“Dancing with the Gods“
30×30 acrylic painting and poetic words by Nisha Gupta:
You mold me into a perpetual tingle from head to toe. Who I knew myself to be ceases to be, and I become nothing but a tingle.
I walk around this city radiating fire, day and night waiting for another hit of you.
Knowing that I need to share this with you, trusting you to take care of me, hungry for more of you. Is this what it’s like to truly fall in love? Is this what I’ve been waiting for my whole life?
I am operating in a state of ecstatic bliss at all times, dancing with the Gods. And my intellect stands no chance of winning against the Gods.
Shame doesn’t matter. Guilt doesn’t matter. Culture doesn’t matter. Expectations don’t matter. Moralism doesn’t matter. Trauma doesn’t matter. Only Pleasure. Only Desire. Only Love. Only You.
I will not stop thinking about that kiss for days, for weeks, for months. I still have not forgotten about it. I am still left hanging by it. But if desire is an addiction, I’ll happily succumb to it. If this is what it means to be a slut, I’ll pirouette across my walk of shame. Because you sprung me alive. Because I danced with the Gods. Because lightning bolts electrocute me all the time these days.
Reclaiming Desire – Rejoicing in the Primal Love of Kali and Shiva
Embracing Kama on the way to Nirvana
South Asian cultures have the reputation of being puritanical about sex, adopting conservative values that can shame Desi women’s sexuality: “Our society has always told us that talking about sex is crass. Especially when it comes from the mouth of a woman. We’re not supposed to talk about sexual pleasure as something we enjoy and crave” (Narula, 2018). Yet paradoxically, the pursuit of sexual desire is considered healthy and encouraged by Hinduism. In Hinduism, there are four goals of human life (purusharthas) on the way to Nirvana: Dharma (spiritual duty), Artha (material success), Kama (sensual pleasure), and Moksha, from which a person achieves enlightenment. Hinduism teaches that the pursuit of all four goals is encouraged, even necessary, in order to achieve enlightenment (Smith, 1991). They build off one another as if climbing up a ladder to the highest rung of spiritual evolution; each step necessary in order to proceed to the next.
Kama is the pursuit of desire, pleasure, and passionate love. Hinduism teaches that a legitimate goal on the journey of becoming spiritually enlightened is pursuing our sensual desires: “To the person who wants pleasure, India says in effect, go after it—there is nothing wrong with it; it is one of the four legitimate ends of life. The world is awash with beauty and heavy with sensual delights” (Smith, 1991). While Kama pertains to worldly pleasures of all kinds, it includes the delights of erotic love; in fact, Kamadeva is the Hindu god of love, our version of cupid who shoots the lightning bolt that ignites the passionate fire between lovers. Moreover, Hinduism is known for the ancient text Kamasutra, a guide for spiritual living that includes teachings about how to indulge in lovemaking of all kinds. The Kamasutra privileges female sexual pleasure and is inclusive of sex outside of heterosexual marriage and between same-sex lovers (Doniger, 2014; Rajan, 2014).
In decolonizing Desi women’s sexuality, it is important to reiterate that pursuing sensual pleasure is encouraged by Hinduism as a stepping stone on the path to spiritual evolution. When interpretations of Hinduism emphasize renunciation and asceticism as the path to enlightenment, some pass over the notion that according to Hinduism, in order to eventually renounce desire, we must first respect the enormous power that desire holds and understand it experientially: “Far from condemning pleasure, Hindu texts house pointers on how to enlarge its scope…it elaborates a sensual aesthetic that shocks in its explicitness. If pleasure is what you want, do not suppress the desire. Seek it intelligently” (Smith, 1991). There is nothing bad or sinful about partaking in desire. Reclaiming erotic power among Hindu women means reclaiming our religion, which invites us to dance in the flames of Kama during our journey of spiritual evolution.
