Dance, like all other art forms, is universally regarded as a channel for both cultural and self-expression. As a form of cultural expression, dance is often used to dramatize cultural myths, legends, and other narratives. In contrast, dance as a method of self-expression is used to spontaneously communicate human emotions such as joy, sorrow, anger, love, eroticism, and sexual desire. Dance, for the followers of Hinduism, is no different in so much that it is widely practiced as an outlet for self-expression, and for the purpose of preserving Hindu religion and culture. However, the meaning of dance holds a much deeper significance for Hindus beyond just cultural and self-expression. For, it plays a key role in religious ritual and worship, a practice that stems from Hinduism's conceptualization of the dance form as symbolic of the cosmic dance of the universe. Indeed, it is the religion's concept of dance that explains its promotion of the art form as one way of experiencing the ecstasy and bliss of being united with the Divine or Absolute Reality.
Hinduism's conceptualization of the art of dance is, in fact, embodied in the dancing images of several Hindu Gods such as Siva, Krisna, and Durga (also known as Sakti or Kali)
. An understanding of these images, however, is best gained through correlating these images to Hindu theology, which sees God as an omnipresent cosmic power behind all creation, salvation and destruction. This central doctrine holds true whether it is expressed as Brahman (the Absolute Reality); the "Trimurti" of Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Siva (the destroyer); or in the more monotheistic Saivite and Vaishnavite traditions. However, perhaps Hindu theology is best understood as it is expressed by the dancing image of Siva, or Nataraja, the Lord of Dance.
According to Ananda Coomaraswamy, regarded as one of the foremost modern ambassadors of Indian thought, the "Dancing Sivan" or Nataraja symbolizes the fact that
"dancing came into being at the beginning of all things, and was brought to light together with Eros, that ancient one, for we see this primeval dancing clearly set forth in the choral dance of the constellations, and in the planets and fixed stars, their interweaving and interchange and orderly harmony .... Whatever the origins of Siva's dance, it became in time the clearest image of the activity of God which any art or religion can boast of ...." (Younger, p. 226)
The "Dancing Sivan," however, symbolizes much more than just the dance of creation. For, the overall image of Siva as the Lord of Dance expounds on Hinduism's idea of Nature as a cyclical process of creation and destruction.
Indeed, the purpose of Siva's dance is twofold. Either he dances the ananda tandndava (Younger, p. 3) in the joy of overflowing power, dancing creation into existence, or he dances the Tandava dance of destruction (Zaehner, p. 85; Brockington, p. 72). Thus, it is evident that Hinduism saw the art form of dance as symbolic of the cosmic power underlying the natural processes of creation, being, and dying. In fact, it is largely this worldview that served as the foundation for the Hindu belief that ultimate bliss lies in union with the Divine Reality, which is only possible through moksha or liberation from the endless dance of life and death.
Although Hinduism's philosophy of dance is grounded in the theology of the religion, it began to be known as a way of expressing devotion and even experiencing the ecstasy of union with the Divine reality only post the rise of the bhakti movement in the seventh century (Brockington, p. 130). In fact, dance and music became a method of expressing a direct and personal relationship with God through a devotee abandoning consciousness and the self in the joy and energy generated in dancing (Brockington, p. 133; Younger, p. 74; Zaehner, p. 134, 138). The bhakti movement undoubtedly played a definite role in encouraging this practice since the movement itself was propagated through the medium of song and dance.
Indeed, the role of the bhakti movement in promoting dance as a form of worship and religious ritual can be traced back to its very beginnings in South India with the development of the Saivite tradition, which expounded the meaning and virtues of worshipping Siva, the Lord of Dance (Zaehner, p. 85-91). Since Siva traditionally symbolized the transcendation of virtually all polarities in existence such as good and evil, life and death, the ascetic and the erotic, the masculine and feminine principles in Nature, the Saivites propounded that there was no distinction between liberation and creativity (Brockington, p. 72; Zaehner, p. 87). Therefore, the way to moksha lay in immersing the self in devotion to the Divine, which could be achieved through singing hymns and performing dances in praise of the Lord.
The Saivite movement's promotion of dance as a form of religious worship and experience is, in fact, amply evident in the images and legends housed in the temple of the "Dancing Sivan" in Citamparam. For instance, the renowned Saivite saint, Tirumular, is said to have seen the five stages in the cycle of cosmic ordering as the dance of Siva whirled through what he saw as discrete moments of creation, preservation, destruction, quiet, and gracious recreation. Later saints are said to have interpreted the space or vast emptiness surrounding the dancing figure as representative of the human heart in which the divine dances freely even as the surrounding circle of the material body encloses it (Younger, p. 74). These and related interpretations led to the Saivites advocating the necessity of worshipping with the mind since Siva resides in the hearts of those who fix their minds on him in loving contemplation (Brockington, p. 131; Zaehner, p. 88-89). With such interpretations, it is hardly surprising that the bhakti movement propagated dance as a method of imitating and thereby experiencing Divine Reality or bliss.
The emphasis on bhakti (devotion) by the Saivite movement led to the promotion of the ancient Bharata Natyasastra (now known as Bharatnatyam), and the ritual practice of dance, which was inculcated through both wandering minstrels as well as temple dancers, known as devadasis or tevatacis (Younger, p. 88, 121). The Saivite movement was, however, not alone in the promotion of dance as a method of expressing devotion to God. For, the Vaishnavite movement, which developed almost simultaneously, equally stressed on the personal relationship between devotee and deity, and the importance of surrendering the self in wholehearted devotion (Brockington, p. 132-133).
Interestingly, both the Saivites and the Vaishnavites stressed on devotion as a divine love affair with God (Zaehner, p. 127; Brockington, p. 133, 168). Thus, devotees were encouraged to engage themselves in the contemplation of God through the sexual energy generated by the act of dancing. Through this, it was believed that the devotee would realize the significance of Siva and Sakti (his eternal consort), or the masculine and feminine principles in Nature, being eternally united by love (Zaehner, p. 83, 89). Similarly, the Vaishnavites urged Krisna (an incarnation of Lord Vishnu) followers to imagine themselves as one of Krisna's gopis (wives of the cowherds) enjoying Krisna's sweetness, happiness, and ecstasy or nightly lila (Brockington, p. 168). Since Lord Krisna was famous for the love he shared with his gopis, which he expressed through the circular dance of love, it was very easy for the Vaishnavites to instill the practice of dance as a form of worship. For, all they had to do was ask their followers to live out the gopis experience of God's love by seeing God as the male and the soul as female (Zaehner, p. 127).
Thus, the Saivite and Vaishnavite movements led to Hinduism seeing dance as an intensely religious and mystical experience. Since music and dance have always…