Becoming the Idol: Classical Indian Dance
Amit Majmudar on Idolatry, Iconoclasm, and Bharatanatyam
My wife does classical Indian dance. I love to watch her practice because she turns her body into the ancient Chola bronzes I admire, the same angles of hips and waist, the same gestures of the hand. Each configuration of the fingers has a meaning to it. She walks me through them sometimes, and I forget, partly because I get lost in admiring her elegantly, eloquently cocked, pinched, and flared fingers. It’s sign language.
Her cherished art, Bharatanatyam, is partly closed off to me. I know the stories and characters, I can read the expressions on her face and a few of the movements, but her body speaks language too complex for me. Her dance is to me what my poetry is to her. She loves to read, but she chooses to read prose, never poetry, much less contemporary poetry. So some of the stylized things I do with otherwise familiar language seem complex and strange; expressive, but not to her. Maybe it is best we keep these semi-private worlds to ourselves, separate, supported from a distance; we are enmeshed in every other way. Any more, and we would collapse into a single self, like Ardhanareshwar, the half-male, half-female deity who combines Shiva and Shakti in one. Even our names risk confusion, elision. Ami is always three-fourths of the way to Amit; Amit can’t be written without Ami.
“This one is really simple,” Ami told me once, matching, with her hand, the upraised hand of the Shiva Nataraja, patron God of dancers, enshrined in bronze at the corner of every stage. “It’s the endtimes, and he’s dancing to destroy the world—so he’s gesturing to his foot, showing you what’s going to stomp everything. Under that foot, the one he’s standing on, that’s the dwarf who symbolizes ignorance. But even as Shiva’s doing all this, trampling ignorance and burning up the world, he’s saying—with this other hand—Do not fear.”
Leviticus, 26: 30. “And I will destroy your high places, and cut down your images, and cast your carcases upon the carcases of your idols, and my soul shall abhor you.”
I learned about statuary from the living, moving statue of Ami’s dance poses. Everything means something. The name of the dwarf under Shiva Nataraja’s foot is Apasmara, a Sanskrit word that means memory loss. I know, I have witnessed all too closely, the amnesia of money and modernity that makes people forget their traditions, the unfashionable Gods of their forefathers. Why is Apasmara a dwarf? You get smaller, the more of the past you forget.
Everything means something. When Ami’s hands rise in a certain way—thumb to lip, pinky to thumb, off to the right—it’s Krishna’s flute. She herself becomes Krishna, transgendered, transcending gender. Why a flute? Because, like birds and poets, a flute makes music as long as breath is passing through it. Krishna is Vishnu is the sustainer of things: That flute is the breathing body, full of the prana, the Sanskrit word that means both “breath” and “life.” (The language of Leviticus knows it, too, as the nishmat chayim, the breath of life.)
Goethe once reflected how Gothic architecture was frozen music. Ami’s ancient Indian dance, with its origins in the Natya Shastra from circa 300 B.C.E., is sculpture in motion. The stage becomes the temple, and the body becomes deity after deity, avatar after avatar. Fingers raised in a flute, one foot crossed in front of the other in a leisurely stance—Krishna; elbow back and thumb raised, to symbolize the archer’s resting bow—Rama; one leg raised and swung across the body, and one hand raised to say Do not fear—Shiva.
The Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 46, Hadith 39: “Allah’s Apostle entered Makkah (in the year of the Conquest) and there were three hundred and sixty idols around the Ka’aba. He then started hitting them with a stick in his hand and reciting: ‘Truth has come and falsehood has vanished.’”
To say a God reassures you is acceptable to the iconoclast, but to sculpt a God reassuring you is not. There are some reasons offered for this in the religions that honor the commandment against graven images. The most common is that God is formless, hence giving that formlessness form is wrong. The Hindu tradition splits the difference, as it were: It does the abstract “God” one better in Brahman, which Vedanta formulates entirely through the negation of opposites: “Not this, not that.” Is the God of Abraham formless? Brahman is not a form, and not a formlessness. And so there is not a single temple that makes a sculpture of Brahman.
Yet that same not-this-not-that Brahman manifests in infinitely different forms. The many-armed and many-deitied pantheon is populated with the forms that the formless Brahman has taken on. These invite the chisel and paintbrush just as Yahweh and Allah invite the pen and tongue. The chisel and paintbrush are in addition to the pen and tongue, and they do the same thing. In the Near East, the Word was in the beginning; in India, it was a Syllable, Aum. The Sanskrit word often translated as “manifest”—as in, the unmanifest and manifest Brahman—is actually a word that relates to speech, vyakta, “spoken,” and avyakta, “unspoken.”
