Shiva and Uma – The Divine Marriage

Shiva and Uma’s relationship represents the eternal tension in Hindu culture between the secular and spiritual, the ascetic and domestic. Until Uma enters his life, Shiva is Adiyogi, Lord of Yoga, leading the austere life of a sage, meditating motionless in cremation grounds and mountain forests.

Like many Hindu gods, Shiva is a character of contradictions. He is Lord of Yoga and the ultimate ascetic, but also Lord of Tantra, where sexual union is a path to spiritual enlightenment. Hindus do not interpret Shiva’s behaviour as contradictory, but rather a deity wisely integrating the extremes of human nature while transcending attachment to any ideology.

Uma is in love with Shiva and determined to lure him away from his ascetic self-absorption into the world of marriage, sex, and children. Uma breaks into Shiva’s mystic world by becoming as austere as he, to the extent other gods fear the heat of her intensity will to scorch not only themselves but the entire world. The gods persuade Shiva to accept Uma as his bride so she will cease her efforts.

As Shiva’s wife, Uma upholds the order of dharma, and it is she who represents the beauty and attraction of worldly, sexual life, and cherishes the home and community. Uma civilizes Shiva with her presence. She domesticates him, and in so doing, enables him to become accessible to the mortal worshipper.

A striking feature of many Chola Bronzes depicting Uma and Shiva as a couple is the sensual intimacy shown. In the depiction of their marriage, they tenderly hold hands, and in others, he will often be shown fondling her breast or gently turning her face to his. In the time of the Chola Empire the ecstasy of sexual union, whether mortal or divine, paralleled the rapture of the spiritual union between devotee and deity. To experience the rapture of oneness with one’s beloved was felt to be akin to the bliss of spiritual oneness with God. The sages of the 6th and 7th centuries wrote hymns to their gods and goddesses which are frankly sexual and led in no small part to the Bhakti movement which transformed Hindu worship from formal temple ritual to an intensely personal devotion to one’s chosen deity.