I love spending time in the Asian galleries of art museums, where the scaffolding of time itself collapses and almost every work seems to open doors onto the deepest philosophical questions.
This beguiling sculpture, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was carved from sandstone in Cambodia about 1,100 years ago. It depicts a divine figure whose body is divided vertically. One side, with the swell of a breast and a long skirt, appears female. The other side, with its flatter chest and shorter waist garment, appears male.
The god, a Hindu deity, is Ardhanarishvara, the half-male, half-female form of Shiva. In Hindu cosmology, Shiva is the god from whom all life emanates, the god of destruction and lord of time.
“You are a woman. You are a man. You are the youth and the maiden too.” So goes a verse from the Upanishads, the Hindu scriptures that present a vision of the world, in all its diversity, as having a single source. “Having no beginning,” the same verse continues, “you are everywhere. [You] from whom all worlds are born.”
If being born requires a separation, so do both the generation of new life and indeed time itself. The generation of new life requires the separation of male and female. Ardhanarishvara is unusual in bringing them together. So what is its significance?
One explanation for this sexually unified deity (as the Met’s John Guy has explained in an essay on sexual syncretism in Indian art) comes from a legend about Shiva and his divine consort, Parvati. To achieve acceptance by Shiva, Parvati performed acts of extreme asceticism and penance. He rewarded her by absorbing her into himself.
The resulting unity, represented in this beautiful sculpture, precluded, however, the possibility of sexual activity and procreation. There is a residual tension in early representations of Ardhanarishvara, where Shiva is shown with an erect phallus, suggesting that the figure itself is still straining against resolution, striving for the division that creates desire and regeneration.
But no such overt sign is visible in this Cambodian sculpture, which is uncommonly serene. The breast is relatively flat, the hips are only slightly wider on one side, and the different lengths of cloth feel like a minor differentiation.
Nonetheless, when you come upon this sculpture in the Met’s galleries, the asymmetry remains striking. The imbalance is oddly activating. A unity has been achieved, but you are left with a sense of latent division.
Desire is so paradoxical. It is like an arrow that transforms the void into a wound, which in turn aches for the arrow. In Hindu cosmology this ongoing cleavage is the source (as Roberto Calasso wrote in “Ka,” his retelling of Hindu myths) of “time, all time, all the time there ever would be, all of history, all the stories that would invisibly cloak all existence.” Without desire, in other words, everything would exist in an undifferentiated present.