CERN & the Dancing Shiva - Nataraja : The Confluence of Science and Spirituality.

CERN & the Dancing Nataraja : The Confluence of Science Arts and Spirituality. 

Images Credits : Wiki Commons and Nehru Science Centre.
Last year, around this time, our temporary exhibition space, which presently has been converted into an Isolation ward for Covid patients by the BMC under the Epidemic Diseases Act, was home to an  exciting exhibition - Vigyan Samagam. This exhibition showcased seven mega science international projects in which India is a partner. These projects - Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research (FAIR), India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO), International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), Square Kilometer Array (SKA), Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) - have an objective to unravel the mysteries of the universe that stretch from an unseen universe of subatomic particles - quarks, muons, positrons, Higgs Bosons (god particle discovered at the LHC, CERN) - to the extreme, beyond the observable macroscopic universe. These international projects have been envisaged as a result of rapid progress in science, which help in distinguishing the 21st century from earlier centuries. The quest for study and understanding of such extreme scales of universe - both at the micro and macro scale - need global collaboration and the nature of these projects mandate that collaboration. These projects also provide an opportunity for scientists across the world to collectively aim at pushing the frontiers of science.

The need to push the frontiers of science has led to formalising international collaboration in pooling of scientists, material and financial resources and establishing global partnerships in the Mega Science Projects, in which India is also a partner. To show case the significance of such mega science projects, particularly the Indian contributions in these projects, three Government of India institutions; Department of Atomic Energy, Department of Science and Technology and the National Council of Science Museums had joined hands, to present the first ever “VIGYAN SAMAGAM”, exhibition, which was opened  in May 2019, at our centre - Nehru Science Centre, Mumbai. The highlight of the Vigyan Samagam exhibition was the CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research) pavilion, which was transported all the way from Geneva, Switzerland for the exhibition and the highlight of the pavilion was the Large Hadron Collider. 

Speaking of CERN, one is reminded of that historic moment - the 4th July 2012 - of the discovery of the ‘Gods particle’ - the Higgs Boson - at the Large Hadron Collider - LHC -, which is one of the major research facilities at CERN. Years before this elusive particle was discovered at CERN, with which India and Indian scientists have had a collaboration since the early sixties, the government of India decided to gift an artistically elegant 2 metre tall Chola bronze statue of the dancing Shiva (Nataraj) to CERN. On June 18, 2004, the statue of the Indian deity Shiva Nataraja, the Lord of Dance was unveiled at CERN, the European Center for Research in Particle Physics in Geneva. The statue, symbolizing Shiva’s cosmic dance of creation and destruction, was given to CERN by the Indian government to celebrate the research centers (CERN) long association with India, since the 60s. The statue of Lord Shiva was unveiled by His Excellency K M Chandrashekhar, the Indian ambassador to WTO, Geneva, Dr Anil Kakodkar, eminent nuclear scientist and Chairman DAE, and Dr Robert Aymar (Director General of CERN (2004–2008) in the presence of several other CERN scientists. This elegant statue, which symbolises the art and culture of India, now finds a permanent place in CERN between buildings 39 and 40, a short distance from the Main Building. India has been a partner state in the scientific research at CERN, an international state of the art scientific research institution, which is home to international scientists. Speaking on the occasion, representative of CERN had said that India was one of the institute’s observer states, and the statue of the Nataraj represents CERN’s multiculturalism, with scientists from across the globe taking part in the research at its facilities. One of the reasons why the Indian government chose the image of Shiva Nataraja was to acknowledge the profound significance of the metaphor of Shiva’s dance for the cosmic dance of subatomic particles, which is observed and analyzed by CERN’s physicists.

The commissioning of the statue of Shiva at the best of international scientific research centre CERN, as expected, raised some eye brows and in response the spokesperson of CERN stated “that the statue was a gift from India to celebrate its association with CERN, which started in the 1960’s and remains strong today”. In the Hindu religion, Lord Shiva practiced Nataraj dance which symbolises Shakti, or life force. This deity was chosen by the Indian government because of a metaphor that was drawn between the cosmic dance of the Nataraj and the modern study of the ‘cosmic dance’ of subatomic particles. India is one of CERN’s associate member states. CERN is a multicultural organisation that welcomes scientists from more than 100 countries and 680 institutions. It is for this reason that CERN is often referred to as the global temp,e of learning. The Shiva statue is one of many statues and cultural icons and other art pieces, which have been installed at CERN, to exemplify CERN’s multiculturalism.

As stated above, CERN is a pre-eminent centre for state of the art research in frontiers of science and one of the major facility at CERN, which attracts global scientists, is the world's biggest and most powerful particle accelerator -  the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which they built for researching particle physics. LHC is a giant circular tunnel built underground, which is 27 kilometres long, and between 50 and 175 meters below the ground. CERN is also the place where core technologies of the internet were first conceived and Tim Berners Lee, an engineer working with CERN  developed the World Wide Web (WWW), meaning the now ubiquitous WWW took its birth at CERN. Installation of the statue of Lord Shiva - the Dancing Nataraja - at this scientific precincts, which is kind of a Mecca for global science, is therefore unprecedented. The Chola Bronze ‘Dancing Shiva (Nataraj)’ metaphorically represents the dance of subatomic particles at the atomic level in modern physics. A plaque placed below the Nataraja statue describes the significance of the metaphor of Shiva's cosmic dance with modern physics. It contains quotations from Fritjof Capra, an American Physicist ans it says ; “Modern physics has shown that the rhythm of creation and destruction is not only manifest in the turn of the seasons and in the birth and death of all living creatures, but is also the very essence of different forms of visual images of dancing Shiva, which are created by artisans using the lost wax process of bronze casting the practice of which goes back to the Chola period. He further goes on to add ‘in our time, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance. The metaphor of the cosmic dance thus unifies ancient mythology, religious art and modern physics.” Lord Shiva or Nataraja is one of the most important deities in the Hindu religion. Nataraja is also known by many other names such as Mahadeva, Neelakantha, Rudra, Shambhu, Shiva etc. Shiva’s form of Nataraja symbolizes the cosmic dance of creation and destruction.

