Business Sutra |9.1| Gender: Is Man superior to Woman?

Business Sutra |9| Discrimination

We have covered five episodes of Devdutt Pattanaik’ TV serial on CNBC 18:  Business Sutra.

Episode 9 takes up the subject of Discrimination. What came first? Gender discrimination or mythology? Does mythology sanction gender discrimination or is mythology a reflection of gender discrimination? The problem with symbols is that people look at them literally and so miss the whole point. Mythology are symbols communicating an idea. Male form is therefore ‘signifier’ of an idea and not what is ‘signified’. Same holds true for female forms. When Durga kills a male demon, it is not about women killing men. The image communicates a deeper idea that is often missed as we are in a hurry for a simplistic convenient ‘sign post’. Devdutt Pattanaik has tackled this great problem of discrimination w.r.t. mythological studies in this episode.

Business Sutra |9.1| Gender: Is Man superior to Woman?

Discrimination is defined as a different treatment i.e. treating a person or particular group of people differently, especially in a worse way from the way in which you treat other people, because of their skin colour, sex, sexuality, etc..

Discrimination has one more meaning, too, which is recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another. For the  present of this series, we will exclude this aspect from the discussion.

To be specific, Gender Discrimination is a situation in which someone is treated less well because of their sex, usually when a woman is treated less well than a man.

This can be looked at from two angles: Gender equity means fairness of treatment for women and men, according to their respective needs. … UNICEF says gender equality “means that women and men, and girls and boys, enjoy the same rights, resources, opportunities and protections.

The Gender Bias can be conscious or unconscious, and may manifest in many ways, both subtle and obvious. In many countries, eliminating gender bias is the basis of many laws, including those that govern workplaces, family courts, and even the voting booth. Despite these efforts, many legal and political scholars argue that total gender parity remains a far off goal, one which many regions are not remotely close to reaching.

Professor Mary Beard’s latest book[1] Women & Power: A Manifesto is a short, sharp analysis of women in the West and their ongoing struggles for a voice in the public domain. Based on two lectures delivered in 2014 and 2017, Beard chronicles some of the major obstacles women continue to face, framing her analysis through the lens of the legacies of ancient Greece and Rome.

We may be able to find many scholarly articles that deal with the status of women in the Western Mythology. I have selected Mark Cartwright’s three articles as representative ones.

  • The article, Women in Ancient Greece, states that in the ancient Greek society the women had few rights in comparison to male citizens. Unable to vote, own land, or inherit, a woman’s place was in the home and her purpose in life was the rearing of children. However, in contrast to the lot of most women, some professional women, exceptionally and exceptional, rose above the limitations of Greek society and gained lasting acclaim as poets (Sappho of Lesbos), philosophers (Arete of Cyrene), leaders (Gorgo of Sparta and Aspasia of Athens), and physicians (Agnodice of Athens).  Considering their limited role in actual society there is a surprisingly strong cast of female characters in Greek religion and mythology. Whether these fictional characters had any bearing on the role of women in real life is an open question, as is the more intriguing one of what did Greek women themselves think of such male-created role-models? Perhaps we will never know.
  • In an another article – The Role of Women in the Roman World – Mark Cartwright concludes that Roman males did not think women their equal but neither did they hate them. Perhaps the ambivalent attitude of Roman men to their women is best summarized by the words of Metellus Numidicus who was quoted in a speech by Augustus when the emperor addressed the assembly, ‘nature has made it so that we cannot live with them particularly comfortably, but we can’t live without them at all..
  • Moving towards the East, The Women In Ancient Egypt, in consonance with ma’at, one of the central values of ancient Egyptian civilization, were the equals of men in every area except occupations.

As we see two opposing stands – one in the practice and second in the idealism – in the present times, the western mythology seems to have two almost opposing stance in so far as discrimination to female gender is concerned. As we move towards east, Egyptian culture takes a balanced view. So, it is time now to look at what Indian mythology has to on the subject, as interpreted by Devudtt Pattanaik, in Segment 1 – Is Man Superior to Woman? – of the episode 9.

A symbol of good fortune is a goddess and among the most revered gods is a cowherd and a charioteer. We love and worship them no matter what their gender or caste and yet India is infamous for the persecution of its women and an entrenched caste system.

How does mythology see gender?

The mythology is subjective truth which is communicated through stories, symbols and rituals. Have you ever ate an éclair chocolate?

Yes, often.

What is the best part of an éclair chocolate?

The middle.

The middle, right. So just think of that burst of chocolate that you get that is the idea. Now if I want to communicate an idea I need a form. The chocolate is the idea and the caramel outside is the form. A form is of two types – there is a male form and there is a female form. Male form communicates one idea and the female form communicates another idea. That is how male forms and female forms are seen in mythology. It is trying to explain an idea. Now what is that idea? The idea talks of the relationship of the mind and the world around us so mind and world. The mind is represented using a male form and the world is represented using a female form. Let me explain this in form of a story.

