Maa Kali, the dark goddess of the east, the creator and destroyer of the universe is one that inflicts by her very appearance fear into the Westerner's heart.
It is easy to see how misunderstandings of this dark goddess can occur... Kali is typically shown with her red tongue sticking out, biting it with her white teeth, standing on her husband, Shiva, with a sword in one of her hands, a severed head in another one of her hands, she is naked except for the necklace of 50 heads, and severed human arms worn as a belt around her waist. This is indeed a shocking image.
Which brings up the question... Why the need for such shocking iconography? There are surely many ways to depict the severing of the ego and the relinquishing of evil in the world, why THIS? Which then brings me to another question... Why does this imagery invoke so much fear, specifically for westerners? I find the general western reaction of revolt and dismay ironic for 2 main reasons: 1) One of the most prominent religions in this part of the world has the iconography of it's savior being brutally crucified and 2) Here in the U.S, we seem to celebrate graphic violence in our entertainment. However, despite how I may think that these things would de-sensitize us from being astonished by Kali, it seems that this Shakti goddess has just as much shock-value now as she had 1,500 years ago.
To explore these questions, we will need to back up a bit and take a look at what is really going on here in Kali's imagery.
This scene comes from one of the most popular stories about Kali. The demon Raktabija was terrorizing the land, and causing an issue for both man and god alike. To make things more complicated, every time the demon would bleed, the blood drop would create another demon. The fierce goddess Durga, became so enraged in the battle against the demons that from her head came forth Kali. Kali is shear power (Shakti); during this on-slaught, she did kill Raktabija and drank the blood so that it would not create any more demons. As she fought, she starting to kill everything insight, she got a little carried away and the gods didn't know what to do to stop her. So Shiva decided to simply lie down in her path. When she realized she had stepped on her consort, she stuck out her tongue, as a sign of remorse for this accident, and the battle that was won ceased.
In other versions of this story, Shiva laid down at her feet as a means to show devotion and receive blessings from Kali.
Below is a short description of what some of this imagery means:
Naked: Kali is infinite, nothing finite can veil her, she is free of all illusion (Maya). She is Digambari meaning: "clad in space."
Black or Dark-blue skin: Represents the great void or womb of the Universe
Belt of human arms: All human actions and their result (Karma) go back to Kali at the end of the life cycle. When these souls reincarnate, they evolve with their karmas.
Necklace of 50 severed heads: Represents the 50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, this is a sacred language of the gods, and each letter represents the 50 petals associated with the lower 6 chakras. The ancients understood that vibration is the foundation of all creation, she is Shabda Brahman, the sound which is the source of creation.
Sword (usually in the right hand): Divine Knowledge and fearlessness; she cuts bondage with the sword of knowledge and gives wisdom to the head as the receptacle for divine wisdom.
Severed Head (usually in the Left): The slaying of the ego so one can receive true wisdom.
Lower arms in a mudra (typically given with the right): Giving blessings to her children, many times is in Abahya mudra, which is a mudra that dispels fear.
Red Tongue: Her thirst to consume and relinquish the uncontrolled desires or demons from the world.
White Teeth: Spiritual knowledge and purity.
If the right foot is forward: Symbolizing her Dakshina Kali (benign form)
If the Left foot is forward: Symbolizing her Vama Kali (destroying form)
It is also important to know that in the Hindu pantheon, every god has a goddess consort. The god is the formless aspect (the Shiva) and the goddess is the Shakti (active aspect). Also, many of these gods, especially the major ones, have many different forms, and go by different names, which can be confusing for those who are just starting to acquaint themselves with this Pantheon. The god is inert without his goddess and the goddess is uninspired action without the god aspect. They are two sides of the same coin and need each other.
So, here, we have a beautiful example of how this balance occurs. A great evil was plaguing the world, a need for some serious Shakti, in the form of destruction in this case, was in order, but without the formless, the Shiva, it can get out of control, being uninspired action. When Kali stepped on Shiva, this connection with the other half brought back balance.
OK, so now that we have a bit of background, lets go back to our original questions...
Why a need for such gory and graphic iconography?
Well, there is the notion that this actually happened. And if you are Hindu or have a Pagan belief system, then this is most likely the answer that will suit you the best.
