“Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” says that bestseller book from John Gray. This book has become a classic, although it stereotypes both men and women, disregarding the fact that each person has both masculine and feminine tendencies in them to varying degrees. We can clearly speak about the masculine and feminine as ideas, concepts, or archetypes, but we cannot speak of ordinary people as purely feminine or masculine. This post extends the previous one (where I described masculine and feminine as archetypes of consciousness in Vaishnavism) into yoga philosophy where the masculine and feminine are combined to produce a human body—the masculine being the upward flow called pingalā (also called the sun) and the feminine being the downward flow called idā (also called the moon). This gives a scientific orientation to the gender debate. But more importantly, yoga philosophy teaches us that we are not men or women; to extricate ourselves from the false sense of manhood or womanhood, we have to combine the opposing tendencies in a very specific sense. That specific sense represents the simultaneous quest for knowledge and devotion.
Table of Contents
- Gender in the Human Body
- The Autonomous Working of the Body
- Why Humans Are Superior to Animals
- Autonomous Operation and Choice
- The Dominance of Masculine and Feminine Traits
- The Strength of Manly Qualities
- The Strength of Womanly Qualities
- Which Combinations are Pertinent?
- Combining the Masculine and the Female
- The Balancing Act in Yoga Practice
- Purifying the Idā Tendency
- Understanding Gender Differences
- The Debate is Misplaced
Gender in the Human Body
Let’s begin with the fundamental basis of everything—consciousness—which is described in Vedic texts as sat (consciousness), chit (meaning), and ananda (pleasure). The soul’s choice is whether it prefers meaning over pleasure, or pleasure over meaning. For example, if you are working to solve the problems of world hunger and disease, you might have to undergo many hardships, but you would accept them simply because you prioritize meaning over pleasure. Conversely, when you lie to a friend about an uncomfortable fact because the fact might affect your relationship with them, you prioritize pleasure over meaning. Each person has personal priorities—sometimes you prefer meaning over pleasure, and at other times pleasure over meaning—which change many times during a day.
This fact is described in yoga philosophy as the upward and downward flow of energy called pingalā and idā, which I will briefly describe now. In the human body, the chit or meaning-seeking tendency is present in the head, while ananda or the pleasure-seeking tendency is present in the groin. For the most part, most people have a predominant pleasure-seeking tendency, which means that their consciousness is in the groin. As their consciousness drifts towards meaning, it shifts into the head.
Accordingly, there are two paths in the human body. The top-down path involves going from meaning to pleasure—i.e. prioritizing pleasure over meaning—which is called idā. Similarly, there is also a bottom-up path that involves going from pleasure toward meaning—i.e. prioritizing meaning over pleasure—which is called pingalā. The top-down path, or the pleasure-prioritizing path, is called the feminine tendency. Similarly, the bottom-up path, or the meaning prioritizing path, is called the masculine tendency. It is worth noting that “feminine”, “masculine”, “male” and “female” are technical terms with a spiritual origin as discussed in the previous post. These have no relation to “man” and “woman”, which are words I will reserve for describing the body types as we see them in the present world. They are summarized succinctly below for ease of understanding
Masculine = Meaning
Feminine = Pleasure
Male = Seeker
Female = Sought
The Autonomous Working of the Body
It’s also important to realize that idā and pingalā exist inside all human bodies—both man and woman—because the search for meaning and pleasure is originally a property of the soul, later incorporated into the material body. The soul, however, has the choice to prioritize between meaning and pleasure. All of us have been making these priority calls over many lifetimes, due to which they have now become habits. That is, these calls are often made automatically without even a conscious intervention by the soul. The autonomous working of the body is now well-known; this operation is effected through the Autonomous Nervous System in the spinal cord. The yoga philosophy doesn’t contradict this fact, but it gives it a new kind of meaning: the autonomous working is due to past habits due to which sometimes the energy is dominantly flowing downwards prioritizing pleasure over meaning, while it is at other times dominantly flowing upwards thereby prioritizing meaning over pleasure.
As long as only the upward or the downward flow is present, the operation is autonomous and doesn’t involve conscious intervention. The problem bubbles up for executive decision by the soul when there is a conflict—i.e. both upward and downward tendencies are contending for superiority. The soul now gets involved to resolve this contention and make a priority call, which then aids in the formation of a new habit, which then works autonomously until the next contentious situation arises.
