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The lost vagina

The Erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos and power of our deepest feelings. It is the internal sense of satisfaction to which once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. Once having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognised its power, in honour and self respect we can require no less of ourselves.

- Audre Lorde

The divine archetypes of Indian culture and Shaiva Tantra have been an inspiration of sensuality, sexuality and liberation for many people; since medieval times in India, to the emergence of the New Age in the West in the 1970s. The goddesses Lalita Tripura Sundari, Saraswati and Kali are pictured with laden and uncovered breasts and hypnotising hips. Figures of power and skill, their piercing eyes have a way of reaching inside and bringing their qualities out from within the viewer. Shiva and Parvati are in an eternal state of orgasmic lovemaking; her arms and legs wrapped around the Lord of Awareness, both of their heads thrown back in ecstasy. The deities flaunt their sex and own it as godly. In modern day Indian culture as I have experienced it, sex can be seen as another thing altogether.

I’ve been learning to speak Gujarati recently. This is my mother tongue. The other day I was round at my mum’s house practising with her and Mota (grandmother), who just turned a strong and healthy 84 years old.

“Ek, be, tran, char…”

One, two, three, four...

...I recited. When in my mum’s house, I sometimes find myself morphing into the cheeky side of my inner child. I questioned them both on the Gujarati equivalents for familiar English words. One of the words that I wanted translated was Pussy. When I said it my mum laughed and shook her head and asked, “Why do you want to know that word?” I responded by saying, “it seems like one of the most important words,” and I repeated it for Mota (who is a bit hard of hearing). She wasn’t familiar with the word, so I rephrased it to “Vagina” and gestured by holding my Vagina just to make it clear. Mota full on gasped, covered her ears, blushed and broke out into awkward laughter. After much awkwardness on their parts and deep amusement within me, it turned out that neither of them actually knew the word for Vagina or Pussy in Gujarati, Hindi or Sanskrit. I was kind of blown away by this. How could such an important piece of anatomy be not only unutterable, but completely missing from our vocabulary?

I later found out, using google translate, that the Gujarati word for vagina is Yoni. “Of course” I thought. The Yoni is a temple. A sacred feminine space. I know this Sanskrit word from my exploration of yoga and tantra, which I mostly studied here in London, often one of the only Indians in the teaching spaces. My traditional Indian grandmother; to whom Gujrarati, Hindi and Sanskrit were her first, second and third languages, didn’t even know this word (or at least was too embarrassed to use it), but I know of many white healers, yoga teachers and spiritual western millennials who use the word with full knowing and feeling. Some of them even make a living out of massaging it or teaching others to explore it. The irony is not lost on me, but I’m still pissed off.

I have visited some of the birthplaces of sacred Indian spirituality and tantric practise, deep in Tamil Nadu.

I have engaged in the worship of the divine feminine and masculine in their dance, within all life.

I have stepped barefoot around ancient stone temples, knelt, and placed my head at the foot of the deity.

I’ve drunk sweet Prasad from the deep carved bowls that represent the divine feminine mixing pot (the Yoni); penetrated by the rock hard male principle (the Lingam).

And I have literally gasped at the openly sexual and loudly expressive naked bodies of the Tantrikas, carved into limestone that surround the gates and inner sanctums of our ancient Indian temples.

The word Yoni is an Indian word. This sexual proclamation was ours. So how come I am the only Gujarati woman in my family who is able to proudly connect to it in this way? Why is it that so many Western New Age practitioners enjoy the privilege of exploring this divine pussy teaching through a cultural import, but my mother and my grandmother have been taught not only that it’s wrong to talk about pussy, but it’s dirty to touch or even think about it?

Recently I visited the British Museum to see the Tantra exhibition. I was enchanted, enlivened and infuriated; the content of the show was so brilliant and the viewers of the artefacts there were almost exclusively white people. Amongst the pieces on display was a print that was used to advertise cigarettes in Calcutta in 1907. The piece shows the wildly destructive Goddess Kali, with a garland made of the severed and bleeding heads of white men; a political comment on the British Raj and the instability that India was facing. What a staggering piece, what a strong message of pain and resistance. And as I watched it, I this piece reaching the whole audience it needs to in order to land with power, pride and absolution?

