Four stories by Ashutosh Vardhana:
© 2001 Ashutosh Vardhana
Ashutosh Vardhana: Parvati
wins her husband:
A Hindu story as told in a Hindu family in a northern English town.
Parvati wins her husband
The story of Maha-Shivaratri
First Watch: Pratham Prahar: 6 to 9 p.m. Before Dinner
Second Watch: Dvitiya Prahar: 9 p.m. to midnight
Third watch: Tritiya prahar: Midnight to 3 a.m.
Fourth Watch: Caturtha prahar: 3 to 6 a.m. = Brahma vela: The Hour of Brahma
For the whole of January and half of February, Yamuna had been looking forward to the next visit of her uncle, the Pandit. This afternoon he had arrived because it was festival time again. Today was the festival of Maha-Shivaratri, the Great Night of Lord Shiva and his wedding with Goddess Parvati. "Please, Uncle-ji", Yamuna asked, "will you tell me the story of Shiva and Parvati?"
"Of course, I will," said the Pandit, as he always said, "we have half an hour to go before dinner. That's enough for the first part, the story of Sati, and I'll tell you the rest after dinner and during the night. You would like to stay up during the night, wouldn't you?"
"Yes, if Mata-ji lets me", Yamuna said.
So Pandit-ji sat down on the settee, and Yamuna sat down cross-legged on the floor, looked up at him and said: "I am ready."
"Then I'll begin", said Pandit-ji.
"Sati was a beautiful princess, the youngest daughter of King Daksha Prajapati, the "ruler of the world". She was also a goddess, an incarnation of Goddess Durga, and Durga, as you know well, is the wife of Lord Shiva. Sati was a beautiful girl and very pious too. When she was young, her mother took her to temple, and she loved to come with her and have darshan of the gods, that means she visited the gods, looked at their statues and prayed to them. There was one god of whom she was particularly fond, that was Lord Shiva. In the temple was his stone image, the língam, a symbol of his creative power, and there were also pictures of him sitting in meditation on Mount Kailasha in the Himalayas or looking kindly and mysteriously at his visitors and devotees, and one in which he was dancing vigorously.
Nobody quite understood why young Sati was so much drawn to Lord Shiva, but it was a force stronger than anything even she could understand at that time. After all, she was still very little.
Sati liked dancing herself and sometimes she thought how nice it would be to dance with Lord Shiva. Sati knew many stories about Lord Shiva, and what she liked most about him was that he was so kind. That's what his name, Shiva, means: "blissful, auspicious, kind".
Shiva was also unpretentious and a bit of a rebel, just like Sati. He did not bother to dress up and often ran around like a tramp or a hippie. People who met him (or still meet him today!) often do not know that he is a god. They think he is just a tramp. But in fact he is a god and just does not care much for clothes, riches, possessions and the things ordinary people like to show off with. He likes to hide his identity. He is much more than he seems to be."
"I saw a tramp when I went to Manchester last year," said Yamuna, "he was sitting in the station, he was wearing a thick dirty coat, and his face was blotchy and he stank. He didn't have a half-moon in his hair like Shiva."
"Well, there are many tramps in big cities, like Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow or London. They are poor people and have nowhere to live, and have to sleep in the street and the rain, and one of them might be Lord Shiva, you can never know, so you had better be kind to any tramp or any poor person you meet. You can never know who he really is.
Little Sati became ever more fond of Shiva and when her parents started talking about her future husband, who would surely be a handsome young prince or even a powerful king, she used to say with a blush: 'I want to be Lord Shiva's wife. He is the greatest, and nobody else will do for me.' Everybody laughed and thought it was just a crush or a childish joke: who would ever think of marrying God? Wasn't the Prime Minister or the Pope good enough?
And perhaps it was like a childish dream at the beginning, but as time went by, Sati's wish to become Lord Shiva's wife became very earnest. She could not say how and when it had started and now felt that for thousands of lives in the past she had always wanted to be Shiva's loving companion.
Her father Daksha had once had a quarrel with Shiva and therefore did not like him at all. Apart from that, in his eyes, Shiva was just not respectable enough to be his son-in-law. He would bring shame on the family. If only he had been a real tramp, well, that would have been bad enough, unthinkable, really, come to think of it. But to be a God and behave in so ungodlike a way! 'This Shiva should know better', father Daksha thought. So he said a firm No to Sati's wish to marry Shiva.
Then the day came, a big festival arranged by her father, called 'swayamvara', during which royal brides could chose their husbands. While most ordinary girls would enter arranged marriages, where the parents present the girl with a few 'suitable boys' to choose from, the kings would invite thousands of suitable partners, assemble them all in an arena on the same day, the daughter would come out of the palace, which was always made of gold, silver, gems and sandalwood, she would have a garland in her hands, look at each of her suitors, and when she had found the one she liked best, she would hang the garland over his shoulders. Then they were engaged and had to be married and there was nothing the girl's parents could do about it. It was her choice, her decision and it was final.
There were thousands of kings, princes, and even gods, at Sati's swayamvara, but King Daksha had taken great care not to invite Shiva and had stationed Security Guards from Securicor and from Group Four (oh yes, it is a very old company) all around the arena and given them whips, fierce Rottweiler dogs and machine guns to keep Lord Shiva out, just in case he should come uninvited, be it dressed as a tramp, with matted hair and his body smeared with ashes, or in all his glory as a God.
So Lord Shiva, who surely knew by now that Sati loved him dearly, that no other living soul loved him as dearly as Sati, did not come to the swayamvara. Or did he?
