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From Spectator to Dancer: Performance Metaphor and the Quest for Knowledge in India
Aleksandra Wenta: FIND Grantee and researcher in Indology and Tibetology at Oxford University
I am a spectator, so to speak, of the molecular whirlwind which men call individual life; I am conscious of an incessant metamorphosis, an irresistible movement of existence, which is going on within me – and this phenomenology of myself serves as a window opened upon the mystery of the world. I am, or rather my sensible consciousness is, concentrated upon this ideal standing-point, this invisible threshold, as it were, whence one hears the impetuous passage of time, rushing and foaming as it flows out into the changeless ocean of eternity.
Henri Frederic Amiel
In general, Indian philosophy, viewed through the lens of performance metaphor, is recognized as a theory of the spectator open to a variety of subject positions vis-à-vis the empirical world, or, in other words, different positions between the centre and the periphery. In the field of Indian philosophy, the performance paradigm rests upon a conceptual system that sees the enacted form of knowledge as being both internally patterned in one’s own experience as jīva and as part of a larger metaphysical entity, Brahman or Śiva. The Brāhmaṇical philosophies of Advaita Vedānta and Sāṃkhya account for the ironic distance that separates the spectator from the phenomenal world of experience. The Brāhmaṇical spectator (sākṣin) is the ascetic, solitary, immobile and desireless seer who puts into practice the theory of a purely passive spectator and its metaphysical unrelatedness to the phenomenal world. Here, an event of saving knowledge or liberation is equated with the isolation and authority of a spectator position, presupposing enstatic absorption. By contrast, Kashmiri Śaivism replaces spectator-consciousness with dancer-body-consciousness, whose agency is recognised as a performative modality of life-experience. For Kashmiri Śaivites, he who attains the coveted status of liberation-while-alive dances the world and this dance is conveyed by the image of Śiva-the-dancer. This, in turn, represents both enstatic and ecstatic forms of knowledge.
The Solitary Spectator as the Soteriological Goal in Indian Philosophy
The philosophical speculation of the Upaniṣads, the earliest texts of which were composed between 700 and 300 BCE, saw renewed interest in the theme of ‘seeing’. For example, in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (IV.1.5), Yajñavalkya attributes truth-value to ‘sight’ when he tells Janaka: “Sight is ‘being truth’ – its quality of being truth (satyatā) is shown by the fact that when they say to one who sees ‘Have you seen’ and he says ‘I have seen’ – that is truth” (1). This ‘sight’ has nothing to do with the outer sight of naïve realism expounded by Nyāya that makes sense-object-contact (sannikarṣa) central to perception. On the contrary, the Upaniṣads’ special emphasis is on the supra-sensory character of ‘seeing’ which belongs to the self (ātman). The ātman, conceived of as indwelling intelligence, immortal, an inner controller beyond the cognizance of the senses, is the Seer. The Katha Upaniṣad (IV.2) makes an even stronger claim of this ‘inner sight’ located beyond the cognizance of the senses, when it declares:
It is generally agreed that the emergence of Upaniṣadic teachings marked the beginning of a concept of world-renouncer (3) (saṃnyāsin, parivrājaka, bhikṣu), a spiritual ideal that presupposed turning away from the impurity of the material body and the senses to the inner purity of the heart where ‘seeing’ with the inner eye took place. This inner vision promoted by the Upaniṣads became the soteriological goal not only of Brāhmaṇism, but also of Indian philosophy as a whole, insofar as it laid the foundation for the ‘epistemology of religious experience’ (Forsthoefel 2002), firmly rooted in the self-realization of [in]sight. In the words of Bina Gupta (1995:28),
Even though this statement surely applies to Indian philosophy as a whole, nevertheless, nowhere does inward perception play so central a role in the soteriological metaphysics as in the Advaita Vedānta promulgated primarily by Śaṅkara (8th century), its greatest exponent. It was in the Advaita Vedānta (the system typically regarded as the most direct continuation of Upaniṣadic thought) that still nascent ideas concerning ‘inner seeing’ recorded in the Upaniṣads were developed as the key theoretical concept of ‘witness’ or ‘observer’ (sākṣin). For classical Advaita Vedānta – a form of idealist monism – the supreme principle, brahman/ātman (4), is defined as existence, pure consciousness and bliss. Brahman/ātman is eternal, one without any second, which consequently transcends the empirical level without undergoing any change, even though it is non-different from the embodied individual (jīva). Brahman/ātman is further characterized as pure and immobile, as it exists for and in itself, free from any direct involvement or relationship with the empirical level of experience. The ontological status of sheer disengagement from the world of ignorance (avidyā) and false appearances (māyā) makes brahman/ātman a non-agent and a non-experiencer, a mere witness. Brahman/ātman’s presence is thus attested by the fact that it possesses the characteristic of all-witness (sarvasākṣin), which is a ‘form reflexivity, that is neutral to the event occurrence’ (5). In the words of Śaṅkara,
