Our shastras tell us that the world begins in Desire.

Desire has brought forth the material world. But poetry is something immaterial. It is desire for beauty in a beastly world, a desire for permanence in the face of Death. Sex brings forth children, sublimation creates Art. Art, if practised in life, makes life bearable. But the price of a poem is a poet’s entire life. Our births cost our mothers their youth. Nothing worthwhile is won without a supreme sacrifice.

Christ’s mother took upon herself the calumny of unwed motherhood at 14 to birth Christ. The Virgin Birth tells us that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary by breathing into her ears the news of the Annunciation. (Origen, 1st century AD Church-father.) The word became flesh.

My Parsi mother cruelly asked me to sublimate at 14. (She must have read about it in Freud.) She wanted me to make my all too solid flesh melt into words. (The 16th century read “solid” as “sullied”.) Contrastingly, mothers in Assam encourage adolescent sons to take up tantra. So different cultures sublimate sexuality differently. “Love is a literary genre.” (Gasset, On Love)

In the Western world Love begins at the 12th century court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose husband, Henry II and gay son Richard Lionheart were off on the Crusades. [This myth was created by Baron Garcon de Cassy who founded the Cult of Courtly Love.] Young men like Arnaut Daniel and his group of Troubadours were encouraged to write love-poems in order to win the 60-year-old crone’s chastity (note, not virginity). There was no danger of that happening since the poets were gay and the women, old. So love-poetry in the West begins as gay poetry, as love made into literature.

There is also a literature of adultery.

Adultery is at the centre of Western literature. Think Homer’s Helen, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. So Western love stories are stories of adultery. Think even of our Sita carried off by Ravana. Also, of Tagore’s two loves.

Poetry begins in sex but goes into love. Sex becomes love becomes a poem. In art, Shringara rasa is transformed into Bhakti. That is why Meera was reviled in her lifetime as a whore. But all of India regards her as a Krishna-bhakta, ie, a saint, a woman who made her sexuality into spirituality.

[In Strabo’s Rome during the Feast of the Lupercal – our St Valentine’s Day – society women used to sit in the Forum with their legs parted and passing men threw coins into their skirts in order to show that the Mother and the Whore were one, ie, our mothers did with our fathers under cover of darkness what any prostitute does with her client in broad daylight.]

Virginia Woolf said that all art is androgynous. Meera at Vrindavan entered an all-male Satsang claiming that the only male at Vrindavan is Krishna and all else are but his gopis (devotees). So Bhakti rasa becomes Shanti rasa (which some do not regard as a rasa at all). All strife ends in Shanti. But bliss cannot be articulated. Hence Shanti is not a rasa.

Sex is pleasure. But art is bliss. You can talk of pleasure but you cannot talk of bliss, expect in a text of bliss which is a poem (Barthes, Pleasure of the Text). Love is pleasure but orgasm is bliss. Pleasure is social but bliss is anti-social. Bliss is only boredom seen from pleasure’s shore.

As I wrote in my first-ever poem on MS Subbulakshmi (singing Meera):

You have bodied ecstasy
Who will find the singer
In the song
Or, ever sift you from the seer?...

(I go on to speak of Krishna, next):

…His eyes as suns
His lips as petals
His temple as the dawn
He refreshes, voicelessly

You have voiced
In spirit, his body
Captured and freed but effortlessly.

Whitman talks of the urge, the Urge, the overwhelming urge of the world for union.

In my “1001 Nights” I dream of a pan-sexuality between Jew and Arab, Black and White, Brahmin and Sudra, Hindu and Moslem, teacher and taxi-driver as a dream of world-peace. “Forgiveness is the answer to the child’s dream of a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is made clean,” said Dag Hammarskjöld.

William Butler Yeats as a young man writes “The Cloths of Heaven.” Of course, it is for Maud Gonne:

I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams

Is it body or spirit? Is it love or sex? It is both. The separation began in our nurseries where we are told to love our parents but not have sex with them. But in reality the two cannot be separated. Yet a poem is neither sex nor love but only words about both. The reader feels the words in her body, in her bones and becomes illuminated in her “heart which is the seat of the intellect” (Swami Chinmayananda).

Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes of Kubla Khan:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea

The garden is the body girt with seven circular walls (apertures) and Alph is the alphabet, our Saraswati. (Though Marco Polo in his Travels did actually see such a garden in Shangtu [Xanadu]). Later in the poem the poet talks about a place “where no sun shines”.

This is the solar plexus where the Sushumna snake of energy is coiled up and has to be pushed up through the nadis or energy-channels through the body’s seven chakras (energy-centres) to the pineal gland in the head, also a place where no sun shines until it is illuminated by the opening of the third eye.

Shiva’s third eye reduced Kama, the love-god, to ashes. The Coleridgean confession about the man from Purlock disturbing the poet’s drug-reverie is fiction. After illumination all talk ceases. Coleridge is a yogi. This poem is perfect and complete.

After lusting for Maud Gonne, the mature Yeats lusted for the secrets of the Upanishads. Mohini Chatterjee was his male Hindu guru. To mock Yeats for his schoolboyish ardours is to show ourselves to be fools. My teacher taught me that the word “understand” means “to stand under” a poem, not over it in order to understand.

Yet another love Yeats longed for was for a free Ireland, freed of the English. In Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Urdu poetry his love is for the motherland, not the mistress. The mistress is asked to yield way to the motherland. “Do not ask that old love of me, my love.”

What became a spiritual freedom from sexuality in Yeats becomes a lust for the campy rituals of High Catholicism in 1890s’ Aesthetes like Oscar Wilde and Audrey Beardsley. In Wilde’s play Salome, for which Beardsley designed stage-sets, Herod’s daughter dances to demand the Baptist’s head. Love and Death. She had wished to do vile things to John’s lips with her lips. And she does it to John, dead. Wilde is a sensualist of both the body and the spirit. But the body’s victory is pyrrhic!

Rabindranath Tagore was haunted by his sister-in-law, Kadambari.

If he were not forced to marry the dull Mrinalini, a clerk’s daughter, he would not have married at all because he was already married in spirit to the dead Kadambari. Her suicide had assured that Tagore’s love for his sister-in-law remained platonic. And hence it lasted all his life and took newer and newer forms in his later muses, up to his last muse Victoria Ocampo of Argentina whom he called Bijoya.

Kadambari lived on triumphantly as Bijoya to the end of Tagore’s life and writing. So, the spirit never dies. Na hanyate. It does not die. Though Victoria mistook the spirit for the body and slept outside Tagore’s locked door on his visit to Argentina, the spirit lives in the body of a poem and a beloved body lives on and on in the spirit of a poem. (See Aruna Chakravarti’s Jorasanko.)

Nearer our own day Mircea Eliade, caught en flagrante in Calcutta with his guru’s daughter, wrote up the experience in Bengal Nights. After he was evicted from the gurukul, he says, the girl gave herself to the first vegetable vendor she met. She, Maitreyi Devi, wrote the experience in her Na Hanyate. She says she went to Chicago to meet the professor. He refused to recognise her. The two sides represent the two antimonies, vi., East vs West, Spirit vs Body. She went into Platonism; he, quietism.

Excerpted with permission from Rebel Angel: Collected Prose of Hoshang Merchant, edited by Akshaya K Rath, Dhauli Books.