25th September 2014
14 min read

A Philosopher's Taxonomy of Shiva Parvati Images

Harsha V. Dehejia


One of the gifts of modernity to the Indian tradition is that of history and the development of a historical frame of mind and perspective. It is well known that the ancient Indian tradition paid scant respect to history and even the word itihasa meaning “so it has been said” has a pejorative undertone to history as a mode of knowledge. And thus it was that at the turn of the century, under the ambience of modernity, Western art historians turned to the study of traditional Indian art and classical sculpture in particular. Like archaeologists these art historians unearthed forgotten and dusty icons, buried temples and hidden caves and brought them to our attention and jolted our memory. With the advent of modernity a historical awareness was brought into our understanding of mythic images. But history has its limitations, as it is bound by time and space and governed by rationality. In particular when it comes to mythic images in the Indian tradition history leads to flawed and fragmented interpretations and observations. Indian icons, arising as they do on a bedrock of myth, are inextricably tied to religion on the one hand and philosophy on the other and to subject them to history leads to a truncated understanding. From maligning them as monsters, to displaying them in the cold and sanitised spaces in museums or describing them historically or at best thematically, these are only some of the problems that art history creates in the field of classical Indian images. These mythic images contain manifold meanings at many different levels and are richly symbolic and a quest for a fuller and enriching meaning drives a philosopher away from a mere historical or thematic classification of these images. At the heart of a philosopher’s quest is a transcendent knowledge of the self or self-awareness, and psychological and sociological considerations and historical taxonomies of mythic images seem very unsatisfactory. It has been said that sarva sastra prayojanam atma darsanam, the purpose of all doctrines is self awareness. One can extend this dictum and say sarva kala prayojanam atma darsanam, especially when one is talking about our classical arts. A serious art experience, for the philosopher, is useful only if it leads to a glimpse, however momentary, if not a realisation, of one’s ultimate self.

Of the many images in the classical Indian tradition those of Shiva and Parvati are some of the most endearing. Shiva predates history and images of a cross legged yogi in the Indus Valley seals are considered by some as proto-Shiva. Aniconic manifestations of Shiva in the form of a svyambhu linga or naturally occurring stones, such as banalinga from the Narmada river are also ancient. At times represented merely by the trident on ritual objects or on Mount Kailasha, or by his constant companion the Nandi, Shiva makes his presence equally at road-side shrines or in monumental temples such as the Kailasha temple at Ellora or the Kandariya Mahadev temple at Khajhuraho. The cult of Shiva and the worship of Shiva in these aniconic forms is one of the oldest religious cults in India and came much before the development of discursive Shavite philosophy and the development of Shiva Parvati images.

As the Shiva religious cult or sectarian Shaivism progressed it was difficult to contain Shiva in an aniconic form and Shiva almost bursts out of the linga in a variety of mukhas or faces, either in the form of linga covers or human faced linga itself. Moving further the multiple facets of Shiva’s personality demanded a proper iconic presentation and Shiva begins to take several forms. Depicted as vinadhari or dakshinamurti, pashupati or a yogi, bhairava or rudra, there is something both grand and aloof, inviting and foreboding, terrifying and serene, majestic and glorious at the same time, about the various iconic manifestations of Shiva. Even in the majestic Trimurti at Elephanta there is an aura of detachment about Shiva and a sense of being distant from the world around him. While the religious cult was transmitted orally, a corpus of literature, the Shaivagamas, started to grow with the cult of Shiva. The Shaivagamas while not rejecting the authority of the Vedas, were an independent and autonomous corpus of literature and formed the precursors of Shaivite philosophy. There were three groups of Shaivagamas, the Shiva, Rudra and Bhairava Shaivagamas and from these three stemmed the three main philosophic Shaivite systems. The first group of philosophic systems to emerge from the Shaivagamas were the dualistic systems, notable among which are the Shaiva Siddhanta and the Vira Shaivism. The Shaiva Siddhantins worship Shiva in his Sadashiva form while the Vira Shaivites worship him in his linga form. These dualistic philosophic systems underpin our first group of Shiva Parvati images, for among the many bhaktas of Shiva who can be a better and a more ardent bhakta of Shiva than Parvati herself.

