The Seventh Night of #NavRatri is dedicated to Kalaratri – The Night of Death, the Blackest Night, the Darkness at the End of Time Herself !
And yet, as has become something of our theme whenever we discuss the Devi – we are vehement in pointing out that this is only one side to Her, that She has been frequently misunderstood, and in quite an array of manners.
For example – that notion of KaalRatri as the Darkness at the End of Time : it is accurate, yes, yet it is also fundamentally incomplete. For the End is also a segue to the Beginning – and what we find is that this Darkness, is also that which precedes Creation, and even which we might readily find (if we know where and how to look) permeating all through Creation between these two foundational points. People – understandably – wish to focus in upon the Death and Destruction aspect, and that is most certainly part of Her potency and salience – but we seem inevitably to practice a kind of cognitive-philosophical ‘reductionism’ : wherein we insistently reduce Gods and Goddesses down to having less complexity, depth, and multidimensionality than even our coworkers, much less ourselves. But I digress – we shall come to some of these other elements in due course.
One area wherein we have frequently observed another style of downright insistent wrongness in relation to Her, is the endlessly repeated claims of Kali, Kaalratri (and there both is and isn’t a distinction – hence in part why we went with this art) being somehow ‘Non-Indo-European’ figures. Why? Who knows, at this point. In some cases, it may simply be as simple as “Black” being the operative element to Her blessed visage. Which is ridiculous, because I am pretty sure that the Night looks rather Dark no matter whereabouts one happens to be and which ethnicity – and we know very well that Indo-European mythic perspectives were eminently able to describe Goddess figures as being of darkened facing.
Indeed, this is one of those elements which helps us to identify Her more westerly co-expressions.
Demeter Erinyes and Demeter Melaina – Demeter the Furious Sanction, and Demeter the Black – two epithets for the same Dark and Enraged Goddess-form known amidst the Greeks; with particular emphasis upon the upholding of Law, and understood to have a dark patina that has accrued upon Her which is washed off at the other end of the Furor through Her bathing in a particular river. An understanding which – to, no doubt somebody’s surprise – is a very, very clear concordant to the situation we find viz. Kali and Kaalratri.
Skaði, amidst the Nordic sphere, has the name that connotes ‘Shadow’ – and likewise, we find other identifying features for the archaic Indo-European typology in Her mythology. The upholding of Order, for instance, particularly availed via Serpentine sanctioning (a feature also found viz. the Erinyes complex we had briefly mentioned earlier); and the dogged pursuit, the hunting, of the evildoer. She stalks with the inevitability of Night’s Fall, we may say – and comes on with all that similar implacability, this Terrific Wife of Odin.
For quite a lot more on various elements to this rather impressively broad typology, we would refer you to our earlier work – ‘The Queen of Serpents – The Serpentine Figure of the Indo-European Earth Mother’ ( https://aryaakasha.com/2020/12/18/the-queen-of-serpents-the-serpentine-figure-of-the-indo-european-earth-mother/ ), inter various alia. (We would also recommend the sustained etymological and theological discussion upon Kali more generally in our earlier (Sharada) Navratri tribute (A)Arti-cle to Her – https://aryaakasha.com/2019/10/05/kaalratri-the-seventh-night-of-navratri-the-seventh-of-the-navadurgas-2/ )
The fact that we have recognizable attestations for the figure in later and rather geographically disparate Indo-European spheres helps to overcome another objection which is frequently brought up – the notion that there is purportedly no Kali in the Vedas, and so therefore there can be no Indo-European origination to Her. Which presupposes, of course, that everything that is Indo-European for the culture of the Vedic Aryas is contained exclusively within the Vedas – something we know not to be true simply upon the basis of how much there is that is only tangentially therein and briefly alluded to precisely because it’s contained in the general milieu of that people and did not require in-depth explication therein, being picked up for considerable examinatory expansion in the later Puranic-era texts.
