Dialogue  January-March, 2010, Volume 11 No. 3

Androgyny in Search of Modernity with Reference to the Hindi Novel Ardhanarisvar by Vishnu Prabhakar

Sukrita Paul Kumar

Patriarchy has vested interests in sustaining gender polarities and maintaining masculinity and femininity as distinct and separate. It is perhaps for this reason that while looking for a reference to “androgyny” in an encyclopaedia, I could locate it only in The Woman’s Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets. I quote the explanation of “androgyny” from it: “Many Indo-European religions tried to combine male and female in the Primal Androgyne, both sexes in one body, often with two heads and four arms…Shiva and Shakti-Kali appeared as the androgyne Ardhanarisvara, the right side male, the left side female. Rudra the older form of Shiva was known as ‘the Lord who is Half Woman’…Chinese Taoists held the mandala of Yang and Yin to represent the androgyne. Western myths also assigned androgyny to the elder gods or the first human beings. The Orphic creation of said the first born deity was a double-sexed Phanes or Eros, whose female half was psyche, the soul…”1 and so on.

We must remember that myths are not just simple tales, they modify, re-contextualise, evolve different meanings in different ages and reveal more and more dimensions of human consciousness over time. The symbiotic duality between the male and the female that is captured in the iconographical image of “ardhanarisvara” evokes a sense of both awe and wonder, and calls for a participation in the mystery of being. The image is a concrete manifestation of a philosophical imagination, a rendering of a mythopoeic vision rather than a historical reality. To go back to the mythical narratives suggested by this beautiful icon would really mean discovering newer and wider meanings embedded in it. Its appeal is aesthetically valuable and epistemologically significant.

There are many culture-specific stories recollected and recorded about androgyny and ardhanarisvara, many highlighting the differences between the two. But I would choose to go by Barbara Walker’s understanding of these two mythic symbols, suggesting an interchangeability of the two terms, both denoting the coming together of the male and the female. In that it is a oneness that does not dissolve the duality but embraces it. The ongoing debate and the controversy about the definition of the word “androgyny” has been arousing the interest of many a scholar. Some have led androgyny to acquire a relationship with words and concepts such as hermaphrodite, transgender or even trans-sexual. Others take it as a neutral or transcendental category through which the sexual differences are homogenised.

Evelyn J. Hinz enumerates various responses to androgyny and points out how “whereas some critics see androgyny as a mode of resistance to established sexual norms and a positive and liberating concept, for others it is a nefarious anodyne and a “myth” that must be resisted.”2 In the early days of feminism the well-known British writer Virginia Woolf championed androgyny as a strategy to combat unequal status of men and women emerging out of an aggressive imposition of gender differences. The chains of gender restrictions have led to a stifling of both the sexes making them live pre-determined and socially scripted roles generated by patriarchal notions.

It is in such a context that I invoke the concept of ardhanarisvara, one of the major images in the Indian pantheon. The consortship of Shiva and Parvati becomes the realization of the resolution of duality in ardhanarisvara. The two aspects of consciousness are so distinct and yet as undivided as the sabda (word) from its artha (meaning). It is known that the myth of the biunity of Shiva, an anthropomorphic symbol of the unbounded consciousness and Parvati, a yogini and Shakti in her own rights is pregnant with many socio-psychological insights and ramifications. The ideology of gender polarization can be deconstructed by exploring the primal reality of this myth, thus eventually clearing the path for a reconstruction of gender identity.

Sexual essentialism upheld by many a feminist theory in modern times has in effect unwittingly and ironically supported gender stereotyping in its creation of the rhetoric of compulsory masculinity in a man and femininity in a woman. Inevitably this maintains the imbalance of the sexual order nurtured through centuries of male domination. What we are talking about is the socio-psychological orientations inculcated both in men and women to grow up as clearly defined male or female identities. Indeed, the hierarchical power relations between the sexes remains status quo.

