A curious Kali surveys me as I write these words. She reached me recently, unbidden, a gift from a friend whose friend was ordered by his guru to divest himself of all his icons. The sticker beneath Her crimson feet proudly proclaims that She was “hand-molded and fired in India from Ganges River clay.” Those transfiguring hands adeptly crowned and braceleted Her with gold, costuming Her chastely in a golden skirt spangled with red devices, bosoms secured behind a modest bodice.
But no human hand can housebreak Kali entirely. Out from that tame blouse surge four black arms, two of which grip a sharp cutlass and a severed human head. A garland of heads festoons Her neck, a wide-awake third eye gazes from Her forehead. Her boldly lolling sanguine-hued tongue testifies most eloquently to a wild nature that knows no regulation but its own.
Whatever Her unfathomable purpose, it seems now to please Kali to materialize Herself in the West. Yet to be resolved is how well Her hosts here will realize Whom it is that has descended upon them as their guest. It is easy in the modern world to mistake the external image for its internal substance, particularly when that image is exotic and power-laden, for devis (goddesses) do not appear in the average Westerner’s lexicon. A Calcutta woman once told a Canadian visitor, “Devi is the Sanskrit root of your English word divine, and you still use it today for the closest thing to goddesses your culture can bear to recognize – divas.” 
Confusing a prima donna with a divinity is a sorry-enough faux pas, but a sorrier mistake is the wide-spread unconscious belief among our people that acquiring divinity, or at least divine energy, is as easy as procuring a new TV. In India images of Kali or Krishna or Shiva or Ganesha are received into homes with the same affectionate consideration that one would accord any other beloved family member. Once welcomed they quickly become family members themselves, to the extent that they sometimes even become embroiled in domestic dramas.
In the West, God’s symbols too often become articles of commerce, like the little Kali that has become my companion of late. They are purchased, placed on shelves, and either expected to perform or ignored entirely. If we here wish to accord Kali and the other members of Her godly family the reception they deserve, and to establish with them relationships that will provide mutual benefit, we will do well to study how to perceive and interact with their shakti.
Shakti is power, energy in both dynamic and static forms (we know its static form better as “matter”). Every imaginable thing and action in the universe arises from, exists in, and eventually returns to the primordial shakti pool. Absolute, unchangeable, permanent, all-pervasive consciousness is the rock upon which the universe stands, and our cosmos and all conceivable cosmoses assemble themselves on that rock from the substance and dynamism of shakti.
Shakti makes possible both self-awareness and selfhood, for it is her nature to self-identify. The only difference between Adya, the foundation shakti of the universe, and you or me is that Adya identifies Herself with the Universal Totality, and we have become individuals within that totality. A relatively more or less better-developed sense of I-ness will produce relatively more or less sophisticated and complex individuals, but the “I-creating” power is fundamentally the same in every individual, stallion or star.
Adya and Her creations remain perpetually in motion, transforming and being transformed ceaselessly so long as the cosmos endures. Adya’s aim is to so contrive reality that consciousness may project into matter in ever-greater degrees of refinement. Bewildering in Her stupendous diversity, perplexing in her incorporation of both consciousness and ignorance into Her being, that Shakti who is the Totality of all shaktis partitions Herself to perform Her work. All Her subordinate shaktis can however be classified into one of two configurations: Chit Shakti or Maya Shakti.
Chit Shakti and Maya Shakti
My mentor, the Aghori Vimalananda, explained the relationship between these two shaktis thus:
Chit Shakti (the power of consciousness or subjectivity) identifies with the Unmanifested Absolute, and Maya Shakti (the power of unconsciousness or objectivity) identifies with the world, the manifestation of the Absolute. These two Shaktis cannot exist without one another. Even in the grossest matter there is a spark of consciousness – this is why I say that even rocks are alive – and even in the highest states of consciousness there is a particle of Maya, as long as there is even the least sense of individuality. Once you learn the truth of the universe, you forget your own individuality, and remember your true nature; only then, when you no longer exist, does Maya no longer exist for you.
Unity and duality exist in every human simultaneously, the One pervading the All and the All defining the One. Intelligence and sensation arise wherever Chit Shakti predominates, and ignorance and insensibility lead wherever Maya rules. The more you identify with your individuality, your microcosm, the more your shakti will function as your own personal Maya and the less She will reflect awareness of the macrocosm. As you identify less with your individuality you free your self-identifying power to reflect more of the reality of unalloyed consciousness, to increase her awareness of the One.
The human spine and spinal cord extend consciousness from the brain, the pole of greatest awareness that is called Shiva, to the coccyx, the pole of greatest density. Each bodily cell expresses its own sort of consciousness according to its own capacity. So long as your personal shakti busies itself predominantly with creating and reinforcing your limited human personality by self-identifying with your physical and mental attributes we call it ahamkara (ego).
