Home >

Scripture >

scripture >


The Dance Of Siva

"The Lord of Tillai's Court a mystic dance performs: what's that, my dear?"

      - Tiruvacagam, XII, 14.

A great master-of-dancing (Nataraja) is Siva! The cosmos is His theatre, there are many different steps in His repertory, He Himself is actor and audience –

    When the Actor beateth the drum,
    Everybody cometh to see the show;
    When the Actor collecteth the stage properties
    He abideth alone in His happiness.

How many various dances of Siva are known to His worshippers I cannot say. No doubt the root idea behind all of these dances is more or less one and the same, the manifestation of primal rhythmic energy: Siva 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 primeval dancing clearly set forth in the choral dance of the constellations, and in the planets and fixed stars, their interweaving and interchange and orderly harmony.

I do not mean to say that the most profound interpretation of Siva's dance was present in the minds of those who first danced in frantic, and perhaps intoxicated energy, in honor of the pre Aryan hill-god, afterwards merged in Siva. A great motif is religion or art, any great symbol, becomes all things to all men; age after age it yields to men such treasure as they find in their own hearts. Whatever the origins of Siva's dance, it became in time the noblest image of activity of God which any art or religion can boast of. Of the various dances of Siva I shall only speak of three, one of them alone forming the main subject of interpretation. One is an evening dance in the Himalayas, with a divine chorus, described as follows in the Siva Pradosha Stotra –

"Placing the Mother of the Three Worlds upon a golden throne, studded with precious gems, Sulapani dances on the heights of Kailas, and all the gods gather round Him."

"Sarasvati plays on the vina, Indra on the flute, Brahma holds the time-marking cymbals, Lakshmi begins a song, Vishnu plays on a drum, and all the gods stand round about."

"Gandarvas, Yakshas, Patagas, Uragas, Siddhas, Sadhyas, Vidhyadharas, Amaras, Apsaras 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, Siva is two-handed, and the cooperation of the gods is clearly indicated in their position of chorus. There is no prostrate Asura trampled under Siva's feet. So far as I know, no special interpretations of this dance occur in Saiva literature.

The second well-known dance of Siva is called the Tandava, and belongs to His tamasic aspect of Bhairava or Vira-bhadra. It is performed in cemeteries and burning grounds, where Siva, usually in ten armed form, dances wildly with Devi, accompanied by troops of capering imps. Representations of this dance are common amongst ancient sculptures, as at Ellora, Elephanta, and also at Bhuvanesvara. This tandava dance is in origin that of a pre-aryan 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 Siva, sometimes of Devi, is interpreted in Saiva and Sakti 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 Chitambaram or Tillai, the center of the Universe, first revealed to gods and rishis after the submission of the latter in the forest of Paragam, as related in the Koyil Puranam. The legend, which has after all, no very direct connection with the meaning of the dance, may be summarized as follows:

In the forest of Taragam dwelt multitudes of heretical rishis, following of the Mimamsa. Thither proceeded Siva to confute them, accompanied by Vishnu disguised as a beautiful woman, and Ati-Seshan. The rishis were at first led to violent dispute amongst themselves, but their anger was soon directed against Siva, and they endeavored 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.* [* A similar story is elsewhere related about an elephant; and these account for the elephant or tiger skin, which Siva wears.] Undiscouraged by failure, the sages renewed their offerings, and produced a monstrous serpent, which, however, Siva seized and wreathed about His neck like a garland. Then He began to dance; but there rushed upon Him a 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 toe prostrate, Siva resumed the dance, witnessed by gods and rishis.

