Ursula K Le Guin And Her Love Affair With A Seductive Ascetic From South India

Ursula Guin’s fantasy and science fiction worlds were animated with her profound understanding of Indic spirituality. After her passing away, that understanding must be recognised, respected, and celebrated. 

By Aravindan Neelakandan

Ursula K. Le Guin died on January 22 2018, aged 88. That day, while I was recovering from typhoid, I was planning a tour to temples in the Chola province orgainsed by Swarajya as part of Swarajya Heritage tour.

So, five days after the death of this American novelist, I was standing with the group at Airavatesvara temple built by Chola king Rajaraja-II in 12th century CE. Around the temple, in stone walls, the lives of great Nayanmars were sculpted. Each of these holy men and women had a peculiar way of relating himself or herself to Shiva. And each differed from the other immensely – sometimes they were even diametrically opposite. Later, when we stood before a calendar art depiction of all the acts of the Nayanmars, someone in the group asked, “So what exactly should one be like in spirituality? What exactly are these people telling us?”

Sakhya Nayanar a Buddhist every day threw a stone at Shiva Linga. Kungiliya Nayanar tied the rope to his own neck to make the leaning Siva Linga straight again. Both are revered as sacred Nayanmars.: Darasuram Temple (12th century)

The question prompted me to recall a passage from Guin’s novel The Telling (2000). Here, Guin writes from the point of view of a girl with a Hindu name, who has grown up with a completely non-Hindu official education, viewing the spiritual tradition of another planet for knowledge-mining to help the colonisers:

Remembering that passage in that grand Chola temple, it felt almost as if she had described the spiritual basis of the Nayanmars. Consider this. Sundarar asks Shiva to go as his emissary to his lover and Shiva obeys. Viran Minda Nayanar threatens Shiva, the deity himself, with excommunication from Shaivism and Shiva gets concerned, not angry. Shiva comes as labourer and frolics as Vaigai river rages and gets caned by the king.

The so-called rationalists in South India have made fun of all these aspects of Shiva. Ace Dravidianist, E V Ramasamy, told Hindus, “I am not saying you do not worship God. But worship not these deities but worship One God with dignity like Christians and Muslims”. The pseudo-rational Dravidian movement proclaimed that the Periya Puranam – the puranic retelling of the Nayanmars, should be burnt. And here, Ursula, in her science fiction, provides the English-educated, colonised, uprooted Hindus a vision of what actually their religion is all about, if they care to read of course.

Young Ursula Guin Courtesy: Wired

Ursula Guin functioned in a realm dominated by Protestant white males. There were, of course, notable (non-religious) Jewish contributors like Isaac Asimov. And yet, the overarching paradigm that ruled the science fiction world when Guin started writing was that of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP). One can say her science fiction and fantasy, as well as her experiments with poetry, brought a challenging perspective to the world of science fiction.

This challenging perspective that she brought she took from Taoism, Hinduism and native American mythology. And this vastly differs from the Western understanding of the myth of the hero and his quest. Hence, her challenge was refreshing and profound. She was also a Jungian. She considered the Jungian notion of collective unconscious as “a vast common ground on which we can meet, not only rationally, but aesthetically, intuitively, emotionally”. Her 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, established Ursula Guin as a reputed and established name in the field of science fiction and fantasy. In her introduction to the 1976 reprint, she wrote:

Again, this is something a Hindu not uprooted from her essence knows intuitively. Ursula Guin should have known it.

In her poetry book, Hard Words (1981), she explores the self and existence with the tools of extraordinary images. We see a passionate lover emerging in her shaped by these images and stories. Her ‘Epiphany’ goes thus:

Did you hear?
Mrs Le Guin has found God.
Yes, but she found the wrong one.
Absolutely typical.
Look, there they go together.
Mercy! It’s a colored woman!
Yes, it’s one of those relationships.
They call her Mama Linga (
Epiphany)

We are left to wonder who or what is Mama Linga?

Prof Richard D Erlich, a literary critic, in his work on Guin thinks she refers to Kali. As a Hindu, this writer feels she may also be referring to the female part in the Linga – well known in Tamil as Avudai. There are temples where the Avudai Itself is worshipped as Linga, as in the Avudayar temple (Pudukottai district) in Tamil Nadu.

