Fierce Grace: Discovering the Boons of Kali

Kali shows up in yogic art almost as much as the elephant-headed Ganesh. Kali is the one with the wild hair, the bare breasts, and the severed heads around her neck. She usually carries a sword, and one of the ways you know its Kali is that she's sticking out her tongue. (Try it as you read! Sticking your tongue out, all the way out, is one of the quickest ways there is to get you in touch with your unconventional wild side!) She's usually described as the goddess of destruction, and she looks scary, even though when you look at her face and body, you realize that she is also beautiful. Kali is supposed to have arisen out of the warrior-goddess Durga during a particularly fierce battle with some demons. The demons had a nasty skill: their spilled blood turned into more demon-warriors. Kali's job was to lick the drops of blood from the slain demons, and she did it so well that Durga won the battle.

But as Kali "developed" over the centuries, this image of the wild-eyed battle goddess came to symbolize both spiritual and psychological liberation. She came to be understood as a form of the archetypal Great Mother, not just the warrior, but also the protector and giver of boons. In fact, the way a practitioner approaches Kali depends on his level of consciousness.

There's a "primitive" version of Kali, often seen as a forest goddess, invoked for protective and magical purposes by many tribal people in India. As such, she is the object of village ceremonies and seasonal dances and ritual, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the "goddess" of the Thuggees, a tribe of bandits who supposedly sacrificed their victims to her. That Kali also symbolizes the death and rebirth cycle of agricultural societies.

At the level of orthodox Hindu religious practice, Kali is Kali Ma, a benign, respectable, garland-bedecked temple icon, invoked as the mother of the universe, worshipped as a source of blessing. At this level, her wildness is explained away as purely symbolic or metaphorical. The skulls around her neck become symbols of the sound syllables that create reality, while her apron of hands stands for the multiple powers of the divine. She is a warrior, yes, but the demons she slays are the demons of the ego, the attributes of our ignorance.

At the highest level, the level of serious spiritual aspirants and enlightened devotees, Kali represents the Absolute Reality itself. Her devotees—including the great nineteenth-century universalist guru Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the twentieth-century Siddha Ananda Mayi Ma, and the contemporary teacher, Amritananda Ma—regard her as the embodiment of the Shakti, the dynamic power aspect of divine Consciousness.

To them, and to anyone who seriously meditates on her and studies her, Kali is not only fierce, she is also motherly. Behind her scary face is the face of the Divine Lover, the almost overwhelmingly dynamic force of divine love. Her darkness is the mysterious darkness of the ultimate void, into which we can plunge and, in the words of the Bengali poet Kalidas, drown our individuality and merge with the ultimate.

From the point of view of esoteric practice, Kali is the dynamic force of liberation, the inner evolutionary energy that awakens us and guides us to realization of our identity with divine Consciousness itself. In the great game of freedom and enlightenment, she has the power to cut away the limitations that tie us, smashing our concepts, freeing us of beliefs, false personal identities, and everything else that keeps us from recognizing our true identity.

In other words, part of what Kali represents in yoga is the power to move beyond the false self, the persona, and to release that in you which is true—not only ultimate truth, but the truth that is uniquely yours. That power often remains in shadow, hidden behind our social masks, and even behind our spiritual masks. So tuning into Kali in daily life often means tuning into aspects of ourselves that we normally don't have access to, a power that can step outside the conventional and become bold and fierce, fierce in our love, fierce in our ecstasy, fierce in our willingness to stand up to the "demons" in ourselves and others.

We don't become free just by going with the flow. We become free by knowing when to say "No," to fight for what is right, to be appropriately ruthless, to engage with the fiercer forms of grace.

So finding your Kali is always about liberation. For someone like Annie, Kali can offer a kind of permission to find her warrior side. For someone else, a way of approaching the "darker'" side of grace, the power that takes away something in order to make room for something else. Kali is also discernment, the sword-like eye that sees through the disguises of the personal ego. That's the Kali-esque quality of clarity, which wakes up at a certain point in our journey and shows you how much of what you've thought of as "me" is actually a series of socially conditioned roles and responses, "stories" about yourself, usually taken on in childhood.

9/12/2011 4:00:00 AM