A philosophical prelude to dance

Geeta Chandran and Sudhamahi Regunathan, picture courtesy Geeta Chandran's Facebook

The surroundings were perfect for a reflective, in-depth discussion on philosophy – the tranquil and beautiful environs of Geeta and Rajiv Chandran’s home in Delhi. On October 26, 2016, the couple hosted renowned Jaina scholar and writer Sudhamahi Regunathan in the studio at their Natya Vriksha Dance Company. Sudhamahi is also a trained economist, and her work has covered social and developmental issues, besides the arts, philosophy, spirituality and religion. She was VC of the Jain Vishwa Bharati University in Rajasthan for 6 years, and is the founding member-secretary of the Foundation for Understanding Religions and Enlightened Citizenship. Among her published works is the book, The Colours Of Desire On The Canvas Of Restraint – The Jaina Way.

In the informal session, Sudha explained Anekanta, the Jaina philosophy on which Geeta and the Natya Vriksha senior disciples were to present a two-day dance presentation in November to mark 25 years of the dance company. Dancers Amrutha Shruthi Radhakrishnan and Madhura Bhrushundi began by demonstrating part of a jati, with two dancers doing different steps to the same beats, followed by Geeta and Sudha’s elaborations. Here are excerpts from the discussion.

Sudha: Anekanta is a concept in Jaina philosophy, which says that truth is multi-dimensional, that there are many ways of experiencing the truth, and that it is not humanly possible to describe the whole of truth. Which means that what is expressed and what is not expressed together make the truth. What you have understood and what you have not understood, what you have seen and what you have not seen, all these co-exist. It’s a remarkable idea – because it means that even if you completely disagree with me, you may be right, and I may also be right, and for two rights to co-exist, even if they’re opposites, is a very important contribution of Anekanta.

Then, it says something very beautiful, which I find is what our Nobel laureate for medicine is also saying in a different way – Yoshinori Ohsumi says that every day there are cells being created in our body, as many cells are created, so many are being destroyed. Yet we retain our… I don’t know this is going on in my body, I’ve been like this for so many years, but in my body this process is happening every day, every minute. Anekanta says there is something which remains constant, something which is being destroyed and something which is being originated every time in every part of truth. So you can never hold on and say this is the only truth – it changes somewhere subtly.
How do you know what is beautiful? Because you know there’s something that is not beautiful. How do you know this is soft? Because you know there’s something hard. Your understanding of life is based on the understanding of opposites. The concept of Anekanta is not exclusive to Jainism. It is there in the Rigveda, which says ‘Ekam sat, viprah bahuda vadanti’. One truth, expressed variously by different people. Jainism has developed Anekanta to such a point that it can be practiced in our everyday life. It extends even to thought – that means it goes beyond tolerance and becomes acceptance. As we accept, that’s what Geeta has shown with three jatis to the same rhythm – that shows that one is accepting the other. When you include the other and become inclusive, that is the essence of Jainism, that is ahimsa.
I gave the example of the scientific facts to support the concept. Holi is also such a violent festival, it doesn’t seem to have a cultural place, but it takes out all the pent-up emotions, all the dirt collected over the years, and washes it off.
Even in that shloka, ‘Satyamev jayate’, the opposite of satyam is not asatyam, but anrita, chaos. The opposite of truth here is not untruth because truth includes untruth.
At the time of Mahavira, there are supposed to have been 363 shramanik schools with so many different ideologies, but they are all accepted, and everybody documented them also.

Geeta: Even though it has its roots in Jainism, Hinduism also says the same thing at various points. So I tried to bring all those threads together and also go beyond the isms – ultimately it’s all together. It’s also one thing being said in different ways. We’ve explored it through music, grihabheda, which is a tradition in both Hindustani and Carnatic music. A person not initiated into music will think something happened – and then how the body reacts to that change.

That opposites co-exist is a very strong thought in Anekanta. In dance, the opposites we have are rhythm and silence – these are our tools. So we have used an entire section in which there is just beat and silence. Although the grammar is there in the structure, you can’t fathom it – beats and silence. Navagunjara was the last concept, which is from the Odiya tradition. At the Jagannath temple, on the dhwaja, the form you see is of the Navagunjara, and it is a form of Vishnu. It is first seen in Sarla Das’ Mahabharata, and it is very popular. The first time I saw the Navagunjara was in a Speaking Tree column. I got intrigued because the visual representation of the Navagunjara in the patachitra was fascinating. When I read it, it was even more fascinating. When Arjun is banished into the forest, suddenly one day he sees this strange form – it has the beak of a cock, the neck of a peacock, the body of a lion, the hump of a bull, the feet of an elephant, deer, tiger, and the tail is a snake. Then, when Arjuna is ready to shoot an arrow and kill it thinking it’s an asura, a lotus comes up in the right hand, and he realises it is Vishnu and throws away his bow and arrow and surrenders. Vishnu says I can appear anywhere and you cannot tell. It’s also about never knowing the entire truth – Anekanta says we are like that, like the blind men and the elephant – we can never understand the truth in its entirety. The same concept being explored in a solo, when Ravana sees Sita in the Valmiki Ramayana, which Sudha shared with me. That entire chapter, I was besotted by Ravana, because he’s such a romantic person, and Ravana says when I see Sita, I get so stuck on one aspect of her beauty that I can never see her entire form. The actual translation is ‘my eyes get tied to that aspect’ – I’m using that as a poetic metaphor for Anekanta.

