This style of Kali depiction is probably one of the most familiar forms of Hindu deific representation to many of us here in the West. It’s remarkably prevalent – and along with it comes a curiously insistent similarly ‘pop-culture’ perspective as to what’s represented there within.
To paraphrase the sort of thing I’m referring to here – it goes something like this:
“Kali is standing over Shiva with Tongue out in contrition and embarrassment. He is underfoot, having been trampled upon – as Her Fury had burned out of all control and stood the risk of initiating the unravelling of the Worlds Entire. Thus necessitating Her Husband, Mahadev, throwing Himself down into Her Path in order to sacrifice Himself to shock Her out of it and bring things to a safe conclusion. And thus the aforementioned expression of acknowledgement of an error and having been shamed via lapse of self-control.”
Except here’s the thing. That’s not actually how the story goes. At all.
Instead, what I’ve just relayed in the passage above is a kind of post-facto ‘reading into’ the overt symbolism of the iconography by persons who were evidently not acquainted with what these elements are actually intended to mean. Or who wanted to simply reinforce particular narratives – whether sexist or ‘merely’ sectarian – accordingly. Probably both.
Now, where there is a substantive point of agreement between the ‘pop-(mis-)perception’ and the authentic understanding is when it comes to Shiva. Namely, how He appears to be lying there like a corpse (‘Shava’).
The point of difference comes in terms of how He got there in the first place.
You’ve heard the rendition above wherein Kali and Her Insurmountable Rage effectively ‘kill’ Him.
Except in reality, it’s the opposite.
Kali is standing above Shiva as Shava because She’s bringing Him to Life.
Because, after all, without Her – well, the Purusha (‘Man’, ‘Cosmic Man’ – ‘Universe’) is not animate, is simply inanimate ‘matter’ lacking the investiture of Shakti that brings the universe to life.
This is the similar notion to that which is so eloquently expressed by Adi Shankara in his well-known Saundarya Lahari [‘The Waves of Beauty’] –
“sivah saktya yukto yadi bhavati saktah prabhavitum
na cedevam devo na khalu kusalah spanditumapi”
Which, to render word-by-word:
“Shiva with Shakti joined (Yukta), if (Yadi) comes to be (Bhavati) empowered / endowed with (Sakta) is able to influence / manifest / effect (Prabhavitum)
If Without (Na Cet), the God (Devo) is indeed (Khalu) not capable / competent (Kusala) even (Api) to ‘pulsate’ / ‘move’ / ‘engage in mental activity’ (Spanditum) .”
Or, in rather more conventional English:
“If Shiva is joined with His Shakti, then He becomes empowered to Manifest and Impel the Universe
But without Her, Even the Mighty God is indeed unable to even Move nor Mentally Conceive”
This also helps to explain, in a roundabout way, just why it is Kali Who is depicted in such a fashion.
The simple answer is to be found in Her Divine Complexion. It is the Night Before (and Between) Worlds. The Black Infinity.
Exactly as one should expect in the ‘poised’ time imminently afore the Universe at large should spring into being – and into Life.
To quote from one of my earlier pieces in this particular direction:
“Hence, that idea of the ‘corpse’ ‘stirring’ to life – and we would note the PIE *h₃er- – to ‘rise up’, to ‘stir up’, and yes, ‘to fight’; that has a likely expression also in the ‘Erinyes’ of ‘Demeter Erinyes’, or various other epithets and theonymics quite salient to our purpose here.
If we are to conceptualize the Universe as a ‘Body’ – then without Her, it is a Body not in motion. It is static, it is still, it is suspended and stopped. Indeed, we may go back steps further and note that it is a body that is not even extant to *be* in such a frame.
If we are to conceptualize the Universe and its unfurling as a Dream, a Vision – the ‘mental activity’ we had spoken upon earlier – then without Her, even Lord Shiva is unable to Dream, to experience and then actively bring to immanentize, His Vision.
Or, we may say – Her Dream, Her Vision – the one that She had Inspired Him to express !
It is a good thing, then, that She never truly leaves Him – not for too long, anyway.
His Shakti is always there – it is just simply a matter of divining how to reach out to Her again.”
So, given that we know Kali does not, in fact, bring about the corpse-like status of Her Husband (at that point in the cosmology and mythic cycle, at any rate), but rather is fulsomely engaged in preparing to bring about the exact opposite …
… what to make of the situation as to Her Outstretched Tongue? It cannot be a gesture of contrition, after all – She has nothing to be contrite for.
Well, for that we would suggest turning back to the major mythic episode in which Her Protruding Tongue is saliently mentioned: the Slaying of Raktabija.
There, Devi’s Tongue surges forth in order to be able to dart about the battlefield – intercepting each and every drop of blood of the demon Raktabija [‘Blood-Seed’] so as to disrupt the effect of a boon he had been given … that ensured another Raktabija should spawn every time a drop of his blood hit the ground.
The effective purport of meaning to this can be reasonably easily observed:
Namely – that Her Tongue ‘gets in everywhere’ (It has to – that was why this was deployed ‘gainst Raktabija, after all) and is unstoppable.
This, too, can be interpreted in multiple not-necessarily-exclusive ways. Whether in terms of being able to drink blood & receive offering in such a broad and pervasive, unrestricted fashion; or being, as we say, unstoppable and unable to be warded against and kept at bay (Death, after all, as with the onrushing maw of Nightfall – an Inevitability); or, at the risk of being somewhat ‘heterodox’ myself – noting that the Tongue is a ‘bridge’ , a ‘conduit’ of its own : one which does not simply go ‘up’ in the manner of consuming, but also radiates back out in the sense of communing.
It is fitting, we might suggest, that the same Tongue which is so all-pervasive in power and conquest against the demons (including the seemingly insurmountable Raktabija) … well, it is the significant organ in many ways for the production of Speech.
And, as we know – there is no mightier weapon in all of the universe. Not least because that is precisely what the universe is.
In short – we are used to hearing about these two salient features: Kali standing over Shiva (as Shava), and with Her Tongue Protruding out … with each as emblematic of Her being ‘limited’, ‘disempowered’, and otherwise ‘submissive’.
Yet upon closer and more perspicacious insightful inspection – we find it is the exact opposite. Kali is not ‘limited’ nor ‘disempowered’ – She is the Limitless [you shall recognize the Sanskrit theonymic reference there – Aditi] and Empowering. And standing tall in the opposite of a ‘submissive’ posture – yet at the same time, tacitly enabling Her Consort to also begin to Rise to Stand Up (and thence, of course, to dance) with Her in Union.
Jai Mata Di .