In case you missed it, this past Sunday evening, just prior to the New Moon on Monday, was Shivaratri, the auspicious night of Shiva. In some parts of India, Shivaratri is observed to celebrate the drinking of the halahala (poison) by Shiva during the churning of the Ocean of Milk. By doing so he saved all of existence from destruction, turned his throat blue and earned himself the name, Nilakanta—“the blue necked one.” The Ocean of Milk symbolizes human existence, where there is a constant tug of war happening between the Devas and Asuras, the beings of Light and Darkness. As we are pulled back and forth by these forces, sometimes something vile and poisonous emerges from the depths of ourselves that threatens to consume and even potentially destroy us. These self-destructive tendencies often take the form of what are called the “six enemies,”—kama, krodha, lobha, moha, mada, and matsarya (lust, anger, greed, delusion, hubris, and envy). Collectively we could call the six enemies Halahala. The one deity powerful enough to quaff these poisons without succumbing to them is Shiva, “the Auspicious One.” When we practice yoga we initiate this churning process and are sometimes surprised by what surfaces as a result. Shivaratri is Shiva’s favorite night of the year and also the time when He is most benevolent and merciful. It is a time when, like it or not, we all get a taste of Shiva’s medicine as he pushes the reset button to get us to stop for a moment and reassess ourselves.
Shiva is sometimes known as the Destroyer, which can make Him seem like a fearful deity, but ultimately He is the Destroyer of ignorance and attachment to form. He is also the Lord of Yoga. One of the great symbolic images of Shiva is Nataraja, the “King of the Dance.” Nataraja represents opposing energies in perfect equilibrium. One hand holds a drum, representing sound and creation, while another holds a flame, symbolizing destruction and transformation. Nataraja’s upraised palm reassures us to “fear not, I am with you” with the gesture of abhaya mudra, while his downward pointing hand offers the key to our liberation-- surrender to the feet of the Adi Guru, the First Teacher. One foot stands on the prostate body of the Apasmara Purusha, the “demon of forgetfulness” who symbolizes ignorance of our true nature. This foot represents sthiti, the power of stability. The other, uplifted foot symbolizes sristi, the pouring forth or unfolding dynamism of the Universe. A ring of flames surrounds Nataraja, indicating the intense tapas (heat) created by his dance. In the midst of this fiery dance, Nataraja’s face is completely composed, the eyes half closed and a hint of an enigmatic smile. On the one hand He is total tranquility, on the other He is total activity. As the King of the Dance, Nataraja is master of all forms of dance. The type of dance most commonly associated with Nataraja is called the Tandava, a fierce, violent dance of ferocious energy that uproots all tamasic tendencies and creates havoc in our lives. Another dance of Nataraja is called Lasya, a gentle, lyrical dance characterized by sweetness, tenderness, and love. This is the dance we can look forward to after submitting ourselves to the harsh but healing flames of the Tandava.
Shiva represents primeval qualities like wildness, earthiness, and spontaneity, qualities that are sometimes sadly lacking here in our highly civilized, button-downed, technologically addicted, rigorously scheduled lives in the 21st century. Shiva encourages us to remember that Life is a Dance, to let down our hair a bit and be natural and fluid, and to not be so attached to who we think we are.