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Ardhanarishwara - the god who is half woman

Ardhanarishwara - often referred to as a hermaphrodite or androgynous deity, is one of the principal forms of Shiva. In this essay, I will examine the mythographic dimensions of this deity, and in doing so, discuss the related issue of magical androgyny, particularly within the context of Indian magic & myth. I will also attempt to make some suggestions for appropriate forms of sadhana for magical work with Ardhanarishwara.

Ardhanarishwara is described by Daniélou and others as an primordial androgynous deity. The sacred androgyne, both as a deity, and as the human being who crosses or otherwise blurs the gender-divide are related. Daniélou for instance, notes that homosexuals, hermaphrodites and transvestites can be considered sacred beings - "images" of Ardhanarishwara.

One: Cosmic Creation

The Mahabharata tells us that Brahma failed in his early attempts to create mortals who would both create offspring carnally, and later, die. His mind-born sons were ascetic sages. And, according to the Shiva Purana, Brahma lacked the power to create women. When Rudra sprang forth from his brow, Brahma chose him to create mortals. There are a variety of myths relating to Rudras' responses to the request of Brahma. In one version of this myth-cycle, Brahma created the goddess Gauri to be the wife of Rudra. Rudra was initially pleased by this, but when Brahma asked him to beget progeny, he submerged himself in the waters and performed austerities for thousands of years. When at last, Rudra emerged, he castrated himself, and set his linga ('sign') free. It became a fiery pillar - a sign of cosmic potential. Rudra's actions can be understood as a metaphor for the creation of the manifest Universe. He first withdraws into himself, indicating the formless nature of the Great God, in samadhi. By his action of self-castration, he reveals the sign - the nature - of the Manifest Universe, in relation to that which is Unmanifested.

Following these two stages in the cosmic creative process, it is said that Rudra became the mind-born son of Brahma, issuing forth from Brahma's head in the form of Ardhanarishwara - "the Lord whose half is woman" - the right half male, the left half, female. On seeing the Supreme Lord (Shiva), Brahma practised austerities. (It is also said that Ardhanarishwara was terrible to behold, and that Brahma could not look upon him, or was burned by the fire of his radiance.) This form, for Brahma, held the potential for becoming a couple that could unite sexually.

Pleased by Brahma's austerities, the Great God divided himself. The Great Goddess, Sati ('the Real') became manifest, (i.e. the 'image' of the Great Goddess) for the sake of the world. All shaktis sprang forth from the Great Goddess.

Thus Ardhanarishwara manifested the 'signs' of both sexes as the prime cause of creation in the world. Also, in taking the form of Ardhanarishwara, Shiva revealed himself, for the first time, in wholly anthropomorphic features.

Taking the process of creation further, both manifest god and goddess continued to divide themselves. From Shiva came the eleven Rudras - the eleven 'vital breaths' who carried the fiery essence of Rudra into all forms of life. It is said that Shiva requested that the Great Goddess divide herself into two aspects - black and white - from which sprang the infinite Shaktis, or female powers.

One should note however, that no progeny issued from the union of Shiva and Sati - neither mortals nor immortals. It is said that, having discharged Ardhanarishwara from his brow, Brahma performed a similar operation on himself, dividing himself into a progenitive couple, Manu and Satarupa, whose issue represented the various conditions, qualities and activities of the total human condition.

Ardhanarishwara exists without desire. He is a complete form - a single unity. It was by Brahma's command (i.e. Brahma's desire to create beings capable of sexual procreation) that Ardhanarishwara divided to become God and Goddess. Shiva divided himself and let his Shakti (his power) be apprehended separately by both himself and Brahma. The body of fire, of which erotic pleasure is the sparks, was divided. The Great Goddess sent her glowing ardour, in the form of a woman, into the world of the gods. Thus from Ardhanarishwara's self-division came the essential idea of woman, sex, and sensuality. Thus duality came into the world.

Following the act of differentiation, the Supreme Goddess re-entered Ardhanarishwara, once more becoming a timeless, ceaseless image, an image which contains in one body the possibility for sexual awareness of both sexes.

