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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

The Myths

The mythology of Shiva’s dice game (Handelman & Shulman, 1997) explains the creation of the phenomenal world and goes something like this:

The Dice Game—Featuring the Androgyne and Dice Game Panels

Before they begin to play, says one version of the myth, Parvati and Shiva are one, the androgyne, Ardhanarisvara. Narada, a sage, visits them and entices them to play by telling them “the game of dice has many forms—and the two of you are likely to find it more pleasing than making love” (Handelman & Shulman, 1997, p. 17). Parvati takes the dice and begins to play, after she separates herself from Shiva so that they become two different players. And so the fragmentation begins. Shiva, usually reluctantly at first, begins to play; then they become entirely absorbed in the game and both of them begin to cheat and play in tricky ways. At first Shiva beats Parvati, and she gets angrier and angrier. This makes her more beautiful to Shiva, so he keeps playing. But then more is wagered and Shiva loses everything—all of his attributes to her. When Parvati demands what he has wagered: “Shiva merely smiled at this point and said something true: ‘I wasn’t really beaten by you, dearest; look at things from the right perspective. No living being can ever overcome me. You shouldn’t talk like this” (p. 18). In this way Shiva tries to subvert the game, but a quarrel thus ensues because Shiva has reneged on his pledge and refused to pay, let alone even acknowledge that he lost. Since Shiva and Parvati often play dice, these dynamics occur time and time again, sometimes these quarrels result in even further separations—both of them unhappy, Shiva going to the wilderness far away and Parvati remaining alone. In the end, as we will see, Shiva and Parvati are reunited, but it is not the same type of unity as before.

Pattanaik (1997) recounts another version of the myth, which is also instructive. In this one, we see the notion of maya or illusion at work. Shiva after losing all he possessed, is humiliated by his defeat and goes into the cedar forest and Vishnu feels sorry for him and offers to help:

Play another game. This time I promise you will win,” he told Shiva. And that was exactly what happened. Shiva won back all that he had lost in his earlier games, even the loincloth. Parvati, suspicious of Shiva’s sudden success, called him a cheat. Shiva outraged by the accusation, demanded an apology. Words were exchanged, insults were hurled . . . to pacify them both, Vishnu appeared on the scene and revealed to Parvati the secret of Shiva’s victories. “My spirit entered the dice. The dice moved not according to your moves but according to my wish. So neither has Shiva really won nor have you really lost. The game was an illusion; your quarrel a product of delusion.” On hearing Vishnu, Parvati and Shiva realized that life was like their game of dice—totally unpredictable and beyond control. They said, “Let the gods bless all who play dice on this day and realize this cosmic truth.” This day is Diwali, the festival of lights. (pp. 32-33)

Slaying of Andhaka Panel

On one occasion, still in a playful spirit, Parvati covered Shiva’s eyes, which enveloped the universe in catastrophic darkness. Andhaka is the demon who results from this play. Andhaka came from Shiva’s sweat, and is the embodiment of demonic darkness. Parvati and Shiva give him away to the Demon King Hiranyakasipu, who raises him. Andhaka became strong and wanted to fight the gods. He had been given a deathless boon from Brahma, and could not be killed. Shiva desired to help the gods and summoned the goddess from the fire. She was called Kelisvari, the mistress of play, because her very essence was play. Andhaka’s guru, Sukra, was offering his flesh to the fire to get help for Andhaka, and Kelisvari appeared to Sukra and pleaded for him not to do this. When he agreed, she taught Sukra how to revive the dead demons. Andhaka also desired Parvati and went to fight Shiva. Shiva was finally fed up and impaled Andhaka with his trident, burning Andhaka’s flesh from him. The drops of Andhaka’s blood had to be gathered in a bowl so that they would not become alive again and repeat the destructiveness. At that point of total conflict, “comes a moment of transfiguration. Andhaka’s consciousness expands and he recognizes Shiva as god” (Handelman & Shulman, 1997, p. 118). Shiva takes compassion on him, and Andhaka became Brnghin, the leader of Shiva’s ganas. Brnghin is comprised of only bones and has three legs. He is a clown of sorts, “positioned to effect the alchemy of comic flavor, stirred up by jokes and witticisms and amusing words” (p. 116).

Shiva and Parvati Reunite: Marriage and Ravana Panels

Shiva and Parvati get married on different occasions in different myths. The time that is relevant for us in this instance is after the dice game. Shiva has lost all of his attributes and gone into the forest. Parvati, after sulking around at home and missing him, goes off to find him and disguises herself, through maya, as an aboriginal woman. Shiva finds her very attractive and Parvati (in disguise), playing with him still, tells Shiva that she is looking for an omniscient husband. He tells her he is omniscient, which he obviously is not at this point, because if he were omniscient, he would know who she was! Parvati accepts his proposal however, and they end up getting married.

Ravana, the great ten-headed king of Lanka, was a great devotee of Shiva who was granted a boon of invincibility by Shiva. Needless to say, this went to his head, or ten heads as the case may be. He then went around challenging everyone he could find, but no one was his equal, so he decided to challenge the great god Shiva himself. He went to Kailas and found Shiva and Parvati peacefully seated. Ravana used his enormous power to rip Kailas from its foundations; this frightened Parvati who screamed for Shiva to help and then embraced him tightly. An alternate version of the story relates that Ravana went to Kailas every day to worship Shiva. One day, Ravana decided to bring the mountain to himself for convenience, and this is why Ravana ripped Kailas from its foundations. Either way, Parvati was frightened and Shiva was not pleased with Ravana, and so Shiva pinned Ravana under the mountain.

The Forest of Pines—The Yogi and Nataraj Panels

In the story of Shiva and the Forest of Pines (Handelman & Shulman, 2004), we find out that none of the sages who lived in the forest had any love for god. Performing endless rites, they tortured their bodies, because they believed that ritual and tapas (austerities or internal practices) alone would produce freedom. Shiva wanted to do something about this “sorry” situation and so he summoned Vishnu. Shiva asked Vishnu to assume the form of a bewitchingly beautiful woman, while he himself assumed a form of limitless beauty. In this way, together they entered the forest. Once in the forest, Shiva shed his clothes and became naked except for his begging bowl and trident. He instructed Vishnu to go and bewilder the sages and then return to him. Meanwhile the naked yogi Shiva set out to find the sages’ wives at their houses and he proceeded to entrance them. They came out of their houses and were fascinated by Shiva.

“There is a very deep ocean that is called ‘wanting God,’ and they were drowning in it” (p. 6). The wives shed all of their clothes and ornaments and began offering soft foods like rice, milk, and yogurt to Shiva, in their overwhelming hunger for him. They were bewildered, beautiful, and disturbed—having lost not only their outer attire, but their shame and womanly restraint as well. They performed acts of love, in passion and stared at and worshipped the God and his phallus. They loved him, surrendering to him utterly and became pregnant—giving birth without pain or sorrow to 48,000 children who themselves began to engage in devoted tapas.

Vishnu, with the enchanted sages in tow, came back to Shiva, who was still surrounded by the sages' enthralled wives. Because of this, the sages became enraged at Shiva and conspired against him, producing an evil fire. They cursed him and attacked him with various weapons, as well as snakes and even summoned Mulayaka. Their efforts were in vain however, as Shiva vanquished them all and pressed down on Mulayaka’s back with his foot and began his tandava dance. With this, the whole world shuttered, the gods were in awe, the sages collapsed, and then the sages, along with their wives fell at Shiva’s feet and prayed, understanding their previous errors. Having accomplished what he set out to do, Shiva then ended his dance.

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