A blazing fire sprung from Shiva's third eye, had consumed Cupid,1 the mind-born god, and reduced him to ashes in front of Parvati, thereby shattering her hopes. Then the daughter of the Mountain2 blamed her own beauty in her heart. For what use is beauty if it does not attract the beloved?
She decided to take recourse to austerities and mind-centered meditation in order to make her beauty bear fruit; for how else could she secure such love and such a husband?
Mena, hearing that her daughter, who had set her heart on Shiva, was resolved to practise asceticism, clasped her to her bosom and spoke, trying to dissuade her from the terrible vow of hermits:
"There are other lovable gods that don't dwell in wild woods or desolate mountains. O my child, how alien is this austerity from this body of thine! The delicate Shirisha flower3 may bear the tread of the bee, but not of the bird."
Though she urged her, yet Mena could not rein in her daughter's fixed purpose from action. For can a mind, stead-fastedly resolved on the object of its desire, be turned back
1. See glossary at the end of the text.
any more than a stream can be stopped from rushing towards low ground?
Wisely, Parvati waited till her father knew of her resolve. Then at the right moment, she approached him through a friend and requested permission to dwell in the forest for practising austerity and meditation till she obtained the fruit of her desire.
Her father, pleased with this passion so worthy of her, gave his permission. Then Gauri, the fair lady, went to a peacock- haunted peak, which later on would become famous among the people by her name.
In her irremovable resolve, she had cast aside her necklace whose restless string would rub off the sandal paste smeared on her skin, and she now wore a bark tawny-red4 like the young dawn, though her high swelling breasts always tended to prevent its close fitting.
Her face had been lovely with its fair adorned tresses, but now it was equally so with the ascetic's matted hair. A lotus not only looks beautiful when covered with bees, but also when coated with moss.
In accordance with her vow, she had fastened a triple plaited girdle of rough grass and, as it was the first time she wore it, her skin was constantly irritated and her waist became all red.
Her hand no longer was busy colouring her lips; she had put that away from her; neither did it play with the ball all reddened with the vermilion5 of her breasts; for both the vermilion was banished from her breasts and the ball from her hand; now she made this hand, pricked while plucking the Kusha grass,6 a constant companion of the rosary.7
She, who would be tormented by the flowers fallen from her hair while turning on her luxurious couch, now lay with her fair soft arm for pillow, reclining on the bare altar-ground.
Faithful to her vow, she had abandoned her amorous movements and her vivacious glances, entrusting the slender creepers with the former and the female deer with the latter, as if
these were a deposit that she would take back later.
Untiringly she looked after the saplings,8 watering them with pitchers round like breasts. She loved those young trees as if she were their mother, and even the son she would beget later, Kartikeya,9 would never dislodge this affection.
She fed the fawns of the forest with handfuls of wild grain. The little animals trusted her so much that they let themselves be fondled by her, and it was wonderful to watch their eyes so close to her eyes.
Old sages heard of this young girl dressed in bark who performed the ritual ablutions, offered sacrifices to the fire and recited sacred texts, and they came there eager to see for themselves this extraordinary phenomenon: indeed age is not important in the case of those who have set their eyes on the highest goal.
Parvati's austerities purified the grove and transformed it into a holy sanctuary: sacrificial fires burnt in newly-built huts of leaves, the long-standing hostility between warring beasts had disappeared, and the trees honoured all guests by providing them with the fruits they liked.
But when she realised that what she desired was not to be attained by the austerities and meditation she had been practising so far, then, disregarding the delicateness of her body, she embarked upon a path of extreme asceticism.
She, who would feel tired after playing with a ball, plunged into a life of amazingly rigorous practices. Indeed her body seemed made of gold lotuses, being at the same time delicate like a flower and tough like a hard metal.
In summer the lady of slender waist, smiling so very innocently, stood in the middle of four blazing fires, eyes wide open, fixing her gaze on the heavenly ball of fire above her head and refusing to be overpowered by its blinding light.
First, her face, greatly scorched by the rays of the sun, shone like a pink lotus. But gradually, and only around the long corners of her eyes, the skin slowly darkened.
