In Taoist, Hindu and Buddhist art, deities often are shown as part male, part female — or androgynous. There are also curious traditions maintaining that humankind itself once consisted of androgynous beings. Most insist that sexual desire is directly linked both to the split into genders and — with careful cultivation - to our potential for re-experiencing our native androgyny.
Does this rich and diverse tradition, hinting at an experience of completion or unity, encompass a mystery that requires control and rechanneling of the earthy aspects of sexuality? And if it does, how does one go about achieving it?
Taoist teacher Michael Winn believes the solution will be found in a new spiritual science with Taoist (water) and Tantric (fire) principles at its core.1 He says we may have to integrate our sexual desire into a subtle body experience he calls 'spiritual orgasm,' in order to heal the cosmological splitting of our original non-dual being (first into an etheric androgyne and then into physical male and female sexed bodies). In Winn's view this vast collective wound drives the human incarnational process, and can only be healed by achieving what the Taoists call immortality, the alchemical re-fusion of spirit and body-matter into its original essence. This, for him, is the crucial focus of subtle body sexual cultivation.
What did earlier sources have to say about the concept of divine androgyny?
The Tibetan Buddhists teach that both the cosmos and primordial man were born of the Light and fundamentally consist of Light. Asexual and without sexual desire, they once radiated light. The sexual instinct was satisfied by sight alone. The transition to actual human beings took place when sexual desire awoke. That's when the sexual organs appeared and the Light was extinguished. Humans degenerated and began to touch one another with their hands, finally discovering sexual union.
Sex therefore holds the key to regaining the Light. As the late scholar Mircea Eliade 2 explains:
So long as man practices the sexual act in instinctual blindness, that is to say like any other animal, the light remains hidden. But…by checking the seminal ejaculation one defeats the biological purpose of the sexual act.
'Controlled indulgence' is thus a means to move toward our divine state. But the ultimate goal is somewhat vague. According to Eliade, some tantrics seek an experience of gnosis, or nirvanic consciousness, while some speak of yogis who realized immortality in the body. They do not die; they disappear into heaven clothed in 'spirit-bodies,' 'divine bodies,' or 'bodies of Pure Light.'
In the Symposium, Plato described primordial man as a bisexual being, spherical in shape. Souls were once winged and circled the heavens with the gods until - getting too close to earth they became enamored with its sights and sounds and lost their wings, crash-landing to earth. But once in a while, upon encountering the face of the beloved, souls become amorously and strangely agitated, and growing wings again, long to take flight to the heavens from which they came.
Like Philo of Alexandria (a Jewish contemporary of Jesus), Plato imagined human perfection as unity, a reflection of divine perfection. He also noted that love founded on lust will cease, and that man must transcend the erotic to experience divine love.
Another ancient Greek, Aristophanes, claimed that lovers wish for something other than sexual gratification. They seek a permanent union that they cannot fully describe and to which they can only obscurely aspire. He said that the paradox of romantic love is that it is a yearning for primordial wholeness, which is constantly frustrated by separation.
The ancient Greeks were also fascinated with the androgyne (sometimes depicted as a hermaphrodite) as a symbol of wholeness uniting the powers of both sexes. They apparently did not stumble upon the solution of controlled intercourse as a key for achieving unity, but they did understand that the body is the cause of separation. According to Hellenic scholar Edward Spence, the ancient Greek position was that,
Romantic love is essentially mediated by the body, the cause of our separation rather than of our union. We are creatures of a longing that in principle and in practice cannot be fulfilled. We crave for wholeness through union of our souls, which the physical separation of our bodies hinders us from ever achieving.
The ancient scrolls found at Nag Hammadi suggest that the earliest Christians were far more mystical than the Church would have us believe. The so-called gnostic Christians emphasized the androgynous nature of the Divine and record that Adam was immortal and whole - until he separated from Eve by 'begetting beasts' (physical children) instead of engaging in sacred union. 3 These Christian texts record that Jesus overcame the separation between the sexes, reversing Adam's error, in the Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber — an "act of will, not of impulse."
Despite the Church's vigorous efforts to condemn these views as heresy, they lived on among Christian mystics. Church father Iranaeus reports that a 'heretic' named Marcus, living in the Rhone Valley in the second century CE, practiced a rite known as the 'bridal chamber' in which followers entered into a 'spiritual marriage.' Scholar Michael Williams believes this was most likely some version of the 'undefiled intercourse' (or 'pure embrace') described in the Gospel of Philip, in which desire was renounced and transformation of the couple was the goal.4
Centuries later, Scot Erigena 5 claimed that the division of the sexes was the final chapter in a 'great unraveling' on many planes of existence. Therefore, the reunion must begin with the reunification of the sexes by overcoming sin, and end with the reunion of earth with paradise. According to Erigena, Christ anticipated this final reintegration.
The ill-fated Cathars of the Languedoc region of France also apparently sprang from gnostic roots. They emphasized the need for sexual purity and going beyond procreation in order to be reunited with the divine.
