SYMB0LISM OF HINDU TEMPLES AND POPULAR DEITIES
(Discourse by N. R. Srinivasan, Nashville)
Vedas, the Hindu books of Knowledge, proclaim "The One the seers call by many names". Hindus all worship one Supreme Being, called by different names. Truth for the Hindu has many names, but that does not make for many truths. To the enlightened few Hindus, God in the form of Absolute Reality is adequate enough for concentration. But to vast majority, God is Personal. Over millions of years, Vedic rituals, sacrifices and penance have been replaced largely by meditation, prayers and yoga practices. Prayer or meditations is helped by concentration on an object, which has resulted in temple form of worship and iconographical features, which is wrongly misunderstood as idol worship. This personal form of worship focuses on three main functions of God-head, Creation, Preservation and Destruction which are further simplified by the one great God Eesvara, the Lord of the Universe, being called Brahma, when he takes over the creation of the Universe, Vishnu, when he assumes the role of Preserver, and Siva, when He is the Destroyer. The strength behind these roles is the feminine aspect of Trinity called Saraswathi, Goddess of Learning, Lakshmi, Goddess of Prosperity and Durga, Goddess of Strength, whom common folks worship as consorts of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva.
SYMBOLISM OF HINDU TEMPLE
The orthodox Hindu Temples are symbolically designed. Its very construction indicates the path of Self-realization. Hindu Temple symbolizes live human body which consists of gross, subtle and casual bodies and the inner Self which is called Aatman, representative of Universal Brahman, the Supreme Principle or Consciousness. Hindu temples are built and consecrated as per Silpa Sastra and Aagama Sastra, well developed architectural science and ritualistic codes of practices. It has a tower rising directly over the sanctum called Vimaana, a four sided diminishing square area. The apex of the Vimaana is a Kalasa or a copper pot. Around the sanctum is a narrow path for circumambulation called Pradakshina-patha. There is a rectangular porch called, Mukhya Mantapa where devotees offer their prayers and observe rituals performed by the priests. At the outer edge is a large hall, known as Mahaa Mantapa, for larger gatherings. The four walls around the temple cover the pillared halls as well as smaller shrines housing other deities. Gopuram or the gate-way tower leads magnificence to the temple structure. As one enters the temple, a seat for giving offerings to the deities called Balipeetha is seen. A flag-post called Dwajasthambha is located between Balipeetha and sanctum rising to great heights. The innermost chamber of a temple, where idol is consecrated is called Garbhagriha. It is the location for Supreme Spirit symbolized in the form of deity which is an important part of Hindu temple. It is the communication between mortals and the Supreme. No one enters this place other than the priest. He too enters the place after seeking the permission of the Lord by prayers and gestures.
Different iconographical features are depicted for the different deities at different times, depending on the roles they perform. Hindus worship many forms of the Supreme as deities. These divinities are like executives in a large corporation who have their specific duties and powers--not unlike the Heavenly Spirits, Overlords, or Aarchangels revered in other faiths. These should not be confused with the Supreme Lord or Consciousness called Brahman, Atman or Self. The worship of various deities is aimed at the attainment of Supreme Consciousness or merging with the Self called Salvation.
Supreme Spirit is worshipped in its un-manifested form as Brahman. In manifested form Supreme Spirit is worshipped as various deities in iconic form as described here. Supreme spirit is also worshipped in an-iconic (manifested un-manifested form) as Linga (Siva always) and Salagrama (Vishnu occasionally and at homes). Pictorial and painting icons are also used sometimes in home worship.
All forms of worship, including temple worship are aimed at destroying the existing thoughts in us and seeking the supreme reality or Truth. When we are born this Truth is veiled (called Maaya) due to our past deeds called Praarabhda Karma and our struggle in life starts with birth. Therefore the idea of Creation is repugnant to spiritual seekers of Truth. Hence Brahma, the Lord of Creation is not worshipped in temples except in one temple in Rajasthan and the other in Orissa in India. Brahma cult was pre-dominant in pre-Vedic Hinduism but after the Upanishadic Thoughts seeking Truth, Brahma was superseded by Vishnu and Siva aspects of Trinity. However, be it Siva or Vishnu or deities representing their aspects, there must be a niche for Brahma in the northern wall of all the temples and his icon must receive worship every day since he is an important attendant of the Main Deity.
