The Unfolding of Kali

by  Arghya Dipta Kar

Kali’s emergence as one of the core deities of Tantric Shaktism is indeed the culminating point of her journey from the margin to the centre with the restructuring of religious discourses across temporal and cultural contexts. The historical evolution of Shaktism as a pan Indian religion involved the process of assimilating diverse aboriginal and independent goddesses into a unified canon where they all were made into diverse forms of one universal Shakti [1]. As will be explored here, Kali’s gradual evolution from a marginal attendant figure to a central divinity, particularly in the texts from mediaeval Bengal, was a result of the Sanskritization of otherwise non-Vedic esoteric traditions that were incorporated into the textual canon of the Puranas and the Tantras.

Amongst the earliest accounts of Kali’s gaining predominance (3rd to 5th Century) in mainstream Sanskrit literature is the hymn to the goddess Nidra in the Harivamsa Purana [2]. Before his incarnation as Krishna, Vishnu descends to the netherworld to seek the help of the goddess of slumber who at his behest is born as the daughter of Nanda and Yashoda. Vasudeva, Krishna’s father, exchanges her for his son and when Kamsa is about to kill the newborn infant, mistaking her to be Devaki’s eighth child, she slips from his hands and soaring up to the sky with her retinue of ghosts, curses him. Bihani Sarkar meticulously observes her transition from the impersonal power of sleep to an anthropomorphic entity as a shadowy alter ego of the central deity Vishnu [3]. If the latter’s presence embodies all light and royal supremacy, Nidra haunts the margins as all what is diametrically opposed to him- she is sleep, swoon and death. Her entire journey from the netherworld to the summit of the sky becomes metaphoric of her evolution into a prominent godhead.

Her entrance into the canon of Shaivite mythology can be traced in Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhavam [4] (5th Century) where she features as a minor attendant figure in the retinue of Shiva with almost no identification with Parvati. Kali’s gradual but never smooth elevation to the status of Shiva’s consort is attested in a narrative from the old Skanda Purana (concerned content dating around the 6th Century) and the Shiva Pura?a (10th-11th Century), which posits her in an ‘identity in difference’ relation with Parvati. As it goes, Parvati is once mocked by Shiva who addresses her as ‘Kali’ for her dark complexion. Insulted, she leaves Kailasa and performs hard penance to shed off the black skin and acquire a fair complexion, as from ‘Kali’ she transforms into ‘Gauri’. From her abandoned skin, is born the dark goddess Kausiki who makes her dwelling place on the Vindhya Mountain [5]. The sharp contrast between the fair-complexioned, benign and ‘wifely’ Gauri, well established in Puranic Shaivism; and the dark, aboriginal, forest-dwelling, virgin-warrior Kausiki; indeed, operates within a centre-margin binary. Here, although initially Kali is an epithet of Parvati herself owing to her dark skin, the myth centres round the goddess’s getting rid of this epithet. Kali therefore, in Bihani Sarkar’s terms, is Parvati’s ‘unwanted self’ [6], her negative alter-ego.

Even in first full-fledged textual account of Puranic Saktism, i.e., the 6th century text ‘Devimatatmya [7], a section from the Markandeya Purana; Kali or Chamunda is only a minor emanation of Chandika summoned to kill the asuras Chanda-Munda and drink the blood of Raktabija.

However, the Shiva Purana also illustrates a parallel phenomenon whereby Kali gets directly identified with the Supreme Goddess Shakti from whom Parvati herself originates. When the king Daksha propitiates Shakti to be born as his daughter, she appears in a Kali-like dark form.

With various sorts of prayer, he eulogized and bowed to the Goddess mother of the universe, Kalika seated on a lion, dark-complexioned, with four arms and beautiful face, the bestower of the boon, the abode of safety, holding a blue lotus and the sword in her hands, comely with reddish eyes and with beautiful dishevelled hair [8].

Remarkably, this unique description of Kali, also maintained in later Shakta texts like the Kalika Purana [9] and the Mahabhagavata Purana [10] (both from 10th-11th Century), marks a transitional phase in her iconographic development as she gradually evolved from a minor marginal figure to a core deity by absorbing features of Durga, namely the lion mount and the motherly grace. From the ghoulish emaciated Chamunda with cremation-ground associations or merely the dark-skinned version of a domesticated Parvati, Kali’s gradual emergence into a supreme divinity reaches its climax in the Mahabhagavata. This elevation in her theological status in Puranic literature is to be traced to the growing popularity of her cult amongst Tantric circles whose religious culture had to be appropriated into the Sanskrit canon in order to assimilate them into the Brahminical fold.

The Mahabhagavata, a minor yet authoritative Purana from mediaeval Bengal attests the inscription of the Tantric culture of eastern India into the otherwise smarta genre called Purana. Here Kali features as the Highest Being who is Mulaprakrti and the Supreme Brahman, the creatrix of millions of Brahmas, Vishnus and Shivas. As the text narrates, before all creation, Kali alone exists as the transcendent Absolute who is Being-Consciousness-Bliss. When moved by her desire to create, she although formless, assumes a form (similar to the one described in the verse quoted above) of her own accord. This Primordial Goddess first creates a Purusha whom she divides into three, Brahma Vishnu and Shiva. The Goddess then makes them undergo a test by appearing in a terrible form. Of the three, Shiva alone is able to stand her test and hence she agrees to incarnate as Sati and be his wife [11].

The narrative concerning Sati’s life with Shiva, although following the line of the Shiva Purana, is exceedingly conscious about retaining the supremacy of the Goddess above Shiva. The benign and apparently ‘human’ wife of Shiva, set against the sovereign cosmic matriarch Kali, brings out a dramatic contrast in terms of her relation with him. When the dark Kali, born as the fair damsel Sati unites with Shiva as his wife, he eventually forgets her true self. Later, Sati’s father Daksha arranges a grand sacrifice where he invites all gods and goddesses except for Shiva and Sati. The Goddess, willing to visit her father’s place approaches Shiva in the humble gesture of seeking permission. However, the latter would not allow her to go there and with this ensues an argument between the divine couple. Finally, when Shiva begins to hurl harsh words against her, the Goddess decides to reveal her true identity. She stares athimwith blood-red eyes and with a frenzied laughter, instantly transforms into Kali. Terrified, a trembling Shiva tries to flee when the goddess surrounds him from all sides in the form of the ten Mahavidyas: Kali, Tara, Sodasi, Bhuvaneshvari, Bhairavi, Chhinnamasta, Dhumavati, Bagala, Matangi and Kamala [12]. Shiva soon realizes his mistake and begs pardon,

I have known you to be the perfect Prakrti, the Highest Creatrix. Whatever I have said, ignorant of your true nature and blinded by delusion, please pardon that. You are the Primordial one, the supreme Vidya residing in every object. Ever independent you are. Who is there to impose rules upon you? When you have decided to go to Daksha’s Yajna, what power do I have to stop you? Pardon me for whatever I have said deluded by the ego of being your husband [13].

Kali also features in a later episode when Parvati assumes this form at Shiva’s request who then in a gesture of total surrender falls at her feet in the form of a corpse and praises her with one thousand names. The Goddess grants him the boon that whenever she will be worshipped as Kali, he will be depicted as lying under her feet [14].

Also intriguing about the Mahabhagavata account of Kali is the testimony of a transitional phase in her iconographic development as to the incorporation of Shiva who eventually overlaps with the corpse-mount of Chamunda, the patentmost prototype of Kali [15]. Patricia Dold observes here the development of Sakta devotionalism as Shiva is gradually made to shed his ego and surrender before the Great Feminine [16].

Kali standing upon the supine body of Shiva is a core symbol in Bengal’s Tantric Shaktism. Rooted in an ontological system that exalts the dynamic pole of divinity above the static one, it throws a direct challenge at Veda-oriented soteriological discourses, particularly the monistic Vedanta of Sankara and the Samkhya, whose ultimate aim is to achieve liberation in the stillness of transcendental consciousness by rejecting the dynamic pole of experience as either maya (illusion) or as prakrti, the unconscious principle wherefrom the material world evolves. I would turn here to the non-dualistic schools of Kashmir Shaivism and the Srividya school of Tantric Shaktism, which in course of time got intertwined with the tradition pertaining to Kali in Bengal.

