Tantra, race and feminism
by Vinay Gupta • January 1, 2012 • Everything Else • 8 Comments
People have no fucking clue what Hinduism is.
The monotheisms – the paths which admit a single truth – are four major and many minor. The four major are Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. Buddhism is not often discussed as a monotheism, and in many variations it is not, but the notion of a single teacher who can save the student from infinite suffering should be familiar to anybody who has contact with Christianity or Buddhism: it’s the same narrative structure. The recitation of lineage back to the first teacher, the Buddha, is akin to Apostolic succession.
Now, let us consider Hinduism. I’ve written about it at length elsewhere from a philosophical level, but now let’s address the folk religion level. Here’s the deal:
- Every being is exactly equally god: 100%, total divinity, right down to ants and trees. No exceptions.
- The universe we experience is an elaborate improvised theater piece being performed by God for its own amusement.
- Enlightenment is the direct verification of these perspectives for oneself, and is often massively, stunningly direct insight of a permanently life-changing kind.
I am enlightened. I was enlightened in the late 1990s after more than 10 years of regular meditation, and several years of direct spiritual instruction from a tantric guru, Bhavani Ma. Bhavani was one of the people The Oracle was based on in the Matrix movies, but was not nearly so pleasantly maternal: she was a belt sander – an abrasive, meddling old yenta who claimed Lucretia Borgia as a previous incarnation and was enough of a bitch that it was believable. And yet one does not cut diamonds with paper towels. I have a hard head, and it took a monster to reform me out of ignorance and into wisdom; such is life.
I inherited a cultural model from Bhavani. That model is called tantra. Tantra is a specific mode of enlightened awareness, not a different state from other ways of being enlightened, but a different way of life and method. My particular school lived within the traditional Hindu frameworks of arranged marriage and would not normally be expected to have more than one sexual partner in a lifetime. There are exceptions, but the idea that “tantra = promiscuity” is a western fantasy. Except in rare circumstances, ancient India did not have the material base for promiscuity: disease was not treatable, pregnancy would raise socially awkward questions, and there were more than enough mouths to feed. Arthur Avalon and the lads describe the tantra of the elites, the princes, who were going to have courtesans anyway, and might as well try to get enlightened with them. It’s an utterly different thing from the quiet lives of postmen and ushers which was and is our way.
This preamble matters because I’m about to attack feminism, and one needs to be pretty well-grounded before sticking a pitchfork into such a beast. It destroyed Ivan Illich, and I’m well aware of the risk I’m taking here by speaking out. But it is time, and I am clear in my objectives and agendas.
So let us first separate Feminism from Women. Feminism is a way of seeing the world, an ideology, and it comes in perhaps 50 flavours with innumerable individual variations. Women are, well, people. This might seem obvious, but it’s important to understand that Feminism first constructs a category, Women, and then builds various systems to attempt to defend their quality of life or abstract equality in the face of an uncaring and harsh world.
The error that people make in the West when discussing Feminism comes from the fact that your culture hates women and always has, at least since it went Christian. Without this bedrock hatred of women, the discourse between Male and Female Humans is carried out in a completely different tone, and the harsh oppression which has been the core experience of women in monotheist cultures is an understandable object of political concern.
Hindus do not hate women, at least not as a deep cultural trait, although one cannot speak for all individuals. This is all the way through our theology – there are goddesses who are self-originating, without any male figure involved in their worship – absolute spiritual sovereigns. There are also goddesses who are parts of gendered pairs, a Male and Female god/dess seen as a conjugate pair, dual expressions of a single being with two aspects or fused wholes creating a binary entity – the theology of same/different in the partnered couples like Ram and Sita is nontrivial. But it must be noted with exquisite care that the female partners in such relationships are seen as being inseparably equal from the male principles. This is not Zeus and a chain of maidens, or Jesus and Mary the Whore, these are full-and-permanent partnerships between inseparably divine beings. The women are fully realized, independent entities, not adjuncts or projections of male gods. I’m not sure that anybody who was not raised with exposure to Hindu mythology can really appreciate the degree to which, as a culture, we accept and integrate female powers into our way of seeing the world.
