Ardhanarishvara is one of the most prevalent forms of the Divine in Indian art since around the beginning of the Christian era or a little before. The earliest Ardhanarishvara images are reported from the period of Kushanas (circa 35-60 AD). A few scholars discover an Ardhanarishvara type figure on the obverse of a largely defaced Kushana coin from this period, which they think could be the ever first reported Ardhanarishvara image. The coin seems to have the Shiva icon but as Ardhanarishvara it has little approval. It is instead a mid-first century Kushana stele, now with the Government Museum, Mathura, which as the earliest reported example of the Ardhanarishvara form in art has greater unanimity.
In the Rigveda and the subsequent body of Indian thought, there is a lot suggestive of the unity of male and female elements, which instruments creation. However, besides such symbolic dimensions, the Vedic literature makes no direct allusion to the Ardhanarishvara form or to a term suggestive of such androgynous form. Hence, there are scholars who claim that the Ardhanarishvara form is an art perception, a product of man's queer imagination, a quaint anatomy seeking to reconcile the ever conflicting male and female elements into one Divine form.
It is true that the Ardhanarishvara-related canonical literature and iconographic prescriptions appeared much after the Ardhanarishvara image was discovered in art, but the concept of the two elements- the male and the female, merging into each other for effecting creation was an ancient one. This apparent visual fallacy of arts has, thus, not only a deeper meaning and cosmic significance but also its roots in the ancient texts and creation-related metaphysics. More significantly, the Ardhanarishvara form represents the biological unity of the outward duality, which the Indian mind has always perceived in all things and in the entire creative process. The Vedas have perceived this biological unity in several dually existing things- Agni and Soma, Stri and Punam, Kumara and Kumari, Pita and Mata, Linga and Yoni, Mahagna and Mahagni, Prana and Aprana, Nara and Nari, Heaven and Earth and so on. The Rigvedic perception of 'Prana' and 'Bhuta'- the life and the matter, which the Rigveda calls Hiranyagarbha, is, however, more explicit and better defined. In the Hiranyagarbha analogy, 'hiranya' or gold is the 'Prana', the life and 'garbha' the 'Bhuta', the matter. The Rigveda observes that it (the cosmos? or existence?) was the single egg but split into two- the 'Prana' and 'Bhuta'. The Rigveda does not elaborate the point any farther but its symbolism moves into two apparent directions. Egg contains both, the life and the matter. When it splits, both fall apart. Besides the lifeless matter, the Egg also yields the matter with life. The Rigveda calls them as 'aprana' and 'saprana'. The matter with life has life but is just the single Egg, the inherent aspect of the female, as by itself it is unable to farther the creative process and it is thus only the inactive 'Bhuta'. It is only after the male energy fertilizes it that it becomes the Golden Egg- the life-bearing one, the Hiranyagarbha of the Rigveda. And, now the Hiranyagarbha- the 'Bhuta' combined with 'Prana', the matter energized by spirit, takes to its own form and defines creation. The Ardhanarishvara form is, thus, the Golden Egg- the visual perception of the Rigvedic analogy of the Hiranyagarbha.
The Ardhanarishvara is, thus, the Cosmic Seed, which is both, the pistil and the anther, the Pita and the Mata, the Prana and the Aprana, the Nara and the Nari, the Bhuta and the Prana, the matter and the spirit, the Prakriti and the Purusha and so on, that is, the ultimate perception of the biological union of the outward duality. It is the assertion of the fact that the creation is instrumented only when duality merges into absolute oneness. The single one, even when he is the mighty Shiva, or even two- the male and the female, unless they merge into inseparable oneness, can not instrument creation. For effecting creation, the one is required to split into two and the two to merge into one. The Ardhanarishvara form is constant, which affirms the continuity and the recurrence of the creative process, as the fusion of pistil and anther creates Seed- the Golden Egg and the Seed splits into the pistil and anther and thus the procreative process goes on endlessly.
