Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Heart

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The heart, that wretched thing, that effigy to which we take all our torch songs, the ones we quote from endlessly, the ones we listen to furtively, with earphones. Here’s Neil Young searching, a miner for a heart of gold (but does he possess one himself – can he give the thing he wants to receive?). Here are the Backstreet Boys, aching with an agony both pure and puerile; let me show you the shape of my heart.

Show it to us then. Here’s Christ himself holding his sacred heart before his chest like an apple, blazing like original sin – here’s Hanuman, taking things a step further, literally tearing his chest open with his bare hands and revealing its contents. The gesture may be stylized, sanitized, but it’s immediately recognizable: who among us hasn’t done the same?

Inevitably, barbarism. “The heart is a lonely hunter,” wrote Carson McCullers. The heart hungers, like every hunter. And the hunter is always armed – but with what? Look at the tip of the vel, look at the shape of the space for the eyes and mouth on a barbute helmet.

Here you are with your heart a deflated balloon, an overflowing chalice, a reservoir.

Here I am with my current favourite metaphor: heart a mosaic, resurrected and re-resurrected, cannonball after cannonball. This is what it means to love someone to pieces – your own life turns to tesserae.

Here it is in nature: the original Valentine of the silphium seed. Here the procession of magenta lamprocapnos spectabili, here the swaying vine of cordate pepper leaves. The former are called bleeding-heart flowers, the latter cling and cling like nothing but a thing in love. (Here is U2’s heart as a bloom, shoot[ing] up from the stony ground).

Here is Poe’s tell-tale heart, pounding out justice. Here the I [heart] New York icon, so ubiquitous that the [heart] is now shorthand. In films, we’ve [heart]ed Huckabees, been “wild at heart”, and even sensed “the beat that my heart skipped”. Whose is the mighty heart about which Mariane Pearl wrote – her slayed husband’s, or her widowed own?

How many metaphors we find for a thing that is, itself, a metaphor – heart as the source of our joy, heart as the location of our ruin, heart as the centre of the world. The idea of the heart as a place – Elvis and Whitney Houston checked into the Heartbreak Hotel; the idea of the heart as a thing that be named and therefore contained – I’m gonna lock my heart and throw away the key crooned Billie Holiday (unchain my heart, countered Ray Charles). The metaphysical heart that has implied proxies in the corporeal realm: the left breast over which a palm is placed in promise or allegiance, the abstract seat of the anahata chakra.

“The heart has reasons that reason knows nothing of,” wrote Blaise Pascal. “The heart”, confirms the Bible, “is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Not us, perhaps, but trust it we must – trickster, torturer, truth-teller.

The ancient Mesoamericans practiced heart-extraction because theirs was a passionate cosmos, it needed blood to keep going. We too need the heart to keep going, and so we follow it, appeasing its hungers, rearranging its disorders, in faith that it will lead us somewhere where we can be whole, pulsing with life, transfigured by love.

An edited version appeared in today’s Times of India, Chennai (World Heart Day supplement).

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Book Review: Women Awakened: Stories of Contemporary Spirituality in India by Swati Chopra

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In traditional Hindu dharma, the seeker on the spiritual path – provided he is a man – has a clearly delineated chronological paradigm: he is an unmarried youth, a householder, a retiree in contemplation of hermitude, and finally, a renunciate. These stages of life, while restricted to those willing to fulfill their worldly duties before pursuing their inner calling, allow a space for devotion within the scope of society and even civilization. For the female seeker, however, no such prescribed model exists. Swati Chopra’s Women Awakened Stories of Contemporary Spirituality in India takes as its catalyst the practical difficulties of being female and spiritually predisposed within a patriarchal framework.

By interviewing or studying eight women who chose (or were chosen for, as it were) the ascetic life, Chopra explores the fundamentally transgressive stance that is the choice to break away from the designations and limitations of gender in the quest for God, presenting questions about threats to security along the mendicant path, rebellion against family, celibacy versus partnership, biological motherhood as opposed to “universal motherhood”, the place of femininity and emotionality, and being taken seriously once having entered the fold.

Most of these questions remain largely rhetorical. While the book begins on a peaceful, open note, as it progresses little emerges that is challenging or thought-provoking, and though each individual encountered is distinct in her own right, some chapters seem almost no different from others. The eight women mystics and seekers who are either personally interviewed, or whose work is discussed via their disciples are: Sri Anandamayi Ma, Sri Sarada Devi, Mata Nirmala Devi, Nani Ma, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Mata Amritanandamayi, Ven. Khandro Rinpoche and Sadhvi Bhagwati. Although each of them has a journey worth learning from, or at least investigating, and weighty questions are put forward in all cases, one comes away with very little illumination. Even figures as extraordinarily enigmatic as Anandamayi Ma, or as much of a contemporary phenomenon as Mata Amritanandamayi (better known as Amma, the hugging saint) are inadequately considered: neither the nature of their appeal nor the intensity of their own encounters with the divine are conveyed memorably.

There are large gaps in inquiry – six of the women seekers, including two who are foreigners by birth (Nani Ma and Sadhvi Bhagwati), are essentially rooted within the Hindu religion, though they may follow or have originated guru-centric cults. Only the book’s last two chapters, which also happen to be its most comprehensive and insightful, are interviews with two Buddhist nuns, one of British origin and the other a Tibetan of a yogic lineage. But the lack of diversity otherwise is striking, considering the many narratives from other faiths that Chopra could also have included – in syncretic India, surely it would not have been impossible to find a Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh or Jain perspective, and these are only taking into account major traditions.

It’s also particularly interesting that the question of women’s roles within the scriptures is grappled with only in the chapters relating to Buddhism, where questions about the Buddha’s alleged misgivings about opening the sangha to female novitiates as well as the problem of a prayer in which one asks to not be given rebirth as a woman (because only men can achieve enlightenment) are posed to Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo and Ven. Khandro Rinpoche. The texts of the Hindu religion, the focus of the remaining chapters, are not taken to task for the misogyny and other inequalities within them. Chopra’s rather beautiful evocation of the Devi Mahatmyam, though relevant and inspiring, presents only one perspective of the role of the female – divine and otherwise – in theological literature.

To the author’s credit, she maintains a very neutral tone throughout the book, almost as if her own narration is only incidental, and not integral to the heart of the matter at hand. Only once is a significant personal involvement encountered: when she attempts an Internet exercise proscribed by Mata Nirmala Devi and is unmoved by it, but by itself the episode says very little. While the lack of subjectivity, which could easily have manifested in proselytizing or argument, is refreshing, it also eventually becomes somewhat unexciting. Spiritual experience is profound in both its ecstasies and in the wretchedness of its longing – as the passionate Sri Ramakrishna, who emerges ironically as the bedrock of the chapter ostensibly about his partner, Sri Sarada Devi, illustrated. A little more sharing about Chopra’s own spiritual quest – as Carol Lee Flinders’ At The Root of This Longing: Reconciling A Spiritual Hunger and a Feminist Thirst, Margaret Starbird’s The Goddess in the Gospels: Reclaiming the Sacred Feminine or any of the numerous books of the past few decades that have explored a women-centric faith have done – could have enriched it by a great deal. Religion is structural, but spirituality is personal and individual. This is the book’s core message, but lost in its own telling.

 An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.

A Few Reviews

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A few articles about the reading at Spaces last week.

Here’s one in The New Indian Express – the scan, and the text link.

Here’s a very thoughtful one at myLaw.net.

Thank you, everybody, who came or sent good wishes.