Ursula K Le Guin And Her Love Affair With A Seductive Ascetic From South India

Aravindan Neelakandan

Feb 08, 2018, 10:52 PM | Updated 10:52 PM IST

 Ursula K. Le Guin at the 2014 National Book Awards on November 19, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images)
Ursula K. Le Guin at the 2014 National Book Awards on November 19, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images)
  • Ursula Guin’s fantasy and science fiction worlds were animated with her profound understanding of Indic spirituality. After her passing away, that understanding must be recognised, respected, and celebrated.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin died on January 22 2018, aged 88. That day, while I was recovering from typhoid, I was planning a tour to temples in the Chola province orgainsed by Swarajya as part of Swarajya Heritage tour.

    So, five days after the death of this American novelist, I was standing with the group at Airavatesvara temple built by Chola king Rajaraja-II in 12th century CE. Around the temple, in stone walls, the lives of great Nayanmars were sculpted. Each of these holy men and women had a peculiar way of relating himself or herself to Shiva. And each differed from the other immensely - sometimes they were even diametrically opposite. Later, when we stood before a calendar art depiction of all the acts of the Nayanmars, someone in the group asked, “So what exactly should one be like in spirituality? What exactly are these people telling us?”

    Sakhya Nayanar a Buddhist every day threw a stone at Shiva Linga. Kungiliya Nayanar tied the rope to his own neck to make the leaning Siva Linga straight again. Both are revered as sacred Nayanmars.: Darasuram Temple (12th century)
    Sakhya Nayanar a Buddhist every day threw a stone at Shiva Linga. Kungiliya Nayanar tied the rope to his own neck to make the leaning Siva Linga straight again. Both are revered as sacred Nayanmars.: Darasuram Temple (12th century)

    The question prompted me to recall a passage from Guin's novel The Telling (2000). Here, Guin writes from the point of view of a girl with a Hindu name, who has grown up with a completely non-Hindu official education, viewing the spiritual tradition of another planet for knowledge-mining to help the colonisers:

    The holy people in their stories achieved holiness, if that was what it was, by all kinds of different means, none of which seemed particularly holy to Sutty. There were no rules, such as poverty chastity obedience, or exchanging one’s worldly goods for a wooden begging bowl, or reclusion on a mountaintop. Some of the heroes and famous maz in the stories were flamboyantly rich; their virtue had apparently consisted in generosity — building great beautiful umyazu to house their treasures, or going on processions with hundreds of companions all mounted on eberdin with silver harnesses. Some of the heroes were warriors, some were powerful leaders, some were shoemakers, some were shopkeepers. Some of the holy people in the stories were passionate lovers, and the story was about their passion. A lot of them were couples. There were no rules. There was always an alternative. The story-tellers, when they commented on the legends and histories they told, might point out that that had been a good way or a right way of doing something, but they never talked about the right way. And good was an adjective, always: good food, good health, good sex, good weather.

    Remembering that passage in that grand Chola temple, it felt almost as if she had described the spiritual basis of the Nayanmars. Consider this. Sundarar asks Shiva to go as his emissary to his lover and Shiva obeys. Viran Minda Nayanar threatens Shiva, the deity himself, with excommunication from Shaivism and Shiva gets concerned, not angry. Shiva comes as labourer and frolics as Vaigai river rages and gets caned by the king.

    The so-called rationalists in South India have made fun of all these aspects of Shiva. Ace Dravidianist, E V Ramasamy, told Hindus, “I am not saying you do not worship God. But worship not these deities but worship One God with dignity like Christians and Muslims”. The pseudo-rational Dravidian movement proclaimed that the Periya Puranam - the puranic retelling of the Nayanmars, should be burnt. And here, Ursula, in her science fiction, provides the English-educated, colonised, uprooted Hindus a vision of what actually their religion is all about, if they care to read of course.

    Young Ursula Guin Courtesy: Wired<br>
    Young Ursula Guin Courtesy: Wired<br>

    Ursula Guin functioned in a realm dominated by Protestant white males. There were, of course, notable (non-religious) Jewish contributors like Isaac Asimov. And yet, the overarching paradigm that ruled the science fiction world when Guin started writing was that of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP). One can say her science fiction and fantasy, as well as her experiments with poetry, brought a challenging perspective to the world of science fiction.

    This challenging perspective that she brought she took from Taoism, Hinduism and native American mythology. And this vastly differs from the Western understanding of the myth of the hero and his quest. Hence, her challenge was refreshing and profound. She was also a Jungian. She considered the Jungian notion of collective unconscious as “a vast common ground on which we can meet, not only rationally, but aesthetically, intuitively, emotionally”. Her 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, established Ursula Guin as a reputed and established name in the field of science fiction and fantasy. In her introduction to the 1976 reprint, she wrote:

    I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth. The only truth I can understand or express is, logically defined, a lie. Psychologically defined, a symbol. Aesthetically defined, a metaphor.
    Ursula Guin later revealed that the word ‘am’ in the quote was introduced by a copy-editor. So the actual line should have been ‘I talk about the gods, I an atheist. ...’

