The best-known image of Indian art is that of Nataraja, at Chidambaram, which symbolizes in the most perfect and inspiring artistic form, the Cosmic Dance of the Lord, in His aspect as Creator, Maintainer and Destroyer of the manifested universes. In "Rambles of Vedanta" the author, B. R. Rajam Iyer, gives the following interpretation of the inner meaning of the Nataraja image:
Nataraja means the Lord of the Stage. The idea is that the world is a stage, a puppet-show which presents the vision of life and activity through the power of the all-pervading Atman or God, the unseen Lord of the Stage. But for the inner Atman all the world would be mere Jada (inert or dead)... the Atman or Self being the real teacher of the human mind, Nataraja is meant to represent the Teacher or Guru. One of the functions of the Guru, and perhaps the most important, is to be what he teaches—to enforce his teachings by example. It is this idea that is the key-note of the Nataraja symbol.
The little drum in one of the right hands is meant to express the idea that God or the Guru holds the cause of all the world, i.e, sound, (Sabda Nishtam Jagad, through sound the world stands) in his hand; in other words, all the world is in his hand, to be folded or unfolded at his own will. To the Gnani or wise man the world exists only if he chooses, and not otherwise. The deer on one side is the mind, because the latter leaps and jumps from one thing to another as wildly as does that animal. The Atman is far beyond the reach of the deer-like mind; and so the deer in the picture is placed near the legs. Nataraja wears the skin of a tiger which he himself slew. Ahankara, or the skin of egoism, is that tiger; it is beastly and ferocious and fiercely fights when attacked, but it has to be killed, and Nataraja the Guru alone can kill it.
On his head he wears the Ganges, i.e, Chit Sakti or wisdom, which is most cool and refreshing, and the moon which represents the ethereal light and blissfulness of the Atman. One foot is planted on and crushes the giant Muyalaka, i.e, Maha Maya, the endless illusion which is the cause of birth and death, while the other foot is raised upward and represents the tureya state, which is beyond and above the three states of waking, dream and dreamless sleep, and leaves behind the mind, Maya and the world. The other right hand, representing the idea of peace, indicates the blessed calmness which is the glorious privilege of wisdom. In one of the left hands, is held Agni (fire), i.e, the Guru brings in the Jyotis of the Atman itself to attest the truth of his teaching.
The idea is that the truth of the Guru’s teaching can only be fully understood on practical realization, in experience (Anubhava). The place of the dance, the theatre, is Thillaivanam, i.e, the body (of the individual as well as of the kosmos) spoke of asvanam, or forest, on account of the multitude of its components. The platform in that theatre is the cremation ground, i.e, the place where all passions and the names and forms that constitute the vision of the world have been burnt away—pure consciousness devoid of attachment to anything outside and devoid of illusion.
The above are some of the leading features of the Nataraja symbol. The Guru teaches that Maya—illusion—should be crushed down, that the world should become subject to us and not we to the world, that the deer-like mind should be left behind, and Ahankara (egoism) be destroyed, and that man should ascend to the regions of pure, unconditioned consciousness free from passion and free from deception, and enjoy the calmness which is his birthright, the bliss, the light and the truth that form the Self. Viewed in the light of this inner meaning the image of Nataraja is no more a meaningless idol, a piece of stone or copper, but a symbol of the highest teaching, an object that can inspire and elevate.
Source: EAST WEST magazine, November - December, 1929 VOL. 4-3, mysticalportal.net