Hinduism Pārvatī
by
Ellen Goldberg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0072

Introduction

Pārvatī (“daughter of the mountain,” also known as Umā) is considered one of the most beloved goddesses in the Hindu pantheon, although she has not been the focus of sustained scholarly study. She figures prominently as the devoted wife of the great god Śiva, mother of Gaṇeśa and Skanda (also known as Kārttikeya or Murugan), and is closely aligned with the benign aspect of Mahādevī, the Great Goddess. There are no references to Pārvatī in the Vedas (the ancient and most sacred writings of Hinduism), nor do we find her image on early Indian coins. She first appears in the epic literature (sometimes dated from 400 BCE to 400 CE, but with a shorter span of approximately two hundred years to the turn of the millennium) as the reincarnation of Śiva’s wife Satī who immolated herself in the fire of asceticism. Satī and Pārvatī are defined in the classical literature by their association with Śiva as his ideal wives. However, Pārvatī is not only Śiva’s wife; she is also his śakti, mother of the universe and a disciplined female ascetic (tapasvinī) in her own right. Her mythic profile unfolds through enduring stories told in the purāṇas including her rebirth as the daughter of Himavat and Menā, her practice of tapas (asceticism), her wedding ceremony and marriage to Śiva, the birth of her sons, her emanation as Durgā, the game of dice, and her role as half of Śiva’s body in the androgynous form Ardhanārīśvara (the half-woman lord). These narratives provide the basis of much sacred art and devotional worship in South Asia. Although there are few temples dedicated explicitly to her, Pārvatī’s presence is evident in Śiva temples across India. Some of the earliest representations of Pārvatī from Mathurā, Ellorā, and Tanjore show her sitting or standing on Śiva’s left side holding either a lotus flower (nīlōtpala) or a mirror (darpaṇa) in her right hand. She is central in traditions of Indian dance and can be seen watching Śiva-Naṭarāja’s tāṇḍava or performing the gentle lāsya (dance of creation) by his side. Pārvatī also is among the 108 deities represented in the Hindu tantric pantheon and is portrayed in the Āgamas as Śiva’s principal disciple (śiṣya) to whom he grants the transmission of secret teachings. Her narrative finds new expression in modern times through local festivals and various media including Indian comic books and film, attesting to her enduring place in the Hindu imagination.

General Overviews

Introductory studies on Pārvatī tend to fall under two broad thematic frameworks. First, encyclopedic works and historical surveys offering a general overview of the history of Hindu goddesses and, second, introductory works treating the iconography and mythology of Pārvatī as an intrinsic aspect of Śiva’s classical narrative. Bhattacharyya 1999 provides a comprehensive chronological overview of goddess iconography and mythology from the Indus Valley period and makes several clear references to Pārvatī as the benign epic prototype of Devī, whereas Kinsley 1986 offers a useful chapter that focuses on textual and archaeological sources and describes Pārvatī primarily as a spouse-goddess who is dominated by her relationship with Śiva. Kinsley reinforces the argument put forth in Doniger 1973 that Śiva and Pārvatī’s relationship reflects a central paradox in Indian tradition between eroticism (kama) and asceticism (mokṣa). Dehejia 1999 is a multiauthored work that captures the complex nature of the great goddess through ample textual references and vibrant illustrations, including sculptures and paintings from the Smithsonian Institution’s collection. Mertens 2009 offers by far the most comprehensive overview and asks the provocative question, “Who is Pārvatī?” Mertens claims that, by the end of the 6th century CE, Pārvatī’s role as spouse-goddess is absorbed by Devī, thereby consolidating her status as the one great goddess. Three significant works on Śiva that provide general surveys and have particular thematic relevance for research on Pārvatī are Doniger 1973, Kramrisch 1992 and Chitgopekar 1998. Doniger 1973 offers a useful introduction and in-depth interpretation of selected textual narratives referencing Pārvatī, whereas Kramrisch 1992 introduces an extensive survey of various myths that include Pārvatī and Śiva but offers little theoretical analysis. Chitgopekar 1998 recognizes that, although there is a vast scholarly tradition on Śiva, there is surprisingly little independent and sustained research on Pārvatī.

  • Bhattacharyya, Narendra Nath. The Indian Mother Goddess. 3d ed. New Delhi: Manohar, 1999

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    Pioneer study that provides a broad overview and traces the history of mother-goddess worship in India from the Indus Valley period to the late 1990s. Surveys in some detail the mythology of Pārvatī as wife-goddess and as prototype of Devī in Indian literature.

  • Chitgopekar, Nilima. Encountering Śivaism: The Deity, the Milieu, the Entourage. New Delhi: Munshirm Manoharlal, 1998.

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    A regional study of Śiva in medieval Madhya Pradesh. The author looks specifically at epigraphical and literary sources and provides a useful intellectual history of the available secondary research on Śiva including specific references to Pārvatī.

  • Dehejia, Vidya, ed. Devi, The Great Goddess: Female Divinity in South Asian Art. Washington, DC: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 1999.

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    Useful multiauthored collection containing nine essays complemented by an exquisite presentation of images from the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. Visual representations of Pārvatī from India and Nepal figure prominently. She is portrayed as a composite deity who embraces both benevolent (saumya) and horrific (ugra) forms.

  • Doniger, Wendy. Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Śiva. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

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    This study makes a plethora of intricate myths from epic and purāṇic literature available to scholars and students. Controversial and groundbreaking reference work. Republished in 1981 as Śiva, the Erotic Ascetic (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

  • Kinsley, David. The Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

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    Accessible sourcebook for students interested in goddesses or models of the feminine divine in South Asian religion. Includes a comprehensive chapter on Pārvatī that focuses on literary sources, history, mythology, iconography, and her role in Indian tradition.

  • Kramrisch, Stella. The Presence of Śiva. 2d ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

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    Useful overview of mythological narratives on Śiva and Pārvatī. Chapters by the eminent historian of art include the Liṅga, Lord of Yoga, Śiva and Pārvatī, and Ardhanārīśvara. Excellent appendix with black-and-white photographs of Śiva and Pārvatī from the Great Cave Temple on the Island of Elephanta.

  • Mertens, Annemarie. “Pārvatī.” In Brill Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, et al. 655-675. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

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    By far the most comprehensive encyclopedic essay on Pārvatī. Focuses on the relationship between Pārvatī, Umā, and Satī; raises critical questions about Pārvatī’s identity and her role in relation to Durgā in the Śakta tradition after the 6th century CE.

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