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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.
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 all-consuming Time.
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 measure.
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.
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 Indian past.
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 Sanskrit names.
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
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.
The Devimahatmya's 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.
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.
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.
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 law.
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 cultural tradition.
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: 300-152). 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.
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, 1995).
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 India, ed. John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).
Ajit Mookerjee, Ritual Art of India. (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 Ashrama, 1968).
Marion Woodman and Elinor Dickson, Dancing in the Flames: The Dark Goddess in the Transformation of Consciousness. (Boston: Shambala, 1996).
David 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.