“An Entire Being”
30×40 acrylic painting by Nisha Gupta,
Inspired by essay “Silence and the Word” by Mary Anne Mohanraj (excerpt):
The desire to speak, to be naked, to be known. To be honest about desire, to be able to trust someone that much, with something that scary.
It’s the same desire that drives me to write erotic stories… and to write this essay to you. I am trapped in my separate, often confused, head. And one of my deepest desires is to first know myself, and then be known for who I am, to be loved as I am. An entire being, sexuality included.
When I first started writing erotica, when I put those words on the screen and then sent them out over the net, to hundreds or thousands of readers, it was a huge relief, an opening that let me start exploring desires that I had no other access to, desires that had been deeply buried and unspoken. I could say so much more with my fingers than I could with my throat; it gave me a freedom that I had never known — a freedom that at the same time only went as far as I could handle, that I could take in small steps and stages, so it wasn’t quite so frightening.
When I write about sex, I can control how much I expose myself… I can hide behind the relative anonymity of the pages — and that protection lets me push myself further. My characters can be as exhibitionistic as they desire… and when they are, a part of my own truth steps out into the light.
And when that trust is rewarded — every time a lover, reader, friend responds by accepting who I am (and sometimes sharing some of their own scary desires) — it’s the most intoxicating feeling I know. Like riding a rollercoaster up and up, nerves taut, the heartstopping pause at the stop, and then screaming all the way down. Every time it works (doesn’t fling me off, doesn’t crash and burn) makes me want to try again — and push a little harder, go a little faster and farther this time.
So that maybe, eventually, I can be completely naked and unafraid.
Reclaiming Wisdom – Embodying the Sensual Vulnerability of Buddha Tara
Seeking wisdom from Tara, the female Buddha
Contemporary Buddhism mainly depicts men in the role of spiritual gurus, and there is controversy over whether or not a woman can achieve enlightenment according to Buddhist doctrine. Yet in ancient South Asian practices of Vajrayana Buddhism, women were held in high esteem for their supreme wisdom as teachers and for spreading their knowledge to the masses. Female deities conveyed special spiritual wisdom about liberation. One example is the goddess Tara, who is venerated as a being of enlightenment by Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Tibet, India, Nepal, and across the Desi Diaspora. According to Vajrayana Buddhism, Tara is viewed as the female Buddha; she is “a completely enlightened being” who chose the body of a woman through which to spread enlightenment to others through her gifts of wisdom, compassion, and acceptance. In Hindu and Buddhist scriptures and art, enlightenment is symbolized by the opening of a lotus flower. Paintings of Tara commonly depict her holding a fully bloomed lotus flower in her left hand to express her state of ultimate awakening. Her right hand is depicted in the “Dana” or “Varada Mudra” position, a gesture of charity and compassion for all other beings seeking the enlightenment she has attained.
Thus Tara can be considered a feminist icon in South Asia, evoking an era in which men were taught by women gurus, and female Bodhisattvas and feminine wisdom were revered (Allione, 2016). Early etchings of Tara’s image were found in caves as early as the 5th century A.D. in Western India, when the practice of Tantra was also developing (Regmi, 1987). The first Statue of Tara dates back to 7th or 8th century AD in Sri Lanka; she took the form of a giant, gilded bronze figure who is topless and curvaceous, oozing with openness, vulnerability, and eroticism. This statue guided the contemplative practices of Sri Lankan Buddhists, who visited the temple where she stood to meditate on her sensual image (BBC, 2014). Tara reminds Desi women about our own deep knowledge and wisdom that can benefit the masses–a feminine kind of wisdom that is directly rooted in our capacity for sensuality and vulnerability.
Practicing Tantra as the path to erotic awakening
The enlightened wisdom Tara espouses is deeply rooted in her own sensuality and the sacredness of the erotic–in the practice of Tantra. Tara can be considered the goddess of Tantra, and many early Tantric Buddhist teachers in South Asia were women (Shaw, 1995). Tantra is a broad spiritual philosophy with many different strands of practice interwoven together. Tantric practices do not perpetuate a false dichotomy between body and mind, senses and spirit. Rather, they embraces the nonduality and totality of who we are—entire beings, sexuality included. As such, Tantric practitioners pursue various embodied contemplative practices–including sex–as vehicles on the path to enlightenment: “Tantric Buddhists eulogized the body as an ‘abode of bliss’ and boldly affirmed that desire, sexuality, and pleasure can be embraced on the path to enlightenment” (Shaw, 1995). The ultimate state of enlightenment for Tantric practitioners is mahamudra—an emptiness of the mind and “blissful state of clarity” (Shaw, 1995). In this state, the ego’s self-consciousness dissipates entirely and one becomes fully open to the Ultimate Reality, which is each present moment of awareness as it comes and goes.
Tantric sex is one advanced meditative practice that can help people achieve this state of enlightenment. “Erotic play” between sexual partners is praised in classical Sanskrit texts as “sexual yoga” or the “yoga of union,” a sacred sensual practice between lovers (Shaw, 1995). During sexual union, meditation entails channeling one’s energy to become fully present to each moment, recognizing the divinity of one’s lover, exploring the interconnectedness between them through synchronized breath, and experiencing bliss from the heart’s opening through the emotional intimacy of the experience (Shaw, 1995). This type of experience requires radical vulnerability as both partners shed their self-conscious egos to remain fully open and present to one another and reality. Tantric sex is practiced through various ritualized sexual positions–including the classic “Yab Yum” position, also known as the “lotus position,” through which the feminine and masculine energies of each partner (regardless of gender, and applicable to same-sex partners) can exchange and unite in romantic communion: “The symbolism is two-fold: Yab-Yum (literally “father-mother” in Tibetan) implies a mystical union of karuna and prajna within our own individual nature—the two Dharma wings that lift each of us to buddhahood; united, the two awakened beings (regardless of gender) then give birth to a romantic communion embodying the blissful, non-dual state of enlightenment” (Kachtik, 2014).
