Siva, god of destruction, is associated as the consort or husband of Devi, the Mother-goddess, who is represented in the form of several goddesses. Two Devi representations that stand out are Parvati and Kali because they are so very different, especially in the way they relate with Siva. Parvati is a calming force for Siva while Kali incites him to greater destruction. Parvati attempts to civilize Siva, to change him, but Kali is even more uncivilized than Siva so through their relationship another, more civilized, Siva is revealed. Studying the myths and relationships with these three deities demonstrates both duality and balance.
Western perspective and confusion
These myths and information about the deities can be very confusing, the more information that is uncovered, the more confusing it becomes. Part of the confusion, for me, was from looking at these myths through western eyes. Zimmerman warns about reading these myths through western perspective, but every person uses their background knowledge when reading so it is almost impossible not to incorporate your own cultural perspective in any reading. The other part of the confusion is the fluidity of the characters. Parvati is identified as the reincarnation of Sati, Siva’s first wife, but she is also being represented as Durga, Rudrani, Uma, and Kali, entirely different goddesses, but in truth, all of these goddesses are aspects of Devi. How can one deity be so many different goddesses; such extremely different personalities? I believe the way to reconcile this is to look at our own natures, are we as individuals easy to label? Are we calm or wild, happy or sad, or funny or serious? The truth lies that we identify somewhere in the middle, we are at times happy, at times sad – we are complex beings and so are the gods and goddesses in the Hindu religion. In the western world, it is expected for religious personalities to be easy to label and understand, not fluid; they are extreme. However, to a person who understands the nature of duality and the complexity of whole characters, it is understood that no one is all this or that but a mixture of qualities, this is what is known as duality. What the myths show with these two consorts is a need for balance of these extremes. Siva must be at times destructive, as is his nature, but at times he must also be calm to allow for Brahma and Visnu to create and preserve. With Parvati, we see her as the cause of balance but with Kali, we actually see Siva as the one that calming force for the wild goddess.
Another misconception that arises with looking at the myths with the western perspective is that the Devi goddess is not as important as her consort god, Siva. Since Parvati doesn’t have any history separate from Siva, she would be seen as less than to westerners. “Her identity and nature and nearly all her mythological deeds are defined or acted out vis-à-vis her consort/husband, the great ascetic god Siva” (Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses 35). In fact, she was reincarnated specifically so that Siva could have a child that was necessary to save the world. In reality, she is equal to or more powerful than Siva. She is the only one powerful enough to make Siva change his mind. It is implied that “the great male gods are entirely dependent on the Devi for their strength and power and that if she withdraws her power, they are impotent and helpless” (Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses 137). In the westerner’s mind, it is he who does the action that is important, not the one that inspires it. The mind can be much more powerful than the body. What westerners do not often recognize that both have power and importance; it is about balance.
Who is Siva?
Siva, pronounced and often written as Shiva, is one of the three gods responsible for the creation, upkeep, and destruction of the world. Brahma is the creator of the universe, Visnu is the preserver, and Siva is the destroyer. He must destroy the illusions and imperfections of the world so we can have positive change. Often, destruction is thought of in negative terms but it is necessary to have destruction in order to have creation, it is balance.
Siva contains many contradictory elements and an untamed passion; he can be seen as both good and evil. His behavior is often extreme, especially when without Parvati. “Paradox is the very heart of Saiva mythology” (O’Flaherty 300-337). He is an ascetic that abstains from all worldly pleasures while at other times; he is a hedonist that gives in to his every whim. “Although the apparently contradictory strains of Siva’s nature may well have originated from different times and places, they have resulted in a composite deity who is unquestionably whole to his devotees; this is why the Hindus accept and even glorify what might otherwise seem a meaningless patchwork, a crazy quilt of metaphysics” (O’Flaherty 300-337). It is Siva’s contradictions that make him whole and more realistic because upon reflection, it is apparent that humans also have contradictions and this makes Siva more relatable. The way Siva achieves balance is through his marriage with Sati and later her reincarnation, Parvati. “Together they are fertile, generative, and equilibrating, but apart they are potentially destructive” (Handelman 133-170). Siva also achieves balance with Kali, however with Kali; he is the calm to her destructive nature, showing that Siva contains both the wild and out of control as well as stabilizing aspects in his nature. The inclusion of the Kali myths demonstrate that Siva contains duality and balance within his own personality.