"The great god, Maheshvara, never delights with a wife distinct from his own self ... The joy within him is called the Goddess."

Kurma Purana, quoted in Stella Kramrisch, 1981

The Desire to Create

In the Artharva Veda, Lust or Kama is given as the supreme divinity - the impeller of creation. "Lust was born first. Neither gods nor Ancestors nor men can equal him." In the creation hymn of the Rg Veda, Kama (desire) is the first seed of mind, from which came the entire Creation. It is the arrows of Kama which, in the primordial beginning, inspire Brahma with the passion and lust for creation. Thus Kama is the primal urge of life to become embodied in form. It is the effect of Kama upon Brahma which leads to the manifestation and the division of Ardhanarishwara.

Iconography of the image

Images of Ardhanarishwara are notable as they are examples of a vertical (rather than the more common horizontal) fusion of male & female characteristics. However, this fusion is not entirely balanced. Some images of Ardhanarishwara possess half a lingam, but the primary emblem of femininity is always the breast, rather than the vagina.

Two: Gender-bending as sadhana

The Mythological Dimension

The Mahabharata

Arjuna, one of the epic heroes of the Mahabharata, is claimed by contemporary Hijras as one of their mythic forebears. Arjuna, the fiercest of the Pandava warriors, spends a year dressed as a member of the 'third sex' living in a harem, teaching women the arts of song and dance.

"Yudhishthira said: 'And what office will be performed by that mighty descendant of the Kurus?' Arjuna replied: 'O Lord of the Earth, I will declare myself as one of the neuter sex. O monarch, it is indeed, difficult to hide the marks of the bow-string on my arms. I will, however, cover both my cicatrized arms with bangles. Wearing brilliant rings on my ears and conch-bangles on my wrists and causing a braid to hang down from my head, I will, O king, appear as one of the third sex. Vrihannala by name."

A further tale from the Mahabharata is that of King Bangasvana, who was changed into a woman by the god Indra, whom he had offended. According to the Mahabharata, the king implored Indra to remain as a woman, having found the affection and pleasure that women experience, preferable to the state of manhood.

The Ramayana

It is recounted, in various versions of the Ramayana that a King named Ila, whilst out hunting in a forest, entered an area that was sacred to Shiva. In order to please Parvati, Shiva assumed the shape of a woman and correspondingly, all male creatures in the forest became female, including the king and his retinue. Ila was filled with fear when he realised that his change had been brought about by Shiva. The king then entered the grove where Shiva and Parvati were at play. Shiva allowed Ila to ask for any boon except that of manhood. The king however, addressed himself to Paravati. The Devi gave Ila the boon that he would live half his life as a woman, and half as a man. King Ila suggested to the Devi that he might live as a beautiful woman for one month, and as a man for the next month. The Goddess agreed, but decreed that, whilst male, he would not remember his female form, and whilst female, he would not remember his male form. It is further told that, whilst wandering as a woman, Ila encountered Budha (the planet Mercury), who sought her as his wife. Budha made love to Ila, and she bore him a son, after which Budha petitioned Shiva (with a horse sacrifice) to restore Ila to manhood permanently.

Shiva and Vishnu

Alain Daniélou, in "Gods of Love and Ecstasy" recounts the myth of Shiva's union with Vishnu, whilst the latter had taken the form of Mohini, the Enchantress. Vishnu, as Mohini, was resting by the ocean of milk when 'she' was approached by Shiva, who expressed the desire to unite with Vishnu. Vishnu, it is said, demurred, saying that union between two persons of the same sex was 'unfruitful'. It seems that Vishnu-Mohini finally submitted to Shiva, as, depending on the version, the 'sap' that they spilled became the river Ganges, a son named Arikaraputtiran, or that the Seven Sages took the fallen seed and poured it into Anjani, the daughter of Gautama, who subsequently gave birth to the monkey-god, Hanuman. In other versions of this myth, it is this coupling which leads to the birth of Skanda.

