Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


She blazed forth like a koti of suns, a self-contained ball of fire, wreathed with thousands of flames, like hundreds of fires of time. With gaping mouth and projecting fangs, unassailable, adorned with a braided top-knot and carrying a trident in her hand, she was a ghastly, terrifying sight. Then she was composed, her countenance serene, filled with endless marvels, marked with a digit of the moon shining like a koti of moons. Again she appeared, wearing a crown, holding a mace, adorned with anklets, heavenly garlands and celestial clothing, anointed with divine perfume, carrying conch and discus. She was a beautiful sight, three-eyed, clothed in tiger skin, standing supreme both inside and outside the cosmic egg, the eternal goddess who consists of all shaktis.

Kurma Purana

 There is a place called Gaurikund. To find it one must go far up into the foothills of Himavat, beyond the roads of easy access and the terraced village pathways. It was here that Parvati sat lost in meditative bliss, motionless, in concentration upon her Lord. In a small forest clearing, whose edge dropped steeply down the arboured mountain slope, she reposed, Gauri, fair of face and pure of heart, lips gently smiling with the calm suffusion of her inner joy. The tiny glen in the midst of the tall dark trees and clattering waterfalls seemed aglow with the radiance of her holy occupation. Anyone approaching would have thought himself drawing near to the resting place of a fallen star whose luminosity extended in a silvery aura, lighting up the grass and the foliage of the surrounding trees. But no human eye was nigh to blink in awe at the sight. Only a tiger saw its glow and stealthily moved towards it through the forest shade. Up over the falling ravine and through the rhododendrons between the trees he slowly inched his way along the ground until he arrived at the edge of the clearing. Here he crouched, focussed with unwavering concentration upon what he clearly considered to be his prey. He gazed steadfastly upon Parvati's beauteous form and thought, "Here sits in wait for me my dinner. No finer and more succulent morsel could I ever desire. It has been long since I have eaten, and little did I expect to find such a prize set yielding and fully prepared in my pathway." So saying, the tiger lowered his massive frame yet deeper into the grass and, with eyes riveted upon Parvati's face, fell into a deep and ecstatic contemplation of his intended feast. Locked in this trance of anticipation, he crawled unconsciously forward until he arrived in crouching immobility at the goddess's feet.

 Sitting at Gaurikund absorbed in meditation upon this tale, one is vividly accosted with all the powerful elements of the scene. It is as though one were there watching the goddess and seeing with dread how the enormous beast approaches its unwitting prey. In terror one would observe the saliva drool from the hungry animal's mouth and the red-rimmed eyes seeming to devour before the fact. Suddenly one perceives the scene as though from within the goddess herself. One is locked in deep meditation and yet notices the black and gold hulk slithering towards one. One smells the strong and putrid odour of its open mouth and sees the great eyes fixed upon one's body with an almost loving ferocity. The tiger stops at one's feet and the scene shatters before a blackout of the incomprehensible. The tiger stopped at Parvati's feet and she continued undisturbed in her calm meditation, the serene smile never leaving her radiant face. Even the tiger was part of the imperturbable wholeness of her vision, from which nothing could be excluded. For in her fixed meditation upon the Lord of all creatures, she adored all aspects of his many kingdoms. Seeing the tiger as merely a part of this one intelligence and viewing his approach with the unruffled eye of spiritual insight, she marvelled at the intensity of his concentration upon her own person. She mentally saluted his single-mindedness of purpose, his attitude of worshipful meditation, and her heart expanded with a great love for him, covering him with its warmth and lifting him into a world of bliss. The tiger was transformed. He was overwhelmed with a sense of deep adoration for Parvati and his crouch became a prostration of submission and joyful servitude.

