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Nataraja, the cosmic dancer

“Everything in the universe has a rhythm, everything dances,” said American poet, storyteller and activist Maya Angelou. What she probably didn’t know is that science agrees with her. Quantum physics reveals that subatomic particles are in a state of flux, a state of constant rhythmic motion, as if in a state of dance. These particles appear as pulsating energy pockets, dynamically being created and destroyed. Since everything in the cosmos is made up of these subatomic particles, it can be said that all matter—from miniscule atoms to humungous stars and planets—dance across the cosmos beaming with energy.

In Hindu mythology, the cosmic dance of creation and destruction is personified by Nataraja—an avatar of the Hindu God Shiva. He is said to have danced the lasya tandava as Parvati (representing creation) and a rudra tandava as Shiva (representing destruction). Surrounded by a ring of blazing fire, Nataraja holds a damaru (rattle drum) in the upper right hand and an agni (fire) in his upper left hand. He has an abhaya mudra (a gesture representing ‘do not fear’) in the lower right hand and dances atop a demon Apasmarapurusa on his right leg.

In this article, Soulveda explores the symbolism of Nataraja by delving into Hindu philosophy.

Ring of fire

Everything in the universe follows a cyclical pattern of creation and destruction. From a tiny ant to a gigantic star, everything comes to life in the cosmos only to eventually die. The ring of fire that surrounds Nataraja represents the cosmos and everything within it. It symbolises the repetitive cycles and the constant transformation that the universe undergoes.

Turbulent dance yet tranquil face

Nature can be unpredictable. Sometimes it can be nurturing, while at other times, annihilating. And, nature is also impartial—it neither goes on a destructive spree out of hatred or vengeance nor does it nurture because it distinguishes good from evil. This unpredictability of nature is represented by Nataraja’s vigorous and turbulent tandava dance, while his placid face denotes the neutrality of nature.

Damaru and Agni

According to Hindu belief, sound is the source of all creation. As if to symbolise that creation and the passage of time, Nataraja dances to the rhythm of damaru (rattle drum) in his upper right hand. On the contrary, fire often signifies destruction. Nataraja holds an Agni in his upper left hand as if to destroy everything that the damaru has breathed life into.

Raised left leg

Why are we born and what happens after we die, are a few existential questions which are yet to be answered by science. Until then, we can only look at philosophies for answers. According to the Hindu philosophy, we are born to realise the true nature of our soul. And until we are mature enough to do so, we are caught in a cycle of birth, life and death—otherwise called samsara. Interestingly, Nataraja’s left leg that moves round and round creating a circular ring is said to represent this.

But, as one matures through the reincarnations, one makes progress in one’s spiritual journey.

Abhaya Mudra

Our time on earth (samsara) is ephemeral and laden with sufferings. Although the impermanence of life and the hardships we face can teach us to value life and learn life-lessons, they can also evoke fear in the hearts of man. To allay these fears, Nataraja is said to hold the Abhaya Mudra in his lower right hand. This mudra stands for ‘do not fear’ and is hence a symbol of encouragement and reassurance.

Gaja Hasta Mudra

In addition to the Abhaya mudra, Nataraja also holds Gaja Hasta Mudra. His lower left-hand stretches across his chest and points to his raised left foot that is in motion. This is to remind us that the endless cycle of life and death in the samsara is inevitable. Everyone invariably goes through it. But, as one matures through the reincarnations, one makes progress in one’s spiritual journey. It is only then, the endless cycle of samsara comes to an end and one attains moksha.

Demon Apasmara

Often, whilst living our lives in the worldly samsara, we tend to forget our real purpose of having been born—which is to discover the true nature of our soul. As Apasmara is the demon of forgetfulness and ignorance, Nataraja crushes this demon with his right foot and urges us to refocus, banish ignorance from our lives and seek the light of knowledge. True knowledge, Nataraja reminds us, is the only way to surpass samsara—and, perhaps, the endless cycle of creation and destruction.

  • Krishna Dutt
    January 19, 2019 at 12:08 pm

    Just a wonderful story. Parting our ancient knowledge is a great deed by team soulveda.

  • Krishna Dutt
    January 19, 2019 at 12:10 pm

    Our heartiest congratulations Sai Priyanka. You write very good. Wishing more and more such stories by you and your team. Regards

  •    Soulveda
    January 19, 2019 at 4:00 pm

    Thank you Krishna for being such an avid reader and for the continuous support.


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