By Mark Morford
The 5,000-year-old god arrived in an enormous, heavy-duty cardboard box — as gods are wont to do — nearly four feet high and two feet deep, weighing nearly 100 pounds, packed like an incandescent rock in dense industrial Styrofoam, because that’s just the way he rolls.
This particular deity had made the journey to my door from a divine sculpture shop deep in Connecticut, which itself was merely a brief domestic stopover, given how he first traveled upwards of 9,000 miles from a remote part of southern India where he was born in clay and metal, fire and sweat, across multiple eons of mystical history and tradition, give or take a millennia or two.
Unwrapping him properly took me nearly an hour. I took my time. You do not want to rush such things. You do not need to hurry. This is, after all, a sacred presence, a wild and powerful force, a big-assed, mega-divine yelp of supremely humbling wow.
He’s also sort of … eternal. This particular god, this immense helping of sacred meaning, has been around awhile. Basically, when you decide to fully invite something like this into your home, into your life, you do not want to f– around.
Plus, this wasn’t your typical art piece, lawn ornament, decorative doohickey, a hunk of fancy but inconsequential furniture to be set off in the corner and upon which you can toss your jacket or hang your dirty socks and forget about until the dust bunnies gather and the spider webs form and you’re like, “Oh right, that thing.”
I fully intend to revere this piece — if that’s the right word, which it really isn’t — to indulge it, admire it, honor it, smile before it, swim in the hum of it, celebrate it, drink it in, bow before it, practice yoga in front of it, wink at him and let him wink back, every day, forever and ever, even though I don’t fully know just what the hell most of that even means. Yet.
This, I fully believe, is the fun part. With a god like this, you gotta earn it. It takes time. Lifetimes. Who’s counting?
It’s an enormous Nataraja statue, by the way, just over three feet high and about 95 pounds of solid metal, as weighty as time, heavy as your meanings, light as your consciousness, and vice versa. He is, in short, something to behold.
Nataraja, if you’d like to know, is a form, a version, an embodiment, an incarnation of the great Lord Shiva of Hindu myth. In this form he’s the dancer, the fiery gorgeous four-armed deity you’ve likely seen in various versions and sizes all over, from day spa to yoga studio, sacred space to meditation zone, funky Haight Street head shop to Burning Man camp, as well as innumerable temples, shrines, altars from here to Bangalore.
Recognize him yet? He’s got one leg in the air and all four arms in motion, standing atop a demon of ignorance. He has snakes and drums, fires and rivers, immeasurable power and humble grace. He also has serious history. Hell, he predates Jesus by nearly 3,000 years, if not a million. You know, give or take.
Shiva/Nataraj is, by the way, one of Hinduism’s most complex and revered of deities, god of creation, destruction, embodiment, release — pretty much the whole shebang. He is the destroyer of illusion, but also the great source of all the energy of creation. In this particular dancer incarnation, he’s in constant motion, the embodiment of a conscious, aflame universe. Also, as a piece of mystical art, he’s just all kinds of insanely gorgeous.
I shall not attempt to explain all the history, the Hindu philosophy, the multiple stories and meanings. I haven’t nearly the skills, the knowledge, the training. Not many people do. As a yoga teacher for a decade, I’m still learning, every single day, how to embody Nataraja’s crazy multifarious aspects. Truly, I may never get it all. In fact, I’m quite sure I won’t. This is a wonderful thing.
I carefully hoisted the 5,000-year-old god out of the thick foam, cleaned off the scattered bits, polished him with a cloth dipped in coconut oil — not that he really needed it, but more as an excuse to touch every nook and cranny, get to know his features, the artistry involved, to get to know the god that’s in the details.
Curiously, my lack of serious Hindu training and scholarship almost prevented me from investing in this piece of divine art. For a moment I felt … unworthy. I felt I could not possibly do this creation proper justice. After all, to bring in a piece like this, you are normally to perform puja — elaborate ritual, mantra, chanting and food, milk and flowers, fire and smoke — many times over. Often with a Hindu priest. For hours.
Then I entirely flipped that over. What a thing to work toward? Who says we are bound to such limitations? Invest in the best and most beautiful instrument that inspires you, and learn to play it properly.
I will say one thing: Unlike other forms of worship, with icons like this (and in Hinduism in general), you do not bow down in shriveled meekness. You are meant to meet the deity at eye level. It is not about submissive subservience, not in the way the West thinks of it, anyway. It is not about you being a flawed, guilty sinner and the god is above you looking down, saying “Tsk, tsk, tsk.” There is no separation. No duality. As with any of the Hindu gods, it’s all aspects of the self. You are looking at you.
I’m still figuring that out. I always will be.
One small problem. I have yet to find a proper altar for this tremendous piece of art, one that supports this kind of weight, significance, power, one that does the statue justice. It needs to be a bit more than a table. I am searching for the base. It’s a lot to hold up, as it were. At the same time, it doesn’t weigh a thing.
How do you mount your deities? How do you give proper reverence? With what sort of wild astonishment do you bow and breathe? I don’t really believe in churches, in guilt and shame and forsaking your identity to some scowling judge, in staring up at a horrific image of a bloody body nailed to a stick, full of sin and shame, taught that I can never actually attain sacredness. Why such horror and fear? Why not just dance?
But to attempt a wild, drunken, conscious, devout seeking-out of the sacred in all things in all moments? To destroy illusion and defeat ignorance? Full of consciousness in every breath, smile, song, handshake, lick, suck, touch, word, column, eyeblink, cocktail, dreamstate, marriage, divorce, wound, ecstasy, trauma, death? That I can do. Or rather, that I can strive for, breathe toward, wink at. After all, the gods, they just love to wink back.
Don’t forget to read the comments in the original article.