 At Gaurikund these wonders come alive. The power of Parvati's meditation lingers in the atmosphere of the place, seeming to inform the very rocks underfoot. And this is not amiss, perhaps, for she was born of the mountain itself. Once, when asked by Shiva why she was hard-hearted, she playfully answered that "this is the nature of those born of a rocky mountain" As daughter of Himavat, hers are the peaks whence the earth's energy flows into the ether, the Meru from whom the world takes its source. Her name is derived from parvata, 'mountain', and where two matched peaks rise together they are identified as her stana or breasts. Thus were the Malaya and Dadura mountains of the ancient Pandyan kingdom described by Kalidasa, along with numerous other peaks of antique and recent times. The symbol is so widespread and seminal a part of consciousness in South Asia that a modern political party there has seen fit to utilize the motif of a sun rising over twin peaks as its emblem. Thousands of people who cannot read and do not comprehend the subtleties of ideological arguments simply vote for the symbol of the goddess when election time comes around. They may not grasp the implications of various political issues, but they know that such peaks are sacred and vivified with cosmic energy. Nor is it any mystery to them why one should not seek to dwell on any summit and why only temples are constructed there.

 On such a peak at Dhanaulti there is a small temple dedicated to an earlier incarnation of Parvati. Here, it is said, in protest to the insult done to her Lord, Parvati (then called Sati) threw herself into her father's sacrificial fire. As the daughter of Daksha, she had contrived to wed her beloved Shiva despite her father's contempt for his unorthodox ways. Later, at an assembly of the gods called by Daksha, Shiva had refused to stand in his father-inlaw's honour and thereby incurred his further denunciation. When Daksha then excluded the Lord of All from his great yajna at Hardwar, and Sati's pleas failed to move him to do otherwise, she committed what came to be known as sati (self-immolation on one's husband's pyre) and brought down the violent wrath of Shiva on Daksha's prideful head. Legend has it that Shiva scooped up in his arms the charred body of his beloved and, clasping her to his breast, danced in despair throughout the three worlds, dropping pieces of her pathetic remains as he went. The ground where they fell was instantly sanctified and the relics were given names, which also became the names of holy places. Thus the sarada became Sardi in Kashmir, the tulja became Taljapur in the Deccan and the kamakhya became Kamarupa in Bengal, all places of pilgrimage renowned for their power.

 Throughout India Parvati has lent her many names to locales rich in the lore surrounding her. At Ambala she is worshipped as Amba (or Durga), as Chandi she inspired the name of Chandigarh, and as Syamala Devi, that of Simla. Her manifestation as Minakshi was honoured by the building of a superlative temple surrounded by an entire city in her name, and at Kanya Kumari she designates the sacred downward-pointing tip of the whole subcontinent. Though primarily known as Parvati, she has taken on the many varied guises of her Lord. She is Girija (Mountain Born) and Himavati (Daughter of the Snow-Capped One), but she is also Gauri (Fair One), Uma (Peace of Night), Bhavani (Giver of Existence), Kanya Kumari (Virgin Girl), Annapurna (Giver of Food and Plenty), Mahadevi (Consort of the Lord of All), Kamakshi (Embodiment of Lust), Durga (the Unassailable One), Bhairavi (Terrible), Rajasi (Fierce) and Bhagavati (All-Powerful), to name a few. But in all these guises she is the supreme shakti, the substance-energy which is the origin of the phenomenal world. As such, she is the active self-conscious awareness of the source of knowledge and consciousness, without which knowledge of God is not possible. Shiva can be known only through his shakti, and is an active agent only through being united with her. For the potentiality of the world exists in shakti and maya is her substance, which, under her direction, evolves into the elements and physical aspects of all sentient beings. The individual human being, operating under the influence of maya, looks upon himself as a free agent and enjoyer. It is only through the knowledge of shakti that he is liberated from this delusion.

 Shiva is called the Lord of All because he is ultimate knowledge. As such, he can be considered as incorporating the concentrative and illuminating principle of Vishnu as well as the active space-time principle of Brahmā. As his shakti, Parvati reflects both his immanent and his transcendent aspects. She is the power of cognition and destroyer of illusion. She cuts to the source while being the engine of liberation through centrifugal disintegration. She is the intelligence in Lakshmi's multiplicity and the self-conscious cognition of Sarasvati's learned flow. All the shakti powers are involved in the manifestation, coordination and transformation produced by spirit acting in matter. But the ability to cognize all these powers in their one source, as the Self of all selves, belongs to Parvati. It is said that the combined glance of the three gods making up the trimurti produced a female form of white, red and black. The white, being the past, was Sarasvati, the present was the red of Lakshmi and the future was the black of Parvati, who shows the way into the formless unknown. All represent pathways leading to wisdom, but it is Parvati who encompasses Time itself.

