Danda Nata or Punishment by Performance


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GETTING LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE: A romance novel set in the 1980s and the 1890s.

THE FOURTH QUILL, a novel about attitudinal healing and the problem of evil

TWO SPIRITS: A Story of Life with the Navajo, a collaboration with Walter L. Williams

CHARMED LIVES: Spinning Straw into Gold: Reclaiming Our Queer Spirituality Through Story

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Allah Hu: "God is present here"
 
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Grace and Demion by Mel White

Gay Men and The New Way Forward by Raymond L. Rigoglioso

The Dimensional Stucture of Consciousness by Samuel Avery

The Manly Pursuit of Desire and Love by Perry Brass


Punishment by Performance

by
Toby Johnson


Soon after the Spring Equinox 1996, thirteen EarthWatch volunteers from the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain arrived in India on a mission to document and record "for posterity" the Spring/New Year's festivities in the region around Cuttack, Orissa, just inland from the Bay of Begal roughly a hundred kilometers south of the city of Calcutta. The festivities, which include both specifically religious elements and general cultural celebratory elements, are loosely called Danda Nata.

Danda Nata can be translated "Punishment through Performance." The religious side of the New Year's celebration, not unlike New Year's commemorations in the West, was focused on self-discipline and penance with the intention of making reforms in the future year and in the hopes of receiving blessings for oneself and for one's community as a reward for undergoing prescribed austerities.

Apparently, partly because the "austerities" involve performing rituals and feats of skill, the New Year's festivities also include theatrical performances and entertainments.


The Religious Observance


Thirteen young men, called bhoktas are selected from the village. They volunteer apparently because they have personal issues in their lives that they want to reform and/or because participation in the ritual brings prestige and respect. The bhoktas make vows of sexual abstinence, fasting, and retreat for the thirteen days of the festival.

Several times during those thirteen days they perform rituals that include the whole community in their observances and, not incidentally, entertain the villagers as the bhoktas  demonstrate prowess in certain manly activities. These consist of an opening ceremony in which the individual bhoktas and the members of the whole village determine hopes and intentions (which must parallel the West's "new year's resolutions") and then mystically enclose these in a consecrated "pot of desires"; several spontaneous events throughout the course of the thirteen days in which the bhoktas perform for the villagers, doing such things as hopping as one foot, rolling in the dust, and forming human pyramids, generally in response to challenges given them by the "high priest"/emcee/jester of the event, and then, after ceremonially washing at the ghat in the village pond and stirring one of the bhoktas into a trance state to become the goddess Kalika, parading through the village with torches while receiving offerings and bestowing blessings; and finally a particularly festive closing ceremony which includes yogic feats, such as firewalking and rolling in piles of thorny branches.

While the whole thing was predicated on a model of austerities and feats of bravery and difficulty, in fact, the performances of the bhoktas were far less solemn than their context would suggest. The Danda Nata seemed more like a Boy Scout Jamboree or a fraternity hazing than a solemn religious event. Young men the world over generally like to perform and show off as part of growing up and taking a place in adult society. It's not unusual for such an event to be presented in a religious context.

That the Danda Nata seemed to Westerners as less solemn than a Boy Scout Jamboree is perhaps primarily indicative of the Western dichotomy between things religious and things secular and between things serious and things festive.

The Theatrical Performances


 Perhaps simply because of the use of the term "performance" in the name of the religious ritual, the New Year's festival also includes theatrical and musical performances by acting troupes in the villages. These performances, accompanied by street fairs and bazaars, are generally conducted as competitions between troupes from different villages.

To the Western ear, these performances were difficult to listen to: the qualities of music-- harmony, rhythm, melody, etc-- between East and West are incompatible. What to the Indian ear must have sounded like appealing music and singing, to the Western ear, I fear, sounded rather more like unpleasant noise.

