal of life, it is not a wonder that dance became a form of sadhana”  .
Hindu philosophy in brief
The teachings of Vedas, “through the ages, have retained a remarkable continuity”  through commentaries, explanations, and reinterpretations in the Upanishads, the Indian epics - Ramayana and Mahabharata, 'shad darshanas', Bhagavad-Gita, Srimad-Bhagavatam and puranas. Bhagavad-Gita is the latest version of teachings of the Vedas. Here there are three paths shown for man's liberation from rebirths. They are Jnana-yoga, the path of knowledge; Bhakti-yoga, the path of devotion; and Karma-yoga, the path of action. Srimad-Bhagavatam expands on the Bhakti-yoga. “It is a spiritual path fostering love, utter faith and surrender to God. It explains that the path to man's liberation from cycle of birth and death is through love and devotion to God and expounds nine simple ways of becoming one or being one with God. The nine primary forms of bhakti are sravana, kirtana, smarana, pada sevana, archana, vandana, dasya, sakhya and atmanivedana.”  . “It also explains five bhavas of vatsalya, madurya, sakya, dasya and santa to express one's affections to God. Attributes of human beings are given to Him and one feels he understands God and feels close to Him, when related to Him affectionately.” 
The Bhakti movement propagates the teachings of the Vedas and Upanishads. It advocates a personal god, and through it only the one Existence. The philosophy of Bhakti movement explains that without bhakti to God, man does not receive freedom from bondages of human life. To attain union with the Absolute one must be of good nature, bereft of evil thoughts and desires, be industrious and have the true knowledge. Just as the correct knowledge of concepts clears our doubts and fears, true knowledge of the relationship of the soul and the creator gives the fortitude to give up all desires and leads us on the path to liberation. Knowing the true knowledge, the veil of maya is torn and the chain of birth and death is broken. This is the general philosophy that is expounded by Vedanta. Vedanta philosophy is of great value for it is in this philosophy where, “in the 555 sutras an attempt is made to systemize the teachings of the Upanishads”  . “Vedanta reveals that knowledge of the Supreme Ultimate brings enlightenment during this lifetime (itself).” 
Bhajans, a genre of the Bhakti movement, propagate and educate the masses on the concepts of Bhakti-yoga. Through bhajans, the saint poets have spread among the common people the preaching of Hindu philosophy in their regional languages and advised them about the nine easy and active ways of praying to God for liberation from cycle of life and death.
The teaching of Hindu philosophy through Bhakti movement is interpreted best in the famous bhajan by Tulsidas, “Sri Ramachandra kripalu bhajamanu harana bava bhaya darunam” Here, the poet says that if one sings the praise of Lord Rama, one gets salvation from rebirths. Tulsidas asks the devotee to close his eyes and meditate on Rama's beautiful image, for e.g., as the handsome bridegroom of Sita and live a happy life. He mentions the different names of Rama and asks the devotees to chant His varied names or sing hymns of Him and live in harmony and togetherness. Tulsidas assures that contemplating on beautiful Rama, adorned with the bow and arrow, will shoot all the evil thoughts, feelings and intentions away from our mind, just like His arrows shot down the demons Kar and Dooshan then. Even Lord Shiva and the great snake Sheshnag keep themselves happy and close to Rama by remembering the different stories of Him. Thus, if He lives in our hearts, all desires in life will melt away. No longer will one yearn for material or physical desires as being one with the Lord is the only desire of the soul.
Ramayana and Mahabharata convey the teachings of Hindu philosophy in a concrete manner through the form of stories. These stories depict God as living life of a mortal for setting an example to be followed by humanity. Bharatanatyam portrays all the characters of these epics and puranas, and give to the world a whole philosophy of life through their stories, for every emotion and feeling of humanity has been dealt with in their plots. Thus, spirituality, philosophy and religion converge in the traditional form of Bharatanatyam.
Rasa theory in brief
The ideas presented in art are human emotions and emotional experiences, through feelings, actions and relationships. Emotions and feelings of human beings are the basic truth of human life. “The poetic (aesthetic) insight into the emotional life and its artistic presentation, are the source of beauty (soundarya) and delight (ananda)”. [9 ] Thus the artist, through the medium of art, educates and elevates the audience to a higher plane “by widening our understanding of life and intensifying our appreciation of the deeper values of life”.  Art modifies the outlook of the conscience through rasa-experience (emotional connection) which is also relish of art. This aesthetic theory is the underlying belief and philosophy of all Indian classical performing arts called rasa theory.