 According to the Shaiva-Siddhanta school of South India, Shiva as the operative cause of the world corresponds to Shakti as the material cause. This material world must have a material cause, which is maya. Being non-intelligent, maya cannot itself evolve but requires the guidance of Shiva (as Bhuteshvara) acting through his chit shakti. Thus guided, maya projects the tattvas constituting the universe. In the Shivadvaita system of Shrikantha, Shiva is viewed as both operative (transcendent) and material (immanent), affecting manifestation through his shakti divided into the three aspects of iccha (will), jnana (knowledge) and kriya (action). Shakti is the zero which, joined with her Lord, becomes the ten whose forms vary according to the different proportions of the three gunas. But she constantly meditates upon the nature of her Lord and expresses it transcendentally as well as phenomenally. As daughter of Himavat (the ether) and Menaka (buddhi or intellect), Shiva's shakti accomplishes this through being the conscious substance of the universe. When she was Sati (virtuous and faithful), daughter of Daksha (active, dextrous Brahmā Prajapati), she bore witness to the universal truth of cosmic sacrifice by completing its cycle on behalf of her Lord. As Parvati she becomes that cycle, substantially as well as cognitively.

 In the shape of the yoni, Parvati becomes the five tattvas, the support of the universe created through her shakti energy. She is all-pervading (ether personified), leaving, in her Kali aspect, no measure for Time. As Uma she is eternal knowledge, whose shape is unlimited space, the conscious thought which appears within the pure knowing of Shiva. As Gauri she is fair, like the ripened grain whose continual rebirth she ensures. She is the mother (Ma, Amma, Uma) and the virgin (Kumari), the creative energy and the destroyer. In her destructive aspects Parvati assumes the terrifying characteristics of her Lord dancing in the graveyard, slaying the enemies of the gods and devouring sacrifices. She is thus Durga, the unassailable, who rides a mighty lion while defeating the buffalo demon Mahisha and slaying the Asura Durga from whom she took her name. She is Chamunda, destroyer of depravity, and Kali, the devourer, who refuses to wed unless defeated in battle by her prospective spouse.

 The list of her names and exploits is a long one, ensuring that the various forms of her worship occur continually throughout the year. Often she is worshipped in an image of either her benign or terrific aspect, which is submerged in water at the puja's completion. Sacrifices to her take many forms, from coconuts and jack fruit, to the lemons impaled upon the iron fence surrounding her Kali form at Madurai, or the bloody heads of hundreds of animals at Kalighat. Popular tradition has it that, as Kamakshi, she was also bloodthirsty at Kanchipuram until Shankaracharya propitiated her and her character was changed. The propitiation had to be made, even by one so great, in order to redress the particular occult balance between worshipper and object of worship which must be maintained at any given place and time. Thus, though King Langa of Mewar sacrificed his nine sons to Chamunda to correct a wrong, she was not appeased until he had given up his own head.

 According to the Tantra Shastras, all women are Shakti and should all, therefore, be honoured in the role of preceptor. This cuts across caste boundaries and offers a sharp criticism of exoteric formal religion. As shakti worship spread, it revived the mystical, esoteric and heterodox elements of older religion. It upheld the idea that recognition of the guru was essential for any spiritual exercise and that the human body was the seat of spiritual experience. In its opposition to the patriarchal structure upheld by writers of the smritis and enforced by the ruling class, shakti worship represented a veritable revolution – one which was ultimately absorbed into the religious mainstream. A recognition of the chakras through which the kundalini shakti reaches the sahasrara was instituted even in such bastions of Brahminism as Tamil Nadu, where the sacred temples of Tiruvarur represent the muladhara, Kanchipuram the nabhi, Chidambaram the anahata, and Jambukesvaram the anachakra. But though absorbed in the main, certain aspects of Tantra persisted in lending an irrational and sometimes dangerous aura to shakti worship, tending to reflect the highly ungovernable character of Shiva himself.

