Excerpt from Seeing Red:
"Again pressed up against the bars around the shrine, I inhale the smoke, the sweet-acrid stench of blood and ripening fruit, and feel the joyous celebration seep into my pores, into my smile. It no longer matters that I can’t see her, because She is everywhere felt. Sexual is possibly, an unlikely descriptor of this ancient, spiritually rich place, but to me, its fecundity is ubiquitous, blasting my senses wide open. Nothing like the clean paradisiac bliss of a blue lagoon sensuousness, more like the beauty and the beast, because here loveliness rises out of nauseating grime. Here the dirt, the decay, the beauty and the divine live side by side. “We are dirty people,” a Nepali friend once laughed, when I worried my feet were too dirty to enter his house. Acceptance of dirt beckons freedom. The Nepalese simply walked bare-footed through it all, letting life and death, dark and light, ancient and new, magnificence and disgust coalesce in one stunning mess. Just like Kali. She embodies and embraces it all. She doesn’t pretend to be pretty. She doesn’t hide her feelings. In her most famous demon-slaying-world-saving myth she is only able to kill the demon if naked. Of course it is so. We all have to meet our demons, our own ferocity, naked. Dance with me Kali." (Lone Mørch, Seeing Red)
Kali and me
One of the sub-story lines in Seeing Red is my dance with Kali over the years, and in some way, the final book was born out of a Kali-esque process of creation and destruction.
Not into dogma nor into worshipping a particular god/dess, Kali has however been the deity that I've had the most intimate relationship with. She in fact showed up to be a powerful role model of sorts, when I had none in 'real life'. In my book I don't go deep into her particular meanings, lineage and mythology, so let me give those of you interested a quick overview and add juice to the Kali subtext in Seeing Red.
Who is Kali
How does one possibly do justice to Kali? She is one of the great Hindu deities, known as the Divine Mother, at once Benign and Terrible, and Goddess of transformation. She's associated with the depth of darkness, death and destruction, as well as renewal, cleansing and motherhood, as the giver and taker of life. As images show, she often appears in horrific expressions, as if to tell us that to reach the sublime, the beauty, we have to cross through the darkness of our fear and terror. This isn't unlike the classic heroine's journey of entering the dark underworld to face our fears and shadow selves through which we get to bring back the boon of truth and beauty within.
In Sanskrit Kali means 'time' and she's associated with the often painful reality of time as it ceaselessly change and we change with it. Elizabeth U. Harding cuts to the bone: "As the Mistress of Time, Kali consumes all things. Everyone must yield to her in the end. Kali confronts man with his pitiful finite attachments, devours them, and then spits them back out in a different form in a different time. Thus the wheel turns…" (Kali: The Black Goddess).
Though, beyond creation, beyond the endless cycle of life and death, there is also an eternal time of formless being-ness. To simply be. This is the spiritual evolution and eternity we are all headed toward, right? Sounds a lot like Nirvana. At least it seems a place we can rest into 'being-ness,' knowing that there's another level to our existence that is beyond the daily ups and downs of life.
As David Frawley says, "Kali teaches us that if we give up the attachment to the events of our lives, we gain mastery over time itself." (Tantric Yoga, and the Wisdom Goddesses)
Kali is also known as the consort of Shiva, the Lord of time and eternity. In the tantric tradition Shiva and Kali form a union in which he represents pure, transcendent consciousness and she the active, dynamic power of creation coming from Shiva. She is the red, hot life-force, the Shakti energy that fuels our breath, bodies and movement through life in its continuous cycle through creation and destruction. Where she is dark, the womb of creation, he is white as illuminated consciousness. Creation transpires through their male-female union.
When she not in hot union with Shiva, she is depicted as squatting over a him, eating his entrails while her yoni sexually devours his lingam (penis). In this aspect she is said to symbolize, the hungry earth, which devours its own children and fattens on their corpses.
The Terrible Mother
In India the experience of the Terrible Mother has been given its most grandiose form of Kali, which isn’t just imagery but the representation of the feminine, particularly the maternal, as life and birth are profoundly, integrally connected to death and destruction. Grotesque perhaps but the symbolism is inescapable and has been seen in ancient religions for eons, before religious texts were cleansed of such wild feminine power.
In Kali's most famous myth she goes to war against the demon Raktabija. Clad in tiger’s skin, with deep reddish eyes and tongue lolling out, she fills the sky with her primal roars. Armed with sword, noose and staff and decorated with a garland of skulls, she devours the demon’s army, one by one, but every time she kills the demon himself, he multiplies. Frustrated, she approaches the trinity of gods, Brahman, Vishnu and Shiva who’d summoned her help, and they finally admit that in their earlier negotiation they’d given the demon a boon that only a naked goddess would defeat him. Furious, Kali gets naked to save the world from this monster. She slays the demon and gets so drunk on his blood that she dances ecstatically on top of all the corpses. Her dance is so wild, the trinity fears she will destroy the universe, and them with it, and Shiva, her consort, lies down amongst the dead to get her attention and–he hopes–calm her down. When she discovers that she’s dancing on top of him, she sticks her tongue out in fierce recognition. (Some would say shame, but I would refuse that explanation!)
