Siva- the iconoclast


Siva is the archetype of destruction. Usually we think of destruction of Siva in cosmic dimensions- as in destroyer of the cosmos so that time and space can start again as part of the cyclical process. In my experience Siva is also the destroyer on a very personal level. He destroys paradigms, roles and comfort zones. Approach him with wariness because he does not offer comfort and the known as gifts.

Siva is the dweller of cemeteries, the archetype clad in snakes and smeared with ash. In stories related to him, he is often looked upon with fear, as the outsider, whose appearance is so at odds with the resplendent beauty of the other deities. Siva is the quintessential iconoclast—but iconoclasm here is not a purely destructive act but a necessary one to remove us from the shackles of habits of identity formation (ahamkara or selfhood).

So Siva is in fact the space of loss, and his invitation is to make ourselves at home in this space. Siva as the archetype of dance means something. To me it implies that Indian dance is not a space of acquisition but of surrender, not of mastery but of humility. The language of Indian dance is itself one that does not offer the familiar and the day to day or the personal—and this is intentional. The role of dance in this context is to shift us from those known spaces, towards the realms outside the cities of our mind, to invite us to enter the cemeteries of habits and beliefs that govern us, mostly unconsciously. The cemetery of Siva is also the space of subtlety, where the unknown is the essence, the kernel at the heart of the noise and dazzle of form and materiality. There is no language to describe this experience because it is outside the realm of language. Hence Siva dances because it is the dance that can hold this space of ambivalence, non-definition and unforming.

The Karanas of Siva, the essence of Indian dance practice, is the heart of the way in which dance was conceptualised in Indian tradition. Karanas are not to be mastered as form, narrated as content or ‘watched’ as spectacle. They were entry points into learning the experience of surrendering to spaces beyond nama-rupa, name and form, where we can touch the essence of life as a unified, non fragmented feeling.

Siva’s archetypal form suggests that we do not ascribe to this space our own interpretations of bliss, which are inevitably influenced by escapist drives to locate the perfect experience as we define this. If we really see Siva’s form, we cannot ascribe to his space the usual feel-good types of experiences we expect from so called transcendence traditions. And all these things are not irrelevant and are sign posts to the nature of the practice and learning in his space.

 Siva’s dance holds the subtlest of feeling states, and if we cling to our expectations we miss what is yielded when we can enter the Siva space with an open heart and with humility.

Image: Barbie Robinson for the book Siva in Me

Padma Menon