According to epigraphist S Ramachandran, the word Avudai is related to or derived from the Sanskrit word odhyaana. (Origins of Androgynous Godhead, Tamil, Sishri.org) . Interestingly, in her poetry, Ursula Guin speaks of ‘one of those relationships’ with reference to Mama Linga. What is it that she might have meant? Linga is etymologically related to language. In Sri Lalitha Sahasranama, one of the meanings associated with her name ‘Odhyanapitha Nilaya‘ – (she who abides in the Odhyana structure, name 379) – is the manifest word – Vaikari Vak.

Did Ursula Guin in mentioning Mama Linga understood these relationships, perhaps intuitively?

In another poem she says that the ‘little children’ fear the Kali’s day. They ‘weep’ and seek an escape – ‘let it not be till tomorrow’. But the woman in the sleep of the poet goes on ‘drumming until the drumhead breaks’. As the maiden wakes and sees the ‘Kali’s day’ coming, things change:

Mother takes the fear away.
Night is Kali
the god appears between her thighs
stands in beauty, dances, dies.
O Mother, comfort me. (The Night)

To miss the similarity between the poem on Kali written by Swami Vivekananda in 1898 where he sang of her as death and terror and also as the mother, would be difficult. (The whole poem can be read here.)

(L to R) Shiva burns Kama, Shiva as the seductive Bhikshaatana, Shiva as Nataraja

Guin then speaks of Shiva burning Kama – the deity of desire. Again, the deep knowledge of the subtleties and nuances of Hindu spirituality which Ursula Guin had internalised amazes a Hindu and leaves her Western art critic almost baffled. The poet urges Shiva to burn Kama who comes to adore Shiva ‘over the April meadow’

Uncover your third eye,
burn him to ashes
that he may cast no shadow
being with you and before you
hereafter and forever. (Siva and Kama)

There is a beautiful hint here of the understanding of the deeper aspect of Hindu spirituality, and she is not even flaunting. It flows with her words – very Taoist if you like. The burning of Kama makes him cease to be a ‘shadow’ here in the Jungian sense. Kama gets integrated. After being burnt to ashes, he gets resurrected in an integrative manner into the self. Sri Lalitha Sahasranama says that this happens because of the grace of the divine feminine. The goddess becomes the life-resurrecting medicine for Kama after he was burnt by the fire from the third eye of Shiva. In the end, Shiva himself became Kameswara.

With the burning and then integrating of Kama, Shiva becomes the enchanting dance master. A mother of a girl watches him advancing ‘admirably suave’. Then she exclaims ‘O my God! His zipper!/ What is that thing? A cobra?/ It wags at me so sweetly.’ We are reminded of the image of the seductive Bhikshatana here.

They say he uses cannabis.
I wouldn’t trust my daughter
at his school.
O but how sweetly,
sweetly he can dance! (School)

Again, one is reminded of Tamil mystic-devotional literature, with its imagery of the love-intoxicated daughter telling her mother that the paradoxical aspects of Shiva have made her fall madly in love with him. Manickavasakar, a Shaivaite seer (dated between fourth to ninth century CE) sings of Shiva from the point of view of such a girl. “Mother, look at the way my lover dresses/Snake as His ornament/Tiger skin in His hips/Covering Himself in ashes/And Mother, to this form I am madly in love.. Having a woman as part of his body yet an ascetic beggar, Oh! Mother but as he moves away with his begging bowl why my heart aches!” Seems a mother born more than thousand years after the girl confessed her love to Shiva, in a place thousand miles away, is now cautious to guard her daughter. But here already the mother herself is madly in love with Shiva.

According to the puranic narrative, it was after the seductive and handsome Bhikshatana had enchanted their wives, that the enraged rishis sent a tiger to kill Shiva, who made the skin of the very tiger his dress and started dancing.

