How many various dances of Shiva are known to His worshipers I cannot say. No doubt the root idea behind all of these dances is more or less one and the same, the manifestation of primal rhythmic energy. Whatever the origins of Shiva’s dance, it became in time the clearest image of the activity of God which any art or religion can boast of.
— Ananda Coomaraswamy, The Dance of Shiva
One of the most famous Hindu images is that of Nataraja — the god Shiva as Lord of Dance. Shiva’s cosmic dance is said to create the universe, preserve it, and finally destroy it so it can be created once again. The iconography of Nataraja is deeply symbolic, representing the panchakritya (five actions) performed by Shiva: creation, preservation, destruction, illusion, and release.
Personally, I find the image of Nataraja really powerful, and I love that Hinduism expresses God’s powers of creation. preservation, and destruction through dance. Shiva’s dance has inspired Hindu art and literature throughout history, and one of the most beautiful examples is the Shiva Tandava Stotram, a devotional poem about Shiva’s tandava, the dance which brings about the destruction of the universe.
This poem is said to have been recited by Ravana, who, in the Indian epic the Ramayana, was the demon king of Lanka and (despite being a demon) a great devotee of Shiva. Ravana was rather arrogant, and to show off his strength to Shiva, Ravana managed to lift Mount Kailash, the mountain on which Shiva is believed to reside. However, by just pressing his big toe down, Shiva brought Mount Kailash back to the ground, crushing Ravana’s fingers in the process and showing him the futility of his arrogance. To appease Shiva, Ravana sang the following poem, describing Shiva’s awe-inspiring tandava.
I don’t know its actual origins, but nevertheless this is a great example of Hindu devotional poetry, and it’s full of techniques like alliteration and onomatopoeia. It really has to be heard in order to be fully appreciated:
गलेऽवलम्ब्य लम्बितां भुजङ्गतुङ्गमालिकाम् |
चकार चण्डताण्डवं तनोतु नः शिवः शिवम् ||१||
Gale-valambya lambitaam bhujanga-tunga-malikaam
Chakaara chanda-taandavam tanotu nah shivah shivam
From His huge matted locks of hair, which are like a forest, the sacred water of the Ganges is flowing and making the ground holy; on that holy ground, Shiva is dancing His great tandava dance. Serpents are supporting His neck and hanging down like garlands, and His damaru (hand drum) is continuously beating out the sound damad, damad, damad, damad and filling the air all around. Shiva performed such a passionate tandava; O my Lord Shiva, please perform the auspicious tandava dance within our beings also.
किशोरचन्द्रशेखरे रतिः प्रतिक्षणं मम ||२||
Kishora-chandra-shekhare ratih pratikshanam mama
His long matted hair, like a cauldron, is twirling round and round; and whirling with it is the goddess Ganga. The strands of His matted hair, which are like huge vines, are rolling like huge waves. His forehead is brilliantly effulgent and on its surface is Shiva’s Third Eye, burning a blazing fire and emitting the sound dhagad, dhagad, dhagad. A young crescent moon is shining on top of His head; O my lord Shiva, every moment of your great tandava dance delights me.
क्वचिद्दिगम्बरे मनो विनोदमेतु वस्तुनि ||३||
Kwachid-digambare mano vinodametu vastuni
And now, He is accompanied by the Divine Mother, who is the supporter of the earth and the daughter of the Himalayas; she is ever Shiva’s companion in His divine sports. The entire horizon is shaking with the force of the tandava, and my mind is filled with joy. Shiva, whose mere glance can prevent even unstoppable calamities, and who is clothed in the sky, sometimes materializes in His mind the wish to play divine sports, and hence performs this great tandava.
मनो विनोदमद्भुतं बिभर्तु भूतभर्तरि ||४||
Mano vinodam-adbhutam bibhartu bhoota-bhartari.
The reddish-brown cobras on His matted hair are shaking, with their hoods raised; the lustre of the red pearls on their raised hoods is collectively smearing the sky in all directions with the color of liquid saffron, and the sky is like the huge face of a bride (traditionally adorned with red saffron). Shiva’s upper garment is flying in the breeze and shaking like the thick skin of an intoxicated elephant. My mind is experiencing an extraordinary thrill from this divine sport; it is being carried away by Shiva, the sustainer of all beings.
प्रसूनधूलिधोरणी विधूसराङ्घ्रिपीठभूः |
श्रियै चिराय जायतां चकोरबन्धुशेखरः ||५||
Shriyai chiraaya jaayataam chakora-bandhu-shekharah
The thousand-eyed god Indra and others, forming an endless line of heads, are being graced by the incessant dust produced by the feet of Shiva, which have become dust-colored by dancing on the earth. His matted hair is bound up by the king of serpents, serving as a type of garland. The shining moon on top of His head, which is a friend of the chakora birds (because chakora birds are said to drink moonlight), is radiating the eternal beauty and auspiciousness of the goddess Lakshmi.
निपीतपञ्चसायकं नमन्निलिम्पनायकम् |
महाकपालिसम्पदेशिरोजटालमस्तु नः ||६||
The Third Eye on the surface of His forehead, a spark of fire, is spreading its luster; this fire absorbed the five arrows of Kama (the god of lust/desire), and made Kama bow down to Shiva. From the top of His head shine the nectar-like rays of the crescent moon, which is shaped like a smooth line stroke. May we also receive a part of that prosperity which is contained in the matter hair of Shiva, the great kapaali (skull-bearer).
