Uma – The Divine Feminine
Just as Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, is without form, it’s Force of Life, Shakti, is formless as well. When the power of Shakti takes physical form it manifests as the Great Goddesses (Maha Devis); Saraswati, Lakshmi and Uma (note 1), while goddesses such as Kali and Durga embody other more specific aspects of Shaktic power (note 2).
A foundational belief in Hinduism is that Shakti (female) and Purusha (male) energy are interconnected and interdependent; two halves of the complete divine whole. Uma is Shiva’s, dynamic creative energy and the force of life which connects all beings and the means of their moksha, or spiritual release.
In mythology, Uma is believed to be the incarnation of Shiva’s first wife, Sati, who immolated herself when Shiva was insulted by her father. Lost in mourning, Shiva had withdrawn into extreme asceticism, causing problems with the world, so the gods caused Uma to be born to lure Shiva into the active, sensual realm of husband and father. Uma civilizes him, therefore making him accessible to mortal worship. Uma is Shiva’s, dynamic creative energy, the Force of Life connecting all beings and the means of their spiritual release (moksha).
Shiva acting alone may perform acts of cosmic significance and protect the world from evil, but it is only in the company of Uma that Shiva’s grace is bestowed upon an individual soul. In iconography, the two are rarely depicted without each other. For example, when Shiva manifests as Nataraja, his power is considered incomplete unless a figure of Uma stands nearby.
A striking feature of many Chola Bronzes depicting The Divine Couple is their sensual intimacy. 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. There are also many written references to their lovemaking in the sacred texts or the hymns of the Naynmar poet saints. In Hinduism it is believed the ecstasy of sacred union of worshipper with their deity is closely related to the bliss of sexual union with one’s beloved.
Uma’s identity hasn’t always been defined by her relationship with her husband or sons, however. She was born a princess, daughter of Himavat, the personification of the Himalaya mountains, and the apsara (angel), Menā, and grew up to become an ascetic, demon-slayer, roles which morphed into those of Durga, the ultimate demon slayer, and Kali the fierce protector. As Vedic patriarchal attitudes toward goddesses prevailed, Uma lost a great deal of her earlier status and independence Balance was restored, however, when assertive, dynamic Chola queens such as Sembiyan restored Uma’s stature as a goddess in her own right.
Smooth and curved her stomach,
like the snake’s dancing hood,
her flawless gait mocks the peacock’s grace,
with feet soft as cotton down,
and waist a slender creeper,
Uma Devi is one half of Shiva, lord of sacred Pundarai.”
Sambandar, Nayanar poet-saint.
When standing alone, Uma is the ideal of feminine beauty and wears the clothing and adornment of a queen, including the sacred thread of an ascetic – a throwback to her origins as a Himalayan renunciate goddess. She stands in tribhangasana, the threefold stance, with her hip to one side, her left arm hanging gracefully at her hip in the elegant lolahasta (note 3). Her right hand holds a (missing) lotus, symbolizing purity, in katakamudra. Sitting alone she may be Shiva Gami (Beloved of Shiva), Boga Shakti (Pleasure of Shakti) or as Somaskanda, a family group with Shiva and her second son, Murugan, and on occasion, Ganesha.
As mother to sons, Ganesha and Murugan she is Boga Shakti and shown seated in lalitasana, the pose of royal ease (note 2).
In both these roles, she embodies the ideal balance of purity and sensuality and invariably portrayed as a slender, sensuous woman of great beauty.
Note 1 – Uma is known outside of south India as Parvati, Aparna, Lalita and Shailja (Daughter of the Mountains) from her origins as a Himalayan ascetic.
Note 2 – female deities such as Uma, Kali and Durga were originally indigenous tribal deities, worshipped in their own right without male consorts. Over time, however, as the Tridevi were absorbed into the Vedic patriarchal pantheon they were assigned supporting roles as wives to the male gods.
Note 3 – when a Great Goddess stands alone they can be difficult to differentiate when all depict the ideal female form. If their breasts are bare they live in heaven and if they they wear a breast band, or kuchabandha, they live here on Earth; or in the case of Bhu Devi, second consort of Vishnu and Earth Goddess, lives within the earth. Somewhat more difficult is the headgear. Uma’s hair is worn in the style of an ascetic, in dreadlocks and arranged to look like a crown and bound with jewels, while Lakshmi and Saraswati wear kiritamakuta and are actual crowns