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Am typing this in the middle of a tropical rainstorm in Singapore, and its unbridled and gleeful ferocity reminds me of Kali.
Not for nothing does a famous song by the Kali devotee Ramprasad mentions "my mad Mother Kali", and of all the incarnations of the Divine Mother, the Primordial Shakti, Kali represents not just the fierce and wild, but the rampaging movement of the Divine.
Westerners have always struggled with the basic problem of what happens when things go wrong, good times break down, businesses fail and good people suffer, and are more comfortable finding consolation in a dualistic view of God... Everything good is God, everything bad is the devil.
But Kali is a figure that embraces the terrifying as well as the benign. If you've ever truly been around destruction, whether in warfare or by some dreadful event, there is a wildness there. Kali's wildness often strides across our lives. When we turn our devotion to the Devi, sooner or later we can find that we start off worshipping Lakshmi, the bringer of auspiciousness and comforts, only to find that life takes a tumble... The sudden precipitous plunges in the reputations of celebreties and politicians... The unexpected departures of partners and friends... Upsets, incidents that seem to reflect a raw energy, a primal electrical shock that breaks every foundation.
That's one aspect of Kali, and through different ages and countries some reflection of the Fierce Mother shows up. Can one love such a force, actively embrace its power as an example of the strength of the hidden?
I think we not only can but must. A pretty life filled with neatness and order gets you absolutely nowhere in the end but suburbia. Spiritual life is difficult, often dangerous, but its an adventure which we all instinctively recognise. For within each of us is the capacity to worship it all, all the good, all the bad, all the troubles and joy... Worship this as the great Maya, the wonderful illusory dance we witness while we are alive.
Someone very close to me once had a dream in which Kali came to her bed one night, and for her, this experience was the essence of bliss and ecstacy... And she was never the same again. Kali, then, is not doom or gloom, but she is untameable, supremely free, and to glimpse her even for a second (lightening and thunder rumbling right now across the night sky as I write this) is to gain a matchless gift. Next time your world comes tumbling down, see if you can spot Her at play...
There are lots of secrets about Kali-Ma. She has penetrated western consciousness for at least 200 years in a particularly shameful way- the British imperialists decided to label her worship as devilish, and this image even resurfaced in one of the dreadful Indiana Jones movies of the 1980s - a bloodthirsty goddess with crazed supporters out to kill everyone.
That said, She is wild and untameable and holds the Bhairav, the fierceness of a tigress about to pounce. She is the village goddess, She is the supporter of those who do not fit into any category. She sweeps all away, and none too gently... but to Her devotees, She is revealed in true loveliness.
As one beautiful Yogananda chant puts it:
Her colour is dark, her hair free. Her very name is linked with Kala, time, the great devourer. Her tongue is loose - some say with shame at trampling her husband, some say with the unquenchable thirst for blood, and that tongue will sweep up the negativities of a devotee, often with a masterly series of blows that hurt when they happen, but heal when they are over.
It is important to realise therefore that She has a benign (dakshina) side as well as fearful (smarshan) side, and here the iconography becomes important. If She steps out with her right foot and holds Her sword in a left side, this is the dakshina form. The other round, and She is Smarshana Kali, the embodiment of the power of destruction and unstoppable.
Shyama Kali is tender and worshipped in Hindu households as the dispeller of fear and granter of boons.
Raksha Kali, the protectress is who we turn to in terrible times.
Tantrics worship Siddha Kali to attain perfection, Phalaharini Kali to destroy the results of their actions, Nitya Kali the eternal one to help achieve perfection. Even robbers thieves and dacoits get in on the act and some worship Dakait Kali. Across India, in villages and towns, Kali murtis exist and are worshipped - much to the apparent ire of the Mother in Sri Aurobindo's ashrams, who did not particularly like the fear that Kali seemed to evoke in superstitious villagers.
She seems to crop up along the fringes of western magic, paganism, and is little understood... and young western women who want to declare their freedom often like to align with Her energies in a very superficial way. There are echoes of her, the Primordial Mother, in many other traditions... such as the Yoruba deity Oya, or the strange Santa Muerte, or some of the very few "Black Madonnas" found in southern Europe.
She is absolutely the opposite of a submissive or well behaved feminine presence, and it is interesting that the land of India, which demands so much from its image of saintly, withdrawn women who pander to men's every needs, nevertheless is a crucible for veneration of the exact opposite of polite and withdrawn. Kali chooses who She favours, not the other way round.
But the West really learned about Kali through the life and teachings and school of Yoga of the great Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, whose extraordinary sadhana and brilliant circles of disciples is well-described and easily accessible, and his link with the great murti of Kali at Dakshineshwar. Kali came alive for him, a living palpable presence, and I've always yearned to see this great temple. She used to walk on the balcony in absolute beauty and loveliness - and Ramakrishna had many exalted experiences of Her. This is his famous description of what happened when he finally cracked and picked up a sword hanging in the temple to end his own life, maddened by being unable to see Her:
He wore no clothes, and lived in the famous smarshana or burial ground at Tara Peeth, a place filled with Tantric adepts and gawping tourists during the daytime... and strange rituals at night. When asked why he wore no clothes he replied "My father (Shiva) is naked. My mother (Tara) is also naked. So I am practicing that. Furthermore I don't live in society. I live in the cremation ground with my mother. So I have no shame or fear!" Unusually he was fed prasad before it was offered to goddess, after Tara appeared in a dream to the Maharani of Nahore and threatened to leave the place because he was being beaten by the temple priests.
There are some great stories about the various miracles he performed... always with a kind of roughness or fierceness that hid a heart of pure love and compassion. My favourite one is when a beautiful woman decided to tempt him (this is a familiar theme in the mythology of many saints, but one with a twist this time). In stead of ignoring her, he lunged forward, shouted "Ma!", bit her breast and she fell unconscious. Now imagine trying to package this kind of personality in the 21st century when Gurus wear silk robes and charge for courses!