India, Tamil Nadu
Shiva As Lord of the Dance (Nataraja)
Chola period, c. 10th/11th century

Bronze
69.3 x 61.8 x 24.1 cm (27 1/4 x 24 1/4 x 9 1/2 in.)
Kate S. Buckingham Fund, 1965.1130

Of the trio of preeminent Hindu gods, Shiva is the destroyer and regenerator (the other two are Brahma, the creator, and Vishnu, the preserver). To his devotees Shiva is supreme. The dance of Shiva sets the rhythm of life and death that orders the universe and is said to beat in the heart of a worshipper's body.

Each component of this superbly cast bronze image is symbolic. By understanding the total image, a devotee is led toward salvation. With his dance, Shiva is simultaneously destroying and re-creating the world. The ring of fire represents the eternal cyclical nature of existence—destruction and creation, death and rebirth. To the beat of the drum in Shiva's right hand, the universe is created, while the flame in his left hand sparks the fiery ring of destruction that surrounds him. The fire that destroys also purifies and, as the cycle continues, offers rebirth.

Shiva's other hands assume mudras: The raised hand means "fear not," while the other, pointing down toward his raised foot, signals release from ignorance, which hinders enlightenment. Shiva's other foot, planted on the back of a demon-dwarf, stamps out ignorance. A small, personified image of the Ganges River is placed in the god's streaming hair. Stories tell that Shiva broke the fall of the great Ganges's torrents as it flowed down from the Himalayas. The waters divided over Shiva's long locks of hair, becoming the seven holy rivers of India.

India,Uttar Pradesh, Mathura region
Emblem of the God Shiva with One Face (Ekamukhalinga)
c. 5th century

Pinkish sandstone
49.3 x 15.6 x 17.5 cm (19 3/8 x 6 1/8 x 6 7/8 in.)
Promised Gift of James W. and Marilynn Alsdorf 143.1997

Linga, the sign of Shiva incarnate, is a Sanskrit word that also denotes gender. This linga bears the face of the ascetic god Shiva, his matted hair worked elegantly into a columnar form. The linga is a symbol of Shiva's dual nature: renunciation and sexual energy. It embodies the generative power of the godhead and, at the same time, represents the cosmic pillar that connects heaven and earth. It is the focus of worship in the innermost chamber of a temple devoted to Shiva where it sits on a rectangular or oval base—a yoni. Together their male and female union represents the union of all dualities, or opposites.

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