“You often hear it said – “Time is on our side”.
Well … This is Time. She is On My Side.”
The Sixth Night of #NavRatri is dedicated to Ma as KaalRatri – the Blackest Night, the Night of Death, The Iron Night, The ‘Stillness’ of Time – and the ‘Destroyer of Darkness’, the Annihilator: the End of All … but also, the Night which precedes (and thus implicitly allows) Creation – for such is the Kala colour keyed to. (I have elucidated upon the meaning-field of “Kaal”, and how and why it encompasses both ‘Death’ and ‘Time’, inter alia, at some length elsewhere, and will not repeat it here – suffice to say that “Time destroys everything eventually” – it is “the fire in which we burn”, even before the Final Fire is to be considered.).
KaalRatri is unquestionably my favourite of the Nine Nights, in no small part due to my gratitude for a certain event which occurred upon this date some four years ago. Kali-worship – or, at least, honouring and acknowledgement, in some traditions – is also a regular feature of Hindu piety. (Technically speaking, KaalRatri represents a slightly more specific Form of the Kali Aspect; however both due to Their fundamental identicality of essence, as well as the frequent overlap of “mythconceptions” around Them in the popular consciousness, and quite significant shared mythography, attributes, portfolio, and functions/role, I am not making a hard distinction in what follows)
However, due to the frequent and rather wilful misrepresentations and misunderstandings which have been promulgated in Western media over the years (most prominently, perhaps, a certain film featuring an errant archaeologist), this occasionally comes across as being somewhat surprising or even outright abhorrent to outsiders.
A strange thing; but I suppose their thought process is that they cannot understand why we would hold such high regard for a Deity Whose Name literally means “Death”, and Whose most commonly known about ‘cosmic role’ is to bring about – indeed, straight-up *is* – the End of Everything, the Destruction of the Universe; Whose customary depictions show Her garlanded with a necklace of skulls, skirted with severed arms, carrying the grisly trophy of a severed head, and blood-spattered weaponry, Whose Gaze Is Akin To Lightning, and Whose Breath Is Of Fire etc.
And yes, I suppose in that ‘light’, we can see why such perplexity is held by non-Hindu audiences when it comes to the veneration of Kali.
Yet such prejudice is based largely if not entirely upon misperception and misinformation (‘mythperception’, so to speak). For while it is, of course, unquestionably true that Kali and KaalRatri are black and terrifying, bloody-handed, and with all the implicit panic-inducing horror of the Night or Death … and further, that She will ultimately annihilate the Universe at large at the end of the age … this is neither the ‘full story’, nor any actual evidence of “malevolence” on Her part.
For just as – and I mean this quite literally – ‘motivation’ and ‘context/circumstance’ is what transforms the killing of another from “murder” into “the justified defence by a Mother of her child”, so too with Mata Kali (and not least due to the incredible feats of strength and endurance over and above her usual limits which a mother is capable of when her progeny are under threat!). Her terror-inducing appearance and supreme ferocity of visage are there because of what She must contend with – on *our* behalf.
That old quip about how “[s]he who fights monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster” does not apply here. For instead, She – Parvati, Uma, Durga – has become something Terrific (at least partially in the older sense of the term – a begetter of terror). Not a monster, not a demon – but rather, a being capable of besting even the mightiest of those adversarial perils arrayed against us : For what can stand against Death? What can be more vast or overpowering than the Night? – Only Shakti, Only the Sun, and She is also both, albeit in different guises). And which is almost singularly capable of confronting ‘existential threats’ up to and including corrupted ‘existence’ itself (for such the degenerated fabric of the cosmos becomes by the end of the appointed tapestry of time), and *winning*. That is, to reference a certain filmic portrayal of Her Husband (sorta) what She does – She Wins.
So if She is the very personification of Terror and Death to the demons whom She unveils to oppose … then what is She to us? Well, once again – a Mother, a Protector, a Champion. An Illuminator, a Liberator, a Benefactor, a ‘Care-taker’, a Guide. If we are imperilled, She will come forth – and defend us. If we are struck down, She will Avenge. And as and when we die and find ourselves transported one way or another to the Smashana – the Cremation Ground – She will be there, with open arms to welcome us ‘home’. Nilaya, with Neel-Aya, so to speak.
And as applies Her nature as the Night … well, it is a funny thing, but even though we as human beings are most used to seeing things when they are well-illuminated by the broad and bright rays of the Sun (or some indoor simulacrum thereof), there are some things – some truths – that can only really be understood in darkness. Think of the Stars, for instance. They do not go away when the Sun shines in the heavens above us; yet they are imperceptible unless the Sun sets and Night instead ascends into place. The sparkling allure of the Jyotisha is not ‘false’ – just “hidden”. “Nilaya”, it would seem, is correlated with “Night-time” in a number of senses!