Iconoclasm, the breaking of worshiped idols, is only a part of the picture. The commandment, in Exodus itself, is an injunction against all representational art. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Of the three Abrahamic religions, some have taken that more literally than others. Christianity, which overwrote the advanced sculptural traditions of Classical Greece and Rome, decorated its churches with statues and frescoes; Islam directed its artists to the dazzling tessellations of mosque ceilings and calligraphy.
Among the ninety-nine most beautiful names of Allah is al-Musawwir, “the Shaper of Beauty.” The artist, portraying a living being, enters into an unholy competition with that original Shaper; it is a usurpation, and the Shaper, affronted by it, will challenge the inferior, human artist to bring his representations to life. Another Hadith preserves the testimony of the young Aisha:
I stuffed for the Prophet a pillow decorated with pictures (of animals)…. He came and stood between the two doors and his face began to change. I said, “O Allah’s Messenger! What did we do wrong?’ He said, ‘What is this pillow?” I said, ‘I have prepared this pillow for you, so that you may recline on it.” He said, “Don’t you know that angels do not enter a house wherein there are pictures; and whoever makes a picture will be punished on the Day of Resurrection and will be asked to give life to (what he has created)?”
Ami, when she dances, brings the sculptures to life. The chisels of generations of temple stonemasons guide her fingers into the gesture that means speech. She echoes the pose of the 11th century Hanuman Conversing we saw at the Met—which was yet another picture of an animal. Abominable—or adorable, depending on your tradition. The same kind of mind that takes a hammer to a sacred sculpture is unlikely to appreciate a sacred dance.
Why take on a form at all? Why would Brahman “speak” itself into Gods and Goddesses, susceptible to sculpting, vulnerable to the hammer?
In the beginning was the word—a Proto-Indo-European word root that explains a lot. That root, that syllable, is weid-. The root dives from modern English all the way down to ancient Sanskrit. Vidya and video have this root in common because the Sanskrit word for wisdom locates knowing in the eyes. With weid-, the primary and literal meaning is to see. Knowing is the metaphorical, abstract, secondary aspect. This root word flowered with the title of India’s earliest, most sacred body of scriptures: the “Vedas.”
Weid- gave rise to wit, too. In Old English, “wit” did not have the sense of a trivial, amusing play with words; it had a broad, deep sense of understanding. Because that sense of wit went back to the second syllable in Druid, literally, tree-knower. Tree and truth share the same root, too, the Proto-Indo-European deru-: steadfast wood, the same connection that linked baum, tree, and beam, the ray of our enlightening.
He heweth him down cedars, and taketh the cypress and the oak, says the Book of Isaiah. Then shall it be for a man to burn: for he will take thereof, and warm himself; yea, he kindleth it, and baketh bread; yea, he maketh a god, and worshippeth it; he maketh it a graven image, and falleth down thereto. He burneth part thereof in the fire; with part thereof he eateth flesh; he roasteth roast, and is satisfied: yea, he warmeth himself, and saith, Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire: And the residue thereof he maketh a god, even his graven image: he falleth down unto it, and worshippeth it, and prayeth unto it, and saith, Deliver me; for thou art my god…. He feedeth on ashes: a deceived heart hath turned him aside, that he cannot deliver his soul, nor say, Is there not a lie in my right hand?
Shiva Nataraja, like many a Hindu deity, has two right hands. One is making the gesture of reassurance, which is almost identical to the gesture of blessing. The other is shaking a small drum, a damaru, traditionally made of acacia wood, although Tibetan Buddhists used to make theirs with skulls.
Idols are most commonly carved out of stone or cast in bronze, but it is fitting to sculpt a deity out of the same, natural material that gives your family warmth and helps you cook your food. There is also a transience to wood, which decays faster than stone erodes, and that transience reflects the transience of all things, not just the sculptures that portray Gods but the Gods themselves. After all, the cyclicity of time implies a dissolution to come—in Shiva Nataraja’s sphere of fire, incinerating whatever is left of our woodlands.
The doomsday dancer is only one portrayal of Shiva. An “aniconic” version is the lingam, featureless and phallic, a rounded black pillar that symbolizes life’s lust to beget more life—generative power, not destructive power. Leviticus, 26:1: “Neither a carved image nor a sacred pillar will you raise up for yourselves.” One of the most important Shiva temples in India was sacked seventeen times, rebuilt, at last, as recently as 1951. Yeats: “All things fall and are built again, / And those that build them again are gay.” Fall, or are toppled. An Afghan warlord, the first to sack the temple at Somnath, smashed its Shiva lingam and carted off the pieces to his home city of Ghazni. There the faithful embedded the fragments in the steps of a mosque so they could tread on the smashed idol every time they went to pray.
