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Gender equivalence, Samkhya and Mahadevi

© Gabriel H. Jones 2007

The brief nature of this paper does. It was while searching for the ideological mechanism responsible for gender attribution that the significance of gender equivalency first presented itself. however. For our purposes. states that “[…] Vedic hymns to the Goddess […] made it easier in later centuries to legitimize Goddess worship as orthodox in the context of bhakti and śākta traditions. and by establishing the God and Goddess as primordially dyadic. the Īśvara Krsna of the 3rd (c) Gabriel H. in his Survey of Hinduism. where Vedic and non-Vedic elements were blended. and in the context discussed here. As much as possible. The oldest surviving text. the following should be kept in mind:  Dating events in Indian history is speculative and the subject of much debate. Klostermaier. force or meaning 1” relative to gender. Gender equivalency in this context is “the state of being essentially equal in value. To that end. may hearken back to “[…] goddess-worship indigenous to India before the spread of Vedic religion […]”3 These facts will be reviewed in the light of the conceptual contributions of Classical and Upaniśadic Samkhya to the conceptualization of gender equivalence and of Mahadevi herself. The root of this equivalency has its incipience in the Vedas. generally. Klaus K. dates are avoided unless where deemed important for chronology. require a certain amount of background knowledge to contextualize such a complex topic.”2 He further supports the notion that Goddess worship. Jones 2007 . Samkhya particularly is troublesome in this regard as it appears to have been developed in a cumulative fashion over centuries by different individuals based on notions already developed in the Vedas 4. both in emphasizing the all-pervading nature of the Goddess.Page |2 Foreword This research exploration began with questions regarding the nature and reasoning attached to gender attribution in Hinduism. Samkhya is presupposed to have originated somewhere around 600 to 300 BCE5.

 Sacred knowledge in India is essentially narrative8 and becomes transformed in the process of being told9. Normally. which is lost to us.Page |3 Century CE. (c) Gabriel H. This makes debate and criticism a key process for legitimizing doctrinal stances. and its subsequent portrayal in sacred literature largely follows the cultural shifts14 brought about by the abovementioned struggle for authority and influence. or its sanskritization in the written. this transformation is reflected in writing only after it is established as authoritative. knowledge and insight 7” forms the basis of spiritual dialogue in India. and that Hindu sacred authority is implicitly dependent on establishing a firm position relative to the Vedas. that the status and function of gender in India. These essentials now established we can proceed to examine the key events that make up the conceptual roots of Mahadevi.  Finally. enlightenment.  That the “intellectual penetration of reality. namely the Śramana and the Brahmana12. a religious and ideological struggle for authority and influence10 amongst the various keepers of sacred knowledge11. Jones 2007 .  That there has existed. and the part that Samkhya has played therein. the Shasti-tantra6. either through debate and discourse in the oral tradition. and continues to exist. and those keepers relative to the populace at large. is believed to be based on a much older text. This is especially important when viewed in light of the essential support role the lay populace plays13 in ensuring doctrinal and social longevity.

matter and spirit […]” 23 and we easily see the relationship. so.Page |4 Setting a precedent for gender equivalence There is an astonishing amount of vestigial evidence suggesting a reverence. transformative and fertile nature of the female – either human or divine. (c) Gabriel H. The absence of language pertaining to status relative to gender suggest that. Dyaus (Heaven/Sky) and Prthivi (Earth/Expanse) are described in Rgveda book I as an eternal “Father and Mother”19. who discerns? They bear of themselves all that has existence […]” 21. if not explicitly a worship. namely. when considering the origins of the goddess in India. which are described as “[…] beginningless realities. as revealed in the Samkhya Karikās. such as that represented at Mohenjo-Daro and Harrapa16 are one such culture demonstrating this early observance of the goddess17. we turn to the Vedas. the primordial male and female are as equal in stature as they are in function. “[…] on the gracious Father's mind and on the Mother's great inherent power […]22”. a dyadic monad20 from which all creation is housed and nurtured. such as these. Jones 2007 . of the mysterious. The Indo-Aryans. Compare this to Prakrti and Purusa. is at best interpretive. “Which was the former. believed all creation originated from divine world parents18. Incorporating these ideas from the venerable and sacrosanct Rgveda enabled Samkhya seem all the more authoritative and natural24 to early Hindus. the female and the male principle. where a direct attribution of a mothergoddess is to be found. India’s indigenous pre-Vedic cultures. which the latter? How born? O sages. The other significant inheritance lies in the attributes ascribed to the two genders. Prehistoric sites from around the globe are rife with figurines that are believed to be votive or protective representations of a goddess 15. Consider verse 85 of Book I. Our knowledge of pre-historic civilizations. we must necessarily turn to literate times. at the time of the Samhitas. at this stage of the Rgveda. This functional equivalency and gender attribution found in later traditions are evidently elements inherited from Vedic culture. For this.

