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Unearthing and Defining the Identity of Parvati
|by Dr. Sharmistha Chatterjee|
Re-reading the Shiv Purana
The “grateful” and “gentle” ‘Parvati’ of the Hindu mythology / Purana, (as understood stereotypically by many) is considered to be the mother goddess (or as Divine Mother in Hinduism because all other goddesses) are incarnations or manifestations. Yet her distinct identity remains shrouded and overpowered by the presence of Shiva her consort or Ganesha, her son. Other than Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhavam or Saundaryalahari – a literary work on the goddess, she is known by the name of Shiva or Ganesha or Skanda [ Kartikeya ]. To common devotees and readers Parvati is handed down via the Shiv Purana which extols her virtues as a mother and consort.
The pivotal issue around which the Shiv Purana rotates is Parvati’s ‘tapasya’ or meditation in order to win the love of ‘Mahadev’ or ‘Shiv’, which again is a part of the scheme which would produce ‘Kartikeya’ or ‘Skanda’ as a ‘Senapati’ or commander to the army of Gods in order to defeat the ‘Taraka Asura’. Within this political stratagem, there are two key players, ‘Shiva’ and ‘Parvati’. While both are equally necessary to materialize the truth foreseen – Shiva is portrayed as the ultimate transcendental power who needs to be tamed and allured by the beauty of ‘Parvati’ who is essentially a typical female who must realize the success of her beauty and her youth in reference to the level to which she is able to impress the supreme God. “Shei Sati eirupe shio ruper shafalya korite abhilashi hoichen” (40) “In this way sati has made an attempt to give meaning to her youth and beauty”. The very fact that Sati expresses her desire to meditate for Shiva, connotes her ultimate desire to give meaning to her youth by being physically united with Shiva.
Drawing on the philosophical arguments of Hegel and Satre, De Beauvoir saw that relationships between individuals were marked by a fundamental contradiction. Each individual self seeks to act freely and autonomously, but simultaneously requires interaction with others in order to define that self. In De Beauvoir’s words, ‘the subject can be posed only in being opposed’ (1997 : 16). Through our encounters with other individual, it becomes evident that just as we see them as ‘the other’, we ourselves are seen by them as ‘the other’. However, in case of women and men, this reciprocity of otherness is not recognized. Instead, ‘one of the contrasting terms [men] is set up as the sole essential, denying any relativity in regard to its correlate and defining the latter [women] as pure otherness’ (1997 : 17-18).
De Beauvoir offers a range of reasons for women’s status as the `other’ – one of them being the reproductive role played by women, thus limiting their autonomy in the eyes of men. If we choose to go by Beauvoir’s arguments, the depiction of Parvati as a catalyst to give birth to a son fertilized by the sperm of Shiva seems the usual and patriarchal mode of interpretation as revealed in the Shiv Purana. Although Parvati is earlier accepted by Bramha and the allied Gods as the ‘Goddess of the Goddesses’ (Debishrestha), the claim is immediately subverted by calling her by the name of “Shiva” and “Parvati”, thereby once again reinstating the fact that ‘Parvati’s’ strength can only realized in relation to Shiva.
While describing the courtship of Shiva and Parvati in the 10th episode of the Shiv Purana Parvati is described in the following words : “Sei sundari Parvati stribhab projuketa swayang lajjita hoilen abon anga dwara habbhab prokash karato Mahadeber dike baranbar dekhite lagilen” (The beautiful Parvati blushed with shame, which is typical of a female, however she continued to allure Mahadev with her gestures and body movements).
Parvati can herself be a success only when Shiva is pleased with her. As it happens in all folktales and allegories, temptations and distractions come in the way of virtuous Parvati – possible contraptions to dissuade her from winning the Mahadeb, one very important being, Shiva herself testing her in the disguise of a ‘Brahmin’ and talking ill of the prospective groom. At which like all good and virtuous women, Parvati retorts back expounding the wondrous and magical qualities of Shib and concludes by remarking that she is blessed by having been chosen by Shib to make her his ‘servant’. (Shebika, 14th episode, Shibpurana).
Further as the Shiv Purana portrays, Shiv is pleased with Parvati only because of her dedicated meditation, her effusive expression of love and her unparalleled beauty. What the discourse subtly eludes is the fact that without the extraordinary power of this Mother goddess, it was virtually impossible to tame Shiva into settling and solving the problem of ‘Tarakasur’ wrecking vengeance on the Gods, which was incidentally the result of Shiva’s own irresponsible and whimsical nature of granting whatsoever boon whoever asks for. Further Shiva’s impractical and wander lusting nature is exposed in the 14th episode where he is described as an ascetic who has renounced home to wander through the forests, further he is supposed to know no social obligations and courtesy – he is a compulsive visitor to the crematorium and a wearer of a garland of skulls and smears of ashes. His guards are the ghosts.
By all practical considerations therefore, Shiva is unfit to be the patriarch of a well defined community – which can originate with an institutionalized marriage - again the significance of which he is least aware of. Therefore at the beginning of the 15th episode he suggests that Parvati should start living with him immediately. It is Parvati - the matriarch who reminds him of the advantages of institutionalized marriage and building a family showered with the blessings of elders. Albeit a traditional view, nevertheless in Parvati we see the origins of the pride of matrilineal descent.