The parallel between Nataraj’s dance and the dance of the subatomic particles, was first discussed by Fritjof Capra in an article titled "The Dance of Shiva: The Hindu View of Matter in the light of Modern Physics," published in Main Currents in Modern Thought in 1972. Shiva's cosmic dance then became a central metaphor in Capra's international bestseller ‘The Tao of Physics’, first published in 1975, which continues to be in print with over 40 editions and still going strong. The Nataraja or the dancing Shiva statue, cast in bronze, is testimony to the excellence of ancient Indian artisans and metallurgists, whose material evidence is found in most museums across the world, particularly in the Government Museum in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, where rows of these spectacular dancing Nataraja statues - green in colour with almost one thousand plus years old patina on them, are found in plenty.

The two metre tall bronze statue of Shiva, in the quintessential cosmic dance posture, trampling upon ignorance, metaphorically symbolises mankind’s collective quest for understanding of the universe at the atomic level. It is therefore a pleasant feeling that the Indian dancing Nataraj statue finds a place in the very precincts of CERN where the ‘Gods particle’ - the Higgs boson,  was discovered at the Large Hadron Collider. It was here at the LHC that the Tandava of subatomic particles was played out in the underground 27 kilometre tunnel and in the process the Higgs Boson, popularly called the Gods particle, as envisaged by Peter Higgs, was discovered at this historic location in the year 2012.

We, Indians, know that Nataraja is the dancing form of Lord Shiva, who is also considered as the supreme God of "Naatya" - dance. One of the dance performed by lord Shiva is the ‘Tandava nritya’, the divine dance, which is considered to be the source of creation, preservation and destruction. Scholars such as Fritjof Capra, have tried to establish a scientific connection between the Nataraj Tandava and modern physics and the Atom and its subatomic Spin. The name "Tandava" is derived from "Tandu", who was an attendant of Lord Shiva. Tandu is believed to have taught 108 karanas (mudras) - the combination of hand gestures with feet to form a dance posture -  to Baratha, the author of the famed “Natya Shastra".  These 108 karanas are discussed by Baratha in the fourth chapter "Tandava lakshanam" of  “Natya Shastra". Tandava symbolizes the cosmic cycle of creation and destruction. It deals with five principle manifestations of eternal energy : 
Shrishti - Creation
Sthiti - Sustenance
 Samhara - Destruction 
Tirobhava - Illusion 
Anugraha - Grace, blessing. 
There are many types of "Tandavas" and the most famous among them is the “Aananda Thandava" that  portrays bliss and ecstasy and "Rudra Thandava", which portrays destruction and violence. Metaphorically the Rudra Tandav has been compared with the modern science of creation and destruction of particles at the subatomic level.

Fritjof Capra, further explains the metaphorical significance: “Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Shiva in a beautiful series of bronzes. In our time, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance. The metaphor of the cosmic dance thus unifies ancient mythology, religious art and modern physics.” Fritjof Capra further says,  in The Tao of Physics: “The Dance of Shiva symbolises the basis of all existence. At the same time, Shiva reminds us that the manifold forms in the world are not fundamental, but illusory and ever-changing. Modern physics has shown that the rhythm of creation and destruction is not only manifest in the turn of the seasons and in the birth and death of all living creatures, but is also the very essence of inorganic matter." One of the leading scholars and a doyen of art historians, Ananda Coomaraswamy, was the first to see beyond the “unsurpassed rhythm, beauty, power and grace of Nataraja”. He praised it as “the clearest image of the activity of God which any art or religion can boast of”. Coomaraswamy went on to explain that the dance, called Anandatandava or Dance of Bliss, symbolised the cosmic cycles of creation and destruction, as well as the earthly rhythms of birth and death.  He saw it as a pictorial allegory of five manifestations of energy, which physicists said cannot be destroyed, only transformed.  Accordingly, the Tandava of Physics and Metaphysics could be represented as cycles of creation and evolution (shrishti) followed by those of preservation or support (sthiti) as well as destruction and evolution (samhara).

According to quantum field theory, creation and destruction is the basis of the very existence of matter. Modern physics has revealed that every subatomic particle is engaged in an end less process of energy ‘dance’ - a pulsating process of creation and destruction. Therefore from the modern physics point of view there seem to be a metaphorical resemblance of Shiva’s dance with the process of matter at atomic and subatomic level, which forms the basis of all existence and of all natural phenomena. In a sense the dancing Nataraja metaphorically represents the unending natural phenomenon that gets played out in nature at Interstellar and this constitutes the fundamental physics of the universe. It is therefore a befitting honour for the age old traditions and culture of India that the Statue of the Nataraja finds a prominent place in the precincts of CERN. 

Many traditionalists in India including several scientists, believe that Science has no contradiction with ‘Dharma’, which is most often misconstrued as Religion. While religion may bring forth some restrictions, for a section of society, to run a particular belief fermented with some ethos, ‘Dharma’, many Indians believe, is far different from that concept. Dhrama is the reality of attributes of entire life process in a method of sacrifice of individual for the larger good of human society. In Vivekananda’s word it is ‘manifestation of divinity, already in man’. 
Dharma is the synthesis of science, philosophy, knowledge, intuition and everything in a single and supreme entity, which Shiva or the Nataraja represents.


  1. A beautiful confluence of science and spirituality ! Wonderfully articulated, Shivaprasad.


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