Of the many gods who have survived the ages to reappear (or reveal
themselves) unto human beings, there are few with as much relevance and depth for today’s world as Kali-Ma.
She is both fearsome and benign, as are many Eastern deities of
popularity and power. She appeals to the yogi and to the saint, in
that She may be both horrid and compassionate, providing both a focus of meditation and a model for those of the Hindu Way who seek liberation (sometimes called ‘moksha’).
Kali-Ma is, to me, Mother Earth. She is a realistic, personal glimpse of natural power in humanoid form. While many favor one of Her aspects over the other (most notably and understandably the
benign), those who cherish balance and broad-mindedness see and love Her in all Her manifested forms.
The stories of Her origins are often somewhat climactic. In one very
popular story She is said to have been ‘born’ in a battle between the
gods and the ‘asuras’, or titans.I would not call these forces
‘evil’ in the same way that some fundamentalist Christians might.
The titans of Hindu mythos are necessary elements of the universal
play (‘lila’) that the Cosmos – the myriad manifestation of Brahman
(tao) makes possible.
Though Kali is associated with divinity, She has also been called
‘Queen of the Demons’ (and deservedly so). Her role could be compared to that of Persephone/Proserpine of the Greeks, who descends into the Underworld to rule there during half the seasonal and cosmologic cycle. Kali seems much more in control over Her destiny than the Greek goddess, however.
Let us begin, then, with this story to which I make mention (perhaps
one of the first known concerning Kali):
The gods and the titans engaged in a great battle. There was one
particular titan who was too powerful for the lesser gods to defeat.
Durga, the Warrior/Mother goddess, was then called upon for aid.
She arrived in splendour, riding a lion into battle, Her ten arms
each bearing a magical weapon, Her ten faces each displaying a
serene calm. She became the center of a cyclonic force of
Durga wounded the asura king (who was Her main opponent and the hub of his army). From his wounds the blood flowed to the ground, yet where each drop touched the soil a ‘clone’ of him appearred. The more quickly and fiercely She attacked, the faster his reproduction took place.
In the heat of Her frenzy, Durga called forth Her most powerful (and
gruesome) aspect. From Her brow emanated Kali, the Destroyer. Kali was as black as the night, draped in a tiger’s skin, was wearing a necklace of skulls, a skirt of severed hands, and had a gaunt,
ghoulish contenance. She was the very essence of wrath. With the
fierce passion of a mad mother protecting Her children, She began to eat the asura army.
Kali’s intense hunger and lust for blood were the necessary elements
for victory. She gobbled up the new forms of the asura king, slurped up the blood escaping from his wounds, finally devouring him whole. The army, defeated and demoralized, quickly dispersed and peace was again restored to the realm of the gods.
In many ways the asuras were the manifestation of malevolent masculine energies. They are most often depicted in male form and almost always as feral, animal-like beings. They are the brutish, coercive aspects of the Cosmos.
In this story Kali is a savioress despite the gruesomeness of Her
appearance. She enters as the Queen of Battle in order to quench the demon-fire that ravages the heavens (and by fallout, our world). Her main strengths are Her passion and Her ability to take others into Herself: to consume. This is an important point. Kali is the powerful, hungry feminine. The consumption of the masculine is therefore necessary and transformative.
When a battle is forced (by asura-energies), it is our ability to take
in, to absorb the very being of our adversary which makes real peace
possible (preferrably by our understanding of their position and thus
our ability to negotiate, rather than our ability to predict their
behavior and react aggressively in response).
If and when consciousness devolves into combative conflict (as it has many times in the past and shall likely continue), then ‘consuming our adversary’, in the spirit of ‘knowing our enemy’, is the best method of successful resolution. Direct confrontation only breeds others in succession who will readily assume the role of adversarial leader in the event of a temporary triumph.
When ravaging masculine energies threaten the sacred, Kali comes to the fore here so as to quell the activity of that war, matching the
wild masculine passion with Her feminine counterpart, and renewing
a harmonized equilibrium.
Kali is the mask of Death, drinking the Elixir of Life (blood) and
reconciling polar energies. She is the goddess of our time (in many
Hindu cosmologies we currently live in the ‘Kali yuga’, or ‘Age of
Kali’ — a time of disintegration and moral depravity).
These are Kali’s remote beginnings, perhaps, and much has changed
and/or been lost through both time and textual translation. Since then She has been seen in as a more complex and compassionate goddess. In developing cultures the gods change to suit their worshippers, and India has been a spiritual dynamo for many centuries.
Since Her origins, Kali has revealed Herself in newer, more expansive
character. The Kali who is worshipped in San Jose, CA is richer and
more complex by far than this originating story portrays. Yet I find
great value in keeping this initial view in mind so that I can
understand some of Kali’s deepest meanings.