Thus keeping aside the fact that Parvati had her manifestations as “Shakti” (viz Kali, Durga or Chandi), there is a need to understand that Parvati in her own right displays strength, righteousness, propriety, justice, mysticism and balance which are carefully kept away and deliberately misinterpreted by the patriarchal school of critics. At the end of 15th episode, thus, the seers and sages having been satisfied at the marriage of Shiv and Parvati acknowledge Shiv as the father of the cosmos and Uma/Parvati as the mother of the same with the fond wish that the relationship may prosper and grow like the phases of the moon. When depicted alongside Shiva, Parvati appears with two arms, but when alone she is shown having four arms and astride a tiger or lion.
Albeit, it is understood that when : “feminism was used in early part of the twentieth century it was only used to refer to one group of women namely that group which asserted the uniqueness of women, the mystical experience of motherhood and women’s special purity” (48), “Parvati” must be understood, as having greater dimensions than these. In The Asian-American societies the mother’s identity is the key to ones identity. Paula Gun Allen cities the example of the Keres Indians, where she says, is a belief that “every individual has a place within the universe-human and nonhuman and that place is defined by clan membership. In turn clan membership is dependent on matrilineal descent. Of course your mother is not only that woman whose womb formed and released you – the term refers in every individual case to an entire generation of women whose psychic, and consequently physical, ‘Shape’ made the psychic existence of the following generation possible but naming your own mother (or her equivalent) enables people to place you precisely within the universal web of your life, in each of its dimensions, cultural, spiritual, personal and historical” (29).
Having vested the mother or the matriarch, with the mammoth responsibility of “Shaping and making the psychic existence” of the following generations, it is pertinent to probe into Parvati’s strengths as the quintessential mother in Hindu epistemology.
The Shiv Purana stereotypically depicts her as a stunningly beautiful, charming and alluring woman – Her “mission” after all was to lure Shiva out of his asceticism and take Him as her consort. Both textual and archeological evidence suggests Sati-Parvati appears in epic period (400 BC – 400 AD) Ramayana and Mahabharata present Parvati as Shiva’s wife, and thus the legends of Parvati are intrinsically woven around Shiva. The Shiva approaches to Hinduism tend to look upon Parvati primarily as the God’s submissive and obedient wife and helpmate. However the Shaktas focus on Parvati’s equality or even superiority to her consort.
For the Shakta’s Parvati Devi is the primary personification of Shakti herself and regarded as the principal Deity of the sect. Amusingly her consort is Shiva; Her children famously include Lord Ganesh and Skanda, but in fact she is the mother of all Gods and Goddesses, of all humanity and creation itself. Being Shakti’s “base from”, Parvati manifests her wrath as, and her benevolence as, for example Lakhsmi and Saraswati. She is every other Goddess, as well. When one worships any Goddess, or even any God for that matter, one is ultimately worshipping her. She is ‘sagun swaroop of Adi Para Shakti’, that is why it is frequently said, ‘the Shakti swaroopa Devi Maa Parvati’.
In this context it is necessary to mention that Anandalahari or Saundaryalahari, (the book exclusively dedicated to the worship and eulogy of Parvati) begins with an invocation saying that it is only when Parvati unites with Shiva is he able to control the entire cosmos. Barring which even Shiva himself has no power to pulsate with life. “(Janani) Jadi Shib Shaktir sahit milita han, taha hailei, samagra sansar adhikar karate samartha haiya thaken; natuba tini sayano spandita haite samartha han na”. It is with this perspective that the Shakta’s envisage Maata Parvati.
It is true that in Saundaryalahari, Shankaracharya devotes a lot of time in trying to capture the unparalleled beauty of Parvati, as is done in Kalidasa’s Kumarasambham such descriptions often verge on being erotic, but not necessarily sacrificing the divine aspect of Parvati – thus the rationale behind the “Ardhanarishwar” manifestation of Parvati and Shiv is interesting. It is said in the 23rd shloka of Saundaryalahari that it is Parvati who has abducted the left half of Shiva into her own to get him rid of his immorality, thereby, manifesting her superiority as a Goddess. Again as shloka 27 explains : it is due to the presence of Parvati as a half with her prowess and virtues in Shiv’s body is he able to survive after consuming poison while the other Gods succumb to fate during the destruction of the worlds inspite of consuming ‘Amrit’. The 34th shloka thus extols the Shakta philosophy where the Goddess is said to transcend even Shiva, identifying her as a supreme being. Just as Shiva is at once the presiding deity of destruction and regeneration the couple jointly symbolize at once both the power of renunciation and asceticism and blessings of marital felicity.
Parvati thus symbolizes many different virtues esteemed by Hindu tradition: fertility, marital felicity, asceticism and power. In modern day Hinduism, although the marriage aspect of Hara Parvati has been inflated in importance, the most compelling picture we are left with is Parvati as an ascetic and an individual with power, determination and righteousness.
