Ultimate Reality: Adi Shankara and the Chola Artisans

Title: Nataraja/Shiva as Lord of Dance Author’s Name: Unknown Medium: Bronze Sculpture Date: 1000 CE Chola period (900-13th Century) Origin: South India, Tamil Nadu Location: The Cleveland Museum of Art

Nirvana Shatakam

I am not the mind, the intellect, the ego or the memory,
I am not the ears, the skin, the nose or the eyes,
I am not space, not earth, not fire, water or wind,
I am the form of consciousness and bliss,
I am the eternal Shiva…

I am not the breath, nor the five elements,
I am not matter, nor the 5 sheaths of consciousness
Nor am I the speech, the hands, or the feet,
I am the form of consciousness and bliss,
I am the eternal Shiva…

There is no like or dislike in me, no greed or delusion,
I know not pride or jealousy,
I have no duty, no desire for wealth, lust or liberation,
I am the form of consciousness and bliss,
I am the eternal Shiva…

No virtue or vice, no pleasure or pain,
I need no mantras, no pilgrimage, no scriptures or rituals,
I am not the experienced, nor the experience itself,
I am the form of consciousness and bliss,
I am the eternal Shiva…

I have no fear of death, no caste or creed,
I have no father, no mother, for I was never born,
I am not a relative, nor a friend, nor a teacher nor a student,
I am the form of consciousness and bliss,
I am the eternal Shiva…

I am devoid of duality, my form is formlessness,
I exist everywhere, pervading all senses,
I am neither attached, neither free nor captive,
I am the form of consciousness and bliss,
I am the eternal Shiva…


From enlightened craftsmen to simple and solitary truth-seekers disclosing their insights, the quest to depict the revelations about the true nature of the universe is woven throughout various art forms and eras. Such lofty concepts concerning the nature of the universe can be seen in simple artistic representations as well as in modern science, providing inspiration to those whose search for truth is more secular. This sublime understanding is especially obvious in the works of the ancient Indian artisans and sages who, in depicting their beliefs, have created iconic metaphors that not only artistically represent the beauty of their philosophy, but also describe the workings of the universe.

Two great works exemplifying this idea are the strota Nirvana Shatakam, first recited near the North Indian Himalayas by the child Advaita Vedanta philosopher Adi Shankara (788-820 CE) and the bronze sculpture Nataraja/Shiva as Lord of the Dance, created in Tamil Nadu, South India during the Chola Period (estimated 1000 CE ) by an unknown artisan. Both works strive to convey their creators’ beliefs about the true nature of the universe through their respective depictions of Lord Shiva and while containing many coinciding tenets, also include several contradictory philosophical beliefs.

Nataraja/Shiva as Lord of Dance was a bronze, temple and processional sculpture of the Hindu deity Lord Shiva, created during the Chola dynasty 1000 CE. Nataraja was depicted as Lord Shiva’s physical form that descended to the earth granting “darshan” for grace and supplication to his devotees (Art). Darshan was the opportunity to see the deity, and to be seen by the deity, as well. This was particularly important for people not allowed in the temples or those who lived outside of the cities and did not have a regular chance to see their God (Art). According to sacred texts known as the Shilpa Shastras, Lord Shiva’s eyes were carved at a special temple ceremony by artists in a very specific almond shape as direct eye to eye contact with the deity was central to ancient Hindu belief of darshan (Art). In his physical form, Lord Shiva was also depicted as the cyclical force of creation and destruction running throughout the entire universe. Dancing in cosmic bliss, Nataraja is surrounded by a ring of fire holding in his left hand the “agni” or flame of fire suggesting his destructive aspect (Prakash). In his right hand sits a small hourglass-shaped drum or “damaru” referring to the female Goddess Shakti or the life force of creation. This life force is only in time and space. Thus, the drum beats away with every dance step Nataraja takes reminding us time is continuously slipping away (C. M. Art). Nataraja’s lower right hand is posed in “Abhaya” mudra telling his devotees to be fearless, and all blessings will be attained. His lower left arm and hand is pointing downward like an elephant trunk, representing his son Ganesha – the remover of obstacles, towards the raised left foot symbolic of release or attainment (Prakash). This obstacle Nataraja can help his devotees to overcome is ignorance or ego as represented by his right foot stepping on the back of the demon, Apasmara which breaks the cycle of rebirth (Prakash).

Nirvana Shatakam, a strota written by Adi Shankara was first recited in the 8th century when Shankara was only eight years old. The young Shankara was frustrated by the varying sectarianism developing in India which broke away from the original Hindu teachings known as the Upanishads, as well as, the advent of Buddhism. Shankara went out to the forest in search of a guru and came across an elderly sage named Gaudapada who asked Shankara, “Who are you?” Shankara recited the six-stanza poem which depicted Lord Shiva’s formless state of existence and signifying Shankara was already Lord Shiva and had attained liberation of the ego (Alam).

