Dr. Neela Bhattacharya Saxena is Professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies at Nassau Community College, NY. She has published two books, Absent Mother God of the West: A Kali Lover’s Journey into Christianity and Judaism, Lexington, 2016, 2019 (paperback) and In the Beginning IS Desire: Tracing Kali's
Footprints in Indian Literature, Indialog, 2004. Some of her other publications include, “Mapping the Chiasmus: Liberating Patterns in a Planetary Mandala” in Contemporary Voices from Anima Mundi: A Reappraisal, 2020, “AI as Awakened Intelligence: Buddha, Kurzweil and the Film Her” in Theology and Science, Jan 2020. “Woman is Antahprajnatmika: A Spectrum of Enlightenment from Maradarikas to Female Buddhas in Tantric Buddhism,” in IGNCA’s Kalakalpa, 2019,“Iridescent Self in the Womb of the Wholly M(O)ther: A Vajrayani Meditation” in Social Theory and Asian Dialogues, 2018, “Neither Theos Nor Logos: Indic Divine Mother Beyond Ontotheology” in Pathways of Creative Research: Towards a Festival of Dialogues, 2017, “Prodigy, Poet, and Freedom Fighter: Sarojini Naidu, the Nightingale of India” in Indian Poetry in English, 2014, “Peopling an Unaccustomed Earth: Jhumpa Lahiri’s Supreme Fictional Journeys into Human Conditions” in Argument, 2012, and “Gynocentric Theology of Tantric Hinduism: A Meditation upon the Devi” in Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theology, 2011. She writes a blog called “Stand Under the Mother Principle” and more information about her work can be found at her website: https://neelabhattacharyasaxena.com/
Interview by Usha Akella (2020)
Neela Bhattacharya Saxena
Absent Mother God of the West: A Kali Lover’s Journey into Christianity and Judaism
Neela Saxena’s most recent book, Absent Mother God of the West: A Kali Lover’s Journey into Christianity and
Judaism is an astonishing lyrical account of journeying replete with lovely synchronicities, nothing short of
pilgrimage, to Europe’s churches and temple sites (including Greek islands, France, Ephesus, Athens, Cyprus,
Einsiedeln, Czestochowa, among many other places) in the search for the feminine sacred via the icons of
Kali, the Buddhist Prajnaparamita, and the Black Madonna. At the crux of her work that is both personal and
academic is her search for the solutions to contemporary societies trapped in a resurgence of fundamentalism,
narrow nationalistic expressions, and rigid religiosities—and, persisting misogyny, negrophobia and
Her penetrative research shows interconnections between myth, religion, sexuality, racism, environment,
psychology, history, anthropology, sociology, feminism, colonial studies, poetry, politics, and literature. She
painstakingly examines various Judaea-Christian religious texts and mythological literatures—bible and Greek
myths—as well as Tantric and other Hindu scriptures. Citing numerous scholars to elucidate her own
discoveries and envisioning, ultimately her vision is hopeful. She continues and fulfills the line of inquiry by
feminist scholars such as Elinor Gadon and China Galland.
She convincingly calls out for an acceptance of a “Gynocentric” spirituality, an immersion into the Divine
Mother who births all dualities—that facilitates an understanding of the core God mother as shunyata of the
Buddhists, who imbibes Brhaman and samadhi, as well as the logos of Christianity—a deeply infectious view
that offers hope for a way out of the darkness of our times. A conscious imaging of divinity as both body and
spirit, female and male, earth and heaven is our solution to the planetary woes that are at a breaking point,
ecologically and psychologically ravaged by the ills of colonialism, materialism, gynophobia, women and child
trafficking, consumerism, and misogyny.
The book is finally a joyful journeying into her own soul—a quest mirrored in known and strange lands—to
reclaim a passage of hope for all of us. She emerges sanctified that indeed the erased feminine still breathes
and has held her own; with our participation, she will flourish again.
Usha Akella: Neela, reading this book was an exhilarating experience that filled me with joy. I applaud the courage in your passion to speak of and for the feminine sacred that has fired your academic work for decades. I was riveted, by this quote from page 26 of the introduction, “What if extreme male violence is itself a symptom of a profound mother hunger and the denial of the yin aspect in the male psyche”. The crux for your search for the solution to the ills of contemporary culture lies in that question. Comment?