Surely, this myth has many interpretations, but I like to see Raktabija as desire. Each time a drop of his blood touches the ground, he seeds a new desire, he multiplies, not unlike our human drive toward pleasure. As soon as we desire one thing and fulfill it, we immediately, automatically, find a new 'something' to desire. This goes on indefinitely, causing a continual build up of desire and necessity to act upon it. This is what made the Gods extremely dejected and so they called on the great Divine Mother, the Mistress of Time and Keeper of Karma, for help. She kills our manic pleasure hunt and with her tongue drinks up the blood of desire, freeing all existence from desire.
There's nothing coincidental about Kali's terrifying yet enigmatic appearance. All depictions and statues of Kali hold myriad meanings and myths, as her role in the Hindu pantheon is extremely complex and over time, she's been worshipped for many different reasons. I can't even begin to understand and relate all of this here but let me give you a brief taste.
Garlands of Sculls and Arms
Her black skin absorbs and includes all other colors and represents her all-embracing womb-like nature. It's a darkness that illuminates light. When she's blue is signifies infinite space and eternal time. When she's red it signifies action, life (blood) and passion. She's naked to signify freedom from masks and illusion and to show us her totally illuminated consciousness, unobscured by the messy turf of human existence. Her disheveled hair represents absolute freedom from convention. She wears all karma as an ornament to show we end our karmic bondage. Her garland of human skulls symbolizes the heads of impure thoughts. She cuts away conflicting thoughts and silences the roar of mental conflict inside. Similarly, she cuts our hands of grasping, thus, the girdle of human hands around her waist. Only by offering up your petty needs and attitudes, even your ego can you experience Kali's divine peace and ecstasy. Her red protruding tongue represents desires and the fact that she consumes all things. Her white teeth represent purity with which she stops her tongue, that is, her desires. Her full breasts tells us she is also the nourishing, loving role mother of all things. In one of her four hands she holds a severed demon's head. It represents our ego, and to the ignorant it's the terrible force of death, to the wise it's the power of knowing how to distinguish the eternal from the transient and break through all ego-bondage. In another hand she holds a bloody sword which represents the destruction of ignorance and the dawning of knowledge. Her remaining two hands make mudras that bestow us with boons and remove our fear.
You may wonder what Kali has to do with you? Anything and nothing, as you choose.
To me, she's an archetype, a feminine role model for a fiercely, fully expressed and powerful woman. She shows me what compassionate, constructive rage and power looks like (as opposed to self-destructive, resentful, manipulative power) and how, at the core of it, lives the fundamental fire of life, the Shakti energy, that fuels all creation. She shows me that the path to true freedom goes through surrender and letting go of ego, masks, fears, even the stories I tell to pretty up or override reality, and everything that I cling to. She shows my own terror and how to walk right through it. She shows me what happens when I resist (responsibility for my) reality. She shows me that beyond my sticky mind and needy little heart is a much more spacious place of knowing, being and loving. Here, the ultimate ecstasy of freedom will meet you.
So yes, I bow down to Kali any time I find myself up against own ego, attachment, fear and resistance. I honor her qualities, have deep respect for her teaching and relish her fierce, sexual, unashamed energy. Often I ask myself what would Kali do?
Some of Kali's biggest temples are to be found in the North-East of India, in particular in Kolkata (Calcutta), West Bengal: Kalighat and Dakshineshwar, and in the equally famed Kamakhya in Assam. In Nepal there's numerous Kali temples, the most famous being the Dasinkali Temple just outside of Kathmandu. In Seeing Red, we visit her temples in Kathmandu and outside, at the DasinKali Temple.
Want to learn more about Kali?
- "Yogic Secrets of the Dark Goddess" by Shambhavi L. Chopra
- "Tantric Yoga and the Wisdom Goddesses" by David Frawley
- "Goddess Durga And Sacred Female Power" by Laura Amazzone
- "Kali: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar" by Elizabeth U. Harding
- "The Shadow Knows" by Evelyn Henry
- "The Bitch from Hell" from yOni Webzine
- "Kali: Understanding the Divine Mother" by Swami Satyananda Saraswati
- "The Goddess Kalika" by Mike Magee
- "Kali: The Feminine Force" by Ajit Mookerjee