At the base of the spinal cord in the subtle body lies the residual shakti of individuation, an energy which remains unavailable to the individual so long as his or her consciousness remains firmly entrenched in the mundane. This energy is our personal fragment of the cosmic power of self-identification. When ahamkara begins to awaken from its ‘sleep’ of self-delusion it takes on a new name: Kundalini. Ahamkara connotes Maya Shakti, and Kundalini, Chit Shakti. Ahamkara and Kundalini are two forms of the same power, manifested in different directions for opposing purposes.
Maya Shakti keeps us awake to the world and asleep to the Absolute, while Chit Shakti awakens us to Reality and puts us to sleep with regard to worldly matters. The consciousness of any living being is conditioned by the matter in which it resides, and the Maya of the matter that makes up our bodies is some of the greatest Maya that humans experience. So long as we live the embodied life each one of us participates in the play of Nature, binding ourselves to the world by the ‘things’ we accrete in our personalities. No incarnate being ever quite becomes wholly spiritual, for some Maya will remain with you so long as you remain embodied.
Those who shout, “Beware of Maya!” malign Maya, for the universe always gives us what we ask for. When we call on the Goddess to ask Her for mundane boons, which bind us to limited forms, She appears to us as Maya; when we pray to Her power and energy She manifests as Shakti; and to those few who relate to Her maternally she reveals Herself as Ma, God the Mother. Those who remain stuck in Maya do so because they fail to redirect their urge to individuation from Maya to Chit; they are carried along by the current of their karmas, and the karmic currents of those near and dear to them. Those who learn to define themselves eventually begin to define their surroundings. Some of the greatest explorers of Chit develop a self-expression of such accuracy and force that they become true wonder-workers.
We who look at Kali commonly look with eyes that blend Chit with Maya. Eyes of pure Chit would see Her purely, but eyes impregnated with Maya see Her in an assortment of imperfect ways. Cultural conditioning tends to promote Maya, and simply because an Indian’s perspective on the Goddess differs from yours does not mean it must be accurate. In fact, the very familiarity that Indians enjoy with the Maya of their culture often precludes them from easily transcending it.
For example, the Goddess Kali is always depicted with a lallajjihva, a “lolling tongue”. What this tongue will represent to you will depend greatly on the intentions you have for approaching Kali, for your intentions will strongly influence the way in which you see Her. The Tantras, for example, declare that Kali’s long tongue luxuriates in the licking up of ritual offerings; the Puranas propose that Her lingua is ever vigilant to lap up the blood of demons. Some Yogis assert that Her lallajjihva is a mudra, a method of controlling and channeling prana that She means us to copy.
But ask some modern-day Bengalis why Kali’s tongue dangles outside Her mouth and they will tell you that it lolls in shame. The same primness of mind that thinks it necessary to hide Kali’s breasts behind a bustier explains that Kali’s tongue makes visible the embarrassment She feels to be standing atop her husband in the culturally unseemly sexual position known as viparita-rati. Many Indians stick out their tongues and pretend to bite them when admitting to a gaffe, and when the popular Maya noted the visual identity of these two grimaces it mistakenly inferred for them identity of meaning.
Deity images must be read like a poem, or (better yet) like a horoscope. There may be many possible ways to interpret what is read, but to be valuable any reading needs to resolve any seeming contradictions (like the apparition of Kali both wearing a necklace of severed heads and displaying the abhayamudra, the gesture that offers protection). To try to turn a blood-drinking goddess into a Bengali housewife is however as impossible as trying to transform a tiger into a cow.
At least Indians have cultural contexts for their interpretations, and twist what they see into what they want to see out of motives that are commonly founded in sincere love. Kali’s image will seem wholly alien to most Westerners, many of whom will run for cover when the black thunderbolt that is Kali bursts into their sight. If they are willing to stop, look at and listen to Her, however, they may be able to see Her with fresh, innocent eyes.
Lakshmi, Sarasvati and Kali
Kali is one personality of the multiform personality that is Adya. Adya, the original shakti, the foundation of everything, projected from the Absolute, and owes Her very existence to that Absolute. No matter how extensive Her manifestation may become, She continually craves reunion with the Absolute, and when She merges again with the Absolute the universe dissolves. Adya, Ma, Great Goddess: call Her what you will, She is Nature itself, the Creator, Preserver and Destroyer of the universes.
