The Indian tradition is rich with goddesses. So varied are her manifestations and names that every village and every scripture, every art and artist create their own unique image of her. While sometimes she is a consort, at other times she is a fertility goddess; at times she is a benevolent figure yet at others she is horrific and malevolent. The tradition is especially replete with a number of goddesses who are associated with Shiva. But the one that is artistically and lovingly the most celebrated is Parvati. Unlike Durga and Kali who assume their own independent religious status in the Hindu pantheon and are worshipped and venerated ritually, Parvati engages the greater attention of poets and painters, musicians and dancers. Numerous are her aspects, varied are her persona, multiple are her attributes and many her names. Of all the mythic beings in the Hindu pantheon she is perhaps the most loved and undoubtedly the most giving of her love. In her we have the true celebration of Hindu womanhood. Of unsurpassed sensual beauty, her endowment is not merely physical but spiritual, not narcissistic but meant as an offering. In her, it can be said that we have the grand personification of the Hindu expression, as well as the concept of beauty.
In classical mythology the raison d’кtre of Parvati’s birth is to lure Shiva into marriage and thus into the wider circle of married life from which he is aloof as a lone ascetic, living in the wilds of the mountains. The goddess represents the complementary pole to the ascetic, world-denying tradition in the Hindu ethos. In her role as maiden, wife, and later as a mother, she extends Shiva’s circle of activity into the realm of the householder, where his stored-up energy is released in positive ways.
Much as in the Christian art of Medieval Europe, it is woman the Mother, the Madonna suckling a babe who has been painted with reverence, in the Indian Diaspora it is woman the beloved who has been painted with love and passion. The female friends of Krishna with their warm sensuous faces, eyes filled with passion, and delicate sensitive fingers, represent not the beauty of a particular woman, but the beauty of entire womanhood. In fact, she is there as the incarnation of all the beauty of the world and as a representative of the charm of her sex.
Parvati’s name, which means “she who dwells in the mountains” or “she who is of the mountain, identify her with mountainous regions. She was the daughter of Himavat (Lord of the mountains) and his queen Mena. She is usually described as very beautiful. She showed a keen interest in Shiva from the outset, repeating his name to herself and taking delight in hearing about his appearance and deeds. While she is a child a sage comes to her house and after examining the marks on her body predicts that she will marry a naked yogi. When it becomes clear that she is destined to marry Shiva, her parents are usually described as feeling honored. Parvati too is delighted.
At some point during Parvati’s attempts to attract Shiva’s attention for the purpose of marriage, the god of love, Kama, is sent by the gods to awaken Shiva’s lust. When he attracts Shiva’s attention with sounds and scents of spring, and tries to perturb Shiva with his intoxicating weapons, Shiva burns him to ashes with the fire from his middle eye. But steadfast in her devotion, Parvati persists in her quest to win Shiva as her husband by setting out to perform austerities.
One of the most effective ways to achieve what a person wants in traditional Hinduism is to perform tapas, “ascetic austerities.” If one is persistent and heroic enough, one will generate so much heat that the gods will be forced to grant the ascetic his or her wish in order to save themselves and the world from being scorched. Parvati’s method of winning Shiva is thus a common approach to fulfilling one’s desires. It is also appropriate, however, in terms of demonstrating to Shiva that she can compete with him in his own realm, that she has the inner resources, control, and fortitude to cut herself off from the world and completely master her physical needs. By performing tapas, Parvati abandons the world of the householder and enters the realm of the world renouncer, namely Shiva’s world. Most versions of the myth describe her as outdoing all the great sages in her austerities. She performs all the traditional mortifications, such as sitting in the midst of four fires in the middle of summer, remaining exposed to the elements during the rainy season and during the winter, living on leaves or air only, standing on one leg for years, and so on. Eventually she accumulates so much heat that the gods are made uncomfortable and persuade Shiva to grant Parvati’s wish, so that she will cease her efforts.
The marriage is duly arranged and elaborately undertaken. Shiva’s marriage procession, which includes most of the Hindu pantheon, is often described at length. A common motif during the marriage preparations is Mena’s outrage when she actually sees Shiva for the first time. She cannot believe that her beautiful daughter is about to marry such an outrageous-looking character; in some versions, Mena threatens suicide and faints when told that the odd-looking figure in the marriage procession is indeed her future son-in-law.
After the two are married they depart to Mount Kailasha, Shiva’s favorite dwelling place, and immerse themselves completely in sexual dalliance, which continues uninterruptedly for long periods of time. The Love god Kama is resuscitated when Shiva embraces Parvati and the sweat from her body mingles with the ashes of the burned god.
