Loving Paradoxes: A Feminist Reclamation of the Goddes Kali

The feminist significance of the Goddess Kali lies in an indigenous worshipful attitude of “Kali-bhakti” rather than in the mere image of the Goddess. The peculiar mother-child motif at the core of the poet Ramprasad Sen’s Kali-bhakti represents, I argue, not only a dramatic reconstruction of femininity but of selfhood in general. The spiritual goal of a devotee here involves a deconstruction of “master identity” necessary also for ethico-political struggles for justice.

Why Kali, Again?

The iconography of the Goddess Kali from India comes as a dramatic relief in our search for alternative constructions of femininity and motherhood. Witness the following hymn describing Kali:

Mother, incomparably arrayed,
Hair flying, stripped down,
You battle-dance on Shiva’s heart,
A garland of heads that bounce off
Your heavy hips, chopped-off hands
For a belt, the bodies of infants
For earrings, and the lips,
The teeth like jasmine, the face
A lotus blossomed, the laugh,
And the dark body billowing up and out
Like a storm cloud, and those feet
Whose beauty is only deepened by blood,
So Prasād cries: My mind is dancing!
Can I take much more? Can I bear
An impossible beauty?
(Ramprasad 1982, 65)1

The feminine here is powerfully terrifying: A naked and intoxicated female–dark, bloodstained, and dishevelled–dancing on the prostrate body of Shiva, her husband, with her tongue lolling out, wearing nothing except a garland of human heads around her neck, a girdle of severed human hands around her waist, and infant corpses as earrings. Yet, strangely enough, the devotee sees in this macabre picture an “impossible beauty” and a “mother”. The mother here is anything but domestic (engaged as she is in a battle-dance) and anything but nurturing (adorned as she is with symbols of death–skulls, corpses, and blood). Yet, on beholding this grotesque form, the poet’s “mind is dancing.”

Such exuberant juxtaposition of polarities in the image of Kali has been interpreted by many2 as holding feminist messages. Taken as signifying a rupture of water-tight exclusions, Kali has been brought on stage as the redeemer both of Nature and of women. The project in this paper is to rewrite her script for such redemption. Most reclamations of Kali concentrate on the symbol of the goddess as representing a collapse of typically “Western” binary thinking. My claim here is that this understanding is not enough. I propose a shift from Kali as a spiritual icon taken out of context to an indigenous form of Kali-bhakti.3 what is of feminist significance is not simply the paradoxes in the image of Kali but rather a devotee’s worshipful attitude twoards Kali, called bhakti. In order to make my argument, I take as an exemplar of Kali-bhakti the devotional poems (addressed to Kali) of Ramprasad Sen, an eighteenth-century Bengali poet. These poems, sung to a variety of set musical scores, figured prominently in the spiritual life of Sri Ramakrishna, the modern nineteenth-century Indian Saint.4 That they are not mere exotica is evidenced by their popularity even in contemporary Bengal. They are still sung in Bengali households and form an integral part of a living tradition constituted by modern devotees of Ramakrishna. Incidentally, the fact that Ramprasad (the composer of these songs) and Ramakrishna (the Saint who made extensive use of them as a means of devotional expression) are men is not unimportant for my analysis. We shall see that embedding the symbol of Kali in Ramprasad’s Kali-bhakti5 actually deepens the paradox and confluence of opposites that attracted the attention of feminists to the image of Kali in the first place.

Let us, however, first analyze just how or why Goddess Kali comes to be a site of apparent contradictions. First and foremost, Kali is both a wife and a mother. But she is also an immodest, aggressive and grotesque wife and a terrifying, violent, and self-absorbed mother. Now Kali does not constitute a straightforward re-definition of the concepts of “wife” and “mother”: that these concepts retain their usual connotations of conventional subservience (in the case of “wife”) and caring attentiveness (in the case of “mother”) becomes clear as Kali is constantly admonished for her deviations from societal norms definitive of wifehood and motherhood. Note Ramprasad’s outbursts:

Kālī, why are You naked again?
Good grief, haven’t You any shame?
Mother don’t You have clothes?
Where is the pride of a king’s daughter?
And Mother, is this family duty–
This standing on the chest of Your man?
(1982, 46)

And then,

Rāmprasād asks: Who taught You to be so cold?
If You want to be like Your father–
Stone6–don’t call Yourself
The Mother.
(1982, 32)

In effect, then, it is the adherence to very traditional expectations (associated with being a wife and mother), rather than their abandonment, that enables Kali to be a self-conscious representation of opposites. Thus, because Kali is a wife and mother in very conventional senses, she suggests passivity and tenderness. But her manifest form is violent and uncaring. Consequently, Kali comes to symbolize the paradoxical dyads: passivity/aggressiveness; traditionality/unconventionality; beautiful/grotesque; tender/terrifying.

