In contrast to our dualistic thinking here in the West — thinking that separates light from dark, life from death, and chaos from order –there are a number of Eastern philosophies and religions that have retained a more holistic approach to reality. One religion that has done a good job of preserving the awesomeness of its deities by representing them through the full spectrum of life, death and rebirth is the Hindu culture in India. Remarkably, most of the major Hindu gods and goddesses represent divinity as forms of “coincidence of opposites.” In other words, the great deities like Shiva, Vishnu and Devi (the Goddess), simultaneously encompass life and death, good and evil, darkness and light, creation and destruction. For Westerners who live in a society which easily polarizes such distinctions, looking at the living mythology of one of these divine figures might offer us some ideas of how we can create a more unified mythology for ourselves.
It is no surprise to me that in India people acknowledge death as an inevitable part of life, just as they see darkness as half the daily round. When I visited India 35 years ago, I found it to be an overwhelming experience. The streets were filled to overflowing with people, oxcarts, cars with horns blaring, trucks inching along between the pedestrians, camel carts, bicycles and more people, food stalls, markets with vegetables and spices I had never seen before and people on top of people. As a Westerner I found all this lively interaction disconcerting, especially since it was very difficult to find a time and place to be alone. Life — even human life — was abundant to the point of excess.
But the same was true when it came to death. I never realized how sheltered I had been from the sight of death in the U.S. until I saw two dozen vultures and a half dozen dogs fighting over the carcass of a dead cow. Life and death are florid in their display in this country two-thirds the size of the U.S. with over four times as many inhabitants. In such a country it seems obvious that life and death are intimately intertwined; Indians see their mutual effects everyday. It seems short-sighted to them to focus, as we do, on life and growth ignoring death and decay.
Hinduism acknowledges what is clear to even a casual observer of the Indian landscape, that within a closed ecosystem, death is a necessity if life is to continue. Unsurprisingly, Indian art and mythology tend to stretch the limits when depicting both the charms and terrors of life, so that the mind’s eye, as well as its bodily counterpart, is confronted with both the terrifying and pleasing extremes of the sacred, allowing Hindus to discover the all-encompassing nature of the divine.
Within this context, the goddess Kali — one of the manifestations of the Hindu Great Goddess — is drastic even for Hindu perceptions. As the goddess of life, death and rebirth, Kali is usually depicted as a dark-faced, voracious cannibal dancing in the cremation grounds while holding a sword, a severed head, a bowl of blood and a noose in her four hands. Around her neck is a garland of skulls, the corpses of two children hang from her ears, while her waistband is made up of bloody arms torn from the shoulders of her victims. Often a living snake winds around her body from one shoulder cross-wise to her opposite hip, replacing the sacred thread traditionally worn by Brahmins. Her apparel frequently includes other smaller snakes as armbands and bracelets.
She’s not a pretty picture. But in focusing on her deadly side, we in the U.S. tend to misrepresent and misunderstand this goddess. For Kali is also the goddess who gives birth to the entire universe, something we can see in her iconography as well. She dances naked so that her fruitful yoni or vagina is obviously displayed, as are the full breasts with which she nourishes all she has brought into the world. In fact, one of her best-known representations shows her straddling the god Shiva, transforming him from a corpse into a lover, ready with erect phallus to satisfy her unbridled desire. It is Kali who brings Shiva back from the dead and gives him life, because she is Shakti, the inherent energy of the universe, the force that activates what is potential and creates the world.
Who is this goddess? From what we can reconstruct of ancient India, it appears that Kali had her roots in the religion of the indigenous peoples of South Asia long before the conquests of the Indo-Aryans. In the earliest texts depicting Kali, she is a tribal or hill goddess living on the fringes of Aryan society. Before her incorporation into Sanskrit writing, she was said to be worshipped in wild, uncivilized places and to live on mountain peaks, near rivers, or in caves, forests or groves. In other words, she lived in the wilderness, those parts of India still inhabited by non-Aryan peoples. The fact that she is the preeminent goddess within Tantric practices also indicates her indigenous origin, since the Tantras were strongly influenced by non-Aryan sources as well.
Kali entered the Sanskrit tradition between 400 and 500 CE through the Devi-Mahatmya, a section in one of the early Sanskrit Puranas. These texts were compilations of myths current in India at the time. Although various goddesses had been known in earlier Sanskrit writing, they were relatively minor deities. What was new about the Devi-Mahatmya is that for the first time in a written text, the Goddess was described as ultimate reality itself, making her the equal of Shiva and Vishnu, the major deities in Hinduism until then. The myth recorded in the Devi-Mahatmya portrays the gods sending forth their energies in streams of flame to be reabsorbed by the Goddess, their original mother, the life energy from which they had initially emerged. When the Goddess appears within this rain of fire, the gods then hand over to her all their emblems, tools, weapons and other symbols of their specific powers, once again dissolving their particularized strengths back into the source from which they had flowed. With the combined strength of all the gods, the Goddess then goes forth to slay a horde of demons who had threatened the universe after becoming mightier than the gods. In this myth, the goddess was called by a number of names, among them Ambika, Shri, Lakshmi, Candika, Durga and Kali. In the years since the Devi-Mahatmya was written, the Great Goddess depicted in this tale has usually been identified as Durga, occasionally as Kali and also as the two of them viewed as light and dark sides of the same goddess. Over time, however, Kali has become independent of Durga, and for millions of Indians, especially within Tantrism and Bengali devotionalism, she has become the highest manifestation of the divine.*
*David Kinsley, The Sword and the Flute: Kali and Krsna, Dark Visions of the Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), p. 93.
Nancy Vedder-Shults, Ph.D., is the thealogical columnist for SageWoman magazine as well as a Wiccan blogger for Tikkun Daily. She has offered ecofeminist and spiritual growth keynotes, workshops, and classes since 1987. Nancy honed her speaking and workshop skills teaching in the emerging field of Women’s Studies from 1975 – 1991. In the early 1990s her muse nudged her out of the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to record Chants for the Queen of Heaven, a CD of goddess songs from around the world, and become the musical consultant for the Unitarian Universalist goddess curriculum Rise Up and Call Her Name. She is currently writing a book entitled The World is Your Oracle. Check out her website at http://www.mamasminstrel.net.