An interesting thing about the performance competitions was that, apparently, the order of skits in a competition is prescribed and the characters presented determined by tradition. What varies from performance to performance and from troupe to troupe, village to village, is the specific dialogue composed for each skit. Thus, for instance, the first skit is always an episode from the Ramayana, the second episode is always about a modern married couple fighting over the husband's drinking pattern. What varies is the kind of repartee that goes on between the characters.

Because this repartee was in a language the Westerners could not understand, a great deal of the novelty in the performances was unapparent and so went unappreciated.

It seemed to me that the theatrical performances were only tangentially linked to the religious ritual of the 13 bhoktas. This was New Years and many things come together to form the whole of the celebration.

Spirit Possession


One of the most interesting aspects of the Danda Nata was the conjuring of a possession state by one of the bhoktas. Through donning a special costume (that was increasingly more gender-crossed as the 13 days progressed) and then performing an induction through dance and gyration, one of the young men went into a possession state in which he "became" an incarnation of the goddess Kalika.

Trance induction seems to be a central part of many rituals. The induced state ranges from meditative concentration to full-blown possession by supernatural entities.

In the Danda Nata observed by the EarthWatch team in the town of Ponchugon, the possession seemed more ceremonial than real. The bhokta who became Kalika and was able thus to hear and respond to the villagers' petitions did not appear all that possessed. At least he did not seem out of conscious control. It is impossible, however, for an observer to know what the young man himself was experiencing.

What is certainly true is that central to the ritual and performance of the Danda Nata is the archetypal phenomenon of the god manifesting directly through one of the celebrants. It is in this wise that the whole village gets to participate in the mystical events of the festival.

The bhoktas were apparently practicing some sort of meditation/retreat/austerities in their personal roles. Thus they were likely to induce some sort of mystical experience in their own meditative trance. But it goes no further.

The ritual induction of the trance state during a public performance allowed the participants and observers alike to join in to the mystical phenomena by projecting into one of the celebrants the actual presence of the god/goddess.
Personal Reflections

I had quite an experience in India. I am still reeling a little.

EarthWatch


There were 13 westerners on this EarthWatch-sponsored expedition to Tigiria, a little peasant village in the state of Orissa about 100 miles south of Calcutta on the plain sloping down to the Bay of Bengal. The Principal Investigators for the project were Chandrapanu Pattanayak and his wife Vibha Sharma. They are graduate students in Montreal. Chandra is the eldest son of the eldest son of the tribal warrior who was head of the village before the current government and modern society came to dominate India. While he's no longer legally a warrior lord, he's still at the top of the caste system and owner of most of the land that comprises the town's fields.

The village was lovely: thatched roof huts of mud brick and/or concrete, built among coconut and mango groves. It was surprisingly tropical. I joked I had been expecting to find a land dotted with little Taj Mahals and white stucco houses like Greece, with everyone dressed in white pajamas, but instead I found myself in what looked like the South Pacific. The men dressed in sarong-like garments called longees which left the chest bare and scarves called shojis thrown over the shoulders in a variety of ways. The women dressed in saris, and did look more expectedly Indian than South Pacific.

Kip and Toby in longees shirtless





Here are Toby Johnson and his partner Kip Dollar, back in Austin
after Toby's journey, wearing the Indian longees





The accommodations were very rudimentary. We had electricity (for lights and ceiling fans), but not running water. The toilet facility was a little concrete trough to squat over. We washed with water we brought with us in a bucket into the "loo"-as we took to calling it, following the Britons' convention-carrying the bucket with the right hand. The water came from a stone tub in the "shower" which we filled by carrying water in from a pump outside the house. We "bathed" by throwing water from the tub over ourselves with a plastic cup.

The temperature was very hot. And the atmosphere very humid. I think this was because we were on the coastal plain and got lots of moisture blowing up from the Bay. There was a drenching dew most mornings. We sweated profusely--this was one of the hardest parts of the whole experience. Thank God for the ceiling fans.

