Shiva as Lord of the Dance (“Nataraja”—nata meaning dance or performance, and raja meaning king or lord)
The visual form of Nataraja has Shiva with four arms dancing within a circle of flames (the prabhamandala.) lifting his left leg and standing on a dwarf, Apasmara, who symbolizes ignorance.
His upper right hand holds the drum of creation (hourglass-shaped drum), beating the pulse of the universe and also music for Shiva’s dance.
The drum, called udukkai in Tamil, represents sound as the first element of an unfolding universe.
In his upper left hand, Nataraja holds the fire of destruction, which according to Hindu mythology is the instrument of annihilation at the end of each cycle of creation. These two symbols, therefore, illustrate the intricate balance of the forces of creation and destruction in the universe.
Front right hand is in the abhaya mudra (the “fear-not” gesture, made by holding the palm outward with fingers pointing up.
The uplifted left leg signifies revealing grace that liberates souls from bondage.
The lower left hand, meanwhile, which points to the uplifted leg in assurance that Shiva’s foot is a refuge for all true believers, and surrender to God is the path to liberation.
In classic Sanskrit treatises on dance, this form, the most common representation of Nataraja, is called the bhujamgatrasa (“trembling of the snake”).
Shiva’s third eye is open. The destruction he brings is not blind but serves a purpose. And the open third eye, of the Ajna chakra of Wisdom symbolizes that he can see what we cannot. The stars and planets are entangled in his hair as ornaments which gives the universe itself.
The ring of fire around the figure of Nataraja represents the manifest universe.
The flowing hair of Lord Shiva in his dance symbolizes a rejection of society, showing Shiva as an ascetic.
The figures of Ganges, crescent moon and skull are also usually found in Nataraja sculptures, and are common symbols of Lord Shiva.
The snake around the waist of Nataraja represents the ‘kundalini,’ or divine force found in all beings.
The gestures of the dance represent Shiva’s five activities (panchkritya):
- Sthiti (preservation)
- Samhara (destruction)
- Tirobhava (illusion), and
- Anugraha (grace or salvation).