Parvati civilizes Shiva the “great unpredictable mad man” with her presence. When Shiva does his violent destructive ‘tandava’ dance, Parvati is described as calming him or complementing his violence by slow creative steps of her own `Lasya’ dance. In many myths Parvati is not as much his complement as his rival, tricking, seducing, or luring him away from his ascetic practices. Again Parvati subdues Shiva’s immense sexual vitality. In this context, Shiv Purana says :
The theme of Shiva Shakti and Ardhanarishwara yield a vision of reconciliation, interdependence and harmony between the way of an ascetic and that of a householder. The Shaiva approach to Hinduism tending to look Parvati primarily as the God’s submissive and obedient wife and helpmate, is further subverted by the following stories.
For example, the story of the birth of Ten Mahavidyas (Wisdom Goddesses) of Shakta Tantrism. This event occurs while Shiva is living with Parvati in Her father’s house. Following an arguments, he attempts to walk out on her. Her rage manifests in the form of ten terrifying goddesses who block Shiva’s every exit. Scholar David Kingsley explains, “The fact that [Parvati] is able to physically restrain Shiva dramatically makes the point that She is superior in power …”. Again the fact that Shiva dwells in Parvati’s house implies her priority in their relationship. This is evident in her ability through the Mahavidyas to thwart Shiva’s will and assert her own.
It is interesting to note how animations like Bal Ganesha, let out (although unwittingly) the strengths of mother Parvati while aiming to celebrate the glories of the elephant headed God. Shiva Purana (along with Matsya Purana and Skanda Purana) ascribe the birth of Ganesha to Parvati only, without any form of participation of Shiva in Ganesha’s birth.
Once, when Parvati wanted to take a bath, there were no attendants around to guard her and stop anyone from accidentally entering the house. Hence she created an image of a boy out of turmeric past which she prepared to clean her body, and infused life into it, and thus Ganesha was born. Parvati ordered Ganesha not to allow anyone to enter the house, and Ganesha obediently followed his mother's orders. After a while Shiva returned and tried to enter the house, Ganesha stopped him. Shiva was infuriated and severed Ganesha's head with his trishula (trident). When Parvati came out and saw her son's lifeless body, she was very angry and sad. She demanded that Shiva restore Ganesha's life at once. Unfortunately, Shiva's trishula was so powerful that it had hurled Ganesha's head so far off that it could not be found. Finally, an elephant's head was attached to Ganesha's body, bringing him back to life. Still upset, Parvati demanded her son be made head of the celestial armies and worshipped by everyone before beginning any activity, and gods accepted this condition.
The story of Ganesha’s birth and rebirth thus establish Parvati as a determined and powerful mother who can and punish thoughtless and cruel acts, even those of her husband.
The Goddess is usually represented as fair and beautiful. The colour of her vestments is milk white, the colours of enlightenment and knowledge. Since white is a combination of all hues it shows that she has all the qualities or Gunas. Kumara Shambhava describes her as “Gauri Sukumari” . Since white also depicts huelessness, it indicates that she is devoid of all Gunas. Hence, she is referred to as Trigunatmika (having the three Gunas – Satva, Rajas and Tamas – and at the same time being Nirguna (without any Gunas). She has three eyes. Her accoutrements tend to be those of Rishi (Seer), but she may also wear the ceremonial garments and carry the ritual items of a Gur (Himalayan Oracle). Again Parvati’s exclusive divinity is symbolized by her being consistently depicted in nudity. Clothes symbolized the body and earthly attachments whereas nudity was indicative of unfettered divinity.
The consideration of Parvati as female energy and the benign mother, approximates Keres Indians’ assumption that ‘context’ and ‘matrix’ are equivalent terms, and both refer to approximately the same thing as knowing your derivation and place. Failure to know your mother, that is, your position and its attendant traditions, history, and place in the scheme of things, is failure to remember your significance, your reality your right relationship to earth and society. It is the same thing as being lost – isolated, abandoned, self estranged, and alienated from your own life (Gunn Alien : 29).
Unfortunately, Indian women, particularly the Hindu, are fed with and indoctrinated into the Shiva concept of Parvati – this is of course understood as a well calculated attempt to create a cult of devoted wives and dedicated mothers willing to deny their self, role and identity for the sake of the family.
“In this sense, (borrowing the words of Mill) discourse is not an abstract set of textual practices but the grounds on which social relations are organized.” … discourse is a means through which social relations between individuals are negotiated. Where feminity as a discourse becomes most crucial is where it forms the focus of group activity by individuals where women are not portrayed as simple dupes of an ideology, but rather as actively constructing position for themselves, engaging with discursive constructs. (82) and as Dorothy Smith opines : “when codes and images are viewed as women use, play with, break with and oppose them, the discourse of feminity appears not as a managed construct of the fashion industry manipulating people as puppets, but as an ongoing, unfolding, historically evolving, social organization with which women and sometimes men are actively at work” (204).
And finally there should be an attempt to explain in terms of liberal (feminism) the proposition that “men as a part of the problem should be a part of the solution” (50).
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