The nature of Shiva in the aspect Nataraja means lord of the Stage, king of dances. It is the cosmos in dance. There are three primary dances and each has a unique significance. The first dance is the source of movement within the entire cosmos. The second releases humanity from the snare of illusion. The third reveals the center of the universe to be discovered within.
Nataraja’s cosmic dance continues in the eternal void to the accompaniment of drums and loud cymbals. His dance is eternal, timeless, moving in space and beyond space and spheres into an eternal void that hosts the cosmic, unending rhythm of evolution and devolution, creation and destruction, the timeless and temporal, spacelessness and space.
Nataraja’s sacred dance also means that the world is a stage for vision and life activity. The omnipresent, unseen nature of Shiva represents the timeless guru principle, whose most important function is to teach by example. The guru teaches that maya, the illusion of the world, should be crushed down, egoism destroyed and the deer-like unstable mind should be left behind. That in order to enjoy true freedom we must ascend to the regions of pure consciousness, free from self-deception.
In this way Nataraja symbolizes the most profound part of our being. The dance of life is seen as an art in which the artist and the art are one. Nataraja’s dance shows how we deal with situations, how we can dance our way out of the worldly illusion and how we can understand that the dance of life is precious. By deepening our understanding of who we truly are, we can share more of our heart and our artistic expression with each other and with our worlds.
Our human body is the dance arena, the theater, which is seen as a jungle because of its multitude of components. In the center of the dance platform is the cremation ground, the place where passions, names and forms that constitute our vision of the world all dissolve and vanish. The cremation ground symbolizes being free of illusion, pure consciousness devoid of attachment to anything outside.
There is no external observers to that dance. It is a private duet: a noble contract between point zero within ourselves and the vast potent infinity that embraces us all. The journey is one of traversing from zero to infinity that leads to the ultimate. It takes us to shunya, the beginning point of an explosion within of incredible pulsating energy and life-asserting force. The moment of this dance is the mingling of sound and silence, nada and omkara, finding the resonance deep within ourselves.
The anthropomorphic Lord of Dance is pictured within an aureole of flames, raising his left leg and stamping down ignorance in the form of a black dwarf with his right. The purpose of his dance is to release all beings from the snare of illusion. The two most common forms of Shiva’s dance are the lasya, the gentle form, associated with the creation of the world, and the tandava, the violent and terrifying dance, associated with the destruction of tiresome world views, perspectives and lifestyles. In essence, the lasya and the tandava are two aspects of our nature, our peaceful and wrathful sides.
In the upper right hand Nataraja holds a small drum called damaru, symbolizing the beginning of creation. It also shows that sound is the source of creation while the beat of the drum is the passage of time. Holding the drum expresses being the guru, indicating that he holds, in the hollow of his hand, the cause of all the world to fold or unfold at will.
The upper left hand holds fire, which signifies destruction. This represents the truth that the guru’s teachings can only be fully understood as an inner experience. Nataraja’s second right hand is open, in the gesture of fearlessness, to protect from ignorance those who follow the true path. It is also a gesture of peace, indicating the blessed calmness of wisdom. His lower left hand points to the raised foot signifying liberation and also points with the sign of the elephant, which leads the way out of the jungle of ignorance. His other foot crushes the dwarf, the endless illusion, indicating salvation, aid and comfort to those who are shrouded in maya, so that they realize eternal connectedness. The black dwarf is the demon Apasmara, and Nataraja dancing upon him symbolizes victory over ignorance.
Nataraja’s long matted jatas, usually piled up in a topknot, are loosened during the dance and they crash into the heavenly bodies, knocking them off course or destroying them utterly. The surrounding flames represent the manifest universe. The snake coiled around his waist is the divine force and parallels the cord of life worn by brahmins. Nataraja’s beautiful face represents neutrality, being in balance. The deer on one shoulder symbolizes the thinking mind, because it leaps and jumps like a deer from one thing to another. From his head flows the river Ganges, symbolizing wisdom, which is most cool and refreshing. The crescent in his hair represents ethereal light and blissfulness. The inner meaning of Nataraja is grand and poetic, and is a privilege for those who strive to realize the mystic truth that is their nature.