 When Sages and Asuras tried to dissuade Parvati in her determination to become Shiva's bride, she would not be deflected. Though sweetly faithful in her nature, she possessed a powerful will and could not be turned aside from her goal. That her resolution was adamant is abundantly attested to by the fact that Shiva himself rebuffed her and used every wile to foil her intentions. Parvati's own mother, Menaka, scorned the great Lord for his pennilessness and profligate ways. Even from her lofty buddhic perspective she saw him as neither a good provider (which every mother-in-law wants) nor a respectable yogin (which would at least redeem honour). In fact, Menaka and Himavat had produced three daughters, all of whom were called to brahmaloka to determine which one might be able to carry Shiva's seed and bear the child who would slay a terrible demon then menacing the three worlds. The eldest two were both deemed incapable of this, even after extended tapas, and were cursed for their presumption.

 Menaka, concerned now for Parvati's safety, tried to prevent her from even attempting the tapas. But Parvati was adamant and observed such austerities that the gods themselves prostrated before her in awe. Learning of this, Shiva sent seven sages, who used every argument to convince her she was misguided. They told her that Shiva was a passionless yogin who delighted in killing Kama, wore filthy clothing and haunted unclean places. They reminded her that when she was married to him as Sati, he had deserted her. Shiva himself then came disguised as a mendicant who slandered the Lord, and then as an aged Brahmin who attacked his reputation with such abusive vigour that she fiercely denounced him and turned away, stopping her ears. Shiva assumed many guises, both tauntingly blasphemous and sympathetically persuasive, to dissuade Parvati from her tapas, but all failed, prompting him finally to remark as she angrily strode away, "If you leave me, where will you go? 0 Shiva (Parvati), I will not leave you alone. I have tested you, blameless woman, and find you firmly devoted to me. I came to you in the form of a brahmacharin and said to you many things out of desire for your welfare. I am profoundly pleased with your deep devotion. Because of your tapas, I shall be your servant from this moment on. Come, beloved, I shall go to my mountain at once, together with you."

 In the protracted romance of plucky Parvati, it looked like all was going very well, but further tension lay in store. For Shiva does not play the game by rules most would call fair. He seems both insistent and contradictory in his demands. Before marriage he argued, "How can I take a beautiful wife, a woman who is the very form of illusion? Any yogin ought to regard every woman as if she were his mother." Now in marriage he expects Parvati to be an ardent mistress, never barring her doors to his bouts of boundless desire when he is so inclined and never interrupting him when he withdraws in meditation. He says, "If she impedes me when I am meditating, I will kill her, and if she has no confidence in what I say, I will abandon her." He complains that he is not a householder and that the gods have been wicked to saddle him with a wife. Yet the duration of his intense periods of union with her scandalize them, while failing to produce the offspring they desire because he will not drop his seed. There is continual tension between Parvati and her Lord over her desire to get a child and to set up a more conventional household. While she staunchly defends him against the seven sages on a highly metaphysical level, she also wants him to fulfil her earthly longings. She implores him not to use his disgusting begging bowl and is jealous of his relationship with Ganga. In echoing some of the conservative objections of her mother, she seems to sully the courageous firmness of her premarital meditations. But the intensity and violence of Parvati's tapas had actually been a fitting prelude to the fervent and sometimes ferocious courtship that was to follow.

 When the gods had prostrated in awe before Parvati's tapas, Brahmā had said, "This is surely the beloved of Shankara who now disturbs you with her aura, outshining even your own lustre. Don't be concerned, but go to your homes, knowing that Mahisha is already slain by this goddess in battle, and the demon Taraka too." To win such approbation the goddess had performed years of extreme tapas, observing abstinence from nourishment and her bodily needs and never permitting her mind to waver from its object of worship. Such arduous asceticism prepared Parvati for her complete union with Shiva, while purifying her to become his spiritual consort. She had begun, long before the marriage, a pattern of intense tenacity and forbearance, coupled with a dogged assertion of will. These characteristics, when united with Shiva's ambivalent role of householder and yogin, creator and destroyer, were bound to produce tensions. Indeed, the instances of conflict are so numerous in the stories about Shiva and Parvati that one finally concludes they are integral to the very substance and nature of the relationship between them. Thus, Parvati's ambiguous dabbling in conventionality can be seen as mere fuel to a fiery marriage which see-saws back and forth between extreme asceticism and domesticity. The quarrels interrupt their physical union, giving way to periods of tapas which, in turn, lay the ground for renewed creation.

