Category Archives: L. Hindu Arts, Architecture and Culture

Ramprasad Sen and Bengali Saktism

Ramprasad Sen (1718-1775) was a prominent poet during the 18th century. Though precise details regarding Ramprasad’s childhood and upbringing are often mixed with legend, he is said to have been born to Tantric Brahmins in Bengal, and is remembered for showing a skill and inclination toward poetry and music from a young age (McLean 42). Ramprasad’s upbringing is also characterized by his diligent religious study, especially that which focused on the Navya Tantric-scripture of Krishnananda Agamavagisha, the well-known 16th century Sreehattan Pandita and Tantra Jain Sadhaka (McLean 42). In adulthood, Ramprasad would achieve renown for his love songs, especially of a sort known as bhakti, still popular today.

The ecstatic loving fervor expressed in Ramprasad’s poems, directed toward the goddess Kali, has since come to encapsulate the devotional energies which the Bengali Saktas feel at the epitome of their faith. Appropriately, Ramprasad has since come to be recognized as one of the greatest poets in Indian history. The following work will evaluate Ramprasad Sen, the bhakti movement he originated from, and explore the intense devotion to the Goddess Kali which is present in many of Ramprasad Sen’s poetic works. Interestingly, the life of Ramprasad is very much intertwined with myth and legend which have arisen after his death, meaning that many of the pivotal experiences outlined by biographers are perhaps apocryphal. That said, the vast influence which Ramprasad has exerted over the Bengali Sakta canon and religious practice will form the core of this examination. Particular focus will be paid to the ways in which, despite his Tantric background, Ramprasad deviated from traditional devotional poetry, and even used his works as a platform for criticism of traditional Bengali Saktism.

Ramprasad Sen’s bhakti poetry can best be described as the product of its author’s unyielding devotion to the Hindu goddess Kali. This goddess is known as a destroyer of evil, and oversees, by such action, one of the four groups of tantric Saivism known as Kulamarga (Kinsley 116). Periodically throughout history, this goddess has been worshipped by her adherents directly, through devotional practice. In this role as religious icon, Kali is alternatively described as the Divine Mother, or the Mother of the Universe. Under Hindu Saktism and Tantrism, Kali was often thought to be the Brahman, both a powerful protector and the goddess who would provide moksa (Kinsley 116). Given the prominence that Kali has held in Tantric Brahmin worship, it is perhaps unsurprising that Ramprasad chose her as the object of his life’s poetic work.

Accounts of Ramprasad’s family life also reflect the powerful presence that the goddess Kali held in his life. One such account found Ramprasad building a fence and asking for his daughter’s help, a task he performed while reciting his poetry to Kali. When his daughter appeared, she chastised him for his singing to a goddess who would never appear. After helping him with the fence, Ramprasad and his daughter separated, but later he learned that his daughter had been in another town since morning, and realized he had been visited by the Divine Mother (McDaniel 2018: 45). Another perhaps apocryphal story about Ramprasad Sen’s early life concerns his work as an accountant in Kolkata. At this work, he is said to have busied himself writing poems to the Divine Mother in his workbooks. When exposed, he was not punished by his employer, but instead hired as a poet for the accounting firm (McDaniel 2018: 45).

One final account tells that Ramprasad would spend long hours lost in meditation, “often while standing deep in the Ganges river,” and the boat workers would listen to him as they passed (McDaniel 162). The account indicates that one day “the Maharaja Krishnachandra of Nadia” passed by and heard Ramprasad as he recited his devotional poetry, and was so impressed that “he asked [Ramprasad] to be his court poet” (McDaniel 162). Without strong evidence, there is no way to know whether either of these three accounts of Ramprasad’s early life are true, but the persistence of these legends of are themselves a testimony to the power of Ramprasad’s poetry and influence. In particular, it reflects the prominence that Ramprasad’s works would attain in Bengali Saktism, as considered in the section below.

The movement which would seize upon Ramprasad’s works as basis for a its literary and religious tradition is known as Bengali Saktism. This faith describes Kali as a goddess to be worshipped either as a “powerful force or life and death,” or as a “tantric and yogic goddess who [provides] supernatural knowledge,” but a third variant, one less prominent than the rest, would form the focus of Ramprasad’s work (McDaniel 2018: 44). Within Sakta devotion, and in Ramprasad’s poetry, the goddess is understood as a “loving mother who saves her devotees from painful rebirth,” as well as provides them with protection from harm and “entrance to her heaven” (McDaniel 2018: 44). In Ramprasad’s work, by contrast, his poetic vision of the Divine Mother manifest not as a loving mother, but with Kali taking the form of either “the universal mother or [an] innocent girl,” a figure which is “sometimes frightening on the outside, but inwardly loving and compassionate” (McDaniel 2018: 44). Ramprasad’s ecstatic works of devotional poetry to this dynamic figure would influence Bengali Saktism from then on, and has come to typify the effusive love which such adherents express for the goddess Kali.

Given the strong role which Ramprasad’s works play in epitomizing modern Bengali Sakti ecstatic devotion, there is certainly much evidence to indicate that Ramprasad’s choice of subject was directly compelled by his faith. In particular, biographers present evidence to show that Ramprasad’s poetry is derived from the Kularnava Tantra, that millennia-old work of epistemology and logic upon which much of Tantric practice is based (McDermott 71). Official accounts will also refer to Ramprasad’s long years spent practicing “kundalini yoga meditation,” a variant common to Bengali Sakti communities (McDermott 71). There is evidence of this faith derived from Ramprasad’s works themselves, some of which provide “descriptions of Kali derived from [the] Tantric dhyanas” (McDermott 71). There is also Bengali Sakta religious precedent for the great deal of ecstatic loving fervor which flows through Ramprasad’s works. McDaniel (2018: 44) indicates that Ramprasad’s works, and his life, are an embodiment of the ecstatic states outlined in the Kularnava Tantra, a major text of the Bengali Saktas. This work describes ullasa, or the “ecstatic joy…which occurs during ritual practice,” where the practitioner seeking the highest (divya) state described as the “ecstatic or blind madman” (McDaniel 2018: 46). Ecstasy at this level brings loss of control, described in by Bengali Saktas as feeling like “[the adherent’s] limbs are stretched, his hair stands on end, [and] he laughs and cries and stutters” (McDaniel 2018: 46). While in this state, known as divyonmada, or “ecstatic madness,” individuals are made “beyond control by the body and the senses,” and will paradoxically “[gaze] outward but [look] inward,” and thus are seem as the “equivalent to the God Shiva Bhairava” (McDaniel 2018: 46). During his life, Ramprasad was frequently described as a madman, a factor which does much to support the use of his works and ambition as a basis for Bengali Sakta ecstatic practice. Though such textual evidence is persuasive, there is also strong evidence to indicate that Ramprasad’s poetry diverged from the purely devotional and traditional Tantric poetry to which it is often compared.

As described by Schelling (2011: 14), Ramprasad’s bhakti poetry was often purely devotional, but this author ascribes its endurance in the Bengal popular imagination to the ways in which it diverted from tradition. Schelling (2011) cites the intimacy of Ramprasad’s works, or its often playful or scolding tone, as well as its deep esotericism and profusion with symbolism, as key areas where it diverges from traditional devotional work (Schelling 14). Moreover, in addition to these works lacking uniform devotional intent, they also contain a wealth of confessions of doubt “concerning the kindliness of [Kali]” which indicate a much more complicated relationship between author and subject (McDermott 71). Moreover, Ramprasad’s works included a range of heartfelt criticism against the “scriptures, images, pilgrimages, and surface acts” upon which the faith of so many people was often predicated (McDermott 71).

Accordingly, Ramprasad’s poetry is notable for the considerable depth and complexity he brings to its subject. His works focus upon “a single great goddess,” often called Kali but sometimes referred to as “Durga, Bhairavi, Sita, Uma, [or] Kalika” (McDaniel 2018: 45). These works emphasize not just the greatness and power of Kali, but tell of “passionate love which must be experienced, and cannot be found in books or philosophies” (McDaniel 2018: 45). Reflected in Ramprasad’s poetry, this intense and worldly love, as emphasized in devotion, was a way for Ramprasad (and Kali bhakti practitioners) to “[draw in] the goddess like a magnet attracts iron” (McDaniel 2018: 45). Of the poems not directed toward Kali herself, Ramprasad’s work also includes “songs of secret sadhana practices,” but each is unerring in its focus upon the act of devotion and the ecstasy to would result from such practice (McDaniel 2018: 45).

Moreover, Dalmiya (2000: 126) describes bhakti poetry as of “feminist significance,” as reflected not just in the “paradoxical” shifting attitude its author holds toward the subject, but due to each of these shifts in tone reflecting “a devotee’s worshipful attitude towards Kali” (Dalmiya 127). This author indicates that the “mother-child motif at the core” of Ramprasad’s work represented “not only a dramatic construction of femininity but of selfhood in general” (Dalmiya 125). As Ramprasad challenged the definition of devotional poetry through the “indigenous worshipful attitude of Kali-bhakti,” he transformed what had been an art form predicated on worship and devotion alone into a far more dynamic instrument (Dalmiya 125).

The transformative power of Ramprasad’s poetry is stressed in other works. In McDermott’s (2001: 71) analysis, this author explains that this poet’s biographers, no matter how stymied by anecdotal accounts, have also sought to offer a view of this eminent artist somewhat ‘divorced’ from “solely Tantric terms” (McDermott 71). This author indicates that some authors will describe Ramprasad not as a mere devotee, but as a bhakta, a “poet who transformed, rather than accepted wholeheartedly, the esoteric Goddess of Tantric heritage” (McDermott 71). The result of the poetry and legacy of Ramprasad, thus lies in his unwavering focus on expressing love for the goddess Kali, and the influence of that love, as expressed in his works, upon the Bengali Sakta tradition. Aside from the undeniable beauty of Ramprasad’s poetry, their legacy is thus felt as much by its deviation from classical poetic art forms as by its embodiment of them. A century after Ramprasad’s death, Yogendranath Gupta would argue that all of the “miracle stories” were comprised of “faith and devotion (visvasa and bhakti).” This is an indication that Ramprasad’s poetry, and his role as sadhaka (religious practitioner) who “softened the hard wood of kaula-sadhana”, the traditional Sakta practice, “through syrupy streams of bhakti and love” (McDermott 71). This description is notable for its acknowledgement that Ramprasad’s works were less an epitome of Bengali Sakta practice as a force for change in this faith.

To this end, while Ramprasad’s work has found a central place in Bengali Saktism, his poems are perhaps most notable for the ways in which they divert from this tradition. To indicate where Ramprasad’s work deviates from Sakta practice most strongly, it is important to consider the different kinds of bhakti practice. McDermott (2001: 71) indicates that there are three types of bhakti, namely (1) Vaisnava bhakti, described as a “dualistic devotion based on external image worship,” (2) Nirguna bhakti, which focuses on a “formless conception of the divine,” and (3) Saka bhakti, under which the goddess is “not understood as a real presence ‘out there’ but as a symbol of the world or of the self,” which can be “introjected into the spiritual physiognomy of the body” through kundalini yogic practice (McDermott 71). Under this formulation distinguishing between variants upon bhakti practice, the sort which is best-emphasized in the work of Ramprasad is the third type, Saka bhakti. While Ramprasad’s language may be interpreted by adherents of the first type (Vaisnava bhakti) as being purely devotional in nature, this “Vaisnavized perspective” often fails to account for Ramprasad’s symbolism, and for what is symbolized by the ecstasy which is strongly emphasized throughout his works (McDermott 71). Specifically, this author indicates that whenever Ramprasad mentions the act of loving Kali, or the idea of keeping Kali in his heart, he is in actuality “referring to [Kali’s] visualized presence in the heart,” and not “thinking of a particular [goddess whom] he worships within an external, dualistic framework” (McDermott 71). The result of Ramprasad’s intent is an art form co-opted by Bengali Shaktism which contains only superficial resemblance to the works which inspired it.

A promising alternative inspiration for Ramprasad’s works has been theorized as derived from the work of the “esoteric Bauls” (McDermott 71). Ramprasad’s songs addressed to the mind, as an example, “mirror the language and concerns of Baul maner manus songs,” themselves focused on a “man of the heart” (McDermott 71). Moreover, both Ramprasad’s works and those by the Bauls represent the mind as a bird, as well as “the body as a place of sadhana,” likened to a boat, as well as “reliance on a guru,” each of which are less emphasized or not present in traditional Bengali Saktism (McDermott 71). For this reason, McDermott (2001) argues that it is reductive and disingenuous to describe Ramprasad as a bhakti poet, despite centuries of subsequent literary works and religious tradition among the Bengali Saktas people suggesting otherwise (McDermott 71).

This work has touched upon the reductive power of religious symbolism over time. So enamored were the 16th-century Bengali Saktas with the depth of Ramprasad’s stated devotion to the goddess Kali, they neglected the deeper criticisms and complexity of these symbolic and esoteric works. In the intervening centuries, Ramprasad’s works have come to be celebrated for their ecstatic devotion alone, but they have lost much of the intricacy of the author’s original voice. Though Bengali Sakta celebrations are renowned for their fervor, their ‘basis’ in Ramprasad’s works, considered the epitome of their practice, is perhaps less direct than it seems.


Dalmiya, Vrinda (2000) “Loving paradoxes: A feminist reclamation of the goddess Kali.” Hypatia 15, no. 1: 125-150.

