The Hindu Theology of Ardhanarīśvara, the Queer God

Shashank Rao
Apr 1 · 8 min read

Note: In this essay, I attempt to set out a theology built on the principles found within Advaita Vedanta, the tradition that I come from, seeking to emphasize the humanity and inclusion of queer people in the Hindu community. As a preface, I will say that I write this as a non-queer person, as a gesture of inclusion to queer Hindus. I hope that this essay is timely, on the Transgender Day of Visibility.

Thank you to Hari, my friend who looked over this and gave me guidance.

Across Hindu communities, gender and sexuality are hot-button topics that spark debates and create rifts between queer Hindus and their families and communities. Due to the decentralized nature of Hindu institutions, it is difficult to discern a consistent view on the queer community and their place in Hindu traditions. While there is discussion of transgender people such as the hijra in various literature (including versions of the Ramayana), there seems to be little theological reflection on how to include queer people in all of their diversity. As violence and exclusion against queer people in religious spaces prevails across the world, it is important that Hindu leaders answer the call to uphold the dignity and protect our queer community members.

Indivisible from the One

The primary principle of Advaita Vedanta lies in its name : अद्वैत (advaita), meaning “not-two” or “indivisible”. This refers to the unitary and integrated nature of Parabrahman, the Ultimate Reality. Forms (रूप — rūpa) and names (नाम — nāma) are transient, coming and going but ultimately being rooted in the One. At the most fundamental level, one cannot deny the unity and equal value of all things and people because they all emerge as diverse effects of the one, original cause (आदिकारण — ādikāraṇa), Parabrahman. निर्गुण ब्रह्मन् (Nirguṇa Brahman), or Brahman without attributes, encompasses all of creation and nothing is excluded from it. Anantanand Rambachan, in his book on a Hindu theology of liberation, affirms that an understanding of Brahman necessarily leads to an equal regard for the worth of all of creation, including queer people (Rambachan 122).

Queer people are born into this world like anyone else, and so emerge from the infinitely vast Parabrahman. The diversity of Parabrahman is formed by माय (māya), the veil of phenomenal appearance, shifting and transforming the essence of Parabrahman into an array of divine expressions. Just as clay is formed into various shapes, all of creation is a part of a greater reality. Rather than problematize माय (māya) as transient and worthless (as many Advaita commentators have done before), we should embrace the infinitely creative potential of Brahman to bring forth the range of expressions that we see all around us. “Without any depletion, [Brahman] brings forth the universe as an act of self-multiplication” (Rambachan 131). This affirms the place of all groups of people in the grand mosaic of divine creation.

सगुण ब्रह्मन् (Saguṇa Brahman) as a Path to Liberation

There are many stories about Hindu gods that express queerness, such as Ardhanrīśvara (Shiva and Parvati as one), Harihara (Shiva and Vishnu as one), or Ayyappa (the son of the union of Shiva and Vishnu as Mohini).

These specific forms of God (or सगुण ब्रह्मन् — saguṇa brahman) express queer identities in a variety of ways that are not mutually exclusive of their divinity and worth. Ardhanarīśvara (अर्धनरीश्वर) is most famous among Hindu deities, taking on the form of what may be considered a transgender deity. Their being at once male and female does not deny the divinity or goodness of Ardhanarīśvara as a dispenser of wisdom. In the various stories of Ardhanarīśvara, They reveal themself and so illuminate the interconnected nature of the feminine and masculine, that they are in fact not so divided, and are ultimately part of the one. Parvati merges with Shiva so as to never be separate from Him, and in doing so allows creation to emerge from their combined form.

The apparent merging of the male principle (Shiva) and female principle (Shakti) into one shows that male and female are not binary and in fact are present in one another. Shiva cannot exist without Shakti, and Shakti cannot exist without Shiva. In this way, the conventional notions of “masculine” and “feminine” pervade all of creation. Transforming Ardhanarīśvara into a representation of Brahman, we can conceptualize queerness as a model of Brahman.

Just as Ardhanarīśvara symbolizes the union and integration of various parts and illuminating their true nature as a part of Brahman, the queer spectrum enables us to see multiple sexualities and gender identities as a part of one divine whole. Parvati and Shiva coming together reveals the united nature of all beings regardless of their sexuality or gender. However, this union does not create anything, but rather is illuminating what is already the case: that queerness is the Reality. This understanding reveals that queerness is not really “different” or suspect in the way that archaic meanings of “queer” may imply.

Understanding queerdom as Brahman, one necessarily must conclude that heterosexual and cisgender identities, too, exist within the vastness of queerdom. It reveals to us that cis-hetero models of gender and sexuality are limited, and demonstrate a narrow view of the cosmic Self. Each and every point on this spectrum is a different manifestation of divine majesty and is equally worthy of recognition in and of itself.

Socially constructed categories such as gender or sexual orientation may help guide our understanding, but those categories are not understanding in and of themselves. Like mistaking a guiding lantern for the sun, we mistake a socially constructed label for the Truth itself. The humanity of queer people is not diminished by their identification as such, but rather it is clarification of the fact they, like non-queer people, are extensions of the One.

Love as grace emanates from all beings, and does not differ because of the body they emanate from; just water nourishes all beings, it matters not what vessel it is carried in. The illusion that the vessel-Body disqualifies or taints the divinity of the water-Self within illustrates two delusions: that the transient Maya imparts its impermanent nature to the eternal Brahman, and that Maya does not entirely emanate from Brahman. These two delusions are barriers to accepting and loving queer people as our community members, and remembering that they too are a part of the divine infinity of God.

