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On Gender in Ayurveda & Astrology

Vesica Piscis — the fruitful space between two overlapping wholes

The purpose of this post is to share the perspectives that inform my use of gendered terminology in the context of Ayurveda and Astrology.

Given that gender fluidity is a major cultural issue at the moment, I feel compelled to make a statement because I habitually apply binary pronouns to planets and stars — labels which might easily be construed as arbitrary or unnecessary.

Personally, I am firmly established in support of authentic individual expression. Life is interesting precisely because of its variety, and humans throughout history have demonstrated a vast spectrum of preferences and personal truths, especially when it comes to gender and sexuality.

I can not imagine a decent reason to impose restrictions on the outward expression of internal experience, excepting the obvious cases where such expression causes harm to others.

This is my basic position on the matter — the more authentically an individual can express themselves without harming others, the better for everyone. That goes for gender, sexuality, politics, religion, food, music, sport… you name it. Unity in diversity is the natural way.

There is a natural tension between authenticity and acceptance; one often comes at the expense of the other. In my amateur awareness of history, I observe that the pathological need for acceptance breeds the sort of conformity that, taken to an extreme, can result in the very worst of human behavior. The pursuit of authenticity, on the other hand, seems to lead generally in the direction of self-actualization and cultural evolution.

That is my personal perspective with specific reference to the natural human fluidity between male and female experience and expression. Now, let's look at the more universal application of the archetypal concepts of masculine and feminine energy.

One of the core precepts of Ayurveda is that creation expresses itself through pairs of opposites — hot/cold, dry/wet, light/heavy, mobile/static, etc.

Sankhya is the philosophical system from which Ayurveda and Vedic Astrology derive their ability to accurately describe the attributes of existence.

Sankhya gives us a collection of vital concepts that will be familiar to most yogis, including:

  • the three gunas (sattva, rajas, tamas);

  • the five elements (ether, air, fire, water, earth); and,

  • the three doshas (vata, pitta, kapha)

Image from The Yellow Textbook by Dr. Vasant Lad

Sankhya describes a cascade of influences that lead from immaterial spirit into physically manifested creation, the ultimate outcome of which is a sensory experience that can be described according to binary pairs.

For example, the body perceives ambient temperature. That temperature is somewhere on the spectrum between infinitely hot and absolutely cold. At the same time, we feel the weight of gravity, which is somewhere between crushingly heavy and vanishingly subtle. We taste food which is somewhere between impossibly pungent and dentin-dissolvingly sweet.

On the most basic level, Ayurveda functions by skillfully introducing substances (food, herbs, oils, etc) to harmonize the pairs of opposites. Inflamed? Consume something cool like coconut. Excess moisture? Dry out with astringent herbs or a sauna. Too dry? Add oil.

The binary pair of masculine/feminine is one of the many manifestations of the dualistic tendency encoded into our commonly shared reality. These are abstract concepts with only a tangential relationship to actual gender identity or biological sex.

According to Sankhya, the primary binary pair from which all subsequent creation flows is Purusha (poo-roo-shah) and Prakriti (pra-kru-tee). Typically, the masculine principle is assigned to Purusha and the feminine principle to Prakriti.

According to the Sankhyakarika, a classical text attributed to Isvarakrishna between 300-500 AD, Purusha points to cosmic consciousness, an unmanifest force of pure potential energy. Prakriti, on the other hand, describes the undifferentiated material substance of which all potential entities of thought and form are composed.

Individually, Purusha and Prakriti are inert. Without Prakriti, Purusha is empty, with nowhere to go, nothing to do or move through. Without Purusha, Prakriti is stuck, an unconscious blob of inanimate stuff.

Combined, they are a life-giving force. As the old Sankhya simile goes, Purusha and Prakriti work together the way one who cannot see and one who cannot walk may be of mutual benefit.

The conscious awareness of Purusha penetrates and enlivens the manifest form of Prakriti. All of creation as we know it unfolds from this divine union of paired opposites. This is the creation story that informs Ayurveda and Vedic Astrology.

For example, the concepts masculine and feminine are generally applied to describe the planets as follows:

  • Sun = Masculine

  • Moon = Feminine

  • Mars = Masculine

  • Mercury = Neuter (e.g. they)

  • Jupiter = Masculine

  • Venus = Feminine

  • Saturn = Neuter (e.g. they)

The heat and light of the Sun literally penetrate every created being in the solar system (planets, plants, people) to enliven and/or scorch according to the circumstance given. To shine light is an appropriate metaphor for conscious awareness.

