Consciousness, Literature and the Arts


Volume 4 Number 3, December 2003



Consciousness, Theatre and Terrorism




Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe


Introduction: The Potential Redemptive Impact of the Arts

The acts of terrorism in the USA on September 11, 2001, have led to a wide range of responses in many fields of life besides politics, including academe and the arts. As Youtt points out, the immediate response in the arts was poetry of grief, posted to walls near the scene (in press). Somewhat later, irony followed, as in the animation of the Twin Towers bending as the planes approach to elegantly avoid impact. Censorship was also obvious: computer games were rewritten without the Twin Towers, film releases delayed, and pop songs with potentially controversial lyrics ‘voluntarily’ banned from being aired. Many people of international renown in the academy were asked to comment, and did so readily and thoughtfully. The nature of terrorism was reassessed again and again, its causes and its impact and what could be done (if anything) to stop it. Within that debate of terrorism, and related violence, the question arose what the use of the arts might be in the face of terrorism, beyond an expression of grief, beyond irony, beyond the avoidance (at best) that comes with censorship. Fintan O’Toole’s comments on Culturesm, Art and Conflict come to mind: he argues that


‘[m]any persist in the notion that art is implicitly and necessarily redemptive, that art always makes people better, more humane, more generous. But for anyone who is alive to the world in which we live, these comforting illusions are not an option’. (1999)


The opposition O’Toole suggests here, between illusion about the beneficial impact of art and reality which denies such illusion, is probably appropriate on the level O’Toole chooses to phrase the argument: otherwise, the existence of art would have helped to make our world a more humane, generous one than it is. However, O’Toole’s argument does not rule out the possibility that art, some, and not all art, may have the potential of being redemptive, of making people better. In this paper I want to follow the elements and implications of this potential. What effect or impact precisely can we expect from art? What kind of art could have such a beneficial impact, and what are the processes involved? My answers to those and related questions are not insulated and isolated within the realm of arts and aesthetics, within the ivory tower of the academy. I suggest that they may be expanded (although I do not propose to follow that argument through here) to seriously challenge the claim of some politicians that war is the only possible response to terrorism.


Methodological Framework: Consciousness Studies

The methodological framework for my argument is contemporary consciousness studies. The study of human consciousness has become sufficiently mainstream over the last ten to fifteen years to make two print journals (Consciousness and Cognition and Journal of Consciousness Studies), and numerous books by leading publishers such as OUP and MIT Press commercially successful. The Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson, USA, has led the field, with its large bi-annual conferences (since 1994), and the British Psychological Association has approved new sections in Transpersonal Psychology and Consciousness and Experiential Psychology (each with annual conferences and their own peer-reviewed, though smaller scale journals) as late as 1997.


            Whereas for a number of years most interdisciplinary research into human consciousness has been predominantly science-based, research into the relationship between consciousness and the humanities, including literature, theatre, fine arts and media arts, is clearly growing in strength. Thus, at the Tucson conferences, literature and the arts feature on the long list of consciousness-related topics. In 1997, Malekin and Yarrow published their seminal Consciousness, Literature and Theatre: Theory and Beyond, and in 1999 the forth and last issue of the short-lived peer-reviewed journal Performing Arts International was dedicated to Performance and Consciousness. In 2000, I founded a peer-reviewed web-journal, Consciousness, Literature and the Arts ( I serve as general editor for a four-part series of books on the relation between theatre and consciousness. My own book, Theatre and Consciousness, see above, will be the first in this series, to be followed by Anwen Jones, Consciousness and Symbolist Theatre: Immediacy of Presence, Michael Mangan, Performing (Dark) Arts: a Cultural History of Conjuring, and Ralph Yarrow, Peter Malekin and William S. Haney II, Sacred Theatre.