SIVA THE AUSPICIOUS AND THE FEARSOME
At the highest level, Lord Shiva is regarded as limitless, transcendent, and unchanging. Shiva also has many benevolent and fearsome depictions. In benevolent aspects, he is depicted as an omniscient Yogi who lives an ascetic life on Mount Kailash, as well as a householder with wife Parvati and his two children, Ganesha and Kartikeya, and in fierce aspects, he is often depicted slaying demons. Shiva is also regarded as the patron god of yoga, meditation, and arts.
The main icono-graphic attributes of Shiva are the third eye on his forehead, the snake Vasuki around his neck, the adorning crescent moon, the holy river Ganga flowing from his matted hair, the trishula as his weapon and the damaru as his musical instrument. Shiva is usually worshiped in the aniconic form of Lingam
Siva is the destroyer of the Universe when needed. Siva not only destroys the Universe but is also the destroyer of illusion and the cycle of birth and death which binds us to this world. The word Siva means auspicious in Sanskrit language and Linga means symbol. Soon after the creation of the world, Siva is believed to have appeared in the form of a pillar of fire, reaching into space at one end and into the bowels of the earth on the other and even his counter parts Brahma and Vishnu was not able to trace the beginning or end of his supernatural manifestation. Therefore Siva is symbolized as Linga, meaning symbol, representing the endless pillar of cosmic power and light. Symbolically He is bathed with constant trickling water continuously to keep the fire pillar cool. The ashes seen on the Linga tells us that the body is transient and ends in ashes. His vehicle Nandi, the divine bull, faces the Linga symbolizing the soul of Man, the Jeeva, yearning for Paramaatman, the Great Soul (God).
The Siva Linga ellipsoid is fixed in such a way that two thirds of it lies embedded in the earth while the other one third remains on the surface. The upper part appearing above the surface represents the seen and visible manifest world. The lower part under the surface is the unseen invisible substratum, the supporter of the upper part. Lower part represents the un-manifest Supreme Reality. The properties of the ellipsoid are ideally suited for symbolizing the two aspects of Reality--the un-manifest and manifest. Cross section of an ellipsoid is a circle. The circle represents the Supreme Reality which has no beginning or end. The motion of each planet around the sun describes an ellipse. The orbits described by the movement of electrons are also ellipses. Hence ellipsoid is most suited to represent the Universe.
Worship of Siva dates back to Vedic period and beyond. He is called Rudra in Rigveda along with ten other deities also called Rudras. The word Rudra consists of two words "Ru" and "tra" which means one who protects from miseries. Lord Krishna says in Bhagavadgita "Among the Rudras I am Siva". Accordingly Lord Siva is the supreme deity who takes care of our miseries along with other deities. Rudra is glorified in Rigveda (Sri Rudram) with hundred hymns which are chanted with reverence every day in Hindu worship of Siva.
Siva is part of the Trinity called Trimurtis and is the Destroyer, while Brahma is the Creator and Vishnu is the Preserver. Brahma creates the world, Vishnu sustains the world and Siva destroys it. This goes in a cyclic order. Siva is believed to exist in many forms. His popular depiction is as a dark-skinned ascetic with a blue throat, usually seated cross legged on a tiger skin. He is also invariably shown with crescent moon, snake around his neck, his Trident and Rosary. Trident is a weapon of offence and defense and shows Siva is the ruler. Rosary shows he is the master of spiritual sciences. The crescent moon stands for measurement of time as days or months depends upon waxing and waning of the moon. God is the keeper of time but he is not bound by time. By wearing Moon as a diadem, Siva is showing us that even the all-powerful time is only an ornament for him! Coiled serpents represent cycles of time in the macrocosm and the basic energy. So, Siva is the master of time and energy.
