A Review of “The Dance of Shiva” by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

A long time back, when I first became active on the fora of the Joseph Campbell Forum website, I downloaded a list of books which the renowned mythologist had given his students as required reading at Sarah Lawrence College. I found this book among them. But it was out of print at that time, and I could source a copy only now – with Rupa Publishers reprinting it.

Coomaraswamy’s metaphor of the cosmic dance of Shiva is well known to many, even to those who don’t know him: I first came across it during the late seventies, in Fritjof Capra’s seminal book on New Age science, The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism. At that time, to my teenage brain filled with grand ideas of the ultimate merger of Indian mysticism with higher physics, this was a revolutionary concept worth tripping on; you just close your eyes and meditate on all those atoms, protons, neutrons, quasars, planets, galaxies and whatnot dancing around the space-time continuum and – bingo! Niravana.

Well, I have been disabused of such naive imaginings as I grew older, and learnt more about Indian history and culture – and that it was not the one mystical love-fest the New Agers and the hippies made it out to be. True, India had a lot of great philosophical thought; a beautiful and colourful mythical heritage; and perhaps the world’s greatest epic literature. But the societal system, built on the strict hierarchy of caste, was horrendous: with the top layer existing parasitically on labours of the downtrodden bottom one. Which is why when I finally got around to reading Coomaraswamy, I was sorely disappointed.

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

This book was first published in 1918 – and sadly, it shows. This was the time when the Indian pride was on the upswing as a reaction against foreign domination and its consequent westernisation. For the apologists, anything Indian was divinely sublime. It was not a question of accepting her, warts and all; but exhorting those same warts as the epitome of beauty.
This blind admiration of Indian culture runs as one of the main themes of this book – the other being the ‘divine’ nature of Indian art, where there is no separation of devotion, myth, and the artistic insight. While I largely concur with the second (Campbell’s argument that the artist is the myth-maker in modern society resonates with me), the ‘superiority’ of Indian (or Eastern) culture to that of the West is highly debatable.

The book comprises fourteen essays. Of these, seven deal in totality and one partially with Indian art; four are paeans to Indian culture; and one each is in homage to Shakespeare and Nietzsche respectively. The essays are of varying quality – from extremely well-expressed to boringly repetitive. Let me start with the key one, ‘The Dance of Shiva’.

Shiva needs no introduction to the well-read person. He is the God who dances. When he is happy, he does the ‘Ananda Thandava’, the dance of happiness – and in anger, he dances the ‘Samhara Thandava’, destroying the universe in totality. He is full of esoteric symbolism: he wears the moon and the river Ganges in his matted hair locks; wears serpents as garlands; wears cloths made out of tiger and elephant skins; and his body is covered with the ash from funeral pyres. In his avatar as Nataraja (‘The Lord of Dance’), he dances within a circle of fire, trampling on the demon Muyalaka with his right foot, the left one raised, drum in his right hand fire in his left. He is the patron god of dance.

Commaraswamy does a detailed analysis of the five types of dance Shiva does, with extensive and fascinating quotes from mythical literature. This fact itself makes it worth reading. However, it is when he comes to the metaphoric analysis of this dance that we understand how this essay has stood the test of time and influenced a number of people over the years.

Shiva as ‘Nataraja’, the Lord of Dance

The Dancing Shiva

Coomaraswamy sees it essentially as the interplay of the feminine Prakriti, matter, nature, symbolised by the fire circle – the dancing God, touching it at four points with his head, arms and foot, is Purusha, the masculine omnipresent spirit animating it. He writes:

The Essential Significance of Shiva’s Dance is threefold: First, it is the image of his Rhythmic Play as the Source of all Movement within the Cosmos, which is Represented by the Arch: Secondly, the Purpose of his Dance is to Release the Countless souls of men from the Snare of Illusion: Thirdly the Place of the Dance, Chidambaram, the Centre of the Universe, is within the Heart.

(For those of us who have had our tryst with mysticism in the post-Fritjof Capra era, this may be old hat. Shiva’s cosmic dance has been done to death across a lot of platforms – literary, religious and mystic. But it is when we realise the Coomaraswamy’s vision is from a century ago, that we begin to appreciate its originality.)