    Again, this is something a Hindu not uprooted from her essence knows intuitively. Ursula Guin should have known it.

    In her poetry book, Hard Words (1981), she explores the self and existence with the tools of extraordinary images. We see a passionate lover emerging in her shaped by these images and stories. Her 'Epiphany' goes thus:

    Did you hear?
    Mrs Le Guin has found God.
    Yes, but she found the wrong one.
    Absolutely typical.
    Look, there they go together.
    Mercy! It's a colored woman!
    Yes, it's one of those relationships.
    They call her Mama Linga (

    We are left to wonder who or what is Mama Linga?

    Prof Richard D Erlich, a literary critic, in his work on Guin thinks she refers to Kali. As a Hindu, this writer feels she may also be referring to the female part in the Linga - well known in Tamil as Avudai. There are temples where the Avudai Itself is worshipped as Linga, as in the Avudayar temple (Pudukottai district) in Tamil Nadu.

    According to epigraphist S Ramachandran, the word Avudai is related to or derived from the Sanskrit word odhyaana. (Origins of Androgynous Godhead, Tamil, . Interestingly, in her poetry, Ursula Guin speaks of 'one of those relationships' with reference to Mama Linga. What is it that she might have meant? Linga is etymologically related to language. In Sri Lalitha Sahasranama, one of the meanings associated with her name 'Odhyanapitha Nilaya' - (she who abides in the Odhyana structure, name 379) - is the manifest word - Vaikari Vak.

    Did Ursula Guin in mentioning Mama Linga understand these relationships, perhaps intuitively?

    In another poem she says that the ‘little children’ fear the Kali’s day. They ‘weep’ and seek an escape - ‘let it not be till tomorrow’. But the woman in the sleep of the poet goes on ‘drumming until the drumhead breaks’. As the maiden wakes and sees the ‘Kali’s day’ coming, things change:

    Mother takes the fear away.
    Night is Kali
    the god appears between her thighs
    stands in beauty, dances, dies.
    O Mother, comfort me. (The Night)

    To miss the similarity between the poem on Kali written by Swami Vivekananda in 1898 where he sang of her as death and terror and also as the mother, would be difficult. (The whole poem can be read here.)

    (L to R) Shiva burns Kama, Shiva as the seductive Bhikshaatana, Shiva as Nataraja
    (L to R) Shiva burns Kama, Shiva as the seductive Bhikshaatana, Shiva as Nataraja

    Guin then speaks of Shiva burning Kama - the deity of desire. Again, the deep knowledge of the subtleties and nuances of Hindu spirituality which Ursula Guin had internalised amazes a Hindu and leaves her Western art critic almost baffled. The poet urges Shiva to burn Kama who comes to adore Shiva ‘over the April meadow’

    Uncover your third eye,
    burn him to ashes
    that he may cast no shadow
    being with you and before you
    hereafter and forever. (Siva and Kama)

    There is a beautiful hint here of the understanding of the deeper aspect of Hindu spirituality, and she is not even flaunting. It flows with her words - very Taoist if you like. The burning of Kama makes him cease to be a ‘shadow’ here in the Jungian sense. Kama gets integrated. After being burnt to ashes, he gets resurrected in an integrative manner into the self. Sri Lalitha Sahasranama says that this happens because of the grace of the divine feminine. The goddess becomes the life-resurrecting medicine for Kama after he was burnt by the fire from the third eye of Shiva. In the end, Shiva himself became Kameswara.

    With the burning and then integrating of Kama, Shiva becomes the enchanting dance master. A mother of a girl watches him advancing ‘admirably suave’. Then she exclaims ‘O my God! His zipper!/ What is that thing? A cobra?/ It wags at me so sweetly.’ We are reminded of the image of the seductive Bhikshatana here.

    They say he uses cannabis.
    I wouldn't trust my daughter
    at his school.
    O but how sweetly,
    sweetly he can dance! (School)

    Again, one is reminded of Tamil mystic-devotional literature, with its imagery of the love-intoxicated daughter telling her mother that the paradoxical aspects of Shiva have made her fall madly in love with him. Manickavasakar, a Shaivaite seer (dated between fourth to ninth century CE) sings of Shiva from the point of view of such a girl. “Mother, look at the way my lover dresses/Snake as His ornament/Tiger skin in His hips/Covering Himself in ashes/And Mother, to this form I am madly in love.. Having a woman as part of his body yet an ascetic beggar, Oh! Mother but as he moves away with his begging bowl why my heart aches!” Seems a mother born more than thousand years after the girl confessed her love to Shiva, in a place thousand miles away, is now cautious to guard her daughter. But here already the mother herself is madly in love with Shiva.

