The Ardhanarishvara form of Shiva
Snapshot
  • On Mahashivaratri, we dwell on the androgynous form of Shiva, the essence of which pervades Tamil classics, religious texts and language.

When a father saw milk dripping from the corners of his child’s mouth, he demanded to know who fed him. The child with the milk still dripping from his mouth burst into a song. This heralded a Shaivaite renaissance in that small village in South India.

The spiritual incident of Thirugnana Sambandar is well known in south India. The very first Thirumurai or the Shaivaite literature recognised as one of the holiest starts with the words ‘Thodudaya Chevian...’ which translates as “The one whose ear is wearing the feminine earring” — emphasising the Ardhanarishvara form of Shiva. Since then in many of his hymns Sambandar speaks of that form of Shiva.

Like most of the divine forms so integral to the spirituality and culture of the Hindu nation, Ardhanarishvara also has its roots in Harappan civilisation and Vedic culture. American archaeologist Gregory Possehl has this to say about the Harappan androgynous divinity:

The central theme of Harappan religion as it comes from the archaeological record is the combined male-female deity, symbolized by animal horns and the broad curving plant motifs. ... What is seen is a male, horned animal god, generally associated with the water buffalo, and a female plant deity represented as either a plant motif or a human figure standing in or under a plant. ... This relationship was there for some purpose and it is reasonable to speculate that it was to convey the sense that what one sees as two is, in fact, a single, unseen entity or idea. It would have been an androgynous being, combining the features of both male and female and obviously not sexual neuter. This is a feature of gods in the Hindu pantheon, as exemplified by Ardhanarishvara, the manifestation of Siva, who is half man and half woman.
In the entry for ‘Indus Civilization’ in ‘The Oxford Companion to Archaeology’, Oxford University Press, 2012, page 350.

Archaeologist and Sanskrit-Tamil scholar Dr R Nagaswamy traces the Ardhanarishvara form to hymns of Agni in Vedas, highlighting his dual nature to burn (destroy) and emit light (illuminate).

According to him "the syncretic form of Ardhanarishvarawas "based on a compound image of Agnaa Vishnu (also known as Rudra Vishnu), where Rudra is portrayed as having two bodies — a life giving body identified as feminine and creative, and a terrific or destructive body portrayed as masculine”.

Professor of religion, Ellen Goldberg, further elaborates:

Dual deities (dvidevatya) in Ardhanari form are a recurring feature of early Vedic literature. Jan Gonda (1975) examines several Vedic deities whose names are formed by dual compounds (devata dvandvas) including Agni-Soma and Mitra-Varuna. He claims they represent a persistent motif constituting what he refers to as an “intimately connected couple, a (two-sided) unity, acting conjointly” — in other words, the Ardhanari form.
“Ardhanaarisvara: An Androgynous Model of God” in Models of God and Alternative Ultimate Realities (Ed Jeanine Diller and Asa Kasher), Springer, 2013, Page 634.

We see the dual nature united in one in Surya also. As Rudra Surya drinks the Soma from all existence.

In the case of Rudra as Surya, the cosmic phenomenon of the drinking of Soma by Agni is witnessed through his thousand rays. Wherever there is moisture, it is drawn by the heat in the rays of the sun. (Divathjinvanty-agnayah, RV I 164 51).
Vasudeva Sharana Agrawala, Vedic Lectures: Proceedings of the Summer School of Vedic Studies, May-June 1960, Banaras Hindu University, 1963, Page 75   

Surya  Ardhanareeiswara: Airavatesvara Temple, Darasuram (12th century CE) Surya  Ardhanareeiswara: Airavatesvara Temple, Darasuram (12th century CE)

If Surya as Rudra removes the moisture called Soma then he also gives it back as rain-milk. So when sky is the milch cow in the Vedic vision, the sun becomes its udder. Indologist-historian Chiraranjan Podder points out further:

Tvastr as the sun or the sky (here rather wandering sun), is at the same time the bull Asura, the Omniform. The first engendering god giving birth out of himself and unifying the creative power in himself as bull and the cow, is androgynous. In one of the Visvadeva-Hymns - again an obscure one - Tvastr the creator is once more identified with the Bull Asura, the Omniform, and described as having three bellies, three udders and three faces.
The androgynous divinities in Hindu mythology, Bulletin - Indian Museum, Vol-33, 1998, Page 16.

In the Rig Vedic hymn of seer Angirasa Havirdana, he speaks of "the Bull yielding the milk of heaven" (X XI 1), which Vedic scholar David Frawley explains thus:

This is a hymn to the Fire, Agni. The Spirit yields the milk of the Infinite Mother, Aditi. The Bull of Being yields the milk of the Cow of Consciousness. The two supreme cosmic powers are only one. In that unity of the twofold nature, our flame of awareness has the power to make all things sacred, perceiving all things as the play of these two holy principles.
Wisdom of the Ancient Seers: Mantras of the Rig Veda, Motilal Banarsidass Publications, 1994, Page 227.