In the Tantra-based non-dualistic systems, the Supreme Consciousness is not merely ‘cit’ but also ‘citi’ [17] or Consciousness-power, with the tiny ‘i’ at the end verily signifying its inherent dynamic energy. It is both Shiva or Illumination (prakasa) and Sakti or the dynamic power of Reflexive Awareness (vimarsa). The latter is the ability of Consciousness to subjectively experience itself as ‘I’ or ‘Aham’. Without this power of subjective awareness, Consciousness would have been no better than unconsciousness. Dynamism here implies not merely ‘becoming’ or evolving into creation but also the act of ‘being’ or remaining stationed in one’s quintessential state. In other words, ‘Being’ always implies the ‘act of being’. Hence this dynamic energy constitutes the very core essence (sara) and existence (satta) of Shiva.

She is the principle of ‘flashing forth’ which is the Great Being unconditioned by time and space. Being the core essence of the Supreme Lord, She is verily His heart [18].

Shakti is the power of absolute Freedom (svatantrya) by virtue of which Shiva pours himself out in the multiplicity of the universe, and yet retains his undivided oneness. To say ‘Shiva’s Shakti’ is merely a mode of speech since Shiva is Shakti and Shakti is Shiva. The ultimate state of their non-duality is verily designated as Paramashiva by the Shaivas and as Parasakti or Mahashakti by the Shaktas, both ultimately meaning the same thing [19]. This is to say that while the Shaiva inclination is towards a synthesis in the Shiva aspect, the Shaktas dissolve the Shiva-Shakti polarity in Shakti alone.

The Shakta theology repeatedly insists that Shiva owes all his power and existence to Shakti. It at times even goes to the extreme assertion of doing away with the need of accepting any separate principle called Shiva.

Having absorbed in all creation consisting of the tattvas, She expands into Her transcendental fullness. Then, nothing called Siva remains to be accepted apart from Herself. The Supreme Shiva, without Shakti is incapable of doing anything and only when united with Her, He is able to function [20].

The symbolism behind the dynamic Goddess standing or sitting upon the inert corpse of Shiva is to be located here. Although in the texts pertaining to Kalikula there is hardly any detailed articulation of its ontological doctrines, yet what is unambiguously patent is the reduction of the Samkhya duality of puruhsa and prakrti into a non-dual Whole which is Kali herself as Adyashakti. Owing to this non-duality, prakrti no longer remains an unconscious principle, but is pure consciousness par excellence vested with dynamism. In Kali, these two aspects remain intermerged in an indivisible state.

In the supreme abode dwells the formless Shakti who is the Great Light. Covering Herself with Her Maya, She resembles a gram with two inseparable halves…When casting off the sheath of Maya, She splits into two, with the division of Shiva and Shakti arises the creative ideation [21].

The splitting of this unitary Whole into the polarity of Shiva and Shakti has been visualized in the Tantric texts as Kali giving birth to Shiva.

During the great dissolution; Kali, the ruler of myriads of universes alone exists with her body combining both Shiva and Shakti…When the auspicious Goddess reflects upon Her own image, it becomes Maya from which Shiva is born as Her mental ideation. To create the world, She ideates out (creates) her own consort [22].

This precisely underlies the conceptualization of Kali as both the mother and consort of Shiva (shivamata shivani ca) [23]. Born from her, he is energized by her powers. Hence in her icon she is depicted as engaged in reverse copulation (a mode of sexual union with the female sitting atop the male) or viparitarati with Mahakala who in turn is placed upon the corpse-like body of Shiva or Shavarupi Mahadeva.

Noteworthily, the one lying beneath Kali’s feet is not Shiva but a shava; since all his Shivahood, designated by the letter ‘i’ in the term ‘Shiva’ (without which it would become ‘shava’); has been absorbed in by Kali who now alone exists as the Absolute embodying both Shiva and Shakti [24]. This is verily dramatized in the Tantras as Mahakali devouring Mahakala at the end of creation.

