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.
“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…
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.
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.