Hinduism and Gender Equality

Shiva and Shakti

Shiva and Shakti or Purusha and Prakriti represent the duality of gender in creation

by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay is about gender1 equality in Hinduism, how men and women are perceived and treated in Hindu culture and society.


When we discuss gender or gender equality in Hinduism, we have to consider it from both spiritual and worldly perspectives. It is because the spiritual and philosophical views regarding gender in Hinduism are somewhat different from those followed in worldly life and religious practice by most people. In theory, they are the same, but in practice, there is a clear distinction between both genders. Men and women are expected to perform separate roles, as dictated by the tradition and law books for the preservation of Dharma and continuation of family and society. They have to do it as a part of their obligatory duties to ensure peace and happiness for themselves and others, and achieve salvation.

In Hinduism, gender distinctions are not confined to the earthly life only. They extend to whole creation. The duality of gender exists not only in our world but also in the higher and lower worlds. Hence, we have both male and female divinities and celestial beings in the upper worlds, and male and female asuras, daityas, etc., in the lower worlds. With few exceptions, almost every deity in the Hindu pantheon is associated with one or more deities of the opposite sex. Some of them are also driven by attraction and aversion, and often engage in lustful actions.

Thus, in Hinduism gender differences are universal. They extend to all worlds and planes of existence. The whole creation is clearly distinguished into male and female components, represented by Purusha and Shakti or Prakriti respectively. They constitute the two highest aspects of Manifested or Saguna Brahman, who also acts as Isvara, the supreme lord, creator and controller of the universe. We variously worship them as Shiva and Shakti, Purusha and Prakriti, Vishnu and Lakshmi. Brahma and Saraswathi, Father God and Mother Goddess, and so on. They are believed to be inseparable, but appear as different in the material field due to the power of Maya.

The source of gender distinctions

However, gender in Hinduism is not confined to sexual organs or reproductive functions only. The distinction is not purely sexual or biological in nature. It is mainly functional and arise due to other factors. Gender related differences arise mainly due to the power of Shakti. In lower planes, they arise mainly due to the presence of sexual organs and reproductive function which Shakti manifests. In the higher planes it is determined by the powers which Shakti chooses to materialize in male and female entities or divinities.

The soul does not participate in creating these distinctions. It has no gender because it is asexual. It does not take part in the creation or manifestation of anything, but its presence is necessary for Shakti to manifest the forms and functions. All the diversity and duality arise in the field of Prakriti only due to her force and her power of  Maya. Just as it is the mothers or women in the physical planes who give birth to children, in the spiritual plane it is Shakti or the Divine Mother who produces all dualities and diversity, including the duality of male and female.

In the field of Shakti, gender differences arise mainly due to three phenomena, which are also responsible for all duality and diversity. They are nama (name), rupa (form) and karma (action or function). The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad summarizes this ideal in the sixth Brahmana of the first chapter, stating that all that is here has a threefold aspect, name, form and function. Names arise from speech. Forms arise from eyes, and functions arise from the body. They are responsible for all the visible diversity which we perceive through our minds and senses.

The source of gender distinctions

Thus, gender is a manifestation of Shakti. Due to the triple gunas, the play of Maya, the power of Shakti and karma, it may be visible, invisible, and fully or partially expressed, suppressed or dormant in the beings. It is an outer or superficial aspect of all living beings. In other words, gender distinctions are mostly confined to the body or the form, and they begin to recede or weaken as we go into deeper layers and aspects. For example, it is easier to distinguish the body of man from that of a woman, but it is not so easy to distinguish their minds or senses. It becomes even more difficult when we consider their egos (aham) and intelligence (buddhi), which are considered the highest realities (tattvas) of Nature.

At the still deeper level of pure consciousness or witness consciousness, the distinction completely disappears, since the self has no gender, name or form. In other words, gender distinctions are superficial. They are confined to the body and to the objective reality of the mind, where names and forms still matter. Deep inside all humans are the same. Each is a combination of Purusha and Prakriti, the male and female aspects of creation. The mind and body represent Prakriti or the female deity, and the soul represents Purusha, the male deity. Deep inside, we all represent the same indivisible, indistinguishable, imperishable and eternal Brahman, who is extolled in the Vedas as the One (ekam), without a second (advitiyam).

Genders are meant to be equal

The essence of it is that, whether you are male or female, you are a combination of Shiva and Shakti. They exist in everyone as an inseparable reality. Your masculinity or femininity arises from Shakti only, the female energy of creation. Both men and women possess souls, and their bodies are made by Shakti only. The gender distinctions are illusory, a play of Maya, meant to ensure the continuity of life and the bondage of beings.

