Vishwamaata, Gaumaata: Hindu Biocosmology Comes to the Theater

The dance-drama Vishwamaata Gaumaata which is currently on tour in India is one of the most compelling expressions of cosmology as art and activism that I have ever seen. Unlike traditional dance dramas that focus on skill and story alone, Vishwamaata attains an experiential intensity that pulsates steadily between the urgent, material concerns of animal cruelty and human poverty on the one hand, and the profound philosophies that surround the object (and word) “gau” in Indic culture, on the other. It is, simply, the best way to begin an education in the biocosmic epistemologies of India that our modern, secular education has left us utterly ignorant, unappreciative, and even violently disdainful of.

The fields of environmental history and nonhuman historiography, important as they are, are either relatively new or too stuck in Western paradigms to take Indic thought on nonhuman life, or just life, even, too seriously. Moreover, many of us who studied in urban English medium schools have grown up believing that the traditional Indian reverence for plants, animals and birds is somehow all quaintly superstitious and an impediment to some fancy standard of “progress” measured by how ruthlessly millions of living, walking, breathing, and ultimately, screaming animals can be objectified, abused, and murdered.

As cow activists in India are increasingly pointing out, this sort of flawed ideology has led to alarming destruction not only of animal lives, but also of the very natural, physical environment that has sustained us for millennia. The rapacious urge to steal, traffic and slaughter cattle has deprived not only many farmers of their companions and support, but also of natural cycles of rejuvenation for the soil. Cows in India have been what Western folklore might call the goose that laid the golden egg, and what is happening today among some artists, activists and gurus in India today is a desperate effort to turn the clock back on planetary suicide.

These pedagogic points though are only a small part of the experience of Vishwamaata. The play begins with a charming depiction of the samudra manthan and the emergence of Kamadhenu, and then goes on to depict several well-known tales of cows, kings, sages and citizens from India’s past. What holds it all together powerfully though is a mysterious, and some might say mystical evocation of a far-away place in the universe known as Gau-Loka towards which the actors periodically turn. Anchored by a primordial Om, and appearances of Shiva, Parvathi and Vishnu, what we are encouraged to see, feel, and know, ultimately, is that our attitude and relationship towards the gau is not merely functionalistic or materialistic (as a modern mind might see it), but profoundly existential, even. The dialogues in the play urge us to rediscover from Vedic language that “Gau” is not only the “object” we now call the “cow,” but also the sun, the earth, and light. To view it in any other way would be a disservice to whatever we wish to learn of ourselves, and of the great truths of the universe we long to glimpse here in our earthly sojourns.

Vishwamaata also reminds us that this sort of disservice to truth is not merely an abstract one. We need, urgently, to renew our understanding of our biocosmic worldviews and sensibilities not simply for the sake of knowledge, tradition, or nation, but because of the utterly monstrous moral crimes we are colluding in as a result of our participating in today’s violently exploitative consumer society. Vishwamaata brilliantly weaves in narratives of the real-world concerns of ordinary people using the beautifully presented gau-figure as the centerpiece. Raja and praja get angry with the earth, and accuse her of not giving them enough. But before they can carry out their threat of ruthless exploitation, Gau-mata appears to teach them a way to live that will be kind, just, sustainable, and ultimately, the only way for all of us to live together, or even live.

There is a very moving episode also woven in about a lion hunting down a pregnant cow that is going into labor. As the actors perform the story, we also get to watch clips from a wildlife documentary on a screen behind the stage. What happens then is truly, truly staggering. No one who pays attention to this will ever believe in the lie of human supremacy ever again. There are things in nature that are teaching us to live as we are meant to, still. If only our schools, workplaces, hospitals, and entertainment spaces could open their horizons to rich, urgent, and inspiring cultural experiences like this, somehow we will find we have not lost what makes us human, or shall we say, animal, still, in a good way. There is love, simply, in this world, in spite of all we have done to it, and sometimes, rarely, it finds the poets, writers, artists, singers, and dancers who invite us into it. If Vishwamaata cannot teach us love and right direction again, nothing else can.

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