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The goddess Kali and Religious Naturalism, by Colin Robinson

June 24, 2012

Mahakali, photo by Sankarrukku from a painting in the Vajreswari temple, Kangra, India

“[There are] things about the universe which can seem terrifying when we first learn of them, and yet can be accepted as profound and sacred.”

Editor’s Note:  Although HP generally focuses on developing personal relationships with mythology from the Euro-Mediterranean culture zone (in order to encourage specificity and depth), it is also possible to learn what we can from other cultures.  Colin offers a picture of India’s goddess Kali.  Careful to acknowledge diverse opinions and distinguish his view from those of others, he delivers insights targeted for naturalists.

What can India’s goddess Kali mean to Religious Naturalists?

Like her male counterpart, Lord Shiva, Kali is often pictured dancing. In fact, she is often pictured using Shiva himself as her dance floor. Dance is about energy, self-expression, self-sufficiency. It is also about balance.

The image of Shiva as lord of the dance is a classic vision, which been appreciated by twentieth century scientists outside India, such as Carl Sagan (1985, page 214) and Fritjof Capra (1975, page 11). And yet, this is something about Shiva’s image which may need further balancing. It is rather top heavy. Dancing Kali brings Lord Shiva down to earth.

As the feminist theologian, Rita Gross (1986, page 223), has remarked, when considering images of Kali: “… balance is crucial. It must not be overlooked.” Whether Kali is pictured dancing, or consuming demons, or having sex, or sitting in the relaxed teaching position, she represents a unity of opposite qualities: death and life, energy and composure.

On another page of this website, Ursula Goodenough has written about terror and mystery. Goodenough mentions things about the universe which can seem terrifying when we first learn of them, and yet can be accepted as profound and sacred. Similarly Kali and Shiva: their images can appear terrifying at first sight, but as you learn to accept them, you begin to experience them in a very different way.

A path or a forest?

I’ve said a little about the ways Kali is pictured. Kali, however, is not only pictured, but also worshipped.

Historically, images were not made to go into art galleries, they were made to go into temples and shrines where people would contemplate them, prostrate before them, sing to them, burn incense, garland them with flowers, and offer plates of food.

Some background about the worship of Kali as it has been practised in and around India, and today is spreading around the world:

  • It is not monolithic, but very diverse. There are numerous large and small temples and shrines of the goddess, each with its own customs and traditions. Images of the goddess are also kept and worshipped in households. There is no list of doctrines which every worshipper has to accept.
  • There is an extensive written literature about Kali, in Sanskrit, Bengali, and other languages as well. The literature includes sacred narratives or myths, found in texts called Puranas, as well as ritual and meditative practices, described in writings called Tantras. Also lyrical statements of personal devotion, such as the bhakti songs of Ramprasad.
  • The relationship between deities is described differently in different texts. There is not necessarily a simple, “right” answer to questions such as whether Kali and Parvati are the same goddess, or whether Mahakala and Shiva are the same god. It depends which chapter and which verse of which book you are considering…

How old the worship is, is a matter of historical debate. It may or may not have developed out of bronze age or stone age goddess religion. In any case, we are not talking about something invented last year on the west coast of the USA.

Some forms of Kali worship can be wild and sensational, other forms are more reflective.

The cultural richness of Kali worship is a both a blessing and a challenge. To describe it as a path is not quite right. It is more like a forest — not a pathless forest, but a forest in which many paths can be traced though not all are immediately visible… A forest quite big enough for a naturalist to get lost in.

But here are a couple of flowers from the forest…

In all beings

There is an old and well-known Sanskrit salutation to the gentle and terrible Goddess, in which she is hailed as present “in all beings”, in the form of different faculties and attributes such as intelligence, sleep, hunger, compassion, contentment… even as the tendency to error. (Jagadiswarananda, 1953, chapter 5 verses 8 – 82)

If you understand the Goddess in this way, then worshipping her (affirming her worth) means affirming your own worth, and the worth of all other beings as well.

