Compared to the images, stories of Ardhanareshwara are relatively rare. Below are a few retellings:
In the beginning, a lotus bloomed. In it sat Brahma. On becoming conscious, he realized he was alone. Lonely, frightened, he wondered how he could create another being to give him company. Suddenly a vision flashed before his eyes. He saw Shiva whose right half was male and left half was female. Inspired, Brahma divided himself into two. From the right half came all things male and from the left half came all things female. [Linga Purana]
Sages who visited Mount Kailas were at first horrified to find Shiva copulating with his consort disregarding their presence. Then they realized that for Shiva to stop and pull back would be like asking the right half of the body to separate from the left half. So they saluted Shiva and visualized him as the half-woman god. [Nath oral tradition]
Bhringi wanted to circumambulate Shiva but not Parvati. Parvati would not allow that. She sat on Shiva’s lap making it impossible for the ascetic to pass between them. When Bhringi took the form of a bee to fly between their heads, she merged herself with Shiva so that she became his left half. Now Bhringi took the form of a worm and tried to bore his way between them. Parvati was not amused. She cursed Bhringi to lose every part of the body given to him by his mother. As a result, the ascetic was left with neither flesh nor blood (the soft parts of his body). Reduced to a skeleton he could not stand upright. Taking pity on him Shiva gave him a third leg so that he stood like a tripod, reminding all of the price man pays if he does not revere the feminine half of the divine. [Tamil temple lore]
When Parvati saw Ganga on top of Shiva’s head, she was furious. How could he keep another woman on his head when his wife sat on his lap, she wondered. To pacify Parvati, Shiva merged his body with hers. He became half a woman. [folk tale from North India]
While the image and stories of Ardhanareshwara evoke a sense of sexual interdependence, harmony, completion and fulfilment, a careful observation raises two questions:
Why are the two sides not interchangeable? The female half almost always occupies left half, while the male occupies the right.
Why is the identity of Ardhanareshwara male? It is a form of Shiva, never Shakti. It is always Ardha-nari-ishwara (half-woman-god), never Ardha-nara-ishwari (half-man-goddess).
This essay addresses these questions and speculates on different paradigms that make such an obvious `hierarchy of halves’ acceptable.
Left or Right
Directions matter in the Hindu world. The world-rejecting Shiva raises his left foot when he poses as Nataraja, while the world-affirming Krishna bends his right leg when he plays the flute. The sacred thread hangs from the left shoulder while feeding gods while it hangs from the right shoulder while feeding ancestors. Wives sit to the left of husbands, often on the left lap. In deference to these rules governing directions, the female half of the Ardhanareshwara occupies the left side. Even when Vishnu (or Krishna) takes a half-woman form, his consort Lakshmi (or Radha) is on the left. Together, or apart, the goddess remains `vamangi’ – the left-sided one.
Left is the side occupied by the heart. It is the side for the one who rules the heart – a man’s wife, a mother’s child. With the one who is dear on the left, the right hand is free to wield the sword or hold the scripture.
With the left side associated with the heart, the right side comes to be associated with the brain. One can defend this stance with the help of science as the right-brain, which controls the left side of the body, has been found to be associated with `feminine traits’ such as intuition, abstract thought and creativity while the left-brain, which controls the right half of the body, is associated with `masculine traits’ such as logic, systematic thought and mathematics.
The left side is reserved for the dependent one in a partnership. When Shiva and Vishnu merge to become Hari-Hara or Hara-Hari, the right side is occupied by the `dominant’ God, which is Vishnu in Vaishnava tradition and Shiva in Shaiva tradition.
The left-sided path in Hinduism, or Vama-marga, refers to things occult and unorthodox. Vama-marga is the Tantrik way while the Dakshina-patha, the right-handed way, is the Vedic way. The Tantrik way disregards caste hierarchy and is open to all initiates of the guru. It gives greater value to the mechanistic performance of the ritual activity than its intellectual analysis. The aim is often the acquisition of siddhi, control over things material rather than samadhi, release from things material. While the presence of women is essential in both Tantrik and Vedic rituals, in the former she is `shakti’ or power, while in the latter she is `maya’ or delusion.
The left is associated with things sinister, inauspicious, inferior, even polluting. Hence, food is received with the right hand, while the left is reserved for performing ablutions.
