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Indian Art  
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Buddhism, ca 500 B.C.E.

By the sixth century B.C.E., Vedic society had produced progressively more elaborate sacrificial rites, which resulted in a class/caste system that placed those with the knowledge of how to conduct the rites correctly, the Brahmins, in positions of power. This led to considerable discontent and a number of renunciants emerged.

One of them was the Buddha, Prince Guatama Siddharta. Initially he was depicted aniconically, represented by symbols such as footprints, a tree, or a wheel, rather than anthropomorphically. Gradually, between 100 and 200 C.E., images of the Buddha in human form emerged, portraying him with characteristics that are familiar today. Many early statues of the Buddha, dating from the second-century C.E. Mathura to the fifth-century C.E. Gupta periods, display a slightly androgynous being.

One aspect of the Buddha is Avalokitesvara, the compassionate Buddha. Avalokitesvara is a boddhisatva (an emerging Buddha); and Zimmer notes that "in Indian Buddhist tradition, Padmapani or Avalokitesvara is often an ambivalent or polyvalent character."

As Buddhism spread from India to East and Southeast Asia, Avalokiteshvara experienced a gender change. In China he became known as Guanyin, goddess of compassion; and in Japan she is Kwannon, goddess of mercy.

Many early Buddhist structures are adorned with mithuna (love couples or amorous pairs) or with abundantly proportioned yakshis and yakshas, female and male nature spirits. Pillar capitals at the Chaitya cave of Karle (50-75 C.E.) depict mithuna couples seated on elephants, but one of the loving couples stands out, for the mithuna is of two bare breasted women embracing.

Often yakshis have discolored breasts and genitals from centuries of repeated handling. Yakshis not only lent structures auspiciousness, but also functioned as emblems of fertility, and it is interesting to speculate who would have done most of the touching--women or men? A second-century C.E. yakshi showing signs of frequent contact is found on a rail pillar from Bhutesar, Mathura, Kushan.


Buddhism faded almost completely from India around the twelfth century, but Hinduism continued to thrive. Around 550 C.E., a rock cut cave temple was built on the island of Elephanta, outside Bombay, to honor Shiva. Here Shiva can be seen in his aniconic state, as a lingam, but also in his androgynous aspect as Ardhanarishvara. Shiva is shown female on the left side of his body and male on the right.

As Ardhanarishvara he is united with his shakti (female energy); however, another popular interpretation is that he has merged with his goddess consort Parvati. Ardhanarishvara most often expresses the female aspect of the divine with a breast and the male essence through the lingam. The yoni (female genitalia) are seldom depicted as a female indicator and androgynes are usually split vertically rather than horizontally.

In Hindu mythology the power of the combined man/woman is a frequent and significant theme. In one instance, when the male gods were incapable of destroying the buffalo demon, Mahisha, they manifested Durga. She is the result of all the male gods combining their energy, so her gender could be interpreted as being rather ambiguous, although today she is worshipped as a female deity.

Durga succeeded in slaying the demon of ignorance and she can be seen in a dynamically composed stone relief carved ca 670-700 C.E. in Mamallapuram, south India. The relief depicts the goddess flaying her multiple arms and charging towards the buffalo who stands erect, waiting to meet her challenge.

As Nanda points out, there are numerous examples of "androgynes, impersonators of the opposite sex and individuals . . . [undergoing] sex changes" both among deities and humans in Indian art and mythology. Other Hindu gods who sometimes expressed androgyny are Ganesha, Rudra, and Daksa.

The elephant god Ganesha, Shiva and Parvati's child, was created by Parvati alone from water in which she either washed herself or rubbed herself. Other accounts of his birth attribute his origins to the union of Parvati with her maiden, or to Parvati and Ganga, the river goddess. His flaccid trunk and tusk are interpreted as phallic symbols, while his large temples and plump belly are regarded as female indicators.

Rudra is known as the howler and as the god of destruction. He is an aspect of Shiva, who not only castrated himself and set his phallus free, but was, as a primal androgynous being, so frightening to look at, even Prajapati/Brahma had to turn away.

The creator god Daksa, a form of Prajapati, was also known as an androgyne who divided his body in half, gave birth to daughters, and finally abandoned the female aspect of himself.

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