Yet another paradox has to do not so much with Kali’s image (or iconography) but with the bhakti lyrics in which she is invoked. While Kali is clearly Divine and deserving of the utmost obeisance, an expression of Ramprasad’s Kali-devotion is often through poems that chide, berate, and scold her. Praying to kali becomes a relentless litany of her faults and misdemeanors, and these are harped upon in the very act of seeking redemption through her! So not only is Kali paradoxical herself, but so also is the love of Kali. The question here is whether a devotional posture expressed in this odd form and addressed to an apparently odd Goddess can hold out any promises for social and environmental movements for justice. The more general issue is whether spirituality–this specific form of Goddess spirituality–can have any relevance for feminist agendas to end exploitation. To anticipate my conclusion: the devotee (like Ramprasad) expects, or hopes for, spiritual liberation (what I call here “transcendent liberation”) through Kali-worship. But the logical structure of such redemption (even when interpreted monistically as merging with an Absolute) is complex enough to entail an ethical stance that is constant feminism.

The advantages of the shift from Kali to Kali-bhakti will become clear as we go along. It is best to remind ourselves at this point that the use of spiritual symbols from the East (like the Kali icon) as an antidote for “dualistic thinking” in the West is problematic in more ways than one. First, the move, in its attempt to overcome conceptual dualisms within “Western” thought, underscores and reinforces a much deeper dualism and Orientalism–the rationality of the West versus the spirituality of the East.  The rationality/spirituality divide mapped on the West/East distinction comes in handy to deprive the “East” of rationality and “mind” which, in turn, reinforces a whole range of hierarchies. Second, it is too easy a transition from Kali as a symbol of contradictions to Kali as a symbol of an undifferentiated monism. But if transcendence of dualism is to be geared toward securing greater social justice, it is not clear how an appeal to an undifferentiated spiritual ooze can help. Spirituality could be now seen not just as the transcendence of dualism, but of the empirical, the political, and thereby the very domain of justice itself. How can we meaningfully talk of just relationships if there is no plurality to order and relate? Third, do not the hopelessly oppressive institutions of the home cultures from which these symbols are transported bely their effectiveness as instruments of liberation? Since Kali co-exists quite happily with patriarchal structures and the oppression of women in India, can there be any real feminist potential in her symbolism or worship after all?

Each of these worries is important. But the pitfalls of trying to derive a politics from the realm of spirituality are far greater if we concentrate simply on the Kali-icon. It will become clear only at the end of the paper how relocating to Kali-bhakti, to an indigenous worshipful love for Kali, alleviates the first two objections. But let me begin by commenting briefly on the more general third charges made above–the objection that spiritual formations that co-exist with traditional patriarchal formations cannot be linked to liberatory politics.

I am not claiming that Kali in India is a feminist principle. As is well known, it has often been argued that the formulation of female divinity is a ploy to keep real power away from real women in the real world or that the terrifying image of Kali is a creation of phallocentric fear of female sexuality gone wild. By indicating how Goddesses have been otherwise appropriated, such arguments might also explain the hesitation that many Indian feminists feel about making use of Goddess symbols.7 Now it is undeniable that the mere presence of spiritual phenomena–like Mother Goddesses or Bhakti sants8–do not, by themselves, ensure a just society. But simply because an image has been (and can be) manipulated to serve the ends of patriarchy does not imply that it has no positive value or that it cannot be further manipulated to serve other ends. It is the possibility of such an alternative encashing of a spiritual phenomenon that is being suggested here. Note also that what is controversial in the Indian context is not the relevance of Goddess symbols for political purposes per se. The Indian nationalist movement9 and, more recently, the fundamentalist Hindu agenda10 show quite clearly how Goddesses and spirituality can be used for political ends. What is in question is the attempted use of female spirituality for the feminist agenda.