For effecting the creation, the fusion has to be absolute, that is, not only the male and female elements have to merge into oneness but also their act, which the scriptures have identified as copulation, in which all distinctions, even the femaleness and the maleness of the agents, vanish. Copulation has been, hence, considered as the absolute union and the proven instrument of procreation. The bride and her groom also perform one act- the marriage, but in the process their femaleness and maleness do not melt as they do in the act of copulation. Hence, marriage only partially creates. It creates at the most a bond. Copulation creates the seed, which is both, the male and the female, and puts the wheel of creation on move. The act of copulation thus represents not only the androgynous state of mind but, if reduced to a form, also the hermaphroditism of the Ardhanarishvara form. The Matsya Purana, and with a little deviation the Linga Purana, perceive Ardhanarishvara as the composite form of Linga and Yoni. The Ardhanarishvara in such form is suggestive of the same procreative act of copulation, which creates Seed. Otherwise also, Shiva and Parvati- his consort, are perceived as the timeless Linga and Yoni and as symbolizing the unending act of procreation. Thus, the Ardhanarishvara form is not only the Cosmic Seed but it also represents the unending procreative act- the Cosmic Copulation.
The term 'Ardhanarishvara' is a combination of three words- 'ardha', 'nari' and 'ishvara', meaning respectively, 'half', 'woman' and 'Lord' or 'God', that is, Ardhanarishvara is the Lord whose half is woman, or who is half woman. Some scholars interpret the term as meaning 'the half male' who is Shiva and 'the half female' who is Parvati. Such interpretations are suggestive of 'dveta', the duality of existence, and thus contradict the Vedic stand in the matter. Such contentions also contradict the Shaiva philosophy of 'adveta', which is very emphatic in its assertion that He alone is the cause of the entire existence, as it is by His will and out of Him that the cosmos came into being. In the Shaivite hymn- Ekohum bahusyami (Shiva Purana), that is, I am One, but wishes to be many, there echoes the Rigvedic perception of the single egg splitting into 'Bhuta' and 'Prana'. Otherwise also, the Vedas widely favor the principle of monogenic existence. Besides its emphasis on the unity of the outward duality, the Rigveda acclaims, 'He, who is described as male, is as much the female and the penetrating eye does not fail to see it'. The Rigvedic assertion is explicitly defined. The male is only so much male as much he is female and vice versa the female is only as much female as much she is male. The maleness and femaleness are the attributes contained in one frame.
This Vedic symbolism reverberates also in several Puranas. The related myth in the Skand Purana presents it quite characteristically. Brahma asks Rudra to divide himself; and thereupon Rudra, the Shiva, divides himself into two halves, one male and the other female. At another place, the Skand Purana mentions Parvati as asking Shiva, 'Let me reside in you all the while embracing you limb by limb', that is, Parvati merges into Shiva, limb to limb, and the duality is eliminated. The Shiva Purana puts it somewhat differently. Brahma, in the process of creation, creates first a number of males, the Prajapatis, and commands them to create other beings. Prajapatis, however, fail in doing so. The worried Brahma then meditates upon Maheshvara. Thereupon Maheshvara appears before him. He has the composite form of male and female and it is out of this composite form that the creation comes up with the desired pace.
The Vedic perception of the male, being half female, and the vice versa, has wider approval of the modern scientists, primarily the behavioral analysts and psychologists. Somewhat controversial but quite novel and a totally different kind of thinker of the present era, Acharya Rajnish, widely known as Osho, discovers in the Ardhanarishvara form great mysticism and cosmic significance. To him, the Ardhanarishvara form shows that the line dividing God's creation as male and female is only superfluous. The creation is essentially composite in its character and the Ardhanarishvara form is its best manifestation. To him, the Ardhanarishvara image represents Him in His absolute form and is hence more sacred and His worship absolute and far more accomplished. Thus, even on the mundane level, the Ardhanarishvara form is the perception of the unity of the conflicting male-female elements. This perception is essentially different from that of the Western world, which perceives in Cupid and Psyche, their love-god and his spouse, the inseparable union of the male and female but such union is essentially of the two in two frames. In Indian thought, as it manifests in the Ardhanarishvara form, this union is in the single frame and with cosmic magnification. A Greek myth also comes out with a hermaphroditic form. Salamacis, a nymph, falls in love with Hermophroditus, the son of Aphrodite. After Hermophroditus turns down her proposal, Salamacis prays gods to put her into his body. And, thus, the two join limb to limb into a single frame. This Greek hermaphroditic form has mythical dimensions but it is neither divine nor cosmic or procreative, such as is the Ardhanarishvara form.
