The Religion and Philosophy of Tevaram (Thevaram)

by M. A. Dorai Rangaswamy | 1958 | 410,072 words

This page describes “(f) the transcendental and immanent dance” from the part dealing with Nampi Arurar (Sundarar) and Mythology, viz. Puranic stories and philosophy. The 7th-century Thevaram (or Tevaram) contains devotional poems sung in praise of Shiva. These hymns form an important part of the Tamil tradition of Shaivism

Chapter 4.3 - (f) The transcendental and immanent Dance


Arurar speaks of the idea expressed by the Dance. Dr. Ananda Coomaraswami’s Essay on the Dance of Shiva has become a classic and the essay may be studied with reference to the remarks of Arurar. The learned Dr. writes there: “No doubt the root idea behind all these dances is more or less one and the same, the manifestation of primal rhythmic energy: Shiva is the Eros Protogonos of Lucian, when he wrote: It would seem that dancing came into being at the beginning of all things, and was brought to light together with Eros, that ancient one, for we see this primeval dancing clearly set forth in the choral dance of the constellations and in the planets and fixed stars, their interweaving and interchange and orderly harmony”.

The learned Doctor continues to refer to three dances: the sandhya tandava, Tillai dance and the wild dance. About this last dance which we have been studying in Arurar, he writes: “The second well-known dance of Shiva is called the Tandava and belongs to His tamasic aspect as Bhairava or Virabhadra. It is performed in cemeteries and burning grounds, where Shiva usually in ten armed form, dances wilaly with Devi, accompanied by troops of capering imps. Representations of this dance are common amongst ancient sculptures, as at Ellora, Elephanta and also at Bhuvanesvara. This Tandava dance is in origin that of a pre-Aryan divinity, half god, half demon, who holds his midnight revels in the burning ground. In later times, this dance in the cremation ground, sometimes of Shiva, sometimes of Devi, is interpreted in Shaiva and Sakta literature in a most touching and profound sense.”


It is very unfortunate that, in spite of the realization of this profound sense, he should call this the Tamasic Dance. It is this which has to be called the real Nadanta Dance which name he reserves for the Tillai Dance. The Pancakrtya Natana cannot be the Nadanta Dance. But after all the story of Tillai Dance is a repetition of the Dance performed when the Daruka Rsis hurled death, as it were, on Shiva. The connection between the Kapali form, the Bhikshatana form and the Nataraja form, whichever might have been the origin of these stories, have been transformed from tamasic (dance) to Cidambara dance. The same thing has happened to the Tamasic frantic and violent dance of the crematorium.

Dr. Ananda Coomaraswami knows the significance of this dance of destruction; for he writes further, “Shiva is a destroyer and loves the burning ground. But what does He destroy? Not merely the Heavens and Earth at the end of a Kalpa, but the fetters that bind each separate soul. Where and what is the burning ground? It is not the place where our earthly bodies are cremated, but the heart of the Bhakta, the devotee, laid waste and desolate. He brings not peace but a sword. The place where their selves are destroyed, signifies the place or state where their egotism or illusion and deeds are burnt away: that is the crematorium, the burning ground where Sri Nataraja dances, and whence He is named ‘Cutalaiyuti’,—‘Dancer of the burning ground’. In this simile, we recognize the historical connection between Shiva’s gracious dance as Nataraja and His wild dance as the demon of the cemetery”.

He continues and refers to the Dance of the Mother current amongst the jSaktas of Bengal. The Dance of the Mother is not unknown to the Tamil land. Cilappatikaram describes it in Vettuva vari. He quotes the Bengali hymn which speaks of the necessity for the purification by the fire of the heart made empty by renunciation, if Kali, the Danseuse, were to enter the heart.

Because Thou lovest the Burning-ground,
I have made a Burning-ground of my heart—
That Thou, Dark one, haunter of the Burning-ground,
Mayest dance Thy eternal dance”

Naught else is within my heart, A Mother:
The ashes of the dead, strewn all about,
I have preserved against Thy coming,
With death conquering Mahakala ‘neath Thy feet
Do Thou enter in, dancing Thy rhythmic dance,
That I may behold Thee with closed eyes”


Thus is the Dance of Destruction; the dance of Heart’s purification. What is the crematorium? Arurar explains it: Of the five elements, the Akasa is the empty space; water and earth—the liquid and the solid—form this world. Fire—the luminous melting stage and air the gaseous stage are the other two. Destruction starts; there is really the involution—the gross becoming the subtle. The solid world of earth and water disappears into the luminous fire and in its turn it disappears into thin air; in the end even this disappears as vacant space or Akas. It is the void which is spoken of as the crematorium. “Marutamum analum mantalumum may a kanitai ma natan en reytuvatu enrukolo"?: —‘When am I to reach Him who dances the great dance inside the wild, when the air, the fire and the world are dead’? The poet longs for this experience. This is really the Nadanta Dance. The universe evolves; there starts the movement (Nada); a point of stress is formed (vindu), and the vibrations result in various forms becoming grosser and grosser till one reaches the world of the present. The involution is the reverse process and the final stage is the Nada, and Nadanta is what is even beyond this incipient sign of creation. It is this void of Nadanta where nothing but Shiva exists; this Grace is there inseparable from Him as the Mother. ‘It is the dance of the Nectar beyond the universe of universes’ —the dance of the transcendental principle but yet a nectar unto His worshippers.

