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Fascinated by the ancient Indian temple dancers, Jalaja Bonheim travelled to that country to immerse herself in what she could find of an almost lost world. Ahe discovered a wonder-filled attitude to woman, the Goddess, body and sexuality. Such refreshing attitudes were not reflected in modern Indian society but nevertheless the faint echoes that Jalaja Bonheim did find affirmed and healed her as a sexual woman.
There I was first introduced to a playful, erotic god, a voluptuous, sensual goddess, and an ancient tradition of sexual priestesses.
My interest in women's sexual journeys is based on my belief that sex is an inherently sacred and soulful force. If we look carefully and with an open mind, we will find that our sexual stories yield rich spiritual nourishment. Women have always found sacredness in the midst of the ordinary, harvesting spiritual wisdom from the fields and forests of their everyday embodied experience. Yet, especially in sexual matters, our knowledge has remained largely unspoken, as if we were creatures of the sea who float and turn silently in the depths, graceful but mute.
We have often been told that our sexual nature has no relevance to our spirituality. I do not believe this is true. Yes, the Great Mystery transcends gender, as it transcends all dualities. Nonetheless, our spiritual paths unfold along very different lines, depending on whether we enter the world in a male or a female body. Our soul (by which I mean the portion of our greater Self that is engaged in a process of blossoming through time and space) does not simply sit in a body like water in a jar. Rather, it merges with the body, so that each permeates the other, as the golden colour of a sunflower permeates its petals. You cannot separate a sunflower from its colour. In the same way, our soul acquires a particular colouring and fragrance by virtue of inhabiting a female or male body. The soul of a woman vibrates with a different frequency than that of a man, emits a different quality of light, and sings a different song. Men and women may be headed for the same ultimate destination, but we travel different paths. (Edvard Munch The Hands)
I started gathering women's sexual stories in 1994. But in a deeper sense, the foundation for this book was laid during three extended trips I took to India in 1981,1984, and 1987. There I was first introduced to a playful, erotic god, a voluptuous, sensual goddess, and an ancient tradition of sexual priestesses. India taught me about the many faces and forms of god and goddess and gave me a spiritual education my Western upbringing had failed to provide. Most important, it totally transformed my sense of who I am as a woman and sexual being.
All my life, Indian culture had fascinated me, but I had never experienced classical Indian temple dance until one rainy evening, in 1981, when I went to see the performance of a young Indian dancer. The minute she stepped onto the stage I felt transported to another world. She wore a rich purple and emerald green silk costume sumptuously embroidered with gold brocade; on her ankles were rows of delicate bells, and in her jet-black hair were delicate white jasmine blossoms. In a soft voice, she told us that she was about to perform very ancient dances that had been passed down through an oral tradition. Nobody knew their exact age, but gestures and postures on thousand-year-old temple walls suggested that a millennium ago, Indian temple dance was already a well-established tradition.
Through the silent auditorium, the deep earthy pulse of the drums began to sound while the dancer stood motionless, looking herself like a temple statue. Then, slowly, as if coming to life in response to the call of the drum, she began to dance, leaving me breathless with amazement. Never in all my life had I seen such grace, strength, and sensuousness. With her stamping feet, she seemed to be calling forth the spirit of the Earth, while her arms and hands moved like snakes to the plaintive melodies of the flute.
I returned home later that night determined to learn this dance, and with every day that passed my infatuation grew stronger. I began to dream of going to India, and the dream soon became an obsession.
A few months later, I was on my way there. From the moment of my arrival I felt as if I had returned to a long-lost home. All my senses felt hungry for the chaos of smells, colours, and teeming life that now surrounded me. Delighted as a child in a zoo, I wandered through the tangled jungle of gods and goddesses, demons and deities, saints and sacred animals who inhabited every street corner, serenely showering their blessings on the madness of modern India. Within a few weeks of my arrival, an Indian family adopted me, and simultaneously I found my dance teacher. The sharp sound of her stick beating out the rhythms of the dance soon became dear to me, and I would listen for it as I walked up the narrow alleyway to her tiny apartment.
Every day I danced. At first, I felt foolish and awkward next to almond-eyed four-year-olds and fluid-limbed young women who seemed to have stepped straight from the sculpted walls of an Indian temple. But soon my body began to absorb the movements, almost as if remembering what I once had known. "Many past lives," my teacher would remark in a matter-of fact way.
As a student of Indian dance, I was taken to thousand-year-old temples on whose sculpted walls voluptuous dancers mingled with lovemaking couples. Gazing at these breathtakingly erotic sculptures, I realized that though modern Indian women seemed to be just as repressed as Western women or more so their ancestors were obviously not. On the temple walls, they artfully arrange their necklaces to show off their full breasts. They turn their luscious backsides to the viewer, tossing radiant smiles back over their shoulders. They stand with a lover, arms thrown around his neck as they kiss him fervently. They gaze at you with peaceful eyes as they squat, letting their menstrual blood flow into the earth.
