In the ancient forest of Tillai, there once dwelt a great community of shamans practicing austerities and making endless sacrifices to achieve magical powers which they worshiped in their ignorance. But when their pride in their abilities had reached its height, the Supreme Lord, Shiva, devised a plan to humble them and remove the veil of ignorance from their eyes.
Thus, Lord Shiva took the form of Bhikshātana, a naked and divinely beautiful ascetic, and asked his counterpart, Lord Vishnu, to accompany him in the form of Mohinī, a beautiful and similarly naked enchantress. Dressed in these exquisite bodies, they entered the shaman’s village separately, the naked Bhikshātana approaching the huts where the wives of the shamans congregated, and the naked Mohinī approaching the sacrificial fires of the shamans.
When the wives of the shamans caught sight of the naked young ascetic, Bhikshātana, and heard the music of his divine drum, they were immediately pierced by the arrows of Kāma, and their passions were quickly enflamed. So powerful was their desire for him that they soon began to tear at their clothes, struggling to become free of them, until all were naked and moving spellbound toward the beautiful young ascetic. Some of them, not having any cooked rice to offer to the beggar, took uncooked grains in their hands and approached him, allowing the rice to swell in the moist heat of their passion. The younger women begged him, wildly, to become their lover; while the older women simply swayed and danced in the remembrance of past ecstasies. Meanwhile, near the sacrificial fires, the shamans were similarly enchanted by the divinely beautiful Mohinī; filled with an intense desire for her, they followed her blindly to the center of the forest, just as their wives followed Bhikshātana.
When the crowd of impassioned villagers began to arrive at the center of the forest, and the shamans finally saw their naked wives crowding around the young ascetic, they were dumfounded. But their astonishment did not last and soon gave way to an intense jealousy and anger. Realizing some powerful magic was at work, they took counsel together to kill the beautiful ascetic who, unbeknownst to them, was really Lord Shiva in disguise.
Quickly, they prepared a sacrificial fire, and with magic spells invoked what they hoped would be the means of Lord Shiva’s destruction. Soon, a tiger of prodigious size formed in the fire-pit and burst from the flames, racing ferociously at Lord Shiva. But it raced only to its death; for Shiva simply extended his arm to meet the beast and deftly peeled the skin from it with the sharp nail of his little finger. Then, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, he simply picked-up the tiger skin and lay it across his shoulders like a shawl.
Again, the shamans went back to the fire-pit, and this time called forth from its twisting and darting flames, a tangle of deadly serpents. But, as if intoxicated by the tremendous power of Lord Shiva, they merely climbed his limbs like the creeper, undulating on his body like living ornaments. And, as if response, Lord Shiva, like the snakes, slowly began to dance a dance of bliss. As he moved, his two undulating arms appeared like four, and on his forehead, a third eye seemed to glow, revealing the true identity of the beautiful ascetic in his full glory.
But blinded by fear and rage, and more than a little hubris, the shamans could not stop themselves. Concentrating all their rage and desperation, they caused the fire-pit to belch forth a creature of the most dense darkness, a demoniacal dwarf. The creature roared in its ignorance and rushed upon the dancing Lord with murderous intent, crushing the ground with each impossibly heavy step. But Lord Shiva did not even bother to break the rhythm of his beautiful dance. He simply raised his leg in one elegant movement and allowed it to come down on the dwarf with perfect timing, breaking the creature’s back with destructive precision, subduing him beneath his divine foot.
Now, Lord Shiva was truly ready to unfold the full majesty of the dance, to real himself as Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance, manifesting all the divine attributes, revealing the glory of the five-fold activity of the universe. In one hand, a drum appeared, making the primordial sound, the beat of time and rhythm. With another hand, the dancing Lord made the gesture of preservation, quieting all fears. In a third hand, Nataraja held the fire at the end of time, while the final hand and arm crossed the divine breast, concealing the sacred heart, just one finger of its hand pointing to the blessed foot. It was the foot of the left leg, which, in the course of the dance, was concealing the place of the genitals, paradoxically revealing the non-duality of the dancing Lord, who transcends all pairs of opposites.
Seeing this awesome sight, the shamans collapsed, their stubborn will to ignorance finally exhausted. Now, the sublime power of the dance enraptured all who witnessed it. The shamans were redeemed and enlightened by the unfolding of the mystery of the dance of bliss. They began to praise Nataraja, who appeared not to listen, dancing on until all the shamans and their wives began to dance too. Indeed, all the creatures of the world began to dance, and universal joy was found in the vibration of Supreme Lord’s steps.
The Lord of the Dance is the expression of the five divine activities: creation, preservation, destruction, concealing, and revealing. As Ananda Coomaraswamy points out in his classic essay, “The Dance of Shiva,” the essential significance of Shiva’s dancing image is threefold. First, it is the image of divinity’s rhythmic play, the source of all movement in the cosmos (itself represented by the aureole of flames around the image). Second, the purpose of the dance is to release the souls of humanity from the snare of cosmic illusion. Third, the place of the dance---Chidambaram---is one’s own heart, the very center of universe.