No culture in the world has produced as many ways of worshipping God as India has, nor has any other culture produced as many images of God to worship. From the Ultimate Reality of the Upanishads, the unborn, unchanging, deathless, formless existence-bliss-consciousness beyond words and beyond the grasp of the mind, to the anthropomorphic deity of a single tiny tribal village sung about in a folksong, for us all conceptions and perceptions of the divine are equally acceptable.
While each of these is uniquely beautiful, it is difficult to imagine a form of the formless that is more beautiful than that of the ardhanarishwara, Shiva in his androgynous form, as half male and half female. To stand looking at Shiva in that form is to be lost in the beauty of the whole universe captured in a single image, to be transported into a world of boundless bliss, to have a glimpse of all the esoteric meaning of life revealed in an instant.
Shiva as the ardhanarishwara is the best example for the perfect union of the complementary pairs that form the world and life in it: earth and sky, light and darkness, day and night, male and female, birth and death, pleasure and pain, all. At a human level, it is the highest symbol of love possible between man and woman, and between the male and the female in each of us. Like so many other yogic and trantrik concepts, the image of Ardhanarishwara is in all probability born in a mind that had transcended itself in the highest meditation.
However, the Kalika Purana tells us a very human story about the metamorphosis of Shiva into Ardhanarishwara. This is the story of woman’s love for her man, her possessiveness, her jealousy, her insecurity, her fears of losing her man and his love to another woman – a story that is as fascinating for its infinite charm and endless tenderness as the androgynous image is for its transcendental wisdom. And this story is wise too in its own way, in a very human way. It is wise in the ways of the human heart, particularly of the female heart in our culture. Gauri here is every woman, especially every Indian woman. Her fears, her insecurities, her anxieties, are every woman’s fears, insecurities and anxieties.
Gauri, the story tells us, spent many years in severe austerities in order to please Shiva and get his blessings. In he end Shiva appeared and asked her what she wanted. What mother Gauri wanted was what every woman wants – the unwavering love of her husband, his total and complete love, love that she won’t have to share with any other woman. “If you are pleased with me,” said the mother of the universe, give me the boon that you shall have no wife other than me.” Shiva, as he always did with his devotees, was immensely pleased with this greatest of his devotees, his beloved Gauri, and readily agreed to her desire. “So be it,” he said. “I shall not have even a thought of another woman in my heart.” Gauri flung herself at Shiva’s feet, tears of joy drenching her cheeks. Shiva lifted her up and held her tightly to him, rejoicing in her joy, rejoicing in her presence.
And then it happened one day. Shiva was sitting on a rock in Kailasa and Gauri was sitting right in front of him, her heart dancing ecstatically because she was with him. Nothing pleased Gauri as being with her Shiva. She knew eternities could come and go as she sat in his presence, her eyes intent on him, and she wouldn’t know a moment has passed, she wouldn’t want to know a moment has passed. But all on a sudden a shudder passed through Gauri’s body – her whole body was atremble with fear, with disbelief, with deep, wordless anguish. The mother of the universe felt all strength draining away from her, her body growing limp, a weakness possessing her as she had never known in the past.
There, right in Shiva’s heart, was a woman. Another woman.
Gauri looked at her forgetting to blink her eyes, her heart forgetting to beat. Who was she? Who was that woman in Shiva’s heart? Who had crept into his heart unawares of her? Whom had Shiva taken into his heart so heartlessly betraying her, betraying her love?
The woman was beautiful, Gauri’s eyes told her. More beautiful than any other woman she had known. And she was young and desirable. And she seemed to be lost in an ecstasy that was not difficult for her to understand. She had known that ecstasy. Known it for ages. The ecstasy of Shiva’s love. Love that made time cease. Love that made eternities fly away in a twinkle. Love that made you light and float weightlessly. Love that filled your heart to overflowing so that you wept.
That love was now that woman’s. The woman whose name she did not know, but who had taken possession of Shiva’s heart. Ousting her from there. Making her homeless. Making her unwanted. Making her life no more worth living. Tearing her into shreds. Sending a million arrows into her heart all at once. Pushing her down mercilessly into the darkest depths of a bottomless ocean, keeping her down there relentlessly so that she suffocated, her body desperately thirsted for air, for a single breath. And yet she would move not a muscle to save herself, for living was now worthless, life had lost all its meaning, she wanted to live no more.
An eternity passed. When was it that she had seen that woman in Shiva’s heart? Was it a moment ago? Was it ages ago? When had she, Gauri, ceased to be?
The woman stared at her from Shiva’s heart, her eyebrows now curled. Oh, how Gauri hated her!
And then she suddenly knew. She knew what she had to do. Once she had done penance and won a vow from him. A vow that no more existed. She would do tapasagain. She would win her Shiva back. She would drive that woman, that usurper, away from her Shiva’s heart. No, she did not want to live with another woman in Shiva’s heart. Shiva’s love was hers. And she shall have it. She alone. She was the only woman Shiva loved. And she shall be the only woman in Shiva’s life. She and Shiva – they were meant for each other. They were one. And they shall remain one.
Gauri got up and left Shiva. She knew where she had to go. She knew what she had to do.
