Archetypes in Indian Art

Natraj: The Dance of Shiva

Shiva is also known as the King of Dancers. Dancing is regarded in India as an ancient form of magic. The dancer becomes a being that has supernatural powers, whose personality is transformed. Like yoga, the dance induces trance, ecstasy, the experience of the divine, the realization of one's own secret nature, and, finally, mergence into the divine essence. And to work magic, to put enchantment upon others, one has first to put enchantments upon oneself.

On a universal scale, Shiva is the Cosmic Dancer; in his dancing manifestation (Natraj) he embodies in himself, and simultaneously gives manifestation to, Eternal Energy. The forces gathered and projected in his frantic movement are the powers of the evolution, maintenance and dissolution of the world. Nature and all its creatures are the result of his eternal dance.

The details of the Natraj figure can be read, according to the Hindu tradition, in terms of a complex pictorial allegory.

The upper right hand carries a little drum, shaped like an hourglass, for the beating of the rhythm. This represents sound, the vehicle of speech, the conveyor of revelation, tradition, incantation, magic and divine truth. In India sound (OM) signifies the first moment of creation. Therefore this hand represents creation.

The opposite hand, the upper left, with a half moon posture of the fingers, carries on its palm a tongue of flame. Fire is the element of the destruction of the world. In Hindu belief, fire will at the end of time annihilate all of creation. This hand therefore represents destruction. Here then, in the balance of the hands, is illustrated the balance of creation and destruction: Sound versus Fire, as opposites.

The 'Fear Not' gesture, bestowing protection and peace, is displayed by the second right hand, representing maintenance, while the remaining left lifted across the chest, points downward to the uplifted left foot. This foot signifies Release (from the cycle of life) and is the refuge and salvation of the devotee. It is to be worshipped for the attainment of union with the Absolute. The hand pointing to the left foot is held in a pose imitative of the outstretched trunk of the elephant, reminding us of Ganesha, Shiva's son, the Remover of Obstacles.

The divinity is represented as dancing on the prostrate body of a dwarfish demon. This is Apasmara Purusha, the demon called Forgetfulness, or Heedlessness. It is symbolic for life's blindness, man's ignorance. The attainment of true wisdom comes from the conquest of this demon: the release from the bondages of the world.

So the elephant trunk hand links the three other hands representing creation, maintenance and destruction, to the two feet, one foot dancing on Forgetfulness and the other representing release. This linkage promises peace to the soul that experiences the relationship.

The ring of flames and light issues from and surrounds the god. This is said to signify the energy of wisdom, the transcendental light of the knowledge of truth. Another symbolic meaning of the halo of flames is that of OM, representing the totality of creation. The origin of the ring of flames is probably in the destructive aspect of Shiva; but Shiva's destruction is finally identical to release.

The incessant, triumphant and passionate motion of the swaying limbs is in significant contrast to the balance of the head and the immobility and calm of the trance-like, ascetic face. This represents the paradox of passing Time and Eternity, the indestructible Self and the mortal being. Shiva is the personification of the Absolute, the swallower of Time. He is both the archetypal ascetic and the archetypal dancer, total tranquillity and total activity.

From Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, by Heinrich Zimmer, a reworking of the lecture course delivered at Columbia University in the winter term of 1942. (Princeton University Press 1946, p151-168)

Durga Mahishasuramardini: the Goddess slaying the Buffalo Demon Mahisha.

Durga is the unconquerable, sublime warrior maid. She is life energy itself, the primeval maternal principle, and she was created out of the combined anger of all the Gods.

The occasion of this miracle was one of those dark moments for the Gods, when a demon tyrant was threatening to undo the world. This time, not even Vishnu or Shiva could succeed in conquering the demon.

The titan was a colossal monster named Mahisha, who took the shape of a huge water buffalo bull. The Gods asked the help of Vishnu and Shiva and described to them the case of the victorious monster. Vishnu and Shiva swelled with wrath and the other gods also swelled with indignation. And immediately, their intense powers poured forth in the form of fire from their mouths. Vishnu, Shiva, and all the gods sent forth their energies, each according to his nature, as sheets and streams of flame. These fires all rushed together, combining in a flaming cloud, which grew and grew, and finally took the shape of the Goddess Durga. She was provided with 18 arms and the weapons of all the Gods. She was also given the lion that she is to ride.

