In the Manhattan winter of 1992, I dreamed about writing an epic set in a mythical civilization ruled by Rudra-Siva, the great god of paradox, and infused with the beauty of Tantra. Somehow, I intuited that the Wild God himself would spark my dream into roaring life; believe it or not, this is what happened twenty years later, under the shadow of Arunachala, the hill considered by millions to be the form taken by Shiva in order to help seekers dissolve back into the immortal and blissful Self.
While researching this novel, I came upon an ancient saying in the Tantras that goes something like this: When Shiva set his seal upon this world, he cleaved it into male and female; when male and female come together in sacred union, Shiva blesses them with the bliss of Oneness. Whether depicted as Ardhaniswara (half-man, half-woman), or in his contrasting roles of ascetic and hedonist, I knew this union referred to more than the conventional man-woman nexus. Shiva’s point is clear: in order to be whole, male and female must unite, and this can take place either in a celibate who seeks to unite these polarities in his or her own being, or in the matrix created by a spiritual couple.
As an Indian woman born into a multi-tiered society, I began to mull over why all male-dominated cultures had turned into raging gender battlefields. Since each of us is bound to have a unique take on the often subterranean gender wars that have ruined the fabric of our existence, I can speak only for myself and the way I learned to “see.” My home was dysfunctional, as most homes over the planet are, whether on the surface or deep in the bowels of core relationships; the tacit understanding that men ruled the roost permeated our domestic atmosphere. A brilliant and charismatic man who enthralled our guests with his easy raconteuring, his rage could incinerate, while his scathing tongue could eviscerate. Despite his liberal attitude towards educating all his children, my father was the undisputed patriarch and none of us, least of all my dutiful mother, dared challenge him.
Our society was studded with double-standards that applied to every aspect of our lives, and yet most women seemed to have accepted their lot. Some were born docile and did not rebel against playing second, third or nth fiddle; others were born under a lucky star—their men were sympathetic and pliable and life was good; still others toed the line because they had no option: since they were not encouraged to fend for themselves, existence could be pure hell if they incurred male ire.
The Indian patriarchy, like all virulent cancers, has a gazillion ways of perpetuating itself. One major trap: every married woman is urged to have children as soon as possible. The pressure is so enormous that many sink into depression when this does not happen. (Read: May You Be The Mother Of A Hundred Sons, by Elisabeth Bumiller). And once children come, so does slavery; burdened by hungry mouths to feed, at the mercy of menfolk who hold firmly on to the family purse-strings, women have even less time to challenge the patriarchy. And God forbid a wife should dare to complain about an abusive husband! If you are one such, you risk being called a “shrew”, a bitch, or even a “ghodi” (horse, a fast and therefore bad woman) or even ostracized.
While my father wanted his children to become doctors and diplomats, he firmly believed in the institution of arranged marriage. This was ahated prospect that hung over my mutinous head like a sword of Damocles, and I’d grumble to my mother that there was little point in educating us if we were going to be shoved into marriage and forced to have one kid after another. “How can you decide who I should live with, sleep with, cook for the rest of my life?” “Be a good girl,” she’d warn. “If you’re lucky, your husband will let you do what you want. Love comes after, not before marriage.” The word “good” was thrown at us so often that I cringed to hear it. What about being an original, excellent, humane, exciting, creative, and liberal human being? As for bad girls, they were warned that the entire family would suffer on their account—after all, which decent family would permit their children to marry into a family that harbored a single bad seed? And so emotional blackmail was thrown into the simmering witches’ cauldron of double standards. (To be continued in the next post).
Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a hill of fire and light, who destroys all that blocks us from knowing we are the immortal and blissful Self!