Their lovemaking is so intense that it shakes the cosmos, and the gods become frightened. They are frightened at the prospect of what a child will be like from the union of two such potent deities. They fear the child’s extraordinary powers. They thus plan to interrupt Shiva and Parvati’s lovemaking. Vishnu goes with his entourage of gods to Kailasha and waits patiently outside the quarters of Shiva. Many years passed and yet Shiva remained closeted with Parvati. Vishnu spoke in a shrill and plaintive voice and entreated Shiva to come out and listen to their problem. When Shiva disregarded this, Agni (Fire) disguised himself as a pigeon and entered the bedchamber of Shiva. Parvati immediately sensed that her privacy was violated. Shiva withdrew and a drop of his semen fell on the ground. Agni in the form of the dove ate the drop of semen. Parvati however was disturbed and angry that the gods had assembled and interrupted her erotic pleasures, and cursed them that all their wives would be barren. She was particularly enraged at Agni for having eaten the seed of Shiva.
When Agni was unable to bear the fiery seed he went to the banks of the Ganga. At that moment, the wives of the seven sages had come down to bathe. Six of the wives felt cold and went towards Agni. Agni dropped the seed and the seed entered the wives and they became pregnant. When the sages found this out they admonished their wives who placed the embryo on one of the peaks of the Himalayas. Thus was born Kartikeya, a lustrous child with six heads. Shiva and Parvati were delighted at the birth of their son and it added much joy to Parvati who had longed for a child. We are sometimes told that her breasts oozed milk in affection when she first saw the child.
Parvati’s maternal instincts were indeed the most powerful emotions in her life. While Shiva exulted in his romantic dalliance with her, the true mother in her longed for a child. She would entreat Shiva to beget her a son and make her a mother but the ascetic Shiva would hear nothing of it. She reminded Shiva that no ancestral rituals are performed for a man who has no descendants. Shiva assured her that he had no desire to be a grahastha, householder, for such a state in life brings fetters. Parvati was disheartened and seeing her in that state Shiva pulled a thread out of her red dress and made a son and gave it to her. Parvati held him to her breast and he came to life. As he sucked on her milk he smiled and Parvati, pleased, gave the son to Shiva. Shiva was surprised that Parvati had breathed life in a child made of fabric but warned that the planet Saturn would prove inauspicious for this child and as he spoke those words, the child’s head fell to the ground. Parvati was overcome with grief. Shiva tried unsuccessfully to put the head back together. A voice in the sky said that only the head of someone facing north would stick to this child. Shiva deputed Nandi to find such a person. Nandi soon found Indra’s elephant Airavat lying with his head facing north and began to cut it. Indra intervened but Nandi was eventually successful, although in the struggle one of the tusks of the elephant was broken. Nandi took the head to Shiva and thus was born Ganesha. The gods celebrated the birth and Parvati was pleased.
In a strange myth it is stated that Parvati had a third child, Andhaka, and an interesting legend is narrated behind his birth. In jest Parvati closed Shiva’s eyes with her delicate hands and at once a darkness engulfed the world. The hands of the goddess were drenched in Shiva’s fluid born of passion, and when this was heated by the heat of Shiva’s third eye it grew into a horrific child, blind and gruesome. But Parvati, true to her nature, lovingly cared for this child as well. But as Andhaka grew, he became a demon lusting for his own mother, and was eventually put to death by Shiva.
An important part of Shiva’s daily routine was the preparation of bhang, his favorite intoxicant. Parvati would lovingly collect the best bhang leaves, crush them and then filter the decoction through a clean muslin cloth. At other times Parvati would help Shiva make a quilt that would keep them warm in the cold nights at Kailasha. At yet other times she would sit by his feet massaging them while Shiva reclined under a tree. Parvati’s greatest pleasure was to serve Shiva and cater to his every need. Nothing was more important to her than being useful to her lord, tending to his every comfort and ensuring that he would not lapse into his solitary, self-denying ascetic ways. In these activities she combined the roles of a caring wife and an affectionate mother.
But Shiva and Parvati do argue and insult each other from time to time. Bengali accounts of Shiva and Parvati often describe Shiva as an irresponsible, hemp-smoking husband who cannot look after himself. Parvati is portrayed as the long-suffering wife who often complains from time to time to her mother but who always remains steadfast to her husband.
For the most part Shiva and Parvati’s married and family life is portrayed as harmonious, blissful and calm. In iconography the two are typically shown sitting in happy, intimate embrace. There were also many moments of philosophical discourse between the two. While Shiva taught Parvati the doctrine of Vedanta, Parvati responded by teaching him the doctrines of Sankhya, for if Shiva was the perfect teacher, Parvati too, as a yogini was no less. Parvati was constantly by Shiva’s side, encouraging, assisting and, participating in every activity of his.
