The story begins, according to the Koyil
Puranam, the sthala puranam of Chidambaram, in the forests of Tarakam. In that place there was a large multitude of
rishis, all following the ritualistic practices of Mimamsa. Siva went there to confront them, accompanied by Vishnu disguised as a beautiful woman, and Adiseshan, the snake. Siva initially caused the
rishis to have a violent quarrel among themselves, but later their anger was directed against Siva, whom they attempted to destroy by means of magical incantations. They created a fierce tiger out of a sacrificial fire and made it attack Siva. Unperturbed and still smiling, he caught hold of it and with the nail of his little finger he stripped off its skin and wrapped it around himself like a silk cloth. Undiscouraged by this failure, the sages renewed their offerings and produced an enormous serpent that Siva seized and wrapped round his neck like a garland. Then he began to dance. However, the
rishis had not exhausted their tricks. They created a malignant dwarf, Muyalakan, who rushed towards Siva with the intention of attacking
him. Siva touched him with the tip of his foot and fractured his spine, leaving him writhing on the ground. Siva then resumed his dance, which was witnessed or accompanied by several of the gods and the
rishis. A typical description of the dance scene can be found in Patanjali
Charita, 4, 61-7:
At the very sign of his [Siva's] brow, Vishnu takes up the drum mardala which, with its noble rumbling note, starts the musical sound. With his lotus hands, Brahma takes up a pair of cymbals, Indra plays the bamboo flute, while Saraswati plays the lute. Siva ties up his hair with the snake, wraps the elephant hide around his waist and begins to dance.
The myths and legends of Chidambaram state that Siva was compelled to continue his dance at Chidambaram, rather than in the Tarakam forest, because he could see that the original site could not sustain the powerful energies of the dance. Invoking a yogic parallel, he identified the snaking
ida and pingala currents in the subtle body with geographical locations north and south of Chidambaram, and then said that the central channel
[natuvinadi] passed directly through Tillai, making it the centre of the world and the site of the original cosmic
It is through this analogy that Chidambaram, according to local tradition, became the centre of the cosmos, the
axis mundi around which all the rest of the universe rotates. The dance is so powerful, only the true centre, the heart of the spiritual and material universe, can support and sustain it. According to this tradition, Chidambaram becomes the world centre on the physical plane; on the spiritual plane, the central shrine becomes the Heart-lotus, the still centre out of which emerges the primal dance of creation in the form of Siva's dance of bliss.
I will return to the theme of the ananda tandava as the primal dance of creation a little later, but before that it needs to be stressed, in the light of what follows in Guru Namasivaya's story, just how inaccessible the dance is to ordinary eyes. The
Suta Samhita (8, 9, 47) declares that the dance is beyond the vision of even the greatest of sages and adds that only Siva's consort is naturally able to witness the dancing movements of the Lord. Elsewhere the
Suta Samhita (3, 4, 6) states:
Devi in her great mercy witnesses what is impossible for others to see. Like the mother who partakes of the medicine that the baby cannot directly taste, though through the mother would benefit by it, she gazes and passes on the benefit of the vision to the children, her devotees.
How then did the sages and gods get to see the dance? In the Tarakam forest it was Siva himself who graciously granted divine sight to the assembled gods and
rishis so that they could watch him dance. Without that grace, even they would not have been able to see him.
In addition to Devi, known as Sivakami in Chidambaram, there are two sages who have been granted the boon of being able to witness Lord Nataraja's dance: Patanjali, who is the incarnation of the cosmic serpent Adiseshan, and
Vyaghrapada,(11) the father of the boy Upamanyu for whom Siva created the ocean of milk. Patanjali and Vyaghrapada were worshipping the original
lingam at Chidambaram with such devotion that Siva appeared before them and said that he would grant them a boon. They both asked to be eternal witnesses to his dance of bliss at Chidambaram, a request that Siva granted.