The material world is described in Sāńkhya as the world of opposites or duality. This means that contention is the rule rather than the exception. You might have a preference for pleasure over meaning, but you realize that sometimes neglecting meaning can cause pain. For example, if you are too lazy, then you might lose your job, which would then take away many pleasures. Therefore, while laziness might seem pleasurable, you realize that rejecting it is important even to maintain some of the pleasures. As situations change, the preference for meaning or pleasure also changes automatically because there are predefined rules—i.e. habits—that automatically trigger a reaction.
Why Humans Are Superior to Animals
Animals are inferior to humans because their habits are so strong that all contentions are automatically resolved by previously formed habits without significant conscious intervention. The dominant habit in all animals is to seek pleasure. When they appear to be involved in altruistic activity—e.g. loving their children, or protecting the herd—it is not because of a fundamental sense of purpose by which a living entity wants to connect their lives to the purpose of the universe. It is simply an instinct to avoid pain and increase pleasure. Altruism—or the quest for meaning—dominates in humans.
The autonomous nervous system in animals therefore mostly works independently of the soul, and very rarely it might bubble up a decision or two for the soul to make. In humans, there is far greater potential for conscious intervention because the habits are more or less equally balanced. That is, humanity is defined by its growing need for meaning, as opposed to the need for pleasure that already exists in animals. As the meaning component gains prominence over the pleasure tendency, a natural contention between the two is created. The contention creates a problem that has to be solved through explicit intervention by the soul. As the soul gets more and more involved in such decisions it realizes that there is actually a choice. As the soul recognizes the choice, it comes to the conclusion that it is different from the autonomous working of the body—and hence separate from the body.
The realization that the soul is different from the body arises due to contention, which emerges when a person has habits of pursuing meaning over pleasure. This is the primary reason that spiritual advancement cannot happen unless one asks about the questions of meaning in life. It is also the reason why I have focused much of my work on the question of meaning in science. Unless we start seeking meaning, there would be no contention with pleasure. And if there is no contentious issue, then consciousness has nothing to deliberate on. If there is nothing to deliberate, then the soul considers itself the material body. And when that belief is prominent, one descends into animal life.
Autonomous Operation and Choice
This was a worthy deviation to take while discussing gender roles because it helps us see how humans too are hard-wired to behave in certain ways—preferring either meaning or pleasure most of the time. While the relative proportions can vary at different times, most men and women are not consciously making preferential choices of meaning or pleasure most of the time. The perfection of life is when automation is destroyed and every decision is bubbled up for executive approval by the soul. That is when human being becomes perfectly aware of everything that is going on in their lives. The Vedic scriptures thus exhort the soul to “wake up, rise and be aware of everything” because the soul is in fact sleeping most of the time, rarely making a decision, and letting life run in autopilot mode.
The feminine and the masculine should not be seen as two material bodies. They should be seen as two tendencies in the body—upward and downward—which are always contentious. The battle of sexes is actually a battle inside us, and this is a good battle because it forces conscious intervention. Thus, there is an unconscious part of the body and mind which works autonomously and there is a conscious part of the body and mind which involves choices. The unconscious becomes the conscious when there is a conflict. Most people abhor these conflicts and mock people who are always thinking about what is right and wrong. They might urge them to just make a decision and move on with their life. However, we must note that these conflicts are the turning points in life where every decision is very important.
The Dominance of Masculine and Feminine Traits
Many women have a stronger idā—i.e. a preference for pleasure over meaning—which drives them towards thrill-seeking, or the tendency to be a femme-fatale. Conversely, many women have stronger pingalā—i.e. a greater preference for duty and responsibility—which drives them towards a dutiful, organized, and responsible life, or what we term the “girl next door” behavior. The femme-fatale is boisterous, demanding, entitled, and fun-loving. The “girl next door” is quiet, shy, intellectual, unassuming, giving, tolerant, and forbearing. These differences in their personalities arise due to the stronger tendencies from the top-down and bottom-up flow of alternating energy.
Similarly, many men have a strong idā—i.e. they have the passion to explore the world, enjoy its offerings, do what pleases them, not be bogged down by profession, homemaking, and responsibility; they are the creative and artistic people, who enjoy life with abandon, not worrying about tomorrow. Conversely, there are men who have a strong pingalā—they are serious, responsible, organized, caring, accountable, and professional, and they make good husbands, fathers, and caretakers of society. They might be boring, irritable, introverted, and sticklers for rules, but the world relies on them to make sure that trains run on time, that a country is secure, and that there is food on the table every day.
The idā exists as feminine energy in both men and women, while the pingalā exists as masculine energy in both men and women. The idā is like the moon while the pingalā is like the sun. The meaning-seeking tendency is fiery, hot, and corrosive; the pleasure-seeking tendency is nourishing, soothing, and cooling. These traits are commonly associated with masculinity and femininity so it is neither hard to understand this description nor difficult to experience it within and around us.
