Kali and her devotees
at the dead of night
Kalika Devi, (c) Jan Bailey 1999
Image of Kali from Kali Temple
in Varanasi, (c) Mike Magee 2007
Shri Kalika DeviO Mother, even a dullard becomes a poet who meditates upon thee raimented with space, three-eyed, creatrix of the three worlds, whose waist is beautiful with a girdle made of numbers of dead men's arms, and who on the breast of a corpse, as thy couch in the cremation ground, enjoyest Mahakala - Karpuradistotra, VII (Woodroffe tr)
Kali's paramount place of worship is in the cremation ground, preferably at the dead of night, on a suitable day of the waning Moon. Here, her nature becomes clear and apparent. For an adept in the worship, the whole world is a cremation ground, and She, the true form of time, who by herself creates and destroys all, is personified as the pyre. There, after life, all mortals and their wishes, dreams and reflections come to their fruition, a pile of worthless ashes.
If you're a six year old child in the West and watch cartoons on TV, you have an idea who Kali is. She appears in various shows - almost invariably as an evil demoness who the badly animated superhero has to conquer. This is highly insulting to many Hindus, who regard her as the Absolute itself.
Alone amongst all the tantrik deities, it is Kali who has captured the imagination of the West. But rather than reviled, she is revered by countless millions of people. Ramakrishna, the famous Indian sage and saint, was one of her devotees; Rabindranath Tagore another. It's no coincidence that both these great men came from Bengal, for it is there that she continues to receive oblations and offerings of flesh. Nevertheless, traces of her worship are found throughout India and former territories of India.
Her bad reputation in the West probably sprang from her association with the cult of the Thuggees, forcefully suppressed by the British during the days of empire. The Thuggees - the word gave rise to our word thug - were actually Muslims who took the goddess Kali as their tutelary deity. They specialised in ensnaring and then robbing and murdering travellers. Originally, they were only supposed to attack male travellers and in their latter days attributed their downfall to the fact they had started to kill woman travellers too.
But Kali pre-dates the Thuggees, quite possibly by several thousands of years. No one truly knows her origin. She does, however, have an uncanny and an ambiguous image. Modern pictures of her show her standing on the dead body of her consort Shiva, with four arms, a necklace of fifty human skulls, a girdle of human arms, holding an axe, a trident, a severed human head and a bowl of blood. Around her rages a battle - she herself is the colour of a thundercloud. Her protruding tongue drips with the fresh blood of her enemies.
But this image is simply one of many, as we shall see. She is the goddess in her form as Dakshina Kalika - one of the most popular Bengali images of the goddess. Her guises are many, and include Bhadra (auspicious) Kali, Shmashana (cremation ground) Kali, Guhya (secret) Kali and a host of others. It is only in the great tantrik traditions that we find a clue to the real meaning of the gruesome images associated with Kalika. Although Hinduism was much reviled by early Western colonisers for its idolatry and pantheistic practices, this was a very narrow view. Tantrik texts repeatedly speak of the Devis or goddesses as being aspects of the one goddess. The same holds true for the male aspects. As individual humans all reflect the macrocosm, it's fair to describe the gods and goddesses of tantra as specialised aspects of ourselves - and, therefore, of life itself.
Yet life has its dark and its light sides. Death and love, in the tantrik tradition, are two sides of the same coin. As we look to the sky, we can see the Sun and Moon as symbols of male and female, of Shiva and Shakti. In the tantras, the Moon is often taken as a symbol of the Devi, whether in its dark or its bright fortnight. When She wanes, her images and her iconography become progressively more dark and fearsome. But when She waxes, so her images brighten. When she is full, She is Devi Tripura. Tripura is a name of the goddess meaning three cities. These allude to her own triple nature as a maiden (Bala) as a fecund woman (Tripura) and as a post-menstruating woman (Tripura Bhairavi).