Siva in his dancing form is called Nataraja. He is a great master of dance. Siva's dance indicates a continuous process of preservation and destruction. The drum in his hand indicates the principle of sound and hence ether. The fire in his hand represents the fire that destroys the world at the time of dissolution and hence symbolizes the process of destruction. The drum and the fire represent the continuous cycle of creation, preservation and destruction. The other two hands point out that whoever takes refuge in him will have nothing to fear. The body on which he stands symbolizes ignorance which makes us lose our balance and consciousness. He is trampled upon by the Lord for the good of the devotees who take refuge. In mythology the body is that of a demon he destroyed. Siva is a God with three eyes—Trayambaka. They represent the Sun, the Moon and the Fire symbolizing the triple constituents of life principles of Matter, Vital Power (Praana) and Consciousness (Manas).
Invariably Siva is worshipped in Temples in the form of Linga, a formless form of worship.
(Lord of All Beings)
Lord Ganesha is the son of Siva and Parvati. All ceremonies, religious or secular, and starting of any project or task start with a prayer to Ganesha for their success as ordained by his father Siva. All pooja (worship) and rituals begin with a salutation to Lord Ganesha as follows: "I meditate upon the deity, Lord Vighneshvara, who wears the white garment, who is all pervasive (Vishnum), who is of bright complexion like the moon, who has four hands and who has a pleasing countenance, for the removal of all obstacles". ["Suklambaradharam vishnum sasivarnam chaturbhujam | Prasanna vadanam dhyaayet sarva-vighnopa saantayay ||
Special worship of Ganesha falls on the day of Ganesha Chathurthi which falls on the fourth day of the lunar month Bhadrapada (August/September). It is the day on which he was created according to mythology.
Ganesha (Lord of all beings) is also known by other names – Gajaanana (elephant faced), Vinaayaka (Supreme Leader), Ganapathi (same as Ganesha), Vighneshwara (remover of all obstacles, Vighnaraja (ruler of all obstacles). "Ga" means knowledge, "na" means salvation and "isa' or "pathi" means Lord in Sanskrit, and he is popularly called as Ganapathi or Ganesha.
Even though the name Ganapathi appears in Rigveda that word refers to only Indra and not to the mythological deity Ganesha. His father Siva is called Rudra in Rigveda. In Hindu mythological literature, he is described as being created by Parvati as Ayonija (unborn in the womb) to guard her privacy. He is endowed with supreme power and intelligence. He successfully fights his own father Siva, who tries to break the privacy of his wife. Siva rewards him with supreme intelligence by placement of an elephant-head on a severed human body to appease Parvati. He chooses supreme intelligence to power to defeat his own brother Shanmukha, who is a child prodigy in a contest. He was an honored guest of Lord Kubera and he alone consumes all the food prepared for the guests. Yet he is not satisfied. With a handful of roasted rice from his father Siva, his hunger is satisfied. This incident is cited as the cause of his big belly. He is supposed to have written the great epic, Mahabharata with one of his broken sharp tusks etching on 'bhoj patra' (paper thin bark) with lightning speed and instant understanding as dictated by Sage Vedavyaasa.
The physical form of Ganesha is corpulent and awkward which reminds us that out-ward appearance has no connection with the inner beauty and spiritual perfection. Elephant's head on a human body in Ganesha is meant to represent supreme wisdom. The trunk of an elephant has the unique capacity of performing both gross and subtle activities. It can uproot a tree with its trunk and can also pick up a needle from the ground. Its large ears symbolize the importance of listening and learning. It is important for the intellect to have a capacity to discriminate with regard to bigger issues as well as finer issues. Ganesha's intellect penetrates the realms of material and spiritual worlds, the state which one must aspire to reach. He is "dvanda atita" beyond opposites. This is ideally represented in Ganesha having two tusks, one of which is broken. Heat and cold, joy and sorrow, honor and dishonor, do not affect him, influence him or harass him. Ganesha's large belly is meant to convey that 'Man of Perfection' can consume and digest whatever experiences he undergoes. He is therefore represented as being able to stomach and digest all types of experiences. Ganesha sits with one leg folded up with toes pointing upwards and the other resting on the ground. The leg on the ground indicates that one aspect of his personality in dealing with the material world while the other is ever rooted in single pointed concentration upon the Supreme Reality. At the feet of the Lord one always finds an abundance of food, which represents material wealth, power and prosperity. Beside the food, a tiny mouse is seen looking up to Lord Ganesha waiting, as if, for its master's sanction. The mouse, greedy by nature, represents desire. The mouse looking up therefore denotes that the desires in a faithful devotee are absolutely under control.
