Shakti Sadhana

"When you make the two one, and when you make the inner as the outer and the outer as the inner and the above as the below, and when you make the male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male and the female not be female .... then you shall enter the Kingdom."

- Jesus of Nazareth, in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Logion 22


In both Shakta and Shaiva schools of Hinduism, 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.

Paradoxically, however, this apparently "Unified Deity" is almost always considered a manifestation of Shiva, not Shakti. Consider the name most frequently applied to this "Divine Androgyne" -- Ardhanarishwara, with the masculine -a ending. The etymology breaks down as (ardha = half) + (nari = woman, female) + (ishwara = Lord, God, Male Ruler) -- with the resulting meaning, "The God Who Is Half Woman."

As Shaktas, however, we apply the title Ardhanarishwari, using the feminine ending -i when we change the final element of the Deity's title to ishwari = Goddess, or Female Ruler. Thus the meaning becomes, "The Goddess Who is Half Woman."

This subtle distinction may seem, at first glance, to be little more than idle wordplay. But in fact, it is a vital expression of the very foundation of Shakta faith and theology. Shakta creation myths place the Goddess at their center, taking the Tantric view that the nature of the Cosmos (or Macrocosm) is reflected in the human body (or Microcosm). Since experience shows that it is the Female who gestates and gives birth to new life, Shaktism finds it absurd to posit that a Masculine Principle somehow usurps Her role on the Cosmic scale.

Indeed, all Shakta scriptures declare (and many non-Shakta Hindu scriptures suggest) that Devi is ultimately Brahman (the Supreme Divine), and that Shiva and all other gods and goddesses -- however mighty and worthy of worship -- are merely Her aspects. In the Shakta view, then, the Ardhanarishwari illustrates Devi, the Goddess, producing Her consort Shiva out of Herself, in a perfect balancing of Her Feminine and Masculine aspects.

Skeptics, of course, might argue that this entire analysis misses the point. After all, the Supreme Divine is neither Female nor Male -- rather, it encompasses and transcends all gender distinctions. And this is, of course, true at the highest level of abstraction. But consider the words of the Vishnu Samhita:

"Without a form, how can God be meditated upon? If [the Divine is] without form, where will the mind fix itself? When there is nothing for the mind to attach itself to, it will slip away from meditation or will glide into a state of slumber. Therefore the wise will meditate on some form, remembering, however, that the form is a superimposition and not a reality."

In Shaktism, we choose (or, more accurately, are chosen by Her) to approach the Supreme Divine from the Left Hand side; and those of us who require a form (and even some of us who don't, viz. the Srividyas, who prefer yantra worship of the Goddess) invariably envision a Feminine form. As defined by the late (d. 2001), great Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami:

"Shaktism is the religion followed by those who worship the Supreme as the Divine Mother -- Shakti or Devi -- in Her many forms, both gentle and fierce. ... [It] is one of the four primary sects of Hinduism. ... In philosophy and practice, Shaktism greatly resembles Saivism, both faiths promulgating, for example, the same ultimate goals of advaitic union with Siva and moksha. But Shaktas worship Shakti as the Supreme Being exclusively, as the dynamic aspect of Divinity, while Siva is considered solely transcendent and is not worshiped."

Whatever their particular take on the details, Shaivas and Shaktas generally agree that Ardhanarashwari is, ultimately, all about balance. And although, in practice, that "balance" has been skewed decidedly to Shiva's advantage, it should be clearly understood that the Shakta conception of Ardhanarashwari is not simply a "re-skewing" of the image Devi's favor. Rather, it is an attempt to restore a true balance between the two, and thereby to clarify and fully realize the figure's actual meaning. As for our designation of the figure as a Goddess form; once again, the explanation is simple: While Shaktas fully recognize that all religious paths can be legitimate routes to the Divine Reality, our approach is explicitly through Divine Feminine -- who is Shakti, who is Shiva, who is Everything.


"Within the Shakta tradition, Devi is identified as the source of all manifestation,
male and female ... it is her body that splits in half. In other words, she is
the androgynous divine."

- Ellen Goldberg, "The Lord Who Is Half Woman," 2002.

The Ardhanarishwari/-a is generally represented in artistic depictions as being divided along a central vertical axis -- the right side is Male; the left side is Female. They represent the unity of many of Hinduism's dualities -- He is Purusha, She is Prakriti; He is Ida, She is Pingala; He is the Right-Hand Path, She is the Left-Hand Path, etc.

The canonical (Shaiva) iconography usually shows the male side with His hair matted and piled in the manner of an ascetic. He wears a leopard skin around His waist, and a garland of freshly severed heads around His neck. Generally, serpents coil around His arm, neck, and/or ankle. Ganga is often shown descending from His locks.

The female side wears a sari or other feminine attire (in the fashion of the place and time in which the image was created), and a rich collection of jewelry including, in later portrayals, a nose ornament, which is a more recent (probably since the Mughal era) accessory among Indian women. There are frequently tracings of henna on Her hands and feet. Parvati's mount, a lion or tiger, is generally seen behind Her, and Nandi the bull, Shiva's vehicle, behind Him.

A beautiful and poetic description of the deity is set out in the classic hymn known as the Ardhanarishwara Stotra


"The Ardhanari cult seems to have had its base in Devi, the Feminine principle, and not Ishvara, the Masculine principle."
- Raju Kalidos, "The Twain-Face of Ardhanari," 1996.

