The Dancer in the Flames
This is my greatest desire: without fail,
one day you’ll show yourself to us,
My father with locks twisted like the flames
of a lighted fire
the place where you dance, in full night,
over the high flames . . .
Arputa Tiruvantati, fourteenth century Tamil poetess
Let us visit once again the hidden pine forest, where honorable hermits and their chaste wives are meditating and practicing asceticism, and see how Shiva makes fools of them. In this version of the story, there are not just seven rishis but tens of thousands. They have shaven their heads in penance; they despise all mundane joys and passions. Unremittingly, they preach to the common people that the universe is infinite having no beginning and no end and that there is no God who saves souls, but that each must work diligently on one’s own salvation. (The suspicion rises that this story tells of the struggle of emerging Hinduism with the dogmas of the Buddhists and Jains.)
Gracious Shiva, seeing the damage these fanatics were doing, decided to free them of their delusions. Using the power of his magical illusion, he stepped into their world as a most handsome young yogi. Vishnu was with him in the form of a beguiling Mohini, a heavenly nymph. At the sight of the young Adonis, the rishis’ wives were dazzled. Forgetting their duties, like silly girls, they daydreamed of being caressed by his strong, white arms and kissed by his full lips. They let the water jugs slide from their hands and break; they let the food scorch in the pans.
Their husband made fools of themselves likewise. Unthinkingly, they threw away the fruits of thousands of years of hardest penance in order to feast their longing eyes on the voluptuous curves of the heavenly maiden. But then, they suddenly regained their senses and were terrified to realize that their resolves had so weakened. Their shock quickly turned into hateful anger, which consumed the rest of the fruits of their asceticism. They meanly rebuked their wives and began to hurl the vilest curses at the handsome yogi and his seductive female companion. Combining their magic powers, they ignited a fire into which they chanted mantras of death and destruction. On and on they chanted, fanning the flame into the form of a monstrous, murderous tiger. This they directed to tear the strange, naked interloper to pieces. But the yogi skinned it with the nail of his little finger. Next, the hermits let a gigantic poisonous viper rise from the magic fire; but Shiva wrapped it around his neck as though it were a silk shawl. Seeing their efforts fail, the furious ascetics combined all their remaining strength to conjure the most terrible weapon of which they could conceive. It was a wicked, black, misshapen dwarf with an invincible club. But as soon as he leaped out of the flames, Shiva bowled him over and began to dance light-footedly on the squat torso, taking on his divine emanation as Nataraja, the king of dancers, revealing himself as the lord of the universe and of eternity.
At this, the poor rishis fell to the ground, trembling with fear, while all the gods of the universe appeared to behold the wonder of the dancing god. The world serpent Anant-Shesha, on whose back Vishnu sleeps in the intervals between creations, was so enthralled by the splendor of the spectacle, that he asked Vishnu for leave. His reptilian heart was filled with only one wish, and that was to be allowed to go on a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash. There, he wanted to engage in severe penance so that he might find out the meaning of this overawing cosmic dance.
Thus it happened that the thousand-headed, jewel-crowned primordial serpent spent eons in single-minded devotion. Nothing distracted him, until one day, Shiva, appearing as Brahma riding on the gander, told him, “Your devotion is perfect! I shall reward you with eternal paradise!”
But the snake refused paradise. Instead, it wanted to be allowed to continue watching Shiva’s dance forever. At this, Shiva took on his own radiant form and taught Ananta the essence of wisdom, which are the Vedas, and promised him, “You will shed your serpentine form and you will be born of a human couple. When you are old enough to leave your parent’s home, your footsteps will lead you to Chidambaram. There, in the shade of a hallowed grove, you shall find my lingam, which is cared for by an old meditant. You may help him in his duties, for here, at the Chidambaram Lingam, I reveal my eternal cosmic dance to all who have eyes to see.”
Ever since, Chidambaram, a town on the coast south of Pondicherry, is a much-visited place of pilgrimage. It was here that the now world-famous bronze casting of Shiva-Nataraja, dancing in a ring of fire, originated.
Let us now look at this dancing god. . . . Like Shankar, his face is calm and collected, and cobras and rudraksha beads decorate his limbs. But otherwise, he is in total motion, his hair swirling wildly around his head. Ganga is no longer visible as a jet of water, but as a tiny, hard-to-see female figure, riding the waves of his hair. The hand drum (damaru) no longer hangs silent on the trident, but vibrates energetically in his upper right hand. Every one of his four hands is flashing a special gesture, or mudra, expressing esoteric meaning. The upper left hand, held cupped like a half moon (ardhachandra mudra), contains a blazing fire. A third arm, bent like the trunk of an elephant (gajahasta mudra), reminds the worshipper of Ganesha, the clever bull elephant who overcomes all resistance. It points down toward the uplifted left foot, indicating cosmic lightness and nonattachment. The fourth hand stretches its open palm toward the beholder in the abhaya gesture, signaling, “Fear not! May peace be with you!”