The Model of the Mind in Vedic Science

Just as every other academic who deals with consciousness studies, I, too, have chosen one model of consciousness from among the abundance of models available, on which to base my argument, because it has, for me, the strongest explanatory power. The model I chose is based on Indian Vedanta philosophy, as conceptualised over the past twenty years by Indian sage and philosopher Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in terms of Vedic Science. According to this model, I distinguish, initially, between three basic states of consciousness, waking, dreaming and sleeping. During the waking state of consciousness, several functions of consciousness can be differentiated:             Vedic Science proposes "(...) an architecture of increas­ingly abstract, functionally integrated faculties or levels of mind" (Alexander 1990: 290).  This hierarchy ranges from gross to subtle, from highly active to settled, from concrete to abstract, and from diversified to unified. The senses constitute the grossest, most highly active, most concrete and most diversified level of the mind, followed by desire, the thinking mind, the discriminating intellect, feeling and intuition, and the individual ego. Vedic psychology uses the term "mind" in two ways: "It refers to the overall multilevel functioning of consciousness as well as to the specific level of thinking (apprehending and comparing) within that overall structure". Underlying the subtlest level, that of the individual ego, and transcendental to it, is pure consciousness, "an abstract, silent, completely unified field of consciousness". Each subtler level is able to "observe and monitor the more expressed levels" (Alexander 1986: 291). 


If pure consciousness is not experienced only briefly, and ‘just’ on its own, but together with waking or dreaming or sleeping, according to Vedic Science, higher states of consciousness have been achieved. The develop­ment is characterised initially by glimpses of simultaneity of experience of pure consciousness together with either waking, or dreaming, or sleeping. When pure conscious­ness is permanently experienced together with any of the other three, this state is called cosmic consciousness. Cosmic con­sciousness is followed by refined cosmic consciousness, charac­terised by the refinement of sensory perception. Finally, in unity consciousness, a person is able to perceive everything in terms of his own transcendental Self (Alexander 1990: 290).


The Root Cause of Violence and Terrorism

On the basis of the model of consciousness proposed by Vedic Science, according to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, any form of violence, thus including terrorism, has its root cause in people not being able to fulfil their desires. Desire may be devoid of its basis in pure consciousness. Vedic Science has identified pure consciousness as the unified field discussed in quantum physics. As such, pure consciousness is the field of human consciousness at which all laws of nature are active.  A person who has established constant access to pure consciousness, characteristic of the higher states of consciousness (cosmic, refined cosmic and unity consciousness) as proposed by Vedic Science, will thus be acting always from the level of the laws of nature, and in accordance with them. He or she will not be able to make mistakes. Desires arising from such an enlightened person, a person in a higher state of consciousness, will also be in tune with the laws of nature; any action carried out to fulfil those desires will, by definition, never contain an act of violence against him or herself or any other element of life, including other human beings.


Desires devoid of the experience of pure consciousness at its basis may well be (though are not necessarily altogether) devoid of the laws of nature characteristic of pure consciousness, and may be in violation of the laws of nature. Action carried out to fulfil desires devoid of the full support of natural law may in turn itself be prone to a lack of accordance with natural law. Desire that implies violence and terrorism leads to violence and terrorism. Sometimes desires devoid of pure consciousness are in tune with natural law, more by intentional, reflected effort, or coincidence than by default. However, a person devoid of constant experience of pure consciousness may well, to fulfil even a desire that is in tune with the laws of nature, take recourse to action that, in turn, is not in tune with the laws of nature. Thus, desire for something that is in itself in tune with the laws of nature can lead to action that is violent and an act of terrorism because the person harbouring that desire does not know how to fulfil the desire in ways that are in tune with the laws of nature.


The Solution: Technologies of Consciousness

What is the solution to the problems of violence and terrorism if we regard them as related to inappropriate desires or the inability to fulfil appropriate desires (appropriateness here is a measure of the degree to which desires and action carried out to fulfil desires are in tune with the laws of nature)? Violence and terrorism can be reduced and avoided by any procedure that allows people to experience pure consciousness, initially in glimpses, and leading progressively towards higher states of consciousness. The further individuals progress towards higher states of consciousness, the more their desires, and their action to fulfil their desires will be in tune with the laws of nature. In parallel, their desires and action will be characterised less and less by violence and terrorism. Extensive research on Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation (TM) and the advanced techniques of the TM Sidhi Program suggests that to reduce violence and terrorism in society, it is not even necessary that all people making up that society practice consciousness-enhancing techniques such as TM: it suffices if only 1% of the population engage in group practice of TM, or the square root of 1% if the TM Sidhi Program is practised together (Dillbeck, 1988; Orme-Johnson, , 1988, Hagelin, 1999)

