A little history of the Fierce Goddess

Many Indian philosophies are popular today, but Kali, the vital and existential goddess, stands in splendorous opposition to more placid religious traditions.
Kali
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Thou who art beauteous with beauty of a dark rain cloud…’ (Karpuradistotra)

In 1913 a British lawyer set to work trying to export the philosophy of India’s fiercest goddess to the world. Sir John Woodroffe had been born in 1865 in what was then Calcutta, growing up in an English family with sympathies for the cause of Indian independence. He was sent to Oxford for a Western education in law, but once his professional qualifications were in hand he returned to the city of his birth. There, alongside his father’s Catholic community he came across another world, a vibrant tradition of Hindu metaphysics, spirituality and the supernatural called Tantra. As his interest expanded, scholars and adepts of the Bengali intelligentsia presented themselves to him, and Woodroffe became their pupil. He adopted Hindu practices in order to deepen his understanding. The tradition was veiled in esoteric symbolism, deities and demons, spells and powers, but Woodroffe understood that there was a deeper rationale beneath the surface. 

He was not alone in his interest: all around him, the twentieth century was ever-more becoming Indophilic. German philosophers Herder, Schopenhauer, Schelling, Hegel, and Nietzsche had all engaged with Hindu thought, leading many Germans to see India as the ‘Morningland’ from which new inspiration would come to revive Europe’s weary culture. In the late 1800s, the Theosophical Society’s various occult lodges in Europe and North America encouraged modern Westerners to see the ancient sages as alive and open to new communication. More recently, the charismatic Hindu speaker Swami Vivekananda had made his way to the 1893 Chicago Parliament of World Religions, depicting Hinduism as an answer to the world’s ills. 

Many of these movements emphasised a transcendent reality lying beyond everyday life, hidden within the soul. But Woodroffe was interested in something more concrete and visceral, encompassing the powers of nature as well as the spiritual dimension. For this, he consulted Sanskrit sources lent him by a Bengali scholar and friend, Atal Bihari Ghose. Gradually, he gravitated toward texts about ‘the Goddess’ — a powerful vision of the divine that attributed all birth and death, suffering and joy to a single creative power that flowed through everything. In the eyes of the British Empire, Woodroffe was the Tagore law professor and chief justice to the government of India; among friends he was becoming an acolyte of Kali. Eventually, taking up the occult nom-de-plume Arthur Avalon, he became the goddess’s European defender. In a series of books he attempted to explain what seemed incomprehensible to the missionaries, ministers, and Jesuit schoolmasters of the Raj.  In his Hymns to the Goddess he wrote that:

…the Mother is only terrible to those who, living in the illusion of separateness which is the cause of fear, have not yet realised their unity with Her, and known that all Her forms are those of beauty.

Woodroffe had an enthusiastic audience among occult groups like the Theosophists at their headquarters further south in Madras. But the public at large was still loathe to see any value in a religion that could worship a naked, dark-skinned, homeless female clad in corpses. 

When the first missionaries from Europe had arrived in India, they were horrified by few things more viscerally than Kali, one of the most fierce of the goddess’s forms. Popular art had come to depict her as a homeless wild woman with unbound hair, adorned with severed limbs, tongue lolling, protruding between twin fangs. Her palms (and sometimes lips) were slick with blood and her foot was propped upon her prone consort, Shiva. This pose placed her divine dominance beyond doubt. Kali seemed the opposite of the toga-clad, pale patriarch of Christian sacred art, floating in the roseate heavens. There could not have been a more provocative slap in the face of Western religion than to have her proclaimed as the true face of God. Europeans possessed no interpretive key for what they saw, and so for most she seemed to be proof of what the colonial powers already thought: India was a savage land bereft of moral vision. 

Fierce goddesses exist across the world, but Hinduism is unusually rich in them. There is fanged Bhadrakali, skeletal Chamunda, lion-headed Narasimhi, goddess Chinnamasta who decapitates herself atop a copulating couple, and haggard Dhumavati, the goddess of quarrels, solitude, hunger and age. These female deities present a riddle for anyone who expects gods to be… pleasant. Sociologically, such deities are an anomaly. Early Indo-Aryan religions often followed an ‘exchange’ model: each deity offers some boon in return for our worship. This principle is easy to see in thunderbolt-wielding father gods like Jehovah, Zeus and Indra who give protection, or sun gods like Ra, Ahura Mazda, or Surya who shed their grace from above each day.  

Dark goddesses can fit into this pattern too. One Vedic hymn pleads with the goddess of chaos, Nirrti, to stay distant, revealing a ‘please-keep-away’ style of worship. Sitala the smallpox goddess arrives with the spirit of fever, but happily departs if propitiated in the right way. When she leaves, the healthy devotee then praises her as Bhagavati or Mangala —  the blessing-bringing auspicious one. But praise for Kali is not focused on any tangible boon for the worshipper. True, she is often said to slay demons in ingenious ways, but this is not what she offers to suppliants. 

A key to her meaning can be found in the story that first brought together the many fierce goddess traditions in a single epic philosophy, the Devi Mahatmya. In the sixth century CE tales of a great goddess — stronger than all the Gods put together — circulated along the Gangetic plain. She was a warrior with a sword, spear or beheading-scythe in one hand, and a lotus of enlightenment in the other. Unlike the many consort goddesses, who magnified their husbands’ greatness by furnishing extra powers of fertility, imagination, or strength, she was independent: the consort of Shiva, but not his wife. In some tales she comes crowned and clad in red silk, riding a lion. In others she rages naked through the cremation grounds at night, dancing with the demons and wild beasts. Different regions gave her different names – Durga, Chinnamasta, Bhadrakali, or just Kali. 

