Since spirituality is about unconditioning your conscious, and pushing you towards your true identity, the Atman (Self, God, Cosmic Consciousness,…) — which is genderless, it doesn’t come as surprise that for most on the spiritual path, there will come some reckoning regarding the feminine and masculine principles (“the Shiva and Shakthi” principles) that operate within oneself (as well as in the world).
It is about just allowing the evolution of the masculine and feminine principles in each of us. Like Amarananda Bhairvan mentions in his Kali’s Odiyya, as well as the Yaqui Indian shaman Don Juan: sexual identity is so strong that people cling to it as if their lives depended on it.
It is not only important to one’s own evolution, but for society as well. Like the contemporary bhakti spiritual master Mata Amritanandamayi said (paraphrased): there are so many conflicts in the world (ranging from bad governance, to wars, to broken families, and high crime) because of the imbalance between masculine and feminine powers — the world being dominated by the masculine. Over ninety percent of the worlds crimes are committed by men — and yet men have been traditionally considered as the wiser and self-controlled. This shows a serious flaw in our reasoning.
In the past, in many of the native spiritual cultures spanning continents, it was the women who were the great spiritual masters and leaders. This is probably because for women the kundalini is active right from birth, whereas in men it is dormant. Probably also matriarchy itself is about cooperation and synergy, as opposed to the divisive and competitive power based structure of patriarchy. The need for balance will make a come back, driven by necessity (man is too preoccupied in greedy pursuits to be awakened by anything other than necessity – as they say, necessity is the mother of invention). It will be catalysed every now and then by leaders who propel the issue.
Just how much of masculinity/femininity is really tied to one’s gender (or genetics for that matter)? Is it immutable, or can it be unlearned (or conversely, balanced so as to become whole)? Maybe a lot of the feminine/masculine traits are inherited over 6 million years of human evolution, and far more if you include our evolution from the animal kingdom. Unlike the other animals, human beings are beings capable of deep reflection and self-analysis — meaning we can make the choice to evolve to something more than what we are born with. When we integrate the feminine and masculine principles within us, is when we really move beyond animals, to the Atman (the Rama, Krishna, Buddha, etc), we grow into more evolved sentient beings, and a better society.
Man (the non-spiritual initiate) cannot acquire feminine traits in total (and vice versa), as still there is the factor of prakriti – the material constituent and the intelligence/driving-force of the universe and all beings in it (which includes chemicals, genetics, what we eat, what we breath, etc.), which will drive each person each differently. But there is a large gap to be filled.
Shiva-Shakthi / Radha-Krishna
The development of the other half within us occurs naturally with sincere spiritual practice. However there are a small number of esoteric spiritual traditions which had an approach where they would bring out the femininity in the males very explicitly. For example, the spiritual master would strive to bring the femininity out of the man through all sort of rigor such as: live among women, dressing like them, engaging in traditionally feminine activities, and acquire feminine (not female) traits like: receptivity, compassion, integration, acceptance, compromise, uninhibited expression (as opposed to repression) of feelings (of love, happiness, pain) through many means (singing, dancing, nurturing ones artistic talents – painting, music, poetry, story writing).
The purpose of the exercise was not in as much to transcend gender conditionings, but to transcend any conditioning in general. A constant unlearning, in preparation for seeking/uncovering the spirit. Because of its rigor, directness, and the mental stamina it needed, it was reserved for only a few, and called the “left-hand” path of God. But the time for it might be coming… to become the “right-hand” path of God. Necessity will be calling out for it sooner or later, just as it called out for yoga to be spread to the West and the world at large.
Femininity and masculinity studies should even be part of high school curriculum as a serious subject which will cause each gender to reflect on themselves, not just as an academic exercise. But I’d say one doesn’t even have to go to school to study these differences. Even an acknowledgment and acceptance is a big step in allowing those missing traits to take root in oneself.
Take a look at the two adjacent pictures — of Krishna and his brother Balaram, one can see a certain degree of femininity in the way Hindus portray God in male form. Spirituality is about attaining that level of internal gender balance. This has nothing to do with sexual orientation (like being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, etc) — though my gut feeling tells me that those who are anything but heterosexual are in a better position to transcend gender conditionings as they’ve already done some reflection.