Vedic Theatre as a Technology of Consciousness: Natyashastra and rasa

            The arts may support the impact of techniques such as TM, or provide stand-alone procedures geared to develop the consciousness of those involved: performers, directors, designers, stage management, and spectators. Indian theatre aesthetics, as found in the Natyashastra, provides a model of how this may work. The Natyashastra men­tions some other texts and their authors. It must thus be concluded that other sources existed prior to the Natyashastra itself, but no manuscripts of those earlier sources have been found so far.  The authorship of the Natyashas­tra is ascribed to Bharata.  However, there is no historical evidence outside the Natyashastra for his existence.  Moreover, several critics argue, based mainly on linguistic studies of the text, that the Natyashastra is not a homogeneous composition of one author, but a compilation of dramatic theory and instruc­tions for the actor of how to put the theory into practice.  Critics disagree as to whether there was one original text by one author with was changed over the years, or whether the text was from the beginning a compiliatory effort of sev­eral authors.  Srinivasan finds an irreducible hetero­geneity in the text and argues that "we have every reason to conclude that these disparate materials are not later accretions to the Natyashastra known to us" (1980, 1).  A major difficulty in tex­tual matters is that there are many man­uscripts of the Natyashastra, which differ considerably among each other as to content, numbering of stanzas and chap­ters, some even in ascribing the author (Kale, 1974, 5).  As uncer­tain as the authorship of the Natyashastra is its date, placed between the first century BC and the 8th cen­tury AD (5). 


            The scope of the material covered in the Natyashastra is vast.  There are thirty-six chapters, beginning with the origin of drama, and encompassing dramatic theory as well as practical instructions to the actors of how to achieve aesthetic experiences in the spectators.  The term shastra implies a holy text, and in the Natyashastra itself Bhara­ta claims that Natya, drama, was created by the crea­tor, Brahman, as a fifth Veda, taking recitative from the Rigveda, the song from Samaveda, the histrionic represen­tation from the Yajurveda, and the sentiments from the Atharvaveda (Ghosh, Natyahastra [NS], 1950, 4)


            For the orthodox in India thus the Natyashastra has the combined force and authority of a divinely revealed shruti, the sage-expounded smritis, and the broad based popular tradition of the Puranas (Kale, 1974, 1).  It is therefore no wonder that the Natyashastra must still be regarded as the primary source for Indian aes­thetics, and indeed all the later Indian theorists of dramaturgy expressly refer to the Natyashastra. 


            The key concept in the aesthetic theory presented in the Natyashastra is rasa.  This term occurs frequently in Vedic texts, where it has various mean­ings:


In Rig Veda the word, rasa, is found occurring in the sense of water (...), Soma juice (...), cow's milk (...), and flavour.  The Atharva-Veda extends the sense to the sap of grain and the taste, the latter becoming very common.  In the Upanishads rasa stands for the essence or quintessence and self-luminous consciousness though the sense of taste is at places conveyed (...) In Sanskrit other than the Vedic, the word, rasa, is used for water, milk, juice, essence, tasteful liquid, etc. (Mishra 1964)  


The material aspect of the meaning of rasa is emphasised in Ayurveda, the an­cient Indian system of holistic medi­cine.  Here, rasa denotes "a certain white liquid extracted by the digestive system from the food.  Its main seat is the heart" (Pandey, 1950, 10), and the Rasayanashastra, is a trea­tise on chemistry, which "moves round the pivot of rasa.  Mercury, which is called rasa, plays here a very im­portant part" (Mishra, 1964, 198).  The spiritual aspect of the meaning of rasa is emphasised in Shankara's commentary of the Upanishadic use of the term: "Rasa is here used to mean such bliss as is innate in oneself and manifests itself (...) even in the ab­sence  of external aids to happiness.  It emphasises that the bliss is non-material, i.e.  intrinsic, spiritual, or subjective" (Rhagavan, 1988). As such, the experience of rasa has been likened to the experiences of yogis by Abhinavagupta, the major commen­ta­tor of Bharata's Natyashastra. 


