FACES OF KALI
by David Nelson
Kali is one of the most
powerful goddesses of India. Her present identity results from an evolutionary
process spanning more than two millennia, and her recent arrival in the West as
a living deity creates the possibility of new and unforeseen changes within an
environment outside her original cultural boundaries.
Modern depiction of Kali
In her Indian temples,
Kali is worshiped daily from predawn until evening darkness. The black goddess
is awakened, bathed, fed, adored by her devotees, and prayed to throughout the
day and additionally on the night of the dark moon (amavasya). The single most
important and elaborate amavasya worship (puja) falls in the lunar month
corresponding to October or November in the Western calendar. This Night of Kali
occurs near the time of Samhain, the Celtic sabbat when the veil between the
worlds is thinnest, and that is fitting, since Kali is, among many things, the
goddess of death.
Written at the end of the nineteenth century, Swami Vivekananda's poem, "Kali
the Mother," evokes the Night of Kali as a time of pitchy darkness that blots
out the stars, while on every side, "a thousand, thousand shades of Death
begrimed and black" scatters plagues and sorrows in a mad, joyful dance. In the
poet's awesome vision, Terror is the goddess's name, Death is in her breath, and
destruction follows every footfall, for she is the relentless power of
Little of this
characterization would pass in the West as conventional religious sentiment, for
Kali is Nature in her raw, exuberant power. The Hindus call this power Mother.
To the Western mind, Mother Nature more often evokes visions of abundant
harvests, forests teeming with wildlife, majestic mountains and inspiring
sunsets; only when she goes on a rampage in the form of a natural disaster do we
remember and fear her other side. Goddess-worshiping Hindus, called Shaktas, are
more likely to recognize her auspicious and destructive aspects in equal
Like the Shaktas, Western Pagans also regard life and death as complementary and
inseparable arcs in the circle of existence. They acknowledge a triple goddess,
characterized as maiden, mother and crone, who reflects the cyclical nature of
the world: that everything has a beginning, a middle, an end, and a new
beginning. Similarly, for the Shakta Hindu, Kali is a powerful and complex
goddess with multiple forms. In many household shrines she is worshiped as the
gentle Shyama, who dispels fear and grants boons. In times of natural disaster
she is invoked as the protective Rakshakali. As Shmashanakali she embodies
destructive power and is said to haunt the cremation ground in the company of
howling jackals and terrifying female spirits. At the magnificent Dakshineswar
Temple in Calcutta, she is revered as the beautiful Bhavatarini, Redeemer of the
Universe. And as Mahakali, the Great Kali, she is the formless Shakti, the
immanent primordial power who is not different from the transcendental Absolute.
Bhavatarini Ma ( Kali as Redeemer of the Universe) Dakshineswar
Kali's followers regard
her as the eternal reality in its dynamic mode -- the creative, sustaining and
destructive energy in and through all things. Philosophically speaking, she has
no beginning. As for when her specific forms first entered human consciousness
and human history, we simply do not know. Only a few clues survive from the
Study of the early
history of India is a highly contentious field. Much of the past are
irretrievably lost, and attempts to assemble the surviving fragments are all too
often colored by feelings of nationalism, ethnic pride, religious belief,
lingering resentment of colonialism, and the legacy of the pioneering European
scholars who all too often injected their own Judeo-Christian prejudices and
view of history into an area where they clearly do not belong. Today, wildly
conflicting theories abound, and even the best are not without serious
anomalies, because at present there is simply no way to make sense of all the
data at hand.
Nevertheless, it is
safe to say that Indian religion, throughout its long history, has always
consisted of two intertwining strands, the Vedic and the Tantric. The Vedic, or
orthodox, strand stems from the Vedas, India's oldest surviving sacred texts.
Composed in Sanskrit, the Vedic hymns are in large part nature poetry written by
people overwhelmed by the beauty and power of surrounding nature, which they
personified and deified as a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Four thousand years
later, the dazzling imagery of the hymns still conveys the poets' ecstatic
response to a world in which everything was seen as divine. The Tantric strand
includes everything that is not Vedic. Its origins may be traced to the magical
or fertility cults of pre- or non-Vedic peoples. It is entirely possible that
Tantra is the surviving Goddess religion of the ancient Indus Valley
civilization, with a later admixture of folk magic and tribal shamanism.
As long as Tantric and
Vedic religion have coexisted on Indian soil, they have influenced each other.