This salutation is part of a book known as the Devi Mahatmya or the Chandi, a fairly short but intricate work. The Devi Mahatmya contains myths where one goddess turns into many goddesses, and then turns back into one goddess again, as she fights battles against armies of demons. In this book, the name Kali is used in more than one way: there is a Kali who is one goddess among many, but Mahakali (Great Kali) is also a name of the Great Goddess, the Mahadevi. (Jagadiswarananda, 1953, chapter 12 verse 38)

The Devi Mahatmya also declares that the Great Goddess is Prakriti, a Sanskrit word which can be translated as “nature” (Coburn, 1984, page 180), or as “primordial cause”. (Jagadiswarananda, 1953, chapter 1 verse 78)

This Sanskrit text was written around 1500 years, according to mainstream academic historians. (Coburn, 1984, page 1)

The world as her dance

Shiva Chandra Vidyarnava was a nineteenth century tantric scholar and devotee of Kali. His book, the Tantra-tattva, which he wrote in the Bengali language, was published in English by Sir John Woodroffe as Principles of Tantra.

Vidyarnava affirmed the positive value of the natural (material) world, and contested the teachings of Hindus of other schools who dismissed the material world as unreal.

He wrote:

“In whatever direction I turn my eyes I see nothing, nothing but the Mother. In water, on land, and in space the Mother dances before the eyes of the Sadhaka, to whom the world thus appears true. When the world becomes full of the Mother, then all the gunas [qualities] cease to be enemies. Nothing is then a stain. It is no longer necessary to regard the world as stained, and to look upon another as stainless.” (Woodroffe, 1986, part 1, page 178)

This statement out of nineteenth century India is surely relevant to the world today, and specifically to Religious Naturalists.

A note of caution

Can the tantric scholasticism of someone like Vidyarnava be equated with modern empirical science? Not quite. There are interesting points in common, but also differences, for instance..

  • Shiva Chandra Vidyarnava often uses the term shakti (energy), but he does not quantify shakti in kilojoules, in fact he does not quantify shakti at all.
  • Shiva Chandra Vidyarnava is an empiricist, in the sense that he says the truth of tantric teaching is demonstrated by the results of tantric sadhana (meditations, rituals and yogic practices as prescribed in the tantras)… He also mentions that the same is true of two other fields of learning: medicine and astrology. (Woodroffe, 1986, part 1, page 112)

I expect many Religious Naturalists today will disagree about astrology. And this is only one example of how traditional teachings (Eastern or Western) are not necessarily in keeping with the findings of modern science.

What meaning emerges?

What meaning of Kali emerges from the images and texts we’ve discussed?

She is a dancing goddess, who dances within us and all around us. She is Nature, terrifying and beautiful, and the rich culture of worship that surrounds her is a culture that has kept in touch with nature.

Not everything in that culture is necessarily easy for the modern scientific mind to swallow. Yet is it, nonetheless, worth serious consideration?

Well, I’ve found it so. Your mileage may vary…

Sources

Capra, Fritjof. (1975) The Tao of Physics. Boulder: Shambhala.
Coburn, Thomas B. (1984) Devi Mahatmya; the Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Gross, Rita. “Hindu Female Deities as a Resource for the Contemporary Rediscovery of the Goddess”. in Olson, Carl. (1986) The Book of the Goddess. New York: Crossroad Publishing.
Jagadiswarananda, Swami, trans. (1953) Devi Mahatmyam. Mylapore, Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math.
Sagan, Carl. (1985) Cosmos. New York: Ballantine.
Woodroffe, Sir John (ed). (1986) Principles of Tantra [English translation of Shiva Chandra Vidyarnava. Tantra-tattva]. Madras: Ganesh and Company.

The author

Colin Robinson

Colin Robinson has been studying and writing about the vision of Kali since late 1984. He lives in Sydney, Australia, and has visited India to worship at temples in and around Calcutta. He is the creator of the web-site Dancing World-Soul Kali, where you can find reviews of modern books about Kali and Tantra, studies of Sanskrit sources, accounts of personal experiences of Kali’s presence, and articles relating the vision of Kali to current world concerns.