Then Ati Seshan worshipped Siva, and prayed above all things for the boon, once more to behold this mystic dance; Siva promised that he should behold the dance again in sacred Tillai, the center of the Universe. The dance of Siva in Chidambaram or Tillai forms the motif of the South Indian copper images of Sri 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 Sri Nataraja as typically represented. The images then, represent Siva dancing, having four hands, with braided and jeweled 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 jeweled belt, anklets, bracelets, finger and toe-rings. The chief part of His dress consists of tightly fitting breeches, and He wears also a fluttering scarf (angavastiram) and a sacred thread. One right hand holds a drum (damara, udukkai), the other is uplifted in abhaya mudra (do not fear): one left hand holds fire, the other points downward to the lifted foot. The right foot is pressed down upon the asura Muyalaka, a dwarf holding a cobra; the left foot is raised. There is a lotus pedestal, from which springs an encircling arch of glory, (tiruvasi), 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 references, the interpretation of this dance would not be difficult. Fortunately, however, we have the assistance of a copious contemporary literature, which enables us to fully explain not only the general significance of the dance, but equally, the details of its concrete symbolism. Some of the peculiarities of the Nataraja images, of course, belong to the conception of Siva generally, and not to the dance in particular. Such are the braided locks, as of a yogi; the Cassia garland; the skull of Brahma; the figure of Ganga, the Ganges fallen from heaven and lost in Siva's hair; the cobras; the different ear-rings, betokening the dual nature of Mahadev, 'whose half is Uma'; the four arms. The drum also, is a general attribute of Siva, belonging to his character of Yogi, though in the dance, it has further a special significance. What then is the meaning of Siva's dance, as understood by Saivas? The dance is called Nadanta. 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,"*†

	[* காட்ட அனல்போல் உடல்கலந்து உயிரையெல்லாம்
	ஆட்டுவிக்கும் நட்டுவன் நம்மண்ணலனவெண்ணாய்]

[† Kaduval Mamunivar's Tiruvatavurar Puranam, Puttaraivatil, venracarukkam, stanza 75, translated by Nallasvami Pillai, Sivajnanabodham, p. 74. This could also be rendered:

Like heat latent in firewood, he fills all bodies;

Our Father dances, moving all souls into action, know ye!

Compare Eckhart, "Just as the fire infuses the essence and clearness into the dry wood, so has God done with man."]

The dance, in fact, represents His five activities (Panchakritya), viz., Srishti (overlooking, creation, evolution), Sthiti (preservation, support), Samhara (destruction, evolution), Tirobhava (veiling, embodiment, illusion, and also, giving rest,) Anugraha (release, salvation, grace). These, separately considered, are the activities of the deities Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra, Mahesvara and Sadasiva.

This comic activity is the central motif of the dance. Further quotations will illustrate and explain the more detailed symbolisms. 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 mukti". Here mukti is the same as anugraha, release. It will be observed that the fourth hand points to this lifted foot, the refuge of the soul.

We have also the following from Chidambara Mummani Kovai;

"O my Lord, Thy hand holding the sacred drum has made and ordered the heavens and earth and other worlds and innumerable souls. Thy lifted hand protects the Chetana and Achetana Prapancha which Thou hast created. All these worlds are changed by Thy hand hearing fire. Thy sacred foot, planted on the ground, gives an abode to the tired soul struggling in the toils of karma. It is Thy lifted foot that grants eternal bliss to those that approach Thee. These Five-Actions are indeed Thy Handiwork".

The following verses from the Tirukuttu Darasana (Vision of the Sacred Dance), forming the ninth tantra of Tirumular's Tirumantram, expand the central motif further;

    "His form is everywhere: all-pervading is His Siva Sakti:
    Chidambaram is everywhere, everywhere His dance:
    As Siva is all and omnipresent,
    Everywhere is Siva's gracious dance made manifest.
    "His five-fold dances are in Sakala and nishkala form,
    His five-fold dances are His Panchakriyta:
    With His grace He performs the five acts,
    This is the sacred dance of Uma-Sahaya.* 


    "He dances with Water, Fire, Wind and Ether,
    Thus our Lord dances ever in the court.†


    "Visible to those who pass over Maya and Mahanaya
    Our Lord dances His eternal dance‡


    "The form of the Sakti is all bliss (ananda) –
    This united bliss is Uma's body:
    This form of Sakti arising in Sakala
    And uniting the twain is the dance"*