The earliest Vedic hymns are tinged with Tantric elements, and at the heart of
Tantra lies the sublime metaphysical philosophy of the Upanishads, which form
the culmination of Vedic thought. This is the cultural matrix from which Kali
emerged -- a world of Goddess cults, magic, sacrificial rites, the deification
of natural forces, and lofty speculation over the nature of reality. In ancient
India, as in most of the ancient world, multiple religious cults coexisted more
or less peacefully.
There is some
archeological and textual evidence that Vedic peoples inhabited parts of the
Indus Valley as early as the third millennium BCE. At Kalibangan, one of the
most ancient cities, archeologists discovered what appears to be a series of
seven Vedic fire altars, while years of excavation at the same site have yielded
a grand total of two goddess figurines. In contrast, the contemporaneous cities
of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa were centers of thriving goddess cults, attested by
the recovery of thousands of goddess images from the ruins.
After a series of
natural disasters initiated the gradual collapse of the Indus Valley
civilization around 1900 BCE, the great cities were abandoned. The massive
displacement and relocation of entire populations led to widespread cultural
cross-fertilization, documented in later Vedic texts, particularly in the
Brahmanas, which introduce a large number of new goddesses and witness the
coalescence of multiple deities with similar attributes into single gods or
goddesses. The difficulty in tracing the origins of the non-Vedic or non-Aryan
deities is that upon absorption into the Vedic pantheon, they were given
Chamunda, Central India 10th-12th century
Kali is thought to have
originated as a tribal goddess indigenous to one of India's inaccessible
mountainous regions. The Matsyapurana gives her place of origin as Mount
Kalanjara in north central India, east of the Indus Valley floodplain. But owing
to the late date of the Puranas' composition, this evidence regarding Kali's
place of origin cannot be taken as particularly reliable.
At least thousand years
before the Matsyapurana, the name of Kali first appears in Sanskrit literature
between the eighth and fifth centuries BCE. The reference, in Mundakopanishad
1.2.4, names Kali as one of the seven quivering tongues of the fire god Agni,
whose flames devour sacrificial oblations and transmit them to the gods. The
verse characterizes Agni's seven tongues as black, terrifying, swift as thought,
intensely red, smoky colored, sparkling, and radiant. Significantly, the first
two adjectives -- kali and karali -- "black" and "terrifying," recur in later
texts to describe the horrific aspect of the goddess. Karali additionally means
"having a gaping mouth and protruding teeth." This verse scarcely suffices to
confirm that Kali was a personified goddess during the age of the Upanishads,
but it is noteworthy that the adjective that became her name was used to
characterize an aspect of the fire god's power. Just as fire dissolves matter
into energy, the goddess Kali dissolves the material universe into
undifferentiated being at the end of a cosmic cycle.
Kali first appears unequivocally as a goddess in the Kathaka Grihyasutra, a
ritualistic text that names her in a list of Vedic deities to be invoked with
offerings of perfume during the marriage ceremony. Unfortunately, the text
reveals nothing more about her.
During the epic period,
some time after the fifth century BCE, Kali emerges better defined in an episode
of the Mahabharata. When the camp of the heroic Pandava brothers is attacked one
night by the sword-wielding Asvatthaman, his deadly assault is seen as the work
of "Kali of bloody mouth and eyes, smeared with blood and adorned with garlands,
her garment reddened, -- holding noose in hand -- binding men and horses and
elephants with her terrible snares of death" (Mahabharata 10.8.64-65). Although
the passage goes on to describe the slaughter as an act of human warfare, it
makes clear that the fierce goddess is ultimately the agent of death who carries
off those who are slain.
Kali next appears in
the sacred literature during the Puranic age, when new theistic devotional sects
displaced the older Brahmanical form of Hinduism. In the fourth and fifth
centuries CE the Puranas were written to glorify the great deities Vishnu, Shiva
and the Devi -- the Goddess -- as well as lesser gods. One such Purana, the
Markandeya, contains within it the foundational text of all subsequent Hindu
Goddess religion. This book within a book is known as the Devimahatmya, the Shri
Durga Saptashati, or the Chandi.
seventh chapter describes Kali springing forth from the furrowed brow of the
goddess Durga in order to slay the demons Chanda and Munda. Here, Kali's
horrific form has black, loosely hanging, emaciated flesh that barely conceals
her angular bones. Gleaming white fangs protrude from her gaping, blood-stained
mouth, framing her lolling red tongue. Sunken, reddened eyes peer out from her
black face. She is clad in a tiger's skin and carries a khatvanga, a
skull-topped staff traditionally associated with tribal shamans and magicians.