Most of the Ardhanarishvara myths, as well as the Ardhanarishvara form in arts, except very rarely, as the mention of the term Vallabhavardham in the Bhavishya Purana, or a few late miniatures from the northern India, center around Lord Shiva. Vallabhavardham, a largely Vaishnavite term synonymous to Ardhanarishvara (Vallabh: Vishnu; vardham: woman), seems to have been conceived by devotees of Vishnu and the same might have inspired the miniatures seeking to represent Vishnu in Ardhanarishvara form. Such miniatures come primarily from Kashmir like northern belt where Vaishnavism had been in greater prevalence. Under the related mythology as also by their number, Vishnu's Ardhanarishvara forms, though a rarity, are almost insignificant.
The tradition perceives Ardhanarishvara mainly as the form of Shiva who it perceives as Sadashiva, Adishiva and Adipurusha. As has been discussed heretofore, Ardhanarishvara is the timeless Cosmic Seed, the endless procreative process and the existence in its composite character, the aspects which are the attributes of Shiva who is the timeless Linga, the all enlivening Prana and the inexhaustible Bhuta. As the Rigveda has it, Rudra, the Shiva, is Agni, who as Prana energizes all things. He is without a beginning as also without an end. As Bhuta- the Prakriti or matter, is only his aspect, he is the entire existence. He creates out of him and is thus himself the creation. He is thus male as also the female. The Vaishnava myth is different. It is suggestive of duality- the dveta, as Vishnu is not the creation but its sustainer. The sustainer and the sustained are two entities. He is also only the male. He has the female- his consort, though in inseparable union, yet she does not merge into his being. Lakshmi, as herself or as Sita or Radha, is with him or with Rama or Krishna, but they are not in them inseparably, as is Shakti in Shiva. Each of the born ones is the single egg- the male or the female, and so are Brahma and Vishnu. Shiva, the Maheshvara, is the total- the Sakala and Nishkala, the Linga and Alinga, the Rupa and Arupa, the Atman and Maya, the Sansar and Nirvana, all that is timed and all that is beyond time, the born and the unborn, the manifest and the unmanifest, the spirit and the matter, the ephemeral and the transcendental, the masculine and the feminine. The Indian mind believes that Lord Shiva is the first of all beings and the root of all elements. He was always and was the only one. Being the first, he is the Adishiva, and being always, he is the Sadashiva. Both as the Adishiva and the Sadashiva, Shiva has inherent in his being the male and the female, the positive and the negative, and thus his Ardhanarishvara form.
Shiva image- both the anthropomorphic and the symbolic Linga, has the pre-Vedic emergence. Excavations at Indus sites have revealed images of Shiva as Mahayogi and Pashupati and the Linga type objects suggestive of Shiva's manifestation as Linga and the cult of Linga worship. There also revealed his anthropomorphic images with prominent upward phallus suggestive of the significance of Linga in his worship cult. Shiva's subsequent Urdhalinga image was only its developed form. In two of its verses, the Rigveda is critical of the phallus worship cult, which suggests its prevalence in the non-Aryan tribes. Besides, such cult of phallus worship was prevalent also in other parts of the world. The remains of Hellenistic civilization also reveal traces of phallus worship. The ancient Egypt perceived its god Osiris in the form of Linga and worshipped it. These early images of Shiva do not so much reveal an iconographic perception of him but reveal quite significantly his divine dimensions, out of which developed his Sadashiva and Maheshvara and consequently the Ardhanarishvara forms. In these early images, he is the Linga, the Cosmic Seed, the root of procreation and thus himself the creation; as Pashupati, the keeper of herds, he is the sustainer of the born ones as also of the fields that fed them, that is, the sustainer of the 'jeevas' and 'ajeeva', the Prana and Aprana; and, as Mahayogi, he is the Cosmic Self, the means of transcendence, that is, he is the Sansar as also the Nirvana.
