As we have seen earlier, a soul has three tendencies called sat (choice), chit (meaning), and ananda (pleasure), such that the essence of choice is that between meaning and pleasure. We have also discussed previously, how the original sat-chit-ananda Absolute Truth creates five forms—Kṛṣṇa, Rāma, Hara, Ramā, and Jīvā, which are called the pañca-tattva or five categories. Two of these forms are masculine (Kṛṣṇa and Rāma) while two of them are feminine (Hara and Ramā). Each masculine form is paired with a feminine form. The form of Kṛṣṇa and Hara are the subject and object of pleasure, while the forms of Rāma and Ramā are the subject and object of meaning. In this post, I will use these descriptions to outline the Vedic philosophical view of feminine and masculine. It is noteworthy that masculine and feminine are not just material bodies in Vedic philosophy; they are spiritual archetypes or forms, which have a variety of material manifestations. This philosophical understanding can then be used to discern the basis of gender roles in a society, and why some modern roles (for both men and women) are rejected.
Table of Contents
Masculine-Feminine vs. Male-Female
Given that the soul has a choice between prioritizing either meaning or pleasure, in Vedic philosophy, masculine is defined as the preference for meaning, while feminine is defined as the preference for pleasure. The person in pursuit of meaning seeks higher and more abstract ideas—ultimately culminating in one or more of the six original ideas of knowledge, beauty, renunciation, power, fame, and wealth. The person in pursuit of pleasure, instead, seeks pure and unalloyed relationships, in one of the six original forms as relation to the self, and to others as reverence, servitude, friendship, parental affection, and conjugal love. Accordingly, the pursuit of the six original qualities (knowledge, beauty, renunciation, power, fame, and wealth) is defined to be masculine, while the pursuit of the six original relationships (to the self, and to others as reverence, servitude, friendship, parental affection, and conjugal love) is defined as feminine.
The terms masculine and feminine are somewhat different than the terms male and female. The definition of male is a subject who seeks meaning or pleasure, while the female is an object who is sought as meaning or pleasure. Thus, the male is the seeker or the pursuer of meaning and pleasure, while the female is defined as the sought or the object of these pursuits.
According to these differences, Kṛṣṇa is a feminine-male—He is the seeker of pleasure; as the seeker, He is male, but due to the preference for pleasure, He is feminine. Conversely, Rāma is a masculine-male—He is the seeker of knowledge; as the seeker He is male, and due to the preference for meaning, He is masculine. Similarly, Hara is the feminine-female—She is the ultimate object of the quest for pleasure; we can say that She is the pleasure sought; as the sought, She is female, and due to the preference for pleasure, She is feminine. Conversely, Ramā is masculine-female—She is the object of the quest for meaning; we can say that She is the meaning sought; as the sought, She is female, although due to the preference for meaning, She is masculine. The four original forms are summarized in the below table.
Manifestations of the Original Forms
We can see many typical examples of the above four original forms in the present world too.
- By conventional definitions, a man is a “masculine-male”, which means that he is predominantly inclined towards the quest for meanings—knowledge, power, wealth, fame, splendor, and renunciation. Such a man is honorable, responsible, intelligent, diligent, powerful, disciplined, moral, and reliable. In most cases, he is also boring, aloof, uptight, abstract, serious, introvert, and irritable. He takes care of his family, but is not amiable or fun-loving.
- Conversely, there is also a “feminine-male” who is irresponsible, disorganized, and unambitious, who seeks thrill instead of meaning, who is humorous, delectable, out-going, extroverted and joyful. He is likely an artist, a musician, or a writer, who can’t be pinned down into a place or relationship; he roams and explores the world, seeking excitement and love. He won’t have a steady job or a profession. He does whatever pleases him.
- In most literary descriptions, a “woman” is a “feminine-female”—mysterious and seductive, she seeks risky and dangerous situations to find pleasure. She loves with great passion, but she cannot be possessed; she looks for thrill, excitement, adventure, and fun, and doesn’t want to be bogged down by pragmatic questions of livelihood, responsibility, discipline, and reliability. She is the ultimate erotic object, or what is ordinarily known as femme-fatale.
- Conversely, there is a “masculine-female” who people call the “girl next door”. She is shy, quiet, peaceful, dutiful, responsible, respectful, organized, and disciplined. She will love deeply, but it won’t be passionate; she will tolerate difficulties for her family demonstrating patience and forbearance; she will seek home and hearth, health and security; most times she would be well-educated and well-read; she will not be worldly, because she is worldly wise.
