As a child in south India, I saw a man douse himself with kerosene, set himself on fire and walk past the gate of our home. I still don’t know why he did what he did; servants were buzzing about it for weeks afterward, but I could not bear to hear the details. What could be so terrible that a man would set his own body ablaze? That Burning Man never left my consciousness, for he had staggered past our home defiantly and I don’t recall hearing him scream.
Pain comes in a range of gross and subtle flavors. Some are cursed with having to endure physical pain. My own suffering has mostly been emotional; to escape from the sometimes relentless inner torment of my earlier days, I confess I would do almost anything. Unfortunately, no sage manifested to warn me that no one succeeds in escaping suffering; like an ominous shadow, the pain demon haunts you, growing obese as it squeezes all the joy out of existence. The only remedy is to turn around and confront the bully head-on—and keep watching until it slinks away in shame.
Today I have come to accept that all fear is essentially an illusion. In fact, folks in the Twelve Step program have an acronym for fear–False Evidence Appearing Real. And indeed, that is what our fears are—insubstantial and petty tyrants who drain us of the one thing they do not have: prana, or vital energy. While my threshold for pain continues to be abysmally low, I now have a variety of constructive tools to dissolve it—mainly, yoga, meditation and the wisdom of the ancients. The Wild God continues to whip me, because I have set my personal goal high. The difference is that now I know why I, and all beings, must suffer—before gold can shine, it must go through trials by fire.
Another reason I wrote Whip was to deal with a subject more or less taboo in my community of origin: sex. I grew up with a mother who flushed at the mere mention of the “s” word and talk of bodily functions evoked in her an intense discomfort. Her father had died when she was five, and she’d been brought up by her mother, a young widow who, by our custom, was neither allowed to remarry, nor work outside of home. While my little mother was given the best of material things, she lacked a close bond with her own grieving mother. So she reached out to the nuns at her school who warned her that men in general spelled trouble. Beautiful and melancholy, she was forcibly married off as a teenager and proceeded to bear many children. She did an astounding job of nurturing us, but I could always see the bewildered little girl whose life had drastically changed the day she lost her father.
One result of never being properly mothered herself was that my mother did not know how to deal with her growing daughters; we were forbidden to speak of natural things, and censored in almost every way. One day at school a friend mentioned to me that she’d asked her Oxford-educated mother how babies were made. Her mother had casually picked up a sketch pad, sketched the male and female organs, and explained the nature of conception and birth to her nine-year old daughter. Listening, I had grown rigid with envy; my mother’s prudishness, I felt sure, had installed shame and embarrassment in all her children about this most natural of functions.
I wrote Whip to remedy this great flaw in my own psyche—and hopefully to shed some light on the blocks and neuroses of others. As I continued to research Tantric and eastern philosophy in general, I began to appreciate its exalted teachings on sacred union. How wrong the world has gone in cheapening this most important root energy! However, yogis, shamans and other seekers appear to have redressed the balance, for at least they acknowledge sexual energy as critical to spiritual growth, whether one is celibate or not. And while Tantra is still often regarded as a hedonistic practice, the truth is that many celebrated Tantrics (such as the Dalai Lama) are highly disciplined, ethical, and celibate.
Sadly enough, in India, where energy teachings once flourished—I speak of Kundalini, or the serpent fire, which sages claim lies coiled three-and-a-half times at the base of the human spine—investigating primal energy as a tool for spiritual transformation is still not something one can speak frankly about. Tantra urges man and woman to view each other as divine and equal; by fusing their energies, they experience godhead. Where, I ask you, is the sin in this?
I am not talking about the tawdry manner in which sex is extolled, say, in Bollywood; nor the plethora of dirty jokes “sophisticated” Indian men and women bandy about; nor do I speak of the millions of modern Indians who, forced into unfulfilling arranged marriages, seek external consolation. I address instead the honor and respect one can give to one’s own true nature. In the ancient teachings, it is said that when Shiva set his seal on the world, he cleaved it into male and female; so when male and female re-unite in the most sacred of ways, they re-experience the state of Shiva, which is sat-chit-ananda, absolute existence-consciousness and bliss, or organic cosmic wholeness.
To my critical eye, both Indian men and women—from the illiterate poor to the wealthy western-educated lot—have long lost their connection to this sacred wisdom. As a result, the balance between the sexes has gone radically awry and old female stereotypes of the sainted virgin versus the painted whore with nothing in-between persists. In general, there appears to be little room for pure friendship and respect between the sexes, the kind that can grow into a healthy, harmonious, symbiotic relationship. Perhaps this stream of consciousness ramble might explain why I nurtured Whip through many incarnations and personal ups and downs for close to twenty years. In the end, after going through hell and back, my protagonist finally awakens her own indwelling divinity; and that is what we all must do, at some point or the other in our infinite lives—for it is our birthright and our dharma. (To be continued in the next post).
Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a hill of fire and light, who vows to help us clear up the wreckage of our relative lives, so we can rest in the peace and bliss of our immortal Self!