The Dancing Shiva
Objectives: Pupils will
 Be able to describe the essential features of the Hindu God, Shiva Nataraja
 Relate the characteristics of the image to distinctive themes of the Hindu faith
Duration: 40 – 45 mins
Strategy: Interpretation and Appreciation
Movement 1 – Initiation
Display a picture of Shiva and have a copy for each student.
Give a brief introduction and background to the identity of Shiva.
Explain that we can understand a lot about this Hindu god by examining the
image in detail.
Movement 2 – Examination of Material
Invite students to observe the image closely.
Draw their attention to the different elements of the image, for example the four
arms etc.
Emphasise that no questions about Shiva will be answered at this stage, they
simply have to list what they see.
Record their answers on the board.
Movement 3 – Interpretation
 Divide the class into groups of 3 or 4 and present them with the questions below
for groupwork.
 Allow 5 – 10mins for the activity and then invite feedback.
 Explain the meaning of the different elements in the image of Shiva.
Movement 4 – Appreciation
Discussion Questions
 Why do you think Shiva has several arms? What does ‘well-armed’ suggest?
 What appeals to you about the Dancing Shiva?
 Does anything repel you? Why?
 What does the Dancing Shiva suggest to you about the nature of Hinduism?
Do Christians have similar religious images?
The Shiva Nataraja Image
Notes for the Teacher
Click here for an image of Shiva
Shiva is the Hindu god of Creation and Destruction. He is one of the three
dominant gods in the Hindu religion – the others being Vishnu and
Shiva is known as Nataraja – the King of the Dancers.
The image is one of the triumphs of Hindu Art. The artist Rodin praised it
for its beauty.
Shiva is the destroyer in the Indian divine pantheon. He is also the god of
dance where his dance represents both creative and destructive energy.
The ancient Vedas refer to him as the Nameless, Wild God.
The Four Arms
Shiva has four arms. TOGETHER these denote power. Singly they develop
aspects of this general theme:
Upper right hand: holds a drum (shape of an hourglass) on which he
beats out the rhythm of the dance – the rhythm of life and death. It is also
a symbol of creation, the beating pulse of the universe. The fact that it is
an hourglass / two-sided drum represents male and female – when parted,
the universe dissolves.
Upper left hand: open palm holding a naked flame. This indicates the
gods destructive power as well as the discipline with which the power is
exercised. It also cleanses the impurity of the soul. Both upper arms show
the balance of creation and destruction.
Lower right hand: held in a gesture of ‘Be not Afraid’. This is an
invitation to humankind to approach without dread what may seem
awesome and terrifying. This hand gesture is known as the ‘Mudra’.
Lower left hand: points to the gods dancing feet where lies the image of
the prostrate figure of a demon A-pas-mara (which means Ignorance).
Shiva dances on his back to prevent him from rising.
Why is Shiva Dancing?
Dance represents the symbolic movement of the universe. It is an important aspect of
Indian life. In parts of Indian mythology dance is a metaphor for the evolution of the
cosmos. The dance of Shiva is the dance of the cosmos. The Dance of life is the dance
of life-death-life etc. (reincarnation). He wears the moon and the sun because he
encompasses the whole universe.
A Sanskrit verse says:
“His being is the universe
His speech is knowledge
His ornaments are the moon and the stars
He is complete equilibrium.”
Shiva dances within the ENCIRCLING HOOP – a ring of flames and light. This
represents ‘samsara’ (reincarnation), then endless cycle of birth and death. Life comes as
a result of heat (passion) and ends in the fires of destruction. So life comes over and over
The dance of Shiva therefore has both creative and destructive potential. It is the
flickering dance of nature sustained by the god at the centre, from whom floods the
energy which ignites, extinguishes and rekindles all the various flames of life.
Other Details
Two different earrings: Shiva’s asymmetrical earrings denote that the god is both male
and female. The one worn by men is a combination of a fish and a crocodile, the other
worn by women is a simple spiral. This can also be emphasized by the fact that Shiva
has a single female breast.
Hence, there is an ambiguity. Shiva is both:
 female and male
 creator and destroyer
 ascetic and erotic.
Third eye: in the middle of his forehead symbolizes his all-seeing ability. This eye has
the ability to turn objects into ashes and is also symbolic of insight or enlightment.
Shiva’s Hair: has an image of the river Ganga flowing through it. It is believed that
Shiva offered to catch the sacred waters of the Ganga in his hair. The earth was not
prepared to withstand its downward descent to earth from Lord Brahma so Shiva allowed
it to flow through his hair into the Gangetic plain.
Crescent Moon: in his matted hair represents the highest principle of consciousness or
Skull: of death as a crown, symbolizes how Shiva conquers death.
Expression of Shiva’s Face: is calm, aloof, unaffected by the display of his energy.
Snake: symbolizes his control over nature. A snake may also symbolize egotism, which
we must be overcome in order to realize ‘moksha’ (Nirvana – a state of perfect happiness,
truth and peace).
The raised foot: is slightly jutting out of the image, taking the viewer out of the world
of forms into the formless reality of ‘moksha’.
Lotus: The image rests on a lotus, the Indian symbol of the creative force of the
What is Meant by “Dancing with Shiva”?
All motion begins in God and ends in God. The whole universe is engaged in a whirling
flow of change and activity. This is Shiva’s dance. We are all dancing with Shiva, and
He with us.
The world is seen as truly sacred when we behold Shiva’s cosmic dance. Everything in
the universe, all that we see, hear and imagine, is movement. Galaxies soar in
movement; atoms swirl in movement. All movement is Shiva’s dance.
When we resist this movement and think it should be other than it is, we are reluctantly
dancing with Shiva. We are stubbornly holding ourselves apart, criticising the natural
processes and movements around us.
It is by understanding the eternal truths that we bring all areas of our mind into the
knowledge of how to accept what is and not wish it to be otherwise. Once this happens,
we begin to consciously dance with Shiva, to move with the sacred flow that surrounds
us, to accept praise and blame, joy and sorrow, prosperity and adversity in equanimity,
the fruit of understanding. We are then gracefully, in unrestrained surrender, dancing
with Shiva. The Vedas state;
“The cosmic soul is truly the whole universe, the immortal source of all
creation, all action, all meditation. Whoever discovers Him, hidden deep
within, cuts through the bonds of ignorance even during his life on earth”
Aum Namah Sivaya.
For more information on the Dancing Shiva click here
The Dancing Shiva
Group Work
1. Is Shiva divine or human?
2. Is Shiva male or female?
3. Shiva is the force of creation and destruction in the universe. List
3 elements that illustrate this.
4. Why do you think Shiva is dancing?