The dancing lord: Nataraja, lord of the cosmic dance
The galaxies are moving just as the subatomic particles are moving and our consciousness is forming and reforming.
Unlike in most other religions, our gods are fond of music and love to dance. Krishna had his famous dances with the gopis whose mellow and romantic tunes were in keeping with the magical ambiance of rural Vrindavan. In sharp contradistinction is the cosmic dance of Shiva—the Tandava—which includes creation, preservation, destruction, and regeneration, and is accompanied by powerful sound and movement. It is the representation of all existence because everything is always moving.
The galaxies are moving just as the subatomic particles are moving and our consciousness is forming and reforming. Shiva’s Tandava has two moods. At a time of destruction, he dances the Vinasha (or Rudra) Tandava which represents the annihilation of the universe, and when he is in a joyful and creative mood he dances the Ananda Tandava, and the ripples of his bliss spread across all creation.
The dance of Shiva is beautifully captured in what is the high watermark of Hindu art—the image of Nataraja, Lord of the Cosmic Dance. Here the creativity of Indian sculpture is at its zenith. It is interesting to contrast the Nataraja with the equally creative figure of the Buddha in quiet contemplation. Indeed, these could be looked upon as the two poles of Indian sculpture, the kinetic Nataraja and the still Buddha, both images which have been the focus of intense devotion for millions around the world for many centuries.
The Nataraja image is rich with symbolism. The nimbus of fire surrounding the Dancer represents the all-pervading cosmos. Shiva’s right-hand holds a small drum, the damaru, which represents the primal sound from which the universe springs. His left-hand holds the fire into which ultimately all creation has to fall. Had there been only these two arms there would be no place for humanity.
Therefore, his third arm has an upraised palm which is saying, ‘Do Not Fear’, while the fourth arm points to his raised foot as the road to liberation. He dances in a small human form which represents our ego that needs to be suppressed but not killed. One of his ears sports a male earring, while in the other ear there is a female earring, again representing the fusion of male and female powers. His hair flowing outwards as a result of his dance is cosmic energy, and on his head, there is the crescent moon which represents the waxing and waning of Time.
There are numerous interpretations of Nataraja. My favourite is from a Tamil text, Unmai Vilakkam: ‘Creation arises from the sound of the drum [damaru]; protection proceeds from the [upraised] hand of hope; from the fire proceeds destruction; the foot held aloft gives release.’ The dance is interpreted in terms of five activities, viz., creation, preservation, destruction, giving an appearance of illusion, and salvation or grace (sristhi, sthiti, samhara, tirobhava and anugraha). It is also interpreted in terms of Yoga. The image is said to embody the inner processes by which the coiled kundalini or serpent-power is realised or straightened.
Nataraja’s damaru, particularly, is a fascinating symbol. A small double-sided drum played with one hand, is believed to be the source of the sound that creates—and recreates—the universe. It is also the source of the cosmic rhythm which influences the movement of energy in the universe. Shiva is said to have played the damaru twice; the first time nine sounds emerged while the second time five emerged, making a total of fourteen. Each one of these sounds was developed into a sutra upon which Sanskrit grammar is based, leading to the whole magnificent edifice of Sanskrit language and literature.
The image of the Nataraja reached its perfection under the Chola dynasty in South India between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries CE. The Chola kings were the ones who built the great Shiva temples which are marvels of architecture, engineering, aesthetics, and sculpture. These include the great Brihadeshwara temple in Thanjavur, the beautiful temple at Tiruvannamalai, and the famous Nataraja temple at Chidambaram.
Chidambaram is where the Bharatanatyam dance originated and its 1,000 postures are engraved in the temple complex. The story goes that two great Shiva devotees—Patanjali, author of the Yogasutra who is depicted as half man and half serpent; and Vyaghrapada, who was granted huge feet like those of a tiger so that he could more effectively gather flowers to offer Shiva—together prayed to Shiva saying that they missed his original dance in Kailasha, so would he kindly come and dance again in the 1,000-pillared hall in Chidambaram, which is covered entirely with solid gold. Shiva agreed to their request and performed the dance. There is a beautiful Bharatanatyam dance connected with this legend called Natanam Adinar.
Excerpted from Shiva: Lord of the Cosmic Dance, An Anthology, edited by Karan Singh, with permission from Speaking Tiger