In this group are also included the Bhairava Raga and Ragini genre of images. Shiva in this class of images is regal and distant and receives the adoration and worship equally of his devotees and also of Parvati. Like a king he is shown seated on a throne, flanked by Parvati who functions as his queen and the divine couple preside over a court which include not only their two children Ganesha and Katrikeya, but gods and demigods, kinnaras  and humans. Shiva in these images holds a variety of badhras besides the trishula, such as a snake, sword, and noose. Since dualistic systems are the foundations of Shaivite theology, Parvati delights in maintaining the duality between Shiva and herself and these group of images assert the distance between Shiva and Parvati, for devotion and worship demand that the worshipper and the worshipped be apart, for without this epistemic distance and duality there can be no devotion.

The ambience and the dominant rasa of these images is that of bhakti and the surroundings are suggestive of a temple or a court. Shiva bhakti has both a ritualistic and artistic side to it. Artistic expressions of Shiva bhakti are found predominantly in painting and especially in the Pahari kalam. Equally beautifully expressed Shiva bhakti is found in poetry and in music. Of the many poets who have expressed Shiva bhakti  the most notable are the Nayanmars of the Tamil country who in the 6th century have sung of their love and devotion to Shiva. It is important to note that the Tamil poet, whether male or female, takes on the persona of a female and therefore one can regard these Shiva bhakti  songs as sung by Parvati who is the prototypical Shiva bhakta . Equally importantly the Nayanmars extol Shiva the householder and not the ascetic, and therefore not just Shiva but equally Parvati, become the recipient of their veneration. Nayanmar Appar wrote:

Scorn not the joys and the delights of life
for they are not hostile to a life beyond.
Behold our Lord, ascetic of ascetics
dwelling in our midst with his spouse
of wondrous virtues, goodness, grace and charm.

While the dualistic systems of Shvaite philosophy were being developed during the sixth and seventh centuries in the Tamil country, it was in Kashmir of the ninth and tenth centuries that the advaitic Shaivite philosophic systems were being systematised. While the seeds of Shaiva monism lay clearly in the agamas  it was left to Kashmiri pundits , and to Abhinavagupta in particular, to systematise and refine what has now come to be called Kashmir Shaivism. Kashmir Shaivism is a richly affirmative, non-theistic, system of advaita , which while remaining Idealistic at its core, takes issue with Sankara’s brand of advaita  Vedanta and in particular with the epistemic status of the objective world. For Sankara the world of name and form, namarupa, is only provisionally real and ultimately an illusion or maya which must be negated if one is to entertain a transcendent experience. For Kashmir Shaivites on the other hand the objective world is not maya or illusion but abhasa or reflection, a world which must be sensually affirmed, asserted, celebrated and indulged, for only then can we aspire to a transcendent experience. The creation, sustenance and celebration of this initial duality and the transformation of this initial dvaita into an ultimate advaita  is the essence of the agamas  and of Kashmir Shaivism. It is with this backdrop that one can enjoy the second group of Shiva Parvati images, for they more than any other divine couple, show this transformation of dvaita into advaita , through beautiful and sensual imagery. And the most alluring paradigm of this concept of transformation of duality into non-duality, is the marriage of Shiva and Parvati. Of the many myths of Shiva and Parvati that of their marriage is the most celebrated, equally by the devout and the artist, as much in the temple as in ateliers and the stage.

Briefly the narrative of their marriage goes as follows. After the death of his first consort Shiva is heartbroken and performs the bhairavatandava and goes into a solitary and ascetic phase and meditates in Kailasha. The gods are troubled as the task of killing the demon Taraka remains unfulfilled, for it is only the son of Shiva who can complete this task and bring peace to the three worlds. The gods enter the womb of Mena and Parvati is born of Mena and Parvat. Parvati is a born yogini, not only spiritually adept but sensually beautiful. It is her task to arouse Shiva from his slumberous, solipsistic tapas which she does after much effort and penance on her part. Once Shiva is aroused he is attracted towards Parvati and an amorous relationship ensues which results in their marriage. Shiva dances the anandatandava, his dance of bliss. This is the frame of the narrative and as in any myth there are many minor episodes interwoven into it. There are many ways in which this foundational myth of the marriage of Shiva and Parvati can be celebrated and enjoyed.