In a work of art there is one idea or one emotion that is the central or dominant theme that has to evoke emotional response from the audience for its success. The arts deal with subjects pertaining to aspects of humanity and human thoughts and feelings. To put forward an example, the Statue of 'David' by Michaelangelo shows David as to be concentrating on the thought of throwing the stone at the right moment at Goliath. “The statue appears to show David after he has made the decision to fight Goliath but before the battle has actually taken place, a moment between conscious choice and action”.  In the poem, 'The Solitary Reaper' the poet William Wordsworth brings out the melancholy in the soul of the only reaper in the fields. “The poet orders his listener to behold a “solitary Highland lass” reaping and singing by herself in a field. He says that anyone passing by should either stop here, or “gently pass” so as not to disturb her. As she “cuts and binds the grain” she “sings a melancholy strain,” and the valley overflows with the beautiful, sad sound”.  Each piece of art brings out one main emotion or mood of humanity.
In the performing arts of dance and drama, two or three emotions can be intertwined together but the dominant emotion is only one. There are eight such dominant emotions that are considered as permanent states of being. They are part of the inherent nature of man. The artist through his art brings them out to the conscious level. Through an ingenious portrayal of these emotional states of being in his art, the artist strives to evoke an emotional response or re-create a similar state of being in the spectators which is called experience of rasa. Regardless of the field or symbol that the artist used to present his idea, he has to make sure that through his creation, he evoked an emotional response from the audience to the beauty or truth of mankind in the art presented. This is the goal of all arts.
The emotional idea expressed by the actor arouses a 'rasa' i.e. a 'sentiment' in the spectator. A rasa or sentiment created through art is a result of sthayi-bhava (permanent state of being) producing a pleasurable sensation through the operation of involuntary (sattvika bhavas) and transitory (vyabhichari bhavas) states of being. “Sentiment is a mental feeling. For e.g. the sentiment of pity is made up of the feeling of sympathy and of a desire to help and protect. Such feelings collectively have an influence on the mind of a person. This sentiment is the sum total of what one thinks and feels on a subject.”  Thus through sthayi-bhava a sentimental feeling is evoked and an opinion or point of view is planted in the audiences' mind. And so there are no personal feelings or emotions or desires of the spectator involved in the harmonious viewing of the presentation, only a mental feeling of awareness of a basic truth of life through artistic presentation.
Spiritual expression and spiritual exercise
During presentation of a performing art both the artist and the spectator are active. They are developing emotions and sentiment in their minds respectively. If we interpret the word mind philosophically, “it is 'manas', derived from the root man, 'to think'. 'Manas' is the Cosmic Mind, the principle of cognition, in samkhya philosophy. It is concerned with the 'this' aspect of the universal relationship, 'I am this'.”  And “the 'manas' is the entire internal organ of perception, the faculty or instrument through which thoughts enter or by which objects affect the Soul (atman) as in vaiseshika philosophy. It is applied to all the mental powers, that is, the intellect, understanding, perception, sense, conscience and will”.  Thus, the function of the manas or mind is to feel, think, express, understand and make sentiments. So, can we say that the experience of developing a sthayi bhava is a spiritual expression for the artist? And also, can we say the harmonious interpretation of the art presentation is a spiritual exercise for the spectator? Then, we can say that - this aesthetic experience of art called rasa-experience involves the soul or spirit of man, it is a spiritual experience. The artistes of the performing arts, of yore, felt they could take it a step further. Not only did they try to realize pure consciousness and understand reality of life through art; but also tried to realize moksha (union of self with Absolute Self), however fleetingly, presenting philosophical themes as expounded in bhakti yoga.
Principles of purushartha and rasa theory
“The basic principles implied in the rasa theory or creation of art are: (i) There is an experience which an artist feels compelled to reveal or communicate; (ii) This revelation or communication demands a particular construction or structure of presentation; (iii) Thus revealed, the experience affects emotionally; (iv) It also becomes very enjoyable because it is felt to be an experience of beauty.” 
