Lata Mani is a feminist cultural critic, contemplative writer, filmmaker and transmedia explorer. She has published books and articles on a broad range of issues, from feminism and colonialism, to illness, spiritual philosophy and contemporary politics. Reflecting on the theme of Spirituality and Sexuality for this issue of In Plainspeak, in an interview with Shikha Aleya, Lata says,“What might a spiritual approach contribute? It can lead you to understand that there is a core aspect of you that exists prior to and alongside the particulars that shape your identity – class, gender, sexuality, religion, able-bodiedness, etc. This does not make these details insignificant. As long as social experience is structured by such factors they will continue to have meaning and force. But you become aware that you are not reducible to these categories and that this truth equally holds for every other being.”
Lata has generously offered password-free access all through November 2019 to De Sidere 7, a film by Nicolás Grandi & herself, to In Plainspeak readers. Thank you, Lata!
Shikha Aleya (SA): Lata, many thanks for sharing your thoughts on spirituality, and the connections between aspects of spirituality and of sexuality, with us. To begin, in a talk on desire and sexuality you said, “Desire is at the heart of spiritual philosophy”. In your film, De Sidere 7, reflecting upon aspects of desire, there is a line in the script that says, “Everything is related to every other thing. Even desire”. How do you view the relationship between desire, sex and sexuality and what is the connection you see between these three, and spirituality?
Lata Mani (LM):You have folded several complex questions into one so I can only offer the beginnings of an answer! Desire is at the heart of spiritual philosophy because desire is at the root of Creation. From a spiritual standpoint, the world is a Divine gift, one which reflects the principles by which we take our place in it: interdependence, impermanence, generosity, collaboration. These principles may be observed in nature where every aspect not only modifies and affects every other, but continually yields to every other: tree roots grow under and around rocks, rocks yield to water, the wind sculpts landscapes etc. But while the rest of nature follows these rules (not passively but dynamically), humans are given free will and can choose to accept or resist these principles. And instead of embracing the exquisite diversity of lives, life forms and life practices as each equally vital and distinctively creative, we have hierarchised some and marginalised others. Which is why there is so much needless suffering and why we have needed movements to affirm the freedom of some of us to exist without fear of punishment.
Free will makes the question of perception and understanding a central challenge of being human. This is why the problem of ‘how we know what we know’ is at the heart of both spiritual and secular philosophy.Now, if everything is interconnected then the concepts we use to understand the world are also interrelated. Sex, desire, sexuality cannot be understood independently of other phenomena; as existing only as nature or only in culture. Indeed, it is at this permeable, shifting border of nature/culture that the politics of sex or sexuality is played out.We tend to claim that sex, desire and sexuality are ‘cultural’ when we argue against the limitations of prevalent ideas about them,and turn to ideas of the ‘natural’ when we make a case for what they exclude. Yet, even our ideas of the natural are shaped by culture and some of the concepts in circulation today narrow our understanding even while claiming to free our minds.For instance, as I have argued, sex and sexuality have come to be regarded as exceptional sites of self-expression and agency, a burden neither they nor we can carry without diminishing our experience of both.
SA: When you draw such connections between these concepts, where there appears to be opposition rather than connection, what are some of the typical responses you get from people? Do you get a sense that people are seeking to explore such connections in personal ways, in their own lives?
LM: Religious and spiritual traditions have tended to be suspicious of the body and of sexual and other kinds of desire. As a result, my integration of them into a matter-loving spiritual politics has seemed puzzling to many in the predominantly secular subculture of social justice movements in South Asia. But as someone who has learned from the tantric aspects of Hindu-Buddhist traditions, Sufism and as well mystical Christianity, I see no opposition. The real divide is not between the secular and the religious so much as between the tantric and atantric aspects of both. The tantric honours the intrinsic integrity and aliveness of all matter.The atantric considers matter either as inert raw material with no inherent value and no claim on our conscience (as in capitalist ideology); or else as unruly and in need of being controlled in order to prevent personal and social chaos (as inconventional religion). 
It is important to note that a tantric Hinduism cannot accommodate the idea of caste which depends on the assumption of a hierarchical ranking of people, of mind over body, mental over physical labour, the head over the feet etc. For tantra everything in the universe, all beings, all aspects of Creation, are equal and equally sacred. Tantric ideas are to be found in all religions;most fully in their mystic versions, more unevenly in their mainstream teachings. Unfortunately, the pervasive fear of the not-secular in social justice circles has made it virtually impossible to initiate serious dialogue about the contradictory legacy of our spiritual or religious traditions, the positives not just the negatives. Those who do not conflate Hindutva with Hinduism, or the dominant caste-disfigured expressions of Hinduism with the tradition in its entirety, tend to explore these issues on their own or among like-minded friends. The effect has been to impoverish our political and intellectual discourse.