Sudha: The concept comes from Mahavira. Mahavira says that those who say my religion is better than yours don’t believe theirs, for they are going to come back into the cycle of life. Everybody is right. Hala, a Prakrit poet, took the same idea and had this idea of Ravan addressing Sita. Hala was a Satavanaha king in the first century AD. Many dancers recognise and understand him. He incorporated Anekanta - he had a nayak talking to a nayika, saying whichever part of your body I see, my eyes get transfixed. Hala uses other means as well – he says there was once a lady whose husband was a merchant, who went away and did not return. There was another merchant coming to her side, and she found him quite… pleasant. When he came to get water, she told him, my mother-in-law lies here, lost in sleep. I, there. I think you should mark this, lest, when it is dark, you fall into the wrong place at night. She was just cautioning him, and that was another way for Hala to explain Anekantic expression.

The same idea Kamban took when describing Rama coming into the court. He said ‘tol kandal tole kandal’ – those who saw his shoulders saw only his shoulders. And the last line is ‘whoever has seen the entire man?’

It is easy to talk of Anekanta in words, but even then, Anekanta says it’s difficult because it cannot be expressed. But what Geeta has done is very creatively used the idea of opposites, of oneness, and explored it in a very subtle and yet intricate way. That is the key – Anekanta also says restraint is essential. If you go all out, there is no scope for the other. If you have to make space for me and the other, that means I have to draw the line somewhere and say this is where I end and you begin. That’s why she’s used her dance, which is also built on sign. Any art form, if you explain it fully, ceases to be art. Only when you suggest - vyakta and avyakta – is it art. Those who know the philosophy will see the philosophy, those who don’t will see the dance.

Geeta: We’ve used a lot of random walks, because life is not one straight line. You know others are walking and you are also walking; the skill is in not clashing and letting others also walk. Like Sudha said, if you catch it as a metaphor, it’s fine, otherwise it’s just also a beautiful walk. As an element in dance, it works. Everything we see, we see it through the Anekanta prism.

Sudha: That is one of the problems of Anekanta – it’s hard to find fault with the other so easily, the other may also be right.

Geeta: Her book, The Colours Of Desire On The Canvas Of Restraint, was the starting point for the production. That was the first time I read the book and she wanted me to interpret something for the release. I wondered, Jainism and dance – how will it all come together? We feel Jainism is all about ahimsa and silence and restraint. I thought, shringara and Jainism? We realised then that we had some pre-conceived ideas about philosophies and had never read it seriously and without bias. I found it to be very relevant today, particularly when everybody is so myopic about what is sacrosanct for them. I thought I needed to do this through Bharatnatyam. Everything had to be customised and thought through carefully – briefing the musicians, bringing them on board, the possibilities through laya and music and rhythm.

Musicians by nature celebrate Anekanta in their heads – and they were very interested. (Music composers) Vasudevan and Venkatesh – young, enthusiastic - would sit for hours on end reading what I gave them to read. Plus Kesava Kumar with rhythmic inputs and Lalgudi Sriganesh – this was the core group. And my fantastic students who got shot constantly.

Rajiv: Because of the silver jubilee of Natya Vriksha, Sudha’s concept gave us all a new journey of unlearning. We’ve been so into the Bharatnatyam way that the silver jubilee became a celebration of unlearning – unlearnt so much of baggage, learnt to think afresh and look at it differently.

Sudha: That’s what Anekanta says – that you have to have different perspectives. Jainism says there’s samyak darshan, samyak gyaan and samyak charitra. Samyak darshan is different perspectives – you have to have the right perspectives, the right knowledge and then comes the right conduct. As Rajiv says… he’s actually proven to Mahavira what he’s about to say – that perspectives change and re-align.