The Yab-Yum position is one of many Tantric positions that can facilitate sacred communion and enlightenment. Some scholars believe that the explicit erotic sculptures found in the ancient Khajuraho temples of 10th or 11th century India depict the various sexual positions practiced by Tantric yogis, including “orgasmic ceremonies” in the form of queer group sex (Gordon, 2006). Indeed, homosexuality was also depicted across these temples–women having lesbian sex with other women, men showing each other their genitals–which attests to the more open attitudes towards queerness in pre-colonial India, and the inclusion of queer sex as a form of sacredness. Yet these days, tourists who visit the Khajuraho temples are taken aback by the vulnerable displays of erotic freedom and openness that adorn India’s Hindu temples, which appear in direct contradiction to the puritanical sexual norms of the region (Vijayakumar, 2017).
Healing the wounds from Western colonization and patriarchy
There can be cognitive dissonance in reconciling the conservative approach to sexuality in contemporary India and Sri Lanka with our profound erotic origins. This contradiction can be explained through the story of the beautiful Sri Lankan statue of Tara. The statue currently resides in the British Museum; it was stolen from Sri Lanka in 1815 when British invaders colonized the island. Apparently, the British found the statue of Tara to be too indecent and obscene to exhibit in public. The unbridled eroticism and vulnerability of her statue, an expression of the divine feminine sensuality of Tantric Buddhism, was shameful according to British Victorian-era values. So the British locked the sacred female deity out of sight in a backroom for 30 years. Nowadays, she is exhibited in the British Museum as an exotic object to giggle at for the “white gaze” (Wanniarachchi, 2020).
The impact of British colonialism upon the Indian subcontinent has wounded the sexuality of Desi people, severing us from our indigenous eroticism. In Sri Lanka, much like in India, the values of the colonizers which once governed the people have now been internalized as moral codes with which to self-govern: “We memorized the masters’ language and started sharing their obsession with hierarchies such as heteronormativity, patriarchy, and capitalism. We now perform their binarized gender roles for them better than the masters themselves. Our militarized nationalisms treated the minorities within our communities the way our slave masters treated us. We appropriated their monogamous marital family as the primary site of surveillance of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’….The post-colonial monolithic Sri Lankan state metamorphosed itself to please the masters’ understandings of chastity, virility, domesticity, and respectability and we ‘emulate and simulate’ these ‘moral codes’ as if they are our own culture. A new post-colonial brownness was recreated to be in a perpetual struggle to achieve whiteness both physically & ontologically” (Wanniarachchi, 2020). The wounds caused by colonization not only extend to sexual norms of everyday Desi culture, but also to the erotic practice of Tantric Buddhism itself, as re-appropriated by some Western practitioners. Certain Western approaches to Tantra de-eroticize it by viewing it through a Protestant lens which splits the mind and body, the spiritual and the sensual (Shaw, 1995). Accordingly, even the explicit sexual positions found in the Khajurahu temples are interpreted as inferior temptations to be transcended on the path to asceticism, rather than sacred rituals that celebrate sexual pleasure to reach enlightenment (Vijayakumar, 2017; Gordon; 2006). This re-appropriation can be internalized by South Asian people in our misunderstandings of our own spiritual practices. De-colonizing Tantra involves letting go of self-consciousness and learning to be vulnerable around our diverse sexual desires with trusted partners, which can help us experience genuine sexual intimacy as a spiritual achievement.
Additionally, a more patriarchal sensibility has been cast onto Tantric Buddhism, severing it from its feminist roots in which Tantra was frequently taught by female Buddhist practitioners who were viewed as gurus for the path to enlightenment, and whose sensuality was not disparaged but revered (Shaw, 1995). As Desi women, healing from the wounds of patriarchy entails reclaiming the feminine wisdom of Tara and the female Bodhisattvas. This entails learning to trust the deep erotic wellspring of knowledge that resides within our own selves–a kind of feminine wisdom which knows that enlightenment is reached not only through the mind, but also through the vulnerability of the body and the heart. In reclaiming the wisdom of the erotic we can take a page from the book of Audre Lorde, who says: “When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the life-force of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.”
Essay by Nisha Gupta
This work was created while listening to “Turn Me On” by Norah Jones.
This painting and essay were inspired by the work of Sri Lankan American author Mary Anne Mohanraj, who has published numerous books relating to Sri Lankan sensuality including cookbook A Feast of Serendib, a collection of erotic short stories Bodies in Motion, and 13 other titles, as well as an essay in Roxane Gay’s Unruly Bodies. As a writer of erotic fiction, Mohanraj considers herself a sexuality activist: “I believe strongly that we need to bring healthy sexuality out of the closet and into mainstream discussion.” As part of her efforts to do so, Mohanraj founded and moderated the Internet Erotica Writers’ Workshop. She is also Clinical Associate Professor of fiction and literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago, serves as Executive Director of DesiLit (desilit.org), and founded and served as editor-in-chief of Jaggery, a South Asian literary journal (jaggerylit.com).