Shiva is known the world over as a god of
awe-inspiring and terrible power. For many Hindus, he is the god of
destruction, rending the universe and bringing existence back to emptiness when
the Yuga cycle comes to its completion.
In this role, Shiva is an essential element of
the godhead, clearing the way for the universe to renew itself. Much like the
Death card of the Tarot, his role is a source of horror for those clinging to
the way things are, but he is also a necessary harbinger of the new universe.
Famously, Shiva accomplishes his destruction
through his tandava
— also called Tandava natyam — a
dance he performs to bring the universe to darkness.
Dancing Shiva Brass Statue
But Shiva’s tandava has many other purposes as
well. He dances through the entire cycle of the lifespan of the universe. From
its creation to its preservation and, finally, to its end, the tandava
accompanies and makes possible all three phases.
The tandava is described in many texts,
including most notably the Natya Shastra.
In this tome on performing arts, elements of the dance are described.
54" Thalai Keel Tandav Panchaloha Bronze Statue from Swamimalai
Each piece of the dance is called a karana. A karana involves both hand
gestures and movements of the feet, creating individual dance postures. There
are 108 of these, and when done in sequence by a god of
such magnificence, the end comes so that new beginnings may arise. These
karanas are a popular subject of Hindu sculpture. The karanas are grouped into
sections of seven or more, called angaharas.
But this magnificent spiritual insight does
bring up questions. Why does Lord Shiva dance at all? What can his dancing tell
us about existence? And finally, why is the art of the tandava so potent and
In the Indian subcontinent we find the divine
always in the incredible artistic output of the cultures there. And so it
should come as no surprise that Lord Shiva should conduct his auspicious duties
through the performing arts.
But it does make us wonder. Why should it be a
dance that brings about the cycle of existence?
When we note the incredible specificity with
which Hindu mystics have mapped out the tandava, through the angaharas and the
108 itemized karana that they contain, we see that it is not only Shiva dancing
but a very specific kind of dance.
Lord Shiva Dances Upon The Mouth Of A Lotus
The many karana are a map of physical
movement, something that we ourselves can carry out with our own bodies. The
postures and gestures hold in themselves profound resonances and mythic
As Aldous Huxley has pointed out, there is
probably no spiritual tradition on earth that has comparable complexity in the
way it maps out the actions of divinity.
So we see that through this intricate dance,
we are given access to profound wisdom of how the universe works. This is part
of why the tandava is so important: it provides so much to consider and
But we still wonder: why a dance? There are many ways to make an intricate set of
symbols. But a dance is a very specific kind of activity.
Lord Shiva as Nataraja in Dance Mudra Tanjore Painting
In all that music and all those people and all
this physical exertion, we begin to notice a new mode of being. The boundaries
of our egos come down, and at times it can feel as if we are all one on the
dancefloor. Dancing is joyous, liberating.
Should the gods not dance as well?
By showing Shiva’s role performed as a dance,
it says something about Shiva’s (and by extension the entire universe’s)
nature. Through his tandava, Shiva is not exerting a personal will but is
embodying the way of all things. He dances to the beat of existence. He is
boundaryless, liberated. He is in a trance.
31" Large Superfine Dancing Ardhanarishvara Panchaloha Bronze Statue from Swamimalai
And because we have danced, we have, in some
way, taken part in this ourselves. We have the ability to directly experience
how a body can become without borders, how the natural rhythm of being can move
through us when our conscious mind backs down from its throne.
This is perhaps the greatest lesson of the
tandava: that existence — its creation, preservation, and dissolution — could
not be any other way.
The incredible wisdom locked in the idea of
Shiva’s tandava has been made real by Indian artists for millenia. Through the
descriptions of the karanas, artists have routinely made statues that chart a
course through this holiest of dances.
It calls for us to make art because it is both
inherently visual and of the utmost importance to our lives. Without Shiva’s
tandava, nothing would be.
Cosmic Form of Dancing Shiva
The artwork that celebrates the tandava is,
unsurprisingly, some of the most beloved in all world cultures. The four-armed
Shiva wreathed in fire, face sedate and tranquil, limbs in exact poses, right
foot standing on Muyalaka, demon of ignorance.
It is an image that we cannot forget once we see it.
Our hearts call out to it. It appears in our dreams.
24" Shiva Tandava Panchaloha Bronze Statue from Swamimalai
That unforgettable quality and the immediate
impact it makes on our souls tells us two things. One, it is a clue to the
inherent truth in Shiva’s tandava. Something in the way it affects us allows us
to glimpse what is more real than real. And two, it tells us that we must
recreate the image. It’s power and beauty must accompany our lives, so that we
never forget the ultimate truths that it unlocks in our souls
Shiva’s tandava must not be forgotten. Its
image must be continually renewed in us so that we can keep
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