The Strength of Manly Qualities
Men naturally have an edge in the pursuit of meaning relative to women. The male body is better capable of subduing idā and enhancing pingalā than the female body where there is a natural tendency for idā to be stronger and the pingalā to be weaker. Again, note that these are statements about typical tendencies and not facts about every man or woman. There will certainly be men in whose body the desire for pleasure is far greater than the quest for meaning. There will also be women in whom the quest for meaning is dominant over the desire for pleasure. These are, hence, not generalizations. However, they are indeed statements of the best case scenarios in both men and women.
If both men and women were inclined towards the realization of their eternal form of meaning, and both men and women were provided a similar kind of pure upbringing (in other words, if there were no discrimination of circumstances), the men would still have a higher ability to reach into the abstract, understand the nature of reality, and pursue greater than life quests. Similarly, even when women are given a pure upbringing, their body and are mind are still preoccupied with the immediate surroundings rather than with the questions of the origin of life, death, and rebirth, and tend to delve more into the observable and the measurable rather than the abstract and the incalculable.
The dominant upward movement of pingalā in men gives them bodily strength, intellectual capacities, the desire to transcend their present material circumstances, and the conviction to accept hardship and austerity—all concerned with greater meaning. Similarly, the downward movement of idā in women is responsible for physical fragility, but contributes to a decline in capacity for abstract thought, moral judgment, or distilling vast amounts of data into insight; due to the dominance of idā, most women are more concerned about this life than life beyond the present one, and about their bodily comfort here and now than the possibility of self-discovery in the future.
The Strength of Womanly Qualities
It is important to realize that while men might have a greater capacity for abstract thought and greater physical strength to bear hardship and austerity due to the rising pingalā, they are also generally more deficient than women in receptivity, surrender, warmth, sharing, patience, and tolerance, which are essential qualities for spiritual advancement. Therefore, despite their ability to think clearly and take hardships in purification, men fall prey to arrogance, individualism, ruthlessness, impatience, and intolerance.
Conversely, due to the downward flow of idā, the women have a natural superiority in many traits such as receptivity, surrender, warmth, sharing, patience, and tolerance, which can aid in their spiritual advancement. They might not have a comparable capacity for abstract thought and physical hardship, but their avoidance of arrogance, independence, ruthlessness, impatience, and intolerance are in themselves strengths that can make their road of spiritual progress far easier and smoother.
Which Combinations are Pertinent?
Recall from the previous post, the four cardinal archetypes of masculine-male, feminine-male, masculine-female, and feminine-female. The man (i.e. the body) who aspires for the masculine traits (i.e. meaning), also becomes quickly enamored by the male role—i.e. the “intelligent but boring caretaker”. Conversely, the woman (i.e. the body) who aspires for the feminine traits (i.e. pleasure), also becomes quickly enamored by the female role—i.e. femme fatale. We had also discussed how male and female combine to create two pairs in the spiritual realm, although more combinations are possible, we do indeed see them in the present world. However, all combinations are not good.
The below table summarizes these combinations with the horizontal and vertical rows representing the archetypes in different individuals. The first letter (M/F) denotes masculine vs. feminine. The second letter (m/f) denotes male vs. female. Their definitions are as per the previous post. There are some combinations of qualities that constitute lesbianism and homosexuality. Due to lack of space, I will not discuss them presently. There are also some relationships that will be incompatible opposites and cannot be useful between two people. Finally, as we discussed in the previous post, only the spiritual combination is ideally recommended.
|Homosexuality||Spiritual Combination||Homosexuality||Incompatible Opposites|
|Spiritual Combination||Lesbianism||Incompatible Opposites||
|F-f||Incompatible Opposites||Lesbianism||Hedonistic Relationship||
The masculine traits fail unless they are paired with the female traits. In that sense, the person who pursues the path of meaning must also acquire tolerance, patience, kindness, surrender, and receptivity. Similarly, the female who has these virtues cannot progress unless the virtues are aligned to the quest for higher meaning. In fact, one who patiently tolerates or surrenders to pleasure with abandonment, also slowly forgets their true form of meaning due to entanglement in many kinds of material relationships and transactions. Therefore, the womanly qualities of receptivity and surrender can easily be misguided, and the primacy of a higher meaning is essential to spiritual life. This again underscores the need for combining masculine traits with female traits.