The khatvanga is a clear reminder of Kali's origin among fierce, aboriginal
peoples. In the ensuing battle, much attention is placed on her gaping mouth and
gnashing teeth, which devour the demon hordes. At one point Munda hurls
thousands of discusses at her, but they enter her mouth "as so many solar orbs
vanishing into the denseness of a cloud" (Devimahatmya 7.18). WIth its cosmic
allusion, this passage reveals Kali as the abstraction of primal energy and
suggests the underlying connection between the black goddess and Kala ('time'),
an epithet of Shiva. Kali is the inherent power of ever-turning time, the
relentless devourer that brings all created things to an end. Even the gods are
said to have their origin and dissolution in her.
The eighth chapter of
the Devimahatmya paints an even more gruesome portrait. Having slain Chanda and
Munda, Kali is now called Chamunda, and she faces an infinitely more powerful
adversary in the demon named Raktabija. Whenever a drop of his blood falls to
earth, an identical demon springs up. When utter terror seizes the gods, Durga
merely laughs and instructs Kali to drink in the drops of blood. While Durga
assaults Raktabija so that his blood runs copiously, Kali avidly laps it up. The
demons who spring into being from the flow perish between her gnashing teeth
until Raktabija topples drained and lifeless to the ground.
Chamunda, Nepal, 14th century
Chamunda, The Horrific Destroyer of Evil 10th-11th century
Although the Puranas
and earlier Sanskrit texts characterize Kali as a hideous, frightening crone who
deals death and destruction, her victims symbolize the forces of ignorance and
evil, making her in fact a force for good. But later on, secular texts of the
medieval period, not always sympathetic to the goddess, paint a lurid and truly
horrifying picture of Kali as exacting and receiving human sacrifice.
In the seventeenth century Kali's characterization underwent a radical change.
As popularized by the Bengali Tantric, Krishnananda Agamavagisha, Kali retains
little of her former fierceness. Agamavagisha's Tantrasara [Essence of Tantra]
describes several of her innumerable forms, among them Dakshinakali, who fits
the standard, present-day idea of the goddess. Dakshinakali has a terrifying
appearance, but the cronelike emaciation of the Puranas has given way to
voluptuous beauty. And behind every detail of the perhaps unsettling Tantric
iconography lies a cosmological abstraction or a lofty spiritual principle.
Kali has a fierce but smiling face. Her red tongue, protruding from her gaping
mouth is taken either as a sign of modesty or of her thirst for blood. (Even
today goats are sacrificed in most Kali temples, perpetuating ancient ritual
practices.) Her untamed hair hints at unrestrained power and boundless freedom.
Alternatively, it may symbolize the mystery of death that encircles life (Mookerjee
1985: 128) or the veil of illusion, made of the fabric of space-time (Bandopadhyay
1995: 79). Her three eyes represent omniscience, for she sees past, present and
future. The garland of severed heads around her neck represents the letters of
the Sanskrit alphabet, a Tantric metaphor for creative power. Encircling her
waist, a girdle of severed arms indicates that she severs the bonds of karma and
frees us from the bondage of accumulated deeds. Her full breasts symbolize
nurturance. Her nakedness signifies freedom from the veils of illusion, and her
dark skin alludes to the infinitude of the blue-black night sky.
Kali's paradoxical combination of maternal tenderness and destructive terror
appears polarized on right and left. Her lower right hand is held in the varada
mudra, extended to offer a boon. One of her greatest boons is fearlessness,
indicated by her upper right hand, held in the abhaya mudra, upright with the
palm outward. Her upper left hand brandishes a bloodied curving sword, and her
lower left hand dangles a freshly severed head. Behind these apparent symbols of
destruction lies a different story. The sword symbolizes the higher knowledge
that cuts through appearances and reveals things as they really are. The severed
head represents the human ego, the limiting sense of I-me-and-mine that she
slays. Together Kali's four hands seem to say, "Take refuge in me, let go of
your existential fear, let me slay your illusion of smallness and separation,
and you will merge into my infinite bliss."
Kali haunts the cremation ground, and she is often pictured standing on the
chest of the ashen white Shiva, who lies still as a corpse. In some images Shiva
is ithyphallic and engages with Kali in a form of sexual intercourse called
viparitarati or purushayita. In this position the female is on top, taking the
active role. This inversion sends a message of the Mother Goddess's supremacy.