Upon seeing this personification of the supreme energy of the universe, the miraculous combination of all their powers, the gods rejoiced and they paid Durga worship. By a gesture of perfect surrender and fully willed self abdication, the gods had returned their energies to the primeval Shakti, the One Force, the Fountain Head, from whom all had originally stemmed. She was the perennial, primal female, the mother of them all.

Durga, astride her lion, attacks the monster Mahisha, first with a noose, then with arrows, then with a sword, and each time Mahisha changes shape, from water buffalo, to lion, to elephant, and finally back to buffalo. Durga laughs scornfully, takes a drink from a bowl filled with the liquid of life force, and leaps in the air to attack Mahisha in the neck with her trident (given to her by Shiva). Mahisha tries to leave the buffalo body again, crawling from its mouth in the shape of a hero with a sword. But he has only half emerged when he is grabbed by his hair and beheaded by Durga, the invincible goddess.

From Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, by Heinrich Zimmer, a reworking of the lecture course delivered at Columbia University in the winter term of 1942. (Princeton University Press 1946, p190-194)

Kali dancing on Shiva.

The mother goddess expressing the negative, destructive principle is represented as Kali, the Black One. Kali is the feminine form of the word "Kala", meaning "time". Time is the all-producing, all-annihilating principle, in the onflow of which everything that comes into existence again vanishes after the expiry of the brief time of its allotted of life.

Kali is the goddess of Death, the Dark Lady of the World.

In her four hands she holds the symbols of death, renunciation and the spiritual path of devotion: the noose (the lasso that catches and strangles the victim), the iron hook (which drags the victim to his doom), the rosary and the textbook of prayer. She wears a garland of sculls or severed heads around her neck ('mundamala') and drinks from a bowl of blood.

Sometimes she is shown holding a pair of scissors in her right hand, which severs the thread of life. She sometimes carries the sword, the symbol of physical extermination and spiritual decision; this sword cuts through error and ignorance.

One of the most popular depictions of Kali is that of the goddess, adorned with the blood-dripping hands and heads of her victims, dancing on the prostrate, corpse-like body of her husband Shiva. The Goddess is the feminine partner of Shiva, the faithful spouse, the ideal wife-consort of Hindu myth and civilization, yet she treads on the inanimate body of her beloved and only mate. She is black with death and her tongue is out to lick up the world; her teeth are hideous fangs. Her body is lithe and beautiful, and her breasts are big with milk. Paradoxical and gruesome, she is today one of the most cherished and widespread of the Hindu gods.

From Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, by Heinrich Zimmer, a reworking of the lecture course delivered at Columbia University in the winter term of 1942. (Princeton University Press 1946, p210-216).

The story of Ekalavya.

A long time ago, in the deep dense Indian jungles, there lived Ekalavya, a dark-complexioned young boy. He was the son of Hiranyadhanu, a mighty king of an aboriginal Nishada, an outcaste tribe of hunters, who inhabited the remote forests of Northern India. The Nishadas were looked upon as non-Aryans by their Aryan neighbours. Hence even in spite of their martial temperament, the Nishadas were never admitted to ashramas in which all Kshatriya boys were admitted to be given education especially in the martial arts. But Ekalavya was a restless boy, when he was about seven years old he witnessed the five Pandava princes who were of his age being imparted military training by Dronacharya in his ashram. He was moved by his faith to approach Dronacharya and request him for instruction in archery. As an young boy, he had always wanted to be an archer, so he headed towards one of the great cities of those times - Hasthinapura to meet Drona an expert in archery and martial arts.

Drona was employed by the king of the Kauravas of Hasthinapura to teach his five sons the fine skill of archery. On reaching his destination he learnt that he could meet Drona at the palace in Hasthinapura. The next day he met Drona at the palace and implored him to accept him as his disciple. Drona was quite impressed by the youth's earnest interest and keen desire to master the art. Drona went on to probe his background and parentage. When he learnt that he was a 'Shudra' (belonging to the lowest social community) he was greatly displeased. Enraged he asked him how he dared to ask Drona to be his teacher.