Ganesha is always seen with four arms. The four arms represent subtle body called 'manas', intellect called 'buddhi', ego called 'ahankaara' and conditional consciousness called 'chitta'. Ganesha represents pure consciousness, Aatman. In one hand he holds an axe which symbolizes the destruction of all desires and in the other hand a rope, which is meant to pull the seeker out of his worldly entanglements. Sometimes Ganesha idol is seen with a noose and a hook in these hands. The noose is to remind us that the worldly attachments are a noose and the hook in his hand is to prod one on to the path of righteousness. In the third hand he holds a Modaka, a sweet rice ball. Modaka represents a joyous reward for spiritual seeking. In the fourth hand sometimes he holds a lotus, padma. The lotus represents the Supreme goal of human evolution. Sometimes this hand is in the 'abhaya mudra' posture with palm facing the devotee and all fingers pointing upwards. This indicates 'Do not fear, I shall protect'.
His huge body also represents the cosmos or universe and his trunk the Pranava or OM, the symbol of the Brahman. The snake around his waist represents cosmic energy.
Different iconographical features of Sri Ganesha as seen in idols, pictures, paintings, carvings etc. depict the different roles he played at different times as narrated in Puranas and the messages he conveys his devotees, symbolically. This symbolism helps the devotee in his meditation and his thoughts progressively pervade on Brahman or the Universal Soul. "Vedas proclaim, 'Eko Vipraaha Bahudaa Vadanti' meaning 'the ONE (Brahman), the learned call by many names'. In this way, Lord Ganesha occupies a place of distinction in the Hindu pantheon. He blesses all his devotees to reach Supreme state of Wisdom and Reality.
Why is Ganesha not made as a lovely idol? The answer is perhaps if he is so presented, the devotee is very likely to be attracted to the form only and forget about the real significance of seeing Brahman through him. His strange appearance arouses curiosity to go deep to know him.
We prostrate before Ganesha squeezing both the ears with fingers of crossed arms and with crossed legs bending down and getting up many a times. It is a difficult exercise. You might have observed our priests doing it even though many devotees do not do it except for few Ganesha devotees from Tamilnadu. This is called "Thoppu Karanam" in Tamil Nadu which is a popular scene in Ganesha Temple worship all over Tamilnadu. This word is a corrupted form of "Dhorbit Karana".
Saivite Mythology has an interesting story behind it! Sri Devi gazing steadfastly at the face of Kameswara created Gajamukha to destroy Gajamukha asura. The celestials were forced to kneel with their hands holding their ears cross-wise as also their legs, during the sway of Gajamukha asura. Thus having got into the habit they began to adore Lord Ganesha in this manner, even after the asura (demon) was destroyed.
Squeezing the ear could be useful in treating heart problems according to Dr. Siddeshwar Raj Saxena (London Sep. 26, 1976 Medical journal Lancet). He has found from experiments that the simple procedure of squeezing the ear produces temporary effect of heart dynamics, causing small reduction in pulse rate, a profound drop in the amplitude of the pulse and a drop in the peak and mean flow velocity. An American doctor has also reported a theory that a metal staple inserted in the ear might help stop smoking, drinking or doing drugs.
Venkateswara, also known as Venkatesa in Andrapradesh is perhaps the most popular of all the Hindu deities in India and the temple on Tirupati Hills is perhaps the richest in the world next to Vatican. He is popularly known as the Lord of the Hill (Venkatesa). The origin of this God is shrouded in mystery but today the devotees accept him unquestioningly as the manifestation of Lord Vishnu. Wherever South Indians migrate they will spare no effort to build a temple for this powerful deity or at least have a sanctum sanctorum for him as the principal deity in the temple-complex. At least 30 percent of the proper names in South India carry his name in the telephone directories as it is the preferred choice to name a child after him believing it would bring health, wealth and all round happiness.
