View Electronic Edition

Uma and Shiva, or The Origin of a Young God

T his is a story of how heat?in gods, goddesses, and humans with god-like qualities?brings together sex and auster-ity, ecological chaos and seasonal order, men and women, devotion and terror, terrestrial and celestial fire, magic and domesticity in the world as we know it. Like all Hindu stories, it overflows with myriad themes, tales of origin, and histories. Kalidasa, an Indian-born playwright/poet, wrote the Kumarasambhava (The Origin of a Young God ) in the fifth century c.e.

Fire in Vedic mythology hides in water; sometimes as the seed that sparks the fertility of the womb or creativity of the mind. Originally heat was inseparable from water; the two were merged in a pure, unidentifiable, indescribable, attributeless state called Brahman. Something stirs within this state. That which stirs is desire. From desire arises heat. Water and fire move apart.

One way of reading this story is that the two central characters, Uma and Shiva, must be reunited to re-store order to the seasons and the biosphere's water and heat cycles, to ensure the continuation of a balanced cosmos. Uma is water and Shiva, fire. Only when female and male come together and produce a child, Kumara, can the demonic forces upsetting the world of all beings be effectively fought. The legend's journey includes many aspects of heat? burning devotion and the fervor of mystic rapture; wild sex and unstoppable passion; a desire to mobilize one's personal inner heat to incinerate lust and cosmic defilements; sudden fiery wrath that can kill. Heat in Hindu religious legends can feed on itself and burst into emotional and spiritual flames; and, with majesty, merge humans to divinities, Earth to Heaven, and everything in between.

The Sanskrit word tapas is conventionally translated as "austerities." But its root, tap, means "to heat." It eventually came to mean "generating magical or supernatural powers by accessing one's internal heat/fire through asceticism" (suffering physical pain and arduous meditation). By practicing tapas, an individual accesses the original creative energy of the cosmos described as Brahman. She/he identifies and witnesses herself/himself as that pure attributeless state of existence before fire and water moved apart. In this austere state, the inner fire of desire merges with the outer fires (sun, lightning, volcanic fire, cosmic fire). Note that heat is not a force created by gods and stolen by humans. It is a primordial force used by both. In this sense, the Hindu intuition is close to modern physics. Heat is mobile, is bound to no space, departs and enters various phenomena (human body, air, universe). Fire is not primarily destructive. Without fire?emerging from water or called up by the practice of tapas?creation doesn't exist.

A fun way to read this story is ecologically. Tapas can bring renewal and maintenance on a human, biospheric, divine, and cosmic level when used in beautiful and beneficial ways by any of its practitioners. It perpetuates creativity. Or it can be used in a destructive fashion that increases suffering. Today, the heat of industrial combustion is excessive, out of balance with the water cycle, upsetting the waters (rain, ocean temperatures, ice caps) of the planet. In harmony with water, heat/fire helps form an auspicious volume of rain clouds, which in turn bring moisture to seeds in parched soil. In this story, the upsetter of cosmic order is the demonic Taraka. Here then is the story of creative energy, the origin of a young god....

The Story of Uma and Shiva

Uma was the wife of Shiva in her previous incarnation as Sati. Because Sati had had some unloving karma with her father, she died and has been reborn as Uma. Shiva is devastated over the loss of Sati. He has renounced sex, and retreats to the mountains intending solely to practice tapas. This is interesting because Shiva is the force, is tapas; he is fire energy. So it sounds absurd for Shiva, who is the source of fire energy, to go and practice tapas. But he does, because he wants his inner heat to purify him of all desires?to fight fire with fire.

Uma is born (reborn) and comes back specifically to be with Shiva. She remembers Shiva, but Shiva does not remember her. She knows what her previous incarnation was, her marriage to Shiva as Sati. Destined to become Shiva's wife (again), Uma is impeded: Shiva has renounced his sexuality.

