Parvati (Sanskrit: from Parvata, meaning “mountain”) is a Hindu goddess married to Shiva (the ascetic god of destruction). She is seen as the civilizing, domesticating force who complements Shiva’s unfettered asceticism. Parvati is a decidedly maternal figure, raising with Shiva the divine children Ganesha and Kartikeya.
Mythologically, Parvati is considered a representation of Shakti, female energy personified, and is linked to other forms of the goddess including Kali (the ferocious dark goddess), and Durga (the motherly warrior goddess). Some Shakta believers consider Parvati to be the ultimate manifestation of the Divine herself.
In Hindu iconography, Parvati is regularly pictured alongside her husband Shiva, with whom she often shares a loving, intimate embrace. Parvati and Shiva are often depicted even more intimately linked as Ardhanarisvara—the “Lord who is half woman.” Statues and pictures of this deity are differentiated into male and female halves along the central vertical axis, the male half bearing traits of Shiva and the female half those of Parvati. This particular type of depiction solidifies the fact that male and female are inseparable in the process of creating life, and in the case of Shiva and Parvati, the universe itself. Parvati is also depicted alongside her husband in more abstract form as the yoni, a vulvular shape, which compliments the phallic linga which represents Shiva. Shiva and Parvati are also pictured with their sons Kartikeya and Ganesha, together providing the ideal configuration for harmonious family life.
Her epithets include Uma, Lalitha, Gowri, Shivakamini, Aparna, and hundreds of others.
Early conceptions: Satī
Parvati has mythological roots in the character of Sati, the first wife of Shiva who turns out to be an earlier incarnation of Parvati. Sati is the daughter of Daksa, whose sole purpose of existence from an early age revolves around making Shiva her husband. She was given this impetus by Brahma, the creator god. Earlier on in mythological history, Shiva had laughed reproachfully at Brahma when the latter had been stricken by incestuous lust for his own daughter. In order to exact some revenge, Brahma saw to it that Shiva would himself fall victim to sexual passion. Other texts, such as the Rudra-Samhita, show a more evenly-tempered Brahma suggesting that Shiva must become active in the creative world through Parvati so as to ensure the physical world will be imbued with auspiciousness.
Unfortunately for Parvati, Shiva is steeped in asceticism and is therefore difficult for her to convert him to a domestic life. However, through her own appeals to asceticism and devotion, she is able to attract Shiva’s attention. She asks Shiva to marry him, and he agrees, having discovered a newfound desire for her. The marriage is traditional, despite Shiva’s general impatience, with Brahma overseeing as the priest. Over the course of the proceedings, Daksa begins to express trepidations with Shiva’s unsightly appearance and idiosyncratic habits, and conflict develops between Sita’s father and his future son-in-law. Afterward, Shiva and Sati enjoy one another’s company on Mount Kailash, while Daksa organizes a great sacrifice to which all divine beings are invited, except for the honeymooning god and goddess. Furious with her father’s unshakeable disapproval of Shiva, Sati kills herself. This mythological event provided tenuous grounds for ancient Hindus to explain the custom of sati (suttee), a practice named for the goddess in which a female would throw herself upon the funeral pyre of her deceased husband.
Upon hearing of Sati’s death, Shiva is furious and creates a variety of fierce beings including the demon Virabhadra. These demons suppress the various divinities assembled at Daksa’s grand sacrifice, and end up killing Daksa. Shiva then enters the sacrifice himself, and it proceeds without further issue. In alternative versions of the story, Shiva carries Sati’s lifeless body all over the universe, causing various cosmic disturbances along the way. All the while, Vishnu follows Shiva throughout his tragic journey, slicing off parts of Sati’s corpse which mark sacred places wherever they land on earth. Thus, with these centers of worship established, Sati has made the inaccessible, hidden divine represented by Shiva accessible to the physical world. Once all the parts of Sati’s body are dispersed, Shiva returns to solitude in his mountain abode.
