Tracy Sayuki Tiemeier, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA. She teaches and researches in the areas of women and religion, interreligious dialogue, comparative theology, Asian and Asian American theology, and Hindu-Christian studies. Tracy also co-chairs the Los Angeles Hindu-Catholic Dialogue.
When I began my studies of Hinduism, I marveled in a dizzying array of gods and goddesses. While non-Hindus assume that Hinduism is polytheistic because of the multitude of gods and goddesses, the reality is far more interesting and complex. Hinduism really isn’t one religion, but a cluster of them. For some, there is one personal, divine God or Goddess, and all other gods and goddesses are either different forms of the ultimate divine or are lower, created beings (like angels). For others, there is one divine reality, but it isn’t a personal God or Goddess. For them, the different deities illustrate or symbolize different aspects of the divine, but are not themselves the one Ultimate Reality. What all Hindus recognize, however, is that there is one Ultimate, Divine Reality and that that divinity pervades all things. But that divine Oneness is so profound, so deep, so real, that no one image can capture the divine essence. Thus, even as Hindus are more monotheists than polytheists, they resolutely celebrate the multiplicity that inevitably comes when finite humans imagine the infinite divine.
Even individual gods and goddesses manifest complexity and multiplicity to highlight the truth of the divine in all things and the all-encompassing nature of the divine. Male gods and female goddesses are often paired together to emphasize that the divine is both and neither male and female. Among goddesses, we can see theologies that recognize the complexity of the divine as well as the complexity of femininity. It is this that I would like to examine a little more closely, particularly in the figure of the disturbing goddess Kali. Kali is scary and bloodthirsty. But even as her figure is terrible, her devotees see her has a beautiful, often gentle Mother. Kali is the original “Mama Grizzly.” Kali the fearsome, who lives at the cremation grounds drunk on the blood of her enemies and covered in corpses and body parts, is also Kali the beautiful Mother. On the one hand a very traditional, even idealized view of motherhood is emphasized paradoxically in the terrible Kali. On the other hand, all things are recognized as Kali. Yes, the housewife is valorized and pervaded by Kali, but so are all mothers, fathers, sisters, and even death. She is all and is with us always.
What could she possibly have to do with Mary? Kali’s image is perplexing, to say the least, for those of us who are not devotees. But if we reflect for just a moment on her, I do believe she has something to say to all of us tonight. For Hindus, the divine pervades all things, life as well as death. Kali is therefore not bound by human constraints and societal taboos. She blows where she wills. She is at the edges (and beyond) of existence. In our most terrifying moments of sickness and death, she is still there with us.
There are many Hindu goddesses that paint a more benevolent, more palatable picture of the divine. The goddess Lakshmi, for example, is conventionally beautiful and is portrayed as the perfect wife to her consort Vishnu. Kali, on the other hand, is far from the perfect wife. One story tells of how she became drunk off the blood of her enemies and accidentally trampled to death her consort Shiva. Once she came to her senses, she brought him back to life. This story communicates the wild, fierce, overwhelming power of the female divine; it also demonstrates the power of goddess over god. Death is fickle, arbitrary, and unfair. But it eventually gets us all. Yet the divine is even here, breathing new life into us. One theme in poetry to Kali I have always loved and found quite complementary to the Christian theology of death and resurrection is that of her presence in our physical and spiritual sickness, death, and rebirth. The connection between death and life (and rebirth) in Kali is precisely the missing link for me in the valorization of Mary. In giving birth to my daughter, never have I been more aware of the process of giving birth as like that of the process of dying (or rather the process of dying as like that of the process of giving birth). This surreal coincidence of opposites is much more like motherhood to me than is the image of the passive, shining Mary. Glorious and terrifying. Barely in control, sometimes in control, sometimes completely out of control. Fiercely loving to the edges of existence and beyond.