According to Shakta and Tantric cosmology, it is the feminine power that
creates, sustains and dissolves the universe while the masculine principle is
the static substratum. The sexual union of Shiva and Shakti graphically
illustrates that ultimately the two are one, beyond all duality.
That monistic principle found eloquent expression in the poetry of Ramprasad,
the greatest of Kali's mystical poets, who lived in the 18th century. After a
lifetime of extolling his beloved goddess in human terms as gentle, elusive,
playful, or mad, and in cosmic imagery as the all-pervading creative and
destructive power, on his final day Ramprasad wrote that at last he understood
the supreme mystery that Kali is one with the highest Brahman. Enlightenment
brought him to the ultimate consciousness beyond all duality.
Because of the Bengali devotional poets of the 18th century, Kali's human and
maternal qualities continue to define the goddess for most of her Indian
devotees to this day. In human relationships, the love between mother and child
is usually considered the purest and strongest. In the same way, the love
between the Mother Goddess and her human children is considered the closest and
tenderest relationship with divinity. Accordingly, Kali's Indian devotees form a
particularly intimate and loving bond with her.
Kali's Indian experience reveals that an originally fierce tribal goddess
gradually assumed universal characteristics, including those of beneficence and
motherhood, and eventually became identified with the cosmic creative energy and
the nondual ultimate reality. What will be her developmental trajectory in
cultural and religious contexts outside of India?
The experiences of some other deities or semidivine figures who left the
confines of their original culture provide a frame of reference or at least
grounds for speculation. Isis, the most powerful and beloved Egyptian goddess
for more than three thousand years, saw her worship spread throughout the
Mediterranean world after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, but even in the
broader Hellenistic world she remained the tender mother, redemptive savior and
immensely powerful queen of heaven until her cult was absorbed by Christianity
in the 4th century. In contrast, when the boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara traveled
from India to China, his defining characteristic of compassion struck the
Chinese mind as feminine, and gradually he was transformed into Guanyin, the
Goddess of Mercy. In the transition from Judaism to Christianity, a
flesh-and-blood prophet named Yeshua became the cosmic redeemer, Jesus Christ.
Like Isis, Avalokiteshvara and Yeshua were refashioned to meet their new
followers' needs or expectations.
Nevertheless, in crossing borders Isis, Avalokiteshvara and Yeshua all
experienced changes in iconography. For thirty centuries depictions of Isis had
conformed to the stylistic conventions of Egyptian art, but her Greco-Roman
sculptures are realistic in style and devoid of the distinguishing features seen
in Egyptian representations. In China rhe Indian Avalokiteshvara assumed Chinese
racial characteristics. Depending on where in the world Jesus is portrayed, he
appears as Asian, African, Nordic or Mediterranean. That raises a question: Are
we created in God's image, or do we create our gods in our own image?
The question is
basically that of the old conundrum. Chickens come from eggs and eggs come from
chickens -- both facts are observable at different places in the cycle of
existence. To seek proof, linear style, that one came first is absurd. It
engenders a paradigm of either/or dogmatism that shatters the wholeness of the
circle. Simply put, as manifestations of the divine creative ideation, we are
created in the divine image. At the same time, we carry that same creative
consciousness within and use it to create our own images of divinity according
to our needs or understanding. Ultimately, in the wholeness of the circle, we
and divinity are one.
Regarding Kali's presence in the West, observing her in several settings will
indicate whether or how the Hindu goddess has been altered in consideration of
new situations or the expectations of new followers outside of India.
The Vedanta Societies in America are affiliated with the Ramakrishna Math and
Mission, headquartered in Calcutta. Vedanta arrived in the West in 1893 with
Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu delegate to the World's Parliament of Religions in
Chicago. Vivekananda was a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, who spent the better
part of his life as a priest of Kali at the Dakshineswar Temple.
For several decades, the Vedanta Society's Hollywood temple was the only place
in the United States where a full-scale Kali Puja was held annually, complete
with a sculptured image, on the amavasya night in October or November. Strings
of red lights customarily outline the temple dome and windows, bespeaking
festivity. Inside, the shrine is a blaze of light and activity, while the Swamis
chant mantras and adorn the image of the black goddess with flower garlands,
jewelry, perfumes and silken finery. Clouds of incense mingle the fragrance of
sandalwood with the aromas of lavish food offerings, while music and the ringing
of bells fill the air. The ritual passes through several phases, and in the dead
of night come quiet moments of hushed mystery. At ritual's end, the sounds of
bells, drums, gongs and raucous conches erupt, followed by a predawn feast.