In his novel, Ardhanarisvar (1992),3 Vishnu Prabhakar the eminent writer in Hindi skillfully probes the possibility of installing the androgynous ideal in man-woman relationships and the evolving of the same within an individual gender identity. He explores this at different levels through an intensive research of the individual as well as social consciousness on the one hand and on the other, he also provides a peep into the subconscious terrain of his characters in a section called Antarman where he narrates their dreams. When one of the most sensible characters of the novel, Ajit, articulates his ambition in the following dialogue, he is actually helping Sumita, his wife to define ardhanarisvara: “I will give Sumita  her freedom from being my slave. And I will free myself from her slavery. Only then, can we truly become man and wife.”4 Ardhanarisvara is repeatedly described as a positive and liberating concept in this novel. And women characters in Ardhanarisvara are constantly found questioning the socially cherished gender assumptions. They seek to come out of the “suicidal” chakravyuh of morality and notions of honour constructed by the biases of the male dominated society.

The novel begins with the memory of rape that oppresses Sumita’s life, rape which is the worst form of expression of male prowess proving woman to be a mere sexual object stripped of all human dignity. Sumita, her husband Ajit and Vibha his sister, all three of them are gripped in the horror of the event when Sumita offers herself to the rapists to save Vibha. The author deftly indicates the psychological and the socio-economic complexities in which such a tragic event is grounded. In fact the rapist’s words “I’ve to take revenge on these white-collared people”, immediately take one’s mind to woman who becomes an easy prey of, both, the unbridled male sexuality as well as of capitalism. Sumita has to retrieve her own individual dignity and the dignity of womanhood in general. She attempts this through extensive research and reflection and wants to understand her own individual experience and responses as also such experiences of other rape victims. She perceives how the binary opposition churned by socio-psychic orientations is at its farthest extreme when the potent male afflicts his manhood brutally on the helpless female target. Any lack or inadequacy created in the male psychosis may find a convenient let-out through the act of rape.

In one of her letters, Sumita says “I have not just been the victim of the rapist’s desire, but also a victim of his vengefulness against the upper class”.5 She is shaken out of all taken-for-granted beliefs on human sexuality and relationships and commits herself at the existential plane to redefine sexuality and freedom. In effect, the author actually uses what has come to be known as gender dialectics. Sumita grapples with the rather arbitrary confusion of the prevalent gender concepts and wishes to move towards reconstructing fresh perspectives to the idea of being a woman or a man and their relationship.

This process implies exploring the dynamics of gender and gender-roles operating within the socio-cultural arena as also the context of the individual being. It is pertinent to the argument to quote the well known scholar Harsha Dehejia’s words from his essay on “Parvati: Goddess of Love”: “…when Shiva identifies himself with Parvati as if saying aham idam i.e. “I am this”…Shiva and Parvati are now engrossed in each other, even reside in each other, like the two halves of ardhanarisvara…”6 Sumita’s dialogues with Ajit capture moments of authentic engagement that man and woman can have as two complimentary beings. On one occasion she says to him “…That’s what I am…and that’s what’ll remain…what was imagined in Shankar in the image of Ardhanarisvara.”7  Sumita has succeeded in moving beyond the confines of her self as “feminine” woman. Virginia Woolf’s character Orlando goes through similar experiences. Discussing Orlando the novel, George Piggford concludes: “The character Orlando who gains insights into both maleness and femaleness throughout his extended life provides an example of … a great mind which is androgynous.” 8  It is precisely such an idea that Vishnu Prabhakar too seems to establish in his novel, Ardhanarisvara.

The novel predominantly meanders through various levels of consciousness of a number of its women characters. For a male writer to come to grips with all those diverse streams of female complexities is in itself a feat of androgynous awakening. The creative mind demolishes dichotomies and identifies harmoniously with sexual binaries. Another writer who vouches for such a position, both theoretically and in practice, is Krishna Sobti. While writing Hum Hushmat, she deliberately uses the male voice, specifically when she writes personal essays. This is to transcend the constraints of mere female insights. In her essay, “Mulaquaat Hushmat se Sobti ki” (A Meeting between Hushmat and Sobti) she brings her male and female selves together into an androgynous whole revealing the writer in herself: “Only me. Me, me an experience, an apparel. Just one entrance through which only my shadow comes in, just mine…and then it goes out. The morning begins with me. So does the evening.”9

