Adina Morguelan Ascher, PhD, LCSWProfessional Psychotherapy Services 
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Ardhanarisvara: The Divine Androgyne

Posted on October 5, 2013 at 3:40 PM

Ardhanarisvara:  The Divine Androgyne

by Adina Morguelan


Ardhanarisvara is an Indian deity which represents Shiva and Shakti (the male and female aspects of the divine) combined into one image of ultimate reality.  This image of God/the divine/the Self is of particular interest to me because it attempts to unify and balance the seemingly opposing forces of masculine and feminine.  According to the psychological theories of C.G. Jung, the unification and integration of contradictory opposites into a higher level of consciousness is the ultimate goal of the process of development that he termed individuation. Jung expressed this concept in the following, “the self…represents in every respect thesis and antithesis, and at the same time synthesis” (1968, p.19).  The Self can hold one extreme of a dichotomy, and the other extreme, and at the same time the union and blending of these into a new reality.  That the true psychological work of depth psychology stems from this notion of balancing opposites is expressed by Jung when he states, “Without the experience of the opposites there is no experience of wholeness” (1968, p. 20).  Ardhanarisvara can be viewed as a symbolic representation of the process of integrating the supposedly opposite qualities of male and female into a view of reality that transcends the contradictions that color our everyday experience.  From the perspective of someone who is a woman; a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender individual; or simply someone who does not fit into one particular gender category or the other; the symbolic representation of divine androgyny in the depiction of Ardhanarisvara, presents an opportunity to see themselves reflected in a divine principle that does not have to be envisioned as strictly male.  Using the Jungian approach of archetypal amplification, I will examine the following aspects of Ardhanarisvara:

1) Historical origin, context

2) Description of the image

3) Possible symbolic meaning

4) Psychological significance


Historical Origin/Context

Both Shiva and Shakti carry with them a legacy of meaning in their own right.  When they come together in the image of Ardhanarisvara, they bring significance and symbols from their own settings to form a new combination.  For example, as “the third member of the Hindu Trinity…Shiva represents the aspect of the Supreme Being…that continuously dissolves to recreate in the cyclic process of creation, preservation, dissolution and recreation of the universe” and he is said to “protect devotees from evil forces such as lust, greed, and anger…grant boons, bestow grace and awaken wisdom (,accessed November 17, 2007). Additionally, Shiva “oftenholds a trident, which represents the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Shivaand Vishnu. It is also said to represent the threefold qualities of nature: creation, preservation and destruction” (,accessed November 17, 2007).  In association with Shiva, Shakti is often depicted in the form of Parvati - his consort.  “The earliest term applied to the divine feminine is Shakti.  The word Shakti means power, force, and feminine energy. She represents the fundamental creative instinct underlying the cosmos, and is the energizing force of all divinity, of every being, and every thing.  Shakti is shown in many forms…as Uma or Parvati she is the gentle consort of Shiva…[and] in the form of Durga she rides a tiger, [representing] the ego and arrogance that man must subdue” (,accessed November 17, 2007). 

Ardhanarisvara represents Shiva (the male aspect of the divine) and Shakti (the female aspect of the divine) unified to form one divine image.  According to Goldberg, Ardhanarisvara literally translates “as the ‘lord who is half woman’” (2002, p. 1).  Cassell’s Queer Companion defines Ardhanarisvara as“a form in which the Hindu deity Shivais represented with his right side male and left female, combining the male and female energies” and goes on the explain that “s/he is portrayed as the destroying force, but also the restorer of that which has been destroyed” (1995, p. 17).  Ardhanarisvara is “said to be a form of Shiva the destroyer who has combined with his consort the Goddess Parvati, also known as Durga, Uma, or Kali” and “when they become one it is said that Ardhanarisvara becomes a being of generative and constructive force” (,accessed October 30, 2007).  Ardhanarisvara is said to represent the “inseparability or oneness of the male and the female in cosmic creation” (Goldberg, 2002, p. 55).  

Description of the Image

In her extensive survey of the iconography of Ardhanarisvara, Goldberg (2002) has identified several distinctive features of Ardhanarisvara as the deity is most often depicted.  Though these features appear much of the time, there are variations between time and place in how Ardhanarisvara is shown.  She states, “The right half of the image is male, and the left half of the image is female” (2002, p. 12).  The deity is divided by a vertical partition right down the middle of the body.  According to Goldberg, “dissimilar earrings are one of the most noticeable diagnostic emblems demarcating the dual male and female nature of the deity” and “the deity is figured with either two, four, or three arms” (2002, p. 12-13).  “The central feature of the left/ female half is a woman’s breast that is characteristically round and well developed” (Goldberg,2002, p. 14).  The male half is typically shown holding “a rosary…and trident…and is adorned with snakes,” symbols associated with Shiva, where the female half holds “a mirror…and a lotus flower,” symbols associated with Shakti (Goldberg, 2002, p. 16).  A further difference is found in the coloration of each of the halves where “the Shiva half is described as white or ash color, and the Parvati half is gold or saffron” (Goldberg, 2002, p.22). 