As Bina Gupta explains, ‘etymologically “sākṣin” refers to a witness in the sense of the phenomenologically pure observer, the observer who observes without bringing anything to the observation. It signifies seeing without being the agent of the act under consideration. Its interests are not involved in what occurs. It signifies the self, which though not itself involved in the cognitive process, functions as a disinterested, uninvolved onlooker or witness-consciousness’ (7). The soteriological goal of jīva is to attain the status of a pure observer who is characterized by ‘unconditioned reflexivity that remains at the end of stripping away of contingent individuation’ (8). It takes place by cancelling epistemic failure (avidyā). Central to this account is the concept of “disinterested witness” (Gupta), which is explicated in terms of the non-agency of the self, assuming the form of a passive spectator. In the Advaita Vedānta, the notion of ‘agency’ is confined to the manner in which the embodied individual (jīva) engages in sensory experience, prompting the arousal of desire and attachment that leads to suffering (duḥkha). However, this suffering is not presupposed in the ontological status of the embodied individual, which undermines its value as a person (for according to the monistic view of Advaita Vedānta there is no ontological difference between jīva and brahman/ātman), but in the epistemic failure that causes erroneous identification of the jīva with the psychophysical mind-body apparatus. Due to this epistemic failure, the jīva identifies itself with contingent features of individuated experiences that exist in conformity with the primary axiom of ‘agency’. On account of being an agent the jīva is held in bondage and ignorance. Śaṅkara’s ‘saving knowledge’ of a spectator is clearly located outside the body and the senses, in the realm of solitary, disembodied awareness (aśārīracit), static and desireless. The idea of liberation promoted here in fact replaces the agency pertaining to the embodied individual (jīva) with the non-agency of the true self (brahman/ātman) assuming the form of a static witness.
‘Dancer’ as Jīvanmukta: An Example of Kashmir Śaivism
By contrast, tantric traditions, such as so-called Kashmiri Śaivism, replace spectator-consciousness with dancer-body-consciousness, whose agency as a performative modality of life-experience is recognized. For Kashmiri Śaivites, one attains the coveted status of liberation-while-living dances the world and this dance is conveyed by the image of Śiva-the-dancer. The celebrated passage of the Śivasūtras says:
The stage (which is the body) is the inner Self.
The senses are the spectators (of his dancing).
The cognition (of such a yogī) is pure.
Therefore, the State of Being Totally Free (svatantrabhāva) is achieved.
As he can manifest Freedom in his own body, so can he elsewhere. (9)
By applying the ‘dance metaphor’ to refer to the highest degree of spiritual fulfilment, Kashmiri Śaivites pass beyond the Self-body dichotomy, as well as the antonyms of the transcendent and the immanent. Thus, unlike earlier traditions that stressed liberation at the expense of the body, Kashmiri Śaivism attempts to override the stereotype of world-denial and understand liberation as life and as the process of living, which is of an essentially aesthetic nature. The ‘dance metaphor’ perfectly supports this new model of understanding, for it epitomizes the centrality of the playful Self existing in intricate unity with the aesthetic body. The principle strength of the Kashmiri Śaiva argument is the idea that the body is ontologically identical with the Self. This argument is reinforced by Kṣemarāja (11th century) who in his commentary (vimarśinī) on the verses of the Śivasūtras says: “the place where the Self-the Dancer takes delight with the intention of performing the world-dance is the stage […]. The stage which consists of subtle and gross body is the inner Self. Having planted his feet on that stage of the inner Self, this Dancer (the Self) displays the world-dance by means of the active movements of his sense-organs” (10). What we have here is the analogy between the Dancer and the jīvanmukta founded on the adaptation of Bharata’s rasa theory as expounded in his Naṭyaśāstra. Bharata distinguished between ordinary, personal emotive states (bhāvas) and universalized, transpersonal aesthetic emotions (rasas). Rasa literally ‘flavour’, ‘savour’, ‘liquid essence’, ‘sentiment’ is a technical term in aesthetic theory (11), depicting transpersonal aesthetic emotion, but