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Shiva and Shaivism | Nataraja Lord of the Dance

Shiva as Nataraja. Symbolism and Significance:

Nataraja (Sanskrit: नटराज) means king or lord of the dance. It is an epithet, an aspect and a form of Lord Shiva as the cosmic dancer of the whole creation in his role as the creator, preserver, destroyer, concealer and revealer. His dance sets in motion the primal force of Prakriti (Nature) to manifest the worlds and beings and hold them in her control through Maya.

Shiva’s dance assumes many forms, depending upon the mood and the need. At times, it is ecstatic and blissful, when he is with his consort or family. At times it is wild and frantic, when he has to engage in warfare, destruction of evil or protection of Dharma. The more popular version of his dance known as Tandavam or Tandava Nrtyam. Particularly, it is a reference his violent dance as the destroyer (samhara) or the lord of Death (Kala).

Images and statues of Nataraja are found in many ancient Shiva temples and stone reliefs such as the temples built by the Chola kings in the South or the caves at Badami and Ellora. In the Puranas and Agamas, Shiva is described not only as the Lord of the Dance but also the source of all the traditional 64 art forms (lalitkalas) including dance, science, yoga, the art of stealing (chora vidya) and so on. Particular references to Nataraja and his dance posture can be found in the Agamas such as the Anshumadbhed agama and Uttarakamika agama. The bronze statues of Nataraja, some of them as tall as four or five feet from the Chola era are world famous. They are still used as the models for present day depictions and artwork. The images and stone reliefs of Nataraja were also found outside India in the ancient Hindu temples of Cambodia, Bali and Nepal.

The traditional images of Nataraja follow a particular set of measurements, themes, pose and formats as sanctioned by the ancient texts. In them Shiva is typically shown as dancing in a particular classical pose as suggested in the Natyashastra, holding different objects in his four hands, with an arch of flames encircled all around him. It denotes the cosmic fire from which all creation ensues and in which it will become finally engulfed.

He holds fire or flame (Agni) in his back-left hand, suggestive of his role as the creator and destroyer, while his front left hand makes a gesture of assurance, reminding us of his role as preserver and concealer. His back right hand holds a damru, with a snake coiled around the arm, suggestive of his role as the source of all sounds, vibrations, waves of illusion (maya), knowledge, time and wisdom. Snakes wrap around all his hands, reminding us of his role as the healer, controller and the lord of death.

The images also show Shiva standing in a dance pose on the body of a small dwarf at the base. It is called apasmara, meaning the unconscious, the sleeping or the ignorant one. Apasmara symbolizes the mortal life which is subject to the impurities of egoism, attachments and delusion. As the reveler and liberator, Shiva liberates beings from this state according to their knowledge, actions and devotion. The hair of Nataraja is depicted wavy or undulating. It represents his dynamism or the awakened, manifested state.

Nataraja’s significance and symbolism has been variously interpreted by various scholars, according to their knowledge and understanding. Hence, there is nothing universal about it. One may contemplate upon Shiva as Nataraja or upon his image or statue and draw their own conclusions. In the following section, we have assembled a few important links on the subjects.

Shiva and Shaivism | Nataraja Lord of the Dance

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