Kali. The Dark Goddess. The Destroyer. The Creator. The Fierce One. She stares with glowing red eyes. Between her lips sharp fangs gleam and her long tongue protrudes. A garland of skulls decorate her neck. Serpents entwine her arms. Within her left two hands she holds a menacing sword and a severed head while her two right arms hold ritual offerings and the demonstrate the gesture “Fear Not” (Kripal 153).
Kali has been known to evoke a fierceness, a wildness, and a frenzied persona. It is this image that most people know her by, which tends to elicit fear and misunderstanding. While a goddess not to be underestimated or easily ignored there is another perspective to Kali: a compassionate, nurturing mother figure who embraces her children to her breast.
This paper aims to demonstrate the duality of Kali, particularly relating to her destructive abilities as a means to act as a guide through a period of transformation. Destruction is typically followed by creation and transformation is inherent during this process. Whether welcomed or not, this process occurs without prejudice and to seek guidance from the Goddess of Destruction herself aims to ensure the best possible outcome.
Kali is a consort of Shiva and is often depicted in imagery as standing upon his body. She is his feminine counterpart, yet childless by him. She is also an aspect of Durga, a warrior goddess, who sprang from Durga’s third eye as an angry combatant when needed in battle (Kempton 118). In fact, this is often when Kali arrives: as a destructively creative force harnessing the necessary power to obliterate that which no longer serves us but leaves the parts that comprise who we are. By standing atop Shiva she demonstrates that she is “the dynamic force in the universe, the power that churns the stillness of the void” (Kempton 119).
“…four hands that hold the symbols not of abundance but of death, renunciation, and the spiritual path of devotion. These are the noose (the lasso that catches and strangles the victim), the iron hook (which drags the victim to his doom), the rosary, and the textbook of prayer” (212).”
The “victim” is typically interpreted as the ego, uncontrollable desires or other aspects that destroy our true selves.
It may seem the idea of destruction is initially one that holds negative connotation. However, creation and destruction “are one and the same” (Zimmer 212). With this idea Kali is an ultimate example of duality: life and death; light and shadow; love and anger. Through her darkness, her anger and her destruction allows for the ability to destroy the ego and all that prevents us from achieving our “ultimate one-ness” (Kempton 142).
A story within the Devi Mahatmya tells of Durga, the warrior goddess, who is fighting the demons Chanda and Munda who threaten civilization. At a key time during this battle Kali emerges from Durga’s third eye as a frenzied slayer, swinging her sword fiercely. Her sword represents “physical extermination and spiritual decision” (Zimmer 214). She roars and is positively and undeniably frightening. As she slays the demons she catches them in her fangs and chomps them. She then confronts the demon chief Raktabija who poses a new challenge: as his blood hits the ground it transforms into warriors. Kali counter-attacks this by using her long tongue to lick up the drops of blood before they reach the ground (Kempton 118).
Kripal writes in Biting the Tongue of the Tantra Tradition a powerful elaboration of Kali’s significance in this story:
“Durga simply commands Kali to open her mouth wide and gulp down the drops as Durga herself slays the demon: ‘Stricken with many weapons, the great demon Raktabija fell to the ground bloodless’. The male demon’s vital forces were thus consumed by a devouring female … Her [Kali’s] terrible violence has been harnessed for the good of the world. She still retains her dark bloodthirsty nature, but her darkness is now an angry aspect of the Great Goddess. Kali and her tongue have entered the Hindu fold – if only as an incarnation of fury and as a consumer of demonic blood and semen.”
In this story the blood of Raktabija represents “the uncontrollable desires that agitate our minds” (Kempton 119). Kali’s action of licking up the drops of blood with her tongue symbolizes the action of eating up “desires and thoughts so that the luminosity of our essential awareness can reveal itself” (Kempton 119).
Kali celebrates this victory against the demons by entering into a frenzied dance on the world, uncontrollable, wild, and with disregard to the damage she is causing. “… all creation began to shake, and the whole of existence was threatened with destruction” (Cotterell and Storm 376). Fearing the devastation of civilization and the world, Shiva threw himself under her feet so that her steps would impact only him. She finally becomes aware of her actions and consequences and finds the ability to stop herself.