They are “of themselves35”. in contrast. Prakrti is described as insentient yet active. Classical Samkhya describes this as the process of creation becoming manifest34. or attributeless. is nirguna33.Page |5 From Samkhya to Advaita Vedanta Classical Samkhya in its earliest forms25. through urbanization and organized religion27. suggests that this philosophical dualism is not the primary legacy of Samkhya 36. Echoing the “world parents” of the Rgveda. What is striking in this doctrine is the complete lack of relative station between the male and female potentialities. Once Purusa becomes conscious of Prakrti. meaning qualities or attributes 31 -. This engagement. and their ideal equilibrium is disturbed. Samkhya identifies Prakrti and Purusa as the “male and female potentiality of matter and spirit” 29.of which all creation is composed to varying degrees 32. around 500 BCE. rajas (passion/activity). is sentient yet passive. Thomas Coburn. as the Rgveda reminds us. eventually led to open discourse and debate by the traditional keepers of sacred knowledge. which prior to existence are in a separate but balanced polarity30. and. coincides with the end of the Vedic period in India. they interact. During this period.sattva (lightness/spirit). The means which Samkhya has been passed on to the Mahadevi tradition is complex and involves some mental gymnastics to fully (c) Gabriel H. in its ideal state. in his text Encountering the Goddess. rather that it is the notion of the “dynamic. In the broader scope of Hindu literature he may be correct. Vedic settlements were in increasing interaction and exchange with the independent non-Aryan tribes which surrounded them26. Purusa. Samkhya is thought to be the earliest attempt at a systematic philosophy 28 in Hinduism. but this dualism as it relates to gender equivalence greatly impacts the future conceptualization of the Great Goddess 38 and therefore cannot be underestimated. and is said to possess three gunas. humanity and their relative value to the Vedas. on the nature of existence. three stranded evolution of the universe”37 which has impacted later traditions. Jones 2007 . and tamas (darkness/dullness) -.

The Svetasvatara is an Upaniśad believed to have originated in a community of world renouncers43. they are the “transmitted record of conversations 40” between teachers and their disciples regarding essential questions of philosophical and spiritual importance. the Upaniśads are not systematic works 39. accept Pantanjali-yoga as a practical and indispensable means of purification and concentration50.Page |6 comprehend. A number of schools attempted to consistently interpret all the teachings 41 which then still stood in diverse states of concordance or opposition. let us examine the first great literary synthesizer of the seemingly irreconcilable. Thomas Oberlies of Universität Gottingen. Those “developing theistic ideas” are none other than the Yoga Sutras. Most doctrinal schools. be they followers of the Samkhya or of the Vedanta philosophy. Jones 2007 . It is through this theistic conversion that the now Samkhya-Yoga may have passed toward Advaita Vedanta. This connection to Advaita is key to understanding how gender (c) Gabriel H. To that end. “the Lord”. activity and karma”48. Within the context of this ideological synthesis. the Upaniśads. Unlike the earlier Vedas. rather. defined as a “Purusa untouched by suffering. Yoga is described as the “reversal of the evolutionary process demonstrated 46” by Samkhya. In her Upaniśad translation notes Valerie Roebuck cites Dr. The Svetasvatara reconciles the dual principles of Prakrti and Purusa with its own theistic world view by subordinating them both to “the God44”. as suggesting that an impetus “to reconcile the Samkhya system with developing theistic ideas”45 was likely the source of the perceived differences between Classical Samkhya and those Samkhyan ideas in the Svetasvatara. Samkhya took a profound shift into theism. The most obvious reflection of that underlying ultimate is the introduction of Īśvara. He is revealed as the teacher of the ancients and identified by the sign Om49. Meditation techniques were developed in the Sramana tradition with a “deep conviction of an ultimate47” underlying the process. notably in the Svetasvatara of the Black Yajurveda 42.

