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The Icon of Creation - Ardhanarisvara

From time immemorial the man-woman relationship has always dominated the very fabric of civilisation. Whether it is the western theory of creation, that of Adam and Eve, or the Indian concept of Purusha and Prakriti, or the Oriental concept of Yin and Yang, the very core of civilisation stems from the concept of the union of the male and the female. Irrespective of the area of origin, the story of creation treats man and woman as complimentary to each other.

The Indian story of creation centres around Brahma who after the creation of the prajapatis, did not know how to proceed further until Siva took on the androgynous form of Ardhnarisvara, half man and half woman. It was only then that Brahma realised his mistake and created a woman, and Srishti or creation.

In all ancient religious texts the world over, the contribution of man and woman in the process of creation is equal. It is the woman who is associated with fertility, as is obvious from the earliest known figurines, whether it is the Venus of Willendorf, or the Mother Goddess as seen in the Indus Valley Civilisation. “The Venus of Willendorf” [1] has been dated at 25,000-20,000 B.C. and in the cults of earth deities of the old stone age. “The Magdalenians practised their fertility magic in the bowels of the earth, because they thought of the earth itself as a living thing from whose womb all life springs” [1]. A life-sized rock-carving at the La Magdalaine cave, Penne in Tarne in France is an example.

In the Neolithic societies in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, all around the Mediterranean, and South Eastern Europe occasionally in England, female figurines were moulded in clay or carved in stone or bone. These figurines seem, in fact in some cases, to be direct precursors of images of admitted goddesses made by historical societies in Mesopotamia, Syria and Greece. Such figurines are generally interpreted as images of the “mother goddess”. It is inferred that the earth from whose bosom the grain sprouts has been imagined as a woman who may be influenced by entreaties [prayers] and bribes [sacrifices], as well as controlled by initiative rites and incantations. The male partner in fertilisation is, however, represented only by phalli of clay that were carved in Anatolia, the Balkans and England.

The Goddess as Mother is one of the greatest powers in religious ideology of Hindu society. In the Indian mind and thought the mother and the motherland are equated with each other, they are eulogised as superior to heaven - `janani janambhumeschu svargadapi garivasi’.[2] The visual representation as seen in the temple sculptures are a visual proof to this thought. The sculptures from the temples of Halebid, Konarak, Khajuraho and Thanjavur all show full-breasted women symbolic of motherhood. In the Indian context, there is no concept of the Virgin Mother. The emphasis has always been on the complementarity of the mother and the father, the man and the woman. As there is the concept of the mother being superior to the heavens, there is also the analogy of the father as being most important as well - `Pita svargah pita dhramah pitahi parmain guru. Pitari priyamapante priyant sarvadevatah’ - [3] meaning “the father is the heaven, the father is the objective of life, and he is the great preceptor. If the father is pleased, all the gods are also pleased”. The analogy of the father is not meant to show a counter thought to diffuse the compliments given to the mother. In one view this can be interpreted as the evidence of the escalating nature of the importance of the father and mother, vis-a-vis the man and the woman. In another way of looking at it we get a glimpse if the recognition of the idea of the equal importance of the man and the woman in the family in the first instance, and in the society in the larger context.

Thus all the gods were conceived with their female consorts, the females being the females being the feminine counterpart of the male divinity, as given in the Devimahatyma section of the Markandeya Purana. In the Devi Mahatyma it has been stated time and again that the supreme goddess is the same as the Vaishnavi Sakti. This is evident from the fact that the adoration of the Supreme goddess accorded by the divinities is referred to in this text as the Narayani stuti or the glorificatory eulogy addressed to Narayani or the wife of Narayan i.e. Lakshmi. These verses always end with the expression Narayani Namostute. The sacred pairing is seen with almost all the Gods. Vishnu and Lakshmi, Siva and Parvati, Brahma and Saraswati, Ganesh and Riddhi, Surya and Usha, Indra and Indrani, Radha and Krishna, Rama and Sita.

