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Saturday / March 25.

Understanding the Philosophy of Shiva-Shakti Through ‘Ardhanarishvara’

By Ritika Popli

‘I have been constructed by someone out of half your body;

Therefore there is no difference between us, and my heart is in you.

Just as my Self, heart, and life has been placed in you,

So has your Self, heart, and life been placed in me.’ (28)

                                                                                    – Brahma- vaivarta-purana

The above passage in ‘Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition’ by David Kinsley describes ‘Radha – Krishna’ as initially forming an androgynous figure, of which Krishna is one half and Radha, the other. Although Radha’s position as Krishna’s legal, divine consort never became very popular in devotional movements, there is a sustained rendition of Krishna mythology in which Radha is cast in this role. Philosophically, she is inextricably associated with Krishna as his ‘Shakti’. She is identified with ‘Prakrati’, the primordial matter or substance of creation; whereas Krishna is identified with ‘Purusa’, the spiritual essence of reality that stirs ‘prakrti’ to evolve into various forms.

Image 1: Pashupati Seal, 2600–1900 BCE, University of Columbia Website

Pashupati Seal, 2600–1900 BCE, University of Columbia Website

Extending this argument amongst the pantheon of Hindu Gods, one can understand the philosophical principle of ‘Shiva-Shakti’ and see its direct translation in the iconography of ‘Ardhanarishvara’ and also attempt to see it through a modernist lens. First and foremost, it is essential to understand the evolution of the iconography of Shiva, in order to be able to analyse the duality of the principle of Shiva and Shakti. The earliest speculative iconographic description of Shiva can be dated to a ‘seated figure on a seal’ representative of a ‘proto-Shiva’. Although, as pointed out by Romila Thapar in her book ‘Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300’, the identification of the figure is uncertain and the evidence for the link with Shiva is tenuous. However, this Harappan motif is indicative of the contribution to the evolution of a later religious mythology and iconography.

It is always a fascinating task to map out the genealogy of the term ‘Hindu’. Interestingly, it was not in use in the early first millennium AD, and those who are believers of what we identify today as ‘Hindu’ sects use their sectarian labels to ‘identify their religion’. Back in the first millennium AD, the identification was done by the broader labels of ‘Vaishnava’ and ‘Shaiva’ or, within these, by the narrower labels of Bhagavatas, Pashupatas and so on.  As with Vedic Brahmanism, the ‘Vaishnava’ and ‘Shaiva’ sects were not founded by historical personages. They did not constitute a revealed religion but grew and evolved from a variety of cults; it was a belief system in which a lot of rituals had filtered down from Brahmanical practices. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in her article ‘Moving Devi’ talks about that how the assumption of ‘Intellectual Hinduism’ in the singular sense may be skewed as it seeks to emphasize its “monotheist, monist, juridico-legal singular version and how a certain line of ‘Hindu’ thought has striven to see the polytheist moment as a more or less divine playful allegory of the philosophical-theological engagement.” Thus, in the emerging cult of ‘Shaivism’ alongside ‘Vaishnivism’, worship in many parts dealt with local spirits/ beliefs and when that happened with Puranic Hinduism – there was an overlap, at times with the institutions of established Brahminical forces and these sites became avenue of transactions between the religion of the elite and popular cults.

‘Shakti’, literally meaning ‘energy’ is the active one, in the equation. Shiva, on the other hand is the ‘God of Paradoxes’; is phallus incarnate but at the same time is also celebrated as the fiery celibate. This aspect underlines the binary opposition between ‘indulgence’ and ‘renunciation’.

To understand the elemental weight of individual elements of ‘Shiva’ and ‘Shakti’, I’ll again refer to the descriptive tone taken by Margaret Stutley, a world renowned scholar of World Religions and she defines ‘Shakti’ as representative of the dynamic energy or creative principle of existence. A power that is envisaged as not only feminine but it is manifested through a god’s consort; the female being considered more creative, powerful, and continuously productive than the male. Shakti indicates how the undifferentiated Unity (Brahman) can produce the multi – dimensional cosmos with myriads of finite forms, since Shiva; the personification of the transcendental, static, immutable principle is incapable of creation. Hence, Shiva without Shakti is likened to a corpse (shava), for they represent two inseparable principles and the union of energy (Shakti) with being (Shiva) is one of the Tantric ways to ultimate knowledge. Their divine union is also indicated by the image of the yoni and linga conjoined on which devotees meditate. Art Historian Partha Mitter in his book ‘Indian Art’ has spoken about the Shaiva branch of Hinduism, which is centred on the Shiva/ Shakti dualism of two equal partners, represented by their sacred coitus. ‘Shakti’, literally meaning ‘energy’ is the active one, in the equation. Shiva, on the other hand is the ‘God of Paradoxes’; is phallus incarnate but at the same time is also celebrated as the fiery celibate. This aspect underlines the binary opposition between ‘indulgence’ and ‘renunciation’.

Ardhanarishavara, Elephanta Caves

Ardhanarishavara, Elephanta Caves

In an attempt to understand the dualism of the male Shiva and the female Shakti, it is also critical to know that the twin principles may spring from the same source but they are nonetheless in constant opposition. Mircea Eliade in his book, ‘The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion’ calls the bisexual imagery of the ‘linga’ to be coincidentia oppositorum rather than a hieros gamos, which is in direct agreement to the fundamentally dualistic view of the universe held by the Hindus.