When I imagine Mary through the lens of Kali, I do not just think back to her conception or the birth of Jesus; I think also of Mary and those disciples who stood vigil at Jesus’ death. Pope Benedict XVI has written of the passive receptivity of Mary at the foot of the cross, which becomes a feminine model for all of Christian life. But I see something profoundly active and Kali-like in Mary and others’ presence at his death, as they stood vigil, took him from the cross, prepared his body for burial, and entombed him. The death of Christ is the great death in our Tradition, which of course becomes the great birth of his, and our, resurrection. In the Gospel of John, Mary is said to be at the foot of the cross; and I think this devastating image of a mother who chooses to be with her son while he is tortured and killed presents us with an amazing tale of the power of presence and solidarity at the edges of life and death. Mary gave birth to him as a baby, but in her presence to him at his death, she helps birth him again from life, to death, to rebirth in resurrection. Those who were present at the foot of the cross could not stop Jesus’ suffering and death, but they could accompany him and stand with him, be present to him in his journey to death and resurrection. This provides us with a powerful picture of Christian vocation, a call for Christians to accompany Jesus and all others in life, death, and resurrection – to give birth to Christ’s presence in the most desolate of places, the cremation grounds, the crucifixion grounds. The courageous choice to stand with Jesus in his death shows not our powerlessness in the face of death, or the passive receptivity of our faith, but it shows us a graced and active call to stand in solidarity with all those crucified – to bear Christ in life, and death, and beyond. This is a far cry from a passive, receptive, benign vision of Mary, womanhood, and Christian faith.
As I lay semi-conscious after the birth of my daughter, feverish and weak from surgery, infection, and blood loss, my family tried to put on a brave face. But I could see the pain and fear in their eyes. Most of the doctors looked through me. But my anesthesiologist and nurses truly showed me the significance of bearing the Presence of God to others in accompaniment and solidarity. Unlike my other doctors, the anesthesiologist was fully present in every moment he was with me. The doctors and surgery staff left me lying on the operation room table, prepped for surgery for almost two hours while they attended to another patient. But my anesthesiologist stayed with me and my husband, making sure I was as comfortable as one can be while full of drugs and in active labor: my husband held one hand and the anesthesiologist held the other. He talked to me, even though I was in no condition to respond. He lectured the other doctors and staff for abandoning me, and insisted on getting updates for us and having people come in to check on me. He was fierce, like Kali, present, like Mary. And then there were my nurses. They tended to me without fear or pity. They looked into my eyes with simple love and caring, an unflinching presence that would accompany me to wellness, death, or whatever may come. They were Kali in the cremation grounds. They were Mary at the foot of the cross. They gave birth to the presence of Christ, with a holiness that cannot be captured by those who would strip Mary of her high place and an active strength and matter of fact-ness that cannot be captured by those who would keep Mary on her clean, unmoving pedestal. This, to me, is Mary, the Mother of God who stands with her crucified child and gives birth to God at the edges of life and death and beyond. This is something we all can learn and share, women and men, parents or not.
As a final note, I’m not sure that anything has shaken my faith in the institutional Church as has the global and on-going crisis over priest sexual abuse of children, cover-up of that abuse, and continued refusal by the hierarchy to do what it takes to fully confront the problem and prioritize our children. I expect a Church that claims a pro-life stance to truly champion human life, not just at the beginning and end of life, but at all points in between. A contemporary view of Mary that envisions her as a Virgin Mother of God who also acts powerfully and fiercely in the world wonders where She is in all of this. She weeps for her Church, but she does not stand idly by. A real mother, spiritual or otherwise, acts. She makes her choice: she stands with the children. They are the crucified ones here. She cares for them unflinchingly and stays with them at their side. To the extent that the hierarchy refuses to recognize this and continues to protect its own priests at the cost of children’s spiritual and physical lives, the hierarchy can no longer claim to be representatives of Mary or of Christ. Their institutional offices may be graced by the Spirit, but the individuals claiming to hold those offices have abandoned their posts. And Mary is not pleased. Mary takes her stand at the foot of the cross, and not in passive receptivity to the misguided missteps of the hierarchy. She takes her stand at the foot of the cross, and fights like Kali in the cremation grounds to overcome evil and breathe life back into her crucified children. She takes her stand at the foot of the cross. And so should we.