Gross, Rita M. (1978) “Hindu Female Deities as a Resource for the Contemporary Rediscovery of the Goddess.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 46, No.1: 269–291.

Kinsley, David (1998) Hindu goddesses: Visions of the divine feminine in the Hindu religious tradition. Berkley: University of California Press, 1988.

McDaniel, June (2004) Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal. Oxford University Press.

McDaniel, June (2018). Lost Ecstasy: Its Decline and Transformation in Religion. Springer: Oxford University Press

McDermott, Rachel Fell (2001) Mother of My Heart, Daughter of My Dreams: Kālī and Umā in the Devotional Poetry of Bengal. Oxford University Press.

McLean, Malcolm (1998) Devoted to the Goddess: the life and work of Ramprasad. SUNY Press.

Schelling, Andrew, ed. (2011) The Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature. Oxford University Press.

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This article was written by Zach Myrtrunec (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.

Intoxication in Hinduism

The use of intoxicants in the Hindu tradition varies depending on the substance. Specific substances are mentioned in sacred writings, such as the alcohol in the Ayurveda and cannabis in the Atharva Veda (Frawley 1 and Shivaharidas 2). Highly regarded substances are used sacredly during rituals, as offerings to gods and goddesses. Furthermore, there are over one hundred Vedic hymns praising Soma, one of the most highly regarded intoxicants in the Hindu tradition. Certain substances are associated with particular deities and incorporated into precise myths. These important substances are understood widely in the Hindu tradition and considered very holy (Godlaski 1067). Other substances are recognized as harmful and individuals are advised to use caution when consuming them. There is no specific set of rules for Hindus to follow regarding intoxicating substances (Frawley 1). However, many Vedic scriptures discuss the use of intoxicants and can be referenced as a guideline. Based on the understanding of Dharma, individuals must recognize how intoxicants will affect them in relation to cosmic order. It is challenging to comprehend how mind-altering substances, can fit in with the natural laws behind the universe. The many ancient writings of the Hindus serve as a guideline when becoming involved with intoxicating substances, and should be referenced in order to obey a virtuous Hindu lifestyle.

The core beliefs and practices surrounding alcohol in the Hindu tradition are based on caste-related permissive uses. For example, alcohol restrictions were placed on the high-caste brahmins (Sharma 9), furthermore the Rg Veda states that ksatriyas (the warrior class) were allowed to use alcohol on occasion in coherence with their military culture. The lower castes such as the vaisyas and sudras had few restrictions on alcohol use, based on their social status. These lower classes do not have societal obligations to attend to therefore alcohol usage is permitted. The Brahmins (priestly class) refrain from alcohol because within the caste system they are of a closer ranking to the gods, which means that intoxicating substances are offered to deities instead of ingested. The Brahmin class must remain pure and mentally clear in order to worship the gods and have them remain unpolluted. Alcohol is an important aspect within religious events and festivals (Frawley 1), but the Brahmin class does not consume.

The Vedic scriptures can be referenced in order to understand when alcohol is appropriate to use in the Hindu tradition. Alcohol is an important aspect during religious ritual and becomes a traditional feature of social gatherings, however it can be sinful and dangerous when used incorrectly. Within the post-Vedic period (700 BCE-110 CE), strong alcoholic beverages were served to guests on certain occasions, such as marriage. Occasions like this are seen as appropriate times to take part in alcohol consumption, but following the guidelines of Vedic scripture it is only used in seldom (see Sharma 9). Furthermore, the use of alcohol is mentioned in two of the greatest Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, two great Hindu stories that are widely acknowledged, which provide reference to alcohol usage that the public can respect and incorporate into their personal lives. Within the Ramayana the royal individuals are drinking wine, and many people of Ayodhya are also consuming large amounts of alcohol (Sharma 10). Alcohol is mentioned frequently within the Mahabharta, the demise of the Yadavs (a warrior dynasty) was due to fighting while inebriated (Sharma 10). This epic also mentions that drinking alcohol can be sinful, and alludes to the demise of a warrior dynasty to describe its potential side effects. This piece of the epic is important to understand intoxication within the Hindu culture. A great warrior class failing due to inebriation is an important lesson to guide an individual to understanding how intoxicants can negatively affect the state of mind. Hinduism acknowledges that alcohol is a powerful affluence, and that its influence should not be taken casually (Frawley 1).

The Ayurveda literature also contains views on the use of alcohol. Within this medical section of the Hindu Dharma, alcohol is used as an important solvent for extracting herbs; it is used as an essential tool within this text (Frawley 1). The Ayurveda also mentions two important herbal wines, asavas and aristas, which are used for weak digestion and relaxants for stress. The Ayurveda recognizes that herbal wines can have health benefits, but only when taken in moderation. This text expands on the dangers associated with alcohol use. Stating that frequent consumption can cause both psychological and physical disease. The dangers of alcohol use become relevant when it comes to an individuals’ state of mind: not only can frequent use of alcohol damage the liver, contribute to blood toxicity and also damage the brain, but it is also important to recognize that for studying students and religious individuals, it can impair mental judgment (Frawley 1). Mental clarity is an essential component in achieving moksa, and by purposely impairing an individuals mind; they are further away from attaining this ultimate goal. This kind of intoxication is predominantly viewed as negative within the Hindu tradition because of the health risks and addiction associated with this particular substance.

The use of cannabis in the Hindu tradition is widely explored within the Atharva Veda in which “cannabis is named one of the five most sacred plants on Earth” (Ramadurai 1). Vedic and Hindu literature mention cannabis for its medicinal, cultural, and religious usages. Cannabis has been used for thousands of years in the worship of the god Siva (Godlaski 1067). It is orally administered through bhang in the form of pills, or a drink made of milk and spices. It is commonly consumed at celebrations such as weddings and festivals to honor Siva and dispel evil influences caused by demons, which focus on the suffering of mankind. At festivals like Shivratri, the night of Siva and Holi, the festival of colors, bhang plays an important role. The holiness of bhang reverts back to its virtue of clearing the head and stimulating the brain (Shivahardias 11). It is used in order to clear the human brain and bring individuals closer to the gods. Cannabis is believed to have a guardian spirit whose most important duty is to counteract the attempts of evil demons. Worshippers of Siva consume bhang on festival days, and ascetic holy men smoke the flower buds in devotion to him. These holy men (sadhus) follow Lord Siva and consume regular quantities of cannabis. Most often, they smoke buds of the flower in clay pipes, called chillums, which are used in rituals of meditation, worship and yogic practices (Godlaski 1069). The ashes of the buds are believed to have powerful medicinal properties.

These specific practices are codified in the Vedas, which describe an association between Siva and cannabis. It states that a drop of amrta (sacred nectar), fell out of the sky, landed on a mountain and sprouted a cannabis plant. Siva then brought the plant down for the benefit of mankind (Godlaski 1068). This story recounts how the use of cannabis is associated with the god Siva. The same story continues to describe how demons attempted to use the cannabis plant for their own evil usage; Siva prevented this and so cannabis has also been given the name, vijaya (victory).

Cannabis in the Vedas is referred to as a source of happiness, and given to human beings to assist us in feeling happiness and to revert feelings of distress and anxiety (Godlaski 1068). The Atharva Veda continues to mention the benefits of cannabis and how it is able to “release us from anxiety” (Atharva Veda 11.6.15). It is described as a protector, and is used to protect all animals and properties (Shivaharidas 2).  Cannabis is therefore sacred, significant and respected in the Hindu tradition and is highly beneficial to Hindu society as both a medicine, and religious property.

In Vedic literature, the use of Soma can be identified as a plant, a drink and a god (deva). It is highly glorified within the Vedas, most importantly within the ninth mandala of the Rg Veda (McGeough 1). This mandala compares Soma to the sun, fire and immortality. Soma is directly correlated with the Rg Veda, because it has over 100 hymns dedicated to the plant, and plays a crucial role in understanding its effects. Soma is also mentioned within the Satapatha Brahmana, “Soma is a God, since Soma (the moon) is in the sky” and “now Soma is a god, for Soma was in the heaven” (Shivaharidas 1). The various descriptions and metaphors for Soma provide emphasis to the importance of this Vedic god within the Hindu tradition. It is physically referred to as a god, and put on the same pedestal as the heavens. It is glorified within sacred writings, and its power is clearly influential.

Similar to cannabis, it is described within the Rg Veda as the healer of disease, which renounces feelings of anxiety and stress and named the king of plants (McGeough 1). Vedic descriptions of Soma vary: it has been speculated to be cannabis, the ephedra plant, wine or a mushroom. However, it is unlikely that Soma is a type of alcohol since alcohol has other names within the Vedas and alcoholic intoxication is not seen as a positive influence within Vedic literature. It is most likely that Soma is a type of hallucinogenic mushroom, because of its appearance and intoxicating effects, however this theory cannot be proven with certainty (McGeough 1).

There are no other types of intoxicants in the Hindu tradition that produce the same effect as Soma. Primarily, Brahmin priests used Soma to be connected with the gods during Vedic rituals. Soma clearly plays a very significant role within rituals, and the Hindu tradition as a whole. Vedic deities also consume large amounts of Soma, such as Agni (god of fire) and Indra (lord of the thunderbolt) (Rg Veda 108. 1-13). It is the favorite drink of these gods, and is supplied to mortal human beings so they may find happiness. Soma is able to provide humans with mystical experiences and contributes to the connection between human and deities within the Hindu tradition.

The connection between the use of cannabis and the use of Soma within the Hindu tradition is evident. Hindu history even suggests that these two intoxicants might be the same substance (Shivahardias 1). Both substances are used for relaxation, mental clarity and used within religious rituals. These two substances are highly regarded within society, and mentioned frequently within ancient writings. Users of these intoxicants practice usage frequently, and it is normalized within their society. On the contrary, the use of alcohol is recognized as a more harmful intoxicant and its users are advised to proceed with caution when consuming. The Hindu tradition recognizes the possible harmful consequences that occur with intoxicants (predominantly the use of alcohol), such as the harmful effects of over consumption. Particularly within the Ayurveda, these harmful consequences are explored and explained.

In order to follow a Dharmic lifestyle and understand the concepts of Karma, one should not participate in over consumption of any intoxicant due to their hallucinogenic and mind-altering properties. Referring back to the ancient Hindu texts and epics can guide the individual toward understanding when and where intoxication is appropriate and how to use mind-altering substances appropriately. These writings not only serve as a guideline when it comes to intoxication in Hinduism, but also how to live a virtuous Hindu lifestyle. The negative consequences associated particularly with alcohol usage within Hinduism should be understood and acknowledged before individuals decide to partake in consuming intoxicants.



Alfred, J. Andrea (2011) World History Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Frawley, David (2014) “A Hindu view on the use of alcohol.” The Hindu Perspective. Hindu Voice UK. Accessed October 8, 2018.

 Godlaski, Theodore M (2012) “Shiva, Lord of Bhang, Substance Use & Misuse.” Substance Use & Misuse. Vol. 47, Issue 10. P1067-1072. DOI: 10.3109/10826084.2012.684308

Ramadurai, Charukesi (2017) “The intoxicating drug of an Indian god.” BBC Travel. BBC. Accessed November 27th, 2018.

Shivaharidas (2012) “Vedic use of Cannabis “ Scribd, BY-NC. P1-12.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (1998) “Soma” Encyclopaedia Britannica: Britannica Academic. Encyclopaedia Britannica inc.


Related Topics for Further Investigation




Rg Veda
















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Article written by: Leah Paul (November 2018) who is solely responsible for its content.

Hinduism in Bollywood

Bollywood came about in the very early 20th century with Dhundiraj Govind Phalke being credited with being the “Father of Indian Cinema” (Dimitrova 2016: 2). The name “Bollywood” came from a combination of Bombay and Hollywood, which demonstrates the enormous size of Bollywood in comparison to Hollywood (Mazur 2011: 75). The sources of Bollywood film can be found in traditional Indian Dance, Sanskrit drama, and especially from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Early on in its history, the films were made and seen by those in the elite classes and were rarely seen by ordinary people. Indian cinema has been seen as inferior to the west and has to censor to ‘protect’ the lower classes because it was originally reserved for the upper class (Dwyer 2006: 14). Though, the film industry has not changed greatly, there are some distinctions between old and new Bollywood film styles. Classical Bollywood film, [made in the late 20th century] was used to heighten emotional response and to appeal to a mass audience rather than just a narrow group (Dimitrova 2016: 4). Just like Hinduism, Bollywood films do not just employ storytelling, but also song and dance. Since Bollywood film has grown in popularity, the origins of the Bollywood industry still stay strong throughout.

Bollywood film in the 20th century was a useful tool in terms of creating a national and cultural identity. The films wanted to depict the immoral and materialist nature of Western culture and how India is a superior culture compared to them. Some films in this period showed the changing demographic in India. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s the presence of a Christian priest was common in Hindi film and those who sought shelter would often do so in Christian churches (Lal 2006). However, this was not widely represented in mainstream cinema. They also used the concept of ‘Orientalism’ in both the 20th and 21st centuries to push the stereotypes and the idealization of India itself. This concept gives them a uniqueness and gives them the ability to differentiate themselves from Western media. However, in 21st century Bollywood, the films are constantly being scrutinized for their views on contemporary politics, corruption, public perception of the state and its agencies, and the position of women in Indian society (Lal 2006). However, these films will sometime critique the treatment of women and other social issues. Furthermore, regarding the new Bollywood films some accuse the film- markers of being anti-Hindu or having Hinduphobia. This is where films will portray those who practice the religion as closeminded people, conservative, or will perceive the religion in a negative way. Though the roots of these movies will forever be from Hinduism.

