9 July 2008

Shiva as Nataraja

Shiva is often referred to as the Destroyer but since he is often associated with creation that comes out of destruction, he is also a God of Transformation. In addition he has different aspects that appear at different times.

As the destroyer, he appears as a naked ascetic accompanied by demons, encircled with serpents and necklaces of skulls. Sometimes He wanders into crematoriums, body smeared with ash and dances in the light of funeral pyres, reminding all about the transitory nature of material things. Other times Shiva is seen as the god of meditation and asceticism and depicted sitting cross-legged with his eyes half-closed. When the creative force of Shiva is depicted, he is represented as the Linga.

Another common form is that of Shiva Nataraja, The term 'Nataraj' means 'King of Dancers' (Sanskrit nata = dance; raja = king). It is believed that the energy from this dance of bliss (Ananda Tandavam) sustains the cosmos, and when Shiva is finished with this dance, the Universe will end and a new one will begin. The dance is said to symbolize the five divine acts (pancha krityas) of creation, sustenance, dissolution, concealment and bestowment of grace.

During the Tamil month of Ani (June - July) Lord Siva performs the dance of ecstasy in the form of Nataraj at Chidambaram Temple. Chidambaram is one of five holiest Shiva Temples representing one of the five natural elements - space. The other four temples are: Thiruvanaikaval Jambukeswara (water), Kanchi Ekambareswara (earth), Tiruvannamalai Arunachaleswarar (fire) and Kalahasti Nathar (wind).

The Chidambaram Temple which is dedicated to Lord Shiva in His form of the Cosmic Dancer, Nataraja, is spread over forty acres in the heart of the city. It is an ancient, historic Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva Nataraja and Lord Govindaraja Perumal, one of the few Temples where both the Saivite and Vaishnavite deities are enshrined in one place.

One of the special features of the Temple is the bejeweled image of Nataraja. It depicts Shiva as the Lord of the dance Bharatanatyam and is one of the few Temples where Shiva is represented by an idol rather than a Lingam.

The gestures of the dance represent Shiva’s five activities, creation (symbolised by the drum), protection (by the “fear not” hand gesture), destruction (by the fire), embodiment (by the foot planted on the ground), and release (by the foot held aloft).

Nataraja dances within the Universe of illusion. The locks of his hair stand out in many strands as he whirls around in a dancing frenzy. Shiva’s unkempt hair, a symbol of a rejection of society, shows him to be an ascetic. His locks are decked with crescent moon, a skull, and are interspersed with the sacred river Ganges that flows in his hair as Shiva as Nataraja, agreed to break the violent power of the sacred Ganga’s fall to earth by catching her in his tangled hair. The fiery ring surrounding Shiva, prahabhamandala, represents the Universe with all its illusion, suffering and pain. The outer edge is fire, the inner edge the waters of the oceans.

Nataraja, the King of Dance, has four arms. The upper right hand holds the drum from which creation issues forth. The drum represents the rhythmic sound to which Nataraja dances and ceaselessly recreates the Universe. The front right hand is in the abhaya-mudra (fear not gesture), the front left hand is across the chest in the gahahasta (elephant trunk) pose, with the wrist limp and the fingers pointed downward toward the uplifted foot in assurance that Shiva’s grace is the refuge for everyone, the way to liberation.

The back left hand carries agni (fire) in a vessel or in his hand. The flames represent the destructive energy with which Nataraja dances at the end of each age, cleansing sins and removing illusion. The right leg, representing obscuring grace, stands upon Apasmara, whom he has killed; in this role he is called Natesa. Apasmara, the dwarf demon, represents a soul temporarily earth-bound by its own sloth, confusion and forgetfulness. The uplifted left leg is revealing grace, which releases the mature soul from bondage. The circle of fire represents the cosmos and especially consciousness.

The cobra around Nataraja’s waist is kundalini shakti, the soul-impelling cosmic power resident within all. Snakes are also used to symbolise reincarnation as their natural process of molting and shedding their skin is symbolic of the human soul’s transmigration from one life to another.

“O my Lord, They hand holding the sacred drum has made and ordered the heavens and earth and other worlds and innumerable souls. Thy lifted hand protects both the conscious and unconscious order of they creation. All these worlds are transformed by They hand bearing fire. Thy sacred foot, planted on the ground, gives an abode to the tired soul struggling in the toils of causality. It is Thy lifted foot that grants eternal bliss to those that approach Thee. These Five-Actions are indeed Thy Handiwork.” [Chidambara Mummani Kovai]

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