Early evidence of the man-woman relationship goes back to the stone age. When man was a hunter-gatherer, the relationship was still fluid. The man went out to hunt and to gather food, while the woman performed myriad other functions. Not only did she give birth to children and look after them she gathered seeds, wood, other edibles and household consumeables. As society turned domestic, she even ploughed the fields. Her position was the dominant one. “In the Neolithic age all ongoing inventions and discoveries, judging by ethnographic evidence were the work of women”. Over the years, as man stopped wandering and hunting and started living on pastoral land, the relationship underwent a change. It was then that society became patriarchal, patrilineal and patrilocal. Women also came to be associated with a man’s possessions.

From the remnants of the earliest known civilisation of the East, the Indus Valley Civilisation, we get information which tells us about the importance of mother-worship in religion, the abundance of female figurines with rich ornaments. The comparatively less importance given to males would indicate that society in the Indus Valley culture was more dominated by women than men. It was possibly a matriarchal type of society like that of ancient Egypt.

The earliest literary composition of the Hindus, the Vedas, tell us a great deal about the customs and norms of the society of the time, and in many of the texts of the period we come across evidences of clans which took their names from their mothers and not their fathers. In the early Indo-Aryan period of Indian history, “marriage was not compulsory for women”. But that did not mean that there was no concept of marriage. Over the years, in the later Vedic period, when society had definitely become patriarchal, there was a tendency towards “raising the importance of the male and lowering position of women” [4]. There was, it appears, at that time plenty of freedom in the selection of a wife or husband, as the marriage took place at a mature age. The consent of a father of a brother was of no great importance. They generally came onto the scene after the two parties had come to an understanding. Bride price was not uncommon. That the women enjoyed a dominant status is evident from verses in the Rig Veda. In the period which historians classify as the Upanishad and Sutras, the women did enjoy freedom in the broad sense of the word, mainly under the wide umbrella of man’s predomination. There was to a certain extent a great deal of equality between the two sexes, for where Manu said that women are not fit for independence, in the same breath he also said that where a woman is not treated with respect, the goddess of prosperity, Lakshmi, would never enter that house. “Yatre maryastu pujyant ramante tatre devatah” [5]. The Goddess as Mother is one of the great powers in the religious ideology of Hindu society. The Indian woman as a mother wields tremendous moral authority. She is given greater honour by the earning son, and daughter-in-law in the traditional family. The mother is the virtual central figure who decides the affairs of the house. The authority springs from the position of honour and love that she occupies. Bande Mataram, the famous song composed by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee was sung to the Mother Goddess or Mother India, who is conceived to be the spirit of the Indian Mother in her various manifestations. In the Indian mind and thought the mother and the motherland are not only equated with each other, they are eulogised as superior to heaven.

In fact, the world cannot exist without the complimentarity of male and female. The realisation could not but put the Sastrakaras to build up ideas relating to the man-woman relationship. Kalidasa interprets in the opening verses of the Raghuvamsa, Siva and Parvati as being the primordial parents who are likened to word and meaning, each being unable to survive without the other. “Vagarthavivasampriktau vagarthapratipadyaye, jagatah pitaru vande parvatiparamesvarau” [6]. The two cannot be separated, they are so mingled, so synchronised that one cannot exist without the other.

We see here the importance of womanhood. The Sakti or the power of a woman’s creativity and her inner strength attracted many who started worshipping the female power as the goddess. Although the antiquity of the mother cult, vis-a-vis the Sakti cult can perhaps be traced to the fertility emphasised by the nude terracotta figurines from the proto-historic Indus Valley sites, in the Rigveda the cult is not spoken of. However, in the Kenopanishad, there is reverential mention of Uma and Haimavati, both of which came to be names of the goddess who was the core of the Sakti cult of the later times. Elaborate theoretical principles, which served as the foundation of the Sakti cult, are given in the Puranas. It is in the Devimahatmya section of the Markandeya Purana that the goddes is a composite concept. She is formed of the combined energies [saktipunja] of the divinities. By implication it means that all divinities bear the seeds or the `bija’ of the god, and thus the latter is a complement of the former. Since all the gods were conceived with a female consort, the development of the sakti cult brought to the fore the question of the comparative importance of the god and his female counterpart. The sakti cult could not but claim superiority in order to assert an exclusive platform.