Sati, on the other hand, was sure that her beloved Shiva would be there, and with a radiant smile she came out of the palace, garland in both hands, and started walking around the arena, filled with kings and gods, their ornaments and weapons glistening in the sunshine of an early Indian morning when it is still cool. She looked at each suitor in turn and could not see her beloved Shiva. How could he let her down? She walked around the arena three times and became more and more sad each time. She almost started sobbing. Where was the God whom she loved with all her heart? How could he let her down, her who felt so infinitely close to him as if they had always been lovers?
Then she made up her mind. She stepped into the middle of the arena, threw the garland into the air and cried: 'Lord Shiva, I choose you for my husband.' Suddenly everybody could see him, just three yards above the ground, Sati's garland around his neck, there was Lord Shiva, the god who is everywhere, whose dance maintains the whole universe, who vibrates in every atom, every molecule, in every sound, in every ray of sunlight, in every emotion. Here he stood in front of his beloved Sati, looking like a tramp, showing that he did not care for outward appearance, and rewarding Sati who had proved that she could detect and love what is godly or divine even in creatures who do not look like it at all.
Her father, King Daksha, was very angry: 'How can you be so stupid and marry that dirty stinking beggar? Just say one word and I will call my bodyguards to evict him. What right did he have to come here uninvited, and through the air at that. Who does he think he is? Batman? I think, he is a bloody sorcerer. Send him back to Pendle Hill where he belongs! Of course, you are entitled to marry whom you like, but if you marry that filthy scoundrel I never want to see you again, not together with him anyway. You can have him as your husband, stupid goose that you are, but I will never accept him as my son-in-law, just go away and live with him in misery - a beggar's wife!'
But Daksha could not persuade his daughter to change her mind, and so Sati and Shiva were married, her sari was tied to his úttarya vástra (uttarya vastra), his scarf, they took the seven steps round the sacred fire, she put a morsel of sweet into his mouth and he did the same to her, they promised to always take care of each other and then returned to his abode in the Himalayas on top of Mount Kailasha. There they lived happily for many years.
One day Sati noticed a startling increase in the air traffic passing over Mount Kailasha. There used to be just one aerial chariot once every two hundred years or so, but now they came in aerial fleets, as many as fifty a day. Were the gods going to war against some superhuman dictator? But why were they taking their wives along? For the chariots were brimful with gods and goddesses in their most splendid attire and the ends of their saris were flapping merrily in the icy wind of those high altitudes.
Sati made enquiries on what was going on.
Sage Nárada (Narada), the prophet and great teller of all divine stories, told her that King Daksha was planning to hold a big yájña (yajnya), a fire sacrifice, and had invited all the kings and nobles of all the worlds and all the gods to it. But he had not invited Mahadéva, the Great God Shiva, his son-in-law, nor, of course, his daughter Sati, whom he had cast out. Shiva did not care much about the invitation either way, but Sati was much upset that her husband should have been slighted in this manner and decided to attend the festival anyway. As a daughter, she did not need an invitation.
So she went to her father's house, dressed like a beggar's wife and accompanied by Nandi, the bull, her husband's loyal servant. She arrived in the arena prepared for the yájña (yajnya). The sacrificial fire had already been lit, and all the splendidly dressed guests were sitting there watching the start of the ceremony. The women wore silk saris in red and gold and other bright colours, and the men wore their armour or their military uniforms. Sati walked up to her father to greet him respectfully by touching his feet, but he started insulting the husband she had chosen and called him a beggar, a scoundrel, a thief, a good-for-nothing, and even a ..., but, no, I must not use such words, they are too disgusting."
"What did he call Shiva, Uncle-ji?" insisted Yamuna.
"No, I wouldn't repeat that word, only boys use such bad language, and they shouldn't," said Pandit-ji.
"Sati flushed with anger. No longer was she the picture of a subservient, timid, obedient daughter - for a wife must honour her husband even more than her father and must not tolerate that he is insulted. 'How dare you talk like this about my husband. No wife should ever hear such words about her husband. I cannot stop you from talking like this, for you are my father. But I can make sure that I never again hear such insulting language.' And with those words she jumped into the sacrificial fire and was instantly burned to death.
Nandi, the faithful servant, returned to Shiva to tell him what had happened. Lord Shiva now was furious - not so much because he had been insulted: he cares little about insults and knows his own greatness. No words or deeds can make him less great than he is. But he was angry because his beloved Sati had been hurt by Daksha and because she, whom he loved more than anything else, had been taken away from him. Every god needs a wife, she is his creative energy, and without her a god, however great, can do nothing. Lord Shiva therefore pulled a hair from his head and threw it on the ground and out of it sprang the great hero Virabhádra (Virabhadra), who had 1000 heads, 1000 feet and 1000 eyes, which is interesting because it gave him only one eye and one foot per head; but it was just right for Virabhádra (Virabhadra) for he could not multiply by two and that made him a better fighter.
Then Lord Shiva shook his head and his matted hair, and out of it fell a whole army. I am sure your tramp in Manchester did not have so much hair, but Lord Shiva had so much that a million soldiers could hide in it and stay warm and sometimes play war-games. After all, he was a god: therefore he had lots of hair. He then made Virabhádra (Virabhadra) general of this army and sent him to upset King Daksha's sacrifice (the one to which he had not been invited) and to get rid of the bad King himself.
There was an almighty battle in which many people were killed and all the cities of Daksha's kingdom destroyed. The general cut off Daksha's head. When the battle was over, Sati's mother, who had never done any wrong, asked Shiva to restore her husband to life. Without her husband she would have been as unhappy as Shiva without his wife. Lord Shiva could not possibly say No to the mother of his beloved Sati and brought Daksha back to life. However, since Daksha's head could not be found, he needed an organ donor for a head transplant operation. The only donor available was a goat who had just broken his neck in a mountaineering accident. This goat wanted to prove to his friends that he was not superstitious and had therefore jumped out of the window of an office on the 13th floor of Daksha's Ministry for Religious Affairs. This, Yamuna, is something you should never do. It is dangerous. So King Daksha was given a goat's head, which served him right, don't you agree?
