Shanta: the diminished self as the doorway

Image: Geoffrey Dunn

Image: Geoffrey Dunn

The notion of diminishing is the heart of Nirveda, the feeling constellation that is the foundation of Shanta. Diminishing is portrayed by the archetypes of Shanta in multiple ways—literally diminutive in stature, being an adolescent (child-like) and through taking on the role of a beggar.

The ancient texts highlight the form of Vishnu called Vamana, the diminutive or the dwarf avatar. While Vishnu has ten forms attributed to him, it is the Vamana form that is most important in the older texts. Entering into the physicality of Vamana is to literally feel the limbs shortening and one’s stature becoming smaller than our usual physicality. Vamana is also the Sanskrit word for an ancient pebble that is smooth and round—and the old sculptures of this form often show a seated, round figure with a self-contented expression. All of these meanings find a confluence in the dance of Vamana—mobile, light and tricky.

Diminishing is not a powerless state but one that claims power in unexpected ways. In the story of Vamana, he is able to get a boon of three steps of land from the great Asura king Mahabali because the kind underestimates Vamana’s prowess based on his stature and demeanour. Vamana then proceeds to measure out the cosmos in his first two steps. Realising the truth of Vamana’s avatar, Mahabali asks Vamana to place his third step on his head. Vamana does so and extinguishes Mahabali’s selfhood.

Buddha’s physicality of surrender is also in the domain of the diminished self. Buddha’s monkhood includes begging for alms. The physicality of begging is similar to that of Vamana. The space of begging is about the readiness to receive with unquestioning humility all that is given to one. It acknowledges that every event in the material reality is just as it should be and is received unquestioningly. Paradoxically to our mind-based paradigms, the attitude of surrender is suggested as the most powerful transformative heart of Shanta.

Shanta Rasa invites us to step outside of our usual maya-dominated paradigms of power, peace and self. Through its embodiment we experience that Shanta is a space of quiet, diminutive power which can transform not just those who experience it but also others around them. It is indeed befitting of its stature as the Rasa that allows you to access immortality.

Padma Menon