"Kali: the Black Goddess of Dakshineswar" by Elizabeth U. Harding

Harding, Elizabeth U.; Kali: the Black Goddess of Dakshineswar; Nicolas-Hays Inc, York Beach, Maine, 1993.
ISBN 0-89254-025-7

Review by Colin Robinson

One of the places where people worship Kali...

The character of Elizabeth U. Harding’s book is indicated by the reference to Dakshineswar in its title. It is not a general account of Kali worship throughout India, but a specific appreciation of one of the places where an image of Kali is kept for people to visit and worship.

The Kali temple at Dakshineswar in northern Calcutta was founded in 1847 by a prosperous and devout shakta lady called Rani Rasmani. It is not one of Kali’s oldest temples,1 but it is undoubtedly one of the best-known. Elizabeth U. Harding describes in detail both its history and the ways people worship there today, and illustrates her description with some excellent photographs.

Many of the details given are interesting and evocative. I was touched by the description of two of the small images arranged at Kali’s feet, the jackal on her left and the child-god (a form of lord Rama) on her right. The jackal faces inwards, the child outwards.2 The book doesn’t give an interpretation of these particular images, but the carrion-eating jackal is a natural symbol of death and decay, whether literal or metaphorical, as the child is a natural symbol of birth and renewal. In death, decay, destruction we return to the womb of Kali; and it is out of the same womb that new creation comes.

The significance of the Dakshineswar temple is enhanced by the fact that one of modern India’s most revered figures, the nineteenth century mystic known as Sri Ramakrishna, spent most of his life there. With him lived Sarada Devi, his wife in an arranged marriage which for religious reasons was never physically consummated.

Ramakrishna practised many spiritual disciplines and reported visions not only of Kali but also of other Indian gods and goddesses, as well as Jesus Christ and the prophet Mohammed. Out of these experiences he witnessed to the validity and unity of all religion. Ramakrishna’s disciple Swami Vivekananda travelled to Europe and the United States, and began an international Vedanta movement based on Ramakrishna’s teachings. This movement still exists today. It is not to be confused with the Hare Krishna movement (ISKCON).

Elizabeth Harding evidently belongs to the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda tradition: she cites its publications extensively, she acknowledges encouragement and blessings received from one of its leaders, and she presents Ramakrishna’s teachings as definitive. An instance is her discussion of the scriptures known as Tantras. She acknowledges these texts as part of the goddess tradition, and notes the role of sexual intercourse in some of the practices they describe, practices which the scriptures classify as vira, that is “heroic” 3. But she concludes with Ramakrishna’s advice that this heroic path is a slippery one, too dangerous to tread in the present age.4

Harding says that relating to the Goddess as child to mother is “the safest and easiest path” 5. But how “safe” is a path which brought Sri Ramakrishna himself to the brink of suicide, when he felt the Great Mother simply wasn’t responding to the cries of her child? 6 Is any pilgrim’s journey really “safe”? Is it so that we can pick the “safest” path that the scriptures offer us so many ways of approaching the deity, as mother, father, teacher, friend, and lover? Or is it so that we can ultimately learn the lessons of all these appearances of the divine?

If you’re looking for a detailed account of one of the places where people go to worship Kali, this book is highly recommended; still more if you’re attracted to Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi and Vivekananda and want to learn about their relationship with the Kali tradition. But do not forget that Kali’s names and images are honoured in many places (not only at Dakshineswar) and by many schools (not only by disciples of Sri Ramakrishna).

1 A statement that it is one of the oldest active temples of the Goddess(a quote from Barbara Walker) unfortunately appears on the book’s back cover. Inside the book, on pages xxvii to xxix, there is a short account of the shakta pithas, including Kalighat and Kamakhya: active Goddess shrines much older than the Dakshineswar temple.
2 p 56. These small images appear as details in the photograph on page 46 (figure 12).
3 p 74
4 p 76-77
5 p 77
6 This great crisis in Ramakrishna’s life is mentioned on page 253.

Review first published February 1994 in the journal Ferment
Revised for the Web 2007.
Review © Colin Robinson 1994, 2007.
Artwork © Colin Robinson 1999, 2007.

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