The Cosmic Dance of Nataraj: Parallels Between Modern Physics, Eastern Mysticism and Process Philosophy


“I am God.  I do not recognize the hell.  I do not recognize the three worlds of heaven, hell, and earth.  I am the Lord, the Controller.  I am still the witness after everything else is dissolved.  Nobody else is God for me; nobody else controls me.  I am I-less, I am my-less. Sankara

In this article, I hope to demonstrate some parallels between modern Physics, Eastern Mysticism, and Barbour’s ideas based on Process Philosophy.  I will examine the three perspectives within the context of the dynamic interplay of energies, the emergent and convergent universe, and finally the transcendence of God.

According to Classical Physics, Newton’s mechanical model views the world as deterministic.  All that transpires in the universe has a definite cause, giving rise to a categorical effect.  The philosophical basis of Classical Physics is a fundamental division between the “I” and the “world,” the dichotomy of the subject and object.  The world is in motion with respect to fixed laws, according to which material points move.  This mechanistic model is adequate for the description of physical phenomena at a submicroscopic level, where essentially, protons, neutrons, and electrons are the material particles that interact with finite space and linear time to effect movement in the world (Capra: 1972, 56-62).  At the atomic level, the actions of atoms can be determined; however as quantum physics shows even at this level the reaction cannot be predetermined, for even the observer can have an impact on the outcome or results.

The first three decades of our century have seen a radical transformation of the entire interpretation of physics-based on Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum physics. Modern physics has shattered all the principle concepts of the Classical world view based on universal order and fixed laws. The theory of relativity and quantum theory have transformed our view of absolute space and time, elementary solid particles, the causal nature of physical phenomena, and the objective description of nature (62-63).
Albert Einstein
In 1905, Albert Einstein initiated the two revolutionary trends of thought in the theory of relativity and the beginning of the quantum theory.  (The complete quantum theory was worked out twenty years later by a team of physicists.  In quantum theory one deals with the probability of finding a particle at a given position.  The theory attempts to combine the principles of quantum mechanics with those of relativity in an effort to describe processes such as high-energy collisions in which particles may be created or destroyed).  Even though Einstein refuted the classical understanding of the universe, he still advocated nature’s intrinsic harmony and integrated foundation.  The physicist replaced the erroneous constants of the past, showing that they were the only relative, but nevertheless made the speed of light a constant in his physics.  He tried to located God’s order in a universal, while through his theory of relativity, the constancy of time and space were disproved.  Einstein, therefore, commented that God does not place dice, so that the natural world is comprised of total harmony and order, and nothing is left to chance.

According to the relativity theory, time is not a separate entity; moreover, space is not three-dimensional.  Both are interconnected and a four-dimensional continuum emerges as time-space, as space and time lose their absolute significance. In contrast to the classical theory of absolute space and, absolute time, the modern theory of physics emerges, where both space and time become elements of language used by a particular observer.  The most important consequence of Modern Physics is the realization that mass and even matter are nothing but forms of energy.  Matter can through processes change into energy and vice versa, challenging the materialist conception of the universe based on the static, tangible perception of matter, and even matter itself must be redefined as it has changed into something dynamic and fluid.  Furthermore, space can never be separated from time as the latter is affected by the presence of matter. l Both space and time, however, are flowing at different rates in different parts of the universe.  For example, the mass or weight of a human being is not inseparable from space, so that a 160 lbs. man on earth may weigh only 60 lbs on the moon and 300 lbs. on Jupiter.  Clearly, the space that the human body occupies influences its mass.  The Classical concept of absolute space and time is also nullified, since the force of gravity, according to Einstein’s theory of relativity, has the effect of curving space and time.  Clearly, the relativity theory has revolutionized our interpretation of physical phenomena.  The classical distinction between matter and energy is discarded in favor of the contemporary idea that matter can transform into energy and vice versa; therefore there can only be conversion among the different forms of matter and energy, even if neither is actually unchanging (62-70).

From the perspective of the quantum theory, the classical deterministic laws of nature have been dismantled.  In contrast to the Classical view of solid material objects, quantum theory interprets phenomena as wave-like patterns of probabilities.  The probabilities are not of “things” but rather probabilities of interconnections.  Subatomic particles have no existence as concrete, isolated entities.  Phenomenal reality can only be understood in terms of the probability of interconnections.  Quantum theory, thus, reveals an essential unity of the universe.  The world cannot be deconstructed into independently isolated “building blocks.”  Rather, a dynamic interplay exists between the various parts of the whole.  These relations also include the “observer.”  The human observer becomes the final link in the chain of observational processes since an essential interconnection exists in all phenomena.  The attraction between positive and negative forces emerges as a vigorous interplay of energy waves that order the phenomenal world.  The property of matter and light becomes concomitantly “particle” and energy “waves,” spread over a large region of space.  The energy of heat radiation continuously appears as energy packets.  Einstein calls them “quanta” and recognizes them as an essential aspect of nature (68-81).