The Moon receives and reflects this heat and light while managing the water (emotions, metaphorically) without which Earth would be but a rock, hot and lifeless.

Combined, the masculine Sun and feminine Moon create the conditions for life on Earth the way a Mom and Dad combine to create the conditions for new life. There is a biological, anatomical accuracy to this metaphor that transcends any temporary cultural interpretations of gender roles.

Within the context of Vedic Astrology, the Sun is generally said to be the pure expression of the masculine principle; the Moon is generally understood as the essence of femininity.

That being the case, it is important to acknowledge that there are many perfectly valid myths and traditions (even within the Vedic paradigm) that refer to a feminine Sun, a masculine Moon.

Regardless of their commonly assigned gender, each planet has both a masculine and feminine aspect which is expressed through the signs that they govern.

Image created by Veda Dave

Mars, the Warrior, is generally a masculine planet, associated with the penetrative qualities of fire and enlivening action. This impulsive, explosive tendency is expressed through the fire sign Aries. However, Mars also rules watery Scorpio, which is his feminine expression, in which the ambition to destroy whatever makes one weak is turned inward.

Here, Mars becomes the emotional Warrior, possessing the necessary courage to pursue the perilous mission to discover and uproot the buried psychological tendencies that tend to drain nutrients and distort the shape of one's intended garden harvest.

Mercury, the Messenger, is known in Sanskrit as napuṁsaka, meaning essentially non-binary, ”neither this nor that,” not male, not female. Mercury is associated with prepubescent girls (an age where it can be difficult to tell the difference between male and female) and is the planetary indicator for androgyny. Mercury offers their masculine expression as the air sign Gemini, and their feminine aspect as earthy Virgo.

Jupiter, Guru to the Gods, is generally given as masculine, but nonetheless offers his masculine expression as the fire sign Sagittarius, and his feminine aspect as watery Pisces.

Venus, the Lover, radiates a generally feminine essence, although she is also seen as masculine in her role as Guru to the Demons. Different traditions see Venus differently, often depending on whether she is visible in the morning or evening. Nonetheless, she offers her masculine expression as the air sign Libra, and her feminine aspect as earthy Taurus.

Saturn, the Chief Justice, is also known as napuṁsaka, or non-binary. Whereas Mercury is associated with androgyny, Saturn indicates the more asexual nature of an elderly person who does not emit a significant charge as any particular gender. Saturn is also associated with prepubescent boys, when it is still easy to confuse their gender by looks alone. Saturn offers their masculine aspect as the air sign Aquarius, and their feminine aspect as earthy Capricorn. Saturn and Mercury are the gender-benders of the solar system.

Here is a summary of that data, sign-by-sign:

For me, one of the primary functions of this ordering is to serve as a reminder that the planets are living entities deserving of personal pronouns.

It is impolite to refer to a planet as it, the same way you would not refer to your mother, brother, child or puppy as it.

In English, it implies an object devoid of conscious awareness or personhood. According to Sankhya, the light of consciousness (Purusha) penetrates each and every created form (Prakriti). Therefore, there are no its — only living entities at different points on the spectrum between deeply sleeping and perfectly alert.

Every thing, then, is a they.

As I learned from Robin Wall Kimmerer, this truth is reflected in the language of many different indigenous traditions who refuse to objectify the natural beings they rightly see as family.

It is with this in mind that I participate in the application of personal pronouns to stars and planets. They, like me, are living expressions of conscious awareness. They, like you, are inherently deserving of love in the form of time, attention and curiosity — for what is love other than generous attention?

How loved do you feel when someone forgets your name? How do you feel when someone ignores your preferred pronouns? Just so, imagine how your planet family member feels when referred to as it.

In my understanding, astrology is best used as a poetic access point for better understanding the internal family of characters that live within one's own psyche, each with their own life story, innate motivations and inborn blind spots.

Every whole is composed of parts. Please consider this an invitation to explore your many internal parts — the masculine, the feminine, the Martian, Saturnian or Other one.

Please let me know what you think and how you feel about this information.

  • Is there anything you would add or edit?

  • Is there something with which you vehemently disagree?

  • What questions, curiosities or insights arise?

I look forward to discussing this issue with you, as I believe that a more coherent connection with the abstract principles involved might help us all be kinder and more compassionate in practice.

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