Sir John Woodroffe (Arthur Avalon), writing in the Garland of Letters, says Kali is the deity in her aspect as withdrawing time into itself. "Kali is so called because She devours Kala (Time) and then resumes Her own dark formlessness." (Garland of Letters, page 235). Woodroffe says some have speculated that Kali was originally the Goddess of the Vindhya Hills, conquered by the Aryans. The necklace of skulls which makes up her image, he adds, are those of white people. Relying on the texts themselves, gives insight into the tantrik idea of Kali. In the Kulachudamani Tantra (KT), Lord Shiva asks questions answered by Devi, the goddess. It is, probably, one of the oldest tantras, according to Woodroffe, who published the Sanskrit text with an English introduction in his Tantrik Texts series.
In eight short chapters, Devi expounds the essence of her worship, sometimes in most beautiful imagery. But the uncanny side of Kaula and Kali worship is dwelt on in great detail, with references to siddhis - magical powers - including a mysterious process where the tantrik adept leaves his body at night, apparently so he can engage in sexual intercourse with Shaktis. Animal sacrifice also has a place in this tantra.
The siddhis play a large part in the worship of the uncanny goddess Kali. The main tantrik rites are called the six acts (shatkarma) of pacifying, subjugating, paralysing, obstructing, driving away, and death-dealing. But the KT includes others such as Parapurapraveshana, which is the power of reviving a corpse, although according to some it means the ability to enter another's living body; Anjana, an ointment which lets a sadhaka see through solid walls; Khadga which gives invulnerability to swords; Khecari, which gives the power of flying and Paduka Siddhi, magical sandals which take you great distances, rather like seven league boots.
Certainly, the importance of having a suitable Shakti is important, according to the instructions Devi gives to Shiva. Devi here takes the form of Mahishamardini, more popularly known as Durga, who destroyed the two arch-demons Shumbha and Nishumbha in an epic battle between the goddess and the throng of demons. It was at this time, according to legend, that Durga created Kali, emanating her out of her third eye.
We learn more of Durga's legends and myths from the Kalika Purana. The Devi, Mahamaya, appeared as Bhadra Kali - identical with Mahishamardini - in order to slay the demon Mahisha. He had fallen into a deep sleep on a mountain and had a terrible dream in which BhadraKali cut asunder his head with her sword and drank his blood.
The demon started to worship Bhadra Kali and when Mahamaya appeared to him again in a later age to slaughter him again, he asked a boon of her. Devi replied that he could have his boon, and he asked her for the favour that he would never leave the service of her feet again. Devi replied that his boon was granted. "When you have been killed by me in the fight, O demon Mahisha, you shall never leave my feet, there is no doubt about it. In every place where worship of me takes place, there (will be worship) of you; as regards your body, O Danava, it is to be worshipped and meditated upon at the same time." (Kalakikapurana, ch.62, 107-108.)
For this reason, the image of Mahishamardini always has her trampling the buffalo Mahisha.
When She, the goddess, is dark, She is Devi Kalika, an equally high symbol of death and destruction. Throughout Her different manifestations and phases, She remains the one true goddess, Shakti, energy itself. She is symbolised by the yoni and the female cycle, which also shows waxing and waning throughout the month. Her spouse, Shiva, is symbolised by the Sun, by the phallus, by sperm, and as an emblem of consciousness without attributes. According to the tantrik phraseology "Only when Shiva is united with Shakti has Shiva power to act. Otherwise he is a corpse (shava)."
Another black deity of the Indian sub-continent has a close connection with Kali - Krishna. According to the Kalivilasa Tantra, he was born from the golden goddess Gauri, who turned black after she was hit by an arrow from the Hindu cupid, Kama.
Kali is Shakti, the great goddess, creating the three gunas: sattvas, rajas and tamas. The three gunas in their various permutation create all the fabric of the universe, including the five elements, skin, blood, etc..
These principles are the substance of she whose play (lila) is their modification. Kali is the first and foremost of the ten aspects of the goddess. She is pure sattvas, pure spirit.
