Honoring Gaia Through Writing

KALI, POWERFUL CRONE AND DARK MOTHER by Nancy Vedder-Shults, Ph.D. (originally published in a slightly different version in Of A Like Mind, Volume XV, Number 3, Hallows 1998)

India Abundant to Excess

When I visited India nearly twenty years ago, I found it to be an overwhelming experience. The streets were filled to overflowing with people, oxcarts, cars with horns blaring, trucks inching along between pedestrians, camel carts, bicycles and more people, food stalls, markets with vegetables and spices I had never seen before and people on top of people. As a Westerner I found all this lively interaction disconcerting, especially since it was very difficult to find a time and place to be alone. Life -- even human life -- was abundant to the point of excess.

But the same was true when it came to death. I never realized how sheltered I had been from the sight of death in the U.S. until I saw two dozen vultures and a half dozen dogs fighting over the carcass of a dead cow. Life and death are florid in their display in this country two-thirds the size of the U.S. with over four times as many inhabitants. In such a country it is obvious that life and death are intimately intertwined; Indians see their mutual effects everyday. It seems short-sighted to them to focus, as we do, on life and growth, ignoring death and decay. Hinduism acknowledges what is clear to even a casual observer of the Indian landscape, that within a closed ecosystem, death is a necessity if life is to continue. It shouldn't be surprising then that Hindu art and mythology tend to stretch the limits when depicting both the charms and terrors of life. India confronts the mind's eye, as well as its bodily counterpart, with both the terrifying and pleasing extremes of the sacred, a view that allows Hindus to discover the all-encompassing nature of the divine. Every major Hindu god and goddess represents the sacred as a "coincidence of opposites." The great deities like Shiva, Vishnu and the Goddess, simultaneously encompass life and death, good and evil, darkness and light, creation and destruction, demonstrating the full spectrum of life, death and rebirth. Kali's Transformative Power One of the best examples of this transformative power is the Indian goddess Kali. As the goddess of life, death and rebirth, Kali is usually depicted as a dark-faced, voracious cannibal dancing in the cremation grounds while holding a sword, a severed head, a bowl of blood and a noose in her four hands. Around her neck is a garland of skulls, the corpses of two children hang from her ears, while her waistband is made up of bloody arms torn from the shoulders of her victims. Often a living snake winds around her body from one shoulder cross-wise to her opposite hip, replacing the sacred thread traditionally worn by Brahmins. Her apparel frequently includes other smaller snakes as armbands and bracelets.

She's not a pretty picture. In fact, she's hard for most of us Americans to take. I can remember a friend's first reaction to one of Kali's icons. We were both members of a women's spirituality group, reading books about goddesses from prepartriarchal times to the present. My friend shook h er head, looking away from the picture of Kali I was holding, and laughing, asked what such a picture could possibly mean. This educated peer was not only repulsed, but wanted to get this experience quickly behind her. It was one thing to talk about birth, death and rebirth in the abstract -- something we had been doing for months --, but it was another thing entirely to see it represented so starkly. The experience made me wonder if we North Americans fear the depths of the sacred. Perhaps it is just that we have pushed questions that pertain to death into the dark unknown of our consciousness.

In focussing on Kali's deadly side, we in the U.S. tend to misrepresent and misunderstand this goddess. For Kali is also the goddess who gives birth to the entire universe, something we can see in her iconography as well. She dances naked so that her fruitful yoni or vagina is obviously displayed as are the full breasts with which she nourishes all she has brought into the world. In fact, one of her best-known representations shows her straddling the god Shiva, transforming him from a corpse into a lover, ready with erect phallus to satisfy her unbridled desire. It is Kali who brings Shiva back from the dead and gives him life, because she is Shakti, the inherent energy in the universe, the force that activates what is potential and creates the world.

Ramakrishna was one of the major poets who popularized Kali's worship in Bengal, the easternmost province of India. Born in the early part of the 19th century, he was a Hindu saint in a tradition known as bhakti where devotees lovingly surrender their hearts, minds and spirits to their chosen deity in a practice which leads to ecstatic union with the divine. Such devotion is easy for us in the West to imagine when the beloved is the playful Krishna with his sublime flute-playing and sacred lovemaking. But in Ramakrishna's case, the object of his devotion was the fierce Kali, the wild and uncontrollable aspects of the sacred, to whom he devoted himself as a child would to its mother.

