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On Queering deity: Ardhanarishvara and other conundrums of gender

“Her body is dance preparing for the creation of differentiation,
his is the dance of destruction that destroys everything.
I bow to Śivā, mother of the universe.
I bow to Śiva, father of the universe.
Her ear ornaments are radiant precious stones giving light,
his adornments are hissing snakes.
He is embracing her, and she is embracing him.
I bow to Śivā and I bow to Śiva.
Ardhanarinatesvara stotra (Ellen Campbell, 2002, p105)

If they see
breasts and long hair coming
they call it woman,
if beard and whiskers
they call it man:
But, look, the self that hovers
in between
is neither man nor woman
O Ramanatha.
Dasimayya(10th century Virasiva poet)

I had an enquiry recently from someone who wanted me to help them compile a list of “queer-friendly” Hindu deities – “queer-friendly” apparently meaning, “deities who shift shape/gender”. My response highlighted some of the problems with approaching deities in this way:

Firstly, it’d probably be easier, with respect to India, to find gods or goddesses who don’t shift shape or gender.

Secondly, the presence of shape/gender-shifting deities or myths does not necessarily equate with Indian culture having a “positive attitude” towards queer-identified people – even in precolonial India. Two early medieval texts, Vatysana’s Kamasutra (3rd-4th century CE) and Vararuci’s Ubhayabhisarika – a satirical monologue play written between the 4th-6th century CE – both mention courtesans who are of the so-called “third nature” – trtiyaprakrti – but a close reading of both texts reveal that the status of these courtesans is highly ambiguous.

Thirdly, if you’re going to look at shape/gender-shifting in Indian culture, then i would stress that it’s more useful to do so in terms of what what those actions signify within Indian culture – and just not from a western perspective. Although some degree of comparison is probably inescapable, I believe that it is useful to at least try and find out what those acts mean within the various Indian contexts in which they are situated. It’s likely that there will be significant differences – some of which may take us to unexpected – and possibly uncomfortable – places.

Ardhanarishvara – beyond gender?
Ardhanarishvara Ardhanarishvara – “The Lord Who is Half Woman – is often interpreted in quasi-Jungian terms; taken as “symbolic” of the union of opposites, the bringing together of oppositional polarities, of wholeness and balance. This is a very common way to interpret Ardharanishvara – in terms of being “symbolic” of these qualities – but, I want to suggest, such symbolic representations can lead to other possibilities being overlooked.

I was flipping through the Kularnava Tantra one morning on the way to the office when I came across a “dhyana” (a scene for meditiation) which begins…”One should in his Heart-lotus, first contemplate Ardhanarishvara Lord Siva in the following manner: in the middle of the ocean of nectar embellished there is a raised island. On it in the woodland of Kalpa-trees there is a beautiful canopy of nine rubies. In that canopy there is a throne embellished with nine jewels. On that throne in the pericarp of the lotus, is seated Lord Śiva decorated with Moon and Sun and Devi Ambika forming half of his body. The ornaments of both are glittering on their bodies. Beautiful as tens of millions of Kama devas and always young as a sixteen year old, the lotus face of Lord Ardhanarishvara mildly smiles. He has three eyes and the Moon decorates his hair. … Accompanied by Vidya and Siddhis He is always blissful. Innumerable gods mentioned in Mahāsodhā are waiting in his service. One should contemplate upon such a form of Ardhanarishvara Lord Śiva, in the heart-lotus.”

The verse that follows though, is what I want to focus attention on:

“One can contemplate upon Ardhanarishvara either in a Masculine or in a Feminine form, or in saccindanada – Attributeless form which is full of all radiance and contains all the mobile and immobile creation.”

Now this, I’d say, illustrates some of the complexities of approaching Indian ideas of gender in respect to deities (of which there are many). Firstly, we have Ardhanarishvara – i.e. Siva-Sakti. Then we have the verse saying that we can think of deity as male – or female, but that superior to these is the attributeless form – saccindanda being a compound sometimes translated as “being-consciousness-bliss”.

A word or two about Siva-Shakti. The Siva-Shakti pairing which is a striking feature of many Indian traditions – particularly “tantric” traditions is all-too-often interpreted within the framework of European notions of binary dualities or polarities – and from there, into (for example) Jung’s concept of the conuinctio oppositorum – the “conjunction of opposites”. However, these representations (which are very popular) tend to ignore the way that Siva-Shakti is described in textual sources – that they are, ultimately, inseprable from each other in the way that the heat and light of a flame are inseperable. Some texts tend to prioritise Siva in relation to Shakti, whilst others hold Sakti as “superior” to Siva; others give them “equal” status; in fact it is not unusual to find all three positions expressed within a single text. On a cautionary note however, it is too simplistic to seek a one-to-one correspondence between these “theological” concepts of “divine gender” and social reality – or even the way that Shiva and Shakti are used to support the ubiquitous lists of male and female “principles” which seem to be so common to so many popular representations of tantra (and it may be useful for queer practitioners to reflect on how “polarity” – as a categorising activity – acts to support heteronormativity). The late Georg Feuerstein expresses the limitations of thinking of Siva-Shakti in terms of polarity very succinctly when he discusses Ardhanarishvara:

