NATRAJA (The Lord of Dance) in The Art Institute of Chicago

Natraja is one of the manifestations of Shiva, a major Hindu deity. Before looking into the form, symbolism and cultural complexities of this manifestation of Shiva, I would like to summarize the basic premises of Hinduism.

The origins of Hinduism are traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization, dated from 4000 to 2200 B.C.E. Two of the main sites of the Indus Valley Civilization, Mohanjodaro and Harrappa, are in Pakistan, whereas Lothal, Ropar and Kalibangan are in India. During the British Colonial rule, some European historians came up with the theory of Aryan invasion. According to them, Aryan Indo-European tribes from Russia and Central Asia invaded northern India in 1500 B. C. E. and destroyed the settlements of the ‘Dravidian’ people of the Indus Valley Civilization. These tribes brought with them the Vedas, which later became the main scriptures of Hinduism. This theory has been challenged by more recent archeological findings which show that the Indus Valley Civilization was not destroyed by outside invasion but by natural catastrophes, most probably floods (Dehejia: 37). A series of sites shows a progressive development in Indian culture and religion from 2200 to 326 B.C.E, when the Greeks witnessed it, under the armies of Alexander. In other words, there is a continuity of one group of people living in the Indus Valley who traditionally considered themselves Aryans, thereby contradicting the theory of Aryan invasion.

Sites of Mohanjodaro and Harrapa

The early Hindu deities were Indra (God of battle) and Agni (God of fire). Vishnu and Shiva, the two main deities that are worshiped at present by most Hindus, appeared much later. Though one of the seals that have been discovered at Mohenjodaro can be attributed to Shiva due to its resemblance to the representation of Shiva, we cannot be certain, as primarily these seals were used for trade and were not connected with worship in any way.

Vishnu and Shiva

Though Hinduism is commonly viewed in the West as polytheistic (worship of multiple deities), it is more accurately described as henotheistic (the worship of a single deity), with the recognition that other gods and goddesses are aspects or manifestations of that single deity. If we examine the main theme of creation in Hindu mythology, we will find some proof of this aspect: “The primal person, Purusa, was divided up in the original sacrifice to become the various parts of the cosmos (Rg. Veda X.90) . . . . If all names and forms evolved from the original seed of the universe then all have the potential for revealing the nature of the whole” (Eck:30-31). Therefore, one god creates many personalities to represent its different aspects and worship of one is actually the worship of all.
For the ongoing birth, preservation, and death of the cosmos and of the entities in it, there are three personalities of Brahma which are essential and which persistently keep creating this cycle 

  1. Brahama:  Creator who continues to create new realities
  2. Vishnu: Preserver, who preserves these creations. His most popular manifestation is Krishna.
  3. Shiva: Destroyer, who is sometimes compassionate and erotic and sometimes destructive. His most popular manifestation is Natraja, the Lord of dance.


There are some very good South Asian icons, both Buddhist and Hindu, in the Art Institute of Chicago. Among these icons, three pieces that represent Shiva:

  1. “Shiva with Uma and Skanda” (Bronze, Tamil Nadu c. 14), the family grouping of Shiva, seated with his divine mate Uma and son Skanda
  2. “Cosmic form of Shiva” (Black chlorite schist, West Bengal c. 11 & 12), called Sada-shiva which means “always auspicious
  3. “Natraja” (Bronze, Tamil Nadu, c. 10 – 11), King of Dance

Among these three representations of Shiva, Natraja is the most significant. One’s attention is drawn not only to its form but also to the symbolism it contains. This piece of sculpture is from the Chola Dynasty that ruled southern India from 800 to 1279 C.E.  This icon was developed by 9th century artists of this dynasty and it has retained its form up till now, with only slight variations. It is a brilliant icon and probably one of the best representations of Hindu art.


The lord of dance has four arms.  The front right hand is in the abhaya-mudra* (the "fear not") gesture. The front left hand is across the chest in the gahahasta (elephant trunk) pose. The back left hand carries agni (fire) in a vessel. The flames represent the
destructive energy with which Nataraja dances at the end of each cosmic age, cleansing sins and removing illusion. In the back right hand Shiva holds an hour-glass shaped drum or damaru. The drum represents the rhythmic sound to which Nataraja dances and ceaselessly recreates the universe (Coomaraswamy: 70).