Such a claim led to a confrontation with the male dominated established cults like those of Siva, Vishnu, Surya and Ganapati. This sectarian strife also led to the realisation of a need, as it always happens in the process of acculturation, for a rapproachment of understanding for an amicable settlement, in the nature of a sharing of the importance. Myths and legends regarding the story of creation - the Hiranyagarbha [golden egg] theory, and the quintessential concept of Purusha [male] and Prakrit [female] being the crux of the primordial creation, were rationalised in terms of the recognition of the sakti or the female element as the half of the male principle. In physical terms, the wife of the female was conceived as the Ardhangini, or half of the body of the husband i.e. the male.

The devotees who subscribed to the concept of god as the coalescence Simghata or Sammisrana of the male and the female principles, visualised Him as being half man Ardha-nara, and half woman Ardha-nari and this imaging was given the name Ardhanarisvara or the Isvara who is half woman. Although this concept originated with the visualisation of Siva sharing half of his body with his consort, Parvati, and the Ardhanarisvara form is popularly known to be the composite form of Siva and Parvati, the concept got extended in other sects as well. The forms known as Vasudeva-Kamalja and Sakti-Ganapati are parallel examples from other sects. The former, also known as Ardhalakshmihari, is the combined image of Vishnu and Lakshmi, while the latter is that of Ganesha and his wives, Siddhi and Riddhi.

The Ardhanarisvara image of Siva symbolises the syncretic ideology, for it symbolises the union of the cult of Siva and Sakti. The ideological union of Siva and Sakti has been delineated by many early and some late texts.

There are various stories which tell us about the origin of Siva as Ardhanarisvara. Appar, a great devotee of Siva in one of his hymns, tells us about the circumstances under which Siva became Ardhanarisvara. The daughter of Himavan, Himavati did severe penance when she was separated from her Lord. Siva married her and incorporated her as part of his body, as the rare form of “arum thirumeni” [7].

There is a story in the Siva Purana that when Brahma first begot a number of Prajapatis and commanded them to create various other beings, they were unable to do so, and Brahma, feeling uneasy at the slow pace of creation contemplated on Maheshwara. The latter appeared to him in the composite form of male and female, as Ardhanarisvara and asked him to cease feeling distressed. Till now it did not occur to Brahma to create females, and the sight of Maheswara, in the form of Ardhanarisvara made him realise his error. Thereafter he prayed to the female half of Mahesvara, Uma, to give him a female to proceed with the act of creation. Brahma’s request was complied with and the process of creation started ever since.

Yet another story which centres around the concept is from the Sivamahimanastava of Puspadanta, composed in the first century A.D. The 24th verse tells us how Kama, the God of love came to fight with Siva. Kama in order to show his valour, came armed with an arrow of sugarcane and panchpushpa. On his arrival Siva transformed himself into a most beautiful feminine form of Parvati in himself. Seeing the beauty of Parvati, Kama, who was so vain about his beauty, died of shame.

In the Kallika Purana there is another story. The consort of Siva, being Kali, was dark, with Siva being fair. After strict penance she became fair and became Gauri. Then she noticed the reflection of a lady on the left side of Siva’s chest. So inspite of turning Gauri from Kali, she became jealous and angry when she noticed the reflection, at which Siva told her that “you have not realised that I cannot exist without you and it is your reflection that you can see on the left side of my body”. Gauri then asked him to prove it by letting her be one half of his body and he being one half of her body. Gauri [Parvati] agreed to be one half of Siva’s body on the condition that she could leave that half of the body, which was feminine, whenever she wanted to retain her identity.

