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Kali & rainclouds in Sanskrit literature

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Kālī is more than a word. She’s an experienced presence.

Yet, if we want to understand how she has been experienced over history, it is worth remembering one thing: obvious enough, yet easily overlooked. The experience, or the vision of her is denoted by a Sanskrit word — kālī.

Like many a word in many a language, the word kālī has a number of different senses. As listed in V.S.Apte’s dictionary,1 the senses include

1. Blackness.

2. Ink, black ink.

3. An epithet of Pārvatī, Śiva’s wife.

4. A row of black clouds...

The word kālikā, which comes from the same stem as kālī, has a similar range of meanings.

What, if anything, do these meanings have to do with the skull-garlanded, sword-bearing figure worshipped as the divine mother?

Let’s have a look at meaning number 4. Is it simply a amusing quirk of the Sanskrit language that kālī can also mean a row of rainclouds?

Do early Sanskrit writings associate Kālī with cloud?

Of the Sanskrit texts in which the word kālī is applied to a person, one of the earliest is the Buddhacarita of Aśvaghoṣa,2 written in the first or second century CE. The reference is found in a chapter about the Buddha’s encounter with Kāma-Māra, the god of desire.

Aśvaghoṣa mentions a megha-kālī who is an ally or agent of the god of desire. The Sanskrit word megha happens to mean cloud. Some commentators take the compound word as a proper name: Meghakālī. Others treat it as an adjectival phrase “black as a cloud”. Cynthia Ann Humes, a contributor to the book Encountering Kālī, suggests “the Time of Clouds, or the Cloudy/Dark One”.3 Aśvaghoṣa depicts this megha-kālī moving about in an unrestrained way, trying to enchant the Buddha. She is holding a skull.

The Harivaṃśa is an early text about Kṛṣṇa, a supplement to the epic Mahābhārata. In it there is a passage about a goddess 4 whose names include the compound Kāla-rātri,5 a synonym of Kālī. 6

She is born at the same time as Kṛṣṇa, but her stay on earth is a very short one -- as a new-born baby, she is hurled against a stone floor by the cruel king Kaṃsa. Kaṃsa then witnesses her taking her place in the heavens as a divine maiden, who laughs loudly at him and prophesies his death. The text describes her appearance as follows:

Her complexion was like a flash of lightning... with her full breasts and her voice like thundering clouds, she was like a cloudy sunset.7

The text makes use of the compound word payo-dhara. As the translator, Wendy Doniger, points out, this word can mean either breast or cloud 8 (or, for that matter, the udder of a cow 9). It is a compound of payas meaning water or milk, and dhara which means holding.

Now the Kumārasaṃbhava of Kālidāsa, an epic poem about the marriage of Śiva and Pārvatī, written some 1500 years ago. Kālī appears in this poem as a goddess distinct from Pārvatī; she is at the back of a group of female figures who accompany Lord Śiva to his wedding. Kālī is wearing skulls, which (the poet tells us) give her the appearance of a bank of dark blue raincloud with cranes flying beneath, and throwing flashes of lightning far in front.10

Kālidāsa calls the raincloud payo-da, a compound of similar meaning to payo-dhara: the word da means giving. We are being reminded that both breast and cloud give nourishing fluid.

तासां च पश्चात्कनकप्रभाणां काली कपालाभरणा चकासे।

बलाकिनी नीलपयोदराजी दूरं पुरःक्षिप्तशतह्रदेव॥

tāsāṃ ca paścāt kanakaprabhāṇāṃ kālī kapālābharaṇā cakāse,

balākinī nīlapayodarājī dūraṃ puraḥkṣiptaśatahradeva.

— Kumārasaṃbhava ch 7 v 39

And behind the ones with the brilliance of gold,

Kālī the skull-decorated shone,

like a bank of dark blue cloud with cranes,

throwing flashes of lightning far in front.

In the Devī-Māhātmya

What about that classic of India’s Goddess literature, the Devī Māhātmya? Does the fighting Kālī described in this work have anything to do with cloud? Actually yes, she does...

तानि चक्राण्यनेकानि विशमानानि तन्मुखम्।

बभुर्यथाऽर्कबिम्बानि सुवहूनि घनोदरम॥

tāni cakrāṇyanekāni viśamānāni tanmukham,

babhur yathā’rkabimbāni subahūni ghanodaram.

— Devī Māhātmya (ch 7 v 18)

The numerous discuses entering her mouth

seemed like many sun-discs going into the belly of a cloud.

