The Third Face of Shiva: Tantra and Transgression Among the Sadhus of India

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When the Bengali saint Ramakrishna once asked a devotee why one would prefer to worship Mother over him, this devotee rhetorically replied, "Maharaj, when they are in trouble your devotees come running to you. But, where do you run when you are in trouble? Kali's most common four armed iconographic image shows each hand carrying variously a sword, a trishul trident , a severed head, and a bowl or skull-cup kapala catching the blood of the severed head. Two of these hands usually the left are holding a sword and a severed head.

The sword signifies divine knowledge and the human head signifies human ego which must be slain by divine knowledge in order to attain moksha. The other two hands usually the right are in the abhaya fearlessness and varada blessing mudras , which means her initiated devotees or anyone worshipping her with a true heart will be saved as she will guide them here and in the hereafter. She has a garland consisting of human heads, variously enumerated at an auspicious number in Hinduism and the number of countable beads on a japa mala or rosary for repetition of mantras or 51, which represents Varnamala or the Garland of letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, Devanagari.

Hindus believe Sanskrit is a language of dynamism , and each of these letters represents a form of energy, or a form of Kali. Therefore, she is generally seen as the mother of language, and all mantras. She is often depicted naked which symbolizes her being beyond the covering of Maya since she is pure nirguna being-consciousness-bliss and far above Prakriti.

She is shown as very dark as she is Brahman in its supreme unmanifest state. She has no permanent qualities—she will continue to exist even when the universe ends. It is therefore believed that the concepts of color, light, good, bad do not apply to her. Mahakali, in Sanskrit, is etymologically the feminized variant of Mahakala or Great Time which is interpreted also as Death , an epithet of the God Shiva in Hinduism.

Mahakali is the presiding Goddess of the first episode of the Devi Mahatmya. Here, she is depicted as Devi in her universal form as Shakti. Here Devi serves as the agent who allows the cosmic order to be restored. Kali is depicted in the Mahakali form as having ten heads, ten arms, and ten legs. Each of her ten hands is carrying a various implement which varies in different accounts, but each of these represents the power of one of the Devas or Hindu Gods and are often the identifying weapon or ritual item of a given Deva.

The implication is that Mahakali subsumes and is responsible for the powers that these deities possess and this is in line with the interpretation that Mahakali is identical with Brahman. While not displaying ten heads, an "ekamukhi" or one headed image may be displayed with ten arms, signifying the same concept: the powers of the various Gods come only through her grace.

Dakshinakali, is the most popular form of Kali in Bengal. There are various versions for the origin of the name Dakshinakali. Dakshina refers to the gift given to a priest before performing a ritual or to one's guru. Such gifts are traditionally given with the right hand. Dakshinakali's two right hands are usually depicted in gestures of blessing and giving of boons.

One version of the origin of her name comes from the story of Yama , lord of death, who lives in the south dakshina.

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When Yama heard Kali's name, he fled in terror, and so those who worship Kali are said to be able to overcome death itself. Dakshinakali is typically shown with her right foot on Shiva 's chest—while depictions showing Kali with her left foot on Shiva's chest depict the even more fearsome Vamakali Vamakali is typically shown with her left foot on Shiva's chest.

Vamakali is usually worshipped by non-householders. Shiva, fearing that Kali would not stop until she destroyed the world, could only think of one way to pacify her. He lay down on the battlefield so that she would have to step on him. Seeing her consort under her foot, Kali realized that she had gone too far, and calmed down. In some interpretations of the story, Shiva was attempting to receive Kali's grace by receiving her foot on his chest.

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There are many different interpretations of the pose held by Dakshinakali, including those of the 18th and 19th-century bhakti poet-devotees such as Ramprasad Sen. Some have to do with battle imagery and tantric metaphysics. The most popular is a devotional view. According to Rachel Fell McDermott, the poets portrayed Siva as "the devotee who falls at [Kali's] feet in devotion, or in the surrender of his ego, or in hopes of gaining moksha by her touch. In fact, Siva is said to have become so enchanted by Kali that he performed austerities to win her, and having received the treasure of her feet, held them against his heart in reverence.

The growing popularity of worship of a more benign form of Kali, as Dakshinakali, is often attributed to Krishnananda Agamavagisha. He was a noted Bengali leader of the 17th century and author of a Tantra encyclopedia called Tantrasara. Kali reportedly appeared to him in a dream and told him to popularize her in a particular form that would appear to him the following day. The next morning he observed a young woman making cow dung patties.

