Understanding the symbolism of the Nataraja – the dancing Shiva
The cosmic dance of Shiva (anandatandava) – the dance of bliss – is symbolic of the dynamic forces of creation and destruction within the rhythmic cycles of birth and death. Through Shiva’s dance, the harmonious balance of opposites in life is expressed. An allegory of the five principle manifestations of eternal energy: creation, destruction, preservation, salvation and illusion, the dance also represents five activities: shrishti (creation/ evolution), sthiti (preservation/ support), samhara (destruction/ evolution), tirobhava (illusion) and anugraha (release/ emancipation/ grace). The overall temper is paradoxical, uniting inner tranquility with transformation or change.
With his left foot elegantly raised, the right foot of Shiva dances on a prostrate figure apasmara purusha (the personification of forgetfulness). This demon is symbolic of both man’s inertia and the ignorance, which must be overcome to reach true wisdom. By understanding the illusion of life in which we take the phenomenal world as real, instead of seeing it as a reflection of an underlying, ultimate reality. Shiva dances and touches the arch of the universal, omnipresent spirit (purusha). The circle of flames surrounding him represents nature (prakriti), the process of the universe and its sustaining transcendental light.
Shiva reflects the male/ female vital principle energy of the cosmos. His hands represent the four cardinal directions of space. Each of Shiva’s hands holds a different symbolic object or makes a meaningful gesture. An hourglass drum (dumroo) represents the sound of creation; a gesture of assertion (abhaya) means ‘be without fear’. The gesture towards his lifted foot indicates a release from the cycles of death and rebirth; while the flame represents the essence of creation and destruction.
His third eye is symbolic of his omniscience, insight, and enlightenment. The whole dance takes place on a lotus pedestal, the symbol of the creative forces of the universe. Shiva represents apocalypse and creation as he dances away the illusionary world of maya transforming it into power and enlightenment.