The Nataraja (Balu Velachery/Flickr)
Snapshot
  • The little demon crushed under Nataraja’s foot doesn’t attract attention, but there may be something very significant to it – perhaps a link to epilepsy and consequently, memory, and consciousness.

Do you think the Nataraja is the most stunning creation of Indian art? If so, you would be in good company. Aldous Huxley, one of the greatest Western thinkers of the twentieth century, included this vivid poem to the dancing Shiva in his final book, Island.

Up here, you ask me,
Up here aloft where Shiva
Dances above the world,
What the devil do you think I'm doing?

No answer, friend---except
That hawk below us is turning,
Those black and arrowy swifts
Trailing long silver wires across the air---
The shrillness of their crying.

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How far, you say, from the hot plains,
How far, reproachfully, from all my people!
And yet how close! For here between the cloudy
Sky and sea below, suddenly visible,
I read their luminous secret and my own.

O you the creator, you the destroyer, you who sustain and make an end,
Who in sunlight dance among the birds and the children at their play,
Who at midnight dance among corpses in the burning grounds,
You Shiva, you dark and terrible Bhairava,
You Suchness and Illusion, the Void and All Things,
You are the lord of life, and therefore I have brought you flowers;
You are the lord of death, and therefore I have brought you my heart---
This heart that is now your burning ground.
Ignorance there and self shall be consumed by with fire.
That you may dance, Bhairava, among the ashes.
That you may dance, Lord Shiva, in a place of flowers,
And I dance with you.

Huxley’s evident infatuation with the dancing Nataraja is traceable to his involvement in the Perennialist movement, a philosophical tradition partly based on the work of one Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy.

Ananda Coomaraswamy in 2016. (Alvin Coburn Langdon/Wiki Commons) Ananda Coomaraswamy in 2016. (Alvin Coburn Langdon/Wiki Commons)

Few Indians today remember this great man, perhaps the most influential historian of Indian art in the modern era. Born to a Sri Lankan Tamil father, Sir Muthu Coomaraswamy, and his English wife Elizabeth, the young Coomaraswamy was educated in England. He was a much-married man (four wives of three different nationalities, to be exact). His last two wives were nearly three decades his junior at the time of marriage.

It’s often the case that the most colourful characters are also the most gifted, and Coomaraswamy was no exception – extraordinarily well-read, very intelligent, and able to see things that his contemporaries simply could not.

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Coomaraswamy achieved fame as the curator of Indian art at the Boston Museum of Fine Art. He was responsible for disseminating the understanding of the dance of Shiva as primarily a symbolism of movement and activity. It was certainly a catchy interpretation – the dancing god, always moving, as a representation of the eternal movement of everything in the universe. A statue, the epitome of permanence, to represent impermanence.

In the twenty-first century, with its zeitgeist of postmodernism and deconstruction, this interpretation achieved even wider acceptance. As science geeks know, at The European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, in Geneva stands a beautiful Nataraja, a gift of the Indian government in 2004. The plaque beneath it states that the “dance” of subatomic particles that physicists observe has parallels in Indian philosophy, where the creation, movement, and dissolution of everything in the universe is considered the dance of Shiva.

In spite of the popularity of the movement metaphor, it is worth wondering – is that all there is to the Nataraja?

My eyes have always been drawn to the little demon being crushed under Nataraja’s foot. A short, chubby figure with a coarse face, like a baby with a man’s head.

His name is Apasmara.

Apasmara (Hinduwebsite.com) Apasmara (Hinduwebsite.com)
Apasmara (Vassil/Wiki Commons) Apasmara (Vassil/Wiki Commons)

In my view, he is the focus of the Nataraja statue.

Apasmara is generally translated as “ignorance” in English descriptions of the Nataraja statue. But look closer at its etymology – from the Sanskrit roots “apa”, meaning negation, and “smara”, meaning memory or recollection (as in Smarana and Smriti).

I think you’ll agree with me when I say that “Apasmara” translates better as “loss of recollection”.

Here’s where the fascinating part starts. Apasmara is also the Sanskrit term for epilepsy, the medical term for what we call “fits” or seizures.

Now, why would the ancients have picked Apasmara as the name for epilepsy?

