The Hindu god Shiva (who has nothing whatsoever to do with sitting shiva) is usually depicted as one of the members of the great Triad, one of the three projections of the Supreme Reality, each with a specific cosmic function. Brahmā is the Creator, Vishnu is the Maintainer or Preserver, and Shiva is the Destroyer or Transformer, the dissolution that precedes re-creation. In Shaivism, the oldest of the four sects of Hinduism, Shiva is the supreme Being: creator, preserver, destroyer, revealer, and concealer of everything that exists.
I first encountered Shiva in Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, the series of interviews with Bill Moyers on PBS in 1988. He did a marvelous job of explicating the iconic image of Shiva Nataraja (Shiva, Lord of the Dance), right. Shiva does the cosmic Dance of Bliss inside a ring of fire—the world of illusion—to destroy a weary universe and make preparations for Brahma to create everything anew.
He has four arms and two legs, and every aspect of his pose is a carefully constructed symbol. Dr. Richard Stromer explains it beautifully:
The contents of the upper two of Nataraja’s outstretched hands are meant to demonstrate the eternal balance between the forces of creation and those of destruction. In the upper right hand, Shiva holds the sacred damaru, a drum in the shape of an hourglass, with which Shiva beats out the rhythm of his dance and with it the ceaseless creation of the universe and all of its infinite forms. This drum, writes Joseph Campbell, “is the drum of time, the tick of time which shuts out the knowledge of eternity,” as a result of which “we are enclosed in time.” Moreover, it is said to signify the primordial sound from which all things emanate, connoting in Heinrich Zimmer’s words “Sound, the vehicle of speech, the conveyer of revelation, tradition, incantation, magic, and divine truth.” Opposed to this force of creation as represented by the drum is the flame of extinction held in Shiva’s upper right hand. That flame symbolizes all of Shiva’s awesome powers of destruction, the terrible but necessary burning away of all things existing in time and space, the fire which, Campbell writes, “burns away the veil of time and opens our minds to eternity.”
While the lower right hand is held in a palm-outward gesture said to signify the reassurance of the god that those approaching this image should “fear not,” the lower left hand is gracefully pointed downward in the classical dance position is known as “elephant hand,” signifying the concept of spiritual teaching. “Where an elephant has gone through the jungles,” observes Cambpell, “all animals can follow, and where a teacher leads the way disciples follow.” Zimmer also points out that this hand gesture is also meant to remind us of the god Ganesha, Shiva’s son, who is called the “Remover of Obstacles.”
He stands on—and crushes—a dwarfish imp representing forgetfulness, heedlessness, confusion, and willful ignorance. Shiva’s long, matted tresses, usually piled up in a knot, loosen during the dance and crash into the heavenly bodies, knocking them off course or destroying them utterly. The snake swirling around his waist is kundalini, the Shakti or divine force that resides in everything. Shiva’s stoic face denotes his neutrality, his ability to keep all things in balance.
Heinrich Zimmer has observed that “dancing is an ancient form of magic”—that through the motion of dance, the participant “becomes amplified into a being endowed with supra-normal powers. His personality is transformed. Like yoga, the dance induces trance, ecstasy, the experience of the divine, the realization of one’s own spiritual nature, and, finally, mergence into the divine essence.”
I used to dance. Not terribly well, but I did folk dancing of various kinds and loved it. I was part of a little theater group on St. Croix, and when we weren’t acting or rehearsing, we were dancing. Each week we’d be at the home of someone new, exploring the similaries between the hora and Greek line dances, or trying the Philippine dance Tinikling with its carefully timed steps between rhythmically clapped bamboo rods.
The great thing about dancing is how it puts you in touch with your body. The bad thing about losing touch with your body is that you stop dancing. And over the years, the fatter I became, the less I danced, and now I just envy others who do.
A few months ago I bought my own little statue of Dancing Shiva. It sits next to my chair, reminding me of death and renewal, of temporality, of the possibility of bliss and liberation in the midst of the world’s chaos. And he invites me, I think, to come and rejoin the Great Dance. Or at least sway to the music once in a while.
O you the creator, you the destroyer, you who sustain and make an end,
Who in sunlight dance among the birds and the children at play,
Who at midnight dance among the corpses in the burning grounds,
You, Shiva, you dark and terrible Bhairava,
You Suchness and Illusion, the Void and All Things,
You are the lord of life, and therefore I have brought you flowers;
You are the lord of death, and therefore I have brought you my heart—
This heart that is now your burning ground.
Ignorance there and self shall be consumed with fire.
That you may dance, Bhairava, among the ashes.
That you may dance, Lord Shiva, in a place of flowers,
And I dance with you.