First before all sprang Kama [Desire] into being.
Gods, fathers, mortal men have never matched him.
Stronger than these art thou, and great forever.
Kama, to thee, to thee I offer worship.
~ Atharva Veda
When Brahma created the world, the Indian myth says, he brought all its creatures into being by thinking of them. They sprang out of his mind, fully formed. Things were going along swimmingly, until the moment he began to admire his new, stunningly beautiful creation, a woman. She was incomparable, he thought, and perfect. Suddenly, something unexpected happened. As Brahma later tells it,
“Just as I was thinking like this, another amazingly beautiful being appeared out of my mind. He had a golden complexion. His chest was stout and firm. His nose was fine. His thighs, hips, and calves were round and plump.”
Is this sounding like a romance novel?
“His face shone like the full moon. His hairy chest was broad like a door… He had a slender waist and fine teeth. He smelled like an elephant in rut.”
Ah, now we’re getting to the point. They say that male elephants in rut have a testosterone level sixty times higher than normal. He reeked of pheromones and sex. I’m into this. What about you?
“He was armed with a bow and five flowers for arrows. His glance was very seductive, as he rolled his eyes here and there. O dear one, his very breath was a fragrant wind. He was accompanied by the sentiment of love.
“On seeing that being, my sons [all the other creatures] were struck with curiosity, fascination, and eagerness. Their minds immediately became crooked and confused. Smitten with love, they lost their mental resolve.”
This beautiful being’s name? Kama. Desire. And so it has ever been. From the moment Desire springs to life in our minds, we are curious, fascinated, eager – and confused. The passage concludes with Brahma admitting to Kama,
“O best of beings, even I, Brahma… will be in your control, not to speak of ordinary living beings. Invisibly you will enter the hearts of living beings, [and] excite thrilling feelings of pleasure… The minds of all living beings will become an easy target for your five flower arrows. You will be the cause of elation.”
The God of Gay Desire
Carl Jung was right. Myths of the gods speak to us about the often-unconscious energies of our psyches. We cannot control these powers. We do well to respect them, and as much as possible, keep peace with them. Most of us do not worship Kama as a god. Yet we must give our homage to the power of Desire. We must honor it, for it is, as the Atharva Veda says, stronger than gods and men. And we must learn, as much as possible, to harness Desire’s wild power.
Like Brahma, we gay men do not will Desire into being. It suddenly arises unbidden in our psyches when we are young. “The spirit of loving phallos seizes a gay boy in its inexorable grip,” writes gay Jungian analyst Mitch Walker. It comes as “an internal Will and Purpose which has chosen him to be its follower, [and chosen] to be his inner God and Way… a homosexual Lord of Love and Knowledge and Self and Being and Becoming, of a centralizing homosexual lust and love as the bursting kundalini energy rising from the fundament to sprout Enlightenment in the mind.” This is our Kama, the god of gay desire, and we are enthralled.
We are chosen long before puberty. When I was a young boy, I puzzled over what had seized me. How was it that I was so different from my brothers and my dad? How was it I was different than most of the other boys at school? The only way I could describe that difference to myself then was to say I had a girl’s mind and a boy’s body.
My self-perception remains essentially the same fifty years later. I would say it more skillfully now. I bear the imprint of the masculine on my body and the feminine on my psyche. I am, in Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’ Latin phrase, anima muliebris in corpore virili inclusa, a feminine soul enclosed in a masculine body. This characterization applies to many of us gay men. Masculine and feminine energies are both immediately present with us.
Michael Sigmann of the Men’s Inner Journey has helped me picture this. He suggests that we may think of these masculine and feminine energies as electrical charges. The feminine corresponds to a positive electrical charge. The masculine corresponds to a negative charge. A straight woman’s body and soul both carry a positive charge. A straight man’s body and soul both carry a negative charge. When the two of them come together, sparks fly. Many of us gay men carry a “negative,” masculine charge in our bodies, and a “positive,” feminine charge in our psyches. Sparks fly within us all the time. Or, we might think of this in terms of chakras. The energies of our lower chakras are masculine, yet the energies of our upper chakras may be feminine. Those charges meet at the center, the heart chakra, the core of their being. And our hearts are filled with desire.
Whether or not we identify with this characterization, desire is at the core of who we are as gay men. We are incarnations of desire. We are possessed by desire. We are full of passion and longing and life. We are bursting with creativity. It is this unquenchable and infinite desire that makes us so well-suited for the spiritual quest.
We must begin, though, not with the spirit, but with the body.
In the Hindu tradition, Kama is not only a god. Kama is also one of the four purusharthas, one of the four aims of life. Here kama takes on the meaning of pleasure. There are many pleasures in life, from food to friendship. Many Hindu would not want to slight any of them. Still, kama is, above all, sexual pleasure. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Kama Sutra?
