Ramakrishna Devotion to Kali-Ma (Part 2 of 3) by Nancy Vedder-Shults

nancymug_3Ramakrishna was one of the major poets who popularized Kali’s worship in Bengal, the northeasternmost province of India. Born in the early part of the 19th century, he was a Hindu saint in a tradition known as bhakti, where devotees lovingly surrender their hearts, minds and spirits to their chosen deity in a practice which leads to ecstatic union with the divine. Such devotion is easier for us in the West to imagine when the beloved is the playful Krishna with his sublime flute-playing and sacred lovemaking. But in Ramakrishna’s case, the object of his devotion was the fierce Kali, the wild and uncontrollable aspects of the sacred, to whom he devoted himself as a child would to its mother.

Kali with baby

Kali as the mother of Shiva

In his best-known evocation of the Goddess, Ramakrishna observes her as a graceful young woman sinuously emerging from the waters of the Ganges. As her belly breaks forth from the waves, we realize that she is late in pregnancy, coming to dry land to deliver her child. When she reaches the shore, she gives birth to a beautiful baby whom she fondles affectionately and lifts to her breast, where the child suckles until it is content. Holding her baby once more in her arms, the woman becomes the Kali we are more familiar with, a frightening old hag, gaunt with age and hunger. In her ferocious aspect, Kali then lifts the infant to her mouth, crushes it between her teeth and swallows the baby whole. Without a backward glance, she returns to the waters from which she emerged, disappearing again from view.

In his vignette Ramakrishna captures the essence of Kali as Mother Nature in her creative, nuruturing and destructive aspects. Surrender to such a deity is hard to imagine until we realize that it is not viciousness that motivates her destruction. Kali is by necessity both the good and the terrible mother. Every nursing mother has to sustain herself in order to nourish her children, and since Kali is the mother of everything in the world, she has to feed on her children as there is nothing else to eat.

Hinduism’s world mother exemplifies the fact that life often creates through destroying, just as we humans recreate our bodies anew each day by destroying the plants and animals on which we feed. What Kali vividly demonstrates is that we all live in a unified ecosystem, the interconnected web of all existence, each a part of the other. Ramakrishna’s image forces us to confront our place in the food chain. Kali gives birth to us; we are sustained by eating her other children; and finally we are eaten in turn. Life feeds on life. Life is a sacrifice to life. These are the sacred truths that such a picture opens to our view.

Tantrism also created several extremely evocative portrayals of Kali. One that I find revealing shows Kali standing in a boat floating upon an ocean of blood. Within Hinduism the goddess is often envisioned as the primordial waters from which all creation arises, but here we see that she is also blood, an image which graphically depicts both the beginning and the end of the creative process. The viewer soon realizes that the bloody waters depicted are the lifeblood of all Kali’s children, the blood she has shed in giving birth to them and the blood she spills in destroying them at the end of life. As Kali stands looking out over this red sea, she sips some of its warm liquid from a bowl made from a human cranium. Her expression — glowing eyes and blood-smeared lips — reveals both that this bloody drink is intoxicating and that her desire for it is insatiable.

kali eatingIn some ways this picture is less shocking than Ramakrishna’s, although it may turn more stomachs with its depiction of Kali’s gory diet. For Indians, the goddess’ love of blood is even more disturbing than it is for us here in the West, since Hindus consider blood one of the most defiling substances in the world, a major reason for Indians’ predominantly vegetarian diet. What becomes clear in this image is that as the goddess of blood, Kali presides over the mysteries of both life and death. Once again Kali confronts us with the totality of life which, of course, includes death. The blood of birth is the blood of death. Kali bleeds, but feeds in turn on her own blood. In this world view, death and decay provide the fertile ground for the burgeoning of life. Kali continually takes away with her left hand what she provides with her right, but just as continually replaces with her right hand what the left has destroyed. This bloodthirsty goddess, as a unified vision of life-death-and-rebirth, allows us to see what we usually split into two spheres in the West and realize that although paradoxical for many of us, life and death are actually one totality.

What we have seen so far is that Kali personifies the unity of life and death. But can her image speak to us of the cyclical flow of time, time measured in its ever-recurring days and seasons? The answer to this question is a resounding yes. Kali is the Mother of time, the Kalamata. Her periodic renewal occurs in the dark – her name means “dark” or “black” – and her manifestation of new life can be seen in the light, together representing time as the sacred round. Not surprisingly, within the Hindu calendar, the Goddess in her light and dark aspects presides over both halves of the lunar month. The eighth day of each half-month is dedicated to her — in her form as Durga during the waxing moon and in her form as Kali during the waning moon.

See Part One here. 

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.

Categories: Death, General, Goddess, Hinduism

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10 replies

  1. Could you recommend (if there are any) good English translations of Ramakrishna’s poetry?


  2. Beautiful post, Nancy. Thank you for this poetic and precise elucidation of an awesome goddess.


  3. But why did we need to construct anthropocentric nature deities? Why not simply revere nature itself, not as a deity, but just as it is, and yet absolutely sacred, and at the same time the transcendent experiences we attain in this life understood as part of nature too. Why the need to fabricate a heaven separate from nature, instead of both the material and the spiritual, this world and the next, all part of a single, profoundly mysterious continuum?


    • Sarah, Great questions. To begin, I, like you, “simply revere nature itself, not as a deity, but just as it is, and yet absolutely sacred, and at the same time the transcendent experiences we attain in this life understood as part of nature too.”For me as for you, “this world and the next, [are] all part of a single, profoundly mysterious continuum.” And I love stories, so for me, anthropomorphic deities resonate with my experience as well.

