It is a time honored tradition in India that the groom, riding a mare, leads a procession of friends and dear ones to the bride’s home, where he is given an auspicious welcome at the door by his mother in law and other women of the household. On one such occasion, a lady stood welcoming the congregation, eagerly looking out for her son in law. Before the groom entered, she witnessed numerous of his friends going in. All were beautiful, handsomely dressed and immaculately turned out. What would the groom himself be like, when those preceding him were so attractive? She couldn’t suppress her excitement.
"Here comes the bridegroom," someone whispered in her ears. She hopefully raised her head and immediately shrieked out in terror. There he was - his body smeared with gray ash fresh from the cremation grounds, riding a bull, holding a skull in his hands, his eyes rolling as if intoxicated and looking utterly disheveled and untidy, like he had not had a bath for several days. The mother in law wailed, lamenting her beautiful daughter’s choice of husband:
"O daughter what have you done, you have ruined your family. Surely you were not in your senses when you made your choice. Why did I not remain a barren woman rather than give birth to you who has bought ill fame to the whole family. You have put away sandal paste and instead smeared yourself with mud, throwing away rice you have eaten the husk."
The lament of the lady is in fact representative of our own view of the external world, conditioned as we are to find only the beautiful to be agreeable, forgetting in the process the fact that the same supreme reality pervades each and every aspect of this manifested existence, whether good or bad. It is only when we start recognizing the inherent divinity in all aspects of life, can we call ourselves anywhere near to understanding god.
Lord Vishnu tried to calm her by saying:
"Dear woman you do not know Shiva. He is both possessed and devoid of attributes. He is hideous as well as comely." (Shiva Purana: Rudrasamhita III.44.90)
For those who wish to go beyond the physical form, Shiva’s outward appearance is a constant reminder of many fundamental truths. He is an embodiment of the three principal themes of Indian philosophy, which must be inculcated in our lives before any progress can be made on the spiritual path.
1). Bhakti (Devotion): The Ganges flowing from his hair represents the stream of bhakti.
2). Gyan (Knowledge): Shiva is constantly engaged in inward contemplation, totally oblivious to what’s happening outside, so much that he even appears intoxicated to those not initiated into his mystery.
3). Vairagya (Indifference and disenchantment with all worldly things): Shiva often frequents the cremation grounds and smears himself with ashes. What better example could there be of disenchantment with the living world? Vairagya means sacrificing everything, and the one who even while living, gives himself up to the funeral grounds, not needing nor expecting anything from the world, is perhaps the ideal example.
As for the bull Shiva rides upon, ancient texts heap praise on it, calling it the Bull of Dharma:
‘The bull of dharma has forgiveness for its horns, control of the senses for its ears, the eyes of faith and the Vedas as its breath. (Shiva Purana Vidyeshvarasamhita:17.86).
Later Shiva, for the pleasure of Parvati’s mother, transformed himself into a supremely handsome male, dressed richly according to social norms:
‘Every part of his body was exquisite. He became fair, handsome and shone with a divine radiance. Embellished with many ornaments and a garland of fresh jasmine flowers, he smiled with delight, capturing his mother in law’s heart, who stood stunned at this fascinating view of beauty.’
Shiva had in fact transformed himself into ‘Sundaramurti,’ or the embodiment of all masculine beauty on this earth. Indeed, the supremely auspicious image of Shiva marrying Parvati is aptly titled "Kalyana Sundaram," or the beauty which grants welfare, the latter feature being inherent in Shiva’s epithet Shankara,, literally meaning ‘one who grants welfare (sham).’
The marriage of Shiva and Parvati was preceded by a long interval of courtship. It was no ordinary engagement however. The initiative was solely Parvati’s who was spurred on by a dream where she stood by Shiva as his wife. Soon after, by a happy coincidence it so transpired that Shiva stopped nearby on a mountain range to meditate and she went with her father to pay homage. The latter, knowing his daughter’s desire, requested Shiva to permit her to take care of his daily needs while he meditated. Even though Shiva realized this would be an impediment to his pursuits, he agreed on Parvati’s fervent appeal.