And Shiva’s heart writhed in unspeakable agony. Gauri was not just his woman, Gauri was he. They were one, inseparably one. His heart wouldn’t beat without Gauri. He couldn’t breathe without Gauri. He wouldn’t survive a day, a moment, without her love. He needed her, as the fish in the sea needed water, as the birds in the sky needed air. If he was the day, she was his light. If he was the night, she was his coolness. He couldn’t exist without her.
Shiva found Gauri on a remote peak. She sat in a world of darkness. Streams of tears flowed down her cheeks. There was no light in her eyes, only gloom, unutterable, ineffable gloom. No laughter in them. It looked as though she had never laughed – never once laughed in her life. There was no glow on her cheeks, the glow he loved so much. And it looked like she did not breathe. Was she his Gauri, or was she his Gauri’s ghost?
Shiva took his beloved in his arms. He held her tightly to him, pressing her hard to his heart. And then he felt he could breathe. Holding her a little away from him, he looked at her face, into her eyes. Into the face and the eyes of the woman who was once his Gauri.
What might have happened? What might have happened to his Gauri to send her into such chasms of torment?
Shiva covered her face with his kisses. Her eyes, her forehead, her cheeks, her lips, her head. And then he called out her name. Gauri! Gauri! Again and again and again.
The mother of the universe heard the sound coming from a distance. Shiva’s voice calling her from the distance of eons away. Calling her from the other end of the universe. From beyond the farthest stars. There was worry in his voice. Pain. Deep agony. A sense of bottomless loss. Despair. Desperate urgency.
Her Shiva was in pain. Gauri felt like a wounded bird. Like a bird that has been pierced in the heart by the cruel arrow of a heartless hunter. Her soul writhed in agony.
She opened her eyes. Terrified eyes. Eyes filled with endless pain. She clung to her Shiva. Clung to her Shiva for her dear life, for her life’s breath. Pressed him close to her heart. To her aching heart. Her arms pained as she pressed him tightly to her. There was terror in her. The terror of losing him.
How had she been separated from him?
And then she remembered. That woman. That woman in his heart. The cruel, heartless woman, who had ensnared Shiva’s heart, made it her home. The beautiful woman who had driven her away from her home, made her homeless, rendered her life meaningless, destroyed her.
Pushing Shiva violently away from her, she held him by his shoulders. She looked at his heart again.
There was no woman there.
Gauri drew Shiva to herself and collapsed against him. And then she wept. Wept as she had never wept before. Not even when she had seen that other woman in Shiva’s heart. Tears flowed endlessly from her eyes. Streams of tears. Torrents of tears. Streams flowing down the slopes of the Himalayas.
The tears of the mother of the universe.
The tears of every woman’s torment. Every woman’s grief.
Shiva’s tears joined the tears of the mother of the universe. He held her tightly to him, allowing all her sorrow to melt and flow away. And felt his own heart growing light as she wept. Heaviness was draining out of him.
Violent tremors shook Gauri’s body. Again and again and again.
The world had begun to grow lighter again.
“Why, Gauri, why?” Shiva asked, words refusing to come out of his throat that was still choked. “What happened, dearest one?”
And Gauri, once again breaking out in a torrent of tears, told him of the woman she had seen in his heart. The woman who was not there now but was there when she had left him. The beautiful woman, beautiful as she had seen no other woman. The woman who had allured him, ensnared him, taken her place in his heart.
Shiva sat confused for a moment.
And then he burst out laughing.
“Oh that woman!” he said, still laughing.
“Let’s go to the place where we were when you had seen her,” he said, as he gently led to her to the rock on which they were sitting earlier.
When was it? A while ago? Ages ago?
Light fell on Parvati’s face as she sat facing him exactly as they had sat then. The light of the setting sun made her face glow, multiplying her endless beauty myriad times.
Shiva felt his heart melting in love for this beautiful woman who loved him with all her heart and all her body, with all her soul. With a love that was as powerful as the forces that held universes together. Maybe, more.
His Gauri. His love. His life.
“Look again into my heart,” Shiva said.
And Gauri looked.
And felt all the pain that had so cruelly burnt her blazing up again in her heart, the waters of the seas that had drowned her rushing at her again, suffocating her, making it impossible to breathe.
A scream escaped her. A piercing scream. A wail of endless torment.
Gauri closed her eyes. No, she did not want to see her.
“Open your eyes, Gauri,” Shiva told her. “Open your eyes and look.”
Shiva held her by her shoulders and forced her to look at him, at his heart.
And, slowly, very, very slowly, Gauri opened her terror-filled eyes.
And then, her face flushed. She blushed with embarrassment.
A smile appeared on her face. A smile that was timorous at first. Coy and bashful. A smile that soon blossomed into the most beautiful smile that Shiva had seen on his beloved’s face.
And the woman in Shiva’s heart smiled back at her. With a timorous smile at first. Coy and bashful. A smile that soon blossomed into the most beautiful smile possible.
And Gauri knew how beautiful she was. How beautiful her smile was.
Far more beautiful than she had ever known herself to be.
The Gauri she saw in Shiva’s heart was a million times more beautiful than she had seen herself in any mirror.
And Shiva looked at his beloved and said, “No more shall you suffer such pain. From today, you and I shall not be two bodies and one heart, but a single united body, a single heart that beats with our love, a single soul glowing in that love.”
And Shiva gathered Gauri in his arms and held her so tightly to him that the two united and became one.
One body, one heart, one soul.
A single being.
Half male, half female.