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Written by Satyendra Chauhan   
Monday, 13 June 2011 10:46
Shiva Natarja (Cosmic Dance) & Modern Science


In India, Lord Shiva is worshipped as Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance. In the words of Ananda Coormaraswamy, a pioneering Hindu philosopher and historian of Indian art, Shiva's dance is the "clearest image of the activity of God which any art or religion can boast." The image of Shiva as Nataraj is indelibly stitched into the Indian imagination.

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According to Sir Jacob Epstein, "Shiva dances, creating the world and destroying it, his large rhythms conjure up a vast aeons of time, and his movements have a relentless magical power of incantation. Our European allegories are banal and pointless by comparison with these profound works, devoid of the trappings of symbolism, concentrating on the essential, the essentially plastic."

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(Jawaharlal Nehru - A Discovery of India p. 214): The statue of Nataraja (dance pose of Lord Shiva) is a well known example for the artistic, scientific and philosophical significance of Hinduism.

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The late scientist, Carl Sagan, in his book, "Cosmos" asserts that the Dance of Nataraja (Tandava) signifies the cycle of evolution and destruction of the cosmic universe (Big Bang Theory). "It is the clearest image of the activity of God which any art or religion can boast of." Modern physics has shown that the rhythm of creation and destruction is not only manifest in the turn of the seasons and in the birth and death of all living creatures, but also the very essence of inorganic matter. For modern physicists, then, Shiva's dance is the dance of subatomic matter. Hundreds of years ago, Indian artist created visual images of dancing Shiva's in a beautiful series of bronzes. Today, physicist have used the most advanced technology to portray the pattern of the cosmic dance. Thus, the metaphor of the cosmic dance unifies, ancient religious art and modern physics.

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Shiva's dance is a symbol of the unity and rhythm of existence. The unending, dynamic process of creation and destruction is expressed in the energetic posture of Shiva. He dances in a ring of fire that refers to the life-death process of the universe. Everything is subject to continual change, as energy constantly assumes new forms in the "play" (lila) of creation, except the god himself whose dance is immutable and absolute. The pictorial allegory of Nataraja indicates the so-called "five acts" of the deity: the creation of the universe, its sustenance in space, its final dissolution at the end of the cycle of four world ages (yugas), the concealment of the nature of the godhead, and the bestowal of true knowledge.

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Fritjof Capra (1939-) Austrian-born famous theoretical high-energy physicist and ecologist wrote:

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"Modern physics has thus revealed that every subatomic particle not only performs an energy dance, but also is an energy dance; a pulsating process of creation and destruction. The dance of Shiva is the dancing universe, the ceaseless flow of energy going through an infinite variety of patterns that melt into one another''. For the modern physicists, then Shiva's dance is the dance of subatomic matter. As in Hindu mythology, it is a continual dance of creation and destruction involving the whole cosmos; the basis of all existence and of all natural phenomenon. Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Shivas in a beautiful series of bronzes. In our times, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance."
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(source: The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism - By Fritjof Capra p. 241-245).

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The posture and balance of Nataraja's dancing form show Lord Shiva in the aspect of tamas, the expansive centrifugal force that creates and destroys the universe. This is the first of the three "tendencies" (gunas) that permeate the universe in Samkhya philosophy. Tamas (darkness), symbolized by Shiva, is responsible for the constant birth, change and death of all living things; the
force sattva (tranquility) represented by Vishnu the Preserver, holds the atoms of every object together. These two "tendencies" - one holding the atoms of the universe together and the other ripping them apart - create a " friction " (rajas) that "vibrates" the world's atoms and creates the gravity to hold them to the earth. This is the third tendency, symbolized by the deity Brahma. It is the building stuff both of matter and of subtle energies such as perception and thought.
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Consciousness inhabits all living things and has permeated the universe since it was created from its original bindu (energy center). The first stave of the universe was filled by "space": the potential area in which the world will "expand" with the energy of Shiva's aspect as tamas. At the end of Kali Yuga (the current age of ignorance), the expansion accelerates, everything merges and Shiva performs the terrible tandava dance of destruction.

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The most important Shiva image during the Chola dynasty was that of Shiva as Lord of the Dance, or Shiva Nataraja. In this form, Shiva is a summation of Indian religion, philosophy and culture. Shiva's dance is of cosmic significance and represents five principle manifestations of eternal energy: Creation, Destruction, Preservation, Salvation, and Illusion. He holds in his upper right hand a small drum, the symbol of the sound of creation. In his upper left hand is a flame representing the final destruction of the universe. His lower right hand makes the gesture "fear not." With his lower left hand he points to his raised left foot, the place of refuge and salvation for the devotee. His right foot is planted on the back of the demon Apasmara Purusha, the personifying illusion of ignorance over whom Shiva triumphs. In Shiva's hairdo sits the river goddess Ganga, the personification of the Ganges river which is said to spring forth from Shiva's head.

