The Dance Of Shiva | ANANDA K. COOMARASWAMY | DANCES OF INDIA
The Lord of Tillai’s Court a mystic dance performs; What’s that, my dear?” – Tiruvachagam, XII.14 Amongst the greatest of the names of Shiva is Nataraja, Lord of Dancers, or King of Actors. The Cosmos is His theatre. There are many different steps in His repertory. He Himself is the actor and the audienceWhen the Actor beats the drum, Everybody comes to see the show; When the Actor Collects the stage properties He abides alone in His happiness. How many various dances of Shiva are known to His worshippers I cannot say. No doubt the root idea behind all these dances is more or less one and the same, the manifestation of primal rhythmic energy. Shiva is the Eros Protogonos of Lucian when he wrote: “It would seem that dancing came into being at the beginning of all things, and was brought to light together with Eros, that ancient one, for we see this primaeval dancing clearly set forth in the choral dance of the constellations, and in the planets and fixed stars, their inter-weaving and interchange and orderly harmony”. I do not mean to say that the most profound interpretation of Shiva’s dance was present in the minds of those who first danced in frantic, and perhaps intoxicated energy, in honour of the preAryan hill-god, afterwards merged in Shiva. A great motif in religion or art, any great symbol, becomes all things to all men; age after age it yields to men such treasures as they find in their own hearts. Whatever the origin of Shiva’s dance, it became in time the clearest image of the activity of God that any art of religion can boast of. Of the various dances of Shiva, I shall only speak of three, one of them alone forming the main subject of interpretation. The first is an evening dance in the Himalayas, with a divine chorus, described as follows in the Shiva Pradosha Stotra: “Placing the Mother of the Three Worlds upon a golden throne, studded with precious gems, Shulapani dances on the heights of Kailasa, and all the gods gather round Him: “Saraswati plays on the Vina, Indira on the flute, Brahma holds the time-marking cymbals, Lakshmi begins a song, Vishnu plays on drum, and all the gods stand round about: “Gandharvas, Yakshas, Partagas, Uragas, Siddhas, Sadhyas, Vidyadharas, Amaras, Apsarasas, and all the beings dwelling in the three worlds assemble there to witness the celestial dance and hear the music of the divine choir at the hour of twilight”
.This evening dance is also referred to in the invocation preceding the Katha Sarit Sagara In the pictures of this dance, Shiva is twohanded, and the cooperation of the gods is clearly indicated in their position of the chorus. There is no prostrate Asura trampled under Shiva’s feet. So far as I know, no special interpretations of this dance occur in Shaiva literature. The second well-known dance of Shiva is called Tandava and belongs to His tamasic aspect as Bhairava or Virabhadra. It is performed in cemeteries and burning grounds, where Shiva, usually in the ten-armed form, dances wildly with Devi, accompanied by troupes of capering imps. Representations of this dance are common in ancient sculptures, as at Ellora, Elephanta, and also Bhuvaneshvara. The Tandava dance is in origin that of a preAryan divinity, half-god, half-demon, who holds his midnight revels in the burning ground. In later times, this dance in the cremation ground, sometimes of Shiva, sometimes of Devi, is interpreted in Shaiva and Shakta literature in a most touching and. profound sense. Thirdly, we have the Nadanta dance of Nataraja before the assembly (sabha) in the golden hall of Chidambaram or Tillai, the Centre of the Universe, first revealed to gods and rishis after the submission of the latter in the forest of Taragam, as related to the Koyil Puranam. The legend, which has, after all, no very close connection with the real meaning of the dance, may be summarised as follows: In the forest of Taragam dwelt multitudes of heretical rishis, following the Mimamsa. Thither proceeded Shiva to confute them accompanied by Vishnu disguised as a beautiful woman and Adi-Shesha. The rishis were at first led to a violent dispute amongst themselves, but their anger was soon directed against Shiva, and they endeavoured to destroy Him by means of incantations. A fierce tiger was created in sacrificial fires, and rushed upon Him; but smiling gently, He seized it, and, with the nail of His little finger, stripped off its skin, and wrapped it about Himself like a silken cloth. Undiscouraged by failure, the sages renewed their offerings and produced a monstrous serpent, which, however, Shiva seized and wreathed about His neck like a garland.
