Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

October 23, 2023

First published October 8, 2023

 in Mid-Day

Hindu Gods Are Singers, Dancers and Artists

Sanatani Hindutva is obsessed with war. So, every action is a violent metaphor: Exam warriors, Moon warriors, Election warriors, Corona warriors! The assumption is that gods are warriors too–so Ram, Krishna, Shiva, Durga are shown with weapons, all the time, ready to do battle. But, in Hindu mythology, gods also sing, dance and make music and this is what makes Hinduism stand out from most other religions.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Hinduism eventually eclipsed Buddhism and Jainism in India. Buddhism, Jainism are monastic orders, and therefore, silence is appreciated, stillness is appreciated, meditation and contemplation is appreciated. Singing and dancing is seen as the realm of courtesans for kings, for gods and lesser beings. The higher being does not enjoy these traits. One can imagine the contrast: Going to a Jain shrine or a Buddhist stupa, where people would be at best chanting but mostly in silent meditation stances, and then entering a Hindu temple, where they would be music, singing, dancing, along with chanting all through the day with festivals celebrating the triumph of the gods at war, their marriage, their birth, and their many adventures.

In Hindu mythology, all the gods are associated with musical instruments. Saraswati holds a lute, a multi-stringed instrument (veena). Vishnu holds the wind instruments like the conch shell or the flute. Shiva holds percussion instruments like the drum. Goddesses carry bells. Hanuman is set to be a great musician–usually the manjira (cymbals) singing praises of Ram. When he plays the music even the snow melts. This seems like a celestial orchestra.

Shiva is called Nataraj, the lord of dance, Krishna is called Natwara the god who enjoys dancing. When they dance, everyone stops and observes them perform. Every gesture, every stance, conveys a meaning of the Veda. Bharata who wrote the Natya-shastra took lyrics from Rig Veda, music from Sama Veda, gestures from Yajur Veda and costumes and props from Atharva Veda.

As per lore when Shiva saw the goddess’ hand resting across her breasts, he was inspired to create a lute. He then began to sing, Vishnu melted and transformed into the river Ganga. Narada is said to be a great musician amongst sages. The bird-like Kinnaras sing while Gandharvas make music and Asparas dance. This performance entertains Devas in paradise, where there are often musical and dance competitions judged by sages and kings.

As per Natya shastra wherever that is dance and music the gods assemble. One of the offerings to the deity in the temple is music, song, dance and the arts in general. Krishna is called a ranga-natha-swamy, who revels in aesthetic pleasures.

Kings in a classical society would donate land whose income would be used to feed and entertain the gods. The former land grant was called anga-bhoga, for the pujaris, and the other was called ranga-bhoga, for the devadasis. Ranga bhog was used to fund musicians, singers, artists, dancers, weavers, garland-makers, perfume-makers, jewellers.

In Middle Eastern religions, music and dancing is even seen as ‘haram’ and prophets are never shown dancing. An occasional exception is David (Dawood) singing. So long as it is in praise of God, as in Qawwali in a dargah, it is allowed. Art needs permission and clearance. Not so in Hinduism.

While current Sanatani Hindutva politicians like to show Hindu gods only as angry and violent, others need to reclaim and spotlight the gods of Hinduism, who relish the arts and are artists themselves.

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