The above are cardinal examples of the original male and female forms. The “girl next door” is the representation of Ramā—the consort of Rāma—who makes the ultimate dutiful wife, the most responsible mother, and a partner for good and bad times. The femme-fatale is the representation of Hara—the lover of Kṛṣṇa—who is the personification of erotic pleasure, exploration, and adventure. Similarly, the “mature and responsible man” is the representation of Rāma who seeks knowledge, power, wealth, and transcendence; he makes a responsible father and husband, but is not humorous, fun-loving, or outgoing; he would most likely be a bad singer or dancer! Finally, the “artistic and passionate man” is the representation of Kṛṣṇa who leads a carefree life of abandon; he has many friends and girlfriends, but no dedicated profession, and does whatever he feels like.
The Union of Male and Female
I noted above that male and female are like subject and object; since this is not an easy idea, I will try to illustrate this now in a better way. In a previous post, I described how the material world is comprised of sounds which can be described as the music produced from the act of playing an instrument. The instrument is called manas, the player of that instrument is called prāna, and the sound produced by that playing is called vāk.
The original male and female forms are like the player and the instrument, respectively. The player is the male and the instrument is the female. The instrument is the possibility of any kind of sound and She exists in an unmanifest form—i.e. unknowable—until the instrument is played. The player is also the possibility of playing any kind of sound, and He too exists in an unmanifest form—i.e. unknowable—until He plays the instrument. The union of the male and female is when the instrument is played. The “children” produced from such a union are the sounds that we admire as musical compositions.
The instrument is generally not the instigator of music; the desire to play originates in the player, although the player is often excited into playing just by looking at an instrument. In this way, the male generally pursues the female, although the female can also attract the male. The male is, however, in a superior position, because the final act of playing has to come from the player and not the instrument. The instrument can attract and inspire the player, but the choices of playing are in the male. In that sense, the player is superior and the instrument is inferior, although they are also complementary because the music is a combination of the instrument and the player. The desires of the player cannot be fulfilled without an instrument and the instrument cannot be complete if it is never played.
The male and the female therefore have desires, but of different kinds. The female desire is to be used or played in a certain way, and the male desire is to use or play in a certain way. They are both incomplete without the other, and they crave for a union in order to complete themselves. In many Vedic texts, therefore, the male and the female are described as the creator and the creatrix who combine to produce a creation. The combination is like that of a player and an instrument to create music.
In Vedic philosophy, there are innumerable forms of male God always accompanied by a female Goddess. The male is always the player and the female is always the played. The choice of the female is to define the limits on what is possible; for example, the form of the instrument defines what kinds of sounds can potentially be produced. The choice of the male is to pick from what is available; for example, the choice of the player defines the played sounds. Because the female sets the bounds on what can be chosen, the female is sometimes said to be superior to the male. Similarly, because the male chooses from among the available options, the male is said to be the decision maker.
Both male and female are actually decision makers, although in completely different ways. The female decides the menu, and the male decides what to eat. The male cannot ask for what is outside the menu, and the female cannot stop the male from choosing what is within the menu. In the spiritual world, the male and the female are closely matched, which means that the female makes a menu which has exactly those things that the male relishes; they are thus unified in their intent and purpose. In the material world, there is great discord because the desires are outside the menu, or the menu is not exactly desirable.
The Archetypes of Consciousness
The essence of the personalist philosophy is that consciousness has form—i.e. it has the properties of masculine and feminine, male and female. The essence of impersonal philosophy is that consciousness has no form—i.e. it has no properties. Vedic personalist philosophy manifests itself into the above four archetypes of Kṛṣṇa, Hara, Rāma and Ramā. These four archetypes are the “original forms” of meaning and pleasure, from which all other meanings and pleasures are created. In the pañca-tattva philosophy, these archetypes are the four forms called Chaitanya, Nityānanda, Advaita, and Gadādhara.
The soul is situated among the four archetypes but has the option to emulate any one of them. Some souls choose to emulate Kṛṣṇa and become the “artistic and passionate men”. Some other souls decide to emulate Rāma and become the “mature and responsible men”. Some souls find the archetype of the “girl next door” very attractive and they like to emulate Ramā. Finally, there are souls who find the archetype of femme-fatale very attractive and they are inclined to emulate Hara.