According to the relativistic quantum field theory, particle and field are complementary manifestations of one and the same thing.  The relativistic field theory asserts that:
“the ultimate material reality that physics can apprehend is the ‘field’ and in the aspect of the quantum field, it is both a continuum and a discontinuum, the discontinuities being temporary condensations of space-time where the field is unusually intense giving rise to matter (Pantda: 1991, 154).
According to the field theory, the reality is nothing but the transformation and organization of the field quanta.  Particles are interactions between fields and are ephemeral manifestations.  They only appear to be substantial as a result of the dynamic, energetic interplay of the quantum fields (155).

All types of particle-pairs are constantly generated and absorbed by the field.  The “dance” of all possible particles, may be regarded as the fundamental activity of Nature so that:
‘sunya’ (void)
‘sunya’ (void)
“what was considered to be ‘sunya’ (void), vacuum or nothingness before the discovery of relativistic quantum field is now accepted as ‘purna’ (full) or plenum by the quantum physicists (157).

In microphysics, the vacuum-ocean is a positive entity, having ripples and larger waves full of fluctuations.  The vacuum-ocean is absolute because it is inactive, calm, and free from fluctuations.  Unmanifest energy manifests itself and then again becomes unmanifest as an eternal dynamic process of the universal materialization and confluence that takes place (156-158).

The cosmic dance of Shiva or Nataraja
The cosmic dance of Shiva or Nataraja
In East Indian mythology and philosophy, the concept of the cosmic dance is very ancient, representing the Eastern mystic’s dynamic view of the universe. They have used the image of a “dance” to convey their intuition of reality, personified in the form of the cosmic dance of Shiva (or Nataraja).  The word Shiva means “one whose actions are good,” and the name Shiva is considered to be derived from Shankara meaning auspicious and benevolent.  Shiva is worshipped in the form of a phallus, which symbolized the Divine Father.  The phallus symbol penetrates into ‘Shakti’ (energy) represented in the form of the ‘yoni’ ( the womb or vagina), a symbol of the generative organ of the Divine Mother.  Proto-Shiva was a fertility God of the Indus Valley Civilization, and his dancing today symbolizes creation.  Interestingly, the same Shiva assumes destructive or sanguinary aspects, for destruction and cannot be separated from creation.  Shiva needs to destroy in order to create anew.  Rudra represents destructive aspects in their totality as he dances for the annihilation of everything.  Shiva and Rudra are two images that seem to be antagonistic to one another initially, but the Hindu tradition has a forceful strength to assimilate bifurcating ideas.  Shiva collects Rudra’s attributes into himself once the latter declines in popularity after the Vedic period.  The Eastern Mystics commingle the two contradictory concepts and form an integral concept from the collapse of Rudra’s destructive powers into the new, more powerful Shiva.  The contradictory nature of Shiva appears paradoxical, however, in reality, it is a bipolar synthesis, in which the opposite poles cannot exist without the other (156-158).

Eastern mysticism recognizes only one Reality as the Transcendent, and yet It is conceived in many forms.  ‘Advaita’ (Non-Dual) Vedanta recognizes Brahman as the Ground of Reality, or as the Ultimate Reality whereas the phenomenal world is ultimately unreal (Maya or mithya).  The theistic or devotional schools of medieval India accepted God not only as Formless but often worshipped the Lord in many forms.  Therefore, God in Advaitic understanding was Formless and One, a conception that became remote in the myriad forms that many Hindus worshipped in ardent devotion in daily life.  The Hindu tradition tried to synthesize these myriad forms into the Trimurti (the Hindu trinity).  As a coin has two faces, likewise the Divine has three presiding phases, attributes, or deities:  Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (maintainer), and Mahesvara (change, destroyer i.e. Shiva).  The Nataraja concept of Shiva contains simultaneously his creative, sustaining, and destructive activities.  His Nataraja form is consistent with religious, philosophical, and scientific investigation.  Creation and dissolution are taking place each moment and are symbolized by the Rudra-Shiva dance.  The universal dancer is considered to be Nataraja whose dancing creates the outflow and inflow of the universes and encompasses all with His eternally still presented as a multidimensional aspect of the cosmic dance (159). 

