When I was in my late teens and living in communist Poland, I would observe my girlfriends offering their virginity to their boyfriends on their 18th birthdays, then marching to the altar about three months later because, of course, they had fallen pregnant. Although in those days nearly everyone considered this a normal course of events, for me it was the definition of a nightmare. The idea of being stuck early in life in marriage and motherhood and, even worse, stuck behind the iron curtain was, in my mind, worse than death itself. I promised myself I would not touch a man until I was out of Poland. You see, I was dreaming of exotic adventures. I dreamed of being a traveller, dreamed of getting degrees from foreign universities and, most of all, dreamed about being a writer. In those days, I imagined myself as more a female version of Ernest Hemingway or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Or eventually some kind of combination of Colette, Marguerite Duras and Simone de Beauvoir. It was a bit vague. But what was definitely clear was that I needed to get out. So, while I was watching my girlfriends lose their virginity and marry their first boyfriends, I was dreaming about going to Paris, and from there to other exotic lands. I dreamed about being a writer—far, far away from where I was born.
That does not mean I was not interested in men or matters of Eros. I played with Eros in my imagination. For example, I wondered at some stage what it would be like to be with a tall, handsome Viking. Eros, being a playful being, in turn likes being played with, even if only (or perhaps especially, as I soon learned) in the imagination. So, because I was imagining this, I managed to scare off any potential local boyfriends with my faux intellectual superiority, which intimidated them. Actually, I did meet a Swedish businessman who, out of the blue, showed up in my hometown and I, knowing nothing about sensual seduction, played with his imagination instead. It was the time of Elton John’s song Nikita—and I was not that different from her: a blonde, dreamy girl walking among Eastern European tanks during a time of martial law. The seduction of this foreign imaginale worked well enough for him to jump through the hoops of the communist bureaucratic nightmare to invite me to Sweden, based on nothing more than the short, platonic encounter we shared in my hometown. The affair did not last, as the reality of living in a Swedish suburb did not, of course, match the encounter with the Viking of my erotic imaginings.
This would have been a sad end to my dream if not for the good fortune that allowed me to escape the communist greyness again, this time to Paris, at a girlfriend’s invitation. I left Poland with nothing but a borrowed suitcase and ten American dollars. Once in Paris, I recovered from that ill-fated Swedish affair quickly. My erotic imagination quickly moved from the Viking archetype to a French libertine archetype, as I started to date Frenchmen. And as I started to spend time with them, I noticed that I was equally attracted to many of them and could not decide which one of them I was in love with. But this is perfectly natural when you are 21 and in Paris.
And this brings me to the very potent and delicate topic of Eros. Eros is as different from sexuality as eroticism is from sex, as Eva Pierrakos tells us in her book, The Pathwork of Self-Transformation.
The French know this well and for that reason they prefer to refer to the beautiful attraction that it is the play of Eros as erotique, rather than sexual. Sexual force without the erotic element, Pierrakos says, is very ‘animalistic’, enjoyable only for a period of time and ultimately ‘utterly selfish’ and meaningless spiritually. Eros, on the other hand, which lives mostly in our imaginations, manifests as a desire to know and experience the other. It can manifest as a strong attraction but this is a different level of attraction. While sexual attraction can create an intense yet temporary ‘chemistry’ between two people, erotic attraction is more focused on a powerful desire to connect with the other, to truly and completely know them. This knowing includes sexual union but goes beyond it. Eros, or erotic connection (rather than chemistry), wants to create a bridge between our being and the being of the other on whom our erotic desire is fixed.
Let me give you an example. In an instance of pure sexual attraction, you may experience great sexual pleasure but have no desire to truly know a person. Often, you may experience the strange feeling that despite the great sex you have very little to say to each other. In this respect, even great sex without a deeper connection is largely meaningless and leaves us empty, if physically satisfied.
Erotic desire is more fulfilling because of that presence of a deeper connection. For the same reason, our sexual experiences when Eros is present are also much deeper and more satisfying. We feel that not only do we know the other person better but also that we have somehow got to know ourselves better in the process. This leaves us mysteriously connected and bedazzled by the experience because it allows us to touch our souls and feel a deep, if fleeting, connection with another person. This is a gift that should not be rejected. Pierrakos calls this ‘the quest for the other soul’, as the sexual encounter in this case is merely a conduit to the experience of a profound connection and knowing of the soul of another. You may not know anything about the mundane aspects of this other person’s life but you get to know them at a much deeper level, at a level people who have known that person for years may never know. This is the power of Eros.
Yet, even Eros, as we well know, wears itself out. Eros loves to be playful. Eros loves to be beautiful at all times. Eros loves the new. Eros becomes bored if it is not constantly curious about the other. Eros moves on.
All the greatest romances of this world are based on Eros and die because of Eros. This is why, Pierrakos says, romantic love is only the final point for those who refuse to evolve spiritually and move beyond it. It is true, I must admit, that without knowing the possibility of something higher, romantic love seems like the best of all possible deals, because what usually comes after it is marriage—and few of us know how to sustain Eros in marriage. Alternatively, like all great romances, romantic love comes to an abrupt end.
But, fortunately, this is not all we have. Apart from sexual attraction or the adventurousness of Eros, we also have Love. Love, Pierrakos tells us, is a ‘permanent state of the soul’. Now, what is this permanent state of the soul and how we can achieve it? This is the difficult part. We need to be willing to do two things: to grow spiritually (constantly work on ourselves) and, at the same time, stay open to Eros. This also means not being afraid to completely expose yourself, including your soul, including your darkness, including your ugly parts—to another.
Do you have the desire, the stamina and the courage to do this?
Let me refer you to Pierrakos again: ‘When you find the other soul and meet it, you fulfil your destiny.’
Do you dare? Are you prepared to risk all for this ‘complete mutual revelation of one soul to another?’ Because this is what it takes.
For this revelation to be possible you need to constantly grow and constantly move to a higher possibility with yourself and with your partner. This, in turn, requires facing the shadowy parts of yourself and healing them. Pierrakos teaches us that true, soulful love is not possible without this. You need to grow. You need to attain your highest possibility for both of you, and then, as the great Tantric philosopher Abhinavagupta once said in the tenth century, ‘You will walk upon this earth as gods.’
So back to my play with Eros in Paris. I learned beautiful lessons in that city and I have learned that not even Eros, without the desire for spiritual growth, can hold a relationship for long. Eros needs to be lived. Without this, life is only a set of mundane responsibilities. But Eros also needs to be entertained at the highest possible level and used to open up the highest field of divine play—your own highest possibility.
After publishing an article on Eros, I received many personal (and anonymous) confessions of erotic-spiritual experiences from my readers. Experiences through Eros of the mystical which happened outside of the mundane reality of relationships. One woman shared a beautiful story of an erotic encounter which turned out to be a peak experience for both parties and yet was removed from the experience of what is normally called ‘a relationship’. Like many mystical experiences, this one was both life-shattering and transformative, and pierced through the walls of the lovers’ perceptions. Suddenly, a new ‘door of perception’ had opened for them and a new much more beautiful, holistic and divine vision of all Creation was available to them in that moment. The lovemaking experience took them out of their bodies and was later described by the reader as a form of grace and benediction. The shattering part of the experience was also the realisation that they could not be together, as they were otherwise attached to other people. In a strange and beautiful way, several decades later they ‘met’ again, when the woman was finishing her studies to become a civil celebrant. She was asked to perform her first funeral rites over the body of a man whose body had been shipped to her location (for reasons unknown to her). The body turned out to be that of her former lover with whom she had shared the mystical experience triggered by Eros.
Another reader, male this time, recalled a mystical experience of an erotic but not sexual type when he felt the presence of a young Indian woman with long, flowing hair: first within his own being, then outside himself, breathing at his neck, her hand gently resting on his heart. He experienced a form of ‘erotic sensation’ that shook his entire being. He recognised her as Devi (‘the Goddess’ in Sanskrit) Herself who had come to him in this erotic and beautiful form. For days he walked the streets weeping with joy, aware that this extremely personal and erotic experience was also mystical in nature and had connected him to the feminine in its Divine Form, the Goddess Herself.
My own and others’ experiences have convinced me that to entertain Eros at the highest possible level, we need to know who we are at our highest possible level—and that is why we need to explore the Goddesses of Eros.
Exploring the Goddesses of Eros: Aphrodite, Radha and Sundari
Who is Aphrodite?
Aphrodite is the ancient Greek goddess of beauty, love, passion and pleasure. The stories of her birth vary, including one told in Homer’s The Illiad describing her as the daughter of Zeus and Dione (an Oceanid or an Ocean nymph). The most popular myth, however, comes from Hesiod’s (eighth-century BCE) poem The Theogony, in which he describes the origins of gods and goddesses. My preference is for Hesiod’s version, simply because it is more beautiful. Hesiod describes Aphrodite as being born from the sea foam near the island of Cyprus, where the Titan Cronus killed his father Uranus and threw his genitals into the sea. The story also mythically connects Aphrodite’s status as the goddess of beauty and erotic love by mixing sea foam with sperm. This is also the most popular image of Aphrodite in Sandro Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus. Venus was Aphrodite’s name during the Roman Empire when Rome conquered Greece and adopted its goddesses and gods. Astrologically, Aphrodite is represented by the planet Venus. She is often represented by a dolphin, rose, swan or shell.
There is a certain charm and sensuality in the stories of Aphrodite—which are an unending stream of doomed romances. That is probably why we so easily identify with her or, at least, love to adore her. She arouses us and her romantic adventures provide a background for our own failed loves and romances. For example, she was forced by Zeus to marry the ugly Hephaistos yet, at the same time, carried on sexy affairs with the handsome and manly Aries the god of war and many, many others. Thus, despite being a goddess of beauty, pleasure and love, it was not within her power to choose her own husband and she was often humiliated in her romantic adventures.
But it was not always so. I was surprised to discover that Aphrodite was just another version of an earlier goddess from Sumer known as Inanna, or of the Egyptian goddess Hathor. Like Inanna and Hathor before her, she was once also known as the goddess of war and was a force to be reckoned with.
So what happened to her?
While researching this book I found a wonderful essay by Susan Hawthorne, ‘The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite’ in Goddesses in Myth, History and Culture. In it, Hawthorne traces the original archetype of Aphrodite as the powerful goddess of love and beauty, whose power even Zeus was afraid of, but who was gradually disempowered. The stories of the all-powerful Aphrodite were, no doubt, told and written by someone else. From a position of power, she moved to one of ridicule, trapped by her own desires and in need of and begging Zeus for help! In modern terms, she became the Marilyn Monroe of Olympus: beautiful, yet disempowered and demeaned.
‘The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite’ is one of the hymns presumably written by Homer around the eighth century BCE. Hawthorne examines its 293 lines and discovers that, originally, Aphrodite was described as ‘all-powerful’. She is ‘Aphrodite the Golden’ who ‘stirs up sweet longing’ both in gods and humans, including Zeus himself, whom ‘she deceives at her pleasure’. But, at a certain point, the fates are reversed and Zeus somehow manages to make Aphrodite fall in love with a mortal man (Anchises) from Troy. She falls in love and desires Anchises so deeply that she pretends to be a mortal woman just so she can share the pleasure of lovemaking with him. As a result of this romance, the hymn tells us, her human lover gains power and status but she is disgraced as a goddess who has fallen for a mortal. The goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and desire falls victim to her own powers. Or her misused and manipulated powers. What was once her strength has now become her downfall.