Man or Woman
Sex matters in Hinduism. It means many things, much more than biology. It helps give form to many abstract concepts of Hindu philosophy and metaphysics.
The female form has long represented materialism, while the male form has represented spirituality. He is the ascetic or the householder. The former seeks to transcend material things while the latter tries to control it. The woman seduces the world-rejecting hermit and eludes the world-craving householder. She is enchanting yet mercurial like a nymph. Ideally, she (materialism), should support and submit to him (spirituality), hence she occupies the inferior left half. The male form is otherworldly. The female form is worldly. Shiva rejects worldly life; Shakti celebrates it. By uniting the two, Shiva harmonizes the worlds of the hermit and the householder. And yet, the `hierarchy of halves’ remains. The material world remains in the profane left half. Yoga, restraint, embodied in the male form demands a higher position over bhoga, indulgence, embodied in the female form.
Such insights lead one to the conclusion that Ardhanareshwara – with its left half reserved for the woman – is very much a product of a society where men call the shots. Such conclusions, however, offer no answer or hope. It merely affirms the well-documented irrefutable gender realities of history.
At this juncture, it is necessary to step away from the limitations posed by sex and gender. One has to stop looking at tales involving gods as `mythology about men’ and tales involving goddesses as `mythology about women.’ One has to look at the idea beyond the form, at the gender-free metaphysics beneath the gender-limited mythology, which grants the symbol its mythic power.
The problem with anthropomorphic forms is that they, like words, are limited and are unable to fully express the subtleties of metaphysics. Mythology seeks to express to a culture its own understanding of the world using symbols, narratives and rituals. This understanding is formless in metaphysics but formed in mythology. The latter is more immediate to the masses, which cannot grasp abstract concepts. One must be careful not to mistake mythology as mere allegory, however, because the forms are not secondary to the subtext. The form and the formless are two sides of the same coin. Mythic forms are essential components of a sacred vocabulary. Without them, the culture cannot talk to its people and the people cannot communicate with the cosmos.
The paradigm shift
In Hindu metaphysics, there is no objective world out there. Things exist only because they are perceived. No observation exists independent of the observer. Without the seer there is no scenery. Life is a subjective phenomenon.
In this worldview, the subject `creates’ all objects by experiencing them. But the subject has no existence independent of these `creations’. Without the object, the subject cannot isolate or identify himself. The object is the `other’ that helps the subject in the quest for self-determination. `It’ cannot exist unless `what it is not’ does not exist. Unless the `rest’ exist, the `self’ cannot be. Thus subject and object, seer and scenery, perceiver and perception need each other. The former creates the latter, the latter validates the former.
This idea is expressed through the male and female constituents of Hindu mythology, including the ones in Ardhanareshwara. The complementary relationship between subject and object, the individual and his/her world, is best expressed through the mutual interdependence of the left and right halves and the male and female forms. Neither can exist without the other.
The male form represent souls who are sensitive to experience while the female form represents the experience itself. Thus, the goddess as Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Shakti represent impersonal, passive, knowledge, wealth and strength that one is free to create, sustain or destroy. The gods on the other hand as Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva represent one’s ability to crave, control and transcend experiences. The goddesses represent the stimuli to which the gods react too. Since everything that exists is a manifestation of the divine in the Hindu scheme of things, the gods represent the divine inside each one of us; the goddesses represent the divine, which is all around us.
There is clearly a gender bias in the selection of the female form to express the idea of object/scenery/perception and the male form to express the idea of subject/seer/perceiver. But the idea beyond the symbol is clearly gender-independent.
Perhaps then this is what one of the codes locked within the image known as Ardhanareshwara is:
You are Shiva; your world/life is Shakti
You know you are alive because you experience your Shakti.
She is your eternal companion; without your world/life you cease to be
Your Shakti is unique to you because she is the product of your unique experiences and expectations
Your world/life can enlighten (as Saraswati), enrich (as Lakshmi), empower (as Shakti)
You are free to covet your world/life (like Brahma), control her (like Vishnu) or transcend her (like Shiva)
She is the matrix of delusions (Maya) constantly changing. You give her value because you are the fountainhead of Truth (Brahman).
That’s what you are, tat tvam asi.