He gushes on:

How amazing the range of thought and sympathy of those rishi-artists who first conceived such a type as this, affording an image of reality, a key to the complex tissue of life, a theory of nature, not merely satisfactory to a single clique or race, nor acceptable to the thinkers of one century only, but universal in its appeal to the philosopher, the lover, and the artist of all ages and all countries. How supremely great in power and grace this dancing image must appear to all those who have striven in plastic forms to give expression to their intuition of Life!

… In the night of Brahma, Nature is inert, and cannot dance till Shiva wills it: He rises from His rapture, and dancing sends through inert matter pulsing waves of awakening sound, and lo! matter also dances appearing as a glory round about Him. Dancing, He sustains its manifold phenomena. In the fulness of time, still dancing, he destroys all forms and names by fire and gives new rest. This is poetry; but none the less, science.

Yes indeed. As a connoisseur of art, dance and literature, I will emphatically say that this image is worth tripping on!

***

Now, coming to the essays on Indian art and music: it would be tempting to analyse each one in detail, but the exigencies of time and space compel one to economise. So I would just elaborate upon the common thread running across them, so as to emphasise the author’s intentions.

One must bear in mind that at the time of the writing of this book, India was an area of darkness to the majority in the West: it was all “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” stuff. So Coomaraswamy is at pains to justify the beauty of Indian art, mostly abstract and non-representational, to a largely unsympathetic European audience (it is amusing in some cases, as in the essay ‘Indian Images with Many Arms’, where he is at pains to point out that these are metaphorical and not meant to represent reality: elementary school stuff nowadays, in the age of ‘Guernica’). Similarly, he points out the difference between Indian and Western music; the former is purely melodic while the latter is harmonic.

Similarly, Indian art is non-representational. There is no perspective, no attempt to render ‘reality’ as such; and ultimately, there is no individuality to the work of art, or the artist. This total self-effacement of the creator is peculiar to Eastern art because the artist is not important. He does not create, but just renders what is divinely inspired in him through meditation. He is just a conduit for the art to flow through; the source is the Brahman, the essential Godhead that exists within one and all.

Religion and art thus names for one and the same experience—an intuition of reality and of identity.

…When every ascetic and every soldier has become an artist there will be no more need for works of art: in the meanwhile ethical selection of some kind is allowable and necessary. But in this selection we must clearly understand what we are doing, if we would avoid any infinity of error, culminating in that type of sentimentality which regards the useful, the stimulating and the moral elements in works of art as the essential.

Coomaraswamy’s insights on the concept of beauty in art, linking with the rasa concept of Indian aesthetics, is also enlightening.

Only when we judge a work of art aesthetically we may speak of the presence or absence of beauty, we may call the work rasavant or otherwise; but when we judge it from the standpoint of activity, practical or ethical, we ought to use a corresponding terminology, calling the picture, song or actor “lovely” that is to say lovable, or otherwise, the action “noble,” the colour “brilliant,” the gesture “graceful,” or otherwise, and so forth, and it will be seen that in doing this we are not really judging the work of art as such, but only the material and the separate parts of which it is made, the activities they represent, or the feelings they express.

… Beauty can never thus be measured, for it does not exist apart from the artist himself, and the rasika who enters into his experience.

There are no degrees of beauty; the most complex and the simplest expression remind us of one and the same state. The sonata cannot be more beautiful than the simplest lyric, nor the painting than the drawing, merely because of their greater elaboration. Civilized art is not more beautiful than the savage art, merely because of its possibly more attractive ethos. A mathematical analogy is found if we consider large and small circles; these differ only in their content, not in their circularity.

Another essay which was interesting was on the concept of ‘Sahaja’ – amorous love that transcends the physical, typically represented by Radha’s love for Krishna in Indian mythology. In his lectures, Campbell also talks at great length on this, albeit in a different context – the love of the troubadour for his lady. In the field of poesy, we can see this in the concept of the muse, exemplified by Dante’s obsession with Beatrice.

Radha and Krishna

***

Well, now for the negatives. Even with all these superb, pioneering insights into Indian art and aesthetics, I cannot love this book for its unabashed endorsement of the Indian caste system and the subservient role of women. The author sees the stratified Indian society as the epitome of social engineering, with the Brahmins at the top the equivalent of the philosopher kings envisaged by Plato. He feels that the Indian woman, whose career comprises solely of her husband and family, is the ‘ideal’ to strive for: for him, the emancipated western woman is an aberration. He considers the obnoxious ‘Laws of Manu’ as the absolute gospel. I will let Coomaraswamy speak for himself:

On the caste system:

The heart and essence of the Indian experience is to be found in a constant intuition of the unity of all life, and the instinctive and ineradicable conviction that the recognition of this unity is the highest good and the uttermost freedom. All that India can offer to the world proceeds from her philosophy. This philosophy is not, indeed, unknown to others—it is equally the gospel of Jesus and of Blake, Lao Tze, and Rumi—but nowhere else has it been made the essential basis of sociology and education.