The Skanda Purana also has a story pertaining to Ardhanarisvara. The demon Andhakasura, being invincible by the boon given to him by Brahma, grew so conceited and vain that he wanted to possess everything which was dear to the Gods. He thought of winning the consort of Siva, Parvati, as his wife and proceeded to Kailasa to take possession of Parvati. Getting to know of the wicked move of the demon, Vishnu quickly spirited away Parvati to Vaikunta, the abode of Vishnu. When the demon reached Vaikunta, after having made a futile search for Parvati in Kailasa, he saw Parvati standing in front of the gateway. She multiplied herself in similar appearance. The demon was confused and bewildered as he could not identify who among the appearances was Parvati herself. The story has it that then Parvati created her Ardhnarisvara form and stood firmly at the gate. The demon seeing an appearance which was neither male or female lost interest and went back. Vishnu who saw the phenomenon was surprised not only at the sight of the form but also that he saw himself represented in the female half of the form.

In the Amrkandeya Purana is a story where Markandeya says that Rudra and Vishnu are the creators of the Universe and they form the Ardhanarisvara aspect of the former deity. Here the allusion is to the Haryardha form of Siva, in which the female generative principle is identified with Vishnu. That the male and the female principles are inseparable and are ever together in cosmic evolution is the real import of the Ardhanarisvara or Haryardha forms of Siva. The same idea is also conveyed in a brief way by the symbols of the linga and the yoni.

In the Vamana Purana, Vishnu is reported to have said to a Rishi that he andsiva were one and that in him resides Siva also. Vishnu then manifests himself to the Rishi in this dual aspect of His, in the Ardhanarisvara form, the left half occupied by the Devi or Prakriti, the right half by Him or Purusha. Purusha and Prakriti are united with each other for the purpose of generating the universe, the same idea represented by the Linga and the Yoni.

The Linga-Purana also has a story about the form of Ardhanariswara. In the Linga-Purana it is said that Ardhanariswara came into existence through the union of the Linga and the Veda and the result was its son Brahma, who has four mouths.

This Ardhanarisvara Siva, who is supposed to be omnipresent and the embodiment of knowledge, bestowed the real knowledge to his newly born son - Brahma.

Then Siva saw the newly born Brahma, or “Hiranyagarbha” and in turn Brahma saw Siva in the form of Ardhanarisvara. Seeing Siva in such a form, Brahma started praying to him in eight-fold speeches. Brahma prayed intensely and requested him to divide his body in two forms, male and female and accordingly Lord Siva created a `goddess’, his wife, from the left side of his body, who was just like him. This primeaval body became the consort of Siva and this very lady became the daughter of `Daksha’ as desired by God i.e. Lord Siva. As a daughter of `Daksha’ she was named Sati and restored to Lord Siva, as husband, and in due course having condemned Daksha, she became Goddess Maina.

There is yet another account of the appearance of Siva in the Ardhanarisvara form. On a certain occasion when Siva was seated with his consort Parvati on the top of the top of the Kailasa mountain, the devas and rishis went there to pay their homage to Him. All of them except the Rishi Bhringi went round Siva and Parvati in their circumambulations and also bowed to both. This Rishi had made a vow of worshipping only one being, that is Siva, and in conformity with his vow, he declined to go around and bow down to Parvati. Parvati growing angry with Bhringi, desired in her mind that all his flesh and blood should disappear from his body and instantly he was reduced to a skeleton covered with only the skin. In this state he was unable to support himself in an erect position. Seeing his pitiable plight Siva gave him a third leg so as to enable him to maintain equilibrium. Bhringi became pleased with his Lord and out of joy danced vigorously with his three legs and praised Siva for his grace. The design of Parvati to humble Bhringi thus failed and that failure caused great annoyance to Parvati who in turn did penance for obtaining a boon from Siva. At the end of the penance, Siva, pleased with his consort, granted her wish of being united with his own body. Thus the Ardhnarisvara form was assumed by Siva, making it difficult for Rishi Bhringi in circumambulating or bowing to Siva alone. But, undaunted by this impediment Bhringi assumed the form of a beetle, pierced a hole through the composite body of Siva and circumambulated Siva alone, to the great wonder and admiration of even Parvati, who became reconciled to his vow and bestowed her grace upon the pious Rishi for his steadfastness to his vow.

