Nataraja : The Cosmic Dancer
Nataraja, meaning "the lord of dance" is a depiction of the Hindu god Shiva as the cosmic ecstatic dancer. The pose and artwork is described in many Hindu texts such as the Anshumadbhed agama and Uttarakamika agama, the dance relief or idol featured in all major Hindu temples of Shaivism.
Nataraja is a well known sculptural symbol in India and popularly used as a symbol of Indian culture, in particular as one of the finest illustrations of Hindu art. The two most common forms of Shiva's dance are the Lasya (the gentle form of dance), associated with the creation of the world, and the Tandava (the vigorous form of dance), associated with the destruction of weary worldviews - weary perspectives and lifestyles. In essence, the Lasya and the Tandava are just two aspects of Shiva's nature; for he destroys in order to create, tearing down to build again.
The classical form of the depiction appears in stone reliefs, as at the Ellora Caves and the Badami Caves, by around the 6th-century. Around the 10th century, it emerged in Tamil Nadu during the rule of Chola Dynasty, in its mature and best-known expression in Chola bronzes, of various heights. The Nataraja reliefs have also been identified in historic artwork from many parts of South Asia, in southeast Asia such as in Bali, Cambodia, and in central Asia.
The cosmic dance of Shiva called the 'Tandavam' or Dance of Bliss, symbolizes the cosmic cycles of creation and destruction, as well as the daily rhythm of birth and death. The dance is a pictorial allegory of the five principle manifestations of eternal energy—creation, destruction, preservation, salvation, and illusion. The dance of Shiva also represents his five activities: 'Shrishti' (creation, evolution); 'Sthiti' (preservation, support); 'Samhara' (destruction, evolution); 'Tirobhava' (illusion); and 'Anugraha' (release, emancipation, grace). The overall temper of the image is paradoxical, uniting the inner tranquility, and outside activity of Shiva.
In a marvelously unified and dynamic composition expressing the rhythm and harmony of life, Nataraj is shown with four hands representing the cardinal directions. He is dancing, with his left foot elegantly raised and the right foot on a prostrate figure ver a demon shown as a dwarf who symbolizes ignorance, over whom Shiva triumphs. The upper left-hand holds a flame, the lower left-hand points down to the demon, who is shown holding a cobra. The upper right-hand holds an hourglass drum or 'dumroo' that stands for the male-female vital principle, the lower shows the gesture of assertion: "Be without fear." Snakes that stand for egotism, are seen uncoiling from his arms, legs, and hair, which is braided and bejeweled. His matted locks are whirling as he dances within an arch of flames representing the endless cycle of birth and death. On his head is a skull, which symbolizes his conquest over death. Goddess Ganga, the epitome of the holy river Ganges, also sits on his hairdo. His third eye is symbolic of his omniscience, insight, and enlightenment. The whole idol rests on a lotus pedestal, the symbol of the creative forces of the universe. He dances within a circular or cyclically closed arch of flames (prabha mandala), which symbolically represent the cosmic fire that in Hindu cosmology creates everything and consumes everything.
In 2004, a 2m statue of the dancing Shiva was unveiled at CERN, the European Center for Research in Particle Physics in Geneva. A special plaque next to the Shiva statue explains the significance of the metaphor of Shiva's cosmic dance with quotations from Capra: "Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Shivas in a beautiful series of bronzes. In our time, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance. The metaphor of the cosmic dance thus unifies ancient mythology, religious art, and modern physics."