Śiva as Ardhanārīśvara

A rare 16-armed dancing Ardhanārīśvara, with the right foot on Śiva’s vāhana, Nandi, and the left foot on Parvati’s vāhana, the lion. Siva wears a garland of skulls and holds the thunderbolt sceptre (vajra), kartika, and a kapāla.The lotus petal base suggests that it once served as the top of a ceremonial staff. Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore

“After the daughter of rich Himalaya
had parted from him,
he married her again
for her many arduous penances
and gave her half of himself,
taking on a glorious new form.
He is our treasure in Cerai*,
shrine of the good path.”

Appar, translated by Indira Viswanathan Peterson, Poems to Śiva

*cerai refers to the Saraparameswara temple in Tirucherai, Thanjavur district, situated on the banks of the Kaveri in Tamil Nadu

Ardhanārīśvara is the form of Śiva in which the God with his spouse appears in a composite from. The right half is dedicated to Śiva and the left to his Śakti, Pārvati. Both halves are adorned with the features, jewelry, and clothing of male and female respectively. According to the Śiva Purāṇa, Brahmā could only create first the Prajāpatis and Felt concerned at the slow progress of creation and therefore contemplated on Maheśvara who appeared in the form of Ardhanārīśvara. Brahmā then prayed to Dēvi Pārvati to create a female in order to perpetuate humanity thereafter. That the male and female counterparts of creation are inseparable and forever found together in cosmic evolution is the real impact of the Ardhanārīśvara form of Śiva. The form also signifies the cult amalgam in a remarkable manner for it emphasises the union of the principal cult deities of Śaivism and Śaktism. Ardhanārīśvara represents the of two opposite primeaval forces, prakṛti and puruṣa that lie at the root of the creation of the universe.

The germs of this syncretic ideology are found in another Purāṇic account, also from the Śiva Purāṇa in which Sage Bhṛṅgi’s single-minded devotion (he takes a vow to worship only one being — Śiva) of Śiva and his adamantine impudence not to pay homage to the consort of the Lord forces Śiva to assume the form of Ardhanārīśvara to save the honour of the goddess.

But such was the tenacity of this sectarian Sage that, assuming the form of a beetle, he bored a hole through the centre of the composite figure where their bodies joined and circumambulated the Śiva part only, to the great wonder and admiration of Pārvati, who became reconciled upon witnessing the pious Ṛṣi’s steadfastness to his vow to adore the Lord alone.

viśālanīlotpalalocanāyai vikāsipaṅkeruhalocanāya
samekṣaṇāyai viṣamekṣaṇāya namaḥ śivāyai ca namaḥ śivāya

My namaskāra to Pārvati, with wide eyes like the nīlotpala (blue lotus) and to Śiva, with eyes like the blossoming pink lotus flower;
To Her with two eyes and to Him with three;
my namaskāra to that composite form of Śiva and Pārvati.

pradīptaratnojjvalakuṇḍalāyai sphuranmahāpannagabhūṣaṇāya śivānvitāyai ca śivānvitāya namaḥ śivāyai ca namaḥ śivāya

My namaskāra to Pārvati, who is adorned by resplendent gem-studded earrings, and to Śiva, who wears glimmering snakes as ornaments;
To Her who is merged with Śiva and to Him who is merged with Pārvati;
my namaskāra to that composite form of Śiva and Pārvati.

(taken from the Ardhanārīśvara stotra, composed by Ādi Śankarāchārya)

ICONOGRAPHY

In this exquisite mid-11th century Chola bronze, Śiva’s triśūla dramatically and elegantly encircles his form in which the left side is female and the right side is male. The male side has the matted locks of a yogi piled high on his head; he holds an ax and leans on his mount, the bull. The female side has a jeweled crown, earring, full breast, broad hips, long skirt, and only one arm.

The classic iconography of Ardhanārīśvara generally shows of the attributes of the male and female halves distinctly. The male half, Śiva has a jaṭāmukuṭa, adorned with a crescent, with a makara-kundaḷa or a sarpakundaḷa, and half of a third eye sculptured on the forehead. The image may have two, three or four arms, holding all the attributes of Śiva such as the śūla, paraśu, akṣamāla, and one hand resting on his vāhana Nandi. His garments cover the body below the loins unto the knee, made of tiger’s skin or silk. On one side of the chest is seen a nāga-yajñōpavīta. The whole of the right side is covered in ashes.

The female half, Pārvati should be adorned with a karaṇda mukuta, a fine knot of combed hair. On the forehead, half of her tilaka mark is contiguous with the third eye of Śiva. The left eye is painted beautifully with collegium, and in the left ear, should be a kundaḷa known as Valikā. She is adorned with jewelry keyūra, kaṅkaṇa and other ornaments. In her arms she carries either a parrot, a mirror, or a flower. The entire left side is smeared in fragrant sandalwood paste or saffron, draped in multicolored silk cloth, covered upto the ankles and her chest distinctively shaped like the bosom of a woman.

The existence of Ardhanārīśvara iconography can be traced to as early as the Kushana and Gupta periods (1st — 3rd c. BC) and can be found in temple architecture and sculpture found across Bhārat.

Ardhanārīśvara in Literature

The inseparable identity of Pārvati with Śiva is best represented in the Ardhanārīśvara form, in which they are united. In Kālidāsa’s Kumārasambhava, Nārada predicts, seeing Pārvati’s intense love for Śiva, that she would share half of Śiva’s body.

“Nārada who goes wherever he wants through the worlds,
when he saw her, they say, once beside her father,
proclaimed that she would become Śiva’s single wife
through love, half the body and being of the god.” I.50

In the VII th canto (Umāpariṇayaḥ), while Pārvati was marrying Śiva, she was blessed by her elders to obtain the undivided love of her husband — akhaṇḍitam prēma labhava patyuḥ — but even she surpassed their blessings by occupying half the body of Siva.

“Each of the women said to her, as she bowed down,
‘May you keep your husband’s love undivided!’
but she went beyond even these blessings of her loving
relatives, when she became half the god’s body.” VII.28

The Ardhanārīśvara form is also mentioned in an invocatory verse of the Mālavikāgnimitra where Śiva is described as a person whose body is united with that of his beloved and yet is the foremost among ascetics, having no attachment to worldly pleasures. (kāntāsammiśradehopyaviṣaya manasām yaḥ parastādyatinām)

In the opening invocatory verse of the Raghuvamśa, Kālidāsa’s iconic verse exemplifies the significance of the Ardhanārīśvara form of Śiva.

वागर्थाविव सम्पृक्तौ वागर्थ प्रतिपत्तये ।
जगत: पितरौ वन्दे पार्वतीपरमेश्वरौ ।।

“I offer my salutations to the parents of the universe, Pārvati and Parameśvara, who are inseparably united like speech and its meaning, for bestowing upon me the knowledge of words and their meaning.”

No one can think of Pārvati and Parameśvara separately, just as words cannot be separated from their meaning. Kālidāsa refers to them as ‘jagataḥ pitarau’ or the parents of the universe, as Pārvati and Parameśvara are said to be the primordial prakṛti and puruṣa, united to cause the existence of the entire cosmos.

References:

  1. Composite Deities in Indian Art and Literature Shanti Lal Nagar
  2. Ardhanarisvara in art and literature by Neeta Yadav
  3. Kumarasambhavam: The Origin of the Young God, translated from the Sanskrit by Hank Heifetz

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