Feminine compassion often goes unacknowledged and is understated. As long as man does not return his share [of compassion], he’s not going to give it to the world either, and the world power structure being dominated by men, will cause the world to remain in its present state of imbalance for a while. This will require women to start challenging this, by demanding (or shaming) the other half of the species, into doing their share of reciprocating compassion as well. Femininity having a tolerance and compassion is one thing, but to have it taken for granted is another matter. To emphasize again, this is not about men vs women, but about the masculine and feminine principles seeking balance within each. That is, evolving by moving towards the genderless Atman (as symbolized in the above pictures). Anything otherwise would be a feeble attempt at most, and hypocritical for the serious spiritual aspirant.
Hindu ithasas and puranas are not immune from gender stereotypes, as the people who wrote them were also humans (so also their images of God, being given attributes by humans within the level of evolution at each particular time period; which is why in Hindu culture the image of God is dynamic and multi-faceted, changing with time). Having said that, they were still far ahead of their times. What they contributed in terms of restoring balance (reflecting their vision) far outweighs any gender stereotypes they introduced (reflecting their time period). For example, just take a close look at the pictures on this page. Three out of four of these pictures reflect a type of almost genderless feminine-masculine principle several centuries ago which the society today hasn’t even considered, and can really benefit from.
Even the image of Lakshmi rubbing the feet of Ananda-Padmanabha Vishnu (on the left), is in itself nothing wrong — as long as it is counterbalanced by at least some images of the reverse. We do have such counterbalances — wherever you find traditional themes of the “damsel-in-distress” with a male to the rescue, you also find goddesses of power and strength to be feared (especially by those with ego), like the goddess Kali or Durga (on the right).
As a side note, I always found it amusing to watch some colleagues, especially from deeply patriarchal women-subjugating Middle-Eastern cultures, squirm when they see pictures like that on the right. In the picture on the right, God (in female form, as Durga) slays the shape-shifting Mahishasura demon (representing the irrational and power-hungry ego).
The Hindu puranas are not something that is stagnant and frozen in time. They are not doctrinal religions nor do they have an official sanction or canonization by single authority (like a church body) for their is none. They are open-source and meant to be highly configurable.
Instead of throwing out everything, people should seek to balance out the errors they see by creating alternative narratives. Mathematics (or any science, including that of spirituality) would not have evolved to what it is today if we burned the entire centuries of progress just because we found something preposterous or disagreeable.
New variants are created, and less appealing ones simply fall into disuse and disappear into the past (only to be invoked by unscrupulous radical Christian-media who intentionally refer to texts that have been long discarded).
For example, you’ll find multiple variants of the Hindu epic Ramayana as you travel from North to South India, and even as far as Thailand and Cambodia have their own localized variants. In the Valmiki version of Ramayana, Sita is abducted by Ravana, by physically grabbing her wrist. In the Kamban version of Ramayana, Sita is abducted without touching her (the ground that she is standing on is lifted by Ravana). While both versions are still patriarchal (reflecting the culture at that time, where modesty and chastity is placed higher for women), variants are welcomed. In time, there will be a version where Rama’s chastity (not just Sita’s) is also put to the test. As cultures and times evolve, the ithasas change also.
In the tradition of the itihasas (“thus verily it came to be”), “what is is, is” because there was never a time when it was not. Trying to analyze their origins (time and space itself being a phenomenon) would be useless. It simply is. But we do have the ability to creatively add to it, making the next “thus verily it came to be”.
“We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make our world.”
How is it that such an important subject as this has not been treated more explicitly in spirituality, and is almost just left to the sidelines. After all, spiritual literature does indicate its awareness on the matter (in its images, symbolism, dance forms, poetry, etc.), just that it hasn’t become an explicit treatment.
Maybe there just were not that many people who got to the maturity level that this path demands. I guess that’s why it’s the “left-hand” path of God (reserved a few who have the spiritual stamina to take it), and that these left-hand paths happened to be matriarchal or gender-agnostic is no surprise. For example, in the [past] culture of Kerala, you’d find as many Aghorinis (female) as you’d find Aghoris (male) whose societies existed without any stereotyped gender roles. The Aghorinis were more advanced in their spiritual mastery, and were more often than not the spiritual leaders of their clans. To an outsider (by their standards) may seem matriarchal, but I’d say it was more of a true gender-agnostic meritocracy, where every aspect of life had no gender-stereotypes.
Exploring our selves along these lines will be very revealing and will expose wide-open our weaknesses and strengths. But excessive reflection might result in one being preoccupied in the details, as opposed just striving to elevate the mind, and letting it just happen guided by yoga, i.e. the process of moving towards the genderless Atman. As for this happening on a more grander scale, needs a catalyst, like a resurgence of self-realized spiritual masters, including women spiritual leaders, like in those once matriarchal societies.