Love’s Ultimate Sacrifice
The unthinkable had happened. Sati was dead.
Her charred corpse slung upon his shoulders, the Great God, Shiva wandered the lands, heartbroken and alone. Day after day passed but he could not let her go. Such was his grief that the gods feared the world might drown in it. At last, Vishnu hurled his sudarshan chakra, his disc and split Sati’s body into many pieces which fell to the ground.
Devastated, Shiva retreated to his home in the Himalayas, forsaking the world that had so brutally snatched his beloved from him.
Ages passed but there he remained lost in meditation, removed from the world.
A world that was in deep trouble.
A demon named Taraka was growing more powerful each day wreaking havoc and destruction upon men and gods alike. No one could stop him for Brahma had granted him a boon. Taraka could only be killed by the son of Shiva. A boon cleverly elicited by the demon who knew very well that Shiva had renounced the world.
Meanwhile, away from all the troubles, Uma the daughter of the mountains was falling more and more in love with the hermit who sat unmoved, in deep meditation, a god like steadiness in his being. She had seen him like that since she was child and as she had grown into a young woman her fascination with him had grown too, till all she wanted was to marry him. She would bring flowers and lay them at his feet everyday and watch him for hours. Her heart told her she belonged with him.
Little did Uma know that she was none other than Sati, reborn.
But the gods knew and they waited for love to find its way into Shiva’s heart. But alas, it was not to be. The world and Uma with all her loveliness did not exist for Shiva.
And who would dare wake Shiva up from his reverie? No mortal, nor god.
There was someone however who could spring love in the coldest of hearts.
So Indra the chief of gods, called upon Kama, the god of love, for help. The tall and handsome young god turned pale when he understood what was being asked of him. To incur the wrath of Shiva was to ask for death.
At last, the god of love spoke. If Spring will go before me, he said, I am willing to try.
Now when Kama set forth to find Mahadev, Spring went before him. At Spring’s approach, forests bloomed and springs gurgled, birds chirped and a gentle breeze whispered.
In his footsteps followed Kama along with his wife Rati, Desire, and the world warmed with the friendship of creatures.
But the great yogi remained untouched, unaware.
The archer, Love, with his bow of flowers and arrows tipped with humming bees, hid among the trees waiting for the right moment. Before long, the beautiful Uma appeared, bringing with her flowers to lay at her Lord’s feet. Kama’s hands shook a little as he pulled back his string but his arrow found its mark and shattered the ice that encased Shiva’s heart.
For the briefest of moments, an image flashed through Shiva’s mind- a beautiful maiden and then horror swept over him like a wave. His third eye opened spontaneously to find the source of such an impulse and in that instant Kama was reduced to a handful of ashes.
Livid with rage, Shiva got up and walked away with not a thought for the maiden who lay at his feet.
Rati, distraught at losing her husband, begged the gods to bring him back.
Be patient, Indra said to her, your husbands’s arrow has found its mark . Let us wait for it to do its work. Shiva the merciful will bring back your love.
Uma, who was left alone grew more resolute to win Shiva’s heart and chose to embark on a path of serve penance. Months passed and Uma’s austerities grew more severe each day till they melted Shiva’s heart and he came to her disguised as an old man.
Why do you torture yourself so? The old man asked. What is it you seek, fair maiden?
To win the heart of my Lord Shiva, she replied
Shiva! the old man scoffed. That beggar ? He is not worthy of you.
You would not understand the ways of Mahadev, replied an angry Uma as she started to walk away.
Shiva then appeared as himself and stopped her. Uma’s devotion had won his heart.
As he looked into the eyes of the shrivelled but radiant woman before him, he saw his Sati. He recognised the love he had lost. Uma was married to Shiva and the world rejoiced. Soon they had a son Kartikeya who killed Taraka and became a renowned warrior.
Just as Indra had promised, Shiva brought Kama back to life too. His body was gone and not even God could bring it back but Kama’s spirit would live on. No one would see him except his wife Rati. Since that day Love walks silently among us, invisible to both men and gods.
In the south of India, Holi is celebrated as Kamadahan, the burning of Kama, when Love is remembered for its ultimate sacrifice.
Although, we may never see the god of love, we can feel his presence in the first blooms of Spring, in the singing of the birds, the fragrant breeze and in the flutter in our hearts.
On the full moon night of Holi, bonfires are lit to burn all that is old and decaying, all that is base and dark to make space for the new and light.
In this myth, the seers, the rishis, allude to another bonfire. With his third eye of intuition Shiva burnt to ashes the base passion that clouds the mind. For Kama also means passion.
It was not the beauty of Uma that captivated Shiva but her deep devotion that eventually won his heart. When Shiva finally came to Uma, she was a shadow of her physical self but the radiance of her tapas shone through. It is this tapas, the burning of one’s base self in the fire of one’s true spirit, is what this myth talk about.
This story is also about Love. Love that sacrificed itself for the sake of others.
* This year Holi will be celebrated on the 5th and 6th of March.