Friday, 19 August 2011

Shiva, the Lord of the Dance

One of the most eloquent and expository of Shiva's manifestations depicts him as Nataraja, Dance-King or the Lord of the Dance, whose cosmic lila, or "play," forms the very nature and reason of reality. Shiva fills the whole cosmos with his joyful dance called tandava, which represents his five activities: shrishti, or creation; sthiti, or preservation; samhara, or destruction; tirobhava, or illusion; andanugraha, or salvation. In one hand he beats his drum, the primordial heartbeat of creation, while in another hand he holds the fire of all emcompassing destruction. Yet Shiva as Lord of Dance also offers an alternative to the cycles of life and death, for his third hand, with palm facing outwards, performs the mudra or gesture of abhaya ("fear not" or "hope") which relieves us from despair, while his fourth hand points to a raised foot indicating liberation from the demon of ignorance upon which his other foot firmly stands. He dances and dances until the cosmos is brought to the point of annihilation; it has to be destroyed in order to be reintegrated into the Absolute. Shiva's intoxicating and revelatory dance was often the cause of conversion of heretics and enemies. It is finally creative, for it expresses the otherwise inexpressible.

Shiva has always had a wide and popular following and many stories are attached to him. According to Hindu mythology, when the demons and deities churned the Sea of Milk, 14 jewels surfaced. One of them was a poison, which neither the deities nor the demons would accept. Since the poisonous fumes threatened to devastate the world, Shiva drank the poison. The poison was so deadly that his throat became blue, which is why Shiva also earned the epithet Nilakantha, the blue-throated. To relieve Shiva from the burning sensation of the poison, he was given the moon, which had also come out from the ocean, to cool him down. Thus he wears the crescent moon today.

Drinking of this gross poison was a small matter for Shiva. He is supposed to have said in the Linga Purana that there is still much poison in this world and those who could drink that poison are the real heroes. Indeed, both poison and nectar reside in the hearts of man and only when human souls are free from poison can they experience the joys of nectar.
When the goddess Ganga descended to earth in the shape of the holy river Ganges to provide moksha (release) for the 60,000 sons of King Sagara who were earlier burnt to ashes because of the curse of a saint, it was Shiva who absorbed the otherwise destructive shock of the falling water. Since there was no one who could bear the impact of the mighty descent, the King performed penances and propitiated Shiva, finally getting the god to agree to receive the heavenly floods on his head. The river descended with such ponderous force that it threw the whole world into wonderment. But Shiva, seated in mediation, was left unmoved and remained in as great equipoise as ever. For seven years the river lost its way looking for an outlet in the interminable masses of Shiva's locks, which represent the world or Creation in all its modalities and endless forms, and which are as vast and complicated as the affairs of the world. Shiva finally allowed the Ganges to flow onto the earth, but first he divided the great stream into seven channels to lessen its impact.

Shiva, locked in a trance, is often unapproachable, and so his active force, shakti, is personified in the goddesses Parvati, Uma, Durga, or Kali. As Uma, Parvati ("she of the mountains") was responsible for opening Shiva's third eye. Their physical union was a symbol of spiritual wholeness and forms the basic approach of the Tantric cult, which utilizes controlled sexuality to achieve ecstatic insight.

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