Posted by: Harold Knight | 10/02/2011

The Dance of Shiva, My Father, and Me

Six years from now, if I have the genetic disposition of my immediate forebears and my abuse of my body and mind doesn’t militate against it, I will pass the fiftieth anniversary of my graduation from college. I have some reason to defer to the genetic disposition of my forebears; my father (born 1914) lived to be 97, and his father (born 1885) lived to be 92. If I have not spoiled my genetic heritage by unhealthy living, I should be around for a few more years.

That I graduated college at all is something of a miracle. I have quirks of personality caused, I hope, by anomalies in the structure of my brain and not by willfulness, psychosis, or neurosis. I recall with (some) horror moments of what must have seemed like insanity to faculty and fellow students. I suppose everyone has such memories; we would not have doctrines like “original sin” if that were not so. In my better moments I think the only difference between everyone I know and me is that I talk (and obviously write) about myself in these terms. However, it is entirely understandable that I have spent time hospitalized for, well, for some kind of mental/emotional instability.

There. I’ve said it. I’m a nut job. Or perhaps not.

Dr. Leslie Pratt Spelman, one of my college organ teachers, and my boss for a time (I worked for him for a year after he dismissed me as a student) must have seen me in some other way. He gave me a small book published by the Friends Society in 1963 in which

the conclusions of twelve psychiatrists . . . in essence legitimated a Quaker debate on sexuality. . . The pamphlet was most concerned with ending the association of religion with sexual repression and fostering a healthy view of sexuality. The authors also opened for discussion whether homosexuality should be considered immoral behavior (1).

Toward a Quaker view

Toward a Quaker view

Reading it was the first time I had any inkling that someone somewhere might think I was neither depraved nor sick for being gay. “The pamphlet was most concerned with ending the association of religion with sexual repression.” We certainly had plenty of that association floating around our once-Baptist-owned university.

I’m fortunate indeed that Dr. Spelman gave me that book. Eventually (many years later) I came to understand that Dr. Spelman wanted me to accept my sexuality as simply a part of my total person and experience as a human being and neither despise it nor love it too much. Pretty amazing for 1965.

Although he never said it, Dr. Spelman was really trying to use the idea of sex the Quakers were moving toward to influence my thinking much more broadly. He often quoted Walt Whitman that I ought to learn to “invite my soul” (2).

It was not an understanding of my body he wanted me to find, but an understanding of my soul. He knew, I think, that coming to terms with my body was essential to my ever discovering—much less coming to terms with—my soul. He knew with Simone Weil that

Human nature is so arranged that any desire of the soul which has not passed through the flesh by way of actions, movements and attitudes which correspond to it naturally, has no reality in the soul.  It is only there as a phantom (3).

Dr. Spelman presented me with another book. The Dance of Shiva, by Ananda Coomaraswamy. I dutifully tried to read the book, unable to understand any of it. I was a Baptist boy barely two years and 1,200 miles from home, trying to come to terms (before Stonewall) with being gay, and a man I respected enormously—but for whom I was a perplexity and a disappointment—gave me a book that told me that “whatever the origins of Shiva‘s dance, it became in time the clearest image of the activity of God which any art or religion can boast of” (4).

Nearly fifty years after Dr. Spelman gave me The Dance of Shiva, I have begun to read it with something like understanding. I have had some rudimentary explanation of the Dance of Shiva in a yoga class.

Of the various dances of Shiva I shall only speak of three. . . first is an evening dance in the Himalayas. . . The second. . .  called the Tandava. . . is performed in cemeteries and burning grounds, where Shiva, usually in ten-armed form, dances wildly with Devi, accompanied by troops of capering imps. Thirdly, we have the Nadanta dance . . . in the golden hall of Chidambaram or Tillai, the centre of the Universe. . . (5)

No wonder the 20-year-old Baptist gay-boy was both befuddled and repelled by the book. A pagan—in my understanding—God dancing. I wondered for many years why Dr. Spelman gave it to me other than to impress me that he had known Coomaraswamy through the American Society of Aestheticians.

Weil says, “any desire of the soul which has not passed through the flesh by way of actions, movements and attitudes which correspond to it naturally, has no reality in the soul.”  Coomaraswamy says the Dance of Shiva is “the clearest image of the activity of God which any art or religion can boast of.” I’m caught on the cusp of two ideas: any desire of the soul must pass through the reality of the body, and the Dance of Shiva is the clearest image of the activity of God.

Scarcely more than a week ago I sat with my father through the night he died.

This is the teaching: Destroy, destroy, destroy. Destroy within yourself, destroy all around you. Make room for your soul and for other souls. Destroy, because all creation proceeds from destruction . . . . For all building up is done with debris, and nothing in the world is new but shapes. But the shapes must be perpetually destroyed . . . Break every cup from which you drink (6).

The last Dance of Shiva is the dance of destruction. But destruction for making new.  I’m having trouble keeping from thinking about—obsessing over—bodies. My father’s and mine, at any rate. I think about longevity. I think about being gay. Or not being gay. I think about “the desire of the soul which . . . passe[s] through the flesh.” I think about “the clearest image of the activity of God,” the dance—the dance ending in destruction that makes new. I don’t believe in any God, least of all a Hindu dancing God.

But I see, I remember as I know I always will, my father’s last breath.

Endowed with a “sense of the Sacred,” Shiva’s “eyes closed on the flow of time.” Lord of the Dance and of perpetual motion, Shiva obliterates and recreates multiplicity, allowing man to glimpse a supra and infra universe (7).

I’m not becoming a Hindu. But I am changed. Perhaps last Tuesday I saw a glimpse of a universe both above and below.
(1) Frost, Jerry. “Three Twentieth-Century Revolutions: Liberal Theology, Sexual Moralities, Peace Testimonies. Part II: A Moral Revolution.” FCG Online Library. Friends General Conference. 2000. Web. 1 Oct. 2011.
(2) Whitman, Walt. “I celebrate myself.” Song of Myself. Publishing. 2009.
(3) Weil, Simone. Pensées sans orde concernant l’amour de Dieu. Paris: Gallinnard, 1962. Quoted in Götz, Ignacio L. “Spirituality And The Body.” Religious Education 96.1 (2001): 2-19.
(4) Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. “The Dance of Shiva” (1918), in The Dance of Shiva: Fourteen Indian Essays. New York: Sunwise Turn, 1924.
(5) Coomaraswamy, op. cit.
(6) Schwob, Marcel. Le Livre de Monelle. Quoted in Coomaraswamy.
(7) Knapp, Bettina L. “The Dance of Siva: Malraux, Motion and Multiplicity.” Twentieth Century Literature 24.3 (1978): 358. Quoting Andre Malraux.


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