Why? Well, for being so stupid.
When Lord Shiva's anger had settled, he went back to the Himalayas to devote himself to meditation. It lasted for sixty thousand years.
Sati, of course, was not really dead. Like all of us she never dies. The worst that can happen to us is that we lose our body. That's what many people call death. The soul lives on and goes to a happier world. There it lives without a body for a while. In due course it comes back to this world and is given another body as a baby, grows up again and can have new experiences. With that new body we can continue to try to achieve our aims of life."
"What are the aims of life, Uncle-ji?" asked Yamuna.
"There are four aims of life," said the Pandit. "Dharma, that is to live like a good person, ártha (artha), that is to earn the money you need to live and to help other people, Kama, that is to find pleasure, and, ..., well, what do you think, Yamuna?"
"moksha?", said Yamuna after some hesitation.
"Right, and what does moksha mean?"
"You are right, our last and highest aim in life is to know ourselves better and to know God better. Ultimately we realise that our soul and God are really the same, then we will be liberated from rebirth and suffering on this earth. We will have bliss for ever and ever. That's why we celebrate festivals, pray and do rituals - in order to know God better and achieve moksha, the last and greatest aim in life."
Just at this moment Yamuna's mother called for dinner, and they all sat down to eat - róti (unleavened bread), rice, subjí (vegetable), dhal (lentil soup), yoghurt and a glass of water for each.
After dinner, Pandit-ji, with Yamuna sitting at his feet, continued the story of Maha-Shivaratri.
"When a few thousand years had passed, Sati (that is her soul), also came back to this earth and could again pursue her aim to be united with her husband, the eternally beloved Lord Shiva. To start with she had to be born and to grow up.
Sati chose as her parents the mountain king Himaláya (Himalaya) (who is also called Himacál [Himacal] or Himavát [ Himavat] ) and his wife Mena.
"That is nice," said Yamuna, "Sati could choose her parents. My friends say that parents choose their children. Did I choose my parents, Uncle-ji?"
"You sure did," said Pandit-ji, "we all choose our parents long before we are born. It depends on what interests, likes and dislikes we had in our last lives and how we want to continue. You are a very clever girl, and you are interested in books, and in God, and in religion and in our stories. You must have had the same interest in your last life. Therefore you wanted to continue them in the next life and chose a Hindu family of priests and scholars in which you would be able to do that. Well done, my sweet little girl! I love talking to you and telling you stories.
Himacál (Himacal) and Mena were great devotees of Lord Shiva. This time Sati had three names. She was called Parvati, Úma and Gauri.
Parvati means "Daughter of the Mountain". As Parvati grew up, she became increasingly attached to Lord Shiva. She prayed to him every day. On Mondays, she visited him in the mándir (mandir), the temple, and brought him the things he likes, flowers, water, milk and bílva leaves. Often she sat in front of his image and repeated the "Om namá Shiváya" (Om nama Shivaya), the mantra he likes and which helps people to focus their minds on him when they meditate. When she grew older, she fasted on Mondays and during the month of Shravana, which is sacred to Lord Shiva.
Gradually she remembered that in her last life she had been Sati, how she had loved Shiva then and that she had been re-born to win him again as a husband.
But how could she attract Shiva's attention? He was deep in meditation and took no notice of anything that was going on around him. Now the gods decided to help her. They wanted her to marry Shiva because there was a powerful and evil demon, Taraka, who was threatening the gods themselves and the order of the world. There was an ancient prophesy which said that nobody could kill Taraka except a son of Lord Shiva. So the gods had to help to bring Shiva and Parvati together so that they could get married and have children, well, at least one child.
Two things had to be done. First Shiva had to be woken from his deep meditation. He had to be induced to pay attention to the things around him, including Parvati. Then he had to be made to fall in love with Parvati's beauty, or so the gods thought.
Shiva was sitting in a grove on an icy pass high in the mountains, as he had been sitting for sixty thousand years, in deep concentration, quite undisturbed. He did not think about anything, he did not observe anything, he simply WAS, he existed, as is God's eternal nature. Up there in the icy mountains, the seasons never changed, there were no birds singing and no wild animals roaring. The trees were covered in eternal ice and snow, and Shiva was all alone, one without a second, motionless, always and completely unmoved.
Now the gods brought Vasánta (Vasanta), the god of spring, who always comes together with love. Warm winds arrived. The sun rose earlier and set later. Vasánta (Vasanta) made the snow melt, the bushes and trees started sprouting green leaves and blossoms. First came the female cuckoo. Then the other birds and bees arrived and started singing, playing and making love. Shiva was still deep in meditation, his eyes were closed, but somehow he felt that something was changing around him. The gods observed him, beautiful Parvati was hidden somewhere in the bushes, waiting for Kama (also called Mádana [Madana]), the god of love, to do his work. Now Kama took up his bow, which is made of sugar cane and very sweet, and aimed his arrow at Lord Shiva. The arrow was made of the tip of a gentle mango twig and once it pierces your heart you fall in love with the person you see at that moment. Normal archers pull the bow-string with their fingers, but Kama has a hundred and one bees to do this for him, and his bow and arrow is therefore called an "organic weapon". Only very gentle force is needed to make a person fall in love. Kama's arrow never misses its target. It is more reliable than an American cruise missile and only strikes at civilians.
