Siva: His Form and Cosmic Dance



Siva is one of the deities of the Hindu Trinity. He is responsible for the dissolution of the universe. He is the embodiment of Tamas, the centrifugal inertia, the tendency towards dispersion and annihilation.

Literally, Siva is one in whom the universe ‘sleeps’ after destruction, till he next cycle of creation starts. All that is borne must die. All that is produced must disintegrate and be destroyed. This is an inevitable law. The principle that brings about this disintegration, the power behind destruction, is Siva.

But Siva is much more than this concept of dissolution. Disintegration of the universe ends in the ultimate thinning out, into a boundless void. This boundless void, the substratum of all existence, from which springs out again and again this apparently limitless universe is Siva. So, although Siva is generally described as responsible for destruction, he is equally responsible for creation and existence. In this sense Brahma and Vishnu are also Siva.

We have a reference to the Trimurti conception of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva in IV.5 of the Maitri Upanishad. It says “These are but the chief forms of the supreme, the immortal, the bodiless Brahman. To whichever one each man is devoted here in this world he rejoices for verily this whole world is Brahman”. This Upanishad traces the three forms to the three gunas rajas, sattva and tamas in V.2. It indicates the relation of the three forms (murti-traya) to the Supreme. The three, Brahma, Vishnu and Siva are not to be conceived as independent persons; they are the threefold manifestations of the one supreme.

The Upanishad further states “Verily, in the beginning this world was Darkness (tamas) alone. That, of course, would be in the Supreme. When impelled by the Supreme, that goes on to differentiation. That form, verily, is Passion (rajas). That Passion, in turn, when impelled, goes on to differentiation. That, verily, is the form of Purity (sattva).

That Purity, when impelled, flowed forth as Essence (rasa). That part is what the intelligence principle in every person is—the knower of the body which has the marks of conception, determination, and self-love, Prajāpati (Lord of Creation) called Visva. These forms of Him have previously been mentioned.

Now then, indeed, the part of Him which is characterized by Darkness (tamas)—that, O ye students of sacred knowledge, is this Rudra. Now then, indeed, the part of Him which is characterized by Passion (rajas)—that, O ye students of sacred knowledge, is this Brahmā. Now then, indeed, the part of Him which is characterized by Purity (sattva)—that, O ye students of sacred knowledge, is this Vishnu.

Verily, that One became threefold. He developed forth eightfold, elevenfold, twelvefold, into unlimited parts. Because He thus developed He is a created being (bhūta); has entered into and moves among created beings; He became the overlord of created beings. That is the Soul (Ātman) within and without—yea, within and without!” (Dr.S.Radhakrishnan)

This identity of the Trinity is also portrayed in several stories in the Puranas.


Siva is worshipped both in the form of an image or a picture and as the linga, the latter being the rule particularly in the temples while the former is an exception. The most common features of his pictures or images show him as a very handsome youth, white as camphor. His limbs besmeared with ashes are strong and smooth. He has three eyes – the third eye being on the forehead between the eyebrows – and four arms, two of the arms holding the trishul and damaru while the other two are in the abhaya (protection giving) and varada ( boon giving) poses. He has a crown of long matted hair from which flows the river Ganga. He also wears the crescent moon as a diadem. A tiger skin and an elephant skin adorn his body as his garments. There are serpents all over his body forming the necklace, the girdle, the sacred-thread, and arm bracelets. There is also a garland of skulls round his blue neck.

He is conceived as a deity having his family consisting of his consort, Parvati, sons, Ganesha and Skanda along with a large retinue called ganas and his vehicle, Nandi (the bull). Though he has his headquarters in the Himalayan Mountains, he is fond of roaming the earth, especially the cremation grounds. All these portrayals are in perfect consonance with his nature as the Lord of dissolution.

After Arati we usually recite the following prayer which carries the picture of Siva depicted above:

Karpura gauram karunaa avataaram, sansaar saaram Bhujgendrahaaram|
Sadaa vasantam hridayaarvinde, Bhavam Bhavaani sahitam namaami ||

I bow to that camphor-hued, white complexioned (Lord Siva), who is incarnation of compassion, who is the very essence of (consciousness; the knowing principle) of life (of the embodied soul);  Who wears snakes as garlands, whose eternal abode is in the heart of the devotee, I bow to Him (Lord Siva) and His consort Bhavani (Uma or Paarvati).