What exactly does this dance symbolise and signify? I will begin to answer that question by quoting five verses from
Unmai Vilakkam, a thirteenth century canonical work of the Saiva Siddhanta school:
The arch [over Lord Nataraja's head] indicates Omkar, and the torches(12) that fill the space with light are the [five]
letters(13) that are inseparable from Omkar. Those who have given up their egoism know that this is the dance of the Lord, and knowing this, they will be released from the cycle of births and death.
Understand that creation emanates from the drum, preservation from the hand of hope, destruction from the fire held in one hand, veiling from the foot which presses down, and liberation from the foot held
Our Lord's dance consists of scattering the darkness of maya, burning the strong karma, stamping down the soul's impurity, showering grace and lovingly plunging the soul in the ocean of
The silent jnanis, destroying the three-fold bond, are established where their selves are destroyed. To such
jnanis, the dance of Lord Nataraja, the embodiment of grace, is the visible fountain of bliss in which they deeply drink.
The one who is beyond word and thought becomes absorbed in grace, takes the form of the unsurpassed
panchakshara mantra [Nama Sivaya] and dances on the base of parasakti, witnessed by his consort, the daughter of
Himavan. Those who understand this mystic dance and cherish his memory have no further births.
I noted earlier that for devotees of 'Koyil', Chidambaram signifies both the physical centre of the world and its spiritual Heart-lotus, that space of consciousness in which physical creation appears, and the place where the surrendered mind has to subside and die in order to get a true knowledge of Siva. The Heart is the place out of which creation manifests, and it is also the place where enlightenment takes place. The Heart-dance expresses itself phenomenally as the world and the power that sustains it, but it must be remembered that the place of its origin is the centre into which the
jiva must withdraw in order to transcend creation and attain enlightenment. In an explanation of the significance of Lord Nataraja's dance, the Tamil work
Tiru-Arul-Payan (IX, 3) identifies these two aspects and makes the following recommendations:
The dance of nature proceeds on one side; the dance of enlightenment on the other.
Fix your mind in the centre of the latter.
I propose to follow the advice in the next few paragraphs.
Firstly, I should like to suggest that Guru Namasivaya's odyssey to Chidambaram can be interpreted in an allegorical way, revealing that the physical steps he took represent an internal spiritual pilgrimage towards and into the
What clues or hints are given that this might be the inner import of the story? Firstly, one should remember the role that Sakti, Siva's consort, plays in Saivism. As I pointed out in the quote from
Suta Samhita (3, 9, 6) her role is essentially that of a mediator and transmitter of Siva's grace. She alone can witness the primal dance and, having become energised and activated by it, 'She passes on the benefit of the vision to the children, her devotees'. In Saivism it is Sakti, not Siva, who creates the world; the
panchakrityas (creation, preservation, destruction, veiling and grace) are all mediated through her.
On each day that Guru Namasivaya travelled towards Chidambaram, the Heart, he called out to a local form of Sakti and begged for food. The rice he received was the grace of the Lord, mediated through his consort. And each time he was the recipient of such grace, he was purified to the extent that he was able to move nearer and nearer to Chidambaram, the space of consciousness.
In Saivism, Sakti brings maya into existence while simultaneously providing the grace through which one can transcend it. As verse thirty-six of
Unmai Vilakkam notes, the energy of the dance scatters the darkness of
maya, burns up karma, stamps out the soul's impurities, showers grace, and finally plunges the soul into the ocean of bliss.
When Guru Namasivaya, at the threshold of the sanctum, bathed in the Siva Ganga Tank, he was immersing his soul in this ocean of bliss. As he commented at the time, those who have been fortunate enough to have this bath 'will see the effects of all their deeds destroyed… [and] will be plundered of all their action's evil fruit'.
