I do not remember having taken any special notice of Kali till I was in my teens. A lot of my early childhood was spent away from home. The first two years of my life, I lived with a most loving German Omi. My first language was German and my first introduction to spirituality must have been Christian. The next three years saw us in England, and a friend of the family would take me every Sunday, to a Protestant Church where I remember singing happily. The home did not have a dedicated place of worship as yet, as we were moving too fast for this space to come up. On certain days, I would see my parents put out fruits in a plate and bow down in front of these offerings, I remember just copying them and wondering what it meant.
Even after we came back to India, the family moved a lot before my father settled down in Orissa for awhile… giving my mother enough time to look around and realize that I was way past school going age and that children my age were already in class three, or the third standard as it is called now. I became a boarder at St. Joseph’s High School in the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh. Here again I was introduced to the Church – Roman Catholic this time.
When I was around ten, I came back home. Here too, most of my schooling was under the strict eye of many a saint… St. Joseph, who was followed by St. Anthony and Mary Immaculate only to be shortly disturbed by two non religious schools. All this while somewhere at home, there was a little altar, where the Hindu Gods stood their ground. I did not pay the altar much attention. It was a place where my father would bow low in prayer after his bath, a place where my mother would burn incense, place a plate of fruits and a bowl of water and read from the holy books. A long absence from home in the early years, the non communicative nature of my family, and now add to that my appearance that differed from my siblings; this put me in the classic position of the ‘mistaken zygote’. As I grew into my teenage years, I was additionally becoming aware of my second class status as a dark female gawky teenager in the larger world. Friends and family pointed out the difference in the colour between me and my siblings, and their preference was always clear. The attitude of the boys of my age did not help either! Anyway, to make a long story short, I was slowly but surely becoming a very angry young person. I would look at myself and wonder how people missed the fact that I was so beautiful and smart. It was a troubling time for me. Had I got it wrong? Could so many people be wrong?
Somewhere around this time, in my grief, anger and utter loneliness, I think I looked closely at the altar in our home. There was the beautiful Lakshmi standing elegantly next to Narayan with her vaahan, the owl sitting next to her. There was the fair Saraswati, seated on a lotus, beautiful veena in hand, and peacock by her side. There was the bronze baby Krishna on all threes, with one hand held up in a blessing. There was Shiva, sitting in his tiger skin with a snake coiled around his neck, close to Parvati; knees gently touching. Ganesh, with his elephant head and rotund belly, too looking on beatifically. In the midst of all this, She stood majestic, dark, proud, and naked! A garland of human heads and another of hibiscus flowers covered her torso. On her waist, she wore a chain of severed human hands. Behind, her long thick and dark tresses touched the ground. She had four hands. In one hand, she held a da/knife, the one she presumably cut heads with, while a second was raised in benediction. Of the other two hands, one pointed to Shiva, who lay blissfully under her feet, while the fourth hand, held a freshly cut human head. All the heads in the garland and the hand were for some reason males with moustaches. The obliging fox, her vaahan, drank the blood as it dripped from this freshly cut head. And there she stood, this fierce and wondrous Goddess, with her foot on Shiva and her tongue stuck out.
Of all the Gods and Goddesses, I chose her, she was mine and I was hers. In hindsight, I see how I was attracted to her in my rebellious angry years, stuck as I was in my well intentioned but highly patriarchal conservative family with very fixed ideas about women and beauty. It seemed She could do anything. She did what she pleased, cut men, stood on her husband, roamed naked and then stuck out her tongue at the hypocrisy of the world. And she was dark and and she was beautiful. She was my mother. It is to her that I would come at the end of day and talk, cry and vent. It was to her that I looked to, for a sign, whenever I made a decision. It was to her that I prayed before my exams, and it was at her face that I looked upon before my results were declared or a cute boy that I liked appeared on the horizon. I had built an alternative family. With her as my mother and Sri Ram Krishna Paramhansa as my elder brother.
Long after I had given my heart to her, (it had never interfered with my quiet time in chapels in schools) I overheard the story behind what I had construed as a highly empowering posture, a posture of utter disregard and defiance for the bullshit that was the world! It seems that once upon a time, evil had raised its ugly head and there were a lot of wicked people on this earth. Kali was called upon to rid the earth of its evil. She sets out, da/knife in hand and goes on a rampage, beheading evil people on the earth. Soon it turns into an addiction, and she cannot stop herself and goes out every night killing people on earth and drinking their blood. There is no one who can stop her and so the Gods come to Shiva, her consort, and asks him to intervene. So one night, he lies down across the threshold and as she tries to stealthily slip out under the cover of night to enjoy her nightly killings, she steps on her husband. This is a grave matter. A woman stepping on her man! So she sticks her tongue out in shame, in contrition , in embarrassment and is brought back to her senses and she stops her nightly killing spree, her homicidal rampage and the world is saved! You can see what this story could have done to me. From the highly empowered and magnificent mother, the kick-ass Goddess, the story had turned her into a woman gone wrong, brought back to her senses by the husband. Thankfully, the story came to me too late, by this time, I loved her too much, to care about what people thought about her!
As requited love, marriage, motherhood and work took over my life, the intensity of our relationship slackened. Much like it is with most mothers and daughters. However, on a particularly good or bad day, she was the one I would turn to.
Then the children grew up and left home, I withdrew from active work and decided to devote time to my other passions. Storytelling happens to be one of them. I also started looking up on matters of the spirit. I came across and felt attracted to Buddhism through the teachings of Thick Naht Hahn, and as I tried to merge my many beliefs that involved Buddhist nothingness, an intensely personal empowered Hindu Goddess and a heavenly Christian Father figure into a meaningful whole for myself, I questioned the place that Kali had in my life. I was not angry anymore, I was not wild and defiant anymore, I was not insecure anymore. What then, was the place of Kali in my life? I was not ready to let her go. She had looked out for me, communicated with me when I felt totally alone. Had I outgrown the need for her ? The storyteller and the spiritual seeker in me looked for an answer.
I found many stories, mostly those that related to her blood thirsty vengeful and dangerous nature. I will not share them because these stories do not resonate with me. This piece is a sharing of my understanding of my mother (apologetic nod to the non existing me 🙂 ) This is the explanation that made sense to me.
When Shiva and Kali are depicted together in the much maligned posture, it is Kali standing over a lying Shiva. Shiva is pure Consciousness and Kali is pure Energy. Consciousness acknowledges and honours Energy and even submits to Her so that He may be empowered, and Energy in touch with Consciousness is creation at play. One without the other is nothing. And the gently smiling Shiva, and Kali with her tongue stuck out happily are the divine couple, Consciousness and Energy in divine play and we are all parts of this divine play between pure Consciousness and Energy. This makes sense to me today.
In this little lifetime as a mother, I have seen the relationship between me and my daughters change a number of times, from babyhood to childhood and through their teenage years to adulthood. We have been many things to each other and I see the same play at work between me and the Mother.
Today, the couple, Kali and Shiva come to me as Mother when I need a parental form, and Source when I am meditating on the formless. That’s today.
I guess, if and when I can and do move beyond this play between the many forms and the formless, between the many myths from various religions that resonate within me, there will be another story or maybe there are no words and no stories there, who knows? For now this is where I am.