Most, if not all Bollywood movies can be connected back to the two epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. It even has its own genre in Bollywood, often being referred to as the mythological genre. These epics guide many Hindus on how to lead a moral life by doing one’s duties, whether that be for family or society (Mazur 2011: 219). First, the Ramayana is a popular story that many know around the world. The one thing that pushed the popularity of this story was that it became a television series and the various movies were made based on the epic. For example, the movie Awaara (1951) parallels the events in the Ramayana, where Sita is kidnapped by an evil demon Ravana. Sita is found but her chastity is questioned since she was kidnapped by another man. In order to prove herself, she went through a fire ordeal, but even after she does so, Rama abandoned Sita because his kingdom was not fond of her.  In mainstream Bollywood film, this promotes a conservative model for women because she shows bhakti [devotion, service, and surrender] to Rama who is her husband (Dimitrova 2010: 72). This can be easily seen within social life of Hindus, as wives are supposed to practice loyalty and obedience with their husbands. Even Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana TV series has contributed to the vision of the perfect Pativrata using the example of the perfect dharmic wife like Sita or Draupadi and distorts Tulsidas’s version of Sita (Dimitrova 2010: 72).

The Mahabharata is considered to be the foundation of Hinduism in part because the Bhagavad Gita is derived from the text. The story is about the Pandavas rivalry with their cousins the Kauravas which ends in a fierce battle. The Pandavas demonstrate a perfect dharmic nature and Draupadi, who is wife to all five of the brothers, also demonstrates Pativrata too. The Maharashtra Film Company made the Sairandhri (1920) based on a story from the Mahabharata which shows depictions of Indian servitude (Dwyer 2006: 20). Furthermore, in the 1980s there was a TV show that B.R. Chopra made called the Mahabharata. During the time of its release the restrictions on religion in media were relaxed. This show was less controversial because it was more of a historical epic and there were not political connections. Another film that was a retelling of the Mahabharata was Shayam Benegal’s Kalyug (1980). This story instead of being set in ancient times, had a more modern tone to it. Two industrial families named the Puranchands and Khuchands go into a bitter feud similar to that of the Pandavas and the Kauravas (Lal 2006). Though, there are not as many renditions of the Mahabharata compared to the Ramayana its popularity shows that it is still is imbedded in the roots of Hindu culture and film.

An important film that illustrates the power of these mythological stories is Jai Santoshi Maa (1975). The goddess Santoshi Maa is a major goddess in the Hindu pantheon and is generally worshipped by women in northern India (Dwyer 2006: 46). The goddess was originally was local to the northern Indian, the movie was derived from the vratkathas, a story about a fast to gain the favour of a god. The movie was popular with working women and because of that, the movie turned into a household name. This movie shows the origins of the goddess and how she is a manifestation of sakti. It also shows Satyavati’s devotion leads her to economic and martial success by worshipping the goddess of satisfaction (Mazur 2011: 78). Satyavati is the mother of Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharata. “The film deliberately sets up an overt contrast between ‘High Hinduism’ and folk Hinduism:  Laksmi, Parvati, and Sarasati are well-fed and lead opulent lives, but Santoshi Ma is content with offerings ofgur-chana (cane sugar & chickpeas), food consumed by the poor” (Lal 2006). To many women who are in the lower classes, it gives them hope that a goddess can be an ordinary woman similar to how many men are considered gods (i.e. Sri Caitanya). The film has been considered a devotional and a historical film unlike the films based on the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The film often promoted the worship of the goddess by not only being shown during festival times but also when the DVD was released there incense, a small candle, an image of the goddess, and a pamphlet explaining the vow (Mazur 2011: 78). Jai Santoshi Maa (1975) quickly gained a cult status similar to the Ramayana TV series by Sagar. This movie demonstrates that Hindi film is not strictly patriarchal and how easily the worship of a new god/ goddess can come about through Bollywood film.

Hinduism is not just strictly portrayed in Bollywood films, it is also shown in Hollywood films. Comparing how the religion is interpreted in Hollywood versus Bollywood, demonstrates how others in the world view the religion. It is important to note that Hinduism in non- Indian, western film often portray orientalism and use the sense of the “Other” in positive and negative ways (Mazur 2011: 214). In Hollywood movies, holy men bring wisdom to those in need and are often portrayed as being Gurus. Though there are never any mentions of the teachings or the great philosophies of these teachers. One of the critiques that Hinduism based movies receive is that they often take a historical approach rather than a mythical one. This is often seen with movies that are based around the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Nevertheless, there are always more negatives than positives that westerners see in these films. For example, the philosophies are perceived as full of wisdom and can be useful to westerners who see rituals are seen as foreign and weird (Mazur 2011: 215). This promotes the idea of the ‘Other’ as well as orientalism. These western movies also stereotype the religion similar to how some of the Bollywood movies stereotype western cultures in theirs. For example, in the movie Lagan (2001) the Indian villagers are portrayed as morally superior and the British are shown are superficial and cruel (Dimitrova 2016: 9). In this film, a British women named Elizabeth and an Indian women named Gauri. Elizabeth develops a love for India, immersing herself in the religion which is shown through Indian music and dance. However, in the end the boy still chooses Gauri because of the desirability of the Indian “self” (Dimitrova 2016: 10). This film is based on the mythology of Krsna and his favorite gopi and the devotional Mira who believes she is wed to Krsna, which is a common theme among Bollywood films.

Hinduism is often imbedded within Bollywood movies. These movies promote a nationalism that ties in religion and devotion to doing your duties. There are two main genres in Bollywood, which are devotional and mythological, which contribute to the idea that one should practice Hinduism and should stay devoted to it. These are genres considered to be the foundations for Bollywood cinema. The mythological genre sets a stage for what the devotion should look like, as well as shows deities to prove that they too follow dharmic ways. The devotional genre guides you through using the narratives of saints from the beginning of life to the end. Though both genres still adhere to the historical aspects of the film.


References and Further Readings

Dimitrova, Diana (2016) “Hinduism and Its Others in Bollywood Film of the 2000s” Journal of Religion and Film 20: 1-20.

Dimitrova, Diana (2010) “Religion and Gender in Bollywood Film.” In Religion in Literature and Film in South Asia edited by Diana Dimitrova, 69-81. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Dwyer, Rachel (2006) Filming the Gods: Religion and Indian Cinema. New York: Routledge.

Lal, Vinay (2006) “Hinduism in Bollywood: A few notes.” University of Los Angeles. Accessed October 3, 2018.

Mazur, Eric Michael (2011) Encyclopedia of Religion and Film. Denver: Greenwood.

Related Topics for Further Investigation





Dhundiraj Govind Phalke







Bhagavad Gita


Noteworthy Websites

This article was written by:  Kailea Long (Fall 2018) who is solely responsible for its content.



Kirtana is a Sanskrit word that means “to praise” or “to glorify.” Kirtana is primarily used in a form of call and response chanting of sacred Sanskrit names of Hindu deities (LaTrobe 10). Through the centuries, kirtana metamorphosed into devotional hymns and mantras extensively glorifying the great deity Krsna (Kinsley 1979:176). It is also known as sankirtana which encompasses group acting performances, storytelling, singing and dancing, accompanied by drums and various exotic instruments (Delmonico in Bryant 549).

Kirtana has historical roots in the 6th century when a new form of devotional worship arose in the Tamil speaking part of southern India. The two main groups of Tamil poet-saints were the Alvars and the Nayanars who attributed special devotion to their gods Visnu and Siva respectively. These poets traveled from temple to temple or village to village singing ecstatic hymns and praises in adoration of their gods. They promoted the use of all the senses and the body to enhance a fuller experience of divine bliss (Dehejia 13). Tamil saints not only walked the path of love themselves but through their songs they promoted love and devotion toward God. They attracted many followers because their message was simple; all that was required was an intimate and constant abiding love of God. Followers did not require a deep knowledge of the scriptures or need to be learned in philosophy or religious tradition (Dehejia 13).

Tamil hymns composed by the saints were often set to the music of traditional ballads so that everyone could join in singing the responses (Dehejia 30). Hymns were expressly designed to move the hearts of the listeners to a passionate love and devotion to God. Followers of Tamil poet-saints were encouraged to engage in ecstatic and emotional singing, dancing and worshiping of the gods. This newly created culture became known as bhakti – a passionate and personal love relationship between the Beloved and the Devoted (Bhattacharya 47). Sensuous, erotic, and ecstatic personal experience with God were prominent characteristics of early Tamil bhakti saints and their followers.

Bhakti had its main source already in the first century from the Bhagavad-Gita, a dialogue between the god Krsna and his friend Arjuna. The Bhagavad-Gita, or simply the Gita, was handed down orally in the form of hymns, ballads, and folk-songs. The philosophy of the Gita was a religion of love that embraced God’s creatures as brothers of the same family; it did not recognize classes, castes, sexes, or races (Bhattacharya 49). The bhakti movement was a resistance to ritually oriented orthodoxy dominated by priests. It took mantras out of the temples and into the streets where all peoples could engage and connect with their deities through singing and dancing. Thus, promulgated by the Tamil poet-saints who sang songs of total devotion for their God that disregarded caste distinctions and other hierarchies of orthodox Hinduism (Peterson 9), the bhakti movement is about deep social reform and liberation for the masses (Hawley 8).

Kirtana was the outcome of the bhakti movement. In the bhakti tradition, communion with a deity was described as blissful, intoxicating and overwhelming and often culminated in weeping, singing, and impulsive dancing. An early proponent of kirtana was Sri Caitanya, a 16th century Bengali mystic who is said to have introduced kirtana as an exceptional way of attaining and expressing bhakti (Kinsley 1979:177). So great was his intoxicating love for Krsna that he often appeared to be a lunatic as much of his life was spent in continual fits of uncontrollable weeping and wailing, laughing, singing, and dancing in ecstatic love (Kinsley 1974:291).

Kirtana was used by Caitanya and his followers as an effective medium of communication and proliferation of emotional bhakti (Chakrabarty 18). When orthodox Brahmans attempted to ban kirtana, Caitanya organized a massive demonstration where thousands came out in the streets. Led by kirtana singing and dancing groups, the people soon began to sing, dance, cry and weep. “Men grew almost insane in ecstasy…the kirtana sounded like an earth-shaking roar, the impact of which was very much enhanced by the continuous sounds of drums, cymbals, and clapping” (Chakrabarty 19). The Caitanya tradition proposes that kirtana is the proper form of religious worship for the current age, the Age of Kali, the Age of Quarrel (Delmonico in Bryant 549). Kirtana leaders will occasionally remind participants that chanting the names of God prepares one for salvation during Kali Yuga which is a period of dishonesty and spiritual degradation (Cooke 24).

While there is no structured pattern followed in the performance of kirtana, chanting and singing praises to Krsna is often followed by ecstatic and frenzied dancing. It is common for the whole kirtana group, including the musicians, to get up and dance as they play their instruments or clap their hands. Some kirtana singers will smoke marijuana before they sing to enhance the intensity of the experience (Henry 36). When the devotees sing and glorify Krsna a celebratory excitement permeates the gathering, and many will fall into trances or become giddy like children. Even grave, old men with perfect manners will succumb to the powerful crescendo of sound and movement and engage in blissful devotion to Krsna (Kinsley 1979:181).

Kirtana is often held in the evenings along a riverbank or at the centre of a village. To the villagers, it is a religious and social event. The leader of the kirtana, known as the kirtankar, can capture the hearts of illiterate listeners and encourage them towards a deeper spiritual life (Naikar 96). Although most kirtanas are meant to glorify God, they also provide opportunities for the kirtankar to teach, expose social injustices, and even provide entertainment in the form of plays. Participants become active players in the poem being sung by the kirtankar and strive to communicate with the deity. For example, if the theme is Krsna playing with the gopis (milkmaids), devotees will get up and dance in circles, often culminating in an ecstatic frenzy of jumping, clapping of hands, beating of thighs, and rolling on the ground (Kinsley 1979:178). It is written in the Caitanya-bhagavata that a kirtana held at the home of a companion of Caitanya became so exuberant that some devotees could not keep their clothes on and others passed out in an ecstatic trance. (Kinsley 1979:177).

Musical instruments are an important characteristic of kirtana. Hindu scriptures such as the Vedas and the Upanisads consider music and musical instruments as sacred sounds closely identified with the Hindu Gods and Goddesses (Beck 20). For example, Lord Brahma, creator of the universe, is portrayed as playing the hand symbols. Lord Krsna plays the flute, prompting the gopis to dance ecstatically with him in the moonlight. Lord Visnu plays the conch shell and Lord Siva the damaru drum. Each of these instruments represents Om, which is Brahman, the Ultimate Reality. The notion of sacred sound expresses the connection between the human realm and the divine (Beck 20).

Kirtana events typically include flutes, drums, cymbals, harmonium, and various stringed instruments. One of the oldest and most popular musical instruments used in traditional kirtana is the bamboo flute, including a bamboo nose flute (LaTrobe 111). These flutes have since been replaced with the more vigorous clarinet. The clarinet provides musical reinforcement for the singers and can be heard above the clashing cymbals and robust drum rhythms.

