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The use of drama and theater in ritual

Modernizing Nandi, the vehicle, with a motorbike
allows insight into the identity of Nandi
Rituals may seem dramatic and theatrical, illogical and useless - and if improperly employed, they do inspire mysticism, superstition and habits (all of which augment rather than reduce distress). But the same may be said of any Yoga: if improperly practiced, even the most basic Asana in Hatha Yoga will cause terrible physical injury and distress; even meditation, if improperly practiced, results in agitation, doubt and aggression - and numerous other causes for distress. Karma Yoga, if improperly practiced will result in strengthening the ego, weakening the connection between mind, body and heart - and increase the consequences of Karma rather than ending it. The rituals of Bhakti Yoga are no different.

The rituals of Bhakti Yoga have their heart in the Puranas and Vedas. But the "characters" of the Puranas are sometimes difficult to understand - while some are simple, some are very complex, manifesting as different kinds of beings at different times to alter their interaction with reality (imagine how differently you'd interact with the same world as a human man versus a human female versus a human transsexual, verses even as an animal, or a god, or a demon, or a ghost, or...). Adding to this complexity, some will manifest in the same place and time as different beings, interacting with themselves. Or in different places at the same time, or at different times at the same place, or at different times and places. But there is a purpose to these stories.

The purpose of presenting the Dharma in dramatic or even theatrical formats is to allow insight into the more subtle concepts of the Dharma: just as a good teacher will present "laboratories" to permit their students to examine and play with the complex concepts expounded on in their lectures, drama and theater allow those listening to or participating in the drama or theater to better understand the Dharma through play.

For example, examine a very difficult and complex exposition in the Linga Purana. It is difficult to understand the Linga Purana when it describes energy as potential, and that these lack form - yet without form it such energy or potential remains expressionless. It is clearly explained that this expression, this potential, this energy, is self-creative upon numerous conditions. And just so, there are many aspects of energy, of potential. And this means there are many conditions which affect the expression of that potential, that energy: force through water is expressed in a different wave than force through vapor, than force through ice, than force through other matter, and other states. The state and nature of matter dictates its subjectivity to energy.

Yet it is one step simpler to understand the conditions of expression are described as a goddess, Uma (Parvati). It is a little easier to understand Uma as a reflective aspect of Vishnu - Vishnu representing other concepts, in turn. Understanding this "relationship" between Uma and Vishnu as similar to that between a brother and sister allows understanding of the Linga Purana when it explains why it is said the capacity for creation is "Uma." Consider, then, the conditions by which form becomes subject to the expression of energy are described as Gauri - for Gauri is a reflective aspect Brahma. This is why it is said the power of creation is Gauri (the sister-brother relationship between Gauri and Brahma indicates similarity: one possessing power, the other nature). And when, through other stories, we learn that Gauri and Uma are merely different manifestations of the same entity, and that this same entity is the female aspect of the transsexual Shiva, we better understand that the form all force acts upon is Shiva. This is why Shiva is said to be both united and distinct from his Consort, Uma Gauri. Why Uma Gauri is said to be united and distinct from her Consort, Shiva. Why Shiva is described as both united male and female, and disunited male and female, and neither male nor female. To return to the example above, "wave" describes not water, not the force in the water, but the expression of force-water.

When performing the theater of ritual, we are even better able to explore these "characters," understanding the Dharma. The Vedas explain that saying "OM!" allows us to examine the concept of conditional co-arising, and explore its implications to our own life: if we can create conditions of distress, we can also create conditions leading to the ending of that distress. We can understand the true nature of sacrifice. And in this act of creation through sacrifice, we come to understand Shiva-Uma-Gauri.

By going to war we can understand the truest nature of Hanuman, another manifestation of Shiva - if we permit our duty in war to become a theatrical re-enactment. By manifesting a family with a spouse, we can understand the truest nature of Gauri-Shiva-Kali-Durga-Uma. By undertaking industry or business, we learn the subtle lessons of the Arthashastra, and come to better understand the duties instructed by Vishnu.

We can even become capable of studying the lives of those around us - of all the beings around us - to understand the the Dharma. The world becomes a theater, through the practice of theater and drama. And upon mastering this, we may even provide by our own example important lessons to those who most depend upon us for guidance - by ritualizing our dramatic theater.

When you run into a concept or "character" that is difficult to understand, try enacting it. What better way to discover compounded force-form, Shiva, than by experiencing united love and friendship? Kama can be understood by loving Love, like Rati. The limitations of hatred are soon discovered - and abandoned - by a person who would embrace playing the role of a demon. For some, it is necessary to learn by direct experience, and the safest and best way to gain this experience (without risking the many personal disasters these characters experience) is through telling their stories, either by enactment or recital - by the theatrical drama of "kirtan."