To place this icon-type in its context, it is just one of several images, such as the Dakshinamurtis, which depict Shiva-Mahaguru in one of his teaching roles; in this case, as teacher of the classical dance which originated as a magnificent form of worship in temples. The architects and sculptors of the temple having been required to study music and the dance, the sacred building comes to life when the dances are staged, the performers, whose lives are dedicated to the god, being dressed to resemble the deities, demons and heroes of mythology. The god is entertained, his temple resounding with precise rhythms; the dancers themselves, trained from childhood in the strict discipline of their art, may attain a state of ecstasy; and the observers see the gods acting out their timeless dramas in the magical medium of the sacred ballet which recreates the supernatural world of myth.
The Nataraja icon presents the dancer in a pose which is technically termed bhujanga-trasa, 'fear of a snake', since the body is twisted violently to the side, one leg raised abruptly as if the foot had just trodden upon a snake. The left arm sweeping across the body is also a purely artistic movement from the dance. In the upper right hand, is the damaru drum - a double-faced instrument held in the middle at the narrow waist. When the drum is shaken with a vigorous rocking motion, the thongs fly out and the knots or weights lash the stretched skin of the drum faces, producing a rapid, staccato tattoo: the original meaning of the word damaru is a tumultuous clamor or uproar. As for the rest, the icon is wholly didactic, a superb symbol of the divine forces which demand utter self surrender on the part of the individual, presented in ritualized artistic terms which engage the mind of the devotee as compellingly as does the temple-dance itself. This is the four-armed Nataraja image as it is best known; Shiva as the destroyer of ignorance, pattern of the cosmos and guide to liberation.