Her name is synonymous with death, and time.
She wears a necklace of severed heads, holds one in her hand, and with her long, extended tongue she thirsts for blood.
Headless corpses piled on the ground behind her, she, her mighty blade raised aloft, (often) stands atop Siva and Parvati engaged in copulation.
This, my friends, is Kali.
When I introduce my Introduction to World Religions class to Kali, I ask for their first impressions. The most common responses I receive are “evil” and “bad.”
A natural response if you come from a Western tradition and immediately associate death with evil. But when it comes to Kali, nothing is further from the truth.
So as part of my “Who are the Gods anyway?” series of posts, today I write about Kali.
Now in no way do I presume this to be an exhaustive account of this amazing goddess (for an excellent treatment of Kali, see David Kinsely’s Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine and his Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas). After a brief introduction to Kali, I will discuss her place in the wider Mahavidya tradition, followed by a brief discussion of her symbolism, and wrap things up with a discussion of how the compassionate Kali is the goddess of ultimate peace and is an embodiment of supreme reality.
The earliest references to Kali in the Hindu textual tradition go as far back to the early 7th century. Typically relegated to the battlefield or the fringes of society, she is primarily invoked in war for success against one’s enemies. Perhaps most famously, she is said to appear from the goddess Durga’s forehead in a battle against the demons Sumbha and Nisumbha. As such she represents Durga’s embodied fury. She is also said to spring forth from Parvati, Siva’s normally benign wife, when angered.
Kali is also featured in Tantrism, particularly “left-handed Tantrism” (Kinsley 122). While the Western world may be most familiar with the sexual aspects of Tantric practice, such is only the tip of the iceberg as intercourse is the physical embodiment of Tantric ideology which focuses on the “symbiotic interaction of male and female…polar opposites that in interaction produce a creative tension” (122). In many Tantric texts, Kali is “praised as the greatest of all deities or the highest reality” (122) and it is from this perspective that this treatment of Kali proceeds.
That Kali is the supreme reality finds expression in the Mahavidya tradition and thus Kali is a natural place to begin a new series of posts on this group of ten goddesses who are collectively called the Mahavidyas, or transcendental wisdoms. These ten goddesses are related to time and, being related to time, can be understood as time in relation to the passing day as well as the greater time cycle in Hindu thought. Unlike the Western conception of linear time, Hindu time is cyclical: the cosmos is created, it is maintained, it is destroyed. Then there is a period of nothingness which is then followed by a new creation…So on and so on forever (which actually corresponds closely to what many physicists and cosmologists are suggesting today).
In essence, “the whole cycle of existence, like that of the day and night, can be divided into ten main parts” (Danielou 268). The ten Mahavidyas correspond to these ten main parts and Kali, she who represents time, death, and destruction, is synonymous with the eternal night: “Absolute time is the measure of an eternal night. The concentrations of energy which give rise to light, to divisible time, are only temporary phenomenon implying a location and some form of relative time” (269). Our days, our time on earth–that is our lives–are temporary, relative. Kali, as eternal night, is absolute and being absolute, then, is how is understood as supreme reality.
As eternal night, Kali is also known as Maha-Kali, the transcendent power of time. Since time (kala) is that “which dissociates all things,” she “represents the ‘energy’ or ‘power’ of time” (270-1).
If a Westerner has had any exposure to the Hindu tradition, he or she has probably seen an image of Kali. No doubt, she can give rise to fear and may be considered disgusting if not down right evil. But Kali gives credence to the old adage “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” for while a “terrible goddess,” she is nothing short of limitless supreme bliss.
So how the hell can a goddess as ugly and scary as Kali embody supreme bliss, supreme reality, or, in Western terms, God?
As the transcendent power of time, Kali often stand upon a corpse or amid a pile of corpses. In other words, as she who “swallows all that exists,” she “stands upon ‘nonexistence'” and the “lifeless body is indeed the symbol of whatever is left of the manifested universe when it reverts to the sole control of eternal time” while at the time of universal destruction (the death of the cosmos), “the Power of Time, the power of destruction, is all that remains” (Danielou 271). In other words, all that remains is Kali.
Almost all Hindu divinities in one image or another are depicted with four arms. In the case of Kali (and this could be extended to others), the four arms are the “directions of space identified with the complete cycle of time” (271). Four is a near universal symbol for totality and with her four arms Kali “stands as the symbol of fulfillment of all and of the absoluteness of her dominion over all that exists” (272).
