Dharma and Performing Arts

Dharma and performing arts have apparently no obvious connection with each other. They are poles apart. Dharma belongs to the realm of ethics and spiritualism, whereas Performing Arts are associated in popular mind with sensual entertainment. Yet, the two are not as different as they seem to be, in the Indian context.

Both Dharma and Performing Arts in India have emerged from, and imbued with, Indian cultural values. While Dharma is the ethical manifestation of Indian culture, performing arts is creative and artistic manifestation of the same. The two together are important constituents of Indian civilization.

I have used the word culture, civilization and Dharma above. I will now define and elucidate upon these words.

Culture is the set of abstract values or guiding principles of conduct and behavior a set of people gradually evolve, though centuries of their shared struggle of existence, and shared history, mythology and belief systems. Depending upon their unique experience, they develop strategies of survival that crystalizes into a mindset and a value system. These regulate their entire gamut of activities, behavior, responses and reactions. Thus, culture is an abstract value system of a given people.

The manifestation of these values at physical level is civilization. All material achievements: art, architecture, science, etc, are achievements of a civilization; remotely controlled and regulated by the cultural value system. To illustrate this point I give some examples below:

China had discovered gunpowder but did not use it as a weapon to war. As soon as the Turks acquired it’s knowledge, they used it in artillery to over awe nations and acquire foreign territories. Why did the Chinese not use gunpowder in artillery soon after it’s discovery? The answer maybe in the relative cultural values of the two people.

It is well-known fact that during one thousand years of Muslim rule in India, Arabs, Turks, Afghans and Moguls destroyed thousands of Hindu temples. But Vijaynagar kings, Shivaji, Maharana Pratap, Sikhs and Jaats, who raised the flag of revolt against them, did not destroy a single mosque in retaliation. What prevented them from doing this? Surely it was the values nurtured by the Hindu culture.

Everybody has heard of the story of Queen Padmini of Chittorh. The Muslim king Alauddin Khilji, bewitched by the beautiful queen, invaded Chittorh and killed thousands of innocent people. During the thousand year Muslim rules in India, millions of hapless women were abducted, enslaved and raped. In contrast to it when the beautiful wife of the Muslim Governor of Surat was captured and presented to Shivaji by his generals, the latter told her that he wished she were his mother then he would have been as beautiful as she is. Thereafter, Shivaji ordered her release and return to her husband, respectfully. The question that we ma ask is what motivated Shivaji to behave as he did? And what prevented him from behaving like the Muslim rulers and retaliate? Probably the Hindu mindset.

Prithviraj Chauhan was defeated by Muhammd Ghori in 1192 AD, in the battle of Tarain. It is a well known fact that a year earlier, in the same battlefield Muhammd Ghori had been vanquished by Prithviraj Chauhan and imprisoned by the latter. Prithviraj later chivalrously pardoned Ghori and let him return to his country. The pardon did not deter Ghori from re-attacking Chauhan and defeating him by deceit. He imprisoned Prithviraj and the question of pardoning Chauhan did not even arise in Ghori’s mind. Prithviraj was soon be-headed. This piece of history further illumines the power of culture of mind and actions.

It is culture that creates a mindset, gets deeper into the conscious, subconscious and even unconscious and conditions behavior and responses of its adherents.

The basic values of Indian culture summarized:

  1. Harmony and peace

  2. Essential unity of all living and non-living beings

  3. Cyclic movement of time, life and nature

  4. Validity of all paths

  5. Supremacy of knowledge

It is from the above core values that the concept of Dharma has emerged.


Dharma is sometimes, wrongly translated as religion. Dharma has nothing to do with God, faith, hell, heaven or the other world. Dharma is concerned with this world and only with this world. Dharma as conceived by seers is concerned with the life here, on this planet and not hereafter.

It is a set of social, ethical, all-time universal code of conduct that is essentially secular (non-religious), it enables every human being, irrespective of his nationality to lead a fruitful life with peace and harmony.