Geeta: The alarippu is such a basic thing, and I always had a fight with my gurus also, (asking them) why have you put it as the first item? Because it’s one of the most subtle items, very difficult to execute because bahut jaldi woh zyada bhi ho sakta hai, kam bhi ho sakta hai. Jatiswaram is very easy for the children. But they always get stuck at the alarippu. Then I myself thought of an answer – this is like a hurdle, only if you cross the alarippu do you get to the other pieces. That endurance has to be there to master the tisra alarippu, after which you go to the other pieces. So we took the alarippu and explored it – the most basic one that everybody learns – how can we play around with that and say the same one in different ways. We came up with two more interpretations of the same tala cycle, but executing and saying it in a different way – there was an element of vachika also.


Can you elaborate on how Bharatnatyam and Jainism came together?

Geeta: They were brought together by Sudha – her book is so powerful and wonderful to read. Bharatnatyam is just a tool with which I play. I don’t see it as an ancient art form. Our gurus have always told us, these are the tools, play with them. My mode of expression is that – Jainism was the concept I translated into that. Anekanta is just a concept – not Jainism, not Hinduism. I’m also using ‘Ekam sat…,’ what the Geeta says, what the Vedas, Upanishads say. We’ve taken the basic concept from Jaina philosophy, but we’re also saying it goes across threads and links many thought processes.

Sudha has a chapter in her book called Anekanta and you realise there’s so much in this concept to be explored in music and dance and colour – we kept five colours together and said this is not jarring, it looks beautiful together.

Sudha: Hala was a Prakrit poet of the first century BC, and Hala wrote poetry in Prakrit called the Gatha Saptasati, which has influenced subsequent Sankrit poets. Anandavardhana mentions examples from Hala’s Gatha Saptasati as examples of dhwani or suggestion – dance always suggests or gives the bhava, it’s for you to catch on.
Anekanta means ‘many’, and ‘dimensions’ or ‘ends’. It means many possibilities. And in Anekanta, there is a very detailed possibility of syadvad – seven possibilities in any situation.
It is, it is not.
It is, and it is.
It is, it is not, and maybe neither of them is true.
Like these, there are seven ways or possibilities of understanding any situation.

Application of Anekanta
Sudha: Jaina philosophy believes that unless Anekanta translates into conduct, it is of no use. Only that knowledge which translates into conduct is of any use. Can Anekanta provide a way for today’s society, today’s problems?

It was founded on a very simple idea – that all of us have some truth in us, some good in us, but it is not complete. Put it all together, and it is complete. The complete picture cannot be expressed n words, so it takes more – vyaktavya and avyaktavya together. What message can it carry for all of us? It says we all have space in this world, can happily co-exist. The caveat is: let us all go together, see together, speak together, speak in unison, but the Upanishad says – all living beings, plant, cockroach, everybody loves to live. That is the overarching umbrella under which Anekanta operates. Then, even if we are different, we can live together. Mahaivra said sanyam sanyam… - those who say my belief alone is the light, and not anybody else’s, is not right because he will come back into samsara.

When all this is known, why we can’t we follow it? There is an element of ignorance. There was a lake covered with water hyacinth, completely covered. There was a tortoise in it, swimming along with no aspirations, when suddenly it found that the water in one area was bluer, glistening and attractive. It swam towards it, and lo and behold, there was a gap in the weeds, and it saw the sky, sun, clouds, watched the sun set, clouds come out, and the night sky was even more bewitching. The tortoise said, “let me get others as well.” It was slow, and meanwhile, the weed grew much faster and covered the hole. (When he came back) Our friend waddled along with his entire troupe but could not find it. He’s still searching for it, and so are we all, suffering in ignorance. Anekanta tells you how to do it. ‘Arpita narpita siddhe’ - ‘Don’t go by the senses’. What you see is not all that there is to the world. There is more. That which is seen is attested by that which is not seen. That is, the subtle and the gross have to be together. If you go by only what you see, you are bound to be ignorant like the tortoise. You have to go beyond the senses to remove the ignorance.

Who has removed ignorance? The one who’s learnt to live above the senses and attained enlightenment. While trying to attain that state, balance that which is outside and which is inside – pravriti and navriti. The desire to go outwards and the desire for inner repose. Desire for action and for meditation. Ignorance, say the texts, is dealing with us like we are puppets, and we are falling into its trap, and so we have to rise above that.
Anekanta also respects thought position. Syadvad – any situation can or cannot be in seven different ways. The Wright brothers would not have been laughed at had they approached Mahavira. The NASA director now says there could be life on other planets. If you cover the future, present and past, only a kaivalya can do that. But all of us have the potential to attain that. To cross over the duality and move towards the divine is the goal of Jainism.

The question then is, if you go into philosophy, can permanence and impermanence co-exist? They can, Mahavira said. Permanence is permanence. Impermanence comes with a little destruction and a little creation. All three co-exist.