            In the context of Indian aesthetics, rasa is under­stood as the actor's and especially the spectator's aes­thetic experience. In an aesthetic context, rasa is trans­lated as "sentiment".  The Natyashastra differentiates eight sentiments: erotic, comic, pathetic, furious, her­oic, terrible, odious, and marvellous (NS 102).  Some later writers on Sanskrit poetics add one more rasa to this number, santa.  The concept of rasa is phrased in the Natyashastra in form of a short statement, a sutra: Vibha­va- anubhava- vyabhicaribhava- samyogad rasa- nispattih. The translation is "Rasa is produced (rasa-nispattih) from a combination (samyogad) of Determinants (vibhava), Conse­quents (anubhava) and Transi­tory States (vyabhicarib­hava)" (NS 109). 


                 Determinants (vibhava) are characterised as situa­tions that cause the emergence of rasa.  For example, the erotic rasa


has two bases, union (...) and separation (...).  Of these two, the Erotic Sentiment in union arises from Determinants like the pleasures of the season, the enjoyment of garlands, unguents, ornaments [the company of] beloved persons, objects [of senses], splendid man­sions, going to a garden, and enjoying [oneself] there, seeing the [beloved one], hearing [his or her words], playing and dallying [with him or her]. (NS 108-9)


Consequents (anubhava) are defined as means of histrionic representation.  In the above example, the erotic rasa in union should be represented on the stage by "Consequents such as clever movement of eyes, eyebrows, glances, soft and delicate movement of limbs and sweet words and similar other things" (NS 109).


            The Natyashastra lists altogether thirty-three trans­itory states (vyabhicaribhava): discouragement, weakness, apprehension, envy, intoxica­tion, weariness, indolence, depression, anxiety, distraction, recollection, con­tent­ment, shame, inconstancy, joy, agitation, stupor, arro­gance, despair, impa­tience, sleep, epilepsy, dreaming, awakening, indignation, dissimulation, cru­elty, assurance, sickness, insanity, death, fright, and deliberation (NS 102).  In the ex­ample of the rasa of love, the Natyashastra states that "Transitory States in it do not include fear, indo­lence, cruelty and disgust" (NS 109). 


            To the concern of critics, the rasa-sutra on its own appears not to men­tion all elements that work together to create rasa.  It does not mention, that is, dominant states (sthayibhava) and temperamental states (sattvikab­hava).  The Natyashastra lists eight dominant states (sthayibhava): love, mirth, sorrow, an­ger, energy, terror, disgust, and astonishment (NS 102).  There are eight tempera­mental states (sattvikabhava): "Paralysis, Perspiration, Horripilation, Change of Voice, Trembling, Change of Colour, Weeping and Fainting" (NS 102-3).  The text explains the relationship between rasa and determinants, consequents, dominant states, transitory states and the temperamental states through an analogy: just as vari­ous ingredients such as vegetables, and spices, when mixed, produce a flavour, so the combination of the "Dominant States (sthayibhava), when they come to­gether with various other States (bhava) attain the quality of the Sentiment (...)" (NS 105).  All the eight sentiments, the eight dominant states, the transitory states and the temperamental states are described in the Natyashastra in detail with reference to the determinants, the consequents, and their relation to the senti­ments.


            The Natyashastra places much emphasis on the means of histrionic rep­resentation (abhinaya).  They are the tech­niques used by the actor to portray the consequents.  "From the point of view of the playwright or the character it is anubhava, and from that of the actor it is abhinaya" (Marasinghe, 1989, 198).  Four kinds of abhi­naya are differentiated: gestures (angika), words (vacika), costume  and make-up (aharya) and the representation of the temperament (satt­vika).   To each of these aspects the Natyashastra devotes several chapters.  Gestures are treated in chapters on the movements of minor limbs, hands, other limbs, dance move­ments, and gaits.  The movements are also specifically related to the space of the stage (NS, chapter 14).   Vacika abhinaya, representation through words, is covered di­rectly in  chapters on prosody, metrical patterns, dictions of play, rules of the use of languages, and modes of address and intonation; more indirectly in chapters on the construc­tion of the plot.  Other chapters provide details about costume and make-up, thus referring to aharya abhinaya, others about the rep­resentation of the temperaments (sattvika abhinaya).  The means of histrionic representa­tion (abhinaya) are variously combined to give rise to four different styles of dramatic performance (vritti), the verbal (bharati), the grand (sattvati), the graceful (kaisiki) and the energetic (arabhati).  Finally, the prac­tice of representation in a dramatic performance is twofold: realistic (lokadharmi) and theatrical (natyadhar­mi).  The means of histrionic represen­tation, abhinaya, belong to the category of natyadharmi.


