From the moment I first laid eyes on him, I was intrigued. Even though he stood still while I gazed at his physique, I could feel his kinetic energy. His graceful arms at once told me to have no fear while they also kept the beat of the music. My eyes moved down to his muscular legs where his feet were stomping on a very tiny person. Wait- what in the what what?!?!
I was just describing the first time I saw a sculpture of Shiva Nataraja. I have written about Shiva (and his wife) in an earlier blog post. This is probably the way you have seen Shiva, but didn’t know who he was:
A little backstory: Shiva aka Nataraja (which is Sanskrit for “Lord of the Dance”) was wandering around South Asia (like many post-collegiate backpackers). But instead of trying to find awesome beaches and cheap massages, Shiva was searching for heretical sages. And because sometimes gods like to travel in pairs, Vishnu was with him. And because sometimes gods like to disguise themselves, Vishnu made himself into the form of a beautiful woman. (For more on Vishnu’s identity issues, look here). As the sages argued amongst themselves, Shiva came upon them. At some point, the sages turned violent on the stranger and sent all sorts of stuff to destroy Shiva. What did they use to attack him? Well, tigers, and snakes, and a dwarf, oh my! (Please do not write to me and to inform me that they are “little people.” The little dude Shiva spins on is called a dwarf in the stories and trust me, that is a nice word for the little guy. You will find out why later.)
As all of these creatures are attacking Shiva, the god keeps dancing and spinning, defeating them all. What you see in the picture above is not only his dance but a huge amount of symbolism which requires a breakdown. In his top right arm is a drum. There are several possible symbolic meanings to the hourglass shape drum with some people theorizing it is about the passage of time and some theorizing it is about creation. Others theorize that Shiva is on his way to a beach party and someone needs to bring drums. His upper left hand is the tongue of flames with fire being the symbol of the end of the world. This is cyclical: creation and end of world being represented at the same time. (death, rebirth, death, rebirth)
Shiva’s lower right hand is in the form of a mudra (hand gestures which are also in Buddhist art) that symbolizes “keep calm.” It’s like his upturned fingers are saying, “Stop. Calm down. I got this.” His second hand points to his foot and that is again emphasizing birth and rebirth. Some have said his arm mirrors an elephant trunk, much like the elephant trunk on the Hindu god Ganesh, a remover of obstacles. And is there a greater obstacle than death?
And see that dwarf that Shiva is using like the flashing floor in Saturday Night Fever? That’s Apasmara (or Apasmara-Perusha if you wish to be formal) and he represents ignorance. You don’t feel so bad that Shiva is stomping him now, do ya? Don’t worry (I say, holding up my palm in the mudra of calming) because Shiva does not kill Apasmara. To kill ignorance means that everyone would have knowledge without effort. This is a reminder for people to quit being lazy and complacent with their ignorance and rise up to be the intelligent humans that we are meant to be.
Adding to the ceremony, around Shiva is a ring of fire. This fire ring is where Shiva went down, down, down but the flames went higher. And it burned, burned, burned- the ring of fire. The ring of fire. Sorry, got a little Johnny Cash stuck in my head for a minute there. This ring is representative of the universe and yes, Shiva is in the middle of the destruction. But there is a duality here: Shiva will destroy and then he will rebuild. In Hindu beliefs, there is really not an end just a new beginning. In some Hindu sects, Shiva does this dance every time the world needs to be rebuilt and this cycle has happened many, many times in our universe.
There is something about this duality that I love in Hinduism and other Eastern spiritual traditions. You cannot rebuild what hasn’t been destroyed. Good things can come about from the worst events. Have you heard of the story of “the phoenix rising from the ashes?” The phrase “starting from ground zero” is not “starting from what was left, maybe, I don’t know, we will see if we can create something else with this.” Even the story of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection are a destruction/ creation allegory. And there is hope in the rebuilding after devastation. (Yes, I am looking at you Christian community, forming after your leader was gone.) There is the hope of creating something new out of the old.
And for that I say, keep dancing Shiva. But don’t ever twerk.