Siva is snow-white in color which matches with his abode, the snow-clad Himalayas. White stands for light that dispels darkness, knowledge that dispels ignorance. He is the very personification of cosmic consciousness. It may look paradoxical that Siva who represents Tamas (the force of darkness and destruction) is pictured as white, whereas Vishnu who represents Sattva (the forces of light and enlightenment) is pictured as dark. This is not surprising because the opposing gunas are inseparable.

The three eyes of Siva represent the sun, the moon and the fire, the three sources of light, life and heat. The third eye can also indicate the eye of knowledge and wisdom and hence his omniscience.  If the sun and moon form his two eyes, then the whole sky including the powerful wind blowing in it forms his hair. He is therefore called Vyomakesa (one who has the sky or space as his hair).

Tiger is the ferocious animal that mercilessly devours its victims. Desires, which consume human beings without ever being satiated, can be compared to a tiger. That Siva has killed the tiger and wears its skin as his apparel shows his complete mastery over desire.

The elephant being a powerful animal, wearing its skin implies that Siva has completely subjugated all animal impulses. The garland of skulls that he wears and the ashes of the funeral pyre with which he has besmeared his body indicate that he is the lord of destruction.The garland of skulls can also mean successive appearance and disappearance of the human races.

Siva is the lord of yoga and yogis and hence often shown as sitting in deep meditation immersed in the enjoyment of his own self. The Ganga – being a purifying agent, adoring of Siva by its waters indicates that he is the very personification of purity. Moon stands for time as its waning and waxing determine the fortnights, months etc. By wearing it as a diadem, Siva shows us that even time is only an ornament for him i.e. he is beyond time itself. Snakes, which are generally considered as instruments of death, which occupy as garlands around his neck means that he is Mrutyunjaya i.e. conqueror of death.

Siva is often portrayed as having several hands varying in number holding a variety of objects, the chief among which being trishul and damaru. Trishul being an important weapon of offence and defense indicates Siva as the supreme ruler. It also represents philosophically the three gunas viz. sattva, rajas and tamas. It can also mean the three processes of creation, sustenance and dissolution. Siva is thus the master of the three gunas from whom the whole cosmic process starts. Significance of damaru will be dealt with in detail in the section dealing with his cosmic dance in this essay.

The image or icon of Siva is never installed as the mulamurti in the sanctum-sanctorum (garbha griha) of Siva temples. They are only used as processional deities (utsava murtis) for festivals and other public celebrations. The mulamurtis in the temples will always be in the form of Sivalingas.


The universally worshipped form of Siva is Linga. Literally, Siva means auspiciousness and Linga means a sign or a symbol or a representation. Hence Sivalinga means a sign or symbol of the Great God of the Universe – mahadeva who is all auspiciousness, truth and beauty (satyam, sivam sundaram).  As earlier stated, Siva means the one in whom the whole creation sleeps or rests after dissolution. Linga also means the same thing – a place where created objects get dissolved. Since according to Hinduism, it is the same god that creates, sustains and destroys the universe, the Sivalinga represents symbolically God Himself. This is illustrated in the picture given below.

Whether Sivalinga is a phallic emblem or not is a moot point on which opinions differ and hence it is not of much relevance for our study.

In the Sivalinga, the lowest part is called Brahmabhaga and represents Brahma, the creator. The middle part is called Vishnubhaga and represents Vishnu, the sustainer. These two parts are embedded on a pedestal. The Rudrabhaga which is cylindrical and projects outside the base is the one to which worship is offered. Hence it is called Poojabhaga. The Poojabhaga also contains certain lines which are technically called Brahmasutra, without which the Linga does not become fit for worship.


Siva is worshipped in several aspects some of which are given below together with their implications.

  1. Saumaya or Anugrahamurti – peaceful form showing mercy and grace to the devotees.

  2. Ugra, Rudra or Samharamurti – Aggressive or terrific form like Kankala Bhairava who cut off the head of Brahma.

  3. Nritta or Thandavamurti – (Dealt with in detail later)

  4. Dakshinamurti – Siva is a great master of Yoga and spiritual sciences. He is a universal teacher. Seating facing the south he taught the sages in a secluded spot on the Himalayas. Hence he is called Dakshinamurti.

