Tag Archives: gender

Gender Bender

Many modern thinkers, especially feminists, assert that Hindu śāstra is biased against women because they are written by men. One of the arguments given in their support is that all the instructions are meant for men only. For example, when Kṛṣṇa instructs Arjuna about different paths, such as karma-yogaraja-yogajñāna-yoga, and bhakti-yoga, He always uses masculine gender. From chapter two, where he begins by describing the characteristics of a perfected being (2.54), until the 18th chapter, where He ends by defining who is not qualified to hear the knowledge of the Gītā, He only uses the masculine gender. Nowhere does He use the feminine gender. This shows that He is concerned only with men and not others. Women had no place in spirituality; men simply exploited and oppressed them. The authors of Hindu scripture did not consider them worthy of being spiritual aspirants.

However, the fact is that instructions such as those given in the Bhagavad Gītā are not aimed only at men but at humanity. In these descriptions, no specific gender is intended, liṅgam avivakṣitam. When an instruction is given or a rule is laid down, one may use only one gender, but the instruction is not gender-specific. For example, even in English, when it is said, “Hindus consider a cow worshipable,” or “Hindus do not eat cow’s meat,” the word “cow” indicates bulls also. There is no disagreement on such an understanding. In these statements, no specific gender is intended. Otherwise, it would mean that Hindus do not revere a bull and can therefore eat a bull’s meat. This would be a gross misunderstanding of the above statement.

The same principle is to be understood in instructions such as those in Bhagavad Gītā. Such an understanding is not unusual but well understood by Sanskrit scholars. This is understood from the sūtras of Pāṇini, i.e., tasya apatyam (4.1.92). This sūtra means that suffixes such as aṇ are applied to a name to create a word that means “the son of that person.” For example, Vasudeva is Kṛṣṇa’s father’s name. When the suffix aṇ is applied to Vasudeva, we get “Vāsudeva,” which is a name of Kṛṣṇa; it means “the son of Vasudeva.” Although the sūtra uses the word tasya, which means “his,” implying the masculine gender, it is equally applicable to a female noun. The word daitya is derived from the name “Diti,” who is a wife of sage Kaśyapa, and means “a son of Diti.” Similarly, the word āditya comes from the name “Aditi,” who is another wife of sage Kaśyapa, and means “a son of Aditi.” If the word tasya—“his,” in the sūtratasya apatyam (4.1.92), is to be taken literally, then it would not be possible to apply this sūtra to female names such as “Diti” and “Aditi” and derive the words “daitya” and “āditya.” 

The second word in the above sūtra is apatyam. It means a “son,” but again, no gender is intended here. In other words, the sūtra is also used to derive the name of a daughter, as is the case of the name “Draupadī,” which means “a daughter of Drupada.” The famous Kāśikā-vṛtti on the above sūtra, therefore, clearly states that gender, number, etc., are not intended in this sūtraliṅga-vacanādikam sarvam avivakṣitam. Sanskrit nouns are always gendered; therefore, when making a rule, such as tasya apatyam, gender has to be used. The default practice is to use the masculine gender. However, this does not limit the rule to indicate only the male gender. 

Such a style of instruction is so prevalent that even when the teacher instructs a female student, the masculine gender is used. This can be seen in the teaching of Śrī Kapila to His mother, Devahūti. For a feminist, this would appear appalling. However, Devahūti had no problem with his language because she did not consider her son’s instructions masculine and gender-specific.

Keeping this in mind, we can understand that śāstra is not biased against females when using the masculine gender in their rules. This, however, does not mean that there are no rules that are gender specific. But unless and until it is specifically mentioned, it should be understood that the rules or stories that convey the rules are not gender-specific. This is the basic assumption.