The Devi Goddesses, Parvati and Kali
Since Parvati is the reincarnation of Sati, the two are often seen as the same goddess; two lives of the same goddess. Parvati, Sati, comes back to the world for the purpose of bearing Siva’s child to the world. There are many versions of the myth of Parvati and how she becomes mother to Siva’s offspring. This is a synopsis of the history of Parvati: there was a demon named Taraka terrorizing the world and the only way this demon could be defeated and balance restored was by the offspring of Siva. Since Siva did not have any children and had no interest in having any sort of family, Sati was convinced to return to the world to persuade Siva to have an offspring. Parvati gains Siva’s admiration by performing tapas, cutting herself off from the world and mastering her physical needs. When they are finally married and make love, they are interrupted and Siva’s seed is spilled outside Parvati. It is eventually deposited into the Ganges River and becomes the child Karttikeya, also called Skanda and other names. He returns to his parents and saves the world and restores balance by defeating the demon Taraka. Parvati raises Karttikeya as her own son but she also creates a second son, Ganesa, on her own. The reason Parvati decides to have the second child is to guard for her so she can have privacy. When Siva returns, Ganesa does not allow him in and Siva cuts his head off. Parvati demands that Siva brings their son back to life so Siva grabs the head of an elephant and places it on the boy’s body. The complete family is Siva, Parvati, and their two sons, each created individually by one of the parents.
Even though Parvati is the daughter of the Himalayas and lures Siva out of his ascetic isolation by becoming an ascetic herself, she values the household and society. She “represents the beauty and attraction of worldly, sexual life, which cherishes the house society rather than the forest, the mountains, or ascetic life” (Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses 46). The couple represents the tension between the ideals of the ascetic and the householder. Siva has no desire for family or in settling down but Parvati desires, in fact is born, to marry Siva and have children. “Contact with his properly cultured spouse seems to connect him with ordinary social reality and temporarily domesticates him” (Yocum 119). While Parvati does partially domesticate Siva, she does not fully succeed in achieving her desire for a “normal” life. For instance, Parvati desires a proper home but they never do . Also, Siva retains his wild, ascetic appearance, and continues some of his wild behavior. Since Siva is a god of many extremes, it is Parvati’s role to be the tamer of these extremes, both ascetic and sexual and create balance. Siva never fully gives in to her desires as a householder and she never goes back to asceticism so they remain in a constant state of tension or balance.
The relationship of Parvati and Siva is a case for opposites attracting, duality and balance, but Kali and Parvati are also a representation of duality and balance. While Parvati hardly has any independent history, Kali is rarely associated with her male consort, Siva. Parvati is the householder that desires children yet Kali is often depicted as virginal and violent. Kali prefers the battlefield, Parvati prefers the home. Parvati and Kali may appear to be opposites but Kali is actually represented as part of Parvati. Parvati and Kali are an example of duality and balance existing within one individual.
Kali exists with Siva as the personified wrath of Parvati or Sita. She comes into being when we need to see the otherwise calm and beautiful Parvati be fierce. While Parvati is known for her beauty and quiet grace, Kali is known for a terrible and frightening appearance. Even when compared to Siva’s most terrible forms, she surpasses his wild appearance. “She is always black or dark, usually naked, and has long, disheveled hair. She is adorned with severed arms as a girdle, freshly cut heads as a necklace, children’s corpses as earrings, and serpents as bracelets” (Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses 117). Her nature is fearsome and she enjoys battlefields and cremation grounds. While Parvati calms the wild nature of Siva, Kali intensifies it. In fact, Siva is the one that needs to calm Kali’s wild behavior. In their relationship, they are depicted “in situations where either or both behave in disruptive ways, inciting each other, or in which Kali in her wild activity dominates an inactive or sometimes dead Siva” (Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses 119). When they are together, she is always extreme and uncontrollable.
While Parvati tries to tame Siva, Kali compliments his destructive habits and madness, bringing them to even higher levels, the opposite of balance. She is seen in most images as dominant over Siva, often standing on his body. She is never “subdued by him and is most popularly represented as a being who is uncontrollable and more apt to provoke Siva to dangerous activity than to be controlled by him” (Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses 120). She is the one that needs taming, even in her role as demon slayer, which one would think would help bring balance. In battle, Kali becomes so drunk on blood that she becomes out of control and must be subdued or she may just destroy the world. Balance in these situations is attained by the intervention of Siva.
Duality and Balance
Through the relationships of Siva and Parvati, Siva and Kali, and Kali and Parvati the theme that we see over and over again is the existence of duality and the need for balance. Balance between the spiritual and social worlds with Siva and Parvati is important in Hindu culture since the stress towards living a spiritual life would almost suggest a break from the world of the household but balance is actually the message, not just renunciation. “Both renunciation of action ant the selfless performance of action lead to the supreme goal. But the path of action is better than renunciation” (Easwaran 29). Balance between out of control, destructive behavior and the need to have that destruction reigned in as seen with Siva and Kali is important since Siva’s destruction is meant so that a better world can be created not the entire world destroyed. Finally, the balance of independence and interdependence, wild destruction and calm house making, and beauty and terror are seen in one being with Kali and Parvati which demonstrates how we all have the capabilities of extremes within ourselves.
