Shiva is one of the Hindu deities you’re quite likely to have heard of. He’s part of the tri-murti, a group of three of the most powerful and revered Gods who are responsible for the cycle of life. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva make up this trinity of supreme wisdom, who oversee the creation, preservation and destruction or transformation of the universe. Translated as ‘three forms’, they are essentially the three different forms of consciousness, and when combined, create one avatar known as Dattareya.
Shiva is the overseer of the aspect of destruction – or more accurately, transformation or even reproduction – that is vital to the cycle of life. In this context, the word ‘destruction’ doesn’t mean total annihilation, rather it means a transformation from one form to another. The Hindu tradition is a lot more open to talking about life, death and what happens afterwards, and generally sees the end of one life as a chance to transform and pass to another life. Everything has a life cycle: humans, animals, plants, your breath, thoughts, relationships, and habits. The point is, that in order for something new to be created, something old has to be ‘destroyed’ or ‘transformed’ first. If you’re looking to make a change in your life, Shiva is the deity to invoke; if you’re looking for some courage and strength, he’s the guy to go to.
Shiva translates as ‘the auspicious one’. In folk etymology, the root ‘Si’ means ‘pervasiveness, he whom in all things lie’, and ’va’ means ‘embodiment of grace’. Although Shiva may often be depicted as fierce, he is a deity who can always be called upon, and who is the protector of the every-man. Shiva is often described as the Lord of the Hatha Yogis, partly because an ancient seal inscribed with an image of what looks like our idea of Shiva is shown on it. This ancient seal, known as Pashu-pati, ‘proto-Shiva’, or even ‘Lord of the animals’, is shown in what appears to be the padmasana or ‘lotus’ position, and is surrounded by animals. Although this seal could have been created thousands of years ago (many people assume the date of its inception to be sometime around 5000 years ago), here in the modern day western world, we’re still uncovering more and more about Shiva and ancient Yoga practices all the time.
Shiva is known by many names, and appears in many different forms – approximately 64 in fact. Each form represents an aspect of Shiva’s persona, including Sukasana Murthy, Shiva’s more pleasant side, who is said to grant peace and happiness, Kiratha Murthy, in the form of a hunter with a bow and arrow, and Jvarabhagna Murthy, shown with three faces and three legs, and dancing.
Lord of The Dance
Another dancing form of Shiva is Nataraja, translated as ‘Lord of The Dance’, or ‘King of Dancers’, the ecstatic cosmic dancer. In this form, Shiva is often shown in a circular frame, which represents the cosmic fire that both creates and destroys everything. He holds agni (fire) in one hand, again representing the significance of creation and destruction, another hand is wrapped with a snake and gesturing an Abhaya or ‘fear not’ mudra. The third holds an hour-glass shaped drum known in Sanskrit as a damaru, and is held with the damaru-hasta (literally; damaru-hand) mudra, representing time and rhythm of both music and the universe. The fourth hand points towards one of his raised, dancing feet. This draws the viewer’s eye to the aspect of dance, upliftment, energy, movement, and the strength to dance the dance of life, no matter the obstacles we may face.
The use of fire within the depiction of Nataraja is also a significant nod towards transformation. Fire transforms form, it turns solid matter to ash, boils water to steam, and has also been used in ritual sacrifice in many religions for thousands of years. Traditionally, ghee (clarified butter) would be poured into a sacred fire as an offering to the gods. Butter, milk, and cows in general are also an incredibly important aspect of Hinduism and many Yogic traditions, but that’s a story for another time….
The Dance of Life
The dance Nataraja is shown performing is known as the Ananda Tandava, translated as the ‘dance of bliss’. It is this dance that represents all movement, flow, rhythm, creation, manifestation and transformation of life.
There are two different aspects of the dance however, which we may be able to relate to when we find ourselves either practicing the Yoga posture Natarajasana, or dancing the dance of every-day life itself. These two aspects of the dance are Lasya, the gentle, calm form of dance associated with creation, and Tandava, said to be the ‘violent and dangerous’ dance, associated with destruction. Sometimes a Yoga practice can feel like a form of Lasya, smooth and flowing, effortless and ‘juicy’, where every posture feels just right, and the body responds positively to what is asked of it. Sometimes however, your time on the mat can feel more like the dance of Tandava; uncomfortable and – depending upon the teacher or the posture – downright precarious, too!
Whilst of course a physical Yoga practice teaches us many things, and can eventually transform a dance that was once uncomfortable into a flowing sequence of comfortable movements, the importance is not ultimately upon how we navigate through the moments on the mat, but how we navigate through the moments in life. Shiva’s aspect of transformation can be a valuable tool to remember when we face difficult situations, or occasions that require us to change or be courageous. Whilst endings can be sad, and whilst many of us find change a scary thing; it’s important to understand that in order for something new to be created, something old has to be destroyed in order for the transformation to take place. So, in order to transform ourselves, we must learn to make space, letting go of what is no longer needed, in order to let in what we truly need.