In natya, the artist creates a make-believe world and presents emotional experiences of man with aesthetic insight. As the human emotional experience presented is depiction of life-like experience, it is believed that the artist and the spectator (sahridya) pass through the principles of purushartha in the make-believe world too. Thus 'natya is said to yield all the fruits of life - dharma, artha, kama and moksha'17. And also “the nine classical rasas or flavours which emerge from bhavas are shringara (erotic), hasya (comic), karuna (compassionate), vira (heroic), raudra (terrible), bhayanaka (fearsome), bibhatsa (disgusting), adbhuta (marvelous) and shanta (peaceful). Interestingly each rasa is associated with an opposite rasa, a color, a presiding deity, a swara or musical note and a purushartha, or significance in relation to the four activities in a man's life: dharma or duty, artha or wealth, kama or desire and moksha or liberation. It is believed that depiction of the appropriate rasa is equivalent to the dancer's actually experiencing each purushartha. Therefore each performance takes the dancer closer to the ultimate goal - moksha or liberation from the cycle of rebirth.”18
Rasa and Moksha
A devotee having the true knowledge contemplates on God through the activities of navavidha bhakti and bhavas as explained in Bhakti yoga to experience or realise the Ultimate Truth in himself i.e. to attain moksha. In the art the poet or the artiste portrays a truth of life by presenting human experiences through the actions and emotions experienced through various relationships, all of which are universal in nature. Emotion or bhava or attitude towards an object is a good signal regarding the relationship of a person towards an object. This presentation is successful if it evokes the same state of being of the artist in the audience. Thus the artist and the audience connect emotionally with each other and share a spiritual experience through the medium of art.
Rasa is an aesthetic experience where a higher reality of life is brought in focus through mental perception which is formed in the mind. Moksha is a spiritual realization where one realizes the Absolute Self in oneself through intuition of the mind. Thus, both experiences involve the spirit or atma, but are far apart from each other.
Rasa experience is the product of art data and its construction which help spiritual expression of the artist and spiritual exercise of the spectator. Moksha is result of the contemplation of the devotee on God, with bhakti and surrender to God, based on the true knowledge of the inner nature of self, which is the Ultimate being (brahman) and the inner self (jivatma) are not different and the world is an illusion.
An artist must evoke an emotional response or rasa-experience in the minds of the spectators through his art is the underlying philosophical theory of art, while moksha is the goal of the spirit of man as explained in philosophy of life in the Vedas.
Through rasa-experience one experiences catharsis - temporary purification of mind and a sense of relief from burden. Through moksha one's soul is purified and experiences eternal freedom from bondages of life.
In art, both the performer and the involved spectator (sahrdya) forget worldly matters and concentrate their mind and senses on the idea of presentation. In meditation, the sadhaka controls all his senses and focuses his concentration at a point and seeks the divine within himself. The same method of controlling the senses and penetrating concentration is required to be followed to achieve both rasa and moksha. Rasa is for one getting entertained, and moksha is for the spiritual seeker. Both need a great amount of discipline and perseverance. Both also need a guru to show them the right path. And both of them need the sense of equanimity to achieve their goals.
In moksha, the sadhaka has given up all material desires and in rasa-experience the material desires lay dormant in the sadhaka and rasika during art presentation.
“Rasa-experience is fleeting, transitory because the relish exists only till the vibhavas, anubhavas and vyabhicharins of the make-believe world are present, while in moksha the experience is eternal, everlasting for it is consisting solely of his inner joy of the self and devoid of any tinge of sensual attachment”.19
The proof of rasa-experience is the feeling of the sattvika bhavas originating in the involved rasika or sahridya; and moksha perhaps the detachment from the world and “attachment to his own objects of contemplation”20 i.e., of the Supreme Being.
Moksha brings with it experience of enlightened bliss while rasa brings pure joy or pain, a new awareness of life and bliss of art.
Through classical arts one can exercise the power to create and understand the creation of God - MAN. “The Upanishads propound, devo bhutva devam yajet – become a God in order to worship God”21. “The poet creates an image of life. The artist is a creator, for he creates a world of men and women, incidents and happenings. This picture is convincing and is yet free from the restrictive banalities of the world of living beings and from the inexorable laws of cause and effect”22. Thus the poet is also a creator. The poet's creation is a microcosm of the God's creation. The order of nature is same in the macrocosm and the microcosm. Thus the artist passes through the principles of purushartha in Natya. So, rasa-experience can be likened to moksha.
In Bharatanatyam, the spiritual import is of atma (individual soul) seeking union with the paramatma (universal soul) conforming to Hindu philosophy. Thus “this sentiment is impersonal joy characteristic of contemplation of the Supreme Being by the adept, a bliss which is absolutely without personal feeling”23.
