Sunday, May 20, 2018

Apasmara and the Loss of Recollection

Representation of Siva as Nataraja, or the 'God of Dance', is supposed to be the acme of classical Indian sculpture. 

Having seen it hundreds of times, in temples, museums, and even government offices (there is fine specimen in the North Block), I have always been drawn to  its face. Composed and serene while engaged in callisthenics within a ring of fire, he seems rather cool about a little guy getting squashed underfoot. 

As children we had always been told that this was the demon of ignorance being trampled, and that the dance itself represented the three cyclic states of the cosmos - creation (srishti), preservation (sthithi) and destruction (samhara). All this highbrow symbolism has been beyond my comprehension, and I could only marvel at the sheer dedication, effort and patience that had gone into making each of these amazing Chola bronzes.

Today, my own veil of ignorance was lifted a bit - thanks to a tweet from @ARaganathan72 that let me to a remarkable article in the Swarajya magazine - "Nataraja and Epilepsy: An Interpretation of the Cosmic Dancer".

The author, Anand Venkatraman is a neuro-surgeon, no less, at the Harvard University. His focus is on the little man getting trampled by the Cosmic Dancer and who goes by names such as Apasmara and Muyalaka. AV goes into the etymology of 'Apasmara', translates it from Sanskrit as "Loss of Recollection". Apasmara is also the term for epilepsy which is one among the  eight 'Mahagada' or dreadful diseases in Ayurveda texts.

Pointing to the fact that the Aztecs and the ancient Greeks considered epilepsy a sacred disease, AV highlights the link between epilepsy and memory:
"Memory is what links our existence from second to second. Memory provides us with a sense of continuity, a perception of an enduring self, and gives meaning to what would otherwise be seemingly random events."
Inside our brains, epileptic fits emerge from the Temporal Lobes where memories are encoded, and the Hippocampus which is "ground zero for the intersection of mind and brain, of the environment and the organism, as memories are etched into its structure like a DVD"

So the Nataraja reminds us to overcome our epileptic fits of forgetfulness, to reach out to the inner conciousness that unites us with the whole cosmos.

If 'Apasmara' has such a deep meaning, I now wonder what 'Muyalaka' means...also, why is the little demon doggedly holding on to a little snake?? 

- Swaraj Article - "Nataraja and Epilepsy: An Interpretation of the Cosmic Dancer" -
- On Apasmara / Muyalaka -

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