Gender-bending saints

In Kali's Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna, author Jeffrey J. Kripal discusses Ramakrishna's injunction that, in order to approach a God, the male devotee should take on a female identity. Ramakrishna paired his male disciples up into 'masculine' and 'feminine' couples. According to his teachings, these 'spiritual' genders result in different types of religious experience, the object of the gender-assignation being to awaken desire and devotional love. According to Ramakrishna's teachings, everyone in the world is 'female' in relation to the divine. According to the biographer Datta, Ramakrishna was taught by one of his tantric friends that "if one is to know the Man, one must take the state of the Woman - as a Female friend, as a handmaiden, or as a mother."

Ramakrishna spent long periods in a 'handmaid state' - one such period being whilst living in the household of his temple boss, Mathur, and fanning the image of the Goddess with the women of the household. Ramakrishna's biographer Datta records that Mathur would buy Ramakrishna women's clothes, shawls and jewelry for him, and dress Ramakrishna with his own hands. The saint is reputed to have experienced a vision of Radha immediately after Mathur gave Ramakrishna some feminine garments to wear. Another biographer, Saradananda says that Ramakrishna's cross-dressing, and Mathur's gifts caused some people to make "scandalous" interpretations of Ramakrishna's "renunciation." Datta also recounts that Mathur often took Ramakrishna from the temple to his home. On one such occasion, Ramakrishna felt that he had become Sita and that the demon Ravana (i.e. Mathur) was kidnapping him, whereupon he entered samadhi. Kripal notes that the abduction of Sita, the faithful wife of Rama, as told in the Ramayana, implies a sexual abduction. Kripal says that, by assuming this mythological paradigm, Ramakrishna was able to deal with a traumatic event, and also preserve his own 'purity'. The implication here of course, is that there was some degree of homosexual relationship between Ramakrishna and Mathur. Sarananda claims that Ramakrishna's cross-dressing was a conscious Sadhana which enabled the Master to discover nonduality that lies beyond conditioned gender.

Ramakrishna often imitated the mannerisms of women, in order to "conquer lust." The logic, as Kripal explains it, is that since sexual desire can only exist between man and woman, then if a man can 'become' a woman, his 'desire' for women will disappear. However, Kripal reveals the secret of Ramakrishna in that: "As a woman, Ramakrishna was ascetic to women and erotic to men" (p234). Kripal goes on to say that 'becoming a woman' for Ramakrishna, inflamed his desire for men, and male deities. Whilst 'being' a woman, Ramakrishna sang to his boy disciples, nursed them at his breasts, and fondled them in his lap. Particular disciples were said to be 'masculine' in relation to the Saint's 'feminine' nature. According to Ramakrishna, the effeminate actors of Bengal, skilled in mimicking the mannerisms of women, should be considered role models for the male devotee.

It is Kripal's contention that the Saint's bouts of samadhi should be interpreted contextually - on the one hand, Ramakrishna entered mystical states as an escape from the threatening sexual presence of women, whilst on the other hand, he experiences bliss whilst looking at the cocked hips of a beautiful English boy. The homoerotic dimension of Ramakrishna's life has hitherto remained hidden, whilst his tendency to enter samadhi at the sight of a woman has been interpreted as evidence of his saintliness. Whilst it may be true that Ramakrishna worshipped the Divine Feminine Principle - as a desexualised mother, able to grant Jnana (Gnosis), he feared and reviled earthly women who entangled men in the entrapments of maya - becoming a householder, having children, etc. Kripal says that Ramakrishna was "absolutely terrified of the polluting substances of the female body and the contact with them that sexual intercourse inevitably brings."

The Hijra

There are an estimated 50,000 Hijra in contemporary India. Hijra are defined as males who lack male sex-organs, from birth or, as is more common, through castration at an early age. It is thought that the Hijra cult may go back over three thousand years and before the arrival of the British, they had begging rights and land grants from both Hindu and Muslim rulers. They identify as being neither male nor female, but of a 'third nature' (Sanskrit: trhytiyam prakrhytim). Hijra are often regarded with a mixture of disgust, fear, and awe. It is believed that they have the power to foretell the future, bring rain, or utter fearful curses. In modern India, they often appear at wedding ceremonies, offering a blessing which bestows fertility on newlyweds. Many contemporary hijra resort to prostitution, and they are also infamous for their lewd public behaviour. Sociological studies of hijra prostitution indicate that some Indian men 'prefer' sex with hijra as they will consent to sexual practices which women are reluctant to engage in. Interviews with hijras conducted by Serena Nanda (1990) indicate that those who chose to become hijra did so due to their homosexuality: "We dress like girls because of the sexual desire for men." For some hijra, the element of choice does not exist, as young boys are castrated and sold to pimps - a practice which seems to have increased in recent years, according to an article in 'India Today'.