“It is sometimes said that Indian culture generally betrays a love for extremes, that moderation and balance tend to get lost in the Indian tendency to exploit everything to its ultimate limit” (Kinsley, Freedom from Death in the Worship of Kali 183-207). However, it is in these dual natural extremes that we see balance. Siva, Parvati, and Kali are extreme in nature but together they have balance. Humans and the gods and goddesses of Hindu myths have dual natures that contain extremes and balance. It is by nurturing different aspects of our natures that we become more to one extreme or the other. Often, it is the people we surround ourselves with that causes us to be either more extreme or balanced, like demonstrated by the relationships of Siva with Parvati and Kali.
Even though it may appear that the Indian culture has a love for extreme, I believe it is the western culture that actually embraces extremes, or absolutes. As demonstrated, the relationships of these three Hindu deities show a desire for balance, they show complex characters that contain dualities and balance. It is the dominant, western religion, Christianity, the non-human characters are extreme; Satan is purely evil and the personification of god, Jesus, is purely good and without sin. Even the actions taken by god in Christianity are extreme; when Adam and Eve commit the first sin, they are cast out into the wilderness; when the society is too corrupt, a flood is sent to wipe out all of humanity and life save for one family and pairs of each animal. This is why it is so difficult for westerners to comprehend the wholeness, the dualities that exist in Hindu deities. It is hard to think of a supreme being as both out of control and stable. For the western mind, these deities are too human which makes them hard to understand or respect. That is why, even with Devi, it is hard for a westerner to grasp that she is both Parvati, the householder, and Kali, the bloodthirsty warrior. The duality of the gods and goddesses in Hinduism doesn’t lessen their importance, it increases their ability to be relatable and makes the lessons from their myths relatable to our lives.
There are two lessons shown through these relationships, balance and duality. First, is duality; all humans have duality, we are not extreme. This is important to remember when dealing with each other and when reflecting on ourselves. We can be less judgmental by remembering that everyone has a dual nature and is struggling towards the second lesson which is balance; balance within the individual and balance in relationships. Balance is necessary within the individual, without balance there is dissatisfaction and unhappiness. It must also exist in a relationship or there will be the same result of dissatisfaction and unhappiness and often the termination of the relationship. Sometimes qualities can shift back and forth between the individuals in a relationship, as we see with the shift of Parvati to Kali with Siva but tension and balance must exist.
Balance and embracing our own duality can lead to a happier, more enlightened life. The Bhagavad Gita tell us “they live in freedom who have gone beyond the dualities of life. Competing with no one, they are alike in success and failure and contend with whatever comes to them” (Easwaran 25). We can be happier with who we are because even when we fall short, we know we have the qualities to be better. When we feel overly proud that we have a specific “good” attribute we can become more humble by recognizing that we also contain the “negative” attribute as well. By recognizing duality in others and having less judgment or comparison to them, we can be happier with who we are and who they are.
I would like to end with one of my favorite quotes from The Bhagavad Gita. “It is better to strive in one’s own dharma than to succeed in the dharma of another. Nothing is ever lost in following one’s dharma, but competition in another’s dharma breeds fear and insecurity” (Easwaran 21). This relates to the messages of balance and duality. We need to recognize and embrace both our inner Parvati and Kali. Even if others may see one trait as better than another, it is within ourselves that we need to strive to succeed, not in the eyes of others. It is not competition or scrutiny of others that will make us happy. All people must strive to contend within their own dharma and understand their own duality in order to maintain balance and attain true joy and spiritual enlightenment and these are the lessons I learned from studying Siva, Parvati, and Kali.
Easwaran, Eknath. The Bhagavad Gita. 1st edition. New York: Vintage Books, 1985. Print.
Handelman, Don. “Myths of Murugan: Asymmetry and Hierarchy in a South Indian Puranic .” History of Religions. 27.2 (1987): 133-170. Web. 21 Dec. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1062666>.
Kinsley, David. “Freedom from Death in the Worship of Kali.” Numen. 22.3 (1975): 183-207. Web. 21 Dec. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org.pgi.idm.oclc.org/stable/3269544>.
Kinsley, David. Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1988. Print.
O’Flaherty, Wendy. “Asceticism and Sexuality in the Mythology of Siva, Part I.” History of Religions. 8.4 (1969): 300-337. Web. 21 Dec. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1062019>.
Yocum, Glenn. Hymns to the Dancing Siva: A Study of Manikkavacakar’s Tirubacakum. Columbia, Missouri: South Asia Books, 1982. Print.
Zimmer, Heinrich, and Joseph Campbell. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Eighth printing. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992. Print.