Traditional Indian Dance and Its Unbreakable Link to the Divine

Indian classical dances are deeply linked to the divine. (Image: Raj441977  via  wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)
Indian classical dances are deeply linked to the divine. (Image: Raj441977 via wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)

Indian traditional dance has always been linked to divinity. In fact, it would be difficult to separate the divine from Indian classical dances since almost every one of them has a devotion to a particular god or goddess as part of their art form.    

Tandava

Tandava is said to be the form of dance performed by Hindu god Shiva that is the trigger behind the creation and destruction of the universe. When in his violent nature, the dance is called “Rudra” Tandava and in the joyful state, it is called “Ananda” Tandava.

One of the most popular iconographies of Indian art is a statue of Nataraja (a name for Shiva) that depicts him in a dance posture in the midst of universal creation and dissolution. Shiva is also the God of yoga. There is a story of how Patanjali ended up writing the Yoga Sutra, which is considered as the bible for yoga practitioners.

The Nataraja statue depicting a Tandava pose. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

The Nataraja statue depicting a Tandava pose. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

As a young man, Patanjali performed intense meditation for a chance to witness the dance of Lord Shiva. Pleased by his commitment, the Lord promised the yogi that he would reveal his dance. And in a golden theater filled with sages and wise men, Patanjali witnessed the dance of Lord Shiva, accompanied by celestial music.

“The great tandava starts with a slow rhythm and in time reaches its crescendo. Engrossed completely in the divine dance, the great sages lose their separate identities and merge with the great oneness created by the tandava,” says the book Yoga for the Three Stages of Life (Yoga Journal). At the end of the dance, Shiva asks Patanjali to write the Yoga Sutra.

Shiva has a wife named Parvati who also dances in a form called the “Lasya.” While Tandava focuses on grand, wide movements, Lasya is gentler and sometimes even erotic. As such, scholars generally consider Lasya the female version of Tandava.  

Rasa Lila

Another popular God in Hinduism is Lord Krishna, said to be the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Krishna is often associated with love and the arts. Unsurprisingly, there is also a dance form that revolves around devotion to Lord Krishna called the ‘”Rasa Lila.” The term “Rasa” means “aesthetics” and “Lila” means “play.” As such, “Rasa Lila” essentially means the “play of aesthetics” or popularly called the “Dance of Divine Love.” 

Krishna and Radha dancing the Rasalila. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Krishna and Radha dancing the Rasa Lila. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

“Shri Krishna performed the Rasa Lila to destroy carnality by means of pure love or prema. When the gopis (cow herding girls) 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, the 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,” according to YogaMag.

In the Bhakti traditions of Hinduism, which refers to the devotional aspect of the faith, Rasa Lila is regarded as one of the most esoteric and highest forms of God’s pastimes. In mythology, the Rasa Lila takes place in a single night when Krishna plays his flute and stretches the time to 4.32 billion years! Rasa Lila is the foundation on which other Indian classical dance forms like Kathak have evolved.

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