Symbolic Meaning

In regards to the dualistic form of the deity Ardhanarisvara,Goldberg asserts, “as the ineffable void…proceeds from ‘transcendence to materiality’…or from formlessness to form, the dual or composite aspect…becomes ever apparent in his/her concretization of reality” (2002, p. 10).  Similarly, Jung points out, “in the deity, the opposites cancel out.  But as soon as the unconscious begins to manifest itself they split asunder” (1968, p.25).  Hindu deities are often, “depicted with a spouse in…traditional stories.  However, on a deeper philosophical level, the Supreme Being and the Gods are neither male nor female…In popular…Hinduism, God is depicted as male, and God’s energy, or Shakti, is personified as his spouse…This unity is depicted in the…icon of Ardhanarisvara…and in the teaching that Shiva and Shakti are one.” (, found at,accessed October 30, 2007). 

According to Goldberg, “it is instructive to perhaps consider [Ardhanarisvara] as a description of divine reality operating in the human realm” (2002, p.24).  Within the manifest existence of maya (illusion), dualities and seemingly irreconcilable contradictions are the reality of life.  Ardhanarisvara represents a level of consciousness that transcends the dualities of the everyday and is a symbol of what is possible through devotion to a spiritual path.  “The image of Ardhanarisvara, the divine androgyne, does not merely present asynthesis of masculine- and feminine-identified gender traits…but rather attempts…to portray in embodied anthropomorphic terms a fundamental belief in the possibility of personal transcendence, usually understood as the attainment of nondual consciousness” (Goldberg, 2002, p. 87).  Along these lines, “Ultimate reality is conceived as the Divine Unity of Shakti (the Divine Feminine) and Shiva (The Divine Masculine).  They are One, They are All, They are God…After all, the Supreme Divine is neither Female nor Male– rather, it encompasses and transcends all gender distinctions…Ardhanarisvara is, ultimately all about balance” (,accessed October 30, 2007).   Eliade states “the conjunction of opposites represents a transcending of the phenomenal world, abolished of all experience of duality” (quoted in Goldberg, 2002, p. 67).   And, according to Goldberg, “the universe at its divine macrocosmic and human microcosmic levels is perceived as essentially androgynous…the human being, as well as the cosmos, is ultimately identified with Ardhanarisvara” (2002, p.135). 

Psychological Significance

Of the psychological theories of C. G. Jung, Clarke explains, “Wholeness constituted…the goal and purpose of psychic growth, and was central to [Jung’s] conception of the self.  The process of self-transformation whereby this goal is pursued he called individuation, the bringing together of the disparate parts of the self, both conscious and unconscious, into a state of balance or equilibrium, a state of more complete self-realization” (1994, p. 74).  Further, Clarke states that for Jung, “the pursuit of liberation through the transcendence of opposites (ranging from hot/cold, through love/hate and honor/disgrace to good/evil and spirit/matter)…[ran] parallel with his own therapeutic practice” (1994, p.75).  Jung himself explains, “the realization of the opposite hidden in the unconscious…signifies reunion with the unconscious laws of our being, and the purpose of this reunion is the attainment of conscious life…the union of opposites on a higher level of consciousness is not a rational thing, nor is it a matter of will; it is a process of psychic development that expresses itself in symbols” (1938, p. 21).  Elsewhere, in a statement particularly relevant to the current discussion, Jung writes, “from time immemorial, man in his myths has expressed the idea of a male and female coexisting in the samebody” (1958, p. 29).  Clearly, based on Jung’s theoretical suppositions, the unification of opposites such as masculine/feminine plays a key role in psycho-spiritual development and can ultimately lead to a profound shift in an individual’s level of consciousness. 

