Origin and Meaning of Shiva as Nataraja, the Lord of the Cosmic Dance

Origin and Symbolism of Shiva as Nataraja the Lord of the Dance
Origin and Symbolism of Shiva as Nataraja the Lord of the Dance

In medieval India, the art forms like in the case of medieval Europe was based on religion and spirituality. The devotee’s spiritual practice was improved by meditation inspired by works of art and architecture.

Just as the glowing upper chapel of the Sainte Chapelle impressed and surprised worshipers in France, the looming bronze statues of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati in the halls of the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, in south India would have awed a Hindu devotee.

Today the presence of a 2m tall statue of the Indian deity Lord Shiva as Nataraja at CERN, the world’s largest particle physics lab — is a testimony to the great art form giving symbolism to modern science.

A bronze statue of Shiva as Lord of the Dance commonly known as Nataraja is an iconic art form and a representation of one of the most important deities in Hinduism. The word Nataraja is a Sanskrit is derived from Nata meaning ‘act, drama, dance”‘, and Raja meaning ‘king, lord’. it can be roughly translated as Lord of dance or King of dance.

The legend behind Lord Shiva as Nataraja

Hindu Philosophy and Modern Science Amazing Similarities
The legend behind Lord Shiva as Nataraja

There is an interesting legend behind the representation of Shiva as Nataraja. As per the legend, in a dense forest in South India, there lived a number of heretical sages. Lord Shiva approached to expose them, accompanied by Vishnu disguised as a beautiful woman.

The sages first fought among themselves, but their anger was soon directed against Shiva, and they tried to slay him by means of magical chants. First, a fierce tiger was created in sacrificial fires, and rushed upon him — but smiling gently, he grabbed it and, with the nail of his little finger, peeled off its skin, and covered himself with it like a cloth.

Surprisingly the sages did not give up yet, repeated their offerings, and produced a monstrous serpent, which Lord Shiva caught again and curled on his neck like a garland.

Then he began to dance, but there rushed upon him a last monster in the shape of a malignant dwarf. Upon him, the god pressed the tip of his foot and broke the creature’s back so that it fell on the ground with enormous pain –and after his last foe was defeated Lord Shiva resumed the dance.

As a symbol, Shiva Nataraja is a glorious art form. It combines in a single image Shiva’s roles as creator, preserver, and destroyer of the universe and conveys the Indian conception of the never-ending cycle of time

To fully understand the concept of Nataraja one has to understand the meaning of dance itself. Like yoga, dance induces trance, ecstasy, and the experience of the divine.

In India consequently, dance has thrived side by side with the great simplicities of meditation and related practices like fasting, absolute introversion. Lord Shiva, therefore, the arch-yogi of the gods, is also the master of the dance.

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The historical context of Nataraja

Shiva Nataraja was first described in a beautiful series of South Indian bronzes dating from the tenth and twelfth centuries CE. In these images, Nataraja dances with his right foot supported by a crouching figure and his left foot elegantly raised.

A cobra uncoils from his lower right forearm, and the crescent moon and a skull are on his crest. He dances within an arch of flames. This dance is called the Dance of Bliss (Anandatandava).

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The meaning and details of Nataraja image

Natraj Form of Shiva
Nataraja Form of Shiva

These iconographic details of Nataraja are to be interpreted, according to the Hindu tradition, in terms of a complex visual story. The most common figures describe a four-armed Shiva. These multiple arms represent the four cardinal directions. Each hand either holds an object or makes a specific Mudra (gesture).

The upper right hand holds a hour-glass drum which is a symbol of creation. It is beating the pulse of the universe. The drum also provides the music that accompanies Shivas dance. It represents sound as the first element in an unfolding universe, for sound is the first and most pervasive of the elements.

The story goes that when Shiva granted the boon of wisdom to the ignorant Panini (the great Sanskrit grammarian), the sound of the drum encapsulated the whole of Sanskrit grammar. The first verse of Paninis grammar is in fact called Shiva sutra.

The hour-glass drum also represents the male and female vital principles — two triangles penetrate each other to form a hexagon. When they part, the universe also dissolves. The opposite hand, the upper left, bears on its palm a tongue of flames.

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Fire is the element of destruction of the world. According to Hindu mythology at the end of the world, it will be the fire that will be the instrument of annihilation. Thus in the balance of these two hands is illustrated a counterpoise of creation and destruction. Sound against flames, ceaselessness of production against an insatiate appetite of extermination.

The second right hand is held in the abhaya (literally “without fear”) pose and so a gesture of protection, as an open palm is most likely to be interpreted. It depicts the god as a protector.

The left leg is raised towards the right leg and reaches across it; the lower left hand is stretched across the body and points to the upraised left foot which represents release from the cycle of birth and death. Interestingly, the hand pointing to the uplifted foot is held in a pose imitative of the outstretched trunk of an elephant.

In Sanskrit, this is known as the Gaja-Hasta-Mudra (the posture of the elephant trunk) and is symbolic of Ganesha, Shivas son, the Remover of obstacles.

Shiva dances on the body of a dwarf Apasmara-Purusha (the man of forgetfulness) who represents indifference, ignorance, and laziness. Creation, indeed all creative energy is possible only when the weight of inertia (the tamasic darkness of the universe) is overcome and suppressed.

