Shiva as Nataraja. Symbolism and Significance
Nataraja (Sanskrit: नटराज) means king or lord of the dance. It
is an epithet, an aspect and a form of Lord Shiva as the cosmic
dancer of the whole creation in his role as the creator, preserver,
destroyer, concealer and revealer. His dance sets in motion the
primal force of Prakriti (Nature) to manifest the worlds and beings
and hold them in her control through Maya.
Shiva’s dance assumes many forms, depending upon the mood and
the need. At times, it is ecstatic and blissful, when he is with
his consort or family. At times it is wild and frantic, when he
has to engage in warfare, destruction of evil or protection of Dharma.
The more popular version of his dance known as Tandavam or Tandava
Nrtyam. Particularly, it is a reference his violent dance as the
destroyer (samhara) or the lord of Death (Kala).
Images and statues of Nataraja are found in many ancient Shiva
temples and stone reliefs such as the temples built by the Chola
kings in the South or the caves at Badami and Ellora. In the Puranas
and Agamas, Shiva is described not only as the Lord of the Dance
but also the source of all the traditional 64 art forms (lalitkalas)
including dance, science, yoga, the art of stealing (chora vidya)
and so on. Particular references to Nataraja and his dance posture
can be found in the Agamas such as the Anshumadbhed agama and Uttarakamika
agama. The bronze statues of Nataraja, some of them as tall as four
or five feet from the Chola era are world famous. They are still
used as the models for present day depictions and artwork. The images
and stone reliefs of Nataraja were also found outside India in the
ancient Hindu temples of Cambodia, Bali and Nepal.
The traditional images of Nataraja follow a particular set of
measurements, themes, pose and formats as sanctioned by the ancient
texts. In them Shiva is typically shown as dancing in a particular
classical pose as suggested in the Natyashastra, holding different
objects in his four hands, with an arch of flames encircled all
around him. It denotes the cosmic fire from which all creation ensues
and in which it will become finally engulfed.
He holds fire or flame (Agni) in his back-left hand, suggestive
of his role as the creator and destroyer, while his front left hand
makes a gesture of assurance, reminding us of his role as preserver
and concealer. His back right hand holds a damru, with a snake coiled
around the arm, suggestive of his role as the source of all sounds,
vibrations, waves of illusion (maya), knowledge, time and wisdom.
Snakes wrap around all his hands, reminding us of his role as the
healer, controller and the lord of death.
The images also show Shiva standing in a dance pose on the body
of a small dwarf at the base. It is called apasmara, meaning the
unconscious, the sleeping or the ignorant one. Apasmara symbolizes
the mortal life which is subject to the impurities of egoism, attachments
and delusion. As the reveler and liberator, Shiva liberates beings
from this state according to their knowledge, actions and devotion.
The hair of Nataraja is depicted wavy or undulating. It represents
his dynamism or the awakened, manifested state.
Nataraja’s significance and symbolism has been variously interpreted
by various scholars, according to their knowledge and understanding.
Hence, there is nothing universal about it. One may contemplate
upon Shiva as Nataraja or upon his image or statue and draw their
own conclusions. In the following section, we have assembled a few
important links on the subjects. You may check them for further
information on Nataraja.1
1. The introduction to Natarja contains some information
referenced from Wikipedia with necessary modifications and improvements.
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