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The dancing lord Shiva represents the constant process of creation, preservation and destruction of the universe. He trods on the dwarf, symbolic of Ignorance, which must be eliminated if a believer is to attain release from the eternal cycle of birth and death. In Shiva's upper hands are a drum, symbol of creation, and fire, symbol of destruction. This magnificently modeled bronze image is a superb example of Chola workmanship.

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The entire Universe is then engaged in movement and endless activity, in an uninterrupted cosmic dance of energy. In Hindu iconography the images that represent this dance are shown with Nataraja dancing with four arms and waving hair and should be read as pictorial allegories.

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The upper right hand holds a small drum shaped as a clepsydra, which according to Zimmer keeps the rhythms of sound, the vehicle of the word transmitting revelation tradition and enchantment. The opposite hand, on the top left, with fingers postured as half moon, (ardhachandra mudra), carries a Flame, the element of destruction of the world on the palm of the hand. In the balance of the hands creation and destruction are shown as counterweights in the game of the cosmic dance made evident even by the quietness and serenity of Shiva's face at the centre between the two hands. The second right hand is making the gesture of 'motto fear ' that gives peace and protection, while the last left hand, suspended at the height of the breast, points toward the left foot symbolising liberation from the enchantment of Maya.

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Universally regarded as the quintessential image of Hindu art and culture, representations of the god Shiva dancing in joyous abandonment within a circle of flames graphically depict his five cosmic acts of creation, preservation, destruction, unveiling of illusion, and liberation of the soul. His creative aspect is symbolized by the hourglass-shaped drum, in his proper upper right hand, which reproduces the primordial sound of creation. Shiva's preservation of the universe is suggested by his lower right hand held in the gesture of reassurance and safety. The flame in his upper left hand and that encircling the aureole represent the fire by which he destroys the universe in order to recreate it. He lifts the veil of illusion through his engendering act of dancing. His liberation of the soul is shown by his upraised left leg, which tramples on a prostrate infant signifying forgetfulness and is thus a source of grace.
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While Shiva is believed to dance in various forms and locales for differing purposes, in this pose as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja), he is praised by the renowned eighteenth-century South Indian poet Thayumanavar as performing the "Dance of Bliss in the Hall of Consciousness." The dance of bliss is specifically associated with Chidambaram, the sacred center of Nataraja worship, where Shiva is said to have first performed it in order to convert a group of holy men who were engaged in heretical practices. Chidambaram is also the site of the great twelfth-century temple specifically dedicated to Shiva's aspect as Lord of the Dance. The temple has a silver image of the dancing god as its main icon, and the gateway around the complex is adorned with sculpted depictions of the 108 basic postures of classical Indian dance, Bharata Natyam, which has been performed since at least the second century B.C.

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South Indian copper alloy images such as this were originally carried in processions during religious festivals; ropes were inserted through the square holes in the base to tie it to support poles. The distinctive elliptical shape of the aureole and slender figural style indicate that it is one of the earliest surviving images of this type.

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As Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, Shiva enacts the end of the world. He is the symbol of death but only of death as the generator of life and as a source of that creative power ever renewed by Vishnu and Brahma. He evokes the most intense adoration from devotees for he fascinates even as he terrifies. He dances for cosmic re-creation. Shiva's dance of bliss is the catalyst for the destruction of one period of time and the creation of a new cosmos. He has a third eye in the center of his forehead, the skull and crescent moon in his headdress.

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He has long, matted hair and there is a small female figure of the river goddess Ganga in the loose locks of hair twirling around head. The Indian genius for expressing movement in sculpture derives in large part from the high aesthetic value that dancing holds in Indian tradition. It is the posturings and movements of the dance that inspire the imagination of the sculptor. The four arms display the powers of Shiva. The upper right holds the drum or vibrant rattle of creation. The upper left holds the flame of destruction. The lower right hand is raised in the gesture of protection. The lower left hand points to the upraised foot that symbolizes escape from illusion, represented by the dwarf whom he crushes beneath his right foot. The drum is a symbol of rhythm and sound. The matted hair symbolizes his power (like Samson). Crescent moon is the symbol of growth and birth

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Einstein and Shiva's cosmic dance:

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There is a striking resemblance between the equivalence of mass and energy, symbolized by Shiva's cosmic dance and the Western theory, first expounded by Einstein, which calculates the amount of energy contained in a subatomic particle by multiplying its mass by the square of the speed of light: E = mc2.

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(Source: Richard Waterstone, " India: Living Wisdom" p.135 )

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