प्रकल्पनैकशिल्पिनि त्रिलोचने रतिर्मम ||७||
Prakalpan-aika-shilpini trilochane ratir-mama
The surface of His forehead is blazing with the sound dhagad, dhagad, dhagad, dhagad; that terrible fire performed the sacrifice of Kama, the mighty possessor of the five arrows, reducing him to ashes. The footprints from His great tandava dance are drawing various pictures on the bosom of the earth, which is a part of the Divine Mother. He is the one artist who creates (accompanied by Shakti, the energy of the Divine Mother); my mind is delighted by this tandava of the three-eyed Shiva.
कुहूनिशीथिनीतमः प्रबन्धबद्धकन्धरः |
कलानिधानबन्धुरः श्रियं जगद्धुरंधरः ||८||
Kalaa-nidhaana-bandhurah shriyam jagat-durandharah
The orb of new clouds are being held back by the throb of the great tandava, which has also bound the darkness of the new-moon night around His neck. O Shiva, bearer of the river goddess Ganga, wearer of an elephant skin, the bearer of the curved moon, the bearer of the universe itself, please extend the sri (auspiciousness and prosperity) associated with this great tandava to us.
स्मरच्छिदं पुरच्छिदं भवच्छिदं मखच्छिदं
गजच्छिदांधकच्छिदं तमन्तकच्छिदं भजे ||९||
Smarachhidam purachhidham bhavachhidham makhachhidham
Gaja-cchid-aandhaka-chhidam tam-antaka-chhidam bhaje
The halahala poison (which Shiva drank during the churning of the ocean to save the universe) is appearing like a blooming blue lotus and resting within His throat like a girdle; out of His own will, He restrained the poison from travelling any farther than His throat. I worship the destroyer of Kama, the destroyer of the demon city Tripura, the destroyer of the delusion of worldly existence, the destroyer of Daksha’s sacrifice, the destroyer of the elephant demon Gajasura, the destroyer of the demon Andhaka, and the restrainer of Yama, god of death; I worship my Lord Shiva.
स्मरान्तकं पुरान्तकं भवान्तकं मखान्तकं
गजान्तकान्धकान्तकं तमन्तकान्तकं भजे ||१०||
Smaraantakam puraantakam bhavaantakam makhaantakam
Gaj-aantak-aandhak-aantakam tam-antak-aantakam bhaje
He is the limitless source of auspiciousness for the welfare of all, and the source of all arts, which He manifests like a cluster of blossoms; from His tandava dance is flowing sweet nectar in the form of arts expressing His will. I worship He who brought an end to Kama, He who brought an end to the demons of Tripura, He who brings an end to the delusion of worldly existence, He who brought an end to Daksha’s sacrifice, He who brought an end to Gajasura, He who brought an end to Andhaka, and He who restrained Yama; I worship my Lord Shiva.
ध्वनिक्रमप्रवर्तित प्रचण्डताण्डवः शिवः ||११||
His eyebrows are moving to and fro, expressing His complete mastership over all the worlds, and His movements are spinning the serpents on His neck, which are hissing terribly. The terrible third eye on His forehead, which is like an altar for oblation, is throbbing in succession and emitting fire. The mridangam (a type of drum) is incessantly sounding the auspicious beats dhimid, dhimid, dhimid, dhimid, and with that succession of beats, Shiva is dancing His passionate tandava dance.
गरिष्ठरत्नलोष्ठयोः सुहृद्विपक्षपक्षयोः |
समं प्रव्रितिक: कदा सदाशिवं भजम्यहम ||१२||
Sama-pravruttikah kadaa sadaashivam bhajamy-aham
When will I feel the sameness between a colorful, comfortable bed and hard earth? When will I see the sameness in value between a garland of pearls and a lump of clay? When will I feel the sameness in relationship between a friend and an enemy? When will I feel the sameness in vision between a grass-like eye (representing ordinary look) and a lotus-like eye (representing beautiful look)? When will I feel the sameness in the soul of an ordinary subject and the king of the world When will I worship Shiva with equality of vision and conduct?
कदा निलिम्पनिर्झरीनिकुञ्जकोटरे वसन्
विमुक्तदुर्मतिः सदा शिरः स्थमञ्जलिं वहन् |
शिवेति मंत्रमुच्चरन् कदा सुखी भवाम्यहम् ||१३||
Kadaa nilimpa-nirjari-nikunja-kotare vasan
Vimukta-durmatih sadaa shirah sthamanjalim vahan
Shiveti mantram-uccharan kadaa sukhee bhavamy-aham
When will I dwell in a cave in the dense forests by the banks of the Ganga and, being forever free from envy, hatred, etc., worship Shiva? When will I be free from lust, and worship Shiva by applying the sacred mark on my forehead? When will I be happy uttering the mantras of Shiva?
इदम् हि नित्यमेवमुक्तमुत्तमोत्तमं स्तवं
पठन्स्मरन्ब्रुवन्नरो विशुद्धिमेतिसंततम् |
हरे गुरौ सुभक्तिमाशु याति नान्यथा गतिं
विमोहनं हि देहिनां सुशङ्करस्य चिंतनम् ||१४||
Idam hi nityam-evam-uktam-uttamottamam stavam
Hare Gurau subhaktim-aashu yaati n-aanyathaa gatim
Vimohanam hi dehinaam su-shankarasya chintanam
This greatest of hymns has been uttered; those who regularly recite it and contemplate on Shiva with purity of mind and in an uninterrupted manner and with great devotion in Shiva, the guru, will quickly advance towards Him. There is no other way or refuge than Him, and the delusion of that person will be destroyed meditation on Him.
इति श्रीरावण कृतम् शिव ताण्दव स्तोत्रम् सम्पूर्णम्
Iti shri-raavana krutam shiva taandava stotram sampoornam
Thus ends the Shiva Tandava stotram, composed by Ravana.