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God/Goddess Pairs in Hindu Mythology and Iconography
The myths of Sita and Ram offer a rather Brahmanical approach to spirituality. Ram is the paradigmatic king of dharma, who ushers in a golden age of righteous rule in India. At his side, is his ever-faithful and self-effacing wife "who, although the victim of injustices, always remains loyal and steadfast to her husband" (Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses, pg. 65). A famous episode recounts how she was captured by the demon Ravana and held prisoner. During her imprisonment she claims she could incinerate him with her chaste tapas, but refuses to do so only because Ram has not given her permission. Soon, Hanuman, the other paradigmatic devotee of Ram aside from Sita, comes to rescue her, however she refuses his aide for in so doing she would have to touch another man, and the fact that Hanuman would get the glory for rescuing her, instead of her beloved Ram, is unthinkable to her.
Such an unswervingly faithful woman eventually draws the scrutiny of Ram and his people. Sita always remains utterly devoted to Ram, and even places the blame of such accusations on herself, musing that perhaps it was a misdeed committed in a past life that caused her to experience this ill-occasion. This constant devotion to Ram serves as a paradigm for the devotee and teaches about the merit one accrues with strict adherence to dharma. Even more theological insight can be gleaned from investigating the individual's relationship to the Lord/dharma as characterized in the iconography of Sita and Ram. Sita is often placed off-center and smaller than Ram, representing that the Lord, and never one's ego, should be the central focus of life. Ram and Sita represent a very orthodox brahmanical spiritual path that emphasizes the male half of Brahman (as symbolized by Ram), and suggests that by constantly suppressing egotistic material urges (as Sita demonstrates), one can live a devoted life in conjunction with dharma, eventually leading one to Brahman. The female aspect, in this case, is subservient and repressed in service to the male.
The tales of Kali and Shiva stand in stark, antinomian contrast to the traditional brahmanic values explicated in the Ram-Sita cycle. Shiva is characterized as a sava (corpse) without his sakti Kali. Here, then, it is the female principle (sakti) which is central, for it brings to life all materiality, of which our bodies and conventional reality is composed. It makes sense then, that Kali is a central deity in Tantra. By effectively manipulating various material substances and desires (such as drugs, sex, etc.) one can manipulate the subtle energies (prana) in the self and realize Brahman. This perspective, which favors the female principle, is well characterized in common images of Kali. Sometimes seem copulating with Shiva, lying prone like a corpse, her life-giving powers are asserted as the mother of all reality. Likewise, she sometimes stands above the inert body of Mahayogin Shiva, holding the signature weapons of all the gods, in effect revealing her as the metaphysical ground of all being from which the other gods spring. The philosophical perspective here would argue that the nirguna aspect of Brahman can only be actualized through the saguna nature of its sakti, and thus is it the sakti that deserves the devotee’s spiritual attention and worship.
Parvati, another consort of Shiva, offers yet another view of the male-female dynamic. Parvati tames Shiva, and while she engages in aspects of his asceticism, she also domesticates him and makes him a householder and family man. In this sense, the sakti serves to release Shiva's "stored-up potency, which accumulates during asceticism" and release it "into the world to invigorate [and] enliven creation" (Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses, pg. 38). This life-giving complementation is of course revealed in the iconography of Parvati, most poignantly in the aniconic symbol of the linga and yoni, the very tools through which life emerges in the animal world. Iconically, the paradigmatic image of the goddess in the stance (known as Dvibhanga Asana) points to her role as a yogini absorbed in a meditation. Yet, she is only half-clothed, suggesting her erotic nature and associations with fertility. Although she is in no way subservient to Shiva, as clear in the tales of their periodic arguments, it is well known that the union between Shiva and Parvati is primarily for pragmatic purposes, namely to beget a child who will save the universe. These stories and images suggest a practical and integrated, mutually constructive view of reality and the male/female polarities.
Radha, even more so than Parvati, has an intimate relationship with her consort Krishna in which both parties are smitten. Radha and Krishna long for each other, and both display the archetypal signs of their love-struck status (such as forgetfulness, longing, infatuation, etc.) when not in the presence of the other. Totally infatuated and consumed with the other, they frolic and make love with reckless abandon.
They are often shown as equally enamored with one another and joined together in love’s embrace. Interestingly, while Parvati and Siva complement each other in the dichotomy of ascetic/erotic through which Brahman is realized, in the case of Radha it is the selfless devotion and love for Krishna that is revealed to be the ultimate technique to attain the Ultimate. Figuratively speaking, the individual soul (Radha) longs for blissful reunification with God (Krishna) as much as God longs for union with each soul. Thus, the equal love and longing of star-struck lovers balances and completes male-female energy in divine union.