Because, speaking as a neurologist, the most striking feature of a seizing patient is how they suddenly disengage from the world – they forget who and where they are. And when the seizure is over, they usually have no recollection of what just happened.

Apasmara was one of the eight mahagada, or dreadful diseases, in Ayurveda, and, in my opinion, for good reason.

The first time you see a seizing patient, it sears itself into your memory. I went quite far into my medical training before I actually saw one seizing in front of me.

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I can remember it crystal clear, like it happened yesterday. I was alone, doing a night shift, and one of the nurses called me saying that this patient had started seizing! What did I want her to do?

I had read all about seizures in my textbooks, I knew exactly what medications to use to stop them, but nothing could have prepared me for the sight I was about to see.

I ran into the room and there was this elderly lady lying in her bed, going into what we call a full-blown “Grand mal” seizure. Her eyes rolled to the left, her mouth open, spit dribbling down her face, her arms and legs rhythmically jerking. She wasn’t responding to anything we did, and the stench in the room suggested that she had lost control of her bowels and bladder.

The reason a seizure is so striking is that for its duration, you see the animal that hides behind the human.

The healthy brain maintains a neat, manicured appearance, like the well-mowed lawns you see in wealthy American suburbs. It hides most of its functioning from public view, like a pretty girl who will never admit to digging her nose.

In a seizing patient, though, the pretence breaks down. The purdah parts, and for a brief interlude you see the raw power of the brain. The feeling you get watching it is difficult to describe – it is a combination of terrifying fear and stunned admiration. Perhaps the word ‘awe’ comes closest to describing it.

The scales fall from your eyes, and you see that you, your patient, the nurses, everyone you’ve ever known is nothing but a bag of flesh and bones under the dictatorial command of the nervous system. Your hand moves because your brain’s motor cortex makes it. Your bowels stay continent because there are neurons that ensure they stay that way. Your eyes swivel to follow a moving cricket ball because at the back of your brain is a complicated network that controls every little twitch they make with millimeter precision.

This is a child having what are called Absence seizures. As the name implies, the patient appears to be “absent” from reality for a few seconds.

The EEG, a monitor of brain activity, during a seizure. In the left and right corners of the EEG tracing is the normal functioning of the brain. In the center is the rhythmic activity that characterizes a seizure. (www. epilepsydiagnosis.org) The EEG, a monitor of brain activity, during a seizure. In the left and right corners of the EEG tracing is the normal functioning of the brain. In the center is the rhythmic activity that characterizes a seizure. (www. epilepsydiagnosis.org)

It is perhaps this ripping away of artifice to reveal the deeper mechanisms that lie within that led so many cultures to ascribe divine attributes to epilepsy. The Aztecs thought epilepsy was caused by and also cured by Goddess Tlazolteotl, the deity of fertile, dark earth, who gains energy from death and then feeds life. She was the embodiment of fertility, the goddess of garbage who turned refuse into life. Reminiscent of our own Kali Ma in many ways. The early Greeks too considered epilepsy “sacred”, and, in fact, one of the best-known texts of the Hippocratic corpus of works is titled On the Sacred Disease. The author, alleged to be Hippocrates (though some modern scholars consider this dubious), argues against the “sacredness” of the disease, and says it is all about phlegm flowing from the brain into the veins.

Now, the brain performs many functions – vision, sensation, taste, smell, hearing, and so on. If it were just that people were assigning sacredness to every disease of the nervous system, then blindness, deafness, lack of smell, and every other sort of brain disorder would have been considered sacred. But they’re not.

Why epilepsy alone?

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I think it has to do with the link between epilepsy and memory.

Memory is what links our existence from second to second. Memory provides us with a sense of continuity, a perception of an enduring self, and gives meaning to what would otherwise be seemingly random events (as so viscerally depicted in the movie Ghajini).

The link between epilepsy and memory goes beyond the mere fact that many people do not recollect having a seizure. The most common form of epilepsy in adults is called temporal lobe epilepsy, so named because it originates in the temporal lobes of the brain, which lie near your ears. Fascinatingly, the temporal lobes are also the seat of memory. Each temporal lobe contains a maddeningly complex and beautiful structure known as the hippocampus, which undergoes constant change as memories are encoded. The hippocampus is thus ground zero for the intersection of mind and brain, of the environment and the organism, as memories are etched into its structure like a DVD. It is suspected that this immense mutability of the structure of the hippocampus is what predisposes its neurons to fire abnormally, and become seeds for seizures.