Parvati is the daughter of Himavat, the personification of the Himalayan mountains and his wife Mena of a group of female cloud and water spirits called the apsaras. Parvati may have originated from a non-Aryan tribal goddess who dwelled in the mountains. However, her mythology does not describe her as goddess of mountain ranges or of the wild in general. Rather, Parvati’s primary function is as the wife of Shiva, and she is seen as the civilizing, domesticating force who complements his unfettered asceticism.
Kalidasa’s epic Kumarasambhavam details the story of the maiden Parvati, whose very existence was necessitated by the fact that Shiva needed a consort to bear his child. Prior to her birth, a demon by the name of Taraka had been granted a boon which rendered him invincible to any creature except for a child of Shiva. Because of Shiva’s asceticism, the gods made an active search to find a woman capable of pulling Shiva out of his renunciation and into a sexual encounter. Sati was said to have consented to be reborn in order to help the gods, and so she took birth as Parvati, who was dark in complexion and very beautiful. Much like Sati, she took a great interest in Shiva from a young age. The possibility of their marriage was made even more promising by the fact that a rishi predicted Parvati would marry a naked yogi, and her parents were honored by the news.
Parvati made some initial attempts to attract Shiva’s attention, but the god was too deeply immersed in his ascetic practices to notice her, considering women to be an unnecessary distraction to his mortifications. Desperate to defeat Taraka, the gods send Kama, the god of love, to stimulate Shiva’s lust. Kama used scents and sounds from the springtime in order to set Shiva into a swoon, but Shiva quickly wisened to the love-god’s trickery and scorched him with the fire from his middle eye. Although the gods mourned Kama’s incineration, his work was in vain, as Shiva would fall in love with Parvati, nonetheless. This happened after Parvati surpassed all of the great sages in her austerities, and accumulated so much ascetic heat that she impelled the gods to go to Shiva persuade him to marry her. Despite attempts made by agents of Shiva to test her devotion, Parvati remains faithful to Shiva, and so he agreed to marry her. At this point, Shiva reconstitutes Kama in bodily form at the request of his wife Rati, and in some versions because of Parvati herself.
Just as had been the case with Sati, during the wedding the parents of the bride are disgusted upon seeing the outrageous looks and behavior of Shiva. Afterward, Shiva and Parvati depart to Mount Kailash, enjoying each other’s company. Then the gods started to worry about the potential might of a child created by such powerful divine beings. They interrupted Shiva and Parvati in the midst of their embrace, and, as a result, Shiva’s semen, fiery with his intense ascetic heat, landed in the Ganges River. It is said the child Kartikeya was then born, whom Parvati raised as her own. Kartikeya went on to defeat the demon Taraka, thereby saving the world.
Parvati also raised a second child, the popular elephant-headed god Ganesha. After Shiva leaves his wife Parvati for an extended period of time in order to meditate upon Mount Kailash, she suffers from intense loneliness. Longing for a son, she rubs an unguent upon the surface of her skin and from the scurf that collects beneath her she brings forth a being in the shape of a young man, Ganesha. She quickly orders him to stand guard at the door of her private chamber while she bathes. Eventually, Shiva returns from his meditation and attempts to access Parvati’s private chamber. Ganesha refuses to let him in and a struggle ensues, wherein Shiva beheads Ganesha. Hearing the commotion, Parvati emerges from her bath and informs Shiva that he had just killed her child, and in her anger she threatens to destroy the universe if the situation is not rectified immediately. Shiva promptly sends forth his servants to the North, the holy direction, so that they can find a new head for Ganesha. Eventually, the servants found an elephant and cut off its head, which is placed upon Ganesha’s shoulders after their return. When Ganesh regains consciousness, Shiva adopts him as his own.
