General

The Cosmic Dance Of Shiva

“Modern physics has shown that the rhythm of creation and destruction is not only manifest in the turn of the seasons and in the birth and death of all living creatures, but is also the very essence of inorganic matter. For the modern physicists, then, Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter. Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Shivas in a beautiful series of bronzes. In our time, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance. The metaphor of the cosmic dance thus unifies ancient mythology, religious art and modern physics. Indian artists have created beautiful pictures and statues of dancing Lord Siva. These statues are visual images of the cosmic dance, and so are the bubble chamber tracks photographed by modern physicists. They are a modern version of the dance of Siva obtained by using the most modern and advanced of our Western technological instruments. To me, the effect is as beautiful and as profound as the magnificent Hindu statues. In both cases, we are picturing an eternal dance of creation and destruction, which is the basis of all natural phenomena, the basis of all existence.” – Fritjof Capra
Shiva, 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. 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.

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 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.
(Heinrich Zimmer in his book “Philosophies of India”)

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