God and gender in Hinduism

In Hinduism, god is sometimes visualized as a male god such as Krishna (left), or female goddess such as Lakshmi (middle), androgynous such as Ardhanarishvara (a composite of Shiva - male - and Parvati - female) (right), or as formless and genderless Brahman (Universal Absolute, Supreme Self as Oneness in everyone).

In Hinduism, there are diverse approaches to conceptualizing God and gender. Many Hindus focus upon impersonal Absolute (Brahman) which is genderless. Other Hindu traditions conceive God as androgynous (both female and male), alternatively as either male or female, while cherishing gender henotheism, that is without denying the existence of other Gods in either gender.[1][2]

The Shakti tradition conceives of God as a female. Other Bhakti traditions of Hinduism have both male and female gods. In ancient and medieval Indian mythology, each masculine deva of the Hindu pantheon is partnered with a feminine who is often a devi.[3]

History

Male and female deities are extensively mentioned in the Vedas. The earliest mandalas ("Books"; the authorship of each mandala is traditionally ascribed to a particular rishi or that rishi's family) of the Rigveda, estimated to have been composed sometime in the 2nd millennium BCE, invoke and praise both gods and goddesses. Ushas ("Goddess of Dawns") is praised in twenty Hymns of Chapters VI.64, VI.65, VII.78 and X.172, with Hymn VI.64.5 declaring goddess Ushas as the one who must be worshipped first.[4][5]

Hymn to Ushas (Abridged):

The shining tints of the Dawn have spread like the waves of the waters,
Beautifying the world, she renders all good roads easy to traverse,
She who is replete with delight, excellence and health,
Divine Ushas, though art seen auspicious, thou shinest afar,
thy bright rays spread over the sky, lovely and radiant with great splendour;
Do thou Ushas bring me opulence, daughter of heaven;
thou who art divine, who art lovely, who art to be worshipped at the first daily rite;
At thy dawning, divine Ushas, birds fly from their resting places, men arise to work;

Thou, divine Ushas, bring ample wealth to the mortal, the offerer of these prayers.

— Rigveda, VI.64[6]

Goddesses, other than Ushas, mentioned in early Vedic literature include Prthivi (earth), Aditi (mother of gods, abundance), Sarasvati (river, nourishment), Vac (sound and speech), and Nirrti (death, destruction).[4] Similarly male gods feature prominently in the Vedas, with Indra (rain, lightning), Agni (fire), Varuna (rta, law), Dyaus (sky, virility), Savitr (Surya, sun), and Soma (drink) some of the most mentioned. The two deities most mentioned in Rigveda are Indra and Agni, both male.[7] Surya is the third most revered god, again a male.[8] Each is mentioned, anywhere rain and fire is evoked. They are profusely praised, with ceremonies and prayers to all gods and goddesses symbolically organized around fire (Agni yajna). The hymns seek strengthening of fire, and it is god Indra who increases the energy of the fire, while god Surya increases his brightness. Max Muller states that, while there are difference in frequency of mentions, gods and goddesses in Rig veda are "neither superior nor inferior; almost every one is represented as supreme and absolute".[8]

Gross states that ancient and medieval Hindu literature is richly endowed with gods, goddesses and androgynous representations of God.[9] This, states Gross, is in contrast with several monotheistic religions, where God is often synonymous with "He" and theism is replete with male anthropomorphisms.[9] In Hinduism, goddess-imagery does not mean loss of male-god, rather the ancient literature presents the two genders as balancing each other and complementary. The Goddesses in Hinduism, states Gross,[9] are strong, beautiful and confident, symbolizing their vitality in cycle of life. While masculine Gods are symbolically represented as those who act, the feminine Goddesses are symbolically portrayed as those who inspire action.[9] Goddesses in Hinduism are envisioned as the patrons of arts, culture, nurture, learning, arts, joys, spirituality and liberation.[4][9]

God is not either male or female concept in ancient Indian literature. Androgynous concepts of god are common place as well.[9]

Brahman

Most major schools of Hindu philosophy focus their philosophical discourse on the Universal Absolute, called Brahman, which is a grammatically genderless noun.[10] This Universal Absolute, states Zimmer, is "beyond the differentiating qualifications of sex, beyond any and all limitations, individualizing characteristics whatsoever". The Brahman is the Great Cosmic Spirit, the Ultimate True Reality, the Supreme Self. It is a transcendental concept that includes all virtues, forms, genders, characteristics, capacities, knowledge and being-ness.[10] The history of the genderless concept of Brahman, as the omnipresent Absolute Spirit and Supreme Self, can be traced back to Vedas, and extensively in the earliest Upanishads, such as hymns 1.4.10 and 4.4.5 of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad,[11] and hymn 6.2.1 of Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.1.[12]

Zimmer clarifies the notion of gender in Sanskrit language and its relation to the concepts of Brahman and God in Hinduism, as follows:

It must be understood that in Sanskrit, grammatical gender is not always a sign of physical sex. Gender infers function, sex infers form; so that an individual[13] may be masculine from one point of view and feminine from another. (...) Brahman can be regarded as the "womb" of life, and as in Christianity "this man" and "this woman" are equally "feminine to God" [in Hinduism]. Absolutely, Brahman, although grammatically neuter, is the principle of all such differentiation. Essence and nature are respectively masculine and feminine, logically distinct, but "one in God," who is neither this nor that [in Hinduism], and therefore "It" rather than "He" or "She" specifically.

— Heinrich Zimmer, Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization[10]