We might also feasibly ponder whether particular elements which are most definitely found within the Vedas might be describing the same Devi – just in ways that we are not used to thinking of Her. For instance, there is a prominent occurrence in AV-S XII 5 48 for the ‘Keshini’ – a Roudran-associated female figure of wild hair and aggressive dance ‘midst cremation-ground circumstances, Who brings about destruction for the evildoer, roaring out a terrifying howl, and accompanied in the next line it should seem, by a Wolf. We could also make quite feasible observations in other areas – around the purport of the Mundamala ‘Garland of Skulls’ and its import pertaining to the fundamental Powers of Speech linked to Vak, for instance.
As we have detailed at … quite some considerable length – the Vedas do most definitely contain quite an array of epithets that concord strongly with Kali for a female clade associated with Rudra, that can just as easily apply also to Valkyries about Odin, various Nymphs and Devotees about Dionysus, and so forth. With a consistent pattern that the Wife or Consort of the Sky Father in each of these cases is found to be hailed as the Chief, Commandant, Greatest amongst these Ganas. You can find all of that in my recent ‘ RudraGanika – A Study In Eternal Return As Manifested Through The Sky Father’s Female Retinue Across The Indo-European World ‘ ( https://aryaakasha.com/2022/03/08/rudraganika-a-study-in-eternal-return-as-manifested-through-the-sky-fathers-female-retinue-across-the-indo-european-world/ ); although to quote briefly one additional point –
“And when we encounter Skeggöld / Skeggjöld, we are – as Y.A. pointed out to me – instantly pondering whether this ‘Axe-Age’ named Valkyrie might have some interesting degree of coterminity with Mother Kali, for reasons that ought be rather apocalyptically clear. “
But we are perhaps getting a bit away from our central theme here. The Indo-European elements are interesting and useful for us for an array of purposes and reasonings, but they are not quite so direct in their essentiality for our intended glorification of Her.
What is, perhaps, is an array of succinct scriptural quotations that may help to get across the proper understanding (limited though it might be – the Skanda Purana (VI 1 54 20) literally declares Her – Kalaratri – to be the ‘Incomprehensible One’) for how Kalaratri is to be regarded. So much more than ‘just’ a Very Scary Devi, or of horrifying appearance, and ending the world, etc.
We’ll call it an ‘Apocalypse’ – but that’s only meant in the sense of a ‘Revelation’.
First up, a selection from the Kathasaritsagara (the ‘Ocean of Story’) concerning the initiatory journey of the Emperor Naravahanadatta. We won’t go through the whole thing and its context, but suffice to say that the ruler in question is seeking a fairly potent blessing, and has managed to attain many of the ‘Jewels’ that are supposed to be essential to the availment of one of his station. Having passed through a cave and braved the tests to be found therein, he emerges on the north face of Kailash and finds himself confronted by one further (ultimate) prospect: Her. We shall let the fine words of Somadeva (the human author) in the translation of Tawney take over:
“Then Dhanavatī and Devamāya said to the emperor:
“Your Majesty, Kālarātri is always near this opening. She was originally created by Viṣṇu, when the sea was churned for the nectar, in order that She might tear in pieces the chiefs of the Dānavas, who wished to steal that heavenly drink. And now She has been placed here by Śiva to guard this cave, in order that none may pass it except those beings, like yourself, of whom we spoke before. You are our emperor and you have obtained the jewels, and have passed this cave; so, in order to gain the victory, you must worship this Goddess, Who is a meet object of worship.”
In such words did Dhanavatī and Devamāya address Naravāhanadatta, and so the day waned for him there. And the northern peaks of Kailāsa were reddened with the evening light, and seemed thus to foreshadow the bloodshed of the approaching battle. The darkness, having gained power, obscured the army of that king, as if recollecting its animosity, which was still fresh and new. And goblins, vampires, jackals and the sisterhood of witches roamed about, as it were the first shoots of the anger of Kālarātri enraged on account of Naravāhanadatta having omitted to worship Her. And in a moment the whole army of Naravāhanadatta became insensible, as if with sleep, but he alone remained in full possession of his faculties.
