Tonight is Maha Shivratri. Shiva as “Nataraja” — the Lord of the Dance — dances the Tandava, the dance of creation and destruction. It is the most powerful metaphor of how the universe operates. Listen to this Shiv Tandava Stotram.
Heinrich Zimmer (1890 – 1943) , in his book Philosophies of India (1951), describes Shiva thus:
Shiva is Kala, ‘The Black One’ ‘Time’; but he is also Maha Kala, ‘Great Time’, ‘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– indeed, they are–the continuous creation-destruction of the universe, death exactly balancing birth, annihilation the end of every coming-forth. 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 medieval bronze figurines, not merely a single phase or movement, but cyclic rhythm, flowing on and on in the unstayable, irreversible round of the Mahayugas, or Great Eons, is marked by the beating and stamping of the Master’s heel.
But the face remains, meanwhile, in sovereign calm.
Shiva is the personification of the Absolute, particularly in its dissolution of the universe. He is the embodiment of Super-Death. He is called Yamantaka — ‘The Ender of the Tamer’, He who conquers and exterminates Yama the God of Death, the Tamer. Shiva is Maha-Kala, Great Time, Eternity, the swallower of Time, swallower of Ages and cycles of ages.
Shiva is apparently, thus, two opposite things, archetypal ascetic, and archetypal dancer. On one hand, he is Total Tranquility — 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.
The above is an excerpt from a page on this blog — Tandava — Shiva’s Cosmic Dance.
I have an absolutely beautiful Nataraja at home. After years of searching for just the right one, I found it in a shop in Delhi about 20 years ago. Pictures of that lovely piece of art in a bit. Now, I would like to post a short video of Carl Sagan talking about the Nataraja in his brilliant Cosmos TV series:
“The Hindu religion is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which the time scales correspond to those of modern scientific cosmology. Its cycles run from our ordinary day and night to a day and night of Brahma, 8.64 billion years long. Longer than the age of the Earth or the Sun and about half the time since the Big Bang.”
I have a page on the Day of Brahma on this blog. Here’s Carl Sagan:
Sagan did his homework. In the above clip, at the 3:00 minute mark, he quotes from the Hymn to Creation from the Rig Veda. The last two verses of a translation of the hymn goes:
Who knows for certain? Who shall here declare it?
Whence was it born, whence came creation?
The gods are later than this world’s formation;
Who then can know the origins of the world?
None knows whence creation arose;
And whether he has or has not made it;
He who surveys it from the lofty skies.
Only he knows–or perhaps he knows not.
Sagan: “These words are 3500 years old. They are taken from the Rig Veda, a collection of early Sanskrit hymns. The most sophisticated cosmological ideas came from Asia, and particularly from India. Here there is a tradition of skeptical questioning and unselfconscious humility for the great cosmic mysteries. … The big bang is our modern scientific creation myth, it comes from the same human need to solve the cosmological riddle. Most cultures imagine the world to be only a few hundred human generations old. Hardly anyone guessed that the cosmos might be far older but the ancient Hindus did.”
I am lucky that I was born a Hindu because, unlike those born in the Abrahamic traditions, my Hindu beliefs were not a barrier to a scientific understanding of the world. Darwinian evolution or the Big Bang are easy to understand for a Hindu, unlike for a Muslim or a Christian.
OK, Shiva and Tandava. Here’s the Nataraja at CERN in Geneva.
A post-doctoral researcher at CERN, Aidan Randle-Conde wrote, “So in the light of day, when CERN is teeming with life, Shiva seems playful, reminding us that the universe is constantly shaking things up, remaking itself and is never static. But by night, when we have more time to contemplate the deeper questions Shiva literally casts a long shadow over our work, a bit like the shadows on Plato’s cave. Shiva reminds me that we still don’t know the answer to one of the biggest questions presented by the universe, and that every time we collide the beams we must take the cosmic balance sheet into account.”
The cosmic balance sheet of creation and destruction — Nataraja’s Tandava.
3 thoughts on “Maha Shivratri”
Thanks Atanu. A brilliant post!!
In 1997, Richard C Lewontin — the then Harvard professor of zoology and biology — reviewing Carl Sagan’s book in The New York Review wrote that
“We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”
I have never seen you acknowledge the motivated and biased investigation and reasoning inherent in science and the scientific method.
Thanks Atanu. Your new blog Life is a Random Draw is brilliant!
Science and philosophy is a lethal combination..
The Hindu interpretation comes closest to dealing with these complex questions….other religions
explain with simplistic models that humans can accept without too much thought…just faith that good will prevail…
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