Ardhanari (also known as Ardhanarishwara) is a Hindu deity that melds the Goddess Parvati into her husband, the God Shiva. Images usually depict Ardhanari as masculine on the right side of the body and feminine on the left. For those who worship the Supreme Goddess (devotees known as Shaktas) as the universal expression of Brahman (the Hindu Godhead) rather than a male deity, the right side is feminine while the left side is masculine.
Ardhanari is popular with many Hindus, and especially venerated by Hijras, intersex people and males who traditionally cut off their genitals and dress as women. In current forms of LGBTQ spirituality, Ardhanari may be considered a divine example of Trans and Bisexual identity. The full name, Ardhanarishwara, is a composite of three Sanskrit words: ardha (half), nari (woman), and ishwara (lord).
Male Gods (Devas) have female companions (Devis) that are their Shaktis, embodiments of their power. Typically, Shaktis are considered to be goddesses in their own right, but are nevertheless dependent upon their male consorts for their importance. Goddess-privileging Shaktas who see Brahman expressed more clearly in feminine divinities, however, will often look to myths that show the superiority of Devi to Deva. “Shakti” may also be considered the generic name of a goddess, and Shakti’s identity can be determined by the Deva whose power she embodies.
It is an oversimplification to say that Shiva is superior to Parvati, despite Ardhanari being considered a manifestation of Shiva rather than his wife. Parvati is sometimes portrayed as subservient to Shiva, sometimes not. She has the ability to transform into the warrior-Goddess Durga or the fierce, sensuous, and demonlike Goddess Kali. It is as Kali that Parvati may express her anger at Shiva. Many myths testify to Parvati’s dominance of Shiva, and these myths reflect the veneration she receives as Kali from Hindus in the Shaiva (Siva-worshipping) and Shakta traditions.
The origin myths of Ardhanari are twofold: 1. Shiva and his Shakti come from Ardhanari, who exists before either of them, or 2. Ardhanari arises when the God and Goddess unite. A story of how Ardhanari came into being relates that, when Shiva captured the Ganges River in his hair to save the world from flooding, his wife Parvati became angry because Shiva let the Ganges (personified as a feminine Goddess) sit on his head. Shiva hugged Parvati to calm her, and they fused. Another account states that they two fused together as they were making passionate love. Such myths traditionally show how all Gods are manifestations of Almighty Brahman who transcends male/masculine and female/feminine divisions, and these same myths and theology are utilized by LGBTQ activists to argue for Gay rights.
As seen in the above myths, Parvati/Kali’s dominance is expressed in her sexual relationship with Shiva. One myth states that, when Shiva unwittingly killed their son Ganesh (the popular elephant-headed deity), Parvati went murderously insane, transforming herself into multiple Kalis and eating Shiva’s band of devotees. In order to pacify her, Shiva lay flat on his back like a corpse as an act of utter submission. Kali/Parvati then placed her foot atop his chest in victory. In some accounts, Shiva has an erection while lying under her foot. Another story found in the Hindu epic Ramayana relates that during lovemaking, Shiva became a woman to pleasure Parvati, a story that also suggests the possibility that women’s same-sex love could be holy.
The Better Half
When portrayed in sculpture or painting, the image of Ardhanari shows superiority to either Shiva or Parvati by having the favored deity on its right side. Identity is shown through symbols associated with each deity (bull and trident for Shiva, tiger and lotus for Parvati/Durga), clothing appropriate to each (rudraksha beads and animal pelt for Shiva, pearl or gold necklace and sari, often red, for Parvati), skin color (Parvati is often shown as dark-skinned, and Shiva as light-skinned, except when Shiva is blue), and the presence of a more prominent breast on the Parvati half. When the image has four arms, two are for each half. When shown with three arms, two are for Shiva, one for Parvati.The role of Ardhanari may be performed in sacred Hindu dance in which the dancer will have a bifurcated costume and make-up representing Parvati and Shiva.
A similar two-gendered deity to that of the Shaivas is also found among the Vaishnavas or worshippers of Vishnu: Krishna (an avatar or incarnation of Vishnu) merged with his consort Radha. There are also stories of Krishna and Radha exchanging clothes and sexual positions in their love-play.
Doniger, Wendy. Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1999.
Pattanaik, Devdutt. The Man Who Was a Woman and Other Queer Tales of Hindu Lore. New York: Harrington Park, 2002.
Varadpande, Manohar Laxman. History of Indian Theatre. New Delhi: Abhinav, 1987.