  5. Lingodhbhavamurti – Siva is said to have appeared as a blazing pillar of fire, of immeasurable size, to destroy the pride of Brahma and Vishnu. This form represents him as manifesting in the heart of the Linga. The image has four arms. Brahma and Vishnu stand on either side adoring him.(Linga Purana – Ch 17 – 20)

  6. Bhikshatanamurti – Siva is shown as a naked Bhairava begging his food in the skull cap.

  7. Haryardhamurti – also called as Harihara and Sankaranarayana. This is a form fusing Siva on the right and Vishnu on the left.

  8. Ardhanarisvaramurti – This is a form of Siva, half man and half woman representing the bipolar nature of the created world signifying woman as equal and complementary to man, a sort of women’s empowerment, to put in modern language.

The Siva form cannot be complete without his vehicle, Nandi, the bull. It is customary to propitiate the other attendants of Siva also who are called ganas – pramathaganas, bhutaganas.etc.


Nataraja is a depiction of Siva as the cosmic dancer who performs his divine dance to destroy a weary universe and make preparations for god Brahma to start the process of creation. Lord Siva as the Cosmic Dancer Nataraja represents the rhythmic movement of the entire cosmos. The dance performed by Siva is called Tandava Nritya, the divine art form.

Siva’s Tandava is a vigorous dance that is the source of the cycle of creation, preservation and dissolution. While the Rudra Tandava depicts his violent nature, first as the creator and later as the destroyer of the universe, even of death itself, the Ananda Tandava depicts him as the enjoyer of his creation – the universe. Siva as Nataraja (which lierally means “Lord of dance”) is considered the supreme lord of dance.

The Tandava takes its name from Tandu, the attendant of Siva, who instructed Bharata (author of the Natya Shastra) in the modes of the dance form. The dance is a pictorial allegory of the five principal manifestations of eternal energy viz. panchakritya. They are:

1. Srishti :  creation or emanation , represented by His upper right hand and the damaru (drum) , upon which He beats Paranada , the Primal Sound from which issues forth the rhythms and cycles of creation ;

2. Sthiti :  preservation , represented by His lower  right hand in a gesture of blessing , abhaya  mudra , saying ” fear not” ;

3.  Samhara :  destruction , dissolution or absorption , represented by the fire in His upper left hand , posed in ardha chandra mudra ” half – moon gesture ” ;

4. Tirobhava :  obscuring grace , the power which hides the truth , thereby represented by His right foot upon the prostrated person — Apasmarapurusa  — , the principle of ignorance or aanava .

5. Anugraha :  revealing grace – which grants knowledge and severs the soul’s bonds — represented by Siva’s left foot and by His lower left hand , held in gajahasta (elephant’s trunk) mudra , inviting approach .

These five cosmic activities are sometimes personalized respectively as Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra , Mahesvara and SadaSiva  or  as Sadyajata ( creation ) ,Vamadeva (preservation), Aghora (reabsorption), Tatpurusha ( obscuration) and Isana(granting grace).

Thus Tandava symbolizes the cosmic cycles of creation and destruction, as well as the daily rhythm of birth and death.

According to some there are seven types of Tandava which are called  Ananda Tandava, Tripura Tandava, Sandhya Tandava, Samhara Tandava, Kali  (Kalika) Tandava, Uma Tandava and Gauri Tandava. However, some people believe that there are 16 types of Tandava.  The root idea behind all of these dances is more or less one and the same, the manifestation of primal rhythmic energy.

The dance performed by Goddess Parvati in response to Siva’s Tandava is known as Lasya, in which the movements are  gentle, graceful and sometimes erotic. Some scholars consider Lasya to be the feminine version of Tandava.


Lord Siva is a great master of dance. All the 108 modes of dancing known to the treatises on dancing have come from him. According to the legend he dances every evening in order to relieve the sufferings of creatures and entertain the gods who gather in Kailasa in full strength. Hence he is called sabhapati, the Lord of an Assembly or congregation.

