Thursday 01st June 2023,
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The Divine Dance of Shiva

The Divine Dance of Shiva

Who is Shiva?
And what is the meaning of the shivalinga, Shiva’s symbol or icon?
Who is Parvati?
Why do people go on pilgrimage to places like the Amaranath cave in Kashmir?
What is the relationship between Shiva and Vishnu?
What is the meaning of Shiva’s dance?

aum mountainIn the Vedic way God, or Brahman, is perceived as being beyond logical and associational categories. That is why it is viewed as the entity that has all attributes or is beyond all attributes! But it assumes various forms when the context of the inquiry is limited. This is how a single all-pervading, omniscient entity takes many forms and comes to have many names.

Each name is a deva, a bright point of consciousness that represents different angles to the same effulgence! These devas reside within us and also without. The essence of the tradition is knowledge. Veda means knowledge. And the tradition is called vaidika, “Vedic,” or equivalently Arya Dharma, “the noble way,” Satya Dharma, “the way of the truth,” or Sanatana Dharma, “the eternal way.” God or Brahman are synonymous with truth.

Ordinary knowledge is paradoxical because it is limited knowledge. On the other hand, true knowledge cannot be apprehended in terms of conditioned experience or language. Symbols are used to represent transcendental notions of reality and existence. But it is understood that these symbols are only to help one obtain this experience. These symbols must be infused with movement since the underlying reality is that of change.

The Atharvaveda has a very famous hymn (10.7) which throws light on the mystery of Shiva. This is the hymn to skambha, the cosmic frame or pillar of creation. This is the pillar which gives a unity to the creation.

It may also be visualized as the axis around which the stars move.

In what member (of the frame) rests the earth? Where is the atmosphere? Where is the sky set? Where is situated what is beyond the sky?  The skambha sustains both heaven and earth here; the skambha sustains the wide space; The skambha sustains the six wide directions; into the skambha has entered this whole existence.

The universe, seen as being woven together and interconnected, has an invisible axis (pillar) around which the stars move; likewise, the unity of our experience is established by the axis of consciousness to which we bind our associations. This axis is taken to be universal—it is the same for all sentient beings. Vishnu, the pervader, represents the mystery of the physical universe; Shiva is the axis of our consciousness. They are really not distinct since the physical universe can be apprehended only through consciousness, and consciousness requires physical support.

hairhariThis is expressed in the Harihara form which is half Vishnu and half Shiva. As sentient beings our consciousness is primary, which is what makes Shiva the Ishvara (the enjoyer) or Maheshvara (the great lord)

. chaitanyatsarvamutpannam jagadetaccharacaram All this universe, movable or immovable, has come out of intelligence.Shiva Samhita

In their fundamental conception Shiva and Vishnu represent complementarity. Nevertheless, over the centuries, each has come to represent both the aspects of separation and union. The creation of the universe is mirrored in the creation of each moment. To move on we must destroy.

That is why we must make the supreme sacrifice of our own current state before we can fashion ourselves in a new image. The Vedic way is the way of transformation, of finding the perfect being in our selves. There are three dances associated with Shiva.

The first is a dance in the Himalayas of our beings, watched by the devas; this is the ordinary play of consciousness. This represents the movement of consciousness at the societal level. The second is his tandava dance in the form of Bhairava; this marks the end of one creation, one life, one universe. Thirdly, as a more explicit image is the dance of Shiva as Nataraja, the lord of dancers, in the golden hall of the Chidambaram, the center of the universe in the sky of the mind, in the heart of the temple. The dance of Shiva represents five activities (panchakritya): srishti (creation, evolution), sthiti (preservation, support), samhara (destruction), tirodhana (veiling), and anugraha (grace).

These activities of the Supreme are mirrored in the consciousness of the individual also.  Creation arises from the drum; protection proceeds from the hand of hope; from fire, held in the other hand, proceeds destruction; the foot held aloft gives release. Shiva himself is shown poised within a fiery arch. The arch represents matter, nature (prakriti), and Shiva, dancing within the arch, is the universal spirit (purusha).

Ananda Coomaraswamy summarizes the essential significance of the dance thus: First,

it is the image of his rhythmic play as the source of all movement within the cosmos, which is represented by the arch; secondly, the purpose of his dance is to release the countless souls of men from the snare of illusion; thirdly, the place of the dance, chidambaram, the centre of the universe, is within the heart.

During the Rigvedic time the common name of Shiva was Rudra. Yaska in his Nirukta says that Rudra is so called because he roars (rauti), or because he runs (dravati). The roaring is to remind us that in spite of ceaseless change we are the same person, and the running is the motion of our awareness.

