In his mythological depiction as the Ardhanarishwara- Lord who is half woman, Shiva is represented with one half of his body bearing a feminine appearance & characteristics & the other half adorning masculine features. This representation has several interpretations, which largely advocate the androgynous nature of his being, which transcends the limiting & relative aspects of gender.
Folklore has it, that this was Parvati’s ploy to keep Shiva tightly embraced to prevent him from going astray towards either his carnal or spiritual pursuits .
On a more intellectual plane, one may perceive the fusion to represent a coalition of the passive forces or Purusha (male) with the active Prakriti (nature). In this composition, he embodies consciousness or spirit interspersed with matter on the terrestrial plane of relativity. The “nothing” from which “everything” gets its meaning.
So, in this form there is malleability between male & female forms negating a stark differentiation between the two. It is only through Shakti or the dynamic whirlpool of creation that Shiva realizes his own nature. In advanced spiritual rapture, the Yogi or Sage, experiences, this divine essence of being, a soul devoid of the physical & qualitative dichotomies that create boundaries & separateness, all of which are associated with the material world of relativity pertaining to the ideas of the body and mind.
It is interesting to note, that this interpretation does not actually point to an idea of neuter, infertile “half man-half woman” but must be understood as “Lord (Ishwar) who is half (ardh) woman (nari)”. So in effect, the form underscores the fact that Shiva’s productive force, when he assumes the role of the creator, requires a feminine presence. The word then does not really assign equal status to the genders but instead highlights a “masculine concept which incorporates a female partnership.” A spiritual reader would however consider such intensive deconstruction a mere semantic quibble and champion the belief that there is no subtle hierarchical superiority but a symbiotic harmony instead. The glorious compatibility & mutual interdependence between the two forces is, infact the sum & substance of all that exists.
The image is also symbolic of syncretic ideology. Syncretism here involves the amalgamation of divergent philosophies to form a whole “new entity”. In such an interpretation, the Ardhnarishwara personifies the dissolution of sectarian strains and the adoption of a more holistic, all embracing worldview. It is interesting to note here, the myth involving sage Bhringi, an ardent follower of Lord Shiva. He was adamant in his worship of only Shiva and simply refused to acknowledge Parvati. Even when Shiva transformed into the Ardhnarishwara form, Bhringi transformed into a beetle and worshipped only the parts that was Shiva. This tale shows us how syncretism faced opposition from the learned even as it found acceptance from Shiva himself. Shiva acknowledges worship as an intensely personal matter and allows his ardents to worship him the way they find it acceptable, provided it comes with true devotion.
In mystic circles, the feminine energy of Shiva, captured in this form is perceived as the Cosmic Kundalini at work for the evolution of human consciousness. She plays the role of the divine mother. Without meaning any discourtesy to the legends of other religions, some Shiva bhaktas like to believe that when she (Prakriti) incarnates on the terrestrial plane of relativity, in the space time continuum, she carries in her womb all divine beings and saints born on earth. Descending thus on earth, as matter, she takes on various forms like Devaki- mother of Krishna, Kaushalya- mother of Ram , Maya- mother of Buddha or Mary- mother of Jesus, to name a few.
It is vital to acknowledge that the physical form in which Shiva manifests himself, as male & female entities forged as one, is inconsequential. The value rests on the divine work they attain when they incarnate in pairs. To describe it symbolically, one may be called the lightning-holder the other is the lightning – each, an irreplaceable component of the other.
Conclusively, thus it may be said that the Ardhanarishwara, projects the transcendental identity of Shiva, which supersedes the attributes & limitations of gender to personify the formless all pervading infinite who graciously, embraces both sexes into the harmonious phenomena of creation.