Hinduism Ardhanārīśvara
Ellen Goldberg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0125


As the androgynous aspect par excellence of the great pan-Indian god Śiva, Ardhanārīśvara (“the lord who is half woman”) belongs to a rich and highly stylized pantheon of Indian sacred art and literature. The idea of male–female unity has conceptual roots in dual or composite deities such as Agni-Soma, Mitra-Varuṇa, and Dyāvā-Pṛithvī as far back as the Ṛg Veda. In the Brāhmaṇas, we see Prajāpati, the pregnant male, create the world through an act of cosmogenic dismemberment, and in the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad (1.4, 3–4), we see a single androgynous being divide into male and female for the sake of creation. These myths, as well as the prakṛti-puruṣa concept of Sāṃkhya philosophy, anticipate the myth of the androgynous Śiva. The earliest icons (mūrtis) of Ardhanārīśvara date from the Saka-Kuṣāṇa period (c. 1st to 3rd century CE). Textual sources including śilpa śāstras (canonical texts on temple architecture and iconography), pūraṇas, and bhakti (devotional) literature provide brief formulaic descriptions of Ardhanārīśvara that are necessary for image-making (pratimālakṣaṇa). They also offer scant mythological, philosophical, and theological reflection on the nature and function of a bisexual deity who creates the universe by separating his body into his male and female halves. Thus, the single most important identifying feature that we see on almost all Ardhanārīśvara images is a vertical axis or line of demarcation that divides the body of the deity into right-side male and left-side female. Though we observe minor regional and canonical variations, Ardhanārīśvara’s male right side is typically identified by a range of conventions including abhyaya mudrā (gesture of fearlessness), trīśula (trident), khatvaṅga (club), kapāla (skull), or pāśā (noose), along with jātamākuṭa or uṣnīṣa (crown of matted hair worn by ascetics and yogis) and garments such as a dhotī or tiger skin covering the body from the waist to the knees. On north Indian icons of Ardhanārīśvara from 1st century onwards, the half-ūrdhvareta (ithyphallic) feature is visible on the right male side. A well-rounded female breast distinguishes the torso of the left female side variously referred to as Pārvatī, Gaurī, Umā, Śivā or Śakti. Additional female emblems include nīlotpala (blue lotus) or darpaṇa (mirror), as well as earrings, karaṇḍa mākuṭa or dhamilla (traditional ornamented hairstyle) and a curvaceous waist and hip. Although most scholarly studies of Ardhanārīśvara focus primarily on iconography, and to a lesser extent on mythology, a few studies on gender examine the challenges proposed by an androgynous god/goddess.

General Overviews

Introductory works including encyclopedic articles and historical surveys treat Ardhanārīśvara as a manifestation of the great Hindu god Śiva. Doniger O’Flaherty 1973 and Kramrisch 1981 are among the earliest studies of Ardhanārīśvara published in the West to apply interpretive readings of Hindu myth and to provide comprehensive background for comparative and thematic study. Kramrisch concentrates on Hindu iconography interpreted in light of mythic narratives, whereas Doniger O’Flaherty applies psychoanalytic and structural methodologies to understand the composite nature of Ardhanārīśvara in Hindu literature. Doniger O’Flaherty 1980 establishes new ground with the first cross-cultural analysis of the androgyne motif based on the vast corpus of myths from the Hindu purāṇas. Chitgopekar 1998 gives an overview of the regional history of Śiva in Madhya Pradhesh and considers the merging of Śiva and Pārvatī (also referred to as Gaurī) in the form of Ardhanārīśvara as the sectarian hybridization of Śaktism and Śaivism. Goldberg 2008 offers a survey of the field by interrogating the image of Ardhanārīśvara in sacred art, yoga, and bhakti literature. Bisschop 2009 provides a reliable though brief introductory portrait of Ardhanārīśvara in his encyclopedic overview of Śiva.

  • Bisschop, Peter. “Śiva.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Vol. 1. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, 741–755. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

    Presents a thorough overview of Śiva in Indian art and literature. Includes an introduction with nonspecialist appeal and a concise description of Ardhanārīśvara in the pūraṇas.

  • Chitgopekar, Nilima. Encountering Śivaism: The Deity, the Milieu, the Entourage. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1998.

    Regional study of medieval Śaivism in Madhya Pradesh. Looks specifically at epigraphical and literary sources and provides a useful intellectual history of the available secondary research on Śiva including specific references to Ardhanārīśvara.

  • Doniger O’Flaherty, Wendy. Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Śiva. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.

    Provocative study of Śiva mythology exposing an internal contradiction between the opposing ideals of the householder and the ascetic. Provides numerous references to Ardhanārīśvara in Hindu mythology. Reprinted in 1981 under the title Śiva: The Erotic Ascetic.

  • Doniger O’Flaherty, Wendy. Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

    Influential and innovative study of the androgyne motif in Hindu mythology. Applies a comparative typology to categorize androgynes in a cross-cultural context and a psycho-structural analysis to interpret the role of Ardhanārīśvara in Hindu mythology. Extensive references to Hindu myths in translation.

  • Goldberg, Ellen. “Ardhanārīśvara: What We Know and What We Do Not.” Religion Compass 2–3 (2008): 301–315.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00066.x

    Presents a survey of the field. Identifies gender issues and points to possible areas of future study including Hindu law and cognitive science. Argues that even though Ardhanārīśvara is an idealized convention of male brahmanical thought, the image can also be used to disrupt gendered norms by virtue of its philosophical message of advaita (nonduality).

  • Kramrisch, Stella. The Presence of Śiva. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.

    Examines themes and motifs in the myths of Śiva from the Vedas to the pūraṇas. Includes an extensive chapter on the Androgyne God and 32 black and white plates of Śiva from the cave temple at Elephanta.

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