The Indian Ideal of the Relation Between Man and Woman

To attempt an understanding of the symbolic stage of human society, it may be helpful to look at some concrete examples.  Sri Aurobindo has chosen several, the first being the manner and mode of relationship envisioned for man and woman.  The modern age has a very confused outlook, as in some cases, woman is put up on a pedestal, while at the same time, woman is frequently suppressed, controlled, demeaned, abused, harassed, and virtually enslaved.  Yet in the ancient symbolic age, the relationship of man and woman was supposed to embody an ideal relation found in the divine relation of Purusha and Prakriti.  The two principles represented and symbolized the consciousness and force of creation and were equally important in the manifestation of the universal existence.  They could not exist without one another and neither one, nor the other, was therefore supreme and totally dominant.  Over time, the relation of Purusha and Prakriti underwent changes which impacted the way the relationship of male and female was understood in the social order.

Sri Aurobindo explains:  “…the Indian ideal of the relation between man and woman has always been governed by the symbolism of the relation between the Purusha and Prakriti …, the male and female divine Principles in the universe.  Even, there is to some degree a practical correlation between the position of the female sex and this idea.  In the earlier Vedic times when the female principle stood on a sort of equality with the male in the symbolic cult, though with a certain predominance for the latter, woman was as much the mate as the adjunct of man; in later times when the Prakriti has become subject in idea to the Purusha, the woman also depends entirely on the man, exists only for him and has hardly even a separate spiritual existence.  In the Tantrik Shakta religion which puts the female principle highest, there is an attempt which could not get itself translated into social practice, — even as this Tantrik cult could never entirely shake off the subjugation of the Vedantic idea, — to elevate woman and make her an object of profound respect and even of worship.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 1, The Cycle of Society, pg. 8


The Vedic Age in India Represents a Symbolic Stage of Civilisation

It is difficult, if not virtually impossible, for someone from an intellectual and mechanistic age to enter into the spirit of, or even reach an understanding of the mind and insight of someone from another age, when the logical intellect did not play the same role that it plays in our society.  An attempt to interpret, therefore, symbolic utterances or written texts from today’s viewpoint is therefore bound to lead to considerable misunderstanding and misinterpretation.  Sri Aurobindo, using his yogic experience as a foundational power of understanding, undertook considerable work in making the symbolic sense of the Vedic Age available to the modern intellect.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “If we look at the beginnings of Indian society, the far-off Vedic age which we no longer understand, for we have lost that mentality, we see that everything is symbolic.  The religious institution of sacrifice governs the whole society and all its hours and moments, and the ritual of the sacrifice is at every turn and in every detail, as even a cursory study of the Brahmanas and Upanishads ought to show us, mystically symbolic.”

“Not only the actual religious worship but also the social institutions of the time were penetrated through and through with the symbolic spirit.  Take the hymn of the Rig Veda which is supposed to be a marriage hymn for the union of a human couple and was certainly used as such in the later Vedic ages.  Yet the whole sense of the hymn turns about the successive marriages of Surya, daughter of the Sun, with different gods and the human marriage is quite a subordinate matter overshadowed and governed entirely by the divine and mystic figure and is spoken of in the terms of that figure.  Mark, however, that the divine marriage here is not, as it would be in later ancient poetry, a decorative image or poetical ornamentation used to set off and embellish the human union; on the contrary, the human is an inferior figure and image of the divine.  The distinction marks off the entire contrast between that more ancient mentality and our modern regard upon things.  This symbolism influenced for a long time Indian ideas of marriage and is even now conventionally remembered though no longer understood or effective.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 1, The Cycle of Society, pp. 7-8