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K A L I C O S M I C D A N C E OF D I S S O L U T I O N
The Cosmic Dance of Dissolution is symbolized in Bengal in the image of Kali, the Great Mother of the Universe and Destroyer of Time. It assumes the form of a woman with disheveled hair and protruding tongue, with blood trickling from the corners of her mouth, a necklace of human heads hung round her neck and an apron of dead men’s head round her waist, as she dances on the prostrate body of her husband. Time, certainly shows a frame of mind which does not shrink from frightfulness in artistic expression.
Sometimes her image is rendered with great dramatic power and artistic skill which reflect a very pessimistic mood different from the Nataraja, in which the same philosophic concept is symbolized. Kali’s dance leaves the thought of divine motherhood to the worshippers imagination or self-consciousness, and concentrates only on the pitiless cruelty and horror of the process of involution. The Nataraja on the other hand with great subtlety and no less intensity of expression, points to the divine goal, the gateway of eternal bliss. The cosmic process in the latter case is conceived as God’s sport or play (Lila), not as a hopeless tragedy.
It had been supposed that Kali was originally a primitive Dravadian or Kolarian earth goddess who was taken over by the Aryan Brahmans.
"The scene of the Dance is the cremation ground, amidst white, sun-dried bones and fragments of flesh, gnawed and pecked at by carrion beasts and birds. He the heroic (vira worshipper or sadhak) performs at dead of night his awe-inspiring rituals. Kali is set in such a scene, for She is that aspect of the Great Power which withdraws all things unto Herself at and by the dissolution of the universe. He alone worships without fear who has abandoned all worldly desires and seeks union with Her as the One Blissful and Perfect Experience. On the burning ground all worldly desires are burned away. She is naked and dark like a threatening rain-cloud, for She who is Herself beyond mind and speech reduces all living things into that worldly "nothingness" which, as the Void (Shunya) of all which we know, is at the same time the All (Purna) which is Light and Peace. She is naked, being clothed in space alone (Digambara), because the Great Power is unlimited; further she is Herself beyond Maya (Mayatita); that Power of Herself with which She covers Her own nature and so creates all universes. She stands upon the white corpse-like (Shavarupa) body of Siva. He is white, because He is the illuminating (Prakash), transcendental aspect of Consciousness. He is inert, because he is the Changeless aspect of the Supreme, and She the apparently changing aspect of the same. In truth She and He are the one and the same, being twin aspects of the One who is changelessness in, and exists as change." Garland of Letters, Sir John Woodroffe
The explanation of the necklet is that the string of heads is the Garland of Letters (Varnamala), that is the fifty or fifty one letters of Sanskrit alphabet. "The letters symbolize the universe of names and forms (Namarupa), that is Speech (Shaba) and its meaning or object (Arth); Kali the Devourer of all "slaughterers" that is, withdraws both into Her Undivided Consciousness at the Great Dissolution of the Universe. She wears the Letters which She as Creatrix bore. She wears the Letters which She as the Dissolving Power takes to Herself again."
The sacred dance has many variations in Indian art, typical of different divine moods or aspects of Nature. There is the image of Siva in His Evening Dance (Sandhya-nritta-murti) the gentle rhythmic movements of which suggest the tender harmonies of earth and sky at the peaceful close of a summer’s day.
Then there is the rollicking, jovial step of Siva’s son, Ganapati or Ganesh, leading out his satyr troops to join in the cosmic revels. The subtle interplay of surfaces and contours which form the basis of the sculptor’s art is given to perfection in the treatment of Ganesh’s chubby infant’s body and its monstrous head, whether he appears as we see him in his elephantine gambols, or whether he is sitting sedately with an air of preternatural sagacity in his role of household guardian and god of worldly wisdom.
The hunter’s or warrior’s dance of triumph is shown in the images of Krishna holding up the fearsome serpent Kaliya, which from its haunt in a pool of the Jamuna river had become the terror of the countryside.
Here, however, Krishna appears as the child hero, manifesting his divine power in a playful mood, rather than with the deadly weapons of the Mahabharat.
The pure ecstasy of the dance, which lifts the body out of itself into the realms of heavenly bliss, is nowhere shown better in Indian art than in the portrayal of the demi-gods and goddesses, the siddhas and siddhis, of the upper air, who hover round the summits of stupas or holy mountains and take part as messengers, dancers, and musicians in divine ceremonials, such as the translation of the Buddha’s begging bowl to the Tusita heavens.
In summing up a very brief survey of Indian artistic symbolism, would you agree that if you put aside the conventional academic, sectarian, and geographical, or dynastic classifications of Indian art-Gandhara, Mauryan, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Saracenic, Moghul, and the rest-you will discover instead of a bewildering maze of incoherent fantasies, an ordered scheme of artistic thought closely interwoven with Indian philosophy and religion and binding the changing aspects of different periods and local development into a perfect synthesis?
A closer study will lead you to discover that the true source of the inspiration of Indian art, of the psychic current which for many centuries flowed north, south, east, and west, was not in the monastries of Gandhara, but in those wonderful Himalayan mountains whose magnetic force is felt throughout the continent of Asia.
The temples of India with their images and ritual, their bathing pools and offerings of fruits and flowers, with their lotus pillars, domes, and spires are all symbols of that land of beauty-India itself. And in this thought all Indian art in one.
Varanmala, Garland of Letters
Ganapati or Ganesh
Krishna and Kaliya
Semi Divine Beings