Nataraja – the most famous depiction of Lord Shiva is not only an epitome of ethereal beauty but also symbolizes a very important piece of the Hindu mythology. According to the Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva is known as the ‘Adi dev‘ which means – the oldest of the Gods. He is known to be an ecstatic dancer. And ‘Nataraja‘, which literally means ‘the Lord of the Dance’ in Sanskrit, is the form Lord Shiva took when he performed ‘Tandaba‘ – the dance of destruction.
The dance, which is also called ‘Rudra Tandaba‘, symbolizes the never-ending cycle of creation and destruction of the universe. In this form, Shiva is seen standing on a dwarf figure named ‘Apasmara‘ or ‘Muyalaka‘. According to mythology, the dwarf demon ‘Apasmara‘, who symbolizes ignorance and illusion, attained immortality. He kept getting more and more arrogant of his powers and eventually challenged Lord Shiva. It was then when Shiva took the form of ‘Nataraja‘ and performed the dance of destruction, crushing ‘Apasmara‘ under his right foot. Since ‘Apasmara‘ could not be killed in order to preserve the balance between knowledge and ignorance in the world, Lord Shiva forever remained in his ‘Nataraja‘ pose, suppressing ‘Apasmara‘ for eternity. Therefore, the ‘Nataraja‘ avatar of Shiva is a message that ignorance can be overcome by knowledge, music, and dance.
In this pose, Shiva is represented with four arms and flying locks as he whirls around in his dancing frenzy. His locks are decked with a skull, datura blossom, and a crescent moon, which symbolizes that he is omnipresent. The sacred Ganges is flowing through his locks. His third eye represents spiritual wisdom, power, and enlightenment. Through the third eye, Shiva can see beyond the apparent and destroy all evil.
He is seen providing the music and rhythm of his dance by himself, holding a small drum – the ‘Damaroo‘ (usually resembles the shape of an hour-glass) in his upper right hand. In his upper left hand, Shiva holds the fire – ‘Agni‘ which can destroy the universe. In his lower right hand is seen a Cobra, originally belonging to ‘Apasmara‘, which appears to be slain or tamed. Hence, his lower right-hand makes the gesture of blessings – ‘Abhaya Mudra‘ which calms all fear. And his lower left hand, which sweeps across his torso in the dancing pose pointing towards his left foot, makes the gesture of ‘Gajahasta‘, symbolizing salvation and liberation. In his right foot, Shiva is crushing ‘Apasmara Purusha‘ who represents ignorance and illusion which leads humanity away from the Truth. And his left foot is an expression of exuberance of energy displayed during his dance.
The ring of fire – ‘Prabha Mandala‘ behind the Lord represents the endless circle of birth and death. The outer edge is fire and the inner edge, the waters of the oceans.
Thus, the dance of destruction is not just a dance, but a representation of the motion of the whole universe around us and how God plays all the three roles of creator, preserver, and destructor simultaneously in His grand gesture.