Of the many definitions of Dharma, Manu gives the most comprehensive one:

Dhriti kshamā damoasteya śoucamindriya nigraha |

Dhīr vidyā satyamakrodham daśaṁ dharmalakṣaṇam ||

Patience, forgiveness, control of impulses, non stealing, cleanliness, restraint of senses, wisdom, knowledge, truth, non anger – these are the ten features of Dharma.” – Manu Smriti

The concept of Dharma is not metaphysical. Dharma denotes ethical principles that lead to a moral life, which is personally fulfilling and socially acceptable. If all members of the society follow these Dharmik injunctions, there would be no strife or crime in the society. Indeed, there would be no problem of law and order. The state, would be rendered redundant. In this context, a seer visualizes a period when “There was no state, no king, no penalty and no criminals: all protected one another by virtue of Dharma.”

Na rājyaṁ rājā asīt na danḍayo na ca daṇḍikaḥ |

Dharmaṇaiva prajāssarva rakshanti sma parasparaṁ ||

According to another seer, ethical values that constitute Dharma “Bring individiuals together and sustain them as a society.”

Dhāranāt dharmamityāhuḥ dhārayati prajāḥ

The Dharmik values are practiced by an individual “enables a man to control his desires and create within himself capacity to realize eternal reality even while enjoying rich material life.”

Yatoabhyudayāniḥ śreyasasidhi sa dharma

Dharmik conduct is valid for all human-kind. It transcends all religions. Dharma has been recognized as an important constituent of the four goals (Chatushpurushartha), to be achieved by all human beings.

The Purushartha is a unique concept of Hinduism. Each individual should realize these purusharthas for self-fulfillment is his lifetime. The four purusharthas are Dharma, Artha, Kaama and Moksha. We have already explored the concept of Dharma in the preceding pages. Artha represents material achievements and kaama is fulfillment of physical and sexual desires. Moksha is the ultimate transcendence to a life beyond worldly desires. It is noteworthy that Artha and Kaama are flanked on either side by Dharma and Moksha underscoring that there cannot be absolute materialism or fulfillment of physical urges. Both artha and kaama should be conditioned and moderated by Dharma and Moksha. These purusharthas are not life negating; rather, they are positive valid goals to be achieved by all individuals. Such human pleasures as singing, dancing, playing, enjoying material wealth, and sexual gratification, are valid pursuits of an individual, provided he does not tread on the toes of others and does not impede his own balanced personality development.

The Hindu value system permits everything that is conducive to the realization of the four purusharthas. The aim of all art performances is also to prepare people to realize the purusharthas while entertaining them.

The Performing Arts in India

India is a large country inhabited by people speaking diverse languages, following different religions, with varying clothes and food habits. Yet, India is culturally one. The idea of India as one country and Indians as one people is as old as the Vedas which speak of one nation (Rashtra).

Prithivyāyai samudraparyantāyā Ekrāt

“Our mother land extending up to the seas is one nation.” (Ekraat)

About 2000 years ago the Vishnu Puran defined India (Bharat) and Indians (Bhartī) as follows:

Uttaraṁ yat samudrasya himādraśyaiva dakshiṇaṁ

Varṣaṁ tad bhārataṁ bhāratī yatra santatiḥ

“North of seas, and south of snow clad mountains, is a country knows as Bharat and it’s children are known as Bharti.” – Vishnu Purana

Just as people living in different parts of the country in spite of different physiognomy, clothes, food habits, religions and languages are one –so are the plethora of different performing arts spread all over India.

The performing Arts of India is a blanket term that covers a wide range of genre of performing arts, such as drama, folk theater, classical and folk music, tribal songs, dances, and magical performances of various tribes, string, leather, and shadow puppetry, operas, ballets, caste based songs and dances, religious songs and dances, etc. Of the folk theaters, Nautanki, Ras Leela, and Ram Leela of Uttar Pradesh, Khyal of Rajasthan, Jatra of Bengal, Terekuttu of Tamil Nadu, Teyyam of Kerela, Yakshgaan of Karnataka and Maach of Madhya Pradesh are very well known. Equally staggering is the repertoire of folk dances and songs of various states. The classical dances include Bharat Natyam, Odissi, Manipuri, Kathak, Kathakali, Mohini Attam, and Kuchipudi. Through seemingly different performing art forms with diverse regional flavours, there runs a common thread of Indianess, which is a gift of Natya Shastra, a compendium of Performing Arts written/compiled about 2500 years ago.