The hippocampus in the brain, depicted in orange, is the seat of memory. (<a href="http://newsroom.cumc.columbia.edu/blog/2012/08/30/how-ptsd-impairs-learning-and-memory/">Columbia University Irving Medical Centre</a>) The hippocampus in the brain, depicted in orange, is the seat of memory. (Columbia University Irving Medical Centre)
The hippocampus has an intricate, maddeningly complex architecture, which allows it the flexibility needed to rapidly encode memories. It is suspected that this intricacy also predisposes it to seize. Temporal lobe epilepsy, a medical term for seizures originating close to the hippocampus, is the most common seizure disorder in adults. (<a href="http://www.sci-news.com/biology/science-false-memories-mice-01260.html">Sci News</a>) The hippocampus has an intricate, maddeningly complex architecture, which allows it the flexibility needed to rapidly encode memories. It is suspected that this intricacy also predisposes it to seize. Temporal lobe epilepsy, a medical term for seizures originating close to the hippocampus, is the most common seizure disorder in adults. (Sci News)

To me, this suggests that the primary meaning of the Nataraja statue was that Shiva was the deity who helped you not forget.

Forget what, exactly?

Here is where I began to appreciate the beauty of the philosophical tradition named Kashmiri Shaivism, and its concept of Pratyabhijna. Pratyabhijna means recognition. As in re-cognition – remembering something which you already knew but had temporarily forgotten. And what you have forgotten, according to Kashmiri Shaivism, is the knowledge of the self. In their philosophy, your inner consciousness or self is of the nature of Shiva. Their concept of divinity was the conscious self within each of us, which was identical with the universe as it existed.

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In essence, my interpretation of the Nataraja would be that it is telling us that most “unawakened” people are living their entire lives as though in a continuous seizure. Ever forgetful, caught up in the machinations and worries and ruminations of everyday life.

Postscript: The other Chidambaram Rahasya

Although many variations of the Nataraja exist, the best-known is based upon the deity of the Thillai Nataraja temple in Tamil Nadu, in the town of Thillai, otherwise known as Chidambaram. It was built by the Chola emperors, who considered Nataraja their kula devata.

The presiding deity of the Thillai Nataraja temple at Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu, one of the grandest living Chola temples, is the source of the most popular Nataraja representation. The presiding deity of the Thillai Nataraja temple at Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu, one of the grandest living Chola temples, is the source of the most popular Nataraja representation.

Padma Kaimal, a historian of Indian art trained at the University of California at Berkeley, argued that it was impossible to conclusively determine what the creators of the Nataraja statue intended to represent.

However, there’s an interesting little factoid about the Chidambaram Nataraja that convinces me that my interpretation is on the ball.

The Chidambaram deity is also known as “Sabesan” – a shortened version of the phrase “sabayil aadum eesan”. This is a Tamil phrase, but Sanskrit-heavy. Sabayil – in the sabha; aadum – who dances; eesan – ishwara/deity.

So the Nataraja is described as the ishwara who dances in the sabha.

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Sabha usually refers to dais, or stage, or hall. What’s interesting about the Chidambaram Nataraja temple is that the sanctum sanctorum is referred to as “Chit Sabha”. Chit, as you may know, means consciousness or awareness. So the Chidambaram Nataraja is the deity who dances in the hall of consciousness.

The Chidambaram temple has nine gateways, possibly meant to represent the nine gateways of the human body – one mouth, two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, anus, and genitals. One writer claims that the Chit Sabha has five pillars, to represent the five senses, and that the number of tiles on the roof of the sabha is supposed to correspond to the number of breaths a person takes in a day.

It does seem likely, then, that the Chidambaram Nataraja temple is intended as a representation of the human body – a representation of ‘you’.

Nataraja stands within you, in the hall of your consciousness, holding down Apasmara, the embodiment of your forgetfulness. Nataraja’s grace is meant to save you from forgetting your true nature, so you may come out of the seizure-like condition that is the fate of most people’s daily lives.

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