The Nataraja image thus addresses each individual to overcome complacency and get his or her own act together.

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The ring of fire and light, which circumscribes the entire image, identifies the field of the dance with the entire universe. The lotus pedestal on which the image rests locates this universe in the heart or consciousness of each person.

The Nataraja image also represents the paradox of Eternity and Time. It shows us that the calm ocean and the running stream are not finally distinct.

This wonderful lesson can be read in the significant contrast of the incessant, triumphant motion of the swaying limbs to the balance of the and the immobility of the mask-like countenance. Shiva is Kala, meaning time, but he is also Maha Kala, meaning Great Time or eternity.

As Nataraja, King of dancers, his gestures, wild and full of grace, precipitate the cosmic illusion; his flying arms and legs and the swaying of his torso produce the continuous creation-destruction of the universe, death exactly balancing birth.

The choreography is the whirligig of time. History and its ruins, the explosion of suns, are flashes from the tireless swinging sequence of the gestures. In the beautiful cast metal figurines, not merely a single phase or movement, but the entirety of this cosmic dance is miraculously rendered. The cyclic rhythm, flowing on and on in the unsayable, 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.

Steeped in quietude, the enigmatic mask resides above the whirl of the four resilient arms and cares nothing for the superb legs as they beat out the tempo of the world ages. Aloof, in sovereign silence, the mask of God’s eternal essence remains unaffected by the tremendous display of his own energy, the world and its progress, the flow, and the changes of time.

This head, this face, this mask, abides in transcendental isolation, as a spectator unconcerned. Its smile, bent inward, filled with the bliss of self-absorption, subtly refutes, with a scarcely hidden irony, the meaningful gestures of the feet and hands.

A tension exists between the marvel of the dance and the serene tranquillity of this expressively inexpressive countenance, the tension, that is to say, of Eternity and Time. The two, invisible and visible, are quintessentially the same. Man with all the fibers of his native personality clings to the duality; nevertheless, actually and finally, there is no duality.

Another aspect of Nataraja rich in a similar symbolism is his lengthy and sensuous hair. The long tresses of his matted hair, usually piled up in a kind of pyramid, loosen during the triumphant, violent frenzy of his untiring dance.

Expanding, they form two wings, to the right and left, a kind of halo, broadcasting, as it were, on their magic waves, the exuberance and sanctity of vegetative, sensuous life.

Supra-normal life-energy, amounting to the power of magic, resides in such a wildness of hair untouched by the scissors. The conceptualization here is similar to the legend of Samson who with naked hands tore asunder the jaws of a lion.

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The Symbolism of Nataraja’s hair

Statue depicting Shiva Natraj form
Statue depicting Shiva Nataraja form

Also central to understanding the symbolism behind Nataraja’s hair is the recognition that much of womanly charm, the sensual appeal of the Eternal Feminine, is in the scent, the flow, and glow of beautiful hair.

This is also supported by the ancient Indian practice that anyone renouncing the generative forces of the vegetable-animal realm, rebelling against the procreative principle of life, sex, earth, and nature, and entering upon the spiritual path of absolute asceticism, has first to be shaved.

One must simulate the sterility of an old man whose hairs have fallen and who no longer constitutes a link in the chain of generation. He must coldly sacrifice the foliage of the head.

The tonsure of the Christian priest and monk is a sign of this renunciation of the flesh. (Clergymen of denominations in which marriage is not considered incompatible with the saintly office do not wear a tonsure.)

These Worthy Ones, representing the victory of yoga-spirituality, have overcome all seduction by their taking of the monastic vows and following of the ascetic formula. With their voluntary baldness, they have broken through to the peace beyond the seasons of growth and change.

Thus by donning long, luxurious hair, Shiva dismisses the idea of the conventional ascetic and reiterates that the image of Nataraja assimilates and blends within itself contradictory and conflicting aspects.

Shiva is thus two opposite things — archetypal ascetic and archetypal dancer. On the one hand, he is total tranquillity-inward calm absorbed in itself, absorbed in the void of the Absolute, where all distinctions merge and dissolve, and all tensions are at rest. But on the other hand, he is total activity- life’s energy, frantic, aimless, and playful.

Natrajan at CERN

Nataraja at CERN
Nataraja at CERN

In 2004, a two-meter statue of the Natrajan was unveiled at CERN, the European Center for Research in Particle Physics in Geneva. The statue, which signifies Shiva’s cosmic dance of creation and destruction, was given to CERN by the Indian government to celebrate the research center’s long association with India.

A special plaque next to the Shiva statue explains the metaphor of Shiva’s cosmic dance with quotations from physicist Fritjof Capra:

Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Shivas in a beautiful series of bronzes. In our time, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance. The metaphor of the cosmic dance thus unifies ancient mythology, religious art, and modern physics.

The Nataraja image represents not simply some event in the mythic life of a local deity but a universal view in which the forces of nature and the aspirations and limitation of man confront each other and are blended together.

The curator of the Indian collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art has rightly written that: “If one had to select a single icon to represent the extraordinarily rich and complex cultural heritage of India, the Shiva Nataraja might well be the most remunerative candidate.”

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