A tree does not ask for water; it simply absorbs whatever it
receives. Similarly Parvati would live only on that water — dew or rain — that would come to her of its own accord, and on the moon beams dripping with nectar.
Encircled by the four roaring fires and exposed to the fierce rays of the sun, she let herself be completely burnt, and when the showers of the late summer arrived, an intense heat came out of her, as out of a parched earth, and ascended upwards.
The first drops of water remained suspended for a while on her long eye-lashes; then after falling on her lips which they bruised, they broke against the top of her firm breasts. Finally, rolling through the delicate lines of her bust, they reached her deep-chiselled navel.
She stood there, unprotected in the middle of raging tempests, drenched by incessant rains or lashed by the winds, and all she had to rest on was a bare rock. Flashes of lightning, the eyes of the night, at times pierced the darkness and through them the nights bore witness to her extraordinary sacrifice.
Winter came. The cold winds blew and scattered around masses of hardened snow. Unflinchingly she stood in water like a pillar of strength. Yet at night when she heard the plaintive cry of the two chakravaka birds1O calling each other, she felt the pain of their separation and her soft heart filled with compassion for the two estranged lovers.
The snows had robbed the streams of their beautiful lotuses. But her face, as fragrant as the lotus itself, was reflected at night in the icy waters: shining brightly with the quivering petal of the lower lip, it restored its lost splendour to the streams of the mountain.
It had always been thought that the highest achievement in asceticism was to subsist only on leaves that fall naturally from the trees; but even that she spurned. The leaves remained on the ground. Hence, the name "Aparna", which those who know history gave to this gently-speaking lady: A-parna, that is to say, "the one who refuses even leaves".
Though her body was as delicate as the stem of the lotus, she submitted it to all these exhausting ordeals day after day and
night after night, thereby going much further than anchorites11 with hardened frames.
One day, an ascetic with matted hair, wearing an antelope skin, a staff in his hand, appeared in the sanctuary. He was glowing as it were with an inner light and there was a great confidence in the way he spoke. He seemed the very embodiment of the burning quest for true knowledge.
Always hospitable to guests, Parvati welcomed him with great respect. Those like her, whose mind is centered, are full of reverence towards exceptional beings, even if there happens to be equality between them.
The stranger accepted the hospitality offered according to tradition and pretended to rest for a while. Then looking innocently at Uma and without deviating from the usual norms of politeness, he asked her:
"Do you easily get wood and grass for your rites? Is the water suitable for your ablutions?12 And do you practise austerities proportionate to your strength? Indeed a sound body is an indispensable instrument for the pursuit of the ideal law of life.
"You must have watered these creepers yourself as I can see young leaves sprouting on them; are they growing well? These buds resemble your lips, which have not been painted for a long time and yet look so pink...
"The little fawns seem to love you greatly as they come and eat grass in your hands; are you happy with them? O, lotus-eyed one, their sparkling glances look so very much like yours...
"O Daughter of the Mountain, how true is the saying that beauty never leads to sin, since, noble lady, your conduct has become an example even for ascetics.
"The laughing waters of Ganga falling from heaven and resplendent with the offering of flowers scattered by the Seven Rishis13 do not sanctify your father, the Upholder of the Earth, as much as you do by the purity of your life.
"O chaste lady, it seems to me that out of the three goals of
life — wealth, enjoyment and search for the highest law of life — the latter is the best, as it is the one you pursue without any thought for the other two.
"Although you received me with special marks of respect, you should not consider me as a stranger, O beautiful lady : it is said that those good people who have walked together seven steps are declared friends.
"It is why, O thou rich with ascetic force, I am eager to ask you something. Pray forgive me, I am curious like all seekers of knowledge. If it is not a secret, do answer me.
"You were born in the family of Brahma, the first creator; in your body has arisen the combined beauty of the three worlds, as it were; you do not need to search for wealth and the happiness it gives; you are in the prime of your youth. What else, tell me, could you be asking for as a reward of your asceticism?
"Strong-willed ladies faced with an unbearable slight may take recourse to this path. But, O slender damsel, search as I may, I don't see that anything of the kind has happened to you.
