“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.