Sword and Severed Head
Naturally, the sword is a symbol of destruction and it with her mighty weapon that Kali severs heads, reminding “all living beings that there is no escape” from time, Kali (272).
Despite her awesomeness and her terrible appearance, Kali does not want you to fear her. Hence the empty hand offering the removal of fear. “So long as there is existence, there is fear of destruction. Fear is inherent in all forms of existence,” but Kali, the “embodiment of that fear, while she herself is beyond fear…can protect from fear those who invoke her” (272).
The Giving Hand
Kali gives with her second empty hand. Since those things from which we derive pleasure in this world are transient, meaning they cannot give true, everlasting joy and happiness, “true happiness can only exist in that which is permanent” (272). Since Kali is that which is permanent, she “alone can grant happiness. Thus Kali is the giver of bliss” (272).
Last but not least, we look at Kali’s blackness. Considering how Kali is understood as the Absolute, her blackness may be startling to a Western conception which associates black with evil and white with good, with God. Kali is dark “because she is the ultimate energy, in which all distinctions disappear…All shapes return to shapelessness in the all-pervading darkness of the eternal night” (273). In this vein of thinking then, white, which would be associated with light, corresponds to shape, form–the things of this world, material creation. But since material phenomenon are inherently transient, they are not eternal.
Kali as Compassion and Peace
Now that Kali’s symbolism has been explored in brief, I end with this discussion by addressing how Kali is a goddess of compassion and peace. Taking the premise that Kali, as described, is Ultimate Reality, or God, I shall put the little pieces of the puzzle together and address the question “how can a goddess so terrible looking express compassion, peace, and bliss?”
So we have come to see that Kali embodies eternal night–the time of dissolution of all phenomenon–of death.
Let us begin with life. In life we form attachments to things, material things: phenomenon. We form attachments to things that bring us joy, happiness. The more happiness we experience with some thing, the more we grow attached to it. But, as discussed, these material things are not permanent. Thus the joys they bring us are not permanent. But Kali is beyond attachments, she is beyond “things.”
We form attachments, in part, because we are, thanks to the force known as “maya” (commonly translated as “illusion”) deluded about their true nature. Why? Well this is where the heads come back in. Symbolically, the head is the seat of the I. In Western terms, we might call it “ego.” The Hindu tradition posits the existence of what is called “atman,” or the true self, true soul, which is itself an individual fragment of the universal soul, often called Brahman, or true reality. In the current context, Brahman is virtually synonymous with Kali. This universal soul “is the unity that links all individual beings” (Danielou 17). But of course we do not necessarily perceive the underlying unity of all phenomenon.
Maya, for one, as maya is the cosmic force that tricks us into perceiving the world in terms of individual forms and taking that for reality. Maya is what makes us see the world in terms of dualism: “For where there is a duality, one sees another, one smells another…one things of another,” so on and so forth (17). This breaking up of the world into its little bits is reinforced by the I, or ego, which is symbolized by the head. With reality broken up into its little bits of material existence, this “I” forms attachments to things as well as the “I” itself. We become attached to the “I” and think that is who we truly are.
Thus while the universal soul (Brahman, Kali) “is a continuum which exists within and without all things,” the “‘I’ or individuality…is a ‘temporary know’, a ‘tying together'” (18-19). The “I,” then is not who or what we truly are either. This can be quite a startling thought to a Westerner, particularly in America where we often pride ourselves on our individuality.
So Kali is beyond attachments. We form attachments not just to things, but to the “I,” symbolized by the head. The joys that the I experiences through things, as mentioned, are impermanent and thus cannot truly satisfy. So in cutting off the head, Kali is destroying, killing the “I,” the false sense of individuality and thus destroying the attachments to the “I.” This theme can be found in Buddhism (doctrine of anatta) as well as in Sufism’s fana, meaning self-annihilation, the state in which one’s “I” is destroyed and one is absorbed into the one true reality: God. Such ideas can also be found in Christian and Jewish mystical traditions as well.
So the bliss that is Kali, the true bliss of the divine, and the true peace that is Kali is experienced with the lopping off of the head. To flip it around: as long as one remains attached to his or her “I” and unique sense of being “individual,” he or she will not experience true bliss, true happiness, or true peace.
But where does the compassion come in?
Here’s a hint: Look at Kali’s sword and put your answer in the comment section below…
Kinsely, David. Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: U of CA P, 1986.
Danielou, Alain. The Myths and Gods of India. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1991.