The kohl drum is a double-sided drum made from a piece of jackfruit wood which has been hollowed out and covered with pieces of goatskin leather (Beck 23). A black paste made from a mixture of rice flour and stone dust is pressed layer upon layer on top of the skin. According to ancient literature, the black paste represents the crying eyes of Radha after her painful separation from her lover Krsna (LaTrobe 107). The kohl drum, and the kartal, small wooden clappers with six cymbals inside, are central to the kirtana performance as they provide the rhythmic foundation of the music. Exotic sounding stringed instruments include the sitar, ektara, and the ananda laharii, which means “waves of bliss” (LaTrobe 111).  Single stringed instruments such as the ektara and the ananda laharii are symbolic of single-mindedness towards spiritual goals (LaTrobe 110).

Music was viewed as a personal journey toward moksa (liberation). The bhakti movement emphasized that moksa also depended on one’s emotions and the deepness of one’s personal relationship with the deity (Beck 24). Singing and chanting, accompanied with musical instruments connected deep religious ecstasy with spiritual self-realization for participants of kirtana.

Chanting became popular in the western world when a charismatic Indian monk named A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada brought kirtana to North America in the mid-1960s (Ketola 312). Challenged by his guru to preach Lord Caitanya’s message of devotion to Krsna and bhakti yoga throughout the world, the penniless samnyasi travelled to New York on a cargo ship where he soon attracted a group of devotees, mostly hippies (Ketola 312). One day he took his followers to a local park for a public kirtana. The dancing, singing, and chanting attracted significant audiences and soon kirtana became very popular. Shortly after his arrival in America, Swami Prabhupada formed the International Society for Krsna Consciousness (ISKCON), commonly known as the Hare Krsna movement which pushed kirtana into the public limelight. Converts to the Hare Krsna movement became known for their public chanting of sacred Vedic deities specifically the mahamantra (the great mantra):

Hare Krsna Hare Krsna Krsna Krsna Hare Hare

Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare

As the sound vibrations of repeating the holy names of deities are sacred, singing and chanting kirtana benefits the listener, performer and the environment where the names are sung. Participants who sing kirtana and repeat the mahamantra claim to experience both a transcendental connection with the Divine and physical sensations of bliss that has even resulted in healing of physical and emotional ailments (Cooke 124, 125).

Kirtana serves to unite spirituality through bhakti yoga – the yoga of love and emotional attachment to God and can be found in many yoga studios today. Kirtana is sound vibration and chanting mantras invokes the presence of God himself. Participants who combine kirtana and bhakti yoga claim to experience peace and happiness (Brown 2012:77).

Kirtana has influenced modern-day styles of popular music such as reggae, hip-hop, and dubstep (Brown 2014:458). Hare Krsna festivals all around the world feature popular kirtana artists. Kirtana experienced through call and response chanting, singing, dancing, or yoga is likened to a divine love affair between the devotee and God. It is a religion of the heart, a process of pursuit, continuously changing, full of surprises and hidden delights, delicate and yet passionately ecstatic, all in the quest of a perfect union with God and self.


Beck, Guy L. (2007) “The Magic of Hindu Music.” Hinduism Today, 29 (4): 18-27. (October/November/December 2007)

Bhattacharya, B., and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2003) Bhakti: The Religion of Love. New Delhi: UBS Publishers’ Distributors Ltd.

Brown, Sara (2012) “Every Word is a Song, Every Step is a Dance: Participation, Agency, and the Expression of Communal Bliss in Hare Krishna Festival Kirtan.” ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. Accessed on October 28, 2018.

Brown, Sara Black (2014) “Krishna, Christians, and Colors: The Socially Binding Influence of Kirtan Singing at a Utah Hare Krishna Festival.” Ethnomusicology 58 (3): 454.

Chakrabarty, Ramakanta (1986) “Vaisnava Kirtana in Bengal” Journal of the Indian Musicological Society 17 (1): 12.

Cooke, Jubilee Q. (2009) Kirtan in Seattle: New Hootenanny for Spirit Junkies. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. Accessed on October 28, 2018.

Dehejia, Vidya, and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2002) Slaves of the Lord: The Path of the Tamil Saints. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

Delmonico, Neal (2007) “Chaitanya Vaishnavism and the Holy Names” In Krishna: A Sourcebook, edited by Edwin F. Bryant and MyiLibrary, 549-575. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hawley, John Stratton (2015) A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Henry, Edward O. (2002) “The Rationalization of Intensity in Indian Music.” Ethnomusicology 46 (1): 33-55.

Ketola, Kimmo (2004) “The Hare Krishna and the Counterculture in the Light of the Theory of Divergent Modes of Religiosity.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 16 (3): 301-20.

Kinsley, David R., and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (1979) The Divine Player: A Study of Krsna Lĩlã. 1st – ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Kinsley, David R. (1974) “Through the Looking Glass: Divine Madness in the Hindu Religious Tradition.” History of Religions 13 (4): 270-305.

La Trobe, Jyoshna (2010) “Red Earth Song. Marāī Kīrtan of Rāṛh: Devotional Singing and the Performance of Ecstasy in the Purulia District of Bengal, India.” PDF. Accessed October 09, 2018.

Peterson, Indira Viswanathan (1989) Poems to Śiva: The Hymns of the Tamil Saints. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Ramaswamy Sastri, K. S., and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2003) The Tamils: The People, their History, and Culture. Vol. 1-5. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.


Related Topics for Further Investigation





Sri Caitanya



Kali Yuga





A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

Hare Krsna

International Society for Krsna Consciousness (ISKCON)


Bhakti Yoga

Hare Krsna Festivals

Popular Kirtan Artists



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Joey Grace (Fall 2018) who is solely responsible for its content.



Historical and Mythic Origins of Two South Indian Martial Arts: Varma Kalai and Kalarippayattu

In this article, two south Indian martial arts will be presented, with a particular emphasis on Kalarippayattu, which was heavily influenced by the second, Varma Kalai (Zarrilli 1998: 29-30). A brief examination of the historical and mythological origins of these martial arts as well as their influence on each other and other Asian martial traditions will be given.

The Varma Kalai tradition, sometimes also known as Varma Ati, of Tamil Nadu, a province in southern India, has a mixture of Aryan and Dravidian origins. It is said that a sage by the name of Agastya was taught the martial art by the son of Siva, Murugan, and upon returning to Tamil Nadu, this sage taught it to the rest of the siddhas (masters/teachers) (Luijendijk 60-61). Varma Kalai, however, is not simply a martial art form, but heavily focuses on medicine and anatomy. For example, the varma of Varma Kalai refer to the body’s vital spots that can be exploited to harm or to heal, and even to revive those previously believed to be dead. This tradition of Tamil Nadu is very strong in its southernmost districts of Travancore and Kanyakumari (Zarrilli 1992: 37-39).

Kalarippayattu, or Kalarippayat, is made up of two words, kalari (meaning place) and payattu (meaning practice) and is the name of the traditional Indian martial art originating from the Kerala province of south India (Zarrilli 1998: 25). Due to the proximity of the regions, Kerala’s southern Kalarippayattu style is viewed as almost a mixture with Tamil Nadu’s Varma Kalai, and indeed the two provinces share a similar culture. In the north of Kerala, however, the distinction is very clear as the geographical separation was greater. That said, over the years many traditional aspects of northern Kalarippayattu, such as training in pits, have made their way into some schools in the south, and a few masters of southern Kalarippayattu and Varma Kalai live and teach in the north (Zarrilli 1992: 38-39).

The Dravidian (Tamil) influences were introduced to Kerala by hundreds of years of war between the Cera, Cola and Pandya dynasties, in which Varma Kalai was developed as the traditional school of warfare (Luijendijk 45). The Aryan Dhanur Veda (chapters 249-52 of the Agni Purana) means “science of archery” but was a treatise referring to many forms of combat, and is one of many northern Indian influences to be introduced in Kerala (Zarrilli 1998: 33). From the merging of these two influences, and many years of development, come three distinct fighting systems within Kalarippayattu (Luijendijk 43-44).

Like Varma Kalai, Kalarippayattu entails as much fighting as it does healing and is regarded as a study of war and medicine. From the Aryan influences, the Dhanur Veda treats the war aspect, and the Ayurveda treats the medicinal and healing aspect of Kalarippayattu. It is these Vedic traditions from which Drona derives his teaching of the Pandava brothers in the Mahabharata (Zarrilli 1979: 114-116).

In order to find the more mythic origins of Kalarippayattu, however, one should refer to the Keralolpathi, a history of the Kerala region, and the Mahabharata. Similar to the stories of Agastya from Tamil Nadu, one finds stories in these works of the warrior-sage Parasurama. A host of tales, some more fictional than others give this man a colourful, if not entirely clear, life.

Parasurama (meaning Rama with the axe), was the son of a Brahmin, Jamadagni, and was given his axe by none other than the god Siva, who also taught him Kalarippayattu (Luijendijk 46). Siva is said to have been so impressed by this young Brahmin’s devotion and martial prowess, that he granted him a boon of weapons and the knowledge of warfare. One of these weapons is the axe, upon which many of the folk stories and legends of Parasurama are hinged.

According to a poem by N. Balamani Amma, the mother of Parasurama was a Ksatriya woman by the name of Renuka, from whom he presumably got his knack for warfare to begin with (Amma 125, verse 3). One day, Jamadagni ordered his sons to kill their mother and only Parasurama was obedient and devoted enough to his father to kill her, thus he cut off her head with his axe (verse 4). This aspect of devotion in the story is related to the modern devotion of the Kalarippayattu student to his or her guru. After killing his mother, Parasurama wandered the forests pondering dharma and upon his return found that a group of adharmic Ksatriya had stolen his family’s sacred cow. Having just pondered the importance of righteousness, Parasurama set out to kill all the unrighteous Ksatriya (verse 7). When he returned home from a later trip, he found that more Ksatriya kings had killed his father and so he set out another time and slaughtered the world’s population of Ksatriya (tens of thousands) 21 times over with his divine axe (verse 10). It is because of this annihilation of Ksatriya that many Hindus claim Parasurama to be the sixth avatar of Visnu, having fulfilled the avatars duty of ridding the world of the unrighteous kings. As the gods themselves kill the asuras, a warrior upholds dharma by killing his enemy (Luijendijk 45). Now that the world is free of adharmic Ksatriyas, according to the poem, the remorseful Parasurama went to ponder upon his actions and ended up throwing the instrument of such terrible destruction far into the sea. Over the space of some years, the waters receded up to the point where the axe fell, and this new land, Kerala, was a land of temporary purity and creativity, perfection and fertility. To restore the balance, a mingling of new Ksatriya and Brahmin occurred in this land, also identifying Parasurama with Visnu (verse 12-14).

From this point, there are two clashing versions of Parasurama’s story, regarding how it relates to Kalarippayattu. In the Mahabharata, the period of fertility and perfection in this new land affected every species, including the ascetic Brahmins Parasurama brought to mate with the Ksatriya women who were left by his earlier slaughter. Their offspring are the Brahmaksatra, or Brahmin-Ksatriya, that ruled Kerala righteously for a time (Ganguli 130).

The other version, from the Keralolpathi, claims that Parasurama brought 3600 Brahmin with him from the north into his new land and gave it to them. He taught the priests (including Drona from the Mahabharata) in the art of Kalarippayattu, or warfare in general, and they became the Brahmaksatra, the priest-warriors of Kerala. Oft times these men are viewed as degraded ardhabrahmanas or half-Brahmin (Zarrilli 1998: 31-32). No matter the social status of these so called half-Brahmin, throughout history they obviously thought themselves as the inheritors of Kerala from Parasurama himself, who established for them 32 settlements within the province. In these 32 settlements, he divided them into the four groups that eventually form the four Nambudiri Brahmin families. These four groups are the Ugram Velli, Ghoram Velli, Ullutturuttiyyattu, and Dronam Velli (Zarrilli 1998: 32). He taught each a different aspect of Kalarippayattu and from these four families, 21 masters emerged and formed their own salai or schools of the martial art. The number eventually grew to around 108 salai, and some kalari (modern salai) can trace their origins back to these original schools of Kalarippayattu (Luijendijk 46). From these salai, the Brahmins taught the cattar, or Brahmin students, in their religious training as well as martial and medicinal training. However, despite the mingling of class/caste duties among ancient practitioners of Kalarippayattu, social divisions remained and the kalari were created as training centres for the other castes. Eventually, the Brahmins receded back into the duties of priesthood and land ownership, and the salai ceased to exist, giving way to the important Nayar caste from the kalari (Pati 179).

It is at one of these ancient salai, however, that Luijendijk claims the Buddhist missionary Bodhidharma was schooled before he ventured north into China, and eventually to a Shaolin monastery itself. If he was trained in a salai, then it is almost certain he knew Kalarippayattu, therefore it may be the primary influence of Shaolin Kung Fu and every other martial art derived from it (Luijendijk 47).

Modern Kalarippayattu crystallized into what it is today during the 11th/12th centuries, in the times of the 100 year war between the Cera and Cola, but the martial art is certainly very different from what it was during the time of the first Brahmaksatra (Zarrilli 1992: 37-39). As proof of this, neither the axe nor the bow are practiced in modern kalari; this is indeed strange because the principal weapon of Parasurama was the axe, and the Dhanur Veda clearly indicates archery as the purest form of combat. Today Kalarippayattu is a standing martial art that values armed combat over hand-to-hand; the common weapons today are the dagger, sword, flexible sword, staff, and spear (Prasad 2016).