As Kama was ready to release his arrow, Shiva opened his eyes and saw what was about to happen, that he was to be seduced away from his meditation, as had happened in the past to other would-be monks and meditators. He decided to protect all future saints and ascetics and rid the world once and for all of love. In a flash of anger he opened his third eye, and out of it came a ray more powerful than 303 laser guns. In an instant Kama and his bow and arrow were in flames. In the next instant only his skeleton was to be seen, and in the next instant only a heap of ashes was left of him. It all happened within a fraction of a second. Ever since then, little children know that they must not disturb their parents or their brothers and sisters when they are studying. They won't burn them to ashes, because they aren't a god. But it is still a stupid thing to do: when people want to be alone and think their own thoughts, let them be.
Shiva got up, turned his back, strode over the mountain tops (he made himself so big that he could step over seven summits in one stride), and settled down in an even more lonely part of the Himalayas to continue his meditation without being molested.
The gods and Parvati couldn't believe their eyes when they saw what had happened, but especially Rati, Kama's wife, wept uncontrollably at the death of her husband. Many streams which come down from the mountains are in fact not ordinary water but Rati's tears. There is one of these coming down the hill just above the lower road from Blackburn to Haslingdon. The water of these streams looks like ordinary water, but when you taste it, it is slightly salty. That's because these are Rati's tears. I will take you there one day when it is summer. You see how terribly sad she was to have lost her beautiful, cheerful and powerful husband, Kama, the god of love himself.
Some time later, at her request, Shiva, who does not like to say No to people who pray to him, brought Kama back to life. That's why people still fall in love today. But he did not give him his body back. You therefore cannot see him, and poor sweet Rati cannot touch him, and continues to cry and lament for him. Therefore the god of love is everywhere, as busy as ever, especially here in Blackburn. He makes people fall in love with each other, often stupidly, and that's why Shiva wanted to get rid of him in the first place."
"What are people who fall stupidly in love with each other?" asked Yamuna. "Are there people who fall cleverly in love with each other, Uncle-ji?"
"Yes, Yamuna," the Pandit said earnestly, with a frown on his forehead and a roguish smile round his lips.
"People who fall stupidly in love with each other are those who only pay attention to the body and the pretty or handsome face, who are impressed by smart talkers, flashy dressers and big spenders. Then they do not really suit each other **in character** and for spending a life-time together in harmony. Such children should listen more to the advice of their parents and maternal aunts and paternal uncles, and paternal aunts and maternal uncles, to say nothing of their grandparents, both maternal and paternal, and fall in love **after** they have chosen the suitable boy or girl.
But when they have been wounded by Kama's arrow, they are really a bit mad, we call it "they have fallen in love", and cannot think straight any more and often choose the wrong person. After a few months or years there is trouble, the marriage breaks down and they have to leave each other - unlike Sati and Shiva who were husband and wife for many life-times. Because Lord Kama can make sane people behave like lunatics, he is also called Mánmatha (Manmatha), that is "the one who churns (mátha [matha]) the mind (mána [mana])", the mind-churner.
That's why Lord Shiva rejected Parvati when she showed him only the beauty of her body. He wanted to see also the beauty and perfection of her soul, and that's what she showed him in the next part of the story when she started doing tapas. In our culture, we want marriages which last for at least a life-time. Therefore our families, who are not smitten by Kama, first find so and so many boys or girls who are all suitable for our children, and our children then choose **among them** the one they can fall in love with.
But that's enough about falling in love, you still have plenty of time before you start thinking about that, and meanwhile I must get on with my story because it is already after midnight and soon you will fall asleep, rather than 'in love'.
"I won't fall asleep," said Yamuna, "this is a special night, and I want to stay up all night for Lord Shiva. Father says I am too young to meditate all night long as the saints and sages do, but at least I can listen to your story. That's what I want to do."
"All right," said Uncle-ji, "you can stay up until I finish the story, but we both need a break now, and you can make me a cup of Indian tea and for yourself a cup of milk with honey." While Yamuna went off to prepare the drinks, Uncle-ji nodded off for a few minutes. Then she returned and served the drinks on a small coffee table and sat down on the carpet again.
The Pandit continued:
"Since Parvati could not win Shiva through the attractions of her beautiful body, she had to try and win him through the beauty of her soul, which is much more important to any good husband. Parvati decided to show Shiva her devotion by doing tapas, as she had done already as a child but she determined to do them more intensively now."
"What are tapas?" asked Yamuna.
"Oh dear," thought the Pandit, "will this girl never stop asking questions? How do I answer this one now?"
"My dear," said the Pandit, "tapas are exercises which help people to think more of God and less of the body and less of having fun in other ways. God loves people who do tapas and rewards them, or, to put it differently, they do not need rewarding because tapas are also useful in many practical ways."
"Do people still do tapas today?"
"Yes, many people fast regularly on one day every week, depending on which is their favourite god. For example, on Monday for Lord Shiva, on Wednesday for Lord Vishnu, Kríshna and Rama, or on Saturdays for Parvati, whose story I am telling you now."
"How do people fast?" asked Yamuna.
"That is different in every family. In our religion everybody can fast as much or as little as he likes. Sensible fasting is good for us. Therefore we do not have to be forced or ordered to do it. In our family, as you have seen from your mother and father, they fast on Mondays, for Lord Shiva. On those days they have only one full meal a day, usually in the evening. During the day, they allow themselves to eat a fruit and drink milk or water, if hunger or thirst become too strong to bear. Children should not really fast because their bodies are still too weak, but if you really wanted to take part, you could just eat a little less on those days, or have no sweets or not eat your favourite food."