It is this sense of totality or completion that the symbol of ardhanarisvara represents. But then in her essay “Daawat mai Shirkat” Krishna Sobti writes: “If only Hushmat were not to be a creative writer but were to be running some small factory or business, at least then he could have decorated his Begum’s beautiful, fine nose with a diamond ring!” 10 Indeed conforming with the mainstream is convenient and attractive because it is easily accepted but then, an authentic life demands stoicism, courage, persistence and an ability to demolish the smoke-screen of pretension. Just as Sumita, in Vishnu Prabhakar’s novel, agonizes over sexual inequality and the imbalance of power between man and woman in modern times, Vibha too is compelled to salvage humanity by committing herself to searching for a new code for gender relations. Vibha, for whose sake Sumita had offered herself to the rapists, goes through a niggling suspicion initially: “Did Sumita wish to be raped?” Sumita examines and analyzes her own mind too. She does not let this lurking doubt be swept aside. When Vibha shares her suspicions with her husband Anitya, his response is insightful and dispassionate: “The guilt is not that of any Vibha’s or Nisha’s. The whole of humanity stands in the witness box…man as well as woman.”11 This corroborates with what Sumita says: it is the society that has made her the sinner, not the rapist. What saves Sumita and later Vibha is the feminist self-awareness that protects them from getting stuck in that earlier mentioned chakravyuh of an unfair sense of honour and morality so oppressive for women.

The privileging of the male is possible only when there is a rigidly exclusive sexual categorisation conforming to the gendered norms of behaviour. The culturally coded trap of the masculine/feminine binary imposes notions of unisexual ideals of “the strong virile man” and “the beautiful chaste woman”. While virginity is sacrosanct in the case of a woman, for a man to lose it, in the words of Tolstoy in his story “The Kreutzer Sonata”, is looked upon as a natural form of amusement. I quote from the confessional narration of the protagonist, Pozdnyshev: “True, the ten commandments tell us it is wrong, but the only reason we have to know the ten commandments is so that we can give the correct answer to the priest when we take our examinations in the Bible study.”12 A little later, he says, “I was wallowing in the muck of fornication; …I sinned because of the society in which I lived; …people around me looked upon my sin as a proper means for insuring my health.”13

As if endorsing the above perception, while talking to Shahida and arousing her subconscious, Sumita comments: “Man can buy over ten women and remain morally upright. Have you even considered this: if we women buy ten men, we’d be abused as prostitutes.”14 What Tolstoy portrayed more than a century ago, holds good even today despite the world-wide spread of the feminist movements. A plethora of women characters in Vishnu Prabhakar’s novel Ardhanarisvara are rape victims who confront their gruesome experiences squarely without any hypocrisy. It is in such a backdrop that Vibha proposes to produce a new “Smriti” for man-woman relationship to destablise the well-entrenched patriarchy and revolutionize the social scenerio. The writer is able to whip up an urgency for this by merely telling the truth, as it were, of all those women victimized by rape. He narrates the case studies of women like Shalini who was raped when she was seven by a seventy-year-old man, or Rajkali who is raped by the custodians of justice themselves – the police, or Shyamala, Kiran or indeed Sumita herself.

These women belong to different strata of society and each one of them has a wounded psyche. As targets of male violence and desire, they transcend all class, religious or caste differences and unite in their anguish. The horror of their lives as women stares in the eye of the reader blatantly. Each one strives to rehabilitate herself, struggling to repair her own psyche and redefining her life. Rajkali for instance manages to find someone like William to marry: William, an adivasi who tells Sumita, “Our language does not have such a word as ‘rape’. The word after all, comes to be born later, first, there’s the meaning. And, as we know, meaning is culture itself. My culture does not even conceive, leave aside accept, the idea of rape. So there’s no question of this word existing in our language.”15

This is a pointer to the fact that the resolution lies in routing out the very basis of male-female relationship by revisioning of gender identity. To overcome dualism and develop ways of creating a paradigm shift in this direction, some feminists in the west have been discussing an effective use of gender dialectics by acknowledging the many interacting factors and connections between the male and the female. The social and cultural orientation of gender polarization needs to be dissolved first and foremost. Many symbols, myths and allegories come to us from the distant past indicating the points of identification between the two sexes.