The various versions of the story from around the subcontinent were soon woven into a single text: the Devi Mahatmya or ‘Glorification of the Goddess.’ This early-medieval mini-epic was incorporated into the mythic tapestry of the Markandeya Purana, a mix of early philosophy with stories of sages and gods, and within this literary vehicle it spread throughout the culture. Ever-more temples sprang up across India, including the Kamakhya Temple in Assam’s Himalayan foothills, urban Kolkata’s riverside Kalighat Kali Temple, and Tamil Nadu’s lavish precinct of Meenakshi in the deep south. At the height of colonial rule the goddess became a symbol of resistance: fierce goddesses reminded the subjugated population that India too could be powerful, and righteously angry. Meanwhile elements of the text came to be recited annually during the nine nights of the Navratri festival as the Durga Saptasati, the ‘700 verses to the Goddess’ and it is in this form that it is well-known to many Hindus today.

In the story, a king was once betrayed by his courtiers and family, and sought out the goddess for consolation. When he reached her, she revealed her true nature as the ultimate reality that emits the cosmos — including his unfaithful family, court, and even himself — and dissolves it back into her being again. The king returns to his kingdom healed by learning that every experience is her creation, and reality is her art. The goddess’s liberation flows from open-eyed embrace of life’s existential conditions, not escapism.

Kali and eighteenth-century poet Ramprasad Sen

A thousand years later, it was this philosophy that informed the eighteenth-century poet Ramprasad Sen in his now-famous love songs to Kali. A court poet of Raja Krishnachandra in West Bengal, Ramprasad sang of the subtle hues in Kali’s dark complexion: she possesses the radiant blackness of a light that transcends luminosity. She contains paradoxes, and is as far from human comprehension as the vast moon is to an earth-bound ant. ‘Even the planets cannot fathom her,’ he cautions, for ‘who can bundle up fire?’ Yet wild though she is, if we look too long on her we will fall in love. 

Ramprasad’s poems captured the spirit in which so many Indians worshipped Kali and fierce goddesses like her. Eighteenth-century Bengal was starved by famine and wracked by smallpox; unrest was rife, and everyone feared the moment when, as he put it, ‘death grabs you by the hair.’ His poems describe the social stigma of poverty, and the pitiless funerals of the poor, in terse, vivid language of experience:

I’m sick of living, Mother, sick. Life and money have all run out … am I some orphan fallen out of the sky? … Your games, Mother, are mysteries. You make and break. You’ve broken me in this life.

Yet bitter as Ramprasad seems, he also boasts with a teasing laugh:

Does suffering scare me? O Mother, let me suffer in this world. Do I require more?   

The poetry plays provocative games with its reader so that we come to combine love with resentment; sorrow with beauty.  

Like the betrayed king in the story, Ramprasad receives no boon from the goddess: she simply changes his perspective. But this seems her greatest power, for like all fierce goddesses she gives a face to the dark corners of life — war, violence, sickness, death — shining a bright light on experiences we habitually suppress. Crops may fail as they did in Bengal in 1769, plagues may decimate the population, and war may sweep away all in its path. Perhaps Kali is best understood as a kind of Indian existentialism — a lived philosophy that puts darkness in cosmological perspective. Stars are born and die, civilisations grapple, and each of us fights the demons of our time knowing that even in failure, there is what Yeats called a ‘terrible beauty.’ To will against Kali is to will the void. 

The uniqueness of this approach to suffering is most vivid in the light of comparison. The Stoics aimed to acclimatise their expectations to life’s harsh realities, and cultivate a passionless equanimity. Buddhism took a similar approach: suffering could be neutralised by acknowledging that we are wracked by change and die at each moment. But Ramprasad Sen’s poems are full of undiminished passion for life in all its colours. He rages against detached impassivity and the death-within-life that mere stoicism brings. ‘Drive me out of my mind, O Mother!’ he cries:

Transport me totally with the burning wine
Of your all-embracing love … 
Immerse me irretrievably
In the stormy ocean without boundary,
Pure love, pure love, pure love.  

It seems his goal was not to neutralise suffering so much as to experience it differently — as a kind of burning love. Since then, other Indian philosophies have become more popular globally, such as the abstract pantheism of Swami Vivekananda’s Vedanta, or the therapy of yoga and mindfulness. But the goddesses stand in contrast to these placid traditions. They seem to uphold both Humanistic realism about the murky corners of the world, and a fervent Romanticism affirming the vital spirit of existence in all things, all at once. 

Perhaps what Ramprasad Sen, John Woodroffe, and others saw in Kali was the promise of a rare ability: the power to see clearly the darkness of life and transmute it into something psychologically bright, and existentially worthwhile. In a sense, the Kali-devotee is an existential alchemist. Today the best terms for explaining the fierce goddesses may come from Woodroffe’s contemporary, Sigmund Freud. In 1915 Freud was just beginning to deploy the language of ‘repression,’ urging his readers not to hide from pain, but to welcome catharsis and reconcile ourselves to the experiences that have made us who we are. Fierce goddesses function as a kind of psychotherapy that helps us to acknowledge the mingled sadness and splendour of life. In Woodroffe’s words, we are ‘now illuminated by Her light, now wrapped in her terrible darkness.’ The dark beauty of Kali, creatrix of worlds, transcends us all.

Jessica Frazier

Jessica Frazier is Lecturer in Theology and Religion at Trinity College, Oxford, and a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Hindu studies.

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