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Revisiting Kali: An Amalgam of Aboriginal Deities and a Symbol of Rebellion

However much the Sangh parivar may try now to impose its intolerant religious diktats by using her name, Kali in Bengal had been traditionally worshipped as a goddess of rebellion against all such repressive orders.

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There have been virulent outbursts by the proponents of Hindutva against filmmaker Leena Manimekalai for her poster showing the goddess Kali smoking a cigarette, and against Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP Mahua Moitra for her statement that, for her, Kali was fond of meat and alcohol.

While listening to these champions of Hindutva who claim that their religious feelings have been hurt, I remember how I was spared such verbal assaults in what used to be a much more tolerant Indian society some two decades ago.

In February, 1998, I delivered a lecture in Kolkata on Kali, in the course of which I pointed out that the goddess had been traditionally treated as an intimate friendly deity by Bengalis who, in their songs, worshipped her as well as made fun of her nudity and fondness for intoxicants. A few years later, it appeared under the title: ‘The Changing Role of Kali in the Bengali Popular Psyche’, in a collection of my essays (entitled Logic in a Popular Form) brought out by a well-known publishing house.

Neither my lecture nor its later publication drew curses and death threats upon me as are being directed against Manimekalai and Moitra today.

But the present outbursts provoke me, as well as provide me with an opportunity to revisit the goddess Kali – a multi-faceted religious icon who went through a variety of stages of transformation.

I must also in this connection, express my gratitude to Suddhabrata Sengupta, whose well-researched article ‘When Kali Descends: A Poster, a Cigarette, a Film’ (published in The Wire on July 8) prompted me to further investigate the origins of this deity. They go far beyond the Tantric texts, the Mahabharata, or the later-day interpreters like Vivekananda that Suddhabrata has quoted.

Aboriginal and Dalit roots of Kali

The style of worshipping of Kali in eastern India harks back to the traditional rituals followed by the various tribal and depressed caste communities in this part of the country, in their propitiation of their local mother goddesses. Archaeological records as well as popular legends suggest that they vested these female deities with protective and curative powers, and depicted them in the form of fearsome effigies. 

Also read: ‘My Kaali Is Deeply Rooted in Tribal Folklore’: Leena Manimekalai Defends Film Poster

Explaining their origins, modern day historians have traced their roots to the habits of hunter-gatherers, pastoral communities and agricultural cultivators of the ancient times. Faced with unpredictable natural calamities like drought, floods and earthquakes that threatened their livelihoods, they tried to satisfy these whims of Mother Nature (“red in tooth and claw,” to quote English poet Alfred Tennyson), by creating local deities in her image.

They depicted her as a fickle goddess – moody, blood-thirsty, lustful and vengeful. To propitiate her, they resorted to rituals like animal sacrifices, to feed what they imagined was her thirst for blood. 

As for their choice of representing her as a female deity, these modern historians have thrown light on an interesting element in the psyches of these aboriginal and depressed classes.

In aboriginal society in those days, women held a privileged position. While males went out hunting or working in the fields, it was the women who gave birth to the children, and reared up the sons to help the men with their work. The woman was, thus, respected as a source of fertility, security and safety; and therefore, her image was chosen as a deity. 

Let me acknowledge my debt to these historians – the late D.D. Kosambi and Niharranjan Ray, and today’s young researchers like Sumati Sudhakar and Sriram Padmanabhan (for their article, ‘Feminine Force’ in the Hindu, September 19, 2015) – for unfolding this complex relationship between aboriginal goddesses and the later Hindu goddess Kali.

Aboriginal ancestors of Kali

Local goddesses were widely worshipped by the people of eastern India long before the arrival of the Hindu ‘upper-caste’ Brahminical culture.

For example, we come across the name of an ancient goddess, Shabari, who was invented by the tribal community of forest dwellers and hunters known as Shabars. She was represented as a young woman, clothed in tiger skin and tree bark, with solid rings hanging from her ears, trampling upon bodies representing diseases. Later Buddhist preachers incorporated her in their Mahayana-Vajrayana pantheon by renaming her, ‘Parna Shabari. (Niharranjan Roy in Bangaleer Itihas, 1949 ).

Doesn’t this effigy of Shabari look like a predecessor of the later image of Kali, where she is represented with solid human skulls around her neck (replacing the solid rings hanging from Shabari’s ears) and as thumping down furiously on a body (that of Shiva, in the new version)? The worshippers of Kali apparently borrowed symbols and rituals associated with the aboriginal Shabari goddess, and changed them to fashion their new deity. 

Raja Ravi Varma’s painting of Kali trampling Shiva, digitally retouched. Photo: Public domain/Wikipedia

The image of a Kali trampling on the body of a supine Shiva had been the traditional object of worship among Bengalis for centuries. Yet, the Shaivites (worshippers of Shiva) who also prevailed in rural Bengal in those days never launched a murderous campaign against devotees of Kali for displaying that image of hers; one that ‘humiliated’ their god.

This tradition of religious tolerance, again, brings me back to the present times when within the Hindu religious community, intolerant leaders are departing from that tradition and targeting those members of their community who express dissent. 