Learning from Hinduism’s erotic power couple
If Desi women feel apprehensive about the open reclamation of desire, we can take a lesson from the Hindu gods, who were certainly not shy about the matter and celebrated erotic love unabashedly (Doniger, 2014). The mythology of the Hindu power couple Kali and Shiva illustrate this well. Kali is one of the most powerful Hindu deities worshipped in India and Bengal, a feminist icon for Desi women. She is depicted naked and primal, breasts out and hair disheveled, her dark skin glowing like twilight. Sensual and erotic, Kali is fearless about expressing her raw, passionate nature. Kali’s passions can be expressed benevolently—she is worshipped as the fiercely loving and protective Mother of the universe. Yet her passions are also expressed as the wrathful Destroyer of life—she is portrayed holding an axe covered with blood in one hand and the severed head of a man in another. Kali’s name means “Time” in Sanskrit. As both creator and destroyer, she is the goddess of Time itself. She kills what needs to be killed so new life can be born, reminding us of the death and rebirth process and the constantly changing cycles of nature. She also represents the raw, primal nature of all human beings—including our untamed, fiery, sexual passions (Chakravarty, 2017). In most mythological illustrations, her long tongue is protruding out of her mouth. While some conservative interpretations assume this is a symbol of shame about her primal nature, others believe Kali’s elongated tongue is a playful expression of sexual arousal (Kripal, 1998).
In Hindu mythology, Kali is often positioned as the wife of Shiva, another force to be reckoned with. Like Kali, Shiva too is a dualistic deity. In Hinduism, creation follows destruction: “all things come to a natural end so they can begin anew.” Shiva is the great Destroyer in order to create life anew. This is symbolized by his pitch-fork weapon whose three prongs express the creation, protection, and destruction of the universe, as well as the snake around his neck which symbolizes the shedding of skin for transformation and regeneration. He is also known as the Lord of Dance, holding a drum which reverberates the rhythmic flow of time. Shiva is a sexy god, but his erotic nature is dualistic (Doniger, 1981). One part of him is an ascetic yogi who meditates away on a mountaintop and transcends his sexual desires in order to “store up his seed, the source of all creation” (Olson, 2010). The other part of him is exceptionally erotic and highly sexually active, enjoying partaking in the art of seduction. This paradox also expresses Hinduism’s notion of the cycle of death and rebirth, whereby Shiva’s periods of erotic indulgence are followed by regeneration through asceticism (Doniger, 1981).
Kali brings out Shiva’s wild side. In the role of his wife, she is the match that lights his fire of desire, drawing him out of his asceticism to partake in the passion for life. This is depicted through frenzied dances that the two enjoy together, which can become so impassioned that they threaten to destroy the universe: “One such instance is told in Bhavabhuti’s Malatimadhava, where Siva and Kali are found dancing madly around Kali’s temple, with the destructive nature of the dance frightening all those present” (Olson, 2010). Likewise, Shiva calms Kali. He is not afraid of her rage or put-off by her darkness, as others are. One story depicts a bloodthirsty Kali drunk on destruction after slaying a demon, killing everyone in her path. So Shiva sweeps in and lays beneath her feet to have sex with her, which soothes Kali and prevents her from destroying the entire universe (Kingsley, 1975). As patriarchy likes to place everyone on a hierarchy, there is debate about who is the more dominant one—Kali or Shiva. While both express their power at different times in different ways, neither appears essentially dominant over the other. Instead, Shiva and Kali’s relationship epitomizes gender equality—they are equal in cosmic force, balanced by the complimentary strengths of the other, and powerless without each other. This is Hinduism’s dualistic notion of Shaktism, which describes the universe to be sustained by feminine and masculine energies as equal forces in perfect union. Indeed, Kali and Shiva seem to switch up power dynamics in different situations, while always striking the perfect balance of yin to each other’s yang. One could argue that Hindu mythology has gifted us with feminist lessons on love from the ultimate power couple.