However, only nine modes of dancing are popular of which the Nataraja aspect is the most well-known. The earliest use of the name ‘Nataraja’ appears in the Karikas of Nandikesvara on the Mahesvarasutras of Panini (400 B.C.). There he mentions that Siva sounded his damaru fourteen times at the end of his dance, producing fourteen sound patterns which are now called Mahesvarasutras like a i un and so on which form the basic structure of the entire Sanskrit grammar. Hence damaru represents the alphabet, grammar, the language itself. In other words it stands for all words – spoken, written or otherwise expressed and hence for the entire gamut of all arts and sciences, sacred and secular. It also represents sound as such, the logos from which the entire creation has proceeded. By holding it in his hand, Siva is demonstrating the fact that the entire creation, including its various arts and sciences, has proceeded out of his will, his play.

The earliest idea of Siva as a dancer can be traced to the Sivasutras (3.9.11) a cardinal text of Kashmir Saivism.

The Nataraja icon shows him with four hands and two legs, in the posture of dancing. There is the damaru in the upper right hand and fire in the left. The lower right hand is in abhayamudra (pose of protection) and the left is pointing towards the uplifted left foot. The right foot is resting on the demon Apasmarapurusa. The whole image may be surrounded by a circle of blazing fire.

Siva’s dance indicates a continuous process of creation, preservation and destruction. The damaru represents the principle of sabda (sound and hence akasa (ether) which is responsible for evolution. Fire represents pralaygni, the fire that destroys the world at the time of dissolution and hence symbolizes the process of destruction. The damaru and fire represent the continuous cycle of creation, preservation and destruction. The other two hands indicate that he who takes refuge at the feet of the Lord will have nothing to fear. The Apasmarapurusa symbolizes ignorance which makes us lose our balance and consciousness. He is trampled upon   by the Lord for the good of the devotees who take his refuge.

The dance of Siva is one of the great examples of using images to convey high truths and eternal values.  Siva is considered the master of dance.  His dance is called the cosmic dance.  In the picture of the dancing Siva, Siva is dancing at a great speed with flying arms and legs. This creates an illusion of energy — the energy that is associated with the creation of the world, its destruction, the changes and evolution.

Siva is wearing a man’s earring on one ear and a woman’s earring on the other ear.  The different earrings point to the equality and importance of both men and women in the conduct of the world.

The circle of fire represents the cosmos and especially consciousness. The all devouring form looming above is mahakala, the ‘Great Time’. The cobra around Nataraja’s waist is Kundalini Shakti, the soul impelling cosmic power within all off us. Nataraja’s dance is not only a symbol but it is a process functioning in all of us, at the atomic level always. The Agamas declare that the birth of the universe, its maintenance and dissolution, the soul’s obscuration and liberation are the five acts of his dance. The symbolism of Siva as Nataraja, the king of dancers, is religion, art and science all merged into one. In this picturisation of Siva is hidden a deep understanding of our universe.

The important message in this story is to communicate to us a greater message – get rid of your dark thoughts – jealousy, envy, hatred and laziness- to lead a life of happiness  and peace. This is a message that appealed to the ancient Hindus and it is a message that is useful to us even today, after thousands of years later.

The Dance of Siva symbolizes not only the cosmic cycles of creation and destruction, but also the daily rhythm of birth and death which is seen in Indian mysticism as the basis of all existence.  At the same time, Siva reminds us that the manifold forms in the world are maya – not fundamental, but illusory and ever-changing – as he keeps creating and dissolving them in the ceaseless flow of his dance.

As Heinrich Zimmer has put it: “His gestures wild and full of grace, precipitate the cosmic illusion; his flying arms and legs and the swaying of his torso produce- indeed, they are – the continuous creation-destruction of the universe, death exactly balancing birth, annihilation the end of every coming-forth”.

Siva’s dance-in the words of Ananda Coomaraswamy is ‘the clearest image of the activity of God which any art or religion can boast of’. As the god is a personification of brahman, his activity is that of brahman’s myriad manifestations in the world. The dance of Siva is the dancing universe; the ceaseless flow of energy going through an infinite variety of patterns that melt into one another’.