8 Comments
  1. June 24, 2012 9:07 am

    Reblogged this on Marcel Gomes – Sweden.

  2. Rua Lupa permalink
    June 25, 2012 8:45 pm

    Thank you for sharing this Colin. I particularly liked the quote on Kali as Nature, especially the part “… all the gunas [qualities] cease to be enemies. Nothing is then a stain. It is no longer necessary to regard the world as stained, and to look upon another as stainless.”

    • June 26, 2012 3:27 am

      It’s interesting to compare that to naturalism. In naturalism, too, things in nature are not usually inherently good or evil, they just are as they are. However, this does not necessarily bring to mind a moral conclusion, since we are used to thinking of things in nature as tools or objects. If instead we saw them as parts of a goddess, their inherent value might shine forth.

      • Rua Lupa permalink
        June 30, 2012 9:28 am

        Don’t we already see the inherent value of Nature by experiencing it as is with its life sustaining properties? I’m already thankful for the clever way plants provide fruit so that creatures can disperse the seeds. The way plants purify the water, and the way that we find comfort around them. It is more of a mutual relationship, and more like plants (more specifically the many seed bearing species) are using us as tools than the other way around. I find no need to personify something in my mind’s eye when I can see and experience its true form right here in front of me every day. Wild harvesting is one of my favorite ways of experiencing Nature’s inherent value.

        Oh, by the way I’ve finally got the Ehoah Bioregional Quiz up and running on the website. http://ehoah.weebly.com/bioregional-quiz.html
        Check it out to see how much you know about the area in which you live.

  3. January 20, 2013 1:49 pm

    Hi Colin it’s a pleasure to read your site and I wondered if it was possible to dialogue with you. I am currently researching for my MA dissertation. I am challenging the west’s/Jungian negative portrayal of kali and her relegation as an archetype of the negative unconscious feminine. I want to consider the usefulness of exposing the fullness of kali as an important archetype in her own right for those entering therapy in search of self/ individuation process.

    My question to you is : as one who has actively explored to understand her, why do you think this reputation exists? As a man, do you fear her? If so, why? What do you think kali can teach the western occidental mind?

    I look forward to hearing from you.

    With kindest regards – LINA MOOKERJEE
    Ps I am a kali devotee!

  4. January 21, 2013 5:48 pm

    Hi Lina,

    Jai Ma! So glad you like the site. I appreciate the questions you’ve raised.

    One difference I have with Jungians is that they generally interpret deities as images of Self, whereas I interpret deities as images of Self and Other. As I am a man, Kali is for me more Other, Shiva is more Self. Yet there is Self in Other, and Other in Self.

    I used to find both Shiva and Kali rather frightening, because of their association with death. I prayed to them, and requested them not to frighten me except as a warning. When I had made that prayer, I found that my fears were greatly decreased.

    On the broader question of negative western interpretations of Kali, I think they are caused (at least partly) by cultural attitudes to nature and the body… But I also want to say that western and Jungian interpretations are diverse, and Jungians don’t always portray Kali just as the negative aspect of the feminine.

    Have you looked at Heinrich Zimmer’s book “Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization”? Zimmer does see one particular image of Kali as negative. However he also comments on other images of Shakti, which he thinks incomplete for the opposite reason — because they show only the positive. And finally he draws attention to particular images of Kali which he says balance the positive and negative and offer peace.

    Another Jungian book you may find worth looking at, if you haven’t already, is “Dancing in the Flames: the Dark Goddess and the New Mythology” by Marion Woodman and Elinor Dickson. They mention Kali as one of a number of female deities relevant to dreams of the “fierce and loving Goddess”.

    If you have further questions or comments, or experiences or ideas you’d like to share, I will be very happy to hear from you. You can contact me via email: colinr@zipworld.com.au

    Best wishes
    Colin

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