Kali as Night, then, is prayed to not just for protection (for while the night might be dark, and seem full of terrors … She is, to quote Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “the elder and more terrible” – from their perspective, anyway), but also for “illumination” (as paradoxical as that might at first seem). There is much wisdom that in the manner of Moon-runes or twilight language – or simply having the freedom and space to think once the noise and bustle of the day is done – which only reveals itself or which can be divined ‘after dark’. Hence, no doubt, part of the reasoning for the Owl, with its keen eyes in the dark, having such prominence as a symbol of Wisdom in Western culture (it may derive from Athena – but consider also the famous Hegel quote : “The Owl of Minerva only takes flight when the shades of Night are gathering”; which *also* now that I think upon it, relates back to notions of time and Telos). (The ‘Hidden Wisdom’ and the Light of the Moon within the Night; along with Her general theme of the severing of ensnarements also explain why She is prayed to in order to ask that magical curses be lifted from us).
It should therefore come as no surprise that She finds association in some traditions with the Sahasrara (‘Crown’) Chakra which exists beyond and above the Ajna (‘Third Eye’) Chakra keyed to Ma as Katyayani – after all, the elevated activity of that point of empowered enlightenment is generally only to be found amidst those who have successfully destroyed the delusions (particularly with the aid of ‘seeing clearly’ via the ‘third eye’), loosened the restraints of ‘previous action’ (Karma) , and are therefore fundamentally closer to ‘the source’ , to ‘eternity’, and thus liberation (in whatever sense that may mean, depending upon the yogic tradition involved/entailed) and ‘rebirth’ in the sense of something greater.
To situate KaalRatri within the overarching NavaDurga mythic context, then, it is clear to see how She represents the continuance of Katyayani. For whereas Ma as Katyayani is the Supreme, the Solar Warrior – the Force of Creation emanated down to this plane to dispatch and destroy threats to the realm and to the Gods … Ma as Kali is the Supreme, the Nocturnal Annihilator – the Force of Cosmic Destruction brought into being to handle even more intractable threats (and therefore also the Destroyer of (A’Suric) Darkness, so to speak – as well as the embodiment of the Divine Night), and even to unmake reality itself when it can be no more corrupted, in order that the whole cyclic process of cosmogenesis might start all over once more. At once, then, She is both the Elevation and the Antithesis of much in the NavaRatri Cycle which has gone before. The continued escalation of Devi’s furious Anger and prowess at conflict from the birth-pangs of Skanda through to the victorious blades of Katyayani, and on to an incandescent rage which burns so far beyond “white hot” that it appears to our eyes to be blackness – like the invisible cutting blade of a plasma-torch which can unmake virtually anything it touches in an instant.
Yet in another sense, which looks forward also to the next Form – MahaGauri, the Great White One, Who is ‘Peace’ – KaalRatri represents both Death, which is the natural fruit of Katyayani, the Warrior’s efforts … as well as the pathway of transcending *through* Death [I daren’t say “overcoming”] so that the further ascension of the soul may occur [to the state represented by MahaGauri – the situation *beyond* Death, both in the context of the NavaDurgas and in, to phrase it perhaps ironically, “life” in general]. ‘The End Yet Which Is Not ‘Final”.
This interpretation (and, for that matter, our others, as mentioned above) is further substantiated via the linguistic analysis which we have carried out on the likely Proto-Indo-European roots of the term “Kali”. For it appears plainly obvious that “Kel”, meaning “Cover” (that is to say – to obscure, to shelter, but also to protect, to hide), lies at the heart of it. Descendent terms from this stem in Western Indo-European languages include the Germanic “Hall” as well as “Hell” (the sense here, as applies the former, is a covered place -a shelter; and as applies the latter, in addition perhaps to the “under” part of “underworld” (c.f “Hole”), something more properly rendered figuratively and idiomatically – “Beyond the Veil”, beyond the ken of Mortal comprehension, particularly in the post-life; for such is Death … both the ‘transitive moment’ of demise (i.e. The Veil), as well as the journey through it and the ongoing persistent state and/or place ‘beyond’/’after’ .), “Helmet” (that is to say, a protective covering for the head), “Skeleton” and Skull” (the idea being that something which *was* covered … now isn’t – a grim sign of mortality); in Latin, words such as “Clam” from which we get “Clandestine” (thus, protecting secrets in order that they may be transmitted only to those appropriate), “Cilium” (meaning the lid of the eye), and “Color” (which means exactly what you think it does – especially as applies an external appearance, a tincture); and in Greek, “Koleos” – a Sheath (this is of particular relevancy given the array of Kali mythology wherein the black skin of the Goddess is discarded to reveal Parvati once more in all Her fairness having been all this time (so to speak) within), as well as “Kelyfos” – a Shell (particularly of an Egg .. which to my mind recalls the identification of Devi, particularly as Kushmanda, with the HiranyaGarbha – the Cosmic Egg. Not so much because eggs have shells, of course – but rather because something so precious as the womb of all life, quite clearly, requires *protecting*. Indeed, to quote a maxim of Winston Churchill … “in war-time, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Gosh, I didn’t even have to change the gender! Although I am, of course, not meaning to conflate the Aspect of Devi with “lies” – only with occlusion and vastly necessary concealment).