The puja is conducted in most respects as in India, with some practical
concessions. The constraints of time do not allow for worshipers to approach the
shrine individually with offerings of fruits, flowers and sweets, and this
participatory phase is omitted. The other difference lies in the demeanor of the
worshipers. In Indian temples there is a constant buzz of conversation along
with rousing devotional singing, hand clapping and the voluble expression of
religious feeling, as if the devotees' enthusiasm will win the deity's
attention. In contrast, at the Vedanta Society, devotional music is more often
performed by a solo singer while the devotees sit silently in meditation.
Possibly the strong contemplative focus of the Vedanta Society, combined with
many Westerners' early impressions that a church or temple is a place of quiet
reverence, accounts for this Kali Puja's relative restraint.
Following the change of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, an influx
of Indians to America began to change the face of the Vedanta Societies, which
until then had been overwhelmingly Western in membership. The resulting
Indianization means a strengthening of the outward cultural expressions of
Hinduism. Today the Southern California Kali Puja has an increasingly authentic
Indian flavor, even to the serving of goat curry, made from a specially raised
and ritually slaughtered animal.
The most authentic experience of Kali Puja in the United States can be had in
Laguna Beach, California, at Kali Mandir. This organization was founded in the
1990s by Elizabeth Usha Harding, a member of the Vedanta Society. Here Kali is
worshiped daily in the traditional manner and monthly on the dark moon night.
Kali Mandir (Laguna Beach, CA)
Once every summer, a special two-day puja is
conducted by Sri Haradhan Chakraborti, the head priest of the Dakshineswar
Temple in Calcutta and a member of Sri Ramakrishna's family. The image in the
Kali Mandir shrine is modeled after the benevolent Bhavatarini, worshiped at
Dakshineswar; accordingly, the Laguna Beach Kali is named Ma Dakshineswari.
The puja, lasting for about sixteen hours on the first day and another nine
hours on the second, is an exuberant occasion with almost constant, overlapping
sounds of ringing bells, Sanskrit chanting, and devotional singing in the
traditional call-and-response format by kirtan groups and devotees. As in India,
devotees purchase offering baskets and take them to the assistant priest, who
offers them to Kali Ma, returns them as sanctified prasad, and marks the
devotees' foreheads with vermillion. The many hours of ritual are too long and
varied to describe here, but what comes across is the participatory nature of
the occasion and the open expression of spiritual fervor.
Theologically, the understanding of Kali at the Vedanta Societies and Kali
Mandir is identical, conforming to the Bengali view, as defined by the Shakta
poets of the eighteenth century and as taught by Sri Ramakrishna in the
nineteenth. The only difference between the two groups is one of emphasis. In
the private spiritual lives of most members of the Vedanta Society, Kali remains
peripheral. At Kali Mandir, she is central. In both settings, like the
Greco-Roman Isis before her, Kali withstands major alterations when her
traditional forms of worship are carried out on foreign soil.
Bhavatarini's feet on Shiva & Bhavatarini bust (Dakshineswar
Kali finds a somewhat different home at Kashi Ashram in Florida, or wherever
else people gather around the highly respected -- if controversial --
Brooklyn-born guru named Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati.. For Kashi Ashram, a
nondenominational, interfaith foundation established in the late 1970s, the
defining moment came in the early 1980s with the arrival of a then unnamed
disease. Because the shadow of AIDS is an ever present reality for many of Ma
Jaya's followers, death has particular immediacy at Kashi. Fittingly Kali, the
goddess of death who haunts the cremation ground, came to occupy the central
place in the interfaith pantheon.
In a setting that respects all religions and draws on the practices of several,
Kali remains overwhelmingly authentic, with certain facets of her personality
merely emphasized or deemphasized to suit the radically different circumstances
of her new followers and surroundings. She is both the maternal goddess praised
by Ramprasad and the fierce devourer of the Devimahatmya. Her unconditional love
promises her devotees dignity and acceptance regardless of sexual orientation,
race, and economic or social standing. Ma Jaya's insistence on service embodies
the true Hindu and Buddhist ideal of compassion. It is not enough to feel
sympathy for the less fortunate; real compassion means doing something about it.