Ekalavya was shocked and hurt at Drona's angry unkind words. He suddenly realized that Drona's other students were looking at him scornfully and mocking him. Ekalavya was thrown out of the palace, but he was determined to become an archer some day.

Disheartened, Ekalavya returned to the forest and made an image of Drona out of clay and decorated it with flowers and prayed to the image every single day. He then began to practice archery in front of this image all day long. Ekalavya was steadfast in his ambition to become an ace archer and he was convinced that the image of Drona would teach him archery. Day and night he would practice incessantly sending arrows one after the other to severe the tree trunks. In this way, concentrating his mind on Dronacharya with absolute devotion to the art of archary, Ekalavya gradually became the most expert archer in the world with super human skill, more skilful than even Arjuna.

Arjuna was not only Krishna's intimate friend, but also Dronacharya's dearest disciple. The master had once promised him, "No one will ever excel you in this art. You will become the best archer on this earth and so will you remain, I promise you!".

One day, the Kauravas and the Pandavas went together into the neighbouring forest for hunting, when they suddenly saw something quite astonishing. There was dog lying peacefully on the ground whose mouth had been sewn closed by seven arrows. The boys thought that one who could perform such extraordinary feat was undoubtedly the best archer in the world. They also thought that perhaps he was even better than Arjuna. As they continued to penetrate deeper into the dense forest, they came across an unknown archer tirelessly practicing his marksmanship. It was he who had shot the arrows at the dog because the animal had been barking and disturbing his concentration. All the princes were jealous of Ekalavya's archery skills.

When the princes returned to the palace, they related the incident to Dronacharya in detail. Arjuna humbly reminded Dronacharya of his promise that no one would ever excel him in archery. Dronacharya, who was very much surprised to hear of the existence of such an expert bowman, went to the forest with Arjuna to meet him. When they reached Ekalavya's cottage, they saw him sitting down before the clay image of Dronacharya and shooting arrows with great expertise. As soon as Ekalavya saw them, he paid them their due respects, honoring Dronacharya as his master. Drona did not remember Ekalavya. Drona asked Ekalavya who his teacher was, and was surprised to hear Ekalavya reply humbly that it was Drona himself. On being explained by Ekalavya that he had installed a statue of Dronacharya and that he looked upon Dronacharya as his Guru; the sage was perplexed that a Nishada boy who had no right to acquire military training as per caste rules had done so by looking upon Dronacharya himself as his Guru. Drona asked Ekalavya to prove his mettle by fighting with the princes. Ekalavya accepted the challenge and defeated every one of them including Arjuna who was a expert archer among pandavas and kauravas. Arjuna was very disappointed as his dream of becoming the greatest archer in the world was shattered. He could not be a match to this practitioner of archery. Drona also realised that his promise to make Arjuna as the greatest archer in the world never be fulfilled as long Ekalavya was there. Drona was both upset and angry that Ekalavya had defeated even Arjuna his best disciple. Drona, then played a trick and decided to deman his Guru-Dakshina from Ekalavya to disable the innocent tribal boy. So he demanded Ekalavya to give him 'guru dakshina' (A disciple's offering to a teacher after mastering a subject). Ekalavya, the devoted disciple was only too happy to give whatever his teacher asked for. Ekalavya stood with folded palms in front of Dronacharya, and told his master that he was ready to do whatever he ordered.

Drona blinded by his anger demanded Ekalavya to give him the thumb from his right hand. Little did Ekalavya know that the Guru-dakshina would be nothing short of his right Thumb, in other words his art of archery itself! On Dronachrya's demanding Ekalavya's right thumb, the dutiful Ekalavya sheared off his thumb and laid it at Dronacharya's feet. When thereafter the Nisada shot with his fingers, he was no longer as fast as he had been before. Arjuna's fever was gone and his heart was happy; and Drona's word was proved true: no one bested Arjuna. Drona returned to the kingdom of Hasthinapura content that he had disabled an opponent of Arjuna leaving behind Ekalavya the most faithful disciple of all times without so much as a word of thanks. The Guru-dakshina had been redeemed and so had been redeemed the ruthless demands of the caste system which reserved the right of acquiring military training only for the certain privillaged Kshatriyas.