In contrast to the linearity of our time concept in the West, Indians view life as infinite and cyclical. Although Hindus, like ancient Greeks, believe in four ages of humanity (the so-called yugas), these occur not just once, but repeat cyclically every several million years. Similarly, the creator god Brahma is said to have a daily cycle which has recurring effects on the existence of the world. When Brahma awakes the world is created anew, and when he falls asleep it dissolves once again into the primal waters of eternity. Fortunately for us, Brahma’s day lasts 4,320,000,000 human years.
Holland Cotter, in reflecting on Eastern art, once brought these temporal differences into sharp focus when he contrasted two of the major icons of East and West — Christ on the cross and the dancing Shiva. He said, “The Christ figure embodies the Judeo-Christian concept of divine history as a straight, purposeful line from the Fall of Man (sic.) to redemption, but with a tragic human story of self-sacrifice, loss and atonement at its heart. The dancing Shiva is, by contrast, a dynamic, joyous cyclical image: a poised, uplifted foot and hands form a circle echoing the nimbus of flames surrounding the figure. The image represents a culture which…views both humans and gods as participants in a cosmic game that periodically grinds to a catastrophic halt only to begin again.”[i]
Like Shiva, Kali has been depicted surrounded by a halo of flames. But unlike Shiva, her portrait is far from a joyous image. In one example, a 17th or 18th century North Indian sculpture, Kali is personified as a voracious, old hag squatting on a victim whose entrails she eats. Slicing open the belly of the anonymous corpse, Kali scoops out its intestines with her bony fingers and gobbles them with her protruding teeth. The anonymity of the victim brings home to the viewer the fact that ultimately we are all Kali’s prey. And the flames burning around her head reemphasize this point, for as the aureole of the Dancing Shiva, they are the fires of the final conflagration at the end of each world period. But in this image we realize that such flames flicker constantly, since time erodes all that has ever existed and Kali swallows all she has ever birthed.[ii]
As we can see from this and her other iconography, Kali is a fitting symbol of cyclicity. For Ramakrishna, she is a beautiful young woman who ages in an instant to become an ugly hag. In the Tantric image, Kali, like Brahma in his daily cycles, represents the primordial waters — or in this case the primeval blood — from which all creation arises and to which all life returns. And finally in the North Indian sculpture, Kali is the passage of the days and months in which everything that has come into existence once again vanishes from view after its allotted lifespan. Kali not only carries us away in her dance of life-death-and-rebirth, but she crumbles even our most monumental accomplishments with the sweep of her ever-recurring cycles.
When Kali represents time, she is usually depicted as the “Dark Night of Destruction.” She is black because her destruction dissolves the cosmos back into its primordial chaos. Just as all colors and attributes disappear in blackness, so all life dissolves back into Kali as she reabsorbs into herself all that has flowed from her. As the Absolute, the supreme source of all substance and form (the Brahman), Kali is beyond semblances, qualities and colors, and as a result, she is also seen as colorless or black.[iii] She is both order and chaos, since as the Mother of All Life, she brings forth all the organized forms of existence, but as the Destroyer, she reduces everything back into formlessness and chaos. As the Hindu Great Goddess, Kali also transcends the traditional distinctions between the gods and the demons, the devas and the asuras in Sanskrit. For she is both the Great Goddess and the Great Demoness.[iv] We shouldn’t be surprised at this seeming paradox, since in order to deal with the demonic forces that occasionally threaten the stable structure of the universe, Kali –and Durga as well — must have a streak of the demonic in them.[v]
From Kali’s wild, unbounded nature we can learn that the divine cannot be circumscribed. It is utterly free from the constraints of our human imagination, beyond all our experience, encompassing both life and death, darkness and light, order and chaos, everything and the void. The bloodthirsty Kali teaches us that the bright and dark sides of the sacred are just human divisions of one holy reality,[vi] and that when we participate in that divine reality we too are wild, unbound, free.[vii]
One final painting may allow us to realize the depth of the sacred symbolized in India’s Great Goddess. This Punjabi minature from the turn of the 19th century depicts Chinnamasta, a goddess who is related to Kali, and is also known as the “decapitated one.” In vibrant colors, Chinnamasta is depicted, like Kali, as naked except for the snakes that twine around her waist, neck and upper arms. Like Kali, she wears a long necklace of skulls. But unlike Kali, she holds a scissors in one hand and her own severed head in the other. From the stump of her neck, three streams of blood gush forth like a fountain and feed the female attendants on either side of her as well as her own head, while beneath Chinnamasta’s feet Radha and Krishna make love, obvlious to what is happening above them. Hinduism’s quintessential lovers lie in turn upon the lotus of creation with an inverted triangle at is center, symbolizing the cosmic feminine. This powerful Tantric icon is a stark rendition of the truths we have already encountered in Kali’s mythology. Chinnamasta is envigorated by the copulating couple beneath her and then feeds her attendants with this life energy in turn. Through her self-sacrifice, the goddess redistributes the life energy back into the universe. Once again we confront the interdependence of sex, life and death just as we did in the intial description of Kali straddling Shiva. The painting seems to imply that sex perpetuates life, which must subsequently decay and die in order to feed the life that is yet to come.[viii] This is the way of organic life. We must feed on the corpses of other animals and plants if we are to live. Sex leads to life which leads to death which leads once more to life again.
