Parvati-A Goddess of Diversity

    In E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, the Marabar caves are shrouded in mystery. Two of the novel's central English characters, Adela and Miss Quested, find themselves intrigued by the mystical caverns, and thus, are eager to explore them. When the two are offered the chance to visit the caves, they are thrilled. However, the journey to the ancient structures is a long and troublesome one. The exploration team first must travel by train and then by elephant. For the characters, the hours seem to drag by; yet, the lengthy procession provides Forster with the perfect outlet for detailed descriptions of the passing land, and thus, the readers of A Passage to India are given a clear picture of the country and her landscape. 
Through one of these careful depictions, the reader makes his or her first encounter with the goddess Parvati, the magnificent Hindu mother when Forster describes the beautiful Indian landscape: "...there were some mounds by the edge of the track, low, serrated, and touched with whitewash. What were these mounds- graves, breasts of the goddess Parvati?"(155). Forster has selected a most fitting introduction for this famous goddess, as she is the daughter of Himivan, "Lord of the mountains," and his queen, Mena. When translated, Parvati's name means "she who dwells in the mountains" or "she who is of the mountain." If we imagine Forster's descriptions on a grander scale, we can picture the great chains of the "serrated" or jagged Himalayans with their "whitewashed" or snow covered peaks. 
    The mountain daughter is known by many names, each affording special significance. She is most commonly called Parvati; however, with the same mountain connotation she is also known as Girija and Shailaja. Because the goddess is the wife of Shiva, sometimes called Bhava, or Shiva, she is also recognized as Bhavani. Interestingly, it was Bhavani's devotion to Bhava and her hope of eventually winning him, that earned her the name Sarvamangala or "loyal one" and established her as the source of all good things to all those who have faith and follow the path of virtue.
    Parvati's story of love and dedication to Shiva is a saga filled with mystery and desire. Parvati discovered her passion for Shiva in childhood, and immediately realized that she needed to prove the endless depths of her feelings if she wished to become his wife. She focused her mind on Shiva only. She came to his temple daily, to clean, to sacrifice, and to pray; yet, Shiva was always too concerned with his meditation to observe her. Parvati was thus forced to endure great trials to express her love. She sat in the four fires of summer, she remained exposed to all the harsh elements of the rainy season and of the winter, and she stood on one leg for three years. For days, weeks, and months she ate or drank nothing, but instead merely chanted his name. Eventually Paravti's efforts created so much heat in the cosmos, that the great gods were made uncomfortable and alerted Shiva. 
    Shiva was intrigued by Parvati's devotion but was uncertain if her feelings were true. Consequently, he established a series of tests. First, he appeared before Parvati disguised as a youth. Once there, he spoke of how coarse and barbaric Shiva was. The young man told her she needed a handsome husband like himself, but Parvati ignored him and continued to think solely of Shiva. The god of destruction then appeared as an old man and declared that Shiva was a stern and boring yogi who would merely ignore Parvati and make her miserable. The old man said Shiva was not worthy of her. He proclaimed that with her unparalleled beauty, she could marry someone as clever as Vishnu, or as strong as Indra. Yet, Parvati continued to ignore the distractions and proceeded to chant Shiva's name. Finally, the mighty god came in the shape of a deformed dwarf. The dwarf promised if Parvati would marry him instead of Shiva, he would be her slave; however, Parvati failed to acknowledge his presence. Ultimately, Shiva had been astounded by Parvati's love for him and therefore immediately consented to marry her. 
    When the day of the wedding came, both the bride and the groom waited with eagerness and anticipation. Yet, when Parvati's parents, Hamivan and Mena, arrived to meet Shiva, they were disgusted by his appearance and forbade Parvati to marry him. But Parvati remained desperately in love with Shiva, and thus, she decided to pray to him for days without resting to eat or sleep. She pleaded with him to change his appearance so that her mother and father would agree to the marriage. Shiva heard her prayers and was touched. He realized he truly loved Parvati, and in a grand display of color and light, he transformed himself into the most beautiful man anyone had ever seen. Shiva's new beauty coupled with his immense cosmic powers finally convinced Hamivan and Mena to consent to the marriage, and with the wedding vows the heavens rejoiced (Pattanaik 14).
Below is a picture of Shiva (top right) and Parvati (top left). The royal couple's children are portrayed below them.