Interestingly, the Sanskrit term ‘Sarana’ is also hypothesized to have sprung from a similar ultimate origin point. Taking a look at its ambit of meaning, which includes a home, a refuge, protection, defence, but also help/support, and killing or wounding … it is not at all hard to see why this is thought to be so. Although its *additional* meaning – as one of the Arrows of Kamadeva – may seem somewhat peculiar, up until one considers the closely related Sanskrit term, Sarman: happiness/bliss, prosperity, safety, shelter, succour, comfort … and, reportedly, according to later ancient commentaries such as the Aitareya Brahmana and Kaushika Sutra, other resonant meanings such as ‘Vac’ and ‘Sarva’.
I have personally observed the former. And how this then unfurled both through and to all the others!
In terms of the mythology surrounding KaalRatri, we can see all of the above in beautiful, whirling, violent motion. The instances wherein She is invoked by The Gods to devastate this or that demon invasion by destroying its animating commanders, clearly show Her as Protector; while those occurrences wherein this takes place pretty much at the gates of or even*within* the Divine Realm itself, further show Her as an active manifestation of that principle of Refuge, of Home – although ‘Hearth” is perhaps less accurate than ‘Cremation Ground’ for obvious reasons pertaining both to the fate of those would-be invaders, as well as Her more usual preferred demesne.
On a more figurative level, with the demons taken as symbolic of delusions and impurities of thought or action, Kali’s role as the unparalleled Destroyer thus connotes Her ability to assist the Devotee in a similar manner – by removing said impediments toward righteous conduct and enlightenment. Additionally, the characterization of a number of these prominent demons – wherein they have this or that overbearing weakness of character, such as arrogance, the heedless and headlong (shortly to be head*less*) drive for power, or their being dominated by their appetites (and, of course, almost by definition, impiety), which ultimately leads to their undoing at Her Blessed Hands – provides an ample set of exemplar lessons in the ways in which That Which We Ask Kali To Destroy In Us … can, if left unchecked, easily destroy *us* instead!
However, due to Her total mastery over that which is contained within Her, She is not restricted merely to the ‘removal’ of illusions, and the conveyance of Wisdom to Her Devotee. Rather, She is also most adroit at the craft and construction of beguilements, ensnarement of the mind and will which shroud truth (and thus, in the manner of a burial shroud, enwrap their targets), misdirect adversaries, turn allies against each other, and the enemy’s own strengths and powerful attributes against them. Just as She can roll back the ‘night’ to reveal things to you, to provision the guidance along the less-treacherous path through the illumination of, if not outright envelopment and removal of obstacles … so, too, can She re-cover that which had otherwise become apparent, darken the way of the foeman, beset the Night’s Terrors upon him, and leave him stumbling off a cliff he could not see in front of him , (allowing him to send himself) plummeting through the Night Sky – into Her Eternal Embrace.
For such is the Unrestricted Power of Kali. Not least due to the potentiality that within the Night of space and the Space of night is to be found everything and its opposite.
Further, it is worth noting that the Unmaking of Reality at the End of Time, the Pralaya unto Maya (‘Maya’ interestingly means both ‘Illusion’ and ‘Reality’ – in the sense of our material reality as we perceive it being quite the illusion), directly shows the ‘unravelling’ of the Veil which shrouds us (and not always entirely unarguably so) from the Absolute (that is, in Shakta theology, Shakti-As-Brahman, Ishvari As She More Truly Is . well .. above “is”). Not only is this clearly correlate with the role *inside* the Devotee’s psyche and life – wherein Mother Kali is asked to dissolve delusions and illusions that stand in the way of our enlightenment and pious spiritual progress … but it *also* suggests a further interpretation for the theonymic title of “KaalRatri” – The (Inevitable) Death Of The Shroud; and thus the Death of Time (for Time comes to an End with the passage from existence of the Universe entire); as well as, subsequent to this, the End of Emptiness – for amidst the setting of space (quite literally – She is described in scripture as possessing the beauty of not just the Night Sky, but the glittering tableaux of what we would perhaps refer to as ‘Outer Space’, the [not exactly empty] Void Between Worlds – this last phrase *also* describing Her role *between* and *above* Creation(s)), will occur the grandest possible Revelation In Darkness – that of new ‘dawn’, of the unfolding, unfurling truth of the new reality in the space vacated by the old one, which can only then begin.
The myth of the Slaying of RaktaBija [‘Blood-Seed’] in particular also springs to mind, both as illustration of Devi’s qualities when She has assumed the Kali Form – but also for its value as a subversion and destruction of the misconception some have of Kali as something akin to a ‘mindless berserker’. The precise details of the legend will not be gone into here – but suffice to say that at the height of the latest demonic onslaught to attempt to assail the Gods, things started to go Wrong. Devi had already manifested as Durga – and, more than that, as an array of other Aspects simultaneously, with the combined Host carrying out a valorous charge into the heart of the demonic army, dispatching its foremost fighters for the most part with almost contemptuous ease. That was, until the appearance of RaktaBija upon the field of battle.