    According to the puranic narrative, it was after the seductive and handsome Bhikshatana had enchanted their wives, that the enraged rishis sent a tiger to kill Shiva, who made the skin of the very tiger his dress and started dancing.

    In Shaiva Siddhanta, the dance and the primeval creative sound principle play an important role. Tirumular says this about the dance:

    That Primal Para (Supreme) danced;
    Fire held in His hand danced;
    His matted locks too danced;
    Bliss intoxicated He danced;
    With all those celestial eggs, the universe danced;
    He danced with Nada (the primal creative sound principle)
    The Dance of Nadanta! (Thirumanthiram: 2751)

    Now, more than thousand years later, Ursula Guin - in the dance of Shiva - says she wants to be the sound of his drum:

    I am the dance you're dancing
    I am the loving tiger
    I am the hungry god
    You are the drummer, you are the drum
    but I am the sound of drumming (A Semi-Centenary Celebration)

    And what a dance it is! Everywhere she looks, Ursual Guin sees and feels the dance from his drums:

    Sun dance
    stone dance
    bone dance
    one dance
    sky dance
    bird dance
    word dance
    I dance (Drums)

    And this is Thirumoolar on the dance at Tillai:

    Vedas dance
    Great Agamas dance
    Songs dance
    All realms dance
    Elements dance
    Entire existence dances
    With the Nada (creative sound from the drum) He dances
    The dance that comes from the Bliss of Knowledge
    (Thirumanthiram: 2729)

    In South India, as you walk through the semi-darkened halls of centuries old temples, natural light filters onto the stone pillars, showing the gods, goddesses, and suddenly, one sees an act of sexual union - not just between deities but also between humans, and even jesters trying to suck their own genitals. Then suddenly, again, you might see Shiva as Dakshinamurthy - a supreme form of Shiva - teacher of wisdom. One can feel the tantric-yogic harmony. And it is hard to describe it in words. Moving between the romantic loving devotee and the mystic tantric realm, Ursuala’s poetry too has that feel of the pillared corridor in a South Indian temple.

    Guin uses the lines from the popular ‘Red Riding Hood’ in her poetry and conveys a terrifying yet not an uncommon tantric imagery involving Shiva and Kali:

    Where did I get this middle eye?
    So you can see me clear.
    Where did I get these extra arms?
    To hug me with my dear.
    What have I got these big teeth for?
    Bite off my head my sweet
    And dance upon my body
    There where the rivers meet.

    Ursula&nbsp; Guin catches vividly with ambiguous reversals, the enigmatic tantric imagery of Kali dancing on Shiva
    Ursula&nbsp; Guin catches vividly with ambiguous reversals, the enigmatic tantric imagery of Kali dancing on Shiva

    And also, Kali dancing on Shiva becomes the act of bringing existence into being.

    God's stomach
    rumbles like a drum
    when I jump on it
    when I dance on his chest he snores
    when I dance on his gut he farts
    when I dance on his cock he comes
    when I dance on his eyes he wakes and all the stones fall down
    ashes, ashes
    all fall down.
    Get up and dance, creation! (Carmagnole of the Thirtieth June)

    When adoring Shiva as Pashupati, the poet sees through the eyes of Parvati. The hair of her beloved is uncombed. His hair is not only uncombed but is grey with ashes and it hides the crescent. Old men call him crazy. But why uncombed hair? Because on the uncombed hair falls the river out of the stars. So his lover sings

    O my lord I Parvati know myself
    daughter of the king of mountains
    immortal, when my heart grows heavy
    with tenderness thinking of my husband the herdsman
    who never combs his hair.

    Not able to stand the horrors humanity inflicts on itself and on the nature the child cries. And Kali answers. And she is the Kali from Thillai.

    They burned Hiroshima
    There was Tillai
    The blood burned painfully
    That pleased Kali
    I seek comfort, mother.
    Find it in the ashes.
    I seek comfort, mother.
    Find it in the bones.
    Mother, I am sick at heart.
    Come to the drumming at Chidambaram.
    Mother, I am sick at heart.
    Come to the dancing at Tillai. ( The Dancing at Tillai )

    And then Kali explains the mystery - the dance of Shiva to the child :

    See where my lord bears drum and flame
    his right hand says Be not afraid
    his left hand points to the dancing foot
    he dances in the heart laid waste
    the burning place
    river and moon are in his hair
    his lifted foot is grace
    his lowered foot is sleep
    he dances in the center
    there, and there, and there,
    all time, all space,
    the arch of all the stars
    contains his splendor

    Ursula Guin understood Hindu spirituality in its entirety, with typically easy Hindu ability to move between multiple meanings and layers. And this creates in her a worldview that fills her science-fiction and fantasy world. Naturally, this becomes very relevant in the context of what is happening today, right here. Without exploring that aspect we cannot completely understand Guin and the fire that drove her writings through decades - which is what the next part will deal with.

    Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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