"O lady of perfect brows, your beauty cannot possibly experience the pain of humiliation. And how could you be insulted in your father's house? Nor could any stranger be disrespectful to you. For who would stretch his hand to seize the jewel set on the snake's head ?
"Why have you abandoned all ornaments? How is it that, so young, you put on a bark-garment fit for old people? Tell me, does the night, resplendent with the moon and stars, already in the evening aspire for dawn?
"If you seek heaven, then your efforts are unnecessary: isn't the kingdom of your father the land of the gods? And if you wish for a husband, then cease your austerities: a jewel itself does not have to seek, it is sought after.
"Well, your sighs have answered my question! Yet I am perplexed. I don't see anyone worthy of being desired by you. So how could you not obtain the one you desire?
"Oh! The young man you yearn for must indeed be immovable, who without being shaken can see your matted hair, of the colour of paddy-straw, hanging loosely along your cheeks, bereft for so long of the lotus you liked to place on your ear.
"Which sentient person would not feel sorry, seeing you :
all the delicate spots on your skin that used to be covered by jewels are scorched by the sun, and you are so emaciated by ascetic practises that you look like the thin line of the moon crescent appearing during day time.
"I take it that your lover's pride in his good fortune has fooled him, since he has not yet presented himself in front of your eyes, of lovely glances and curved eye-lashes.
"O Gauri, how long will you torment yourself? I too have accumulated some merit in my first stage of life: use half of it and get the husband you desire. In fact, I am extremely eager to know him."
This Brahmin had penetrated the inmost recess of her heart. She could not speak what was in her mind. So she looked with imploring eyes at her companion standing at her side.
This friend then said to the brahmacharin: "O sage, if such is your curiosity, then know who is the one for whom this lady has submitted her body to the fire of asceticism, as one exposes a lotus to the heat of the sun.
"The proud girl, ignoring the most glorious gods seated in the four quarters of the world, including Indra, wants for husband the god who holds in his hand the Pinaka bow,14 the one who cannot be conquered by mere beauty, as has been shown when he destroyed Madana.
"The story is like this: in his terrible anger Shiva hurled back the arrow aimed at him by the god of love, but although it is Cupid's body that the missile destroyed, it struck a deep blow in her heart.
"From that moment this young girl could not find any peace of mind. Even when she rested in the house of her
father, her curly hair smeared with the cooling sandal paste someone had applied on her forehead, lying on a stone carpeted with snow, the love fever kept tormenting her.
"How many times, strolling in the woods with her companions, the Kinnara15 princesses, she made them cry, when, singing with them the exploits of the great god, she broke down, throat choking with tears.
"She would close her eyes only for a second at the end of the night, and then immediately wake up with a start, 'Where are you going, O Nilakantha, O blue-throated god?' and she would clasp her arms around the neck of an imaginary person.
"She would draw a picture of the god, with the moon-crescent in his hair, and then, the foolish girl, she would reproach him: 'Wise men call you the all-pervasive. How is it that you do not know that this creature loves you?'
"Finally when she realised that there was no other way to win the Lord of the universe, she asked her father for his permission and came with us to this sacred forest for practising austerities.
"The trees she planted, which have been the silent witnesses of her long effort, have now borne fruit; but as for the god whose head is adorned with the moon, her desire does not seem to be even near the beginning of fruition.
"We cannot but cry when we see how much these privations have weakened our friend; this god does not seem to answer prayers. I do not know when he, like Indra releasing the rains on a ploughed and thirsty earth, will favour her."
Thus, knowing the secret of her heart, her companion had revealed Parvati's real sentiments. The handsome brahmacharin, hiding his delight, asked Uma whether this was true or simply a joke.
The daughter of the Mountain took her rosary of crystal beads and let her fingers, pointed upwards like a rose-bud, play with it for a long time while she prepared her answer. Then with great difficulty she uttered these few words:
"O thou who art the best among those who know the
Vedas, thou hast heard the truth. This humble person thou seest is eager to scale the highest peak. And yes, these austerities are the means for achieving that end. Nothing is inaccessible to desire."