Now, this demon was allegedly the reincarnated father of Mahishasura – whom we met under the feet of Katyayani in last night’s commentary; and whether he had learned from the fates of the previous A’suric assailants against the Gods … or was simply smarter than the vast majority of they, I do not know. However it transpired, the nature of the Boon which Raktabija had acquired was fairly uniquely well-suited for withstanding the ferocious onslaught of the enraged Warrior Forms of Parvati. For his name was not coincidental – for every drop of blood spilled which hit the ground, another Raktabija ‘clone’ would spring up, in a manner perhaps somewhat akin to the ‘hydra head’ phenomenon encountered by Heracles/Hercules in Greco-Roman myth.
This presented a clear obstacle for the Devi-n(in)e Host, as Their customary approach of direct attack with Their flashing swords, wailing bows, and other such mechanisms of cutting and piercing the foe, had obviously produced quite the exsanguinate profusion, all across the field of war. And with it, after a short delay, any additional number of Raktabija warriors had sprouted into being … each of whom also possessed the blood-seed ability of their origin-demon. As can quite horrifyingly be anticipated, this thus meant that the Raktabija (and therefore, demonic) problem was growing at a pretty much exponential rate – the Devisena lacking other tools to keep the Raktabijas at bay than with Their Weapons … and yet worsening Their overall position every time They put them to their intended use.
Yet if Devi is infinitely powerful, She is also infinitely clever – and therefore, the Kali Form was called upon. KaalRatri thus appeared upon the battlefield, with all the immense majesty and stature of Night, and all the annihilative power of quite literally Apocalyptic Fury. Perceiving instantly the problem that had thus lead to the swarming hordes of swiftly reproducing demons sprawling across what was supposed to be the killzone, She took action – furling out Her immense tongue and utilizing Her greatest deft and dexterity (as well as the speed of Darkness, of Night – it’s always there *just* before Light is …) , She proceeded to catch with Her tongue each drop of blood as it was shed and before it could touch the ground (Thus helping to explain why She is customarily depicted with a pronouncedly long tongue, and a mouth that is surrounded by blood – . This, at least, brought a halt to the *worsening* of the situation – but how was She to vanquish Raktabija and eliminate this most recent ADharmic threat?
One solution was to simply ‘bleed them dry’, quite literally – hoping that sustained blood-loss and other such grievous wounds would incapacitate the Raktabijas, while Her darting tongue continued to intercept any blood thus shed, so as to avoid reinforcing the adversary in so doing. Another, perhaps, might be the Noose – suffocation, after all, would present a bloodless means to exterminate the foe, albeit subject to the difficulty of catching them and then deploying the strangulation without letting any blood touch the earth.
KaalRatri, however, chose a much more expansive course. Utilizing the supreme and all-enveloping power of the Night, She proceeded to simply envelop and devour within Her darkness, the ravening horde entire.
This, then, is the awe-inspiring potency of Mother Kali – to encompass all, just as Time and Night (can) touch all things; to envelop even the mightiest host and the strongest foe(s), in exactly the manner that the departure of Day covers everything within Her Shroud; to *end* anything – for nothing can stand against the relentless March of Time, “in the end”, and everything which has a beginning also possesses a Death.
Yet it also shows these most formidable powers and elements of nature being deployed toward *positive*, *noble* goals – the protection of Her kinsfolk, the Gods, and via this the upholding and maintenance of Dharma within our universe. Further, the results of this Combat-of-Annihilation, is to make clear the way for life, love, and light, in its wake and free (for the moment, and the most part) from the overbearing and stifling threat that had nearly wiped it out without chance for easy resurrection. Or, in other words, *exactly* what Her role with the Pralaya – the Grand Unravelling of the World at the End of Time – is to accomplish, to do.
The fact that this is all done with intelligence, creativity, and perspicacity, clearly demonstrates the supreme sapience and clarity of thinking which can oft-only be found (for me, at least) amidst the Night; while also carrying out that much needed disintegration of the lamentable misperception of Her as simply an unthinking, onrushing tide of doom and devastation akin to the automatism of an earthquake-triggered tsunami. She may indeed be a most powerful and all-consuming Inevitability, with the Inexorability and Implacability of the heat-death of the Universe … but that most definitely does NOT mean that She is anything less than superlatively Wise.
After all, have not Death, and Time, and Night, and the Presence at both Beginning and End of Creation, seen (and digested) just about everything between them?
Having said that, though – I maintain that the Lesson of KalaRatri Contra RaktaBija is (appropriately enough) a deceptively simple one, not least due to its ‘dual nature’:
Namely, that there are indeed some situations and some seemingly severe obstacles to which an absolute, even ‘All-Consuming’ Anger is *exactly* the right element to bring to the table.
But also, that even at its apex of intensity, one should never discard intelligence – for to do so, particularly in the high-pressure environment of (and perhaps added to, invited by) a furiously aggressive response : is to invite your problems to multiply until they might even be able to overwhelm you – or, at the very least, maybe leave you battling with them for an eternity!
Therefore, it is the essential *unity* of these elements – of the ‘Hot Head’ and the Brain Within, elements that we often rather artificially consider to be innately separate (as well, it must be said, with the adroit tongue to express these fundamentally important faculties’ reach and grasp) – which makes for the *most* fearsome and formidable combatant.
