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In Honour of Kali.

Pagans mostly think of themselves as bringing back to life old ways of worship that have almost died out. We look to the past, because we find ourselves in a society that does not accept the existence of gods and goddesses.

I have recently returned from a visit to India (in the autumn of 1991), and have seen a culture where the deities are a part of everyday life. Images of Kali, Krishna, Lakshmi, Ganesh, and others can be found all over, in every craft shop, in houses, and on the streets as well as in temples. These can be paintings on paper, batiks, or sculptures in wood, bronze, or papier-maché. On enquiring of my host which goddess a particular work represented, I was told that it was not a traditional goddess, but was of a woman who had died not too long ago, who had been adopted as a goddess by many women. And when I was in conversation with a jeweller in his shop, he showed me his own rings, which he wore as a sign of devotion to Shiva.

Calcutta, where I was, is particularly connected with Kali. It was at Calcutta that the toe of Kali fell to earth when she was cut into pieces by Shiva, and the name ‘Calcutta’ is probably derived from Kali. The main festival in Calcutta is the Durga Puja in October, when all schools and government offices are closed for two weeks. Kali and Durga are closely connected, with Kali being the fearful aspect of Durga. The later festival of Diwali, celebrated throughout India, is known in Calcutta as Kali Puja.

The great temple of Kali in Calcutta is approached through streets full of sellers of flowers (to present at the temple) and of images of Kali in many forms, especially in paintings. Because I was with someone who knew the temple well, we came in by a side door, and, after taking off our shoes, we went fairly quickly to the main place of pilgrimage (it probably helped that I had been asked by an Indian friend in London to offer flowers to Kali for her, so that it was clear that I had a devotional interest and was not there just as a tourist). Here crowds of people (it was a real crush) came in to view the great statue of Kali, to adore Her, to present garlands, and to receive blessings. There was a constant coming and going of people, it being much too crowded for anyone to be allowed to remain more than a few minutes. On our way out, we stopped at a small shrine of Krishna for my host to pay her devotions. In Europe, we tend to think of temples as dedicated to one deity only, with no other deities being present. In fact, the temples of ancient Greece were very like the temples of modern India in being a whole complex of buildings, with a major temple dedicated to one deity, but with minor temples or shrines in the complex dedicated to others. Our approach to the temple did not take us through the main entrance, which is where most European visitors come in, and I never saw this part of the temple.

In the main courtyard, animals are still sacrificed, and it is reputedly very unpleasant, so much so that many tourists leave in disgust. This disgust seems to me both a genuine sensitivity to suffering, and at the same time a dangerous denial of the role of Kali in all life. Those of us who are not vegetarians usually eat meat without thinking of the slaughterhouses where animals are killed to feed us. The flesh of the animals killed in Kali’s temples is used for food, and yet their killing horrifies us although we do not display the same horror over the death of the animals we eat. Kali as Destroyer is not a goddess it is easy for us to accept. Her destructive aspect is often too much for us, as we are so inclined to look only at the light side of life. Also, humans who worship Kali as Destroyer can engage in actions which amount to destruction for its own sake, without any balance. The word ‘thug’ is often used to describe a violent criminal, without any remembrance of its origin. It comes from the thuggee, a widespread sect of Kali worshippers who, in her honour, strangled travellers on the roads of India. The story of how the English in India learnt of this sect, and suppressed it, is told in a novel by John Masters, The Deceivers. (John Masters has written several Indian novels; The Venus of Kompara is about one of the tribal groups in modern India, and the goddess they have worshipped since before the Aryan invasion.)

Ramakrishna, an Indian mystic of the last century, whose followers brought Hinduism to the West in the form of Vedanta, was a devotee of Kali. It was through his devotion to Her that he saw that consciousness and spirit are embodied in the material world. On one occasion he fed a cat with food that was intended as an offering to Kali, for, as he said, “The Divine Mother had become everything — even the cat.” “Oh, she plays in different ways …” he says of Her. “It is she alone who is known as Maha-Kali (Mighty Time), Nitya-Kali (Endless Time), Shmashana-Kali (Kali of the Burning Ground), Raksha-Kali (Guardian Kali) and Shyama-Kali (the Black One) … When there were neither the creation, nor the sun, the moon, the planets, and the earth, when darkness was enveloped in darkness, then the Mother, the Formless One, Maha-Kali, the Great Power, was one with Maha-Kala, the Absolute. Shyama-Kali has a somewhat tender aspect and is worshipped in the Hindu households. She is the Dispenser of boons and the Dispeller of fear. People worship Raksha-Kali, the Protectress, in times of epidemic, famine, earthquake, drought and floods. Shmashana-Kali is the embodiment of the power of destruction. She resides in the cremation ground, surrounded by corpses, jackals, and terrible female spirits. From her mouth flows a stream of blood, from her neck hangs a garland of human heads, and around her waist is a girdle made out of human hands. After the destruction of the universe, at the end of the great cycle, the Divine Mother garners the seeds for the next creation. She is like the elderly mistress of a house who has a hotch-potch pot in which she keeps different articles for household use. After the creation this Primal Power dwells in the universe itself. She brings forth this phenomenal world and then pervades it.

Bondage and liberation are both of her making. By her Maya worldly people become entangled, and again, through her grace, they attain their liberation … She is self-willed, and must always have her own way. She is full of bliss.”

One of Ramakrishna’s visions is described in Ajit Mookerjee’s book Kali the Feminine Force (which is a great source of information about Kali, and of poems and pictures in her honour). He saw a beautiful pregnant woman rise up from the Ganges, give birth, and suckle the infant. She then changed to a terrible aspect, and began to crush the child in her jaws. Devouring it, she re-entered the Ganges. 

The Great Goddess differs in appearance in different times and places, but Her essence remains the same. Ramakrishna’s vision reminds me of the Orphic Hymn to Gaea in the later Greek period: “Divine Earth, mother of men and the blessed gods, You give birth to all, you nourish all, you bring all to fruition, and you destroy all.”

Many people find Kali frightening, and prefer the gentle Krishna. But, in understanding the nature of the universe, it has been said, “Kali’s sword and Krishna’s flute are one.”

Kali is light and dark, creator and destroyer. She does as She wills with the universe, which is Her plaything, because it is itself none other than Her.

(Added later) The eighteenth century Bengali poet Ramprasad wrote many songs of devotion to Kali, which are much loved in India. I first came across these in what seems to me a fine volume of modern translations by Lex Hixon, called Mother of the Universe (1994); [added 2005 — other good translations are Grace and Mercy in Her Wild Hair by Clinton Seeley and Leonard Nathan (1982, reprinted 1999) and Rachel Fell McDermott’s Singing to the Goddess (2001); another valuable book on Kali is Encountering Kali; In the Margins, at the Center, in the West, edited by Rachel Fell McDermott and Jeffrey Kripal] (I may write in the future a piece on Ramprasad and the books). They speak to me much more than the better-known Sufi mystical poetry of Rumi.

David Kinsley’s books, especially The Sword and the Flute, are good scholarly Western books on Kali and her followers. The main part of this article was written several years ago. Last fall I visited Nepal, where the religion is an odd mingling of Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism. Kali is much honoured there too, with one of the excursions from Kathmandu being to a temple of Kali where goats are sacrificed. An older temple further up the hill is less visited, but seems a very powerful place. I also had the odd experience of meeting a priest into whom Kali manifests at times.

Wood and Water 39, Summer 1992
© Daniel Cohen


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