This is the aspect that is feared, understandably so. It is also this aspect that gives cause to – women in particular – invoke the energies of Kali. Both history and modernity demonstrate a repression of women in various forms. Women aim to harness their “inner Kali” as a way to “stand up for herself, to discover her inner fierceness, or to express the outrageous side of her sexuality” (Kempton 130). As such, women who have been abused sexually, physically or experienced any one of many forms of trauma turn to the energies of Kali to find strength, to connect with who they are, and to eliminate the negative forces that repress and victimize them.
Releasing these harmful energies and connecting with power is a terrifying process. This is what Kali represents and what she absorbs; her dark skin is evident of this absorption and her frenzy is an intoxication of power. This personification makes Kali the ultimate mother. Her children suffer through this process of harsh nurture, but they know the source and realize the perceived act of cruelty comes with a healthy outcome (Cotterrel, Storm 161). Her tactics are forceful and fierce but they come from love and are “in service of the heart” (Kempton 141). Kali is the “Divine Mother”, bringing forth samsara, and destroying the world – ego, pain, trauma, etc. – in the end (Hopkins 127).
Reasons to invoke Kali are not only limited to releasing traumatic experiences: one may invoke Kali in order to undergo any transformation; to release the limitations perceived within oneself; inspire kundalini energy to manifest through the chakras; discover truth; release ego; explore the mysteries of life and death; reach enlightenment; purify and strengthen the heart; transcend in ecstasy (Kempton 144). Kinsley states there is “no attempt to soften the Goddess. She is beautiful but delights in battle and bloodlust… [She is] invincibly powerful and accomplished” (493). “Battle and bloodlust” clearly represent all that plagues us as humans. In fact, the entire manifestation of the Great Goddess and her various aspects such as Kali, Parvati, Saraswati, etc., act as a parallel representation to the many aspects that make us human.
Kempton writes “Durga gives the strength to begin and support the process of change, but Kali has the force to sweep away old structures” (126). In a personal reflection, I found change was almost forcing itself upon me – unable to be denied or repressed or ignored in any manner. While at one time intimidated by Kali due to misunderstanding and fear of the goddess’ strength and meaning, I have since changed my perspective and adopted the energies of Kali as a powerful and knowing guide through this process of change and transformation. I considered that if this change was occur and with it accompanied anger, sadness, etc. what better guide could I seek than the ultimate goddess of creation, destruction, and rebirth?
“When Kali is at work, you can trust her to show you what is truly indestructible, both in you and in your world. That’s why we need her. You don’t know what love is until you’ve felt the depth and fierceness of Kali’s love” (Kempton 126).
Kali forces the question “who am I?” and to answer this question requires cutting to the bare bone, approaching oneself with passion, releasing false ideas, and facing our shadows.
The darkness to Kali has most certainly been misused and misinterpreted. She has become the icon of the “left-handed path” within Hindu Traditions who practice black magic, excessive alcohol and drug use, aim to invoke a dark power, and indulge in practices considered “unclean” within the Hindu cultures. The left-handed path focuses on the shadow side, and as with many activities within humanity, it is important to find balance; the shadow side is not to be ignored just as it is not to be reveled in.
When a repressed feminine energy suddenly finds power and assertion the result can be overwhelming and counter-productive. It has been noted by Kempton that there is an inherent anger within women on a cellular level from the history of repression (133).
The shadow side of harnessing feminine power can ignite anger and aggression. This can manifest itself in physical illness, accidents, and destroy the love for us and from us (Kempton 132). This action is represented when Kali dances in an uncontrolled frenzy, causing devastation. How do we then avoid the negative aspects? How do we transform from the “wounded feminine” into a healthy balance of strength, power, and nurture? I assert that to accomplish this requires not suppressing our shadow side, but facing it with courage.
Kempton offers a poem from a neofeminist website with an informed analysis:
“I am the Bitch from Hell. I think you know me well. I am the dark goddess. Kali, Hecate, Lilith, Morrigan, Ereshigal. The dark goddess lives in us all. Often suppressed and denied, she will eventually leak out in hostility and sarcasm, with sly cutting digs, nagging gossip, and putdowns…” (133-134).