The job of Nature (in Sanskrit, prakriti) is to give form and limits to consciousness, to finitize awareness. In the human context prakriti represents your ‘first action’ (pra+krti), the choice of action which you naturally, instinctively make when you are confronted by a need to act. This innate ‘nature,’ which is inborn in each of us, present in our genetic material, controls how we experience the world. Until you have conquered this innate nature, you will have to experience its many limitations. In Sanskrit we say, svabhavo vijayati iti shauryam: “the true heroism is to conquer your own nature”.
Only the ‘nature’ of Adya Herself (which is Nature itself) is unlimited; everyone else’s ‘nature’ (and experience) is limited. Though it is almost unlimited (and is almost infinitely less limited than is any human’s nature) Kali’s ‘nature’ is predominantly restricted to death and transformation. Kali therefore often appears as one of a triumvirate of goddesses who divide among themselves all substance and action in the cosmos. Kali’s companions in this group are Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity, and Sarasvati, goddess of knowledge.
Lakshmi, the embodiment of Maya Shakti, represents the projection of shakti into the adhibhautika, the physical, external world. Sarasvati’s shakti, which encourages the progressive transformation of Maya into Chit, manifests in the adhyatmika, the spiritual, which is subtle, ethereal. Kali exists in the astral world, the adhidaivika realm of impressions, perceptions and images that exists where Chit Shakti sports between the physical and spiritual spheres.
What you will get out of your life will depend in great measure on what kind of shakti you invite into it. Lakshmi, the most fixed and pre-determined of these shaktis, is ultimately the most limited. Lakshmi can often give you quick results, but those results may also quickly dissipate; “easy come, easy go.” Most humans are already stuck in physical awareness and are accordingly attracted strongly to Lakshmi.
Sarasvati is superior to Lakshmi because money can buy you teachers but it cannot make you learn. If you possess knowledge, though, and know how to wield it you can use your knowledge to create wealth. Sarasvati can make you artistic, graceful and cultured in thought, word and deed, while Lakshmi can do no more than make you rich.
Today almost everyone is interested in the Maya of money and other forms of obtainable wealth, and they want to gain their prosperity in the quickest, easiest way possible. Relatively few people nowadays are interested in creating knowledge, which is the source of wealth, for the wealth that is knowledge is subtler (and so slipperier) and less easily obtainable than money. Almost no one is interested to trace wealth knowledge to its source, to focus on knowledge’s essence instead of what is produced from that essence. To locate the essence of knowledge you must plumb the adhidaivika, the astral world, a world that is very difficult for most humans to comprehend. The adhidaivika, where the gods and goddesses (the embodiments of cosmic forces that have assumed personalities in order to interact with other beings) reside, is Kali’s playground.
It is easy to possess and transfer the crudest forms of shakti, like money. Obtaining or transferring knowledge shakti is harder work, but is still quite doable by most people. Astral shakti, however, resists being possessed, transferred, organized, or even understood. It must instead be imaged. If you can create and bring to life an image of Kali within you and let that image carry you into the astral world you can experience something of what Kali experiences. It is almost impossible for a human being to “know” Kali – but it is possible to become Her.
You cannot look at Kali with the same human eyes that you might train on Lakshmi or Sarasvati, for Kali can be seen clearly only with astral eyes. The easiest way to gain astral vision is to die, to disengage your personal shakti from your limited personality and lay it at Kali’s feet for Her to transform. To transmute ahamkara (Maya) into Kundalini (Chit) is to die to your human individuality and be reborn into something new.
Kali stands atop the corpse of Her consort Shiva, prodding him into life (and erection) with Her foot at His heart. The human body is itself a cosmos, which suggests that to sit or stand on a corpse is to sit or stand on (= to conquer) that cosmos. Without shakti there is no universe, and no Shiva. When shiva (auspiciousness) is without shakti He becomes shava (corpse). So long as Kundalini remains asleep at the base of the spine an individual remains a shava (corpse); once She begins to awaken, Shiva is reborn. Vimalananda made it a point to look at everyone he met as a skeleton, because as he said “until a person’s Kundalini Shakti awakens and begins to dance on Her Shiva, that person is as good as dead.” As the concentrated Chit Shakti that is Kundalini awakens within, the Maya of the matter that makes up our bodies, a Maya that steadfastly resists spiritual transformation, finally begins to diminish.
Kali is often depicted in the posture called pratyalidha, with Her left knee advanced and her right leg drawn back. In this position Her left foot can prod Her Shiva into wakefulness. Pratyalidha and its opposite, the alidha stance (right knee advanced, left drawn back) both come from a Sanskrit root which means “lapped up, licked, tongue applied to, eaten.” What She eats, with Her tongue, Her eyes, and Her very pose, is your Ahamkara Shakti, your energy of self. Since the chief expression of shakti in the physical body is prana, the life force, the power which keeps body, mind and spirit functioning together as a living unit, what Kali eats as you worship Her is your prana. Physical life, health and longevity require that ahamkara self-identify strongly with your organism to permit prana to enliven your body. Spiritual health requires ahamkara to relinquish most of this attachment, and Kali is happy to help you actively relinquish it.