Commenting on a Bengalese relief representing Shiva with his consort, Joseph Campbell notices how the “two countenances, rigid and mask-like, regard each other with intense emotion:…Gazing with a deep and ever-lasting rapture, they are imbued with the secret knowledge that, seemingly two, they are fundamentally one.”16 Such is the gaze that realizes the androgynous ideal bringing the male and the female on the same plane and dissolving the idea of the Other. There is no room for any hierarchical positioning of the sexes, nor is there any scope for exclusionary categories to emerge in such an experience of unity. Similarly the image of ardhanarisvara illustrates “the penultimate stage of perfect cognition, the dynamic harmony”17 of the self and the other, the male and the female. The epistemic amnesia of this experience accentuated by the deeply internalized perspectives on male-female dichotomies has been one of the major failings of the modern feminist traditions.

In fact, the radical feminists who have furthered the cause of binary oppositions have actually resulted more in male backlash than a constructive feminist awareness. Vishnu Prabhakar’s novel, Ardhanarisvara demonstrates how intense conceptual rethinking helped bring Sumita and Ajit into their individually autonomous position as well as, ultimately, closer to each other. Their togetherness builds on mutual respect, individual freedom and an unmasked sharing of thoughts and emotions. They do not wish to possess each other, in fact they realize they need to be free of each other to come together meaningfully. In that they know they have to first free themselves from their own selves as products of fixed ideas.

In her speech at a Mahila Kalyan Smiti gathering, Vibha offers her critique of the position of women in the contemporary society. Attacking the norms of double morality, she spells out the need to clear the path for the free woman both at home and outside, in the mind as much as in action. For a healthy social order, she echoes Sumita when she recommends the androgynous ideal of Ardhanarisvara: “But I also wish to give a warning to my sisters…the independent identity of a woman has no relation with her sex-image, which means that in building a healthy society both man and woman must participate on an equal footing, with equal rights and equal accountability. The symbol of Ardhanarisvara”, she concludes,” is a concrete representation of this very imaginative concept.”18 Man and woman, not indifferent or opposed to each other, each independent of each other and yet united in spirit. She emphasizes, the woman’s goal is to realize herself as a woman not as a sexual object, to just focus on becoming attractive for the male hunter.

Vishnu Prabhakar’s intellectually provocative and well-researched novel provides the reader with well-worked arguments for a radical change in viewing gender. Knitted into the narrative of the novel are long letters, articles, speeches and exhaustive discussions interspersed with incidents and episodes. The novel becomes a sociological treatise in which the hypothesis is supported by extensive research evidence. It makes an impressive case for the liberation of the self from the self! The veneer of social conditioning built steadily over centuries of patriarchy needs to be cracked to recognize primal realities; familiar modes of perception and the unnatural strictures require to be erased.

When cultural imperatives become so oppressive, then women of conviction, such as Sumita, Vibha or Vartika, have to come forward to steer feminism into the track of rethinking womanhood. These are women who possess the so-called masculine features; they are proactive, protective, cross gender and have an existential self-awareness. They are capable of taking decisions as well as implementing them into action. In that they have no scruples in overthrowing the prevalent gender assumptions of their culture. And till they become significant voices through sheer persistence and defiance, they are looked at with disdain and rejection by their society.

Vishnu Prabhakar’s approach to the concept of ardhanarisvara conforms to the Jungian psychology of the unconscious within which, Jung theorizes, individuals possess inner personalities that are the opposite of their conscious gendered ego: anima, the female component within males, and animus, the male element within the females. According to Jung, the ideal self is neither masculine nor feminine but an androgyne blurring gender distinctions.19 The self seeks to achieve wholeness by uniting with the Other. In the novel Ardhanarisvara, Vibha’s unconscious surfaces in the section Antarman in which she gets a glimpse of that dream-world in which she is projected as a total and complete persona: when she exclaims: “But that’s our God Ardhanarisvara”, the guard tells her “You people make a God out of everything and by doing that, you escape trying to become what in actuality he or she represents.”20 Vibha is in dialogue with her unconscious and she declares that her search will continue to find that something which will complete her.

