shiva as nataraja

Shiva as Nataraja

By Julian Millane Shiva as Nataraja is part of a series called Indian Spiritual Mythology on this website,

Shiva’s most comprehensive form is as Nataraja, ‘Lord of The Dance’.

Dancing is an ancient form of mysticism, a transformation, inducing trance, ecstasy and mergence with the divine essence.

In India dance has flourished alongside the austerities of meditation and Shiva, the arch-yogi of the gods is also master of the dance.

Encircled by endless fire symbolising creation and transformation, he is a figure of abandon, breaking all boundaries with his dance of bliss.

His hair which streams out wildly contains all the planets.

The upper right hand carries the damaru, a little drum shaped like an hour-glass whose beating is the pulse of time.

This connotes Sound – the conveyer of revelation, tradition, magic and divine truth.

The opposite hand, the upper left, with a half-moon posture of the fingers, bears a tongue of flame.

Fire is the element of the destruction of the world. In these two hands creation and destruction play the cosmic dance.

His lower right hand displays the “fear not” gesture, bestowing protection and peace, while the remaining left lifted across the chest, points downward to the uplifted left foot.

This foot signifies Release and is the refuge and salvation of the devotee.

The hand pointing to it is held in a pose imitative of the outstretched trunk of the elephant reminding us of Shiva’s son, Ganesha, The Remover of Obstacles.

The divinity dances on the dwarf of Ignorance or Forgetfulness.

As Nataraja, Shiva is the embodiment and manifestation of eternal energy in its five activities.

Creation – the pouring forth or unfolding

Maintenance – the duration

Destruction – the taking back or re-absorption

Concealement – the veiling of True Being behind the masks of apparitions, aloofness, display of Maya and

Favour – acceptance of the devotee, acknowledgement of the pious endeavour of the yogi.

The first three and the last two are matched, as co-operative mutual antagonisms; the god displays them all- not only simultaneously, but in sequence.

They are symbolised in the position of his hands and feet – the upper three hands being respectively, “creation”, “maintenance” and “destruction”.

shiva as Nataraja dancing

The foot planted in Forgetfulness is “concealement” and the foot uplifted, “favour”; the “elephant hand” indicates the linkage of the three to the two, and promises peace to the soul that experiences the relationship.

Shiva as Nataraja, the Cosmic Dancer, his gestures wild and full of grace, precipitates the cosmic illusion – his swaying arms, legs and torso the continuous creation/destruction of the universe, death exactly balancing earth, annihilation the end of every coming forth.

The cyclic rhythm, flowing endlessly in the irreversible round of the Mahayugas or Great Eons, is marked by the beating and stamping of the Master’s heels. But the face remains, meanwhile, in sovereign calm.

*Adapted from passages in “Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization” by Heinrich Zimmer,  and ”The Hindu Vision” by Alistair Shearer.

Originally published in Here & Now magazine.

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