Idol, too, comes from the Proto-Indo-European root word weid-. It gave rise to the Greek word for “form,” eidos. A related word is eidolon, the image of a dead person, a ghost. Not form itself, but the appearance—the apparition—of form. So there is a meaningful paradox in the word idol. The idol is all too solid, while the eidolon is an emptiness that deceives the eye. So the “false idol” is a solidity—of carved stone, of carved wood—that is actually empty of God. And hence not to be worshiped.
Another word that comes from the same root as “idol” is “idea.” The two words are more than just etymologically connected. Philosophical justifications against “idol-worship” frequently render the idol abstract—that is, it isn’t just a physical murti that ought to be rejected, but the misguided worship of wealth, status, beauty, worldly power.
Sir Francis Bacon, describing the limitations of the human mind, wrote of its susceptibility to four “idols”: those of the Tribe, the Cave, the Marketplace, and the Theater. Roughly these correspond to preconceived ideas, personal preferences, mishandling of language, and philosophical dogma, all of which bedevil a clear understanding of the world. None of Bacon’s idols are sculptures bedded in a temple’s garbagriha, its “womb-house.” At the highest levels of monotheistic thought, idols and ideas are interchangeable. The commandment that forbids the worship of false idols forbids the worship of false ideas—instead of the one, true idea of God.
There are false ideas. There are true ideas. There are false idols. Is there such a thing as a true idol? What would it look like?
The “Venus of Willendorf” predates both Venus and the city of Willendorf by at least twenty-five thousand years. Limestone stained with red ochre, the statuette’s function and significance are all speculation. Enormous breasts hang alongside rolls of fat. In Paleolithic Europe, the caloric excesses of a modern diet was unimaginable. They had the opposite problem. This female figurine is a fantasy of what a body could look like in a world less miserly with meat and drink. Maybe a male sculptor’s fantasy of a fertile, childbearing woman, or a “fertility Goddess” to quicken the fields back then, at the beginnings of agriculture, taking this mad bold risk of staying in one place and burying seeds and hoping the sky worked its capricious magic. Unless a woman sculpted that body, daydreaming her idealized self, her happiest self, well-fed and ready to feed her young.
The figurine has one smooth surface where her face should be. It’s unlikely her features has simply eroded. Her headdress, or cornrows, retain their intricacy. Goddess or woman, she is faceless.
Tens of thousands of years in the past, and the hands and eyes are already shaping recalcitrant stone to something recognizably human, or divine: representational art. Already, this early in the history of the species, sculpture outspeaks scripture. The stone says something more than its mere shape, hybridizes the abstract and the concrete, teases us into meditation, into thought.
Is Christ on a cross at the front of a church an idol or a guide to the mind? Is the aniconic Black Stone inside the Ka’aba, kissed by thousands of pilgrims, any less adored than the aniconic Shiva lingam of Somnath? Mere matter finds a way to be infused with holiness and beauty and aspiration and life, now as in Paleolithic times. The wood that disgusted Isaiah is the same material that makes the pages of a modern Book—Greek, Biblion, Arabic, Qur’an—even if that book exalts the word over the wood, the truth over the tree.
The senses, in Hindu thought, are horses pulling a chariot. Those horses can be out of control or in control. The form—Sanskrit, murti—focuses the sense of sight, and the eyes, enraptured, understand by seeing. The incense focuses the sense of smell. Olfaction has a direct neural connection to memory, and sandalwood never fails to return me to a devotion that antedates my childhood. Bells, instruments, singing focus the sense of hearing; one hand pressed to the other in prayer focuses the sense of touch; the almonds or sugar crystals or coconut pieces handed out as prasad focus the sense of taste. All five horses, guided, gallop in the same direction: inward, upward. The right hand of Shiva says Do not fear and my wife’s right hand matches it and I raise mine to match hers and there is no lie in my right hand.
At the temple, during the puja, a tray covered in small candles floats between my hands. It circles the murti of the black avatar who sang the Bhagavad Gita, the classical Indian dancer of Vrindavan. The shadows angle and stretch and shift on the wall behind it, as if the murti is moving, alive. Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire. I see a graven image gravid with faith. It is a true idol. It is a true idea. What have we done wrong?
This essay will appear in Amit Majmudar’s forthcoming collection, Black Avatar and Other Essays (Acre Books, 2023). Other forthcoming books include Twin A: A Memoir (Slant Books, 2023) and, in India, The Mahabharata Trilogy (Penguin India, 2023). Majmudar, a diagnostic and nuclear radiologist as well as Ohio’s former first Poet Laureate, lives in Westerville, Ohio, with his wife and three children. His work appears widely.