In one way, we can agree with Hawthorne’s interpretation of the hymn to Aphrodite. It is no secret, and painfully obvious to any woman, that feminine sensuality and sexuality have been hijacked, along with the whole idea of the goddess. What it means to be a sensually empowered woman has been defined for us by a generation of patriarchs who have oppressed humanity for too long. And by humanity I mean both women and men. In more modern times, this idea has been defined by the media and by Hollywood in a most devious way. Then, of course, comes the fashion industry, which, again, defines women and their beauty in extremely limiting ways that damage lives and people’s self-image and which drains the joy of life away or even stymies the possibility of being a beautiful and sensually empowered woman. The entertainment and fashion industries have examples of Aphrodite-like women who have fallen from their places of power. These women, although adored for their beauty, were also ridiculed and humiliated at times. Marilyn Monroe was the classic example of an Aphrodite-woman; so were, less tragically, Elizabeth Taylor and many others. On a more mundane level, I observed this ‘fall’ in the most brutal way when, as a 21-year-old woman I heard two older men talking about an older woman who had just come into the store they were in. They both had known her in the past as a great beauty and no doubt had desired her back then. They pointed at her and with malicious smiles exchanged comments about her age and how ‘nothing was left of the ‘whore’s looks anymore’. I doubt the woman was ever a ‘whore’, and the epithet probably came from their once-frustrated and unfulfilled desires for her. I was stunned not only by the vulgar brutality of their words but also by how they completely missed her current beauty. The woman was radiant and graceful in an almost ephemeral way, and her only fault was not being young. Yet this was enough to berate her as ‘fallen’.
We can also take a more universal approach towards the idea of the ‘fall of Aphrodite’ as a poignant story of a common sense of disempowerment that both women and men experience when falling in love and falling into desire. We become, according to the tradition of esoteric Hinduism, ‘deluded by our own power’. Instead of being in charge of our gifts, including the gift of love and desire, we ‘fall’ in love, instead of ‘being’ in love. This is what I learned from one spiritual master from India (Parthasarathy), whom I met while lecturing for Monash University in Malaysia. He said, ‘Do not fall in love; rise in love.’ A simple and life-changing shift in thinking about being in love and yet I have many examples—and so does everyone else—of when this is the most difficult thing to do and the most deceitful. How often have we entered into a romantic relationship feeling the irresistible power of Eros and attraction and ended up crying and feeling humiliated, left to ponder our ‘mistakes’. Perhaps staying in power is not the lesson of Eros and love; perhaps the whole lesson is to surrender the power? But surrender to what? Certainly not to another person—that, we know, is a mistake. But to what? Perhaps to the loveliness of the Eros itself? Perhaps to the loveliness of the ‘sweet longing’ of which the hymn to Aphrodite speaks? More often than not, we fall in love with that feeling, with the loveliness of the surrender in love. The ‘falling’ has its own rewards but it certainly also has its consequences.
When we speak of the loveliness of Eros, we can’t forget the Goddess Radha
Radha, in my opinion, is a more spiritualised version of Aphrodite. The goddesses of ancient Greece are like Hollywood stars, while the Hindu goddesses have a connection to the divine realm, and their actions are focused on the domain of the Self, on spiritual improvement, on achieving oneness with the divine (though this does not mean they do not have frivolous moments or do not misuse their powers).
In popular Hindu mythology, Radha was a milkmaid who fell in love with Lord Krishna. Although she was the wife of another man, she became Lord Krishna’s consort. In 12th-century poems by the poet Jayadeva, Radha is represented as the goddess of love and devotion. The longing for the beloved and devotion for the beloved are Radha’s main attributes. Unlike Aphrodite, Radha was never powerful on her own terms. Quite the opposite: her power derives from her love and devotion for her beloved. She is the ultimate expression of what in Hinduism is called a bhakta, or a person who devotionally worships a personal god or goddess. The power of bhakta comes from this devotion, from complete absorption with the beloved, and is not that different from the loving devotion and merging described by the Sufi poet Rumi, with whom most Westerners are familiar. Radha, in Hindu mythology, never lost her power because she never sought it. Her devotion is her power. Her devotion, as the devotion of a bhakta, is eventually transformed into divine love. Her love spiritualises her. In other words, Radha represents the love and bliss of being within proximity of the divine, which leads her to being one with the divine. And through this proximity, she herself becomes divine.
Both Aphrodite and Radha are beloved goddesses because we identify with their love struggles. Ah! The misery and ecstasy of romantic love! They do not stop themselves when the arrow of Eros arrives. Aphrodite might become frustrated when this happens to her, as she is used to being in charge, but Radha just goes for it. She longs for the romantic high. She longs for the erotic high that comes with this. She spends days dreaming of her beloved, real or imaginary, and truly and unconditionally believes that finding her beloved, being with her beloved, is the most important thing in her life. Radha loves the bliss of romantic love without bounds! On a more personal level, Radha represents that part in ourselves which is our longing for love, especially for romantic love. She longs for her soulmate, and if she does not have one she longs to have a soulmate. She is the part of us which loves being in love!
At one level, she can also represent our addiction to romance, and she may become bored after the romantic interlude passes and the more mundane realities of the relationship kick in. Instead of facing these realities, Radha may choose to move to another romantic high, and when that also passes, to another one and so on. She is that friend who marries at least four times or who never marries because marriage is too ‘mundane’ for her (or him).
On another level, she might be the genuine longing for a ‘true’ love, a deep sense of connection and intimacy through a romantic relationship. She dreams of a romantic soulmateship at the deepest level.
I experienced that very feeling after my divorce from a very abusive and short-lived marriage which forced me to redefine what I really wanted to give in a relationship and what it is that I really valued in masculinity. I was always very attracted to male energy and received the same response from masculine energy in my life. It was a relationship based on a very strong and intense attraction. Although that particular marriage was a bad experience, I did not want to give up on the loveliness and sexiness of the merging of the feminine and masculine in my life. I was very honest with myself at that point. However, I noticed that too often I associated masculinity with an alpha-type personality which is often aggressive and, on closer inspection, a sign of insecurity in some men. It became clear to me that I did not want that in my life any more. So, I began redefining what was really attractive to me in men. It was not a thinking process or a strategy or a list of things I like in men. It was a much more intuitive process. To start with, I gave myself a lot of space and time from men. I moved in with two other women, did not date anyone, but before and after work I meditated a lot and, in quiet moments, I surrendered to the longing for a loving relationship, allowing my imagination to flood me with images from my subconscious without any intellectual judgement. For example, I remembered how years earlier I had cut out a picture of a man from the men’s magazine section of the Canadian Maclean’s news magazine. I even remembered the name of the article: ‘The portrait of a Casanova’.
‘That’s interesting,’ I thought at the time. Then I let myself wonder what it was about the man that I found so attractive. He was a bit of a rebel in his profession (he was a psychoanalyst who questioned Freud), so he was definitely his own person. He loved women (perhaps too much) but that was a thing of the past and now he was happily married to a woman who had also had an interesting past. And, most of all, I was attracted to his intelligent face, a certain je ne sais qua about his smile (half-indulgent, half-amused) and his unquestionable masculine charm that I found irresistible.
About nine months later, I met my partner of many years now who pretty much covers all the qualities I had found so irresistible in the man from ‘The portrait of a Casanova’, including his male charm and handsomeness.
What I am trying to say here is that I unconditionally surrendered to my longing and was brutally honest with myself. I did not pretend that I wanted a ‘family man’ or whatever my friends told me I should be looking for. I let myself long for my idea of a new man and indulged in that longing.
That does not mean that playing Radha always brings us what we want.
A Radha-person may experience a continuous feeling of longing, the object of which may not be even clear or identifiable, and where the feeling is a sense of something absolutely essential being missing in our lives. It is important to remember that this longing can be sublime, as long as it does not lead to depression or a constant nostalgia or even whinging. It can, ideally, be transformed into a merging with the transcendental, with the Divine Heart Itself. In the Catholic tradition, Teresa of Avila, a 16th-century Spanish saint and in the Hindu tradition a 20th century saint, Anandamayi Ma, would probably fall into this category.
On a more practical level, this longing can also be transmuted into identification with a higher goal, or a good cause of some kind, such as the feeling of being protective towards animals, trees, children, or some humanitarian goal of another kind. From my spiritual mentor I have learned that all feelings are a permeation of Divine Love. Even the ‘lowest’ or ‘negative’ feelings (such as sadness, anger, frustration) are just a form of Divine Love that has forgotten its true purpose and Source.
However, as an archetype, Radha has her longing rewarded one way or another. She eventually merges with the beloved or internalises the beloved and transforms herself because of the love and devotion (fulfilled or not) that she feels. Ultimately, her longing is her method and her liberation.
Eros as a romantic trap: The experiences of Radha and Aphrodite
The erotic trap happens when we become addicted to Eros. This can happen in two ways: once Eros withers we either move on from one relationship to another with the hope that the new beginning, the new person can bring the sweet and exciting feeling of Eros back, or we hold on to the person with whom Eros entered our lives in a strong and powerful way. Either way is a trap. In the first case, we move forever from one partner to another in our search for Eros, which meets us only briefly, and the more we move on, the less Eros cares to manifest for us. In the second scenario, we become a romantic slave to another in the false belief it is that other person who allows the sweet experience of Eros, which is both deeply erotic and spiritual. In both cases, we forget that that the experience of Eros is within us. That we are the constant factor, not the other person. But in not knowing it is we who trigger the experience of Eros within us, we falsely believe that it comes from them.
We become a willing addict, a willing slave. In my life, I have fallen once into that trap. Instead of theorising about it, I will describe how it felt, as I have written it (and published it) in many stories. Once upon a time, as a woman in her mid-30s, I met a man who triggered the experience of my own Eros. I was a Radha because I was delighted in the suspended state of consciousness that overrides all boundaries and judgements, in the seductive promise of an erotic high and the mysterious longing that fired up my soul. But I was also an Aphrodite, deluded by her own power. I walked into the trap of Eros believing I could control not only the Eros itself but also the outcome of the romance. I believed I could control the powerful attraction and not respond to it again after the first encounter. ‘One night’, I thought, ‘that’s it.’ That night lasted seven years.
(The personal story below was published in a slightly different and more literary version in the Best Australian Stories collection in 2005 by Black Ink.)
I went upstairs to my apartment, knowing he would come. Knowing that he could not not come now. I sat on the edge of my bed, a hypnotised captive, waiting; I opened the door when I heard him knock. He came in and stood in the middle of the living room as if he had to absorb me with his whole being before he touched me. I could feel his body pulsing. There was something predatory about it that made me keep completely still. The moment before all ends or everything begins. He came closer. We kissed. I felt his body through his clothes, his hands opening my skirt and reaching down to my underwear. His penis on my stomach. Sweet, sweet. Desire. Opening my entire body.
I pressed myself against him.
‘Slower. I want to take you slowly,’ he breathed in my ear.
He stopped and looked at me, knowing we were crossing over invisible lines of our lives. ‘My little seductress.’
‘Shhh…’ he covered my mouth with his hand. ‘Say nothing.’ He ran his hands through my body, watching me intensely. ‘We’ll remember this forever,’ he whispered, as if it had already been written in our lives.
There was the bleak light of rebellion within me when he said it.
‘I’m free,’ I said, looking straight into his eyes.
He laughed. Then he lowered himself onto my body. Connected. Connected. I closed my eyes and surrendered.
