The inner meaning of this Symbol is very grand and poetic, and to enter into, and understand it, will certainly be deemed a privilege by those who are striving to realise for themselves the truths of mysticism.
Before entering into the meaning itself let me digress a little in narrating the legend, which explains the occasion for Siva's sacred dance at Chidambaram.
Vishnu arose one day from his slumber, and repaired to the Sacred Mount Kailas, there to pay reverence to the supreme Siva, Who told him, that, in the neighbouring forest of Taruka there were multitudes of heretical Rishis or devotees, dwelling with their wives, and puffed up with the pride of their learning, and, who regarded themselves as independent of His authority. It was the intention of Siva, to visit this forest, in order to ascertain the state of the Rishis there, and to teach them a lesson. He accordingly asked Vishnu to accompany Him in the guise of a woman, and the two – Siva as a mendicant, with the usual insignia including the bowl for the collection of alms, and Vishnu as His wife – entered the forest.
As soon as the two entered the Darukavana as man and wife, the Rishis' wives were seized with an unspeakable frenzy of passion for the mendicant, while the Rishis were equally infatuated by the woman that followed Him – Vishnu is disguise. A fierce wrath soon raged throughout the hermitage. The Rishis speedily perceived that the mendicant and his wife, who possessed such a mysterious power of attraction, were not what they seemed. They became ashamed of their ecstasies, of evil desire, and, gathering in a body, pronounced fierce imprecations upon the couple. But the Divine visitors remained unharmed. They then a dug a sacrificial pit and proceeded to burn oblations, in view to ensure the destruction of the unwelcome intruders. As a result of the sacrificial rites, a fierce tiger came out of the sacrificial fire and sprang at Siva; Who, smiling gently, seized it with His sacred hands, and, with the nail of His little finger, ripped off its skin, and, wrapped it round Himself like a soft silken garment. This is the origin of Siva's tiger-skin mantle.
Undiscouraged by the failure, they renewed their sacrificial offerings, and from the altar-fire came out a monstrous serpent, which He seized and wreathed round His neck, where it has since hung for ever; and then began His mystic dance. At last, a monster named Musalaka (the club-bearer), in the shape of a black dwarf, hideous and malignant, rushed upon Him, brandishing a club, with eyes of fire. Upon him, the Lord pressed the tip of His sacred foot, and broke his back, so that he writhed on the ground. Thus with His last foe prostrate, Siva resumed the dance of which all the gods were witnesses, while His hosts sang enthusiastic choruses.
The Rishis, parched with the heat of their own sacrificial fires, faint with the fury of their anger, and, overwhelmed with the splendour of the heavens opening around them fell to the ground as dead, and then rising, worshipped the known God, acknowledging themselves His faithful devotees.
Now entering into the vital part of the symbology, Nataraja means the "Lord of the Stage"* [* The expression 'Nataraja' does not mean "Lord of the stage"; it means only 'Master-actor', or 'Prince of actors'. The idea, 'Lord of the stage', corresponds to the Sanskrit compound 'Nata-ranga-raja', and not to 'Nata-raja'. The synonyms, Natesa, Natesvara and Nataraja, indicates that the Lord is the Chief actor (=Sutradhara) in the drama of the Prapancha, that He is the Nimitta-karana of the Manifested Universe. – Ed L.T.] The idea is that the world is a stage, which presents the vision and activity of life, through the power of the omnipresent God, the unseen Lord of the stage. He represents the teacher or guru whose one of the most important functions is, to enforce his teachings by example; and this idea is the key-note to the Nataraja symbol.
The legend teaches that He subdues and wraps round Him, like a girdle, the feline fury of human passion. The guile and malice of mankind He transmutes into His necklace. One of His feet is planted over and crushes the giant – the endless illusion or monster of human depravity, while the other is raised upward to aid and comfort those who are shrouded in Maya, and enable them to realise His eternal fellowship. The little drum in one of His right hands, expresses the idea of His being the Preceptor or Guru, and means also to indicate that He holds in the hollow of His hand the dispensation of the entire Prapancha, the cause of all the world, to be folded or unfolded at His own will. The deer on one side is the mind, because the latter leaps and jumps from one thing to another as unsteadily as that animal. On His head, He wears the Ganges, that is to say, the Chit-Sakti or Wisdom which is most cool and refreshing; the Moon representing the ethereal light and blissfulness of the Atman or Self. The second right hand representing the idea of Peace, indicates the blessed calmness of Wisdom. In one of the left hands is held Agni (fire), which represents the idea that the truth of the Guru's teachings can only be fully understood on practical realisation in one's inner experience. The place of the dance – the theatre – is the Tillaivanam (=Daruka-vana); in other words, the body is spoken of as the Vanam (forest), because of the multitude of its components. The platform (=boards) in that theatre, is the cremation-ground, the place where all passions, and the names and forms that constitute the vision of the world, are dissolved – pure consciousness devoid of attachment to anything outside, and free from all taint of illusion.
The above are some of the leading features of the symbol*. [* The allegory, as interpreted above, cannot be said to be on the track of correct solution. Yet, as an attempt, it is commendable, although for real light, one should search the Agamantic classics. Ed. L. T.] The Guru teaches that Maya – the illusion of the world – should be crushed down, that the deer-like mind should be left behind, and ahankara (egoism) destroyed, and that man should ascend to the regions of pure consciousness, free from passion and deception, and enjoy the true bliss.
Viewed in the light of this inner meaning, Sri Nataraja is no more a meaningless idol, an effigy in stone or copper, but a symbol of the highest import, an incentive to pure inspiration and elevation.