Shiva is the ascetic whose eyes are shut and when his eyes are shut the world is a desolate place. The Sun does not shine, it is cold the wind doesn’t blow, the water is still, it is snow everywhere. Nothing grows, nothing moves. In this world in front of him is the goddess Kali, she is wild, naked and bloodthirsty; her hair is flowing in all directions and she’s dancing on top of him. If you see the images of Kali, Shiva is lying still and she’s dancing on top of him. This is what happens to the world when one is indifferent to it, when one shuts oneself from the world. The world becomes wild when you are indifferent. The moment the God pays attention, his eyes open. Shiva becomes Shankara. Then the wild goddess who is Kali, becomes the gentle domestic goddess called Gouri. So the change in mind brings about the change in the world and this is expressed in the form of gender – male God, female God. So it is not about God and Goddess, but it is about mind and world.

So what you’re saying is the mind is represented through the male form and the world or matter is represented through the female form? These are only forms to represent ideas. I don’t mean to be a feminist because I really am NOT, but I would still like to ask the question – if mind is male and female as matter, is female subservient to male because matter is subservient to mind ?

First we must be very careful when we say mind is male. In fact, mind is represented by male. Representation and reality are two different things and this is the biggest mistake that people do when they read mythology. They mistake representation for reality. We are talking about representation of an idea. The idea is more important than the form in which it is represented. It is neither Shiva nor Shankara who are important as the idea of the mind. Similarly, Kali or Gauri are not as important as the idea of a relationship to the world. You cannot separate the mind and the world.

Now coming to the question you asked, is the world subservient to the mind? This is a chicken and egg situation.  Whether culture came first or the nature came first. It has to be obviously the nature. Nature is always first and culture comes after that. So the world / matter is from which comes the mind and from mind comes the matter. If this is to be represented by a male /female form, then it is from the female where the male came and from the male then came the female. So in Rigveda you have this famous line which says Daksha came from Aditi and Aditi came from Daksha, which means you cannot know what comes first. When you see the Ardhanarishwar image you have Shiva on one side and the Goddess on the other. One cannot be separated from the other, just as you cannot separate the mind from the world.

So my mind and my world are interdependent on each other. My mind is inside my world is outside. As is my mind so is my world. So if my mind is like Shiva and shut to the external world the world outside will become frightening like Kali. However, if my mind pays attention to the world as Shankara then the wild frightening goddess becomes the gently demure Gauri. That is what is being conveyed to the community, by using forms.

There is one thing that still troubles me about this – why is the mind represented through a male form? Why is the mind not represented through a female form? Why most of the leaders are male? Or, why are the leadership stories in our mythology told through the male form and not as much through the female form?

Two points here – first let’s see as the leader, then on the other side we have organization, represented as a female form. Now this question can be answered why mind is represented using a male form. The data shows that leaders are always represented using male forms and organization is always represented using female form. This is this divide based on patriarchy or it is based on physiology? I belong to the school which says it this is based on physiology not on patriarchy, because the storytellers of the mythology who created the narratives were interested in the idea. They were not interested in gender politics.

Let us look at this thing physiologically. The man creates life outside his body. Physiologically man doesn’t create life inside his body, whereas a woman creates life inside her body. So the male form lends itself to represent the leader because the leader cannot create wealth alone and within himself. He depends on the organization for creating the wealth. Within the organization he creates wealth. The female form lends itself to represent the organization because within the organization is created wealth as just as a woman creates a child within. So the female form was most useful in representing the organization. The trigger for wealth creation came from the leader but the actual embodiment of that wealth took place in the organization. Once the idea comes from the leader, the leader doesn’t matter. Then the organization that takes it over becomes more important than the leader. But can the organization exist independent of the leader? No. Can the leader exist independent of the organization? No. They are codependent on each other like the Ardhanarishwar image. As a result, there is no attempt to make one superior to the other.

There is no attempt to make superior than the other.

And that is the tragedy. The tragedy is people assume that mythology prescribes gender hierarchy. Mythology does not. There is gender hierarchy in society and then people look at mythology and say that here is from where it came. It is the other way round. Mythology speaks about codependency, it is society that unfortunately thinks of one being better than the other.

How and when the biological factors like physical strength or the time a female needs to nurture the offspring in the initial period have seeped into the gender hierarchy bias in the human society is a subject of detailed separate study. At this stage, we will only take note of the fact in the animal kingdom too, a male and female have different roles, physiologically. It is incumbent of the male to please the female for mating. However, even that has not been institutionalized in to a gender bias. And then, even in the human societies, there enough examples of matriarchy. Interestingly, these were (or is it, are?)   in the primitive cultures, rarely in a developed societal set-up? Are we supposed to get any message?

In our continuing journey of Devdutt Pattanaik’s TV serial Business Sutra, we will move on to the second segment Creation of Hierarchy of 9th Episode, the Discrimination, in our next episode.

Note: The images used in this post are the irrevocable property of their respective creator. They have been taken up courtesy the internet, so as to illustrate the point under discussion.

[1]  Mary Beard: Women in Power