Natraja’s uplifted left foot grants eternal bliss to those who approach him. He dances above the body of Apasmara, the dwarf demon, who represents ignorance. Shiva's unkempt hair, swirling around him, gives the form a sense of movement. This movement makes him completely engrossed in the beat of his dance, quite like a murshid or a sadhu* outside a shrine, who loses his identity and become one with his dance in his attempt to reach out to God. 

The fiery ring surrounding the icon represents the universe with all its illusion and suffering.  The outer edge is fire and the inner edge the waters of the oceans.  This probably implies that the solid universe (Maya*) emerged from an egg, a liquid state of matter, as it is said in Rig Veda (X.121), Chandogya Upanisad (3.19) and Aitareya Upanisad (1.1) “the original germ or egg from which the whole of creation evolved was a unitary whole, containing in a condensed form within it the whole of the potential and life of the universe” (Eck: 28). This may also symbolize the fact that the world around us has a dual nature, water and fire. In fact, most of the Hindu imagery, and particularly Natraja, depicts this dual nature of the universe outside us in the form of Maya, and the dual nature of the universe inside us in the form of our emotions.

The crescent moon in Natraja’s hair keeps Kama, the god of nightly love, alive. Through the waxing and the waning of the moon, Shiva creates different seasons and rejuvenates life. The goddess of the Ganges is here shown nesting in Shiva's dreadlocks.  She represents the incident of her fall from heaven to earth (Coomaraswamy: 69). When the Ganges was needed on earth, she was reluctant to fall to earth because she realized that her fall from heaven would be shocking for the earth. Shiva agreed to break the violent power of the sacred Ganga's fall by catching her in his tangled hair, making a path for her to the Himalayas and Northern India. Nataraja wears a snake coiled around his upper arms and neck symbolizing the power he has over the deadly creatures. Snakes are also used to symbolize reincarnation. Their natural process of shedding their skin is symbolic of the transmigration of human soul from one body to another in a new lifetime.           

The gestures of the dance represent Shiva's five activities: creation (symbolized by the drum), protection (by the "fear not" hand gesture), destruction (by the fire), embodiment (by the foot planted on the ground), and release (by the foot held aloft) (Coomaraswamy: 70).    

Natraja is significant in the sense that Shiva is shown as the source of all movement within the cosmos, represented by the arch of flames. The purpose of the dance is to release men from the illusion of the idea of the "self" and of the physical world. It implies that Maya not only constantly changes its shape but the universe itself will implode to destruction. This also means that this dance of creation and destruction is staged in all of us too. Through this destruction and creation within us we evolve. We lose old ideas and old cells and create new perceptions and new cells and in the end we die, the total annihilation of the body, then we revive again in a new body to re-start the process- the dance, one that is quite like the cosmos.     

Shiva is usually described as a destroyer but he can also be viewed as a balancer of the cosmos. All the symbolism connected to him portrays positive and negative forces and the balance that is created by them. Shiva as Natraja , balancing himself on his one foot, is probably trying to balance the forces of  the universe in his four hands. With one hand he assures us with his abhaya mudra (fear not) that there is no need to be afraid, representative of his positive forces, and on the other hand he keeps the fire of maya to keep the illusion of this dual world intact. The duality of light and dark and evil and good that sustains us but at the same time threatens us is the symbolism of Natraja. One thing defines the other and cannot exist without the other. There can be no comprehension of light if we don’t know what dark is and there can be no judgment about evil if we don’t know what good is.

Fritjof Capra, in The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, beautifully relates Nataraj's dance with modern physics. He writes "every subatomic particle not only performs an energy dance, but also is an energy dance; a pulsating process of creation and destruction . . . without end . . . . For the modern physicists, then Shiva's dance is the dance of subatomic matter. As in Hindu mythology, it is a continual dance of creation and destruction involving the whole cosmos; the basis of all existence and of all natural phenomena" (Capra: 45).

Natraja is usually not seen in temples as an icon of worship, which makes one think that the image was primarily more of a cultural value than religious.  Nat Shastra (probably the very first encyclopedia of dance) was written by Bharata Muni, between 2nd century B.C.E and 2nd century C.E. The dance that is now called Bharat Natyam (after the name of Bharat Muni)  was called Sadir- Atam (court dance) when Nat Shastra was written. Probably the temple made a conscious attempt to incorporate dance in its rituals, as dance could bring patronage from rulers not only for itself but it could also be a financial gain for the temple. Moreover, dance could be one of the best ways to tell religious stories and to attract worshipers (painting served the same purpose in Christianity). Natraja was probably the image that started evolving in South India after this incorporation of dance in temple rituals. As dance in temples had religious devotion and its content of emotion and rhythm were constantly tied with religious rituals and symbolism, it made its place in the temple fast, and the dancing girls called dasis* (the servants of God) began to perform in temples.  When art became part of religion it was patronized and the level of aesthetics rose. Natraja seems to be the ideal representation of this aesthetic standard.