I could have walked away but I did not. Willingly, impatiently, hungrily, I fell into his body. I fell into his emotion, his passion. I fell into the sweetest darkness of desire. Devouring and predatory. Sweet. Sweet death by desire. No one should underestimate its power.
Desire is not just lust. It is a profound awakening to the longings hidden in our souls. It defies all obstacles, all prohibitions. It is a mysterious force more delicious than anything society can offer as a bribe to stay away. It rules your whole being. You are captive and want to stay so. Even lust is a slave to desire. You lust more because you desire even more, because you want to quench the desire, because it gets you closer to the desire, because you can feel the desire at its peak and you hope it will last forever, that you will live forever wanting more of the same sweetness, the same pain. You hope the insane longing will keep the desire eating at you like a strange, painful ecstasy that has to be satisfied but never will be. But you do not believe it. You think you will have this one night, and that the next day you will leave it behind you and do what you have always done: travel, study, write. Just this one night of surrender to desire, you think. But you do not know what that means except that it looks you into your eyes and asks, do you dare to play with me?
The trap of Eros—both seductive in its beauty and dangerous in its power.
Eros as a dangerous path
The idea of Eros as a dangerous path is not often discussed, as people seldom share these kinds of experiences, which are often on the edges of ‘polite’ society. It is not that no one explores this path. Rather, it is that people prefer to whisper about it behind closed doors. There were some, though, who wrote about Eros, both as a trap and a bridge to the sublime. Among them, the one who wins all my awards is Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), a French poet of sublime lust. He dared to address, explore in person and write about Eros, Spirit and ‘debauchery’ when no one else dared.
Charles Baudelaire was despised by 19th-century society for the apparent ‘vulgarity’ of the topics he chose for his poems: prostitutes, drugs, poverty, and lust. Not just passionate love but lust for the body of a voluptuous prostitute. He was the Toulouse-Lautrec of poetry. His partners and lovers were often prostitutes. Among them, perhaps Jeanne Duval featured most prominently in his poems. She was a Creole woman of half-African, half-French descent who had come to Paris from Haiti as a young woman and established herself there as a prostitute. For Baudelaire she was more than a lover; she was his muse, his black Venus. ‘My lover sold her soul again for a pair of shoes.’ Was this one of his poems? He went beyond seeing poetic beauty in what was ‘proper’. ‘I’m a lover of beauty, my pen will not be restrained by expectations of virtue,’ he wrote in his preface to Fleurs du Mal. Although he was despised by the ‘nice’ people of society, the critics could not help but notice his talent. His poems were described as ‘lurid’ and he enjoyed reading them in public just to create outrage. But he also considered himself a spiritual man of violent passions. I would call him an experimental Tantric who had no guidance, who acted solely on his intuition in search of transcendence through sexual excesses. He spoke about wanting a ‘spiritual barometer’ to experience those rare moments in life which are true grace—moments of clarity and full of the joy of life. Hashish and opium were his means of receiving that grace at will. ‘Spiritual skies in their inaccessible azure open to the earthbound man who still dreams and suffers.’
Had I had the chance to ask why he did what he did, I am certain he would have said that he wanted to show people the beauty and danger of things they had never dared to experience themselves. How to be lost in desire for another, how to be a slave to the beauty of another’s body. The exquisite sensibility of this overmastering passion, crudely called ‘lust’. He chose to explore the dark side of Eros.
‘You whom my soul has pursued into your own hell…your bleak sufferings, your unquenched thirsts, and the spring of love,’ he wrote.
Jack Kerouac was another one. He morphed himself into Baudelaire’s audacity of lust and contempt for established rules. Just as in Baudelaire’s life, Kerouac’s success came too late to save him. He once wrote about his trip to Mexico with Dean Moriarty during which he saw Dean’s face ‘suffused with unnatural’ light as if he were God and ‘shivers of ecstasy’ ran through his body. And as Baudelaire would have done, after that ecstasy Kerouac and Moriarty went straight to a ‘whorehouse’ which was a ‘magnificent establishment’ and where ‘girls’ were dancing like ‘angels’. It is no coincidence that Kerouac’s chosen name in On the Road was Sal Paradise. Sal means ‘dirty’ or ‘unclean’ in French. A salacious paradise or paradise tarnished?
This is, however, a dangerous and extreme path and they both paid a price for it. And, yet in some ways, they came close if not to the experience of transcendence then at least to glimpses of it and found it, if briefly and with a price, in the strangest places. Places I would not bother to explore.
Although the stories of both men (Baudelaire and Kerouac) are beautifully told, I was appalled by the portrayal in their works of women, confined to the limits of the patriarchal imagination as either a whore, an unreachable ideal or a bitchy wife. I use the word ‘patriarchal’ here rather than ‘male’ because the old systems and imagination have damaged both women and men. Even if the patriarchal system is an offspring of male imagination, it is the worst aspect of it. Strangely and brutally, it forced the feminine to have to finally stand in her own power and claim the right of defining herself once for all.
This radical and dangerous approach towards Eros is not new. Charles Baudelaire and Jack Kerouac unknowingly followed a much more ancient tradition of radical Tantra. In the Tantric tradition, there was a place for a Kapalika, a kind of radical Tantrika who disobeyed all rules. He would walk around smothered in ashes with a skull in his hand. (Interestingly, Mary Magdalene is often portrayed with a skull in her hand as well, and there are some interesting possibilities that I will explore in another chapter devoted to her.) In Chapter 29 of The Light of Tantras by Abhinavagupta, a Kapalika is described as a type of ancient sage with a complete disregard for distinctions between the pure and the impure, the sacred and the profane, the holy and the unholy, the dead and the alive. He would copulate with his consort/duti (a Tantric partner and an initiate) on cremation pyres or in graveyards, and for that reason he was considered to be a radical expression of Tantric values.
But a Kapalika was not a rebel without a cause. A Kapalika wanted to prove that everything, absolutely everything, has the Divine Light within and is a play of Divine Consciousness, and this even included things that are forbidden from the point of view of conventional morality. This idea might be difficult to swallow for many, and understandably so, as it can be very easily used by the darker side of human psyche as an excuse for abuse. A Kapalika, however, was a higher initiate to his tradition and practised this more radical sexual approach only with a partner who was also a higher initiate and had a full understanding of the principles of the rituals and their purpose, such as ‘there is nothing which is not divine’. Both partners were equal and believed that each action performed in a higher state of consciousness was a divine act.
Personally, this is too radical an approach for me and too open to dangerous misunderstanding and delusion, as the path of a Kapalika also includes the attainment of magical powers to explore the nature of the divine from yet another dangerous angle.
Eros as power and magic: the Goddess Circe
It would be unwise and not very honest to leave out another aspect of the Goddesses of Eros that has fascinated people for millennia. This is the Goddess Circe, who was equated with the dangerous side of Eros. She was so powerful in her sexual allure that no one was really certain whether she was a goddess or a nymph. As with many Greek deities, her parenthood is not clear. All we know is that her father was the god Helios, the Sun God, who rode his chariot across the sky every day, and that her mother was either the lovely Oceanid Nymph Perse or the Goddess Hecate, the beautiful and wise sorceress. Hecate seems a more likely choice here, since, like Circe, she was an enchantress and a goddess well versed in the arts of magic.
Homer in The Odyssey gives an unforgettable description of Circe. As Odysseus and his companions arrive on her island after the fall of Troy, in front of her palace they see wolves and lions prowling around and wagging their tails like domestic animals because they are bewitched by Circe’s magic. The whole place is serenely beautiful and made secluded by ‘lovely trees’. As Odysseus and his companions come closer to the house, they hear Circe ‘singing in her beautiful voice as she went to and fro at her great and everlasting loom…weaving one of those delicate, graceful and dazzling fabrics that goddesses make’. And so we are introduced to Circe in all her beauty and magic because soon we learn that this image of female loveliness, although true, is also a trap. Circe is a very powerful goddess and will use her charms and magic to turn the men into ‘beasts’. Luckily, Odysseus is warned that sleeping with Circe could ‘unman’ him unless he makes her swear she won’t do this to him. Odysseus takes the risk and sleeps with her…because it must have been worth it, right?
Indeed, after Circe turns Odysseus’ companions into pigs he, too, shows up at her door and she invites him to a feast while four maidens serve him a meal—a mixture of cheese, barley meal and yellow honey flavoured with Pramnian wine’. She then gives him a sensual bath ‘sluicing’ his limbs from ‘all the painful weariness’ of a lost traveller. When Circe seductively asks him to put down his sword and come to bed with her, does Odysseus refuse?
No! All he asks is that she promise him she will not turn him into a pig, as she has done with his companions. He says that he will sleep with her only if she gives him a solemn oath that she has no other mischief in store for him.
Circe must be pleased by this, as she agrees to return Odysseus’ companions to their human form. And did they rush back home to their faithful wives?
No! They are all ‘not difficult to persuade’ to stay ‘one day after day for a whole year, feasting on lavish quantities of meat and mellow wine’ while Circe enjoys Odysseus in her ‘beautiful bed’. And only after all of that does he ‘clasp the Goddess’ knees in supplication’ to send him home.
Circe, beautiful as ever, dressed in a long robe of silvery sheen made of a light fabric charming to the eye, takes him to his companions, to whom he announces, ‘My Lady Circe has made everything clear.’
Now, that is a goddess who does as she wishes.
Thus, for centuries, Circe has represented the magic of the feminine, the sexual lure that can be dangerous. The attraction you know is no good for you but which you pursue anyway. Circe is portrayed as the classic femme fatale and Hollywood loves her. In the Hollywood version of events, she can be a beautiful, dangerous (perhaps foreign) woman who lures the hero into her trap. He is not stupid, he knows what he is getting into (like Odysseus), and yet he becomes entangled with her anyway. Bette Davis in All About Eve or Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct unmistakeably represent the Hollywood version of Circe.
But I think there is much more to Circe than the notion of ‘dangerous woman’. I believe fear of her magical powers is the reason she is shown in such a bad light. Undoubtedly, she is very clever and independent, and she likes to be in control of her beauty and legendary allure. All of which have been seen for the longest time as unsuitable qualities for a woman.
I believe that Circe might even be connected to more ancient goddesses of sexual allure and power such as the Sumerian Inanna or the Mesopotamian Ishtar or the Egyptian Hathor. In this case, Circe, like her mother Hecate, could be the patroness of witchcraft and all women skilled in the arts of herbs who were brutally killed during the European and American witch hunts. In Europe, witch hunts were at their worst in the 15th to 17th centuries in Germany and Switzerland. A Dominican monk, Heinrich Kramer, was especially malevolent and obsessed with punishing women, especially if they were independent and not afraid to speak their minds. Hans Broedel in his book, The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft: Theology and Popular Belief, mentions Helena Scheuberin, one such woman in Innsbruck, whom Kramer accused of practising witchcraft. One of the pieces of ‘proof’ Kramer claimed to have against her was her sexual allure. Thus, like Circe, she was considered dangerous because of her independence and self-assurance, including her sexual confidence.
