#28 Life Lessons From an Unknown Artist — Nataraja Shiva, The Lord of Dance

I was born in America and grew up Hindu. Growing up I took part in rituals that were performed at pooja’s (prayer meetings) without understanding why?

I asked my parents, elders, and even the priests that performed the religious ceremonies simple questions about God, my skepticism, and confusion. I couldn’t get a straight answer from anyone.

Was there a deeper meaning to all these traditional practices or were they done without purpose and simply handed from one generation to the next?

This bothered me.

Hinduism was ideological and rigid to my adolescent mind and despite the good food, musical mantras, the gathering of friends/family, and the calming smell of incense — I was always left in a state of constant confusion.

It wasn’t until I got older and entrenched myself in the world of philosophy and science, that I began to understand the subtle nuances behind the spirituality of the East.

Today I will share the meaning behind the sculpture by discussing:

  • Historical context
  • Symbolic explanation of the art piece
  • My introspection of meaning
  • Final thoughts

Nataraja — Historical Context in 4 sentences

  • Nata means dance and raja mean means king or Lord — hence the name, Lord of the Dance.
  • The sculpture was created during the 11th century during the Cholo Dynasty, also known as modern-day Tamil Nadu in South India.
  • The Great French artist, Auguste Rodin called it, ““one of the greatest sculptures he’s ever seen.’
  • The artist is unknown.

Symbolic explanation

Hinduism has many Deities or Avatars. Shiva is just one of many thousands of Gods. However, he is one of the more prominent ones. Each God is part of the whole. Contrary to popular belief, Hinduism is monotheistic in nature. It’s many Gods represent one.

The circle of the fire has an aureole surrounding Shiva. This represents the cosmic universe. The fire around it expresses the energy of all material creation and everything contained in it.

The long hair that stretches in length to each side of the circle, or cosmic universe, represents yogic knowledge. This knowledge is bestowed upon all but, its realization is a crucial step to understand the oneness or union (yoga=union) in all of creation.

The upper right hand is holding a beating drum that evokes the universe into vibratory creation. This can be related to the Big Bang Theory.

The upper left hand is holding fire, which represents destruction. This depiction shows that whatever is created will be destroyed, thus showing impermanence and finality of material existence.

The bottom right-hand shows Shiva with palms open, which represent an assurance that no matter what happens in this earthly existence, it will be okay. We are caught in this struggle of maya or suffering, but through Shiva, we acknowledge that having a broader perception that can be achieved through yoga can help us be easier on ourselves and perceived life problems.

Cobra on the forearm (bottom right hand) represents protection. Those that take refuge in Shiva will be protected and can live without fear.

Bent right leg stepping on the dwarf represents the balance in life that can be attained only when the ego is stepped on and put to silence. When the ego has silenced the world of maya, suffering ends thus putting to rest the illusory world and cycle of samsara.

Bottom left-hand gestures to the raised left foot signaling that taking refuge in the creator of the cosmic universe is where liberation is bestowed.

The bottom left leg is defying gravity and raising above material existence into the realm of spiritual contemplation.


Despite the intense nature of creation, destruction, and all the suffering that one may exhibit in this life-time, Shiva is still in a state of leela (Sanskrit for play).

He lives his life with equanimity because good and bad, pain and pleasure, right and wrong, and every other conceivable mode of duality have taken on the same silent undertone of indifference.

This illusion of the world is a mere whisper when the ego is subdued. This realization helps you become one with all creation and can foster a unifying perspective with the world.

When the ego is no more — stillness, awareness, and presence become paramount and eternal joy is born.

Whether Shiva was real or not is a debate that I’ll let archaeologists and religious fundamentalists entertain.

To me, the art-work represents cosmic, spiritual, and psychological meaning.

Cosmic meaning — Perhaps our minds are not yet equipped to understand why we were created, but the artist is able to flawlessly represent that creation and destruction take place. This is obvious, but our monkey mind needs a reminder that we will die soon.

Like everything in the material world, what once was, will be no more. It will take on a different form and the cycle will repeat. There is no escape from the inevitable dirt nap. The sooner you make peace with this, the sooner a burgeoning of something beautiful can blossom, and you can live every day with more urgency, and really cut out things that don’t add value to your life.

Psychological meaning— Much of our problems reside in past and future problems. Yesterday and tomorrow are illusory narratives that our mind likes to replay. This is the dwarf in our life that Shiva steps on. No one really knows what the ego is. You can’t pinpoint the ego in an anatomical chart. I characterize the ego as our sense of self-importance. The more important you think you are, the bigger your problems, and the more room you leave to be hurt.

What happens in our mind and how we react to it, is the story that is playing out in life. It’s important to be cognizant of the mind and re-direct it calmly and earnestly.

Spiritual meaning — Through yogic knowledge that extends through the boundless universe and the raising of the left leg, we are able to drop the ego, remove ourselves from the world of suffering, and enjoy the dance of life as it was intended.

Final thoughts

Life is what we make of it. When we are young, we are told the world is a certain way. The process of getting older and wise is unlearning the dogma that has kept us in a primordial prison.

The word spirit comes from the Latin word, spiritus, and means, “to breathe.” To acknowledge the spirit means being aware of ones breathing, which in its simplest form is presence. The breath is a reminder that this moment is where eternity lives.

I believe Shiva represents each one of us.

You are the center of your universe, and so am I.

Currently, we’re all in this cosmic dance. To understand creation and destruction deeply is to understand the cyclical nature of the cosmos, which is impermanence.

Essentially, we are all a mindless gyration of atoms and molecules who came from nothing and will go back into that nothingness.

Although we know this, in the interim between life and death, we choose to cater to the ego or identity and create chaos and suffering which inhibits us from enjoying life’s moments.

Just as the artist of this masterpiece was unknown, we too will be forgotten.

Like the footsteps we create along the seashore, the ocean is a reminder that it will all be washed away, and the “I” that we hold such importance to becomes nothing more than a subtle breeze that will disperse into the ether from which it came.

With Love,

Anand Swamy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *