On Dualism

Dualism is a central but not a very obvious theme in the religions, philosophies and sciences of human civilizations. If you Google it, most hits reference the mind/body dualism of René Descartes (1596-1650, French philosopher, mathematician, scientist, general intellectual bad-ass – but most famous for his “Ego cogito, ergo sum” declaration, “I think, therefore I am”).

This essay is about dualism from a more general perspective. Many a wise mind have mulled on this subject and quite a few of them have contributed to this essay. But while I claim absolutely no originality here, I do take complete responsibility for my musings. And so let us start at…

The Beginning

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.”

– The Holy Bible, Book of Genesis

Every religion has a creation story in its mythology. Invariably there is also an elaborately described destruction event that ends everything. And often there are recurring cycles of creation and destruction. A ‘beginning’ implies that there is an ‘end’.

Creation/destruction. Creation is slow and takes time. Destruction happens fast. An example of an inherent duality in nature and also a balance. Creation is thoughtful and slow, with purpose. This purpose is usually to build, to improve things. Destruction on the other hand destroys wantonly, thoughtlessly. It isn’t guided and is hence indiscriminate.

It takes two to tango

Man/woman. Love/hate. Mind/body (remember Descartes?). Atomic physics talks about the wave/particle duality of matter/energy. Good/bad. Odd/even. On/off, binary digits aka ‘bits’ represented by ‘1’ and ‘0’, the foundation of modern computers. Fast/slow. Magnetic poles, north and south, inseparable. Excesses and deficiencies. Pros and cons. Push/pull. Up/down. Left/right. War and peace. Heaven/hell. Damn, it’s a long list! Dualities are everywhere, all around us. We see them, refer to them and use them all the time. Here and there. And, oh, life/death.

“All existence seemed to be based on duality, on contrast.”

– Hermann Hesse, “Narcissus and Goldmund” (1930)

The two parts that make up a duality define each other. It is impossible to have a “front” unless there is a “back”. “Win” means nothing unless there is a “lose”. Light is the absence of darkness, just as darkness is the absence of light. You get what it means…conceptually neither element of the duality can exist without the other. There is an inherent relativity, an opposition in the way the human mind perceives and categorizes the world.

Ancient myths

Most ancient cultures and religions realized an implicit human need for dualities and incorporated strong elements of dualisms into their mythologies and myths. Often (but not always) they classified creation as “good” and destruction as “bad”, a simplification to explain dualities to the larger population. Then ‘good’ and ‘bad’ were  brought to life through mythological characters. For example, in the ancient Hindu religious tale of the Ramayana, Lord Ram was a hero, good, and Lord Ravana was a demon, and supposedly bad. But Ravana had many positive attributes and is still worshiped as a god in some parts of India and Sri Lanka; and Ram had some weaknesses. In the other major Hindu religious epic, the Mahabharata, five ‘good but fallible’ brothers (the Pandavas) are pitted against the ‘bad but sometimes admirable’ 100 brothers (the Kauravas).

Ancient Egyptian myths had Horus and Set as the two gods who gave birth to the pharaohs. But the relationship between them was always one of conflict, with Horus always the winner, and Set dominated but never vanquished. Ancient Chinese Taoism has yin-yang, the harmonizing philosophy of the dualism of nature, believing that everything in the world results from a balance between two forces, ‘yin’ (female, dark, passive) and ‘yang’ (male, bright, and active).

The creation myth of the Aztecs of South America has at the beginning the dark void, and then creation began when the dual Ometecuhtli (Lord of Duality) / Omecihuatl (Lady of Duality) created itself. This first god was good and bad, male and female, and gave birth to four other gods. Gnosticism in very early Christianity has a slightly different dualism applied in their creation story, with Demiurge the lesser god being the creator of the material world inhabited by us humans, and a disinterested Supreme Being being the ultimate god. Scholars have also drawn parallels between Gnosticism and Buddhism, which also has inherent dualities.

The above examples from around the ancient world are cultural and religious, tales told to children, but also studied by theologians and preached by priests. And they have also inspired modern mythologies…

Modern times (…and spoiler alerts!)

In 1977, George Lucas introduced the world to his immensely popular ‘Star Wars’ series. On the face of it a sci-fi story, from a certain point of view it can be considered as ‘modern mythology’. Once again we see duality – good, represented by Luke Skywalker, and bad, represented by Darth Vader. The story of the first movie ‘Star Wars’ (Episode IV: A New Hope) is simple and uplifting, with good triumphing over bad, a childish fable. I was 7 when I saw it and loved it. Then things got satisfyingly complicated in the next movie, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (Episode V). I saw this sequel when I was 11, and was like “WTF – he’s Luke’s father???”. OK, I didn’t really use the “F”-word back then, but you know what I mean.

The Star Wars series also has the persistent underlying conflict between the two sides of ‘the force’, the ‘light’ side (Ashla) and the ‘dark’ side (Bogan). Other movies in the series have brought out good aspects of Darth Vader (he does kill the evil Emperor in ‘Return of The Jedi’), as also some darker elements in Luke’s character.  Yin-yang, anyone?

Another modern example is Wachowski brothers’ (now sisters) Matrix trilogy – Neo (good) and Mr. Smith (bad), but both necessary. At the end of the 3rd movie, they fight and they both die. Furthermore, in a possible reference to ancient mythologies, the series also contains ‘cycles of creation/destruction’, as is said to have happened (6 times to be precise) to Zion, the last human city.

“Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice…”

– “Fire and Ice”, Robert Frost (1874-1963), American poet

George R R Martin wrote “A Song of Ice and Fire”, which spawned the epic TV series “Game of Thrones”. Robert Frost’s poem and GOT both take inspiration from the Norse legend of Ragnarok, in which fire (GOT: dragons) and ice (GOT: white walkers) destroy the world (or try their very best at least).