The philosophical principle of Shiva/Shakti dualism in terms of iconography gets translated in the image of ‘Ardhanarishvara’ which literally translates into “The Lord who is half – female” containing all the opposites. To the viewer’s left of it shows the half-male (proper right) and half-female (proper left) form of Shiva. The form denotes the inseparability of all male and female forms, the cause of creation, and the constant dynamic power of nature carrying everything onwards from growth to decay; it also symbolizes the yoni and linga (phallus). When the neutral substratum divides itself into substance (Shiva) and creative energy (Parvati = Shakti) they unite a spark that is lust, the source of the life – force.

When the neutral substratum divides itself into substance (Shiva) and creative energy (Parvati = Shakti) they unite a spark that is lust, the source of the life – force.

From a philosophical point of view, this form represents the creative union of the active and passive principles, whilst from the sectarian Shaiva standpoint it denotes the syncretism of the Shaiva and Shakta cults. Susan Huntington in her pivotal book, ‘Art of Ancient India: Buddhist, Hindu and Jain’ also argues that the iconography epitomizes the concept of the unification of purusa and prakriti, the complimentary duality present in every form of creation (dominant school of Hindu thought process). Purusa, the male half, is inactive but is manifested through prakriti, the female half, and the two are thus inseparable. Mitter in Indian Art makes the interesting observation that, perhaps, the dissimilarity between Western Classical and the Indian ideal can be best depicted in the notions of bisexuality. To elucidate this further the contrast can be made amidst the Classical Hermaphrodite, where the sexual differences were blended in a ‘unisex’ imagery. On the other hand, in the Shiva Ardhanarishvara imagery, the male/female difference was in fact emphasized by bifurcating the figure into two halves, along with the sexual characteristics of each gender fastidiously highlighted.

Ardhanarishavara, Purapara Temple, Bangladesh, Pala Period (Late 11th -12th CE)

Ardhanarishavara, Purapara Temple, Bangladesh, Pala Period (Late 11th -12th CE)

The depiction of ‘Ardhanarishvara’, found in the vicinity of Dacca dated approximately late eleventh to early twelfth century in the Pala period; according to Huntington is perhaps ‘the most graphic description’ in all of South Asian art of the androgynous Shiva combined with Paravati, as seen not only in the presence of the female breast and male phallus, but also in the two halves of the headdress, Shiva’s divided third eye, and the distinctive treatment of the two halves of the lower garment.’

A way to look at it in the modern context would be to go through a gendered analysis of the iconography of ‘Ardhanarishavara’ where the creator’s reduction of the possessed power happens due to the splitting of the round beings; original androgyny getting splitting into maleness and femaleness. It is further illustrated in the Kurma Purana, where Brahma produces Rudra, who is “Half-male and Half-female and it was too terrible to behold. ‘Divide yourself,’ saying this Brahma vanished out of fear” and Rudra splits into male and female parts; where the male is Shiva and the female Parvati, who is then born as the daughter of the king of mountains. She longs to unite with her original other half, Shiva. At her father’s request, Parvati reveals herself in her divine form: “It had hands and feet all round, had eyes, heads and faces in all directions”. On seeing this form, her father is “frightened and struck with awe”. He requests her to reveal another form, and she assumes a gentle female form with two eyes and arms. This concept of ‘Original Roundness and Power’ can be used to contrast and compare the image of ‘Ardhanarishwara’ in terms of structural elements, where Shiva and his wife Paravati are ‘fused by love into a being’ that is simultaneously male and female. The conjectural ideal that I would like to extend her on the dualism of ‘Shiva and Shakti’ is that the equality if not in ‘name’, is prevalent in the iconography. The fusion of the Shiva and Shakti in ‘Ardhanarishvara’ does not refer to the concept of the consort (directly defiant to imagery of ‘Uma Maheshvara’), resulting in the fusion of the male and female does results in equality of sorts.

Women are represented as both: an Object of Gaze and as part of the Sacred. It is precisely this opposition that opens up the realm for feminist critiquing also where the constantly reiterated point in all major works conducted on Indian Art of ‘whilst women had an inferior status in Hindu society, they played a dominant role on the level of belief’.

Partha Mitter in his seminal book, ‘Much Maligned Monsters: A History of European Reactions to Indian Art’ reiterates the argument again by saying that in the eighteenth century, writings on religion were interwoven with a deep, mystical conception of sexual imagery in ancient fertility and sexual rites, opening up the channel to the age old connections between – The Sacred and the Profane. It is well etched out in Indian Art by the ideal in which female sexuality is celebrated.  Women are represented as both: an Object of Gaze and as part of the Sacred. It is precisely this opposition that opens up the realm for feminist critiquing also where the constantly reiterated point in all major works conducted on Indian Art of ‘whilst women had an inferior status in Hindu society, they played a dominant role on the level of belief’. The point made by Spivak then holds ground when she says that all the spectatorship of the Female Goddesses is the ‘adoration that legitimizes the hostility in the gaze by reversal’.


Ritika has recently completed her Masters in Arts and Aesthetics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, where Indian Art History, Theatre and Performative Studies and Film Theory have been her key research areas in the past two years.