Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

April 11, 2010

First published April 10, 2010

 in Speaking Tree

Grammar of the Gods

Printed in Speaking Tree supplement, Times of India on 21 March, 2010.

In Hindu mythology, divinity is expressed in the form of three couples — Brahma and Saraswati, Vishnu and Lakshmi, and finally Shiva and Shakti. What is interesting to note is that the male half of this trinity is associated with verbs — Brahma creates, Vishnu preserves and Shiva destroys. The female half on the other hand is associated with nouns — Saraswati is knowledge, Lakshmi is wealth and Shakti is power. The gods are thus the creators, preservers and destroyers; they are the active subjects. The goddesses by contrast are that which is created, preserved or destroyed; they are the passive objects. While the goddesses are described as embodying wealth, knowledge and power, they themselves are never described as knowledgeable, wealthy or powerful. That is usually an adjective reserved for gods. Makes one wonder — is that good old male chauvinism at work? Or is it something else? A symbolic message encoded using female forms, perhaps.

What is often overlooked while looking at mythological images of gods and goddesses is that mythology is symbolic. Shiva does not represent a man and Shakti does not represent women. Shiva and Shakti are male and female forms that lend themselves to embody ideas. Ideas have no gender. But to communicate them, they are often given various forms — sometimes animals, sometimes plant, sometimes geometrical patterns and sometimes human. If human, they are given gender.

Wealth is embodied using the form of Lakshmi, but that does not mean wealth is feminine or women are wealth. Such confusion between the signifier (the form) and the signified (the thought) has led to all kinds of readings of mythology. We have political commentators wondering why a country that worships wealth, knowledge and power as women has traditionally denied women access to all three.  We have the feminist movement deriving great strength from female deities from Kali to Shakti. Durga then becomes about female power; more a political totem and less a symbolic communication of the forefathers.

In Samkhya, the school of analytical metaphysics, the world is divided into two parts: the spiritual (Purusha) and the material (Prakriti). Purusha is today translated to mean man; that makes Prakriti woman. Prakriti is today translated to mean nature; that makes Purusha culture, or more specifically male culture. But this attribution of gender to elements of Samkhya is more convenient and simplistic rather than correct.

Purusha means that which is not contained in space and time. Prakriti means that which is contained in space and time. Purusha is thus the spirit while Prakriti is matter. Purusha is the soul while Prakriti is that which wraps around the soul — the mind, the body and the world. Now the flesh can be male or female. Thus gender is an attribute of Prakriti. Purusha is beyond gender. That makes man, a soul wrapped in male flesh and woman a soul wrapped in female flesh.

Prakriti is the container of wealth and knowledge and power. It stimulates and provokes, Purusha into action. Purusha is that which can act — it can if it so wills create or sustain or destroy anything: wealth, knowledge or power. Thus Purusha is the divine within us that can create or sustain or destroy. Prakriti is the divine around us manifesting as wealth, knowledge and power. Purusha creates outside itself but within Prakriti just as man creates life outside the male body within a woman’s body. This is why Purusha is best represented by the male form while Prakriti is best represented by the female form. Within is God. Without is Goddess. Without either there is neither.

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