On another level more associated with the sexual powers of Circe, in a world where women had no power and where sexual allure (apart from motherhood) was the only attribute valued in a woman, many Circe-women sold their assets to the highest bidder and invested well. They often acquired political power and influence by associating themselves with powerful men, whom they enchanted with their beauty, sensuality and intellect—often they were very smart and the only educated women in society. They were the great hetaerae of the ancient Greek world, the educated courtesans of Venice of the 17th century. These women have been present just below the surface throughout our history and have often done well for themselves. More recent examples would be many women in the entertainment business who have made a fortune and stayed in control of how their sexual powers and beauty are being displayed and sold. Madonna and Beyonce come to mind or, in a more sophisticated form, Carla Bruni, the wife of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
There is a great power in Circe that was somehow corrupted—not by her but by the circumstances in which women have found themselves in history. Did Circe-women misuse their power? I don’t know. In times when the only choice for women was to be a nun or a mother, Circe-women lived their lives on their own terms—as much as the times allowed them. I think there is room here for the evolution of Circe in our collective psyche. In my personal opinion, both Circe Herself and Circe-women throughout history need rehabilitation and deserve a proper letter of apology. This has already happened in a book by Madeline Miller, Circe, where she retells the old story as seen by the Goddess Circe herself.
Another Goddess who stands strong in her own sexual power and even manages to transform it into a spiritual virtue is the Hindu goddess Sundari.
Exploring Eros and Spirituality: Sundari-Eros and Tantra
Who is the Goddess Sundari?
The Goddess Sundari is an all-powerful Hindu goddess also known as Tripura Sundari and Lalita. According to Hindu theology, Lalita Tripura Sundari means ‘the charming beauty of the three worlds’. She is also the most powerful of goddesses, as she embodies all of them. She is the desire of Shiva to create the worlds. Without her, no creation is possible. Sundari also means ‘a beautiful goddess’ and in mythology it is said that her laughter was so sensual it made mango trees spontaneously bear fruit. Although, like Aphrodite, she is primarily known as the goddess of erotic sensuality and beauty, she is triumphant in her erotic power. Unlike Aphrodite, she never becomes a victim because of her erotic powers. And, unlike Radha, she is not devoted towards anyone, but instead commands devotion to herself and her legendary powers.
She is often portrayed in a red dress sitting in an erotic position on top of Shiva. Even Shiva (the Divine Mind) itself can’t resist her erotic power! However, her erotic power is also her spiritual power. She is the ultimate goddess of erotic spirituality and, in my opinion, a much more attractive version of it than Kali. Sundari commands her erotic powers to manifest worlds and bring gods to her service. She is, for me at least, the ultimate feminine power—both erotic and spiritual at once. Anyone who can’t comprehend this unity of Eros, Spirituality and Power does not deserve to worship her.
If you could imagine Sundari, she would be a wonder to behold in her beauty, power and sensual allure. Not in the way imagined by the patriarchs or in the sick imaginations of people who have never respected or known the true beauty and value of a woman. How could they imagine a goddess that lovely and powerful? In traditional imaginations, anything considered lovely is always disempowered and made girl-like, while the feminine empowered is something to be ridiculed or even feared. But why? I have a radical theory that the portrayal of Sundari as a young girl is a later phenomenon and a figment of the imagination of an insecure, patriarchal man. In my experience and observation, most women do not have a full sense of their erotic self-empowered (not as imagined by others around her) erotic glory until their mid-30s and a sense of their true value even later, in their 40s and 50s. Ironically, this is when patriarchal, insecure men stop noticing them. But not all men are like this and not all women lose their visibility later in life. Seeing a mature erotic beauty in a woman is a sign of an empowered man. An equal to an equal. Without this there is no real relationship.
Yet we have so few examples of this to draw upon in a culture and history formulated by the patriarchal powers which oppress both women and men.
So if you could imagine Sundari in all her loveliness, power and allure, how would you envision her? This is itself a beautiful, sensual meditation that I would encourage both women and men to indulge in. We need Sundari and her own need to draw from her power.
I see her in her full charm, moving with gentle yet powerful confidence, fully aware of her power, of her beauty, of her allure, of her supreme sensuality and of her potential realised. As she walks, her hips move like Spanish caravelas on the seas of desire. She has a ready smile—not with which to please but to enjoy her own beauty and share it with the world. She is clear sighted, yet her path is flexible, as she knows she always responds from her deepest desires. Not from her need but from her seductive playfulness that returns spice to life. She teaches us the lessons of the loveliness and power of Eros. Not in the traditional, manipulative way but with the wisdom that the power of Eros is holy too because all creation is holy, because all creation is a play of Divine Consciousness. She walks in the knowledge and fulfilment of all that.
I suggest you close your eyes and imagine just that. Imagine her. Imagine yourself as her. Imagine yourself with her and say, ‘Ah! I’m Sundari in all my glory!’
There are not many historical figures who give us the taste of Sundari, but we do have some and they always bring a smile to my face. Let’s look at Eleanor of Aquitaine. She lived in the 12th century in Europe, mostly in France and England in times not very friendly for women. She was lucky, however, as the stars were on her side. She was born into a powerful aristocratic family that owned an area about half the size of modern France. She was even luckier because her parents could not produce a male heir, so she inherited their estate. But was she a typical medieval girl born into a powerful family and then married off as a chattel for her male cousins, as usually happened to other women at the time? Oh, no, no! That is not her story! Right from the beginning she knew her value, and negotiated her life on her own terms. She married a French king, Louis VII, but he was too pious for her and she longed for adventure. When other women were dying of boredom while waiting for their men to return from crusades, Eleanor insisted on going along with Louis VII on the Second Crusade to the Holy Land. There she not only managed to satisfy her hunger for travel but also had an affair with her handsome uncle, with whom she also made some political plans. There was another small problem in her marriage—they could not produce a male heir. Do you think she felt bad about it and took upon the burden like all women then and even much later (for example, all the wives of Henry VIII) have done and begged her husband: ‘Baby don’t leave me’? No, upon her return from the crusade she personally asked the Pope to grant her a divorce from her husband which she was eventually given. Guess what she did next? Well, she met the young and handsome future king of England, Henry II, and as Katherine Hepburn said in the film The Lion in Winter, in which she played Eleanor, ‘They broke commandments on the spot’ and she became the queen of England and a figure of power to be reckoned with.
Okay, I agree this is not a very spiritual example, but we need to start somewhere and she did embody the power, the loveliness and the allure that is so uniquely Sundari-like, that made French troubadours compose their most beautiful songs for her. I believe they expressed our collective desire for the power and loveliness that is Sundari.
As you can probably sense, Sundari is my type of goddess. It is no coincidence this was the first chapter I wrote for this book, even if my mind was telling me to begin it with Goddesses of Wisdom. Sundari and I have a special connection, which was completely unexpected for me. In 2003, when I walked for the first time into the ashram of my spiritual mentor, I did not know he belonged to a Tantric tradition. I just felt an irresistible pull towards his teachings. In the past I had followed other teachers of the great Vedantic tradition (Hindu scripture) but had never felt the same pull. My formal initiation, called Shaktipat, was dramatic and I have described it in previous chapters. But what truly surprised me was the unmistakable erotic element of my reaction to the initiation afterwards. I was filled with deep sensual energy which radiated from me.
What was even more surprising was that my spiritual mentor gave me the name ‘Sundari’. I had never heard of her before. And, as I was identifying completely with my mind at the time, I assumed the name I received would naturally be Saraswati, the Goddess of Wisdom. Wasn’t I a writer and an academic? Hadn’t I always hidden myself in the sharpness of my mind? In fact, I had made it a habit to use the sharpness of my mind as a shield against the assaults of life. But my spiritual mentor felt differently, and when I asked for my spiritual (Sanskrit) name, he handed me a small orange card with the name ‘Sundari’ on it and with its translation in English ‘the Beautiful’. Surely, he had made a mistake! My friends asked me to meditate upon this, so I did and I also did some research to find out why I had been given this name. This research changed the way I perceived myself and felt like a major earthquake in the world of my perception of myself as a Wise Woman.
I have searched through my memory for any indication of the previous presence of Sundari in my life. Let me tell you: I was not born a Sundari, or even an Aphrodite. As a young woman these were not the archetypes I had ever considered. And how could I? How could any woman consider the archetype of the powerful Sundari in our society? It is no secret—and painfully obvious—to any woman that feminine sensuality and sexuality have been hijacked along with the whole idea of the goddess. What it means to be a sensually empowered woman has been defined for us by a generation of patriarchs who have oppressed humanity for too long. And by humanity I mean both women and men. In more modern times, this idea has been defined by the media, by Hollywood in a most devious way. Then, of course, there is the fashion industry, which, again, defines women and their beauty in extremely limiting ways that damage lives, people’s self-image and which drain the joy of life away or even stymie the possibility of being a beautiful and sensually empowered woman.
I was a shy girl. Not one empowered by her beauty. Not one who was tall or very slim. For a long time, especially in my pre-teens, I had no sense of myself until the ‘big shame’ happened in our family and my father left my mother for another woman. I was nine at the time and our larger family disowned us. My mother’s whole self-esteem depended on my father’s status. I was told I would turn into a criminal as a child from a ‘broken home’.
I hid in books, in their beauty, in the beauty of words and stories, in the beauty of knowledge. My grandmother lovingly weaved my blonde hair into two braids, which made me look even younger than I was. In the horrid spectacle of my mother’s ‘shame’, my grandmother’s presence was a refuge. She was a peaceful harbour when everything around me was falling apart, as we rather rapidly moved from a position of relative wealth to poverty. But I had my books and I had my mother’s friends: Roman and Lena, a bohemian couple with a great library, which was always open for me. I had my mind but I did not have my body. Or, at least, I was not aware of it.
If I were to look at myself as I was back then I would see a shy, yet very smart, girl with two blonde braids, enormous green eyes, and no sense of fashion (it did not matter anyway, as Poland was falling apart and there was neither money nor things to buy).
That did not bother me. The lack of sense of my body. My books would save me and sustain me until, of course, my body was framed by others and shamed.
I distinctly remember how my mother and her female friend once asked me stand next to her friend’s daughter and compared me to the girl. I remember standing there in my little girl’s dress (it was red, I think) with my white tights and my new shoes, which I thought were very pretty, and how I, gradually, began to hide behind the chair which was standing between us to cover the shame of my body.
I was in my early teens then and did not know that I had a body and I did not know if it was pretty or ugly until that day. I heard the two women talk about us (me and the other girl) and I sensed my mum’s desire to find her lost confidence by having a friendship with the other woman who, unlike her, seemed to handle her situation as a divorcee in a much better way. So, unwittingly and innocently, guided by her own loss of identity as a married woman, my mother offered me as a sacrificial lamb on the altar of the friendship that would save her from loneliness and the shaming by her own family.
Moving quietly backward behind the chair, which I hoped would save me from complete disgrace, I heard the two women pronounce their verdict: I did not have a dancer’s legs, my knees were not well shaped, my calves were too muscular and I moved without grace. (The other girl, of course, had dancer’s legs—perfect knees and all—and moved with grace.)
I do not judge the two women. Not anymore. My mother was desperate for a friend and knew no better. I do not even think any malice was intended. It was, for them, just a fair judgement of what was. In a strange way, this reminds me of a much more well-known mythical event—the Judgement of Paris, where young Paris (albeit a mortal) judged the three powerful goddesses, Athena, Hera and Aphrodite, and chose the most beautiful one. What gave him that power, that right, I would like to ask, to judge a goddess?!
I lived with that judgement, accepting it at its face value, until one day I was crossing the street on my way to church and a kind old man stopped, looked at me and said with a sweet smile, ‘I do not want to offend you young lady but you are so beautiful and your smile would make Helen the Beautiful jealous.’
