The Myth of Siva and Parvati

A reading of the classical myth of the wedding of Śiva and Parvatī from the outlook of contemporary global concerns over humanity's relationship with nature.
A reading of the classical myth of the wedding of Śiva and Parvatī from the outlook of contemporary global concerns over humanity's relationship with nature.
A reading of the classical myth of the wedding of Śiva and Parvatī from the outlook of contemporary global concerns over humanity's relationship with nature.Kritzolina (Wikimedia Commons)

By Sthaneshwar Timalsina

The myth of Śiva and Pārvatī can also confront the separation of the body and the self, the emotional and the intellectual, and nature and humankind. As a primitive awakens in his ignorance of science and technology, modern man awakens in his ignorance of a collective awareness and his interdependence with nature, and his blind arrogance of mastery over natural laws.

This rationalization begins with the demystification of nature and of the myths themselves. The focus on science and technology in academic institutions moves traditional education, religion and culture to the margin. As culture and religion have always remained a source of fascination to the masses, this old education becomes the source of income for 'self-enlightened' gurus and the subject of organization for political groups through which they can promote intolerance and social imbalance. Based primarily on 'mass' and on the power to influence through charisma that includes both political and economic forces, the modern religious marketplace is not much different from the governing ideology of modern-day socialism and capitalism, where both conceive of nature as inanimate and the site of perpetual human mastery and exploitation. With this ideological gulf, nature, once a source of awe and reverence that demonstrated power beyond human control, stands for mystery for early mankind, and demystified man stands alone, walking towards annihilation. Although the 'religious' still guides the everyday lives of the rural masses, the force it has is insignificant and often perverted by the crooks. Reading myths against this background is then a process of invoking the marginalized.

The actualization of this harmony beings with the non-dual vision that binds humanity with the rest of existence. The dualism of body and mind, and of the world and God, has separated humankind from the rest of the nature. (...) Reading the myths of Pārvatī against this backdrop is not to claim that ecological issues are explicit in these narratives, neither is it to make a claim that ecological problems can only be solved by reading these myths, but as civilization is a composition of different streams, these myths can be the source for inspiration for social welfare through reunion of the self with nature.

Kālidāsa is aware that the mountain is the source of water, being both the origin of Ganges and several other holy rivers that irrigate India, as well as the physical mechanism keeping clouds within the Indian subcontinent. In the epic KS, when he narrates the birth of Parvata's daughter, he eloquently and at great length describes the mountains and their splendor. This glorification helps us to understand that he is not discussing some gods residing in the mountain, but rather, the mountain itself who is giving birth to Pārvatī, the goddess who wants only to be united with lord Śiva. Her penance to draw Śiva as her consort leaves her parents in awe, whereupon they exclaim, 'Oh! No', giving the goddess another name, Umā.

The myth of the birth of Pārvatī confirms an embodied and immanent vision of divinity: the divine lives through nature and within creation, sustaining through it, not outside of it. This myth also speaks of birth and death as a natural cycle wherein the two are not negating opposites but rather completing the other. The divine consort is born here, and her presence is found on earth through her birth, death and regeneration.

The reunion of Śiva and Pārvatī is a metaphor of an embodied cosmology. In this myth, Śiva does not remain isolated in his deep meditative slumber but is conscious of the outside world, of his own body and its needs, and of his surroundings. Nonetheless, it is not an easy union. In Śiva's deep meditation, he withdraws his senses from all worldly experiences, freeing himself from the sphere of emotion. Recognizing the difficulty of reunion with Śiva, Pārvatī also undergoes penance, withdrawing from her senses and emotions. However, her goal is different, to bring Śiva to the mundane world and awaken his emotions.

Śiva's separation from the world is troublesome, as the gods are unable to protect their paradise from being defeated by demons. It is only Lord Śiva who could support them and be on their side to fight against the demons, but as long as he is in meditation, he himself is not listening to the prayers of the gods pleading for his assistance in the battlefield. In other words, the lord of gods, if dissociated from mundane experience, is not in communication with the world and will not grant protection or boons. The only way the supreme being can grant what is asked of him is when he has the will. The god without desire is no god at all.

