Tandava — Shiva’s Cosmic Dance

[ by Heinrich Zimmer from his book “Philosophies of India.” ]

Nataraja2Shiva, the lord of the Lingam, the consort of Shakti-Devi, also is Nataraja, King of Dancers.

Dancing is an ancient form of magic. The dancer becomes amplified into a being endowed with supra-normal powers. His personality is transformed. Like yoga, the dance induces trance, ecstasy, the experience of the divine, the realization of one’s own secret nature, and, finally, mergence into the divine essence. In India consequently the dance has flourished side by side with the terrific austerities of the meditation grove- fasting, breathing exercises, absolute introversion. To work magic, to put enchantments upon others, one has first to put enchantments on oneself. And this is effected as well by the dance as by prayer, fasting and meditation.

Shiva, therefore, the arch-yogi of the gods, is necessarily also the master of the dance.

The dance is an act of creation. It brings about a new situation and summons into the dancer a new and higher personality. It has a cosmogonic function, in that it rouses dormant energies which them may shape the world. On a universal scale, Shiva is the Cosmic Dancer; in his Dancing Manifestation (nritya-murti) he embodies in himself and simultaneously gives manifestation to Eternal Energy. The forces gathered and projected in his frantic, ever-enduring gyration, are the powers of the evolution, maintenance, and dissolution of the world. Nature and all its creatures are the effects of his eternal dance.

Shiva-Nataraja is represented in a beautiful series of South Indian bronzes dating from the tenth and twelfth centuries A.D. The details of these figures are to be read, according to the Hindu tradition, in terms of complex pictorial allegory.

The upper right hand, it will be observed, carries a little drum, shaped like an hour-glass, for the beating of the rhythm. This connotes Sound, the vehicle of speech, the conveyer of revelation, tradition, incantation magic and divine truth. Furthermore, Sound is associated in India with Ether, the first of the five elements. Ether is the primary and most subtly pervasive evolution of the universe, all the other elements, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. Together, therefore, Sound and Ether signify the first, truth-pregnant moment of creation, the productive energy of the Absolute, in its pristine, cosmogenetic strength.

The opposite hand, the upper left, with a half-moon posture of the figure (ardhacandra-mudra), bears on its palm a tongue of flame. Fire is the element of the destruction of the world. At the close of the Kali Yuga, Fire will annihilate the body of creation, to be itself then quenched by the ocean of the void. Here, then, in the balance of the hands, is illustrated a counterpoise of creation and destruction in the play of the cosmic dance. Sound against flame. And the field of the terrible interplay is the Dancing Ground of the Universe, brilliant and horrific with the dance of the god.

The “fear not” gesture (abhaya-mudra), bestowing protection and peace, is displayed by the second right hand, while the remaining left lifted across the chest, points downward to the uplifted left foot. This foot signifies Release, and is the refuge and salvation of the devotee. It is to be worshipped for the attainment of union with the Absolute. The hand pointing to it is held in a pose imitative of the outstretched trunk or “hand of the elephant” (gaja-hasta-mudra), reminding us of Ganesha, Shiva’s son, the Remover of Obstacles.

The divinity is represented as dancing on the postrate body of a dwarfish demon. This is “Apasmara Purusha,” The Man or Demon (purusha) called Forgetfulness, or Heedlessness (apasmara). It is symbolical of life’s blindness, man’s ignorance. Therein is release from the bondages of the world.

A ring of flames and light (prabha-mandala) issues from and encompasses the god. This is said to signify the vital processes of the universe and its creatures, nature’s dance as moved by the dancing god within. Simultaneously it is said to signify the energy of Wisdom, the transcendental light of the knowledge of truth, dancing forth, from the personification of the All. Still another allegorical meaning assigned to the halo of flames is that of the holy syllable of AUM or OM. This mystical utterance stemming from the sacred language of Vedic praise and incantation, is understood as an expression and affirmation of the totality of creation.

  • A — is the state of waking consciousness, together with its world of gross experience.
  • U — is the state of dreaming consciousness, together with its experience of subtle shapes of dream.
  • M — is the state of dreamless sleep, the natural condition of quiescent, undifferentiated consciousness, wherein every experience is dissolved into a blissful non-experience, a mass of potential consciousness.

The silence following the pronunciation of the three, A, U, and M, is the ultimate un-manifest, wherein perfected supra-consciousness totally reflects and merges with the pure, transcendental essence of Divine Reality–Brahman is experienced as Atman, the Self. AUM, therefore, together with its surrounding silence, is a sound-symbol of the whole of consciousness-existence, and at the same time its willing affirmation.

Shiva as the Cosmic Dancer is the embodiment and manifestation of eternal energy in its ‘five activities’ (panch-kriya)

  1. Creation (sristi)–the pouring forth or unfolding
  2. Maintenance (sthiti)– the duration
  3. Destruction (samhara)–the taking back or reabsorption
  4. Concealment (tiro-bhava)–the veiling of True Being behind the masks and garbs of apparitions, aloofness, display of Maya,
  5. Favor (anugraha)–acceptance of the devotee, acknowledgment of the pious endeavor of the yogi, bestowal of peace.

In the Shiva-Trinity of Elephanta Caves we saw that the two expressive profiles, representing the polarity of the creative force, were counterpoised to a single, silent, central head, signifying the quiescence of the Absolute. And we deciphered this symbolic relationship as eloquent of the paradox of Eternity and Time: the reposeful ocean and the racing stream are not finally distinct; the indestructible Self and the mortal being are in essence the same. This wonderful lesson can be read also in the figure of Shiva-Nataraja, where the incessant, triumphant motion of the swaying limbs is in significant contrast to the balance of the head and immobility of the mask-like countenance.

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 non 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.

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