Kali's intense blackness represents her ability to absorb all the evil and
suffering in the world. Like the fierce Camunda Kali of the Devimahatmya, who
consumes the flow of Raktabija's demonic blood, Kali consumes whatever pain and
evil is offered to her, while bestowing fearlessness even to those for whom
death is imminent. At Kashi the word death signifies not only physical death but
also the death of the ego, the finitizing principle that causes the true self
within, which is infinite consciousness, to assume all the separateness and
limitation of I-me-and-mine. Referring to both kinds of death, Ma Jaya asks, "If
you are unready to die, how will you ever be ready to live?" (Bhagavati 1995:
122). The realization that reality is gloriously paradoxical has distinguished
the religion of Kali throughout the ages. Though expressed at Kashi Ashram in
nontraditional language, the frequent acknowledgement of Kali's paradoxical
fierceness and beauty indicates that Hindu Tantra remains true to its essence in
this unlikely setting, far removed in time and space from its original home. At
Kashi Ashram the Tantric goddess remains fundamentally intact.
Tantric religion is most broadly defined as a complex of ancient magical and
folk practices outside the Vedic sphere and more specifically as an esoteric
system of spiritual discipline (sadhana). Philosophically nondualistic, Tantra
views the world as a projection of divine energy and material nature as a
transformation of the female creative principle. As a spiritual
discipline,Tantra is a rigorous path involving the cultivation of inner and
outer purity, control of the mind, meditation, and dedication to a chosen deity.
The goal is the ultimate freedom of unitary consciousness, which transcends the
polarized concepts of spirit and matter, male and female, purity and impurity,
and all other dualities.
While some Hindu sects see the physical body and the restless, desiring mind as
entrapping the spirit, Tantra accepts that, paradoxically, the instruments used
to overcome the limitations of body, mind and intellect are the body, mind and
intellect themselves. India's Tantric sects are many and diverse, and because
their practices are by and large secret to all but initiates, Tantra has been
consistently misunderstood and misrepresented. Throughout the centuries it has
been sensationalized by critics who indulge in lurid speculation about what goes
on behind closed doors. It is only human nature to imagine the worst.
The most infamous practice is the circle ritual, the chakrasadhana or chakrapuja,
which involves the panchamakara or "five M's": mamsa (meat), matsya (fish),
madya (alcohol), mudra (parched grain) and maithuna (sexual intercourse). The
meaning of mudra or parched grain is uncertain, but it probably refers to a
hallucinogenic substance like ergot. Since these five elements are impure or
illicit within the socioreligious context of Hindu orthodoxy, indulgence in any
of them transgresses the purity code. Exposure results in feelings of shame,
disgust or fear (Kripal 1995: 30-32).
All Tantric sects can be classified as either left-handed or right-handed.
Followers of the left-handed vamachara path physically partake of the five M's
in the the cakrasadhana ritual and are often branded as degenerates by other
Hindus. The more respectable adepts of the right-handed dakshinachara path
interpret the ritual symbolically and perform it either mentally or with
nonpolluting substitutes for the forbidden elements. Similarly, some Wiccans
physically enact the Great Rite through the sexual union of priest and
priestess, but in most circles the Great Rite is celebrated symbolically by the
lowering of the athame into the chalice.
The real purpose of the panchamakara is not to shock a prudish public, but to
break through the social conditioning that can be a mental straightjacket to the
spiritual aspirant. For a Hindu the violation of dietary or behavioral taboos,
either symbolically or actually, is one way to overturn the neat and tidy
preconceptions of social rigidity and be jolted into an altered state of
awareness. Obviously, in other societies the concepts of propriety may differ,
but in every case their violation results in the same old shame, disgust and
fear. It goes without saying that Tantra, especially the left-handed variety,
can be a dangerous course. There is a fine line between rising above duality and
falling prey to the delusion that religious attainment puts one above the moral
Thus, Indian Tantra is not an invitation to license, and it has nothing to do
with the New Age Tantra of the West, which is a slickly marketed package of
incense, candlelight and naked bodies gently writhing in soft focus. This New
Age phenomenon is generally aimed at enhancing sexual pleasure while cloaking it
under the mantle of religion. One example of this is a 'Tantric Massage Video'
for sale to adults only. Under the title a line of smaller print reads "formerly
titled 'Erotic Massage Video'". Possibly these kinds of products derive in part
from the Kama Sutra, which is a classic Hindu treatise on love and sex, but the
Kama Sutra is not a Tantric text but an arthashastra, a book pertaining to
practical life. The purpose of Hindu Tantra is to break through the barriers of
nescience in order to attain spiritual union with the divine, not to have longer
and stronger orgasms.