The rituals we went to see were not all that spectacular, at least not for all the hardships. But they were interesting. The whole experience was interesting. I''m very glad I did it. AND I wish it could have been done in one week rather than three. There was really only about one week's worth of experience. But it was spread out over a much longer time of many hot days and nights with very little to do.

I liked the simplicity of life in India. I saw that as a kind of "life of the future": they are passing directly into the Electronic Age without having gone through industrialization. They haven't developed our dependency on machines and "labor-saving devices," most of which use lots of energy. Electronics can be powered with solar on a microenergy scale.

The townsfolk are not "primitive" or "backwards." They are somewhat sophisticated, I think, about the nature of the outside world: they have TV. Tho', in the village, there is not access to American TV which comes over cable and is available only in the cities; while in Calcutta on an overnight layover, I watched The Love Boat. The Indian government provides Hindi TV thru a stationary satellite that any TV set can pick up. 

At the same time, because Tigiria is off the tourist routes, most of the people -- and certainly the children -- had effectively never seen white people before. So we were quite a curosity and an attraction to them. Most everywhere we went, we were followed by crowds of children wanting to touch us, shake hands with us, slap palms (jive style) and/or practice their English--with phrases like "What is your father's name?" "What is your father's occupation?"

They were very preoccupied with father's name and occupation because those were indicators of caste status.

While under the current democratic, secular government, caste and social hierarchy no longer have legal status, they dominate life in the village. Even the arrangement of the houses, we saw, was determined by social status.

Part of the experience of India was seeing how relationships there work. Most marriages are still arranged--tho' apparently many parents are happy if the children will find mates for themselves (a la the western model) then they don't have to go through the difficult chore of finding a marriage partner. But they still expect the partner to fit all the requirements of an old-fashioned arranged marriage. And "love" is not one of the criteria. Nonetheless, sexuality is a vibrant part of the culture-if only in the sense of being clearly apparent in the iconography of the culture.

Erotic Temples


One of the places we visited on our way to the village was the Temple at Konarak. This is one of those Hindu temples decorated all over the outside with erotic art from the high Tantric period.

I remember renowned religions scholar Joseph Campbell, my friend and mentor, several times recounting his visit to this temple. He told how he asked people, "why the erotic art?" A religion scholar explained about the Tantric periodin Hindu history; a local tour guide declared the erotic sculptures were on the outside to keep the impure of heart out of the temple (cause they'd stay outside looking at the pictures instead of going in); an old holy man responded to Joe's question: "What else would you put on the outside of a temple?"

As he reached the punch line, Joe would always laugh heartily.

The men's sexuality was interesting to me as a politically active and psychologically sophisticated gay man. The Indians are very dark skinned, but are caucasian and have "white" features. Many are quite handsome (the Errol Flynn look), and deliberately so, some wearing kohl in their eyes to look more alluring. During the bright sun of the day they often wear modern shirts, but in the evening they change to the longees and go out barechested in the evening air. At least in the village where most people are vegetarian, relatively poor, and generally laboring class, they are frequently tall and thin with very good muscle definition and long torsos, often hairy. I was quite impressed with their sexual beauty. Even the older men looked fit and attractive.

They were very flirtatious. Often the whole village took on the look of an American gay men's resort, like Provincetown or Fire Island: all the men, no women in sight, out socializing with one another in the evenings, barechested, holding hands and hugging one another, standing shoulder to shoulder watching each other and smiling to all the passersby.

To add to the gay culture parallels, most of the "performances" we saw were done by men dressed in outrageous drag. Women don't perform on stage, so Elizabethan-style, the men do all the roles. Well, they certainly seemed to enjoy cross-dressing and camping up. They put on great drag shows.

I don't know if I was getting special attention because I was white tourist and a curiosity or whether at least some of them were picking me up on their "gaydar." One fellow came up to me and tried to make conversation. He said several times: "my house." Was that a proposition? An invitation for tea? Or were the words "my house" the only English he knew?