the Kashmiri Śaiva masters often adopt aesthetic terminology to describe spiritual experience (12). Rasa is one of these aesthetic terms most frequently used to depict the liquid essence of pure consciousness (cid-rasa), savoured by a jīvanmukta. In the case of an experienced dancer, rasa is the outcome of developed artistic skills through which he projects a specific kind of transpersonal emotion or the essence of feelings related to particular situations he creates (13). In the case of a jīvanmukta, the experience of rasa is brought out in the spiritual experience from which he extracts the aesthetic emotion (rasa) of each emotive state (bhāva) he encounters. This capacity to extract the rasa is connected with the ability to assume every state of being. In addition, the ability to extract rasa is strictly linked to the proclivities of the senses. It is again the psycho-physical mind-body complex inhabited by the sensory faculties that becomes the only warrant of aesthetic-cum-religious experience. Thus, in the commentary on the stanza: “the senses are the spectators (of his dancing),” Kṣemarāja explains, thus: the senses, like the eye, etc. are the spectators, for they actively view the cosmic dance of the Self, savouring aesthetic emotions (rasa) of the pure consciousness that pours through the vision of universal oneness. They provide jīvanmukta with the fullness of aesthetic wonder (camatkāra) (14) in which the sense of difference has disappeared.” (15)
Kashmiri Śaivism integrates the theory of rasa into a systematic account of embodied liberation (jīvanmukti), characterized as the ultimate form of empowerment (parasiddhi). In doing so, Kashmiri Śaiva masters argue that embodied liberation depends on the process of aesthetic transformation in which the entire psycho-physical mind-body complex becomes metaphorically transformed into fundamental components of dance-performance: Self becomes the Dancer, the body converts into the stage, and the senses turn into the spectators. Moreover, all these components partake as fully as possible in bringing about the aesthetic experience (rasa) characterized by wonder. The jīvanmukta dances on the stage of his own body savouring aesthetic emotions (rasa) through the expanded fund of his own senses. This total transformation of the ordinary body into its aesthetic equivalent results in total freedom, which is nothing else but realization of one’s own body as the cosmic body. Liberation in Kashmiri Śaivism, then, can be seen as recognition of one’s own ordinary, karmic body as the aesthetic body of the Dancer that involves expanding one’s own body to include the whole universe. For such a yogī, everything appears as Śiva’s play, according to the stanza of the Spandakarikā: ‘he who has this realization (of his identity with the whole universe), being constantly united with the Divine, views the entire world as the play (kṛiḍā) of the Self identical with Śiva, and is liberated while alive’ (16).
In a highly original formulation of embodied liberation, Kashmiri Śaivites incorporated the principle of enjoyment (bhoga) to constitute the essence of freedom (17). It was, in part, an effort to lend conceptual specificity to the experiential dimension of liberation advocating blissful adoration of life engaging the body. As a result, enjoyment came to be exalted as concomitant with spiritual perfection, and sensual pleasure — though filtered through aesthetic discourse of rasa theory — was inexorably equated with religious experience.
Reflecting on systems of Indian religio-philosophical speculation vis-à-vis Kashmiri Śaivism and pursuing this reflection within the conceptual framework that appropriates the “performance metaphor”, we may notice two different directions in which such contemplation takes us, that of the spectator and that of the dancer. These two paths, which can be further classified as Brāhmaṇical (adhering to Vedic revelation) and non-Brāhmaṇical (rejecting the authority of the Vedas) hardly ever intersect and therefore conform to different epistemological and ontological conditions. The ‘spectator’ and the ‘dancer’ thus come to represent competing paradigms of the Indian quest for knowledge. With regard to the ‘spectator’, Indian tradition classifies two different adaptations of ‘seeing’. The first, represented by the philosophical schools of Sāṃkhya-Yoga and Advaita Vedānta, locates the act of bearing witness in the context of solitary disengagement from the world, as contemplative en-stasis, as non-agential passivity, and finally as the desirelessness of the disinterested spectator (sākṣin), founded on a wider Brāhmaṇical paradigm of restraint and ascetic denial. At the other end of the spectrum is the tantric tradition of Kashmir Śaivism that brings into vivid focus an acute critique of the Brāhmaṇical concept of the passive spectator and puts forward a more dynamic model of the ‘dancer’ whose conceptualization is largely influenced by aesthetic theories.
(1) Cf. Witz, G. Klaus, The Supreme Wisdom of the Upanisads, p. 230.