 To carry Shiva's seed was, however, no easy task, for it incinerated anything with which it came into contact. It was too powerful for even the womb of Mahadevi and Agni had to intervene, dropping it into the flowing current of Ganga, where it cooled slightly and emerged in the form of Skanda (Kartikkeya). Despite millennia of physical union between Shiva and his bride, Ganesha too was born in an indirect manner, moulded of the scurf from Parvati's body. Shiva's transcendent potential was too unlimited to be readily incorporated. Even on the subtlest level his rati or procreative power was too self-contained. Thus intermediaries were required in the production of offspring following great periods of agitation, during which the heavenly pair quarrelled, made up and united. Their unions are said to shake the entire universe, causing unrest and crisis leading to new creation. Unleashing this, Parvati is called the power of longing and liberation, because, far from being a product of a quiescent and neutral state, liberation is won by an active and mighty struggle. Only after such a struggle, resulting in the union of opposites, can ananda (true spiritual bliss) be won.

 Naked, clad only in space, the goddess is resplendent. Her tongue hangs out. She wears a garland of skulls. Such is the form worthy of meditation of the power of Time, Kali, who dwells near the funeral pyres.

Kali Tantra

As the power of Time, Parvati in the guise of Kali liberates through disintegration and the destruction of illusion. Her aspect is terrible as she dances amidst the corpses of the burning-ground, tongue lolling, blood dripping along her emaciated torso, skulls clattering and grinning as they wheel round her hideously distended neck. She drinks up the blood of her enemies and greedily awaits the gory sacrifices spread at her feet. Men, having created a powerful focus in her for their own terrors and fearful obsessions with decay and death, readily comply by killing animals to appease her. At Kalighat the floors of her temple run with their blood during puja, and the Karpuradi Stotra informs us that even humans once fell under the axe at her feet.

 With deeper reflection, however, one finds that such scriptures can be interpreted at different levels, from the highest (para) level, to the subtle (sukshma), to the gross (sthula). Reading the stotra from the subtle point of view, the sacrifice to Kali of animals and humans can be understood to refer to the six great sins which range from passion (the goat) to pride (man). It is these sins that are meant to be sacrificed to the destroyer of illusions, not their symbols. Many other symbolic aspects associated with Parvati have been similarly misinterpreted. The concept of maithuna, so prominent in Tantra, for instance, means action, reaction and coupling. This has often been viewed at the grosser level as carnal intercourse and has led to serious misunderstandings as well as spiritually damaging practices. From a subtler perspective this can be understood as the coupling of the active and changeless principles, the union of kundalini shakti with Paramashiva within the temple of one's body. This maithuna makes of one a god and demands an intuitive insight into the dynamic union symbolized in the stories about Parvati's tempestuous marriage to Shiva. Such teachings are indeed subtle and require a deeper level of comprehension than that demonstrated by many Kali worshippers, as well as by their critics. In the Gandharva Tantra, Shiva was made to say that

only such men as are without dualism, have controlled their passions and are devoted to brahman are entitled to this shastra. Such a one must be free of all feelings of enmity to others and continually doing good to all beings.

 The blackness of Kali represents the unknown, the substratum before creation. Complementing Shiva's inertia, his continual turning towards the Uncreate, she ever rushes to destroy forms. Given free rein, her impulse for destruction threatens to get out of control and can be halted only by Shiva himself. To slay the demon Daruka, Parvati entered her Lord and was emitted as Kali from his throat. She possessed all of Shiva's terrible aspects, and with trident, pisachas and siddhas in attendance, she slew her foe. But her violence knew no bounds and would have eventually destroyed all the worlds if Shiva had not taken the form of a young boy howling beneath her feet on the battlefield. When she saw who he was, she came to her senses and suckled him until he drank up all her rage with the milky offering. Thus Kali, who refused to marry unless defeated in battle by her spouse, was brought into union with Shiva. Though chitti in her essential nature and the substratum of maya, she becomes immersed in the world. Her wild dance depicts the tumult that rages in the human breast, where anger, passion, hatred, pride, ignorance and all the other deadly sins hold sway, causing her to forget her Source (Lord) and enter into an orgy of destruction. If Shiva is the universal soul. Kali is here like the human soul who forgets and runs amok. Suddenly she sees her Lord and stops, aghast. She bites her tongue and, abashed, assumes her rightful position.