Examples of how the “Goddess phenomenon” has been manipulated to create particular instances of escape from oppression–of how the very predominance of Goddess worship in traditional Indian society creates interesting spaces for individual women in their struggle for survival–are not hard to find.

  1. The Bengali short story of Mahasweta Devi, “Sanjh Sakaler Ma”–literally, “Mother of Dusk and Dawn” (Mahasweta Devi 1993)–tells the tale of a young destitute widow who decides in desperation to “fake” possession by the Goddess and uses the offerings given to her-as-Devi by her devotees during the day to feed her (as-mortal-woman’s) son at night. Thus it is societal acceptance of her as a Divine Mother that enables her to function as a human mother in an overwhelmingly harsh environment.
  2. Alternatively, in recounting her experience of domestic violence in the feminist journal Manushi (vol. 3, no. 2. Jan/Feb, 1983),11 a young woman, Sumitra, relates how her mother-in-law claimed “possession by the Goddess” when she tortured Sumitra. But, interestingly, we find Sumitra herself stepping into the Goddess’s footprints in her attempt to summon up the courage to retaliate. This move is successful because, through it, she could create for herself at least a short respite while her abusive husband “sat and listened with folded hands. He really believed taht the goddess was speaking.” (1983, 18).
  3. On a more theoretical plane, Lina Gupta, in her very comprehensive paper, “Kali, the Savior” (1991), ingeniously argues that Kali can embody the liberation of tradition itself from its patriarchal bias: “Kali as a woman, as a wife, knows what her status should be. As she dances the dance of destruction she communicates her responses to the way things are the way they should be. That is, in her destructive dance she creates her own reality” (37). Kali can thus symbolize the destruction of patriarchal interpretations of herself!

I do not pursue any of these arguments here. Rather, what I attempt is the derivation of an alternative model of self-construction and of self-other relationship from an analysis of a particular genre of devotional poetry addressed to Kali. This model of the self, we shall see, comes very close to the “relational self” of some western feminists. According to Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, the “recuperation of the/an Hindu goddess as feminist is problematic at the present historical juncture both for its assumption of an undifferentiated ‘woman-power’ as well as for its promotion of a certain radicalized Hinduism” (Sunder Rajan 1998, ws–34). The dialogue initiated here over the metaphysics of the self is neither of the above because it does not tap into an essentialized womanhood nor does it promote the formulation of a “Hindu” self.12 The spiritual motif here is quietistic and antithetical to instrumental rationality on one level; but, on another, it is suggestive of ontological transformations without which even very self-consciously adopted socio-political agendas for change might not be effective. So Kali-bhakti is being used here to deconstruct “master identity” and to suggest an alternative.

The attempted deployment of Kali-bhakti could have another advantage specifically for certain strains of ecofeminism. Vandana Shiva, probably the most prominent of Indian ecofeminism. Vandana Shiva, probably the most prominent of Indian ecofeminists, has focused on reclaiming the philosophical notion of Prakṛti. Prakṛti is the creative and dynamic ontological principle unique to a particular Indian world-view which, according to Shiva, entails an anti-Cartesian “living, nurturing relationship between man and nature” (Shiva 1988, 39). But one of the problems with her analysis is that Prakṛti (the blueprint for liberatory practice, according to Shiva), is an abstract metaphysical principle of high philosophy, codified in Sanskrit texts accessible only to an elite. This naturally raises the question of how marginalized, rural women most affected by environmental degradation can ever access key to their redemption. Of course, Shiva herself is careful to deny the separation between the popular and elite imaginations and to emphasize the knowledge of Prakṛti through gendered and non-intrusive practices of sylviculture and agriculture still prevalent in Indian villages. In spite of this very important epistemic concession, the urban poor remain cut off from Prakṛti because they are engaged neither in agricultural practices nor in classical scholarship. Replacing Prakṛti by Kali-bhakti can broaden the epistemic base further and show how subjects engaged neither in textual scholarship nor in agriculture may still have cognitive access to a philosophical principle through worship and devotion.