For the devout it is an event to be celebrated through ritual worship and the 13th day of phagun is observed as Shivratri, which is a major festival at all Shiva temples. However the aesthete derives another layer of meaning from this very beautiful myth. For the aesthete, the myth is a perfect visual paradigm of the epistemology of Kashmir Shaivism. Shiva, the perfect subject moves from the solipsistic aham , expand his consciousness to not only cognise but embrace the object through his amorous dalliance with Parvati and demonstrates the stage of aham-idam. Having embraced and affirmed that object Shiva is wonderstruck, sringara rasa is transformed into adbhuta rasa and he attains the bliss of knowledge and passes onto the epistemic stage of aham eva vishvarupam. It is this romance, the togetherness, the gaze of the divine couple and the transformation of the shringara rasa  of Shiva into his adbhuta rasa that defines the second group of Shiva Parvati images.

Artists of different schools and at different historical periods have portrayed this togetherness of Shiva and Parvati in myriad ways. It does not matter whether one is looking at Chola or Pahari images, the works of folk artists or classical silpis , what strikes one is the alingan  or embrace of Shiva and the loving gaze of Parvati in return. There is a dynamic harmony between the two acts. One is impressed not so much by the variations of stylistic or artistic features of these Shiva Parvati images but the amorous coming together of Shiva and Parvati. And what better expression of this togetherness than the strikingly beautiful ardhanarisvara images where Shiva and Parvati are in dynamic harmony, the perfect samarasya  of the subject and the object, where there is no negation but only celebration and affirmation. And equally important, not just artistically but epistemologically, is the mirror in the hand of Parvati. The mirror of Parvati is not a sign of feminine vanity, for it is held not so that Parvati can see herself in it, but so that Shiva can see himself. And when after several lustful cognitions of Parvati, Shiva sees himself in that mirror, he is wonder-struck with the realisation that he and Parvati are one. As the Linga Purana says quite succinctly, umasankarayor bhedo na asteyava paramarthaha, dvidhasau rupamathaya theta eko a samsaya, in truth there is indeed no difference between Uma and Shankara, the one posits himself in two forms, there is no doubt about it. The veil of amnesia of Shiva is lifted and in that moment of remembrance his consciousness expands even further, and he embraces not just Parvati but the whole world, with the assertion aham eva visvarupam. In loving, embracing and uniting with Parvati, Shiva succeeds in emerging from his solipsistic contemplation to embrace the universal. It is important to note that the Nataraja is not just the dancing Shiva but is equally, conceptually a ardhanarishvara, for Parvati exists in the image of the Nataraja as the kundala  in the left ear of Shiva, reminding us that there can be no ananda  for Shiva without Parvati. The Shiva Sutras have stated nartaka atma , rangoantaratma, indrayani prekshakani, the dancer is theatma, the soul is the stage and the senses are the spectators.

The philosopher’s taxonomy that I have offered, as opposed to a historical classification of Shiva Parvati images, is in my opinion not only a better way of celebrating these beautiful images, but equally, the images understood in this way lead to a better understanding of the two major Shaivite philosophical systems, the dualistic and the advaitic . The aesthete is lead from the images to the philosophy and the philosophy in turn sends us back to the images. There is an artistic and philosophic syncretism here, an integral harmony, for just as Shiva and Parvati are inseparable, the art and the philosophy underlying it are equally bound together. This unity is shared less by history and more by the images. And since epistemology is the cornerstone of meditation, Shiva Parvati images offer a visual guide to the meditative process. The meditator transforms his consciousness from the solitary Shiva to embrace, engage and celebrate the world and through this celebration reach a stage of universal awareness and let his being dance like the Nataraja. Further the images give us not just a beautiful glimpse of the two Shaivite philosophies, but equally assert the agamic, and therefore, the basic Indian position of the epistemic bonafides and reality of prakriti  and of the material and objective world. In according Parvati the pride of place next to Shiva, as seen in the alingan of Shiva and the gaze of Parvati, rather than relegating her to the status of maya or illusion, we are upholding the basic agamic postulate of affirmation and celebration and not denial of the senses. In the srngara rasa of Shiva and Parvati there seems to be the answer to mankind’s primal question ko hum, who am I? And the answer is aham idam, this I am. In the romantic embrace of Shiva and Parvati there is not only the whisper of a biune unity but equally the lofty assertion of advaita, for ultimately Shiva and Parvati are as united as sabda is to its artha.

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