Then the emperor perceived that this was a display of power on the part of Kālarātri, angry because She had not been worshipped, and he proceeded to worship Her with flowers of speech:
“Thou art the power of life, animating all creatures, of loving nature, skilful in directing the discus to the head of Thy foes; Thee I adore. Hail! Thou, that under the form of Durgā dost console the world with Thy trident and other weapons streaming with the drops of blood flowing from the throat of the slain Mahiṣa. Thou art victorious, dancing with a skull full of the blood of Ruru in Thy agitated hand, as if Thou wast holding the vessel of security of the three worlds. Goddess beloved of Śiva, with uplifted eyes, though Thy name means the Night of Doom, still, with skull surmounted by a lighted lamp, and with a skull in Thy hand, Thou dost shine as if with the Sun and Moon.”
Though he praised Kālarātri in these words, She was not propitiated, and then he made up his mind to appease Her by the sacrifice of his head; and he drew his sword to that purpose.
Then the Goddess said to him:
“Do not act rashly, My Son. Lo! I have been won over by thee, thou hero. Let this thy army be as it was before, and be thou victorious!”
And immediately his army awoke as it were from sleep. Then his wives, and his companions, and all the Vidyādharas, praised the might of that emperor! And the hero, having eaten and drunk and performed the necessary duties, spent that night, which seemed as long as if it consisted of a hundred watches instead of three.
And the next morning he worshipped Kālarātri, and marched thence to engage Dhūmaśikha, who had barred his further advance with an army of Vidyādharas. Then the emperor had a fight with that king, who was the principal champion of Mandaradeva, of such a desperate character that the air was full of swords, the earth covered with the heads of warriors, and the only speech heard was the terrible cry of heroes shouting, “Slay! Slay!””
You can instantly see some importantly resonant mythic elements here – namely, the confronting of fear in the course of initiatory contest, and the fact that it is only through final submission to Her that this emperor is able to obtain the most powerful blessing in the course of his empowerment. He has to be ready to sacrifice everything to Her and for Her – and he must do so, it seems, not quite ‘alone’, for She is with him … but certainly, it is not the sort of thing that one can easily hide behind the serried ranks of other, burlier men for.
Particularly when what one is seeking to hide from is a failure to pay proper and due homage to Her. After all, as the Skanda Purana should have it (IV 2 72), in the words attributed to Lord Skanda Himself:
“That Goddess Durgā protects Kāśī [the City of Shiva] all-round in the company of the Śaktis. They, the chief of whom is Kālarātri, should be assiduously worshipped by men.”
But when this necessary task is accomplished, and She has been propitiated – his forces become truly unstoppable indeed. They have, we may say, Time upon their side !
Yet while we often think of Kalaratri as having a rather terrifying visage – it is also evident that She can radiate a most terrific beauty as well. See here, from the Skanda Purana ( IV 2 71, Tagare translation):
“23 The Devas who had lost their kingdom sought refuge in Maheśa. Thereupon the Goddess was directed to suppress the demon by the omniscient one (Śiva).
24 On receiving the great Lord’s behest joyously, Bhavānī assured freedom from fear to the immortal ones and set about for the war.
25 She summoned Kālarātri, the most beautiful one in all the three worlds by her radiance. Rudrāṇī sent her to challenge the demon.
26-30 After coming to that Daitya of evil conduct, Kālarātri said: “O Lord of Daityas, give up the wealth of the three worlds. May Indra get back the three worlds. You go to Rasātala. May all the sacred rites enjoined in the Vedas and binding on the expounders of the Vedas be performed. If at all there is a vestige of pride (in you), come on for a fight; otherwise, if you wish to live, seek refuge in Indra. I have been sent by the goddess of great auspicious features to you to convey this message. If you are indifferent to it, your death is certain. Hence, O great Asura, do what is proper. If you care to hear what is beneficial to you, go unto her to retain your life (and save your life).”
Now, predictably, the demon-lord being referred to (in this case, Durgamasur) … doesn’t take the hint. And upon seeing this immensely beautiful female figure appeared in his court, has his coteries move to seize and restrain Her in order to deliver Her to his harem.
She atomizes them with a mere Humkara, and then buffets others who rise up to follow the initial would-be manhandlers with the torrential force of Her breath, before flying away and leading the demon’s army into their field of Doom.