Another Western phenomenon is the rise of feminist spirituality, or more
correctly, feminist spiritualities, which are still developing and reach across
a wide spectrum of attitudes and objectives. At one end are the reformers: women
and sympathetic men who work within established religious traditions, usually
Christian or Jewish but also Muslim and Buddhist, in order to neutralize gender
bias and win the just acknowledgement of female contributions to the tradition
throughout its history. At the other end are the radicals: women who refashion
existing beliefs, practices and myths or create new ones to fit their own
political and social agendas.
Western feminists have attempted to politicize Kali by relating her to the
feminist foundational myth. According to that myth, the history of the world
goes something like this: Once upon a time, matriarchy was humankind's natural
state, and the original religion was a form of nature-based polytheism that
related everything to the Great Mother. At the end of the Paleolithic Age a
paradigm shift occurred as Goddess worshipers in Egypt and Crete began directing
their gaze heavenward. As the center of power shifted from the Earth Mother to
the Sun God, the dominant symbol of divinity became male. Kings arose who ruled
by divine right, and the feminine half of creation was subjugated to male
narcissism, greed and abuse of power while the world went to hell (Woodman and
Dickson 1996: 204-205).
The interesting thing about this myth is how closely it parallels the
Judeo-Christian myth of Adam and Eve, which also posits a former golden age
before our present fallen state. Ironically, in attempting to overthrow the old
order, many feminists are mimicking the thinking of their oppressors. And
whenever the myth is accepted uncritically as dogma, feminist spirituality runs
the risk of becoming another faith-based system with the same old linear thought
processes. (The parallel between feminist and Judeo-Christian myth is discussed
at length in John Michael Greer's "Myth, History and Pagan Origins," Pomegranate
#9, August 1999.)
Many Shakta Hindus agree with feminists that deity was originally conceived of
as a mother goddess, but they would disagree with feminist writers (eg, Kathleen
Alexander-Berghorn, Hallie Iglehart Austen, Paulette Boudreaux, Buffie Johnson,
Monica Sjoo, Barbara Mor, and Barbara G. Walker) who attempt to force the
sweeping epic of Indian history into a framework coming from outside their
According to the feminist rewriting of Indian history, at some point in time
patriarchal Aryan invaders conquered the matriarchal Indus Valley, whereupon
Kali's paradoxical wholeness of beneficence and terror was split into dualism by
"an act characteristic of patriarchal consciousness." Thereafter demonic
manifestations of Kali and other goddesses became a regular feature within the
formerly matriarchal culture (McDermott 1996: 287).
Every point in this revisionist scenario is easily refuted. First, there is no
evidence that the peaceful Indus Valley civilization was ever matriarchal.
Skeletal and dental remains indicate that the social organization there
conformed to a cultural pattern of gender inequality called "son
preference/daughter neglect," which is still observed in rural northern India
today (Lukacs 1994: 150-152). Next, abundant archeological evidence from the
Indus Valley cities and older Neolithic sites confirms that pre-Aryan India
venerated its goddesses as well as its male gods in both auspicious and horrific
forms. This is not regarded by Hindus as a sign of patriarchal dualism but as
the simple recognition that divinity, though ultimately an undifferentiated
unity, manifests in the bipolar phenomenal universe in polarized forms. As for
the religion of the Aryans, their own sacred texts are the best source of
information. The Rigveda describes a wholly evil and greatly feared goddess of
death and destruction named Nirriti -- Sanskrit for "decay" -- who predates the
first mention of Kali by a thousand years. At the same time, the earliest
portions of the Rigveda extol a great mother goddess. Her name, Aditi, means
"not divided" and clearly indicates that the Aryans equated the supreme female
divinity with wholeness. Finally, the earliest Aryan reference to Kali as a
personified goddess places her in the company of the high-ranking Vedic gods to
be worshiped during the marriage ritual. So much for the supposed Aryan
dualization and demonization of Kali.
Modern, benevolent depiction of Kali
Turning from revisionism to pragmatism,
feminist spirituality devotes considerable attention to multiple forms of the
Goddess, mostly drawn from ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern pantheons. The
aim is generally not to revive old forms of cultic adoration so much as to
employ the goddesses as archetypes for psychological healing and spiritual
wholeness. Here Kali enjoys a small but significant presence.