But Shiva too was passionate in his love for Parvati. Of the many games they played the one of great significance was the game of dice. Once it so happened that Parvati was initially losing to Shiva, but then gradually the tables turned and Shiva lost everything he had staked in the game, including the crescent moon, his necklace and earrings. When Parvati demanded that Shiva give everything he had staked, there was a fight between the two, much to the anguish of their attendants. Parvati removed Shiva’s snake, the crescent moon and even his loincloth. The onlookers were put to shame and Shiva too was enraged and opened his third eye. Following this incident, the two separated. Shiva retreated into the wilderness and Parvati into her quarters. But she was tormented by this separation and at the bidding of her companions went in search of Shiva. She took the form of a shabari, a tribal woman, and approached Shiva who was deep in meditation. Shiva was attracted towards the shabari but when he realized that she was none other than Parvati, he realized his mistake and united with her much to their joy.
On another occasion, Parvati feels pique when Shiva calls her by the nickname Kali (blackie), which Parvati takes as a slur on her appearance. She resolves to rid herself of her dark complexion and does so by performing austerities. Having assumed a golden complexion, she then becomes known by the name Gauri (the bright or golden one). In some versions of the myth, her discarded, dark complexion or sheath gives birth to or becomes a warrior goddess who undertakes heroic feats or combat against demons.
The presence of an alter ego or a dark, violent side to Parvati is suggested in several myths in which demons threaten the cosmos and Parvati is asked to help the gods by defeating the demon in question. Typically, when Parvati grows angry at the prospect of war, a violent goddess is born from her wrath and proceeds to fight on Parvati’s behalf. This deity is often identified as the bloodthirsty goddess Kali. For the most part, however, the myths emphasize Parvati’s milder side. So out of character is Parvati on the battlefield that another goddess, it seems, must be summoned to embody her wrath and dissociate this fury from Parvati himself.
The main theme of the Parvati cycle of myths is clear. The association between Parvati and Shiva represents the perennial tension in Hinduism between the ascetic ideal and householder ideal. Parvati, for the most part, represents the householder. Her mission is to lure Shiva into the world of marriage, sex, and children, to tempt him away from asceticism, yoga, and otherwordly preoccupations. In this role Parvati is cast as a figure who upholds the order of dharma, who enhances life in the world, who represents the beauty and attraction of worldly, sexual life, who cherishes the house and society rather than the forest, the mountains, or the ascetic life. Parvati civilizes Shiva with her presence; indeed, she domesticates him. Of her role in relation to Shiva in the hymns of Manikkavacakar, a ninth-century poet-saint from South India, it has been said: “Shiva, the great unpredictable ‘madman’, is rendered momentarily sane (i.e. behaves in a socially acceptable manner) when in the company of the goddess. . . Contact with his properly cultured spouse seems to connect him with ordinary social reality and temporarily domesticates him.”
Throughout Hindu mythology it is well known that one of Shiva’s principal functions is the destruction of cosmos. In fact, Shiva has about him a wild, unpredictable, destructive aspect that is often mentioned. As the great cosmic dancer, he periodically performs the tandava, an especially violent dance. Wielding a broken battle-ax, he dances so wildly that the cosmos is destroyed completely. In descriptions of this dance, Shiva’s whirling arms and flying locks are said to crash into the heavenly bodies, knocking them off course or destroying them utterly. The mountains shake and the oceans heave as the world is destroyed by his violent dancing. Parvati, in contrast, is portrayed as a patient builder, one who follows Shiva about, trying to soften the violent effects of her husband. She is a great force for preservation and reconstruction in the world and as such offsets the violence of Shiva. A seventeenth century Tamil work pictures Parvati as a patient child who creates the worlds in the form of little houses. Shiva is pictured as constantly frustrating her purpose by destroying what she has so carefully built.
The crazy old madman stands in front,
Dancing, destroying the beautiful little house
that You have built in play.
You don’t become angry, but every time (he destroys It)
you build it again.
When Shiva does his violent tandava dance, Parvati is described as calming him with soft glances, or she is said to complement his violence with a slow, creative step of her own.
Parvati’s goal in her relationship with Shiva is nothing less than the domestication of the lone, ascetic god whose behavior borders on madness. Shiva is indifferent to social propriety, does not care about offspring, declares woman to be a hindrance to the spiritual life, and is disdainful of the trappings of the householder’s life. Parvati tries to involve him in the worldly life of the householder by arguing that he should observe conventions if he loves her and wants her. She persuades him, for example, to marry her according to the proper rituals, to observe custom, instead of simply running off with her. She is less successful, however, in getting him to change his attire and ascetic habits. She often complains of his nakedness and finds his ornaments disgraceful. Usually prompted by her mother, Parvati sometimes complains that she does not have a proper house to live in. Shiva, as is well known, does not have a house but prefers to live in caves, on mountains, or in forests or to wander the world as a homeless beggar. Many myths delight in Shiva’s response to Parvati’s domestic pleas for a house. When she complains that the rains will soon come and that she has no house to protect her, Shiva simply takes her to the high mountain peaks above the clouds where it does not rain. Elsewhere, he describes his “house” as the universe and argues that an ascetic understands the whole world to be his dwelling place. These philosophic arguments never satisfy Parvati, but she rarely, if ever, wins this argument and gains a house.
