Myths & Legends of India: the Lord of the Dance

Read below to learn how god Siva became Nataraja, Lord of the Dance.



Nataraja, Lord of the Dance


the Lord of the Dance pp. 80 – 83 Myth and Legends of India

There is a temple at Chidambaram in South India dedicated to Siva, whose many sculptures show the great god as Lord of the Dance, in thousands of different postures. The priests of the temple tell a story of how, in the very temple, Siva established himself as the supreme dancer.

One day, after a long period of trance-like meditation, Siva awoke, and instead of the usual sound of prayers and devotions coming up to him from earth heard nothing but an eerie silence. Not a single conch or bell could be heard. Had human beings ceased to worship him? If so, thought Siva, that is a blessed relief: I can now continue with my life of meditation in peace.

But when he expressed this feeling to his wife Parvati, she was not at all pleased. ‘You are the greatest god of all,’ she said, ‘with the power to destroy the universe so that it can be created afresh. But there are other powerful gods – Vishnu, for example. If devotions to you have ceased, that only means they have transferred to him, or to some other deity. Do you really want to be passed over like that? And do you want the wife of Vishnu to be honored above me? You must do something – and do it fast – to restore the true balance between the gods, and re-establish you and me as supreme.’

It is hard for any husband to withstand the anger of his wife, but Siva did not give in to her straight away. He tried to argue that Lakshmi, wife of Vishnu, could never be as great as Parvati, whatever devotions her husband might be receiving. ‘Remember’, he said, ‘that she is only the goddess of material wealth. Kings and merchants may worship her, but never priests and poets. She cannot match you for chastity, intelligence and creative energy. You have no cause to be jealous of her.’

But Parvati was not reassured, and went on nagging her husband to do something about the apparent neglect of them by worshippers on earth.

‘All right,’ said Siva wearily, ‘I’ll go round and see Vishnu’.

So he left Parvati in their home on the snowy heights of Mount Kailasa, and travelled by his airborne chariot to Vaikuntha, the heavenly abode of Vishnu and his wife Lakshmi.

He found them both as detached and oblivious of the world as he had been during his meditations; but their occupation was more sociable. They were throwing dice, and Vishnu was laughing heartily as his wife (as befitted a goddess of wealth) defeated him again and again, winning ever higher stakes.

They stopped, however, when they saw Siva approach, and welcomed him courteously.

‘How has the world been for you recently?’ asked Siva. ‘Have you been bothered by more prayers and devotions than usual?’

‘No,’ said Vishnu, ‘it’s been remarkably quiet. Indeed I’ve hardly heard a single temple-bell, and that’s why my wife and I have been able to enjoy our dice-game for so long without disturbance.’

Siva was somewhat alarmed to hear this, for it implied that neither he nor Vishnu were receiving their proper devotions. Could it be that human beings were worshiping some entirely new god, who might displace them both?

‘We’d better go and look,’ he said to Vishnu. ‘You and I aren’t bothered: I prefer my meditation, and you like dice-games and dalliance. But our womenfolk won’t like it if we are neglected on earth. So let’s disguise ourselves as yogis, and go to that temple in South India where formerly they were so crazy about worshiping me that I used to quite deafened by their bells and cymbals and conches.’

So he and Vishnu descended to the temple, in guise of yogis smeared with ash, and positioned themselves in the middle of the temple courtyard. They found, as Siva had feared, that the priests had become prophets of new cult of devotion not to gods but to demons, and frenzied rites and pujas were going on to propitiate their malevolent power.

The worshipers who were there took Siva and Vishnu to be human yogis; but the priests could guiltily tell who they really were, and launched into the most evil and powerful incantations that they knew, to call on the aid of demons against the divine visitors.

The first fruit of their magic was a huge and aggressive tiger, that charged at the gods with gaping jaws. But the great god Siva caught it, killed it, and draped it round his shoulders – where it still hangs.

Then the priests called even more frantically on their demons and this time a monstrous snake appeared; but this too Siva caught and killed, and hug around his neck, where its limp and powerless coils can still be seen.

The priests tired one more time, and this time their mantras produced a vile and lustful goblin that threw itself at the gods, and would have devoured them, had not Siva jumped on it and pinned it beneath his feet.

And then, to complete his triumph over the goblin, the great god began to dance. And this dance was so wild and triumphant and beautiful that the worshipers at the temple, who had all been led astray into the worship of devils, watched with rapture, and soon realized that the dancer was not a human yogi but Siva himself. Cries of victory to Siva began to ring out from the crowd, and they grew louder and more exultant the more he danced, and soon they were audible on Mount Kailasa. Parvati was asleep there, but the cries and praises woke her up, and she smiled with joy and relief when she realized that the shouting was in honor of her husband, and that worship of him had therefore been restored.

The goblin on whose back Siva triumphantly danced can still be seen under his feet, and that dance alone is enough to give Siva the title Nataraja, Lord of the Dance.

But another story, also told by the priests at Chidambaram, confirms that tile even more strongly. It tells of how the king of the serpents, Sesha, heard about Siva’s dancing prowess, and went to Mount Kailasa to beg Siva to let him see it for himself. ‘I gather’, said Sesha, ‘that it was because of your dance that the worshipers at Chidambaram drove out the false priests who had taught the worshipers at Chidambaram drove out the false priests who had taught them to worship demons, and reinstated the proper worship of you. Please let me see it!’

‘Very well,’ said Siva, ‘I’ll take you there and show you.’

So Siva traveled again to Chidambaram accompanied by the serpent-king. But when they got there they found that the goddess Kali installed herself in the courtyard where Siva had danced, and was refusing to let anyone else dance there.

‘Everything in Siva’s dance’, she said, ‘I can do just as well. Try, if you like, and I’ll show you.’

Siva accepted her challenge, and he and Kali began to dance in competition with each other, with Sesha as their judge.

The priests and worshipers at the temple stood in awe as they watched the greatest display of dancing that the world had every seen, gasping and clapping and cheering as Siva and Kali performed ever more daring and extravagant feats, spurring each other on to create entirely new steps and postures. The movements of all the animals of the world were copied in their dance – a swan, an elephant, a scorpion, a fleeing deer, a peacock; and many other movements too that no dance had ever previously imitated – the swinging of a cradle, the threading of a needle, the swirling of a whirlpool.

Everything that Siva did, Kali was able to equal, until Siva tried a dance on one leg with the other leg flung high over his head. This stumped her – not because she couldn’t do it, but because it was unseemly for her to adopt such a posture in front of so many onlookers.

So Kali conceded victory to Siva in the dance competition. Sesha declared him the winner, the shouts and praises of the crowd rose even more tumultuously to heaven, and Parvati was even more pleased.

Sesha returned to his abode, well satisfied by what he had seen; and Siva returned to Kailasa, to be received rapturously and lovingly by Parvati. She rewarded his victory – the restoration of the worship of him and her – with maximum amorousness, and this kept him virile and creative for many thousands of years before his yearning for meditation took hold of him again, and he returned to his trance.

One thought on “Myths & Legends of India: the Lord of the Dance

  1. Pingback: Year 4: Life, Reflections, Myths, Psyche | Inside A Soul

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