"Are there are other ways of doing tapas, apart from fasting?"
"Now, little Yamuna, you are behaving exactly as Parvati did when she was together with Lord Shiva. She kept asking him questions and passed on the answers he gave, and that way we know many things which would otherwise have remained Lord Shiva's secret. It is very important to ask questions.
Right, in the olden days people did more tapas than they do today and they were harder. I will give you as many examples as possible, from the past and from our time, so that you understand the idea.
When children want to do tapas, they must not be too strict, otherwise their health will suffer. Children (or adults who want to do easy tapas, or light tapas), might abstain from eating their favourite food or taking their favourite drink, but they must eat or drink something less tasty instead, of course. It is important, especially for children, that they get their proper nourishment. But it is not necessary for that nourishment to be tasty. Children might give up eating sweets, chocolates and ice cream, for example, or drink less Coca Cola or other fizzy drinks, or take no sugar in their tea or coffee, or no spices in their food, and learn to still smile and be happy with what they get. Or when a person is older and the body is stronger, she might give up one meal in the day, perhaps have nothing for breakfast (provided school, studies or other work do not suffer, of course)."
"Why is it useful to make do with food that is not tasty or to miss out on certain meals altogether?"
"There are several reasons. Firstly you teach the body to obey the commands of your mind. YOU decide what and when you eat. That is a matter of practice. Your body is not allowed to make you restless because it demands certain foods. It is your mind and your will which decides. As a result when you meditate or pray, your body cannot come and say: 'I demand my food and drink now.' You can simply tell the body: 'Shut up, I am meditating now, and you have to wait for your food and drink until I have finished or until the appointed time is over.' If you learn to meditate and pray in peace and without being distracted, you come closer to God and closer to moksha.
If you have chosen a day of fasting, perhaps one day a week, or on the day of a big festival, for example Janmáshtami (Janmashtami), the birthday of Lord Kríshna, then each time your stomach says: 'I want food', and you reply 'Be quiet, you won't get it, you have to wait', you are reminded of the reason why you are saying No, why you are fasting, and therefore you are reminded of God. Your stomach reminds you of God. So all that day you are very much aware of God, of the special nature of the day, of the nature of the festival. The more you think of God, the closer you come to him. And one day you will be united with him. That's why fasting is useful from the religious point of view.
But fasting, and other tapas, are useful even in everyday life, even for people who are not religious as yet. If they have learnt to do without food, or without their favourite food, they will be less upset, they will suffer less, if this food is not available for a time. If they are in another house or another country where they cannot have these foods, if the food has been spoilt, if dinner is late, if they are travelling and the train or plane is delayed. Instead of being upset and moaning and complaining, as so many people do who are not used to fasting, they will just shrug their shoulders and think: 'I can do without that meal. I have seen worse, and I will still be alive tomorrow, even if my body is not fed tonight.' "
Yamuna said: "What other forms of tapas are there, apart from fasting?"
"Not complaining about heat and cold, sleeping on the floor instead of a bed, walking barefoot, not listening to music, not watching TV, not doing other things that people like to do - and concentrating on God instead. Not wearing pretty garments, jewellery, make-up, not using perfumes or face creams. Taking cold baths (which is very good for your health too) instead of warm. Working harder at whatever you are doing. Doing the unpleasant chores at home with a smile and making your mother happy as a result. Doing your homework on the day it is set rather than at the last minute on the day you have to hand it in. Fighting less with your little sister even if she makes a nuisance of herself.
The example of the cold baths is a useful one. It not only teaches you to make do with less, it also means that you won't be upset if you are in a house where perhaps there is no hot water or when your water heater breaks down. You will still be as happy as ever, if you do not need a warm bath or shower anyway.
All these things do, of course, have to be done with common sense. Whatever you do, you must not do harm to your health and you must also get on with your friends, your classmates or your employer. They must not think that you are mad or peculiar. It is best if nobody knows that you are doing tapas. tapas are a secret between you and God.
In our religion people can chose to do any tapas they like, and it is best to chose tapas which do not make you an outcast. In order to get a job and to keep it, you have to dress neatly and more or less the same as other people. It is therefore wrong to go to work in rags and in a dress made of tree barks (like Parvati) and say that you are doing tapas. Nobody will appreciate that, and Lord Shiva, I am sure, does not approve of it either. There are other ways of doing tapas, which are more useful and cause you and other people less trouble. You are not alone in this world and have to consider the feelings of other people. But, on the other hand, you need not allow other people to dictate to you what you do. Just keep their feelings in mind. What was right for Parvati is not necessarily right for you. You do not have to imitate every detail of her actions but understand the spirit from which she acted and make it your own. Then apply it with common sense to your life in our time."
Suddenly the Pandit burst into chant and chanted three shlókas, or stanzas, from the holy book, the Gita:
Verily, yoga is
For the man who is temperate
When the disciplined mind
But now let's get on with our story."
"Could I have a little break now?" asked Yamuna. "I want to hear the rest of the story and stay up during the night but I would like to rest for just a few minutes." She climbed up on the settee, curled up next to her uncle and was asleep in no time at all.
After half an hour Yamuna woke up and wondered where she was. Her uncle sat there meditating, or was he sleeping?
"I am awake again, Uncle-ji," she said, "can you continue, please?"
"Would you like to make us something cool to drink?" said Pandit-ji. Yamuna went and prepared some rose-water with ice-cubes for both of them.
When they had drunk, Uncle-ji went on.