Meanwhile, there is an asura. The way I think of asuras is that they exemplify humans' capacity to become submerged in the desire realm, experiencing greed and hatred. Asuras are demons that thrive in the desire realm. This story's asura is named Taraka, and he has practiced so many tapas that he has produced huge amounts of heat. He is using this power in a really negative way. Taraka creates disorder. The seasons abandon their orderly procession and dedicate themselves to amassing power for him; the ocean waits for its jewels to ripen in order to present them to him; the wind blows only as hard as a soft fan so as not to disturb him. Taraka steals peaks from Mount Mera to erect on his own land, diverts the Ganges so he can have the lotus fields for his own pleasure-lakes, and steals priests' oblations from other gods at all the fire sacrifices. The seasons, the natural world, and the gods are terrified of him because of his immense powers. He has temporarily assumed supreme power over all the gods and the worlds as a result of having accumulated so much power through his own practice of tapas. The way the sacred texts describe him is, he tortures the three worlds?Heaven, Earth, and the space in between.

All of the gods are totally distraught because none of them can overcome him. None of them can overcome him because the supreme creative power, Brahma, witnessed the amount of power that Taraka was developing from performing these tapas, and thought: "This fiery force of Taraka's can burn the three worlds." Brahma made a bargain. He gave Taraka absolute power, but said: "You can't destroy the cosmos. In exchange for your not doing that, no other gods can destroy you." The gods all try to fight him in battle and none can destroy him. Vishnu, for instance, throws his sacred discus (one of the most powerful things in the universe) at him, and when the discus hits Taraka, it sends up a ray of fire and turns into a small pendant hanging around his neck.

So the gods go to Brahma. They pray, and pray, and say: "You're the creative energy of the entire cosmos, you have to help us because this being (Taraka) is causing such disorder and is torturing us. We're all living in constant fear. Can you please help us?"

Brahma says that the only being who can help is the seed of Shiva and Uma. If Uma is water and Shiva is fire (this is the way that I interpret it), then, Brahma says, only if these two beings come together and produce a child will Taraka be destroyed. This child can become a general and lead armies into battle against Taraka and defeat him.

The gods then have to conspire to get Uma and Shiva together; this is difficult because Shiva has been in a state of relinquishment, practicing tapas up on the mountains, and doesn't want to be distracted by a woman.

Indra (a divinity associated with rain and thunder) goes to the god of love and fascination, Kama, and says, "Kama, we really need your help; help us get Shiva to fall in love with Uma."

Kama is really scared, but says okay. He goes with his wife, Rati, to the mountains where Shiva is. Uma, with two of her girlfriends, goes to the same mountains at the same time. She is going to offer herself as Shiva's servant while he practices his austerities. Kama and Rati hide behind some trees. When Kama sees Shiva, he is terrified and intimidated by how powerful and how ugly Shiva is?snakes holding up his matted hair, covered with ashes from a funeral pyre, sitting on a tiger skin in deep meditation, with his nine gates closed, witnessing only his inner Self. Kama's bow and flower-arrows slip from his hand in a moment of sheer terror.

Just then Uma enters the meditation grove?curved forward from the weight of her bosom, her dress the color of the sun, adorned with spring blossoms. A bee buzzes her lower lip, thirsty for her sweet breath. Kama, struck by her beauty, thinking that it puts even Rati's to shame, feels his strength return, and picks up his bow and arrows.

Uma bows to Shiva and, for a split second, Shiva's concentration breaks. Shiva thinks, "What could be here that could possibly break my concentration? It can't be this woman." So he sends out his sacred vision (he has three eyes and can see in all directions). He sees Kama hiding in the woods. Kama is thinking that this is the perfect time to shoot his arrow of fascination, which always works. He is just about to release the arrow when Shiva spots him and, from his third eye, shoots a ray of lightning because he is so angry that anyone would disrupt his practice of tapas. The ray of lightning hits Kama and he turns to ashes: gone, burned, destroyed.

Rati faints. She is devastated, not believing that Shiva would be so uncompassionate as to burn Kama on the spot. Uma is distraught and feels totally rejected. She goes running back to Himalaya, her father, who is the mountain raja (both mountain range and living god), and he takes her into his arms and tries to console her. Uma decides that she must win Shiva's love by demonstrating her ability to match him in his highest skill?the practice of tapas.