There is also, in some folklore surrounding the above myth, another lesson. Namely, the importance of self-control, and of discernment. For it is said in these ‘popular tellings’ of the legend, that upon slaying RaktaBija and having laid waste to the remainder of the demon army via Her inimitable combination of proficient fury and furious proficiency, She had perhaps become ‘blood-drunk’ – immersed in a potentially apocalyptic frenzy of annihilation, possibly as the result of the not-insignificant effort entailed in ending and containing the Raktabija threat causing something to ‘lock’ in Her and therefore constraining Her ability to end the slaughter. Indeed, perhaps even to adequately distinguish friend from foe.
Had this battle-rage been allowed to persist unchecked, it would ultimately have resulted in Omnicide – the (premature) desolation, disintegration, and eventual dissolution of the Universe Entire. As it was, in these ‘folk’ tellings, Lord Shiva perceives the imminent trajectory to cataclysm, and directly interposes Himself upon Her path in order to bring a halt to the mightiest madness. In some versions, She kills Him (something otherwise basically impossible, in both senses), not realizing His identity; whereas in others, She ‘merely’ tramples Him, after He throws Himself underfoot. In either case, She suddenly realizes with Horror what She is reputed to have done, and overwhelmed with shame and guilt, She ceases Her rampage of destruction forthwith. This also, as it happens, provides another explanation for Her long and prominent Tongue in iconographic depictions – as it is a gesture of contrition and acknowledgement of wrongdoing (consider/compare the English idiom “to bite one’s tongue” – which can easily connote the idea of not embarrassing one’s self *further* via ill-considered actions or speech to add to what has already transpired; or otherwise, simply, self-restraint hopefully preventing such irascibility from eventuating in the first place) – something which places in an interesting light the utilization of said tongue to undo the demonic army earlier in the episode, as it suggest that Contrition is the natural antidote and destroyer of the Arrogance and other moral failings personified by the demonic there.
In any case, the panoply and associated iconography of Mother Kali is a fascinating subject in its own rite – which we shall only briefly delve into here.
The ‘standard’ depiction of Kali as KaalRatri features the Aspect of the Goddess seated upon a donkey, bearing both a lethally curved long sword (often spattered with blood about its upper crescent blade) representing both Death and the ability to sever delusions as well as the ‘ties of Karma’ for a Devotee, as well as the Vajra – the ‘Thunder Weapon’ often associated with both Lord Indra, and with Rulership and/or the maintenance and upholding of Dharma therethrough/from/with (interestingly, and this is a point we shall return to later, in Puranic-era traditions, the Vajra is regarded as having been made from the bones of the Sage Dadhichi – in part because of an a’sura who could not be killed by any living warrior … and so therefore was brought low via a super-weapon made from a particularly virtuous deceased); while Her hands are posed in the Abhaya and Varada Mudras (representing and imbuing the steeling of nerves, removal of fear, and sharpening of acuity; and the beneficence, the bequeathing of boons, respectively), and Her Hair radiates out in wild and untamed vastness, thus symbolizing the unbridled and unconstrained expansive nature of .. well .. nature, and most especially, Her.
Some depictions emphasize a more ‘aged’ or even outright haggard or ‘corpse-like’ appearance to emphasize the destroying, eroding nature of Time – visages and accompanying physique that would eclipse even the most shocking “faces of meth” advert; however, this is not by any means the only appearance possible, and Scripture even quite pointedly and repeatedly emphasizes Her Divine Beauty at various junctures and in various occurrences.
The depiction I have chosen to illustrate this piece is very much in the ‘latter’ of these two camps; although that is not why I have selected this representation of Her.
To my mind, this image represents, in its ‘essence’ and the feelings it should most surely inspire in the viewer, the best conveyance (I daren’t say ‘encapsulation’ – for how could one possibly ‘encapsulate’ the Infinite?) of Kali that I have yet had the pleasure to behold in two (or even three) dimensions (the fourth, of course, being Time Herself 😛 and in both of those senses, as well, I have experienced Darshana ‘every now and then’). Yet in truth, as sufficient as that is and should be, it is not the reason entire, either.
But more on that toward the Conclusion. First, let us appreciate the image.
Every time I gaze upon it for long enough, I find something new to appreciate – a slow process of ‘unfolding’ that has persisted these past few years, in earnest. For reasons of brevity, I shall not go exhaustive detail upon everything that I have perceived in it, and instead endeavour to keep largely to the iconographic elements of Kali in particular.