A sadhaka (male) or a sadhvika (female) can worship the goddess -- the Devi -- in any of ten forms for the fruition of desires. Her ten major forms are Kali, Tara, Shodasi, Bhuvaneshvari, Bhairavi, Chinnamasta, Dhumavati, Bagala, Matangi and Kamala. These aspects are known as the ten mahavidyas.
To a sadhaka, to know these is to know the universe, as she is both space and time and beyond these categories. Each form has its own dhyana (meditation), yantra (diagram), mantra (sound form) and sadhana (actions).
Mahavidya Kali is the primordial Devi who is the root of all the Great Knowledges (mahavidya). Worshipped by sadhakas and sadhvikas, her outer forms are fearful. She destroys time, is time, and is the night of eternity.
Kali, certainly in the left hand tantrik tradition (vamachara), which is the path into Vama (woman and left) enters, is subject to much misunderstanding. The right hand path (dakshinachara) does not include the sexual component, while Vamachara allows sexual intercourse as part of her worship.
According to Sir John Woodroffe, in his introduction to the Karpuradistotra, which is a 22 verse hymn on Dakshina Kalika, pashus - those of a base disposition, are forbidden to engage in sexual sadhana at night. "The Pashu is still bound by the pasha (bonds) of desire, etc., and he is, therefore, not adhikari for that which, if undertaken by the unfit, will only make these bonds stronger." Verse 10 of the Karpuradistotra spells out the practice. "If by night, Thy devotee unclothed, with dishevelled hair, recites whilst meditating on Thee, thy mantra, when with his Shakti youthful, full-breasted, and heavy-hipped such an one makes all powers subject to him and dwells on the earth ever a seer." Worship of Kali is for the hero (vira) or a person of a highly spiritual nature (divya)
Kali's imagery is full of ambiguity, and this is deliberate on the part of the tantrik adepts who worshipped her.
As an example, according to some texts, the Kali sadhana takes place on a Tuesday, at midnight, in the cremation ground. Here, surrounded by jackals, owls and other uncanny creatures of the night, the sadhaka and his Shakti select a newly dead male corpse, which should be, according to the texts, of a young man preferably a king, a hero or a warrior. If he has recently died in battle, so much the better. Placing the corpse face downwards, the two draw the Kaliyantra on his back, offer each other food, wine and other good things, and then commence the act of ritual sex. At the close of intercourse, the man offers his Shakti one of her public hairs smeared with his semen and, if she is menstruating, blood.
Woodroffe says that the worship of Kali in the pashu mode is totally forbidden by Shiva, quoting the influential Niruttara Tantra as his source. "By the worship of Kali without Divyabhava and virabhava the worshipper suffers pain at every step and goes to hell. If a man who is of the Pashubhava worships Kali then he goes to the Raurava Hell until the time of final dissolution."
As to the matter of a suitable Shakti for the sexual rites of Kali, the NT suggests that when a sadhaka has already achieved success with his own Shakti, he may then worship another woman. But Woodroffe says this other woman is the supreme Shakti in the sadhaka's own body.
The cremation ground is often interpreted as the place where all desires are burnt away. Before realising kaivalya (liberation), the sadhaka must burn away all the taboos and conditionings which prevent this liberation.
The cremation ground (shmashana) is also the supreme nadi or channel within the human organism - the sushumna -- The central channel of bioenergy within the spine of a human being, the royal road of Kundalini.
There the Devi or goddess is coiled up three and a half times at the base of the spine. When she unfolds and enters the sushumna, the bliss of this cosmic orgasm causes the universe to disappear. On the sadhaka within the shmashana yantra is Shakti, both entwined in close sexual embrace. She is the human form of Kali, as he is the human form of Shiva. Both are forever united. The Niruttara Tantra says (2, 27) "The cremation ground is of two kinds, O Devi, the pyre and the renowned yoni. Shiva is the phallus, Kuleshani! So Mahakala said." Questioned later by Shri Devi in the same tantra, Shiva says that the vagina is Dakshina herself, in the form of the three gunas, the essence of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. These three forms represent the powers of creation, maintenance and destruction. They have their Shakti counterparts.