Neela Saxena: Thank you so much Usha for your passionate appreciation, and I am so glad you picked up on this. Violence has been a part of human history whose source is an energy within our creaturely make-up that tantric paths have tried to transmute without condemnation. However, sheer brutality and widespread macro and micro aggression against life itself that we see today which includes psychological violence is a result, I believe, of the suppression of the yin energy in the dominant male of the species. This acute aggression shows up in all spheres of our lives, and sometimes leads to mental illnesses both among men and women because our souls cannot cope with it. This yin energy is soft like the flow of water but incredibly strong; however, it lies low as the Dao de Ching so beautifully articulates. Mother hunger is the hunger for the source, the Great Yin, the Void, that balances our yin and yang aspects. I do want to point out though that patriarchy has denied yin in men but permitted women to explore their yang aspects, sometimes to a denial of her womanhood. I believe this has given women a curious if precarious advantage, but men lose access to that wholeness which is available through the yin. Hence, they lash out in helpless and unconscious fury.
UA: “I do want to point out though that patriarchy has denied yin in men but permitted women to explore their yang aspects, sometimes to a denial of her womanhood.” Perhaps another aberration in the process of balance?
NS: Yes, indeed. Some women are waking up to a revaluation of the “feminine” after their flirtation with the overvalued “masculine,” but most men are still caged in the “yang.”
UA: This book is part two of an ongoing quest, you saw yourself as an academic looking to break away from “third world victimhood superimposed” on your identity in your first book on Kali. In this book you aptly see yourself as an “explorer” of ideas speaking from a place of comfort and confidence. Share with me a bit about the years in between the two books facilitating this change.
NS: Usha, difficulties we face in our lives could be avenues toward growth which have the capacity to help us reach our human potentialities. I was thrown into a new country and a culture that harbored deep prejudices toward people from the so called “third world”, especially women whom even some feminists saw as nothing but perpetual victims. To express my reality, since I did not feel particularly oppressed, I ended up writing In the Beginning IS Desire. It was an effort to return to my identity as a gendered subject who had taken for granted my love of Kali. I realized in the process of writing that I was a privileged woman because a powerful black female deity pervaded my consciousness. I also discovered a lot about Indic traditions and its sophisticated tantric paths that would have remained a silent and private quest if that third world victimhood had not been hurled at me. It was from that sense of comfort and security that I ventured into the Judeo-Christian world with genuine questions about its missing divine feminine. It was a kind of reverse anthropological gaze but a sympathetic one.
UA: The wonder of hearing a woman empowered by her cultural roots! I’ve explored this in a couple of poems calling for a feminism not fueled by the Western paradigm. How has devotion to Kali achieved this sense of mental health for you?
NS: Yes, Kali dances in you. You too drank from that deep “Gynocentric” well. I must credit my parents for the mental health that you refer to. My father’s Kali devotion made him raise his two daughters as psychologically independent human beings, and my mom’s supreme sense of self aided in not gendering us in negative ways. Kali of course devoured all narrow identities, opening her vast world of magic.
UA: Much of your work calls for healing and awareness in Western religious paradigms of binaries that create a rent sense of self and violent societies; Eastern religions like Buddhism and Tantra with their polytheistic consciousness create an inherent psychological sensibility that accommodates paradoxes and perceives binaries as non-threatening oppositions. Comment?
NS: Yes, dharmic ways do accommodate paradoxes and polarities but that does not automatically give the so-called easterner access to wholeness. Serious and radical sadhana required for the supreme consciousness to arise often comes from a crisis that this very rent sense of self and pervasive violence can facilitate. It is not an accident that Tibetan Buddhism, more famous form of Indic Vajrayana, has been spreading among the disenchanted and yet highly privileged westerners. Buddhism also appeals to genuine atheists who are seeking the truth and a way out of their modernist malaise. Polytheistic consciousness is the outer layer of Indic transformative paths that allow access to our variegated psychological and spiritual depths. As elder civilizations, they also developed many skillful means to reach them. I am discovering that depth dimensions of western religions are quite equipped for that transformation. However, due to their imperial history and spiritual patriarchy, these ways went underground.
UA: I think it is a remarkable admission to say, “I am discovering that depth dimensions of western religions are quite equipped for that transformation.” We hear a lot of Indic supremacist ideologies. The ‘East’ as the holder of spirituality and the ‘West’ as the proponent of materialism are general cliches.
NS: Yes, it is easy to create such stereotypes, especially because the imperial “West” ended up developing “objective” science while the “East” invested more into inner technologies. Many supremacist Indians simply parrot Indic “spirituality” and digest hook, line, and sinker modern western consumerist worldviews. Modern China too has forgotten the Dao while a beleaguered “West” is seeking its own depths.