Bharat Muni’s Natya Shastra

No discussion on Indian Performing Arts can be complete without reference to Natya Shastra. The Natya Shastra is believed to have been written by sage Bharat Muni; and it is considered as the oldest surviving work in the whole world on theater arts.

‘Bharat Muni consolidated and codified various traditions in dance, mime, and drama. It refers to classical structure, style and form of acting and production with aesthetic rules. It provides all conceivable details of makeup and costumes with instructions on direction and production; and analysis of dramatic theories, aesthetics, sentments, and their portrayal.’

Bharat’s Natya Shastra has 37 chapters with 6000 shlokas. It is the most profound and invaluable heritage of humankind. It is held in such high esteem that it is called a Shastra (divine scripture) on par with other sacred literature. It is also referred to as the Pancham Veda (fifth Veda).

Chapter One of the Natya Shastra describes the mythical origin of theatre. On the request of gods, Brahma took the material from four Vedas and the four Upavedas (branches of the Vedas) and created the Natya Veda (The sacred compendium of Performing Arts).

Brahma declared:

Sarvaśāstrārtha sampanna sarvaśilpa pravartakam |

Nātyākhyaṁ panchaṁvedam etihāsam karomyaham ||

“I have created this fifth Veda of theatre arts by enriching it from various Shastras (books of knowledge) and arts.”

Brahma thereafter instructed Bharat Muni in Natya Veda, who then went on to produce the world’s first two plays named Tripurdah and Amrithmanthan with the help of his hundred sons and twenty four Apsaras (heavenly maidens). The audience of these plays were none less than the gods themselves who showered their blessings on Bharat Muni and declared that the fruit of an accomplished theater performance is equal in merit to the benevolent boons of sacred yagyas (fire rituals) and japas (sacred mantra recitation).

No aspect of theatre art escaped the attention of Bharat Muni. He goes into the minutest details of acting, expressions, voice modulations, dance postures, hand gestures, aesthetics, state craft, stage architecture, makeup, movement, mime, characterizations, dialogue delivery, etc. It should be noted that Bharat Muni preempted Stanislavsky and his ‘Method’ style of acting by more than 2000 years in lying down that actor should identify with, and get into the character he has to play.

Yathā jīvitswabhāvaṁ hi parityājānya dehikam |

Parbhāvaṁ prakurute parbhāvaṁ samśritaḥ ||

Evaṁ budhaḥ parbhāvaṁ soasmīti manasā smaran |

Yeṣāṁ vāgaṁgalīlāmi yetābhistu samācareta ||

“The soul after leaving one body enters the other and starts behaving like the latter. Similarly the actor should remember the character he is portraying and should muld his voice and body accordingly.”

Bharat Muni also propounds the famed “Rasa” theory – a concept of eight Rasas: - Hasya, Karun, Raudra, Veer, Bhayanak, Veebhats, and Adhbhuta. The ninth Rasa, Shant Rasa was added to the list, by later scholars.

Bharat Muni also expounded the seven Svaras (musical notes) that constitute the very foundation of Indian music. These Svaras are: - (SA)Shadaj, (RE)Rishab, (GA)Gandhar, (MA)Madhyam, (PA)Pancham, (DHA)Dhaivat , and (NEE)Nishad.

Bharat Muni describes 108 ‘Karanas’, the dance postures, which are still the basic postures of classical dances. These postures together make ‘Anghaars’. He describes 32 Anghaars with varying combinations of Karans. Bharat Muni thus helped lay the foundation of different Indian classical dances that evolved in due course.