These modern kalari still maintain their historically divine connection with the god Siva. The patron or guardian deity of every kalari is either a form of Siva’s daughter, Bhagavati, his consort, Sakti, or some combination/form of both of these suras (Zarrilli 1998: 69). Some other deities that preside over modern kalari may be local ancestors or heroes fallen in battle, and each gurukkal, or head teacher at a kalari, is said to be the embodiment of each former gurukkal all the way back to Parasurama (Zarrilli 1998: 116).


Amma, N. B. (1980) “The Story of the Axe.” Journal of South Asian Literature, Vol. 15, No. 2: 124-131.

Ganguli, K. M. (1990 (1883)) The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd. .

Luijendijk, D. H. (2008) Kalarippayat: The Structure and Essence of an Indian Martial Art.

Mohindar, M. (Director) (2016) The Origin of All Martial Arts [Motion Picture]. Retrieved from

Pati, G. (2010) “Kalari and Kalarippayattu of Kerala South India: Nexus of the Celestial, Corporeal, and the Terrestrial.” Contemporary South Asia, Vol. 18, No. 2: 178-180.

Zarrilli, P. B. (1979) “Kalarippayatt, Martial Art of Kerala.” The Drama Review, Vol. 23, No. 2: 113-116.

—. (1992) “To Heal and/or To Harm: The Vital Spots (Marmmam/Varmam) in Two South Indian Martial Traditions Part 1: Focus on Kerala’s Kalarippayattu.” Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Vol. 1, No. 1: 36-67.

—. (1998) When the Body Becomes All Eyes. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Related Reading

Ayyar, K. V. Krishna (1928-32) “The Kerala Mamakam.” Kerala Society Papers 2, Series 6: 324-330.

Nayar, Cirakkal T. (1983) Kalarippayattu. Calicut: Cannannore Printing Works.

Sieler, Roman (2015) Lethal Spots, Vital Secrets: Medicine and Martial Arts in South India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Zarrilli, P. B. (2001) “Kalarippayattu”. In T. A. Green, Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia (pp. 225-231). Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.






Dhanur Veda





Cera/Cola Dynasty



Varma Kalai


This article was written by: Jace Briand (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.

The Hitopadesa

When it comes to Hindu works of political theory and political statecraft, it can be found in the various treatises throughout Hindu religious literature. Most of these treatises and stories are too difficult to be digested by the masses, especially if look back to times around the 8th century. There are two works of literature that allow for ease of consumption of these ideas. They are the Pancatantra and the Hitopadesa. The Pancatantra is the older of the two dating to around the 3rd century CE, but this is inconclusive as the stories presented are seemingly much older and this is possibly the first instance of them being written down. The Hitopadesa, on the other hand, does not come into existence until between the 8th and 12th century. The Hitopadesa was written by someone named Narayana and it was meant to teach young princes statecraft. This collection of fables sets to explain political statecraft by utilising animal tales. The collection itself is split into four sections, the acquisition of friends, the separation of friends, war, and peace. (Pinncott 1). The way the stories are told within the Hitopadesa is an old sage telling different stories of animal interaction to four young princes. In this way of storytelling, the Hitopadesa shares a lot of similarities with other fable collections, such as Aesop’s Fables. Also, it is considered to be what inspired the fables we see in collections like Aesop’s Fables (Srinivasan 70).

If we look at each of the sections that the Hitopadesa is broken into, we start to notice repeated themes, for example, choose your friends wisely. Each of these themes is easily explained through the stories presented in each section of the Hitopadesa. In the first section of the Hitopadesa, which is referred to as the acquisition of friends, there is a story of a vulture, a cat, and some birds. In this story, the vulture lives in a great tree with the birds and one day a cat approaches the tree and the birds wake the sleeping vulture to deal with the cat. The cat using honeyed words convinced the vulture to allow him to stay within the tree. As the days passed, the cat proceeded to eat the young birds without the vulture ever taking notice. The birds noticed that their young were slowly starting to disappear and they decided to investigate. The cat caught wind of this and snuck its way out of the tree without any notice. Upon discovering the remains of their young ones in the vultures hollow the birds proceeded to peck the vulture to death because they believed that the vulture was the one responsible for this (Pinncott 12-14). There are a few morals to this story, one of which is that one should never treat someone you hardly know as a friend, this is because one can never fully trust anyone upon their first meeting. Another moral that can be taken from this story is that one should trust their instincts. At first, the vulture did not want to take the cat into its hollow because it knew that the cat was a malicious being but because of the cat’s honeyed words the vulture was persuaded and that eventually led to its demise. This story is one of many that take place in the first section of this collection that deal with how to acquire the right friends.

Another story in this first part of the collection that deals with how to choose the right friends is about a deer, a jackal, and a crow. In this story, the jackal approaches the deer with intent to feast on its flesh and asks to be the deer’s friend, the deer accepts. When they return to the deer’s hovel, they are greeted by the deer’s old friend, the crow, who asks why the deer has made friends with the jackal and warns the deer of this decision. Listening to the crow’s advice but not heeding it, the deer continues to be friends with the jackal. The jackal one day convinces the deer to eat from a plentiful field of corn, which the deer does and fattens up. Then one day it becomes caught in a snare set by the farmer of the field. The jackal sees this and decides to wait for the human to return to kill the deer and take some of its flesh, then the jackal will devour what is left behind. Luckily for the deer, the crow comes looking for the deer and finds it caught in the snare and they then proceed to devise and execute a plan that will free the deer and kill the jackal (Pinncott 11-16). The moral of this story is like that of the vulture, the cat, and the birds, that one should never make a friend out of someone you just met and know little about. These two stories, along with the rest of the stories within the first section are highly cynical and seem to eschew the idea that no one is innocent until proven guilty and holds aloft the concept of nature over nurture.

The second section of the Hitopadesa deals with the separation of friends. In this section, there is a story of a washerman’s donkey and dog, in which the house of the washerman is being robbed and the dog refuses to bark to wake the master. The donkey notices this and inquires as to why the dog refused to bark to rouse the master, the dog responds that because the master is neglecting him he will neglect the master. The donkey takes great offence to this and scolds the dog and decides to bray to rouse the master. The donkey accomplishes arousing the master but it also scares away the robber. The master then beats the donkey to death for rousing him for what the master who failed to see the robber saw as nothing (Pinncott 36-37). The moral presented in this story is that it is better to mind one’s own business. This moral is seen in another story about a monkey who perished when it removed a wedge between two beams (Pinncott 36).

Another story in this section deals with monkeys and a bell. In this story, a robber from a certain village steals the temple bell and runs into the forest where he is attacked by a tiger who was curious about the sound. The tiger killed him leaving the bell on the ground. Eventually, a group of monkeys came by and picked up the bell and at night would ring it continuously because they enjoyed the music. When the villagers went in search of the strange bell ringing they found the corpse of the robber and heard the ringing of bells and decided that the forest was haunted by an evil spirit that would kill and then joyously ring a bell. One woman from the village did not believe that this was the case and ventured into the forest, and discover that it was not an evil spirit but a group of monkeys who were ringing the bell. So, with intelligence and courage, she received some gold from the king and used that gold to purchase various fruits and nuts. Then she tricked the monkeys to come down from their trees and eat the food, while they were eating happily the woman retrieved the bell and saved the town from the evil spirit (Pinncott 44). The moral presented in this story is that through intelligence and courage, one can overcome all odds and should not be afraid of small trifles. The morals presented in this section of the Hitopadesa deal with intelligence winning over all else, that one should approach all situations with these abilities least one should end up like the monkey. One should also not interfere with the disputes of another lest they end up like the donkey and one should also have the intelligence and courage to find the truth like the woman and the bell.

The third section of the Hitopadesa deals with war. In this section, there is a story of a herd of elephants whose watering hole has dried up and they fear that they will die of thirst, but they hear of a lake that has yet to dry up in another jungle. It was then decided that the elephants would travel to this lake in this far away jungle as to not perish from thirst. When the herd of elephants saw the lake, they stampeded over to it, crushing hundreds of rabbits under foot. The rabbits who retreated to their king needed a plan that could drive the elephants from their land. So, the rabbit king went to speak with the king of the elephants and unable to reach the king of the elephants the rabbit king decided to climb a nearby hill and proclaimed that he was a messenger sent from the moon god. The rabbit king informed the elephant king that he had angered the moon god by drinking from his sacred lake. This terrified the elephant king so much so that he took his herd and left, leaving the rabbits alone with their lake (Pinncott 60-61). The moral that is presented in this story is that wit can win over might. This moral is an important lesson when it comes to warfare, in that it teaches that any battle can be won with the right strategy.

Another story from this section of the Hitopadesa is about a soldier who offers his services to a king for a hefty sum, the king then decides to pay him for 4 days upfront and observes closely what the man does with the gold. The king finds that the man gave half of the gold to the gods and the Brahmin, a quarter to the poor and less fortunate and kept the last quarter for his own sustenance and pleasure. He did this all while maintaining his position at the gate always unless relieved by royal permission. After a few days, the king received word of weeping coming from the front gate; the king promptly sent the man to investigate and upon approaching what was a weeping woman, he had a vision. In that vision, he learns that the king has but three days to live and to save him, the man must behead his first-born son. The man does this but also takes his own life than his wife proceeds to take hers; the king discovers this and laments offering up his own life to save the three of them. The Goddess appears and lets him know that his sacrifice was not required and she was simply testing him. Upon hearing this, the king asked if the three of them who sacrificed themselves to be revived. Upon their revival, the king asked the man about the source of the weeping and the man replied, that it was just a woman who fled when he approached (Pinncott 72-74). The moral of this story is that the greatest man does not brag about his deeds, but remains quiet and accepts them as a part of himself. This moral also plays nicely with the concept of warfaring in that one who does not boast of his accomplishments will not receive any challenges, and when he is challenged he will have a fortune at his side.

The last section of the Hitopadesa deals with peace. In this section, there is a story of a crane and a crab. In this story, there is a crane that can eat from a pond whenever he needs to but as he grows older, he becomes unable to catch the fish of the pond and begins to starve. The crane then devises a plan to make it seem like the pond is drying up and that he knows of another pond that is further away that is safe. The crane then offers to carry the residences of the lake to the pond but because he is old, he must rest between voyages. On the first voyage, he takes some fish but instead of heading to the pond, he heads to a nearby hill and eats the fish, the crane repeats this for a while until he regains his strength back. One day, a crab wishes to be carried to the pond and the crane becomes excited thinking he can try some new food takes the crab. During the voyage, the crab asks the crane if they are about to reach the pond, but the crane simply replies that he will eat him and that there is no pond. Angered by this, the crab promptly grabs the cranes neck and breaks it, killing the crane. The crab returns to the pond and tells the pond of what was transpiring (Pinncott 84-85). The moral of this story is that greed in excess is harmful. This moral can be used when bartering for peace because sometimes if you are bartering for peace and you have the most to gain from the peace deal, you must not be too greedy because you might also have the most to lose.

The Hitopadesa is one of the most translated works of Hindu literature and is still extremely relevant today. The lessons and teachings held within the Hitopadesa are easily applied to contemporary problems that youth or people, in general, can use. Like the European collection of fables called Aesop’s fables, the Hitopadesa is used to teach Sanskrit literature and writing to young Hindus learning their first language or for a student who seeks to learn Sanskrit, it is an excellent starting point (Pincott iii).

References and Further Recommended Reading

Pincott, Frederic and Francis Johnson (2004) Hitopadesa: A New Literal Translation from the Sanskrit text of F. Johnson for the use of students. New Delhi: Cosmo Publication.

Srinivasian, R. (1995) “When Beasts Teach Humans-Political Wisdom.” New Quest: 69-80. Accessed February 26, 2017.

Shanbhag, D.N. (1974) “Two Conclusion from the Hitopadesa: A Reappraisal” Journal of the Karnatak University: 24-29. Accessed March 30, 2017.

Related Topics for Further Investigation




Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article was written by Kurtis Verrier (February 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.

Kuchipudi Dance Tradition

There are three components to Indian dance, which include bhava, rasa, and nava rasa. Bhava is the feeling of protection by the dancer in their performance, rasa is the spirit or essence that is absorbed by the audience to whom is watching the performance and the true realization of the performance. Lastly, nava rasa is the proficiency of the nine moods which include love, anger, humor, disgust, heroism, tranquility, amazement, fear, and sorrow (Gaston 84). It is very important that the costume, including jewelry and cosmetics, is constructed properly to ensure the performance or presentation of the dance will be considered successful (Gaston 77). This is very true of the Kuchipudi dance tradition.

The Kuchipudi dance tradition is comprised of two components: dance and drama. This dance-drama tradition is divided up into nritta, meaning pure dance, nritya, meaning expressional dance, and natya, meaning dramatic aspect (Kothari and Pasricha 43). To evoke the spirit of the dance or rasa; nritta, nritya, and natya are implemented into the dance tradition (Kothari and Pasricha 56). Rules concerning the performance aspect of this dance drama tradition are followed in the Natyasastra, a Sanskrit Hindu text, along with other additional texts (Kothari and Pasricha 45). Some of these rules include the carrying of the bamboo flag staff, the singing of the verses of prayer, and the offering of flowers. A typical Kuchipudi dance drama will start by reciting verses from Vedic (Sanskrit Hindu) texts. After these verses are recited, the stage is sprinkled with holy water and decorated with colored powders. Incense is then offered by another (other than the main performer) dancer. Flowers are offered to the audience viewing the performance in attempts to receive their blessings. Following these offerings, the performer of the dance drama is to cross the stage carrying a flag staff which is an act of driving off evil forces (Kothari and Pasricha 47).