    "His body is Akas, the dark cloud therein is Muyalaka,
    The eight quarters are His eight arms,
    The three lights are His three eyes,
    Thus becoming, He dances in our body as the assembly (sabha)."†


This is His dance. Its deepest significance is felt when it is realized that it takes place within the heart and the self: the kingdom of God is within. Everywhere is God: that Everywhere is the heart. Thus also we find another verse:

    "The dancing foot, the sound of the tinkling bells,
    The songs that are sung and the varying steps,
    The forms assumed by our Dancing Gurupara –
    Find out these within yourself, then shall your fetters fall away" ‡

	[‡ ஆடியகாலுமதிற்சிலம்போசையும்

To this end, all else but the thought of God must be cast out of the heart, that He alone may abide and dance therein. In Unmai Vilakkam, we find:

"The silent Jnanis destroying the threefold bond are established where their selves are destroyed. There they behold the sacred and are filled with bliss. This is the dance of the Lord of the assembly, "whose very form is Grace" *

	[* மோனந்த மாமுனிவர் மும்மலத்தை மோசித்துத்
	தானந்த மானிடத்தே தங்கியிடு – மானந்த
	மொண்டருந்தி நின்றாடல் காணுமருண் மூர்த்தியாய்க்
	கொண்டதிரு வம்பலத்தான் கூத்து]

With this reference to the 'silent jnanis' compare the beautiful words of Tirumular:

"When resting there they (the yogis who attain the highest place of peace) lose themselves and become idle…Where the idlers dwell is the pure Space. Where the idlers sport is the Light. What is idlers know is the Vedanta. What the idlers find is the deep sleep therein". †

	[† இருந்தார் சிவமாகி யெங்குந்தாமாகி
	இருந்தார் சிவன் செயலியாவையு நோக்கி
	இருந்தார் முக்காலத்தியல்பைக் குறித்தங்
	கிருந்தாரிழவு தெய்திய சோம்பே

	சோம்பர் இருப்பது சுத்த வெளியிலே
	சோம்பர் கிடப்பது சுத்த வொளியிலே
	சோம்பர் உணர்வது சுருதிமுடிந் திடம்
	சோம்பர் கண்டார்ச் சுருதிக்கட் டூக்கமே.]

Siva is a destroyer and loves the burning ground. But what does He destroy? Not merely the heavens and earth at the end of a kalpa, 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 heart of the bhakti, the devotee, laid waste and desolate. He brings not peace but a sword. The place where their selves are destroyed signifies the place or state where their egoity or illusion and deeds are burnt away that is the crematorium, the burning ground where Sri Nataraja dances, and whence He is named Sudalaiyadi, Dancer of the burning ground. In this simile, we recognize the historical connection between Siva's gracious dance as Nataraja, and His wild dance as the demon of the cemetery.

This conception of the dance is current also amongst Saktas especially in Bengal, where the Mother rather than the Father-aspect of Siva is adored. Kali* [* Vide article on "What is Kali?" in, Siddhanta Deepika. Vol. III, p. 13 – Ed. S.D.] is here the dancer, for whose entrance the heart must be purified by fire, made empty by renunciation. A Bengali Hymn to Kali voices this prayer:

    "Because Thou lovest the Burning-ground,
    I have made a Burning-ground of my heart-
    That Thou, Dark One, haunter of the Burning-ground,
    Mayest dance Thy eternal dance." †
    "Nought else is within my heart, O Mother:
    Day and night blazes the funeral pyre:
    The ashes of the dead, strewn all about,
    I have preserved against Thy coming,
    With death conquering Mahakala neath Thy feet
    Do Thou enter in, dancing Thy rhythmic dance,
    That I may behold Thee with closed eyes".

