Kali, the true Kali, will continue to defy all attempts to tame and domesticate her, as she has since the beginning of time.
Completing Goddess Kali Pt.3
The Thuggee are said to have had their female equivalent in a sect of Tantrists who held that it was through constant indulgence in gluttony of the senses and the five recognised vices – drinking of wine, eating of meat and fish, performance of “mystical gesticulations” and sexual indulgence - that a human could achieve purification of the soul and all-embracing union with Kali. It is difficult to discover any concrete information about this group of women – their name, the extent to which they practiced in India, whether they were associated with the Thuggee cult, and whether they died out or continue to exist within the many Tantric sects extant today. Their ethos has similarities to that of the male Aghori monks of Varanasi who inhabit cemeteries and sometimes eat human flesh as part of their rituals, use marijuana and alcohol, and meditate on top of corpses to help them reach a state of heightened awareness and bring themselves closer to Shiva, Kali’s consort.
In part because of her dread characteristics and habit of acting unpredictably, at least to those who tried to control her, devotion came late in the game to Kali – even devout Hindus were wary of her wrath. However in the seventeenth century Kali received a makeover from the Tantric Bengali poets in northwest India. No longer a terrifying red-eyed crone, she began to be depicted as voluptuous, motherly, young and beautiful, with a gentle smile, attractive ornaments and pleasing blue complexion. While she continued to brandish weaponry and severed heads, two of her right hands now made soothing gestures - the mudras of fearlessness and blessing.
Today, her image reflects her duality. Kali is depicted in the act of killing but smiles engagingly. Her protruding red tongue signals both modesty (a Bengali tradition) and her thirst for blood. Her dishevelled hair hints at unrestrained blood lust and alternatively the metaphysical mystery of death that encircles life. Her three eyes represent omniscience, her voluptuous breasts both sexual lust and nurturance. Her nakedness simultaneously represents carnality and purity. Her necklace of severed heads and girdle of severed arms signifies her killing rage but are also tantric metaphors for creative power and severance from the bonds of karma and accumulated deeds. Even her stance is imbued with dual meaning. The respectable, right handed path of Tantra (Dakshinamarga) is emphasised by her right foot forward stance, while the infamous left-handed path (Vamamarga) followed by “degenerate” Tantric practitioners such as the Aghori is down-played. While her right hands are generally associated with positive gestures, her left hands hold weaponry – depending on the number of arms she is portrayed as having, a bloodied sword or trident, a freshly severed head and a skull cup to catch the blood. However, even these are symbols of greater purpose. The sword symbolises higher knowledge, the head the human ego that must be severed in order to exit from the cycle of life and rebirth.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, many western feminist scholars have adopted Kali as a mascot of female empowerment, or have politicised her as a symbol of the supposed former matriarchal golden age that came before our present state of patriarchal control and decline. New Age Tantric practitioners adapt her obvious sexual manifestations as a therapeutic tool, while Hollywood employs her as a convenient symbol of malevolence.
But Kali, the true Kali, will continue to defy all attempts to tame and domesticate her, as she has since the beginning of time.