The Sword and the Blood-spattered Mouth have been covered above (with the addition of the Mouth’s yawning vastness signifying both Her universe-trembling Roaring (akin to Her Husband, too – Rudra!); as well as Her all-consuming, devouring facility as Night and the End of Time), as have two of the three more prominent explanations for the Tongue. The third of which, pertains to one of the seven tongues of Agni – the ‘black’ one, the destroyer; thus continuing the strong Fire symbolism most appropriately apt for the Fire At The End Of Time [Her Husband is also known as KaalAgniRudraya, as it happens – and, indeed, *as* *It* happens]. The long staff held crosswise in Her lowest two Arms is the Khatvanga – the skull-staff that is something of a ‘badge’ or ‘staff of office’ for various orders of Shaivite and/or Shakta (renunciate) monks who habitually associate with the charnel environs of the cremation ground or other such places of desolation, and may not just have made ‘a Friend of Death’ through longstanding relationship – but perhaps have inflicted it upon others, a Brahmin even, thus necessitating their long periods of rather solitary and austere existence. However, the Khatvanga *also* represents the Vajra – and as explained above in the relevant detailing of the Vajra held by the customary depictions of KaalRatri, is linked in Puranic-era scripture to the death of a Brahmin via the utilization of Sage Dadhichi’s bones to make the weapon in question. Righteousness In Death, and Death In Righteousness – a most formidable entwining of concepts, indeed!
The three-pointed Spear held in Devi’s second-from-top Left Hand is none other than the Trishula, the iconic Weapon of Mahadev, Whose Three Points symbolize rulership over the Three Worlds, and mastery over the three ‘qualities’ – i.e. dominion over the Universe Entire. And also forms one of many linkages within this image back to Lord Shiva. (Interestingly, it is also somewhat coterminous with the Vajra in some key respects of its symbolism). It also bears the Damaru – the Drum Whose repeated beats (customarily generated by rapidly rotating the Trishula back and forth so that beaters attached to strings hit each drumskin repeatedly and with consistent frequency) regulate the flow and cycle of the Universe, not least through providing the Rhythm to the Dance of the Nataraja Aspect of Mahadev which creates, maintains, and eventually unmakes All. With the Trishula representing both Rulership and Ultimate Destruction, and the Damaru connoting Law-Beyond-Agency (that is to say, ‘intrinsic’ rule) and the Universe’s ongoing cycle of existence as it unfolds … the linkage between Them where the Damaru is tied to the Trishula’s shaft, symbolizes this essential balance of Creation and Destruction – as well as the fact that, at least for now, the Universe remains in-being, the strings and fixtures perhaps correlate with those super .. er .. strings which form the fundamental fabric of Creation.
Other weaponry borne by this particular depiction of Devi, include the Chakra about Her upper-most Left Hand’s raised Finger – this is the weapon often regarded as linked to Sri Vishnu and His Avatars; representing both the inescapability of the bearer’s wrath, due to its incredible range and unerring accuracy, as well as, through its one hundred and eight ultra-razor supernal-sharpened bladed edges and its Wheel-like shape, Dharma Itself. It is thus a potent weapon of both piety and praise-worthy lethality – a characteristic which it shares with the Conch-shell carried in Devi’s second-lowest Right Hand. This horn is usually associated with Lords Varuna and Hanuman, and in addition to its use in Hindu prayer rituals, is also a war-trumpet – it blasts a rallying-sound which resounds and reverberates even into the hearer’s very soul : bolstering the resolve and gladdening the hearts of friends and allies of The Gods … and inflicting terror, discord, and disunity amidst our foes.
As a brief note about these weapons and other items more usually associated with other (often Male) Gods – while one interpretation is that They have given Her Their ‘signature’ devices as a form of empowerment and the gesture of unity against truly terrible foes … the Shakta interpretation goes ‘the other way around’ so to speak – namely, that these weapons and the powers they are keyed to and represent are actually Devi’s, and that She has invested them in the universe and given them out to the Gods Who are their more frequently recognized bearers. Thus, it is arguably not a case of Her being the temporary beneficiary of The Gods’ good-will in order to confront some momentary threat .. but rather, one of Her as the Benefactor *to* the Gods, and both still holding in perpetuity, and ‘reclaiming’ these Boons ‘as necessary’ , for She is Shakti and thus the Root Power of All.
The final object in Devi’s hands, is a severed head in Her second-uppermost right. This symbolizes not only the defeated and decapitated foe(s) of Kali – and the inevitability of such fate for all those who would stand against the Goddess .. but, in more positive terms, represents that She has detached (utilizing the Sword, whose additional purpose I elucidated somewhat earlier) somebody from overbearing Ego, from Delusion (i.e. the soul has been emancipated from the shackling of mortal-material existence at a stroke), and has thus hastened their pathway toward spiritual growth, elevation, enlightenment, and eventual empowerment ‘to be free’. (This is a relatively common motif within Hindu iconography and mythography – consider, for instance, the Decapitation of Brahma by Bhairava; of Daksha by Veerabhadra (& BhadraKali); and of Chinnamasta … by Herself); whereas the final Hand (the second-lowermost Left) is in Mudra pose, likely to be the Abhaya which we have encountered with regularity in the Depictions of Durga Devi elsewhere throughout these series. Its role and function of the bestowment of bravery, bolstering via the boon of Divine Protection, and the sharpening of the mind through the removal of worry is most welcome when we are in Her Terrific Presence!