Kinsley asserts that there is “no attempt to soften the Goddess.” She is beautiful but delights in battle and bloodlust. She is “invincibly powerful and accomplished [and] at home pulverizing demons” (493). The beauty and nurture, and power and violence describe an interesting duality.
“… her motherly qualities… emphasizes her fierce qualities. The Goddess as the fierce mother expresses a coincidence of opposites. This aspect of her character, it is argued, expresses the ambiguities inherent in human existence itself” (Kinsley 489).
It should come as no surprise that the concept of Goddess carries with her several personas; this demonstrates a reflection of the human feminine characteristics.
“The use of feminine symbolism does not seem to guarantee anything about the role and status of women, though it does seem to correlate with a positive evaluation of whatever is feminine in a given religious symbol system” (Gross 271).
My own personal reflection intimately explores my own concept of what it is to be feminine, the role of my female warrior, and the role of my nurturer. I have been identified as an independent and strong woman and I accept this with gratitude and pride. Yet how does this persona fit in the world in which we live, particularly in my romantic relationships? This seems to be the question presented to me recently. It was Kali who seemed most appropriate and capable as my inspiration in this resulting transformation.
In my past I have felt more of a spiritual alignment with Durga, who in contrast, is gentler than Kali, although still a warrior goddess not to be underestimated or disregarded. However, Durga’s strength in recent times surrounding life-changing situations and opportunities did not feel quite dramatic enough. As in the story, demons were threatening the world as I knew it and Kali was required to spring from Durga’s third eye to offer ferocious and formidable aid. Kali seemed to metamorphosis in my perspective due to where I am in my journey. Kali certainly is dramatic and offered to serve the purpose of stripping away all that no longer served me.
I mentioned previously that I felt intimidated by Kali and I realize now that I very much misunderstood her, which has commonly been the case with many others. After only a brief period of time involving meditations to Kali I have lost that sense of intimidation. I have equated Kali’s assistance as “ripping the bandaid off” of a situation rather than a slow, painful opening of a wound. Kali seems to offer a sense of calm in the face of adversity, which does seem to contradict the image of the frenzied and wild devourer of demons. In my perspective, a warrior maintains a centered and stable core regardless of how wild the actions may be. This core represents the true Self, the answer to “who am I?” It is the core that maintains focus and perseverance, although the actions may appear out of control.
Change cannot be avoided; transformation will happen without regard to the individual’s desires. However, within the individual’s control is how to work through the process and the expansion of mind to learn and grow. I have found with Kali’s influence, I have lost a certain amount of fear and hesitation regarding transformation – reminded of this by Kali’s hand gesture of “Fear Not.” To be open to change releases anxiety. I am allowed the space to observe and perceive and ultimately implement the change. Paradoxically, control stems from the release of control: When Kali slays demons wildly and seemingly uncontrollably, the result is control over the situation in the form of reclaiming control over civilization from the threat of the demons.
I am appreciative to have been shown the deeper meaning of destruction with the cycle of creation as a beneficial outcome. Kali demonstrates herself as the true Goddess in this regard, fiercely loving those who open themselves up to her with oftentimes harsh lessons, but ones that are in the better interest of the individual and subsequently humankind overall.
Cotterell, Arthur, and Rachel Storm. The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology. London: Anness Publishing Ltd, 1999, 2010. Print.
Gross, Rita M. “Hindu Female Deities as a Resource for the Contemporary Rediscovery of the Goddess.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol 46, No 3 (Sept., 1978): 269-291. Oxford University Press. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.
Hopkins, Thomas J. The Hindu Religious Tradition. Belmont: Dickinson Publishing Company, 1971. Print.
Kempton, Sally. Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga. Boulder: Sounds True, 2013. Print.
Kinsley, David. “The Portrait of the Goddess in the Devi-mahatmya.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol 46, No 4 (Dec., 1978): 489-506. Oxford University Press. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.
Kripal, Jeffrey J. “’Biting the Tongue’ of the Tantric Tradition.” History of Religions, Vol 34, No. 2 (Nov. 1994): 152-189. University of Chicago Press. Web. 14 Oct. 2014.
Zimmer, Heinrich (edited by Campbell, J). Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964. Print