UMĀ is the name by which the consort of Siva is first known. In the sacred books she appears in many forms, and is known by many names; but as there are legends giving the circumstances connected with the names and forms more generally known, these will be given as far as possible in chronological order.
When Devi (the goddess) appears as Umā, she is said to be the daughter of Daksha, a son of Brahmā. Her father was at first very unwilling that his daughter should marry a mendicant, but his scruples were overcome by the persuasion of Brahmā. As Siva is styled Mahādeva, Umā is frequently called simply Devi. At this period of her existence she is also called Sati, in allusion to the fact that when her father slighted her husband by not inviting him to the great sacrifice he made, she voluntarily entered the sacrificial fire and was burned to death in the presence of the gods and Brāhmans; or, according to another account, was, under the same circumstances, consumed by her own glory. The name Sati means “the true, or virtuous woman,” and is given to those widows who ascend the funeral pile of their husbands, and undergo a voluntary death by being burned with his corpse. Ambikā, another name of Umā, in one of the earliest books, is said to be the sister of Rudra; and yet in the later ones she is declared to be his wife.
“The earliest work, so far as I am aware, in which the name of Umā appears, is the Talavakāra, or Kena Upanishad. In the third section of that treatise it is mentioned that on one occasion Brahmā gained a victory for the gods. As, however, they were disposed to ascribe the credit of their success to themselves, Brahmā appeared for the purpose of disabusing them of their mistake. The gods did not know him, and commissioned first Agni and then Vāyu, to ascertain what this apparition was. When, in answer to Brahmā’s inquiry, these two gods represented themselves, the one as having power to burn, and the other to blow away anything whatever, he desired them respectively to burn and blow away a blade of grass; but they were unable to do this, and returned without ascertaining who he was. Indra was then commissioned to ascertain who this apparition was. ‘So be it,’ he replied, and approached that being, who vanished from him. In the sky he came to a woman, who was very resplendent, Umā Haimavati. To her he said: ‘What is this apparition?’ She said, It is Brahmā; in this victory of Brahmā exult.’ By this he knew that it was Brahmā. The commentators on this passage declare that Umā means ‘knowledge,’ and speak of Umā as the impersonation of ‘divine knowledge.’”
Professor Weber says: “As in Siva, first of all two gods, Agni and Rudra are combined, so too his wife is to be regarded as a compound of several divine forms; and this becomes quite evident as we look over the mass of her epithets. While one set of these as Umā, Ambikā, Pārvati, Haimavati, belong to the wife of Rudra, others as Kāli carry us back to the wife of Agni; while Gauri and others perhaps refer to Nirriti the goddess of all evil.” And he adds: “The most remarkable instance of this is to be found in the Mahābhārata in the hymn of Yudhishthira to Durgā, where he calls her Yasodā Krishna, ‘born in the cowherd family of Nanda,’ ‘sister of Vasudeva,’ ‘enemy of Kansa,’ and as ‘having the same features as Sankarshana.’ Some such explanation is certainly necessary when we see that Kāli is said to be the same with Umā, the embodiment of ‘heavenly wisdom.’”
In the following passage from the Rāmāyana, Umā is said to be the daughter of Himavat and Mena; the two forms of lima and Pārvati being confounded in the writer’s mind. “To Himavat, the chief of mountains, the great mine of metal, two daughters were born in beauty unequalled upon earth. The daughter of Meru, Mend by name, the pleasing and beloved wife of Himavat, was their slender-waisted mother. Of her was born Gangā, the eldest daughter of Himavat, and his second daughter was Umā, who, rich in austere observances, having undertaken an arduous rite, fulfilled a course of severe austerity. This daughter lima, distinguished by severe austerity, adored by the worlds, the chief of the mountains gave to the matchless Rudra. These were the two daughters of the King of the Mountains: Gangā, the most eminent of rivers, and Umā the most excellent of goddesses.”
“The Harivansa mentions three daughters of Himavat and Mena, but Gangā is not amongst them. “Their (the Pitris) mental daughter was Mena, the eminent wife of the great mountain Himavat. The King of the Mountains begat three daughters upon Menā, viz. Aparnā, Ekaparnā, and Ekapātalā. These three performing very great austerity, such as could not be performed by gods or Dānavas, distressed [with alarm] both the stationary and the moving worlds. Ekaparnā (one leaf) fed upon one leaf. Ekapātalā took only one pātala (Bignonia) for her food. One (Aparnā) took no sustenance; but her mother, distressed through maternal affection, forbade her, dissuading her with her words u mā (Oh, don’t). The beautiful goddess, performing arduous austerity, having been thus addressed by her mother, became known in the three worlds as Umā. In this manner the contemplative goddess became renowned under that name. All these three had mortified bodies, were distinguished by the force of contemplation, and were all chaste, and expounders of divine knowledge. Umā was the eldest and most excellent of the three. Distinguished by the force derived from deep contemplation, she obtained Mahādeva [for her husband].”
Several of the names under which Umā is now known and worshipped are to be found in the older writings of the Hindus, though at that time they did not refer to Siva’s wife. Umā, as we have already seen, was “Wisdom;” Ambikā was a sister of Rudra; Durgā “in a hymn of the Taittiriya Āranyaka is an epithet of the sacrificial flame; and Kāli, a word which occurs in the Mandaka Upanishad, is the name of one of the seven flickering tongues of Agni, the god of fire.”
Umā is called the mother of Kartikeya, and in a certain sense of Ganesa too; but it is not at all clear whether it was really as Umā or in her succeeding birth as Pārvati that she had these children.
The “Kurmā Purāna” has an account of Umā’s creation which takes us back, a stage anterior to her birth as a daughter of Daksha. “When Brahmā was angry with his sons for adopting an ascetic life [and refusing to perpetuate the human race], a form half male and half female was produced from that anger, to whom Brahmā said, ‘Divide thyself,’ and then disappeared. The male half became Rudra, and the female, at the command of Brahmā, became the daughter of Daksha under the name of Sati, and was given in marriage to Rudra, and when she subsequently gave up her life on being treated with disrespect by her father, she was born a second time as the daughter of Himavat and Mena, and named Pārvati.”
It should be noticed that although Umā is called the wife of Siva, it is understood that she represents the energy or active power of that deity; she assumed a body in order that she might be united to him in due form; in like manner Vishnu’s energy became incarnate in Lakshmi, Sita, etc.