Of the entire Hindu pantheon, it is Ganesha characteristics are most human. He is a calm, pure, benevolent deity inspiring neither fear nor awe, while his kind smile, carefree manner and child-like enthusiasm for sweet rice balls (laddus), define the relaxed aura surrounding him. Ganesha is the most popular and approachable of the Hindu gods, worshipped as the Lord of new beginnings and remover of obstacles, and therefore honoured before the start of any endeavour, ritual or ceremony. Largely a secular divinity, Ganesha is associated with no fussy rituals or rigid taboos. He is loved and worshipped by everyone, and all receive his protection and royal blessing.
There are many myths surrounding Ganesha, the son of Shiva and Uma, and about how he got his elephant head. According to one legend, the Uma made her son, Ganesha, out of the dead skin she scraped off her body as she bathed. She posted Ganesha at the door of her bath and instructed him to let no one enter. Uma’s husband, Shiva, returned home after several years of meditating to find an unknown boy guarding the door to the bath. Ganesha refused to let him enter. Shiva lost his temper and cut off the boy’s head. Uma, devastated, insisted that her son be returned to life. Shiva then offered to give Ganesha the head of the next being that appeared, and when an elephant approached, Ganesha received its head and was brought back to life. To pacify Uma further, and compensate for the act of killing own son, Shiva bestowed upon Ganesha the powers of a god and blessed him that henceforth no activity will begin without invoking his name and blessing. Since then, it is said, no new venture – from a schoolchild opening a new notebook to an opening of a shop, from the foundation of a building to entering a new home – is deemed complete without puja directed to Ganesha.
As for Ganesha’s physical characteristics, just as in every Hindu icon, they symbolize an attribute. The size of his head is said to represent wisdom and learning, his large ears symbolize the ability to hear every prayer he is offered, and small eyes signify the ability to concentrate as he meditates. His defining characteristic is his trunk, and its symbology is extensive. For example, it is believed to be auspicious for a Ganesha image in the home if the trunk is bent to his left, indicating a more cooling feminine energy and ideally touching a bowl of laddus, representing material prosperity. He should be also be seated, so he doesn’t wander away from home. On the other hand, Ganesha’s temple icons ought to have his trunk to his right, a more fiery and dynamic energy, and helpful for expediting gratification of one’s prayers. Ganesha is usually shown with four arms. With his trunk he reaches for a bowl of the laddus he loves, while his hands hold; a string of prayer beads, an elephant goad, sometimes a snake, and his broken tusk; all heavily symbolic. Temple sculptures of Ganesha are usually found at the beginning of a sequence of deities on the exterior walls, placed there to eliminate obstacles faced by the worshipper on his or her spiritual path.
A favourite hymn dedicated to Ganesha is; ‘O ye who possesseth curved trunk, huge body and brilliance of ten million suns, accomplish and accomplish always, all my errands free from obstacles’.
Ganesha is also identified with the sacred mantra, the syllable Om, and believed to be its personification. His animal-vehicle (vahana) is the rat which, though small by contrast, will gnaw through any obstacle. This comparison suggests that there are two ways to remove obstacles; like an elephant trampling everything in its path, or a rat finding its way through small openings to achieve the same goal. In the Karni Mata Temple in Deshnoke, Rajasthan, rats are fed milk and grain and believed to be destined for reincarnation as holy men (sadhus).
Ganesha – The Beloved OneTerry Curell2019-11-18T17:17:22-08:00
Murugan is the second son to Shiva and Uma after Ganesha and the most masculine and fierce of the Hindu pantheon (note 1). Murugan is often referred to as God of the Tamils and is arguably the most popular deity in south India (note 2). As revered general of Shiva’s armies, Murugan is the beautiful and eternally youthful bestower of blessings.
Murugan’s origins are probably a composite of the north Indian warrior god, Skanda, and an ancient Tamil hero, Subrahmanya. His mythology is told in the Skanda Purana which tells mostly of his birth and youth. The following is one of many legends of his conception;
“Once married, Shiva and Uma honeymoon at Shiva’s home atop Mount Kailash. Their lovemaking shakes the cosmos, and the gods become fearful, wondering what a child born of two such powerful deities will be like. Led by Vishnu, the entourage travels to Kailash and wait patiently for the newlyweds to emerge. Many years pass yet Shiva and Uma continue as before. Agni (God of Fire) disguises himself as a dove and enters the bedchamber. Uma reacts. Shiva withdraws. A drop of his semen falls to the floor. Agni eats the drop. Uma is enraged at the interruption and curses the gods so that all their wives would be barren. Agni, meanwhile, is unable to bear the heat of Shiva’s fiery seed and flies to the banks of the Ganges to cool off. This particular location happens to be where wives of seven sages have come to bathe (note 3). They’re feeling cold and approach the heat. Agni drops the seed, and it enters the wives, who become pregnant. When the sages find out they scold their wives, who place the embryo on a Himalayan peak. Thus is born Murugan. Shiva and Uma are delighted. Murugan’s six mothers are smitten by the newborn baby god and argue amongst themselves over who is to breastfeed him. Murugan solves the problem by creating five additional faces, one for each of his mothers.”
