Shiva’s Dice Game with Parvati

This story is from Richard Smoley’s The Dice Game of Shiva:


One day the embraces of the Hindu god Shiva and his consort, Parvati, who have spent eternity rapt in lovemaking, are interrupted by a sinister yogi named Narada. Narada says he can show them something that is even more delightful than love. It is a game of dice – an ancestor of today’s Parcheesi.

Intrigued by his offer, the divine couple begin to play. Each of them cheats as much as possible, but no matter how long they play, the outcome is always the same: Shiva loses and Parvati wins. Shiva may have the advantage for a round or two, but he can never win a game.

At one point Shiva is ahead; he has won a couple of Parvati’s jewels, enraging her to the point of refusing to play. Noticing that the angrier she grows, the more beautiful she becomes, he coaxes her into continuing. Parvati agrees to play if Shiva will wager his chief attributes: his trident, the crescent moon, and a pair of earrings.

Of course Shiva plays and loses. He refuses to accept this fact; after all, he is Shiva, the lord of the universe. “No living being can overcome me,” he tells her. She replies, “No living being can overcome you, it’s true – except me.” Out of spite she leaves him. She takes not only the trident and the crescent moon and the earrings but the pair of snakes that encircled his neck. She even takes his last item of clothing – his loincloth – leaving him completely naked.

Shiva is not troubled by this outcome. He withdraws to the wilderness and leads the life of an ascetic, free from the preoccupations of the world, meditating in solitary peace. Parvati, on the other hand, suddenly feels lonely and frustrated without him. Intent on winning him back, she takes the form of a lovely tribeswoman (an untouchable in the Hindu caste system) with red lips, a graceful neck, and magnificent full breasts. She is so beautiful that even the bees in the forest are overcome with desire.

Shiva's DesireShiva, roused from his meditation by the noise of the bees, sees Parvati in the guise of the tribeswoman and is overcome with desire for her. Coquettishly she says, “I am looking for a husband who is omniscient, who is free and fulfills all needs, who is free of mutations and is the lord of the worlds.”

Shiva says, “I am that one.”

Parvati replies, “You shouldn’t talk to me that way. I happen to know that you have a wife who won your devotion by many austerities, and you left her in a flash. Besides, you are an ascetic, living free of duality.”

“Even so, I want you.”

Parvati says that he must ask permission of her father, Himalaya, the lord of the mountain range. Shiva approaches him, but Himalaya says, “This is not right. You should not be asking me. You are the one who gives everything in all the worlds.”

At this point Narada reappears and tells Shiva, “Listen. Infatuation with women always leads to mockery.”

“You’re right,” Shiva replies. “I have been a fool.” And Shiva withdraws to a remote part of the the universe where even yogis cannot go.

At this point Narada convinces Parvati and Himalaya to implore Shiva to return, and they do so by praising him lavishly. Mollified, Shiva comes back, and he and Parvati resume their reign in unity.


Rather than a morality tale about avoiding greed and lust, it is necessary to dig deeper than conventional thinking to discover the meaning of this story about Shiva and Parvati. The Dice Game of Shiva, Richard SmoleyAs Smoley explains in the rest of the book, Shiva represents purusha, the Hindu term for the cosmic, universal Self, and represents that part of our being which is the constant observer, witness to all that we experience. His lover and partner is Parvati, the goddess who represents all that is experienced. She is prakriti or samsara; she is also the shakti or energy of the universe in all its dualistic aspects.

Myths are an anthropomorphic way of explaining truths about reality. The story begins with Shiva and Parvati rapt in everlasting, oblivious unity. Their unity represents the eternal unity of all Being before, during, and after the existence of all universes. The sudden introduction of Narada into their sphere seems odd at first but this makes sense if Narada represents something like the first hint of objective awareness, an awareness of each other as separate beings and the flickering of desire of Lover for Beloved.

Narada proceeds to separate them further by introducing a game of dice, a game that represents the game of life itself. The desire between Shiva and Parvati continues, of course, but it is playful while they both cheat as much as they can. Eventually Shiva manages to win a few of Parvati’s jewels. This angers Parvati but the more angry she gets, the more beautiful she becomes and Shiva’s desire for her increases. She wants to quit the game but Shiva coaxes her to continue.

