Siva- His Form and Cosmic Dance

Cosmic Dance of Siva: Symbolism of Nataraja
Nataraja is a depiction of Siva as the cosmic dancer who performs his divine dance to destroy a weary universe and make preparations for god Brahma to start the process of creation. Lord Siva as the Cosmic Dancer Nataraja represents the rhythmic movement of the entire cosmos. The dance performed by Siva is called Tandava Nritya, the divine art form.

Siva’s Tandava is a vigorous dance that is the source of the cycle of creation, preservation and dissolution. While the Rudra Tandava depicts his violent nature, first as the creator and later as the destroyer of the universe, even of death itself, the Ananda Tandava depicts him as the enjoyer of his creation - the universe. Siva as Nataraja (which lierally means "Lord of dance") is considered the supreme lord of dance.

The Tandava takes its name from Tandu, the attendant of Siva, who instructed Bharata (author of the Natya Shastra) in the modes of the dance form. The dance is a pictorial allegory of the five principal manifestations of eternal energy viz. panchakritya. They are:
1.  Srishti:  creation or emanation, represented by His upper right hand and the  damaru (drum), upon which He beats  Paranada, the Primal Sound from which issues forth the rhythms and cycles of creation;
2.  Sthiti:  preservation, represented by His lower  right hand in a gesture of blessing,  abhaya  mudra, saying " fear not”;
3.  Samhara:  destruction, dissolution or absorption, represented by the fire in His upper left hand, posed in ardha chandra mudra   ”half - moon gesture”;
4. Tirobhava:  obscuring grace, the power which hides the truth, thereby represented by His right foot upon the prostrated person --  Apasmarapurusa  -- ,  the principle of ignorance or  aanava.
5.  Angara:  revealing grace - which grants knowledge and severs the soul’s bonds -- represented by Siva’s left foot and by His lower left hand, held in gajahasta (elephant’s trunk) mudra, inviting approach.

These five cosmic activities are sometimes personalized respectively as Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra, Mahesvara and SadaSiva or as Sadyajata (creation), Vamadeva (preservation), Aghora (reabsorption), Tatpurusha (obscuration) and  Isana (granting grace).

Thus Tandava symbolizes the cosmic cycles of creation and destruction, as well as the daily rhythm of birth and death.
According to some there are seven types of Tandava which are called Ananda Tandava, Tripura Tandava, Sandhya Tandava, Samhara Tandava, Kali (Kalika) Tandava, Uma Tandava and Gauri Tandava. However, some people believe that there are 16 types of Tandava.  The root idea behind all of these dances is more or less one and the same, the manifestation of primal rhythmic energy.

The dance performed by Goddess Parvati in response to Siva's Tandava is known as Lasya, in which the movements are gentle, graceful and sometimes erotic. Some scholars consider Lasya to be the feminine version of Tandava.


Lord Siva is a great master of dance. All the 108 modes of dancing known to the treatises on dancing have come from him. According to tradition he dances every evening in order to relieve the sufferings of creatures and entertain the gods who gather in Kailasa in full strength. Hence he is called sabhapati, the Lord of an Assembly or congregation.

However, only nine modes of dancing are popular of which the Nataraja aspect is the most well-known. The earliest use of the name ‘Nataraja’ appears in the Karikas of Nandikesvara on the Mahesvarasutras of Panini (400 B.C.). There he mentions that Siva sounded his damaru fourteen times at the end of his dance, producing fourteen sound patterns which are now called Mahesvarasutras like a i un and so on which form the basic structure of the entire Sanskrit grammar. Hence damaru represents the alphabet, grammar, the language itself. In other words it stands for all words - spoken, written or otherwise expressed and hence for the entire gamut of all arts and sciences, sacred and secular. It also represents sound as such, the logos from which the entire creation has proceeded. By holding it in his hand, Siva is demonstrating the fact that the entire creation, including its various arts and sciences, has proceeded out of his will, his play.

The earliest idea of Siva as a dancer can be traced to the Sivasutras (3.9.11) a cardinal text of Kashmir Saivism.

The Nataraja icon shows him with four hands and two legs, in the posture of dancing. There is the damaru in the upper right hand and fire in the left. The lower right hand is in abhayamudra (pose of protection) and the left is pointing towards the uplifted left foot. The right foot is resting on the demon Apasmarapurusa. The whole image may be surrounded by a circle of blazing fire.

Siva’s dance indicates a continuous process of creation, preservation and destruction. The damaru represents the principle of sabda (sound and hence akasa (ether) which is responsible for evolution. Fire represents pralaygni, the fire that destroys the world at the time of dissolution and hence symbolizes the process of destruction. The damaru and fire represent the continuous cycle of creation, preservation and destruction. The other two hands indicate that he who takes refuge at the feet of the Lord will have nothing to fear. The Apasmarapurusa symbolizes ignorance which makes us lose our balance and consciousness. He is trampled upon   by the Lord for the good of the devotees who take his refuge.

The dance of Siva is one of the great examples of using images to convey high truths and eternal values.  Siva is considered the master of dance.  His dance is called the cosmic dance.  In the picture of the dancing Siva, Siva is dancing at a great speed with flying arms and legs. This creates an illusion of energy — the energy that is associated with the creation of the world, its destruction, the changes and evolution. 

Siva is wearing a man’s earring on one ear and a woman’s earring on the other ear.  The different earrings point to the equality and importance of both men and women in the conduct of the world.

The circle of fire represents the cosmos and especially consciousness. The all devouring form looming above is mahakala, the ‘Great Time’. The cobra around Nataraja’s waist is Kundalini Shakti, the soul impelling cosmic power within all of us. Nataraja’s dance is not only a symbol but it is a process functioning in all of us, at the atomic level always. The Agamas declare that the birth of the universe, its maintenance and dissolution, the soul’s obscuration and liberation are the five acts of his dance. The symbolism of Siva as Nataraja, the king of dancers, is religion, art and science all merged into one. In this picturisation of Siva is hidden a deep understanding of our universe.

The important message in this story is to communicate to us a greater message - get rid of your dark thoughts - jealousy, envy, hatred and laziness- to lead a life of happiness and peace. This is a message that appealed to the ancient Hindus and it is a message that is useful to us even today, after thousands of years later. 

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