In this context, western feminist battle lines are simply inappropriate. It’s a fight we do not have, at all. There’s no demonization to reverse.
Now, this is not to portray India as a paradise for women. No, like many poor cultures, it’s a shithole in many ways, and women have the worst of it, as they do in any poor culture. It’s a fucking mess, and it needs fixed. People are marrying for the dowry and setting brides on fire, disfiguring women who reject them with acid, and generally being beasts. All this is true, in some areas, at some times. There are castes of prostitutes where the women have been sold as virgins for as long as footsteps in the dust have been wiped away by winds. All of this is here, but it is not rooted in the hatred of women but on the exploitation of the weak. Children are hit just as hard by the grinding, awful poverty of India.
We wound up this way in no small part due to invasion and centuries of pillaging by Britain, by the way. It’s not a neutral matter or one of political disorganization. It’s damage, material, cultural and spiritual, from imperialism.
This brings me to my own training. Bhavani taught me a culture-within-a-culture, a lineage, the lineage of Goraksnath, a man who’d helped found the State of Nepal about a thousand years ago. He’s said to be an immortal yogi, an ageless helper of humanity, but that’s an aside – we have our dogmas, you have yours. I was taught a very simple model for how the relationships between men and women should be conducted, within a wider framework of many such special-case relationship frameworks, such as the ideals of relationships between Guru and Disciple, or between fathers and sons, or mothers and daughters, or friends. Hindus model things in a very different way to westerners, and I can’t really bridge those gaps now.
Between men and women, then, there are mutual obligations. In Bhavani’s teaching, there was a simple basic framework, which follows:
- Women, generally speaking, have little or nothing to gain from being personally involved in physical violence. (unlike men, who’s status is often raised by winning or even bravely losing fights) She would paraphrase a long discourse on this truth as “women lose any fight they get into,” meaning win-or-lose there’s unacceptable risk and consequences, generally speaking. This matters a lot, psychologically.
- Women can get pregnant
- Therefore, men, who are predisposed to violence and can gain from it, will serve women by protecting them as needed in order that the greater risks and burdens borne by women can be offset by male service to them.
Now, this is a really simple retelling of a way of life which took me many years, so try not to argue with my words or phrasing. Argue with the ideas, not stray words. The crux of it is that men are obligated to women (and vise versa) and, in Indian culture, this is seen as being a condition of incarnation: a woman brought you into the world, and you will serve them according to the needs of the times, to ensure that women live as well as men. This is another core concept: the goal of a tantric lineage, a tantric society, is to make a place which suits women well enough that if great spirits have the freedom to incarnate as either gender, as they are said to, they choose to manifest about 50%/50% male and female. Our model of equality is very simple: it’s the idea that one is completely comfortable incarnating male or female because quality of life is much the same regardless of gender at birth. In fact, this same principle of equality is at the root of all tantra – it’s just the art of seeing people as they really are, and reacting appropriately. The radical spiritual equality of all beings is affirmed by our mutual obligations to take care of one another. Women and men are one of many special cases: the young and the old is another carefully thought-out model for mutual support inside Hindu society. Quality of life should be shared roughly equally among all, that’s our goal state.
Now, from that basis, the Western Feminist models about putting women in the cockpits of fighter jets etc. as female liberation seem kind of twee. If you want to do the stuff that men do, please feel free, but if you want to do the stuff that women traditionally do, please feel free too. Radical equality of all beings is the root of our religious tradition, and always will be. If your body is soft and prone to bear children, if that’s something you’re deeply attracted to do, there should be a social support network to make the experience as pleasant as it can be. If your body is hard, and your instincts aggressive and savage, if you are well suited for war, may your opponents have honor, bravery, and thin skulls. The fundamental tantric logic of radical spiritual equality does not dismiss the variations in our physical bodies or minds as irrelevant, nor does it understand a person’s worth as being tied to their body in any way: they are god, whether a dwarf, a giant or a bullfrog. But the bodies do come in two stock types and generally speaking the psychological drives fit well into the bodies chosen: the hetronormative breeder ideal is actually understood to be a pretty good show for all concerned when its going well, and therefore its privileged because it works, and, if it doesn’t work for you because you’re barren, queer or too ugly, it’s the job of the community and the guru to make you as happy as you can be in whatever role you have chosen instead. This is a rule more honored in the breach in wider hindu society, but we know exactly what we are doing in the tantric subcultures, and that is to be applauded and respected, rather than being denigrated because it does not fit into Western Feminism’s templates. Quality of life is shared equally between all parties, and that is our equality.