The authoritarian gender fixities are deliberately confused and even erased to resist the socially constructed, mechanical moulds. We need to remember that the most terrifying aspect of Shakti is represented in the mythical story of Kali slaughtering demons and eventually Shiva intervening to stop the killing. Such a powerful vision of the feminine merger with the masculine image of power and strength evokes a shift in sexual identities. Interestingly, the following saying from Svatantryadarpanah in a way explains this phenomenon: “Shakti is the Shivahood of Shiva and Shiva alone is the Shaktihood of Shakti.”21 Shiva and Shakti realize themselves in each other and their androgynous coming together reflects a state of an awakened consciousness in which all polarities dissolve. As Dehejia puts it, “it is a oneness that embraces duality and yet feels the oneness.”22

The novel Ardhanarisvara, interestingly, ends with a note of sympathy for man who too is a slave, of his own desire and therefore of woman. To pursue the ideal of ardhanarisvara or androgyny, for self-fulfillment and release from the tension of pretension, both man and woman have to first of all realize their own individual autonomy. To enable feminism to deflate the fully blown-up patriarchal formulations of gender polarities, androgyny/ardhanarasvara could serve as a very useful and liberating conceptual intervention.

For one, this would immediately involve both man and woman in its progressive project for the whole of humanity. The mythical narratives around this concept demand more scholarly attention for a deeper understanding of their philosophic essence. Only then can it become a truly liberating experience.

If perceived with a linear perspective, modernity as progress becomes a myth. More so when one notices the rampant commodification of woman and constant politisization of gender relations in today’s world. Both the oppressor and the oppressed are actually victims of a degenerate humanity. Exploitation is an inevitable consequence of imbalance of power. To salvage the dignity of being human, it is imperative that we examine the insights lying in the treasure-house of mythology and not dismiss it as fantasy or fanciful thinking.

Modernity, I believe, is a moment of realization and revelation of progressive thought experienced as much in the past as it may be in the present. In one sense modernity captures the dynamism of tradition whether through rejection or acceptance. But the notion of modernity cannot merely be restricted to viewing industrial progress or feats in technology. Nor does modernity mean pulling the veil off the face of the woman merely to project her as a sexual object for an ad in a predominantly a consumerist society. The veil has to be pulled off the psyche of both man and woman. The icon of Ardhanarisvara captures such moments of cognition and revelation…the bliss of togetherness and integrality for individual nirvana.


   1.  Barbara G. Walker, The Women’s Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets,  Harper Collins, 1983.

   2.  Evelyn J. Hinz, “Introduction: ‘All That Glitters’.” Mozaic, Vol. 30, No.3, 1997.

   3.  Vishnu Prabhakar, Ardhanarisvara, Shabdkar, Delhi, 1992.

   4.  Ardhanarisvara,  p.92.

   5.  Ardhanarisvara, p.146.

   6.  Harsha V. Dehejia, Parvati :Goddess of Love, Mapin Pub. Pvt. Ltd.,New     Delhi, 1999.

   7.  Ardhanarisvara, p.390.

   8.  George Piggford, “ ‘Who’s That Girl?’: Annie Lennox, Woolf’s Orlando, and Female Camp Androgyny”, Mozaic, Vol.30, No.3, 1997, p. 48.

   9.  Krishna Sobti, Hum Hushmat. Rajkamal Prakashan, New Delhi, p.254.

10.  Hum Hushmat, p.105.

11.  Ardhanarisvara, p.129.

12.  Lev Tolstoy, “The Kreutzer Sonata”, Short Stories, Progress Pub., Moscow, p.180.

13.  The Kreutzer Sonata”, p.181.

14.  Ardhanarisvara, p.337.

15.  Ardhanarisvara, p.172.

16.  Joseph Campbell, ed., Myths and Symbolism in Indian Art, Bollingen Series, Pantheon Books, 1946, p.137.

17.  Harsha V. Dehejia, Parvatidarpana, Motilal Banarsidas Pub. PVT. Ltd., Delhi, 1997, p.52.

18.  Ardhanarisvara, p.321.

19.  Carl Gustav Jung, The Integration of the Personality, Trans. Stanley Dell. London: Routledge, 1950.

20.  Ardhanarisvara, p. 419.

21.  Svatantryadarpanah, The Mirror of Self Supremacy, Trans. B.N. Pandit, Munshi Manoharlal, Delhi, 1993, p. 32.

22.  Parvatidarpana, p.91.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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