There is a passage in the Devī Māhātmya where two demon warriors, Caṇḍa and Muṇḍa, throw discuses at Kālī. The text tells us that, as they go into Kālī’s mouth, the discuses look like suns entering a cloud.11 Allusions to thunder can also be seen in the description of Kālī’s cries, which are said to fill the skies 12. When Kālī says something to Durgā, her words are mixed with “very loud laughter”. 13

The Kālikā Purāṇa and tantric writings

The Kālikā Purāṇa mentions a vision of the Goddess experienced by the demon king Naraka while Naraka is fighting with Kṛṣṇa (who is going to kill him). She appears beside Kṛṣṇa, and is a tall figure with a sword and a spear. She is called kālikā kālikopamā — Kālikā who resembles a raincloud. 14

स युध्यत्कृष्णनिकटे कालिकां कालिकोपमाम्।

रक्तास्यनयनां दीर्घां खड्गशक्तिधरां तदा ।

अपश्यज्जगतां धात्रीं कामाख्यामपि मोहिनीम् ॥

sa yudhyat kṛṣṇanikate kālikāṃ kālikopamām,

raktāsyanayanāṃ dīrghāṃ khaḍgaśaktidharāṃ tadā,

apaśyaj jagatāṃ dhātrīṃ kāmākhyām api mohinīm.

— Kālikā Purāṇa ch 40 v 104

Then, while fighting, he saw, at the side of Kṛṣṇa,

Kālikā who resembles a raincloud,

with red mouth and eyes, tall, holding a sword and a spear,

even Kāmākhyā, the bearer of the worlds, the enchantress.

The Kālikā Purāṇa describes Kālī speaking to the god Brahmā “in a voice like thunder”15 before descending to earth first as Satī and afterwards as Pārvatī, the daughter of the mountain. In these forms, she succeeds in enchanting Lord Śiva, even though he is known as the enemy of the god of desire. Gentle Pārvatī might seem to have little in common with the armed woman seen by Naraka. However, Pārvatī too is described as kālikā kālikopamā in the passage describing the androgynous figure which she forms with Śiva. 16

एवमर्धं स्मररिपोर्जहार गिरिजा सती।

हिताय सर्वजगतां कालिका कालिकोपमा ॥

evam ardhaṃ smararipor jahāra girijā satī,

hitāya sarvajagatāṃ kālikā kālikopamā.

— Kālikā Purāṇa ch 45 v 178

Thus Kālikā who resembles a raincloud,

the mountain’s daughter, Satī,

took over half of Smara’s enemy,

for the good of all worlds.

The association between Kālī and clouds continues in the 14th century Adbhuta Rāmāyaṇa, where Sītā, wife of Rāma, is transfigured as Kālī. Here Kālī is said to resemble the dark clouds of dissolution (pralaya), and to make a noise like thunder 17.

The Karpūrādi Stotra, a tantric hymn in which Kālī is pictured making love to Mahākāla, declares in its very first verse that the beauty of Kālī is the beauty of dark cloud.18

In the Mahānirvāṇa Tantra, the dhyāna (visualization) of Ādyā Kālī describes her colour as that of a raincloud. 19

Bengali devotional literature

References to rainclouds are also found in the Bengali-language devotional literature.

One of Rāmprasād’s songs begins with the words: “Black clouds have appeared in the sky of my mind”. The song goes on to speak of a dancing peacock, a smile like a flash of lightning, and tears pouring from the eyes of the devotee. 20

A later Bengali-language poet, Śiva Candra Vidyārṇava, refers to Kālī as the “blue cloud-like Lady... Whose graceful form is clothed with space”. 21

Swami Vivekananda’s poem “Kali the Mother”, 22 written in English, begins

The stars are blotted out,

The clouds are covering clouds...

What does Kālī’s association with rainclouds mean?

Kālī’s association with rainclouds, so old and pervasive, has received little attention from modern reviewers of the classical works. Perhaps this has something to do with the power of Kālī’s other associations -- sword, skulls, tantra, mother... When you are writing about a goddess as powerful as this, who wants to talk about something as mundane as raincloud?

Yet, rainclouds themselves have a powerful side, and the closer you live to the equator the more powerful they can be.  On one hand, they can cool and nourish the parched earth. They can bring things to life. On the other hand, they carry the deadly force of the lightning, the destructive sweep of the flood.

English people tend to find sunshine, rather than rain, romantic — Shakespeare’s classic love poem begins: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” In India, though, rain has romantic associations. As the modern scholar, Biswanarayan Shastri, observes “...conjugal love...in the rainy season” is a theme found in several Sanskrit works, including the Kālikā Purāṇa.23 The rainy season in India is said to be the mating season of birds, including the cranes mentioned by Kālidāsa. 24

The image of the raincloud may help us to find continuity in the diverse images associated with Kālī’s name — the wrathful, deadly Kālī; the Kālī who is also named Kāmākhyā “she whose name is desire”; Kālī as the nurturing Mother.

Modern scholars (eg David Kinsley 25, Pratipaditya Pal 26) have seen the relation between these figures as something of a puzzle. They note that the Kālī described in chapters 7 and 8 of the Devī Māhātmya is an angry fighting lady rather than a nurturing mother, and they wonder about the origins of the more complex and maternal Kālī worshipped today in Bengali homes and festivals.