Moving now to the ‘Adornments’, one of the first things that likely jumps out at us here is the Mundamala – the Garland (or Necklace) of Skulls. These, once again, represent both Devi’s defeated enemies, as well as something far greater – for the several dozen (often intended as fifty, fifty one, or fifty two) of them together represent the letters of the Sanskrit language, and thus signify the supreme knowledge and wisdom of the bearer (for us, Language, and facility therewith, is Power – as Sanskrit is the Language of Creation, and simply by speaking the right syllables with the right intent and presence and state of mind, can literally move mountains or blast them asunder in a manner akin to a modern-day nuclear weapon. Having command of the entire syllabry of Sanskrit, therefore, ‘speaks’ to the mastery over creation of the glorious figure who possesses such! It can also be perceived as having the knowledge and wisdom accumulated by many such sages – hence carrying, ‘owning’ their heads and their contents, in a manner rather akin to Odin with Mimir), as well as, due to the looped nature of the bedeckment, the cyclical existence of the Universe. The fact that Devi stands *within* them, *through* their circlet, and further and more importantly that they hang *on her* – shows Her transcension of said cyclic Time, as well as Her status as Adi Shakti which the Universe is contingent and dependent upon in exactly the same manner, even and especially as She largely remains ‘*beyond’*’ it and Time Itself and Space. Kali is also known by the epithet Mundamali – Garlanded with Skulls, the Wearer of the Skull Necklace. (the Circles of Fire behind Her have similar meaning – cyclic time, with time again igneous connoted due to its ‘corroding’ effect upon all that is immersed in It; with the Sun at its center behind Her as the localized empowerment – again, keyed to Her (c.f the Kushmanda Form of Devi that is, in many ways, Kali’s opposite-yet-resonant ‘alter-ego’, so to speak) as Shakti … but *also* ‘eclipsed’ after a sort via Her standing directly in front of it here) . (Meanwhile, the juxtaposition of these Skulls, with their representation (inter alia) of the mastery of the ‘spoken word’, with the extended tongue and its customary symbolism of wordless, speechless expression representing yet another ‘union of contraries’ within the figure of Kaali) .
Next, we shall notice Her skirts; the first one of which is comprised of severed arms. This accouterment is not merely there to look grisly – but rather, the hands and the arms they stem from signify ‘actions’; with the severance of them (again, accomplished by that most excellent Sword She is holding aloft as if to swing, here) showing how She can liberate from the ties of Karma (and, indeed, ‘take on’ our burden of Karma for us – especially if we, too, are actually capable of allowing Her to and ‘letting go’). As well as, one presumes, displaying in a manner perhaps not entirely dissimilar to certain criminal codes – “this is what happens to the hand and arm which is used for evil, which is raised in would-be violence against ME”.
Beneath this again, we have a Tiger-Skin. This is an iconographic resonance with the traditional depiction of Her Husband, Mahadev; and also frequently utilized in a similar manner by various forms of (often Shaivite) priest. It is quite a thing to subdue a tiger, and hence it carries connotations of not just serious spiritual authority, but also of being something of a ‘wild (wo)man’, a fierce combatant at home in the wilderness yet with patience and poise and insight and learning/knowledge/erudition; as well as being ‘on top of’ in a rather literal sense, one’s ‘bestial nature’.
Moving upwards, it cannot have escaped notice that Devi is here largely ‘Digambara’ – that is to say, “Sky-Clad”. This represents Her unfettered nature, and usually in humans is often considered a sign of craziness (after all, if you see somebody walking around in a state of undress, it’s rarely considered a sign of mental stability and well-adjustment).
However, it also here represents Her radiant Astral beauty, with the dark colouration of Her skin signifying the hues and context of the night sky replete with stars and galaxies (the latter dimly visible) within. One cannot encapsulate space. Nor can one truly shroud the absolute beauty that is the Truth, that is Shakti – hence, as She is above and beyond the obscuration of Maya (that is to say, the illusion, and also the material reality), as well as ‘outside’ of society in many ways so too is She not bound by the social ‘convention’ of more concealing attire. The unadornedness of Her Form in this regard also shows us the nature of the Universe – for just as Her skin and complexion is said to represent the Space before Time began and the Universe unfolded with structure and thence with life (also the state to which it will return following the Pralaya – the Great Unravelling at the End of Time) … so too does this lack of the superstructure of clothing (beyond what has already been aforementioned – the skirt of severed limbs, indeed, further implying a lack of a certain causality superstructure which one would presume in a ‘time-before-time’ as well as ‘time-over-time’ and ‘time-against-time’ such as this) show us the nature of the Universe prior to any projections of ‘creation’ occurring upon it.
Upon Her brow, and continuing the celestial theme, we see a sliver of a Moon. This is, as you will recall from the previous commentary upon the ChandraGhanta Aspect of Devi, both a resonance with Chandrasekhar – the ‘Brow Adorned/Crowned with the Moon’ epithet and description of Her Husband, Mahadev; as well as an association with Soma, the empowering elixir (a similar substance is said to be particularly associated with Kali’s forehead; in addition to the Lunar linkages of Soma itself and Himself); as shall also be recalled from the Chandraghanta commentary, the Light of the Moon is also a powerful illuminator generally only really visible during the Night – which shows us hidden things (or things as they actually are rather than as they merely appear to be), and dispels fear while donating empowerment. Perfect symbolism for Kali then – Who even as the Black(est) Night, carries out all of these roles, especially within Her.
