Ramakrishna and Vivekananda’s Vision of Kali Celebrated Open Mindedness

“Kali need not always be in one position. Encourage your girls to think of new ways of picturing Her…Let them draw and model and paint their own ideas,” wrote Vivekananda. 

Listen to this article:

It is instructive to explore the images of Kali in the literature of Ramakrishna Paramahansa and the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda in the context of the needless and raging controversies generated over Lok Sabha MP and Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Mahua Moitra’s recent statement that everyone has a right to form the image of the Goddess as per one’s imagination.

Moitra said that she, as a worshipper of Kali, imagines her as a meat-eating and liquor-accepting deity, and also cited practices being followed in various Kali temples – be they in Sikkim, Bhutan, Assam, Ujjain or Kolkata – where, according to her, meat and alcohol are offered. The MP is facing multiple first information reports (FIR) for saying so and even her own party, the TMC, has distanced itself from the remarks and criticised her for saying so. 

Also read: TMC’s Condemnation of Mahua Moitra’s Comments on Kali Has Party Supporters Perplexed

Ramakrishna’s Catholicity 

Swami Vivekananda was a cerebral Hindu monk who made an impact in the United States with his lectures on Vedanta and spirituality in 1893 and 1900. 

Vivekananda was the most favoured disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahansa, who was an ardent devotee of Kali. As a priest in the Dakshineswar Kali temple in Kolkata, Ramakrishna used to go into a state of trance while worshipping the Goddess and was acclaimed for his total renunciation of the world through his complete spiritual communion with Her.

While Vivekananda came under the spell of Ramakrishna and revered him, he was not attracted to Kali in the way his master was. “How I used to hate Kali and all Her ways,” Vivekananda recalled, and stated that he refused the Kali ideal for several years, even after coming in contact with Ramakrishna. This is documented on page 263 of Volume 8 of the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (CWSV), published by the Advaita Ashram in 1997. 

Later, he acknowledged that because of Ramakrisha, he was dedicated to Kali and she guided all his actions. In spite of his acceptance of Kali, however, Vivekanada explained the Kali phenomenon in his life purely from his subjective perspective – which affirmed the way he imagined Kali and gave others the freedom to affirm her as they wanted to. In a letter to Mary Hale in 1900, as Jyotirmaya Sharma chronicles in A Restatement of Religion, Vivekananda saw Kali worship as his “special fad”: 

“Kali worship is not a necessary step in any religion. The Upanishads teach us all there is to religion. Kali worship is my special fad; you never heard me preach it, or read of my preaching it in India. I only preach what is good for universal humanity. If there is any curious method which applies entirely to me, I keep it a secret and there it ends. I must not explain to you what Kali worship is, as I never taught it to anybody.” 

Even for Ramakrishna, Kali can be perceived in very many ways as she is formless and yet has many forms. It flowed from his oft repeated words Jato Mat, Tato Path (As many thoughts, so many ways). Ramakrishna used to talk of the simultaneous coexistence of Kali’s formlessness and her many forms. 

In that context, he gave the instance of water in the ocean which, from a distance, would appear blue but is colourless when held in one’s palm. The message from this example was that, “The closer one comes to God, the greater the extent of lucidity that God has neither name nor form.” The point here was that there is enough scope to imagine Kali differently, depending on the way in which one understands and perceives her. 

In Ramakrishna Kathāmrita (‘The Gospel of Ramakrishna’), it is documented that Ramakrishna looked at Kali from multiple angles and even wished to pray to her by visiting a church. It is worthwhile to quote the exact words.

Sharma notes that Ramakrishna is talking to Kali, his Divine Mother and says:

“Mother, everyone says, ‘My watch alone is right.’ The Christians, the Brāhmos, the Hindus, the Mussalmāns, all say, ‘My religion alone is true.’ But Mother, the fact is that nobody’s watch is right. Who can truly understand Thee? But if a man prays to Thee with a yearning heart, he can reach Thee, through Thy grace, by any path. Mother, show me some time how the Christians pray to Thee in their churches. But Mother, what will people say if I go in? Suppose they make a fuss! Suppose they don’t allow me to enter the Kāli temple again! Well then, show me the Christian worship from the door of the Church.”

Ramakrishna, an avid worshipper of Kali, with his open-minded approach, accepted Vivekananda in spite of his self-confessed “hatred for Kali” in his initial years of interactions with him. This offers vital lessons of liberality for our time, when people are persecuted simply for what they say about Kali based on the variety of modes of worship and the offerings made to her in shrines located across India. 

Vivekananda on imagining Kali in different way

It is documented on page 274 of the aforementioned volume 8 of the CWSV that Vivekananda, while referring to the education of girls in India said, “In the worship of the Gods, you must of course use images. But you can change these.” He then presciently said: 

“Kali need not always be in one position. Encourage your girls to think of new ways of picturing Her. Have a hundred different conceptions of Saraswati. Let them draw and model and paint their own ideas.” 

Swamiji’s prophetic and profound words, articulated at the end of 19th century, encouraging girls to “think of new ways of picturing Kali”, are a direct refutation of those who are today taking offence at depictions and descriptions of Kali that they do not like.

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

In page 331 of Volume 9 of the CWSV, under the caption ‘Kali’, the dialogue between Vivekananda and Sister Nivedita has been recorded. When she asked him if Kali is the vision of Shiva, he responded by saying, “Well! Well! Express it in your own way. Express it in your own way”. Swamiji’s repetition of the words, “Express it in your own way” underline his open-minded approach to how people are free to conjure up their own visions of Kali by going beyond prevailing notions and practices associated with worship of the Goddess. 

Vivekananda would undoubtedly have faced persecution in today’s India for what he said about Kali in several of his poems and writings. For instance, in his poem, ‘Kali, The Mother’, composed by him when he was in Kashmir and published on page 384 of Volume 4 of the CWSV, he wrote, “For Terror is Thy name, Death is Thy breath, And every shaking step Destroys a world for e’ver; Thou ‘Time,’ the All Destroyer! Come, O Mother, Come! Who dares misery love, And hug the form of Death, Dance in Destruction’s dance, To him the Mother comes”. 

In his article, ‘The East and The West’, published in Volume 5 of the CWSV, Vivekananda defended the Indian ethos and civilisation and cautioned that no amount of Westernisation arising out of British rule or penetration of Christianity would completely blot out Hindus from India and transform the country beyond recognition. In that context, he referred to the continuity of Indian civilisation, rooted in modes of worship of several gods and goddesses, and explained that those would endure and withstand all challenges. He wrote:

“Here is the selfsame Old Shiva seated as before, the bloody mother Kali worshipped with the self same paraphernalia, the pastoral Shepherd of Love, Shri Krishna, playing with his flute…..Here in India will ever be the Old Shiva labouring on his Damaru, the Mother Kali worshipped with animal sacrifice and the loveable Shri Krishna playing on his flute. Firm as the Himalayas they are; and no attempts of any one, Christian or other missionaries, will ever be able to remove them.”

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

Vivekananda’s use of the term “bloody mother Kali” in the above paras and his references to animal sacrifice as part of the persisting mode of her worship would have generated fury among those who are self-proclaimed defenders of the Hindu faith in 21st century India. 

S.N. Sahu served President of India K. R. Narayanan as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary.