Śiva (ˈshi-və, ˈshē-) n. one of the principal Hindu deities, worshiped as the destroyer and restorer of worlds and in numerous other forms. Shiva is often conceived as a member of the triad also including Brahma and Vishnu.
Shiva is a god of contradiction. He is the destroyer, who incinerates the world as it is, and the creator, who transforms the world out of the ashes. He is the ultimate ascetic, abstaining from all worldly pleasures, and he is the dedicated lover and husband to Shakti/Parvati, the intensity of their love quaking the earth. He is the practiced yogi sitting calmly in meditation with no distraction and the dancer trembling his limbs furiously, his movements destroying and remaking the world.
He is, in many ways, all of us. He models the ways in which we defy categorization and solidity, each of us shifting and changing over time, letting go—with acquiescence or with fighting—of that which no longer serves us and making room for that which does.
For as long as I can remember, I have internalized the words “I am not a dancer.” This, despite that the fact that I love dancing. This, despite the fact that the sound of music and particularly the rhythmic beat of drumming is what makes me feel most myself and most alive. After quitting ballet at six and auditioning for and not making the cut for several dance teams during my time in adolescence, I decided that this was not an identity I could own. I could dance peripherally, at weddings and, if I was not too demonstrative, at clubs. I allowed myself hip sways and arms held in the air when I danced to brass bands back home in New Orleans. Over the years, I increasingly gave myself more permission to dance. But I did not allow myself the moniker dancer.
Rumi said, “Whosoever knoweth the power of the dance, dwelleth in God.”
Another manifestation of Shiva is as Nataraja or The Lord of Dancers. Shiva holds the world in balance and this is seen too in his dancing. In Tandav, the cosmic dance of death, he dances to destroy the universe. Peter Marchand and Christine Gruenwald write, “Shiva Nataraja’s dance represents both the destruction and the creation of the universe and reveals the cycles of death, birth, and rebirth….Under his feet, Shiva crushes the demon of ignorance called Apasmara Purusha, caused by forgetfulness. One hand is stretched across his chest and points towards the uplifted foot, indicating the release from earthly bondage of the devotee. The fire represents the final destruction of creation, but the dance of the Nataraja is also an act of creation, which arouses dormant energies and scatters the ashes of the universe in a pattern that will be the design of the ensuing creation.” On the night of Shiva workship, devotees honor him by imitating him: singing songs in his praise and dancing all night rhythm of the drums.
Last fall, I started going to African dance classes in Tucson. As a white woman born and raised in New Orleans, a still deeply segregated city, I had strong hesitations to attend out of worries of appropriation of a dance that was not from my ancestry. I went with these hesitations and concerns, which still remain as part of the process, but I stayed because of the drums, because there was something about these drums and this dance that propelled me, not only across the floor but into a more complete and authentic version of myself.
Still, in those first few classes, I held myself back. I told stories about how I didn’t belong there, about how the other dancers were so much better than me, about how I was making a fool out of myself, about the lack everyone could clearly see in my body and in my movements. But around my third class, the stories quieted down. I could see the stories for what they were: irrelevant and untrue. The deepest truth was that I love being there. That I love dancing. And this love and this love alone made me into the thing I could not call myself before. Only when I destroyed the story that I was not a dancer was I able to really dance.
I used to think it was important to preserve containment at all costs. I believed that to avoid any kind of spillage or cracks or breakage was to make myself safe. But in the past several years, I have realized the vitality that comes from things breaking apart. I see that it is only this breaking that allows for new forms to take shape, for new breath to be invited in. From the ashes can rise new ways of being that would have never appeared while the old ways were immaculately intact.
July 5 was my birthday. For a few years, I’ve had a tradition of bibliomancing, randomly and blindly selecting, words from a dictionary on my birthday. To me, this feels like a way to honor my birthday and to invite in any messages or words that may be helpful in this new journey around the sun.
This year, I used a Pictorial Webster’s Pocket Dictionary just given to me for my birthday from my friend Amelia. The picture I turned to depicts Lord Shiva, Hindu god of destruction and transformation. That I turned to his image—when I could have easily turned to “Sequoia,” the page before, or “Skeleton of Dinosaurs,” the page after—feels significant and fitting. For years, I have listened to my yoga teacher talk about the ways different gods and goddesses are allies in the path. And I see these gods and goddesses as helpers, as models, as examples of the ideas and concepts they represent. Shiva, like Kali, can be given a bad rap because he brings powerful destructive forces. But as I understand it, these forces are sent to destroy the attachments our ego clings to, the ones we no longer need. In getting rid of attachments that limit us, we make room and create spaciousness for the most fluid and most authentic version of ourselves to emerge. Shiva encourages us to destroy, to dissolve, to deconstruct in order to make way for more genuine creation.
Shiva may be capable of destruction but he also wants to give offerings, to save lives. Shiva is almost always depicted with blue skin from the myth in which he saves humanity by holding in his throat poison that was churned in waters and threatened womankind and mankind. Shiva is painted carrying a trident, the three tips representing creation, protection, and destruction of the universe. Shiva is seen as a source of both evil and good, of destruction and rebirth. In his embodiment, he shows us the light and dark contained in this world and within each of us. He shows us the capacity to hold it all.
I have a Rumi of the Day book that I read from each morning before I sit in meditation. And each year on my birthday, I am struck by the poem for July 5. However, the time and distance of a year gives me time to forget and then to appreciate it anew. In “The Tree of Awe,” Rumi acknowledges the inherent contradiction of life’s joy and suffering and the necessity of both light and darkness. He writes, “No matter how fast you run, your shadow more than keeps up. Sometimes it’s in front. Only full, overhead sun diminishes your shadow. But that shadow has been serving you. What hurts you blesses you.” And “Darkness is your candle. Your boundaries are your quest.” And “You must have shadow and light source both.”
We may think we want only full brightness, but I can tell you from recent experience of 109 degree heat and high humidity in Tucson, that sometimes shade is most welcome. Sometimes we need the shadow to appreciate the beauty and warmth of the light.
When I dance now, I do so because the dance is in me and wants out. Instead of self-consciousness, I come to dance with a deep appreciation for those around me and for this life and for this body that carries me through it. Some days I dance to burn off old stories and some days I dance in appreciation and honor of the beauty in my life.
I am grateful to Shiva for appearing on my birthday to remind me of the power of destroying and razing and of renewing and recreating. These are the makings of a life, and I am grateful to experience both the light and dark offered in mine.