Her mother tries to dissuade her and tells her that all the other gods would love to marry her; that she is the most beautiful woman in the entire universe, et cetera. "You shouldn't take this personally from Shiva. It's no reason to go off and practice tapas." But Uma knows that the only way that she will ever get Shiva's attention is if she renounces the world and practices austerities.

(Meanwhile Indra has consoled Rati. If Shiva and Uma get together, Kama will be given another body that has the same form that he had before, and he will remember Rati; things will pick up exactly where they ended.)

Uma goes off to the woods and dresses herself in bark clothing that scratches and rubs her raw. She is described as having these huge voluptuous breasts and beautiful dripping-red, melon-like lips. She practices austerities, becoming skinnier and skinnier, but she maintains her beauty. Because Uma exudes her tapas, the energy that she brings to the forest is so beautiful and so soothing that she creates bliss all around her. When she's practicing her austerities Uma sends off steam. This heat rises and becomes rain, and it rains on the Earth. She exemplifies the whole ecological cycle of heat rising and producing rain clouds and rain coming down and germinating seeds. Her austerities and energy tame the deer, and the relationship between prey and predator becomes benign and loving.

She passes cold winter nights standing in sheets of sleet and snow, while feeling pity for cold birds and wilting lotuses. She is called "The Lady Who Refused the Leaves," because she refuses to even eat the leaves which have dropped from the trees of their own accord, going beyond the farthest limits of tapas.

After several years of Uma's practicing austerities, a sage comes to the woods where she is. He sits down next to her and she welcomes him. He starts asking her questions: "Why are you doing this? A woman of such beauty shouldn't be practicing austerities. Attain a husband! The purpose of practicing austerities is to remove oneself from the desire realm, and what are you doing here? Why are you doing this?"

She is too shy to tell him. She has a friend with her who is also a sage, and her friend tells him that Uma has been practicing these austerities because she is a Shiva devotee and there is nothing in the cosmos that is as important as devoting oneself to Shiva. The sage starts putting Shiva down: "How, why on Earth would you ever want to be with so ugly a man who has three eyes and is covered with ashes and has snakes around his wrist and in his hair? He's disgusting, scary. A woman of your beauty should never desire to be with a god as revolting as Shiva."

Uma, incredibly angry, says, "How can you be a sage and have practiced austerities and not understand what it is to devote oneself to Shiva?" She defends Shiva. He is the Shelter of the Universe who is beyond desire (though he is her only desire). In practicing tapas, he has nothing. But he is the source of all riches (the state of Brahman, fire-in-water). Uma says she doesn't want to argue anymore, and that these insults are beneath her. She repeats that her heart is full of love for Shiva, and that obviously the sage has gained no wisdom from his tapas.

As she turns to leave, the "sage" returns to his own form as Shiva, sweeps her up in his arms, and states, "From this moment on, I am your slave, gained by tapas."

Uma is stunned. She can't move. She can't breath.

The Fire of Desire

They get married. There is a beautiful description of the wedding. Himalaya and Mena, Uma's parents, throw the marriage ceremony with a huge festival, and all of the gods and goddesses attend. They're all in complete awe of Shiva. His light is so bright that they can't even look at him. Uma is so beautiful that all the gods don't want Shiva to know how desirous they are. When Uma and Shiva walk by together, the gods pop third eyes and fourth eyes onto the back of their heads, so they can continue looking at Uma, and Shiva won't know.

Shiva takes Uma to Mount Kylash for their honeymoon They have sex for years. Then they take a little break. Uma gets up and looks at herself in the mirror and sees she's covered with bites and scratch marks and her hair is all messed up and dreaded and knotted from love play. Shiva gets so excited looking at her that he pulls her back into bed and they have sex for twenty-five more years. She then becomes impregnated with the young god, Kumara, who becomes a general leading armies in the defeat of the demonic asura Taraka.

That's the story.