The Harappan-Vedic age and the age of Thirugnana Sambandar are separated at least by more than 2,500 years. Yet the resurfacing of the Ardhanarishvara form in the episode where the child is fed with the milk of wisdom is extremely amazing.

Alingana Chandrasekarar form: Note the asymmetrical earrings of Shiva while not so in the goddess. (Thanjavur Museum) Alingana Chandrasekarar form: Note the asymmetrical earrings of Shiva while not so in the goddess. (Thanjavur Museum)

If one observes the iconography of most of the Shiva forms — particularly the Chola bronzes — one can see that the asymmetry in the earrings is incorporated in almost all forms of Shiva. As seen above, even when the goddess stands along with him all feminine, he still possesses the androgynous nature.

Bhikshadana form of Shiva : note the asymmetrical earrings. (Thanjavur Museum) Bhikshadana form of Shiva : note the asymmetrical earrings. (Thanjavur Museum)

Ardhanarishvara, apart from being an explicitly separate form of Shiva, is also an integrated, inseparable, embedded form of the lord.

Rishaba Vahana Murthy: note the asymmetrical earrings: (Thanjavur Museum) Rishaba Vahana Murthy: note the asymmetrical earrings: (Thanjavur Museum)

Equally important is the belief that sees the goddess as an embodiment of Shiva.

Tamil classic Silapathikaram in a very strong yet subtle way emphasises the Ardhanarishvari form where the nourishing nature of the divine is emphasised. In the Ardhanarishvara form, the destructive character is emphasised.

The hymn sang by the tribal community is witnessed by Kannagi, the central character of the Tamil epic, along with her husband. Here, the female shaman gets into an altered state of consciousness during which the goddess form is mentioned as wearing anklets, masculine and feminine, around both her feet.

All the important deeds of Shiva like consuming poison, destruction of Tripura, skinning of the elephant and tiger etc, are all attributed in this praise to the goddess.

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In other words, we see here the goddess form is not only a part of Shiva, but she consumes the other half as well — a process also touched upon in a seemingly humorous manner by none other than Adi Shankaracharya in the 23rd verse of Saundarya Lahari.

This aspect of the goddess subsuming the masculine form is also portrayed in popular Hindu culture. For instance, the gopuram sculpture at Veeramakali Temple in Singapore where the Dakshinamurthy form of Shiva — the south-facing youthful Shiva — is taken over by the goddess.

Goddess as Dakshinamurthy: Veeramakali Temple in Singapore. Goddess as Dakshinamurthy: Veeramakali Temple in Singapore.

When her androgynous form is explicitly mentioned in Silapathikaram, the poet also emphasises the presence of the third eye of Shiva which according to religious belief will burn and destroy if opened.

Sure enough, in the course of the epic as Kannagi seeks justice, she plucks out her left breast and throws it on the city of Madurai. The city burns destroying all but the good souls, the helpless, women, children, cows and Brahmins. So, the nourishing breast, which burns and destroys contains in it both the masculine and the feminine powers.

Shiva, left, with asymmetrical earrings: Feminine to the left; Maheswari Goddess, right, with asymmetrical earrings, feminine to the right. (Chennai Museum) Shiva, left, with asymmetrical earrings: Feminine to the left; Maheswari Goddess, right, with asymmetrical earrings, feminine to the right. (Chennai Museum)

Epigraphist S Ramachandran points out another deep symmetry in the Tamil narrative connecting Kannagi and Sambandar. From Chola region came Kannagi and burnt Madurai.

Centuries later, Sambandar would come from the same region — the child fed by the Goddess, who is part of Shiva, with the milk of wisdom. One of the ways he proves the supremacy of Shaiva Dharma is by throwing into the fire a verse he had written praising Shiva and how! He is the one inseparable from the goddess with universally-nourishing breasts! So here, the fire which could emanate from the breast was won over by the power of the breast that nourishes all life!

Here then is a powerful embedding of androgynous qualities into the breast itself considered the very essence of feminine quality.

So the consistent imagery in Ardhanarishvara is the nourishing quality of the divine. This nourishing element in the form of the milk and rain, is indeed the milk of the consciousness as Dr Frawley points out.

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The androgynous goddess form is also one of the thousand names of the divine feminine in Sri Lalita Sahasranama. The 392nd name Srikanthaarthasariirini refers to this form.

The celebrated commentator on Sri Lalita Sahasranama is that Bhaskararaya who lived in the eighteenth century. He first points out the conventional and direct meaning of the name that "she who is half of the one who has beautiful neck", beautiful because he holds the poison that would otherwise destroy all existence.

Sri also means poison and hence both have the same conventional meaning. Then he explores the deeper meaning. On the authority of treatise Maatrikaakosa, he points out that Srikantha also means the letter 'A'.