            Theatre, in the sense of dance-drama, functions not only on the level of symbolism of theatrical action, but also through language (vacika abhinaya), costume and make-up (aharya) and representation of the temperament (sattvi­ka-abhinaya).  Costume and make-up will function mainly through the sense of sight, affecting the emotions.  The symbolic nature of theatre affects mainly the intellect.  Gestures (angika abhinaya), function through the sense of sight, and language (vacika abhinaya) through the sense of hearing. 


            I have elsewhere re-defined rasa against the background of Vedic Science from the spectator's per­spective as a combina­tion of pure consciousness and the specific impressions on the mind provided by a theatrical performance. I have also shown that the Natyashastra functions on two levels: it is a description of what actors who live in a higher state of consciousness would automatically, spontaneously do to create a specific aesthetic effect (rasa) in the given spectators in a given performance. In addition, the means of histrionic representation detailed in the Natyashastra serve as tools to develop higher states of consciousness both in performers who have not established those higher states of consciousness for themselves yet, and for all those who observe a performance that follows the rules of acting set out in the Natyashastra (Meyer-Dinkgräfe, 1999). Repeated exposure to Vedic performance (i.e., performance that follows the aesthetics of the Natyashastra) implies repeated exposure to pure consciousness. In alternation with ordinary daily activity, actors and spectators alike retain more and more of the experience of pure consciousness throughout their waking, dreaming and sleeping, thus developing higher states of consciousness, which are characterised by permanent experience of pure consciousness. The process functions in analogy to ancient methods of dying cloth:


1.      immerse the cloth in the dye (expose the mind to the experience of pure consciousness);

2.      take the cloth out of the dye and place it in the sun (ordinary daily activity);

3.      most of the dye will be bleached out, but a little remains in the fabric of the cloth (most of the experience of pure consciousness will fade away, but a little will stick);

4.      repeat this process until the dye is permanently in the fabric of the cloth (repeat the alternation of exposure to pure consciousness and daily activity until pure consciousness is permanently maintained during all activity and also during sleep and dream states of consciousness).


In an earlier section of this paper I had identified the level of pure consciousness as the level from which all laws of nature operate. The more people are enabled to experience pure consciousness, the more will they be able to behave without making mistakes, without being intentionally or unintentionally of harm to themselves or their environment. In particular, the laws of nature will inform their desires; the action they carry out to fulfil their desires will be increasingly in tune with the laws of nature. Vedic theatre serves as a means of developing higher states of consciousness; action on the path to that goal is increasingly in tune with the laws of nature, and action in a higher state of consciousness cannot, by definition, cause harm, offence, or any violation of any law of nature. Vedic theatre can thus serve to reduce violence and terrorism in any individual exposed to it. This claim, that Vedic theatre serves as a means of reducing violence and terrorism (and, for that matter, any other behaviour that violates any law of nature) is open to empirical research. Establish parameters, or indicators, of well-being and reduction of violence or other detrimental behaviour, expose a given number of subjects to Vedic theatre (both on the production and reception side), and see whether well-being increases and violence decreases in those subjects, as predicted. Such a study could find that the amount of increase or decrease, respectively, correlates with differences in frequency of exposure (the more often the exposure, the stronger the impact), and on the subject in question: performers might show stronger changes because they are exposed longer and more intensively to Vedic theatre than spectators. Personality variables may come into it as well, of course, for example, people who already practice forms of meditation may turn out to be effected by Vedic theatre more than others who do not practice meditation.