Obviously this image is only an imperfect depiction of the “union” between Shiva and Shakti, which is a seamless continuity of Consciousness and Power within one and the same Reality. Even the term “polarity” does not describe this transcendental situation accurately. A somewhat more fitting analogy would be that of a hologram that yields one image when viewed from a certain angle and another image when viewed differently.
Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy (p79-80, my italics)

In my first post on the issue of queering deity I commented that: “we are used, in western culture, to thinking of ourselves as bounded, stable individuals possessing a fixed essence, (a particular sexuality, for example) agency and limitations, that we tend to represent deities in the same way.” So, we tend to think of shifts in shape/gender as being particular to certain deities, and not others, rather than a general capacity.

In nondual tantric (and other Hindu) theologies, the gods are “beyond” gender in a sense. Gender only comes into operation at the level of “Maya”. I’ll try and keep this brief. Cosmic evolution is a progressive unfolding of the formless and unknowable into myriad diverse forms – (the goddess playing hide and seek with herself, is how I like to think of it sometimes) via the operation of various “powers” which are themselves, extensions of the actions of Siva (or Lalita). Maya, which is often interpreted as “illusion” but can equally be thought of as “enchantment” or “playfulness” – is an process of making distinctions and discriminations into myriad forms to the extent that they become limited beings who have “forgotten” their divine origin. In order that we may understand this, Lalita (for instance) takes on myriad forms (one of the meaning of Lalita is “playful”) as part of her playfulness.

Tantric texts sometimes state that deity has three aspects: form, subtle, and very subtle. Form – which is basically the iconographic “image” of the deity in human form isn’t so much an “individual subject, possessing particular characteristics” (although that’s how we interact with them) but a “gateway” which can lead us towards the all-encompassing presence of the deity. The “subtle” for is the deity-as-mantra (which is to say, deities are mantras, and vice-versa) and the “very subtle” is deity-as-yantra. In some texts, the subtler aspects are said to be superior to the “form” aspect. – i.e. you start out relating to Lalita as a deity-form; and then progress to Lalita-as-mantra, and then to Lalita-as-yantra. I prefer to say that all 3 aspects are inter-related and practice utilises all 3 simultaneously (see Approaching Lalita: three modalities for some related discussion).

The practical upshot of all this is that if you want to relate to any deity as male, female, trans-gendered or ungendered, formed or formless (or any combination thereof) then that’s okay if that’s what you need to do – what’s more important is that you relate to deity in the first place – that you do the practice – (and gradually, you might come to the realisation that deity “encompasses” all these forms – and that all these forms are, ultimately – deity). This is the nondual approach.

The perspective that deity can be multiply-gendered is not restricted to Ardhanarishvara. Nammalvar, a 9th century Tamil poet, who in his poems expressed his devotion to Vishnu in the voice of a young woman in love (or that of her mother, or a concerned female friend) wrote of Vishnu in these multiple gender registers – as both mother, father, and encompassing all genders:

“Being my father,
my friend, and the mother
who gave birth to me . . .


“Neither male nor female, nor is he neuter.
He cannot be seen, he’s not one who is,
nor one who’s not.
When you desire him, he takes the form
of your desire,
but he’s not that either:
it’s very hard indeed to speak about my Lord.”

In her essay Gender in a Devotional Universe (2003) Vasudha Narayanan examines the religious practices of the SriVaishnava community, including a yearly ritual that takes place at some Vaishnava temples, attracting thousands of devotees, an image of Nammalvar is dressed as a beautiful woman, and taken to meet “her” lover – Vishnu, an event celebrated in both song and ritual. I’m going to take a closer look at gender-positions within the various Vaishnava traditions in a follow-up post.