Of further interest is that this source also has KalaRatri referred to as Mahakali – as we had said, the degree of distinction between KaalRatri and more ‘general’ Kali is a somewhat circumstantial one.
Further, while this properly deserves a piece in its (in Her) own rite – our eye was drawn by the occasional references to Kalaratri as not only the ‘Shadow’ of Mahadev – but also as vital to His Mighty Bow. The Skadi point of resonancy is clear in both dimensions.
To quote from the Mahabharata (VIII – Karna Parva – 34):
“Having made the Year adorned with the six seasons His bow, he made his own shadow the irrefragable string of that bow in that battle. The illustrious Rudra is Death’s Self. The Year became His Bow; Kala Ratri the Death-night therefore, which is Rudra’s shadow, became the indestructible string of that bow.”
We mention this because of firstly, the situation of Brihaspati’s Bow having Rta as its Bowstring, and secondly the situation of Vak Devi as the in-universe expression of Rta … with RV X 125 6 – the famed Devi Suktam that I am so frequently quoting from or otherwise referencing – well, as the Griffith translation puts it: “I [Vak] bend the Bow for Rudra that His Arrow may strike and slay the hater of devotion.”
We might also seek to tentatively connect this to the potential hailing for Skadi as ‘Bow-String Var’ in the Nordic textual corpus – ‘Var’ being an ‘Oath’ or a ‘Pledge’, and therefore fundamentally congruent with the notion of Order as the Bowstring of the Weapon of this Most Righteous !
Now no examination of the various facets of Devi should be complete without some referencing of the Devi Bhagavata Purana (Vijñanananda translation – X 10); and we do so here precisely because it helps to present this ‘broader’ context and cosmological role to Her:
“One day, when the Muni finished his worship, etc., the king went to him and saluted him duly and humbly asked him the following :– “O Muni! I am suffering terribly from my mental pain. O Deva on the earth! Why I am suffering so much though I know everything, as if I am quite an ignorant man. After my defeat from my enemies, why does my mind become now compassionate towards those who stole away my kingdom. O Best of the knowers of the Vedas! What am I to do now? Where to go? How can I make me happy? Please speak on these. O Muni! Now I am in want of your good grace.”
The Muni said :– “O Lord of the earth! Hear the extremely wonderful glories of the Devī that have no equal and that can fructify all desires. She, the Mahā Māyā, Who is all this world, is the Mother of Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Maheśa. O King! Know verily that it is She and She alone, that can forcibly attract the hearts of all the Jīvas and throw them in dire utter delusion. She is always the Creatrix, Preservrix and Destructrix of the Universe in the form of Hara. This Mahā Māyā fulfills the desires of all the Jīvas and She is known as the insurmountable Kālarātri. She is Kālī, the Destructrix of all this universe and She is Kamalā residing in the lotus. Know that this whole world rests on Her and it will become dissolved in Her. She is therefore, the Highest and Best. O King! Know, verily, that he alone can cross the delusion (Moha) on whom the Grace of the Devī falls and otherwise no one can escape from this Anādi Moha.”
Another, perhaps rather more imminently familiar depiction of Kaalratri comes to us from the Mahabharata ( X – Sauptika Parva – 8; Ganguly translation), the famed ‘Night Raid’. [note: ‘Death-Night’ is how ‘KalaRatri’ has been rendered by Ganguly herein]:
“Endued with great strength, Drona’s son made a heavy carnage amongst the sons, the grandsons, and the followers of Drupada, singling them out one after another. Accomplished in the use of the sword, Ashvatthama then, rushing against other combatants, cut them down with his excellent sword. The warriors in the Pandava camp beheld that Death-Night in her embodied form, a black image, of bloody mouth and bloody eyes, wearing crimson garlands and smeared with crimson unguents, attired in a single piece of red cloth, with a noose in hand, and resembling an elderly lady, employed in chanting a dismal note and standing full before their eyes, and about to lead away men and steeds and elephants all tied in a stout cord. She seemed to take away diverse kinds of spirits, with dishevelled hair and tied together in a cord, as also, O king, many mighty car-warriors divested of their weapons. On other days, O sire, the foremost warriors of the Pandava camp used to see in their dreams that figure leading away the sleeping combatants and Drona’s son smiting them behind! The Pandava soldiers saw that lady and Drona’s son in their dreams every night from the day when the battle between the Kurus and the Pandavas first commenced. Afflicted before by Destiny, they were now smitten by Drona’s son who terrified them all with the frightful roars uttered by him. Afflicted by Destiny, the brave warriors of the Pandava camp, recollecting the sight they had seen in their dreams, identified it with what they now witnessed.