Venkateswara is believed to be a unique incarnation of Vishnu in Kaliyuga, to protect humanity from adverse effects of declining Dharma by Hindus. He is also popularly called Srinivasa in South India and Balaji in North India. Out of 18 Puranas, 12 Puranas mention and glorify Lord Venkateswara. He is married to Devi Padmavati, daughter of Aakasaraja of Tondaimandalam who is an incarnation of Lakshmi. The marriage, officiated by Brahma, was celebrated with great pomp and splendor. Still the same marriage is celebrated as "Kalyaanoetsavam' at Tirupati and wherever Venkateswara idols are installed in temples. This is for the peace and prosperity of the family of the devotee in particular and the world at large in general. The stone idol (Moola vigraha) is never seen with Padmavati together according to the puranic story connected with it. Venkatesa Mahatmya glorifies the incarnation of Lord Vishnu in the name of Venkateswara on the Seven Hills (Tirupati). Seven Hills are: Seshadri, Neeladri, Garudadri, Anjanadri, Vrishbhadri, Narayanadri and Venkatadri.
There are two words associated with "Venkata"; 'vem' meaning sins and 'kata' meaning to burn in Sanskrit language, meaning one who burns our dire sins. Another meaning of it is "giver of worldly wealth". It also means "burning debts" where Kadan (Debt) is a Tamil word, a reference to Venkatesha's loan from Kubera based on mythology. Tirumala Hills collects largest daily collection of money in the whole of India.
Lord Venkateswara is seen with four hands. Upper right and left hands are seen with Chakra (discus) and Shanka(conch) respectively. Lower right hand which is in the posture of Varadamudra (the hand with the palm facing the devotee but with the fingers pointing downwards—the boon giving posture) points towards his divine feet suggesting the devotees to surrender at his divine feet. Lower left hand is in the "Kati mudra" posture pointing at his knees suggesting that the ocean of life is knee deep for the devotees who surrender to him.
Venkateshwara gives every human being the opportunity to lead brighter and better life, the right to hope and keep one's unshakable faith. He assures us that it is never too late to repent and ask for forgiveness, that even the wickedest sinner can change for the better. What makes this deity unique is that he has changed lives of many by his convincing miracles who approach him with faith and devotion! In Kannada language there is a proverb which says, "Sankata bandre Venkataramana" meaning "When in trouble dial Venkataramana". All this can be summed up in the popular Mantra: "There is no place equal to Venkatadri in the whole Universe; The Divine equal to Venkatesha has never been in the past, nor is at present, and neither will be in the future".
He is the other son of Siva and is known by many names. As Kartikeya he is the designated 'Deity of War' guarding the right and destroying the evil. Here in Ganesha temple the idol of young Subramanya or Murugan (the last name is used in Tamil Nadu, India) is installed. In his hand he holds 'Vel' or sharp spear, symbolizing the developed sharp intellect and with this he guards the spiritual progress of the world. Young Subramanya defeated his own father Lord Shiva in a spiritual debate, being a child prodigy and is therefore called Guru Guha.
Rama is a popular seventh incarnation of Vishnu among the Ten Incarnations (Dasaavataara). Lord Rama stands out as the most glorious of all characters found in scriptural literature. Sage Valmiki has symbolized Rama as an ideal man of perfection. He carries always his bow and arrows. This symbolizes his alertness and readiness to fight against iniquity and thus establish justice and peace. He was an ideal king, a true husband, a devoted brother and a real friend. He is therefore always seen with his consort Sita, brother Lakshmana and friend and devotee Hanuman, the Monkey God sitting at his feet with bent head and folded hands in reverence to the great master.