Mahakala, the destroyer of the universe is but a form of Yours. During the great dissolution Kala devours everything. As allbeingsmerge into Him, He is called Mahakala. Since you devour Mahakala Himself, You are called the Supreme and Primordial Kali. Kali who devours Kala is the origin of all. As You are the ultimate origin of Kala Himself, You are known as Adyakali. Then again resuming Your dark indeterminate formless essence, You alone exist as the One transcending speech and mind [25].

Kali’s dynamism, encompassing the acts of both being and becoming, dissolves the binary of transcendence and immanence. Hence the Kaula path is the one which encompasses both Kula (all immanent categories with an unbroken unity) and Akula (the transcendent Shiva). This highlights the centrality of the body in the esoteric Kaula rituals as a microcosmic version of the macrocosmic universe. The somatic soteriology of the Tantras posits a direct challenge to all body-rejecting ascetic doctrines. As the Yogini Tantra narrates, the ascetic Shiva once mocks Parvati for her engagement with matter and the world. When she chides him back, Shiva creates an asura named Ghora to harass the Goddess and avenge his insult. However, Parvati soon assumes the form of Kali and kills Ghora. She then makes a frightened Shiva enter into her gigantic cosmic body and pass through all the energy centres therein. Shiva is amazed to behold millions of universes contained there and having reached her heart lotus, he is enlightened with the secret knowledge of all scriptures embodied in the fifty one letters. He finally acknowledges her to be the Absolute and assuming the form of a corpse, surrenders at her feet [26].

Besides, the philosophy of Kali is rooted also in the Buddhist doctrine of shunya. The Krama school of Kali-worship in Kashmir is grounded on the cult of Kalasamkarsini as the all-transcending principle of Void. In texts from Bengal too, the blackness of Kali relates to her nature as shunya.

She is the Great Transcendence beyond speech and is also the highest digit of immanence (being the Whole). Playfully She posits herself as the Void [27].

Scholars are also of the opinion that Kali has a powerful prototype in the Vajrayana goddess Nairatmya, representing the principle of Void. Yet it is to be observed here that with its incorporation into the cult of Kali who as the dynamic principle of Reality has also a creative aspect like prakrti, the Buddhist doctrine of shunya underwent tremendous modifications, which however is beyond the scope of this article.

This profound gynocentrism lying at the core of Kali’s theology however got overwritten with patriarchal inscriptions. This is reflected in the popular myth about a frenzied Kali wreaking havoc upon the universe and demanding her ‘destructive’ feminine power to be controlled and contained by Shiva who intervenes by lying on the ground so that she steps on him and bites her tongue out of shame. This myth, superimposing upon Kali the androcentric motif of ‘wifely virtues’, is however rejected by most practitioners. The authentic philosophical doctrines pertaining to the Kalikula school of Tantric Shaktism lie codified in rituals and are transmitted orally through Guru-lineages. Although scattered bits and fragments of ontological discourses can be traced in the textual corpus of Bengal Tantra, they do not suffice to build up a complete and coherent philosophical system. Owing to the fluidity of oral accounts and the lack of a systematized textual canon of philosophy, Kali always remains vulnerable to non-Tantric and even misogynistic appropriations.

End Notes:

1. Chakrabarti, Kunal, Religious Process, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001

2. Mahabharata Khila Bhaaga Harivamaa (Srihariva?sapurana), with Hindi commentary by Pandit Ramnaryan Shastri Pandeya ‘Ram’, (Gorakhpur: Gita Press, 2024 samvat), vishnuparva, chapter 2, verses 27- 55; chapter 3, verse 1- 37; pp. 217-221.

3. Bihani Sarkar, Heroic Shaktism. The Cult of Durga in Ancient Indian Kingship, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017; pp. 41-69.

