Sacrifice and Theatre

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The fire sacrifice (yajna) was a rite of central importance in the vedic tradition. It dominated the mode of thinking so much that it became the central metaphor, used to underline the importance of every human activity. Thus, the yajna metaphor has been employed while talking of academic study, love-making, the epics, marriage, indeed, of life itself. No wonder, then, that it is also a favourite metaphor for theatre. Kalidasa talks of theatre as the most desirable fire sacrifice of the eyes: “Kāntaṁ kratuṁ cākṣuṣaṁ”.

The parallel between sacrifice and theatre is striking in so far as both activities involve (i) human performances, (ii) precise gestures, (iii) speech, and (iv) a carefully worked out action leading to a pre-determined denouement. Both go through five stages (avasthās) of development, namely, (i) Beginning (Ārambha), (ii) Effort (Yatna), (iii) Hope of attainment (Prāptyāśa) (iv) Further eventuation of action (Niyatāpti), and (v) Attainment of fruit (Phalaprāpti).

An additional characteristic common to both is the perennial possibility of disruption. The disruption may be from outside, either from a human agency (unruly audience, mischief-mongers, intruders, those unable to understand what is happening, demons), or from a more general calamity (rain, storm, political upheavals). Or the source of disruption could be within: the performers may forget their lines, mispronounce words, or quite simply may not have prepared themselves for their roles.

To guard against the first two hazards, the yajna is performed inside a sacrificial enclosure, the play inside a theatre building. The third possibility is guarded against by the vigilance of the chief priest, the director, the guru.

The parallels are so close that many scholars have argued that the steps by which the narrative of the Birth of Drama proceeds in the first chapter of the Nāṭya Śāstra actually mirrors the progression in similar myths about yajna (See M Christopher Byrsky. Concept of Ancient Indian Theatre. Munshiram Manoharlal, 1974. 41-51, 76-90).

Performance–>Disruption by demons–>Building of a protective enclosure–>Discussion–>Second Performance inside the enclosure

One of the principal differences between the two activities lay in the fact that drama was open to and became the prerogative of castes and communities excluded from the yajna. Abinavagupta brings home to us both this identity and difference when he explains that in the prologue of a Sanskrit play, the Sūtradhāra is addressed as Āryaputra (a scion of the Arya family), although the actor is a Śudra by birth, because he is the host of the great sacrifice of the Nāṭya vēda: “Nāṭya-vēda-mahā-sattra-dīkṣitaḥ