Thus Hindu philosophy which interprets the Vedas is the basis of spirituality in Bharatanatyam and rasa-theory interpreting psychological aspects and social benefits is the underlying philosophical belief of all performing arts. Thus is the religio-philosophic background of Indian classical performing art – Bharatanatyam, a derivative form of Natya.
Notes for reference:
1) A Source Book in Indian Philosophy, edited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore, Princeton University Press, USA, 1957, General Introduction, pg xxx.
2) Mrinalini Sarabhai, Understanding Bharatanatyam, The Darpana Academy of performing arts, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, 1981, chapter 1, pg 1.
3) Lata Raman, P.U.C notes, Nalanda Nritya Mahavidyalaya and research centre, Mumbai, 1983.
4) Mrinalini Sarabhai, Understanding Bharatanatyam, The Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, fourth edition,1981, chapter1, pg 1.
5) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhakti & Srimad Bhagavatham,Kamala Subramaniam, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, 7th edition, 1997, chapter 82, pg 160.
7) A Source book in Indian Philosophy, edited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore, Princeton University Press, USA, 1957, chapter 15, pg 506.
8) Theo Bernard, Hindu philosophy, Motilal Banarsidass publishers' private limited, New Delhi, 1999, chapter 6, pg 116.
9) G.K. Bhat, Rasa Theory, M. S. University of Baroda, August 1984, chapter 1, pg 5.
10) Ibid, chapter 1, pg 5.
13) A. S. Hornby, Oxford Advanced learner's Dictionary of current English, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, London, 1974, pg 776.
14) Theo Bernard, Hindu philosophy, Motilal Banarsidass publishers' private limited, Delhi, 1999, chapter 3, pg 78.
15) Ibid, chapter 2, pg 60.
16) G.K. Bhat, Rasa Theory, M.S. University of Baroda, August 1984, chapter 9, pg 63.
17) Padma Subramanyam, Bharata's Art- Then and Now, Bhulabhai Memorial Institute Bombay, 1979, chapter 1, pg 20.
18) Leela Samson, Rhythm of Joy, Luster Press Pvt., Ltd., New Delhi, chapter 2, pg 24.
19) Y. S. Walimbe, Abhinavagupta on Indian Aesthetics, Ajanta Books International, 1980, chapter Rasa sutra, pg 62.
20) Ibid, pg 62.
21) Mrinalini Sarabhai, Understanding Bharatanatyam, The Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, Fourth edition, 1981, chapter 1, pg 7.
22) G.K. Bhat, Rasa theory, M.S. University of Baroda, Baroda, August 1984, chapter 1, pg 1.
23) Sunil Kothari, Bharatanatyam, Marg Publication, revised edition 1997, chapter 8, pg 84.
1) A Source book in Indian Philosophy, edited by Radhakrishnan Sarvepalli & Moore A. Charles, Princeton University press, USA, 1957.
2) Srimad-Bhagavatham, Subramaniam Kamala, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, 7th edition, 1997.
3) Bernard Theos, Hindu Philosophy, Motilal Banarsidass publishers' private limited, NewDelhi, India, 1999.
4) Bhat G.K., Rasa theory, M. S. University of Baroda, Baroda, August 1984.
5) Kothari Sunil, Bharatanatyam, Marg Publications, revised edition 1997, Mumbai, 1979.
6) Samson Leela, Rhythm of Joy, Lustre Press Pvt., Ltd., New Delhi, 1987.
7) Sarabhai Mrinalini , Understanding Bharatanatyam, The Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, fourth edition,1981.
8) Subrahmanyam Padma, Bharata's Art- Then and Now, Bhulabhai Memorial Institute Bombay, 1979.
9) Walimbe Y. S., Abhinavagupta on Indian Aesthetics, Ajanta Books International, 1980.
10) Raman Lata, P.U.C notes, Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya, 1982.
11) A. S. Hornby, Oxford Advanced learner's Dictionary of current English, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, London, 1974.
Chandra Anand is a Bharatanatyam artiste and teacher. A student of Sri Rajarajeshwari Bharatanatya Kalamandir since 1972, she is presently training under guru Lata Raman. Apart from MA in Eng Lit. from Bombay University (1990) and B Ed from Bombay University (1994), she has an MA in Classical Dance (Bharatanatyam) from Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth, Pune (2014). This article is adapted from the dissertation titled “Education in Spiritual Values through Bharatanatyam” under the guidance and supervision of Dr. Malati Agneswaran.
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