According to Hopcke, “the goal of the analytic process is the coniunctio, or union of conflicting opposites” (1989, p. 165).   Here coniunctio, a term out of the alchemical framework that Jung incorporated into his theoretical assertions, is the symbolic representation of the ultimate objective of the process of individuation. Edinger states that the coniunctio “is produced by a final union of…opposites, and…it mitigates and rectifies allone-sidedness” (1985, p. 215).  Goldberg, in summarizing the Jungian understanding of the coniunctio, states, “This so-called union of opposites, which forJung is the end goal of all human striving, can be achieved by metaphorically reuniting or transcending such dualist and oppositional pairs as heaven/earth, fire/water, spirit/nature, good/evil, mind/body, light/dark,masculine/feminine, anima/animus, and so on” (2002, p. 115).  “Ardhanarisvara represents an archetype or a paradigm of sacred human knowledge…[the deity] encodes a description for attaining emancipation and representing divinity at the subtle level of metaphysics…providing a diagnostic paradigm for mapping the transformation of human consciousness” (Goldberg, 2002, p. 24).  In other words, Ardhanarisvara is a living symbol directing the way along a path leading towards the experience of coniunctio, or the transcendence of disparate opposites, and the formation of a higher level of consciousness.  Practitioners of the spiritual path in Hinduism attempt “to unify and embody fully the so-called feminine-Shakti and masculine-Shiva poles of their inner nature andsubtle being… [a concept which looks strikingly] similar to the comparative Western notion of coniunctio” (Goldberg, 2002, p. 67). 

Another Western parallel to the divine androgyny of Ardhanarisvarais that of the hieros gamos (sacred marriage).  According to Goldberg, “the anthropomorphic, vertical, two-in-one androgyne used…to categorize Ardhanarisvara coincides with the Greek term hieros gamos, or ‘sacred marriage’”  which “refers to the mythic metaphor of union between deities” (2002, p. 114).  Used by Jung interchangeably with the notion of coniunctio, the hieros gamos is also representative of the union of opposites constituting the final phase(s) of the full realizationof the Self.  Edinger gives the following example, “A major symbolic image for the coniunctio is the marriage and/or sexual intercourse between Sol and Luna or some other personification of the opposites” (1985, p. 217). 

Edinger further elucidates the union of opposites in psychoanalytic depth psychology when he writes of the psychotherapeutic process, “Gradually a new standpoint emerges that allows the opposites to be experienced at the same time” (1985, p.216).  This psychological breakthrough represents an advanced and sophisticated perspective in which two opposing views can both be held as true at once. To be able to view reality from two differing perspectives simultaneously, and then to integrate these into a new and more complete version of reality is the psychological challenge facing human beings.  It is fascinating that this process has been engaged by Hindu spiritual practitioners for thousands of years in the worship of Ardhanarisvara- in the symbolic representation and the actual practice of joining the male and female aspects of the divine into a transcendent reality. 


The importance of a symbolic depiction of a deity containing within it both maleand female qualities is immeasurable to the large segment of human beings (i.e.women; as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals) that do not see themselves reflected in traditional images of the divine.  Within the image of Ardhanarisvara is an affirmation of wholeness, an authentication of the divinity within all human expression. From a Jungian perspective, the unification of opposites inherent in this image is suggestive of a higher truth, approximating more closely ultimate reality, especially in comparison to other symbols which depict the divine as one or another aspect of an oppositional pairing.  Jung states, “If the powers of the left areas real as those of the right, then their union can only produce a third thing that shares the nature of both. Opposites unite in a new energy potential: the ‘third’ that arises out of their union is a figure ‘free from opposites,’ beyond all moral categories” (1958, p. 287).  This comment could be applied to the experience of androgyny, or the embodiment of both male and female characteristics, and could be viewed as a remarkable affirmation of the experience of such an individual as someone who is closer to the divine essence, an embodiment of the transcendent unification of opposites. The idea that androgynous individuals maintain a foot in two worlds, and hence possess a broader view of reality than others, is a notion similar to the Two-Spirit concept in Native-American culture, where androgyny is often revered, and viewed as sacred.  “Many Native-American tribes have three, five, or even seven genders” and, in this context, androgynous individuals “are treated with deference and respect.  It is thought that they are better able to be fair – seeing into the hearts of both males and females” and, as a result, “they are often called on to play the role of mediator” (,accessed November 18, 2007).  Within Native-American culture, as well as in the symbol of divine androgyny represented by Ardhanarisvara, there is a precedent for the application of Jung’s view of the sacred unification of opposites to the concept that this experience can be embodied in a gender-queer individual.  This view turns upside-down the current Western perception that androgynous individuals are afflicted witha psychological illness, and re-envisions this experience as a valid and important chapter in the human struggle to connect with the divine. 


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Categories: Sexuality and Gender