At the noise made, hundreds and thousands of Pandava bowmen in the camp awoke from their slumbers. Ashvatthama cut off the legs of some, and the hips of others, and pierced some in their flanks, careering like the Destroyer himself let loose by Time. The Earth, O lord, was soon covered with human beings that were crushed into shapelessness or trodden down by elephants and steeds and with others that roared in great affliction. Many of them loudly exclaimed, “What is this?” “Who is this one?” “What is this noise?” “Who is doing what?” While uttering such shrieks, Drona’s son became their Destroyer. That foremost of smiters, the son of Drona, despatched to regions of Yama all those Pandus and Srinjayas who were without armour and weapons. Terrified at that noise, many awoke from sleep. Possessed with fear, blinded by sleep, and deprived of their senses, those warriors seemed to vanish (before the fury of Ashvatthama). The thighs of many were paralysed and many were so stupefied that they lost all their energy. Shrieking and possessed with fear, they began to slay one another. Drona’s son once more got upon his car of terrible clatter and taking up his bow despatched many with his shafts to Yama’s abode. Others awoke from sleep, brave warriors and foremost of men, as they came towards Ashvatthama, were slain before they could approach him and were thus offered up as victims unto that Death-Night. Crushing many with that foremost of cars, he careered through the camp, and covered his foes with repeated showers of arrows. Once again with that beautiful shield of his, adorned with hundred moons, and with that sword of his which was of the hue of the welkin, he careered amidst his enemies. Like an elephant agitating a large lake, Drona’s son, irresistible, in battle, agitated the camp of the Pandavas.
Awaked by the noise, O king, many warriors, afflicted still with sleep and fear, and with senses still under a cloud, ran hither and thither. Many shrieked in harsh tones and many uttered incoherent exclamations. Many succeeded not in obtaining their weapons and armour. The locks of many were dishevelled, and many failed to recognise one another. Having risen from sleep, many fell down, fatigued; some wandered here and there without any purpose. Elephants and steeds, breaking their cords, passed excreta and urine. Many, causing great confusion, huddled together. Amongst these, some through fear laid themselves down on the earth. The animals of the camp crushed them there.
While the camp was in this state, rakshasas, O king, uttered loud roars in joy, O chief of the Bharatas! The loud noise, O king, uttered by ghostly beings in joy, filled all the points of the compass and the welkin. Hearing the wails of woe, elephants, steeds, breaking their cords, rushed hither and thither, crushing the combatants in the camp. As those animals rushed hither and thither, the dust raised by them made the night doubly dark. When that thick gloom set in, the warriors in the camp became perfectly stupefied; sires recognised not their sons, brothers recognised not their brothers. Elephants assailing riderless elephants, and steeds assailing riderless steeds, assailed and broke and crushed the people that stood in their way. Losing all order, combatants rushed and slew one another, and felling those that stood in their way, crushed them into pieces. Deprived of their senses and overcome with sleep, and enveloped in gloom, men, impelled by fate, slew their own comrades. The guards, leaving the gates they watched, and those at duty at the outposts leaving the posts they guarded, fled away for their lives, deprived of their senses and not knowing whither they proceeded. They slew one another, the slayers, O lord, not recognising the slain. Afflicted by Fate, they cried after their sires and sons. While they fled, abandoning their friends and relatives, they called upon one another, mentioning their families and names. Other, uttering cries of “Oh!” and “Alas!” fell down on the earth. In the midst of the battle, Drona’s son, recognising them, slew them all.”
