The Ardhanarishvara is a composite androgynous form of the Hindu deities Shiva and Parvati (the latter being known as Devi, Shakti, and Uma).
Ardhanarishvara is depicted as half-male and half-female, equally split down the middle. The right half is usually the male Shiva, illustrating his traditional attributes.
The earliest Ardhanarishvara images are dated to the Kushan period, starting from the first century CE. Its iconography evolved and was perfected in the Gupta era.
The Puranas and various iconographic treatises write about the mythology and iconography of Ardhanarishvara. Ardhanarishvara remains a popular iconographic form found in most Shiva temples throughout India, though very few temples are dedicated to this deity.
Ardhanarishvara represents the synthesis of masculine and feminine energies of the universe (Purusha and Prakriti) and illustrates how Shakti, the female principle of God, is inseparable from (or the same as, according to some interpretations) Shiva, the male principle of God.
The union of these principles is exalted as the root and womb of all creation. Another view is that Ardhanarishvara is a symbol of Shiva’s all-pervasive nature.
Origins and early images
The conception of Ardhanarishvara may have been inspired by Vedic literature’s composite figure of Yama-Yami, the Vedic descriptions of the primordial Creator Vishvarupa or Prajapati and the fire-god Agni as “bull who is also a cow,” the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad’s Atman (“soul”) in the form of the androgynous cosmic man Purusha and the androgynous myths of the Greek Hermaphroditus and Phrygian Agdistis.
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says that Purusha splits himself into two parts, male and female, and the two halves copulate, producing all life – a theme concurrent in Ardhanarishvara’s tales.
The Shvetashvatara Upanishad sows the seed of the Puranic Ardhanarishvara. It declares Rudra – the antecedent of the Puranic Shiva – the maker of all and the root of Purusha (the male principle) and Prakriti (the female principle), adhering to Samkhya philosophy. It hints at his androgynous nature, describing him both as male and female.
The concept of Ardhanarishvara originated in Kushan and Greek cultures simultaneously; the iconography evolved in the Kushan era (30–375 CE), but was perfected in the Gupta era (320-600 CE).
A mid-first century Kushan era stela in the Mathura Museum has a half-male, half-female image, along with three other figures identified with Vishnu, Gaja Lakshmi, and Kubera.
The male half is ithyphallic or with an Urdhvalinga and makes an Abhaya mudra gesture; the female left half holds a mirror and has a rounded breast. This is the earliest representation of Ardhanarishvara, universally recognized.
An early Kushan Ardhanarishvara head discovered at Rajghat is displayed at the Mathura Museum. The right male half has matted hair with a skull and crescent moon; the left female half has well-combed hair decorated with flowers and wears a patra-kundala (earring). The face has a common third eye. A terracotta seal discovered in Vaishali has half-man, half-woman features.
Early Kushan images show Ardhanarishvara in a simple two-armed form, but later texts and sculptures depict a more complex iconography.
Ardhanarishvara is referred to by the Greek author Stobaeus (c. 500 AD) while quoting Bardasanes (c. 154–222 AD), who learned from an Indian embassy’s visit to Syria during the reign of Elagabalus (Antoninus of Emesa) (218–22 AD).
A terracotta androgynous bust, excavated at Taxila and dated to the Saka-Parthian era, pictures a bearded man with female breasts.
Ardhanarishvara is interpreted as an attempt to syncretize the two principal Hindu sects, Shaivism and Shaktism, dedicated to Shiva and the Great Goddess.
A similar syncretic image is Harihara, a composite form of Shiva and Vishnu, the Supreme deity of the Vaishnava sect.
The mythology of Ardhanarishvara – which mainly originates in the Puranic canons – was developed later to explain existent images of the deity that had emerged in the Kushan era.
The unnamed half-female form of Shiva is also alluded to in the epic Mahabharata. In Book XIII, Upamanyu praises Shiva rhetorically asking if there is anyone else whose half-body is shared by his spouse, and adds that the universe had risen from the union of sexes, as represented by Shiva’s half-female form.
In some narratives, Shiva is described as dark and fair-complexioned, half yellow and half white, half woman and half man, and both woman and man. In Book XIII, Shiva preaches to Parvati that half of his body is made up of her body.
In the Skanda Purana, Parvati requests Shiva to allow her to reside with him, embracing “limb-to-limb“, and so Ardhanarishvara is formed.
It also tells that when the demon Andhaka wanted to seize Parvati and make her his wife, Vishnu rescued her and brought her to his abode. When the demon followed her there, Parvati revealed her Ardhanarishvara form to him.
Seeing the half-male, half-female form, the demon lost interest in her and left. Vishnu was amazed to see this form and saw himself in the female part of the form.
The Shiva Purana describes that the creator god Brahma created all male beings, the Prajapatis, and told them to regenerate, which they were unable to do.
Confronted with the resulting decline in the pace of creation, Brahma was perplexed and contemplated on Shiva for help. To enlighten Brahma of his folly, Shiva appeared before him as Ardhanarishvara. Brahma prayed to the female half of Shiva to give him a female to continue creation.
The goddess agreed and created various female powers from her body, thereby allowing creation to progress. In other Puranas like the Linga Purana, Vayu Purana, Vishnu Purana, Skanda Purana, Kurma Purana, and Markandeya Purana, Rudra (identified with Shiva) appears as Ardhanarishvara, emerging from Brahma’s head, forehead, mouth or soul as the embodiment of Brahma’s fury and frustration due to the slow pace of creation.
