“Our Lord is the dancer, who, like the heat latent in firewood, diffuses his power in mind and matter, and makes them dance in their turn.” ~ Kadavul Mamunivar’s Tirutavurar Puranam
A few years ago, I went on a field trip to the Denver Art Museum for a summer writing class on spirituality.
We were asked to pick one piece of art in the museum to write about. At this point in time, I knew nothing of eastern philosophy or mythology and barely understood what the term “spirituality” meant. However, I must have had my Buddha-ears open that day because I found myself entranced and captivated by this sculpture:
Of the hundreds of pieces of art in the museum, I stopped in front of the one called “God Shiva (Lord of the Dance).”
Without knowing anything about Hinduism or what this representation of Shiva means, I felt an instantaneous connection to this piece. Something about looking at it pulled at my insides in a way that was oddly familiar and confusing.
As I did my research for the paper, I learned that this popular depiction of Shiva is called Nataraja. Nataraja is the dancing Shiva, which contains beautiful mythological history. Shiva’s dancing has followed me since I left the art museum and has now become an integral part of the way I relate to my life.
Last summer, Nataraja again showed up in a class I took called “Dancing, Culture and Religion”. The professor Sam Gill explains that understanding the mythology surrounding the dancing Shiva can help us look deeper into our understanding of reality.
I learned that Shiva holds different objects in his hands that represent the five cosmic processes: creation, destruction, preservation, embodiment and release. Gill explained that Shiva’s dancing is the “primordial grounding” of the processes, rather than the processes themselves.
In this way, the dancing Shiva is symbolic of the actions of the universe at large, the macrocosmic view of things. Shiva’s dance contains the universe and is everything.
But what is the significance of the dancing metaphor? Why must Shiva dance?
Shiva must dance because dancing functions as a symbolic metaphor, offering insight into the structure of ultimate reality. According to Hinduism, the movement of play is itself the governing force of the universe and defines the behavioral motives or essence of the Gods. The Hindu word for this type of play is “lila.”
Lila means “play or sport in the sense of diversion, amusement, fun. Lila also connotes effortless, rapid movement” (Gill 2011). Having no true purpose or end goal are also important qualities of this concept of play.
Shiva is often represented as dancing because dancing is a symbolic manifestation of lila. Shiva’s dancing is play, the play between one and many, self and other.
The distinction and play between self and other is the human experience of this paradoxical structurality that underlies existence. Sam Gill believes dancing represents this paradox because dancing is at once self and other.
Dancing is an experience of action and interaction between self and other. Gill explains,
“The dancing body makes otherness, minimally in the sense that we can discern something on and of the dancer we refer to as a dance or dancing rather than the person dancing; it is something other.”
When we observe dancing, we can tell the difference between the dance and the dancer, but during dancing, the two are inseparable. The dancer is a physical entity dependent on abstract concepts for meaning; the dance is an abstract concept whose meaning creating abilities can only be realized in physical form.
It is by understanding how dancing is at once self and other that we can understand why Shiva must dance. Because Shiva must contain the entirety of the universe within his dance, he must of course be both self and other.
If we follow the Hindu tradition further, realizing that this paradox is also true of ourselves is to attain spiritual wisdom. The imagery of Nataraja points to the capability of humans to embody the essence of the Shiva while dancing, or to embody the self-other paradox in waking life by attaining enlightenment.
I trained in ballet for over 16 years and during all that time, I could not explain to anyone why I wanted to dance. I just had to; there was nothing else. When I dance, I enter a space where I feel like I’m my most true self. Learning the imagery and mythology of Shiva helped explain to me why I felt such a deep connection to dance.
To dance is to be with God.
Sometimes, when I’m dancing, I experience what can be labeled an altered state of consciousness. In this altered state, I fully surrender my self to other. This other I believe I surrender to is spirit. When I improvise, I try to give this spirit every possible option to express itself through myself. My years of dance training give my body endless avenues to go down, endless paths to express what I now experience as Nataraja.
To give into this feeling fully, I believe, is to experience the freeplay of universe in human form. When I take my mind out of conscious control of my body, however, I do not become detached from my bodily experience. On the contrary, I actually gain the ability to experience my physical sensations on a much more complex, interconnected and multidimensional level.
I do not surrender my physical or emotional sensations; rather, I become the fully embodied experience of movement itself.