Thus did Parvati first gain access to Shiva, and served him as he lost himself in inward contemplation, oblivious to the outside world. A young and charming maiden, alone with the male she adored, the circumstances were just ideal for Kamadeva, the god of love, to make his presence felt, and stoke passion between the two. One day, as she neared Shiva, Kamadeva fired his dart. Shiva immediately opened his eyes, which fell on Parvati, whose beauty affected him for the first time, prompting him to say:
"Is this face or the moon? Are these eyes or petals of a lotus? Is this your nose or the beak of a parrot? Whatever is graceful and sweet in this creation has been incorporated here. There is no woman equal to your beauty in the world."
Shiva was tempted enough to touch her, and Parvati, tantalizing him, withdrew, and a little distance away cast meaningful glances at him. (Shiva Purana: Rudrasamhita III.18)
The lord wondered: "I feel great pleasure on merely seeing her. What pleasure shall I derive in her embrace?" However, he soon composed himself and realized that he had been hit by Kamadeva’s arrow. He looked around for the culprit, and found him perched on a tree nearby. No sooner had he thus perceived the cause of his turbulation than did he open his third eye, the flames from which reduced the god of love to ashes.
Shiva then vanished from the scene leaving a terrified Parvati behind who hurried back to her home. She cursed her excessive beauty, which made her vain enough to think that she could tempt the greatest of all yogis.
Parvati however soon recovered herself and understood that to unite with Shiva she had to go beyond beauty and desire. She had to make every part of her being yearn for this union and concentrate all her will, energies and capacities focusing them on this sole purpose. All other preoccupations had to be discarded.
For his sake, who himself made a mockery of social conventions, she would have to surpass social restrictions and brave reproach from the world. Her body had to forget all needs or enjoyments, her mind still all resolves (except the one to marry Shiva) and the heart abandon all other attachments. Only the need for Shiva, the thought of Shiva and the love of Shiva would remain. She would exist only as an intense flame burning for Shiva.
Towards this end she decided to undergo severe austerities (tapasya) in the dense jungles of the Himalayas. Her parents, distressed at the thought of their fragile daughter repairing to the dangerous woods tried their best to dissuade her from doing so. In fact, one of Parvati’s most popular epithets, Uma, is derived from her mother’s call to her not to go to the forests – O (daughter) ma (don’t). The mother said:
"O Parvati, if you are distressed and wish to perform penance, you can do it at home. Why do you wish to go out when we have gods here at home? Dear child, for a woman to go out to the forests is something never heard of before." (Shiva Purana: Rudrasamhita III.22)
Before going further into what happened next, a short note on the meaning of the Sanskrit word ‘tapasya’ is in order. It is derived from the root ‘tap,’ meaning to heat, insufficiently translated as penance. According to Sri Aurobindo it implies "A fierce and strong effort of all the human powers towards any given end. It is a tremendous concentration of the will which sets the whole being aflame, masses all the faculties in close ranks and hurls them furiously on a single objective." Thus, this was the original intent of the word ‘tapasya,’ – a concentration so intense that it produced heat (energy or force).
Indeed, that which moves us away from pleasure gained by the sense organs, and yokes our inner selves with god is tapasya. The opposite of ‘tap’, the indulgence in sensual pleasure is ‘pat,’ which in Sanskrit also means to fall down and therefore ‘tap’ suggests a gaining of spiritual heights. Tapasya means to gradually start bringing restraint into our lives, giving up things one by one. Truly is it said:
If there is no desire in love it is a boon,
The selfless devotee becomes god soon.
When she was about to set out, the great sage Narada paid Parvati a visit. He then initiated her into the five-syllabled mantra of Shiva, calling it the king of all mantras and informed her that its continuous chanting was the most effective way of propitiating him. The mantra is: ‘Namoh Shivai’
The Shiva Purana says:
"The chanting of the five-syllabled mantra shall always be performed along with Om" (Shiva Purana Vidyeshvarasamhita:17.34).
Thus the potent mantra becomes: ‘Om Namoh Shivai.’
It is further stated:
This mantra is of the nature of Shiva himself. By holding on to the mantra, the physical body of the devotee becomes identified with Shiva. (Shiva Purana Vidyeshvarasamhita:17.132).
Thus did Parvati engage herself, sustaining only on fruits for the first year. In the second she survived on leaves fallen on the ground and after many years gave up even that, hence earning the epithet ‘Aparna,’ parna meaning leaf and the prefix a negating it. Finally, she nourished herself solely on the beams of moonlight and water falling from the sky. In this regard she was no different from the way trees live in this world.