Brahma asks Rudra to divide himself, and the latter complies by dividing into male and female. Numerous beings, including the 11 Rudras and various female shaktis, are created from both the halves.
In some versions, the goddess unites with Shiva again and promises to be born as Sati on earth to be Shiva’s wife. In the Linga Purana, the Ardhanarishvara Rudra is so hot that in the process of appearing from Brahma’s forehead, he burns Brahma himself.
Ardhanarishvara Shiva then enjoys his own half – the Great Goddess – by “the path of yoga” and creates Brahma and Vishnu from her body. In the repetitive cycle of aeons, Ardhanarishvara is ordained to reappear at the beginning of every creation as in the past.
The Matsya Purana describes how Brahma, pleased with a penance performed by Parvati, rewards her by blessing her with a golden complexion.
This renders her more attractive to Shiva, to whom she later merges as one half of his body.
Tamil temple lore narrates that once the gods and sages (rishi) had gathered at Shiva’s abode, they prayed their respects to Shiva and Parvati.
However, the sage Bhringi had vowed to worship only one deity, Shiva, and ignored Parvati while worshipping and circumambulating him. Agitated, Parvati cursed Bhringi to lose all his flesh and blood, reducing him to a skeleton.
In this form Bhringi could not stand erect, so the compassionate ones who witnessed the scene blessed the sage with a third leg for support. As her attempt to humiliate the sage had failed, Parvati punished herself with austerities that pleased Shiva and led him to grant her the boon of uniting with him, thereby compelling Bhringi to worship her as well as himself in the form of Ardhanarishvara.
However, the sage assumed the form of a beetle and circumambulating only the male half, drilling a hole in the deity. Amazed by his devotion, Parvati reconciled with the sage and blessed him.
The seventh-century Shaiva Nayanar saint Appar mentions that after marrying Parvati, Shiva incorporated her into half of his body.
In the Kalika Purana, Parvati (called Gauri here) is described as having suspected Shiva of infidelity when she saw her own reflection in the crystal-like breast of Shiva.
A conjugal dispute erupted but was quickly resolved, after which Parvati wished to stay eternally with Shiva in his body. The divine couple was thereafter fused as Ardhanarishvara.
Another tale from North India also talks about Parvati’s jealousy. Another woman, the river Ganga – often depicted flowing out of Shiva’s locks – sat on his head, while Parvati (as Gauri) sat on his lap. To pacify Gauri, Shiva united with her as Ardhanarishvara.
Only in tales associated with the cult of Shakta (in which the Goddess is considered the Supreme Being) is the Goddess venerated as the Maker of All. In these tales, it is her body (not Shiva’s) which splits into male and female halves.
Ardhanarishvara symbolizes that the male and female principles are inseparable. The composite form conveys the unity of opposites in the universe.
The male half of Ardhanarishvara stands for Purusha and female half is Prakriti. Purusha is the male principle and passive force of the universe, while Prakriti is the female active force; both are “constantly drawn to embrace and fuse with each other, though… separated by the intervening axis“.
The union of Purusha (Shiva) and Prakriti (Shiva’s energy, Shakti) generates the universe, an idea also manifested in the union of the Linga of Shiva and Yoni of Devi creating the cosmos.
The Mahabharata lauds this form as the source of creation. Ardhanarishvara also suggests the element of Kama or Lust, which leads to creation.
Ardhanarishvara signifies “totality that lies beyond duality“, “bi-unity of male and female in God” and “the bisexuality and therefore the non-duality” of the Supreme Being.
It conveys that God is both Shiva and Parvati, “both male and female, both father and mother, both aloof and active, both fearsome and gentle, both destructive and constructive” and unifies all other dichotomies of the universe.
While Shiva’s rosary in the Ardhanarishvara iconography associates him with asceticism and spirituality, Parvati’s mirror associates her to the material illusory world.
Ardhanarishvara reconciles and harmonizes the two conflicting ways of life: the spiritual way of the ascetic as represented by Shiva, and the materialistic way of the householder as symbolized by Parvati, whose raison d’être in Hindu mythology is to lure the ascetic Shiva into marriage and the wider circle of worldly affairs.
The interdependence of Shiva on his power (Shakti) as embodied in Parvati is also manifested in this form. Ardhanarishvara conveys that Shiva and Shakti are one and the same, an interpretation also declared in inscriptions found along with Ardhanarishvara images in Java and the eastern Malay Archipelago.
The Vishnudharmottara Purana also emphasizes the identity and sameness of the male Purusha and female Prakriti, manifested in the image of Ardhanarishvara. According to Shaiva guru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami (1927–2001), Ardhanarishvara signifies that the great Shiva is “All, inseparable from His energy” and is beyond gender.
Across cultures, hermaphrodite figures like Ardhanarishvara have traditionally been associated with fertility and abundant growth. In this form, Shiva in his eternal embrace with Prakriti represents the eternal reproductive power of Nature, whom he regenerates after she loses her fertility.
“It is a duality in unity, the underlying principle being a sexual dualism”.
Often, the right half of Ardhanarishvara is male and the left is female. The left side is the location of the heart and is associated with feminine characteristics like intuition and creativity, while the right is associated with the brain and masculine traits – logic, valor and systematic thought.
The female is often not equal in the Ardhanarishvara, the male god who is half female; she remains a dependent entity. Ardhanarishvara “is in essence Shiva, not Parvati“.
This is also reflected in mythology, where Parvati becomes a part of Shiva. It is likewise reflected in iconography: Shiva often has two supernatural arms and Parvati has just one earthly arm, and his bull vahana – not her lion vahana – typically accompanies them.
*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.