In his best-known evocation of the Goddess, Ramakrishna observes her as a graceful young woman sinuously emerging from the waters of the Ganges. As her belly breaks forth from the waves, we realize that she is late in pregnancy, coming to dry land to deliver her child. When she reaches the shore, she gives birth to a beautiful baby whom she fondles affectionately and lifts to her breast, where the child suckles until it is content. Holding her baby once more in her arms, the woman becomes the Kali we are more familiar with, a frightening old hag, gaunt with age and hunger. In her ferocious aspect, Kali then lifts the infant to her mouth, crushes it between her teeth and swallows the baby whole. Without a backward glance, she returns to the waters from which she emerged, disappearing again from view. Kali's Essence: Creator, Destroyer, Transformer

In his vignette Ramakrishna captures the essence of Kali as Mother Nature in her creative, nurturing and destructive aspects. Surrender to such a deity is hard to imagine until we realize that it is not viciousness that motivates her destruction. Kali is by necessity both the good and the terrible mother. Every nursing woman has to sustain herself in order to nourish her children, and since Kali is the mother of everything in the world, she has to feed on her children as there is nothing else to eat.

Hinduism's world mother exemplifies the fact that life often creates through destroying, just as we humans recreate our bodies anew each day by destroying the plants and animals on which we feed. What Kali vividly demonstrates is that we live in a unified ecosystem, the interconnected web of all existence, each a part of the other. Ramakrishna's image forces us to confront our place in the food chain. Kali gives birth to us; we are sustained by eating her other children; and finally we are eaten in turn. Life feeds on life. Life is a sacrifice to life. These are the sacred truths that such a picture opens to our view.

Kali continually takes away with her left hand what she provides with her right, but just as continually replaces with her right hand what the left has destroyed. This bloodthirsty goddess, as a unified vision of life-death-and-rebirth, allows us in the West to see that the bright and dark sides of the sacred are just human divisions of one holy reality, and that when we participate in that divine reality we too are wild, unbound, free. For the sacred that Kali represents cannot be circumscribed. It is utterly free from the constraints of human imagination, beyond all our experience, encompassing both life and death, darkness and light, order and chaos, everything and the void. Facing Personal Mortality It is no surprise to me that in India people acknowledge death as an inevitable part of life, just as they see darkness as half the daily round. But I know in my life facing mortality has not been an easy process. When I turned 40 I was depressed for months and only discovered at the end of this period that my low energy was due to the fact that I was coming to grips with my not-so-imminent demise. Now having reached 50, I find myself drawn to Kali for the same reasons that I couldn't face her earlier in this decade. I have found a paradoxical freedom in accepting this ultimate limitation in my life. It has spurred me on to enjoy life moment by moment.

In many ways my attitude is like the Epicurean motto "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die." Most people in the 20th century interpret this sentiment as a hedonistic, and therefore, non-spiritual response to mortality. But in truth, living in the moment is highly spiritual, more like "praying without ceasing" than drunken revelry. For to live in the charged atmosphere of the present -- full of light and darkness -- is to feel gratitude for the blessing of life.

When I am fully present in the here and now, I open my senses wide to the world -- I notice the play of light on a forested path, feel the soft humidity on my skin in the summer or the crisp fall air when the season finally turns, smell the sweet and acrid perfume of a late fall day, notice the stark contrasts in a winter landscape or hear the returning warblers in the spring. Confronting death allows me to take in more of the world than I do with my typical adult attitudes based on norms and propriety and ultimately on fear. Looking death squarely in the face gives me the courage to be more childlike, delighting in the awe and wonder that life presents to me everyday.

Once I've faced my fear of death, I can say, "Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh grave where is thy victory?" When I've met my biggest (and most realistic) fear head on, why should I care about my smaller fears any longer? So what if the neighbors think I'm crazy once in a while or if people can't deal with my exuberance at times. When I'm flowing with life's pulse, in Kali's mad dance, I celebrate it moment by moment. Her ancient hymn to life and death, opens me to spontaneity and frees me from fear. Then I plunge into life, awake, alive, in awe, with my heart open, finally taking those exciting risks I've been putting off for far too long.