The proper Shaivite iconography emerges, however, during the post-Vedic era. The earliest ones to emerge were his Sadashiva and Maheshvara forms. The four-armed towering graceful figure with broad chest and elegant Jatajuta characterized these forms. The majestic bull was his vehicle. Added to his iconography, the bull gave to it a new dimension. Now the Maheshvara with his bull was Vrashavaha Shiva. The usual two-armed Vrashavaha Shiva had one of his hands rest on the bull. Parashiva, Sadashiva, Maheshvara and Vrashavaha Shiva are primarily the forms of the Saumya Shiva. Strangely, his consort Parvati does not emerge in this early phase of Shaivite images but his Ardhanarishvara form does. Obviously, even in arts, the Ardhanarishvara form was not an amalgam of the two forms but rather an independent perception of Shiva, which represented him in his totality. Practically, the iconography of the female part of the Ardhanarishvara was discovered in the form of Mother Goddess, as by then the Brahmanical pantheon did not have female deity icons. Inspired by the Vedic perception of Shiva as Rudra, the furious Archer and the tamer of animals, there emerged also the Raudra Shiva- Shiva in his violent forms, but his Ardhanarishvara form did not borrow any of its features from the Raudra Shiva, perhaps because the Raudra and feminineness could not go together. The Ardhanarishvara images discovered their male iconography in the forms of Saumya Shiva, mainly Sadashiva and Maheshvara and the female largely in the Mother Goddess.
Barring a few exceptions, the right half of the Ardhanarishvara images comprises of male anatomy and the left that of the female. A few images, obviously influenced by Shakta cult, have a vice versa placing of the male and female parts also.
As regards the height perspective, dimensions of face and other parts, the male anatomy, and more so in sculptures where bolder forms are chisel's need, is the determinant, but in paintings, which look for the softer aspects, the female anatomy is found dominating the entire figure.
Despite a similar anatomy of the two parts, the female part imparts the feeling of elegance and tenderness. An elegantly modeled prominent breast is the essentiality of the female anatomy. The Ardhanarishvara image may be endowed with two, three, four, six or eight arms. Arms more than eight are the attribute of Raudra Shiva who has been conceived with as many as a thousand arms. The two-armed image is the Ardhanarishvara in lalita posture, the beautiful one in absolute ease. The female hand carries either a mirror or nilotpala, a blue lotus. The male hand either rests on the bull or is let loose below the thigh. It may also be in abhaya-mudra, the gesture imparting fearlessness. When three-armed, one is on the female side and the two on male.
Now one of the two male arms is in abhaya or varada and other one carries a trident or rod. In four-armed figures on male side it is almost the same, but the second female hand carries variously the mirror, nilotpala or pot. The male in six and eight-armed figures carries, besides the abhaya and varada, various weapons and the drum and the female, besides the mirror, nilotpala and pot, also the parrot.
The Ardhanarishvara images have broadly three body postures- the abhanga, a posture without a curve;
a posture with three mild curves; and, the atibhanga, a posture with extreme curves.
Similarly, four of the gestures of the Ardhanarishvara images- abhaya, varada, vyakhyana and katyavalambita, are more prevalent. In abhaya, the upper right hand is held in posture imparting fearlessness. In varada, the lower right hand imparts varada. In vyakhyana, the fingers of right and left hands join in a circular knot defining the interpretive posture. And, in katyavalambita posture, the right arm is placed resting and sometimes as suspending over the 'katya' or waist. The distinction of the two aspects is discovered more in the style of costume and adornment. The male part has Jatamukuta, while the female a well dressed coiffure. The female part wears upon its ear an impressive ring, while the male may have an earring made of scorpion or snake. The half of the forehead, towards the male side, has half eye and to it towards the left joins a half tilaka. The left half of the figure, the female part, is in sari, while the upper half towards the right is either naked or is covered with elephant hide of tiger skin. Its lower half, usually up to knees, is covered by a loincloth comprising of lion skin. Similar distinction is perceptible in other things seeking to define the male and female aspects of the Divine Being.
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