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The Lord Who is Half Woman
Ardhanarishvara in Indian and Feminist Perspective

by Ellen Goldberg
State University of New York 2002, 15.75, 194pp, p/bk. ISBN 0-7914-5326-X


Ellen Goldberg's book is the first extensive study of Ardhanarishvara: the Lord Who is Half Woman. She examines the influence of Ardhanarishvara through iconography, mythology, devotional poetry and the role of Ardhanarishvara in Hatha Yoga practice. She also provides a critical analysis of the image in terms of the gender construction of 'male' & 'female' and androgyny across cultures.

In the first chapter, Goldberg critically examines the representation of Ardhanarishvara in temple iconography. She points out that Ardhanarishvara should be understood as a symbolic representation of theological norms and doctrines - and that in general, iconography functions as a meditational and devotional aid for devotees. She analyses different representations of Ardhanarishvara - looking at differences in features such as the number of arms, or mudras dispalyed. For Goldberg, Ardhanarishvara represents
"a paradigm of sacred human knowledge - a symbolic cultural landscape, formulating, regualting and legitimising religious and ideological presuppositions including gender, on the one hand, while also providing a diagnostic paradigm for mapping the transformations of human consciousness through the subtle conjunction of the male and female form."

The second chapter - Ardhanarishvara and Hathayoga - deals with Ardhanarishvara in Hathayoga practice - how the often convoluted concepts relating to various elements such as nadis, chakras, kundalini, etc., move the practitioner towards an inner reconciliation of "all apparent dualities". Citing the work of Susan Bordo, Goldberg asserts that through the various practices of Hathayoga, "culture is made body" - so Hathayoga practice cannot be seperated from "a systematic network of patriarchal insitutions that oftentimes promote images of male dominance and female subordiantion." Goldberg points out that women's bodies are not considered the "normative models" on which yoga practices are based - that few, if any of the Hathayoga classics have been written from the perspective of female practitioners. An example of this trend that springs to mind is the 16th century Sat-Cakra-Nirupana Tantra, translated by Arthur Avalon as The Serpent Power wherein all references to the esoteric anatomy of the yogin are couched entirely in male terms. Goldberg is rightly wary of metaphysical claims to sameness which, on examination, show one-sided (male) gender assumptions, and "subtle mechanisms of negation and absorbtion."

In the third chapter, Goldberg turns to an examination of Ardhanarishvara in devotional poetry - in particular, Tamil devotional poetics, and also the Ardhanarishvara Stotra, which has been attributed to Adi Sankara. Goldberg demonstrates, through her analysis, how Tamil Saivite poems uses highly stylised representations that relate to the rules of temple iconography. Whilst the poems are primarily devotional - invoking for the listener the presence of the deity through the poet's ecstatic experience, Goldberg asserts that these 'verbal icons' also encode normative patterns of gender & behaviour. She analyses these patterns in terms of a dialectical relationship between nature and culture.
Goldberg also provides a translation of the Ardhanarishvara Stotra and subjects its imagery to a thorough analysis to uncover its gender markers. She asserts that rather than uncritically accepting "the illusion of equality in androdgynous images" (be they Western or Eastern) what is required is a critique of their 'subtle' gender constructions.

In chapter four - An Indian and a Feminist Perspective of Androgyny, Goldberg draws on the work of Wendy Doniger (Women, Androgynes and other Mythical Beasts) and Kari Weil (Androgyny and the Denial of Difference) in order to present a general overview of the image of the androgyne. She also provides a critical review of Feminist responses to the concept of androgyny, such as the 'psychological advocates' of androgyny such as Sandra Bem and June Singer; the critics of androgyny offered by Mary Daly and Adrianne Rich, and the "third phase" critiques of Toril Moi, Kristeva and Luce Irigaray - who highlight the problem of an androgyny which promotes wholeness or sameness by negating difference. This is a useful chapter for anyone interested in the cross-cultural analysis of the androgyne, although Goldberg maintains, justifiably in my opinion, that the image of Ardhanarishvara cannot be understood outside of its cultural context. Interestingly enough however, she also feels that feminist theory "could benefit from Indian philosophy's living application and experiential understanding of androgyny."

The final chapter Sakti and Parvati: A new Interpretation - Goldberg proposes a 'new' reading of the relationship between Siva and Parvarti. She reviews the major elements of her thesis thus far - how the androgyne acts as an encoded cultural motif both in terms of cosmogenesis and human processes. She also notes that "issues of equality" between men and women is an entirely modern concern (although I do feel it is worth recalling that many of those interested in Indian religious concepts often use them in such a manner as to assume an 'equality' which, on examination, may not actually be present). Goldberg also cites Diane Hoeveler's analysis of the androgyne in the Romantic literary tradition, particularly her observation that the British Romantic poets created their female alter-egos, only to 'destroy' them by the end of the poem. Goldberg finds a similar pattern in Hathayoga practice whereby the practitioner absorbs and 'purifies' the feminine only to eliminate 'her' in the final stages of laya (NB: David Gordon White's Kiss of the Yogini traces the gradual internalisation of the divine Yogini into 'feminine energies' within the male body is a useful reference in respect to this process).

Goldberg turns her attention to the Indian concept of Sakti and Parvati's role as heroine - as tapasvini. She recounts the story of how Parvati wins her self-chosen husband, Siva, through her Tapas, which Goldberg sees as a sign of her agency and independence (noting that Parvati pursues Siva despite strong disapproval from her family). Turning to Sakti, Goldberg briefly reviews the historical development of this concept, from its earliest appearence in the Vedas through to the Sixth century Dev-mahatmya by which time Sakti is seen as fully autonomous and the primary source of All.

Overall, The Lord Who is Half Woman is a fascinating work and belongs on the bookshelf of anyone with a serious interest in androgny, Tantra, or gender studies. I can only echo Jeffrey J. Kripal who, on the back cover, says that "It has the potential to become a classic Indological work." - Phil Hine