Nataraja, Shiva as the Lord of Dance by Unknown artist, Tamil Nadu, South India

Unknown artist, Tamil Nadu, South India

Nataraja, Shiva as the Lord of Dance, 11th century, Bronze, 113 x 102 x 30 cm, The Cleveland Museum of Art; Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 1930.331, Open access courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art

Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out

Ring of Fire

Commentary by

One of the distinctive images in the history of Indian art is that of Shiva as Nataraja, Lord of the Dance. This sculpted version depicts Shiva as the creator, sustainer, and destroyer of the world. In one hand he holds a drum, symbolic of creation; in the other is a tongue of fire, symbolic of destruction. He dances within a ring of fire, embodying the Hindu conception of the world as a constant cycle of creation and destruction.

While it might seem unusual to use the depiction of a Hindu god to illuminate a Christian text, making a creative connection may help the traditions converse across their differences. The idea of fire-as-destruction, so prominent in Hinduism, is also central to the vision of the coming day of the Lord in 2 Peter 3: fire that dissolves everything, preparing the way for the new heavens and earth (2 Peter 3:10–13). Further, the circular form of the sculpture seems an apt visual counterpart to 2 Peter’s references to cycles of fire and water across time (2 Peter 2:4–10; 3:5–7), which are unusual aspects of this text in New Testament terms.

The dancing Shiva in his creative aspects also has affinities with the benevolent features of divine activity mentioned in the epistle: by the word of God the heavens and earth came into being and are sustained (2 Peter 3:5–7). Shiva’s right hand gestures the mudra of peace. The gesture, along with the figure’s serene countenance, recall the compassion and patience of God mentioned in verses 9 and 15.

Throughout 2 Peter, the author makes a case for why the Christian should endure and be pure, avoiding false teachers who are notable for wallowing in sensual lusts (2 Peter 3:3). A subtle detail of the Shiva sculpture is the demon he dances upon, symbolic of ignorance and illusion, the things that lock humans in the karmic cycle of death and rebirth. The false teachers in 2 Peter are comparably captive to their own misguided thinking. Both the figure of Shiva and the words of 2 Peter, in different ways and in very different religious traditions, exhort believers to overcome false attachments, place their hope in true authority, and escape the coming fire.