Further, the gender of a person is an aspect of his or her name or form. It does not extend to the soul. For convenience we may say that the self or the soul is Purusha (male) but in reality, it is neither male nor female. Our Puranas also allude to the fact that a person’s gender is not permanent. Karma plays an important role. Due to karma, in one life a person may be born as a male and in another as a female or even as a transgender.

Hence, although for the sake of Dharma, we may honor gender distinctions and gender roles in society, we should not take them too seriously or discriminate between them. Spiritually, all beings are equal. Both the genders are meant to be equal, although they may perform different functions, because both are equally important for the continuity of the world.

A woman’s body is a field of Prakriti just as a man’s body. It is untrue that a man represents Shiva and a woman Prakriti. Both divinities are present in everyone. It is just that Prakriti acts differently in each to create a distinct form. A spiritual aspirant on the path of liberation goes beyond names and forms to cultivate sameness or equality (samatvam). By that, he or she also becomes free from attraction and aversion and succeeds in withdrawing the mind into the Self.

Gender discrimination in reality

Although gender is supposed to be illusory and superficial and we are supposed to treat equally both men and women, in practice the ideal hardly took roots in our culture or in our social or religious life. With regard to the status of women, then as well as now, India has not been much different from the rest of the world. This is a good example of how our idealism and spiritual beliefs rarely become translated into reality. The problem was not confined to Hinduism alone but other religions also.

Historically, irrespective of their social or religious background Indian women were subjected to many disabilities and restrictions. From the earliest times, Hindu families and communities were dominated by male members and male privilege. Hindu law books legitimized their authority and superiority in various ways, giving them the role of ownership (yajamana) and control in most matters. They endowed them with the right to own and control not only property, children and the institution of family, but also women. In doing so, they also invoked divine authority and the fear of divine retribution.

In all fairness, we have to say that the law books also acknowledged the sanctity of womanhood and the divine nature of women as the personifications of Shakti, cautioning men not to misuse their authority, ill-treat women or subject them to cruelty and neglect. For example, Manu who was rather harsh towards women also declared that women should be fairly and justly treated because a house where women suffered was a house of great misfortune.

However, the law books cannot be considered conclusive enough to draw inferences about the status of women in ancient India or suggest that they were totally at the mercy of men in their families. The reality was somewhat complicated since ancient Indian society was diverse and complex. Comparatively, women of upper castes faced more discrimination and restrictions compared to women from other backgrounds. The latter ones enjoyed considerable freedom in their personal lives and in matters of marriage, birth, occupation, livelihood, etc. They also engaged in various high and low professions, trade and commerce, business, agriculture, hunting, manual labor, mining, fishing, etc. Some even served the kings and high officials as spies, artists, scribes, healers, diviners, counselors, artisans and warriors.

The problem of gender distinctions

Discrimination of women still exists in various forms in contemporary Hindu communities both in India and abroad. Traditional gender differences and discrimination are still prevalent in various forms. In some communities, it is more pronounced. While many educated Hindus and people in prominent positions speak about the importance of gender equality in public, one can see that it rarely translates into reality. Women are still vulnerable to violence and domestic abuse. A majority of women are still subject to discrimination and exploitation. It shows that the community is still a long way from the ideal of gender equality and treating women without discrimination.

The idea that gender is a mere illusion or a projected duality, which has no basis in the reality of Brahman, is unique to Hinduism. The duality of male and female exists only in the objective realm, as the projection of Purusha and Prakriti who are themselves without specific gender. As Hindus, we must realize this and acknowledge gender as the function of the mind and body, but not of the soul. The distinction arises in the field of Nature (Prakriti) and in the objective reality (not self) due to karma, attachments and the force of Maya.

A woman is not inferior simply because she is a woman, nor is a man superior because he is a man. Both are equal because they are the embodiment of Purusha and Prakriti. In a man, Shakti or Prakriti becomes objectified into a male body and in a woman, into a female body. Both have masculine and feminine aspects, and both have the potential to transform into the opposite gender through rebirth. Thus, any gender distinction is but a play of Shakti.

Lastly, whether one is male or female, everyone has a destiny to fulfill and karma to resolve. One must honor one’s obligatory functions and duties, which arise from one’s gender. For the sake one’s own happiness and salvation and for the sake of all existence, one must be committed to virtue, righteous conduct and moral obligations according to one best judgment and discernment, without being egoistic, selfish and discriminatory.

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Notes

1. Traditionally, sex and gender are used synonymously to distinguish men from women or the males from females. However, in recent times their meaning has become distinct. Sex now refers to the biological aspect of the human body and gender is used mostly to refer to the roles which one plays in society or in daily life. This has created an interesting dynamic since the gender roles and dualities of both men and women have changed considerably in recent times.