This image of the Hindu god Shiva in the guise of Nataraja (Sanskrit – Lord of the Dance) is familiar to many people. Shiva Nataraja first appeared in 5-6 CE and the freestanding figure about 10 CE. It’s a persona that’s supremely evocative and inspires awe, if not a shiver down the back. I have a little statuette of the Lord of the Dance somewhere in storage, he needs to see the light of day now. My collection of statuettes all have a history behind them. Ganesh, Shiva and Vishnu have found their way to me over the years. I’m waiting on Brahma to grace me with his presence now. They were all bought in a little shop off Baker Street, central London. It was one of many little gems scattered across a busy city centre. The shop had a gorgeous statuette of Shiva carved out of sandalwood, how I wish I’d bought it at the time. It was too large to carry on public transport and getting a taxi home would have been expensive. My regret has lessened over the years. Honest, it has. Now, what of Shiva Nataraja?
As Destroyer, Shiva is one aspect of a divine triad consisting of Brahma, who is Creator and Vishnu, who is Preserver. The dance Shiva performs is called Tandava, and is said to bring about the destruction of the physical world and illusionary concepts of the Self. What is left thereafter but for creation and enlightenment to rise out of this ending?
The ecstatic Cosmic dancer has a smile on his face, perhaps knowing what he’s about to initiate? Symbols and motifs have a habit of perplexing the conscious mind, which act as a portal into the greater expanse of the subconscious. Music and dance are powerful keys to doorways hidden deep within the Soul. The many elements comprising this vision of beauty and luminosity sometimes leave me feeling overwhelmed and mystified. He’s like a book filled with mystical knowledge, unfolding his secrets when the mystic attains further insight. What is he conveying in his ecstasy? What is he conveying is in his pose?
The god dances within a circle of flames representing the world of Maya (Illusion) and consciousness, the inner ring symbolises water and the outer is fire. His gestures convey five attributes:
The upper right hand holds a drum (damaru) representing the sound, a heartbeat, to which Shiva dances in his creation of the world.
The lowert right hand is held in the abhaya-mudra (what is called the “fear not” gesture, palm facing outward with the fingers pointing up.) It is a blessing.
This is represented by fire held in the upper left hand (either in a vessel or his hand), symbolising the disintegration of matter. Agni (fire) cleanses and removes the result of destruction at the end of each epoch or Yuga. The lower left hand is in the gahahasta (elephant trunk) pose and points towards the raised left foot, conveying Shiva’s grace.
The right foot is placed upon the demon of ignorance, Apasmara, vanquishing him so that knowledge may flourish.
The left foot is raised, bestowing eternal bliss, grace and release.
Shiva’s unkempt hair signifies him as an ascetic and houses a crescent moon (the seasons are created through its waxing and waning), a skull, Datura blossom and Ganga, the goddess of the river Ganges. When her presence was needed on Earth Shiva’s hair broke her descent.
There are snakes coiled round Shiva’s upper arms and neck, signifying his power over these creatures. They are also symbolic of reincarnation and regeneration due to the ability to shed their skin.
This is only a brief glimpse into the symbolism of this mighty Lord of the Dance, one would have to meditate upon his nature to gain personal insights. I can’t profess to be a devotee but hold him in great esteem, perhaps my ancestors worshipped him at one time, I hope so. One day I’ll visit Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu, India to visit the great temple complex of Nataraja. Legends tell of Shiva having performed his dance of beginnings and endings in a grove of Tillai trees there. Sacred landscapes are instilled with the essences of divinity, hence one of many reasons pilgrims undertake their journeys to partake of these energies. This is my virtual pilgrimage to pay homage to Shiva in his Nataraja form.