November 11, 2015

Kali : From the Terrible to the Terrific

I have always been puzzled by the image of Kali that we have grown up with. Why would a goddess appear naked ? Why should she be surrounded by images of murder, mayhem and destruction in the form of severed heads and hands ? Why should be standing or squatting on a lifeless Shiva ? Or as I learnt as I grew older, the actual image is that of a woman-on-man sexual act that has been sanitized by a sensitive society for "family viewing"!

Gods and goddesses are supposed to be goody-goody figures that every society has conjured up to create a safe harbour for troubled times -- to protect and save helpless humanity in the face of uncomfortable challenges thrown up by a hostile environment. That is how primitive man created the mental image of the Divine. Someone who is loving and kind and benign and benefic and beautiful peaceful and calm and ..... so on and so forth. That is how the gods are supposed to be ... and then comes Kali and shatters that carefully crafted archetype with this ...

image credit redreevegeorge
What is the inspiration behind this terrible imagery ?

This image is no flash-in-the-pan, not the sudden inspiration of a lone artist. This imagery has been with us since the dawn of recorded history, has withstood every test of time, and has been an integral part of the psyche of those who identify themselves with the Sanatan Dharma, the philosophia perennis, of the sub-Himalayan subcontinent a.k.a Hindus. However there have been attempts to wash it down with the cool and calming butter-milk of family values! Which is why in most community events, Kali is covered up with flowers and even clothes and the stark image of flagrant sexuality is sanitised down to have her simply stand on Shiva's chest and that too with her tongue out - as if in shame for having done so.

One tradition, from Bengal and other eastern parts of India, associates Kali with the Mother though I have the most immense difficulty in visualising anyone from any tradition ever having any memory of any kind of mother in this most grotesque form.

There are many explanations for this strange visage. The severed heads represent the destruction of the ego, the sense of identity as different from the Divine. The garland of 51 skulls represent the letters of the alphabet. The skirt of severed human hand around her waist represent the karma, the fruits of owns labour, that people have offered to her. All this fine, but somehow they seem to be somewhat forced and contrived explanations of something that somehow cannot be uttered or told.

And bingo, there lies the explanation ... something that somehow cannot be uttered or told. Kali represents the ultimate truth that can neither be shown nor be described ... it can only be experienced.

To understand how this is so, let us go back to the fountain head of Hindu philosophy -- Advaita Vedanta. Vedanta tells us
  • The Brahman, the eternal, conscious, pristine primordial reality of the universe, is without form, without shape, without colour, without any characteristics. It is nirguna, without qualities, and cannot be described with any kinds of words -- including the terms eternal, conscious, pristine  that were just used in this very paragraph itself!
  • The Atman, the individual, is an integral part or extension of the Brahman itself. There is no duality between the individual Atman and the universal Brahma, there is no duality between me, the devotee and God, the object of my devotion. Hence the term Advaita or non-Dual. 
  • When the Atman temporarily forgets this identity, this equivalence, between itself and the Brahman because of ignorance, its imperfect understanding and it starts to believe in a world of duality, of a world of the devotee and the God. This imperfection is referred to as the veil of Maya or illusion that temporarily confuses the Atman. The true adept, the sadhak, through his efforts manages to remove this veil of Maya and realises his or her identity with Brahman, the primordial principle of the universe. 
  • During this period of ignorance, when the truth is hidden behind a veil of illusion, the imperfect mind sees a illusory "world" around itself! This is not real. Brahma Satya, Jagat Mithya -- the universal principle is the only reality, the world of perceptions is an illusion. When the veil falls away, ignorance ends and the individual sees his or her congruence with the universal.
How does all this dry philosophy square up with the erotic image of a naked woman dancing around on a dead body that we adore as the image of Kali ? How do we reconcile the nudity, the terror and the sexuality of Kali with the pristine world Sankara's Advaita Vedanta ?

The nudity is simple. Clothes and ornaments are symbolic of the veil that shields the true nature of the reality from the eyes of the ignorant devotee. The sooner you learn to remove this veil the farther you are on your way to the goal of perceiving the ultimate reality.

Next is the violence, the bloodshed, the terror, the mayhem that seems to be the exact reverse of what we expect in the quiet tranquility of the Brahman. To those of us who still remember non-digital cameras where you had to load a film, shoot a picture, develop the negative and then take a print -- the concept of a "negative" is very useful. What if the photographer had given you the "negative" and had expected you to figure out what the final, "postive" print would look like ? Something similar has happened here!

