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Dancing Shiva

As we have noted, Hinduism is very much a "visual" religion.  The representation of the gods and goddesses often seem fantastic to the Western mind.  Yet, each detail of the image of a god or goddess is meant to teach a spiritual truth or insight about reality or about the god.  A well-known image is that of the god Shiva.  Diana Eck describes the symbolism of this image:


The traditions of sculptural representation of the gods, as they emerged during these centuries, served both theological and narrative functions.  First, Hindu images were visual "theologies," and they continue to be "read" as such by Hindus today.  For example, the icon of the four-armed Shiva dancing in a ring of fire reveals the many aspect of this god in one visual symbol. The flaming circle in which he dances is the circle of creation and destruction called samsara (the earthly round of birth and death) or maya (the illusionary world). The Lord who dances in the circle of this changing world holds in tow of his hands the drum of creation and the fire of destruction.  He displays his strength by crushing the bewildered demon underfoot. Simultaneously, he shows his mercy by raising his palm to the worshiper in the "fear not" gesture and, with another hand, by pointing to his upraised foot, where the worshiper make take refuge.  It is a wild dance, for the coils of the ascetic's hair are flying in both directions, and yet the facial countenance of the Lord is utterly peaceful and his limbs in complete balance. Around one arm twines the naga, the ancient serpent which he has incorporated into his sphere of power and wears now as an ornament.  In his hair sits the mermaid River Ganga, who landed first on Siva's hair when she fell from heaven to earth.  Such an image as the dancing Shiva engages the eye and extends one's vision of the nature of this god, using simple, subtle, and commonly understood gestures and emblems.

Diana Eck. Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. Chambersburg, PA: Anima Books 2nd ed.(1985)  p. 41.