The axis of Sun, Fire, and Moon (running from behind Devi to Her Brow) also signifies three incredibly significant forces of nature – as well as recalling the ancient Dharmic proverb of the three things that cannot long be hidden: The Sun, The Moon, and The Truth. In addition to the Lightning of the Vajra, and the resonance of the Damaru; as well as the Supreme Radiance of Devi’s Eyes (and the lashing of Her fiery Tongue amidst the glinting of Her Teeth), They represent the key forms of ‘Illumination’ and ‘Energy’ here in this world.
The Three Eyes, meanwhile – eyes widened in rage but also in perspicacity – signify Her great Fury, but also great Wisdom (truly, ‘Windows to the Soul’); the Third Eye in particular able to unmake Illusion with but a glance, and thus destroy what is false (for a given ‘[almost] everything in this universe is false, potentially’ definition of ‘false’) as soon as it is perceived to be so (i.e. pretty much near instantly). The Three Eyes additionally represent Her Perfect Vision of the Past, the Present, and the Future. This also recalls the traditional iconography of Mahadev – who is Himself referred to as Tryambakam – the Three Eyed One – as, not at all coincidentally, is Mother Kali in various mantras and scriptures.
Against the Dark Radiance Lustre of Her sacred skin (which additionally symbolizes the fundamental unknowability of She Who Is Beyond Reality by those of us inside it, inside Her), several other adornments also stand out – their sparkles shining all the brighter upon such astral backdrop. Upon Her Ears, we see earrings – and while it is very difficult to tell given the size of the image (I really should endeavour to procure a wall-hanging sized iteration at some point!), there is a very reasonable likelihood that these are the human foetus earrings with which She is often depicted. These represent the Gift of Life – for not only are they precious and prettiful, but they ‘light up the night’, and render the surface of the Universe upon which we all stand a more beauteous place for their presence and lustre. Just as our lives do for Devi, Who delights in them.
About Her Neck is lined arrays of necklaces, including amongst their number the Chain of Stars – for such are the jewels and the beauty of the Night Sky; the mightiest beacons of light and axes of life contained within our material universe,rendered mere constituent secondary gems the size of pinpricks in the darkness by comparison. Another chain runs from Her all-apprehending Ear to Her nostril, meeting with a rather larger circlet-ring set with a pearl, as is the tradition for women of Her august stature.
Running round Her upper arms are bands of gold and other precious substances – helping to recall the Epithet of Mahadev, HiranyaBahu; and rendering Her blessed arms rapidly flashing like lightning or plasma storms when They are engaged in the rapid whirling and rise-and-fall of both dance and sword-choreography of lethal ambit.
Speaking of dance – Her ankles bear the Nupur, the traditional anklet-adornments often worn by dancers. This, too, links Her back to Her Husband; while also illuminating Her role as a Cosmic Dancer in Her Own Rite – as noted in previous pieces, both Shiva and Uma are regarded in hymnals and scripture as being akin to ‘actors’, ‘dancers’, ‘performers’ on the stage that is the cosmos, and the unfolding of the Universe, which is but a play. This also helps to explain Their rather elaborate costume and role changes while still being the same underneath 😀
Now earlier, I said that there were two reasons for my selection of *this* image to post. The first has been elucidated; the second is because this is the murti I posted on that most auspicious day four years ago, upon KaalRatri in late 2015 – a day on which I was very much in need of Protection, Refuge & Support, the dual empowerments of courage and sharp wits with a sharper tongue, and the correlate *disempowerment* of adversaries against me – especially as applied the power of speech and the facility of ‘perceived’ ‘facts’.
These most bounteous boons amidst many others were provided both for and to me; and via Her powers, and those of related members of the Pantheon, I did indeed find my way “Home”. But that is, perhaps, another story for another time. Suffice to say, that I have never forgotten this – and I never intend to, either. Cattle may die, kinsfolk may die, as do we, and as ultimately does the Universe – the Cosmos – Entire; yet in some sense, Memory is Eternal (it just gets .. shrouded from time to time). The Havamal cites that ‘the renown of the noble dead’ is, in this sense, immortal also – and though it is, in the grand scheme of things, perhaps a small thing, my gratitude *to* the Noble Death and Her Kin … cannot be overstated. And is similarly – not least through the sense of Sanskara – Undying.
I therefore post this image upon KaalRatri each year as a mark of thanks, to honour the favour thus bestowed, and commemorate the occasion.
And, as noted above, it’s also an absolutely excellent essence-presentation.
It is right, righteous, and proper to Honour one’s Ma.
After all – SHE is Time.
And SHE is On My Side.
ॐ देवी कालरात्र्यै नम॥
नमो नमो दुर्गे
रूप कराल कालिका धारा
जै माता कालि जै माता दुर्गे।
कालि दुर्गे नमो नमः॥
ॐ क्रीं कालिकायै नमः॥
JAI MATA DI JAI
JAI KALI MA
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