Modern physics has shown that the rhythm of creation and destruction is not only manifest in the turn of the seasons and in the birth and death of all living creatures, but is also the very essence of inorganic matter.  According to quantum field theory, all interactions between the constituents of matter take place through the emission and absorption of virtual particles. More than that, the dance of creation and destruction is the basis of the very existence of matter, since all material particles ‘self-interact’ by emitting and reabsorbing the virtual particles. Modern physics has thus revealed that every subatomic particle not only performs an energy dance, but also is an energy dance; a pulsating process of creation and destruction.

The patterns of this dance are an essential aspect of each particle’s nature and determine many of its properties. For example, the energy involved in the emission and absorption of virtual particles is equivalent to a certain amount of mass which contributes to the mass of the self-interacting particle. Different particles develop different patterns in their dance, requiring different amounts of energy, and hence have different masses. Virtual particles, finally are not only an essential part of all particle interactions and of most of the particles’ properties, but are also created and destroyed by the vacuum. Thus, not only particles, but also void, participates in the cosmic dance, creating and destroying energy patterns without end.

For the modern physicists, then Siva’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. Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Sivas in a beautiful series of bronzes. In our time, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance. The bubble-chamber photographs of interacting particles, which bear testimony to the continual rhythm of creation and destruction in the universe, are visual images of the dance of Siva equaling those of the Indian artists in beauty and profound significance.  The metaphor of the cosmic dance thus unifies ancient mythology, religious art, and modern physics. It is indeed, as Ananda Coomarswamy has said, “poetry, but none the less science”. –  ‘The Tao of Physics’ by Fritjof Capra


On June 18, 2004, an unusual new landmark was unveiled at the European Center for Research in Particle Physics in Geneva — a 2m tall statue of the Indian deity Siva Nataraja, the Lord of Dance. The statue, symbolizing Siva’s cosmic dance of creation and destruction, was given by the Indian government to celebrate the research center’s long association with India.

In choosing the image of Siva Nataraja, the Indian government acknowledged the profound significance of the metaphor of Siva’s dance for the cosmic dance of subatomic particles, which is observed and analyzed by the physicists at the Research Centre.

The parallel between Siva’s dance and the dance of subatomic particles was first discussed by Fritjof Capra in an article titled “The Dance of Siva: The Hindu View of Matter in the Light of Modern Physics,” published in Main Currents in Modern Thought in 1972. Siva’s cosmic dance then became a central metaphor in Capra’s international bestseller The Tao of Physics, first published in 1975 and still in print in over several editions around the world.

A special plaque next to the Siva statue at the Research Centre explains the significance of the metaphor of Siva’s cosmic dance with several quotations from The Tao of Physics. Here is the text of the plaque: Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, seeing beyond the unsurpassed rhythm, beauty, power and grace of the Nataraja, once wrote of it “It is the clearest image of the activity of God which any art or religion can boast of.”

More recently, Fritjof Capra explained that “Modern physics has shown that the rhythm of creation and destruction is not only manifest in the turn of the seasons and in the birth and death of all living creatures, but is also the very essence of inorganic matter,” and that “For the modern physicists, then, Siva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter.”

It is indeed as Capra concluded: “Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Sivas in a beautiful series of bronzes. In our time, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance. The metaphor of the cosmic dance thus unifies ancient mythology, religious art and modern physics”.

Capara’s statement echoes the voice of an ancient Tamil poet “O my Lord, Thy hand holding the sacred drum has made and ordered the heavens and earth and other worlds and innumerable souls. Thy lifted hand protects both the conscious and unconscious order of thy creation.  All these worlds are transformed by Thy hand bearing fire.  Thy sacred foot, planted on the ground, gives an abode to the tired soul struggling in the toils of causality.  It is Thy lifted foot that grants eternal bliss to those that approach Thee.  These Five-Actions are indeed Thy Handiwork”.

Satyam, Jnanam, Anantam, Anandam,

Sat-chit-ananda, Svayam Jyoti Prakasam,

Chidanandarupah Sivoham Sivoham.

Truth, knowledge, endless, bliss,

Existence-knowledge-bliss, self-luminous,

I am Siva I am Siva of the form of knowledge and bliss.


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