Posted on 06/23/2014

Photo taken on June 23, 2014

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The Tell-Tale Brain
V S Ramachandran

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Shiva / Nataraja

Shiva / Nataraja

……. In Chennai (Madras), there is a bronze gallery in the state museum that houses a magnificent collection of southern Indian bronzes. One of its prize works is the twelfth-century Nataraja. One day around the turn of the twentieth century, an elderly ‘firangi’ (‘foreigner” or “white” in Hindi) gentleman was observed gazing at the Nataraja in awe. To the amazement of the museum guards and patrons, he went into a sort of trance and proceeded to mimic the dance postures. A crowd gathered around, but the gentleman seemed oblivious until the curator finally showed up to see what was going on. He almost had the poor man arrested until he realized the European was none other than the world-famous sculptor Auguste Rodin. Rodin was moved to tears by “The Dancing Shiva.” In his writing he referred to it as one of the greatest works of art ever created by human mind.

You don’t have to be religious or Indian or Rodin to appreciate the grandeur of this bronze. At the very literal level, it depicts the cosmic dance of Shiva, who creates, sustains, and destroys the Universe. But the sculpture is much more than that; it is a metaphor of the dance of the Universe itself, of the movement and energy of the cosmos. The artist depicts the sensation through the skillful use of many devices. For example, the centrifuge motion of Shiva’s arms and legs flailing in different directions and the way tresses flying off his head symbolize the agitation and frenzy of the cosmos. Yet right in the middle of this turbulence – this fitful fever of life – it the calm spirit of Shiva himself. He gazes at his own creation with supreme tranquility and poise. How skillfully the artist has combined these seemingly antithetical elements of movement and energy, on the one hand, and eternal peace and stabile (God, if you like) is conveyed partly by Shiva’s slightly bent left leg, which gives him balance and poise even in the midst of his frenzy, and partly by his serene, tranquil expression, which conveys a sense of timelessness. In some Nataraja sculptures this peaceful expression is replaced by an enigmatic half-smile, as though the great god were laughing at life and death alike.

This sculpture has many layers of meaning, and indologists like Heinrich Zimmer and Ananda Coomaraswamy wax lyrically about them. while most Western sculptors try to capture a moment or snap-shot in time, the Indian artist tries to convey cyclic nature of creation and destruction of the universe, a common theme in Eastern philosophy, which is also occasionally hit upon by thinkers in the West. (I am reminded in particular of Fred Hoyle’s theory of the oscillating universe.) One of Shiva’s right hands holds a tambour, which beats the Universe into creation and also represents perhaps the pulse beat of animate matter. But one of his left hands holds the fire that not only heats up and energizes the universe but also consumes it, allowing destruction to perfectly balance out creation in the eternal cycle. And so it is that the perfectly balance out creation in the eternal cycle. And so it is that the Nataraja conveys the abstract, paradoxical nature of time, all devouring yet ever creative.

Below Shiva’s right foot is the hideous demonic creature called Apasmara, or “the illusion of ignorance,” which Shiva is crushing. What is this illusion? It’s the illusion that all of us scientific types suffer from, that there is nothing more to the Universe than the mindless gyrations of atoms and molecules, that there is no deeper reality behind appearances. It is also the delusion of some religions that each of us has a private soul who is watching the phenomena of life from his or her own special vantage point. It is the logical delusion that after death there is nothing but a timeless void. Shiva is telling us that if you destroy this illusion and seek solace under his raised left foot (which he points to with one of his left hands), you will realize that behind external appearances (Maya), there is a deeper truth. And once you realize this, you see that, far from being an aloof spectator, here to briefly watch the show until you die, you are in fact part of the ebb and flow of the cosmos – part of the cosmic dance of Shiva himself. And with this realization comes immortality, or “moksha”: liberation from the spell of illusion and union with the supreme truth of Shiva himself. There is in my mind, no greater instantiation of the abstract idea of god – as opposed to a personal God – than the Shiva/Nataraja. As the art critic Coomaraswamy says, “This is poetry, but it is science nonetheless.” ~ Page 239/240
4 years ago. Edited 3 months ago.