Darus, a special structure of musical composition, were an important part of the Kuchipudi dance tradition, as they made up the singing and dialogue of the presentation. Singing as well as dancing add color or vibrance to a Kuchipudi dance performance, engaging the audiences’ attention (Kothari and Pasricha 56). Most dance dramas will typically end with mangalam, which are verses that bestow a blessing (Kothari and Pasricha 53). Performances usually took place in the evening when the only light available was from torches that were held by the village washermen. However, this changed when indoor lights were more accessible and available through industrialization (Kothari and Pasricha 56).

The most popular dance drama within the Kuchipudi dance tradition is called the Bhama Kalapam (Kothari and Pasricha 57). The Bahma Kalapam portrays the mercurial (fast, excitable, etc.) Satyabhama, who is Krsna’s significant other. The highest goal of a Kuchipudi dancer was to excel in this role. Kalapams were generally performed outside of the temple for the public to view (Venkataraman and Pasricha 124).

Kuchipudi is a dance tradition that originates in Andhra Pradesh, which is a state that

borders the South-Eastern coast of India. Its name comes from a village in Andhra Pradesh called Kuchipudi (Kothari and Pasricha 33). Although considered to be a classical dance form, Kuchipudi was not the first Indian dance discovered in Andhra Pradesh. In fact, there were a myriad of dance styles already in existence, some of which include Pindi bandha-s, and Perani dance (Kothari and Pasricha 23). The history of Kuchipudi dance is divided up into two different time eras; the first is between second century B.C. and the ninth century A.D., followed by the second era between the tenth century A.D. and the eighteenth century A.D (Kothari and Pasricha 24). The fifteenth century is when the Kuchipudi dance tradition, especially through the Yakshagana Brahmana Mela festival, seemed to prosper. During this time, the Kuchipudi dance tradition involved elements of both classical and folk styles. Additionally, it was during this period when the Bhakti cult began spreading to other areas of India and dance drama was beginning to become a form of expression.

Siddhendra Yogi was an immensely important person for Kuchipudi dance and believed by some to be the founder or developer of this tradition (Kothari and Pasricha 33). He was a follower of Krsna and devoted his life to promoting Bhakti after crossing a river with great difficulty, which nearly cost Siddhendra Yogi his life. Siddhendra Yogi assembled a group of Brahmin boys and asked them if they would perform a dance drama that would be an offering to Krsna. He also made these Brahmin boys promise that they would perform this same dance drama once a year and that descendants of the Brahmin families will carry on preserving this tradition (Kothari and Pasricha 31). Siddhendra Yogi used Brahmin males specifically because at this time in India’s dance history, girls were not allowed to perform the Kuchipudi dance; in fact, it was not until the nineteenth century that females were allowed to perform this tradition. Because girls were not permitted to dance in the Kuchipudi dance tradition at this time, Brahmin males often impersonated female characters. (Kothari and Pasricha 33).

Narayana Tirtha was also influential to the world of Kuchipudi and was recognized for his Sanskritic musical composition. He wrote the Krsna Leela Tarangiri, a work known for being a milestone in literature and art. It includes 153 keertanams which are known as lyrics of a specific sculpture, 30 darus which are special structure of musical composition, 302 slokams which are verses of praises for deities, as well as numerous gadya which are prose passages (Venkataraman and Pasricha 128).

As we fast forward to the nineteenth to twentieth century, there have been advancements in stage technique, lighting, decor, and costumes that drew audiences of the Kuchipudi dance tradition away from a more traditional presentation. There was immense competition from the film medium during this time, for example, Kuchipudi performers began to join popular drama companies. However, traditional presentation was once again brought back to the Kuchipudi dance drama in the revival of the freedom movement to the people who lived in the state of Andhra Pradesh. This was accomplished primarily through the writing of articles in newspapers and journals, and putting on more Kuchipudi performances. Films displaying the Kuchipudi dance drama had also enabled the popularity of this tradition (Kothari and Pasricha 38).

During the mid-twentieth century, Kuchipudi dance tradition reached national status as they were invited to the All Indian Dance Seminar that was held in Delhi. After this seminar, this specific dance drama was viewed as a major classical dance form.

The Kuchipudi dance tradition today has spread throughout India and considered to be a precious dance form (Kothari and Pasricha 40). As Kuchipudi got more and more popular, Kuchipudi village became too small of an area to contain the growth of the dance drama. Many of the teachers moved to Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, to pursue a place in the world of film (Venkataraman and Pasricha 134). This dance is still practiced in Kuchipudi village in Andhra Pradesh, however, those who do practice have much less international exposure (Venkataraman and Pasricha 138). Today, the village of Sindhendra Kalakshetra has more students and teachers practicing Kuchipudi. There are also dancers being trained in Vempati Chinna Satyam as well as at the Kuchipudi Art Academy in Chennai (Venkataraman and Pasricha 136).

In present day, the Kuchipudi dance tradition has moved to more urban areas which is quite different from the twentieth century, and the style of the dance itself has also changed. Because of the prevalence of women performers, there is little need for men to impersonate female characters. In fact, in some cases females have been impersonating male characters (Venkataraman and Pasricha 136). The Kuchipudi dance tradition heavily relied upon three major components; singing, dancing, and acting. However, today it is mainly dance oriented. The vocalist within the team of musicians would do the singing that is present during the dance tradition and it is rare that dialogue passages (I.e., from Vedic scripts) are recited (Venkataraman and Pasricha 128-129).


Gaston, Anne-Marie (2011) “Dance and Hinduism.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice,

Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). Abingdon: Routledge. pp. 77-85.

Kothari, Sunil & Pasricha, Avinash (2001) Kuchipudi: Indian Classical Dance Art. New Delhi:

Abhinav Publications.

Lopez y Royo, Alessandra (2010) “Indian Classical Dance: A Sacred Art?” In The Journal of

Hindu Studies 3 (March): 114-123

Putcha, Rumya S. (2013) “Between History and Historiography: The Origins of Classical

Kuchipudi Dance.” In Dance Research Journal, pp. 91-110.

Venkataraman, Leela and Avinash, Pasricha (2002) Indian Classical Dance: Tradition in

Transition. New Delhi: Roli Books Pvt. Ltd.

Related Topics for Further Investigation:

All Indian Dance Seminar

Andhra Pradesh

Bhakti Movement

Bhama Kalapam







Krsna Leela Tarangiri

Kuchipudi Art Academy

Narayana Tirtha

Nasa Rasa






Siddhendra Yogi


Vempati Chinna Satyam

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic:

Article written by: Becca Todd (February 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.

Rasa Theory in Hinduism

Rasa theory explains how one can have an emotional experience while watching a drama (Sullivan 2011:166). Rasa is “an emotional response that is inspired in an audience by a performer” (Astha 2014). Rasa “literally means the quintessential essence of a work of art” (Astha 2014). To better explain rasa theory the components that create rasa, the pleasure of food as a metaphor for the feeling of rasa, how the nine rasas are evoked in an audience, and the nine rasas unique presiding deities and colors will be described. To explore the complexity of rasa theory, rasas intrinsic connection with death, the role of the creator and the audience in producing a rasa experience, an example of rasa theory in practice within the performance of Kutiyattam, and the changes rasa experiences as Indian society changes will be depicted.

Rasa is created with a combination of vibhava, anubhava, and bhava (Astha 2014). A bhava is a mood or an imitation of emotions (Astha 2014). Bhava conveys meaning through gestures and facial expressions (Astha 2014). Bhava is made up of vibhava and anubhava. Vibhava is a stimulant and anubhava is the manifestation and enactment of bhava (Astha 2014). Rasa theory is explained by Bharata in the Natya-sastra which is “an ancient Indian treaty on the performing arts” (Astha 2014). It is thought to have been written in the 2nd century BCE (Astha 2014), and it is arguably the fifth Veda (Lidke 126). In the Natya-sastra, Brahma says, “the purpose of the Natya-sastra is to reveal to human kind the technology by which one can come to understand the nature of the world through its dramatic re-presentation” (Lidke 126-127). There are nine rasas: humour (hasyam), love (srngara), anger (raudra), sorrow (karuna), fear (bhayanaka), amazement (abhuta), heroism (vir), disgust (bibhatsa), and tranquility (santa) (Gaston 84). Bharata described eight rasas but Abhinavagupta, who is the principal authority on rasa theory (Mason 76), argued for nine rasas. He argued that tranquility should be added as the ninth rasa because tranquility underlies and pushes forth the original eight rasas (Astha 2014).

Rasa is often described as a metaphor for the pleasure of food. When one eats food, one receives pleasure from the flavours. When an audience watches a performance, they receive pleasure from the “emotions conveyed to them through practical performance devices” (Mason 72). The flavour “is produced by the bhava through acting” (Astha 2014). However, the Natya-sastra makes it clear that this metaphor is not an equivalent to the rasa experience (Mason 74). While experiencing a drama, one receives an emotional response while also “having the awareness that one is witnessing an enactment rather than real life” (Sullivan 2011:166). This is called aesthetic distance. In the Natya-sastra, “the distinction between performer and spectator, the distance between them, is essential” (Mason 76). One can be so connected to the performance that one “tastes” the emotions of the performance, but one also maintains aesthetic distance. For example, while watching Rama fall in love with Sita, the pleasure one receives from watching Rama’s feelings “comes not from feeling what Ram[a] feels (or ‘tasting his emotion), but from appreciating what Ram[a] feels from the privileged position of spectators” (Mason 76-77). The audience does not have to feel exactly what the character is feeling, they just appreciate that they get to witness what the character is feeling.

The nine rasas are experienced by the audience in association with a bhava portrayed on stage by the performers (Astha 2014). For example, the rasa of humour is “evoked through expanded lips, cheeks, wide staring and contracted eyes” (Astha 2014). The audiences’ laughter “is stimulated by disfigurement of dress, impudence, incoherent speech, deformed appearance, queer behaviour, [and] strange costumes” (Astha 2014). In order to evoke the love rasa, the performers must wear beautiful costumes and jewellery and portray longing and sensitivity to nature (Astha 2014). The anger rasa is stimulated by “boldness, insults, cruelty” (Astha 2014), and leads to fighting. In order to invoke the rasa of sorrow, the performer “expresses loneliness, longing, and yearning for the absent lover or God” (Astha 2014). The fear rasa is stimulated in the audience “by seeing or hearing words, sounds and objects or by fear of jackals and owls, empty houses, forests…weird persons or sounds of getting into fights” (Astha 2014). The amazement rasa is “stimulated by the sight of divine persons” (Astha 2014). It is also stimulated by the sudden achievement of what was desired by the hero and by magic (Astha 2014). The heroic rasa is stimulated when the performer shows courage, determination and justice (Astha 2014). Every facial expression and detail of the costumes is important in order to evoke specific rasas. Tranquility, the recently added rasa, represents freedom, salvation, stabilization and motivation (Astha 2014). Since this rasa encompasses all of the other eight rasas, it “stretches the transcendental possibilities of aesthetic experience” (Astha 2014). Each rasa is presided over by a deity and is associated with a specific color. For example, the love rasa is associated with the color greenish blue and the god Visnu, while the laughter rasa is presided over by Pramatha and the color white. The rasa of anger is presided over by Rudra and is associated with the color red (Astha 2014). The rasa of sorrow is represented by Yama and the color pigeon (Astha 2014). The fear rasa is represented by Kala and the color black (Astha 2014). The rasa of amazement is associated with the color yellow and its presiding deity is Brahma (Astha 2014).The heroic rasa is presided over by Indra and its associated color is silverish white (Astha 2014). The disgust rasa represents the color blue and is presided over by Siva (Astha 2014).

The rasas give the audience pleasure, even though most of them are connected with death. Four of the rasas “are not particularly pleasant”: sorrow, disgust, anger, and fear (Mason 75). Death is represented “either as an anubhava or vyabhicari- bhava” (Sullivan 2007) which is the manifestation and enactment of a mood (Astha 2014). In the Natya-sastra, Bharata explains that sorrow “is to be represented on the stage by an array of anubhava, including tears and falling on the ground, but also insanity and death” (Sullivan 2007). The disgust rasa is portrayed with “death, along with despair, insanity, and so on” (Sullivan 2007). Certain acts described with the anger rasa lead to death but it is not specified that the character is supposed to be killed; for example, characters are supposed to cut off the head and limbs of other characters (Sullivan 2007). In the love rasa, death is not excluded in the thirty-three transitory states therefore, “even in a drama emphasizing the erotic, death may figure as a transitory state” (Sullivan 2007). For example, death is the final stage in separation from the beloved, for female characters (Sullivan 2007). Bharata explains “how one should speak while dying on the stage, with a faltering voice or repeating oneself” (Sullivan 2007). Bharata also specifies that different kinds of death will have different appearances (Sullivan 2007). The rasas create aesthetic delight and the representation of death on stage is “important in evoking rasa experience for the audience” (Sullivan 2007).