The most dynamic and celebrated Ten Incarnations of Vishnu is that of Lord Krishna, the eighth incarnation. Here he is worshipped along with his Divine Love, Radha. Krishna's incarnation brought about profound and powerful influence upon Hindu thought and life, particularly Bhagavadgeeta, the Song of the Celestial, his message to the masses. Every aspect of Krishna's life has a mystic symbolism including his childish pranks, indicating a sublime Truth. He is often devotedly and lovingly worshipped as Baala Krishna (child Krishna). You can see the child Krishna in the cradle being worshipped. He is always seen with his flute alluring cows as a cowherd, his boyhood friends, followers and devotees leading to brighter worlds with his enchanting and divine music.
In Puri, in Orissa in the East of India, Lord Krishna is worshipped as Jagannath, The Lord of the Universe. He is worshipped here with his affectionate elder brother Balarama and his beloved sister Subhadra symbolizing the affection and attachment of the siblings. Usually Vishnu and his incarnations are painted in blue where iconography employs painting, to signify infinity, as the Supreme is limitless as the blue sky. But here Lord Jagannth is seen predominantly in Black. Silpa Sastra, the sacred science of architecture and iconography, specifies stone, wood, clay or metal for icons consecrated in temples or worshipped at home. Orissa in India specializes in wooden carvings and paintings. The icons here are made from seasoned wood of selected neem (margosa) trees, a medicinal tree popular in India. The most important festival in summer for Jagannath is the Rath Yatra or the car festival. Ganesha temple also has a miniature Ratha modeled after the giant Ratha in Puri. The English word juggernaut, meaning a large heavy truck or an object that crushes whatever is in its path, actually came from the name "Jagannath" and the event of the huge car procession in Puri. Jaggnnath means Lord of the world and his message is "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam" which means "The world is my family".
FEMININE ASPECT OF TRINITY
Cosmic Energy in the dynamic form is symbolized for us, mortals, in the form of Sakti, the World Mother, who is the power and energy by which the Supreme Spirit, creates, preserves and destroys.The three Sakti forms of them are: Saraswathi—Goddess of Wisdom and Learning; Lakshmi—Goddess of Prosperity; Durga—Goddess of Energy and Strength; Kaali—Personification of Time etc. Hindu Temple at Nashville has consecrated the idols of Durga, Parvati and Lakshmi.
Durga is the primeval Energy which is worshipped. In the form of Durga she rides a tiger, the ego and arrogance that Man has to subdue. With the weapons in her hand she fights the eight evils (hate, greed, passion, vanity, contempt of others, envy, jealousy and illusion with which man binds himself). Her arms and weapons are constantly flaying and fighting evil in all forms. She is a Vedic Deity celebrated in Durgaasookta.
She is the gentle consort of Lord Shiva. In one hand she holds a noose, signifying worldly attachments from which we should free ourselves. The hook she holds in the other hand is indicative of her prodding us on the path of righteousness. She is always seen in her bridal sari with sixteen forms of beautification called 'sola sringar' in Hindi language, which form she used to domesticate the ascetic Siva and made him a family man. In this form he blesses his devotees.
She is the feminine aspect of the Preserver Vishnu and is his consort. The grace of God is personified in her as one who brings prosperity. She holds one hand in the form of open palm fingers opening upwards (Abhaya Mudra) and other facing downwards (Varada Mudra) symbolizing protection and bestowing prosperity and grace to the devotees as described before. Though grown in dirty mires, lotus remains clean and white with no attachment to water. Lakshmi sits on lotus flower and holds also the same in her hand emphasizing the importance of pure living without which grace and giving are meaningless and prosperity an empty shell.
Invoking Lord in the form of Planetary Deities is one of the unique forms of worshipping the Supreme seen in the Vedic culture. The planetary deities are nine in number perceived as playing a significant role in the life of an individual. These are: the Sun, the Moon, the Mars, the Mercury, the Jupiter, the Venus, the Saturn, the southern node (Rahu) and northern node (Ketu) points of the Moon. These planetary deities preside over the twelve zodiac signs. Also they are the presiding deities as follows; Sun—soul and eye; Moon—mind and emotions; Mars—siblings and health; Mercury—person's teaching capacities; Jupiter—religious inclinations, prosperity and married life for women; Venus—material comforts, art, culture and aesthetics; Saturn—longevity, calamities, difficulties in life, renunciation and spiritual wisdom; Raahu—worldly desires; Ketu—freedom from limitations and salvation. Before leaving the temple devotees offer prayers to these deities by circumambulating nine times around the planetary altar while chanting a special prayer.
