Who is the Dwarf in the Cosmic Dance of Shiva?

Apasmara, the Dwarf

by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay explains the meaning of Anava, symbolized as the dwarf in the images of Nataraja, and how it limits you and what you can do about it.


In the images of Nataraja, you might have seen a little dwarf, called apasmara, being crushed under his dancing feet. That little dwarf represents the ignorant, deluded being, Jiva, who is subject to the triple impurities of littleness (anava), desires and attachments (pasa), and delusion (moha) caused by ignorance. The purpose of Shiva’s dance is to facilitate the order and regularity of the world, and the liberation of souls through an intense transformative process under his twin feet of births and deaths, and duality.

For the mortal beings, anava is a problem. Anava means egoism, smallness, or atomicity. Anu means atom, Anava means choosing to be like an atom, when in reality you are the supreme Self. It is the natural state of all living beings, but not the ideal one, since it is not conducive to liberation. In reality you are limitless, eternal, indestructible, and indivisible. Your ego makes you feel that you are a limited being, distinct and separate from the rest of creation. It is also responsible for your pride, ownership, desire-ridden actions, attachments, possessiveness, modifications of your mind, birth and death.

By a casual observation you can easily see that you are a fragmented person, with numerous parts. Both your mind and body have several parts, and each of them is further divided into numerous other parts. Together they create you, a complex being with fragmented awareness, and a distinct individuality that separates you from the rest.

In the fragmented mind you experience duality and division and find it difficult to accept any notion of being limitless, or eternal. You see your body and know that it is impermanent and subject to death and decay. You see others, and you know that they are different from you and cannot be you. You see suffering everywhere, little children dying, animals getting shot, people behaving cruelly, and numerous other disturbing images, which make you feel that the world is a wretched place for good people. All that is true, at least from your perspective. Every day many things happen in this world, which hurt your sensibility and sense of justice. They keep you bound to your judgment, worldview and your sense of righteousness.

When you see things from a limited perspective as an individual, and accept them as true, you should know that it is your ego which is at work and which is responsible for the duality and separation that you experience. Your ego may feel righteous, but righteousness coming from your ego is still a problem because it strengthens your ego rather than facilitating liberation. In Hinduism, this state is described as smallness or atomicity (anava). In this state you identify yourself with your mind and body and accept your physical identity as true, and you use it to define yourself and relate to others. It is also the state of delusion, where cannot properly discriminate between truth and falsehood.

Your ego practically stays in control of your life and asserts itself in numerous aspects of your thinking, behavior, and actions. Your beliefs, faith, knowledge, wisdom, attitude, relationships, judgment, feelings, opinions, are colored by it. You do not know your ego as a separate entity because in wakeful state it envelops your consciousness and represents your identity. You will become aware of it only in deep, meditative states as you become the observer or a passive witness. Your ego is the sum of your mind and body complex, and your conscious experience. It is the totality of who you are, and how you perceive yourself. If you feel unhappy, happy, angry, sad, worried, anxious, envious, ambitious, or fearful, know that it is the reaction of your ego.

Aanava, your smallness, pits you against the gigantic forces of the universe and creates in you fear, anxiety, insecurity and numerous other emotional responses, whereby you develop attachments and indulge in desire-ridden actions to fortify yourself against possible threats. Since you are limited by its influence and modes, you do not experience life in its totality, or the transcendental state of limitless and choiceless awareness.

How can you deal with the problem of ego and the limitedness it creates so that you can permanently escape into an eternal world? How can you find an eternal relief from the twin problems of births and deaths as represented by the dancing feet of Shiva, the lord of Death? The scriptures offer numerous suggestions. You may also find solutions from several sources and in different traditions. Here are a few important ones mentioned by the enlightened ones.

First, know how to identify your ego and understand its working and behavior. Next, stop identifying yourself with your mind and body and cultivate detachment. Third, withdraw your mind and senses and turn inward to practice meditation and mindful observation to become your own witness. Fourthly, stop acting according to the prompting of your ego with the following. Silence your desires, expectations, opinions, reactions and emotional responses. Reduce your dependence upon things and people to whom you  are attached. Control your compulsion to control the world, or to claim things that do not belong to you. Do not indulge in actions to profit yourself. Finally, overcome selfishness, greed, envy, pride, malice, and delusion through spiritual practice and self-purification.

Practices such as the ones mentioned above would greatly weaken your ego and its hold upon your consciousness. As long as you have mind and body, your ego will not die. It will become weak, but still it will keep surfacing in your thoughts and actions. Therefore, you should remain on guard, without being complacent, until you enter the state of choiceless, transcendental awareness, in which you will view the dualities of life with sameness and equanimity and without judgment, and in which you cease to objectify your experience or act according to your modes.

In worldly life, your ego is your support and an ally, but in spiritual life it becomes your antagonist. If you are in search of peace and mental stability, you should pay attention to how your ego creates suffering through desire-ridden actions, duality, attachments, and attraction and aversion. When your ego is silent and subdued, you enter the state of Shiva and cease being a little dwarf. With the vision and wisdom of an awakened seer (siddha), you let life happen, without the desire or the compulsion to control it, manage it or manipulate it. You embrace all your perceptions and experiences without choice, preference, or prejudice. Just as God embraces everything that he projects outwardly with sameness and pervades it as its very essence, you pervade your whole awareness and become the totality of your experience.

Thought for contemplation: Your ego attaches itself to numerous things and extends your identity far beyond your physical and mental appearance. For example, nationality, religious and cultural identities are but extensions of the ego only. Religious temperament, fanaticism, intolerance also arise from the sacred ego, rather than the sacred Self. The ego is good at using all the good and bad things in life according to its moral percepts, including knowledge, religion, wealth, power, position, and morality to its best advantage either to establish its superiority, status, or distinction or to manipulate others. Jayaram V

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