Shiva is a god of excesses, both ascetic and sexual, and Parvati plays the role of modifier. As a representative of the householder ideal, she represents the ideal of controlled sex, namely, married sex, which is opposed to both asceticism and eroticism.
The theme of conflict, tension, or opposition between the way of the ascetic and the way of the householder in the mythology of Parvati and Shiva yields to a vision of reconciliation, interdependence, and symbiotic harmony in a series of images that combine the two deities. Three such images or themes are central to the mythology, iconography, and philosophy of Parvati:
The theme of Shiva-Shakti
The image of Shiva as Ardhanareshwara (the Lord who is half woman)
The image of the linga and yoni
The idea that the great male gods all possess an inherent power through which they undertake creative activity is assumed in Hindu philosophical thought. When this power, or Shakti, is personified, it is always in the form of a goddess. Parvati, quite naturally, assumes the identity of Shiva’s Shakti. She is the force underlying and impelling creation. In this active, creative role she is identified with prakriti (nature), whereas Shiva is identified with purusha (pure spirit). As prakriti, Parvati represents the inherent tendency of nature to express itself in concrete forms and individual beings. In this task, however, it is understood that Parvati must be set in motion by Shiva himself. She is not seen as antagonistic to him. Her role as his Shakti is always interpreted as positive. Through Parvati, Shiva (the Absolute) is able to express himself in the creation. Without her he would remain inert, aloof, inactive. It is only in association with her that Shiva is able to realize or manifest his full potential. Parvati as Shakti not only complements Shiva, she completes him.
A variety of images and metaphors are used to express this harmonious interdependence. Shiva is said to be the male principle throughout creation, Parvati the female principle; Shiva is the sky, Parvati the earth; Shiva is subject, Parvati object; Shiva is the ocean, Parvati the seashore; Shiva is the sun, Parvati its light; Parvati is all tastes and smells, Shiva the enjoyer of all tastes and smells; Parvati is the embodiment of all individual souls, Shiva the soul itself; Parvati assumes every form that is worthy to be thought of, Shiva thinks of all such forms; Shiva is day, Parvati is night; Parvati is creation, Shiva the creator; Parvati is speech, Shiva meaning; and so on. In short, the two are actually one-different aspects of ultimate reality-and as such are complementary, and not antagonistic.
The meaning of Ardhanareshwara form of Shiva is similar. The image shows a half-male, half-female figure. The right side is Shiva and is adorned with his ornaments; the left side is Parvati and adorned with her ornaments.
In the text of Shiva-Purana it is mentioned that the god Brahma is unable to continue his task of creation because the creatures that he has produced do not multiply. He propitiates Shiva and requests him to come to his aid. Shiva then appears in his half-male, half-female form. The hermaphrodite form splits into Shiva and Parvati, and Parvati, at Brahma’s request, pervades the creation with her female nature, which duly awakens the male aspect of creation into fertile activity.
Without its female half, or female nature, the godhead as Shiva is incomplete and is unable to proceed with creation. To an even greater extent than the Shiva-shakti idea, the androgynous image of Shiva and Parvati emphasizes that the two deities are absolutely necessary to each other, and only in union can they satisfy each other and fulfill themselves. In this form the godhead transcends sexual particularity. God is both male and female, both father and mother, both aloof and active, both fearsome and gentle, both destructive and constructive, and so on.
Linga and Yoni
The image of the linga in the yoni, which is the most common image of the deity in Shiva temples, similarly teaches the lesson that the tension between Shiva and Parvati is ultimately resolved in interdependence. Parvati as a sexual entity succeeds in tempering both Shiva’s excessive detachment from the world and his excessive sexual vigor. In the form of the yoni in particular, Parvati fulfills and completes Shiva’s creative tendencies. As the great yogi who accumulates immense sexual potency, he is symbolized by the linga. This great potency is creatively released in sexual or marital contact with Parvati. The ubiquitous image of the linga in the yoni symbolizes the creative release in the ultimate erotic act of power stored through asceticism. The erotic act is thus enhanced, made more potent, fecund, and creative, by the stored up power of Shiva’s asceticism.
Though most arts give Parvati a religious aura, including a certain poetic truth, there is also an expression of both the romantic and motherly love of Parvati. Possessing a measured grace and refinement about them, these representations have a certain earthy charm and spontaneity. In her this form, Parvati is not only more endearing and accessible, but also belongs to the shrine or the walls of the home. These are not mere icons or visual poetry, but mythic beings reduced to everyday reality. This real Parvati is the one that the common man can relate to, worship and celebrate, in his or her own personal way.