Kali: Goddess of Death and Feminism

In early January, 2017, I visited Kolkata for the first time. Having traveled widely throughout India, I was struck by just how different Kolkata was from the rest of the country.

These differences are epitomized by the Hindu Goddess Kali, and her important role in Bengali society.

I was moved in part because I couldn’t help but think of an America friend of mine. The similarities hit me, blow after blow, and yet I kept marveling at how much space there was between Bengali history/culture and the feminist cause my friend champions back home. So, I purchased a Kali idol in the market surrounding Kalighat Kali Temple and sent it to my friend, along with this letter.

*   *   *

Dear XXX,

Meet Kali. She is an ancient, prominent Hindu goddess worshiped throughout Bengal. Her name derives from the Sanskrit word “kal” meaning time, in the sense that time is unstoppable and devours all in front of her. Today, her domain (as it were) is divided into several polities, such as the nation of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal.[1]

In West Bengal stands the most famous temple dedicated to Kali, smack dab in the heart of Kolkata—the city formerly known as “kali-kata.”[2] The Kalighat Kali Temple still beckons pilgrims from around the world, serving not only as a religious center but as a nucleus of city life, where shopkeeps line the streets and alleyways surrounding the temple to sell you food, supplies, and of course, souvenirs.[3]

I just visited Kolkata and learned about Kali for the first time last month. It was in one of these shops at the base of Kalighat Kali Temple that I picked up this idol—I couldn’t help but think of you, and below you’ll read why.

Consider it a token of my appreciation. Thank you for being a leader in the fight against injustice, and a source of inspiration for me. Consider it also as a reminder that it’s easy to get carried away in the heat of battle; even the great Goddess Kali went too far and needed to learn humility. As soldiers in this fight, we must strive to walk the line between righteousness and humbleness. I think this critical effort starts and is sustained by constantly questioning: where is that line?

My very best, and my warmest thoughts,

Jay

//

Kali is mostly misunderstood. Because of her attire—see the garland of skulls, the skirt of dismembered arms—and her accessories—she holds weapons dripping with blood and the decapitated head of an enemy—Kali tends to be superficially written off as the Goddess of Death and Destruction; her worshippers the worst kind of pagans.[4]

Kali_by_Raja_Ravi_Varma.jpg

But Kali’s origin story adds important nuance to that lazy, fear-inspired view. A long time ago, in a heaven far away, the Hindu Gods were being attacked by the demon Raktabija. In every battle, when he was wounded, each drop of blood spawned cloned-demons who joined his army and he quickly gained the upper hand. In an act of desperation, the gods[5] combined all of their “shakti” (divine energy)[6] to produce Kali. They gave her every divine weapon and she set wildly upon Raktabija. She swallowed his entire army whole and killed Raktabija by cutting off his head and drinking all his blood. But her rage could not be stopped: she continued rampaging and destroying everything in her path. Finally, Lord Shiva lay down in front of her. When she stepped on him and he was not destroyed, she snapped out of her bloodlust. She sticks out her tongue as a reminder of this embarrassing moment.[7]

So you see, Kali is indeed ferocious, but her fury was born out of desperation and directed at a manifestation of Evil, not unlike a mother bear viciously protecting her cubs. Several myths about Kali underscore the strong duality between her unbridled destructive power and humility; a mother’s love. In fact, modern invocations of “shakti” allude to feminine energy, fertility, and creativity—elevating these concepts to godly status in Bengali society.[7],[8] 

As a result of Kali worship, several tribes throughout Ancient Bengal lived in a matrilineal society! Land and wealth passed from mother to daughter. While this trend didn’t go so far as to install a legacy of women at the head of any political institutions, it did foster a strong tradition of women being the heads of households, as well as prominent and fierce soldiers in the tribe. No wonder, then, that Mother Teresa received such a strong following in Kolkata[9]—she even opened a hospice for the poor in a former Kali temple.[10]

What used to be Bengal is today divided into several states. So ancient Kali worship’s modern influence on male/female power structures varies at the tribal level, sometimes down to the family.[11],[12],[13],[14] But still, the ancient religious texts like “Devi Bhagavata Purana” bear witness to the massive impact that Kali made on gender equality among the gods:

Kali’s heaven, Manidvipa, is only open to women.
When a male Kali worshiper dies, to be admitted Manidvipa,
he must take the form of a woman, to echo the form of the goddess.

The “Devi Bhagavata Purana” recounts a visit to the goddess’s paradise by Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—all important male Gods and all of whom turned into women upon entry to Manidvipa:

They spent a hundred years standing in female form and dress,
admiring Kali and her throne which shone brighter than a million suns.
So happy were they in female form that Shiva begged Kali not to turn
them back into men, for they wished only to serve the goddess forever.
They worshiped Kali in her heaven, and received many revelations from her.[15]

*   *   *

And so, to say that Kali is the Goddess of Death is true, but not accurate. It begs the question: “Death of what?”

Kali is the Goddess of the death of evil demons, of attachment to the temporal and material, of ego, of illusion and unreality. “A mature soul who engages in spiritual practice to remove the illusion of the ego sees Mother Kali as very sweet, affectionate, and overflowing with incomprehensible love for Her children.” [16] This more accurate understanding of Kali “killing” the “demons” of the ego suggests a better moniker: The God of Liberation. Indeed, there is an irony here—Kali is simultaneously the fighter against falseness and the most misunderstood of all the Hindu Gods.

Considering the war currently being waged by feminists—and the way we are often demonized—is it any wonder now that I thought of you, XXX, when I first encountered Goddess Kali and walked through her temple?

//

[1] bit.ly/ancient_bengal

[2] bit.ly/kolkata_etymology

[3] bit.ly/kalighat_temple

[4] In fact, a sect of Kali worshippers was one of the first indigenous groups in India to terrorize the British colonizers. This sect practiced “thugee” which is why the British invented the word thugs! See bit.ly/kali_thugee for more on this.

[5] Many versions of this story actually attribute Kali’s birth specifically to the Hindu Goddess Durga’s furrowed brow in the heat of this war with Raktabija. Durga is a fierce and independent warrior queen, famous in part for her refusal to submit to the unwanted attentions of a lustful demon. Kali is hence a descendant of (some say an incarnated form of) the Goddess Durga’s tradition and reputation.

[6] The color of “shakti” energy is black. Hence, Kali’s skin is often black.

[7] bit.ly/kali_summary (video)

[8] bit.ly/kali_10_facts (video)

[9] bit.ly/kali_mother_teresa

[10] bit.ly/kalighat_hospice

[11] bit.ly/meghalaya_matriliny

[12] bit.ly/khasi_women

[13] bit.ly/matriliny_across_india

[14] bit.ly/more_matriliny_across_india

[15] bit.ly/very_long_oxford_paper

[16] bit.ly/kali_as_liberator

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