The performers are important in order for the audience to experience rasa, but the creator of the art that the performers are enacting also plays a key role. The rasa experience is a two-way process because the artist strives for rasa while creating their art while the audience must detect it (Astha 2014). In rasa theory, “the term sahrdaya has been variously translated as critic, observer, reader, spectator, or one who savors (rasika) in the creative process” (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). The receptor of a work of art can be described in three words: spectator, auditor, and empathizer (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). The auditor is part of a social group and the empathizer is “defined as one who has the same quality of heart and mind as the creator” (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). This is the ideal critic or sahrdaya. The audience receives aesthetic delight through a performance because of the specific actions of the performers and the creator. The audiences’ appreciation emotions and the audiences’ understanding of the history of the story being presented also impacts one’s aesthetic delight. The audience members only attend Sanskrit dramas in order to “experience the Rasa that the work of art can facilitate” (Sullivan 2011:166). The creator’s skill is to “anticipate a mind that understands and appreciates” (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). The audience must be “qualified to appreciate the depiction” (Sullivan 2011:166); for example, if one does not know Sanskrit or the meaning behind a myth, one cannot effectively receive aesthetic pleasure from a drama. The appreciation emotions are awe, esteem, and respect (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). The appreciation emotions are important for aesthetic appreciation in the rasa because it is important that “the creator and the ideal critic are one in mind and soul” (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). Therefore, true criticism “implies idealized reconstruction in the reader’s soul of what is expressed in the poet’s soul” (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). There are three stages in order to receive aesthetic delight: one must become attuned to the emotional situation, become absorbed in the portrayal, and this absorption becomes aesthetic delight (Sundararajan and Raina 2016).

The performance of Kutiyattam in Kerala is a religious act done by male actors called Cakyar, “who have the right and religious duty (dharma) to perform Kutiyattam” (Sullivan 2011:159). The goal of Kutiyattam is to “enact dramas to enable an audience to experience Rasa” (Sullivan 2011:158). Before a performance, Cakyars are “consecrated by ritual actions of Brahmin temple priests” (Sullivan 2011:159) and then pray to a deity “for inspiration and protection during the performance” (Sullivan 2011:158). After each performance, the Cakyars “worship and receive blessings from the priest” (Sullivan 2011:159) while still in their costumes, then “sprinkle consecrated water on the stage, on himself or herself, and on the audience” (Sullivan 2011:160). The actor must also ask the gods for forgiveness for mistakes or errors that were made in the performance (Sullivan 2011:160). A full performance of a drama may take many nights because the actors perform “only a small portion of any drama’s text in a night of acting” (Sullivan 2011:163) and only perform at night. Small portions are performed because “only small segments of a drama’s script are portrayed each evening” (Sullivan 2011:163) and the Cakyars must develop gestures and add more detail to the scripts (Sullivan 2011:163). A performance technique of some Cakyars is to recite a verse in Sanskrit, perform their gestures and then recite the previous verse again (Sullivan 2011:162). This repetition is done to “give full expression to the emotional tone of that moment” (Sullivan 2011:162). Due to the development of modern society, changes have been proposed to perform an entire performance in one night because audience members may be unable to attend multiple performances and “their Rasa experience is dependent on viewing the entire play, including the resolution of its plot in the final scene” (Sullivan 2011:166-167). One’s rasa experience could be inhibited or one could not receive a rasa experience at all if the performance is incomplete.

Social changes in Indian cities affect temples and performers (Sullivan 2011:165). For example, in Kerala, many performers stopped performing when temples that were affected by land reforms opened to lower caste groups (Sullivan 2011:165). Although social changes have decreased the number of performers, it has increased the diversity of the remaining performers (Sullivan 2011:165). Rasa is also affected by the debate on whether the performers should remain traditional or change their performances as society changes. Some performers believe the performances should remain the same in order for the audience to experience rasa from the traditional line repetition and gestures (Sullivan 2011:166). Keeping with tradition will allow rasa techniques to maintain their originality and purpose but changing with society will keep rasa theory relevant. In the representation of death, rasa theory does change depending on the audience. Bharata explains in the Natya-sastra that “actors should learn from and accommodate to local traditions concerning the representation of death” (Sullivan 2007). Global performances also affect rasa because the audience must be qualified and prepared to witness the drama, and foreign tourists and non-Sanskrit speakers may not be prepared (Sullivan 2011:167).

Rasa is explained by Bharata in the Natya-sastra as “an emotional response that is inspired in an audience by a performer” (Astha 2014). Rasa theory explains how a rasa is created with a combination of vibhava, anubhava, and bhava to create an emotional response in an audience (Astha 2014). A bhava is a mood conveyed through gestures and facial expressions (Astha 2014). Bhava is made up of vibhava, a stimulant, and anubhava, the enactment of a mood (Astha 2014). The metaphor for the pleasure of food is used to describe rasa theory. One receives pleasure from food just like an audience receives pleasure form a performance (Mason 72). However, aesthetic distance is important because the audience does not receive pleasure from feeling what the characters are feeling; they appreciate witnessing what the characters are feeling. The nine rasas are: humour (hasyam), love (srngara), anger (raudra), sorrow (karuna), fear (bhayanaka), amazement (abhuta), heroism (vir), disgust (bibhatsa), and tranquility (santa) (Gaston 2011). Each rasa is associated with a specific deity and color. Most of the rasas are also associated with death because death on stage is important for developing the rasa experience (Sullivan 2007). One’s appreciation emotions help one to become an ideal critic or sahrdaya (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). The audience must be qualified and prepared to watch a performance. The audiences’ rasa experience is further affected by witnessing an entire performance. Social changes cause foreign and global audiences to be unprepared or not have the chance to watch an entire performance, which limits one’s rasa experience. A rasa experience, explained by the rasa theory, is caused by the creator of the art, the performer’s actions, and the audience themselves.
























Astha (2014) “Abhinavagupta’s exposition extends Bharata’s Rasa Theory in several ways.” Language in India, Vol. 14, No. 3: 83-93. Accessed February 1, 2017.

Fuller, Jason D. (2011) “The accidental pilgrim: Vaisnava tirthas and the experience of the sacred.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice, ed. by Hillary P. Rodrigues, 62-74. New York: Routledge.

Gaston, Anne-Marie (2011) “Dance and Hinduism: a personal exploration.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice, ed. by Hillary P. Rodrigues, 75-86. New York: Routledge.

Mason, David (2006) “Rasa, ‘Rasaesthetics’ and Dramatic Theory as Performance Packaging.” Theatre Research International, Vol. 31, No. 1: 69-83. Accessed February 5, 2017. doi:10.1017/S0307883305001860

Lidke, Jeffrey (2011) “Tabla, spirituality, and the arts: a journey into the cycles of time.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice, ed. by Hillary P. Rodrigues, 118-130. New York: Routledge.

Sullivan, Bruce M. (2007). “Dying on the Stage in the Natya Sastra and Kutiyattam: Perspectives from the Sanskrit Theatre.” Action Theatre Journal, Vol. 24, No. 2: 422-439. Accessed February 3, 2017. doi:10.1353/atj.2007.0041

Sullivan, Bruce M. (2011) “Experiencing Sanskrit dramas in Kerala: epic performances and performers.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice, ed. by Hillary P. Rodrigues, 158-169. New York: Routledge.

Sundararajan, Louise and Maharaj K. Raina (2016) “Mind and creativity: Insights from rasa theory with special focus on sahrdaya (the appreciative critic).” Theory & Psychology, Vol. 26, No. 6: 788-809. Accessed February 1, 2017. doi:10.1177/0959354316676398

















Further Recommended Reading

Gnoli, Raniero (1985) The Aesthetic Experience According to Abhinavagupta. Varanasi: Chowkhamba Press.

Leslie, Julia (1991) “Dance and the Hindu Women – Bharata Natyam Re-ritualized,” in Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women. London: Printer.

Richmond, Farley (1990) “Kutiyattam” in Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performance ed. by F. Richmond, D. Swann, and P. Zarrilli, 87-117. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.

Robinson, Tom and Hillary Rodrigues (2014) World Religions: A Guide to the Essentials. 2nd ed. USA: Baker Academic.

Robinson, Tom, Hillary Rodrigues, James Linville, John Harding, Atif Khalil, and Kev McGeogh (2015) World Religions Reader: Selected Texts & Symbols 2015 Edition. Robin Book Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2011) Studying Hinduism in Practice. USA: Routledge.

Rodrigues, Hillary. (2017) Hinduism – the eBook. 2nd ed. JBE Online Books.

Robinson, Tom, Hillary Rodrigues, James Linville, John Harding, Atif Khalil, and Kev McGeogh (2015) World Religions Reader: Selected Texts & Symbols 2015 Edition. Robin Book Press.

Trepper, E. and J. Wood (1994) “Secularization and De-secularization of the Indian Classical Dance,” In South Asian Horizons – Enriched by South Asia, 15-34. Ottawa: Carleton University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



















Related Websites


This article written by: Kylie Thomson (Spring 2017), who is solely responsible for its content.


Rangoli is an art of decorating floors using various colored powders. It is considered that Rangoli has been practiced for eras, and has been modified throughout, yet its significance has been the same throughout. It is a living tradition in India and is practiced mostly by womenfolk. This form of art is believed to have survived even before it found its place in Hindu literature. The origin of this art is yet vague, but some of the scholars have dated it back to about 2000 years (Gode 241). The very first evidence found in Hindu literature is between 50-400 CE in the Kama Sutra by Vatsyayana; which is mentioned as tndulkusumvlidikara (Gode 241). This floor art has had stability not only in Indian domestic lives but religious lives as well. Rangoli is an art that represents an energy field in religious context (Correa 92-113).

Rangoli is not only for the ecstasy of gods and the ruling deities, but also for beauty per Usinara. Usinaras are the middle country (Madyadesa) dwellers (Majumdar 248). It is said that the sage Narada gave a new kind of classification of these arts from the viewpoint of places and where the depictions are situated. They are classified in three different ways: of the floor (bhauma), of the wall (kudya), and of the top (urdhvaka) (ceiling). They again get classified into two more categories from another stance, permanent (zazvatika) and temporary (tatkalika, ksanika). The Rangoli that is still prominent in India is the floor or ksanika Rangoli (Gode 236).

Disciplines that explore the notions of this nonmanifest world are religion, philosophy, and arts (Correa 92-113). Rangoli is an sacred art that beautifies houses, brings positive vibrations, and peaceful feelings. The recurrence, proportion, balance, and liveliness, are few of the principles of this form of art. Rangoli is related to the method of Tantric design known as the Mandala. These designs are symbols of secret philosophical religious meanings (Dohmen 129-139). Different figures and arrangements within the design are associated with different aspects of human life. Circular designs within the diagrams evoke a sense of eternity of time, the unfolding of life, and the heart or the wheel (Das 2008).

Rangoli symbolizes auspiciousness and good luck in Hindu dharma. In ancient times, this sacred and versatile form of art was made to welcome gods and goddesses during special occasions. Durai (77) discloses the practice of Rangoli, about a century ago in the Madras Presidency. Madras is known as Chennai in present day India. According to Durai, these geometric diagrams are known as Kolam in Madras. They are typically made by Hindu women, every morning. To make a Kolam they use white rice powder. Lines and dots are connected in the process of making a Kolam, except when a death befalls in the family. Rangoli is made during the events such as weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, and festivals such as Divali, Sankranti, Navaratra, Nagapancami, Tulsi Vrata, and Sravan Sukla Pancami. It is a gesture of hospitality and openness for the visiting guests, be it a human being or heavenly being. This attractive and decorative art is made with different materials such as, colored powders, rice flour, sand, sugar, or flower petals. The designs vary for everyday practice and special occasions. It can be plain and small for daily practice, and colorful and elaborate for festive events (Durai 77).

Different parts of India have different names associated with this form of floor art. It is known as Rangoli in Maharastra, Kolam in South India, Aripana in Bihar, Muggulu in Andhra Pradesh, Alpana in Bengal, and the list goes on. In Sanskrit, ‘Rang’ means color and ‘Avali’ means row, so Rangoli literally means ‘rows of colors’ (Gode 226). Alpana derieves from Sanskrit word alimpana which means ‘to plaster’ or ‘to coat with’ which is eminent in Bengal. Alpana is traditionally made of powdered rice. In modern days, the materials used to make Alpana have changed but some Hindu orthodox families still practice this traditional way of using powered rice. The powdered rice is mixed with water to make a paste, and small piece of cloth is used to design Alpana. Themes of Alpana typically consist of stars, sun, moon, plough, owl, rice stem, etc. Kolam is typically practiced in Tamil Nadu and South India using rice flour as well. Very famous designs of Kolam are Hridaya-Kamalam Kolam (Praghosa 2008). To precisely complete these projects one needs a lot of patience. That is why the dots and lines in the Kolam are believed to symbolize hurdles, hardships, and struggles that human beings face in life. And the finished project denotes that if humans, bravely, patiently, and serenely, face all the struggles and hardships, then they can get through life easily and peacefully. Kolam/Rangoli is made every morning at the thresholds of the houses to keep the negative vibes away and maintain positive and happy vibes throughout the day. The rice dust sprinkled on the ground, in the form of Rangoli, is not wasted, but considered to be a generous way to offer back to the nature, so the smallest of the creatures also get their feed. It is said to be one of the most prevalent methods of visual arts practiced in modern Tamil Nadu, because of the sheer magnitude of practitioners involved in making Kolam (Dohmen 92-113).