…We must not judge of Indian society, especially Indian society in its present moment of decay, as if it actually realized the Brahmanical social ideas; yet even with all its imperfections Hindu society as it survives will appear to many to be superior to any form of social organization attained on a large scale anywhere else, and infinitely superior to the social order which we know as “modern civilization.”

…it can hardly be denied that the Brahmanical caste system is the nearest approach that has yet been made towards a society where there shall be no attempt to realise a competitive quality, but where all interests are regarded as identical. To those who admit the variety of age in human souls, this must appear to be the only true communism.

On the status of Indian women:

The Asiatic theory of marriage, which would have been perfectly comprehensible in the Middle Ages, before the European woman had become an economic parasite, and which is still very little removed from that of Roman or Greek Christianity, is not readily intelligible to the industrial democratic consciousness of Europe and America, which is so much more concerned for rights than for duties, and desires more than anything else to be released from responsibilities—regarding such release as freedom. It is thus that Western reformers would awaken a divine discontent in the hearts of Oriental women, forgetting that the way of ego-assertion cannot be a royal road to realisation of the Self. The industrial mind is primarily sentimental, and therefore cannot reason clearly upon love and marriage; but the Asiatic analysis is philosophic, religious and practical.

… It is sometimes asked, what opportunities are open to the Oriental woman? How can she express herself? The answer is that life is so designed that she is given the opportunity to be a woman—in other words, to realize, rather than to express herself.

…The Eastern woman is not, at least we do not claim that she is, superior to other women in her innermost nature; she is perhaps an older, purer and more specialized type, but certainly an universal type, and it is precisely here that the industrial woman departs from type. Nobility in women does not depend upon race, but upon ideals; it is the outcome of a certain view of life.

And as if this was not enough, he justifies arranged marriage, and even ‘Sati’ – where the wife immolated herself on the funeral pyre of her husband!

The industrial revolution in India is of external and very recent origin; there is no lack of men, and it is the sacred duty of parents to arrange a marriage for every daughter: there is no divergence of what is spiritual and what is sensuous: Indian women do not deform their bodies in the interests of fashion: they are more concerned about service than rights: they consider barrenness the greatest possible misfortune, after widowhood. In a word, it has never happened in India that women have been judged by or have accepted purely male standards. What possible service then, except in a few externals, can the Western world render to Eastern women? Though it may be able to teach us much of the means of life, it has everything yet to relearn about life itself. And what we still remember there, we would not forget before we must.

… The criticism we make on the institution of Sati and woman’s blind devotion is similar to the final judgment we are about to pass on patriotism. We do not, as pragmatists may, resent the denial of the ego for the sake of an absolute, or attach an undue importance to mere life; on the contrary we see clearly that the reckless and useless sacrifice of the ‘suttee’ and the patriot is spiritually significant. And what remains perpetually clear is the superiority of the reckless sacrifice to the calculating assertion of rights. Criticism of the position of the Indian woman from the ground of assertive feminism, therefore, leaves us entirely unmoved: precisely as the patriot must be unmoved by an appeal to self-interest or a merely utilitarian demonstration of futility. We do not object to dying for an idea as ‘suttees’ and patriots have died; but we see that there may be other and greater ideas we can better serve by living for them.

 

A depiction of ‘Sati’

I can now hear people saying: “Come on! You can’t judge an early twentieth century text by today’s sensibilities! Coomaraswamy was a man of his time, and we have to cut him some historical slack.”

Uh-huh. Nothing doing. This sugar-coating of the dark underbelly of India’s so-called ‘Arsha’ culture over a period of time – this refusal to call a spade a spade – has resulted in where my country is standing today, with atrocities against Dalits and women so commonplace that they are most of the time relegated to footnotes in the newspaper. Sorry, Mr. Coomaraswamy, I put you in the dock with other apologists for traditional Indian society. You don’t get even judicial mercy in my court!

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