SA: Issues of identity, and the acceptance or lack of acceptance of diverse gender and sexual identities are increasingly occupying the stage in conversations and events in India today. The concept of identity maps multiple aspects of life that include caste, class, religion, economics, occupational, social and family. How does the concept play out if one were to view it within the frame of spirituality and spiritual seeking? What are your thoughts and insights on the connections between the multiple aspects of identity and our identities as spiritual beings?
LM: Identity politics bring attention to social and cultural diversity. They express the particularity and distinctiveness of social experiences that may or may not be reflected in a society’s self-understanding. That is their promise. But there is also a peril. Interdependence implies that all identities are by definition relational. These interrelations may be flatly denied by say caste or race supremacists. But they are the very ground on which identities are produced. In the face of society’s refusal to acknowledge or honour certain persons, groups or experiences, those agitating may be driven to assert their radical autonomy from those who continue to oppress or exclude them. But this only takes us so far. The real challenge to the system is mounted when the equitablere making of already existing interdependencies becomes the basis of our action and of our imagination of the future. Given our ignorance of each other it may seem as if we have been living in parallel universes. But that is simply not the case.
What might a spiritual approach contribute? It can lead you to understand that there is a core aspect of you that exists prior to and alongside the particulars that shape your identity – class, gender, sexuality, religion, able-bodiedness etc. This does not make these details insignificant. As long as social experience is structured by such factors they will continue to have meaning and force. But you become aware that you are not reducible to these categories and that this truth equally holds for every other being. The felt experience that you and they are ‘all this and so much more’ creates a spacious sense of fellowship that far exceeds what the term equality generally conveys. It frees us to be fully present in the madness and beauty of the world even while retaining a measure of critical distance.There is of course no single spiritual approach any more than one interpretation of feminism. I draw here on what I have learned.
SA:That is so wonderfully explained, thank you Lata. On another note, fragility as a theme appears in your work more than once. You have spoken of fragility as a feature of humanness, and have also drawn a distinction between fragility and vulnerability when talking about your film ‘The Poetics of Fragility’. If fragility is an inherent part of being human, what does this say about the way we engage with sexuality, and spirituality
LM: Fragility is a consequence of life in interdependent impermanence. This means change is a constant. (I reserve the term vulnerability for unjust social arrangements which disempower, discriminate or put people in harm’s way.) To accept fragility is to remain open to change: in our bodies, our ways of thinking, our capacities, our circumstances. We are often wedded to certain ideas about ourselves and of others. When these notions are challenged whether by unforeseen developments, fresh learning, or the expected passage of time (as with ageing) it can lead to an existential crisis. If we are to remain open to learning and not become prisoners of habit we need to accept fragility as natural.What is at stake, whether it is sexuality or spirituality, is the courage to change.
SA: Safety, sexuality-affirming and inclusion, as aspects of environment, are key elements of a rights-based approach to some of the most urgent issues currently confronting individuals, families and social systems. Would it be possible, and what would it mean, to locate these aspects in the space that we refer to as spiritual?
LM: A genuinely spiritual approach cannot exclude any aspect of life. An inclusive orientation to sexuality and to safety in affirming it flows organically from a respect for diversity. A tantric spiritual orientation recognises the body as a specific form of intelligence (not merely the site of desires, wants and needs that must be brought under control). It asks us to pay attention to feeling, sensation, emotion for what they can teach us. The heart and the mind are also understood as offering their own wisdom. The three forms of intelligence are seen to work together to supplement, complement and even hold each other accountable; not in a punishing but a clarifying way. To take a simple example,the mind judges the body’s feelings and the heart (which is often a go-between)is filled with grief at the stand-off.A rights-based approach might focus primarily on the freedom to feel and to act upon that feeling and leave to counsellors the task of engaging the internal battle.A contemplative approach offers a method for self-knowledge. But it does so within a broader frame. Within it, giving oneself permission to explore one’s nature and reducing the conflict between desire and judgement, are merely the starting point for a sustained process of inquiry into the idea of self and its relationship to the world.
SA: Lata, thank you for a deeply engaging interview. Before we close, please tell us a bit about yourself, some of the personal experiences that have been life-changing for you and that have contributed to shaping your thoughts and belief systems.
LM: Much of what I have shared has come from a spontaneous spiritual opening that I experienced in the wake of a brain injury. I had no language for what I was going through. I was forced to revisit my suspicion of all things spiritual. At the same time my injuries required me to learn to love a very unfamiliar body and mind. I had lived in my head until then. With the brain unplugged my body and heart became my primary teachers. As the brain healed it learned to take its place in this new triad. I am still learning from them!
For more on tantra, see the film, The Earth on its Axis, We in our Skin: The Tantra of Embodiment,Director NicolásGrandi, 2015; also Ruth Frankenberg &Lata Mani’s received teachings, TheTantra Chronicles, 2013.
Photo credit: K Ramanathan