(2) Kaṭha Upaniṣad 4.2., tr. P. Olivelle
(3) Black, Brian, The Character of the Self in Ancient India, SUNY Press, New York 2007, p.95.
(4) In the Advaita Vedānta, brahman is the supreme reality, the universal consciousness-spirit, while ātman is the pure self, identical with brahman.
(5) Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, Knowledge and Liberation in Classical Indian Thought, London: Palgrave 2001, p.166.
(6) Śaṅkara, Brhadāraṇyaka upaniṣadbhāṣya I.4.10, Anandashrama Sanskrit Series, Poona 1914 I.4.10, pp.161-6, quoted in Ram Prasad 2001:171.
(7) Gupta, Bina, The Disinterested Witness: A Fragment of Advaita Vedānta Phenomenology, p.4.
(8) Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, Knowledge and Liberation in Classical Indian Thought, London: Palgrave 2001, p.168.
(9) Singh, Śivasūtras, pp. 152-161.
(10) Singh, Śivasūtras, p.155.
(11) Ruth Katz; Arvind Sharma, ‘The Aesthetics of Abhinavagupta’, British Journal of Aesthetics 17 (3): 259-265, 1977.
(12) For relations between aesthetic savouring (rasāsvāda) and mystical experience (brahmāsvāda), see Gerow E, Indian Poetics, Weisbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1977.
(13) Bhāskara’s argument that locates the experience of rasa in the dancer seems to follow the main thesis of Bhaṭṭa Lollaṭa (9th century) who was the first commentator on Bharata’s Naṭyaśāstra. According to Bhaṭṭa Lollaṭa “rasa is located in both the original character (anukārya) and also in the performer (anukartarī), due to the power of congruous connection (anusandhāna)”. Due to anusandhāna the performer becomes emotionally identified with the role. This argument is against Abhinavagupta’s contention arguing that the performer is too involved in imitating the character to have the experience of rasa. According to Abhinavagupta, rasa requires the proper “artistic distance” that is possible only for the spectator. Cf. Haberman L. David, Acting as a Way of Salvation, p.23-4.
(14) Rasa and camatkāra are closely related. These two technical terms borrowed from Indian aesthetics are the warp and woof of Kashmiri Śaiva spiritual experience. The term camatkāra has a much more extensive application in Kashmiri Śaiva metaphysics where it becomes synonymous with the aestheticism of the spiritual experience conveyed by terms such as: enjoyment (nirveśa), relish (rasanā), taste (āsvāda), eating (bhoga), completion (samāpatti), rest (laya), repose (viśrānti).
(15) Śivasūtras with Kṣemarāja’s commentary, Singh, p. 157.
(16) Spandakarikā, 2.2. Singh, p. 119.
(17) According to the view of the Pratyabhijñāhṛdaya, quoted by Maheśvarānanda in his Mahārthamañjarī, a direct experience of fusion of both enjoyment (bhoga) and liberation (mokṣa) is the condition of liberation while living. Stanza 52.
– Black, Brian. 2007. The Character of the Self in Ancient India, New York: SUNY Press.
– Chakravarthi, Ram-Prasad. 2001. Knowledge and Liberation in Classical Indian Thought, London: Palgrave.
– Gerow, Edwin. 1977. Indian Poetics, Weisbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
– Gupta, Bina. 1998. The Disinterested Witness: A Fragment of Advaita Vedānta Phenomenology, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
– Haberman, L. David. 2001. Acting as a Way of Salvation: A Study of Rāgānugā Bhakti Sādhana, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
– Kaṭha Upaniṣad, in: Upaniṣads, tr. P. Olivelle, London: Oxford University Press, 1996. – Katz, Ruth & Sharma, Arvind, ‘The Aesthetics of Abhinavagupta’, British Journal of Aesthetics 17 (3): 259-265, 1977.
– Maheśvarānanda. 1972. Mahārthamañjarī, edited by Vrajavallabha Dvivedi. YTGM No. 5. Varanasi: Sampurnanandaviśvavidyālaya.
– Śaṅkara. 1914. Brhadāraṇyaka upaniṣadbhāṣya, Poona: Anandashrama Sanskrit Series.
– Singh, Jaideva. 2006. Śivasūtras: The Yoga of Supreme Identity, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
– Singh, Jaideva. 2007. Spandakarikās: The Divine Pulsation, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
– Witz, G. Klaus. 1998. The Supreme Wisdom of the Upanisads, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.