Although myths about Parvati typically highlight her milder aspects, occasionally she shows a darker, more violent side, as is illustrated in the story of Ganesha’s birth. In a number of myths in which demons threaten the cosmos, Parvati is asked for help by the gods to battle them. When Parvati grows angry at the prospect of war, a goddess often identified as Kali is born from her wrath for purposes of eviscerating the demons.
Attributes and Symbolism
Parvati is usually depicted as a beautiful, dark-skinned woman. She is often seated on a large cat, usually a lion or tiger, which symbolizes her ability to harness and control the wild aspect of nature. She is often depicted in front of, or near, mountains, reflecting the abode she shares with Shiva on Kailasa, or perhaps suggesting her earlier history as a mountain goddess. She is dressed in silk clothing, and is heavily adorned with anklets and bracelets, among other fine jewelry. When pictured with a weapon, she carries a trishul (trident), conch, Chakram (discus), or a crossbow. She is often accompanied by one of her sons, usually Ganesha, who she cuddles or nurses.
Parvati symbolizes many noble virtues esteemed by the Hindu tradition, including domesticity, asceticism, fertility and devotion not only as a spouse but also to the divine. The main thrust of Parvati’s symbolic significance arises from her association with Shiva, which speaks to the tension between the archetypal ascetic and the householder. Parvati, a symbol of domesticity, lures Shiva, who is without family or lineage, into the world of marriage, sexuality and reproduction. Her request that Shiva revive the incinerated Kama suggests her ability to sustain sexual desire, the root of the householder’s role. While Shiva is the wild and unruly destroyer, Parvati is his complementary builder, who mitigates the damaging effects of her spouse. Moreover, Parvati represents the beauty and allure of the civilized world in contrast to the mountains and wilderness which define Shiva-Rudra. Although she is rooted in this world, she too can match the feats of asceticism undertaken by her husband. By coercing him into marriage, Parvati also prevents Shiva from accumulating a potentially dangerous excess of tapas or ascetic heat. Thus, the couple jointly symbolizes both the power of renunciation and asceticism and the blessings of marital felicity and domestic life when they are held together in perfect balance. Parvati’s devotion to her husband is also exemplary, which is most obvious during the lengthy period of time she spends in austerity in order to attract his attention. Thus, she has become a prototype for ideal devotion to God.
Male gods in the Hindu pantheon are thought to have power, or shakti, by which they undertake creative activity. Shakti is personified in the form of a goddess, and Parvati is Shiva’s shakti. Thus, Parvati herself is often afforded creative power, representing the active, material force which brings the universe into being. Shiva is dependent upon Parvati in order to express himself in material creation, and without her presence, his divine nature would remain abstract and inactive. A variety of metaphors have been used to describe this interdependence, including those which figure Shiva to be the sky and Parvati the earth, or Shiva to be the soul and Parvati the body, among others. The androgynous Ardhanarisvara image is also used to provide a concrete depiction of the complementary nature of Shiva and Parvati’s Shakti. As a result of her connection to shakti, believers of the Shakta philosophy hold her in high esteem not only as Shiva’s consort but as the supreme divinity.
Parvati is the focal point of the Teej festival, which is held during the Hindu Month of Shravan (Mid-July to Mid-August) and serves to welcomes the monsoon season. This festival commemorates the marriage of Parvati with Shiva after her extended term of asceticism, wherein women attempt to obtain Parvati’s blessings by singing devotional songs and undertaking their own austerities, such as fasting. It is believed that unmarried women fasting during this celebration will quickly find a suitable husband, while married women doing the same will bolster their love for their current husband. For the duration of the festival, women are dressed in colorful vestments, as are images of Parvati. Additionally, swings are hung from trees and decorated with flowers. Women swing on these while singing their devotional songs. This festival is most famous amongst the people of Rajasthan, with the celebration centered almost exclusively in that state’s capital city of Jaipur. An elaborate procession consisting of images of Parvati is lead through the streets of Jaipur for two consecutive days, enacting the aspect of Parvati’s story in which she leaves her parent’s home for that of her new husband.