Shiva then had no choice but to appear before her and accept her proposal. Not however before he had put her to one final test.
Shiva, putting on the garb of an old sage, approached Parvati engaged in austerities. She rose up in respect and worshipped him with all reverence due to a learned Brahmin. He enquired about her well being and asked why she was undergoing such severe penance. When she told him of her desire to have Shiva as her husband, he feigned distress and exclaimed, pointing out the disparity in their situations:
"You have set your mind on a worthless object. How could your hand, decorated with bracelets bear the first clasp of Shiva’s hand encircled as it is with snakes?
"On one side will be your bridal robe embroidered with figures of swans and on the other an elephant hide dripping with blood.
"What could be more unseemly than his chest smeared with funerary ashes pressing your two breasts daubed with golden sandalwood paste?
"Not only his physical appearance, but also in the matter of birth his parentage is obscure. The amount of his wealth can be gauged from the fact that he has nothing to wear. Dear lady, can anyone find in him even one quality that is normally sought in a husband?"
Hearing this diatribe, Parvati’s lower lip trembled with anger. The corners of her eyes reddened, and contracting her graceful eyebrows she cast a scornful look at the Brahmin who had dared to utter these harsh words:
"You who speak to me in this way do not at all know Shiva. Since petty minds don’t understand the motives of great souls, different as they are from those of ordinary people, they criticize them.
"People perform auspicious rites with the aim of warding off calamities or attaining prosperity. Shiva himself is the protector of the world and is desireless. What has he got to do with those mercantile practices which but corrupt the soul?
"Though he possesses nothing, he is the source of all possessions. He is the master of the world yet he lives in a cemetery. His physical appearance is frightening yet he is called ‘Shiva,’ the gentle source of all blessings.
"Whether he glows with jewels or bristles with snakes, dresses in silk or wears an elephant hide, adorns himself with skulls or the moon, it is not possible to define the form of one whose body is the whole universe.
"The funeral ashes that have touched his body acquire the power to purify all living beings. Therefore, when he performs his great dance, even the dwellers of heaven vie with each to collect the particles falling off from his limbs, applying them to their foreheads.
"When Indra, the king of heaven, riding his royal elephant, comes across this penniless god seated on an old bull, he alights from his vehicle and touches his feet.
"O Brahmin, though you are worth nothing, one thing you did say well. Since Shiva is the cause of even Brahma (who exists without birth), how could his own birth or parentage be known?
"Enough arguments however, let him be what you believe him to be. My unshakeable heart knows no other feeling than love. Those whose goal is set do not care for criticism."
She then said with finality:
"I can see from your quivering lips O Brahmin that you wish to speak again. Not only is it a sin to say ill of the great souls, even to listen to such talk is a crime. Therefore, I shall leave this place immediately."
So saying, the young girl turned back. At that very moment, Shiva, assuming his real form, caught hold of her. Seeing him, her body turned moist and the slender limbs froze, with one foot poised in the air, between movement and immobility, like a great river arrested in its course by a mountain. Shiva, his heart melting with affection said:
"O graceful lady, won over by your tapasya, from this moment I am your slave."
‘Just as water and its flavor (rasa) can never exist apart, likewise Purusha and Prakriti never remain disassociated from each other.’ (Bhagavata Purana: 3.27.18)
Parvati’s committed devotion is but a paradigm of the inevitable union between male and female played on the immense plane of supreme divinity. She is the soul of us all searching for god, which is but destined to meet and unite with him.
Calling god ‘him’ does not denote that he is male or a gender bias. The union envisaged above can however happen only in terms comprehendible to us. Thus the supreme reality, attributeless and genderless, has to be brought down to the scale we can relate to. The Nirguna has to be conceived as Saguna. This is the highest we can reach, and it is sufficient, being the paramount goal of human life, this union of Purusha with Prakriti. For this Shiva, the formless, the infinite contemplating infinity, has to be brought out from his inner ecstasy, and indeed, all the beauty, need, and aspiration of this world has to take form (of Parvati) in order to take up its right place on the lap of god. The only requirement being pure and complete surrender, and indeed Shiva destroys only Kama, the desire polluting the devotee’s relationship with divinity, but never the devotee himself.
[We humbly wish everybody on the auspicious occasion of Maha-Shiva-Ratri, the Great Night of Shiva, falling on the 16th of February this year]
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