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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Dancing Is My Life

Shiva’s dance exemplifies this internalizing erotic process. “He is drawn into the whirling movement of the dance, accelerating to the point where the dance and the dancer are one,” inward in a vortex of fluid innerness, and in this fluid innerness “the eye becomes conscious of seeing its seeing” (Handelman & Shulman, 2004, p. 100-101). Coomaraswamy (1924) says that no matter what the origins of Siva’s dance are, “it became in time the clearest image of the activity of God, which any art or religion can boast of” (p. 56), and he continues:

The essential significance of Shiva’s dance is threefold: first, it is the image of this Rhythmic Play 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, chidambarum, the center of the universe is within the heart. (Coomaraswamy, 1924, p. 65)

The dance represents Shiva’s five activities: srishti (overlooking, creation, evolution), sthiti (preservation, support), samhara (destruction, evolution), tirobhava (veiling, embodiment, illusion, and also giving rest), anugraha (release, salvation, grace). Considered separately, these would be the activities of the deities Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra, Mahesvara and Sadaisiva (the last three being manifestations of Shiva). This cosmic activity is the central motif in the dance:

Shiva is a destroyer and loves the burning ground. But what does he destroy? Not merely the heavens and earth at the close of a world-cycle, 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 hearts of his lovers, laid waste and desolate. The place where the ego is destroyed signifies the state where 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. (Coomaraswamy, 1924, p. 61)

As we have seen previously in the myth, there are two movements: the centrifugal fragmenting and separating as a result of the game, and the centripetal reabsorption and coming together by various means (violent reintegration, erotic union, and tapas). In the dance, this occurs as well. “Tirumular, writes: ‘The perpetual dance is his play.’ The dance of nature proceeds on one side; the dance of enlightenment on the other” (Coomaraswamy, 1924, p. 62). This also mirrors the mechanics of creation described previously—getting involved and evolving.

Dancing, with its back and forth movement, really is Shiva’s life, and in the Nataraj we see this. Campbell (1995) is instructive here as well:

And so here is the god Shiva’s image, one foot driving souls into life and the other releasing them, in a cycle of birth-into-ignorance and return-to-truth. Birth and illumination. One hand controls creation, another destruction, while a third is saying, “Don’t be afraid, nothing is happening!” and a fourth, “look at the cycle down there, and realize that your ego (aham) is but a wave rippling on the ocean of eternity, while your true self (atman) what you really are, is the water, which endures.” (p. 266)


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