Kali Puja 2023: On The Trail Of The Dark Goddess

As Kali Puja 2023 is around the corner, we delve into how a goddess and her worshippers challenge established ideas around women, patriarchy and feminism
Artist painting eyes of goddess Kali in Kumartuli, Kolkata
Artist painting eyes of goddess Kali in Kumartuli, KolkataSandipan Chatterjee

Her hair is tossed wild; she wears a garland of skulls around her neck and a skirt of severed arms around her waist. Her lolling tongue drips blood; her skin is the black of a moonless night. The goddess Kali stands unclothed, raised axe in hand, always ready for battle. No matter where she is found, in temples, in altars at home, in calendar art and in the countless digital impressions floating around cyberspace, Kali cuts a bodacious figure, unflinching in her gaze and unapologetic about her posture. Shame, shock or embarrassment, if any, lies entirely in the eyes of the beholder.

In a country where the visual depiction of goddesses is almost always bejewelled and benign, even when they are not particularly benevolent, Kali smashes the prototype—both in terms of her appearance, which is fearful, and in her habits that reinforce her association with the macabre. How does one unpack the story of such a goddess, whose emergence and subsequent veneration both take place within a male-dominant, patriarchal pantheon? And how does the goddess make her place in the world today?

Goddess Kali, Kalighat painting, ca. 1865
Goddess Kali, Kalighat painting, ca. 1865Getty Images

Kali, according to the legends about her in the Devi Mahatmya (composed sometime around 5-6 CE), was born on the battlefield. She emerged from the brow of another goddess, Durga, who had been sent by the gods to rid the world of the Asura kings Shumbha and Nishumbha. Having vanquished them after a long and tiring battle, Durga found herself being harangued by two loudmouth Asura generals, Chanda and Munda. They began wearing her down, physically and also psychologically, by hurling a slew of sexual slurs and questioning her capabilities as a warrior. Durga lost her composure, and from her darkened brow or her fury sprang Kali.

Bloodthirsty and ruthless, Kali blazed through the enemy lines, decapitating Chanda and Munda and leaving behind a trail of skulls as she decimated the rest. Kali was summoned again in the course of the battle when Durga faced off against the demon Raktabeeja. He had the power to recreate himself whenever a drop of his blood touched the ground, thereby creating a million clones every time Durga and her aides plunged their swords into his large frame. Desperate, Durga turned to Kali for help. Kali swooped in and swallowed all the blood-born Raktabeejas and sucked the blood dry off the original demon. She did not stop at that, and continued her killing spree until the gods that had sought her intervention had to appeal to Shiva to calm her down.

'The Goddess Kali Standing upon a Mountaintop' Created in 1720, this artwork belongs to the Pahari Kingdom of Mandi
'The Goddess Kali Standing upon a Mountaintop' Created in 1720, this artwork belongs to the Pahari Kingdom of MandiGetty Images

Kali’s first appearance, in the form that she is worshipped today, is in the Devi Mahatmya, but she does exist earlier in the "Mundaka Upanishad," where Kali is one of the seven tongues of Agni. She is then found in Tantric rituals and practices (8th to 16th CE), and later still, she becomes a part of devotional traditions where Kali is addressed as Mother by her devotees.

In all the stories about her, through the different ages and different forms of worship, Kali functions as an independent force. She looks terrifying and wreaks terror upon her enemies. Her identity is never subsumed by the forms she takes (as different goddesses), or by the gods she appears alongside or by mortals who worship her.

In a story in the "Mahabhagwata Purana" (a devotional text that is dated between the 10th and 16th century), Kali is born as Sati to Daksha and Prasuti who have been blessed with the goddess as their daughter as a reward for their long and arduous penance. When it was time to get her married, Daksha organised a swayamvar (an ancient practice where the bride chose her husband from a room full of suitors), where he invited all major gods, but not Shiva. However, Sati having already chosen Shiva as her husband, bypassed her father’s wishes and married him.

Sati’s obduracy is also in play against her husband. Soon after their marriage, the couple faced a crisis when Daksha, angered by his daughter’s choice, organised a large yagna (fire sacrifice) at his palace but did not invite Shiva. Angry, Shiva forbade Sati from going to the yagna too. But she refused to obey his orders and then punished both father (by beheading him and hurling herself into the fire) and husband (by turning him insane with grief at her death).

Kumartuli is the potters' quarter in Northern Kolkata, where most of the idols of gods and goddesses are created
Kumartuli is the potters' quarter in Northern Kolkata, where most of the idols of gods and goddesses are createdSandipan Chatterjee

Daksha and Shiva faced the wrath of the goddess for failing to recognise her power. Even when born as Sati, in a form that is vastly different from that of the Kali of the crematoria and the battlefield, the goddess is aware of her strength and does not relinquish her independence.

Kali’s origin, and her role in the battles against the Asuras, are all part of the ancient goddess traditions of the subcontinent, where the devi is epitomised as shakti, a word that is loosely translated as "strength." But there is more to the idea than brute force or spiritual tenacity. As the stories about Kali demonstrate, shakti is also the freedom of spirit and action that all natural forces are endowed with.

Even though Kali is part of the devi tradition, she does not quite fit the mould. She is not made by or associated with the male gods and is therefore unlike Durga (created by male gods), Parvati (wife of Shiva), Saraswati (born from Brahma’s mind or Brahma’s wife), Lakshmi (Vishnu’s wife). She is not a role model for the goddess/woman in epic and folk literature either; Sita, Draupadi, Manasa and many others, may bear the strength of Kali or call upon her in their times of need, but they are not like her.

She is also unlike Greek goddesses such as Hera, whose violent temper is often shown as hysteria or Nordic goddesses such as Freyja, whose power is constantly subverted by the male gods in the pantheon or ridiculed in sexual terms. The closest that Kali identifies with is the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet, who also goes on a bloodthirsty rampage through the ancient world, but her actions begin and end with a command from Ra, the sun god.

Kali cuts a powerful figure, unlike any other in the ancient world, in control of her voice and persona. She does not let anyone—be it the other gods in the pantheon or her devotees—dictate terms on how she ought to dress, eat, drink and live her life. Kali is not bound by the laws that govern social order and she fights her battles with uncontrollable frenzy. In this aspect, Kali carries much more agency than many women do today.

Arundhuti Dasgupta is a senior journalist and the co-founder of "The Mythology Project," a centre focused on the study and preservation of folklore and mythology

Outlook Traveller