The Tantra is an Indian esoteric doctrine of mysticism spanning Hinduism and Buddhism. It incorporates not just the spiritual but also the sexual ways of becoming one with the divine. While the Indian poets belonging to the devotional bhakti movement have written about the possibilities of the union with God with a hint of eroticism, this extreme route of using sexual practice to know everything, including the ultimate divinity, has remained unexplored.
Nisha Ramayya’s States of the Body Produced by Love should be read in the context of this absence. The combination of essays and the poems of this debut collection and of a major section in the book comes from the doctrine of smaradasa, the ten states of the body produced by love: joy of the eyes, pensive reflection, desire, sleeplessness, emaciation, indifference to external objects, abandonment of shame, infatuation, fainting away, and death. Some poems are full of the sense-making and the senselessness that the body goes through in the path to the union: not the normalized expression of longing but the phraseology oscillating between newness and repetition. Here is an excerpt from the state of sleeplessness:
Measuring lengths between wanting you having you
Measuring lengths between wanting having wanting having you you you
Finding ourselves in our friends they’re like you they’re you they’re not like you
Finding ourselves on the outside we’re inside we’re like you we’re not you
Finding ourselves wanting we’re having we’re not you we’re not you
Ramayya weaves such articulations of what happens in love with the larger contexts of language and politics: after all, love and sexuality emerge from the vocabulary and institutions that teach individuals how to fall in love or how to love. Here is the state of emaciation in love, showing a ‘yes’ intertwined with the self:
The य y in Sanskrit stands in the closest relationship with the vowel इ i (short or long); the two exchange with one another in cases innumerable….
The flat of the tongue against the walls of the room.
The reverberations of yes-sounds enforcing the I, the I, the I.
We yield to the hooks of these I-sounds, inside, history, independence.
The walls of the room blocking the sounds of the tongues on the hooks of the I.
The poet’s access to Sanskrit opens further doors to the substance of Indian mythology and history. The Mahavidyas, or the great knowledges, are chief among them. These Mahavidyas are also goddesses and they are unlike the regular deities when it comes love and loving. One has dirt in her nails and happily accepts dirty clothes as offerings. Another one cuts off her own head to feed those she loves. These are dimensions of love one does not routinely hear of.
The first essay talks about Sati, Lord Shiva’s (first) wife, as an episode of what love means: death, the final state of being in love. Her father insulted her husband by not inviting him to an auspicious ceremony of sacrifice. In her meditation, Sati, consumed by her anger towards her father, lit a fire inside her and burned from within:
Visnu, who had been conspicuously quiet, was drawn into the story to alleviate Siva’s grief. He threw his discus and cut Sati’s body into fifty pieces (this number is debated). These pieces fell to earth and became sacred sites known as Saktipithas. The map of South Asia is a map of Sati’s love for Siva, a map of a good woman’s duty to her husband. The goddess sacrificed herself so that the gods could come to an agreement over their positions in the pantheon.
The Sati-love connection is not necessarily a tantric one but it’s an inevitable one for the readers to make. Ramayya should have perhaps stuck to that for both these passages of clarity quoted above sit with pieces that go off in such directions as Lord Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education, the first Sanskrit-English dictionary compiled by Monier-Williams in the 19th century or academic feminists. The structure of the collection with both prose and poetry and be disorienting.
States of the Body Produced by Love needs to be read with care, for there are themes and meanings, such as those on Sati, which can be controversial if not actually pernicious. The way it dwells on Tantra as an unusual way of getting to know loving and knowing is nonetheless interesting.
Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.