Combining the Masculine and the Female
While the conflict between pleasure and meaning is important (it forces awareness) ultimately conflict is not a comfortable situation. While everyone can prioritize between meaning and pleasure at different times, in most cases, we know the decision involves a difficult tradeoff—we are losing something important while gaining something we think is even more important. Anyone who has dealt with such choices inevitably asks: Why do I have to choose between one of the two alternatives? Why can’t I have both alternatives at once?
This is hard to conceive because conventionally choices only allow one of the alternatives. Also, once the choice has been presented, we have to choose one of the alternatives; we cannot reject both alternatives. In classical Aristotelian logic, these two principles are called Mutual Exclusion and Non-Contradiction. Suppose you were given the choice to pick either vanilla or chocolate ice creams. Mutual Exclusion says that you must pick between vanilla and chocolate; you cannot choose mango or strawberry flavors, because between vanilla and chocolate we exhaust all the available options. Non-Contradiction says that we cannot ask for both vanilla and chocolate at once.
In the case of pleasure and meaning, Mutual Exclusion applies, because consciousness only has these two properties to choose from (chit and ananda). Since there isn’t a third alternative, we don’t need to look for strawberry and mango flavors outside the choice between vanilla and chocolate. However, one is likely to still ask: Why can’t I obtain meaning and pleasure simultaneously? Why can’t I be happy, loved, and recognized by others, while doing the most meaningful thing for my satisfaction?
This is what I mean by balancing the masculine and the female. The sun is enlightening and demanding, and those who follow the sun can shine bright, but also burn themselves and others. Conversely, the moon is nourishing and restful and those who follow the moon may remain stable and gentle, but they also risk succumbing into sloth and ignorance. It is worth noting that neither side is perfect. Owing to this problem, there is a fundamental need to balance the opposite sides of the choice.
The Balancing Act in Yoga Practice
The true yoga practitioners balance idā and pingalā in their body to give rise to the sushumnā which is the liberating force that arises only when there is the simultaneous flow of idā and pingalā (in all human beings normally the flow alternates between idā and pingalā). The simultaneous flow of idā and pingalā constitutes the option of picking “both” instead of “either-or”.
Knowledge alone is inadequate for spiritual advancement because the practitioner has the potential to fall down due to pride and individualism. Time and again we find examples of those who have renounced pleasures, but are unable to give up anger, pride, and egoism. Their practice of spiritual life is like the brightly shining sun which eventually burns them out because there is no cooling and nourishing moon-like force in their lives. After going through this process for many years, such renouncers realize that their lives are so dry that they need to seek the company that soothes and cools them.
Interestingly, the Buddha also came to the same conclusion after years of performing austerities. He realized that these austerities are punishing the body and the mind to an extent that there is no happiness. Conversely, the path of sense gratification—which he had led previously as Prince Siddhartha—was also ignorant and oblivious to the truths of death, old age, and disease. The Buddha, therefore, propounded the “Middle Way” that avoided the extremes of hedonism vs. renunciation, and abstraction vs. ignorance. His rejection of these extremes and following the middle path constitutes the rejection of the choice as conceived through the lens of Mutual Exclusion and Non-Contradiction. In both Vedic and Buddhist thought, therefore, new logical categories called “both” and “neither” are admitted constituting the Catuṣkoṭi or “four vertices” as we have seen previously.
Mystical yoga emerges from the realization that our conventional choices are not adequate; we have to transcend the limitations of choice without rejecting choice itself. The path that rejects choice is called impersonalism and voidism—as it discards all variety—including masculine and feminine differences. The path that accepts the choice and yet transcends it is called personalism as it accepts masculine and female but recognizes that they are just two sides of the same coin; they must co-exist, they must nurture each other because they are simultaneously necessary for us. The path of impersonalism and voidism is the alternative called “neither”; personalism is the path of “both”.
Meaning and pleasure are conflicting choices, and therefore masculine and feminine cannot be reconciled. The male and female are like the player and the instrument, and they are simultaneously necessary and complementary. Therefore, we cannot reconcile the masculine with the feminine, but we can reconcile the masculine with the female. The reconciliation is that one side pursues meaning while the other side practices surrender. This is not a choice; this constitutes “both”.
Purifying the Idā Tendency
The pingalā is uplifting and the pursuit of higher meanings, therefore, needs no curtailment. However, the idā can be degrading, as it can suck a person into hedonism. Without idā, of course, pingalā has the tendency to burn a person. Looking at the available options, we can see that individually choosing one path (upward or downward) is not acceptable. Rejecting all choices means renouncing choice. We need to combine both paths, and yet we don’t yet know how to overcome their natural contradiction and reconcile their inner conflict.
