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Lord Shiva’s Nataraja on Maha Shivratri signifies the unity of mythology, religious art and modern physics

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Celebrate Maha Shivratri by knowing how Nataraja unifies Lord Shiva and science

A plaque next to the statue of Nataraja, gifted in 2004 by the government of India and positioned at  CERN, Switzerland, home to the Large Hadron Collider, bears a profound explanation for seamlessly bridging mythology, religion, science and the ever-changing universe.

The plaque bears a quote from Fritjof Capra, explains why the two-metre tall Natraja's statue has a natural presence at CERN:  “Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Shivas 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.”

Fritjof Capra (Pic: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Highlighting the significance of Nataraja to science, Capra says, “The Dance of Shiva symbolises the basis of all existence. At the same time, Shiva reminds us that the manifold forms in the world are not fundamental, but illusory and ever-changing. 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."

Capra while delineating the connect of Nataraja with modern theories of physics observes: "According to quantum field theory, the dance of creation and destruction is the basis of the very existence of matter. 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. For the modern physicists then, Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter, the basis of all existence and of all natural phenomena.”

The first instance when Capra drew the parallel between Shiva’s dance and the dance of subatomic particles was in an article “The Dance of Shiva: The Hindu View of Matter in the Light of Modern Physics.” Published in 1972, it appeared in Main Currents in Modern Thought. Then, the cosmic dance became a central metaphor in Capra’s international bestseller The Tao of Physics, first published in 1975 and still in print in over 40 editions around the world.

God is in the details

A close look at the different postures of Nataraja highlights many facets and nuances of life. As Shiva dances within a circular or cyclically closed arch of flames (prabha mandala), it represents the cosmic fire that in Hindu cosmology creates everything and consumes everything, in the cycle of life. Further the fire element stands for the evils, dangers, heat, warmth, light and joys of daily life.

Writing in Scroll.in, Harish Pullanoor, points out that the Nataraja’s rear left arm carries the hourglass-shaped drum, damuru -- the vibrations of which create the universe. Some conflate this with the Big Bang of cosmic creation. The raised, rear right-hand carries the fire that atrophies matter to a formless state, only for regeneration. In that sense, it is the fire of transformation, not destruction. It implies constant change, echoing the Buddhist precept of “There’s no being, only becoming.”

The open palm of the forehand indicates an assurance: There is nothing to fear about constant cosmic overhaul. Change is normal and I’m here to protect you. The hidden lower-left palm pointing downwards says he’s the creator of maya, illusion or the veil of ignorance.

The raised left foot, combined with the closed hand, signifies the option available before the seeker: moksha or liberation from ignorance and, by implication, from the cycle of birth and death.

In The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism, James G. Lochtefeld, states that Nataraja symbolizes "the connection between religion and the arts", and it represents Shiva as the lord of dance, encompassing all "creation, destruction and all things in between".

Nataraja and Maha Shivratri

The dancing Shiva form, Nataraja has immense significance on Maha Shivratri. In one of the legends of Shaivism tradition, Maha Shivratri is the night when Lord Shiva performs the heavenly dance of creation, preservation and destruction. In fact the entire ritual of chanting of hymns, reading of Shiva scriptures and devotees joining this cosmic dance is to emphasise on Mahadev’s omnipresence.

Describing Maha Shivratri as the Vigil Night of Shiva, the Volume 72 of The Theosophical Movement states, “we are brought to the moment of interval between destruction and regeneration; it symbolizes the night when we must contemplate on that which watches the growth out of the decay.”