Parvati agrees to keep playing if Shiva will wager his trident, the crescent moon he wears in his hair and a pair of earrings. This is where some can be led astray in their interpretation of the story. These are Shiva’s attributes rather than his material possessions. Parvati is completely caught up in the game and manages to literally strip Shiva of everything. All Shiva is left with is himself, his pure being. Now the complete separation of Shiva from Parvati, of purusha and prakriti is achieved; they are caught up a dualistic worldview and regard themselves as separated. This separation is represented by Shiva going off, unconcernedly, to the wilderness. Free of prakriti, he is able to meditate without distraction. This is the image we have of the traditional hermetic yogi; to escape the world and meditate in a cave high in the mountains somewhere. This is the classic image of Shiva, the ascetic yogi who meditates blissfully awareness only of his own being. He turns away from Parvati, prakriti – the entire created universe.

But Parvati is not enjoying her own freedom. She realizes too late what has happened; she had focused her attention on what she could win rather than on Shiva himself. Suddenly she finds no joy in life without Shiva. She is depressed, distraught. This is our own condition. We are creatures caught up in the dice game of existence. We are unhappy even though we win the game and enjoy the spoils.

In a desperate attempt to regain Shiva’s loving attention, Parvati takes the form of a beguiling tribeswoman who is so beautiful the bees of the forest are aroused. Shiva is distracted from his meditation by the buzzing of the bees. He opens his eyes and sees the beautiful woman and immediately wants her.  Because Shiva sits in a cave in the wilderness, he is not entirely removed from the world. The world can still distract him as indicated by the bees and the beautiful tribeswoman. Separation from Parvati is actually incomplete; escape from duality is not fully achieved.

Shiva cannot disagree with the tribeswoman’s description of his true nature. When Shiva acknowledges her flattery, she chides him and tells him he’s a liar and a cheat since he has a wife whom he left to live as an ascetic. But Shiva is not dissuaded; he still wants her. Parvati, as the tribeswoman, tells Shiva he must ask her father, Himalaya, for permission to marry her.

When Shiva, filled with desire for the tribeswoman, approaches Himalaya, the man of the mountain ranges reminds Shiva who he is. Shiva is Lord of the Universe, after all, and can do as he pleases.

At this point Narada, perhaps realizing the trouble he’s caused, enters the story once again. What he says does indeed sound very moralistic. “Infatuation with women always leads to mockery.” In the context of the rest of the story it serves to remind Shiva that he’s been distracted from the state of non-duality. And Shiva’s response is exactly to this point. He agrees with Narada and withdraws once again. This time he doesn’t go to a cave in the wilderness but “to a remote part of the the universe where even yogis cannot go.” It must be a place far removed from any hint of duality; a place where he successfully achieves true non-duality.

The rest of the story is very short but it is key. It is important to understand it clearly because it indicates the way to true happiness. Narada convinces Parvati and Himalaya to praise Shiva “lavishly.” Parvati and Himalaya, representing the entire created universe, turn their undivided attention toward Shiva in an outpouring of positive thoughts, activities, longings and desire. This corresponds with the Hindu form of religious devotion called bhakti yoga. It is the anthropomorphic way of saying that all of creation, prakriti, lovingly acknowledges the source and center, purusha; of saying that duality emerges from and is sustained in non-duality.

Shiva acknowledges this inseparability of source and creation and returns to Parvati. They reign again in unity but this time they are not rapt in oblivion. Now they are seated side by side representing the enlightened state of being. The game of dice is over, each of them accepts the other, needs the other. Shiva takes his rightful place in the universe with Parvati while Shiva is her within-ness, the aware-ness of every part of the universe from the smallest quantum particle to the largest galaxy. She is finally fulfilled and happy because she accepts and enjoys his sustaining love. Shiva likewise does not remove himself from her devoted adorations. There is no more seeking because there is no separation, no distancing. Lover and Beloved are one. Observer and observed are one. Experiencer and experienced are one. Awareness and object of awareness are one in constant bliss.

She is an ever-changing, all-powerful vortex of energy. He is her center point, her lover and beholder within every vortex spinning the illusion we call matter; he is the conscious center of every vortex! Our own happiness, our enlightenment, depends of a clear understanding and experience of this dynamic. We find fulfillment when we experience the fluctuations of duality from the perspective of permanent non-dual awareness.