Then He began to dance; but there rushed upon Him the last monster in the shape of a malignant dwarf, Muyalaka. Upon Him the god pressed the tip of His foot, and broke the creature’s back so that it writhed upon the ground; and so, His last foe prostrate, Shiva resumed the dance witnessed by gods and rishis. Then Adi-Shesha worshipped Shiva, and prayed above all things for the boon, once more to behold this mystic dance; Shiva promised that he should behold the dance again in sacred Tillai, the centre of the Universe. This dance of Shiv a in Chidambaram Pillai forms the motif of the South Indian copper images of Shri Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance. These images vary amongst themselves in minor details, but all express one fundamental conception. Before proceeding to enquire what these may be, it will be necessary to describe the image of Shri Nataraja as typically represented. The images, then, represent Shiva dancing, having four hands, with braided and jewelled hair of which the lower locks are whirling in the dance. In His hair may be seen a wreathing cobra, a skull, and the mermaid figure of Ganga; upon it rests the crescent moon and it is crowned with a wreath of Cassia leaves. In his right ear, He wears a man’s earring, a woman’s in the left; He is adorned with necklaces and armlets, a jewelled belt, anklets, bracelets, and finger and toe rings. The chief part of His dress consists of tightly fitting breeches, and He wears also a fluttering scarf and a sacred thread. One right-hand holds a drum, the other is up-lifted in the sign of do not fear: one left-hand holds fire, the other point’; down upon the demon Mryalaka, a dwarf holding cobra; the left foot is raised, there is a lotus pedestal, from which springs an encircling glory (Tirupati), fringed with flame, and touched within by the hands holding drum and fire. The images are of all sizes, rarely if ever exceeding four feet in total height. Even without reliance upon literary reference, the interpretation of this dance would not be difficult. Fortunately, however, we have the assistance of copious contemporary literature, which enables us to fully explain not only the general significance of the dance but equally, the details o f its concrete symbolism. Some of the peculiarities of the Nataraja images, of course, belong to the conception of Shiva generally, and not to the dance in particular. What is the meaning of Shiva’s Nadanta dance, as understood by Shaivas? Its essential significance is given in texts such as the following: “Our Lord is the Dancer, who, like the heat latent in firewood, diffuses His power in mind and matter, and makes them dance in their turn .” [Kadavul Mamunivar’s Tiruvatavurar Puranam, Puttaraivatil, Venracarukkam, stanza 75, translated by Nallaswami Pillai, Shivajnanabodham, p. 74.] The dance, in fact, represents His five activities (Panchakritya), viz: Srishti (overlooking, creation, evolution), Sthiti (preservation, support), Samhara (destruction, evolution), Tiro-bhava (veiling, embodiment, illusion and also giving rest), Anugraha (release, salvation, grace). These, separately considered, are the activities of the deities Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra, Maheshwara and Sadashiva. The cosmic activity is the central motif of the dance. Further quotations will illustrate and explain the more detailed symbolism. Unmai Vilakkam, verse 36, tells us:
“Creation arises from the drum: protection proceeds from the hand of hope: from fire proceeds destruction: the foot held aloft gives release”. It will be observed that the fourth hand points to this lifted foot, the refuge of the soul. Shiva is a destroyer and loves the burning ground. But what does He destroy? Not merely the heavens and earth at the close of a world cycle, but the fetters that bind each separate soul. Where and what is the burning ground? It is not the place where our earthly bodies are cremated, but the hearts of His lovers laid waste and desolate. The place where the ego is destroyed signifies the state where illusion and deeds are burnt away: that is the crematorium, the burning ground where Shri Nataraja dances, and whence He is named Sudalaiyadi, Dancer of the burning ground. In this simile, we recognise the historical connection between Shiva’s gracious dance as Nataraja and His wild dance as the demon of the cemetery. This conception of the dance is current also amongst Shaktas, especially in Bengal, where the Mother rather than the Fatheraspect of Shiva is adored. Kali is here the dancer, for whose entrance the heart must be purified by fire, made empty by renunciation. We find in Tamil texts, that the purpose of Shiva’s dance is explained. In Shivajnana Siddhar, Suraksha, Sutra, V, 5, we find: “For the purpose of securing both kinds of fruit to the countless soul, our Lord, with actions, five, dances His dance”. Both kinds of fruit, that Ilham, reward in this world, and Param, bliss in Mukti. The conception of the world process as the Lord’s pastime or amusement (Lila) is also prominent in the Shaiva scriptures. Thus Tirumular writes, “The perpetual dance is His play”. This spontaneity of Shiva’s dance is so clearly expressed in Skryabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. This aspect of Shiva’s immanence appears to have given rise to the objection that he dances as do those who seek to please the eyes of mortals; but it is answered that in fact, He dances to maintain the life of the cosmos and to give release to those
who seek Him. Moreover, if we understand even the dances of human dancers rightly, we shall see that they too lead to freedom. But it is nearer the truth to answer that the reason for His dance lies in His own nature, all His gestures are own-nature born (svabhavajah), spontaneous and purpose less for His being is beyond the realm of purposes. In a much more arbitrary way, the dance of Shiva is identified with the Panchakshara, or five syllables of the prayer Shi-va-yana-ma ‘Hail to Shiva’. In Unmai Vilakkam we are told: “If this beautiful Five-Letters be meditated upon, the soul will reach the land where there is neither light nor darkness, and there Shakti will make it One with Shivam” [Nandikeshvara, The Mirror of Gesture, translated by Coomaraswamy and Dug- girl, p .11.] The Tiru-Arul-Payan however (Ch. IX. 3) explains the Tirupati more naturally as representing the dance of Nature contrasted with Shiva’s dance of wisdom. “The dance of nature proceeds on one side: the dance of enlightenment on the other. Fix your mind in the centre of the latter”. Now to summarize the whole interpretation we find that the essential significance of Shiva’s dance is three-fold: First, it is the image of his rhythmic playas the source of all movement within the Cosmos, which is represented by the Arch: Secondly, the purpose of His dance is to release the countless souls of men from the snare of Illusion: Thirdly, the place of the dance, Chidambaram, the Centre of the Universe, within the Heart. So far I have refrained from all aesthetic criticism and have endeavoured only to translate the central thought of the conception of Shiva’s dance from plastic to verbal expression, without reference to the beauty or imperfection of individual works. But it may not be out of place to call attention to the grandeur of this conception itself as a synthesis of science, religion and art. How amazing the range of thought and sympathy of those rishi-artists who first conceived such a type as this, affording an image of reality, a key to the complex tissue of life, a theory of nature, not merely satisfactory to a single clique or race, nor acceptable to the thinkers of one century only, but universal in its appeal to the philosopher, the lover, and the artist of all ages and all countries. How supremely great in power and grace this dancing image must appear to all those who have striven in plastic forms to give expression to their intuition of Life! It is not strange that the figure of Nataraja has commanded the adoration of so many generations past; familiar with all scepticisms, expert in tracing all beliefs to primitive superstitions, explorers of the infinitely great and infinitely small, we are worshippers of Nataraja still. Source: «The Dance of Shiva”, Page 66- 79 Published by Sagar Publications, 72. Janpath, Ved Mansion, New Delhi – 1