UA: What you say ties in with your intention to resolve binaries. This book captures your travel and research in search of the Back Madonna; I see this work as some sort of culminating process
wherein you resolved many binaries and dualities including geographical ones of East and West.
Comment to share your journeying in Europe’s churches and sites please.
NS: Yes, Usha, in a way, I am attempting to dissolve the binary of East and West too without reducing them to a monotonous homogeneity. I must say that the book arose out of profound synchronicities and a deep hunger, not because of a well-planned research. Yes, it was in the dual process of my physical travels and its resultant mental expansion that I discovered the magic of the Black Madonna. It is a cliché that westerners go to India in their spiritual search, but I discovered that Mother spirit is not confined in the East. It is true that China Galland’s pained rejection of her patriarchal Catholicism led to her discovery of Kali and Tara, and eventually to the Black Virgin. I experienced an astonishing and agonizing surge of energy in a cave of the Virgin Mary in the Greek Island of Samos. In a reverse journey, my Kali saturated mind entered Europe and was transformed. When I was wandering lonely on the streets of Europe and breathlessly taking in the grandeur of myriad Notre-Dames, I had no clue that someday I will write a book. I wrote a short photo essay for Café-Dissensus called “Zurich to the Edge of the Black Forest: Wanderings of a Wayfaring Woman” that tries to capture a part of those extensive travels.
UA: You have delved into Buddhism speaking of your teacher with great respect and love who helped you find parallels between Tantra and Buddhism via your research into the black feminine sacred.
NS: This will require a lot of explanation because roots of tantra are in Buddhism beginning with the text of Guhyasamajtantra although agamic sages had been experimenting with the yogic methods for perhaps millennia. My rather short incursion into my Vajraguru’s extensive tantric scholarship revealed to me how little I knew about the unbroken lineage of the compassionate masters. Ancient agamic methods were not Vedic which are primarily patriarchal. South India’s Sri Vidya tradition bears the mark of that agamic Shakta wisdom, but unfortunately a lot of it has been appropriated by patriarchy. To find the profoundly Gynocentric lineage and its knowledge systems, one must go to what I describe as the Samkhya-Yoga-Tantra continuum of Indic traditions. Buddha himself was one among many agamic sages whose Gynocentric wisdom was refined into what is today known as the tantras. Indic patriarchy rejected the path of the Buddha because he spoke of the extinction of the self beyond its expansion as Brahman and dismantled the entire Brahminic caste and gender hierarchy. By the time tantric Buddhism developed out of his cryptic teachings and Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka philosophy, the Mother Principle, the womb of the black feminine was deeply enthroned in the psyche of the true seekers. These realized masters with no religion taught the ways revealed to them for the benefit of suffering humanity. Tantra after all, as my Guru says, is mainly a mechanism, an astonishing methodology to reach the depth dimensions of our being so that we can live life fully awake in the lap of the Great Mother and relish the beauty of her creation, here and now.
UA: I loved how your work necessitated the coinage of neologisms and used paradoxes to express your research, “endarkment”, “pregnant nothingness”, “mother god”, “prajna kali”, “adya shakti” and “logo Sophia”. Why were you forced to invent these terms? to be able to carry the weight of your thoughts in the research process?
NS: Well, some of these terms arose in my consciousness as I made feeble attempts to express my experiences in semi-scholarly articulations. I cannot say I invented them. ‘Adyashakti’ is a well-known term within Shakta paths, but yes, other terms you mention I use to express my myriad and paradoxical experiences of the Mother Principle. In my first book I was forced by my editor to speak of my debilitating and yet exhilarating experiences of being devoured by Kali. That was a gift from my family’s Kali sadhika guru, Shidhha Ma. But it required a lifetime of struggle and a rather perilous personal journey that the arrival of my Vajraguru inaugurated in my life that finally began to make vividly real what Mother God really means. First, I was not at all sure that anyone will be interested in hearing about my experiences, but that is what opened the wider path. I vividly remember how sitting in a session at my first IAPL (a scholarly group about literature and philosophy) conference in 1996 when the expression “pregnant nothingness” flashed in my mind. At another conference in Estonia, I spoke of Logo-Sophia to capture the paradox and dissolve the binary opposition that the philosophers were expressing. Philosophy after all is the love of Sophia/wisdom, not mere ratiocination.