Every soul in its march towards the Absolute, passes through the subtler and subtler experiences of these tattvas or stages, till it reaches the Nadanta or the Absolute, beyond any trace of this fettering universe. “He performs the dance—the Jnana murti— One whose form is Cit or supreme consciousness—firmly in the mind of His servants of no fault or defect” this is the description of the immanent dance—another aspect of the transcendental dance. “Your servants carry the water pot and with the water and the flowers they perform your worship of errands. You start your Nat am singing and dancing and showering your grace on them, so that, you may be in their loving embrace”—thus our poet sings of the acts of the followers and Shiva, as the courtship and final passionate embrace and union of divine love. “You are capable of performing the dance so lovingly that the whole world praises it, whilst the Putams sing all for the sake of those in your service, contemplating on you and in love with you” —thus Arurar once again emphasizes the mutual love which the whole world praises. The mention of the Putam suggests that this is the dance of destruction—the dance of the burning ground. The heart is the crematorium and the poet specifically states it: “There is a firm self luminious conviction. Out of this unshaken faith, they are ever in meditation. In them in the wild (crematorium) of their song, you are found in the act of your dance. How to praise you?” This Nadanta dance is the dance in the Heart, but none can see, none who has not reached that stage. One may not see but the dance is there moving and vivifying the whole universe. “He is capable of appearing unknown to the universal powers of creation and sustenance—unknown to the great Brahma and Vinnu and yet dancing on the open theatre there” —the poet exclaims.


This transcendental and immanent dance is beautifully described in Tirumantiram:

His form is everywhere: all-pervading is His Sivasakti:
Cidambaram (the vacant space of Cit or pure consciousness) is everywhere: everywhere His dance
As Shiva is all and omnipresent,
Everywhere is Shiva’s gracious dance made manifest”.

His fivefold dances are in Sakala and Niskala form,
His fivefold dances are His pancakrtya:
With His grace He performs the five acts,
This is the sacred dance of Umasahaya

“He dances with water, fire, wind and ether,
Thus our Lord dances ever in the court

Visible to those who pass over Maya and Mahamaya
Our Lord dances His eternal dance

The form of the Sakti is all bliss (ananda)
This united bliss in Uma’s body:
This form of Sakti arising in Sakala
And uniting the twain is the dance

His body is Akasa and the dark cloud therein is Muyalaka,
The eight quarters are His eight arms,
The three lights are His three eyes,
Thus becoming, He dances in our body as the assembly (on sabha)

This is Dr. Coomaraswami’s translation and he continues to comment thereon:

“This is His dance. Its deepest significance is felt when it is realized that it takes place within the heart and the self; the kingdom of God is within. Everywhere is God: that Everywhere is the heart.

Thus also we find another verse:

“The dancing foot, the sound of the tinkling bells,
The songs that are sung and the varying steps
The forms assumed by our Dancing Gurupara—
Find out these within yourself, then shall your fetters fall away”.

This reminds us of Arurar’s verse where he speaks of the song, the dance and the Guru.

“To this end”, the Doctor continues, “all else but the thought of God must be cast out of the heart, that He alone may abide and dance therein. In Unmaivilakkam we find: “The silent Jnanis destroying the three fold bond are established where their selves are destroyed. There they behold the sacred and are filled with bliss. This is the dance of the Lord of the assembly, whose very form is Grace”.

“With this reference to the ‘silent Jnanis’ compare the beautiful words of Tirumular:

“When resting there they (the yogis who attain the highest place of peace) lose themselves and become idle”.

Where the idlers dwell is the pure space
Where the idlers sport is the Light
What the idlers know is Vedanta
What the idlers find is the deep sleep in Curuti there”.

Whilst Tirumular speaks in the Siddha language of idlers, Arurar speaks in the mystic language of erotic love.

Here is the conception of the divine activity as Dance. Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy explains it: “The conception of Lila, the world process as the Lord’s sport or amusement, is also prominent in the Shaiva scriptures; thus Tirumular writes: “The perpetual Dance becomes His play. This aspect of His activity appears to have given rise to the objection that He dances as do those who seek to please the eyes of mortals; to which the answer is given that He dances to maintain the life of the cosmos and to give release to those who seek Him”. Arurar calls this ‘Atal’. How else are we to conceive of this conception of Absolute Bliss except in terms of this concrete Dance, saving us all!