To go back to the invention of aboriginal goddesses, we come across a godling called Rankini, an object of popular worship in Bengal for ages. According to the investigations carried out by modern historian Nrisingha Prasad Bhaduri (recorded in his book Shyama Mayer Charitkatha), the worship of Rankini started from the tribal dominated areas bordering Bihar and Bengal. Her image was made of stone, and installed in temples set up in forests where she was worshipped, during droughts and impending famine, to pray for the early arrival of rains and to avert famines.

The rituals were marked by the sacrifice of animals and community feasting after cooking their meat. Until some years ago, a ruined temple of this goddess was still extant in Indra village in Medinipur in West Bengal. Incidentally, the word rankini in Bengali means a poor woman. Is it because of this that the poor villagers chose this title for the goddess that they created to save them from natural disasters? 

In Orissa, tribal goddesses like Samalesvari, Bhattarika and Hingula had been worshipped for ages as adhishthatri –presiding deities who were expected to control all affairs of the state. Animal sacrifices were part of the rituals (Thomas Eugene Donaldson’s essay in Gods Beyond Temples, 2006). 

Podcast: Needless Controversy Around Film Poster Due to Political Attempt to Sanitise Kali’s Image

Apart from these tribal mother deities, there are other goddesses whose popularity has remained confined to specific areas, like Bono-bibi (goddess of forests; note the Muslim term ‘bibi’), worshipped in the forestry of Sunderbans in Bengal by Hindu and Muslim honey-gatherers, fishermen and hunters, among others, for protection from tigers.

Then there are some goddesses who are propitiated for protection from diseases and other calamities. Shitala, who never appears in any of the doctrinal Hindu religious scriptures, has been widely worshipped by Bengalis cutting across religious and caste barriers, seeking defence against small pox.

We again come across another goddess of rather later origins called Ola-bibi, who was invented in 1817 for protection against cholera, which broke out for the first time in Bengal that year. Similarly, the folk deity Manasha has been worshipped for the prevention of snake bites. 

Two significant features mark the worshipping of most of these primitive rural goddesses. First, their devotees come from all religious and caste communities, ranging from Hindus, Muslims and Christians to Adivasis and Dalits; and second, the rituals are usually accompanied with animal sacrifices, – and often consumption of alcohol and hemp – a feature shared also with the worshippers of the later day Kali in eastern India. 

Incorporation and assimilation of aboriginal goddesses in the concept of Hindu Kali

Historical findings indicate that with the arrival of Aryan culture in eastern India, the theologians of the later religious orders (both Buddhist and Hindu) started to usurp these primitive deities and metamorphose them into gods and goddesses in their respective religious scriptures.

In Bengal, the newly inducted Brahmin theologians wanted to impose the Vedic gods and their grand ceremonial style of worshipping, on the indigenous population. Abanindranath Tagore, the famous painter who also analysed Bengali primitive rituals that were still being followed by the rural poor in the early 1940s, took note of this clash between indigenous pre-Aryan religious practices in eastern India and the newly-imported Brahminical culture from the north. 

He came up with the theory that the Brahmin theologians first tried to “crush the freedom and spontaneity of their (the indigenous people’s) primitive efforts and thoughts.” Failing to do that, these theologians agreed to accept some of their deities and rituals, but transformed them in a way as to “pass them off as scriptural” in order to “preach the greatness of Hindu divinities.” (Abanindranath Tagore, Banglar Brata, 1943). 

Of all the traditional Hindu goddesses, Kali alone appeared to be the right candidate for incorporating these aboriginal rituals. In the ancient Sanskrit texts, she is described as a fearsome deity, often resembling the primitive goddesses. In one such hymn, called Dakshina Kali Dhyan Mantra, she is propitiated in the following words:

Om karala badanam ghoram mukta-keshim chatur-bhuriyam
Kalikam dakshinam dibyam munda-mala bibhushitam
Sadya-chhinna shira kharga bama-dordha karambujam
Abhayam bardan-chaiba dakshina-dordha panikam

(Fierce of face, dark with flowing hair and four-armed,
Dakshina Kalika, divine, adorned with a garland of heads.
In her lotus hands on the left, she holds a severed head and a sword.
She bestows sanctuary and blessings with her right hands.) 

In another hymn, beginning with the words Om Hrim Shreem Klim, she is addressed as: “Oh Kali, my mother full of bliss. In your delirious joy, you dance clapping your hands together…” 

Thus, over the next centuries, the goddess Kali of these Hindu Brahminical scriptures, while retaining her original image as representing the fierce aspect of the Divine Mother, was also made by the Brahmin theologians to adopt some other features from the aboriginal and primitive goddesses who preceded her.

This was aimed at making Kali acceptable to the devotees of those old indigenous deities. Such a process of assimilation invariably led to the accommodation of the primitive rituals, like animal sacrifice and consumption of meat and drinking of alcohol as tokens of homage to the goddess.

These practices are still prevalent among devotees of Kali in eastern India – a reality to which Mahua Moitra drew our attention with her comments. 