Another young fellow was clearly flirting and flashing his eyes at me. All of the other boys, I noticed, put their hands on him when they stood near, as tho' he were the village "boy toy" and beloved of all the men and boys.  I think he wanted me to bring him back to America with me and would have been happy to accept any sort of position for such a favor.

I did not know what to do with the sexuality around me. I understood that this culture had an entirely different take on sex from my native modern America and I definitely did not want to commit any cultural transgressions. I was a guest of the eldest son of the village's most noble family and, therefore, "on my best behavior." Besides, perhaps because of the hygiene compromises I was making, I had virtually no desire to touch any thing -- much less any one. For what seemed like a reasonable fear of catching something awful I was very wary of putting anything in my mouth-including the food. (In fact, I had no diseases at all, tho' did have hay-fever from the spring pollens.)

The Headmaster of the local school, who befriended the EarthWatchers, told me that "homosexuality" was forbidden by their religion, but he was quite interested in hearing how I thought Western gay consciousness differed from whatever the old religions would have made sexual taboos about and certainly didn't seemed judgmental.

The religion, nonetheless, often seemed to be more "superstitious" than holy. I was surprised by that. And was reminded that a great part of modernization is the development of perspective on religion-and with it transcendence of religion.

The local god in Orissa is Lord Jagernath--from which comes the English word "juggernaut" for an unstoppable force. We visited the temple--tho' could not go inside (only Hindus are allowed). Each year in mid-spring they bring out the god (and his brother and little sister) and carry them on the huge carts, six stories tall and pulled by thousands of people, that have come to be known as juggernauts.

Jagernath is an "idol" made of wood that looks pretty much like a toy penguin painted up with a funny face. Every twelve years, he is carved a new body. This year is such a year. And a major festival was coming up that would include the consecration of a new statue to be carried out on the procession.

The main avenue of Puri, down which the juggernauts roll, is crowded daily with pilgrims and beggars. We were surrounded by lepers and maimed supplicants who wouldn’t take no for an answer. (In one of the begging places, we saw a 10 or 12 year old boy whose penis had been cut off to elict pity--and more alms.)

The EarthWatch Team


Curiously there were 13 volunteers singed up for this mission, just as there were 13 bhoktas who volunteered for their roles in the Danda Nata. Like the bhoktas, the volunteers were effectively (de facto, though not de jure) deprived of sex, food, and privacy. We were undergoing a "punishment" and a purification.

The joke, of course, was that observing the theatrical performances in their alien style and difficult music was itself a "punishment by performance" and our central function was carrying out the spirit of the ritual.

The "scientific research" phase of the mission began with a presentation by the Principal Investigator, Chandrabhanu Pattanayak, about the ironies and contradictions of the "participant-observer" modality of ethnographic research. The presence of the EarthWatch team necessarily altered the experience of the Danda Nata by both the bhoktas and the villagers (both those who attended and those who deliberately did NOT attend). And, because we could only manage to comprehend a fraction of what was going on -- and that out of context, what we saw and how we reacted had little significance. My impressions don't matter for much, tho' here they are.

Nonetheless, we were ourselves experiencing danda nata and came away "purified" for having undergone a difficult experience, confronted aspects of ourselves we were likely unfamiliar with, and opened ourselves to be "possessed" by the culture of India into which we threw ourselves.



                                    Austin, Texas     
                                    May 21, 1996

Also on the EarthWatch Team was Selene Vega, PhD. She writes also about the three week experience at spiritmoving.com: Danda Nata Festival in Orissa India

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Toby Johnson, PhD is author of eight books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, three gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality. In addition to the novels featured elsewhere in this web site, Johnson is author of IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD and THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET (Revised edition): AN APPRECIATION OF JOSEPH CAMPBELL.

Johnson's Lammy Award winning book GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness was published in 2000. His Lammy-nominated book  GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe was published by Alyson in 2003. Both books are available now from Lethe Press.

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