The grace of Sakti brought him, step by step, to the threshold of the Heart; the bath in the sacred ocean of bliss eradicated his karmas, enabling him to move on and encounter the Lord in the Heart-lotus, the inner sanctum of the temple. But there, much to his surprise, he found not Siva but his own Guru, Guhai Namasivaya, thus confirming the ancient truth that God and the Guru are one and that at the moment of enlightenment they can both be found in the Heart.
There is a mystical and mysterious paradox at the heart of Saiva cosmology. Though the inherent power of Siva enables Sakti to arise within himself and perform all the
panchakrityas, Siva himself does nothing. He is eternal silence, stillness and peace, untouched and unaffected by the activities that Sakti performs through his power and on his behalf. When one reaches the Heart, the source of creation, and directly experiences the dance of bliss there, one finds that it is a motionless dance of silence, not a frenetic physical act of movement and physical creation. There, as Ramana Maharshi says, Siva 'dances the dance of stillness in the dancing hall of the
I have already noted that Guru Namasivaya's story can be read on two equally valid levels: the miracle-laden physical and the spiritually symbolic. The two levels are clearly discernible as the narrative continues. At the point where I began this lengthy digression on Saiva philosophy and cosmology, Guru Namasivaya was singing a song to Siva, asking him to perform the dance of bliss for all the assembled priests and devotees. Though, ostensibly, he is asking for a physical manifestation, he is also calling on Siva to reveal himself in their hearts. Having, through grace, established himself in the Heart, Guru Namasivaya now has the power and the authority to grant a glimpse of that sublime state to the people assembled in the temple. But, when that glimpse is granted to them, they are paralysed with awe and fear. This is a common reaction in impure souls who are pushed too near the
However, this is getting ahead of the story. I go back now to the song of supplication that Guru Namasivaya was addressing to Lord Nataraja, asking him to perform his dance:
Supreme Godhead! Divine Lord of Chidambaram!
You who perform your divine dance in Tillai's Hall
as the multitude sing hymns of praise and adoration,
and Tumburu and Narada(19) intone a heavenly melody,
When Guru Namasivaya praised him in this way, Lord Nataraja started dancing. Everyone present fell down, overcome by awe, prostrated, and remained motionless, face down.
After a long time had passed, three of the three thousand priests raised their heads and said, 'The dance has been going on for a long time. Guru Namasivaya, you who are orchestrating the dance, and you, Lord of Tillai, who dance without, in reality, moving at all - your greatness cannot be perceived unless you stop the dance!'
Guru Namasivaya replied, enigmatically, 'Am, I the one who is asking for the dance? Am I the one who is asking for it to stop?'
'The one who is keeping time,' they all said, 'is the one who should stop first.'
Guru Namasivaya had been beating out the rhythm of the dance. He ignored their request and went on singing to the dancing Nataraja:
Holy dancer of Tillai's Hall! Our creator and daily benefactor!
Would there by any pain in your upraised foot
and would that other foot ever falter
which pounds upon the demon
if your dance went on and on for all eternity?
Muyalakan is the malignant dwarf who was created by the
rishis to attack Siva in the Tarakam forest. Siva broke his back with his toe. In all iconographical representations of the
ananda tandava Muyalakan is depicted under Nataraja's right foot. The dwarf symbolises ignorance, so when Nataraja repeatedly stamps on his body during the dance, he is eradicating the ignorance that separates one from God. Muyalakan is a Tamil name. In Sanskrit the dwarf is known as Apasmara, which means 'an epileptic'. Ignorance, in an epileptic fit of madness, tries to assail God, but is immediately broken and destroyed.
In response to this new verse, the dancing became even more frenzied. The three thousand priests, still wanting the awesome dance to stop, tried a different approach.
'Guru Namasivaya is singing the praises of Siva,' they said, 'and Siva is obeying him. Let us sing in praise of Guru Namasivaya and see if he will accept our request to stop the dance.'
It was on hearing that holy song of Guru Namasivaya
that the Lord was deeply pleased
and raised his ankleted foot to dance.