There is a special arrangement of Navagrahas in all temples such that no planet faces any other in the configuration. The Sun is in the center. The good and bad tendencies that each planet plays on individual's life, is taken into consideration in this arrangement. This idea comes from the horoscope as drawn by Hindus based on astrology. Hindu knowledge of astrology led to astronomy which can be traced back to 5000 years and beyond. Rahu and Ketu are actually not planets but nodal points but their influence is considered almost to that of other planets and hence they are also called as Grahas or planets in Sanskrit language.
The hall for conducting Homa and Yagna is intended for popular ritualistic fire sacrifices of Vedic period which are still practiced to a limited extent on special occasions at temples and homes. One can see a separate sacred place earmarked for this purpose in an open space in all temples. Yagna and Homa refer to Vedic ritual in which one offers specific materials such as melted butter, fagots of medicinal plants, resinous incense etc to various deities through the medium of Fire, while reciting prescribed Vedic mantras.
During Yagna symbolically quantities of Kusa Grass, line like, representing the lines of living energy as the constituent of Ethereal Space are spread on sacred sands in the Kunda, a brick walled trough. Sacred sand symbolizes Atman, the Self in the aspect of points constituting the lines of force within us. On this grass(dharba) thus spread out, the sacrificial Fire (Agni) is lit which rises to flames of great heights and brilliance, representing the Universal Fire that burns on the altar of Ethereal Space—that Fire which the seers and Yogis behold in their inner most beings as Tejas, Light of boundless, space-less, timeless Life and Awareness.
Nothing in life can be obtained without a sacrifice. The entire universe which is in a constant state of flux is like a sacrifice and the Lord responsible for this creation is looked upon as the personification of that sacrifice. Hence he is called Yajna (sacrifice) or Yagnesvara (Lord of Sacrifice) or Yajnapurusha. Yajna Saala is respected as a sacred spot though it is often found outside the main structure.
Nataraja: Symbolism Behind the Lord of Dance
Posted by The Editor | Aug 15, 2015 | IndiaDivine.Org
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The inner meaning of this Symbol is very grand and poetic, and to enter into, and understand it, will certainly be deemed a privilege by those who are striving to realize for themselves the truths of mysticism. Before entering into the meaning itself let me digress a little in narrating the legend, which explains the occasion for Siva’s sacred dance at Chidambaram.
Vishnu arose one day from his slumber, and repaired to the Sacred Mount Kailas, there to pay reverence to the supreme Siva, Who told him, that, in the neighboring forest of Taruka there were multitudes of heretical Rishis or devotees, dwelling with their wives, and puffed up with the pride of their learning, and, who regarded themselves as independent of His authority. It was the intention of Siva, to visit this forest, in order to ascertain the state of the Rishis there, and to teach them a lesson. He accordingly asked Vishnu to accompany Him in the guise of a woman, and the two – Siva as a mendicant, with the usual insignia including the bowl for the collection of alms, and Vishnu as His wife – entered the forest.
As soon as the two entered the Darukavana as man and wife, the Rishis’ wives were seized with an unspeakable frenzy of passion for the mendicant, while the Rishis were equally infatuated by the woman that followed Him – Vishnu in disguise.
A fierce wrath soon raged throughout the hermitage. The Rishis speedily perceived that the mendicant and his wife, who possessed such a mysterious power of attraction, were not what they seemed. They became ashamed of their ecstasies, of evil desire, and, gathering in a body, pronounced fierce imprecations upon the couple. But the Divine visitors remained unharmed. They then dug a sacrificial pit and proceeded to burn oblations, in view to ensure the destruction of the unwelcome intruders.