I feel anger. The bits that I know about colonial culture in India lead me to believe that before British rule, India was a place of sexual revolution and transcendence. The prudish sensibilities of 18th Century British Empire gradually indoctrinated that out of the Indian psyche and replaced it with suppression and shame. I’m angry about stuff that feels so far away from me, but lands right in the pussies of me and my grandmother at the same time. I don’t feel that spiritual teachings are a thing to be owned. Once awareness about a concept, or even a word, is released into the collective consciousness, I feel it is naturally shared- if not through words, then through a kind of thought and energy osmosis. This is part of our evolution, and true to the fact that we live in a universe which is literally Mental. So in saying this, it’s not that I don’t want Becky to connect to her Yoni, I’m just pissed off that Bhavna feels like she can’t.

My Great Grandmother’s name was Kastoori. The name means Musk. Musk is a sweet, expensive and strong aroma produced by a particular breed of Deer to attract mates. This alluring scent is also coveted by perfume makers as an aphrodisiac. As the story goes, although they are enticed by the smell, the deer that produce the musk don’t seem to be aware that they are actually creating it themselves. Was my Great Grandmother this deer? Have I been this deer? In possession of a primal and hypnotic essence, but somehow unaware of the energy and power that it holds? It feels like a female tragedy: brought to life by this magic that we don’t fully know the power of, or that it is ours to claim.

On another note, I have suspicions that sometimes in our Western World, Eastern spirituality is received into our culture with a bit of a fetishised Orientalist attitude. Because the general Western culture is bleached of spirituality that has been passed down through cultural lineage (other than the cathedrals consumerism aka shopping centers), we seek distant, thrilling and exotic teachings to connect us to Spirit which we so deeply need in order to experience depth in life. But then we alter these imported teachings, and turn the whole thing into a product. Nifty. And for those of us who are making money out of spiritual practise that is shared with a Western/global audience (me included), I feel it's continually important for us to do so with political and cultural awareness, respect and sensitivity. How has history informed what we are teaching?

Some may think of the topic of sexy talk and expression as futile in comparison to the depth and variety of all of the racism and oppression that brown people have faced in their relations with the White White West, but sexual energy is no trifle. It literally created the whole world. It eternally moulds evolution, sparks wonder and sells cars. If I experience shame and disconnection around the act of being sexual, acknowledging my sex organ or experiencing erotic energy in life, then what does that mean about the energy that I share and aspiration I have to feel good? Pleasure is my birthright and I am starting to take it more and more seriously.

I am familiar with how shame takes seat in the body. I have held a lot of shame around sexuality in my life which has caused me to:

  • demonise other people (especially women) who openly express their sexual desire,

  • suppress my own healthy desires, until they forced themselves out of me in shadowy ways

  • hate my body whilst still feeling desperate for other people to find it desirable

  • feel unhappy about all of the above.

It takes work and being present with discomfort to move past shame, but in relation to my pleasure journey, starting to move past shame is helping me to set my standards of living higher. I want to settle for nothing less than the highest freaky peaks of liveness that life has to offer. Why shouldn’t I?

It’s not just about sex. It’s about being able to name and claim the fullness of my feelings as my birthright: to be experienced and, wherever possible, enjoyed.

I feel this lesson, this culture and these words strongly in my body. It is a mixture of joy, sadness, anger, and also gratitude. A gift of my life, lived in the liminal spaces in between 3 cultures, is the opportunity to take a wide lens view from a distance on Indian, Ghanaian and also British/Western cultures. I see the gifts that my ancestry and culture have given me. I make efforts to deepen and nurture my spirited connection to Indian culture, and I also see the ways in which my ancestors were oppressed and held back from their full expression, regardless of whether that was due to colonialism or not. Maybe I am the gift that my ancestors subconscious wanted to birth: they moved through time towards me, until they can experience this new found freedom vicariously, through my life… My journey towards liberation as a woman who claims herself as a sexual being started thousands of years ago in India. In my lifetime, this has been facilitated by the West.

Written, in love and fury, by Ava Riby-Williams

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