Nritya: Divine Dance

Nritya, traditional Indian dance, is essentially spiritual in nature. It is sacred movement of the various limbs of the body in accordance with the inner divine bhava, feeling. Its founders were Lord Krishna and Lord Shiva, and it developed as a precise science.

Dance is a part of synthetic yoga. It develops the body, mind, heart and soul. The intellect of even the spectators is sharpened and made subtle when they try to follow the meaning of those rapid movements of the limbs and eyes. Dancing spreads its magic spell over all your faculties; it is a powerful aid to concentration. When the devotee feels the need of an aid to drive out extraneous thoughts from his mind, he takes to nritya. Very soon he is filled with God. Such is the power of nritya. Supreme joy and magnanimity of the sacred nritya can only be understood by rishis and devotees like Narada, Vyasa, Suka, Mira, Gouranga, Hafiz and others, and not by the worldly-minded persons saturated with passion.

Lord Krishna was very fond of dancing. To please him the gopis would dance; the dance would make them forget themselves and lose themselves in him. They lived in him, and he lived in them. In recent times, Mira Bai took up this tradition. She danced her way into the heart of the Lord. Gouranga danced along the streets singing the names of Narayana. The very sight of him could convert even confirmed rogues into perfect saints. In the many sankirtan conferences over which I have presided, held all over northern India, all the participants used to dance in ecstasy: sannyasins, bhaktas, yogis, all!

Six bhavas

Every nritya exhibits six bhavas: utpatti, creation; vinashanam, destruction; gati, movement; agati, stability; vidya, knowledge; avidya, ignorance. Those who perform nritya should evoke these six bhavas, which are external manifestations induced by the thrill of ecstasy from within. Mark how Lord Krishna stands with the flute in his hands displaying these six bhavas.

In the Lord’s supreme dance, the universe had its origin. Indeed, in it alone the world has its life. And finally into His dance all this will be withdrawn. Nritya creates, sustains and destroys. Preserved on the high pedestal of purity, sublimity and as an expression of the finest sentiments of the heart, this threefold process is at once divinized in nritya, creating devotion in even a stony heart. It sustains the life and devotion of the dancers themselves as well as of all spectators. Nritya can also destroy all the negative tendencies that assail one from within. For, it is lack of development of the heart that gives room to growth of evil; nritya develops the heart and therefore annihilates such evil. So, give up dry, idle talking. Do not be a one-sided Vedantin. There is not an iota of hope for your salvation till you develop your heart.

Shiva tandava

The tandava or celestial dance of Shiva is extremely thrilling and charming, exquisitely graceful in pose and rhythm, and intensely piercing in effect.

The dance of Shiva is for the welfare of the world. The object of his dance is to free souls from the fetters of maya. He is not the destroyer, but the regenerator. He is the bestower of auspiciousness and bliss. He grants boons quickly for a little tapas or recitation of his five-letter mantra: Namah Shivaya.

You can witness the dance of Shiva in the rising waves of the ocean, in the oscillation of the mind, the movements of the senses and the pranas, in the rotation of the planets and constellations, in cosmic inundation, in epidemics of infectious disease, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, landslides, lightning and thunder, in huge conflagrations and cyclonic storms.

As soon as the guna samya avastha, the state where the three gunas (tamas, rajas and sattwa) exist in equilibrium, is disturbed by the will of the Lord, the gunas manifest and the five elements come into being. There is vibration of Omkara or Shabda Brahman. There is manifestation of primal energy. This is the dance of Shiva. The whole cosmic play or activity, lila, is the dance of Shiva. All movements within the cosmos are his dance. He gazes on Prakriti and energizes her. Mind, prana and matter begin to dance. When he begins to dance the shakti tattwa manifests. From shakti, nada proceeds and from nada, bindu originates. Then the universe of names and forms is projected. The undifferentiated matter, energy and sound become differentiated. The five activities of the Lord, pancha krityas: srishti, creation; sthithi, preservation; samhara, destruction; tirobhava, illusion; and anugraha, grace are the dance of Shiva.

In the night of Brahma or during cosmic dissolution, Prakriti is inert, motionless. There is guna samya avastha. She cannot dance till Shiva wills it. Shiva rises from his profound silence and begins to dance. The undifferentiated sound becomes differentiated through the vibration set up by the movements of his damaru or drum. Shabda Brahman comes into being. The undifferentiated energy becomes differentiated. The equipoise in the gunas is disturbed and sattwa, rajas and tamas, manifest. All the spheres, the atoms and electrons begin to dance rhythmically. Atoms dance in the molecule and molecules dance in all bodies. Stars dance in time and space. Prakriti also begins to dance about him as his glory or vibhuti. Prana, life force, begins to operate on akasha, subtle matter. Various forms manifest. Hiranyagarbha or the golden egg or cosmic mind also manifests. When the time comes, Shiva destroys all names and forms with his dance. There is stillness again.

This is the symbolism involved in the form of Nataraja, Shiva as ‘king of dancers’. Nataraja holds a deer in one hand, representing ashuddha maya, impure illusion. The axe in another hand represents knowledge which destroys ignorance. The drum, the outstretched arm that carries fire, the water (Ganga), the hand with the axe, the foot standing on the demon Muyalakan are sukshma panchakshara, formless or subtle five letters. Srishti, creation, is in the drum, sthithi, preservation, is in the abhaya hand that holds the axe, tirobhava, veiling, is in the pressing foot and anugraha, grace, is in the uplifted foot.