The myth of Śiva and Pārvatī can also confront the separation of the body and the self, the emotional and the intellectual, and nature and humankind.
The myth of Śiva and Pārvatī can also confront the separation of the body and the self, the emotional and the intellectual, and nature and humankind.Kritzolina (Wikimedia Commons)

Following the myth, Kāma, the god of desire, is appointed to break the vow of Lord Śiva and draw him to the realm of passion and aversion. Kāma's effort bears the fruit of Śiva's awakening, but Kāma himself is incinerated to ashes by Śiva's rage. This epitomizes the way the god of desire functions, dying in its body and living through another's awakened desire. Overcoming passsion revives desire. In this myth of reunion, Pārvatī's vow to marry Śiva is the metaphor of bringing the self to the body and bodily emotions, whereby Śiva can feel love for Pārvatī, be compassionate to the gods, and fight against the demons. If seen only externally, the myth of Pārvatī is the myth of seduction. When the myth is explored again, this seduction brings divinity to protect the earth. Śiva is in absorption, free from his own bodily feelings and unaware of his surroundings; Śiva is worshipped by gods, but is careless about their feelings and emotions. The myth of Pārvatī is a placeholder for salvation: it is through her self-sacrifice that Śiva can first feel pain and finally the bliss of reunion.

Embedded within this main narrative are other instances that allow us to connect the love of Pārvatī with the love of nature. Pārvatī, as a daughter of the mountain, is deeply connected to her parental home and her parents, the mountains, and to the offspring of mountains, the animals and plants. Kālidāsa does not miss the opportunity to elaborate upon Pārvatī's relation with nature, placing Pārvatī as the caring mother of innocent beings. In both KS and also in Raghuvaṁśa, Kālidāsa uses the metaphor of the breast as a pitcher, which Pārvatī uses to sprinkle the plants. In one episode, Pārvatī cannot bear the pain caused by an elephant rubbing his neck on a tree, whereupon she appoints the lion to protect her garden. A further implication of this action is that the land is protected from overgrazing. In this myth, king Dilipa ignorantly uses the land to graze the cattle and the lion appointed by Pārvatī threatens to kill the king.

In the narrative of KS, Pārvatī initiates her penance by planting grees that come into blossom before her penance ends and she is united with Śiva. Pārvatī's return to nature and her care for it in order to be united with Śiva identifies a spiritual path in which the divine is found and felt, not through separation of the mind and body, and nature and culture. Pārvatī's control of consumption as a course of purification demonstrates that the pristine and spiritual within the human are polluted by gluttony and over-accumulation. Pārvatī is eager to leave her childhood home in the mountains to be a divine bride, but that does not translate into ignoring the life and environment of her parental home.

At first glance, the love of Pārvatī appears directed towards humankind and the gods, as the waking of Lord Śiva from deep meditation and his engagement to Pārvatī is a requirement for the salvation of the gods and humanity. However, Pārvatī's loving care for nature and her intimate relationship with plants and animals both demonstrate that this love envelops all that exists, restoring the harmony and peace interrupted by divisive and destructive demons. At the heart of this emancipation myth is the struggle of Pārvatī, the goddess. The Lord often worshipped in his phallic form is isolated from the surroundings and is in deep meditation. The penance of the self-sacrificing goddess is now to awaken Śiva from the realm of isolated consciousness to physical reality.

Unable to dislodge Śiva from his absorption, Pārvatī undertakes severe penance, providing her with another name, Aparṇā or 'leaf-less', having restricted her consumption, denying herself even leaves as sustenance. For both Śiva and Pārvatī, their penance of controlling senses and restricting consumption is the same. This reverses the excessive and exploitive lifestyle of the devas, who have lost their glorious independence due to their greed, lust and arrogance. And again, as are the devas, so are the asuras. The power of Śiva to bring harmony to the cosmos comes through his strength of asceticism and self-control. In modern consumerism, ten percent of the world's population consumes ninety percent of natural resources. In one part of the earth people are dying of starvation and in the other part, from obesity. This over-consumption, particularly of oil hidden deep into the earth, resonates the gluttony of Tāraka, the demon that threatens the devas' world.

The myth of Pārvatī embodies the social implication of equality and respect for all forms and stages of life. She herself is the daughter of Himalaya, the source of natural resources and all riches. Sanskrit texts, including the epic of Kālidāsa, never tire of describing the wealth of the Himalayas. At the same time, Hindu myths depict Lord Śiva as downtrodden and outcaste. In the myth of Pārvatī that completes the myth of Satī, social balance is maintained and the hierarchy dismantled. If examined in the Indian cultural context, this is a revolutionary myth, in which class, caste and gender roles are reversed. This new balance is not found at the established center, but emerges from the periphery of the wild and outcaste.

The narrative of Pārvatī culminates with the birth of Kumāra, the fruition of divine engagement. This myth ties both Gaṅgā and Pārvatī together, as Kumāra is a single son of both these mothers. As Gaṅgā is also the daughter of the mountain, this is yet another manifestation of the goddess herself. The significance of the birth of Kumāra is the collective process of regeneration and rejuvenation. The myth that the son of Lord Śiva able to fight against the demons is not born of a single mother invokes the collective effort that gives rise to emancipation.

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