I do not expect to be understood, only to demonstrate that I know what I am doing. You may read this as you will, but I hope it’s the final word on the misunderstanding that Hinduism hates women. It doesn’t. Our ways are not your ways, but we’ve got a pretty good thing going on, better (to my eye) than you do, for both men and women, for young and old, for women and children, when we’re not being beaten down, starved, oppressed and massacred for the economic gain of European empires.
In your culture, Woman is the origin of all Sin, and it’s bred into your bones, into the structure of your language, into your ways of seeing. That does need to be corrected, and I respect whoever is doing that work, but for god’s sake, stop acting as if my culture is as sick as yours is.
Vinay – this an extraordinarily insightful piece.
“Every being is exactly equally god: 100%, total divinity, right down to ants and trees. No exceptions”. Great. But we don’t act in accord with this do we? Enlightenment to me means acting in accord with creation at a deep level. Being enlightened means we are incapable of putting a foot wrong. I might consider the possibility of this but, realistically, I know that enlightenment, at least in today’s world, is probably unachievable for anyone but the most exceptional being. In fact I’m not at all sure anyone has experienced enlightenment in the past few generations. We would know about it if they had. I respect your claim to be enlightened but I guess we are talking about different meanings of this word?
Hey Nick! Thank you, and yes, that’s a totally different model of enlightenment.
As my guru used to say “Perfect teacher? Perfect hair? Perfect teeth? Perfect nails? Perfect what?”
Because the price of radical spiritual equality is understanding that just because you know what’s going on doesn’t mean you’re any more able to do anything about it, or better than people who don’t know what’s going on.
The mythology of enlightenment is a lot more impressive than the real thing. You get out into the world and even your Ammachis and Gandhis hit their heads on the fact that ordinary people make up their own minds, we can’t change them, we can’t boss them about, and we can’t lord it over them.
They’re just like us, but with a different perspective. Equally god, equally stubborn, and therefore we are *limited* *by* *their* *divinity*.
“You can’t change the mind of a four year old” was another of her sayings. Neither can god 🙂
Do you see how we look at this?
Fascinating but disturbing. To speak of Hindusim as being simply what you describe above is a gross generalisation. Hinduism is many things – not just what you present – and I think that’s something you need to grapple with. Not sure why there’s so much anger here – but clearly you need to vent it. Sad really, from someone whose thoughts usually strike me as so progressive.
Preying on the weak is certainly popular in many cultures and yes women are often the brunt of this (as are people from lower caste and tribal groups) – thought not always. But if you think that weakness is merely physical and not socially constructed – then maybe this is where our conversation must drop dead. I have spent several years living in a village in India with regular people from all castes, age-groups, genders, religious belongings and classes – so I’m not just spouting random shit for the sake of it. Many of them – both women and men (and not all Hindus) – have been hugely inspiring to me – often because of their confidence and ability to step out of the mold to change things in their communities for the better. This has included, at times, challenging their belief systems and social roles where this was obstructive (and its not just gender, but also class, caste, age and politics that play into the mix of power relations)
I fully appreciate the negative impact of the historical colonial legacy of the British (and others no doubt) and the damage to social and economic relations it wreaked on the sub-continent. But at the same time, I think it is foolish to hark back to some historical time of untainted Hindu purity. Given this, there is a singificant swathe of what goes by the name of Hinduism that is defined by a profoundly patriarchal structure and it is not uncommon for many (particularly women) to find themselves forced and coerced into situations against their will (you list some examples of the violence that women can face – and it is not so uncommon). Such teachings are often propounded by self-proclaimed Hindus (including religious leaders) and the rising surge of middle-class, right-wing Hindu nationalism in India today stands testimony to this.