Some Problems

The lure of the symbolic
The problem of “symbolic thinking” (useful though it is) is two-fold. Firstly, that symbols are often interpreted in a globalised, universal manner – which is to say that one might take western concepts of “androgyny” and interpret Ardhanarishvara entirely within that framework – and not consider other (i.e. different Hindu) interpretations. Secondly, there is a problem with symbolic thinking itself. Thinking of images and forms entirely as being “symbolic of something” requires a kind of deferral – a gap – between object and it’s meaning; between signifier and signified. This can result in a kind of refusal to “see” an object as it is – and get lost in a seemingly endless maze of symbols (see Must we love the Golden Bough? for some earlier reflections on symbolic thinking) – none of which may have any direct relevance to the object being attended to. I’ll try and illustrate how some Indian theologies offer a different perspective via the medium of Darśana. Darśana can be thought of as a primary mode of communication between deity and devotee. So to “see” Ardhanarishvara, or to receive Ardhanarishvara’s Darśana is simultaneously, to see the deity but also be seen by the deity. It is both a recognition of the deity’s “presence” in the world, but also arouses and stirs the appropriate passion which kindles the relationship between devotee and deity. In looking at a visual image, in visualising Ardhanarishvara’s image as dwelling in the heart, in the recitation of stotra and mantra, one is not dealing with symbols, but with actualities. To visualise Ardhanarishvara dwelling in one’s heart is to feel, – i.e. viscerally experience – the embodied presence of deity.

the lure of lists
I sometimes feel, that in the rush to find resonances with contemporary Euro-American instance of “queer” with other cultures, and back into premodern history, it’s too easy to find similarities but ignore differences. P Sufinas Virius Lupus, in a blog post last year, expresses this problem very well:

“….when we look at things from the past or from other cultures, we tend to go “Oh, a non-binary gender identity = queer,” or “a male having sex with a male = queer,” or anything else ad infinitum. And, unfortunately, that often ignores that what is going on in those societies–though perhaps not typical–is often completely acceptable.”

Although list-making can be useful, there is a kind of politics in list-making as practice. It’s interesting to see who or what gets to appear on lists, and who or what is omitted – and often the criteria for including, for example, one gender-swapping deity whilst excluding another, isn’t made explicit. Lists decontextualise “objects” from their surroundings and recontextualise them with reference to other items listed – and all too often, this is done from the perspective of a top-down “grand theory” – Jungian archetypes for example – which takes a range of examples from different contexts and efffectively collapses them into aspects of each other. These collapses can quickly become reifications – “evidence” of the global ubiquity of a particular trend or category of organisation. Lawrence Cohen for example, is critical of scholarly moves which tend to position the notion of “third gender” into a global category: “Academics are persons of various genders who sometimes utilize conceptions of third gender as metaphors in social theory. But though third gender is good to think with, its theorization is often exquisitely insensitive to the bodies with which it plays” (1995, p277) and in particular the way that category of “third gender” “invokes a global semantic network (encompassing caricatures of transsexual, berdache, xanith, hijra, mah’u, androgynous, hermaphroditic, and often gay and lesbian experience) … to demonstrate the possibility of collapsing boundaries of all sorts: cultural, political, patriarchal, biological” (p290). Cohen is talking about academics, but his comments are equally worth bearing in mind by queer pagans.

Approaching gender in Indian contexts can – and indeed should be a daunting prospect. With over 3,000 years of literature, and over 4,000 years of material culture, there has emerged a bewildering array of positions on gender within the many Hindu traditions. As Vasudha Narayanan (2003, p569) points out: “The discourses range from equating gender with biological sex, essentializing the “womanly” and “manly” characteristics,to changing behavior patterns which point to fluid gender identifications, to the rejection and transcendence of gender polarities.”

With thanks to Shiny Chris Hubley

Lawrence Cohen The Pleasures of Castration: The Postoperative Status of Hijras, Jankhas and Academics in Abramson, Pinkerton (eds) Sexual Nature/Sexual Culture (University of Chicago Press, 1995)
Anne Grodzins Gold Gender in Mittal, Thursby (eds) Studying Hinduism: Key Concepts and Methods (Routledge, 2007)
Ellen Goldberg, The Lord Who is Half Woman: Ardhanarishvara in Indian and Feminist Perspective (State University of New York, 2002)
Vasudha Narayanan Gender in a Devotional Universe in, Gavin Flood (ed) The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism (Blackwell, 2003)
Devdutt Pattanaik The Man Who Was a Woman and Other Queer Tales from Hindu Lore (The Haworth Press, 2002)
Gloria Goodwin Raheja Listen to the Heron’s Words: Reimagining Gender and Kinship in North India (University of California Press, 1994)


  1. Lindsay River
    Posted July 29th 2013 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Wonderful! I am currently puzzling over my desire to make better known the Head-Overturning Rituals of Inanna which made women with manly hearts and men with womanly hearts and pronounced them as Reed-Marsh Women and Reed-Marsh Men, and my reluctance to have them assimilated to current understandings of trans or LGB. Not to mention we have far far less access to how the second millennium BCE Sumerians thought than to Indian culture.

  2. Mumtaz Karimjee
    Posted July 31st 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    many thanks for your wisdom and research, Phil. and thanks too for connecting via fb.