We have previously demonstrated how the feminine came to be associated with the material. where there is no status differentiation between Prakrti and Purusa. However. Mahadevi is neither. first because in order for Mahadevi to be transposed onto Brahman the male and female potentialities must be perceived as equivalent. This is significant for two reasons. which as we have discussed. of which Prakrti and Purusa are emanations. This is strikingly similar to Īśvara as introduced in the Yoga Sutras. Purusa is next due to its higher (read: spiritual) nature. In Advaita doctrine. In Advaita. The Devi Gita is the devotional literature for Mahadevi53. Advaita introduces a differentiation by virtue of relative purity. she simply is Maya. Devi-Gita is based heavily on a modified form of Advaita Vedanta 51. was normalized in Samkhya (c) Gabriel H. unlike Samkhya. Maya is either subordinate to. or wielded by. but the notion of women as ritually impure56 first appears scripturally in Prapathaka V57 of the Yajurveda. unlike Yoga and Samkhya. This Purana. and Prakrti is ascribed the lowest nature by virtue of its materiality55. is the scriptural foundation for the Devi-Bhagavad52 in which the Devi-Gita (Songs of the Goddess) is contained. and is further variously emphasized in the Manusmrti58. as represented in Samkhya. The Devi-Gita. is purity embodied (again like Īśvara). Towards Mahadevi Advaita. otherwise represented as the non-dual Brahman. stressed the ideal of a “single.Page |7 equivalence. To explain. it is by means of this modified Advaita Vedanta that the Bhagavad Purana was written. transpersonal Absolute54”. The question of status relative to purity is especially significant in that one of the defining features of Mahadevi is Her relationship to materiality and Maya. Jones 2007 . being absolute. along with all her affiliated products and attributes 59. was transposed to the scriptural body dedicated to the Mahadevi. Brahman. In contrast. Brahman. in turn. What can be said with relative certainty is that the.

Page |8 doctrine. Jones 2007 . (c) Gabriel H. and second. Samkhya’s ultimate contribution with regards to gender relations in Hinduism was its doctrinal establishment of gender equivalency as normative. of śakta worship. The reconciliation of Samkhya-Yoga and Vedanta is surely one of the cornerstones. that the status differentiation relative to gender introduced by Advaita disappears the instant that equivalence is re-established. This demonstrates that gender equivalence is both sourced in Samkhya doctrine and demonstrated through Mahadevi’s relationship to Maya. goddess worship could not have grown beyond its ancestral reverence. In the absence of these cornerstones. along with bhakti and Tantra60.

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5. and a menstruating female becomes pure by bathing after the menstrual secretion has cease d (to flow). 66. Jones 2007 . J. J.B. (c) Gabriel H. page 17. Kanda II. 59 Brown. (Ed) Yajurveda. 54 Brown. The Laws of Manu. one should not sit with her. page 13.. 51 Brown. 56 Brown. page 17. 55 Brown. 52 Brown page 17. 53 Brown. (A woman) is purified on a miscarriage in as many (days and) nights as months (elapsed after conception). page 13. 60 Brown. . page 13. page 16.P a g e | 11 50 Klostermaier. page 399.B. Chapter 5. nor eat her food. (Ed).” 58 Hare. Buhler (Trans).. 57 Hare. for she keeps emitting the colour of guilt. page 16. 1 “[…]one should not converse with (a woman) with stained garments [5].