Bharat Muni classified musical instruments in four categories: Avanaddh(leather bound percussion instrument like Tabla), Ghan(metallic clashing instruments like cymbals), Sushir(wind instruments like flute) and Tantri(string instrument like Sitar).

Bharat Muni mentions four types of acting:Angik, Vachik, Aharya and Sattvik.

Bharat Muni says:

Deśaveṣanurupeṇa pātraṁ yojyam svabhīmiṣu

“Actors should perform their roles according to the class and place of the characters.”

Bharat Muni insists that characters should speak in the languages representative of their respective classes. He suggests that a hero drawn from upper class should speak in chaste Sanskrit, while minor characters, such as servants etc should use Prakrit dialect. Bharat is also aware of the regional variations in accents and intonations of people and want them to be reflected in characters from different regions.

In chapter 12, the gaits of different characters have been described with uncanny observation. It details the gait of a clown, a king, a man stricken with fever, a man drenched with water, a frightened man, a couple in love, a kid, a lame man, old men, a horse, an elephant, a lion etc.

Bharat Muni describes twotypes f productions. He names realistic style of acting and production as Lok Dharmi, and stylized production as Natya Dharmi. He was not merely a theoretician but a practitioner of the art. He writes that it was not possible to show actual elephant, horse, mountain, sea etc on the stage, therefore these should be shown through mime or symbolically.

Bharat was aware of the importance of audience in a theatrical production. He therefore insists that for the success of a production total communication with audience and their approval is a must.

Vedādhyātmopapannaṁ tu shabdacchandassamanvitam |

Lokāsidhaṁ bhavetasidhaṁ nātyaṁ lokātmakaṁ tathā ||

“The play may be based on Vedas or spirituality and it may have been embellished with beautiful words and poetry, but it would be considered successful only when the people accept it, because theatre is an audience-based art.”

Bharat’s Natya Shastra was a path breaking work in the field of performing arts. It inspired a generation of scholars to follow his lead and write on various aspects of performing arts. Nandikeshwar (Abhinay Darpan), Damodar (Taladhyaya), Pundir Vitthala (Nartan Nirnaya), Dhanajaya (Dashroopak), etc are worth mentioning. The Natya Shastra also inspired famed scholars like Mammat, Vishwanath, Hem Chandra Acharya and others to write on poetics (Kavya Shastra).

The end of the 12th centuary AD marked the beginning of the Muslim era. Islam does not permit music and dance. Under enforcement of Islamic State Laws, the performing arts almost went into oblivion and Natya Shastra was lost for all practical purposes. In 1826, an English Scholar Sir H.S Wilson rediscovered a still existing ancient manuscript of Natya Shastra, and Naya Shastra shot to international attention de to articles written on it by various French and German scholars. In 1984 the first Sanskrit edition was printed followed by Hindi and English translations in the mind 20th century.

Natya Shastra asserts that theater in Sarvavarnik (holds appeal for all sections of society). He declared that Natya Shastra is the collection of Dharama, Artha, Yash (renowed), Sadopdesh (noble advice), and is a mirror of all transactions of life.

Dharmārtha yaśasyam ya sadopadashaṁ susaṁgraham |

Bhaviṣyataśca lokasya sarvakarmānudarshakam ||

Natya Shastra lays own Theatre’s grand purpose as being instrumental in teaching good conduct (dharmik life) to one, and all. Bharat Muni repeatedly emphasizes the moral upliftment of masses as the one and only pure objective of Performing Arts. Bharat Muni promises an almost Moksha like experience (liberation) to the theater audience. Bharat Muni declares in chapter 37 of the Natya Shastra that wherever and when ever theatre is performed, gods come to witness the dharmik spectacke. He continue that theatre is like a Yagna (sacred fire ritual) and aids in the realization of the prime four goals (purusharthas) of human life – Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha.