As we can see here, Kalaratri is evocatively illustrated – not only in terms of the direct referencing of the Goddess’ iconographic elements, but also in a figurative, functional sense. Is this a metaphor? Is this the direct manifestation of Kalaratri upon this battlefield? It is deliberately ever-so-slightly ambiguous just which is what. A sort of ‘inversion’ in some respects to the situation of much of the Iliad. But more upon that, perhaps, at some other time. Although it is most definitely interesting to note that foreshadowing, foreboding, is what effectively lays many of the Pandava soldiers into the earth’s blood-spattered warm embrace. They had seen things in dreams, nightmares, that they then projected back out onto the circumstances around them. Were they accurate to do so? Well, therein lies the delicious ambiguity, doesn’t it. Ultimately, though, ‘Fate’ is indeed the victor here. And Fate, as we know, is She.
We could go through and quote quite an … extensive further array of scripture to our purpose; but for now, I think it is enough. The only major area we have left unexamined is Her role in the Ekpyrosis via which the Universe is finally purged in fire. But that is something that, again, is quite extensively covered within the course of the canon – and so one’s attention would feasibly be directed elsewhere upon that matter.
Besides, everybody knows that Kali has such a role and saliency. And we felt that it was important, as we had said, to present these ‘other sides’, ‘other dimensions’, ‘other vitalities’ both to and for Her.
Wherein we find Her aiding and availing Her Chosen to actually stay alive [rather than merely the converse]; wherein we find Her hailed as the most beautiful woman of the Three Worlds (rather than a singularly withered and terrifying visage); and wherein we find Her engaged in creating, upholding, and embodying the Universe Entire – rather than simply destroying it.
She is, we may say, ‘All And Everything’ – that black of the darkest night afore the Sun had first ever arisen, which contains so much that is .. .in a word .. ‘Subjunctive’ – the ‘Mood of Possibility’.
We can, I suspect, do little better than quoting in closing the Skanda Purana (VI 1 54 – Tagare translation)’s ‘Carmamunda Prayer’:
“19 Be victorious, O omnipresent Goddess, O excellent Carmamuṇḍadharā. Be victorious, O splendid Daughter of Dakṣa, efficient in the annihilation of the race of demons.
- Be victorious, O Kālarātri, O incomprehensible one, O Goddess fond of Navamī and Aṣṭamī (9th and 8th lunar days). O three-eyed One, O Beloved of the Three-eyed One. Be victorious, O goddess adored by Suras.
21 O terrible One, O beautiful One, O great Deity of learning of great power, O Goddess of huge body and great prosperity. Be victorious, O Goddess of great Vratas.
22 O Mother of the Universe, of permanent form, O Goddess fond of liquor and meat and suet! O Mahākāll of hideous form, be victorious, O Goddess with Pretas as followers.
23 O beautiful Goddess fond of corpse as vehicle. O Goddess with serpents for ornaments! O Goddess of huge hands armed with the noose, O Goddess having flood of blood made as the place of residence.
24 O Goddess splendidly shining with shouts and howls! O Goddess shining with music of instruments and songs. Be victorious, O Goddess without beginning. Be victorious, O Goddess worthy of meditation, O Goddess resorting to a half of the body of Bharga (Śiva).
25 Undoubtedly You are Rati, You are Dhṛti (fortitude), You are Tuṣṭi (satisfaction) O Gaurī; You are the Goddess of Suras. You are Lakṣmī; You are Sāvitrī and Gāyatrī.
26 O Goddess, whatever is seen in the three worlds in female form is identical with You. Here I have no doubt at all.
27 On the basis of that truth whereby I believe so You shall be present here quickly. O Goddess bowed down to by Suras and Asuras, pleased with my devotion, be present here.”
As I had closed our more usual (Sharada) Navratri Kalaratri tribute (A)Arti-cle with in previous years (wherein I always post the same image, and make reference to a certain Divine favour and active-intervention bestowed to me by Her upon Kalaratri 2015 that was life-changing … )
“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॥ “
जय माता दी ॥