	[† உலகமே யுருவமாக யோனிகளுறுப்பதாக
	விலகுபேரிச்சா ஞானக்கிரியை யுட்கரணமாக
	வலகிலா உயிர்கட்கெல்லா மிருபயனாக வைந்து
	நலமிடு தொழில்களோடு நாடக நடிப்பன் நாதன்]

Returning to the South, we find that in other Tamil texts the purpose of Siva's dance is explained. In Sivajnana Siddhiyar, Supaksha, Sutra V.5, we find,

"For the purpose of securing both kinds of fruit to the countless souls, our Lord, with actions five, dances His dance". Both kinds of fruit, that is Iham, reward in this world, and Param, bliss in Mukti.

Again, Unmai Vilakkam, v. 32, 37, 39 inform us.

"The Supreme Intelligence dances in the soul… for the purpose of removing our sins. By these means, our Father scatters the darkness of Maya, burns the thread of Karma, stamps down Mala (anava, Avidya), showers Grace, and lovingly plunges the soul in the ocean of bliss (Ananda). They never see rebirths, who behold this mystic dance" ‡

	[‡ எட்டு மிரண்டுமுருவானவி லிங்கத்தே
	நட்டம்புதல்வா நவிலக்கேள் – சிட்டன்
	சிவாயநம வென்னுந் திருவெழுத்தஞ்சாலே
	யவாய மற நின்றாடுவான்.

	மாயை தனையுதறி வல்வினையைச் சுட்டு மலஞ்
	சாயவ முக்கியருள்தானெடுத்து – நேயத்தால்
	ஆநந்தவாரிதியி லான்மாவைத்தா னழுத்தல்
	தானெந்தையார் பாதந்தான்.

	உரையுணர்வுக் கெட்டா வொருவன் மிடுபஞ்சாக்
	கரத்தால் வரைமகடான்பாதி – பரையிடமாய்க்
	காணும்படியே கருணையுருக் கொண்டாடல்
	பேணுமவர்க்குண்டோ பிறப்பு.]

The conception of Lila, the world-process as the Lord's sport or amusement, is also prominent in the Saiva scriptures; thus, Tirumular writes: "The Perpetual Dance becomes His Play".

This aspect of His activity appears to have given rise to the objection that He dances as do those who seek to please the eyes of mortals; to which the answer is given that He dances to maintain the life of the cosmos and to give release to those who seek Him.

In another way, more arbitrary, the Dance of Siva is identified with the Panchakshara, the five syllables Si-va-ya-na-ma which have a peculiar and special significance in Saiva symbolism. In Unmai Vilakkam, v. 33-35 they are identified in the dance as follows:

"In His feet is na; in His navel is ma; in His shoulders is Si; in His face is va; in His head is ya".*

	* ஆடும்படிகேள் நல்லம்பலத்தா னையனே
	நாடுந் திருவடியிலே நகரம் – கூடு
	மகரம்முதரம் வளர்தோள் சிகரம்
	பகருமுகம் வாமுடியப்பார்.

A second way of contemplating the Panchakshara is also given, as follows:

"The hand holding the Drum is 'Si'; the hand held out is 'Va'; the hand holding out protection (abhaya) is 'ya'; the hand holding fire is 'na'; the foot holding down Muyalaka is 'ma'.†

	† சேர்க்கும் துடிசிகரம் சிக்கனவாவீசுகரம்
	ஆர்க்கும் யகரமபயகரம் – பார்க்கிலிறைக்
	கங்கி நகரமடிக்கீழ் முயலகனார்
	தங்கு மகரமது தான்.

The text continues:

"The meanings of the five letters respectively are God, Sakti, Soul, Tirobhava and Mala… If this beautiful Five Letters be meditated upon, the soul will reach the land where there is neither light nor darkness, and there Sakti will make it One with Sivam". *

	* ஈசன் அருள் ஆவி யெழிலார் திரோதமலம்

	அண்ணல் முதலாபழகா ரெழுத்தைத்து
	மண்ணிலிராப் பகலற்றின்பத்தே – நண்ணி
	யருளானது சிவத்தே யாக்குமணுவை
	யிருளானது தீரவின்று.