As a result of the sacrificial rites, a fierce tiger came out of the sacrificial fire and sprang at Siva; Who, smiling gently, seized it with His sacred hands, and, with the nail of His little finger, ripped off its skin, and, wrapped it round Himself like a soft silken garment. This is the origin of Siva’s tiger-skin mantle.
Undiscouraged by the failure, they renewed their sacrificial offerings, and from the altar-fire came out a monstrous serpent, which He seized and wreathed round His neck, where it has since hung forever; and then began His mystic dance.
At last, a monster named Musalaka (the club-bearer), in the shape of a black dwarf, hideous and malignant, rushed upon Him, brandishing a club, with eyes of fire. Upon him, the Lord pressed the tip of His sacred foot, and broke his back, so that he writhed on the ground. Thus with His last foe prostrate, Siva resumed the dance of which all the gods were witnesses, while His hosts sang enthusiastic choruses.
The Rishis, parched with the heat of their own sacrificial fires, faint with the fury of their anger, and, overwhelmed with the splendor of the heavens opening around them fell to the ground as dead, and then rising, worshipped the known God, acknowledging themselves His faithful devotees.
Now entering into the vital part of the symbolism, Nataraja means the “Lord of the Stage”* [* The expression ‘Nataraja’ does not mean “Lord of the stage”; it means only ‘Master-actor’, or ‘Prince of actors’. The idea, ‘Lord of the stage’, corresponds to the Sanskrit compound ‘Nata-ranga-raja’, and not to ‘Nata-raja’. The synonyms, Natesa, Natesvara and Nataraja, indicates that the Lord is the Chief actor (=Sutradhara) in the drama of the Prapancha, that He is the Nimitta-karana of the Manifested Universe.
The idea is that the world is a stage, which presents the vision and activity of life, through the power of the omnipresent God, the unseen Lord of the stage. He represents the teacher or guru whose one of the most important functions is, to enforce his teachings by example; and this idea is the key-note to the Nataraja symbol.
The legend teaches that He subdues and wraps round Him, like a girdle, the feline fury of human passion. The guile and malice of mankind He transmutes into His necklace. One of His feet is planted over and crushes the giant – the endless illusion or monster of human depravity, while the other is raised upward to aid and comfort those who are shrouded in Maya, and enable them to realise His eternal fellowship.
The little drum in one of His right hands, expresses the idea of His being the Preceptor or Guru, and means also to indicate that He holds in the hollow of His hand the dispensation of the entire Prapancha, the cause of all the world, to be folded or unfolded at His own will. The deer on one side is the mind, because the latter leaps and jumps from one thing to another as unsteadily as that animal.
On His head, He wears the Ganges, that is to say, the Chit-Sakti or Wisdom which is most cool and refreshing; the Moon representing the ethereal light and blissfulness of the Atman or Self. The second right hand representing the idea of Peace, indicates the blessed calmness of Wisdom. In one of the left hands is held Agni (fire), which represents the idea that the truth of the Guru’s teachings can only be fully understood on practical realisation in one’s inner experience.
The place of the dance – the theatre – is the Tillaivanam (=Daruka-vana); in other words, the body is spoken of as the Vanam (forest), because of the multitude of its components. The platform (=boards) in that theatre, is the cremation-ground, the place where all passions, and the names and forms that constitute the vision of the world, are dissolved – pure consciousness devoid of attachment to anything outside, and free from all taint of illusion.
The above are some of the leading features of the symbol*.The allegory, as interpreted above, cannot be said to be on the track of correct solution. Yet, as an attempt, it is commendable, although for real light, one should search the Agama classics.
The Guru teaches that Maya – the illusion of the world – should be crushed down, that the deer-like mind should be left behind, and ahankara (egoism) destroyed, and that man should ascend to the regions of pure consciousness, free from passion and deception, and enjoy the true bliss.
Viewed in the light of this inner meaning, Sri Nataraja is no more a meaningless idol, an effigy in stone or copper, but a symbol of the highest import, an incentive to pure inspiration and elevation.