4. Kumarasambhavam, tr. M.R. Kale, Bombay: The Standard Publishing Company, 1917, canto VII, verse 39, p. 149

5. Shivapurana, ed. &tr. Panchanan Tarkaratna, Calcutta: Nababharat Publishers, 1392 bangabda, Vayaviyasamhita, adyhaya 21, pp. 777-784

6. Sarkar, op.cit., p. 70-96

7. Durgasaptasati, (with seven commentaries) ed., Hari Krishna Sharma, Delhi: Chaukhamba Sanskrit Pratishthan, 1987, adhaya VII-VIII, pp. 179-210

8. The Shiva-Pura?a in Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology, ed. J.L Shastri, New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1970, Vol. 1, Rudrasamhita, Chapter 12, Verses 11-12 p. 325

9. Kalikapuranam, ed., Panchanan Tarkaratna, Calcutta: Nababharat Publishers, 1384 bangabda, adhyaya 8, verse 9-10, p. 48.

10. Srimahabhagavatam, ed. and tr., Panchanan Tarkaratna , Nababharat Publishers, Kolkata, 1995, adhyaya 3, verse 16, p. 11

11. Ibid., adhyaya 3, verses 1-50, pp. 10-14.

12. Ibid., adhyaya 8, pp. 35-45

13. Ibid., adhyaya 8, verses 100-103, pp. 43-44

14. Ibid., adhyaya 23, pp. 110-121.

15. Donaldson, Thomas Eugene, ‘The Shava-Vahana as Puru?a in Orissan Images: Chamunda to Kali/Tara’ in Artibus Asiae, Vol. 51, No. 1/2 (1991), pp 107-141, Published by: Artibus Asiae Publishers , DOI: 10.2307/3249679 Stable URL: p. 139

16. Dold, Patricia, ‘Kali the Terrific and Her Tests: The Shakta Devotionalism of the Mahabhagavata Pura?a’ in Encountering Kali: In the Margins, at the Center, in the West, Rachel Fell McDermott & Kripal, Jeffrey J., eds., (Delhi: Motilal Banarasidas Publishers, 2005) p. 47.

17. Pratyabhijnahrdaya, ed. Jaideva Singh, Delhi: Motilal Banaridass Publishers, 1982 (4th Revised Edition), verse 1, p. 46.

18. Ishvara-Pratyabhijna of Utpaladeva with the Vimarsini by Abhinavagupta, (2 vols), Delhi: Butala & Company), 1984, adhyaya 1, ahnika 5, verse 14, p. 106

19. Kaviraj, Gopinath, (Mahamahopadhyaya); 2 Vols, Tantrik Sadhana O Siddhanta (in Bengali) , Bardhaman: Burdwan University, 2009, p. 320

20. Nitya?odasikar?ava? (with Setubandha commentary by Bhaskararaya), ed., Dr Shitala Prasad Upadhyay, Varanasi: Sampurnananda-Sanskrit-Vishvavidyalaya, 2005, visrama 4, verses 5-7, pp. 123-125.

21. Nirva?a Tantra, in Tantrasangraha, op.cit., patala 1, verse 14-16, pp. 2-3.

22. Shakti-sangama-tantra (Kali-kha??a), ed. and tr. ‘Kula-Bhushan’ Pandit Ramadatta Shukla, Prayag: Kalyan Mandir Prakashan, samvat 2039, patala I, verses 27-30, pp. 2-3.

23. Kaviraj, Gopinath, (Mahamahopadhyaya); 2 Vols, Tantrik Sadhana O Siddhanta (in Bengali) , Bardhaman: Burdwan University, 2009, p. 320

24. Kar,ArghyaDipta, ‘Kali’s Mount: Shiva/Shava: Shiva’s Position in the Bengal Iconography of Kali’, Journal of the Asiatic Society, Vol. LXIII, No.3, Kolkata, 2001, pp. 119-121.

25. Mahanirva?a Tantra, ed., Arthur Avalon, Motilal Banarsidass, New Delhi, 1989, ullasa IV, 30-33, p. 61.

26. Yoginitantram, ed., Swami Sarveshvarananda Sarasvati, Nababharat Publishers, Calcutta, 1385 Bangabda, patala 8-10, pp. 81-111.

27. ‘Kalisahasranamastotram’ in Shaktapramodah, ed. Madhu Khanna, New Delhi: Tantra Foundation, 2013, verse17, p. 83.

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