Ramakrishna 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.
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.
In 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.