"So Parvati sat in a lonely grove in the Himalayas, doing her tapas, not worrying about her body and its comforts but only thinking about God. She did not know where Shiva was, but she knew that he would notice her dedication and that, when the time was ripe, he would reward her with his love. Had she not been his wife in all eternity in the past, and would she not be his wife in all eternity in future!
She tried to show him that she did not care for her body and for its beauty. She was only interested in her soul and in God, and she was rejecting all demands the body made on her. She deliberately made herself uncomfortable in order to learn 'not to mind', not to be upset by it, to ignore heat and cold, hunger and thirst, pleasure and pain. She did all this more intensively than any normal human being could possibly do.
She was wearing clothes made of bark, which were rough on her tender skin. She was sitting there in summer in the scorching sun next to the sacred fire which she kept going in honour of Lord Shiva. In winter she sat there in the rain, and then in ice and snow. She ate very little food, a little less every year. In the end she had learnt to live on dry leaves falling from the trees, imagine that!, and for the last thousand years of her great fast, she ate nothing at all, apart from a little moonlight. That made her really famous, because no human being had ever managed to do that. But she was a goddess, and that, of course, made her much better at living on very little. Since during these years she ate "not even leaves", she was then called Apárna (Aparna), which means "no leaf".
After a while, people began to notice the beautiful and so infinitely earnest and dedicated woman doing tapas in that lonely spot. The animals came and admired her devotion, and she fed some of them and made friends with them. Some of the animals who had been wild before became very peaceful when they saw her example. Some non-vegetarian birds and animals stopped killing and eating meat and become vegetarians and remain so to this day. Just ask your biology teacher about vegetarian animals. Now you know how they became vegetarian. The holy men, of whom there are many doing tapas in the mountains, came and admired her beauty and goodness. They had, of course, not seen many women up there in the mountains, to say nothing of so divinely beautiful and pious ones, more devoted even than themselves.
Once, when Parvati was beginning her tapas, her Mother Mena came to visit her to find out how her daughter was doing. She was horrified when she saw the hardships Parvati had imposed on herself. 'O Parvati, úmaa!' she cried, which means: "O Parvati, don't do that!" When people realised that Parvati was the Mother of the Universe, they called her Ámma, Mother, and over the years that name turned into Úma. Now you have learnt two possible explanations of the name Úma, all right?
Some people also call her Gauri, the fair one, or the golden one, and every day when we say arti, our morning and evening prayers, we address her and her husband Lord Shiva by that name.
For three thousand years, Parvati sat there and meditated. For how long can you sit still, Yamuna?"
"For ten minutes, but sometimes for half an hour, and for even longer in front of the television!"
"But Parvati did not have any television up there in the Himalayas. As part of her tapas she had given up television. So she had really learnt to sit still and concentrate. You know, of course, that Parvati was a goddess. She was Goddess Durga herself, the Mother of the Universe, Lord Shiva's eternal wife, who had assumed human form for the benefit of mankind. She was to become the mother of a great hero, Karttikeya, who is also known as Subramanya. Later on it was he who had to rid mankind and the world-of-the-gods of the evil demon Taraka.
Shiva then sent the Seven Sages, or Ríshis, to test Parvati's determination. Before he accepted her as his wife, he wanted to be sure that she had become perfectly godly, in accordance with her true nature. She passed this test, but Shiva wanted to give her yet another and try her knowledge and wisdom as well. As it turned out, she could not only ask questions, as she often did throughout her life, but also debate and argue. Even people with titles and degrees did not impress her if they talked rubbish. She thought for herself and made up her own mind about what was right and wrong and what was true and false. She had been very well educated by her parents, just like you, and it is important that you continue to study, to read, be curious and ask questions for as long as you live, even after you leave school and college. You don't want to become stupid when you grow up, as some people do."
"I am sure, I won't," said Yamuna, "I love reading and learning."
"One day a young Brahmin looking much like a sádhu (sadhu), a wandering monk, with his begging bowl and staff, came to Parvati's grove and asked her what she was doing. She explained why she was doing tapas. The Brahmin started running down Shiva. He called Parvati a fool for wanting Shiva for a husband. 'This Shiva of yours is filthy, sleeps in cemeteries, keeps the company of ghosts and goblins, dances like a madman, eats filthy things, doesn't wash and comb his hair, is ugly, is a real monster because he has three eyes when respectable people only have two, he is stupid, he doesn't care for women, his only hobby is meditation (why doesn't he go in for car maintenance, motor racing, mountaineering or football like a real man? He does not even support Blackburn Rovers, imagine!). Do you want to be married to a wimp? This Shiva is a murderer, for he killed the God of Love, Kama, he runs around naked (has he no shame!), his throat is blue, and his pets are snakes which writhe around his arms and chest, he wears a garland of skulls instead of flowers round his neck. Surely there wouldn't be much fun in being married to such a madman! You are a beautiful lady, a princess, the daughter of a great king, and you want him for husband? Get a life!'
When Parvati heard this, 'Have you quite finished?' she said full of contempt, and then her fury increased: 'Get out of my sight! How dare you speak like this about the Great God I love, him who maintains the whole universe. You don't even know what you are talking about and are only showing your ignorance. Some of the things you say about Lord Shiva are true but only superficially. You have to understand the meaning of what Lord Shiva is doing. In reality he is neither pretty or ugly, neither dirty nor clean. He is simply the great spirit which pervades the world. But he displays these attributes in order to teach us certain lessons. When he is dirty or goes around naked or in rags, he is teaching us that the appearance of the body and our garments are not the only and not the most important thing in life. When he meditates for thousands of years, he shows us that God does not have to be involved in this world of illusion. God simply IS. One does not argue whether he exists, how he is or who he is. He simply IS.
