Kama is the god of love in Hindu mythology. The beautiful embodiment of desire, he is the inspiration for the famous work on lovemaking, the Kama Sutra. His name is reflected in several Indian names such as Kami (loving) and Kantu (happy, one of the names for Kama). Love's wife is Rati - passion - and his best friend is Vasanta, spring. He wanders about surrounded by apsaras, beautiful girls whose main goal in life is to lure ascetic sages out of their godly devotion.
All colour and sweetness, Kama has many similarities with Eros/Cupid of Greek and Roman myth. He is often depicted as a child (why will be explained later), and carries a bow and arrows which can shoot love into the heart of the sternest ascetic. The bow's shaft is made from sugarcane, the bowstring from a line of buzzing bees, and his five arrows are tipped with flowers. Kama is sometimes shown with wings, but usually he rides a parrot which flies him through the three worlds.
There are several stories about Kama, for he is a mischievous god, and frequently fires the arrow handed to him by Vasanta. The most famous legend tells about when he took it upon him to put desire into the heart of Shiva, the god who had forsworn earthly things forever.
The demon Taraka haunted the lands, and not even the gods could do something about it. Finally Indra, foremost of the gods, went and asked for advice from the Creator. He was told that the only one who could kill the demon was the seed of Shiva.
Now Shiva had no children, and his wife was dead - in his great mourning, he was lost to the world, sitting deeply concentrated in meditation. Something needed to be done before Shiva's child could conquer the demon. But who could do it?
The gods turned to Kama, the handsome god, the god of love. "Can you awaken Shiva?" they asked. "Can you light a fire in him so that he produces a fighter strong enough to conquer the demon?"
"Sure!" Kama volunteered, without thinking twice, perhaps he didn't even think once. He then went home and told his wife all about it. Rati was less than happy. "You could at least have asked me first!" she said. "Don't you know that Shiva is a god of awesome powers? Who are you to tease him?" Kama just laughed and kissed her, and soon he had convinced her to come along and disturb Shiva. Vasanta accompanied him as always.
Lord Shiva had retreated to the mountains, to the distant Himalayas. Kama pulled out an arrow and shot it right at him. The god awoke suddenly. "Who dare disturb my meditation?" he roared. He spotted Kama, and immediately knew who had been the perpetrator. Shiva opened his third eye in the middle his forehead and burned Kama to ashes.
Rati, seeing her husband go up in smoke, was devastated. She begged and pleaded with Shiva to bring her husband back to life. Shiva had calmed down a little and decided to grant her wish - but only partially. He restored Kama, but only as a mental image, representing true love and not physical lust. This earned Kama the name Ananga - the bodiless.
Despite his demise, Kama's arrow had hit home. Shiva's juices were flowing, and he agreed to take Parvati as his wife. Yet his seed was so full of energy that only Agni, the fire, could bear to take it. Agni transferred the seed to Ganga who bore the god-child Kartikeya, who was destined to slay the demon Taraka.
Rati was of course not happy having just an image for a husband. Finally, after Parvati had convinced him, Shiva allowed Kama to be reborn in a proper body, this time as the son of Krishna. Some stories say that Rati became a wet-nurse for the little child, others that she too was incarnated. Anyway, eventually they married again, and love was restored to the world.
After the deed of Kama, Shiva gave up his self-contained holiness and formed a unity with Parvati.
As a powerful sexual power, he is worshipped in the representation of the Shiva linga, a phallic
symbol which is always seen together with its female counterpart, the yoni. At the same time, the outcome of the story highlights the destructive power of sexuality.
In another, related legend, it was Shiva himself who was the threat. Mourning the tragic loss of his first wife, the god retreated into deep meditation. He was a fearsome sight as more and more anger and sorrow built up in him, and the other gods became afraid. They knew they must stop this build-up of negative energy before it was too late. Turning to Kama, they begged him to re-awaken the love of Shiva.
Kama was less willing this time. Shiva looked fearsome indeed, his face frozen into a grimace of despair, his long hair held up with hissing snakes. But the love-god also knew it was important, for who knew what would happen happen to the world if he did not act? He raised his bow, pointed an arrow at the great Destroyer - and promptly lost his courage.
Then he saw Parvati, daughter of the mountain, the goddess sent by the gods to win Shiva's heart. Her beauty, Kama had to admit, was even greater than that of his own wife. She would surely be able to raise Shiva's spirits! And he sent off the arrow. With the same result as before.
Poor Kama, twice killed and several times halfway restored, has many aspects because of his experiences. He can be The Bodiless, he can be a little boy, he can be a fair youth, in the same way that love can be innocent, experienced, dirty, or pure.
Kama is not an object of worship like the higher deities. He is seen more as a force of nature and a temptation to the holy and virtuous. The son of the goddess of wealth, Kama is more closely connected with material existence than with holiness. In this sense, however, he is a positive force. He ensures the cycle of life by making people fall in love and get babies. Kama's father is either Vishnu, the preserver, or in other legends Brahma, the creating aspect of God.
Kama's negative aspect is Mara, the god or demon responsible for the suffering of love.