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The Supermarket of Identities and the Woman Identity
We quite often get asked about the gender issue with regards to Vedanta, usually by women wanting to know how to relate to being the self functioning “as a woman” in the world. Recently an inquirer wanted to know why this issue is not addressed in any of the “enlightenment” writings, the implied meaning of the question being that this is a serious omission on the part of the scriptures. What is peculiar is we don’t get asked this question by heterosexual men wanting to know how to relate as the self in a man’s body. Sometimes we get asked this by homosexuals, men usually. It appears that the identification with gender is strongest in women and secondly so in homosexual men. Overall, it appears that women have the most invested in – and the biggest problems with – their gender identity.
So what does it mean, if one has to ask, to be a woman? Apart from having breasts and different sex organs, what’s the big deal? Embedded in the universal idea of “woman” is the belief that woman are more emotional, less rational, more prone to inconsistency, less logical, more nurturing, more caring – than “men.” If one is honest, as a woman one has to admit that overall this is true. As a broad generalisation, women often are more passionate and less discriminating than men in some regards. And as a result of having the unique ability to bear children, this does give them a status men will never have, that of the bringers and nurturers of life. Men on the other hand, have a penis and so have the ability to inseminate the female, giving them a different kind of power. Penis-envy is something women are often accused of. The age-old axiom that it is impossible to understand the mind of woman is still bandied about.
As long as one is identified with being a man or a woman, one will see everything through the filters of that program; it is impossible not to, as the gender overlay is unconscious. Even though one has many other identities other than gender, like mother, daughter, father, sister, work identity, play, etc. these are all sub-identities subsumed by gender. What is usually not seen, because the identification is unconscious, is how limiting it is to respond to life through these filters. Even taking the self out of the equation, everyone has a deeper identity that overrides all other identities, and that is being a human being. If one has not developed the dispassion and discrimination to relate to so called “others” as the self rather than relating to others through the gender filter, one can choose to relate to everyone as belonging to the human race, regardless of who they are.
Cross-culturally, if one takes a cursory look into indigenous religions and even Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, there is both a reverence and a fear of the feminine. In Hinduism Kali is the fearsome, skull-crushing goddess/demon of destruction and of life. Much of Christianity only allows male priests. Judaism sets man and woman apart; there is a deep conflict between Judaism and feminism which stretches from the public (in synagogue) to the private. For example, in all orthodox synagogues men pray separately from women, and in many women are relegated to an upstairs gallery. Gender hierarchies are entrenched in Jewish thought; a blessing orthodox Jewish men are required to say every day in thanks to God “who has not made me a woman.” Islam too discriminates harshly and often cruelly against women. The Vedic scriptures too appear to be quite sexist, proclaiming that in order to have the qualifications for self-knowledge one must develop a “masculine temperament.” While more intelligent interpretations of this statement clearly reveal that it has nothing to do with gender as such but with the ability to be dispassionate and discriminating, it is easy to misinterpret.
Vedanta however stands apart from all cultural, philosophical and so-called spiritual scriptures because it alone proclaims reality to be non-dual, making the gender issue a moot point. This means one sees everything as non-different from you, awareness, “man” and “woman” being no more than concepts arising in you, awareness. What is interesting is that this question comes up with reference to Vedanta at all. Asking it in itself reveals a lack of discrimination. This is because as the self one acknowledges that the body appears in a certain form, with or without certain extra bits and pieces, programmed by Isvara with different universal vasanas called man and woman, among others.
As long as a body appears before you, as the self one cannot but continue to live within the limitations of being a person, because even when self-knowledge is hard and fast, the jiva, or person, remains “in the world” – although known to be not of it. The essence of moksa, or freedom, is to dis-identify with objects and to no longer be dependent on them for your happiness. However, in the world the idea of being either a man or a woman cannot be avoided. After all the body is not suddenly going to become androgynous when self-knowledge reveals your true nature to be awareness. “Femininity” and “masculinity” have their charming attributes, along with their negative connotations and historical baggage. However, as the self one does not buy into or identify with either man or woman (or any other identity), because one recognises them to be no more than ideas, universal archetypes in the mind of Isvara – the ultimate duality – and to have nothing to do with who you really are as awareness. One is thus no longer limited by association with any identity.
That said, the gender identification seems to be a difficult idea to get past. This planet has a long history of discrimination based on one’s sex – and in some countries in the world (notably the Middle East and India) it is still a serious disadvantage to be born a woman. In most Western countries this is no longer the case, and although women still feel discriminated against it could even be said that they now have the upper hand. In fact gender identities have become so muddled that it seems even Isvara is confused about who’s who in the zoo! ☺
In the West, the almost desperate attempt by many samsaris to assume an identity that gives them some kind of refuge or feeling of importance has reached ridiculous proportions. One only has to take a stroll in any big city in America to see the freak show, everyone trying so hard to be different they all look the same. It is a sad statement to how misguided the mind can be when it is ignorant of its true nature.
Neurosis on this level is not a luxury one finds in more suppressive or poor cultures, but samsaris are no better off for not being allowed to express their so-called individuality. The sad fact is that the ego, having no particular gender but simply ruled by fear and desire manifesting in seemingly different ways, thinks it has a better chance of survival when it identifies with a particular set of “norms” relevant to its idea of who it is. It erroneously believes it has more value sexually, economically, emotionally and spiritually if it “makes its mark” in the world or as a man or a woman.
James once wrote a brilliant piece called The Supermarket of Identities. In it he expounds on this tendency in humans identified with being people to desperately seek recognition. In most parts of the world, whether by suppression or the over-expression as a result of wealth and indulgence, having an identity is a highly-valued commodity.
As a inquirer into the true nature of reality, assuming one wants to be free of bondage to the person and their inherent limitations, it is paramount that one recognises as soon as possible that identification with any identity is not helpful. When the mind is exposed to self-knowledge, reality reveals itself to be a non-duality as opposed to a duality. The idea of man, woman, Jew, Hindu, Moslem, Christian, etc., etc. melts like frost on a windowpane when the sun rises. One then sees clearly that one does not need a particular identity; any identity is fine because none of them matter. One is no longer identified with the body or the person, as one’s primary identity is known to be whole and complete, actionless, unlimited, unchanging – and ordinary – awareness.