 

Shiva, Parvati, and Family

With the marriage completed, Shiva again devoted himself to maintaining cosmic order. Through violent dances, Shiva destroys what he deems unnecessary or unworthy. Shiva's wild arms and hair are said to crash into heavenly bodies, knocking them off their course or destroying them. In contrast, Parvati is depicted as the patient and gentle presence. She has concern for the beings and objects he demolishes, and she therefore attempts to lessen their pain by softening Shiva's blow of destruction. As proclaimed by the seven sages, her goal in the marriage, was to domesticate Shiva, to refine him, to lessen his anger, and to modify his unruly passions.
    While the union of Shiva and Parvati is generally portrayed as a happy one, the two do indeed have marital difficulties. Once as sunlight streamed into a cave in which Parvati and Shiva were lying, Shiva looked at Parvati and laughed for he thought she looked as dark as the pit of death. As she had always been sensitive about her dark color, Parvati was hurt by Shiva's words and moved into the Deodar Forest. Once there, she performed a rigorous set of ceremonies to lighten her complexion. She was successful, and the color that drained from her skin manifested to form the goddess Kali. 
    Kali is typically depicted as a wrathful woman, who is clothed only by an apron of hands and a necklace of fifty skulls. She is shown brandishing a blade, and holding a severed head. While all her stories are filled with heroic feats and exciting battles, one of Kali's most famous stories centers around Raktabija and his attempt to overthrow the gods. Raktabija and his cohorts had unleashed a reign of terror over all the kingdoms. No god could summon enough power to destroy the invader or even damage his army. However, in a flash of blood and gore, the brave Kali eliminated the tyrant, and took the head of Raktabija and 49 of his warriors as her trophy. Along with a bloody severed head in one hand, and large blade in the other, Hindu statuaries now always depicted Kali triumphantly wearing this necklace of fifty skulls ( Dubors 67).
    The mountain goddess is also commonly known through a third manifestation named Durga, whose character seems as contradictory to Parvati's motherly image as Kali's. Durga is one of Hinduism's most formidable and overpowering goddesses, and is one of the most popular, especially among women devotees. Durga's first mythological function is to combat demons who threaten the stability of the cosmos. In this role, she is depicted as a great warrior queen with several pairs of arms, each wielding a weapon. As the mighty warrior, Durga rides upon a ferocious lion; the pair is considered unbeatable. 
    David Kinsely, author of Hindu Goddesses states," The image of Durga is the opposite of the typical perception of the docile India woman. Thus, Durga challenges the stereotypical view of women found in traditional Hindu texts. Durga exists independently and without need of masculine protection or guidance"(Kinsely 34). In her militant role, Durga exists outside the concrete structures that typically bind women. She provides a refreshing and inspiring picture of the Indian female. Later in her existence, Durga couples with the God Shiva, eventually becoming his wife and the mother of his child. Durga then assumes domesticated features and may again be identified as Parvati.
    Both manifestations, Durga and Kali, frequently appear in Hindu folklore as battle partners. Kali has been said to form from Durga's sweat. When she does so, Kali appears riding a lion, and together she and Durga serve as the protectors of the cosmos. Their power and might make both Kali and Durga idealic role models for young women. Dr. Sushila Singh, ex-director of the Women Studies Center, states "Durga and Kali both are visualized as independent women forms," and are thus a, "Great source of inspiration for Indian feminist thought"(Singh Interview). 
    When I consider the clear importance of Parvati and her manifestations in the Hindu religion, I found it rather peculiar that Forster directly references her but a single time in the pages of A Passage to India. However, after more careful reflection, I realized her essence and influence may be observed throughout the book, even in Forster's central theme of diversity. India has so many different faces for its languages, its customs, its castes, and its religions. Interestingly, the divine Hindu mother, the modifier of Shiva's rage, exists simultaneously as a vicious warrior. I believe there are allusions throughout the novel that suggest that just as Parvati may not be characterized by a single name or characteristic, nor can India. A clear example of this theme springs from Mrs. Moore's encounter with the Marabar caves. When she has finally explored the caverns, she is devastated by an echoing "boum." The sound terrifies her, and she soon allows it to constitute her entire perception of India. Mrs. Moore is so distraught, she even boards a ship to return to England. However, as she is travels through India, she realizes she has made a horrible mistake. Mrs. Moore discovers India can not be defined by a single sound, picture, or thought. After devoting so much time to Parvati and her manifestations, I am now beginning to understand, just as Mrs. Moore did, the great number of complexities involved in shaping the oriental spirit. 

                                                                     Bibliography


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Exotic India. September 12, 2001 (http://www.exoticindiaart.com).

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Forster, E.M. A Passage to India. New York: Harcourt, Inc. 1924.

Harshananda, Swami. Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Mylapore: Sri Ramakrishna Math. 2000.

Kinsley, David. Hindu Goddesses. New York: Myton Press, 1979.

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Sakya, Jnan Bahadur. Short Description of Gods, Goddesses and Ritual Objects of Buddhism and Hiduism in Nepal. Nepal: Handicraft Association of Nepal, 2000.

Singh, Sushila. October 21, 2001.