Dancing for Balram


Published in Speaking Tree, April 07, 2013

In Puri temple of Orissa, there is a secret ritual that is no longer performed. It was popular in the times when deva-dasis thrived in the temple complex. In the temple tradition, Balaram is celibate (in Puranic literature he has a wife called Revati) and associated with Shiva. At the height of summer, the deva-dasi enters the innermost shrine and the door is shut behind her. She then disrobes and dances solely for his pleasure through out the night. No one really knows what really happens as it takes place in privacy and secrecy. But the underlying idea is one of seduction – to break the resolve of the hermit. To release the heat of his body. For when that happens, summer passes and the rains arrive.

The association of summer and drought with extreme asceticism recurs in many Hindu stories. When there is drought in the kingdom of Anga, the king sends his daughter and many courtesans to seduce Rishyashringa, a celibate monk who has never seen women in his life. In Buddhist scriptures, it is said his celibacy gave him so much power that he could paralyze Indra, and stop him from striking rain clouds with his thunderbolt. He did this because a thunderclap frightened him. As a result of his curse, the rains stopped and there was drought. The only way to reverse the situation was by seducing him. This very same sage is invited by Dashrath to perform the yagna that will make his wives pregnant. Thus the heat of the ascetic causes drought as well as barrenness.

What is this heat we are referring to? The common word of it is tapa – mental fire that burns without any fuel. To churn tapa, we have to do tapasya. Tapasya involves restraining the senses, which means celibacy. Sexual energy is lost not just through sex but through any sensory activity. When sensory activity is restrained, this energy travels upwards (urdhva-retas) towards the head and ignites tapa. This heat gives the body a glow. It is what creates the nimbus or halo around the head of saints.

It is this tapa that Vishwamitra seeks. But the fear is tapa will make the ascetic very powerful – an enemy of Indra, the sky god whose brings rain. So the power of the ascetic will increase summer heat and drought. It has to be contained. So Indra sends the apsara, a word that is rooted in water, apas. This is the conflict between the tapasvin (heat-ascetic) and the apsara (water-nymph) that recurs in the Puranas. When there is too much rain, we seek heat. When there is too much heat, we seek rain. We want both the ascetic, patronized by Balaram, and the nymph, who dances around Balaram’s brother, Krishna, who, in Puri, is Jagannath, lord of the world.