I bless the Hindu tradition for this – for embracing sexual pleasure as one of the great aims in life. In the West, we have too often seen sexuality as the enemy of spirituality. It is not. In Hinduism, as in other traditions, renunciation of sex is appropriate for some spiritual paths. And always, the Hindu tradition is careful to place certain limits around sexuality. One should stay within one’s means and within ethical boundaries. Kama is bounded by artha and dharma. Otherwise, enjoy, experiment, explore!
In trying to describe the Hindu understanding of the relationship between sexuality and spirituality, I can do no better than quote Alain Daniélou, a gay Frenchman who converted to Hinduism:
“Physical pleasure plays an essential role in our inner development… A man who strives to be chaste and who fears, condemns, and thwarts physical love can never free himself from the prison of the senses. He weaves around himself a web of obscure frustrations, which will hinder him from realizing his transcendental destiny. On the other hand, the man who has tasted all kinds of sensual pleasure can gradually turn aside from them, finding greater sensual pleasure in union with the divine.”
I will underline Daniélou’s comments with a bit of my own story.
Since childhood, I have been drawn to the spiritual quest. Having grown up in a conservative Christian family, I believed that I could never act on my same-sex desires and stay true to my God. I pursued God with my whole heart and refrained from any kind of sexual activity with another man. I studied spirituality. I practiced spirituality. Yet I obsessively thought about sex.
My spiritual growth slowly led me to self-acceptance. I reached a point in my journey where the only way forward was to accept myself as gay; and that acceptance necessarily meant enjoying the physical pleasures of sex with a man. When I allowed myself to enter a sexual relationship with a man – only then was I finally able to let go of my obsession with sex. Accepting myself, and accepting the pleasures of gay sex, I found the freedom to pursue what Daniélou calls my transcendental destiny.
Only the Beginning
Pleasure, or kama in the Hindu tradition, is not the final goal. It is only the beginning. But it lays the foundation for the other pursuits. “A man without desires never achieves anything,” says the Manu Smriti. The pursuit of pleasure must give way to the soberer pursuits of artha and dharma, prosperity and purpose. We will consider these in the next two posts.
Most importantly, the pursuit of pleasure maps onto the ultimate quest for liberation. One of the most beloved texts of Hindu spirituality is the story in the Bhagavata Purana of how Lord Krishna seduces and then runs off with a simple cowgirl. The poem is sometimes named after the dance they share, the Rasa Lila. It is a love story, an illicit love story. It is an allegory of how pure Consciousness, personified here as Krishna, seduces us each into pursuing our union with it. (The parallel in the Christian tradition is the Song of Songs, again a story of illicit seduction, which was interpreted until modern times as an allegory of God seducing the soul.) I mention this story because it suggests how, in both the bhakti and Tantric paths, erotic desire plays an important role in the devotee’s relationship with the divine. Kama is transfigured, or rather, transfigures the devotee.
I will give Alain Daniélou the last word:
“Mystics are erotic. They intuitively and profoundly understand the sensual pleasures of sexual love and prefer their experience of the divine merely because it is more delectable, more durable, more complete. It is the ambitious ones, not the mystics, who seek to place obstacles on the path of sexual love, since eroticism may become the means (perhaps the only one) of attaining liberation.”
To go deeper:
If you are interested in purchasing any of the books below, please click a Kindle, Hardcover, or Paper link. Your purchase directly from these links will help support this blog.
Mitch Walker. Men Loving Men: A Gay Sex Guide and Consciousness Book, 2nd ed. [Paper]. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press, 1994. I include this here as representative of the many modern gay “Kama Sutras.” Much of the information in this book is, of course, available elsewhere. The twist comes in the intent to use sex to help raise one’s level of consciousness.
Mitch Walker. “The Archetype of Gay-Centeredness” In The Revolutionary Psychology of Gay-Centeredness in Men. Mitch Walker, 1999: 5-10. In this dense and evocative essay, gay analyst Mitch Walker describes the archetypal structures of the gay psyche, including a reworking of the Oedipus complex, which he dubs the Uranian complex. Worth a very slow and thoughtful read.
Alain Daniélou. “The Third Aim of Life: Kama: Pleasure, Sexuality, Enjoyment.” In Virtue, Success, Pleasure, and Liberation: The Four Aims of Life in the Tradition of Ancient India [Kindle] [Paper]. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1993: 109-26. Daniélou, a gay French Indologist, draws together a catena of quotations from Hindu sources on kama, and offers insightful commentary.
Alain Daniélou. The Complete Kama Sutra: The First Unabridged Modern Translation of the Classic Indian Text [Kindle] [Hardcover] [Paper]. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1994. This was the first complete English translation of the classic text, together with excerpts from two commentaries. And translated by a gay man!
Dermot Killingley. “Kama.” In Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, eds., The Hindu World [Kindle] [Hardcover] [Paper]. New York: Routledge, 2004: 265-87. If you’re feeling geeky, try out this academic essay in which the author carefully lays out the multiple meanings and valuations of kama in Hindu culture and religion.