Also read: Ramakrishna and Vivekananda’s Vision of Kali Celebrated Open Mindedness

The other interesting aspect of the Bengali version of this goddess, in poems and songs, is the repeated stress on her colour. She is dark-skinned, variously described as ‘Kali’ or ‘Shyama’, both meaning black. It again harks back to her origins among the indigenous people of eastern India, whose skin colour had been different from the fair-skinned north Indians. 

The Sangh parivar’s plans to hijack Kali 

Today, the sudden outbursts (planned through the social media) from members of the Sangh Parivar complaining that their religious feelings have been hurt by Manimekala’s film and Moitra’s comments on Kali, sound absurd.

Curiously enough, all through the past, the Parivar had been totally indifferent to Kali. Although the Brahmin theologians refashioned Kali from primitive goddesses (as explained earlier) and included her in the Hindu pantheon of deities, she had remained a sort of outcast in the religious psyche of the Hindi-Hindu heartland.

Also read: Kali Faces the Wrath of a Hindi Colonialism Out to Destroy the Traditions of Her Followers

How many Kali temples can be found in Hindu pilgrimage centres like Ayodhya, Varanasi, or Mathura ? None, as far as I know.

There is one temple in Varanasi which is devoted to the goddess Dhumavati (meaning, ‘giving out smoke’), represented by a black stone image with large eyes and red lips, one of her four hands making the mudra of ‘do not fear’. She may faintly resemble Kali. Devotees who come to worship her offer flowers, fruits, liquor, meat – and cigarettes, perhaps smoking to pay respects to her as the deity of dhuma? (Re: David Kinsley, Tantrik Visions of the Divine Feminine. 1998; Xenia Zeiler, Transformations in the Textual Tradition of Dhumavati, 2012).

All these types of oblation must be surely rejected by the Sangh Parivar as ‘hurting its religious feelings’.  

Apart from this single temple that can be associated (although in a far-fetched manner) with Kali, there is no temple built specifically to worship Kali in any of these Hindu pilgrimage sites. In contrast, the eastern states of Bengal, Orissa and Assam are dotted with Kali temples.

Assam, for instance, is famous for its temple of Kamakshya (another name of Kali) where even today, she is worshipped with rituals like offering blood from animals killed as sacrifice, and sharing their meat in communal feasts. Such practices are anathema for the strict vegetarian Hindu priests and their followers in central India.

Although today, these Hindu zealots are swearing by the name of Kali to suppress free speech, she had never been a popular deity in their part of the country. She acquired an identity of her own, as shaped by the popular psyche of eastern India. 

Kali as a rebel goddess of anti-colonial nationalism

In the Bengali popular discourse, Kali is not merely a religious goddess, but is also associated with a political past of militant nationalism. However much the Sangh Parivar may try now to impose its intolerant religious diktats by using her name, Kali in Bengal had been traditionally worshipped as a goddess of rebellion against all such repressive orders.

In the early 20th century, she was chosen as an icon by Bengali revolutionaries who resorted to armed struggle to overthrow the British colonial rule. In their writings and speeches, they invoked Kali’s name and recalled her reputation as a fearless and vengeful goddess, to be worshipped to justify their militant revenge against the colonial rulers. 

Also read: BJP, Kaali and the Lingering Malaise of Bengal’s Hindu Nationalism

Incidentally, it was Sister Nivedita (Swami Vivekananda’s disciple in Calcutta) who was to reinvent the image of Kali as a symbol of political militancy that was to be adopted soon by the revolutionaries. Nivedita was under the scanner of the British intelligence agencies for her earlier involvement in the freedom struggle in her homeland, Ireland, and later for her close association with Bengali revolutionaries.

In 1900, she wrote an essay entitled ‘The Voice of the Mother’ where she wrote: 

“Deep in the heart of hearts of mine flashes the sacrificial knife of Kali…Worshippers of the Mother are they who …are lovers of death…and of storm and stress.”

These words carried, as it were, a secret message to the revolutionaries. The ‘sacrificial knife’ was meant to be the weapon to eliminate the colonial rulers. It was the ‘worshippers of the Mother’ who were to carry out this task. They had to pass through the ‘storm and stress’ of the revolutionary transformation, and be ‘lovers of death’, ready to be martyrs to the cause of revolution at the altar of Kali. 

As if in response to Sister Nivedita’s message, some years later, in 1907, maverick Bengali rebel intellectual, Brahmabandhyob Upadhyay, who edited the newspaper, Sandhya, invented the term `Kali Ma-er Boma’ (a bomb named after Mother Kali), while writing an article urging young Bengalis to “play with the bomb “.

Soon after, indeed, Bengali revolutionaries began to manufacture bombs. They unleashed a series of bomb attacks on British officials all through the first decade of the 20th century.  

Given this historical past of Kali as a rebel goddess, it is better that the Sangh Parivar avoids her and stops kicking up a controversy over her depiction. It can backfire. She can be invoked by her poor devotees to fight the Parivar’s hate-mongering speeches and divisive acts, as they did in the past to resist colonial oppression. 

Sumanta Banerjee is a senior journalist and author.