When engaging in this improvisational type of dancing, I get to feel my self become one with other. The dancing comes out, flows out, like a novelist tuned into a stroke of insight. The dancer, much like the novelist or musician, cannot explain where this creativity came from.
Sam Gill cites Ananda Coomarswami’s proclamation that “the deepest significance of the dance is ‘felt when it is realized that it takes place within the heart and the self. Everywhere is God. Everywhere is the heart.’”
A poem in Kadavul Mamunivar’s Tirutavurar Puranam also expresses this sentiment:
The dancing foot, the sound of tinkling bells,
The songs that are sung and the varying steps
The form assumed by your Dancing Gurupara—
Find out these within yourself, then shall your fetters fall away.
To realize there is no distinction between the perpetual movement of the eternal dance of the universe and yourself, is to embody Nataraja on a human level. This suggests that dancing expresses one of the highest truths possible, the implications of which I think are important.
As I discussed before, our universe is characterized by perpetual movement; the Hindus call it lila. During improvisational or spontaneous dancing moments, perpetual change and a playful acknowledgment that the future is unknown are the only requirements.
Joao Fiadiero (Gehm et al 2007), choreographer and dance theorist, explains how this state of mind extends past just dancing:
“My main concern as an artist is not to avoid chaos, but to learn to survive it, so I can talk about it. And one of the ways to do this is by accepting the inevitability of change and integrating the concept that entropy is just another form of order.”
The ability to become comfortable with change is a skill Andrew Cohen believes is also necessary for “Evolutionary Enlightenment.” Cohen believes that humans tend to seek security, which likes things to sit still. This tendency then creates tension with the reality that we are always in motion; we are constantly a part of a moving process.
The solution to this tension, according to Cohen, is to make change home. He explains:
“What feels like home is that sense of movement—vertical movement. In the emerging recognition of the evolutionary context that has given rise to our presence on Earth, we become more at home in perpetual movement than comfort and stasis.”
Cohen believes that by living for movement and change, we start participating in the evolution of the present moment.
One of dancing’s defining characteristics is perpetual movement. To me, this suggests that if Cohen’s theories are correct, dancers have a leg up (pardon the pun) on the rest of society when it comes to accepting change and movement. It also suggests that dancing may be able to help people who are resistant to change learn to interpret perpetual movement and constant change as positive experiences.
Learning to live for change is something Cohen believes is necessary for Evolutionary Enlightenment to progress. He believes we need to make a “primordial shift” at the core of ourselves, in which we reorient our lives around change and progressive movement.
I believe dancing can help us to make this shift.
Dancing has the ability to make us more self-aware in diverse and complex ways. Viewing dancing as lila, or play, allows us insight into the paradoxical relationship between self and the cosmos. Through dancing, we learn to use our bodies as an instrument of play, which results in greater self-awareness and spiritual understanding.
When dancing, we embrace the perpetual movement that is a part of our very nature and convey the experience in a physically and emotionally expressive way.
Most importantly, dancing lets us understand and become comfortable with who and what we are.
This article was inspired by a much longer essay I wrote, titled “Dancing, Self and Consciousness.” If you’d like to read more on this topic, the entire essay can be found here.
Cohen, Andrew. 2011. Evolutionary Enlightenment: A New Path to Spiritual Awakening. New York: Select Books Inc.
Gehm, Sabine, Pirkko Husemann, and Katharina Von. Wilcke. 2007. Knowledge in Motion: Perspectives of Artistic and Scientific Research in Dance. New Brunwick and London: Transcript.
Gill, Sam. “Dancing as Self-Othering – 3: Merleau-Ponty’s ‘Flesh Ontology’” VIDEO PODCAST LECTURE.
Gill, Sam. “Dancing as Self-Othering – 4: Understanding Dancing”. PDF.
Gill, Sam. “Lila, Nataraja, and Dancing as Play”. VIDEO PODCAST LECTURE.
Gill, Sam. “Nataraja Hindu Lord of Dancing”. VIDEO PODCAST LECTURE.
Cassandra Smith is an editorial intern at elephant journal. She is a fifth generation Colorado native who believes dance has the potential to liberate human consciousness from its cultural prison. Cassandra formerly trained at Boston Ballet and is currently a senior at University of Colorado Boulder studying journalism, sociology and philosophy. Read her blog at cassandralanesmith.com.
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