The only thing I am not sure about is why he wears that garland of skulls, but I am sure there is a good reason, and I will ask him that, when he agrees to marry me. Now get out of my sight, you stupid and miserable man! I am sure you are not a real Brahmin, because no real Brahmin would be as ignorant and wicked as you have shown yourself.'
Suddenly the Brahmin's appearance changed. His body started to glow, the sickle of the moon appeared on his forehead, the river Gánga (Ganga) started flowing into his thick hair, and a shimmer of divine love came from his eyes. In his hand he held a trident and on his forehead appeared the three white horizontal lines by which you recognise Lord Shiva and all his devotees. 'Oh Lady, oh my dear Parvati, oh Mother of the Universe! You are not only beautiful, you are also infinitely loving and wise. How well you understand my strange and off-putting appearance. You have reached the highest pinnacle of wisdom, ...' "
"What is pinnacle?" asked Yamuna.
"A pinnacle is the top of a spire or the highest point any one can reach. So Shiva said to Parvati: 'You have reached the highest point of wisdom, and you have passed all the tests I set for you. You are worthy to be united with me, you, the Goddess, with me, the Great God, because that's who I really am.'
Parvati embraced him: 'I knew that all along and I am so so so very very happy, that at long last I am together with you again. Never again will you be without me, or I without you. For three thousand years I have waited and worked for this moment. You have not made it easy for me, have you?' "
Yamuna's grandmother entered and brought a cup of tea for her son, the Pandit, and a glass of orange juice for Yamuna. They talked for a while and then Pandit-ji continued his story.
"Shiva now sent messengers to Himacál (Himacal) and Mena, Parvati's parents, to ask their permission for the marriage, which they readily gave.
The wedding was so big, there were so many guests, so many celebrations, so many jokes and so much laughter, so many bells ringing, so many fireworks, such delicious food and drink and so much of it, so many beautiful dresses, so many presents, so many sweets and toys and so many hugs and kisses for the children, and so much happiness for everybody, that the book from which I have this story needed over a hundred pages to describe it all. You can read all that when you are big.
But I must tell you now about some of the wedding guests. There were gods, and kings and princes, and animals and plants, and rivers and lakes, and, of course, lots and lots of ordinary people who had been invited, or who came anyway without invitation, as is the custom, because everybody was so happy and wanted to be present at this great wedding.
Now, who, you will ask, were these ordinary people? Since the wedding was arranged by the bride's father and he was the King of Mountains, the ordinary people were mountains.
Can you imagine how he had to widen the city gates to let them all in, and the huge hotels he had to build to accommodate them all, and how the carpenters were busy making oversized beds for them all, or at least sleeping bags. And imagine the enormous traffic jams in Himacál (Himacal)'s capital.
The Alps came from Austria, the Pyrenees from Spain, the Caucasus from Asia, the Atlas from Morocco and from the Sahara, the Andes from South America, the Pennines from England, Ben Nevis from Scotland, Mount Snowdon from Wales, Vesuvius from Italy, Etna from Sicily, and Mount Athos (with 1,472 monks) from Greece, yes, Yamuna, they were all there.
Nobody wanted to miss this wedding. All the earth was suddenly flat like a chapati, or pancake, because all the mountains had gone to Parvati's wedding.
And since there were neither trains, nor ships, nor planes nor lorries big enough to hold them, they all came on foot. Some of them had grown rather fat for lack of exercise over the last few millions of years and thought the walk to India would help them to slim a little and get fit again. How many feet do you think they walked on?"
"A hundred?" ventured Yamuna.
"Slightly more," said Pandit-ji, "most of them had thousands of feet. They needed so many in order to remain steady and not to shake off the many creatures that lived in and on them and willy nilly had to come along on the big journey. Anyway it was a great chance for them, because they got to know many new countries and they did not need to pay for train or plane tickets."
Yamuna chipped in again: "Was there a mountain from Blackburn as well?"
"Not quite, since there is no real mountain in Blackburn, and if we ever had one, perhaps it remained in India, yes, that must be the reason. But there was a mountain from Lancashire, and you can see it when you look out of your bedroom window. That was Pendle Hill. Pendle Hill was a bit of a show-off and he wanted to give the witches which lived on him a hard time. So Pendle Hill decided to walk on only two legs like you and I, and that made him rather wobbly."
"I am not wobbly," said Yamuna.
"No, you aren't, but you are not as big and heavy as a mountain. Therefore you need only two legs. But if a mountain tries to walk on only two legs, and he is not even used to walking at all, because most mountains don't walk a lot, or do they?, their walking becomes very shaky.
Pendle Hill on his way to India carried lots of Indians from Blackburn (and some from Preston and Bolton as well). They came from all religions and communities. They loved going to weddings, any wedding, but especially this one, and they did not want to miss the chance of a free ride to India. Afterwards they went off to visit their relatives there.
Now, Pendle Hill did not only wobble, he also swaggered deliberately, and took several tons of Thwaites Ale for the road, and you know what that does to people who are stupid enough to drink. It is quite as bad as taking other forbidden drugs.
The Hill swung like a **pendulum** (or a wedding bell), and all the witches fell off and broke their necks. But the Blackburn Indians, both Muslims and Hindus, did not fall off, for they are good people and helped each other to hang on, and therefore nothing can shake them. That's why the Hill is called "Pendle" Hill and why there are no more witches on it.
Perhaps there has never been a greater and more important wedding in the history of the world. This was the wedding of all weddings. It showed all of us what really great love is, love that continues not only during one lifetime but over innumerable lifetimes, love that overcomes even the greatest obstacles, as Parvati did overcome them. She was determined to get her man, and she did get him. But more than that. People realised that this was a wedding of Gods, that both were equal, even identical, if you look at it in the right way. Just as all of us are really God, if we look at ourselves in the right way.