The need for dualities

All major human myths and mythologies contain dualisms. What deep, subconscious human need are they trying to address? And more importantly, why?

Humans, as sentient beings, implicitly differentiate ourselves from our surroundings. A subject is an observer and an object is a thing observed – philosophers and psychologists call this the “subject/object split“. But we also know that initially a baby is not aware of any distinction between herself and the external world. Soon she starts becoming aware of a distinction and then begins differentiating between a “me” and a “not-me“. This is when the concept of duality is introduced into the mind of a child.

Later in childhood this dualism is reinforced by a moralistic view of everything that happens. We are invariably taught to classify everything that we see, or that happens to us and around us, into good or bad, right or wrong. Sri Aurobindo (Indian philosopher and yogi) described this human ‘invention’ in “The Life Divine” (1939) (a long paragraph, but do read it carefully):

“The duality begins with conscious life and emerges fully with the development of mind in life; the vital mind, the mind of desire and sensation, is the creator of the sense of evil and of the fact of evil. Moreover, in animal life, the fact of evil is there, the evil of suffering and the sense of suffering, the evil of violence and cruelty and strife and deception, but the sense of moral evil is absent; in animal life there is no duality of sin or virtue, all action is neutral and permissible for the preservation of life and its maintenance and for the satisfaction of the life-instincts. The sensational values of good and evil are inherent in the form of pain and pleasure, vital satisfaction and vital frustration, but the mental idea, the moral response of the mind to these values are a creation of the human being.”

[All emphases above, bold and italics, are mine. You should also go back and read the bold, italicized parts in sequence]

If you consider psychology, philosophy and moral perspectives to be soft and fuzzy stuff, consider hard science which has held center-stage in human affairs since the Industrial Revolution (1760~1840). Inherent in the “scientific method” is the distinction between the “observer” and the “observed”, between the scientist and the events that she is observing and analyzing. Modern cosmology also moved from a “Steady-State” (the name says it all) model of the universe to a “Big-Bang / Big-Crunch” model, which indicates a creation/destruction duality.

We already spoke of religions, imbibed usually through instruction and imitation by children in their formative years. These also reinforce the concept of dualities in our formative, impressionable years, and condition our way of thinking, our way of looking at the world.

Once the seed of the “me”/”not me” duality is planted in the mind of the human child, there is no escape – everyday dualities abound around her, in religions, moral judgements, fairy tales, movies, science! All this results in some really serious conditioning. As we grow older, this conditioning makes us see and measure everything around us against this “duality” measure – is this hot or cold? Is this mine or yours? Is she strong or weak? Until we come to….

The End?

As we had a beginning, so we must have an end…such is the nature of duality. Or is it?

As I researched this essay, very often I came across phrases like “the subject/object illusion“, “our conditioned, dualistic thinking” and “duality has no reality of its own”. Is it that we human use/need dualities to classify, to categorize, to organize our view of the world, so we can make sense of it? Is this a ‘necessity’ of human perception, without any real foundation or basis?

“Abide not with dualism, Carefully avoid pursuing it;

As soon as you have right and wrong, Confusion ensues, and Mind is lost.”

– Sȇng-Ts’an (d. 606), Chinese philosopher, Third Patriarch of Zen

Is the world really comprised of dualities, as we imbibe from childhood? Or is there something deeper below this human perception of dualities? This question has been asked for centuries, and inevitably leads us to…


Duality is always secretly unity. 

– Alan Watts (1915-1973), British-American philosopher

To be slightly more elaborate:

Perhaps the most concise summary of enlightenment would be: transcending dualism. … Dualism is the conceptual division of the world into categories … human perception is by nature a dualistic phenomenon—which makes the quest for enlightenment an uphill struggle, to say the least.

Douglas Hofstadter, “Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid” (1979)

Hinduism (“Brahman“), Buddhism (“Nirvana“), ancient China (“Tao“), all speak about an  essential union of the individual and the ‘universe’. Islam has the unitarian belief of “Tawhid“, the oneness of God. Even the wise old Greeks, whose thoughts are the foundation of  Western philosophy, had the concept of “Henosis“, a mystical union with what is fundamental in reality. Modern thinkers (Alan Watts), spiritualists (Eckhart Tolle) and mystics (Osho), to name a few, have also spoken at length about this union.

There IS something deeper – when the outer layers are peeled away, religions and philosophies all preach a “oneness” with the universe – an enviable state of affairs that each one of us should attempt to attain……but without aspiring for it. This is the elusive Unity. Seekers and mystics strive for years and decades to attain this, through isolation, austerity and meditation – one version of the “uphill struggle” in the quote above. Even science, ever so certain of the duality of observer and observed, was shaken to its core when quantum physics introduced Schrodinger’s cat, famously dead/alive, its fate inevitably intertwined with, and dependent upon, the act of being observed. Observer & observed, a Unity.

There is indeed truth in the ancient (really ancient!) Hindu Sanskrit saying…

“Tat tvam asi” (Sanskrit)

– One of the ‘Grand Pronouncements’, Chandogya Upanishad, Sama Veda of Hinduism

“Thou art that” or “You’re it”

– English translations

The Self, in its original, pure, primordial state, is wholly identical with the Ultimate Reality that is the origin of all phenomena.

– Interpretation, from Wikipedia

This essay asks some questions and provides (hopefully!) some answers. Some perspectives and opinions too. But there are no judgements. It is for each one of to define our own unique perspective of reality. And, as far as I’m concerned, this subject is a singular one!

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