My name was chosen for me at birth and the Goddess Kali is my namesake. For a long time, I was not curious beyond a simplistic understanding that she was a Hindu goddess who won victory in battle by destroying evil – I was, after all, my own individual self and how would being named after a Goddess change or inspire me – especially one who was not beautiful or elegant like Lakshmi, Parvati or Saraswati.
I used to (and still do) frustrate my family with passionate (and stubborn) arguments that they were all convinced that one day I would grow up to become the prime minister. I fell somewhat short of those expectations but I did qualify as a lawyer and consider myself to be strong advocate of feminism and social justice. Does my name have anything to do with the choices I make?
Kali has been perceived in the West as a popular manifestation of feminine rage. What were my parents thinking? I have been known to “scorch the villagers” - am I an angry and egotistic person who will destroy those who wrong me or my sense of what is right and fair because I have the black blood of Kali coursing through my veins? Is this why I rail at the injustices against those who are vulnerable, defenceless and without a voice?
Before assuming the form of a powerful goddess and becoming popular with the composition of Devi Mahatmya (Sanskrit text of the 5th - 6th century AD) Kali was worshipped in wild places far from civilisation and was said to live close to Nature (or the source) on mountain peaks, near rivers, or in caves, forests or groves.
Kali is the first of the 10 Mahavidyas, or manifestations of the Great Goddess, which is symbolic of ultimate reality in Hinduism. In the Devi-Mahatmya, Kali is said to have come from the third eye of Shiva’s wife, Goddess Durga, during a battle with the evil forces. As the legend goes, Kali’s blood lust was so intense that she began indiscriminately destroying everything in sight even as the army of demons fled in chaos. To end the rampage, Shiva threw himself under the feet of the merciless incarnation of his consort. Shocked, Kali stuck out her tongue in astonishment.
At first glance, it seems obvious what is going on - Kali is angry and her enemies have scattered and fallen; the warrior goddess has defended herself against the violence of men. A modern feminist. However in her blind rage, Kali slaughtered those she came to set free and help. As a result, Kali is loaded with symbols that inspire fearful awe of the consequences of that rage.
Kali is usually depicted as black or blue skinned with face and breasts sullied with blood, engorged red eyes, wild hair, sometimes with small fangs, and her tongue protruding out of her mouth. She will have either 4 or 10 arms. She is often naked or just wearing a skirt made of bloody human arms torn from the shoulders of her victims, a garland of skulls around her neck and the corpses of two children hang from her ears. She is shown to be dancing in cremation grounds while holding, usually in her left hands, a sword and a severed head dripping with blood and, in her right hands, a skull-cap catching the blood and a trishul (trident). Often a living snake winds around her body from one shoulder cross-wise to her opposite hip replacing the sacred thread traditionally worn by Brahmins. She is also accompanied by serpents and a jackal while standing with one foot on her thigh and another on the chest of the prostrate body of Shiva.
This fearsome and terrible iconography means that Kali is often misunderstood as the dark and violent goddess of unbridled death and destruction. Even within vivid Hindu philosophy, the actualisation of Kali’s manifestation as the Great Goddess is dramatic. However, in my search for myself, and my namesake, I have discovered that Kali’s story is far more complex and far-reaching than first impressions.
The potent symbolism which adorns her image does create cognitive dissonance for the gaze of the worshipper or the uninitiated through “the fact that she strides both the Benevolent and the Terrible, even as she transcends both … the fact that she grants boons with one upraised hand even as she punishes with the other”.
With more careful figurative, rather than literal, interpretation, multifaceted aspects of Kali emerge. Kali is indeed the most fearful and ferocious form of the mother goddess – the MahaKali or Kali Ma. The juxtaposition of the Dark Mother is a difficult concept – especially when contrasted with the Virgin Mary and the socio-cultural paragon of the Mother who is self-sacrificing, kind, loving and nurturing. Even Vedic seers struggle to contain this contradiction - Swami Vivekananda conveys the dark complexity in his poem “Kali the Mother”
“For Terror is Thy name
Death is in Thy breath.
And every shaking step
Destroys a world for e’er. Thou ‘Time,’ the All-destroyer!
Come, O Mother, come! Who dares misery love
And hug the form of Death
Dance in Destruction’s dance
To him the Mother comes…
In dense darkness, O Mother
Thy Spirit-Face shines forth
with laughter terrible and loud!”
Nevertheless, Kali cannot be easily contained within universal narratives of good versus evil. In reality she transcends all efforts to limit her to an exclusive duality. Duality of thought, religion and character is most often represented as polar opposites separating light from dark, life from death, good from evil, maternal from the sexual, and chaos from order.
In Kali, a more holistic understanding is required by considering the awesomeness of her as a deity while also appreciating that through her the full spectrum of life, death and rebirth is experienced. Kali represents divinity (or ultimate reality) as a form of the “coincidence of opposites” encompassing both life and death, good and evil, darkness and light, creation and destruction.
For me, this understanding of Kali’s mythology begins to offer a vision of divinity, life source, which unifies both light and shadow aspects of self and the universe. The story of Kali acknowledges death as an inevitable part of life just as night follows day. In reality, life and death is intimately intertwined – growth and transformation cannot happen in the absence of death and decay – the very universe (the ecosystem) depends on this cyclical nature. For Kali is the goddess who gives birth to the entire universe.
