As a woman in India today, the question that often confronts me is: Is there a way to reconcile tradition and modernity? There perhaps is no conclusive answer to this — there are stories that reiterate concepts that control women and their sexuality. We associate tradition with duty, a force that is in opposition to, and often seeks to control and regulate, desire and personal freedom.
Yet, I have to admit that I am surprised by the past. My grandmother, who I loved deeply, sought in her old age to connect me with the rituals and the pujas of her family and the past — and I resisted this. It also seemed incongruous to me that my grandmother — a woman who loved her lipstick, sported a bob cut, and delighted in wearing chiffon saris with sleeveless blouses — a liberated woman, was, as she grew older, deeply immersed in certain traditions.
When she passed away, in honour of her memory — a little against my own ideals — we donated money for a puja at the temple of her Kuladevata, her family deity, Amba Bhavani. I had resisted hearing about this deity throughout my life, yet after her death, I found myself talking to the priest at the temple and was forced to confront my own prejudices. Amba Bhavani — according to this priest’s description — was exactly the sort of of Goddess my fierce and emancipated grandmother would have approved of. She was not merely the sister of Krishna, she was a single Goddess, unmarried, the incarnation of Shakti and incredibly strong.
It strikes me as ironic that a culture that boasts of a rich legend connected to deadly saviour Shakti-Goddesses is also a culture that allows gender inequities.
There is Lalitha Tripurasundari, the Goddess to whom Lalitha Sahasranama is dedicated. She is described in sensual terms, regarded as the embodiment of desire and is married to Kameswara, Siva incarnate as Desire. She fights and triumphs over a demon, Bhandasura — a demon who is, literally, called Shame. It is fascinating to consider some of the metaphors that her story can offer us — a form of Mahamaya, Lalitha is the one ‘who plays,’ she is Beauty and Desire and defeats Shame.
But Lalitha Tripurasundari is a Goddess associated with the Tantric tradition, and we shy away from talking about and exploring the thoughts and ideas preserved in it. I was struggling to understand what exactly tantra was, when a scholar explained to me that tantricism involves practices and ideas that advance personal empowerment; that enables the practitioner or student of Tantricism to seek liberation — moksha not merely in a spiritual sense, but also in the sense of being controlled and restricted by social convention.
Yet Tantricism is uncomfortable to discuss today with its focus on sex and eroticism; and in this sense suggests that the past, in many ways, was more open-minded than the present we live in. I cannot help wondering if delving deeper into the texts and ideas of Tantricism can give rise to a discussion on Desire that could free us — as Lalitha does — from Shame.