Kasturikacan danlepanayyei,
Satkundalayyei phanikundalayyei
Namo Shivayyei cha namo shivaya.

The one who (in the form of Gauri) has covered one half of her body till the navel in sandalwood paste and the other half (in the form of Har) with ashes from the shamshan, the one who has worn a manohar kundal (beautiful earring) in one ear and wrapped a sarpa kundal (snake) around another ear, to that Shiva (female-Shivani) and to that Shiva (male-Har) I bow. 

— 'Hargauryashtakam' by Adi Shankaracharya.

Whether it is the Western theory of creation – that of Adam and Eve; the Indian construct of purusha and prakriti, man and woman; or the Chinese notion of yin and yang – the very core of civilisation stems from the concept of the union of the male and the female, each complementing the other. Hinduism has explored this sublime oneness further, subscribing to the concept of god as the simghata or sammisrana, coalescence of male and female principles. It visualised god as being ardha-nara, half man, and ardha-nari, half woman, and this imaging was given the name Ardhanarishvara or isvara, Lord, who is half woman and from whom sprang all srishti, creation.

In the Hindu texts and scriptures the origin of the human race is attributed to Brahma, the creator in the Hindu pantheon, who, after creating the prajapatis, the first images created by him, did not know how to proceed further. Different versions of the myth abound.

The Mahabharata tells us that Brahma failed in his attempts to create beings who would together produce offspring carnally and later, die.

According to the Shiva Purana, Brahma lacked the power to create women, until Shiva appeared before him in the androgynous form of Ardhanarishvara, “the Lord whose half is woman”, the right being the male manifestation. On seeing the supreme lord Shiva, Brahma realised that Ardhanarishvara held the potential for becoming a couple that could unite sexually and in order to secure this went into tapasya, penance.

Pleased by Brahma’s austerities, Shiva, the omnipresent and the embodiment of knowledge, created the goddess Sati, the true, from the left side of his body. All shaktis, epitomes of power with the leitmotif of femininity, sprang forth from the goddess.

Ardhanarishvara therefore manifested the characteristics of both sexes as the prime cause of creation in the world. Also, in taking the form of Ardhanarishvara, Shiva revealed himself, for the first time, in wholly anthropomorphic features. Thus Ardhanarishvara, often referred to as a hermaphrodite or androgynous deity, is one of the principal forms of Shiva.

Reconciling conflicting truths, combining the truth of polarity with the truth of unity, the Ardhanarishvara concept freezes the creation process at the moment of merging-emerging between the uncreated, which is no-thing, neither male nor female, and the created, which must have specific attributes alternatively.

It describes the both – half man plus half woman which equals double fertility; neither is reduced, both are enhanced – a representation of total satisfaction culminating in an entirety.

The fountainhead of androgyne philosophical construct, the Ardhanarishvara imagery has anthromorphological manifestations in the iconography of Indian, Mesopotamian, Chinese and other ancient cultures. The mythographic dimensions of this deity are related to magical androgyny, particularly within the context of Indian magic and myth, especially in relation to appropriate forms of sadhana, the means for realisation, for magical manifestation.

Taking the process of creation further, both the manifest god and goddess continued to divide themselves. From Shiva came the eleven rudras, the vital breaths who carried the fiery essence of Rudra into all forms of life. It is said that Shiva requested the great goddess to divide herself into two aspects, black and white, from which sprang the infinite shaktis, the female powers.

The cosmic dance of the Shiva-Shakti continuum has for eons engendered generations. One should note however that no progeny issued from the union of Shiva and Sati – neither mortal nor immortal. In another version of the myth, it is said that having discharged Ardhanarishvara from his brow, Brahma divided himself into a progenitive couple, Manu and Satarupa, whose issue represented the various conditions, qualities and activities of the total human situation.

Ardhanarishvara exists without desire. This manifestation is a complete form – a single unity.

Shiva let his shakti, power, be apprehended separately by both himself and Brahma. The body of fire, of which erotic pleasure is the spark, was divided. The great goddess sent her glowing ardour in the form of a woman into the world of gods. Thus from Ardhanarishvara’s self division came the essential idea of woman, sex and sensuality, and that is how duality came into the world.

Following the act of differentiation, the Supreme Goddess re-entered Ardhanarishvara, becoming a timeless, ceaseless image, an image which contains in one body the possibility of sexual awareness and realisation of both sexes. “The great god Maheshvara, never delights with a wife distinct from his own self...the joy within him is called the goddess.”

The apparent dichotomy of all animal life underlines humankind’s earliest understanding of creation and its meaning. Purusha-prakriti, yin-yang, Adam-Eve and many other entities including Shiva- Parvati and Isis-Osiris represent the first parents from whom different cultures took their lineage. With time, this literalness evolved, deepening and elaborating the concept of complementary male and female principles such as active-passive, light-dark, creative-receptive, good-evil, and so on. The next step in the evolution of this concept was Advaita, transcendence of division.

Shiva: Lord of the Cosmic Dance

Excerpted with permission from Shiva: Lord of the Cosmic Dance, edited and with an introduction by Karan Singh, Speaking Tiger.