LGBTQ+ Themes in South Asian Literature: Ardhanārishwara

by SAHF Team

The form of Ardhanārishwara is an androgynous form of the deities Shiva and Pārvati. It is depicted as in equal parts, half-male and half-female. This form represents the equality between the genders – Male and Female. When discussing creation, the Manu Smriti (1.32) states that Brahman (Ultimate Reality that is beyond gender) acquires a half Male form and a half Female form to the produce the Virāja (the universe).

God can be seen as both a ‘mother’ (Pārvati) and ‘father’ (Shiva). The devotee is free to choose either or both! The famous poet Kālidasa, in his Kumārasambhavam states: ‘Jagatah Pitarau Vande Pārvati Parameshvarau’ – ‘I bow down to the parents of the world, Pārvati and Shiva’.

The origins of this form can be found in the Upanishads (philosophical texts) that display the union of Matter and Spirit. According to the atheistic Sānkhya school of thought, the universe is the interplay of Purusha (Spirit/Consciousness) and Prakriti (Nature/Matter). This interplay has been personified as the deities ‘Shiva’ and ‘Parvati’.

Shiva represents the ‘order’ that is seen in ‘consciousness’. Parvati represents the ‘chaos’ that unfolds in the creation, preservation and destruction in ‘nature’. Despite being opposites, only the union of matter and spirit, chaos and order, the masculine and the feminine, and consciousness and matter can bring about creation.

Beyond the concept of gender, the ‘masculine’ (Shiva) can also represents qualities such as: independence, aggression, strength, and competitiveness. The ‘feminine’ (Pārvati) can represent nurturing, caring, passivity, and subordination. A mixture of these qualities may be seen in people with either genders.

To attain self-realisation, one is advised to become ‘androgynous’ like Ardhanārishwara. This is to integrate both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ qualities in oneself to attain the Supreme State beyond any forms or genders.

This form can have many implications across the spectrum of gender and sexuality such as:

  1. Gender equality – equal parts of masculine and feminine
  2. Non-binary – androgynous form of combination of both sexes
  3. Transgender
  4. Bisexuality – if we assume heteronormativity to the Male and the Female, then this can mean one person can be attracted to both genders————————————————————-

नैव स्त्री न पुमानेष न चैवायं नपुंसकः ।यद्यच्छरीरमादत्ते तेने तेने स युज्यते ॥
‘Naiva strī na pumānesha, na chaivāyam napumsakah. Yadyachharīramādatte tene tene sa yujyate’
The Soul is neither female, nor male, nor non-binary. Whatever body it inhabits, it becomes identified with that.
– Shwetāshwatara Upanishad (5.10)


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