Do not think that this is an attempt to put any praise on ‘Western culture’ as an alternative – we have our shit – in fact, I happen to think we are rotten at the very core – a corrupt, capitalist engine of global destruction and exploitation dressed up in progressive mumbo-jumbo. But at the same time, this need to return to some kind of original or pure Hinduism in order to lash out at feminists (in general)for their cultural insensitivity is not up to the mark. Sorry. What about anti-colonial, black, indigenous feminists (there are many!) – do they fit into your same category and will you preach your version of Hindusism to them too?
If you think this is an attack on Feminism, I believe you’ve misunderstood Feminism as much as Westerners misunderstand tantra. I suppose there are people calling themselves- or being called- Feminists who fit the ‘women in the cockpits of fighter jet’ model- but none, I would submit, who have either deeply studied or been born into the tradition. People who follow this model are simply reacting to what you rightly observe is a deeply misogynistic strain in Western society.
The tradition I come from, by contrast, is far older than the term ‘Feminism’- which grew out of the Abolition and Women’s Suffrage movements. It is far older than the Quaker tradition from which most of the early Abolitionists and Feminists came. It comes from the ‘Danelaw’ area of England which followed Scandinavian traditions of an egalitarian society in which women held a place of no less esteem than men and leaders were freely chosen by their followers. In its Scandinavian roots it probably predates Christian misogyny- and never seems to have been much affected by it.
An important part of this tradition is a deep sense of partnership and complementarity in marriage. When an Indian woman at an International Association for Feminist Economics meeting described the relationship ideals her culture strives for I thought it sounded just like the relationship my parents- a few years short of their 70th anniversary- have always had.
There are, as I’ve said, many different traditions in Feminism, but the basic purpose we all share is to remind men that they are not alone on this planet, that the decisions they take for themselves, however reasonable and just, may have a very different impact on women and children, to point out and rectify the cases in which we are not being counted or considered and to give voice to our own unique spiritual, intellectual, emotional and life experiences.
Right! *rolls sleeves up*
Not all that interested in the main course, actually. The ongoing domestic twitter dispute to which this piece alludes strikes me as entirely lacking in substance. The idea that, at a political level, law should aim towards abstract gender-neutrality does not, IMO, significantly conflict with the idea that, at a social & cultural level, people might want to organise themselves in a way that reflects and responds to the different behavioural trend-lines of the various genders.
But I thought I might weigh in on Cultures, because we are in danger of failing to compare like with like here.
First: Most cultures will have some deep lineage of higher-grade philosophy/lifeway, which will be to some degree divergent from the practices of the culture at large: Chinese culture in general is surprisingly divergent from Daoism; Hindu culture, as you partially acknowledge, is not as precision-crafted as an intact Tantric lineage; even the extreme-patriarchal Levantine civilisations, which tested the cultural subjugation of women to the absolute limit and turned a fertile swathe of land across the Middle East and North Africa into a barren desert, carried esoteric component traditions that possessed completely converse views on the correct attitude towards women and nature.
It is also safe to assume that Cultures generally diverge further with age from any seed of positive spiritual/shamanic/integrated vision they may have had. In addition, other Cultural influences will be overlaid, potentially pushing the values and practices of the exoteric Culture yet further away from the original vision.
In the case of the Indian Culture (which is not quite the same as ‘Hinduism’), we have a Dravidian/Harrapan Cultural base (possibly one or two previous Civilisations having lived their course in the South &/or the Indus valley) with a West-Asian Aryan overlay, followed by a thousand years of Mughal (i.e. Arabian) influence, largely limited to the North-West of the subcontinent but distributing influence through the networks of royal power.
By the time the British arrived, there was already a miasma of competing value-systems and cultural perspectives, and yes, it is surprising how well certain functional social models had survived, but it was basically a mess. The British certainly did their share of damage (installing a puritanical anti-sex culture, plus the usual inherited psychic trauma from violence and social disruption), but they also did things like trying to ban the practice of enforced suttee, which suggests to me that the Indian culture had already diverged somewhat from any genuine commitment to protecting womens’ quality of life it might have had in the past (unless you wish, at this stage, to play a pseudo-spiritual “it’s really good for them, it helps them reincarnate as men” card, which I suspect you do not).