One day, I asked one of my spiritual teachers about the fascination with sex and erotic play that is so evident in the sacred art of India but contrasts so strikingly with the more austere attitudes of Christian religion. In response, he told me an ancient Indian creation myth:
In the beginning was the One, and It was infinite in all directions, neither male or female. But It was alone, and loneliness is not good for the soul. Alone, the divine being yearned to love and be loved, to know and be known, to touch and be touched. And so It split Itself in two. One half was male and the other female. The male half we call Shivapure, formless, unmoving spirit. The female half we call Shakti, our mother, who is matter and energy and form. Shiva and Shakti have always been one and will always be one, but to our eyes they appear as two.
The minute those two caught sight of each other, they fell in love and had no greater desire than to reunite. Always, we desire the opposite of what we have. This is how things are, even with the gods. The one wanted to become two, and the two wanted to return to their former oneness. Shiva desired Shakti, and she desired him. And so they made love, and the goddess gave birth. She gave birth to sun, moon, and stars, to animals and plants, and also to people like you and me. And because we are the children of these lovers, we too yearn for sacred union. "Tat twam asi," say the scriptures "You are That." You are that divine light playing with itself, always creating, always moulding, always seeking shape and form and expression. Therefore, you see, we must honour desire. Without desire there is no creation. This is why we tell stories about desire and love.
These cultures valued sexual intercourse as both a spiritual practice and a potent method for restoring balance to the psyche, harmonizing the disturbed soul, and healing the sick.
But India is a land of extremes. While ancient India gave me the vision of an erotic universe lost in ecstatic love play, modern India is suffocating in a swamp of sexual repression which shrouds sexual truths in silence, obstructs sex education, and glorifies female virginity and chastity. Anyone who cares to peek behind the facade of rigid moralism will uncover shame, hypocrisy, and horrendous sexual abuse. Many Western people have heard of the barbaric bride-burnings that are still common in India, but few know about India's shocking epidemic of sexual slavery. Of India's ten million prostitutes, Mumbai alone shelters more than 100,000. 90% of them are indentured slaves, and more than half of them are infected with HIV. Many prominent politicians are in league with the organized crime factions that run the highly lucrative flesh trade, so the Indian government virtually ignores the situation. Indian AIDS experts predict that within the next decade, "AIDS will pull the country into a black hole of despair unlike anything seen in this century." Given this state of affairs, one can see how contemporary Indians might tend to shamefacedly deny the amazing erotic freedom their ancestors possessed. Whenever I asked about the sexual customs of the temple dancers, my friends would respond evasively and with obvious embarrassment. Several times I was told that over the last centuries, the temples had fallen into disarray and that power and corruption had forced the dancers into prostitution. But originally, they hastened to assure me, the dancers had been chaste and celibate, much like Christian nuns.
I listened and said nothing, but I knew this could not be true. One look at the fluid, languid sensuality of the dancers on the temple walls was enough to convince me that these women had not lived celibate lives. Naked, except for the jewelled belts that circled their hips and the necklaces that snaked around their ample breasts, these were obviously women who rejoiced in their sexuality and had no sense of shame about doing so. On the contrary, they were accustomed to being revered and even worshipped as vessels of sexual power. Their bodies radiate a lush eroticism, along with an exquisite sense of elegance and sophistication.
As time passed, I yearned for more information about these sensuous performers of Indian temple dance. Who were they? How did they live? What were their beliefs, rituals, and practices?
What little information I eventually gathered raised more questions than it answered. Most historical records about the sexual customs of the temple dancers date back no more than two or three centuries and reflect a tradition redefined by centuries of patriarchal rule, the caste system, and many other repressive factors. Nonetheless, what I did learn intrigued and touched me deeply. I discovered that the temple dancers were priestesses, whose sexual energy was held sacred, and that traditions similar to theirs had once existed in Japan, Egypt, Europe, and throughout the Middle East. I also learned that these cultures valued sexual intercourse as both a spiritual practice and a potent method for restoring balance to the psyche, harmonizing the disturbed soul, and healing the sick. To know that such sexual priestesses had once existed meant a lot to me. It assured me that my own sexual energy, too, might be sacred, and that I, too, might be something beyond what my culture had encouraged me to be.
Temple dancers... once worshipped as embodiments of the goddess, were later reviled and shamed as prostitutes.
Emphasizing the sacred function of the ancient sexual priestesses, feminist writers have called them sacred prostitutes. While the term has been used with the best intentions, I find it inappropriate and sadly misleading. It perpetuates a false image of the sexual priestess as a woman who catered to men's desires, and whose livelihood depended on doing so. Though some of them received rich gifts from lovers and worshippers, they did not depend on such gifts for their survival. Like the shamans and healers of many other cultures, they were go-betweens, messengers between heaven and earthnot prostitutes but priestesses. Let us therefore call them by their true names.
In India, these sexual priestesses were called devadasis, which can be translated as "servants of the Divine" or "servants of the Light." They were raised within the temple compound where they received an excellent education, a rare gift in those times. From early childhood they were trained in all the arts: dance, rhythm, and music, as well as ritual and meditation, reading and writing, philosophy, religion, and mythology. They were ritually worshipped as embodiments of the goddess, who, according to Hindu mythology, birthed the world and its many creatures, and some of them became renowned mystics and spiritual teachers. At puberty, a devadasi would marry god in an elaborate marriage ceremony, much as a Catholic nun marries Christ. Henceforth, marriage to a human partner would be forbidden to her. Instead, she related to god as her most intimate friend, her teacher, lover, and mate, and saw herself as his beloved, his spokeswoman, his servant, and his queen.