In Vaishnava philosophy, these four archetypes are the only unique and distinctive forms; every other form—man or woman, masculine or feminine—is produced from these archetypes. For example, there can be men who are responsible in their careers but also seek thrill through women or sport. Similarly, there can be women who secretly seek thrill, excitement, and seduction, but overtly appear to be shy, dutiful, and responsible. The archetypes are therefore not mutually exclusive; rather, the soul has the choice to emulate and follow them in different ways. The important point is that the soul cannot create a new or original archetype apart from Kṛṣṇa, Hara, Rāma, and Ramā.
Austerity – The Ideal in the Material World
One of the key ideas in Vedic philosophy is that while the soul has the native capacity and freedom to prioritize between meaning and pleasure, in the material world the natural preference is for meanings over pleasures whereas in the spiritual realm the natural preference is for pleasures over meanings.
In both cases, choices are involved, which means free will always exists. However, the material world is described as a temporary place in which the quest for pleasure with abandon only leads to misery and suffering. One is thus advised to exercise great restraints in the enjoyment of pleasure. There are, conversely, far fewer restraints on the pursuit of meaning in the material world; the general guideline provided by Vedic texts is that knowledge and renunciation are the most important meanings; all other meanings are acceptable so long as they serve the purpose of knowledge and renunciation.
In other words, the archetypes of femme-fatale and the “fun-loving lover” are summarily rejected in the material world. Quite notably, these two archetypes are the highest forms in the spiritual realm. This distinction is articulated in the Vaishnava philosophy by describing two forms of bhakti—vaidi and ragānugā. The vaidi-bhakti is a life in which men are the “boring, intelligent, and responsible caretakers of family and society” while the women are the “girl next door”—i.e. quiet, shy, tolerant, forbearing, unassuming, responsible mothers and wives dedicated to their family. Conversely, in the ragānugā-bhakti, the men are the playful fun-loving explorers, while women are the demanding, entitled, assertive, risk-taking, mysterious, and seductive embodiments of passion and love.
It is noteworthy that the archetypes of the “playful explorer” and the “mysterious seductress” are not always rejected; indeed, they are described in Vedic texts as the highest form of spiritual existence. They are, however, forbidden during the material existence—also called the practice of vaidi or “disciplined” life.
The meaning of vaidi is “according to rules and regulations” and it embodies a life that pursues meaning over pleasure. The reason is that each soul has an eternal form of meaning (the six qualities described above) which has to be discovered through a regulated process before the soul can engage in a life of playful abandon. The regulated life is, however, not eternal; rather, the life of playful abandonment is eternal. Nevertheless, the regulated life has to be practiced in order to discover one’s form of meaning, before this form can participate in roles or relationships that involve the exchanges of playful abandonment.
The Divine Origin of Gender Roles
The traditional gender roles—for both men and women—come from the strictures of vaidi-bhakti. They are, in fact, emulations of Rāma and Ramā or Viṣṇu and Lakshmi. While it is quite possible that men can be “fun-loving lovers” and women can be femme-fatales, this life of careless enjoyment is rejected in vaidi-bhakti unless one discovers their true forms of meaning. Owing to this fact, society is expected to be designed in such a way that all men are “boring, intelligent, and responsible caretakers” and the women are “dedicated, forbearing, plain Janes”. This is the life of austerity and simplicity designed to cleanse a person of the varieties of ill-conceived relationships for false enjoyment.
Many people suppose that the traditional gender roles are designed to favor men and that they were produced due to patriarchal societies. This idea is flawed because the man and woman in the material world are asked to emulate Lord Viṣṇu and Mother Lakshmi—God and Goddess. Their choices, as we have seen above, are different: the female is free to define the limits on the male’s possibilities, while a male is free to choose from among the available alternatives. Thus, a female binds a male with a limited menu, and a male binds a female by asking her to provide whatever he chooses in the menu. The affection or love between them is that the male will not want to breach the boundaries that the female has set, and the female will not try to deny the male what he wants to be on the menu.
The divine relationship becomes materially polluted when this love is lost. In such a situation, the woman becomes a dominating controller who tries to limit the options and choices of the man to a point that the man becomes dissatisfied. The man then breaches the bounds set by the woman and seeks another woman who can fulfill his desires. Alternately, a man may try to obtain from a woman what the woman cannot provide, and this inability to make the man happy may force the woman to seek another man who appreciates what she can provide much better. These frustrated alternatives between a man and a woman are barely the glimmers of the original male-female divinity.