One of the most important Hindu festivals is Divali. Divali is known as the festival of lights and is associated with vibrant and vivid colors. Colorful fireworks across the villages, towns and cities; candle light around the houses; making of various sweets in excessive amount; exchanging gifts; and making elaborate and vibrant Rangolis, are associated with this festival. The principal deity Laksmi is present in the atmosphere during Divali. She is known as the goddess of wealth, good luck, and prosperity. She visits the homes that are well cleaned, well-lit, and beautifully decorated. Every Hindu household performs Laksmi Puja (act of worship) on the third day of Divali. As per the Hindu lunar calendar, this five-day festival falls on the new moon day on the month of Asvin (October or November). Various Rangolis such as goddess Laksmi’s footprints, eight petal lotuses known as ‘Ashtadal-kamal’ in Andhra Pradesh, eight pointed star known as ‘Hridaya-kalam’ in Tamil Nadu, and thousands of designs in Gujarat only, are made during Diwali. Diwali is thought to be inadequate without Rangoli. It is a welcoming gesture to the Goddess and the homecoming guests. The ritual of welcoming the guests is known to bring good luck and bliss to the family.

The festival that falls in the first fortnight of January is Sankranthi (Makara-Sankramanam), and during this festival, young Telugu girls of Andhra Pradesh compete with their peers to make the latest and elaborate Muggulu designs in their courtyard. In Andhra Pradesh, the floor decoration technique is known as Muggu or Muggulu in plural. People of all castes make Muggulu on their respective thresholds, after cleaning the surface with water and cow-dung. Colored Muggulu is made for special occasions and during the worship of gods and goddesses. Muggulu is drawn to honor the Sankranti Purusa, also known as Bali (Gode 243-246). Gode (1947) also discusses about Tamil girls, who enthusiastically bet with each other to draw the most widespread and intricate Kolam in the village (235). Even though these arts and designs are beautiful, they are ksanik, meaning temporary.

Due to colonization, and the influence of innovation and modernization, the Indian traditions and practices are perceived to be vanishing. Dohmen (135) provides understanding on Tamil editors that have tried to preserve Kolam by publishing the designs in their editions. Dohmen states, “These design magazine editors have taken on the circulation, innovation and preservation of traditional designs” (Dohmen 134). India is a mix of diverse cultures, languages and philosophies. Informing the youngsters about Indian values and socio-historical relations is the most influential way to preserve the heritage. Adir and Bhaskaran, in their research, suggest that children learn from very early age, so involving them in activities like making Rangoli, can be one of the many ways to preserve this art. They suggest that the kids who learn to make Rangoli when they are young can develop the skill of creative problem-solving. Since Rangoli is a collectively made project, they need to work together to determine the colors and shapes choices. Rangoli is a great means of socializing. It also requires eye-hand coordination and fine muscle control which can be an invaluable asset for children when they grow up (Adir and Bhaskaran 48-52, 54-55). Teachers and parents can use a variety of materials such as, crayons, markers, colored pencils, and chalks for outdoors (Guhin 2013).

Rangolis enlighten the ‘nature of the cosmos’. Rangoli is not just an idea, but symbolizes an energy field. The midpoint of a Rangoli signifies “shunya (the absolute void) as well as bindu (the world seed and the source of all energy)”. The midpoint is placed as Brahman, the primary source, in all the Rangolis. When the cycles of reincarnation are finally ended, according to Hinduism, the atman (the distinct soul) is free from each of us and goes to Brahman (to the center of this energy field) (Correa 92-113). Sacred does not only mean religious but primordial as well. The minutiae detail of Rangoli have various symbols and meanings associated with them. “The greatest of all the geometric depictions of cosmic order used as aids for meditation, this ecstasy is depicted as the interpenetrations of nine triangles, four facing upward and five downward, together symbolizing the union of Siva and Sakti” (Correa 92-113). This method of art has been practiced for centuries and it is considered to represent an energy field in religious context (Correa 1989). This form of floor art is still prominent in India and in Hindu countries around the world.


References and further recommended readings

Adair, Jennifer Keys, and Lilly Bhaskaran (2010) “Meditation, Rangoli, and Eating on the Floor:Practices from an Urban Preschool in Bangalore, India.” YC Young Children 65, no. 65:48-55.

Correa, Charles (1989) “The Public, the Private, and the Sacred.” Daedalus 118: 92-113.

Das, Praghosa (2008) “Sacred geometry, Rangolis, Mandalas and Yantras”

Dohmen, Renate (2001) “Happy Homes and the Indian Nation: Women’s Designs in Post-Colonial Tamil Nadu.” Journal of Design History 14: 129-39.

Gode, P. K. (1947) “History of the Rangavalli (Rangoli) Art – Between C. A. D. 50 and 1900.”

Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 28: 226-46.


Guhin, Paula (2013) “Rangoli: An Indian Art Activity Book.” An Indian Art Activity Book.a0352230655 (accessed February 27 2017)

Durai, G. H.(1929) “60. Preliminary Note on Geometrical Diagrams (Kolam) from the Madras Presidency.” Man 29: 77. Doi:10.2307/2790112.

Majumdar, R. C. (1951) “The History and Culture of Indian People: The Vedic Age.” G. Allen 8 Unwin, 1951 1: 248, 252.

Related topics for further investigations


Sravan Sukla Purnima


Tulsi Vrata

Swosthani Vrata



Laxmi Pujan

Importance of Cow in Hindu Dharma

Vasant Pancami


Importance of Tulsi

Noteworthy websites

This article was written by: Reena Sharma (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.


The Pancatantra is an interesting case in terms of Indian literature, it has travelled far and wide since around 550 AD when it is documented to have left India as it travelled to the Persian court of King Khorsro Anushirvan (Rajan 1). It was the first Indian book to be printed on a printing press under the name of Das Buch der Beyspiele (The Book of Examples) (Rajan 1). Many fairy tales and nursery rhymes from around the world may find origin or influence in the Pancatantra, for example Aesop’s Fables, Arabian Nights and Sindbad (Bedekar 1). With so many retellings of these stories there is often a need to change it for local appeal. Although certain changes are unavoidable, some changes can completely change the tone of a story or book. For example, in the version translated by Thomas North the first book has a sequel where the interfering jackal is tried and killed for his part in the death of the bull (Rajan 2).

The Pancatantra is an ancient collection of Indian fairy tales that the introduction attributes to a Brahmin by the name of Vishnu Sharma. Vishnu Sharma was hired by a king to teach his three sons the art of intelligent living and he used the five books of the Pancatantra to do so. The five books are The Loss of Friends, The Winning of Friends, Of Crows and Owls, Loss of Gains and, Ill-considered Action (Ryder 15). Each book contains many stories, each with a lesson on how an individual should conduct themselves (Rajan, 3). Many of these stories are about animals personified with some of them containing exclusively human characters.

The longest book in the Pancatantra is the first one, The Loss of Friends. This book tells the story of a bull left in the forest by his owner after getting stuck in mud. He becomes very happy, grazing all day and bellowing in happiness. The bellowing unnerves a lion who is the King of the Jungle and a couple Jackals, who were once members of his court begin plotting. Throughout this book, they argue about what actions should be taken, telling stories to illustrate their points. One of them goes to talk to the king and is told of the fear that the king feels over the loud animal that he had heard. The bull is brought to the king by this jackal and they become close friends. The jackals become worried by this and hatch a plan to create a rift between the two friends. The same jackal as mentioned before wrongfully informs the king that the bull is planning to kill him and take his power for his own. The jackal claims that the king should kill the bull before the bull can kill him. The king is skeptical and asks for proof; the jackal claims that the bull will look angry with the king and that would be his proof. The jackal visits the bull next claiming the king plans to kill him as they are too different. The bull takes offence to this and plans to start a war with the king. This scares the jackal as a war could lead the death of the king. He urges the bull to simply leave the country. The bull is skeptical of his friend’s plans and the jackal claims that if the king looks at him with anger, that is proof of his plan. Upon returning to his companion and relaying his story, the other jackal calls him wicked. Elsewhere the bull questions his friendship with the lion and goes to see him. The lion, who believed the jackal’s lies attacks the bull and they start to fight. The jackals, seeing this, fear for their king’s safety, the less involved one calling the involved one out for his foolishness in interfering in the kings matters. All this time the battle between the two friends raged on with the lion killing the bull in the process. The king feeling remorse for his actions is comforted by the meddling jackal who tells him that the bull deserved no sympathy because of his treachery (Ryder pg. 19-210).

The second book of the Pancatantra is called The Gaining of Friends. It is shorter than the first book. It tells the story about four friends, a crow, a mouse, a turtle and a deer. In the beginning the crow warns the dove of a trap set by a hunter, but the dove does not listen. Which causes him to lead his retainers into the trap. They fly as one group to the home of the mouse, who helps them get out of the net. The crow follows them and after they leave, starts a friendship with the mouse. One day the crow decides that he wants to leave the country as he is dissatisfied with the way things are. The mouse, also unhappy with the way of things, decides to go with him. They travel to the lake home of the crow’s friend, the turtle, who welcomes them with open arms. The mouse explains that after getting food for other mice from a hermit, the hermit found and emptied the mouse’s food store, making him unable to get food for the other mice. One day they meet a deer who is running away from a hunter and they welcome him into their friend group. Later the deer is caught in a net and while the friends free him the hunter arrives, all the friends except for the turtle escape. This leads the other three friends to plan a rescue, allowing the turtle to escape the hunter (Ryder pg. 213-288).

The third book of the Pancatantra is Of Crows and Owls. The story begins with two warring factions, the crows and the owls. The owls killed any crows that were not at their home tree and the King of crows wanted to find a solution to this murder of his subjects. His ministers put forward different options. His oldest councillor offered a plan that would allow for an attack on the home of the owls, though its location was unknown. The plan had the King fake an attack on the old councillor, allowing the owls to find him, and convincing them to reveal the location of their home to him. The plan succeeded as only one of the Owl King’s ministers advised killing the crow. The crow had the Owl King’s full trust, but the minister continued to mistrust the crow. Unable to convince his colleagues and his king of the danger the crow posed; the minister left the cave, taking his own ministers with him. After that, the crow minister blocked the entrance under the pretense of building a nest and went to get the other crows. They burnt the pile of twigs, killing all the owls inside. When asked how he managed to fool his foes, he explained that he was friendly with the owls so they would not suspect him of lying (Ryder 291- 378).

The fourth book of the Pancatantra is called The Loss of Gains. This book tells of a monkey who lives in a rose apple tree. Once a day a crocodile comes by and the monkey offers to feed him. This becomes a daily thing and they become close friends. The crocodile’s wife upon hearing how her husband got the food asks him to bring her the monkey’s heart. He initially denies her but eventually gives in to her desire. The crocodile invites the monkey to his home and the monkey accepts his invitation. Together they travel towards the crocodile’s home with the monkey riding on the back of the crocodile. Once in deeper water the crocodile speaks of his plan to take the monkey’s heart. The monkey claims it is back in the tree and urges the crocodile to take him back to the tree so they can retrieve it. They return and the monkey calls the crocodile foolish and cuts off his friendship with him. The crocodile only wishing to please his wife, pleads with the monkey to come with him, only to learn that his wife is dead from fasting. He is saddened, but the monkey tells him that he should be celebrating as she wasn’t a very good wife. Soon the crocodile learns that a large crocodile has moved into his home, prompting him to seek advice from the monkey. The monkey tells him that he should fight the crocodile for his home as he will either die or kill his opponent. The crocodile chose to take the monkey’s advice. He fought the other crocodile for his home and won (Ryder 381- 423).

The fifth book of the Pancatantra is the last one, it is called Ill-Considered Actions. At the beginning of the story a merchant is told in a dream that the Jain monk who would visit him that day, this monk would turn to gold if struck on the head with a stick, and the monk did. The barber witnessed this and thought that he could replicate the results, so he invited all the Jain monks at the temple to his house and beat them. The soldiers heard the crying of the monks and intervened. They took the barber to court and the judges ruled he would be impaled for his poor actions. There is a new story after this one of four Brahmins who are struck with poverty and decide to leave the city. They encounter a man who gives each of them a quill, telling them that where the quill falls from their hands, they should dig and find treasure. The first Brahmin found copper where his quill fell, but the other three decide to continue hoping for better treasure. The next quill to drop led the Brahmin to find silver. But the other two continued still hoping for better treasure. The third quill fell and the Brahmin found gold. The fourth Brahmin, thinking there must be something even better in his future, continued without his friend. After much wandering, he finds a man with a wheel spinning on his head, and asks the man for water. The wheel leaves the man’s head and settles on the Brahmin’s. The man explained that the only way to escape is for some other person with a quill to speak to the current wheel bearer as the Brahmin spoke to him. The man further explained that his body will be maintained eternally until he leaves. The Brahmin who found the gold started to wonder about his friend and decided to go find him. Upon finding him, he is told the story and chastises his friend for being greedy. The wheel-bearer pleads with his friend not to leave him there, but as there is nothing to be done about his current situation, the gold-finder bids his friend goodbye and returns home (Ryder 427-470).

The Pancatantra is universally appealing, and people can understand the moral teachings of the stories. The message is clear, the stories are interesting, and it allows for an easy method of imparting knowledge to children because stories like the ones found in the Pancatantra are a more engaging medium of learning.













Bibliography and Related Readings

Bedekar, Vijay (2008, December 27th) History of Migration of Panchatatra and What it can Teach Us. Paper presented at Suhbashita, Panchatantra & Gnomic Literature in Ancient & Medieval India, Thane College Campus, Thane, Maharashtra. Thane, Maharashtra: Institute for Oriental Study. Retrieved from

González-Reimann, L., & Taylor, M. (2009). The fall of the indigo jackal: The discourse of division in purnabhadra’s pañcatantra. The Journal of Asian Studies, 68(4), 1337. doi:

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This Article was written by: Kayla Schewe (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.