I smiled at him, taken by surprise, astonished that there was some beauty in me that had nothing to do with books. A moment of my own beauty—found without looking for it. It felt like a moment of pure grace. A moment being Aphrodite. Aphrodite, not Sundari. Aphrodite—because it did not come from within, from my own power and resolution. It came via an external judgement. Someone found me beautiful. Or at least a part of me. I had passed some external test. Sundari neither subjects herself to, nor cares for, external tests. Her self-worth and power comes from within.
A few years later, I left communist Poland for Paris, in search of the beauty of art and the beauty of words. This was the beauty I had learned about from Roman and Lena’s library and my mother’s stories of artists who had lived in the city. I wanted to breathe the air which Simone de Beauvoir had breathed, dance in the La Rotonde café where my then-favourite artist from the early 20th century Modigliani had danced, write in a café, as Hemingway once had. As a refugee from Eastern Europe with an expired visa and big dreams of becoming a writer, I wanted all of this and more.
Once in Paris, whose beauty did not disappoint me, I met an upper-class French girl who studied Slavic languages and needed my help to pass an exam. She was very generous and we became close friends. Like me, she did not think herself to be beautiful—a great crime in Paris for a French girl from a good home. We both fasted fiercely to meet that distant ideal of being a dark-haired, very slim girl in a beret. That French look we were told men loved.
It was in her posh apartment on Boulevard Saint-Michel that I had my first inkling of a Sundari experience.
My friend held an impromptu party with her French friends—and I was invited! Excited, I arrived early to help her to get ready. We were chatting, while the beautiful, huge windows of her apartment were open to the street in the legendary district of Paris. It was summer and we were dancing to Bizet’s Carmen at full blast. A phone rang and I heard my friend telling someone that her new friend (me) was going to be there. A young male voice asked, ‘Is she pretty?’ and again, as my mum and her friend had done in the past, she, without any malice intended, looked at me and in her mind compared me to that ideal we both fell short of—the ideal of the very slim, tall, dark-haired girl—and said, ‘No.’ I was not offended in the least because by then I was certain it WAS true!
So when her friends came I was happy and chatty, practising my French but also spending some time by the bookshelf, as more and more young very slim and very tall girls kept arriving. Most of them had arrived together after a photoshoot from their modelling class.
As I was lovingly perusing the pages of a book of Baudelaire’s poems, I glanced at the very slim girls sipping their herbal teas as they chatted freely with the men in the room, and I remembered how my grandmother had once asked me to cover myself up before we were going to leave for the Sunday Mass because my breasts looked ‘indecent’ and were simply ‘rude’. What I was going to do with my ‘rude’ breasts now in front of these perfect girls?
Since I had nothing to lose, I asked an elegant young French man (who was, no doubt, used to fashion models draping themselves around him) what time it was, as I was planning to leave. Suddenly, not only that gorgeous man but a few other men in the room as well, came up to me and said that it was far too early for me to leave the party, and they asked me in the most charming way, ‘To please stay a little longer.’
There I was, holding a poetry book in my hand in a room full of aspiring and very slim models who definitely did not have rude breasts, surrounded by a small group of French men asking me to ‘please’ stay.
This was the moment, still powerfully imprinted in my memory, when Aphrodite rose from her disgrace with a sense that from that point onwards she was going to define her own beauty and find her own power and, consequently embrace the archetype of Sundari.
It was not so much that the men wanted me to stay but rather the realisation that I COULD SEE MYSELF DIFFERENTLY. That nothing about me is set in stone. That it is I, and I alone, who can rearrange the mosaic not only of my own perceptions of myself but also of other people’s perceptions of me. That the first judgment of Paris can be reversed. That I can tell the judges to get lost. And, I think, it is poignantly beautiful that the first judgement of the mythical Paris took on a different turn in the real Paris.
I have never again wanted to become a dark-haired, astonishingly slim girl with ‘polite’ breasts. The beauty I have found is my own and I have given it power in my life.
But before I left Paris I practised my newly found power of Sundari—and in the most daring circumstances of life and death. At the time there was a crackdown on illegal immigrants in France. On every street corner the gendarmes were asking for passports; even French nationals were asked to carry identification documents. My visa had expired and I was what they now called a ‘dreamer’.
One evening on the Boulevard Saint-Michel my group of French friends and I were stopped by a young gendarme. I was the only non-national. My friends quickly, if reluctantly, showed their identity cards. I did not have one. It was a soft, yet loud, glorious Parisian evening. I could hear the murmur of lovers whispering in cafes and a loud burst of laughter that could have been my own. The light from the art deco street lamps would have made the impressionists hold their breath. With the clear knowledge that returning to the greyness of the communist regime in Poland was worse than death (I meant it literally and if that had happened I was prepared to end my new life, which had just begun), I gave the Helen the Beautiful smile the old man in my home town had made me aware of to the young gendarme. And, quite literally, I sensed a sweet fog caress his brain, as if he had been given a divine vision of Aphrodite herself and I could feel the pleasant stirring in his groin. His eyes said to me, ‘I know what you are doing but I like it!’ and, giving me a wry smile, he walked away without asking me to produce my passport.
That evening Sundari saved my young life.
What does it mean to embody the archetype of Sundari?
Embodying the archetype of Sundari means to be in full possession of your body, your Eros and all your powers. This means defining your own beauty. Defining your own path in life. Defining your own contribution.
This is to be fully in charge of your beauty.
It is also in knowing when not to use it. But that does not mean you can’t play with it. On your own terms.
This is how I see the rise of Sundari; it is not that different from the rise of Mary Magdalene. What has been edited, what has been ridiculed and shamed, what has been lied about—now comes into its own power.
So, no, I did not apply to join a modelling school in Paris. No, I have never become or, more importantly, never wanted to become, that French ‘anima’: a tall, dark-haired girl with dancers’ legs and polite breasts.
I walk my own path, which is a path I have freely chosen. The Path of Wisdom.
But I am no cold Athena.
And, no, I do not hide behind desks and bookshelves.
I walk through the bookshelves with Sundari within me, singing songs of her own empowerment.
These and other memories flooded me when, in my 30s, my spiritual mentor gave me the name Sundari. The memories of brief moments of being Sundari. Yet these were only moments and only vague memories. My own life, on a daily basis, was a tragicomedy of intense and turbulent romances. The Sundari who had once been discovered was lost in the high drama of her love life.
After I received the spiritual name of Sundari, a period of 12 years of intense meditation flowed thereafter, and in attending the programs in the ashram I became a part of that spiritual community. They helped me to focus on my spiritual practice and on giving priority to spiritual growth over my personal, and very strong, ambitions. Being a part of a spiritual community, at least for a prolonged time in one’s life, is, in my opinion, an invaluable experience. It allows us to see ourselves through the eyes of others, from a spiritual vista, and, most importantly, it allows us to see ourselves more clearly, beyond old preconceptions of who we are. This is what the name Sundari gave to me—a new vision of myself. It allowed me to see a part of myself which had always been there but which I was blind to, a part of myself which I had subconsciously suppressed. The part of me as Sundari.
I noticed that behind my intellectual veneer I carried a powerful sexual presence, which only became more obvious after the initiation. I saw how I threw this sexual radiance around unconsciously and irresponsibly. I began to see that although I was not classically beautiful, men always surrounded me. I saw that without doing too much I could confuse men, and the more I confused them the more they liked it. It is hilarious to think of this now. Imagine a woman in her mid-30s (as I was then), attractive, deeply sensual but somehow not aware of it. She had always had wonderful sexual experiences and always thought this was a most natural thing which also happened to other people all the time. But, despite this sensual radiance she had a very sharp mind and often expressed herself haughtily (as the Goddess of Wisdom and full of herself, right?) in her strange European accent. I can tell you—this brought many men to their knees! And, yes, I thought at the time it was the most natural and normal thing.
Of course, I was not always like that. I had been a painfully shy and bookish young girl. But once Sundari awakened in me, She stayed with me. And She has taught me one important lesson— that the Goddess Sundari is something to aspire to; this is what my spiritual mentor meant when he gave me Her name. In real life, I was a far cry from Her because, like almost all the women I knew, I was not in control of my sexuality and I was not in control of my desire. I had the potential of the Goddess Sundari within me but I was not Her expression in my life—not yet anyway—and I needed to explore who She was and how to embody Her in my life. Once I made this resolution, very soon it manifested itself within me as a spiritual and intellectual quest for Tantra—the art of Erotic Spirituality.
The art of Sundari Herself.
My experience with sexual Tantra
My first Tantric experience related to sexuality happened in 2003. I attended a private study group located in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, where I lived at the time. The group was led by a Sanskrit scholar who was also an ordained Catholic priest, so the meetings took place in his parish. He had just finished his PhD in Sanskrit, and as a part of his research he had translated Chapter 29 of the Tantraloka, or the Light on the Tantras, written by the 10th-century Indian philosopher I have mentioned earlier, Abhinavagupta. By then I was already familiar with Abhinavagupta’s Tantric teachings which were unrelated to sexuality. Chapter 29 of his work, however, definitely was—and in the most ‘scandalous’ way, as the translator of the chapter and leader of the study group described.
Originally, it was not our intention to study Chapter 29 and its Tantric implications that sexuality, too, can be a path to the experience of the divine. Our original intention was to simply start a private study group related to our own experiences and readings in Eastern Spirituality. At our first meeting, I suggested we study the Bhagavad Gita—a classic work of Indian philosophy with commentary by Parthasarathy, the Indian spiritual teacher and swami I mentioned previously whom I followed when I lived in Asia. To my surprise, the leader of the study group said that he would prefer it if we instead studied his recent translation of Chapter 29 of the Tantraloka. We all agreed, especially since he had just gained a PhD for his efforts in translating the work. We had no expectations of the sexual content included within. We all assumed it was another work of esoteric Hinduism, a particular brand of Indian philosophy which I will explain later. But the content of Chapter 29 was not only different from our expectations but also very surprising in its explicit sexual descriptions of methods leading to spiritual experiences.
Our group, at first, consisted of the host (a Catholic priest and the translator of Chapter 29), myself and a male Australian Swami, originally from Adelaide. Then, a little later, two more people joined us: a young ascetic man who was a yoga teacher in Melbourne and a Tibetan Buddhist monk who had been given refuge at the priest’s parish. I enjoyed the privilege of representing feminine energy (or Shakti in the Hindu tradition) in the group and was treated as such—with the greatest respect. Nothing sexual or inappropriate was ever attempted or even thought of toward me by the other group members. We were serious students and the text we studied was riddled with encoded messages and Sanskrit phrases almost impossible to translate for the modern mind. Apart from my gender and being an ardent spiritual seeker and a disciple of a spiritual teacher known to our host, my other qualification was the fact that I, too, was at the end of my PhD.
On that particular evening, the yoga teacher (I went to his classes) offered me a ride home, as I lived in a different suburb and quite a distance from the group leader’s home. Normally, to get to the meeting I would take a train from Melbourne and be picked up at the station and taken to the meeting. Since our meetings usually ended in the evening, my yoga teacher offered to drop me off near my place in East St. Kilda (he lived in neighbouring St. Kilda) in his van.
