Updated: Aug 16
The word Nataraja is composed of two words Nata, which means dancer, and Raja, which means king. Nataraja is Lord Shiva in his dancing form, referred to as "Lord of Dance” and is revered as the ultimate symbol of cosmic energy, representing the triumph of the spiritual over the material.
As the Lord of Dance, Nataraja embodies the cyclical nature of time and creation, reflecting the role of Shiva as the destroyer, preserver, and regenerator of the universe. Depicted in the iconic dance pose, Nataraja holds within it a wealth of mystical and philosophical meaning that has captivated the minds of humans for centuries.
Nataraja has played a vital role in shaping Indian culture, religion, and art. This article will delve deeper into the depths of the story of Nataraja, uncovering the connection with Lord Shiva and his place in Hindu mythology and culture.
Uncovering the Mythical Origins and Significance of Nataraja
In Hindu mythology, the story of Nataraja associates with the tale of Apasmara Purusha (Apasmara), a demon who symbolizes ignorance and ego. He had the face of a demon and the body of an infant.
According to the legends, Apsamara performed intense penance and austerities to please the Gods. As a reward for his devotion was rewarded with the power to cause seizures and epilepsy in people. With his newfound power, Apasmara started creating chaos and terror in the world by inflicting people with epilepsy during everyday events of their lives.
Affected by epilepsy and seizure, people started behaving differently, started being forgetful, and ended up in fights and arguments with each other. One day Apasmara decided to use his powers on Goddess Parvathi, wife of Lord Shiva. Realizing that her memory was being troubled, Parvathi indicates the matter to Lord Shiva, who uncovers the doings of Apasmara and decides to defeat him to restore balance and harmony on earth.
However, by his very nature, Apasmara was destined to be immortal, as his death meant attaining knowledge without any effort and killing him results in disturbing the balance of knowledge and ignorance on earth.
Therefore, lord shiva takes the form of Nataraja and performs the cosmic dance “Thandava” to crush Apasmara under his right foot. Since Apasmara had to be immortal, Lord Shiva, as Nataraja, decided to be in the position of crushing Apasmara eternally.
It is believed that the cosmic dance was performed in Chidambaram, a town in South India.
The Hidden Meanings and Significance of Lord Shiva's Iconography
Nataraja is depicted with four arms, holding various attributes such as a drum and a flame, and dancing within a halo of fire.
The iconography of Nataraja is a treasure trove of symbolism. Each element of Nataraja's depiction holds a deeper meaning and significance.
The arch of flame around Nataraja represents the cosmic energy and the universe with its pain, suffering, and illusions. It represents the cyclic nature of life and symbolizes the fire that creates and destroys everything. The inner edge of the halo represents the water of the ocean.
The crescent moon on his head symbolizes the union of the individual soul with the ultimate reality. It also represents Kama, the god of nightly love.
The serpent around Nataraja's waist represents the human soul's transmigration of the body from one to other, like a snake shedding its skin.
The strands of hair with Ganga represent the power of Lord shiva to calm down frivolous situations the same way he calmed the flow of Ganga from heaven through his dreadlocks.
In Nataraja's left hand, he holds a flame, which represents the destruction and dissolution of the universe. It also indicates the removal of illusions from the mind of humans.
Apasmara, crushed under his feet, symbolizes ignorance and ego. The act represents the defeat of these negative traits.
The right hand of Nataraja holds a small drum called Damaru, which represents the sound of the creation of the universe, “Om”, and the left anterior hand that points to the left foot represents the revealing grace, the act of creating the world.
The right anterior hand representing the Abhaya Mudra symbolizes protection and fearlessness.
The Inspiration of Lord Shiva's Iconography in Hindu Art, Culture, and Beyond
Nataraja is one of the most popular and enduring subjects in Hindu art and culture. Throughout history, Nataraja is depicted, in various forms, each with its unique symbolism and cultural significance.
One of the most iconic representations of Nataraja is the bronze sculpture, which is a masterpiece of the Chola bronze casting tradition. The sculptures are known for their intricate details, and they are considered one of the finest examples of Indian bronze casting.
The significance of Nataraja in Indian culture and religion can also be seen in its frequent use in literature, music, and dance. The dance of Nataraja is an inevitable element in the classical Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam.
The famous Indian classical dancer Padma Subrahmanyam, in several of her dance performances, has shown her tribute to Nataraja.
The posture of Nataraja, known as "Ananda Tandava", is widely practiced as it is considered a significant aspect of yoga.
The story and cosmic dance of Nataraja have inspired authors around the world to write books on this concept. A few examples are “The Dance of Siva: Religion, Art and Poetry in South India” by David James Smith and “Dancing with Siva: Hinduism's Contemporary Catechism" by Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami
Nataraja in the pretext of Indian History and Literature
The earliest depiction of Nataraja was found in the stone reliefs of the Ellora Caves in Maharashtra and the Badami Caves in Karnataka, dating back to around the 6th century CE.
Bronze sculpture representations of Nataraja were discovered in the Chola Empire, which ruled over South India, including present-day Tamil Nadu and Kerala, from the 9th to 13th century CE.
The oldest known text mentioning Nataraja is the "Anshumadbhedagama," a Shaivite text believed to have been written around the 9th century CE during the Pallava dynasty. These texts were written in Tamil and Sanskrit and were predominant in Tamil Nadu.
The philosophical concept of the cosmic cycle of destruction and regeneration was found in Thiruvasangam, a volume of Tamil hymns written by saint Manikkavasagar, a devotee of Lord Shiva, in the 9th century CE.
The Timeless Relevance of Nataraja
Despite being an ancient deity, Nataraja's story, and iconography continue to hold relevance and significance in modern times.
Nataraja's dance of destruction and regeneration serves as a reminder that change is an inevitable part of life and that destruction is necessary for new beginnings. The message of the "Ananda Tandava" posture, as represented by Nataraja, holds particular relevance in the current fast-paced society where individuals are frequently seeking growth and advancement.
Nataraja's story also holds relevance for people who are going through difficult times in their life. Apasamara in real life indicates the hardships and difficulties humans face in life. Though it is impossible to eliminate these experiences from our life, humans, with their intelligence and hard work, can try to subdue these hardships just like Nataraja crushes Apasmara.
The story and dance of Nataraja, even today, serve as a reminder that the ultimate goal of human life is to transcend the illusions of the material world and merge with the divine.
Fascinating Facts of Nataraja
1. The earliest known representation of Nataraja was discovered in the territory of the Chola Empire, which held power in southern India between the 9th and 13th centuries.
2. The world's tallest statue of Nataraja is located, in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, India. The statue stands at over 23 feet and was completed by artist Varadaraj over 10 years. The installation took place in 2022.
3. A statue of Nataraja was gifted from India to CERN to celebrate the association with the organization.
4. The Nataraja temple in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, is one of the five holiest Shiva temples in South India and has 9 entrances, which are considered to represent the 9 orifices of the human body.
Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, is a deity that has captured the imagination of people for centuries. From its origins in Hindu mythology to its representation in art and culture, Nataraja’s story of overcoming obstacles and attaining enlightenment has inspired and guided people around the world in their creative and spiritual pursuits.
Nataraja-his story, iconography, and message hold a timeless relevance that transcends the boundaries of religion, culture, and history