The short answer is that the top-down path need not necessarily represent hedonism; it can also represent the path of descending knowledge through grace, mercy, and compassion. The upward path is that of personal striving and the downward path is that of receiving grace and showering mercy. The upward path is masculine while the downward path is female (not the hedonism of the feminine path). In the upward path, a spiritualist makes the greatest endeavors for spiritual progress. In the downward path, the spiritualist knows that their efforts amount to nothing without the grace of God. While performing the greatest austerities and cultivating the highest knowledge, the spiritualist becomes helplessly surrendered in the realization that the results of any of his efforts are not in his hands.
Just as a yogi tries to bring the idā and pingalā simultaneously to life, similarly, a transcendentalist simultaneously cultivates sun-like brightly shining knowledge and the moon-like pleasing happiness from complete surrender. This surrender is called “bhakti” in the present world, and some people call it “faith”. It denotes a person’s helplessness, vulnerability, and a sincere cry for guidance. Typically, those who are endeavoring vigorously are not feeling helpless. And those who are feeling helpless are not endeavoring vigorously. In that sense, the idā and pingalā are alternating. Their concurrent enactment in our life means vigorous upward endeavors with utter downward helplessness. This sounds paradoxical, and it is indeed so. But only in this mode can a spiritualist avoid the possibility of fall down.
Understanding Gender Differences
Men and women are as different as the sun and the moon. Men have (generally speaking) an upward tendency but they rise and then fall due to pride and arrogance. Women have (generally speaking) a downward tendency and they will rise after a fall due to feeling helpless. Both genders are deficient in their own way. Men can easily grow into tall and strong trees—only to be uprooted by strong winds. Women can grow long as creepers—which are not uprooted by winds—but the creeper doesn’t rise very high. Spiritual advancement means rising higher and yet not getting uprooted. It involves the height of the rising tree and the suppleness of the ground-hugging creeper.
In Vedic texts, thus, we can find that spiritual advancement is not limited to a particular gender, or a stage of life—e.g. married or renounced. As we saw in the previous post, men and women can unite in marriage, understanding their different roles, and achieve transcendence. If such a union is not possible, or not working out, each person can rise by uniting the female and the masculine inside themselves. In the case of men, this means cultivating more surrender and humility, because knowledge and austerity may come naturally to them (if the men are actually masculine). In the case of women, it means cultivating greater knowledge and austerity, because surrender and humility may come naturally to them (if the women are actually female). The key point is that wherever one is, there is no point in debating about which of the two—men or women—are better. The key goal should be to find the shortest path to perfection, and that involves a suitable combination of social complementarity between female and masculine, as well as the inner balancing act between female and masculine.
The Debate is Misplaced
While a lot is said about gender differences today, the science and philosophical understanding required to conclude the debate is missing. The debate is also often based on what is worst in both men and women, rather than what is best in them. The men are portrayed as dominating, aggressive, and ruthless, while women are portrayed as deceptive, selfish, and materialistic. We should make an attempt to change the debate and focus on the best in both men and women, rather than the worst. Once we understand the best sides of men and women, we would be better equipped to deal with the worst.
The Sun in Vedic philosophy represents the intellect, while the Moon represents the mind. The intellect perceives the language while the mind perceives the sentences. Both are necessary simultaneously. What is the point of having sentences if we don’t know the language in which they are made? Similarly, what is the point of a language if we cannot frame sentences?
The intellect and the mind—the Sun and the Moon—are both needed as a whole in society and within each person. The intellect is superior but dependent on the mind. Similarly, the mind is inferior but irreplaceable for the intellect. Whether a person creates a balance in a relationship with the opposite gender in the Grihastha and Vānaprastha, or one creates a balance in oneself by cultivating both kinds of strengths in Brahmacharya and Saṃnyāsa, there is simply no getting away from the need to combine the masculine with the female. If anyone is thinking that they can advance in spiritual life just by the moon-like faith and grace, without the sun-like blazing fire of knowledge and personal endeavor, they are mistaken. Similarly, if someone believes that they can attain perfection through the sun-like fire of knowledge and austerities, without the moon-like surrender and devotion, they are misguided.
As long as the gender debate is about the body types, rather than the scientific principles of masculine, feminine, male, and female, the debate will remain superficial. So long as we don’t understand how these types combine to create all bodies, we would be victims of stereotyping. And unless we recognize how a combination of masculine and female is essential, we will continue through the cycle of birth and death—again and again undergoing situations not entirely of our choosing.