The chief carrier of prana in the body is blood, so when you see blood dripping from Kali’s tongue you should see that blood as the prana of Her devotees, offered to Her to transmute. Do not make the mistake that so many Kali worshipers have made, and think to ingratiate yourself with Her by offering Her the blood of innocent animals. What She craves is your blood (your prana) that She may truly bring you to life.
Blood is intoxicating, and thanks to its intoxication Kali is attahasa (loudly laughing). Her frequent draughts of gore send Kali into a frenzy of violent paroxysms of almost unbearably deafening wild laughter as She stands in the smashana (cremation ground). Worshippers of Kali often perform their adoration in smashanas as they contemplate the inferno of a funeral pyre. They fill their senses with the reality of death: its sights (fires, broken bangles, roving dogs snatching stray roasted limbs), smells (barbecuing meat, suffocating smoke), and sounds (the roar of flames, the cries of anguish). In the smashana it is easy to taste the bliss of the thrill of freedom from the Maya of the body, and sincere devotees of Kali interiorize these sensations that they may experience them palpably within even when they are elsewhere.
When out of love for Kali devotees make cremation grounds of their hearts they begin to feel the touch of Her divine foot there, and they come to life. Then they, male and female alike, feel the reality of Shiva’s erect penis within them. This is the reality of urdhvaretas, a state in which sexual energy flows back up the spine instead of down and out through the genitals. Then they, too, laugh like Kali laughs, with the bliss of the freedom she has bestowed upon them, and the joy of the heroism of conquering their own natures.
But no sincere devotee of Kali, or of one of Her blood-drinking sisters like Tara or Chinnamasta, wants to become lost in sensation. Losing control and getting carried away can lead to intoxication with blood instead of with Kali. This danger chiefly emerges in cultists who do not permit Kali access to the innermost portions of their being. If you surrender to Her wholly, success becomes certain; if your surrender is imperfect, tragedy becomes likely. Vimalananda, like others who offer their all to their Goddesses, always attributed his every success to his beloved Tara: “It is beyond me to do anything. Only Ma can do it; She does it all. This is the foundation of all my confidence in my abilities. Do I have any capabilities? Ha! Everything is from Ma.”
Vimalananda, an Aghori, deliberately exposed himself to all that is ghora (terrible, terrifying) in life in order to make it aghora (not terrible, not terrifying) to his awareness. If you are not ready to follow in his steps and meditate atop corpses while eating and drinking from a human skull, you are in good company. Millions of people eschew the fury of the charnel ground for the milder, gentler path of uninterrupted devotion towards Kali, and She rewards each of them according to the degree of their devotion.
What you obtain in life will depend in great measure on what kind of shakti you invite into it. Kali takes Her mission to kill and transform seriously, as should everyone who approaches Her. Come to Her with humility, and She will infuse you with new vitality when you need it most. Come to Her flippantly, and if you are very lucky She will ignore your insolence instead of reprimanding you. Scheme to manipulate Her power and She will give you a good long karmic rope with which to hang yourself.
But take some time and effort to learn about Her; visit Her in Her home (be it cemetery or smashana), and treat Her as your beloved mother, and She will do anything for you. Once She has taken you on as Her child you will find that wherever you go She will have gone there first to prepare a warm reception for you. Learn to see Her in every transformation – a blood-red sunset (the temporary “death” of the sun), an autumn day (the “dying” of the year) – and you will never be apart from Her. Open your heart to Her, and She will never let you go. Wherever you look there She or one of Her handmaidens will be, taking delight in surprising you with visits just when you least anticipate them. Maybe She will appear to you in a dream or vision, or maybe someone will unexpectedly bring you an image of Her. As I gaze at the little image of Kali still standing demurely at my left hand I think of how kind Ma Kali was to notice that I was planning to write this article, and that I would need some inspiration for it. But then, that is the kind of relationship She & I have, one of mutual support, mutual nourishment, and mutual love.
This is the kind of relationship that anyone can have with Kali, anyone who is willing to come to Her as naked of psychology and preconceptions as the day that they will die. The one absolute certainty we have in our lives is the certainty that we will someday die, and the one absolute uncertainty we enjoy is the uncertainty of when that day will arrive. Come to Kali and die while you are still alive, that you may live out the rest of your life in Her lap, ready to go whenever your time may come.
Copyright © 1997, Robert Edwin Svoboda
With deep gratitude to Robert Svoboda for this beautiful description of Ma Kali.