The change of tactics worked. Guru Namasivaya responded by composing a new verse that requested Siva to stop his dance:
My Lord, you who dance in the Golden Hall,
Your glorious foot and anklet are decorous indeed
As they dance to the rhythm tat-taa-taata-ti.
May you now heed my song and cease your holy dance.
The dance stopped as the verse was completed. The priests were so impressed by Guru Namasivaya's ability to command God himself to dance, they vowed to each other that after his death they would worship the
lingam over his samadhi as if it were Siva himself. During his subsequent stay in Chidambaram Guru Namasivaya composed hundreds of verses, many of which have survived. One of his biographers, writing about this period, noted: 'No poem did he write but it sang the praises of his Guru, and no lesser deity filled his thoughts, only Lord Siva
This is certainly true of his most famous poem, Annamalai
Venba,(23) which extols Siva in the form of Arunachala and repeatedly praises the greatness of his Guru, whom he considered to be Arunachala-Siva in human form. Going through the verses, one can easily visualise him sitting in Chidambaram, dutifully carrying out his Guru's orders, but secretly dreaming of Arunachala-Siva, Guhai Namasivaya, his Guru, and the blessed period of his life when he had the constant company of both. A selection of verses from
Annamalai Venba appears elsewhere on this site. Even the most casual perusal of this poem will give an indication of the reverence, the esteem and the devotion that the author felt for the sacred mountain and for its human manifestation, Guhai
The story of Guru Namasivaya's life ends rather abruptly here, for there is no further record of his activities, or even an account of his passing away. The text that is the source of most of the material in this chapter merely says that after performing many more holy works, Guru Namasivaya finally passed away at Tirupperundurai, a town associated with Manikkavachagar. However, to contradict this, there is a stone inscription in Chidambaram, apparently executed shortly after Guru Namasivaya's
death,(24) which says that 'Namasivaya became one with the Siva
lingam upon the mountain Arunagiri'. After this inscription there are three words,
vanta guru tanam, whose meaning, in the context, is a little obscure. However, they can be taken to mean that Arunachala himself took the form of Guru Namasivaya and came to Chidambaram to execute his work there.
A devotee, Chinna Nalla Nayan, donated the stone and had the epitaph carved. He concluded his inscription with the following words:
We joyfully offer our worship to him who dwells in the city of the tiger [Chidambaram] in a hall of burnished gold, where Guru Namasivaya, disciple of the godly Guhai Namasivaya, who dwells on the slopes of Arunachala, dedicated himself to the service of the Lord. Praise be to the Lord!
See Annamalai Venba for a selection of Guru Namasivaya's verses in praise of Arunachala
(11) Both are alluded to in the song, composed by Guru Namasivaya in which he was attempting to persuade Lord Nataraja to begin his dance. Vyaghrapada, whose name means 'tiger-footed,' was given tiger's feet by Siva so that he could climb bilva trees to collect their leaves for ceremonial worship.
(12) The arch usually has many small flames coming out of it.
Omkar is the sound of Om. The semicircle over the top of Nataraja's head is often compared to the top half of the Tamil letter for
(13) The previous three verses equate various parts of Nataraja's body with the five holy syllables of Saivism:
Na Ma Si Va Ya.
(14) Nataraja is always depicted with four arms. One of his legs is raised in a dancing posture. The positions and activities of the limbs are held to represent the
panchakrityas, the five-fold activities of God: creation, preservation, destruction, veiling and grace. A verse from
Chidambaram Mummani Kovai offers a similar interpretation:
O my Lord! Your hand holding the sacred drum has made the world and ordered the heavens and earth and other worlds and innumerable souls. Your lifted hand protects the multifarious animate and inanimate extended universe. Your sacred foot, planted on the ground, gives an abode to the tired soul, struggling in the toils of karma. It is your lifted foot that grants eternal bliss to those that approach you. These five actions are indeed your handiwork.