      I think you’re asking two different questions here, and I think the first one is a great question and the second one about heaven doesn’t apply to Kali (at least in my understanding of Kali) and certainly has no validity in my worldview. I believe if you look at the Indus Valley civilization (which predated the Indo-Aryan culture with its Sanskrit sciptures), you find the sacred represented in animal, human, and multi-formed shapes (both together). The Indus Valley had some sort of script, but it hasn’t been deciphered yet. And at the beginning of their existence, these cities were still close to their indigenous roots, but they had already begun to stratify with respect to class or caste and create human habitations (cities) cut off from surrounding nature. After reading _The Spell of the Sensuous_ by David Abram (again), I believe that all of these changes push towards a change in how people experience themselves (you’ll have to read the book, I don’t have time here to recap his argument) — namely as humans in a more human environment, rather than one species among many in the natural world (according to Abram, written language has a lot to do with this). As a result, the divine begins to be represented in human form (or in the Indus Valley in human or human/animal form).

      I personally revere anthropomorphic deities, because I live in this human-made environment, too. I respond to story with human-like figures in human-like situations. If these myths relay something that seems true within the larger Earth community, then they speak to me as a member of an Earth-based tradition that grew up within the modern world (and, therefore, has elements of both). Abram says “meaning is meeting,” and I think this is true. I find meaning in relationship — with the natural world and its creatures, with human beings, even sometimes with ideas. Story puts flesh and blood on the bony structures of those ideas or underscores the experiences I have within the storied universe of the surrounding Earth. The symbols within such myths resonate with the many layers of my experience — my physical perception of things, my emotional experience of life, and my intellectual understanding of the world I live in. Such resonance, such meeting, gives meaning to my life. In the next part of this essay (coming out on Samhain, Oct. 31st) you will read about how the story of Kali resonates for me.

      I hope that answers your question. If not, please follow up.


      • “Abram says ‘meaning is meeting,’ and I think this is true. I find meaning in relationship — with the natural world and its creatures, with human beings, even sometimes with ideas. Story puts flesh and blood on the bony structures of those ideas or underscores the experiences I have within the storied universe of the surrounding Earth.”

        I am moved by “meeting is meaning,” and the depth of your vision. In my mind along comes Demeter sitting down under the olive tree at the well. Look forward to Oct 31 and part 3, thanks so much, Nancy!!


  4. Thank you, Nancy. I read your words with much interest on the eve of visiting my husband’s gravesite at Natural Path Sanctuary in Verona, WI. This is a green burial site with no markings other than the record of the GPS coordinates marking his spot. I have been visiting this natural cemetery every month since Jim died, making photographs of the natural surroundings he’s becoming part of. I love the way his body is becoming part of life from his death. I plan to do the same when it is my time. Blessings to you on your work!


  5. I really enjoyed how you shared the two portrayals of Kali as well as your insightful perspective on them. Do you think that one problem with accepting a “bloodthirsty” Goddess or God can be when the image (or the activity of killing/destroying) becomes twisted through lack of respect and gratitude for the lives (whether plant or animal) sacrificed so that we may live?

    I also appreciated your fabulous reply to Sarah’s question regarding the need for deity. I was just writing about that this morning (at length so this is shorter but, I hope, makes sense), and imagining how it might have been pre-human-figurine/deity — as with many of the really old images of Gimbutas’ Old Europe — and imagining that the people started with revering *individual* creatures of nature or cultural resources, but then, for their own purposes of inviting to themselves certain groups of sacred energies, they started finding they could unite them. For instance, with Artemis, she has symbols such as dog, deer, and bow/arrows … perhaps her image, if you will, began by people honoring these creatures and symbols at first *separately* for their strongest qualities: dog (loyalty or companion), deer (awareness or grace or sacrifice), and bow/arrows (focus, concentration) … and then, over time, began combining these qualities when they seemed to naturally join as ‘one’ devotional focal point/image … This takes nothing away from the sacredness of the individuals, but rather adds another. Sorry, this may not be clear so short … I plan on posting my entire essay of thought process on my blog soon. ;-)

    Would enjoy your thoughts on these imaginings. Thanks for a great second part to this series!


  6. Thanks, Darla, for your thoughtful questions. I think you may be right to a certain extent that in a secular culture like our own, where food comes from the grocery store, and we don’t have much connection to the death of the animals that we eat, there is no understanding of the respect and gratitude that we owe to them. However, in the next segment of this post, I talk about death as one of the taboo subjects in our culture, and I think this is probably much more significant when it comes to Kali and other similar goddesses.

    I don’t know enough about Artemis to respond fully to your second question. What I didn’t say in response to Sarah is that I believe we all started out as animists of some sort, depending on the land on which we lived. We knew that we were part of a living landscape that included all of the other creatures, plants, landscape features, weather patterns, rivers, you name it… Our relationship with these beings — and I think they were all beings to us, beings with which we communed — was a sacred relationship. Each hill and valley held a different place in what David Abram calls “our storied landscape.” This changed as we changed and the divine began to be seen in solely human terms. The sacred story became more of human story, not a story that included all of life. What I love about Kali is that She returns us to that story, even though She’s an anthropomorphic goddess.


    • Thank you for your response, Nancy. Beautiful!

      Sometimes I do wish that I had both a better memory and an academic background to converse more deeply with you and the other amazing women on this forum. But I always receive a gift, some precious insight, from all the posts so I am grateful. :-)


  7. Thank you for this beautifully researched post, Nancy.


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