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Shiva is known the world over as a god of awe-inspiring and terrible power. For many Hindus, he is the god of destruction, rending the universe and bringing existence back to emptiness when the Yuga cycle comes to its completion.

In this role, Shiva is an essential element of the godhead, clearing the way for the universe to renew itself. Much like the Death card of the Tarot, his role is a source of horror for those clinging to the way things are, but he is also a necessary harbinger of the new universe.

Famously, Shiva accomplishes his destruction through his tandava — also called Tandava natyam — a dance he performs to bring the universe to darkness.

Dancing Shiva Brass Statue

But Shiva’s tandava has many other purposes as well. He dances through the entire cycle of the lifespan of the universe. From its creation to its preservation and, finally, to its end, the tandava accompanies and makes possible all three phases.

The tandava is described in many texts, including most notably the Natya Shastra. In this tome on performing arts, elements of the dance are described. 

54" Thalai Keel Tandav Panchaloha Bronze Statue from Swamimalai

Each piece of the dance is called a karana. A karana involves both hand gestures and movements of the feet, creating individual dance postures. There are 108 of these, and when done in sequence by a god of such magnificence, the end comes so that new beginnings may arise. These karanas are a popular subject of Hindu sculpture. The karanas are grouped into sections of seven or more, called angaharas.

But this magnificent spiritual insight does bring up questions. Why does Lord Shiva dance at all? What can his dancing tell us about existence? And finally, why is the art of the tandava so potent and powerful?

Why Does Shiva Dance?

In the Indian subcontinent we find the divine always in the incredible artistic output of the cultures there. And so it should come as no surprise that Lord Shiva should conduct his auspicious duties through the performing arts.

But it does make us wonder. Why should it be a dance that brings about the cycle of existence?

When we note the incredible specificity with which Hindu mystics have mapped out the tandava, through the angaharas and the 108 itemized karana that they contain, we see that it is not only Shiva dancing but a very specific kind of dance.

Lord Shiva Dances Upon The Mouth Of A Lotus

The many karana are a map of physical movement, something that we ourselves can carry out with our own bodies. The postures and gestures hold in themselves profound resonances and mythic meanings,

As Aldous Huxley has pointed out, there is probably no spiritual tradition on earth that has comparable complexity in the way it maps out the actions of divinity.

So we see that through this intricate dance, we are given access to profound wisdom of how the universe works. This is part of why the tandava is so important: it provides so much to consider and meditate on.

But we still wonder: why a dance? There are many ways to make an intricate set of symbols. But a dance is a very specific kind of activity.

Lord Shiva as Nataraja in Dance Mudra Tanjore Painting

When humans dance, what do we experience? Many will tell you that dancing in a crowd to lively music is transformative. One thing people will notice is that their bodies can move instinctively to the beat — a phenomenon present in all human cultures everywhere. There is something in us that is awakened by the music, that simply must move. That movement then is not a creation of our conscious minds but something much, much deeper. It’s like we have been inhabited by something universal, something divine.

In all that music and all those people and all this physical exertion, we begin to notice a new mode of being. The boundaries of our egos come down, and at times it can feel as if we are all one on the dancefloor. Dancing is joyous, liberating.

Should the gods not dance as well?

By showing Shiva’s role performed as a dance, it says something about Shiva’s (and by extension the entire universe’s) nature. Through his tandava, Shiva is not exerting a personal will but is embodying the way of all things. He dances to the beat of existence. He is boundaryless, liberated. He is in a trance.

31" Large Superfine Dancing Ardhanarishvara Panchaloha Bronze Statue from Swamimalai 

And because we have danced, we have, in some way, taken part in this ourselves. We have the ability to directly experience how a body can become without borders, how the natural rhythm of being can move through us when our conscious mind backs down from its throne.

This is perhaps the greatest lesson of the tandava: that existence — its creation, preservation, and dissolution — could not be any other way.

The Art of Shiva’s Tandava

The incredible wisdom locked in the idea of Shiva’s tandava has been made real by Indian artists for millenia. Through the descriptions of the karanas, artists have routinely made statues that chart a course through this holiest of dances.

It calls for us to make art because it is both inherently visual and of the utmost importance to our lives. Without Shiva’s tandava, nothing would be.

Cosmic Form of Dancing Shiva

The artwork that celebrates the tandava is, unsurprisingly, some of the most beloved in all world cultures. The four-armed Shiva wreathed in fire, face sedate and tranquil, limbs in exact poses, right foot standing on Muyalaka, demon of ignorance. 

It is an image that we cannot forget once we see it. Our hearts call out to it. It appears in our dreams.

24" Shiva Tandava Panchaloha Bronze Statue from Swamimalai

That unforgettable quality and the immediate impact it makes on our souls tells us two things. One, it is a clue to the inherent truth in Shiva’s tandava. Something in the way it affects us allows us to glimpse what is more real than real. And two, it tells us that we must recreate the image. It’s power and beauty must accompany our lives, so that we never forget the ultimate truths that it unlocks in our souls 

Shiva’s tandava must not be forgotten. Its image must be continually renewed in us so that we can keep 

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