(15) As he was dancing in the forest of Tarakam, Siva himself expounded on the significance of his dance to all the assembled gods and
This is the illusion of the world as you see it here, and you will now know the eternal truth of Supreme
Brahman, immanent, beginningless, eternal, consciousness, full of bliss, unending and One.
(Patanjali Charita 4, 70-73)
(16) I am not saying that the physical events are fictitious. Some or all of them may have happened. I am merely pointing out that the narrative has been carefully constructed in such a way that it naturally lends itself to a symbolic interpretation.
(17) Arunachala Ashtakam, verse seven. See
Five Hymns to Arunachala, tr. K. Swaminathan.
(18) An interesting commentary on this phenomenon can be found in
No Mind - I am the Self, 2nd ed., pp. 193-4, where it is explained how and when the mind sinks into the Heart. There it is stated that when the impure mind approaches the Heart, it feels the peace and bliss of the Self, but if it comes too near, it then experiences a great panic and a great desire to go back to the world of manifestation again.
(19) Tumburu and Narada are devarishis and celestial musicians. Both of them witnessed the original dance of Siva in the Tarakam forest, before it was moved to Chidambaram
(20) All the texts pertaining to the ananda tandava, and all the sculptural representations of it, have Brahma, rather than Gauri, playing the cymbals. Siva's consort is always depicted as a non-participating witness to the dance. I have no idea why Guru Namasivaya wanted to change her role in this way.
(21) Kama, the god of love, was destroyed by Siva when at Brahma's request, he interrupted Siva's
tapas and tried to make him fall in love with Parvati. Since Kama also signifies lust and desire in general, the lines indicate that though Siva sported with Parvati, it was just a
lila, having no real lustful context.
(23) Annamalai is one of the many Tamil names for Arunachala. It can be translated as 'unreachable or unapproachable mountain'. A
venba verse is a Tamil metrical form that has four lines, three the same length and the fourth slightly shorter.
(24) The death date on the inscription occurs in the middle of the twelfth century. This seems to be a little early to me. Various references in Guhai Namasivaya's poems indicate that they were written about a hundred years later
In a hagiography such as this, it is not possible to separate, definitively, fact from fiction. Guru Namasivaya's literary works and the various inscriptions in Chidambaram can only corroborate the following facts:
1) That he lived at Arunachala with his Guru, Guhai Namasivaya.
2) That he achieved a very high spiritual stage through the grace of his Guru and the power of Arunachala.
3) That he went to Chidambaram and was responsible for many temple endowments there. An inscription there gives a list of all his literary works, all of which are poems praising different aspects of Siva.
Some of the miraculous events may have come from the author's imagination, since no Saiva hagiography is complete without them. But this does not mean that such events are not possible. In a conversation I had with Sri. H. W. L. Poonja (Papaji) he told me that he had met a yogi in the Himalayas who could command a goddess to bring him food. Sri Poonjaji tested him by asking for a certain dish that was the speciality of a town several hundred miles away. Thought they were both sitting at an altitude of 15,000 feet in a remote, inaccessible part of the Himalayas, the food immediately materialised out of nowhere. This yogi, a young Kashmiri boy, could also call on Saraswati, the goddess of learning, and with her help speak any language. Sri Poonjaji, an accomplished linguist, found that the boy could talk to him in all the ten languages that he knew.
The boy, who also demonstrated his ability to levitate and fly, had attained these
siddhis through a determined practice of raja yoga. However, he quite frankly admitted that he had not attained Self-realisation and said that he was looking for a Guru who could give him
Feats such as those attributed to Guru Namasivaya are possible through yogic training, but they should not be taken to be indications or proofs of Self-realisation.
Guru Namasivaya in his poems states that through the grace of Arunachala and through the power of his Guru, true knowledge dawned in him causing the cycle of endless births to cease permanently. This is a better indication of his realised state than any of the miracles he performed.