To understand this epistemological importance of Kali-bhakti, it is necessary to underscore that Kali is a representation of Prakṛti. Even a simple devotee like Ramprasad is quite clear on the idol’s representational significance: what is worshipped is not merely the image/idol/picture of Kali but what she stands for. For instance:

My mind dreams up this image
I could make with clay.
But is Mother clay?
.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .
Can an image of clay
Cool the mind’s fever?
I’ve heard the hue of Her skin is black–
A black that lights the world.
Can an image of clay be made
That marvelous dark with a coat of paint?
Kālī cuts down evil.
Is this the work of straw and clay?
(1982, 61)13

The intentional object of bhakti (the Goddess, Kali)–the idol fashioned out of clay–is grasped as being symbolic. Any ordinary devotee, in relating to the Goddess, understands that he or she is relating to the metaphysical truths that the Goddess stands for. In the spiritual moment, this truth is codified not in dead, lifeless propositions but in the form of the Goddess. So who/what is approached with “love” in bhakti is not an “image” made out of “straw and caly” and covered with a “coat of paint,” but something more that these externals are used to represent. What we have here, then is a sort of “emotional knowing” of fundamental truths. By emphasizing direct and personal contact with the Divine, the bhakti-movement itself arose in India, according to some, as a revolt against Brahmanical traditions that required scholarship and mediation of institutionalized priests for a contact with the deity. In bhakti, anyone–irrespective of caste, creed, learning, and gender–could quality as a devotee and be capable of the appropriate emotion. Instead of with costly ritual offerings, the Goddess could now be worshipped just “with tears.”14 By focusing on this lived spiritual/devotional relationship to Kali, we have a solution to the epistemological problem thrown up by theories like that of Shiva’s–the problem of how theoretical principles serving as the feminist fulcrum can bge known from the fringes in a rigidly hierarchical society. Kali is representative of a philosophical truth. Bhakti is an egalitarian and personalized relationship with Kali. Consequently, through Kali-bhakti, the devotee–anyone who chooses to be a devotee–can access philosophical truth through a lived relationship. Kali-worship can thus bring together the metaphysical, the epistemological, and, as I shall argue (in the last two sections), an ethico-political vision. Before persuing this line of thought, however, let us try to get a flavor of this lived relationship as found in Ramprasad’s Kali-poetry.

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copyright: Hypatia, Vol 15. No. 1 (Winter, 2000), pp. 125-150

  1. All the verses cited here were written in Bengali by Ramprasad Sen and translated by Leonard Nathan and Clinton Seely (1982). The references are to this anthology. I also note the places where I have changed the translations a bit to capture the original better. Translation modified by one word here.
  2. See, for example, Irene Javors (1990); Rachel Fell McDermott (1996); Lina Gupta (1991); Rita M. Gross (1983); C. Mackenzie Brown (1983); and Barbara G. Walker (1985).
  3. Bhakti is an expression of devotion in a direct, personal, and experiential communication with the divine. This can take widely divergent forms. Such contextualization of Kali guards against what Greta Gaard calls “cultural cannibalism” (1993).
  4. See Sumit Sarkar (1993).
  5. It should be noted here that Kali is a Goddess in the Hindu pantheon and the popularity of Ramprasad’s songs falls within a broadly Hindu devotional context. However, Kazi Nazrul Islam, a very popular Islamic poet of Bengali, has also written on Kali (1968). The very intriguing and complex issues of Kali’s apparent travels to and within theological worlds other than her own will not be explored here.
  6. Mythologically, the Goddess is the daught of the mountains–the Himalayas.
  7. See Rajeswari Sunder Rajan (1998).
  8. For the complexities here, see, for example, Kumkum Sangari (1990).
  9. See Jashodhara Bagchi (1990).
  10. See, for example, Tanika Sarkar (1995) and Lisa McKean (1996).
  11. I am grateful to Ruth Vanita for this reference.
  12. Once again note that, historically, Kali worship has not been restricted to the Hindus. Also, as Sarkar points out, even in Ramakrishna, who is a century after Ramprasad, “there is no developed sense of a sharply distinct ‘Hindu’ identity, let alone any political use of it… Either out of innocence or deliberate choice, Ramakrishna represented a kind of protest against the creation of sectarian walls” (1993, 46). Of course, he adds that Ramakrishna’s “catholicity” would soon come to be displayed as a timeless essence of Hinduism” (1993, 46, emphasis mine), through this appropriation requires the mediation of other historical figures and events.
  13. Translation altered.
  14. See, for example, Kumkum Sangari (1990) and Manushi (Tenth Anniversary Issue, 1989).