Murugan’s first wife is Devasena, daughter of Indra through an arranged marriage, and she represents heaven. His second wife, Valli, the gypsy huntress, he keeps hidden in the hills. She represents Earth and theirs was a love match. The characteristics of his wives complete Murugan as he spends his time equally on earth and in heaven.
In Murugan’s iconography, he is dressed as a warrior with 12 arms, each hand holding an attribute, most of them weapons, such as Vel, the lance given to him by his mother, Uma. His vehicle (vahana) is Paravani, a blue peacock, who often holds a serpent in its claws symbolizing the destruction of ego.
Note 1 – Murugan is also known in the south as Karthikeya, Subrahmanyan, Shanmughan and Swaminathan; in northern India, Skanda, Kumara, or Karttikeya.
Note 2 – Three of the six busiest and richest temples in south India are dedicated to him.
Note 3 – The seven wives are said to be the seven stars of the Pleiades cluster, also known as The Little Dipper.
Shakti manifests Prakriti, Brahman’s dynamic feminine will and creative energy. Shakti is the Divine Feminine and Brahman’s Force of Life. Prakriti consists of three types of matter, or gunas, which are the essential elements of all nature. Prakriti and it’s counterpart, the male principle of Purusha, consciousness and spirit, are interdependent, equivalent and ineffective without the other.
In mythology, just as Purusha embodies in the form of the male gods, Shakti, as the active, creative power takes physical form as Devi. This form can be one of the three Maha Devis, The Great Goddesses; Saraswati, Goddess of Knowledge, Music and Art, aligned with Brahma, the Creator; Lakshmi, Goddess of Abundance and Good Fortune aligned with Vishnu the Preserver; and Uma, The Mother Goddess of Love and Devotion aligned with Shiva, the Destroyer (note 1). As the creative, regenerative and maintaining forces of the universe each Maha Devi, as well as other goddesses such as Kali, Ganga and Mari Amma, has unique set of roles and characteristics.
“She is the creative joy of life; herself the beauty, the marvel, the enticement and seduction of the living world”
Heinrich Zimmer; Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization
In pre-Vedic times, India’s indigenous peoples venerated powerful, independent goddesses, but as Hinduism spread the divine feminine principle was absorbed into the Vedic pantheon, and in doing so the goddesses lost much of their spiritual status. Hinduism’s spiritual source, The Vedas, reflected the values of a patriarchal nomadic culture that suppressed prehistoric feminine power, therefore, the goddesses were relegated to roles as wives and consorts. Devotional hunger for divine feminine energy was not to be denied, however, and powerful deities in their own right have re-emerged; Durga, the dispassionate demon killer; Kali, the fiery protector; and of course, Uma, the cool, sensual beauty and power behind Shiva’s cosmic role. Hindu belief continues to evolve into the modern era and as the need for Shakti’s energy grows, so does the influence of her Devis.
Note 1 – Uma is known by many names, Parvati chief among them, but our Reference Library is primarily focussed on the Chola Bronzes, therefore, we refer to the deities as they are known in south India.
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
Uma – The Divine FeminineTerry Curell2019-11-07T16:55:14-08:00
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.
Shiva and Uma – The Divine MarriageTerry Curell2019-11-07T17:08:40-08:00
It is said that Hinduism is a religion of 300 million Gods, but those who say it perhaps don’t understand the symbolism of the Hindu pantheon. Truth may take 300 million forms but there is only one Ultimate Truth and it is Brahman and the entire Hindu pantheon is needed to even begin to represent Brahman’s aspects and manifestations.
He is the one, the one alone, in Him all deities become One alone.”
Hindu gods and goddesses are broadly classified as Vedic or Puranic. The Vedic gods and goddesses are the old gods, while the Puranic deities were created later. The Puranic epics, Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana, are well-loved by Hindus everywhere, while in south India, Sangam literature told stories of the lives and adventures of south India’s royalty, however, it is within the Puranas where the major deities have their stories told. The Puranas are perhaps the most important or commonly used scriptural texts; guidebooks for the whole of life and society. These sacred texts were in their final form by about 500 AD though orally passed down for two thousand years before that. The principal Puranas tell the stories of Vishnu the Preserver (Vishnu Purana), Shiva the Destroyer (Shiva Purana) and Devi, the Mother Goddess (Markendeya Purana). The Bhagavata Purana is important to the worshippers of Krishna, while Vayu (Vedic God of Air), Agni (Vedic God of Fire), Murugan (second son of Shiva and Uma), Kalki (last avatar of Vishnu), Lingam (the anthropomorphic pillar symbolizing Shiva) each have their own Purana.
These myths and legends were more than tales of high drama and superhuman feats; they told the stories of the gods and goddesses and brought them to life. No longer seen as unapproachable statues in temples or processions, these divine beings fought demons in hand to hand combat, made love, felt pain and lost their tempers, just as humans do. These tales showed them to be wise, loyal, caring, while some even had a sense of humour. In other words, they became multi-dimensional to Hindu devotees, more real, more approachable. The stories weren’t just entertainment but allegorical lessons in Dharma, the dutiful pathway. They taught Hindus, by example, how to do the right thing.
The Gods and Goddesses of HinduismTerry Curell2019-11-07T16:39:27-08:00