The Ardhanarisvara theme has fascinated not only artists of the visual arts, but also performing artists. There is a vast body of literary work and inscriptions which have many references to the theme. In sculpture, in particular, the image has been very popular amongst sculptors from ancient times. The dispersal of the image is seen in the length and breadth of the country. From Kashmir in the North to Thanjavur in the South, from Rajasthan in the East to Bangladesh in the West, images of Ardhanarisvara are found with their respective regional variations, the earliest examples date from the second century A.D to the present times. The sculptures of this theme bear evidence of the play of imagination that has gone into their conception and visualisation.

Ardhanarisvara is also seen in pictorial representations, in the medium of painting. The male and female attributes are clearly demarcated, the iconography clearly evident of the ascription of masculine and feminine. Like in sculpture the accomodation of the male and female principles in the two halves of the body, `dehardhaghatna’ is always done vertically and not horizontally. Usually the right half is male and the left half is female, though there are a few images which are unusual in that the right half is female and the left half is male. The theme is seen in a lot of miniature paintings of the Kangra hills and also in some examples from Nepal, one is with the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Calcutta.

The Ardhanarisvara concept is seen in almost all artistic expressions, whether plastic or performing. It is felt in the world of music. Raga and Raginin which have been a favourite theme of the Pahari painters and the Ragamala series from Rajasthan are a pointer to the male and female aspect of the Ragas. In music for example, according to the Grama Muchana Padhatti, each and every Raga is associated with a particular bhava and rasa. Each Raga is also associated with different time of the day.

The androgyny of form is seen even in the musical instruments for example the dholak and dholaki.

In dance the concept of Ardhanarisvara is more evident in the third aspect of Siva’s dance, the Mystic Dance. ”Siva in this dance is the dual personality of God and goddess, the gentle, gracious entity, with the powerful nobleness. He is the Source of all life and movement with His divine flaming arch that vibrates during His dance. Through this dance he will destroy all evil, freeing the soul of mankind from the illusions that keep him tied to the earth.” In His most significant dance the Ananda Tandava, there is much symbolism. “The wearing of a man’s earring on one side and a woman’s on the other implies that He embodies in His form both male and female energies”. Every dance is a composite whole of the tandava and the lasya aspects, which are associated with Siva and Parvati respectively.

An artistic form also expresses a rasa or a sentiment. The question, therefore, arises as to which of the rasas does the image of Ardhanarisvara represent. Out of the nine rasas I am of the opinion that the rasa appropriate to the theme is that of the Adbhuta rasa.

The Absolute God or the Ultimate Reality in the Brahmanical concept is the same as the Trinity represented through the quintessential concept of Om which is the combination of a, u, and ma, - Brahma, Vishu and Siva, the latter doubtless is the composite of the male and female principles.


[1] Janson, H.W. 1986. History of Art. London: pp-28
[2] Chatterjee, Bankim Chand. 1947. Bande Mataram .
[3] Kalidasa. Raghuvamsha.
[4] Thomas. P. Indian Women through the Ages. London. Pp-110.
[5] Gupta, A.R. 1982. Women in Hindu society. New Delhi. Pp-220.
[6] Kalidasa. Raghuvamsa
[7] Nagaswami. R. 1930. Tantric Cult of South India. Delhi. Verse 4865.


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