However, the passages we’ve looked at show that for over 1500 years, Kālī has been described as a goddess whose cloud-breasts are full of payas — one who is nourishing and beautiful, as well as overwhelming.

* * * * *

Are we, then, to think of Kālī as a goddess of raincloud? Not necessarily. To think of Kālī as a goddess of...may be an unwise attempt to define, and thus to limit her.

The Sanskrit and Bengali texts do not say Kālī belongs to raincloud. They say that she resembles raincloud — that in raincloud something about her is revealed. As Śiva Candra says, she’s a cloud-like lady.


(The translations of verses presented in parallel Sanskrit/English are original to Ferment.)

1 Apte, V.S.; Student’s Sanskrit-English Dictionary; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi; Second Edition, 1970.

2 Johnston, E.H. (ed, trans); Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita or Acts of the Buddha [Sanskrit and English]; Motilal, Delhi; Enlarged Edition, 1984; chapter 13, verse 49.

3 Humes, Cynthia Ann; “Wrestling with Kālī”; in McDermott, Rachel and Kripal, Geoffrey (ed); Encountering Kālī Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, 2003; p 153.

4 Harivaṃśa chapter 47 v 1-57 and 48 v 1-37a, translated in Doniger O’Flaherty, Wendy; Hindu Myths; Penguin, 1975; pp 206 - 213.

5 chapter 47 verse 54 cited Coburn, Thomas B.;  Devī-Māhātmya, the Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1984; p 113 and pp 276-278.

6 The kāla in kāla-rātri is a masculine word allied to kālī. The word rātri or rātrī is a feminine noun meaning “night”, personified since Vedic times as a goddess. So kāla-rātri means the night of kāla, or the goddess of Kāla. In the Mahābhārata there is a macabre female figure called both kālī and kāla-rātri. Mahābhārata 10 ch 8 v 64-69 cited Coburn; Devī-Māhātmya, the Crystallization; p 111.

7 Doniger O’Flaherty, Wendy; Hindu Myths; p 213.

8 Doniger O’Flaherty, Wendy; Hindu Myths; p 213.

9 See the entry for payas in Apte, V.S.; Student’s Sanskrit-English Dictionary.

10 Kale, M.R. (ed, trans); Kumārasaṃbhava of Kālidāsa [Sanskrit and English]; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, Seventh Edition, 1981; chapter 7, verse 39.

11 Iswarananda, Swami (ed, trans); Devi Mahatmyam [Sanskrit and English]; Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, 1953; chapter 7 verse 18.

12 Iswarananda, Swami (ed); Devi Mahatmyam; chapter 7 verse  8.

13 Iswarananda, Swami (ed); Devi Mahatmyam; chapter 7 verse 23.

14 Tarkaratna, Pañcānana (ed, trans); Kālikāpurāṇam [Sanskrit in Bengali characters with Bengali translation]; Navabhārat Publishers, Calcutta, 1977; chapter 40 verse 104.

15 Tarkaratna (ed); Kālikāpurāṇam; chapter 5 verse 59.

16 Tarkaratna (ed); Kālikāpurāṇam; chapter 45 verse 178.

17 Nagar, Shantilal (ed, trans); Adbhut Rāmāyaṇa; BR Publishing Corporation, Delhi, 2001; chapter 24 verse 33.

18 in Woodroffe, J. (ed); Hymns to the Goddess; Ganesh and Co., Madras, 1973.

19 Avalon, A. (ed); Tantra of the Great Liberation; Dover, NY, 1972; ch 5 verse 141.

20 Sinha , J. (trans); Rama Prasada’s Devotional Songs; Sinha Publishing, Calcutta, 1966; song 213.

21 Woodroffe, John (ed); Principles of Tantra [English translation of the Tantra-tattva of Śiva Candra Vidyārṇava]; Ganesh and Co., Madras, Sixth Edition,1986; Vol 1 page 92.

22 Nivedita, Sister; Kali the Mother; Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1986; page 111.

23 Shastri, Biswanarayan; Kālikāpurāṇe Mūrtivinirdeśaḥ; Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in assn with Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1994; page xxvi.

24 Kale, M.R. (ed); Kumārasaṃbhava of Kālidāsa; English language section; p 350.

25 Kinsley, David; The Sword and the Flute — Kālī and Kṛṣṇa, Dark Visions of  the Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology; University of California Press, Berkeley, 1975; p 93.

26 Pal, Pratapaditya; Hindu Religion and Iconology according to the Tantrasara; Vichitra Press, Los Angeles, 1981; pp 66 to 67.

Article first published in Ferment October/November 2006.
Revised for the Web 2009.
Article © Colin Robinson 2006, 2009

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