Early Theosophist, Jacob Boehme 6 taught that Adam's sleep in which Eve was separated from him split him from the divine world, immersing him in Nature and earthly existence.7 Said Boehme, the appearance of the sexes is a direct consequence of the first fall because Adam, upon seeing animals copulate, was disturbed by desire. When he attempted to dominate his divine counterpart due to carnal desire, she separated from him even more completely. Yet, "when a man loves a woman, he always secretly desires this celestial Virgin." 8
Franz von Baader 9 said that the fall began when Adam’s celestial companion was separated from him:
The aim of marriage as a sacrament is the restoration of the celestial or angelic image of man as he should be. Sexual love should not be confused with the instinct for reproduction; its true function is to help man and woman to integrate internally the complete human image, that is to say the divine and original image.
Baader predicted that a theology that presents sin as the disintegration of the androgyne - and resurrection as his reintegration - will conquer all other theologies.
More recent Christian mystics have also asserted that the perfect man of the future "will be androgynous, as Christ was." 10
The text behind the Jewish Kabbalah tradition, the Hebrew Zohar, was written by rabbis around the end of the first millennium. It addresses the concept of androgyny:
Each soul and spirit prior to its entering into this world, consists of a male and female united into one being. When it descends on this earth the two parts separate and animate two different bodies. At the time of marriage, the Holy One, blessed be He, who knows all souls and spirits, unites them again as they were before, and they again constitute one body and one soul, forming as it were the right and left of one individual.
The mystical significance of reuniting the sexes has been symbolized in literature and art. Balzac, for example, wrote a fantasy entitled SÃ©raphita, about an androgynous being, who lived only to purify him/herself and to love.
Others, however, lost the metaphysical significance of the hermaphrodite. Says Eliade:
When the mind is no longer capable of perceiving the metaphysical significance of a symbol, it is understood at levels which become increasingly coarse. The androgyne is understood by decadent writers simply as a hermaphrodite in whom both sexes exist anatomically and physiologically. They are concerned not with a wholeness resulting from the fusion of the sexes, but with a superabundance of erotic possibilities. Their subject is not the appearance of a new type of humanity in which the fusion of the sexes produces a new unpolarized consciousness.11
He points out that Aleister Crowley's morbid hermaphroditism12 may have arisen from the study of ancient sculptures of hermaphrodites. However, apparently Crowley and others failed to realize that in antiquity the hermaphrodite represented an ideal condition, which men endeavored to achieve spiritually in religious rites. Indeed, speaking of Greek tragedies, if an ancient Greek infant showed any signs of actual hermaphoditism, its own parents killed it as an aberration of nature. 13
Remember those tales about peculiar characters seeking to turn lead into gold in the Middle Ages? Some claim that the true mystery involved an inner metamorphosis that transformed the experimenter himself, not the metals. One of the basic symbols of alchemy is the androgyne or hermaphrodite. A name for the famous Philospher's Stone was rebis, or 'double being,' allegedly born of the union of sol (sun) and luna (moon). For alchemists, the 'completed work' supposedly recreated the Divine Androgyne.
'Lead' and 'gold' may have been code words for 'earthbound humankind' and 'transcended humankind.' Incidentally, tarot cards, which first showed up in the 14th century, have as the highest card in the deck an androgynous figure. It symbolizes completion and spiritual enlightenment.
In Hindu lore, physical existence is the result of an explosion of primal unity, which separated Shiva (the male principal) and Shakti (the female principal), creating a state of duality. This separation is the source of suffering, illusion, and the slavery of mankind. The goal of tantra is to reunite these two principles (male and female). The tantric awakens the kundalini (the sleeping Shakti) and through breathing and energy techniques, moves her through his chakras to the top of the skull where Shiva dwells.
As a result of this union of opposites, one can abolish duality and transcend the phenomenal world. Some schools teach that one achieves this perfect unity and transcendence by immobilizing the breath, the semen, and thought.
An historical look at androgyny traditions, is interesting, but what can we do with it at a practical level? Once we learn to evade our biological mating script in the bedroom, is the ultimate solution indeed a matter of advanced scientific technique, as Michael Winn suggests? Or is it a matter of healing our resentments toward our beloved so completely that we truly want to merge again? Or does the key lie somewhere else altogether? Perhaps as we use controlled intercourse to move toward unconditionally loving union and heightened spiritual awareness, the answers will appear.
- 1. See his lengthy, but fascinating article detailing his decades of practice in different sacred sex traditions.
- 2. The Two and the One (trans. JM Cohen, Harrill Press; London, 1965): p. 43
- 3. Interestingly, Saint Paul and the Gospel of John also counted androgyny as one of the characteristics of spiritual perfection.
- 4. Rethinking 'Gnosticism' (Princeton University Press, 1996): p. 175
- 5. b. about 800 CE, and once eulogized as "the most astonishing figure of the early Medieval period"
- 6. b. 1575
- 7. Boehme compared the break-up of Adam's androgynous nature to Christ's crucifixion. Eliade, p.103
- 8. Eliade, p. 103
- 9. b. 1765
- 10. Eliade, p. 103, footnote 5
- 11. The Two and the One, p.100
- 12. Crowley, for example, toted a talisman smeared with dried semen and menstrual blood.
- 13. To be sure, physical attempts to enact the ideal exist in other cultures, too. Some shamen strive to embody wholeness through ritual bisexuality, or adopting the dress of both sexes or the opposite sex. Puberty initiation rites for certain Australian tribesmen included an incision at the base of the penis symbolizing the female sexual organ.