Unfortunately, in most Ardhanari images, this ideal balance is iconographically imperfect. In most cases, Shiva is given a distinct edge -- for example, He is often depicted with the third eye (trinetra, symbolizing supreme transcendent knowledge) solely on His side of the forehead, while Shakti wears only the kumkum bindu (vermillion dot) denoting Her status as His wife and helper. In many images, Shiva's side has two arms while Shakti has only one, underlining Her secondary status (recall that Ardhanarishwara is said to be half-woman, not half-Goddess). Often the deity is accompanied only by Nandi the bull, and not by Devi's lion mount, again subtly emphasizing His superior status.

In addition to such symbolic cues, the Indian scholar Raju Kalidos -- who has extensively examined Devi-focused approaches to Ardhanari -- notes that popular perceptions are also tainted by mainstream Hinduism's traditional belief in the inherent inferiority and impurity of "the left." Canadian specialist Ellen Goldberg explains:

"Presented as the left half of her husband, Parvati/Shakti, as the spouse-goddess, is often subdued and contained in this two-in-one image by the secondary status assigned to it via the subtle markings of culture."

Kalidos offers evidence that Ardhanari was originally a Goddess symbol that was "gradually syncretized over time with Shiva. This was an effective mechanism of acculturation and social fusion, whereby matrifocal [i.e. Goddess-centered] elements are assimilated into the mythology of Brahmin gods as wife and consort."

In Eastern and Southern India (traditional strongholds of Goddess worship), first-millennium Shaktas challenged such usurpation of the Feminine Divine by boldly placing Shakti on the "dominant" right side of their Ardhanari images, as seen in the accompanying temple sculpture (photo at right), c. 800 CE, from Tamil Nadu. In some Shakta lineages, such Devi-on-right imagery has persisted for more than a millennium, as seen in this 18th-century painting from the Punjab Hills.

Most Shaktas, however, simply honor the left -- after all, if Ardhanari truly represents perfect balance, then neither side can be inferior to the other. The idea of honoring the left also explains the approximately contemporary emergence of Tantra's vamachara or "left-hand path" of worship, denoting a series of secret, extremely powerful (and rather notorious) ritual approaches to Devi. However, that is only one approach to Her. For many Shaktas, "the left" is simply a symbol for the feminine aspect of the Divine they choose (or again, are chosen) to worship.

Today, Shaktas need not seek out the image of a "dominant" Shakti -- the perfect yin/yang equality of a truly balanced Ardhanari offers the far more beautiful poetry of complete Divine Unity. The modern poster art depicted at the top of this page is an excellent example of apparently bias-free iconography, featuring a Shakti and Shiva in perfect balance -- both sharing the third eye of transcendence; both with two arms; both accompanied by their respective vahanas, or mounts.

Longtime Shakti Sadhana member Kalipadma108 offers this alternative analysis on the idea of a one-armed Devi occupying the left side of Ardhanareshwara:

"I always found it interesting that, in the other most common 50-50 deity, Hari-Hara, Shiva is almost always on the right, and Vishnu on the left. This implies a certain identity between Vishnu and the Goddess(Parvati is often seen as from Vishnu's darker-complexioned 'family'), and of course there is the legend of Vishnu becoming the goddess Mohini and seducing Shiva, giving birth to the South Indian divinity Ayyappa (whose name means 'two fathers').

"I sort of prefer an Ardhanareshwara (or Ardhanareshwari) where the Goddess side has one arm, whereas the God side has two. Parvati's 'two-armed form' is symbolic of her being born through a yoni (her mother was Queen Mena, and it's never clear if Mena is a mortal or a Goddess). Most of the other deities are 'mind-born,' or created in non-biological fashion. I like that Parvati had the same experience of issuing from a womb, living as a child, and growing to adulthood, just like her mortal worshippers have experienced."


Goldberg observes that restoring the true Shakti-Shiva balance of Ardhanari enables us, as devotees, to overcome purely human biases and prejudices that can otherwise limit the image's usefulness as a meditative tool. As a counterbalance to her scholarly analysis, Goldberg consulted with her guru, Swami Vinit Muni (1938-1996) and his disciple Swami Om Shivatva for an "insider" commentary on her studies. She summarizes their response as follows:

"Ardhanarishwara provides a meditational map that assists the [yogi/ni] in understanding the dynamics of transformation in his/her own [sadhana]. … When yoga is ultimately realized, there are no remaining manifestations, no male and no female. This is the great truth of Ardhanarishwara."

When she asked the swamis whether there was any value in taking a "feminist" approach to Ardhanari -- for instance, by pursuing the question of why Shiva is so often perceived as dominant -- they told her that it could be a very useful approach indeed. As she explains:

"The image of Ardhanarishwara does not merely present a synthesis of masculine and feminine gender traits, but rather attempts to portray a fundamental belief in the possibility of personal transcendence, usually understood as the attainment of nondual consciousness. …[However,] it can only capture this ideal if and when the ego of gender -- which at times distorts and privileges the male half of the image -- has been recognized and [overcome]."

Learn more about Ardhanarishwari!

Here's to balance, then.

Aim MAtangyai NamaH

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