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While placing a patty on a wall, she stood in the alidha pose, with her right foot forward. When she saw Krishnananda watching her, she was embarrassed and put her tongue between her teeth. Krishnananada took his previous worship of Kali out of the cremation grounds and into a more domestic setting. Samhara Kali, also called Vama Kali, is the embodiment of the power of destruction. Samhara Kali is the most dangerous and powerful form of Kali. Samhara Kali is the chief goddess of Tantric texts. It is said that if Kali steps out with the left foot and holds the sword in her right hand, she is in the form of Samhara Kali.

She is the Kali of death, destruction and is worshiped by tantrics. As Samhara Kali she gives death and liberation. According to the Mahakala Samhita, Samhara Kali is two armed and black in complexion. She stands on a corpse and holds a freshly cut head and a plate to collect the dripping blood. She is worshiped by warriors, tantrics — the followers of Tantra. Other forms of Kali popularly worshipped in Bengal include Raksha Kali form of Kali worshipped for protection against epidemics and drought , Bhadra Kali and Guhya Kali.

Kali is said to have 8, 12, or 21 different forms according to different traditions. There are many different interpretations of the symbolic meanings of Kali's depiction, depending on a Tantric or devotional approach, and on whether one views her image symbolically, allegorically, or mystically. There are many varied depictions of the different forms of Kali. The most common form shows her with four arms and hands, showing aspects of both creation and destruction.

The two right hands are often held out in blessing, one in a mudra saying "fear not" abhayamudra , the other conferring boons. Her left hands hold a severed head and blood-covered sword.


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The sword severs the bondage of ignorance and ego, represented by the severed head. One interpretation of Kali's tongue is that the red tongue symbolizes the rajasic nature being conquered by the white symbolizing sattvic nature of the teeth.

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Her blackness represents that she is nirguna , beyond all qualities of nature, and transcendent. The most widespread interpretation of Kali's extended tongue involve her embarrassment over the sudden realization that she has stepped on her husband's chest.

Kali's sudden "modesty and shame" over that act is the prevalent interpretation among Oriya Hindus. The twin earrings of Kali are small embryos. This is because Kali likes devotees who have childlike qualities in them. Kali is often shown standing with her right foot on Shiva's chest. This represents an episode where Kali was out of control on the battlefield, such that she was about to destroy the entire universe. Shiva pacified her by laying down under her foot, both to receive her blessing, but also to pacify and calm her. Shiva is sometimes shown with a blissful smile on his face.

This can symbolize the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet and therefore as the primordial sound of Aum from which all creation proceeds. The severed arms which make up her skirt represent her devotee's karma that she has taken on. The name Kali means Kala or force of time. When there were neither the creation, nor the sun, the moon, the planets, and the earth, there was only darkness and everything was created from the darkness.

The Dark appearance of Kali represents the darkness from which everything was born. As she is also the goddess of Preservation, Kali is worshiped as the preserver of nature. Kali is standing calm on Shiva , her appearance represents the preservation of mother nature. Her free, long and black hair represents nature's freedom from civilization. Under the third eye of kali, the signs of both sun, moon, and fire are visible which represent the driving forces of nature. Kali is not always thought of as a Dark Goddess.

Despite Kali's origins in battle, She evolved to a full-fledged symbol of Mother Nature in Her creative, nurturing and devouring aspects. She is referred to as a great and loving primordial Mother Goddess in the Hindu tantric tradition. There are several interpretations of the symbolism behind the commonly represented image of Kali standing on Shiva's supine form. A common interpretation is that Shiva symbolizes purusha , the universal unchanging aspect of reality, or pure consciousness.

Kali represents Prakriti , nature or matter, sometimes seen as having a feminine quality. The merging of these two qualities represent ultimate reality. A tantric interpretation sees Shiva as consciousness and Kali as power or energy. Consciousness and energy are dependent upon each other, since Shiva depends on Shakti, or energy, in order to fulfill his role in creation, preservation, and destruction. In this view, without Shakti, Shiva is a corpse—unable to act.

Kali could be considered a general concept, like Durga, and is mostly worshiped in the Kali Kula sect of worship. Kali is worshiped as one of the 10 Mahavidya forms of Adi Parashakti. One mantra for worship to Kali is:. Goddesses play an important role in the study and practice of Tantra Yoga, and are affirmed to be as central to discerning the nature of reality as are the male deities. Although Parvati is often said to be the recipient and student of Shiva 's wisdom in the form of Tantras , it is Kali who seems to dominate much of the Tantric iconography, texts, and rituals.

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The Nirvana-tantra says the gods Brahma , Vishnu , and Shiva all arise from her like bubbles in the sea, ceaselessly arising and passing away, leaving their original source unchanged. They declare her to be an essence of her own form svarupa of the Mahadevi.