Then the ascetic exclaimed: "Maheswara is well-known! Yet you yearn for him! Considering his passion for inauspicious practices I do not feel like approving of your desire.
"You have set your mind on a worthless object! How could this hand of yours, after the nuptial string is tied around it, bear the first clasp of Shiva's hand encircled with snakes?
"Please think of this: on the one side, your bridal robe of silk embroidered with figures of swans, and on the other, an elephant-hide16 dripping with blood. Can the two go together?
"Could even an enemy of yours consent to be a witness to this scene: your feet, painted with alaktaka dye, leaving red marks on the flower decorations of the marriage pavilion, and then treading upon corpses' hairs scattered all over the cremation-ground?
"What can be more unseemly, tell me, than the chest of the three-eyed god, covered with ashes from the funeral pyre, pressed against your bosom, accustomed to golden sandalwood paste?
"And another humiliation will await you after marriage, when respectable people see you riding an old bull. They will laugh at you, who should have been carried on a royal elephant.
"By its desire to be united with a god who is adorned with garlands of skulls, the bright moon-crescent has already become an object of pity. But so have you, who are as dear to us as the moon-light.
"As regards his body, he has monstrous eyes. In the matter of birth, his parentage is obscure. And as for his wealth, what can be expected from someone who wears only the sky for garment ? O doe-eyed lady, can one find in the three-eyed god anything at all that is normally sought in a husband?
"Turn your mind away from this evil inclination. What is
there in common between you, who are full of auspicious marks, and this kind of man? Good people do not worship the gibbet of the cemetery as if it were the sacrificial post of the vedic rites."
Parvati's lower lip trembled with anger. The corners of her eyes reddened. Contracting her graceful brows, she cast a scornful glance at this brahmin who dared say such harsh words.
"You don't know Hara to speak to me in this way. Because petty minds don't understand the motives of great souls, so different from ordinary people, they criticise them.
"People perform auspicious rites with the aim of warding off calamities or attaining prosperity. He is the Protector of the world. He is desireless. What has He to do with those mercantile practices which corrupt the soul?
"Possessing nothing, He is the source of all possessions. He roams in cremation grounds and yet He is the Lord of the three worlds. His appearance is frightening and yet He is called Shiva, the Gentle One. No one truly knows the holder of the Pinaka bow.
"He may be resplendent with jewels or bristling with snakes, he may wear an elephant-hide or a silken robe, he may have a skull or the moon for ornament, but His form no one can define whose body is the universe.
"On touching his body the ashes of the funeral pyre acquire a purifying power. Therefore, when He performs his. Great Dance, the dwellers of heaven collect the particles that have fallen from his limbs and apply them on their forehead.
"When Indra riding his formidable elephant comes across this penniless God mounted on an old bull, he alights from his vehicle and bows to him, touching his feet with his forehead and showering them with the red petals of heavenly trees.
"O wrecked soul, although you wish to speak ill of the Lord, you have made one correct statement: He, who is said to be the cause of even the self-existent Brahma, how could his origin be known?
This bas-relief from Angkor in Cambodia is supposed to represent Parvati pluggging her ears in order not to listen to criticism directed at Shiva
"But enough disputed! Let him be what you believe him to be. My heart knows no other feeling than love and is unshakeable. Those whose goal is set do not care for criticism.
"I can see from his quivering lips that this man still wants to speak. Not only is it a sin to say any ill of great souls, but even to listen to such talk is a crime. Ah my friend, please make him go!
"Or else I will leave myself", so saying, the young girl turned her back, and in her movement the bark garment covering her breasts tore a little. At that very moment, assuming his real form, the God of the Bull, with a smile, caught hold of her.
Seeing Him, the daughter of the Mountain-King, all her slender limbs trembling, froze with one foot poised in the air, between movement and immobility, like a great river arrested in its course by a mountain.
"O graceful lady, I have been won by your austerities and from now on I am your slave": as soon as the Lord of the Moon had uttered these words, she forgot the pain of her arduous efforts. For indeed, hardship when rewarded gives birth to renewed vigour.
from: Kalidasa, Kumarasambhava, 5th canto