Friday, March 3, 2017

Concepts of Mother Kali

I have felt a great affinity for the Hindu goddess Kali ever since I first laid eyes upon an image of her, in the pages of Cavendish's Man, Myth and Magic, when I was maybe 11 or 12 years old. A brief, encyclopedic article about her was alongside the picture. 

At the time, there were only two commonly available books about Kali in English: Usha Harding's Kali, and Ajit Mookerjee's Kali, The Feminine Force. I acquired both after some effort (this was before Amazon) and found Harding's book was the better of the two, being a more journalistic account of the temple in Calcutta and also brief biographies of important followers of the goddess, such as Sri Ramakrishna and Rani Rasmani (or Rashmoni). In time I was able to acquire further literature about Ma Kali -- and wasn't much satisfied by most of the material, which tended to be so lofty it was like it was written for people who shit marble.

During this same time -- my teens -- I became gradually aware of Kali's growing popularity in the west. Perhaps under the influence of Mookerjee's book, she is often regarded as a kind of feminist icon -- dancing nude on the corpse of her temporarily-slain husband, disdaining formality and womanly self-control. The girl power movement certainly sees that as pretty kick-ass and adores her for it. David Kinsley's book of Hindu Goddesses mentions particularly how her folklore usually puts her in places on the outskirts of society or dominating or inciting her consort Shiva.

Yet as I got older, I noticed that in India, her perception seems to be a little different. A recent article about a small village in India clarified that her "feminist" and "rule-breaking" image in the west is not how she's imagined in her homeland.

When Roshan, the Nat chief in Peepli Khera, is ready to perform an exorcism, he starts out by asking a coy question: “Do you want to see the real drama?” Then he trembles. His eyes roll back, he arches his tongue against his teeth like the goddess Kali, who communicates to him through a string of wooden beads that he holds up to his ear, as if it were a cellphone. [...]  In May, Roshan vanished into the temple to present the matter to his most trusted authority: the goddess Kali. After a long conversation over the magic necklace, he emerged saying that the goddess had shared a piece of disturbing news. Women in the village, he said, were engaged in prostitution. 
“If Kali tells us this person is wrong,” he said, “this person is wrong.” Roshan wrapped his head in the stained turban that marked him as the chief, and for more than an hour, as the smell of heat and dung filled the square, the men of the village debated what to do. The problem, Roshan said, went beyond Pinki, to the general question of what went on when their women disappeared into the factories. His younger brother was in full agreement: Female employment, he said, “has spread like wildfire” and was hurting the reputation of the village.

"Women can't wear janeu or even dhoti ki laang and what will happen to the job during that one week of the month," he added, hinting towards menstruation. In fact, most of the priests around the complex abhorred the idea of menstruating women touching the deity. Head of Kalika Peeth Mahant Surender Nath said  [...] "There is no restriction on women entering the temple or praying to Mata. They can't just touch the deity or be in the area meant for priestly work."
Far from depicting girl power, Kali seems to be a part of the same paternal framework that governs most of the world's major religions. Women are even becoming annoyed by it. In fact, if you read a serious book about Kali (even the aforementioned one by Mukerjee) she is typically spoken about in purely symbolic terms. Daniel Odier, in his book Kali: mythologie, pratiques secrets et rituels (which I think is the same book available in English as Tantric Kali) gives a lengthy description of her symbolism -- her nudity represents that she is free from illusion, her three eyes represent past, present and future and that she is absolute, her four arms represent the cycle of reincarnation, and even her vulva is only symbolic of a letter in the alphabet which is essential to provide Shiva with his proper name. Quoting from Harding's book, "Totapuri [a "naked monk" who had realized God] looked upon the world as maya and the worship of gods and goddesses as the fantasies of a deluded mind. He only believed in the formless Brahman. Sri Ramakrishna also saw the world as an illusion, but instead of negating it like Totapuri, he acknowledged the power of maya on a relative plane. Maya is none else than Kali, the Divine Mother of Creation and Destruction." There is no feminist warrior goddess, only a collection of symbols that depict something entirely and purely spiritual. The images are not meant to be taken literally.

Except when they are. These lofty explanations of Kali become rather perplexing when looking upon her common worship. The famous thugee victimized travelers as sacrifices to her, and animal sacrifices are still made. A Telugu film portrays her fed by blood (but not by mere devotion) to come to the physical aid of a devotee whose husband is targeted by an evil witchdoctor. Devotees at her temples make gifts to her statues, sometimes in repayment for answered prayers just as Catholic folk practice will make to a saint. A famous singer bargained with Kali to be a musical success, with the promise to devote herself to Kali once she hit her peak. A college student cut off her tongue as an offering in exchange for a wish. How can this be reconciled with the symbolic Kali? The presumed answer would be that the symbolic Kali is the "correct" way to understand her, while anything else is but crude superstition, frowned upon as much as the Catholic church frowns upon Santeria practice. And yet, it is done. It is popular. And people who practice that way would be pissed if you told them it was wrong. Usha Harding's book tells how Sri Ramakrishna himself wanted to make sure that the statue of her at the Kali Temple in Calcutta was actually alive by testing (and confirming) that it was breathing, which suggests even he believed something specific to reside in her images. The same statue reportedly began to sweat when it was stored in its original shipping container. This book explicitly states, on page 53, "Kali is a living Goddess."

I recently got up the nerve to ask a friend of mine from India what he thought of Kali. He gave the symbolic answer -- that she is an "embodiment of kundalini awakened but untamed." He has only heard of people making sacrifices or offerings to her, but not seen it himself. 

Practically every article about Kali begins with "Kali is a most misunderstood goddess..." yet proceeds to explain her with information that just confuses the matter all the more. A 1919 article by George W. Gilmore states, "It is necessary, however, to bear in mind that in India there are two orders of religion living side by side, mutually tolerant and neither antagonistic to each other; indeed each assumes the other to be a phase of itself. One is philosophic, the other popular. One is universalistic, based on conceptions that are cosmic, with deities (or a deity) that have the universe as their field of operation. The other is local, conceives its gods as restricted in action and confined in interest to a family, group or village." The answer might be found in this -- if Kali is not interpreted as goddess of the universe or goddess of women but rather as the protector goddess of a village or a family, naturally she becomes the embodiment of the values of that group, even if there is seemingly a conflict between those values and that which Kali represents on a larger scale. And thus it is that to the feminists she is a feminist while simultaneously being an oppressor of women's rights in societies which do not wish them. Kind of a hands-off "you go do what you like" sort of divine mother.

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