Kali dances naked so that her fruitful “yoni” is displayed as are the full breasts with which she nourishes all she has brought into the world. The representation of her with Shiva, transforming him from a corpse into a lover to satisfy her desire, maybe symbolic of sexual potency – however this sexualised imagery also symbolises the birthing or giving of life. It is Kali who brings the inert Shiva from death and gives him life, because she is Shakti, the raw feminine power which is the inherent energy of the universe, the life force that activates what is potential and creates the world.
Where Kali is depicted with 10 arms and 10 faces with 3 eyes for each head, she is said to represent the power of each Deva (Hindu god) and will be shown holding their identifying ritual item or weapon. The myth portrays the gods sending forth their energies in streams of flame to be reabsorbed by the Goddess Durga (incarnated as Kali), the original mother, and the life energy from which they emerged. When Kali appears within this rain of fire from Durga’s brow, the gods then hand over all their emblems of power, once again dissolving their strengths back into the source from which they had flowed.
Kala in Sanskrit means both time and black. Her three eyes represent past, present, and future —"Kali is so called because She devours Kala (Time) and then resumes Her own dark formlessness." (Sir John Woodroffe, Garland of Letters). Kali’s black skin represents the ultimate void state in which all differences and forms dissolve as in a black hole or the vast endless black sky -"just as all colours disappear in black, so all names and forms disappear in her" (Mahanirvana Tantra). As an emblem of darkness, Kali is once again connected to time and creation itself, as darkness existed before light, before the Big Bang.
Kali’s nakedness is primeval like nature - she is free from illusion or karmic veils – she is beyond maya or false consciousness. As a symbol of Mother Nature herself (returning to where she lived in nature before being written into the Devi Mahatmya) – Kali is primordial, creative, nurturing and devouring in turn, but ultimately loving and benevolent.
Kali's presence in cremation grounds, where the pancha mahabhuta (five elements) come together and all worldly attachments are absolved invokes the cycle of birth and death and the very essence of the universe.
Her girdle of severed human hands signifies that through effort, liberation from the cycle of karma is found. Her white teeth show her inner purity and her red lolling tongue indicates her omnivorous nature avidly devouring the blood of the demons which represents the agitated thoughts – the vritti of the mind – and by licking the blood, Kali creates clarity of vision and illuminates awareness which is necessary to enable growth.
The sword in the left hand signifies divine knowledge, the destroyer of false consciousness and the binds to which the human spirit is tied – a literal and figurative slaying of the inner demons which enslave the human soul in delusion or ignorance. The head signifies ego or the illusions of ego which must be slain by divine knowledge in order to attain moksha - ultimate freedom and liberation from the life-death cycle and the constraints of a worldly existence and therefore leading to oneness with the Divine. Kali allows for radical self-transformation through the destruction of samskaras (habits and patterns) and selfish motives. The hands on the right are in symbolic mudras. The abhaya mudra gestures fearlessness and protection by showing a hand without weapons which traditionally indicates both peace and friendship. Kali also displays varada mudra of blessings which means anyone worshipping her with a true heart will be saved as she will guide them.
The garland of human heads, is usually either 108 or 50 to represent the garland of letters of the Sanskrit alphabet. Sanskrit is a dynamic language with universal vibrational sounds and each of these sounds represents a form of energy. Therefore, Kali is seen as the mother of language and mantras and as such signifies the path of infinite knowledge and enlightenment.
It is apparent that Kali is complex as the Dark Mother. Kali is the divine protector. She represents key concepts of “time, change, power, creation, preservation and destruction”. Kali is paradoxically portrayed as the giver, the one who bestows moksha, and one who destroys illusions, ego attachments and worldly binds. She is Kali Ma who as mother of the world shows great compassion and affords protection to those who have shed the illusions of ego. She is the primordial source from which all life arises, the Goddess of both endings and beginnings.
The radical dynamism and transformative effect of Kali is captured in the following analysis that she provides the “fast track, often on a bumpy road to problem solution and spiritual advancement. Her power tools are the Kundalini Shakti (the power of spiritual electricity); the Kriya Shakti, the power to creatively affect the universe; and Iccha Shakti, the power of will that personally compels our physical movements and actions, while in the universe it causes the galaxies to rush away from one another into cosmic night.” (Temple Purohit 2015)
In Kali Rising, Ballentine argues that people of all gender identities need to explore their inner goddess Kali as a way to bring balance, clarity and inner truth to their lives. Kali is the goddess of violently casting out dark shadows to shine light, of the death of demons, of attachment to the temporal and material, of ego, of illusion and unreality. How Kali is perceived or experienced depends on the level of consciousness and spiritual enlightenment. “A mature soul who engages in spiritual practice to remove the illusion of the ego sees Mother Kali as very sweet, affectionate, and overflowing with incomprehensible love for Her children.”
I may have a long and rocky journey ahead of inner enquiry, surrendering of my ego and expansion of consciousness before I am able to truly honour my namesake. But for the moment I am grateful to have caught a glimpse of the divinity to be found in Kali’s fierce love and benevolence.