The Much Misunderstood Goddess

An attempt to unravel the history of Kali worship throughout the Indian subcontinent, ranging from the animal sacrificial practice in Bengal to the Tantric traditions in Shakta worship.

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S Ananya

When one picks up ‘Kali: The Mother’ by Sister Nivedita of the Ramakrishna Mission for an afternoon read, little do they know what a shock they are in for. The seemingly terrifying figurine of the Mother Goddess so venerated in the eastern region of the country is no different than the Maya (the Vedic concept of delusion) that she so effortlessly destroys in her famed rages of anger. This article will explore and break down the colonial, tribal, and the more recent right-wing perspectives on this much debated and misunderstood goddess.

The History of Kali Worship

First, let us start with a historical background behind the worship of Kali. The Mother Goddess is considered to be the Brahman (ultimate reality) in the Advaitic school of thought, and otherwise worshipped as Time in the Tantric Hindu philosophy. She is also seen as the divine protector who bestows moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death in Samsara) upon her devotees. According to legend, Kalidasa, considered ancient India’s greatest poet and playwright, was bestowed with his skill of poetry in Sanskrit when he sat in penance upon the Mother Goddess. However, it is not without reason that Hindus throughout India consider it inauspicious to keep an image or idol of Kali within their homes even to this day.

The Shakta Hindu and Tantric sects are most famed for their worship of the Mother, their roots firmly placed in the Sruti and Smruti texts, most notably in the Kalika Purana which is attributed to the sage Markandeya. In these texts, it is elucidated that meat is to be sacrificed to please the fearsome goddess. Animal sacrifice, which was famously condemned by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and other leading Bengali writers and thinkers of the 19th Century, is explained in the same. Even more interestingly, the text Rudiradhyaya also discusses human sacrifice to appease the goddess; a piece exploited by the Aghoris of India.

This, of course, is a rather extreme interpretation of the text by what is significantly a minority of the population. The annual Kali puja that takes place every new moon day of the Ashwin month that coincides with the famous Hindu festival of Diwali is generally a much milder, more humane form of worship of the goddess that takes place in Bengal, Assam, and Orissa to this day.

In what remains a testament to the tribal, aboriginal worship of the Mother Goddess in rural Bengal, liquor and meat are regular offerings to Kali; this has earned much ire from the generally Brahmin-backed, northern Indian-based BJP.

The Colonial Notion of Kali

The general Western notion of Kali, whether in Hollywood’s depiction of Her and her infamous Thuggee followers in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), or the broader connotation that surrounds Her, is quintessential colonial fear-mongering.

In his book, ‘The Essence of Self-Realisation’, the famed 20th Century monk Paramahansa Yogananda deconstructs the most common image of Kali:

“Kali stands naked. Her right foot is placed on the chest of Her prostrate husband. Her hair streams out, dishevelled, behind Her. A garland of human heads adorns Her neck. In one of four hands She brandishes a sword; in another, a severed head. Her tongue, usually painted a bright red, lolls out as though in blood-lust.

If we thought that this image depicted Kali as She is, I grant you, it might awaken devotion in very few devotees! However, the purpose of that image is to describe certain universal functions of the Divine in Nature. Kali represents Mother Nature. She is Aum, the cosmic vibration. In Aum everything exists—all matter, all energy, and the thoughts of all conscious beings. Hence, Her garland of heads, to show that She is invisibly present in all minds.

The play of life and death expresses Her activity in nature: creation, preservation, and destruction. Hence the sword, the head, and a third hand extended, bestowing life. Her energy is omnipresent; hence Her streaming hair, representing energy. Shiva, Her husband, represents God in His vibrationless state, beyond creation. Thus, He is depicted as supine.

Kali’s tongue is protruding not in blood-lust as most people believe, but because in India, when a person makes a mistake, he sticks out his tongue.

Kali is depicted as dancing all over creation. This dance represents the movement of cosmic vibration, in which all things exist. When Kali’s foot touches the breast of the Infinite, however, She puts her tongue out as if to say, ‘Oh, oh, I’ve gone too far!’ For at the touch of the Infinite Spirit, all vibration ceases. Kali’s fourth hand is raised in blessing on those who seek, not Her gifts, but liberation from the endless play of maya, or delusion.”

The Tribal Understanding of Kali Worship

While this may give us a moment of relief from the much imposing colonial perspective that looters, murderers and cults worship the goddess and bring out sublime metaphysical beauty, it has been argued by several scholars that this interpretation is much subject to the all-pervading perspective of upper-caste Brahmin culture. The argument, backed by archaeological records and popular legends, says that the fearsome image of the goddess and this style of worshipping the goddess harks back to the traditional rituals followed by the tribal and depressed caste communities in their propitiation of their local mother goddess.

To quote an article by The Wire, “Explaining their origins, modern day historians have traced their roots to the habits of hunter-gatherers, pastoral communities and agricultural cultivators of the ancient times. Faced with unpredictable natural calamities like drought, floods and earthquakes that threatened their livelihoods, they tried to satisfy these whims of Mother Nature (“red in tooth and claw,” to quote English poet Alfred Tennyson), by creating local deities in her image. They depicted her as a fickle goddess – moody, blood-thirsty, lustful and vengeful. To propitiate her, they resorted to rituals like animal sacrifices, to feed what they imagined was her thirst for blood. As for their choice of representing her as a female deity, these modern historians have thrown light on an interesting element in the psyches of these aboriginal and depressed classes. In aboriginal society in those days, women held a privileged position. While males went out hunting or working in the fields, it was the women who gave birth to the children, and reared up the sons to help the men with their work. The woman was, thus, respected as a source of fertility, security and safety; and therefore, her image was chosen as a deity.”

Kali in the Contemporary Day

While these conflicting perspectives and coloured history may be frustrating, it must not go without saying that Kali remains, to this day, one of the most worshipped goddesses in the country, and an icon in feminist literature. For instance, a version of Kali was depicted on the first issue of the feminist magazine, Ms., published in 1972, where Kali’s many arms symbolised the many tasks of the contemporary American woman.

Kali, throughout history, has been a subject of ire and admiration, worship and controversy. This, however, has not stopped the veneration of the goddess and will likely not do so in the future as well.

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