Western Theatre as a Technology of Consciousness? Past, Present and Future Potential

At the beginning of the 21st century, hardly any theatre is full-blown Vedic theatre, although some theatre shows aspects of it: for example, higher states of consciousness are implied, or alluded to, though various techniques in theatre (see Malekin and Yarrow, 1997, 126-150). Full-blown Vedic theatre would need to be (re-)constructed, (re-)invented and (re-)created from existing sources such as the Natyashastra, and some surviving forms of theatre in India, such as Koodiyattom. Conventional theatre, most of the theatre we can see at any point these days in London or elsewhere in the UK, Europe and the USA at least, will not currently have the impact Vedic theatre can have. This is despite Aristotle’s claim that theatre leads to catharsis, the purging of ‘negative’ emotions of pity and fear, and despite serious attempts since to give theatre more than a mere entertainment function. Certainly all theatre will have some impact on the production team involved, and on the spectators, whether those exposed to theatre in production or reception know it or not (another claim open to empirical research).


Many theatre artists have tried, very hard indeed, to achieve change, on various levels. Audiences were educated, intellectually, to think differently about certain issues presented in plays. Well-known examples for this approach are Brecht and the wave of politically motivated dramatists in the UK in the 1960s. Such an approach becomes problematic when a bio-medical trust funds the writing and production of plays which deal ‘critically’ (?) with aspects of biomedicine, such as genetic engineered food or medicines, explicitly in order to raise awareness of such issues. Theatre may be geared towards specific groups of audiences to ‘help’ them in some ways: trauma management in post-war societies, or the theatre for development movement in ‘third-world’ countries. The movement of boulevard comedy theatres in Germany has made the choice of presenting light comedy (here, Ayckbourn is already too ‘heavy’, too ‘dark’) at a very high level of sophistication, to a subscriber audience; the aim is to provide two hours of light entertainment and laughter. The comfortable, plush and cosy ambiente and atmosphere of at time purpose-built boulevard comedy theatres supports the intention of giving the audience a good time, making them feel happy during and after the performance. On a more esoteric level, Artaud has searched for the language of nature beyond speech that should be used by actoes to return magic to the theatre; Grotowski sought to achieve translumination for his actors and spectators, and Barba is fascinated by the actor’s presence, and the third organ of the body of theatre, the untrainable something that makes the actor’s actions on stage incandescent. Peter Brook’s quest is to achieve total theatre, characterised by a unity of all aspects of the theatre event. All those ideals art reminiscent of descriptions of higher states of consciousness as proposed by the model of consciousness in Vedic Science. However, those states are only rarely achieved, and so far, there seem no reliable methods available to achieve such higher states of consciousness in the actor (and through the actor in the spectator) systematically, intentionally, at will, and thus repeatable in performance after performance. This is not for any lack of trying: all of Grotowski’s, Barba’s, or Brook’s theatre practice has been devoted to developing appropriate techniques. The success is patchy, at best, possibly due to an eclectic (or, to put it more colloquially, pick-and-mix) approach: adopting and randomly combining, aspects of theatre practice from a wide range of cultures and epochs, possibly at times without in-depth knowledge of the adopted techniques. Empirical research might clarify whether an in-depth approach rooted in the practices of one culture might be more fruitful, and to what extent experiences of higher states of consciousness are indeed beyond culture and time, i.e., universal.


I want to end this paper by claiming that (Western) theatre can increase well-being and reduce violence in the production team and spectators systematically, and more so than previous attempts, if it meets a number of conditions. Below I offer a number of such conditions, by way of hypotheses, which can be subjected not only to further development and counter-argument, but also to empirical research:


In this paper I address the potentially redemptive impact of the arts, the questions

·        What effect or impact precisely can we expect from art?

·        What kind of art could have such a beneficial impact, and what are the processes involved?

from the perspective of consciousness studies. Within that methodological framework I selected the model of the mind proposed by Vedic Science. According to that model, any form of violence is based on an inability to fulfil desires, which in turn is due to an underdeveloped state of consciousness. The solution is to raise the level of consciousness, which implies that the levels of crime, violence and terrorism are reduced. Tools to achieve this include meditation; the impact of the TM technique and the TM Sidhi program is particularly promising and supported by empirical evidence. I propose to regard Vedic Theatre as an equally valid and powerful tool, or technology of consciousness.  Western theatre can be developed further to meet the criteria of Vedic theatre independent of cultural differences.


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