Jeffrey Kripal, in his deconstruction of Ramakrishna's biographies, concludes that it is likely that Ramakrishna had an encounter with two hijra whilst visiting Kartabhaja - a tantric community headed by one Vaishnavacharan, who taught that one can worship God in a living man. It seems that this community was made up of homoerotically-inclined males, hijra, and women. Ramakrishna himself records that Vaishnavacharan liked to look at pictures of men, for they aroused in him feelings of tenderness and love. Ramakrishna, it seems, used a similar technique. Interestingly enough, in view of the 'third state' of the hijra, Kripal recounts that, when asked by a disciple whether he was a man or a woman, the saint replied with a smile, "I don't know."

Three: The Androgyne

Androgyne - Greek - Andre=man, guné=woman

Ardhanarishvara is acceptable as a stone image, but would look extremely strange as a living being. Ziggy Stardust is an acceptable androgyne, but are heavily-muscled female body-builders? A man with breasts is a common mythical and, largely thanks to modern hormone therapy, an increasingly encountered 'real' phenonemon, but is a morphological woman with a cock a comfortable image? Or a male with a vagina, for that matter? It seems that the image of the androgyne, when it appears, must be acceptable to men and women, but within the confines of a male definition of what is appropriately feminine.

My core disagreement with the whole modern concept of androgyny (at least in the post-Jungian sense) is that 'masculine' and 'feminine' attributes are culturally imposed (in my view anyway). Men can be 'intuitive' and women can be 'logical' without necessarily becoming androgynous. Equally, I've met drag queens who like to fuck and leathermen who's legs fly up like they were on balloons. I also feel that it's too simplistic to transpose androgynous figures from myth directly into 'real' life. As O'Flaherty says, in Indian mythology, there is no difficulty about 'men becoming women', but the Indian psyche has severe problems with women who are too 'masculine'. I've felt for a long time that the Androgyny thing doesn't really speak to women, as it were. I've met several 'Drag Kings' over the years - there was a much-celebrated incident when a whole group of them 'invaded' the 'Mineshaft' - a leather bar in Manchester, and had lots of fun with their whips and dildoes - causing much horror and shock when they revealed this to the men afterwards. I feel that they wouldn't immediately be recognised as androgynous, though. It seems to me that there is a vast difference between assuming a mythical posture of 'androgyny' and the playful transgression and blurring of sex-roles which happens in the modern sexual sub-cultures. It's also, I feel, an over-simplification to look at some tribal or ancient culture, find a role which seems to fit the androgyny theory, and then apply it globally to contemporary experience. The Lakota Winkte and the cross-dressing Siberian Shaman are worlds apart from the 'cock in a frock' at the Porchester or Torture Garden.

When men 'become' women, I often feel that they are acting out their own projections of how they think women behave - at least this has been my observation with most of the male-female transsexuals I have met. A comment that has stuck in my mind over the years was from a man who said he preferred transsexuals because they were more 'feminine' than modern (i.e. 'liberated') women. Ramakrishna's feints at becoming 'feminine' were, after all, a means for him to heighten his erotic attraction to other men - the only means open to him in a culture which kept homosexuality under the carpet. If androgyny is indeed a metaphor for the integration of male & female attributes, then we cannot really say that Ramakrishna was an androgynous individual in this sense.