As I have mentioned earlier, Shiva was primarily not a major deity.  The main Aryan deities were Agni (the God of fire) and Indra (the God of war). During the times of Emperor Ashoka Maurya in the 3rd century B.C.E, Buddhism became popular and rulers began to patronize Buddhism. The emperor himself accepted Buddhism and sent missionaries to different parts of India. Buddhism was becoming a challenge for Hinduism and the Brahman might have consciously tried to incorporate other deities like Shiva, besides Agni and Indra, into temple traditions to expand their influence for income and power and to attract more people to face the threat of Buddhism. When dance became part of temple rituals, Shiva’s dancing forms probably made him more acceptable to the temple traditions of Brahman. This might also be an intentional endeavor on the part of Siva’s worshipers so that they could be participants in the mainstream temple traditions. 

Despite being a religion based on repressive caste system, Hinduism, at many levels, is a high-tone religion, full of color and festivity. During the course of a year, many festivals are celebrated nationwide and many are celebrated on a regional basis. In these festivals one can see religion as part of culture, and culture as an essential ingredient of religion.  It is quite impossible to make a separation in between the two in India. Dance is the essential part of cultural life in India, and Natraja has become an icon both of religion and culture due to its connection with dance. In the festivals that are connected with Shiva, like Maha Shivarati,  Natraja and other manifestations of Shiva are part of the processions that go through the cities and towns of India. In Southern India, in the city of Chidambaram, Tamilnadu, Natanjali is the festival that is dedicated to Natraja. Dancers from all over India perform at the temple Prakara. This magnificent temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, was built one thousand years ago.   

It is impossible even for a Hindu worshiper to interact with Shiva or any other Hindu icon in a museum the way worshipers interact with their images in a temple. In museums these icons are stripped away not only from the environment of the temple but also from the necessities like clothes, flowers and incense, and therefore they are taken as art pieces and not as deities. In a museum it is impossible to experience Darsan which is one of the main premises of Hindu worship. Darsan is usually translated as “auspicious sight”, the important act of worship from a laymen’s point of view. It’s the act of standing in the presence of the deity and beholding the image with one’s own eyes, to see and be seen by the deity (Eck: 3). In the Hindu understandings the deity is present in the image, therefore through the gaze one gain blessings of the divine.

The world might have shrunk and it might have become a global village, but we are still far from a cultural dialogue that can help us understand the other side of the village. These art objects actually give us an opportunity and they often create interest in people to gain some awareness of the other cultures. The popularity of Buddhism in the West rests on the icon of Buddha. If a Westerner has never seen a Buddhist icon, it is quite difficult for him to be interested in Buddhist philosophy. The icon reached the West before the creation of the preacher. These objects represent a window to the other cultures and though cultures are never static and these objects belong to their past, they represent deep-rooted philosophies and perceptions about life that the people of that culture found dear.

We have reached an era in which we are bound to interact with the beliefs and aspirations of other cultures or groups at some point in our lives. We can enhance the differences to create hate or we can open-mindedly attempt to understand the psyche working in the mind of other cultures, to find the real humanity that resides in all of us.
All religions that have evolved in this world and all cultures that have taken roots in the societies of this world believe in that core of humanity that resides within all of us and that demands compassion and wisdom from all of us. Natraja is part of that core of humanity and demands a better understanding of the universe from all of us.

Imran Omer


 *Mudra: mudras are hand-gestures that symbolically represent specific emotional states

*Murshid or Sadhu: Murshids are the (Muslim) individuals who devote their lives to holy shrines of sages. They dance in a trance, which represent their connection to God on a metaphysical level. Sadhus are (Hindu) ascetics that have renounced family lives.

*Maya: maya in general is the material world but it usually represents the concept that the material world is an illusion

*Dasis: Dancing girls that devote their lives to temples


Coomaraswamy, Ananda. The Dance of Shiva, fourteen Indian essays, NY: Moonday Press, 1972

Eck, Diana. DARSAN, Seeing the divine image in India, NY: Columbia University Press, 1998

Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of physics: an exploration of the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism, NY: Bantam Books, 1977.

Dehejia, Vidya. Indian Art, London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2002

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