The Nirukta also describes Rodasi, symbolizing heaven and earth or all creation, as the wife of Rudra. The universe exists because we can observe it! Parvati is the individual intelligence that must strive to unite with the cosmic intelligence. Intelligence is likened to a flash of lightning which is why Parvati is represented as being white, the daughter of Himalaya, the mountain which is chitta, the repository of associations—memory.

Shiva as the Lord of Yoga

Shiva represents the tensions and the oppositions that lie at the basis of cognition, of creation. On the one hand, consciousness must focus entirely on the subject; and on the other hand, it must define itself in relation to the rest. How are such contrasts achieved?

There are two ways we can approach reality. We can either be, or become, or more commonly, be in a constant vortex of becoming. If we accept ourselves as who we think we are then our relationship with the rest of the universe has a fundamental divide: the divide of I and It. Comprehension can only proceed by reflecting on the rhythms of nature. This is the path of outer science or that of analysis.

If we accept the proposition that our subjective impressions are merely a representation in terms of associational categories of a transcendental reality, then we can hope to transform ourselves into a reasonable simulacrum of this reality. Since this reality includes us, we can hope to be transmuted into it. The way of this change—this enlargement—is the yogic way. Shiva, as the representation of this transcendental reality, is the self we seek to return to. Shiva is the inner lord who makes yoga possible. Parenthetically, it should be noted that bhakti and yoga are the same.

Bhakti arises from the root bhaj, “to separate,” “to divide.” The original idea in bhakti was to meditate on the apparent reasons for our feelings of “separateness” from our transcendental self that helps, in a counter-intuitive way, to a merger. The feeling of separateness was heightened through a remembering of mythical episodes or relating one’s existential aloneness to a longing for fullness.

Of Many Gods

Other traditions also speak of a similar comprehensive view of reality. For example, in Pancharatra a cosmological system is built around Vasudeva-Krishna (Vishnu). From Vasudeva, identified as the transcendental consciousness, develops Sankarshana (Balarama), who represents primal matter. In turn, the two produce Pradyumna (mind) and Aniruddha (ahamkara or self-consciousness). The dance of Shiva is then no different from the cosmic play of Krishna. Shiva-Krishna or whatever other name you use for it, resides in each heart. The dance is recreated in each moment and across ages. Indra’s pole, Shiva’s linga, or Krishna’s flute are each the same anchor which allows us to be whole.

This dance is expressed in many ways in human contexts. Such expression appears to represent the fundamental archetypes of human consciousness. We see it in a variety of art, poetry, and music. We take two examples from Indian poetry where the divine is compared to the lover one is pining for.

The 7th century playwright and poet, Bhavabhuti, describes the love between Rama and Sita as capturing the love for the individual for the divine:
‘When we talked at random— our cheeks pressed close together, deep in love softly, oh softly of something unspeakable, our arms busy in close embrace only the darkness ended— the night-watches passed unnoticed.’

Vaishnava poet Yadunatha expresses his feelings for Krishna in the following manner: As water is to the creatures of the sea and nectar to the chakora bird; as night is companion to the stars, so is my love to Krishna. As the image in the mirror is to the body, so am I to Krishna. My life is marked deeply with his mark just as the moon is forever marked. A day without the sun, so is my heart without my lord. Yadunatha says, Cherish this and keep it young, O lucky girl who deeply loves. The emotions raised in the separation songs of Vishnu are personal, because Rama or Krishna are, after all, human. The relationship with Shiva is more abstract, unless one meditates on the allegory of the love of Parvati for Shiva.

Artistic Expressions

Ultimately, all abstract conceptions must be reduced to images. The temple is an attempt to reduce the abstract equations to form. The entire universe is pictured in the Vedas as the body of purusha—the primal god. Or it is pictured as a temple. This may be reduced to the equation that the human body—through which we apprehend the universe—is a temple.

The poet Basavanna says, The rich will make temples for Shiva, What shall I, a poor man, do? My legs are pillars, the body the shrine, the head the cupola of gold. Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers, things standing shall fall, but the moving ever shall stay.

At a more practical level, any place that elicits the feeling of wonder and awe is a temple. This is why the whole experience of the journey to the cave of Amaranath was associated with Shiva: it is like the wondrous journey of the individual towards self-knowledge. In our times, the great national parks, like the Grand Canyon or the Zion in America, the vastnesses of the tableland near Kailasa, the charming Himalayan valleys, or scenic spots everywhere in the world serve as temples. Parvati will find her Shiva and there will be a wedding of the two, when we think of ourselves from afar. More immediately, each gopi (the personal incomplete self) will pine for Krishna, the masterly flute player!

by Dr Subhash Kak


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