On our way back, we discussed what we had learned that day (more about this later) and the surprising content of Chapter 29 of the Tantraloka. This man was a very committed yoga teacher whose knowledge of yoga was not limited to physical postures (asanas) and who was also extremely well read in Hindu scriptures. He had an extensive spiritual library from which he sometimes, reluctantly, allowed me to borrow books. He was very serious, even morbid at times and an ascetic—something I often made fun of, to his annoyance. I, too, was a very committed student of spiritual traditions but, by natural inclination despised, and was suspicious of, any form of asceticism. Despite these differences, we had a good friendship based on our commitment to spiritual knowledge. That evening, as he was dropping me at my door, I sensed there was a deep wound in his being and that the asceticism and certain harshness with which he committed his body to the physical aspects of yoga were the results of that wound. I have often observed this wound in men hidden under different forms of over-achievement and apparent self-confidence. A thought came to my mind that his wound came from and could be healed by a loving feminine presence in his life. As I was getting out of his van and looked back at his serious, pale, almost tormented face, I decided that, despite our friendship, I did not want to take on this role in his life. Nothing ever happened between us and, eventually, our friendship dissolved a couple of years later.
But that was not the end of the evening.
I was dating a man (let’s call him Mark) who was roughly my age and whom, incidentally, I had met at the yoga teacher’s house at some gathering. This was my first and only acquaintance with a man with whom I had a purely sexual relationship. Such a liaison was very unusual for me, as normally I would not enter into a sexual relationship without being emotionally connected to the other person. This time was different. I was (unsuccessfully) getting over a previous very turbulent and emotionally intense relationship which had lasted seven years. My brief liaison with Mark was my not very mature way of forgetting the other man. At the same time, even though we lacked the usual romantic attachment, we both felt the same familiarity with each other from the moment we met, as if we had known each other for a long time.
I do not want to be too judgemental about that liaison. We shared spiritual interests: I was very much involved both spiritually and intellectually with Hindu esoteric traditions, while Mark had his own spiritual community and many close friends in the Rosicrucian circles. We were both fascinated with the ancient city of Alexandria in Egypt—the birthplace of many esoteric teachings—and often talked about it and joked that perhaps we had met in a previous life and been friends, as neither of us had a problem with the idea of reincarnation. If there was one brief liaison I had in my life that was light and emotionally insignificant, it was with Mark. This was pure, unabated pleasure—very sexual and yet somehow free of all attachments. And a very unusual but important circumstance for the Tantric experience I had just studied.
As I walked the stairs to my apartment, I found Mark waiting for me. With great enthusiasm, I shared with him what I had learned that evening in the study group until, as usually happened during our meetings, we were pulled towards each other by mutual sexual attraction. I will not pretend here that what happened then was the result of any spiritual resolve. The pull between us was sexual but devoid of any darkness. It was a joyful, lustful and physically satisfying feeling in the beginning—it only turned into a spiritual Tantric experience of its own accord without any intention from us.
During the encounter that night something happened: an inner gate flung open within me and I began feeling the upward movement of energy along my spine. An invisible wave crawled upwards, in a slow but persistent motion; it kept moving until it reached my heart and exploded there. The initial feeling of pleasure and lust disappeared. Briefly, we became bound together in a strange state of bliss, expanded beyond pleasure and lust, beyond woman and man. A great space had opened up in front of us—magnificently impersonal yet tender.
The energy continued moving upwards from my heart until it reached the space between my eyebrows and exploded again. It exploded once more in my forehead and then made a conscious decision to make a turn (without my volition) to explode again at the top of my head.
We stopped, absorbed in the great space that had opened within us—a vast timeless space, as if the rapture we had experienced a moment earlier had infused us with quiet ecstasy. We remained like that, completely still.
What happened rendered myself and Mark in a state of awe, and we both plunged into a bliss quite different from any feeling after orgasm. Spontaneously, we entered a meditative state which lasted for several days.
We both had a clear understanding that something bigger than ourselves had moved through my body and spilled over into him, almost as a side effect. This was a feeling of grace and of complete union with Creation/the Universe, a feeling of oneness, not with each other but with something much grander than ourselves. I would like to call it the Divine, as this is free from negative connotations for me.
I also had a clear understanding that the power that moved through me was both magnificent and intelligent, and had made choices over which I had had no influence.
I had read about this and was sceptical, yet hopefully curious, about it. Sceptical because the energy could have been just a figment of my imagination or a promise that could never be delivered as an experience. But I had experienced it—not only the presence of the energy within me but also its conscious movement through my body, as the ancient sources had described. Not only had it been there but it was powerful and intelligent and it wanted me to understand and know it. To dismiss it because it did not agree with my habitual view of the world and my intellectual bias would have been a form of indoctrination, wouldn’t it have?
In a way, these kinds of experiences of expanded consciousness are more common than we would like to believe and usually have nothing to do with our sexuality. These are the moments of intuitive knowledge that have nothing to do with our daily reasoning in calculating different options. Knowledge that is spontaneous and allows us to make the best choices without even thinking about it. Moments of ‘Aha’! These are the mystical moments in our lives that are sometimes available to us. ‘Sometimes’ suggests the spontaneous and unpredictable element to them. They are rare gifts of unknown beginnings and endings.
The same phenomenon happened after the sexual incident with Mark. There was a feeling of freedom, rather than bonding or addiction. I had a sense that what had happened had gone beyond a woman and man involved in an act of sexual intimacy. Had it been sexual intimacy, or a sexual act? That was it. I could not say there had been great intimacy between myself and Mark. Not the intimacy that binds lovers, makes you believe you are an empty form without seeing him again, without talking to him again, without feeling him again inside your body. Not the intimacy that creates couples and great love stories, families and kin.
What had passed between us did not have the binding power that brings lovers together again and again until desire is exhausted, until lust is satisfied or moves on to another object of desire. This time there was no attachment. Only absolute freedom and lightness. And a sense of a deep connection to the power within me, not dependent on anyone else.
I lay down on my bed, still dazed by the meditative state, knowing in an intuitive, inexplicable way which had nothing to do with our daily rationalisations that I was at the centre of my own life, that I and no one else had created this life for myself. I was the supreme artist of this creation. I was the Creatrix of my own life. I had been painting and sculpting it all my life. Except that until that point, I had not known this. I had only thought things had happened to me and I had responded to them. I had thought I was just an insignificant part of the great machine called ‘life’. But now I felt with my whole being that I was life. Now I knew we—all of us—were powerful waves made of the energy I had experienced; I wanted to be more intimate with it. I wanted to know the energy better, be a conscious expression of it. I wanted to be at one with its source.
Several days passed before I descended from my experience. I wandered around the apartment carrying within me an experience of the expansion—the entire world had folded itself into my inner space. Of itself, the sexual encounter with Mark had been insignificant—no better or worse than any other sexual experiences. The whole encounter had had very little to do with what we had done physically, but rather was related to what had happened mentally and spiritually between us. This was significantly different than the feeling of walking on air after sex. Significantly different.
It would have been very easy to dismiss my experience as an orgasm, but it was so much more. I had experienced the conscious movement of an intelligent energy I was not even aware existed within me. My awareness had taken an uncommon turn that bypassed orgasms, lusts, desires and commitments. I could remember very precisely the moment when the surge of energy had curved away from physical orgasm and entered another, more conscious corridor of mental blissfulness and expansion. This had not been an experience of physical convulsion or even emotional hyper-pleasure. It had been a state of expanded consciousness—often described by mystics of all traditions. And it was not something I would forget soon—or ignore.
And this is another very important part of it all: I neither followed nor had a formula for repeating the experience. I do not even believe that such a formula exists. Somehow, I had become a conduit for Sundari, the same way the Tantrics experience Her.
But I had fulfilled some criteria for the ritual of a Tantric practice, if there are such things.
For example, I had just returned from the group studying Abhinavagupta’s chapter on the Kula Ritual and I was an ardent student of Tantric philosophy. I was not emotionally attached to the man (Mark) and thus fulfilled the required detachment criterion.
The rest was pure grace.
I can see how, for some people, it may be difficult to associate grace with sexuality. After all, we have thousands of years of mental conditioning relating to sexuality as ‘dirty’ and as a form of entrapment that pulls us away from a more spiritual approach to life, from our higher goals and expectations. I also understand that many people, the majority perhaps, have had terrible or even abusive or perverse sexual experiences. It is not my intention to deny them. However, I propose that, based on some empirical and personal experiences as well as on a study of esoteric traditions which have been hidden from us for centuries or even millennia, we open up to the mysterious and wonderful possibility that sexuality, like everything else on this material plane, can be a conduit for our connection with the Spirit.
For me, and I believe for Ardha-Tryambaka, the woman who is the originator of this rebellious, powerful tradition, Tantra of esoteric Hinduism has always been about getting in touch with the inner power within us, called the Goddess, Shakti or Kundalini. And Shakti, like any goddess archetype, is just another, more visceral, name for grace.
So let’s look into two medieval Tantric texts based on much earlier oral traditions, the Vijnana Bhairava and Chapter 29 of the Tantraloka, in order to discuss Eros and its potential for our spiritual evolution.
Practical methods of Tantra in two Tantric texts
I promised to discuss some practical Tantric methods with which I am familiar and which I have studied for years within one particular tradition of esoteric Hinduism, a tradition to which I was initiated through Shaktipat. I write this sentence so it is clear I will not be discussing Taoist, Buddhist or Neo-Tantric (modern Western Tantra) methods, which seem to have different goals and techniques. Many of them are to do with longevity practices. Esoteric Hinduism is not about longevity or improving sexual experiences for struggling couples.
Esoteric Hinduism and its techniques are always concerned with reaching the state of unification, the Primal Bliss of Creation and unification with the highest principle (called ‘Shiva’ in this tradition) through activating the female archetype of Shakti. In brief, Shiva represents (as the Male Principle) the state of Consciousness in Its inactive form. Shakti (the Female Principle) is Shiva’s first thought and action. In fact, she is both the creative principle and creation at the same time.
But let’s go to the core of the matter and my promise to discuss some Tantric methods within this tradition. Firstly, I am going to rely on the ancient text the Vijnana Bhairava, which is a series of 112 methods or techniques for ‘centring awareness’. The Vijnana Bhairava (I know it is a mouthful) is considered by scholars to be a ‘very ancient Tantric text’. We know, however, that it was already very well-known and oft-commented upon in the eighth century CE. The text was devoted to the union between the Masculine and Feminine Principles at the highest level, so to speak. I promise in my descriptions to avoid using Sanskrit terminology as much as possible.
All the techniques (the entire 112 of them) are there for the practitioner to achieve bliss, to experience the oneness of the essence of the Universe and its Creation. They come from the essentially Tantric premise that everything is an expression of Consciousness and, as such, can be a source for achieving Bliss, if (and this is a very important ‘if’) this is approached in the right state of mind. All the techniques ask us to focus on the feeling of Bliss and not on the object that triggers the Bliss.
Since the terms ‘Shiva’ and ‘Shakti’ are used in both texts, it is best to think of ‘Shiva’ as the Divine Mind (he is understood as the Primal Male Principle) and ‘Shakti’ as the energy that manifests everything into life (she is understood as the Primal Female Principle).
Each technique is called a ‘Method’. As an example, I will start with Method 63:
If one contemplates simultaneously that one’s body and the entire Universe consist of nothing but Consciousness, then the mind becomes free of thoughts and the supreme Awakening occurs.