I can remember a friend’s first reaction to this icon. We were both members of a women’s spirituality group, reading books about goddesses from prepatriarchal times to the present. My friend shook her head, looking away from the book I was holding, and laughing, and asked what such a picture could possibly mean. This educated peer was not only repulsed, but wanted to get this experience quickly behind her. It was one thing to talk about birth, death and rebirth in the abstract — something we had been doing for months — but it was another thing entirely to see it represented so starkly. The whole incident made me wonder if we North Americans fear the depths of the sacred. Perhaps it is just that we have pushed questions that pertain to death into the dark, unknown regions of our subconscious.
Facing mortality has not been an easy process for me. When I turned 40 I was depressed for months. Only later did I discover that my blues were the result of coming to grips with my not-so-imminent death. When I neared 50 I found myself drawn to Kali for the very same reasons that I couldn’t face her earlier in that decade. I found a paradoxical freedom in accepting this ultimate limitation in my life. It spurred me on to enjoy life moment by moment.
In many ways my attitude is like the Epicurean motto “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Most people in the 20th century interpret this sentiment as a hedonistic, and therefore, non-spiritual response to mortality. But in truth, living life in the moment is highly spiritual, more like “praying without ceasing” than drunken revelry. For to live in the charged atmosphere of the moment — full of light and darkness — is to feel gratitude for the blessing of life.
When I am fully present in the here-and-now, I open my senses wide to the world — I notice the play of light on a forested path, feel the soft humidity on my skin in the summer or the crisp fall air when the season finally turns, smell the sweet and acrid perfume of a late fall day, notice the stark contrasts in a winter landscape or hear the returning warblers in the spring. In the West we often speak of beauty or use aesthetic metaphors when we want to explain living in the moment, while in the East, Hindus speak about the divine play of the gods and goddesses, their lila, the spontaneous sport of creating and destroying the world in all its awesomeness. The passive, aesthetic attitude we generally take in response to life is called into question by Hinduism’s description of the ecstatic dance that creates and destroys the world. When I’m in this blissful, awake state, my impulse often moves me beyond the reflective or contemplative. I want to twirl or skip, to dance or run, to sing right out loud, however strange it may appear to others.
I think this more active response to the gift of life is implied in the concept of lila. Just as the gods and goddesses dance and laugh, sing and shout, become frenzied and destroy what their play has built, so we are invited to join in these divine rhythms, to move with the sap and blood of life’s pulse. If we are attentive, we can begin to dance with life’s beat, whether it is the fluctuations of the seasons or the daily patterns of our lives, whether it is our own personal ebb and flow or being in tune with those tides in the lives of our friends and family. Kali’s worshippers feel free to join in the dance of life, to act spontaneously, to let go, to sing, dance or shout. Kali grants the boon of freedom to her devotees, allowing them to revel in life.[ix]
Such playfulness reminds me of a Christian adage, that to enter the Kingdom of God we have to become as little children. Confronting death allows me to take in more of the world than I do with my typical adult attitudes based on norms and propriety and ultimately on fear. Looking death squarely in the face gives me the courage to be more childlike, delighting in the awe and wonder that life presents to me everyday.
Once I have confronted my fear of death, I can really say, “Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is they victory?”[x] When I’ve faced my biggest (and most realistic) fear head on, why should I care about my smaller fears after that? So what if the neighbors think I’m crazy once in a while or if people can’t deal with my exuberance at times? When I’m flowing with life’s pulse, in Kali’s mad dance, I celebrate it moment by moment. Her ancient hymn to life and death opens me to sponaneity and frees me from fear. Then I plunge into life, awake, alive, in awe, with my heart open, finally taking those exciting risks I’ve been putting off for far too long.
[i] Holland Cotter, “Eastern Art through Western Eyes,” The New York Times, 10 July, 1994, p.29. Emphasis mine.
[ii] Zimmer, p. 213.
[iii] Brown, p. 115.
[iv] Thomas B. Coburn, “Consort of None, Shakti of All: The Vision of the Devi-mahatmya,” in: Divine Consort, p. 155.
[v] Richard L. Brubaker, “The Untamed Goddesses of Village India, in: The Book of the Goddess Past and Present, p.151.
[vi] Ibid., p. 158.
[vii] Kinsley, p. 157.
[viii] David Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 173.
[ix] Ibid., p. 145.
[x] King James Bible,1 Corithians 15: 55 – 56.
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.