People realised that loving God is, or should be, much the same way as when a husband loves his wife, and the other way round, that is to say: husband and wife should treat and love each other as if the other were God. It should not be words only but it should be real, and can be real: it should be felt in the heart, as it was for Parvati. People admired the example that Parvati had set to all of us. That's why we love her so much and why Parvati is such a beautiful name."
"I have two friends whose name is Parvati," said Yamuna, "and my best friend's mother is called Parvati as well."
"Aren't they lucky to have such a beautiful name! But Yamuna is beautiful as well. We have so many beautiful and meaningful names in our culture. Do you like these Parvatis of yours?"
"Yes, they are always very nice to me."
Yamuna's uncle, the Pandit, continued:
"At one point during the wedding ceremony, Parvati had to hang a garland of flowers round Lord Shiva's neck. Then she noticed again that garland of skulls that he always wore and that she had already got used to. 'Tell me, dearest God', she whispered so that the priest could not hear it, 'tell me, dearest God, why are you always wearing that garland of skulls? Isn't that rather ghoulish?'
'Oh, my dear,' he replied, 'I am sure you know the answer already, you just like to hear it from my own lips, just like you can't hear often enough I love you, I love you, I love you, even though you know very well that I do. I wear that garland of skulls out of love for you.
For you have been my wife in every birth, and you have loved me with infinite tenderness each time, and I have loved you as only God can love. I am wearing your skull from each of your lives to remind me of that love.
I also wear it to remind myself and my devotees that bodies do not last for ever, and that real love, I mean real-real-real love, is not love between bodies but love between souls. Bodies cannot merge entirely, they always remain a little bit separate. But souls can merge entirely. And all souls are really God, if we look at them properly, as you do, my dearest Parvati. If souls love as fully as you have loved and do love, then they can merge and become one.
That is the reason why our devotees will stay up to celebrate the night of our wedding, Maha-Shivaratri, the great night of Shiva for many thousands and millions of years to come, the great festival of love between man and woman, and human beings and God. And we bless all those who listen to this story or who tell it, especially during this holy night, especially little children who ask about it and listen to it and learn during this night the great lesson of divine love.'
Thus spoke Shiva Mahadéva, the Great God, to his Parvati and to all of us."
"Every marriage ceremony is preceded by Gauri puja, prayers to Goddess Gauri. Unmarried girls are particularly fond of Gauri since, it is said, she grants all their wishes. But they must be sensible wishes, wishes for things that are good for them: otherwise they are not granted. Often we do not know what is good for us and we utter stupid wishes and pray for these wishes to be fulfilled, perhaps for money, or a certain job, or a toy or a book or a new computer. Some of these wishes are granted, others not, but you can be sure that whatever is given or denied to us, it is better for us in the long run.
We may think that we need money badly. Perhaps we have not got enough even to pay the rent, or the electricity bill or even the next meal. We have to work hard to earn and find that money. But if nevertheless we are not given it, there must be a good reason.
That is what is meant when we say that Gauri, or some other God or Goddess, grants all our wishes. Whatever comes to us, no matter whether it appears to be good or bad, comes from God and if we accept it with gratitude we will be happy - even without money... ; if we grumble, we make ourselves unhappy.
That's why we do Gauri puja, prayers to Gauri, before every wedding. Even Goddess Sita did this puja before her marriage to Lord Rama.
Another custom that can be explained by this story is this: In many parts of India, as part of the wedding celebrations, which take several days, people make fun of the bridegroom and his family. They ask the bride why she does not marry somebody who is younger, (not 60,000 years like Lord Shiva), who is cleaner, or richer, or more good-looking than the man she has chosen. Why does she marry a madman who rides on a bull, etc? All this, of course, is done in jest and has to be rebutted with jokes. All these jokes are made in memory of Lord Shiva who appeared so outlandish to the people who saw him and yet, as Parvati knew, was The Great God himself.
Here Pandit-ji had almost ended his story. Little Yamuna had fallen asleep because the night had far progressed. But his brother and his wife were still awake and Pandit-ji went on to tell the remarkable story of how Karttikeya or Subramanya was conceived and born. Some say that he started out as six little babies born in a pond and Parvati picked them up, and hugged them all together and loved them so much and hugged them so tightly that all became one baby with six heads and later on a hero with six heads who rides on a peacock and went on to defeat the demon Taraka.
Other people say that Agni, the God of Fire, disturbed Shiva and Parvati when they were making love because he entered the room without knocking, and how passionate and strong they were, and how Shiva's son was therefore conceived not in Parvati's body but by Kritika, a woman who lives in the sky in the form of a cluster of stars (which English astronomers call "The Pleiades"), and that's why he was so powerful and was called Karttikeya, the son of Kritika.
Karttikeya defeated the demon Taraka, and that was the reason why Shiva and Parvati had to be married and have a son, but little Yamuna was fast asleep when Pandit-ji had reached this part of the story, and she will read it when she is grown up.
At this moment the sun rose in the east, over Pendle Hill, and cast a bright ray into Yamuna's living room. Pandit-ji, and Yamuna's parents and grandparents, stood up. They faced the window, closed their eyes, folded their hands and chanted three times the Gayatri Mantra:
OM, Bhur, Bhuvah,
May we meditate on the supreme light. From it the whole universe has issued. It exists in the hearts of all, and unto it will all go back. It is the intelligence in all beings, it is the guide of all intelligence. In it do we take refuge. May he inspire us with noble thoughts.
© 2001 Ashutosh Vardhana