Another verse of Unmai Vilakkam explains the fiery arch (tiruvasi): The Panchakshara and the Dance are identified with the mystic syllable Om, the arch being the kombu or hook of the ideograph of the written symbol: "The arch over Sri Nataraja is Omkara; and the akshara which is never separate from the Omkara is the contained splendor. This is the Dance of the Lord of Chidambaram". †

	† ஓங்காரமே நற்றிருவாசி யுற்றதனின்
	நீங்காவெழுத்தே நிறை சுடராம் – ஆங்காரம்
	அற்றார் அறிவாரணி யம்பலத்தானாடலிது
	பெற்றார் பிறப்பற்றார் பின்.

The Tiru-Arul-Payan however (Ch. ix.3) explains the tiruvasi more naturally as representing the dance of Nature, contrasted with Siva's dance of wisdom.

"The dance of matter (Prakriti) proceeds on one side: the Jnana dance on the other. Fix your mind in the center of the latter".‡

	‡ ஊன	நடன மொருபா லொருபாலா
	ஞான நடந்தானாடு.

I am indebted to Mr. Nallasvami Pillai for a commentary on this:

The first dance is the action of matter – material and individual energy. This is the arch, tiruvasi, Omkara, the dance of Kali. The other is the Dance of Siva – the akshara inseparable from the Omkara – called ardhmatra or the fourth letter of the Pranava, Chaturtam and Turiyam. The first dance is not possible unless Siva wills it and dances Himself.

The general result of this interpretation of the arch is, then, that it represents matter, nature, prakriti; the contained splendor, Siva dancing within and touching the arch, with head, hands and feet, is the universal omnipresent Purusha. Between these stands the soul, as ya is between Si-va and na-ma.

Now to summarize the whole interpretation we find that The Essential Significance of Siva's Dance is threefold: First, it is the image of his Rhythmic Activity as 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 Center of the Universe, is within the Heart.

In these notes I expressly refrain from all aesthetic criticism and have endeavored only to translate the central thought of the conception of Siva's dance from plastic to verbal expression, without reference to the beauty or imperfection of individual works. In conclusion, 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, nor 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 Bhakta, and the artist of all ages and all countries. In these days of specialization, we are not accustomed to such a synthesis of thought; but for those who 'saw' such images as this, there could have been no division of life and thought into water-tight compartments. Nor do we always realize, when we criticize the merits of individual works, the full extent of the creative power which, to borrow a musical analogy, could discover a raga so expressive of fundamental rhythms and so profoundly significant and inevitable

Every part of such an image as this is directly expressive, not of any mere superstition or dogma, but of evident facts. No artist of today, however great, could more exactly or more wisely create an image of that Energy which science must postulate behind all phenomena. If we would reconcile Time with Eternity, we can scarcely do so otherwise than by the conception of alternations of phase extending over vast regions of space and great tracts of time.* [* Oliver Lodge, Hibbert Journal, Vol. X, No. 2, 1911] Especially significant, then, is the phase alternation implied by the drum, and the fire which 'changes', not destroys. These are but visual symbols of the theory of the day and night of Brahma

In the night of Brahma, Nature is inert, and cannot dance till Siva wills it. He rises from His rapture, and dancing sends through inert matter pulsing waves of awakening sound, and lo! Matter also dances, appearing as a glory round about Him. Dancing, He sustains its manifold phenomena. In the fullness of time, still dancing, he destroys all forms and names by fire and gives new rest. This is poetry but none the less, the truest science.

Again, this Nataraja is not only Truth, but Love for the purpose of His Dance is Grace, the giving of freedom to countless individual souls. Lastly, also, how supremely great in power and grace this dancing image must appear to all those who as artists 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; we, familiar with all skepticisms, expert in tracing all beliefs to primitive superstitions, explorers of the infinitely great and infinitely small, are worshippers of Sri Nataraja still.

- A. K. C.

Please send corrections


Related Content

18 சித்தர் பாடல்கள்

Antiquity Of The Saiva Religion By R. A. Sastri

Sivagnana Siddhiyar - Supaksham