In this Method, we are asked to overcome our sense that our bodies are separate from the rest of the Universe, and to ‘imagine’ (allow for the possibility) that our bodies are one with the Consciousness that created the universe and are in no way separate from it. This is a very useful technique for anyone who is seriously (and playfully) considering practising Tantra because it allows for the experience of our bodies being as one with the creative force of the Universe and for feeling its bliss and sweetness. There is no judgement here. No fear. Only the feeling of the bliss of the awareness of the energy which created that bliss. This energy is benevolent and playful and wants us to feel as one with it. It also wants us to feel that we are not different from it. We are like the waves on the ocean’s surface. We may appear different from it but in fact we are just a different expression of it.
Method 69 is sexual in nature:
The delight experienced at the time of sexual union when the female energy is excited and when the absorption into her is completed, is similar to spiritual Bliss and that Bliss is said to be that of the Self.
Okay, so let’s unpack this. This is beautiful in itself, as it allows for a sexual union to be a conduit for spiritual Bliss—something that Western religions could learn a lot from. Having said that, the Bliss of sexual union is only similar to spiritual Bliss. It is not the same—but pretty close!
What does this mean?
Tantric teachings say that ‘in the sexual act when the joy arises’ you connect to the source of that joy. The source of this joy in the Tantra of esoteric Hinduism is not your sexual partner; your sexual partner only triggers the joy which is already inherent in you and only needs to be awoken. Then we need to ‘fix our minds’ on this joy and on this source, not on our partners or our own self-gratification.
Because in esoteric Hinduism we are the gods and goddesses, we are living manifestations of Shakti in our particular forms. Essentially, we are both Shiva (the Divine Mind) and Shakti (its Creative Energy or Force), and some intense experiences can bring this awareness back to us. In fact, the intensity of these experiences might be the key to this, as it shakes us up. It wakes us up from the sleep and habitual living of everyday life. Sexual energy is a force to be reckoned with and, even more importantly, can be used for this awakening.
Thus, when bliss arises during a sexual act, stay in the bliss. Stay in the experience and awareness of this Bliss. Become one with this Bliss. And if you can become one—even for a moment—with this Bliss then for that moment you are one with the essence of the Universe. For that moment, you are the essence of the Universe! You have an experience of your own Divinity as you.
So, this is less about what to do with your partner in technical terms, but more about using the bliss of the experience (however you get there) to experience oneness with your Source.
Now, what is the source of the Bliss? It is the Source of all the Universe. To have this experience, however, you need to engage with the feminine energy.
Why? Because Shakti is the act of creation and it is She who permeates all the Universe, which is pulsing with Her energy. Let me make this clear—without Shakti, nothing happens.
However, Method 70 allows for a proxy. It says,
Oh Goddess! In the absence of a woman there is a flood of delight by merely remembering the sexual joy experienced while kissing, embracing, pressing, etc.
Again, focus on the Bliss you have experienced in the past. From the point of view of Tantra, you can still use the memory of the delight experienced in sexual union to meditate and, ideally, become one with the Source or with Shakti as the Delight and Bliss flowing through you and through the entire Universe. After such an experience, it will be much easier to practise Method 63 in which you imagine that your own body is the body of the Universe because you already know the feeling, the delight, the Bliss in your body (achieved through the memory of sexual ecstasy).
The reason for sharing my experience at the beginning of the section on Sundari where I write that Eros and Tantra are important is that the experience of sexual bliss is similar but not the same as the experience of the movement of Shakti through one’s body. I had a clear and distinct sense that I was not experiencing an orgasm but rather the movement through my body of highly conscious Energy which was both me and bigger than me. It wanted to awaken in me and it charged through my body along my spinal column but in a more subtle way than some neural reaction. It is almost impossible to explain this and I would not have believed it myself had I not already experienced this during my formal Shaktipat initiation, when, for the first time, I felt this Energy (Shakti) moving in me through that subtle channel.
What was common for me, however, across the sexual delight and the experience of the movement of the Energy (Shakti) during the sexual act (and during the initiation) is that in both cases I spontaneously focused on the Energy (Shakti) and Her Source, and not on the man I was with. I also knew that the Energy moved through me and spilled into the man (the man was also aware of this) and thus, in Tantra, a woman is the conduit. There is no Tantra without the feminine (or the intense memory of her).
I will move on now to details of Chapter 29 of the Tantraloka by Abhinavagupta. In this chapter there is a warning that the sexual Tantric rituals are only for select people.
What does this mean?
It means that one needs to be an experienced meditator and a respectful devotee of Shakti. Those who are not ready will become like ‘bonded animals’; Shakti will not enter them and they will not experience Her Bliss. They will, instead, fall into addiction and become prey to dark forces. Here, again, esoteric Tantra is in no way aligned with physical practices which ‘can get you there’. In esoteric Tantra, it is only your undivided focus on the ‘supreme consciousness’ that will do the trick.
Consider this line: ‘The person who wishes to perform the ritual should bring a sexual partner, but not if he is deluded by desire…let him contemplate (himself) as Shiva and (her) as Shakti.’
And, at the same time (I love this next line!), ‘That which produces bliss should be used in worship since it ravishes the heart.’ So far, in accordance with the Vijnana Bhairava, sexual bliss is the gateway to higher consciousness but only for those who can see that sexual bliss is a form of spiritual bliss.
Internally, the Kula Ritual is about reaching a state of expanded Consciousness. Externally, the ritual takes place secretly in a chosen person’s house, where ‘perfected’ disciples meet their female partners, who are chosen and ritually prepared by their spiritual teacher. Throughout the text the word ‘shakti’ is used in reference to female practitioners of the ritual. The male disciples are carefully chosen for their high spiritual attainment and are referred to as ‘heroes’. If you like the terminology of ‘hero’ and ‘shakti’ go with it.
If not, let’s not get bogged down by archaic expressions and think of heroes as men of some spiritual awareness and shaktis as women of some spiritual awareness. The point is that both parties (female and male) need to have some sort of spiritual discernment. Otherwise, the ritual will not achieve its goal of bringing about an expanded state of consciousness.
Before the central, sexual ritual begins, a number of introductory rituals need to be performed to purify the minds of the disciples from ‘doubt’ and ‘delusion’. Each disciple is welcomed by a spiritual teacher, who repeats sacred mantras for them and places a flower in their hands. Mantras, traditionally passed from the spiritual teacher to the disciples, are a secret set of words to help the disciples’ minds focus on the universal/spiritual aspects of existence, rather than on the mundane chatter of the mind. In other words, the focused repetition of mantras lifts the mind and steers it away from regular worry and fear-driven thoughts to more divine or uplifting thoughts.
After the introductory mantras, the disciples then ‘anoint’ their sexual ‘instruments’ (Abhinavagupta’s shorthand for the sexual organs) by massaging their bodies with scented oils while repeating a new set of mantras (the repetition of divine names). After this they are finally allowed into the main hall, which is decorated with beautiful flowers and made fragrant with incense. There they join a ‘circle of goddesses’ (women as representatives of the Feminine Principle) and are placed in front of the one with whom they are to perform the central ritual, that is, the sexual ritual. Again, the women and men anoint each other’s bodies with fragrant oils before the sexual act itself. I imagine this as a very sensual form of worship of each other’s bodies.
Some disciples are allowed to ejaculate, some are not; there is a scriptural reason for this as well. Ejaculation or its restraint are both used as tools to attain a particular type of spiritual experience, and not for reasons of health or preserving male vitality, as other traditions maintain. However, in Chapter 29 ejaculation seems to be preferred, as at the moment of release, both the hero and the shakti will experience the bliss of the union. The same effect can be achieved by the hero performing an oral act on the shakti, as the Bliss cannot happen without her pleasure. Either way, the main purpose of it all is the achievement of an expanded state of Consciousness by all participants.
Since, according to the tradition, sexual organs pulsating with pleasure are replicas of the contraction and expansion of the Universe, the joining of the shakti and the man is a replica of the Male Principle (Shiva) and the Feminine Principle (Shakti) merging with the Primal Oneness. This is also why during the Kula Ritual it is considered a sacred act to drink the sexual fluids of the women and the men’s semen, which, it is promised, will bestow ‘eternal youth and immortality’ especially when drunk ‘mouth from mouth’. It is also stressed that sexual fluids are ‘utterly revitalising’ and ‘auspicious’.
That’s a different approach to sexuality, is it not?
There are no particular physical instructions (apart from the ritualistic preparation), except that (I’ll paraphrase closely here for the sake of simplicity):
‘…the women are worshipped (through the sexual act) and the man is the worshipper; their mutual joy is like an invocation (to the Supreme Consciousness) and the scratches made by their fingernails during lovemaking are flowers (like the garland offerings to the gods and goddesses in Hindu temples). The lovers’ embrace is like sweet incense (again a ritual in the temples), the ‘oblation’ (another ritual in the temples) is the lovers’ sexual fluids. The confused language of the beloved woman is like a holy mantra to the Goddess and the tasting of her ‘lower nectar’ (her sexual fluids) is like the recitation of the mantra in the temple. The vulva becomes a sacrificial pit and the penis the ladle, the clitoris is like the holy fire (in a temple) and the sperm is like the ‘ghee’ (sacrificial fluid). When the Bliss is aroused, the Universe manifests (through the lovers’ senses). That is the rapture, Oh Great Shakti. Whoever knows this, let him reach Shiva (Supreme Consciousness)!’
I consider this passage to be especially beautiful and encourage people to read it in a quiet whisper with a sense of surrender and inner devotion. It encapsulates for me everything that is often missing from the experience of the sexual act: the sweet and natural interweaving of what is both sexual and spiritual. This is living proof that the experience is possible if approached in the devotional state of mind. By ‘devotional’ I do not mean devotional to anything or anyone outside of ourselves but rather to that divine spark within ourselves. That spark is both spiritual and deeply sensual. Indeed, in an intuitive flash it came to me that the passage above was intended as a form of ecstatic prayer.
In a more formal way, the whole of the sexual act is an esoteric and mystical replica of the customary rituals performed in temples. Once participants are of ‘pure mind’ and considered ready by their spiritual teacher, they have enough evolved awareness to not only understand but also experience the joy of the union of opposites (feminine/masculine) present on this plain of existence and to transcend them and merge with the Supreme Consciousness, which is the Source of all that exists.
I am inserting here a personal confession that I was very self-conscious and conflicted about writing this chapter, concerned that it may offend people or push people’s buttons. However, the day after writing this chapter, I woke up before dawn in an expanded state of consciousness, which started in the middle of my forehead and slowly spread all over my body. I felt suspended in the air and absolutely peaceful, as if the door to the universe had opened for me. I also felt deeply and intuitively connected to the lineage of that tradition: Abhinavagupta, Lakshmanjoo and the woman, Ardha-Tryambaka, who started the tradition. My state of absolute bliss lasted about 30 minutes. This is when I understood that the passage I paraphrased above was, indeed, a prayer that was meant to be repeated in a quiet, sensual whisper.
However—and it is important to mention this here—the same effect of expanding consciousness and attaining bliss can be achieved through many methods (112, to be exact) described in the Vijnana Bhairava, and most of them have nothing to do with sexuality. In Method 71, one can attain bliss by focusing on the joy of ‘seeing a friend or relative after a long time’. According to Method 73, the same bliss can be attained by focusing on ‘the joy of music and other aesthetic delights’.
Tantra is about attaining union with the Supreme Consciousness by means of awakening Shakti within our own beings. The premise behind sexual Tantra is that it allows for the possibility of spiritual experience through the means of sexual delight.