Summing up, just as Dharma seeks the moral upliftment of all people, performing arts in India also nurture the same goal. While Dharmik codes are purely secular, the several genre of performing arts in India, such as Ras Leela, Ram Leela, Yakshagan, etc use religious tales and mythological symbols to achieve their wider, secular objective of educating people. Dharma and performing arts in India, situated in seemingly two far ends of a scale, ultimately seek to achieve the same end – welfare of people by guiding them to achieve physical, material, and spiritual goals. This emanates from the fact that both Dharma and Performing Arts are manifestation of Indian culture.

Sex and Violence in Performing Arts

In Christianity sex is contemptible. It is to be shunned. It is an obstacle in an individuals ascendancy to ‘kingdom of heaven’. Only those who eschew sex completely are dear to God. Jesus says, “For there are some eunuchs, who were so born from their mother’s womb; and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men; and there be eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake”(Mathew 19:12). The bible also observes that “It is food for a man not to touch a woman”(Corinthians 7:1). Unlike Christanity, Hinduism does not believe in absolute abstinence.

Sex is not a taboo in Hinduism. It has an important place and role in an individials life. Of the four goals of human life (purusharthas) Kaam is also an important goal which an individual is expected to realize in his or her life time. Nevertheless this goal – Kaama – is also expected to be moderated and hedged with Dharma. One of the constituents of Dharma is ‘restrain of senses’(indriya-nigrah). So while Hinduism does not absolutely negate sex, it certainly prescribes its containment within social bonds. Unbridles sex may create social tensions and even violence. It would not be conducive to realization of other ‘purusharthas’. Hence, it should be tempered with Dharmik values.

Hindus have a concept of Ashram (The four stages in a life-time of an individual). These are :

  1. Brahmacharya

  2. Grihasth

  3. Vanprastha

  4. Sanyas

Brahmacharya Ashram extends from the age of 5 up to the age to 25. It is the stage of learnin, education and preparing for future life.

Grihasth Ashram extends from 26 years to 50 years. It is the stage in which all individual should set up households, marry and produce children.

Vanaprastha Ashram (50 to 75 years) and Sanyas Ashram (76 to 100 years) are the stages during which an individual should gradually withdraw from the worldly life and prepare for the next.

This, active sex life is permitted between the ages of 25 years to 50 years,within the confines of marriage. Marriage, sex and producing children are thus Dharmik duties of an individual; ther is no din attached to secx. Sex could be divine too. All major Hindu gods are married, and always remembered with their spouses – Shankar-Parvati, Sita-Ram and Radha-Krishna.

In the area of performing arts too, sex has a rightful place. It is not prohibited. Yet, it has its limits. Only that much sex is permissible on the stage that may strengthen peoples Dharmik foundation. That sex which violates the Dharmik injunction of ‘restrain of senses’ in forbidden.

As far as violence is concerned, Hinduism does not believe in absolute non-violence. T does not believe in non-violence as taught by Jesus who advised to offer the other cheek when one is slapped. Hinduism also does not believe in the violence as taught by Jesus, when he said: -

“But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither and slay them before me”(Luke 19:17)

Or even when Jesus says: -

“If a man abide not in me is cast forth as a branch and is withered; and men gather them and put them in fire and they are burned”(JOHN 15:16)

Hinduism does not approve of violence against those who differ with them. It approves of violence only so far as it is employed to protect the general masses from the vile and violent deeds of villainous characters, like Ravana. Lord Rama who killed Ravana to protect the earth against his ‘adharmik’ (evil) acts is approved by Dharma.

In the performing arts too, violence against evil characters is permissible, for it sustains the faith of audience in ‘Dharmik’ values. Violence for the sake of violence or violence as a tool for catharsis, or to make the audience insensitive to violence, or violence for the entertainment of audience is certainly not permissible under Hindu way of thinking.

Summing up, sex and violence are permissible on stage so far as they serve to reinforce the ‘Dharmik’ values of the audience. The moment these arouse grosser emotions that may violate the peaceful co-existence of individual in society, it is to be rejected. ‘Dharma’ is to be observed because it sustains society, and ultimately all humanity.

By D.P Sinha

#dharma #performingarts #theatre #indiantheatre #theater #culture #ethics

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