In the book Dancing in the Flames, Marion Woodman and Elinor Dickson look at
Kali through the lens of Jungian psychology and see her primarily as a
transformer. They conclude that true transformation lies in the death of the ego
and in releasing all the false values that the ego clings to out of fear.
As praxis they prescribe confronting Kali's blackness, visualized as a vortex
from which all creation emerges and to which it returns. In this whirling cosmic
dance of perpetual becoming, Kali simultaneously creates and destroys with
laughter and abandon, intoxicated with the paradox that death feeds on life and
life feeds on death in a ceaseless round. To accept the totality is to be
released from fear and vulnerability (Woodman and Dickson 1996: 14-16).
It is necessary to enter the terrifying chaos and spontaneity of our own true
nature, to risk madness and become mad like Kali herself in order to "let go of
the familiar landscape of our own restrictions." Change and flux, the decay of
the old and the birth of the new, are the feminine rhythm. Embracing the Black
Goddess will shatter illusions and reveal that the repressed feminine energies
once disparaged as weak, irrational, disorganized or supersensitive are powerful
tools for transformation (Woodman and Dickson 1996: 179-180). Kali's healing and
empowering energy is not just for women, but also for men wounded by
"patriarchy's bludgeonings" (Woodman and Dickson 1996: 88).
Of all Kali's Western settings, her place in feminist spirituality is the least
traditional and most vulnerable to reconceptualization, but unlike
Avalokiteshvara and Yeshua, the powerful Hindu goddess is in all likelihood too
strong to be refashioned for the sake of preconceptions or ideological agendas.
Nevertheless, the Kali of Western feminists is not the universal goddess and
Divine Mother with whom adoring Shakta Hindus seek transcendental union. For the
moment she is one archetypal energy among many goddess energies internalized for
various aspects of psychological or spiritual empowerment and healing. She is a
transformer, limited to the immediate task of self-actualization in the here and
now. It is not that Western feminists have changed Kali but that they have thus
far embraced only a small part of her, failing to understand her immensity.
Both Ramprasad and Ramakrishna tried to articulate Kali's inexpressible mystery
when they declared that she and the highest Brahman are one, that she both is
the immanent and transcendent reality. In language more characteristically
Western, a Wiccan prayer for the autumn equinox makes the same point: "Blessed
are we by the fruits of the union of sun and earth. Here is the mystery and the
richness of energy encased in seed. Though the form changes, the energy of life
is eternal" (Curott 1998: 248).
Pranab Bandyopadhyay, Gods and Goddesses in Hindu Mythology. (Calcutta:
United Writers, 1995).
Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, Bones and Ash. (Sebastian, Florida: Jaya Press,
Phyllis Curott, Book of Shadows. (New York: Broadway Books, 1998).
Jeffrey J. Kripal, Kali's Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life of
Ramakrishna. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
John R. Lukacs, "+The Osteological Paradox+ and the Indus Civilization: Problems
Inferring Health from Human Skeletons at Harappa," in From Sumer to Meluhha:
Contributions to the Archaeology of South and West Asia in Memory of George F.
Dales, Jr., ed. Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, Wisconsin Archaeological Reports,
vol. 3 (Madison: Prehistory Press, 1994).
Rachel Fell McDermott, "The Western Kali," in Devi: Goddesses of
ed. John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1996).
Ajit Mookerjee, Ritual Art of
(New York: Thames & Hudson, 1985).
David Nelson, tr., In Praise of the Goddess: The Devimahatmya in Translation
with an Introduction and Commentary, ms.
Swami Vivekananda, In Search of God and Other Poems. (Calcutta: Advaita
Marion Woodman and Elinor Dickson, Dancing in the Flames: The Dark Goddess in
the Transformation of Consciousness. (Boston: Shambala, 1996).
Nelson's long association with Hinduism, begun in 1966, includes a 17-month
residency in the monastic community of the Vedanta Society of Southern
California and nine years at Vedanta Press. As the founder of Records
International and an acknowledged specialist in the field of rare music, David
spent the 21 years of his professional career writing on classical music and
acting as a consultant, researcher and co-producer for several recording
companies. Since attending the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago in
1993, he has contributed articles on religion and
spirituality to journals in India, England and the United States. Last year he
completed a translation (with commentary) of the Devimahatmya, the central
Sanskrit text of Hindu Goddess religion. As staff writer for Pilgrim Planet, a
series of television documentaries now in development, he wrote the series'
pilot and the first full-length episode on the Dakshineswar Kali Temple.
The Indian Religion of The Goddess Shakti
Back to Real Tantra