In this supreme cosmic dance:
supreme cosmic dance
Supreme cosmic dance
“particles and antiparticles appear from akasa (space; these micro-particles may generate newer particles; the particles dance vigorously, suddenly they appear, transiently they live…then they disappear.  When they disappear they apparently vanish, but they don’t become nothing…(160).

In the beginning, the particles were unmanifest (avyakta), in the middle they become manifest (vyatka), and in the end, they become again unmanifest (avyakta).  There is no gain or loss in the whole process, for the cosmic dance is eternal.  Creation and annihilation are merely part of the cosmic dance.  Their difference lies in degrees of subtleties as they alternate from coarse to subtle existence.  The cosmic process of creation, destruction, manifestation, and non-manifestation, worldly evolution and change are fundamentals of Shiva’s eternal dance (158).

The symbolic imagery of the dancing Shiva is as follows:

“Shiva’s aureaole of fire (the prabhamandala) represents the rhythm of the universe and emanates from the lotus pedestal, the Hindu symbol of Enlightenment.  Shiva dances on the prostrate form of Apasmargaurusa, a symbol of human ignorance.  The back right-hand carries the damaru, a drum symbolizing creation.  The back left-hand holds Agni, the fire of destruction.  The front left hand carries a disc and is in the yajahasta (elephant trunk) position. The front left hand is in the abhya-mudra pose (pose expressing fearlessness)  (154).

Shiva’s dance is further considered to be tandava (energetic).  The foot held aloft signifies release.  His arms are balanced and yet reflect dynamic gestures that express the rhythm and unity of Life.  The balance of the two hands represents the dynamic balance of creation and destruction.  In the center of the two hands is Shiva’s face, calm and detached, which signifies the transcendence over the polarity inherent in creation and destruction.  Shiva is pictured dancing on the body of a demon who symbolizes human ignorance, which must be conquered before liberation is achieved (256-255).

Shiva’s dance represents the dynamic flow and ‘dance’ of the universe.  The dancing universe is a ceaseless flow of energy going through an infinite variety of patterns, which merge into one another in a dynamic universal interplay.  His dance symbolizes the daily rhythm of birth and death and the cosmic cycles of creation and destruction.  Shiva is a reminder that the many forms in the world are maya (not constant, but ever-changing), while He is eternally Real as He continually keeps creating and dissolving the forms in the external flow of His dance.

The Eastern mystics have a dynamic view of the universe similar to that of modern physics.  The parallels of Eastern mysticism and modern physics become particularly striking when sound is considered as a wave with a certain frequency, which changes with the sound.  Particles are also waves with frequencies proportional to their energies.  According to modern physics, each particle perpetually sings its song, and produces a rhythmic ‘dance of energy in dense and subtle forms.’  Modern physicists use phrases like the ‘dance of creation and destruction’ and ‘energy dance.’  The conception of rhythm and dance emerge naturally when one tries to imagine the discharge of energies going through the patterns that make up the particle world.  Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, therefore, demonstrate that rhythm and motion are essential aspects of the phenomenal universe.  Another parallel is the understanding that all matter, whether here on Earth or in outer space, is participating in a continual cosmic dance (Capra: 1975, 256-259).  Moreover, both of them agree on the idea of the emergent and convergent universe.  According to Eastern Mysticism, the world of Maya (illusion) changes perpetually, since the cosmic dance of Shiva is a rhythmic, dynamic dance.  In the active principle of the cosmic dance, the entire universe is in action, manifest and emerging, while in its non-active principle the entire universe has converged into an unmanifest essence.  Similarly, modern physics has discovered the expanding universe as supported by the kinetic of the Big Bang theory.  And, presently the universe has been shown as expanding, but at a slower rate than previously due to the changes in the gravitational force.  Moreover, the reverse phenomenon of the collapsing universe will take place at some time in the future, when the gravitational pull will be greater than the receding force, and then the universe will converge (Panda: 1991, 131).

In conclusion, I have examined some fundamental ideas inherent in Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism.  Interestingly, the emerging views in each of the two systems of thought parallel to each other.

by Deborah Morrison

Works Cited : Capra, Fritof. The Tao of Physics. London: Wildwood House, 1975
Panda, N.C. Maya in Physics. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1991

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