Kate Swift, Inherent Sexism in Language, and the Bhagavad Gita

When I read Kate Swift’s obituary yesterday, it lead me to think more deeply about a recent conversation I had about the Bhagavad Gita.  The Bhagavad Gita, not surprisingly, is required reading for most yoga teachers.  It is an integral part of the history and philosophy of yoga thought and practice.  It is, though, about a battle in the middle of war, in a time and place where a woman’s highest and best (and arguably only role in life) is to be obedient first to parents and then to husband.  Purity, obedience, and beauty (as decided by society) are the great virtues of women.  As a dialogue between a male warrior (Arjuna) and a male incarnation of the deity (Krishna), all of the spiritual and social teachings are presented in terms of men and males, right down to the pronouns.  The translation that was being discussed was that by Juan Mascaro.  As a mid-twentieth century translation by a Spaniard at Cambridge University who has lectured on “Literary and Spiritual Values in the Authorized Version of the Bible,” the translation no doubt perpetuates (without any specific or willful intention to do so) the inherent sexism that is also found in the English language and in the Bible and its notion of God.

The question raised was how a book that perpetuates sexist stereotypes could be required reading to be a yoga teacher.  (See my previous blog entry on how we, as yoga teachers, can rely on a book that is primarily about war.)  How would it read, it was suggested, if all the pronouns in the Gita were changed from he to she?  The person raising the question said that making this change made the spiritual guidance more accessible to her.  For me, shifting the pronouns from male to female does not address the challenge because I do not believe in spirit that can be given gender.  I read the Gita and other yoga texts in two ways:  (1) as historical and literary/philosophical documents that are products of the author’s time and place in history; and (2) as a source of universal human truths.  The Gita, as a dialogue between a warrior and a male avatar of “God,” does not have much place in the ideals I hold dear.  Neither the caste system nor the roles for women espoused in the text support my own beliefs about equality, justice, fairness, or love.  The extraordinary teachings of yoga, though, transcend the history out of which they arose.  To do justice to the yoga texts — and not just the yoga texts, but the great teachings and texts that are an integral part of our social fabric — we must both recognize their historical context and be open to learning what has transcended history and cultural boundaries to make them living words.

In attempting to make the shift to a modern interpretation that allows for “feminism,” I know many who try to address some of the challenge for modern readers by saying that we all have characteristics of the masculine and the feminine, and so we can read the guidance in the texts as being valid for both sexes.  The problem I have with that is Kate Swift’s point.  If we label various personality traits and characteristics as being elementally male or female, we are still perpetuating sexism through linguistic bias.  It is not enough for me to make the warrior female and allow her “male” characteristics.  What I think is that all human characteristics are gender neutral.  If the teachings are not to be biased when we as teachers transmit our reflections on the texts to our students (after recognizing how history has done it), then we need to say that all people can be assertive or passive, strong or sweet, rigorous or soft, etc, but not just say that some are masculine and some are feminine and that in having all of these traits to some degree, we are showing that we are both god and goddess, masculine and feminine.

Or we could just not do any labeling at all, instead concentrating on the truly universal yoga teachings of right action, selfless service, and deep abiding love–none of which have anything to do with gender.



  1. Jane Jackson

    If you are going to teach a physical spiritual practice and call it “yoga”, I think you have to make yourself familiar with at least the widely known, heavily referenced, iconic texts and stories. If you are a thoughtful 21st century woman, you owe it to yourself to engage critically with those texts and stories and decide for yourself what to do with them in your practice and in your teaching, and to explore what it is that leads so many women to yoga practice.

    Not my own take on cosmology, but– a western woman who is a Tibetan Llama told me that, in her view, many thousands of llamas have, in the last century, taken incarnation as American women!

  2. Comrade Kevin

    If we were to discuss this issue in a purely Feminist fashion, we’d discuss the gender essentialist versus societal conditioning argument.

    And I, like you, think that human characteristics are elementally neither male, nor female. Nine months of having both my testosterone and estrogen levels augmented and reduced has made me recognize that the complexities of gender are such that it’s impossible to know what is “male” and what is “female”.

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