Avalokitesvara photo by Clare Goldsberry

What Eastern Philosophies have to say about Gender

Clare Goldsberry

Gender has become not just a word to designate diversity but a word that is cause for divisiveness. In an age when “transgenderism” has suddenly arisen as young people decide they have been born in the “wrong” bodies; that they “feel” male but have a female body or the opposite and thus seek to transform their bodies surgically to conform to the “gender” with which they feel a greater association.

Judeo-Christianity has not done us any favors with gender designations according to body type in that the religious teaching gives us gender designations that last for eternity. When a person dies it is believed that they remain the gender in their spirit form as they did in their physical form. A gender designation is even assigned to God: male. But does God have a body? No one has ever seen God in any fleshly form, so it is impossible to say whether God is of a particular gender. Still, Christians call God “the Father” and some religions even assign to God a wife, particularly the ancient teachings which speak of Sophia.

Eastern traditions, Hinduism and Buddhism, do not focus so much on gender. Some of the gods and goddesses can be either male or female, such as Avalokitesvara a male deity in India, but whose Chinese counterpart is Kuan Yin (Guanyin), a female goddess. It is common for Hindu gods and goddesses to be depicted as both genders. In the Hindu literature known as the Puranas, there is the “relationship between the gods to their feminine counterparts or shaktis, the feminine symbols of maya, the world-illusion, whereby the male god is alternatingly seduced and disenchanted. Originally the Godhead is hermaphroditic, beyond the opposites, but at the moment of creation the feminine shakti leaps forth spontaneously, as Eve was created from the body of Adam while he slept.” (Alan Watts in The two Hands of God)

But that was the second attempt by God to create human creatures. The first attempt, the Book of Genesis tells us, was when God created male and female together at once as “Man” — the androgynous form of human beings. “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, . . . So God created man in his image, in the image of God created he him [Man]; male and female created he them.” (Gen. 1:26–27)

We are generally born a specific gender and designated typically by body parts. However, there are anomalies such as children born with both male and female genitalia, called hermaphrodites. In those cases, the parents may leave it up to the doctor to determine whether the child is male or female (sex assignment) which can result in cases of mistaken gender identity. There has been several books written about this, and the agony these children have as they grow up when they feel they are a different gender that that which was assigned to them by the doctor.

What makes gender beside hormones and body parts? There is also the mind, which is the storehouse of all our experiences from all our past lifetimes. We choose the bodies into which we are born; the body that serve us karmically in a specific lifetime. Sometimes we take a male body and sometimes we take a female body. The impressions we receive during our lifetimes remain deep within our mind and we retain the feelings and emotions that we experienced in the various bodies we have inhabited over our many lifetimes.

Ravi Ravindra in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita “A Guide to Navigating the Battle of Life” — “Since the Real Person is not the body, although It takes on an identifiable body when incarnated, there can be no question of associating a gender differentiation with It. The Real Person — or other suprapersonal realities such as Spirit, Atman, Brahman, God — cannot be referred to as ‘He’ or ‘She.’ However, it is important to emphasize that the gender neutral ‘It’ in this context does not designate anything subgender or inanimate or inconscient. On the contrary, It refers to a super-gender spiritual entity whose major characteristic is consciousness (chit). A poem by the medieval South Indian poet Ramanatha tells us:

“If they see

breasts and long hair coming

they call it woman.

If beard and whiskers

they call it man:

but, look, the self that hovers

in between

is neither man

nor woman.”

The practice of vairãgya — non-attachment or non-identification — brings freedom from personal desire, writes Ravi Ravindra in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. “Read vairãgya is not a renunciation of this or that, but it is a renunciation of that in me that is addicted to myself as I am. It is freedom from selfishness; it is a non-identification with myself, with my sufferings and pleasures, with my fears and desires, with my knowledge and experiences.”

Our bodies are perhaps our greatest attachment, which is why we identify so deeply with our body. In today’s society there is too much emphasis placed on bodily identification — specifically on gender by those who feel they have been born into the wrong body. Knowing that in some lifetimes we have taken a male vehicle in which to function in a particular lifetime, and in other lifetimes we have taken a female vehicle in which to function, which means there is no “wrong” body into which we are born — just a “different” body.

There are lifetimes when we may feel that we do not belong in a male body or a female body. Our mind is filled with the impressions or “imprints” that remain from previous lives while in a female body that influences us in this life even though we have a male body, and vice versa. It is not a “wrong” feeling but an inner reflection of the bodies we’ve experienced in past lifetimes. We always choose the bodies we need in each lifetime that can best serve us in the lessons we need to learn.

We thus are never born into the “wrong”’ body, but it is always the prefect body to contain our soul/mind in this particular space-time continuum. We each have a bit of the male and a bit of the female in our physical bodies; our Mind — the field where all the experiences we’ve had throughout all our lifetimes remain, retaining the impressions and feelings of these experiences as our karma ripens as we move through each lifetime. While we may feel that the body we are in is not the “right” body, it is the body we need — perhaps even the one we have chosen prior to being conceived and born into this lifetime — is the perfect body for us to be able to learn and grow and move along our spiritual path that our past life karma has created.

Being grateful for this “precious human life” in this particular space/time continuum is key to our happiness. Many times during our classes at the Buddhist center I attended for many years, we were reminded to always be grateful for this “precious human life” and the opportunities it gives us to advance along our spiritual path. I learned to have an amazing appreciation for my body, but not to get too attached to it because it, like all phenomena we encounter, is impermanent and subject to change.

Key to our happiness is learning to live in equanimity: no attachment to that which we want (or at least to that which we think we want) and no aversion to that which we do not want. Embracing all as our path and learning to settle our minds in the gap between not wanting and not not wanting gives us peace of mind and satisfaction with who we are in this lifetime, knowing that our next lifetime will be different — but always the perfect life for our spiritual benefit.

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I am a freelance journalist for business and industry publications; a writer of essays covering the spiritual, philosophical and scientific areas.

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