In essence, Hinduism acknowledges the existence of only one God, Brahman who is the eternal root, the ultimate cause and the foundation of all existence. According to Hindu scriptures, Brahman manifests itself in a vast active period as a universe that subsequently disappears and absolutely reabsorbs again into nothing but Brahman in a vast inactive period. These alternations are sometimes referred to as 'the days and nights of Brahman' or as 'the exhalation and inhalation of the great divine breath'. Hinduism perceives and portrays all life as a never ending, ever evolving and ever devolving cycle of movement. One can discern cycles on every imaginary scale; in the movements of particles, in the life and death of humans, animals, plants and trees, or in the movements of planets. Hinduism describes the universe and everything in it as: 'maya' – illusion – because of its impermanence, its finite nature, its changeability and ultimate temporariness.
The gods of the Hindu faith represent different expressions of Brahman. In the Hindu Trinity Brahma (different from Brahman) is the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. Shiva is the force of culmination, completion, finalization, destruction, dissolution and disintegration, but this is not a negative or bad role to play. Shiva the destroyer is a necessary part of the trinity because, without destruction, there can be no re-creation.
The icon of the dancing Shiva, or Shiva Nataraj, is an attempt to give plastic expression to all natural cycles. The term 'Nataraj' means 'Lord of Dancers' (in Sanskrit 'nata' means 'dance' and 'raja' means 'king'). Through the dynamism and poise of Shiva's limbs, it is easy to see that a tension is inherent in this concept of the cosmic dancer, since he is meant to project simultaneously the contradictory though complementary forces and realities of nature. Shiva calmly smiles while holding an almost impossible stance. Often seen as a symbol of paradox, Shiva is considered to be everything at the same time by those who worship him: creator, preserver and destroyer. Shiva is the source of both good and evil.
The dance itself can be compared to fire. Fire may be called a giver of life and comfort, a bestower of happiness and a producer of good, when it saves the life of a half-frozen man, or when it gives us warmth in the coldest days of winter, or when it cooks our food or guides our feet as a flaming torch. Fire will be called the producer of evil and a curse of God when it destroys life, inflicts injury on man or damages property. All the same the nature of fire is to burn, and this nature does not change. It is only in our judgement that we consider the forces of nature to be good or evil according to our standards, ideas and interests. According to the Vedic philosophers, it is impossible to identify anything as absolute good, or absolute evil, in this world of relativity.
This concept of an all-inclusive reality is at odds with the western world-view. Both in Christian and Islamic doctrine the destroyer is evil, and consequently not part of the divine order. Also the physical form of the Shiva Nataraj is exceptional in the world of religious art. Compared to a meditating Buddha, or a crucified Jezus, Hinduism incorporates very dynamic representations of its gods and goddesses. Shiva Nataraj is one of the most striking examples.
There is profound symbolic meaning to all the intricacies of Hindu religious art. In his dance of ecstasy, Shiva's left leg is elegantly raised. Pointing to his lifted foot, Shiva indicates that he provides the troubled soul with refuge. With his right foot Shiva tramples a figurine personifying illusion and ignorance which holds a symbol of egoism; a cobra. This figurine is known as 'Apasmara Purusha'. Shiva thus imparts the lesson that through belief in him, the soul can be transported from the bondage of illusion and ignorance to salvation and eternal serenity. The upper left hand bears on its palm a tongue of flames, the consuming fire of dynamic destruction. The upper right hand holds an hourglass-shaped hand drum, which issues the primordial vibrating rhythm of creation. The lower right hand shows the symbolic gesture for removing fear, protecting, and preserving. Nataraja's head is crowned with a fan-shaped headdress in which a diminutive skull is positioned in the centre, symbolizing his conquest over death. His matted locks are whirling as he dances. Goddess Ganga, the epitome of the holy river Ganges, springs from his braided hair. A third eye on his forehead symbolizes his omniscience, insight and enlightenment.
The architecture and sculptures on this painting are inspired by the monumental Shiva temple in the former city of Gangaikonda Cholapuram in the region of Tamil Nadu. This city was founded at the beginning of the 11th century AD as the capital of the Cholas Empire that covered a large area of Southern India and of the countries currently known as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Sumatra, and Malaysia. For more than two hundred years the capital controlled the affairs of the whole of Southern India and other South East Asian countries. The artists and craftsmen of this culturally rich empire developed the anthropomorphic form of Shiva Natraj. By the 12th century AD, the Shiva Nataraj sculptures achieved archetypical stature and the 'Chola' Nataraja became one of the most celebrated statements of Hindu art.
This painting reminds us to keep on moving. In a perpetually changing world one shouldn't want to keep the things the way they presently are. It's better to dance along.