At Chidambaram in southern India, the story about Nataraja explains the occasion for the sacred dance. One day the god Vishnu arose from his slumber and went to Mount Kailash to pay reverence to Shiva. The Lord asked Vishnu to accompany him to the Taruka forest where a large group of stray rishi devotees lived. Puffed up with pride of learning, they regarded themselves as outside of Shiva’s authority. It was Shiva’s intention to visit the forest to expose the rishis’ state of mind and to teach them a lesson. He asked Vishnu to take the guise of a woman while Shiva himself dressed as a mendicant. As soon as they entered the forest, the rishis’ wives were seized with passion for the mendicant, while all the rishis were infatuated by the beautiful woman who followed him, Vishnu in disguise. Passions like fierce flames soon engulfed everyone in the serene hermitage.
The rishis discovered that the mendicant and his wife, who possessed such mysterious power of attraction, were not what they seemed. Deeply embarrassed by their desire, they gathered to hurl curses on the beautiful couple, but the divine visitors remained unharmed. Then the rishis dug a sacrificial pit to make a fire ritual in order to destroy the unwelcome intruders. As a result of the rites, a fierce tiger came out of the flames and leaped at Shiva. Smiling gently, he zipped off its skin with the nail of his little finger and then wrapped it around himself like a soft silken garment. This is the origin of Shiva’s tiger skin mantle.
Not yet discouraged by their failure, the rishis renewed their fire offerings, and out of the flames now rushed a monstrous serpent. Shiva simply wrapped it around his neck and then began to dance. At last, the monster Musalaka, the Club-Bearer, emerged from the flames in the shape of a black dwarf, cruel and ugly, with eyes like fire. The dwarf attacked Shiva who just pressed him under foot and broke his back, so he lay writhing on the ground. With his last foe prostrate, Shiva resumed the dance in the company of by many gods.
The flames from the rishis’ fire now turned around to scorch themselves, and they felt faint by the fury of their anger. As the heavens opened around them, the rishis were overwhelmed by the divine splendor and they fell to the ground as dead. When they regained their senses, they pledged themselves as Shiva’s faithful devotees.
The temple at Chidambaram is one of five representing each of the five elements: the temples in Chidambaram is space, Kalahasti temple is wind, Tiruvanaikka temple is water, Tiruvannamalai temple is fire, and Kanchipuram is the earth temple. Chidambaram is the place of Shiva Nataraja symbolizing the principle of formless space. In this temple is a veil and beyond it, nothing, empty space. To know the secret of Shiva is known by turning inside. Removing the veil of illusion and desires, we can experience the vast infinite inner space, free of thoughts, an experience that brings real transformation.
Three of the temples are located in a straight line at 79 degrees 41 minutes Longitude. An amazing fact and astronomical coincidence which can be verified using Google Earth. Chidambaram temple is located at the Center Point of world ‘s Magnetic Equator and is designed after the human body’s nine entrances. The temple roof is made of 21.600 gold sheets which corresponds the 21.600 breaths taken by a human being every day. The 21.600 gold sheets are fixed with 72.000 gold nails, the total number of subtle channels in the human body. In this way the body is our local palace, born when we are born; it is simply awesome.
Listen to the musician Vitoria Paz singing the classical kirtan Shiva Nataraja, with her beautiful voice and celebrate our precious life and realize our full potential and dance of eternity.Enjoy a visit the to Nataraja temple in Chidambaram in India. Music and video by Victoria Paz. Featured image by Julia.
Photo of ornamentation of the temple by Tangore Temple. Photo of Nataraja temple tank in Chidambaram by Bishkek Rocks
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