UA: You trace the work of goddess scholars from Elinor Gadon, China Galland etc., Many of them were establishing that the lack of a female God had created patriarchal Western social structures and the split image of a virgin mother and a temptress Eve causing an insufficient understanding of the ‘feminine’. What blank was your research filling in this line of this research?
NS: I think all I was doing was joining a long line of women who are making a painstaking effort to articulate their reality. Since my early and lonely days of talking about “my Kali”, goddess scholarship has pretty much exploded. Pioneers like Gadon and Galland along with innumerable other feminist scholars and theologians have gone deeper into their traditions to heal the split. Yes, as an Indian woman with a Shakta tantric and Vajrayana heritage, I do bring a specific tradition to light for those who are looking for not just academic knowledge but its experiential core. My voice simply adds to the reality experienced by many although it also attempts to decolonize the imperial patriarchal gaze within us. In addition, my entry into mystical Christianity, gnostic and Kabbalist paths have enriched my path as nondual Sufism had illuminated the Indic experience in my first book.
UA: Early on you resisted “modernity” as a lens. Clarify please?
NS: When I was in graduate school in India where many English majors were excited about alienated modernity of the western world, I was skeptical. As I wrote my PhD dissertation about modern tragic drama and in a way entered the “alienated” western “male” psyche, I recognized that was not me because it was foundationally problematic against which, what I call, the best of the west were themselves revolting. At this point, I am articulating the possibility of a global healing because western “scientistic” modernity has penetrated deeply into the nooks and crannies of the world infecting it with a dis-ease that is alarming. Techno modernity wears the mask of progress hiding a deeply alienated sensibility that is a wholesale assault on the yin principle of life. It is a logical consequence and a flip side of a spiritually patriarchal religious ideology that sees life itself as a curse from its disembodied “male” deity. India too has digested that ideology that is showing its virulent ugly face in its muscular religious nationalism.
UA: I’d like to hear more about dancing vs dueling dualities.
NS: Females and males of all species are the pristine expression of a foundational duality that is the play of the nondual Divine Mother although that duality is expressed in a wider gender spectrum. Nondual experiences must be balanced by an acceptance of duality so that we can integrate samsara and nirvana. Duality is different from dualism which is a hierarchically organized ideology that assumes males to be superior to females, whites to blacks etc. We all must fight against that. And yet, Usha, what bothered me most about a certain flavor of western feminism was its misandry. Although quite understandable given the struggle against a virulent and subtly ideological and spiritual patriarchy, I felt from the very beginning that this battle of the sexes that I call dueling dualities is not conducive to life. Wholesale and relentless female anger against the male of the species is also giving too much power to mere mortals, the deluded men. So, we must recognize the balance of yin and yang principles within us and work toward that dance in the external world.
UA: How do you explain patriarchy in India despite a living goddess culture—goddesses that are not just generative but models for all aspects of life. It’s a question that has puzzled me for long.
NS: Yes, puzzling indeed if we do not see the Gynocentric matrix of Indic civilization that persisted at a time when the name of the woman was erased from monotheisms. However, patriarchal Brahminism that devalued Prakriti in the name of an abstract Purusha created similar unconsciousness that we see in monotheism. Androcentric philosophy of Advaita Vedanta and its mayafied ideology available only to a select few did not help either. Globally, India too came under social, political, and economic patriarchy that swept the world under a phenomenon that is exquisitely expressed by a master physician, Iain McGilchrist in his monumental book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. However, history of Indic quest for life affirming dharmas is still not fully understood. Tantric paths are India’s highest spiritual and intellectual achievements, and it is paramount that this Gynocentric science of inner transformation comes out into the light for the benefit of all beings.
UA: Are you hopeful of the way out of our present dilemma. Will humanity rise to the occasion? The reimaging of religion and the environment have been going for decades by so many dedicated scholars and people from various disciplines. Has it penetrated? Your book clearly makes the connections but have enough heard and awakened?
NS: We must believe that humanity will rise to the occasion, or we will face debilitating depression. All around I see voices of women and men speaking out, and communities reaching into the depths of their traditions to find life affirming solutions. New spiritual but not religious groups are asking fundamental questions and resisting virulent psycho-spiritual patriarchy of modernity that has created insatiable hungry ghosts. This pandemic itself has been a wake-up call for many people, and in a way is a warning from the Mother Earth to mend our ways or perish. We have created the collective debacle, and we will find a way out. You and I are both a part of that reimaging and healing endeavor.