The West-European Culture has a similar complexity: a pagan base with a Judeo-Christian overlay (mutated through a thousand years of Roman and post-Roman experience), an inheritance of Classical philosophy and jurisprudence (inherited via the Islamic civlisation), and a few recent centuries of deciding the whole mess was too much trouble to be going on with and maybe it would be better to drop the religion thing altogether.
What’s most notable about the way in which Christianity changed when it was adopted by the West-European Culture is the profound transformation of the status of the feminine: the figure of Mary goes from narrative bit-part to primary Goddess of the Church (we see remnants of this in modern Catholicism, but her centrality to Mediaeval thought is largely unknown now); the primary festival of the Resurrection is renamed after the pagan fertility Goddess Eostre; female mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen are given possess respect, power and influence. (to be fair, this is only a divergence from the Civilisation-Christianity of the Romans, not necessarily of the original Christian practices of the pre-60AD Church).
The overall picture appears to be this: the West-European Culture has patriarchal Levantine Civilisation-tech overlaid on an essentially matriarchal deep-culture. As the Culture became more patriarchal/hierarchical with time, the reified image of the woman was thus necessarily refigured towards ‘the angel in the home’ of Victorian times; delicate, spiritual, unworldly. This was a move seemingly unique to the W-EC; other cultures, when diminishing female power, have emphasised the woman as lustful, earthy, unenlightened; as materia, as hylic residue. The Mary-figure is split into the Madonna/Whore binary when the patriarchal logic of the aging culture can no longer withstand the existence of a powerful female icon.
To say that “your culture hates women and always has,” is to ignore the continued existence of these deeper layers of culture and experience. Even the proviso “at least since it went Christian” downplays the extent to which the Judeo-Christian inheritance was re-modelled to fit the deep cultural topology.
And this is before we even get onto possible physiological differences of peoples. Certainly, the suggestion that womens’ bodies are naturally “soft” is truer for certain racial subgroups than for others, and we might expect the psychological differences to follow the general energetic pattern – many Nordic women of my acquiantance, for example, are feminine, but also hard-bodied, and skilled warriors. Tales of powerful female warriors abound in Celtic literature – take the mythic figure Scathach, who taught martial arts to the Culture-hero Cuchulain; or consider how Boudica and her daughters terrorized the troops of the Roman Empire and burnt Londinuium to the ground; an anonymous Roman observed that “A whole troop of foreigners would not withstand a single Celt if he called his wife to his assistance. She is stronger than he by far and with flashing eyes; least of all when she swells her neck and gnashes her teeth, and poising her huge white arms, begins to rain blows mingled with kicks, like shots discharged by the twisted cords of a catapult. The voices of these women are formidable and threatening, even when they’re being friendly.” Another said: “A Celtic woman is often the equal of any Roman man in hand-to-hand combat. She is as beautiful as she is strong. Her body is comely but fierce. The physiques of our Roman women pale in comparison.”
In sum, I do not disagree that the Judeo-Christian overlay led to some deeply embedded anti-woman attitudes in the West-European Culture; but I do not agree that it is “bred into our bones” – there are deeper layers of profoundly matriarchal paradigm to be uncovered, and – mutandis mutatis – the Hindu approach to gender relations might be as inappropriate to a liberated Western-European Culture as you claim Western Feminism is in a Hindu context. Indeed, it is possible that the ongoing erosion of the outer edifice of patriarchy in the WEC will not simply lead to open gender-neutral territory – rather, as the deeper layers achieve predominance, it will result in a phase-shift into a neo-matriarchal format; which would, no doubt, lead to a whole different set of problematic imbalances…
Hi esteemed V G, Oblique reference here.
Keep up the good work ! 😉
Odd, though, that India has a notably bad record on discrimination against women – e.g. largest gap between girls’ and boys’ health of any country in the world p70ff http://bit.ly/ACFIwI
Vinay, I am a white British woman who has been married to an Indian-born Hindu man for 6 years. We have lived together in India and the UK. He has taught me more about being a woman than western feminism ever could.