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Thus it is said in the Sruti, - ‘A is all the speech, that ‘A’ takes on different forms in combination with the different consonants’. The meaning is that ‘A’ with the first utterance, is the Para form which becomes later on the Vaikari. So the Sutha Samhitha (IV,47,59): ‘The supreme Sakti, Devi, the form of chit, arises as speech, that (speech) is called Para. I ever bow down in devotion to that Sakti who is the half body of Siva.’
Bhaskararaya’s commentary (Trans. R Ananthakrishna Sastry, 1925:1986, Page 187)

This interpretation by Bhaskararaya is not an isolated one. It has a long tradition in Hindu spiritual history. Poetess and author Mani Rao points out that "the mantra ... in Rig Veda 1.164.39 as well as Shvetashvatara Upanishad 4.8.3 ... note that for the person who does not know akshara (syllable) in the highest vyoman (heart-space) in whom all the deities are supported/established, the veda is of no use.' (Mani Rao, Living Mantra: Mantra, Deity, and Visionary Experience Today, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, Page 60)

What is this 'Akshara'? Many consider it as 'Aum' which itself consists of 'A' along with 'U' and 'M'. In Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna declares that he is 'Akara’ among the Aksharas.

The Buddhist text 'Bhagavati prajnaparamita sarva-tathagatha-mata ekaksara nama', whose original Sanskrit text except for the title is lost but whose translation is present in Tibet, says that in a discourse to his disciple Ananda utters a single sound, the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, the A. It was "for the sake of the welfare and happiness of all beings" that Buddha wanted Ananda to receive "this perfection of wisdom in one letter”. (Judith Simmer-Brown, Dakini's Warm Breath: Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism', Shambala, 2002, Page 87)

It should be remembered that this Prajnaparamita text itself was composed somewhere between 600 and 1200 CE. And it should be noted that Prajnaparamita the wisdom goddess of Buddhism incorporates in her many aspects of Vedic Saraswati.

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Professor Catherine Ludvik has pointed out how the Saraswati figurine in Buddhist tradition actually becomes a multi-armed warrior goddess as well — similar to Durga-Parvati. So one can say that the 'A' syllable containing perfect wisdom can be associated with the goddess in the Buddhist tradition as well, though it is very well defined and strongly established in Vedic tradition.

So, in every letter of the language as ‘A’ forms a part of the letter, can say that it attains an Ardhanarishvara essence.

Sure enough, Prof David Shulman points out that "Tamil syllables, both in their aural and their graphic forms are the stuff of reality; pragmatic Tantric grammars regulate their use.” (Tamil A Biography, Harvard University Press, 2016, Page 31)

So with every syllable carrying in it the ‘akara’, the goddess also becomes part of it and it is this androgynous nature at the very basic level which animates language. Appar Thirunaavukarasar also invokes this aspect of language when he his famous verse ‘Sottrunai Vedhiyan...’ (He is abiding in the language).

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Kalidasa also points to this when he speaks of the union of Shiva and Shakti as that of how a word and its meaning are united. But what is again important in this is that through the ‘Akara’, he permeates all the words — similar to Brahman permeating all existence.

This brings us to the very first verse of Thiruvalluvar’s Thirukkural which speaks of ‘Akara’ being primal to the realm of the languages, so is Adhi-Bhagvan primal to all existence. Tamil grammarians point out that the term Adhi-Bhagvan is the union of two nouns which are Sanskrit in origin.

For if it is Tamil, it would have been ‘Adhi-p-Bhagwan’. A dominant section of academia as well as polity needing to negate any Vedic religious connotation to Thirukkural have always attributed Adhi-Bhagwan to Jainism — not without reason though.

Adhi-Bhagvan is indeed a term often found in Jain literature. However, the use of ‘Akara’ makes one pause.

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Adhi-Bhagavan may well be one of the ‘dual deities (dvidevatya) in Ardhanaari which Ellen Goldberg mentions. This may also explain the belief which speaks of Thriuvalluvar being born to Adhi, a woman of Paraiyar community and Bhagvan the Brahmin.

Here the Parai and Adhi, the goddess may well symbolise an exalted divine status as important as that of or perhaps even exceeding that of Bhagvan the Brahmin — Shiva. The social stagnation and colonialism imparted to the word ‘Parai’ an inferior meaning which classical Hindu Dharma never did.

Now from the discussion above if the ‘Akara’ actually refers to ‘Srikantha’ then Adhi-Bhagvan may actually refer to the androgynous divine. Shaivaite literature consistently attributes the term ‘Akara’ as well as the name ‘Akaramuthalvan’ to Shiva. Thirumoolar’s Thirumanthiram states that no one knows the mystery that Shiva is the Akara (1751 & 1753). Sambandar calls his ‘Akaramuthallanai...’ the very term used in Thirukkural.

But when we consider Sri Lalita Sahasranama along with Tamil Shaivaite injunctions, we find that she forms the basis of every syllable and animates them with meaning in context. Therefore, the language manifests as two elements united in one phenomenon — Akaramuthalvan is indeed contained in Ardhanarishvara or should we say Srikanthaardthasareerini!

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