The later day works speak of Nataraja as representing the Pancaksara or Namasivaya and the Pancakrtya. No such reference is found in Arurar’s verse. But the mantras are as old as the Vedas. “He discards the flesh. He is the very life permeating the world. He stands in the form of Omkara or Pranava”—thus the poet has realized the Lord at Valivalam.


There is the story of the Lord competing in dance with the blood intoxicated Kali. Manikkavacakar says that she would have swallowed everything—everything would have become a feast for her, if the Lord had not danced and put her down. Kall, here, is not Uma, the Mother. It is the principle opposing the spirit; it is matter. Matter is spiritualized—that is the story of Kali dance—the Urdhva Tandava—the going up rather than getting entangled in the mire. Kali is not destroyed; her anger is appeased—that is what Arurar says. This suggests, the anger is transformed into love.

This mystic significance also Dr. Coomaraswamy explains in his inimitable way.

“The Tiru Arutpayan of Umapatisivam explains the Tiruvaci, arch round the image of the Dance, more naturally as representing the dance of Nature, as contrasted with Shiva’s dance of wisdom. “The dance of matter (Prakrti) proceeds on one side: the jnana dances on the other. Fix your mind in the centre of the latter”. I am indebted to Mr. Nallasivan Pillai for a commentary on this: “The first dance is the action of matter—material and individual energy. This is arch, tiruvaci, omkara,—the dance of Kali. The other is the Dance of Shiva—the aksara inseparable from the Omkara—called ardhamatra or the fourth letter of the Pranava, caturtam and turiyam. The first dance is not possible unless Shiva wills it and dances Himself. The general result of this interpretation of the arch, then, is that it represents matter, nature, prakrti;—the contained splendour, Shiva, dancing within and touching the arch with head, hands and feet, is the universal omnipresent Purusa”.

Arurar also speaks of discarding the flesh or matter and sublimating the Omkara itself as His form all over the world.

The learned Doctor summarizes the whole interpretation:

“The Essential Significance of Shiva’s Dance is three fold: First, it is the image of His Rhythmic Activity as the Source of all Movement within the Cosmos, which is represented by the Arch: Secondly, the purpose of His Dance is to Release the Countless souls of men from the Snare of Illusion: Thirdly the Place of the Dance, Cidambaram, the centre of the Universe, is within the Heart”.


His epilogue may serve as an epilogue to this part of the thesis:

“In these notes I expressly refrain from all aesthetic criticism and have endeavoured only to translate the central thought of the conception of Shiva’s dance from plastic to verbal expression, without reference to the beauty or imperfection of individual works. In conclusion, it may not be out of place to call attention to the grandeur of this conception itself as a synthesis of science, religion and art. How amazing the range of thought and sympathy of those rsis—artists, who first conceived such a type as this, affording an image of reality, a key to the complex tissue of life, a theory of nature, not merely satisfactory to a single clique or race, nor acceptable to the thinkers of one century only, but universal in its appeal to the Philosopher, the Bhakta, and the artist of all ages and all countries. In these days of specialization, we are not accustomed to such a synthesis of thought; but for those who ‘saw’ such images as this, there could have been no division of life and thought into water-tight compartments. Nor, do we always realize, when we criticize the merits of individual works, the full extent of the creative power which, to borrow a musical analogy, could discover a raga so expressive of fundamental rhythms and so profoundly significant and inevitable.

“Every part of such an image as this is directly expressive, not of any mere superstition or dogma, but of evident facts. No artist of today, however great, could more exactly or more wisely create an image of that Energy which science must postulate behind all phenomena. If we would reconcile Time with Eternity, We can scarcely do so otherwise than by the conception of alternations of phase extending ever vast regions of space and great tracts of time”. “Especially significant, then, is the phase alternation implied by the drum, and the fire which ‘changes’ not destroys. These are but visual symbols of the theory of the day and night of Brahma.

“In the night of Brahma, Nature is inert, and cannot dance till Shiva wills it. He rises from His rapture, and dancing sends through inert matter pulsing waves of awakening sound, and lo! matter also dances, appearing as a glory round about Him. Dancing, He sustains its manifold phenomena. In the fullness of time, still dancing, He destroys all foms and names by fire and gives new rest. This is poetry: but none the less, the truest science.

“Again, this Nataraja is not only Truth, but Love: for the purpose of His Dance is Grace, the giving of freedom to countless individual souls. Lastly, also, how supremely great in power and grace this dancing image must appear to all those who as artists have striven in plastic forms to give expression to their intuition of Life!

“It is not strange that the figure of Nataraja has commanded the adoration of so many generations past: we, familiar with all scepticisms, expert in tracing all beliefs to primitive superstitions, explorers of the infinitely great and infinitely small, are worshippers of Sri Nataraja still”.

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