Those who have crafted this image have not given us the "positive" print.  Why ? Because they have no way of doing so! Because the Brahman, or "paradise" has nothing like cherubic angels playing the harp! Because there is no way to describe the "positive" picture of the Brahman! It is beyond form, shape, colour, size and has no qualities. There is no artifact in this illusory world that can be used to represent the Brahman. Hence the artist is forced to use the "negative" ... the concept of "Neti, Neti".
In Hinduism, and in particular Jnana Yoga and Advaita Vedanta, neti neti is a Sanskrit expression which means "not this, not this", or "neither this, nor that" (neti is sandhi from na iti "not so"). It is found in the Upanishads and the Avadhuta Gita and constitutes an analytical meditation helping a person to understand the nature of Brahman by first understanding what is not Brahman. [ wikipedia / Neti Neti ]
Since there are no qualities or features with which one can define or describe the primordial reality of the Brahman, the creators of the Kali imagery are forcing us to use the negatives and understand that the Brahman is  "NOT THIS, NOT THIS". So the intensely negative images of death, destruction and terror is in reality a signal for the adept to look for, understand or rather experience its actual opposite -- the beauty and tranquility of the ultimate truth, for which there are indeed no words ... because it is something that somehow cannot be uttered or told!

Well known Kali adepts like Ramakrishna, Ramprasad, Kamalakanta would never feel disturbed by the negativity of these images since they would be viewing them through a mental filter that automatically applies a negation-operator on the spectacle and show them an image of tranquility and bliss that they talk and sing ecstatically about.

A helpful analogy would be the special-effect spectacles that we put on to see a 3D movie. These spectacles convert the blurry red-and-blue images on the screen into spectacular 3D images that otherwise cannot be displayed on a flat, 2D screen. Adepts would be "having" the mental equivalent of the 3D spectacles, that applies the negation-operator on the negative image and shows them a positive image that otherwise could never be displayed.

Finally, the blatant and in-your-face sexuality of kali-on-top-of-shiva is a clear reference to the act of universal creation by using a self-similar reference to the creation of life in the biological world. In the Hindu world view, the phenomenal world emerges when the absolute Truth, the Brahman, in it's desire, in it's ichchha,  for the "pleasure" of a phenomenal world, its leela, stirs out of its own inertia and differentiates from itself an illusion that becomes the world of sensory data. In the biological world, this is semantically similar to the genotype, the information in the DNA, being used to create the phenotype, the world of physical proteins.

This world view is mapped into the imagery of Kali where we have the Purusha -- objectified as the lifeless, inert, "dead" Shiva, impregnating its alter-ego, its Doppelganger[?], its Prakriti -- objectified as his Shakti, with the creative principle and setting in motion the world that we perceive. This transition of the inertia of the dormant Shiva into the energy of a dancing Kali is what the artist wants us to see, know or just experience. In fact it is a representation of what the Judeo-Christian world refers to as the story of  Genesis.

In fact, the even more disturbing image of Kali in the form of Chinnamasta, on of the ten forms of Mahavidya, goes a step further and shows Kali drinking her own blood with her self-decapitated head. The obviously represents the self-sustaining nature of the phenomenal world that has emerged from Genesis -- the interplay of knowledge and energy, of genotype and phenotype, of Shiva and Shakti, of the Purusha and the Prakriti, who are represented by the couple lying at the feet of the Devi Chinnamasta.

Chinnamasta : Image Credit Wikimedia

So the nudity, the terror and the sexuality in the imagery of Kali is an attempt to weave into one tapestry a grand vision with multiple strands of information. It shows us a glimpse (through the "negative") of the Truth, a world view of how we get detached from it to create the illusion of a phenomenal world and how we may get it back again by shedding the cobwebs of illusion. That is a glimpse of the terrific truth that lies beyond the terrible images of Kali.

Is this imagery correct? I would not know ... because I am not adept enough to know the reality! Do I believe in it? Obviously, otherwise why would I write about it. However, if you are sceptical about such confusing representations you may consider the following images [ click on each to expand ]

The diagram on the left is how a kali adept perceives Her, whereas the diagram on the right is how an electrical engineering "adept" would perceive a part of his world. If you are not an adept in these particular traditions then diagrams would make no sense to you!

Similarly, in the image below, the symbols on the right would make perfect sense to anyone who is an "adept" in Java just as the string of characters on the left would make similar sense to anyone who is an adept in the Kali tradition.

For the rest of us, it is all gibberish and esoteric, until with effort and perhaps an element of chance or luck -- though some people would call it grace -- you may be able to break through the illusion and realise the truth that lies behind the imagery. Until then, let us live with our image of Kali -- The Mother.

image credit latess

image credit Elizabeth Usha Harding

 post offered at the feet of Kali on the day of Kali Puja 2015


ToTheServiceOfTheNation 10:02 pm  

Dear Sir,
Your reference to Advaita Vedanta was excellent. However it takes a lot of humility and self sacrifice to imagine ourselves as tiny parts of a magnificient whole!
Whenever I come across the topic, I am afraid, it is too terrific for a common man, who is terrified by the total loss at death. What he may need is a promise of good real estate, worldly comforts and some important positions up above the sky!
It will be nice if you can connect the primordial fears of man( like loss at death, need for constant fight for survival, continuity of attachments etc) to the philosphy.

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