Dancing Shiva, explained by Joseph Campbell

Shiva is the Destroyer or Transformer, the dissolution that precedes re-creation. In Shaivism, the oldest of the four sects of Hinduism, Shiva is the supreme Being: creator, preserver, destroyer, revealer, and concealer of everything that exists.

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The contents of the upper two of Nataraja’s outstretched hands are meant to demonstrate the eternal balance between the forces of creation and those of destruction. In the upper right hand, Shiva holds the sacred damaru, a drum in the shape of an hourglass, with which Shiva beats out the rhythm of his dance and with it the ceaseless creation of the universe and all of its infinite forms. This drum, writes Joseph Campbell, “is the drum of time, the tick of time which shuts out the knowledge of eternity,” as a result of which “we are enclosed in time.” Moreover, it is said to signify the primordial sound from which all things emanate, connoting in Heinrich Zimmer’s words “Sound, the vehicle of speech, the conveyer of revelation, tradition, incantation, magic, and divine truth.” Opposed to this force of creation as represented by the drum is the flame of extinction held in Shiva’s upper right hand. That flame symbolizes all of Shiva’s awesome powers of destruction, the terrible but necessary burning away of all things existing in time and space, the fire which, Campbell writes, “burns away the veil of time and opens our minds to eternity.”

While the lower right hand is held in a palm-outward gesture said to signify the reassurance of the god that those approaching this image should “fear not,” the lower left hand is gracefully pointed downward in the classical dance position is known as “elephant hand,” signifying the concept of spiritual teaching. “Where an elephant has gone through the jungles,” observes Cambpell, “all animals can follow, and where a teacher leads the way disciples follow.” Zimmer also points out that this hand gesture is also meant to remind us of the god Ganesha, Shiva’s son, who is called the “Remover of Obstacles.”

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