It is often theorized that the faces of the gods are more masks
than individualized beings. They often take the form and character
we need to see most. Kali, Durga and others have been honored as
divinity in multiple forms.
Many now worship Kali (or Kali-Ma, if one place emphasis upon Her
as Genetrix or ‘Mother’ of All things). One of Her more popular
descriptions is followed by my own reflections on Her nature:
Kali-Ma is an enchanting woman with four arms. She is as black as
space, wears infants for earrings, a necklace of skulls or severed
heads, is full-breasted and fertilely-wombed, wears a skirt of
severed hands or arms, and wears ankle-chains with bells.
Her hands brandish a bloody sword, a head or blood-filled skull,
a mudra (magical symbol made with the hands) of reassurance and a
mudra of bestowal. Her tongue protrudes from Her luscious mouth,
ready to lap the blood of the slain, Her sacrifice. She dances upon the prone body of Siva, Her consort.
This is Her visual form. Each part of the description is important
to Her devotee. Kali-Ma gives birth to us and nourishes us in our
lives. Her bountiful breasts and fertile womb are not to be over-
looked. This it the ‘Ma-essentiale’, the power of the feminine
which cyclically generates the cosmic Ocean of Existence.
As Mother Nature, Kali-Ma is also ruthless. She starves the unfor-
tunate, ravages with catastrophe and time the sensitives beings
whom She births. She feeds upon our deaths, our blood, just as
readily as She brings us forth. We are born, nurtured, allowed to
suffer and are then consumed for food by our Mother.
Some know Kali as Protectress, Teacher and Lover. She opens Her
arms to us in loving protection, defending us from the tempest of
our ignorance. Holding the Sword of Truth, She slices our fragile,
false self-images away, holding them before us and asking us to love them for what they are. She assures our peace by bestowing comfort and wisdom.
She is the tantric goddess, Sakti, divine power, bringing awareness
through a complete understanding of bodily experience. The ever-
passionate Lover, She wears the ankle-chains of the Sacred
Prostitute. They carry the bells which ring fervently during Her
lovemaking and dancing. Her dance is the wildly energetic,
attractively binding ‘lila’, the play which is what we see of the
cosmic absolute. She ensnares us in the World into which She bore us.
Kali is the power behind the consciousness of Siva. Without Her, He
is a corpse. She is life itself. Without Him, She is an insubstantial miasm. She gives Him essence. He gives Her form. Together they make the cosmic love that IS the universal Way.
Kali and Siva are the Yin and Yang of the Cosmos. Separated in our
ignorance, rejoined in our love, Kali dances upon Siva to regenerate
life. This is a sexual description also. Siva is often seen with an
erection and they are sometimes depicted in conjugal bliss. The
feminine-superior sexual position is said to be the most pleasurable
for the woman and most conducive to prolonged coitus. The portrait
of Kali dancing atop Siva’s prostrate form is a tantric symbol of the
For those who come to know Her (at times, in the Biblical sense :>),
Kali is loving, caring and nurturing, while incorporating all of the
maladies of the known world. Her ways are wise, though sometimes
painful (coming to know oneself can be very difficult), and She may
not shield us from Her destructive qualities. She is the model of the
honest woman who accepts the naturality of her lust, rage, intelligence and pain.
For those who worship Her She is a face of very deep meaning. Her
form is a meditative symbol, useful for realizing the nature of
reality. Many see She and Siva as facets of a great Mystery (that
faceless, Unknown Tao, Brahman or Allah) which may be difficult to
experience and impossible to describe or imagine. For these She is
a barrier and a goad, an obstacle and a motivator along the mystical
path, the Way.
As death and sex are the over-riding concerns of our ‘civilized’
culture (see the tv or newspapers for a healthy does of evidence),
Kali becomes the Initiatrix and Revealer of these deepest mysteries.
She is ready to take us beyond ourselves into a dance of life, a play
which is much greater (and less) than we could ever imagine.
When ecologists speak about a benign Mother Earth whom we are
‘wronging’, especially to those caught in the depths of Her traps or
the pain of Her destructive maw, there is bound to be misunderstanding. Single perspectives are valuable to those fearful of uncertainty and philosophy. Holding both aspects of the world in mind we may become aware of both sides of ourselves — our tendencies toward egotism and altruism, discipline and indulgence, decay and growth.
Kali has a poor reputation among some because we may reject Her less attractive, destructive side as we do in ourselves. We feed on death in order to continue living. Life and death are interwoven
inextricably, perhaps even indistinguishably.
Rather than come to understand all perspectives of phenomena (e.g.
gods, war, argument, anger) we may label one ‘evil’ and shun it.
One of the lessons which Kali teaches me is to consume it, to
experience my fear and anger deeply and learn from this initial
reaction. Once I have done this, She may become as sweet and tender as the Virgin Mary.
Indeed, for some of us they are one in the same, playing peek-a-boo behind two marvellous veils.