Indian mythology is based on the world thriving and surviving because of the watchfulness of the trinity gods. The trinity gods are Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. The Ardhanarishvara is a combination of Shiva and Parvati, merged vertically to form a whole single individual. The two also exist in their full forms but when one is invoked it implies that the other is also invoked.
In Hindu mythology, Shiva was the consort of Parvati, who had lost her heart to him and had performed many austerities to attract his attention and finally claim him as her own. Shiva and Parvati or Shakti are also termed Purush and Prakriti. Purush in the language of the tarot is the Magician or the primal idea or source of creation, and Prakriti is known as nature or creation. Together within them once they merge the hold the entire universe. Shiva and Shakti both are the basis of our genetic makeup, and within ourselves, we hold both the masculine and the feminine.
Ardhanarishvara means “(Ishvara) Deity who is (Ardha) half woman (Nari).” The Ardhanarishvara then is half male and half female, making it a hermaphrodite or an androgynous being. The male half is on the right-hand side and thereby shows Shiva with half of his third eye which is on the crown chakra. The hair is matted and is tied on the head with the Ganges flowing out of it. The right side of the body is dressed in tiger skin to cover the privates and being the lord that he is, he is decorated with serpents.
The left-hand side is the feminine side or the side of Shakti. The left, therefore, is adorned with a gorgeous mane of well combed and well-tied hair, a beautiful half tilak or dot on the forehead, anklets and red henna on the feet, and bangles which are plenty. She wears silk garments that are beautified using jewelry and has a voluptuous well-developed figure. The figure therefore on the right-hand side is all male, the perfect masculine figure and the left-hand side is feminine beauty incarnate, and they are merged perfectly to create a new whole.
There are many forms of myth to explain the existence of the Ardhanarishvara. The Shiva-Puranas, mentions that Brahma the creator had created male figures and blessed them to create life but it was not possible for them to do so by themselves, so Shiva approached him in his merged form with Shakti so that he could rectify his error and create women.
Another explanation of the Ardhanarishvara is from the Upanishads though it is very Platonic in content. It mentions that initially the perfect being was an amalgamation of masculine and feminine but he fell apart to create man and woman so that they could embrace again. Both Indian and Greek cultures, therefore, call the hermaphrodite the pinnacle of bliss and perfection.
Perhaps the story that most embodies the world card as a card of bliss and joy is as follows. Shiva and Parvati were married after she fell hopelessly in love with him and won him over to realising that he too was incomplete without her. After they were wedded, they wanted to share every experience, and Shiva wanted Parvati to partake in his bliss. She bared her soul and offered to perform further austerities to experience it. Shiva, on the other hand, explained that to experience his bliss she only needed to come sit on his lap so that he could communicate how he felt. Parvati loved him and accepted him so totally that she went to sit with him, and gave herself to him with no barriers and no resistance whatsoever that she fell into him and merged with him. As soon as she merged with him, Shiva became the Ardhanarishvara and his state moved from being blissful to being ecstatic. The union of the two, the Ardhanarishvara, is considered by a few of the ancient Indian texts to be the supreme form of Shiva.
A hermaphrodite is the mode of perfection since within one’s self, the masculine and the feminine merge creating a complete whole. To accommodate Shakti, Shiva had to shed a part of himself. Likewise, Parvati also had to relinquish parts of herself to merge into Shiva so that the sum of their parts was greater than the whole. The masculine and the feminine do not gender, but are polarities and when the two merge the soul is in complete harmony. Ardhanarishvara is an evolution of the human species to the next level, where growth and amalgamation within the soul have reached the next level and there is a feeling of balance within. Having achieved completion of a level, the soul is ready to become a Fool or spirit in search of a new adventure and step out into another journey.
The World in the Tarot represents the completion of a cycle before the beginning of the next cycle. While the World may not always represent the ecstasy of the Ardhanarishvara, it is a positive card, which means that there is a completion, a wholeness a balance and a time for joy and celebration. Something has come a full circle, could be a stage of life like marriage, or the birth of a child, or conversely a long term project is coming to an end. This stage is marked by the closure that is needed to move on to the next level. The World also augurs a need to tie up loose ends and like Shiva ecstatically shed what is not relevant and encompass what needs to be done to have closure.
Just as the world upright indicates completion, the reversal shows that a project may be close to the end but the focus seems to have gone. Maybe there is also a desire to stay on where one is so that the completion does not arrive and need to be a Fool once again is delayed. Just as the Ardhanarishvara, is a perfect mixture of the feminine and the masculine in the ideal form, reversed this may also indicate an imbalance, and a slacking that is not allowing one to achieve one’s goals.
Further Reading: Mythology & Tarot Through Myth
Bhattacharyya, Ashim Kumar. Hindu Dharma: Introduction to Scriptures and Theology. iUniverse, 2006.
Dowson, John. A classical dictionary of Hindu mythology and religion, geography, history, and literature. London: Tubner, 1879 [Reprint, London: Routledge, 1979].
Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. and Nivedita. Myths of the Hindus & Buddhists. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1914.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (9 April, 2015). Ardhanarishvara. Retrieved from Encyclopædia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/topic/ Ardhanarishvara Laser, T.
Gods & goddesses of ancient India. New York: Britannica Educational Publishing in association with Rosen Educational Services, 2015. Kraig, D. M.
Modern Tantra: living one of the world’s oldest, continuously practiced forms of pagan spirituality in the new millennium. Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2015.
The Painting of the Ardhanarishvara: By Unknown author – https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/A_1940-0713-0-79, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12813191
Illustrations from the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck, known also as the Rider Tarot and the Waite Tarot, reproduced by permission of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Stamford, CT 06902. c. 1971 by U.S. Games Systems, Inc. All rights reserved. The Rider-Waite Tarot deck is a registered trademark of U.S. Games Systems, Inc.