However, if you believe that this is more of a myth to explain the human experience then an actual event, then bring to your memory or imagination the feeling of having to let go of your ego (even if just momentarily). This maybe a time when you had to apologize, ask for help, let go of past trauma, forgive, were asked to be open to a new but uncomfortable idea, or be humble in any way. Doesn't asking the ego to step down sometimes feel like a battle? Personal growth and evolution is not a neat and tidy business. If it were all rainbows and puppies, then we'd all be doing it and the world would be a much different place. The fact is that in order to have birth and growth, there has to be death.
I'll make my point with a very mundane task that most of us have done... Ever cleaned out a messy closet? There is a part of the task where everything is out in the open, for all to see, it looks like complete mayhem. Things are being sorted, thrown away, shredded, given away to others that might find more use, etc... This is a destruction phase. Then eventually it all comes back together, things find order again, and what is created is a neat orderly space with more room. For those of us who are cleaning up our consciousness, we feel the destruction phase, this is a phase of being vulnerable, feeling more sensitive then usual, and then eventually severing and letting go of something. Depending on what this is, it may be very painful.
Most of us seek to have transitions in our lives made easier, and although initially her appearance and power are shocking, she is an excellent deity to aid us in times where we are seeing a cycle in our lives die to make room for new growth… After all, she is one that the gods themselves call upon when disaster strikes. In her most ferocious form, she is still considered to be one of the most compassionate of mothers, and this has been my experience with her as well.
For Kali, she is not just concerned with the personal death and resurrection of one of her children (both physically and spiritually), but the whole of the universe, it quite literally is a blood bath. She, of course, is not the only god or goddess to have something gory occur so that new life or evolution can take place (see the blog on Gullveig, for example), but she does seem to invoke more fear of her then many others.
This brings me to the second question... Why does this imagery invoke so much fear in westerners specifically?
Her story is one of a goddess not undergoing a personal destruction for the sake of evolution, but one of slaying something external to herself for the greater good of all. This is a different dynamic; when one undergoes a death to oneself as a symbol or lesson to others, this is a much more passive way of teaching (not any less powerful, just more passive). In this dynamic, the student may feel that they may have more control in choosing how much spiritual death and resurrection they can handle (whether or not this is reality is for a different blog). As westerners, we like control, and our egocentric society is much more comfortable with this image of a more passive relationship to divinity. Kali is not passive; when we call upon her, she will lovingly rip us through the keyhole for our own good. She is the aspect of the divine mother that makes the ego tremble in its designer boots. The aspect that will give us the bad-tasting medicine when we are sick... All in love.
We, of course, have the option of turning our backs to her like a pouting child. She is a compassionate mother, and understands, just as any good mother, that these lessons are hard for her children. No matter if we turn our heads, she is still there. She is the goddess of time and change, her name comes from the word "Kala," meaning "time," "black one," or "the time has come," we cannot escape her, but we can choose to make things more difficult. We can choose to look towards her luminous heart and try our best not to resist the death and birthing process, or we can resist, and prolong the often painful process of change.
This aspect of mothering and femininity in general is one that the western culture has some getting used to. We are still uncomfortable as a whole with women acting aggressive. For example, we are only recently seeing women beginning to be celebrated in activities like sports and martial arts, and we still have a long ways to go to get equal pay and visibility in these areas, as well as many others.
The majority of the images and societal examples of female sexuality typically give mixed messages about female sexual empowerment, and this could be a whole blog by itself, but needless to say that those who are uncomfortable seeing a woman breastfeeding in public may be more then uncomfortable with Kali's nipples showing.
Lastly, generally speaking, in the west, we are very uncomfortable with death. We have whole systems set up so that we don't have to see or come in contact with its reality. For people who eat meat, it is always nicely and neatly packaged for our consumption, disassociating us with the reality of what is in our finely packaged, blood-soaked product (and, yes, I do eat meat). I had a student whose job was as an undertaker; he said that one of the most surprising things about his job when he first started was the huge warehouses full of dead bodies. He never thought of just how many people must die everyday, and neither do most of the rest of us in the west. Death is everywhere and we do a very good job of hiding it.
So, here we have Kali, the nipple-showing, blood-soaked goddess warrior, and bringer of death to the ego whom we shall also meet after our physical death. It's as though she was distinctly designed to assault our western sensibilities and mindset.
Recently, it seems that Kali has been getting more attention from those in the west, and maybe that's because little by little we are starting to become more aware that the pain of staying stuck where we are, as a whole, is starting to out-weigh the fear of what might happen if we choose to change, to let go, and let grow. To make this kind of transition in consciousness we need a Kali in our corner, because slaying demons is difficult and messy business.