The Process of Spiritual Advancement
The world is created from ideas with the original idea being the most abstract. In this origin, the female is the limits on everything that is possible because that is all that She will allow, while the male is the limits on everything that He wants to choose, and therefore has the desire for. These original forms are not just higher, they are also the “biggest” forms—size being defined semantically rather than physically. In the semantic notion, the form of “knowledge itself”, “beauty itself”, “glory itself”, “power itself”, etc. are the highest and the biggest ideas; every other idea is a limited possibility within it.
Spiritual perfection for both men and women is to get as close as possible to the divine couple—e.g. Lakshmi and Viṣṇu. For a woman, the proximity to Lakshmi means that she tries her best to stretch the limits of possibilities—as she stretches these limits, she comes closer to Lakshmi who is the fullness of all the possibilities. Similarly, the man tries his level best to elevate his desires from narrow parochial ideas to higher and broader cravings—culminating in “knowledge itself”, “beauty itself”, “glory itself”, etc. and in broadening his desires he comes closer to Viṣṇu who is the fullness of desire.
The affection between a male and a female is that the female tries to fulfill all of male desires, while the male never breaches the bounds defined by the female. As a male raises his desires to original ideas, the female becomes the instrument of realizing these desires. But if the female is incapable of fulfilling the desire, the male gives up such desires. Recall that the male and the female are like the player and the instrument; they advance when the player wants the original sound, and the instrument expands to produce the new kind of sound. But if the instrument cannot produce the expected sound (e.g. we cannot expect a drum to produce the sounds of a wind or string instrument), then the player withdraws the expectations of such sounds. This is the principle of divine partnership. While men and women can never become God and Goddess, by emulating Lord Viṣṇu and Mother Lakshmi, both men and women can realize their original forms of meaningfulness. Even today when a man and woman get married according to Vedic rites, the priest presiding over the ceremony compares the man to a representation of Lord Viṣṇu and the woman to a representation of Mother Lakshmi.
The modern feminist idea that women have been forced to serve men due to a patriarchal society is ignorant about the deep philosophical underpinnings of the conventional roles in which a man and woman are expected to play the transcendental archetypes of Viṣṇu and Lakshmi, whereby the marital relationship between man and woman is a reflection of the transcendental relation between the Eternal Couple.
Enlightenment via Marriage
The idea underlying the marital arrangement—with the traditional gender roles—is that the temporary matrimony between man and woman itself can become eternal through a loving bond between husband and wife. When a man dies, and he has been purified, he will transfer to the Vaikunṭha planets in a form similar to that of Lord Viṣṇu, while his wife (assuming she has also been purified) will also similarly transfer to Vaikunṭha in a form similar to Lakshmi. If one of the two is not purified, they will take birth again as husband and wife and assist each other’s spiritual advancement. The traditional gender roles have thus a profound basis in spiritual archetypes due to which men and women will continuously follow each other—life after life—until they liberate each other into Vaikunṭha.
We should therefore understand that the traditional gender roles are not about which gender is in a greater position of power, nor are they subject to whimsical adjustment in time or place. Rather, the conventional gender roles are due to the fact that in the material world men and women are expected to emulate the archetypes of Viṣṇu and Lakshmi or Rāma and Ramā—rather than the archetypes of Kṛṣṇa and Hara. The strictures of gender roles are designed to take a person to the point of liberation where they know their true form of meaning—i.e. their inclination and capacity towards the six qualities.
Marriage is thus not a material bond. It is meant to be a divine and eternal relationship, and is expected to be made into one. As the man and woman try to emulate Viṣṇu and Lakshmi, all false notions of pleasure are removed, and one sees oneself as that thing-in-itself. Such a state is called mukti or liberation. Once a person is liberated, and they have seen their form or the thing-in-itself that they are, then they would be transferred out of the material world into the realm called Vaikunṭha. Once the soul is enlightened about their true form, he or she can seek relationships of pleasure. Through such relationships, one can now begin to emulate the archetypes of Kṛṣṇa and Hara if he or she wants. The road to that destination, however, passes through vaidi-bhakti—i.e. traditional gender roles.