The burning grounds are the abode of Shiva. Shiva dances here in his ten-armed form with Kali. The Shiva ganas also join in the dance. The sound of the damaru invites the individual soul to his feet. It represents Omkara. All the Sanskrit alphabets have come out of the play of the damaru.

May you all comprehend the true significance of the dance of Shiva. May you all dance in ecstasy in tune with Shiva and merge in him and enjoy Sivananda, the final beatitude in life.

Rasa lila

Lord Krishna’s rasa lila, the dance performed with the gopis, is a mystery of mysteries. ‘Go’ means a jiva, individual soul, or ego. Gopala, another name of Krishna, means ‘protector of jivas’. Go also means the earth, or in other words, Prakriti as distinguished from the Purusha Supreme. Krishna means a young boy aged between seven and twelve.

At the centre of Vrindavan, is the octagonal yoga seat of Shri Krishna. His primal Prakriti (life element by which He upholds the whole universe) is Radhika. Govinda with Radha is seated on the golden throne, on the seat of yoga with his favourites: Chandravati, Chitrarekha, Chandra, Madana Sundari, Shri Madhumati, Chandrarekha and Haripriya. The latter were his chief queens. Next in importance comes the group of gopis. The gopis were the medium for the Lord to express the infinite variety of His bliss aspect. They were, in their previous birth, the sages of Dandaka forest, who wanted to embrace Rama. As Rama had taken ekapatnee vrata, vow of being wedded to only one wife, in that avatara, he could not accede to their request, but promised to fulfil their desire in His next avatara as Krishna.

The sages were born as gopis in their next birth to eventually merge into the Lord. They had their husbands, parents and children, they had their worldly duties to perform, some of them arduous enough to require constant attention. But the gopis’ minds were always fixed on the Lord. When the time came for union with the Purusha of the heart, when the signal music was heard, every gopi shook off all the bonds and offered herself up completely to the Lord. Nothing in the world could stop them. This is the highest form of bhakti. They present an ideal to always hold up before us. How can their glory be described?

Shri Krishna performed the rasa lila to destroy carnality by means of pure love or prema. When the gopis approached their Lord, there was no human passion in them, no love of human flesh, no idea of material gratification. It was the attraction of the soul for the Oversoul. They placed themselves entirely at the service of the Lord. They were permeated with madhurya bhava, feeling of a lover. The Lord only cared for their yearning to unite with Him and not for their external status, the worldly surroundings created by their past karma.

The Vrindavan lila is nitya or constant. The rasa lila exists for all times for the true bhaktas. It was meant to build faith, strengthen spirituality and improve the minds of the gopis in particular and humanity in general. It was not merely a historical incident, but an eternal fact. The night is the time of rest when spiritual activity sets in. There is complete absence of worldly desires. One unconsciously gets spiritual teachings and advancement during that period. But this happens to only a few who have a conscious union with the Lord who manifests in the heart. Many will have dreamless and peaceful sleep, but only few will enter the state of super-consciousness or turiya.

Purusha is one, jiva prakritis or para prakritis are many. To Purusha the jiva must always be negative, however positive it may be towards the forms of apara Prakriti. There is no notion of sexuality here. Purushottama is always the male and to him jiva prakriti is always a female. In devotional practice one should consider oneself a female, the male being the Lord of the universe as reflected in the heart of the bhakta. The gopis were not of the world. They had become purified by austerities in their previous birth. In this birth they merged in the Lord. For the sake of those blind to the teachings of the scriptures, they took the bodies of gopis to show how to love the Lord. They had every right to the union with the Lord and Shri Krishna could not deny them his companionship. Nay, it was a great joy to the Lord Himself that the jivas should return to Him with all their spiritual experiences. The concession was natural and the joy was mutual. Let not the dullness of perception or the mean lust of passion in man sit in judgement over this final beatitude of human aspirations.

In the midst of such union, however, there is a danger, a most subtle one at that, of egoism: “I am in union with the Lord.” The Gopis thought of themselves and there was an instant break in the union. Krishna could not be seen anywhere. They imitated his actions in the world. They followed his footsteps wherever found. Tears rained down their cheeks. They now realized that the Lord they wanted was not only the son of Yashoda, but the Lord of the universe. They forgot their egoism in their realization and lo! the Lord appeared again.

The best way to get rid of egoism is to forget it completely or deny its existence wholeheartedly. This time there was union, but not individual union. Hand in hand, the gopis formed a circle with their Lord – not the individual lord but the universal Lord who made Himself many in their hearts as well as outside – and they went on dancing with Him. The people of Vraja, however, never missed their wives from their sides, through the Lord’s yogamaya, power of divine illusion. The devas looked with wonder and envied the lot of the gopis.

Rasa lila, that divine love and dance, was enacted so that men may become gods on earth. Study the Srimad Bhagavatam with faith and devotion. However, mere reading is not enough; you should understand the meaning. Meditate on the sublime ideas underlying each lila of the Lord. The doors of the great secret will slowly, one by one, open to reveal to your powerful, concentrated gaze, the immortal truth that is closed to human vision through ignorance. Once you tear this veil, you will realize you are the Lord Himself – the state experienced by Radha.