Published on 9th May, 2014, in The Economic Times.
We are conditioned to associate emotions with gender. So toughness is associated with masculinity, tenderness with femininity; domination with masculinity and submissiveness with femininity; rationality with masculinity and creativity with femininity; intelligence with masculinity and intuition with femininity; penetration with masculinity and receptivity with femininity; power with masculinity and love with femininity; straightforwardness is associated with masculinity and manipulation with femininity. Leaders are asked to get in touch with their masculine and feminine sides, whatever that means.
The male brain and the female brain are really not structurally different but one is drenched in testosterone and the other is drenched in oestrogen and so there are bound to be differences in how men and women react to crises. Upbringing and education contributes to differences.
Some emotions may be more associated with men and women in statistical terms, but this changes dramatically with age, exposure and culture. In Hindu mythologies, when Ram is compared with Krishna, we are told Ram is more masculine and Krishna more feminine (Krishna even plaits his hair and sports a nose ring in many artworks). But both Ram and Krishna are forms of Vishnu who is clearly more feminine than the very masculine Shiva.
Yet in local legends near Mathura, Shiva takes the form of a milkmaid to dance with Krishna who is the complete man (purna-purush) and so becomes adored as Gopeshwar. And in the local legends of Tamil Nadu, Shiva takes the form of a midwive to deliver the child of a female devotee. Like Vishnu who often turns into Mohini and does not take the help of nymphs, Shiva chooses not to take the help of his wife, Gauri.
Amongst Goddesses, we are told the demure Gauri is more feminine than Durga, who marches into battle with weapons, but Kali, the wild one who drinks blood, remains a feminist icon. The silent Sita is seen as more feminine than the demanding vengeful Draupadi.
Somehow, mythology does not align well to the standard cliched gender divides, at least not Hindu mythology. In Western mythology, God is decidedly masculine. The Goddess, once a key feature of all mythologies, is all but wiped out. She is at best mother, daughter, sister or wife. In Hindu mythology, she is all that and more. The problem is that we look at images of male and female deities and assume the relationship between them reflects gender politics of society. Perhaps it is time to relook at this assumption.
In the Puranas, the male form is used to indicate the mind and the female form is used to indicate the world that the mind perceives. Thus gender-neutral ideas are represented through gendered forms. It is likely someone will ask: why is woman not the mind? Here the assumption is mind is superior to the world around us and so Puranas reiterate gender hierarchy. But the reason is rather different. In Indian metaphysics, mind (inner world) and society (outer world) have an uneasy relationship, each one claiming to be superior to the other in different schools.
Thus in Vedanta, society is maya (delusion) and the mind is Shiva (pure, untainted by delusion) while in Tantra, society is shakti (power) that animates the corpse-like mind (shava) into being Shiva. The reason the mind is seen as masculine and society feminine is that just as ideas of the mind can only be given a ‘form’ externally in the world, the reproductive power of a man can only be realised through the body of a woman.
The male form thus lends itself best to represent the mind and the female form for matter. So the male forms represent the entrepreneur (male or female) and the female forms represent the enterprise (neuter). As is the entrepreneur, so is the enterprise. If the entrepreneur is like Shiva, indifferent, the enterprise turns into Kali, wild and so demanding attention.
When the entrepreneur is Shankara, paying attention, the enterprise calms down as Gauri. If the entrepreneur is like Ram, the rule-follower, the enterprise can be like Sita, silent and obedient, or like Surpanakha, who will demand attention and whose will not be violently forced into submission.
If the entrepreneur is Krishna, the enterprise will be dynamic, sometimes like Satyabhama, who demands love, and sometimes like Rukmini, who gives love, and sometimes like Radha and Draupadi, who though belonging to another, draw attention and care. As is God, so is Goddess. As is team leader, so is team. As is entrepreneur, so is enterprise. In the absence of God (the human mind), there is no enterprise. The Goddess then is nature (independent of human control). She does not need him but he certainly needs her.