Published in Speaking Tree, September 25, 2011
Everybody knows that Shiva, the hermit, opened his third eye to burn, Kama, the god of love, to ashes. However, few notice that the goddess who finally becomes Shiva’s wife, is known as Kamakshi in the South and Kamakhya in the East. Both names mean ‘the desirable one’ or more literally, ‘one whose eyes are full of desire’. In a way what Shiva destroys, and resists, ends up becoming his better half – with a slight twist.
The relationship between Kama and Kamakshi is very obvious in the South, for example in her grand temple at Kanchi, near Chennai, where the goddess is depicted holding symbols associated with the god of love. She holds the sugarcane bow, the arrows made of flowers, and the parrot. At the temple at Kamakhya, near Guwahati, the relationship with Kama is more subtle. The goddess is worshipped in the form of a womb, a cleft in the rock, from where once a year flows out red fluid following the first rain around June. But she is not Kama. Kama churns our passion for our pleasure. Kamakshi arouses passion for the world at large. For she is the Goddess, equal in stature to Shiva who is God. Kama is a mere Deva, a god spelt without capitals.
Womb worship or yoni-puja is the cornerstone of Kamakshi and Kamakhya. This can be taken literally as well as metaphorically. Literally, it can be seen as a worship of women, in a male-dominated society; the worship of her procreative abilities, without which no new life can be created. The red color closely associated with goddess worship is the red seed or menstrual blood that flows out of the body of a fertile woman who is not carrying a child. Metaphorically, the womb represents Prakriti, nature, the material world, full of fragrances and fluids that can take various forms. This is the world of death and fear and life and love; it is the world of desires and passions and ambitions and attachments. Shiva, the hermit, shuns both, the literal as well as metaphorical aspect of the Goddess.
Shiva is Purusha, an aspect of the human imagination, that refuses to acknowledge and engage with Prakriti. Brahma is another aspect of human imagination that believes he created nature, and so is master of nature. When he tries to possess her, claim her as his own, he is beheaded by an irritated Shiva who takes the form of Bhairava, and inadvertently becomes the guardian of the Goddess. Though fierce guardian, he remains Bhola, the innocent one, refusing to embrace and enjoy nature. So with a little help from Vishnu, that aspect of the human imagination that understands both Shiva’s asceticism and Brahma’s passion, the Goddess gets Shiva to be her husband, with a little force and with a little prayer. That is why Kamakhya and Kamakshi are shown always sitting or stepping on Shiva, awakening him from his meditative inward-looking slumber.
The difference between the shrine at Kanchi and Guwahati is that the former is very vegetarian while the latter is very non-vegetarian, receiving regular sacrifices of male buffalo and billy goats. Such has been the impact of Buddhism and Vaishnavism, that in many shrines the goddess known as Rakta-priya, one who enjoys blood, has become increasingly vegetarian. But the red color, the womb worship, the association with her sisters or daughters, Lakshmi and Saraswati, her guardian-consort Bhairava, tales of beheading those who seek to dominate her, still prevails. She embodies the autonomy of nature. She will never be conquered, human delusion notwithstanding.