Sundari: Healing the Goddess gap in Tantra
Tantra says there is nothing which is not sacred. Or to simplify the colourful language I have been using, Tantra is based on the premise that everything is sacred. That every thing and every action we undertake can potentially merge us with the divine principle of creation and thus can be sacred, if performed consciously and respectfully.
In order to delve deeper into the meaning of the kula ritual we need to also understand how radically different the Tantric view of the Divine Feminine is from that of all other religious traditions, including even Hinduism itself, from which Tantra sprang.
If we follow scholarly writing on the Divine Feminine in Hinduism, we learn that (and this is no different from other religious traditions) the Divine Feminine originally had a prominent role and place in ancient folk beliefs. Shakti (the Goddess) was understood as the deity to whom all prayers were directed. Indeed, the sexual stream of Tantra, as described in Chapter 29, came from a woman philosopher and tantrika—Ardha-Tryambaka.
And yet—and I will not get into the history of India here—with the arrival of the Brahmins, this all changed. They brought their caste system and rules and, not surprisingly, positioned themselves not only as the most important caste but also as the only true interpreters of the Divine. As a result, the original Hindu folk beliefs, which were organic and not hierarchical, were replaced by a complex system tightly controlled by the Brahmins.
Suffice to say that the Brahmins quickly dispensed with the Goddess Shakti as the Divine Feminine, and when they could not get rid of her completely they gave her a subordinate role as the wife of a male deity. She became the adoring wife who asks questions which he answers wisely, thus enlightening her. Convenient, is it not?
The ancient beliefs were difficult to repress, and now and then the Goddess’ vengeful side—a side the Brahmins hoped to repress but could not—would pop up in the form of Durga or even Kali, whom anyone in their right mind would listen to and obey if they wanted to live!
Why is this important to know? Well, because it sets up our archetypes and our role models for us. It is no coincidence that many women still primarily see themselves and their value in being someone else’s partner or wife—just like the Brahmins’ Goddess Shakti, whose power was stripped from Her.
But Tantra went against the stream of Brahminic repression—and brought the Goddess Shakti back!
John Dupuche, a Tantric scholar, says that in esoteric Hinduism, which embraces the principles of Tantra, Shakti has again become ‘the ultimate source of reality’. Without Shakti, nothing happens in the Universe.
In Jungian terms, She is the First Manifestation from the Cosmic Soup, or Pleroma—where everything was still dormant. She is the Power that wakes up the world, she is the power that awakens All the Possibilities of Manifestation. Indeed, she is the Manifestation. Let me be clear: without Her, nothing happens. She is the essence of life.
Given this, we can see why the male disciples needed to participate in the sexual ritual with women. Women in Tantra hold the secret to life, are capable of creation. They give life and, most importantly, they carry the Goddess within them.
While sitting in our informal but intense study group and discussing the writing of the great Indian philosopher Abhinavagupta who, although a Brahmin himself, regularly but secretly participated in the ritual, I would ask my male colleagues (all priests, swamis, scholars and monks): what about the women in the ritual?
As the women participants were supposed to be strangers to the male disciples and were often from lower castes (deliberately so in order to dismiss the Brahminic distinctions between higher and lower, pure and impure), what happened to them after they were worshipped as the embodiment of the Goddess?
Surely, I asked, there were no contraceptives used then? Who, therefore, carried not only the Goddess but also the burden of the consequences of the sexual ritual? Not the male disciples, who were only initiated into the ritual in secret and who could have no contact with the women afterwards.
Even more disturbingly: Did the women, especially the ones from lower castes, have any say whatsoever on whether they wanted to participate in the ritual? Were they aware of the consequences?
These are interesting questions about the ritual, to which my male colleagues said they had no answers.
So I would like to ask these questions: Did Tantra, as it has been traditionally practised, give—only theoretically—power back to the Goddess? And did it respect the women who embodied the Goddess?
Perhaps—and this is just my opinion—the philosophy is fine and has given a voice back to the Goddess, but now this voice and the control over this voice has to be given to the women who carry the Goddess within them.
Without them, it is not Tantra (which treats everyone the same and embraces all). It is only another exercise of power over the Divine Feminine.
The power of the archetype of Sundari
And this is where the power of the archetype of Goddess Sundari returns. As we have already learned, Sundari is the most powerful expression of the Erotic Divine, which is spiritually charged and oblivious to our distinctions between the spiritual and erotic. She knowingly uses the power of Eros to awaken our spiritual potential, which is beyond our preconceived ideas of what is spiritual and what is erotic.
How can we embody this powerful transcendence in our lives?
Since my own Tantric experiences were spontaneous gifts of grace, I have no method or practice of my own. I have found the best answer to this question in the magnificent book authored by Sally Kempton, Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga. In chapter 12 Kempton provides several meditative and other practices aimed at awakening Sundari within us. One meditative technique she suggests is described as ‘Invoking Lalita Tripura Sundari in the Sahasrara’. The title is unnecessarily off-putting for someone not familiar with Yoga and esoteric Hinduism but the practice is very simple. I will again paraphrase here for the sake of simplicity.
Kempton advises that we sit up straight so the energy of the Goddess can move freely through our body (and if you are not averse to traditional Yogic terminology—through your subtle body. Do not worry about whether you can feel your subtle body or not; just sit straight). Take a few pleasant breaths, focusing on the feeling of bliss. This can be sexual bliss or any form of bliss which is easily accessible for you in your body and in your imagination. Feel this bliss. As you are doing so, focus on the centre of your head and gradually move your attention to a spot just above the crown of your head (Kempton specifies an area precisely eight fingers above the head). Imagine the beautiful Goddess Sundari there in the form of the sun or a light and gently repeat the word ‘Hreem’, which is the mantra name for Sundari. Then imagine Her on top of Shiva (her male consort) in erotic bliss and feel this bliss flowing into your head ‘in the form of silvery white nectar’. Then let it move from your head to the rest of your body and feel the bliss of the ultimate feminine and masculine (Shakti-Shiva) union.
Kempton also provides other meditations on desire, the yoni and other things. The reason I have picked this meditative practice is because it is easy and exemplifies the divine union of female-male principles into one. The experience of that oneness is pure bliss and is often given to us in our erotic unions but in a less conscious way—and therefore the lessons are lost on us. Another reason I love this meditation is that it corresponds to hints at the merging of the feminine and masculine in some of the Gnostic texts in Western esoteric traditions, especially in The Gospel of Philip.
Now, here is an additional explanation for those of you who are not familiar with the Hindu esoteric traditions. Each deity has a ‘seed’ mantra that represents her or him. ‘Hreem’ represents the Goddess Sundari. Thus, by gently saying ‘Hreem’ you invoke Her into your awareness. The best way of doing this is to do so as if you were calling your beloved. In a coaxing, sensual way. Call upon Her and enjoy Her bliss.
At the deepest level, the union of Sundari and her male consort represents the original joining of the Feminine and Masculine Principles which made all life possible, which made all creation possible. In this version of the creation story, the feminine energy is as necessary as the masculine. Indeed, Shiva (the ultimate Male Principle) can’t create without his feminine consort. Without her, nothing happens. This is strikingly different from later interpretations of Creation, both in Hinduism and in Western traditions, where Creation is seen as the act of a solitary male god. Strangely enough, he is always in a bad mood and can’t stop talking about sinners and sin!
Another version of this meditative practice is described in Muktananda’s (a 20th-century teacher of esoteric Hinduism) book, The Play of Consciousness, where he recounts his own experience of being aroused by a vision of the Goddess and how she made him realise that even erotic movement of the body can be sacred. The method he later passed to his male disciples is as follows:
When alone and aroused, stay with the feeling but do not act on it. Then in a similar way to that described above, while sitting straight direct the flow of the subtle energy of semen (or sexual fluids in a woman) upward, rather than downward, towards a release. Ideally, you can conduct this journey of the sexual fluids or their subtle mental representation upward all the way to the crown of your head.
If you succeed in this, he says, you will find the bliss of transcendence, and the Goddess Herself can manifest in your consciousness or, even more literally, in front of you as a vision and spiritually charged presence which will transform your life and push your spiritual journey forward.
Now, that is all well and good, some might say, but how do you embody the archetype of Sundari in your active life?
This is a slow, yet easy practice which is spiritual in its essence and requires patience—which, admittedly, is not my strength either. But if you give it a chance, even by just sweetly repeating ‘Hreem’ and calling upon the Goddess Sundari, you can invoke Her archetype in your mind, body and life. Kempton, at the end of chapter 12 of her book, says, ‘“Hreem” when repeated three times, brings about the transformation of our speech and mind, and of our sexual energy, and spiritualises our nature.’
This meditation is suitable for both women and men. I actually believe it is necessary for both women and men to practise this, as this is where the healing of the original wound, the wound which throws our lives, our governments, our traditional religious systems out of balance takes place—in the delightful and respectful union of both principles. Nothing beats it.
These goddesses can guide us. And if you do not believe in gods and goddesses and their theological or mythological validity, then treat them as archetypes—often forgotten and pushed away by our history and its rulers. These archetypes can teach us how to evolve and love our sexuality. They can teach us how we can bring light to our sexuality and our most wounded parts. This is true of both women and men. We have all been harmed for millennia, perhaps always, by ideas and experiences based on things, people and circumstances which do not serve us, which stop us from loving each other fully and bringing balance between the cosmic feminine and masculine energies, which have always been meant to work together. Whether you are a woman or a man or any gender and orientation in your body, you play with these energies and you encounter them in everyone in your life in a damaged form.
I can tell you, here and now: this is not how it was intended to be. And this is why, in part three, we will discuss the Goddesses of the Secret Knowledge.
Please feel free to comment on this part of the book and share your own experiences—all comments on my website are anonymous and I welcome your feedback, as long as it is not abusive.
Similarly, please leave comments on this website, if you have spiritual experiences of Eros that you would like to share, or even include in the book.
May the Goddesses of Eros guide you.
Dr Joanna Kujawa
Goddess News blog
A short quiz on the archetypes of the Goddess of Eros.
- Are you in love with love, and do you love the erotic high at the beginning of each relationship? Do you move from one relationship to another after the romantic enchantment wears off? Or, if you are a religious or spiritual person, do you long for a union with the Divine similar to that Teresa of Avila, Rumi or Anandamayi Ma had? If so, you follow the archetype of the Goddess Radha.
- Are you aware of your beauty and charm but feel somehow disempowered by them? Instead of claiming that lovely power for yourself, do you keep falling into the ‘Eros trap’? Do you know that you have a powerful goddess/god within you but somehow you can’t get in touch with your own power and keep giving it away in your romantic relationships? If so, you follow the archetype of the Goddess Aphrodite.
- Are you in full control of your sexual appeal and charm and use it to get what you want? Do you understand the effect you have on other people and enjoy throwing that charm at them so they either follow you or fall for you? Does it bring you pleasure knowing you have power over others and, on occasion when the circumstances call for it, do you use that charm to get what you want? If so, you follow the archetype of Goddess Circe.
- Are you naturally well balanced and in charge of all of the aspects of your personality, including your sexuality and its effect on others? Do you have a deep connection to the goddess within you and are not afraid to show this in all its power, both in your sexual relationships and in all situations in life? Do you walk into the room with the authentic charisma of someone who knows their worth yet carries it lightly? Do you know you are an empress of your kingdom, however big or small it is? Do you experience your sexuality as both: a deeply sensual and, at the same time, spiritual act? If so, you follow the archetype of the Goddess Sundari.
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