 I am Time, ever inclined to destroy the worlds.

Bhagavad Gita

 Into the blackness of Kali, the substratum of maya, go all colours and elements at the end of time. Because of this it is said that at the destruction of the universe only the power of Time (destruction itself) remains. Like a fearful warrior, alone amidst all she has slain on the battlefield, sword in hand, ghastly trophies all around her. Kali embodies all fear and yet is beyond it. After encountering her there is no clinging to life through fear. Her garland of skulls bespeaks death in life and life in death – each embodying and following the other in endless cycles. She wears them because she wears the cycles themselves, like Time overbrooding periods of time. And yet she is involved to the point of forgetting. She is both Time, devouring all, and time caught in the grips of the destruction of what is ultimately itself. To embrace this aspect of Parvati in an attempt to know the Lord of All is a formidable enterprise, for she is beyond all that to which man normally clings for meaning and joy. She is attained only by renouncing the known world and exchanging it for the unknown, and is therefore terrifying. She resides in the reconciliation of life and death, of beauty and horror – in the transcendence of these seeming opposites. Her abode is found in the act of transcendence, an enactment of the very power she supremely personifies. She is the way, the energy and the path leading to her Lord.

 In her relationship with Shiva, Parvati brings into play the reconciliation of the roles of householder and yogin. She is the display of the friction, the great tension, which must exist for the universe to continue in its manifest state, and she is the means therein of its transcendence. In every coupling of opposites that takes place in the mind of man, Parvati's path is revealed. The rhythm of agitations and rest which so typifies her wedded life is that of the entire universe. Her embodiment of ascetic and wife parallels the analogous elements in Shiva, just as it parallels the benign and terrifying aspects of herself. She brings together, in the service of her Lord, all the extreme opposites relative to being and non-being in the world and unites them to that ultimate opposite which lies beyond opposites and beyond the arena of manifestation altogether. When she revealed her divine form, the goddess said, "Know me to be the supreme power vested in the Highest Lord, without rival, eternal, the only one who is beheld by those who seek release. I am Shiva, source of the universe, the Self inside all things, embodied in eternal sovereignty and wisdom, the everlasting motivator whose abundance is without limit, the ferry across the ocean of existence. I shall give you divine sight. Now see my supernal form!"

 Witness to that form, perceiving it in the eternal dialectic of Nature, in the continual transcendence of opposites in thought and act, one deeply internalizes Parvati and joins in her blissful meditation upon the Lord of Knowing. One realizes within oneself the Parvati who created the universe of her own being and informed it with Shiva's fiery energy. One recognizes the goddess in the circle in which Shiva dances, and one perceives how the dancing movements represent the oscillations of shakti energy on the two sides of one's own vertical axis. In the powerful solar vibrations affecting our system and the vast patterns of the constellations and comets, the rhythm of the dance pulsates: Shiva performing his tandava on the rim of phenomenal life, Parvati performing in the world, echoing with every step her Lord's noumenal design. Hers is the lasya dance and it swirls and beats like a flashing mirror of devoted transcription. Tandava-lasya, lasya-tandava, the lesser always leads to the greater. And so, one longing for knowledge learns to emulate Parvati. Locked in her tapas, calmly seated in her aura which illumines the forest of the world, one sees the tiger appear and accepts at once its kinship in the grand exercise of steadfast devotion to the source of life itself. Beyond fear and in the presence of death, which is life, one sits trustingly and, following her lead, places the mind wholly at the unseen feet of her Lord.

O daughter of Himavat,
Sweet doyenne of devotion,
Thou art tapas incarnated,
The font of worship's ocean.

To Kailash, fairest Gauri,
Let nothing bar thy path.
Thou art Shankara's beloved
In joy or time of wrath.

O slayer of Time,
Armed with truth's only sword,
Thou destroyest all illusion,
Fearless champion of thy Lord.

To Kailash, dauntless Warrior,
Where waits thy victor's seat,
Thou wilt find there bliss eternal
At thy Lord's sacred feet.