Appreciating the sacred queerness of Hindu deities
When decolonizing the erotic in Desi culture, it is important to highlight the queerness inherent to Hinduism’s philosophy of gender and sexuality. While Hinduism uses the language of masculinity and femininity, these are considered essential energies in all beings, rather than specific to gendered people. In fact, Hinduism can be considered genderqueer in its broader attempt to transcend the fixed gender binary, whereby most Hindu gods express an “existential bisexuality” and “existential transsexuality” (Doniger, 2014). The deities often do not appear solely in fixed male or female form, but frequently split and fuse between the forms, transforming physically into the other gender. For instance, the mythology depicts both Vishnu and Shiva transforming from male to female during sexual encounters. In one story, Vishnu takes the form of the “beautiful enchantress” Mohini at Shiva’s request, while still retaining his male essence. This enflames Shiva’s sexual desire so they copulate. In one interpretation this appears as heterosexual desire; another interpretation highlights the queerness of the story (Doniger, 2014). Another story depicts Shiva having sex with his wife Parvati, during which he morphs into a female body to better please her: “Myths in which gods change their sex are often coded human bisexual fantasies. The stories about the gods have their human models and their human moments. To the extent that they are composed by humans and clearly human attitudes, we might, with caution, use them to attempt to formulate hypotheses about ancient Hindu attitudes to various sex acts” (Doniger, 2014). Indeed, sacred Hindu texts seem to approach queer expressions of gender and sexuality with a spirit of inclusiveness and openness—the opposite of the condemnation we associate with contemporary Desi attitudes of LGBTQ people.
Dismantling the sexual shame caused by White supremacy
If our sacred Hindu texts celebrate sexual desire and gender fluidity, then what happened? How do we understand the prevalence of sexual shaming that occurs to women and LGBTQ people in contemporary Desi cultures? Rather than perpetuating Westernized notions of India being “backwards” and “repressed” regarding sex, scholars and activists urge us to contextualize this cultural phenomenon through the traumatic legacy of colonialism. Pre-colonial India was much more sexually liberal, fluid, and shameless for people of all genders. Yet when the British colonized our land, they cast our people’s sexuality as barbaric and uncivilized, as they did to many Brown and Black cultures to perpetuate White supremacy: “Non-Europeans were identified as being sexually promiscuous, hedonistic and at times effeminate. The sexual fluidity that the British witnessed repulsed them, and further confirmed their racist superiority complex. This affirmation solidified the belief in the “native savage” that was so crucial in the European imagination in helping to justify colonialism” (Singh, 2018). Part of the weaponry of White supremacy involves shaming Brown and Black bodies for being too “primitive” and “animalistic” in our primal expressions of sexuality: “White culture is the most sexually oppressive and its spread to third world countries through colonisation. Indigenous cultures are very sexual but post colonisation they are especially repressive. Sexual repression was a colonizing tool to repress the colonized. They are heathens and they need to be tamed and this rhetoric justified the christianization of colonized bodies. This is why numerous third world/colonized countries continue to play into Anglo-Saxon Christian morals of chastity in order to gain respectability” (Narula, 2018). Healing from the sexual shame caused by White supremacy requires us to decolonize our own minds (and bodies), educating ourselves and other Desi people that the sexual shame embedded in our cultural norms is not actually our own, but is the shame of our British colonizers which was forcefully imposed on us. This can allow us to stop oppressing ourselves and other Brown and Black people by perpetuating racist ideologies. Healing from sexual oppression also requires us to confront our painful historical and present day context of Brahmanical patriarchy embedded in Hinduism’s caste system, which perpetuates not only casteism but colorism to uphold Aryan supremacy and restrict the intimate relationships of Desi women. Doing the difficult work of addressing these various intersecting oppressions has an alluring pay off–it can help us return to our indigenous spiritual roots of delighting in primal expressions of erotic love on the way to Nirvana–just as our gods do.
Essay by Nisha Gupta.
This work was created while listening to “Lightning & Thunder” Jhene Aiko
This painting and essay are based on the work of Dr. Nisha Gupta, an Indian American Hindu artist, psychologist, researcher and scholar. Gupta identifies as a “liberation psychologist,” which entails using the tools of psychology to facilitate healing and empowerment in the face of sociopolitical oppression. Gupta’s research focuses on sexual liberation at the intersection of ethnicity/race, gender, and religion. She disseminates her research findings as art, such as DESI EROS which is a series of surrealist folk paintings about the lived experience of reclaiming erotic power among women from the South Asian diaspora. In 2018 she directed and produced the award-winning short film illuminate, about the lived experience of being in the LGBTQ closet. Gupta is based in Atlanta, GA and works as an assistant professor of psychology at the University of West Georgia, where she teaches courses in liberation psychology, creativity, and phenomenological research.