The illusion of a male-female binary is dispelled by the revelation of Ardhanarīśvara, making no room for doubt that any and all beings are on the infinitely long spectrum that is life. Queerness as Brahman allows us to radically redefine how we view our society. In addition, queer people can benefit from concentrating on this particular form of सगुण ब्रह्मन् (saguṇa brahman), as it reveals the way to know the unqualified निर्गुण ब्रह्मन् (nirguṇa brahman) which is present in all that is born, lives, and dies (तज्जलान ब्रह्मन् — tajjalāna brahman). The Chandogya Upaniṣad affirms that Brahman sustains the cycle of arising, existence, and dissolution, in which all things and people are included, which should be meditated upon (Chandogya Upaniṣad 3.14.1). In doing so, we can dispel ignorance and attain true, liberating wisdom. Similarly, worship of Ardhanarīśvara allows for queer Hindus and non-queer Hindus alike to reflect and appreciate the infinitely full expanse of Brahman in all of its vibrance, variegation, and vitality.

अविद्य as the Root of Suffering

To deny the humanity and worth of queer people is to not simply be ignorant but to be blind to the Truth itself. Brahman encompasses all things, and people who are born queer are a part of that creation; ignorance (अविद्य — avidya) about self and the world gives rise to hate, delusion, and anger. The crises of identity that many queer people (and indeed many marginalized people) experience is connected to a sense of inadequacy and social gaslighting. By being told that they do not fit into society because they do not accept or assimilate to the cis-hetero-normative model of understanding, queer people are led to believe that they themselves must be incomplete or deluded.

However, we must understand that this “[Inadequacy] does not arise because of any gain or any loss and is not resolved, therefore, as a consequence of any gain or loss such as wealth, fame, or power” (Rambachan 25). Forcing oneself to conform to social norms that conflict with themselves only deepens suffering (दुःख- duḥkha). Ignorance about the self can only be remedied by understanding and accepting oneself, including gender and sexuality. This knowledge is Brahman itself, exemplified by various महावाक्य (mahavākya), such as प्रज्ञानं ब्रह्म (prajñānaṃ brahma : “Consciousness/Knowledge is Brahman” — Aitareya Upaniṣad 3.3.7) and सर्वं खल्विदं ब्रह्म (sarvaṃ khalvidaṃ brahma : “All this is Brahman”). There is nothing contrary or unnatural about the life of queer people, because ultimately they are simply people, and we all dwell within the infinite embrace of Parabrahman.

Even as labels for gender and sexuality are socially constructed, they are useful to help locate oneself in the vastness of reality. Just as Ardhanarīśvara as सगुण ब्रह्मन् (saguṇa brahman) points to the Truth of Parabrahman, these labels position one’s notional self (the material body and its identities) relative to other things. To use a Zen Buddhist example, it is like a finger pointing to the moon and its reflection in the water. The finger (worship of Ardhanarīśvara and other deities as सगुण ब्रह्मन् (saguṇa brahman) is a means to understanding, and the moon and its reflection are the Reality (the knowledge of निर्गुण ब्रह्मन् — nirguṇa brahman).

This act of identification should not imply queer peoples’ unequal worth, as there are ultimately no distinctions in Parabrahman. Just as माय (māya) is the cause of varied appearance and does not ultimately change the nature of Brahman as unqualified and indivisible, to accept queer identities as valid parts of the One does not compromise the understanding of unqualified and infinite nature of Parabrahman. This knowledge must result in an ethical transformation of the Hindu community; queer identities cannot be marginalized or treated as qualities which bar one from liberation. How can one bar आत्मन् (Ātman — the Self), which is one with Brahman, from wisdom and worship? The Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad is unequivocal on the nature of the Self in this regard: “It is not woman, man, or third sex person; It identifies with whatever body it assumes” (Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad 5.11; quoted from Rambachan 130).

Actions of Compassion (दय — Daya)

For non-queer people (such as myself), our act of love and compassion (दय — daya) to our queer community members is to act on the imperative of Īśavāsya Upaniṣad, to see oneself in others and others in ourselves and rid ourselves of suffering (Īśavāsya Upaniṣad 6–7). We must be able to engage with their struggles through empathy; as Rambachan puts it, it is to “enter compassionately into the lives of others, seeing through their eyes, sharing their needs, understanding their thoughts, and responding to their needs” (Rambachan 123).

To those who wonder how to bring this into your daily life: Talk to your queer friends and family, acknowledge their intrinsic worth through a conscious engagement with their lives. Share this essay, and make room in your traditions for queer life and divinity to be acknowledged. I’ve shared a copy of the Ardhanarīśvara Stotram here.

I, as a growing scholar and writer, am cognizant of the harm and denigration that people in the Hindu community have perpetrated against the queer community. To truly move forward, we cannot forget past injustices, but rather learn from them and grow from that learning. Let this be a step in the right direction, and be a resource for others to support the queer Hindu community.

Works Cited

Rambachan, Anantanand. A Hindu Theology of Liberation: Not-Two Is Not One (SUNY Series in Religious Studies). State University of New York Press. Kindle Edition.

Shashank Rao

Written by

Amateur Hindu theologian, polyglot-in-progress and aspiring advocate in education policy, among other things.