In Shaiva Siddhanta, the dance and the primeval creative sound principle play an important role. Tirumular says this about the dance:

That Primal Para (Supreme) danced;
Fire held in His hand danced;
His matted locks too danced;
Bliss intoxicated He danced;
With all those celestial eggs, the universe danced;
He danced with Nada (the primal creative sound principle)
The Dance of Nadanta! (Thirumanthiram: 2751)

Now, more than thousand years later, Ursula Guin – in the dance of Shiva – says she wants to be the sound of his drum:

I am the dance you’re dancing
I am the loving tiger
I am the hungry god
You are the drummer, you are the drum
but I am the sound of drumming (A Semi-Centenary Celebration)

And what a dance it is! Everywhere she looks, Ursual Guin sees and feels the dance from his drums:

Sun dance
stone dance
bone dance
one dance
sky dance
bird dance
word dance
I dance (Drums)

And this is Thirumoolar on the dance at Tillai:

Vedas dance
Great Agamas dance
Songs dance
All realms dance
Elements dance
Entire existence dances
With the Nada (creative sound from the drum) He dances
The dance that comes from the Bliss of Knowledge
(Thirumanthiram: 2729)

In South India, as you walk through the semi-darkened halls of centuries old temples, natural light filters onto the stone pillars, showing the gods, goddesses, and suddenly, one sees an act of sexual union – not just between deities but also between humans, and even jesters trying to suck their own genitals. Then suddenly, again, you might see Shiva as Dakshinamurthy – a supreme form of Shiva – teacher of wisdom. One can feel the tantric-yogic harmony. And it is hard to describe it in words. Moving between the romantic loving devotee and the mystic tantric realm, Ursuala’s poetry too has that feel of the pillared corridor in a South Indian temple.

Guin uses the lines from the popular ‘Red Riding Hood’ in her poetry and conveys a terrifying yet not an uncommon tantric imagery involving Shiva and Kali:

Where did I get this middle eye?
So you can see me clear.
Where did I get these extra arms?
To hug me with my dear.
What have I got these big teeth for?
Bite off my head my sweet
And dance upon my body
There where the rivers meet.
(Tale)

Ursula  Guin catches vividly with ambiguous reversals, the enigmatic tantric imagery of Kali dancing on Shiva

And also, Kali dancing on Shiva becomes the act of bringing existence into being.

God’s stomach
rumbles like a drum
when I jump on it
when I dance on his chest he snores
when I dance on his gut he farts
when I dance on his cock he comes
when I dance on his eyes he wakes and all the stones fall down
ashes, ashes
all fall down.
Get up and dance, creation! (Carmagnole of the Thirtieth June)

When adoring Shiva as Pashupati, the poet sees through the eyes of Parvati. The hair of her beloved is uncombed. His hair is not only uncombed but is grey with ashes and it hides the crescent. Old men call him crazy. But why uncombed hair? Because on the uncombed hair falls the river out of the stars. So his lover sings

O my lord I Parvati know myself
daughter of the king of mountains
immortal, when my heart grows heavy
with tenderness thinking of my husband the herdsman
who never combs his hair.
(Pasupati)

Not able to stand the horrors humanity inflicts on itself and on the nature the child cries. And Kali answers. And she is the Kali from Thillai.

They burned Hiroshima
There was Tillai
The blood burned painfully
That pleased Kali
I seek comfort, mother.
Find it in the ashes.
I seek comfort, mother.
Find it in the bones.
Mother, I am sick at heart.
Come to the drumming at Chidambaram.
Mother, I am sick at heart.
Come to the dancing at Tillai. ( The Dancing at Tillai )

And then Kali explains the mystery – the dance of Shiva to the child :

See where my lord bears drum and flame
his right hand says Be not afraid
his left hand points to the dancing foot
he dances in the heart laid waste
the burning place
river and moon are in his hair
his lifted foot is grace
his lowered foot is sleep
he dances in the center
there, and there, and there,
all time, all space,
the arch of all the stars
contains his splendor

Ursula Guin understood Hindu spirituality in its entirety, with typically easy Hindu ability to move between multiple meanings and layers. And this creates in her a worldview that fills her science-fiction and fantasy world. Naturally, this becomes very relevant in the context of what is happening today, right here. Without exploring that aspect we cannot completely understand Guin and the fire that drove her writings through decades – which is what the next part will deal with.

Source: Swarajya Culture

Featured image: https://en.wikipedia.org

 

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