The Dissolution of Categories

As the creation myth indicates, Ardhanishvara does not engage in procreation of mortals. The Great Goddess temporarily emerges from Ardhanishvara, in order to fill the universe full of Shakti. Ardhanishvara is an expression of the nondual - of the bliss of samadhi wherein there is no difference made between one thing or another. All that exists flows from, and at the same time is, the union of Shiva-Shakti as represented by the image of Ardhanishvara - the primordial union which is beyond the categories of form and gender. Ardhanishvara is both sensuous, yet also a passive figure - hinting at resolution, harmony and balance.

The dissolution of categories through sadhana is a central and enduring theme in Tantric magic. This dissolution is both transcendent and immanent. The goal of the Tantric sadhu is not so much to transcend the world of form, but to immerse himself in it, all the better to enjoy the love-play of the Goddess. In the image of All that exists flows from, and at the same time is, the union of Shiva-Shakti as represented by the image of Ardhanishvara, the twin poles of Tantric sadhana, renunciation and erotic bliss, are united. The route to superconsciousness - "the realisation that everything is alive and significant" (as William S. Burroughs put it), or, in the words of Ramakrishna, "She Herself has become Everything", requires both asceticism and erotic union. Shiva is both the Mahayogi and the lover of the Goddess, spending thousands of years in ascetic withdrawal, or in blissful union with the Goddess. Tantric texts often take the form of dialogues between the Goddess and the God during, or immediately following, their erotic play. It is often argued that it is through the practice of austerities that the tantric adept supercharges acts of (ritualised) sex.

Steps towards Sadhana

In seeking a distinct mode of sadhana for magical work with Ardhanishvara, I have drawn the following conclusions. My dissatisfaction with the theme of androgyny, as proposed in the work of Singer, Colgrave, et al, is that the categories of masculinity and femininity themselves are socially created and determined.

The tantric uses antinomian practices to go beyond that which society deems proper and acceptable. Hence one might usefully explore and experiment with blurring the categorisation of 'masculine' and 'feminine' behaviour, moods, and expressions, through cross-dressing, bhakti to a goddess or god, uncovering or creating selves of the 'opposite' or 'third' gender - these (and more) are all potentially useful routes to union and integration with the rejected, or 'hidden' other.

Ardhanishvara, as I noted above, can be understood as representing harmony, resolution and balance, in union. Also, we should note that this title can be translated as "the god who is half woman". One may read this as Shiva having projected Shakti, or Shakti having projected Shiva, depending on whether one takes a shaivite or shakti perspective of the image. This, I feel, is an important distinction to draw. There is a great deal of literature on the subject of men 'becoming' feminine, but as far as I know, not so much about women becoming 'masculine'. It also strikes me that there must be a significant difference between the male desire to explore or assume a psychic 'feminine' state, (in order to relate to the divine, or other men), and how women might approach the 'masculine' state - if indeed, they feel a need to at all.

Theorists of radical sexuality have pointed out that we tend to view ourselves as 'subjects', and others as 'objects'. Western consciousness is based on the 'objectification' of the 'other'. Harry Hay, one of the founders of the modern Gay Liberation Movement, proposed the idea of "Subject-Subject Consciousness". As I understand this principle, it means relating to others as equals - giving the same degrees of latitude - complexity and independence, that we ascribe to ourselves. This strikes me as a useful perspective for anyone, regardless of gender-preference, to work towards and one which I feel, reflects the image of Ardhanishvara. This places the emphasis on sadhana not so much in distinct magical acts in the circle or zonule, but in our everyday lives, in our relationships with others.

As for distinct forms of 'magical' work with Ardhanishvara, I would suggest meditation on the form of Ardhanishvara as the primordial flame which may be located variously - at the bindu point of a Yantra, or in each of the chakras. This nondual flame, which is both inward and outward, is the firepit into which all kleshas may be cast, as offerings to Shiva-Shakti. After all, it is these 'obstacles' which prevent us from experiencing the bliss of union which is both transcendent and imminent.


The Presence of Shiva - Stella Kramrisch

Gods of Love & Ecstasy - Alain Daniélou

Myths & Gods of India - Alain Daniélou

The Complete Kama Sutra - Alain Daniélou

Shiva - Shakti M. Gupta

Kali's Child - Jeffrey J. Kripal

Queer Spirits - Will Roscoe