What ‘Tandav’ Actually Means: Ignore The Awful, Turn To The Awe-Inspiring

What ‘Tandav’ Actually Means: Ignore The Awful, Turn To The Awe-Inspiring

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Friday, January 22, 2021 06:08 PM IST
What ‘Tandav’ Actually Means: Ignore The Awful, Turn To The Awe-Inspiring Nataraja (Flickr)
  • What is the terrestrial, cosmic, divine, and spiritual significance of ‘tandav’?

Tandav — the word brings to mind the dance of Shiva.

The word is derived from tandu, another name for Shiva’s sacred bull Nandi, who is also the master of his ganas.

It was to Nandi that Shiva gave the art of tandav. As is the fundamental characteristic of Hinduism, every aspect of it has multiple dimensions and layers of meaning. Tandav is no exception.

According to Shaiva Agamas, there are seven tandavas that Shiva performs. Each has its own spiritual and Puranic significance.

At Mammalapuram (Flickr)
At Mammalapuram (Flickr)

The most well-known of the tandavas is Ananda Tandav – the dance of bliss. Ananda Tandav is performed inside the heart of the kanakasabha (golden hall) of Chidambaram, a city in Tamil Nadu. It is said this dance is implicit in all other dances of Shiva. The Dance is witnessed by Patanjali and Vygrapada.

Then there is Sandhya Tandav — the dance at the meeting point of dawn and dusk.

The Puranic story associated with this is that on Ekadasi day, Shiva drank the poison that emerged from the ocean of milk when the devas and asuras churned it for the nectar of immortality.

That evening after placing the goddess, the Himalayan princess on a golden throne, the lord performed this dance.

In the heart of rajatsabha (silver hall) of Madurai, Shiva performs this dance.

The third dance is the Uma Tandav.

Here, the mother stands to his left, and it is hailed as the dance of dances. Uma Tandav in some literature is replaced with Muni Tandava.

When the conceit of Taruka forest rishis was destroyed, and they came to their senses, they went to Tirunelveli, a southern temple town, and there the lord danced for them and hence the name. Here, the tandav happens at thamarasabha (bronze hall) of Tirunelveli.

The fourth is Gauri Tandav. Here too, the goddess stands to his left. But there is Nandi in front of him.

The dance is also called Bhujanga Lalita because he playfully holds the serpents as he performs.

In a variant, the goddess is replaced by Vishnu. The kshetra associated with this is the Chitsabha or the hall of consciousness at Tirupattur.

The fifth form is Kalika Tandav. In this, Shiva has two eyes instead of three, and eight hands of which three hold his trishul.

According to Krishna Sastry, the dance seen in the image of Shiva at Nallur (Thanjavur) is in this form.

Here, the left leg of Shiva is raised.

Nataraja (Flickr)
Nataraja (Flickr)

In the Urdhuva Tandav, the leg raised vertically is the right leg. The left leg, when raised vertically, is the characteristic of Vishnu as Trivikrama.

This is in tune with the Shaivite notion that the left side of the lord contains the Shaktic component and hence Vishnu. Kalika Tandav happens at the ratnasabha (hall of rubies) of Tiruvalankadu.

The sixth dance is Tripura Tandava. This is one of the oldest forms of dance associated with Shiva after he destroyed the Tripura asuras.

It is a victory dance. The Tripura asuras are the three inner impurities, declares Thirumanthiram.

In the Agamic tradition, Shiva is shown dancing with 16 hands and Parvati with Skanda is shown on the left side. This tandav happens at Chitrasabhai — the hall of sacred and mystic paintings at Thirukutralam.

The seventh dance is the Samhara Tandav or the dance of involution. It is not performed in any terrestrial abode. It is performed in the hall of cosmic night. It is when all forms are involuted and absorbed into him and he alone remains in absolute primal and final solitude.

Why seven dances?

One prominent Shaivite explanation is that this presents the Panchakrityas or the five archetypal divine functions:

-veiling, and
-ennobling through infinite love liberation.

While the first three functions relate to the gross and the physical, the latter two relate to the subtle and the inner.

Of these, the sustenance-preservation has two components to it: facilitating existence and removal of obstruction/hindrance to existence.

According to Thirupattur Puranam the seven tandavas proceed from the seven basic notes of music. Just as the lower musical note of ‘sa’ 'implies and includes all the notes of the lower octave, similarly Ananda tandav implies and includes the tandavas of Panchakrityas.

For the devotees of Shiva, bhakti is not an emotion but the very culmination and essence of all knowledge — particularly the knowledge of the physical and the psychological taken to its very limits with boundaries giving way to the ultimate knowledge of the transcendent.

Hence, their hymns of bhakti also encapsulated in them highest gnosis and experience of Shiva.

Of all those who sang in praise of the dance of Shiva, Karaikal Ammaiyar, the Shaivite mystic poetess to whom we owe the spiritual music tradition of all southern India, stands apart.

She describes the dance of Shiva in the cremation ground. She describes the antics of the female ghosts who inhabit the ground. Here is a sample:

Sitting relaxed with legs stretched
through a gap in a cactus bush,
(the female ghost)
pulls out a burning stick
from a burning pit
grinds the black soot covering the ember
and lines her eye brows
and that very moment
she shrieks;
gets up;
looks wildly here and there;
laughs deliriously and then,
getting burnt with the flames arising
from the burning corpses around,
rubs the ashes covering the burning pyres
and the dust of the ground
all over and
amidst all these tantrums,
Dances steadfastly
Our Father and that place is Thiruvalankadu!

We all are burning corpses. Slowly the life is burning away in catabolic processes, aging and through diseases. And we all think that we are relaxing because we have comforts — while all the time we are just relaxing ourselves by stretching our legs into cactus bushes.

The whole world is filled with burning corpses around us, us included. If we think the act of the female ghost taking the burning stick to line her eye brows is stupid, funny and foolish, just look at what we do.

We indulge in beautifying our shells — physical and psychological, safeguarding our vanities, fortifying, boosting and floating our egos. But more often than not those very acts bring us pain and injuries.

Ultimately, we feel the heat of the rising flames of the pyre. We simply do not know what to do. We indulge in all kinds of craziness. And in the physical universe itself entropy increases.

Yet this is no wasteland.

Amidst this meaninglessness which we ourselves bring to our lives through superficial frivolities there is a deeper dance. The dance of Shiva.

He dances — choosing this very cremation ground that is the universe, cremation ground that is our own life and dances. The moment one feels this dance then she becomes part of it.

And then there is no death. Our life movements, the crazy meaningless movements of the female spirit in the cremation ground, bringing itself pain and frustration, become the movements of his dance — the tandav of Bliss.

And this was written by a woman who was a housewife born in the community of merchants around 5th century CE.


Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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