"When she has the semen of Shiva, she is Shiva-Shakti." (NT)
The Karpuradistotra comments on animal sacrifice. Male creatures may only be sacrificed to Kali, else she becomes furious. Verse 19 says that worshippers of Kali who sacrifice the flesh of cats, camels, sheep, buffaloes, goats and men to her become accomplished. A commentary by a Kaula, Vimalananda Svami, which Woodroffe only partially translates, claims these animals represent the six enemies with the goat representing lust, the buffalo anger, the cat greed, the sheep delusion, the camel envy. Man represents pride. However, according to other sources, only a king may perform the sacrifice of a man.
At the great temple of the Devi at Kamakhya in Assam, there is evidence that male human sacrifice was performed in the past. This site is renowned for Shakti worship because of a legend that Vishnu once cut the body of Shakti into 50 pieces with his discus. These parts represent the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet and are pithas (pedestals = sacred sites) of Devi. The yoni of Shakti fell at this spot, making it the most sacred of all.
Who, then, is Kali? Devi gives her own description in the Kulachudamani: "I am Great Nature, consciousness, bliss, the quintessence, devotedly praised. Where I am, there are no Brahma, Hara, Shambhu or other devas, nor is there creation, maintenance or dissolution. Where I am, there is no attachment, happiness, sadness, liberation, goodness, faith, atheism, guru or disciple.
"When I, desiring creation, cover myself with my Maya (The great power of Shakti to delude all created things through Her play, ed.) and become triple and ecstatic in my wanton love play, I am Vikarini, giving rise to the various things.
"The five elements and the 108 lingams arise, while Brahma and the other devas, the three worlds, Bhur-Bhuvah-Svah (the three worlds) spontaneously come into manifestation.
"By mutual differences of Shiva and Shakti, the (three) gunas originate. All things, such as Brahma and so forth, are my parts, born from my being. Dividing and blending, the various tantras, mantras and kulas manifest. After withdrawing the five fold universe, I, Lalita, become of the nature of nirvana. Once more, men, great nature, egoism, the five elements, sattvas, rajas and tamas become manifested. This universe of parts appears and is then dissolved.
"O All-Knowing One, if I am known, what need is there for revealed scriptures and sadhana? If I am unknown, what use for puja and revealed text? I am the essence of creation, manifested as woman, intoxicated with sexual desire, in order to know you as guru, you with whom I am one. Even given this, Mahadeva, my true nature still remains secret."
The Yogini Tantra describes the goddess as the cosmic mother (Vishvamata), dark as a thunderstorm, wearing a garland and waistband of skulls, with dishevelled hair, completely naked (digambaram).
She has a rolling tongue, makes a terrifying roar, three reddened eyes, and has a wide open mouth. She wears a moon digit on her forehead, has the corpses of two boys as her earrings, and is adorned with various gems, which are of the brightness of the Sun and the Moon.
Laughing loudly, she has two streams of blood pouring from her mouth, while her throat is red with blood. In her four arms she holds cleaver, head, and makes mudras dispelling fears and granting boons. She, the supreme Nitya, is seated in reverse (viparita) intercourse with Mahakala upon the corpse of Shiva. The whole scene is set in the cremation ground.
Yet, as with most other tantrik symbolism, the meaning of this cremation pyre operates on multiple levels. The pyre is also the yoni. Sir John Woodroffe (Arthur Avalon), says Kali is the deity in her aspect as withdrawing time into itself. "Kali is so called because She devours Kala (Time) and then resumes Her own dark formlessness." Garland of Letters , page 235.
There is a wealth of other material about Kali and her different manifestions on this site. For example, the Kulachudamani Tantra, refers to her aspect as Mahishamardini. See the Brihadnila Tantra, which has chapters devoted to both Kali and to the goddess Tara. We also publish here abstracts of the Kaulavalinirnaya tantra, the Niruttara Tantra and the Rudrayamala Tantra, all of which have extensive references to Kalika.
Artwork is © Jan Bailey, 1996-2018. Translations are © Mike Magee 1996-2018. Questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.orgHome Page