Unlike their Western counterparts, the devadasis never adopted the Christian ideal of celibacy. In their eyes, every man was an incarnation of their divine husband. During their marriage ceremony, they might pick up a handful of sand or mustard seed and pray that their lovers be as numerous as the grains in their hands. He who ritually made love to a devadasi became god; together, the couple enacted the sacred marriage of god and goddess.
When the devadasis danced in the temple, their dance itself was considered a form of lovemaking, a sensuous celebration of their union with the Beloved. In essence, their dance was the dance of love. At the same time, it was also a form of storytelling. To this day, Indian dancers are extraordinary storytellers who bring the ancient myths to life, and who taught me about the importance of storytelling for the life of a community. In this tradition, it is understood that the story of any individual man or woman is also the story of god or goddess. The heroine who goes on a quest for adventure, for hidden treasure, and for the love that endures, is none other than the goddess herself, and the hero who gets lost in the deep forest, who struggles with monsters and demons, and must summon all his courage and skill to find the way out is none other than the god. The sacred marriage between man and woman is therefore the marriage of the divine lovers who live within us, whispering their secret memories of the source beyond space and time.
The dance of the priestess, unlike the dance of a stage performer, does not depend on physical fitness and youth. Her dance was the dance of the soul, and no physical frailty could obscure its radiance.
Given the radical challenge the devadasis posed to patriarchal values, it is no wonder their traditions were eventually suppressed, especially as the sexually repressive values of the English took hold. The English, accustomed to thinking of God as a male, celibate, asexual being, perceived the devadasis as mere whores and convinced the Indian elite to think along similar lines. The sexual temple rituals so enraged the British that they outlawed the devadasis' customs; the practice of temple dance was made illegal and remained so until India gained its independence in 1947. Nonetheless, the tradition is not yet entirely extinct. In India, a few temple dancers are still alive today, though their traditions are destined to die with them. Tragically, they have been so humiliated that they are now quite reluctant to talk about their ways. Their fate reflects the collective descent of sexual priestesses worldwide, who, once worshipped as embodiments of the goddess, were later reviled and shamed as prostitutes.
Still, the presence of living devadasis in India allowed me to come into direct contact with a lineage of priestesses whose view of sexuality and spirituality differed radically from the Western norm. During my first visit to India, I was introduced to a woman who had once been a very beautiful and renowned devadasi at the Mysore temple. My dance teacher and I visited her at her family home, a traditional Indian house consisting of a single, cavernous room segmented by carved wooden pillars. The devadasi was then in her eighties and had lost her eyesight, but the bearing of a dancer was evident in the pride and dignity of her posture.
Upon hearing that I was a young Western woman who had come to India to study temple dance, she became very excited. Though we had no common language, she communicated her welcome clearly and announced that she wanted to dance for me. Too frail to stand, she sang in the quivering voice of the aged. Her song was a love song to Krishna, the divine flute player, whom she begged to appear. As she sang, her hands and arms danced, illustrating the peacock feather over Krishna's head, the beauty of his face and smile. Her wrinkled face and blind eyes shone as if illuminated from within. I will always be grateful to her for teaching me, in that moment, that the dance of the priestess, unlike the dance of a stage performer, does not depend on physical fitness and youth. Her dance was the dance of the soul, and no physical frailty could obscure its radiance.
Before we left, the devadasi called me to her. I knelt in front of her. Immediately she fell into a light trance, her eyelids fluttering, as she began to mutter Sanskrit mantras. Then she took some of the red powder used in Indian temples and households for blessing and pressed it firmly into my forehead, all the while talking to me loudly and with great insistence. Uncomprehending, I looked to my dance teacher. "She says," my teacher responded, "you are blessed. She says you were one of us in many lifetimes and you have returned. She says to learn well and to serve god." At the time of this meeting, I did not understand the significance of the event. Later I realized that in this encounter I had reconnected with a lineage of priestesses to whom I was karmically linked, and I had received a direct initiation and transmission from one of them.
Today, I would describe a priestess as a woman who lives in two worlds at once, who perceives life on earth against the backdrop of a vast, timeless reality. Whether or not she is mated to a human partner she is a woman in love, wedded to being, to life, to love itself. Having offered her self, body and soul, in service of spirit, she mediates between matter and spirit, between the human and divine realms. She may or may not be sexually active, but she will always honour sexual energy as a link to the source of life itself and to the unseen dimensions from where her soul has come.
Jalaja Bonheim is a counsellor in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area who spent several years in India studying Indian temple dance. This article is excerpted from her new book Aphrodite's Daughters: Women's Sexual Stories and the Journey of the Soul. Copyright 1997 by Jalaja Bonheim. Reprinted by permission of Fireside/Simon Schuster, Inc. We found it in LAPIS published three times a year by the New York Open Centre, Inc., 83 Spring Street, New York, NY 10012: 212/334-0210.
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