The stanzas are also in order of the self-realization process itself, meaning, the first stanza is the starting point in grasping and attainment of what one is not: the mind, intellect, ego or memory and transcends through to the final stage of understanding, which is formlessness, the void or emptiness (Tejomayanandji).

With his mother’s permission, the monastic sage Gaudapada took the 8-year-old Shankara as a disciple instructing him on the ancient teachings (Hunter). These ideas ultimately formed the core tenants of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and many other Asian religions and philosophies which Shankara would re-establish as well as the monastic life and guru-devotee style of instruction which is still part of many Asian belief systems today.

In comparing Nataraja/Shiva as Lord of Dance and the Nirvana Shatakam, both works are about the Hindu deity Shiva, as the bronze statue’s name implies, as well as the final line of each stanza “I am the eternal Shiva” indicates. As Nataraja’s right footsteps on the back of the demon to destroy all ignorance and his left foot raises symbolically suggesting release, this, in essence, is the goal of Nirvana Shatakam: release from the bondage of the ego. However, there is some difference of creative interpretation due to the diversity among Shaivite sects. The Cholas were henotheistic, and Adi Shankara was a monist, meaning Shankara saw everything as one, with no difference between himself and the deity. Lastly, as previously stated, Nataraja/Shiva is in the image of his descended form for devotees to receive darshan. In Nirvana Shatakam, Lord Shiva is conveyed as formless with the goal for the reader to recognize his or her true formlessness.

From creation and destruction to the order and chaos which makes up our lives; our planet earth; and our celestial dome; many on the astrophysical frontier regard Nataraja/Shiva as Lord of Dance as the perfect metaphor for the dance of sub-atomic particles. The representations found in both works can be seen to describe the motions of the cosmos and the invisible particles whose vibrations are believed to be integral to the formation of all matter and anti-matter. Therefore, outside of CERN Laboratories in Switzerland, sits a Nataraja statue symbolizing the workings of this vast universe and beyond. The piece was presented to the laboratory as a gift from the Indian government in 2004 in recognition of collaboration dating back to the 1960s (Unveiled). CERN holds the most powerful particle accelerator on Earth and has proven theories such as the Higg’s Boson or God particle, which, is believed to have been the fuse in the Big Bang and more recently the detection of gravitational waves. Now, it is hypothesized that gravitational waves are made up of gravitons, which are immensely difficult to detect as they are constantly slipping into other dimensions. Understanding these dimensions is of considerable importance to physicists as they seek to understand the “formlessness” before the Big Bang or birth of our universe. This void is found in the final stanza: “I am devoid of duality, my form is formlessness, I exist everywhere, pervading all senses” and rings true as scientists continually discover all that we are not.

Adi Shankara and the Chola artisans located a passage into what seems to be an obscure realm within and without the human being. They gifted us with the Nirvana Shatakam and Nataraja sculpture as treasure maps to discover the ubiquitous womb and the void in one of our reincarnations, therefore, furthering our individual soul’s evolution. For many, this realm is the same domain modern scientists investigate through mathematics, laboratory experiments, and space exploration. At some point, hopefully, we will converge into a solitary unit of truth seekers understanding we are all exploring the very same place.

Works Cited

Alam, Sadi. Atma Shatakam of Adi Shankara | The Song of Self-Realization. 17 July 2016. article. 17 July 2016.

Art, Cleveland Museum of. Nataraja, Shiva as the Lord of Dance 11th Century CE. 17 July 2016. Bronze Sculpture. 17 July 2016.

Art, Freer, and Sackler: The Smithsonian Museum of. History & Geography. 10 July 2016. article. 10 July 2016.

Hunter, Poem. “Adi Shankaracharya 7 Poems.” 2012. http://www.thepoemhunter.com. article. 17 July 2016.

Prakash, Sasha. Sasha Prakash’s Blog. 10 January 2010. article. 17 July 2016.

Tejomayanandji, Swami. Sree Sankaracharya’s Nirvana Shatakam. Bombay: Central Chimaya Mission Trust, 2001. book.

Unveiled, Lord Shiva Statue to be. Lord Shiva Statue to be Unveiled. 5 July 2004. article. 17 July 2016.

1 thought on “Ultimate Reality: Adi Shankara and the Chola Artisans

  1. Pingback: Ultimate Reality: Adi Shankara and the Chola Artisans — Heather Cleveland’s Great Spirit Blog | IYENGAR YOGA BLOG

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