Encountering Kali, edited by Rachel Fell McDermott & Jeffrey Kripal

McDermott, Rachel Fell and Kripal, Jeffrey J. (ed); Encountering Kali -- in the Margins, at the Centre, in the West; University of California Press, Berkeley, 2003. 339 pages.
ISBN 0-520-23240-2

Review by Colin Robinson

Earlier books mentioned in this article...
Kinsley, David R.; The Sword and the Flute -- Kali and Krishna, Dark Visions of the Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology; University of California Press, Berkeley, 1975. (Second edition with new preface, 2000)
Hawley, John Stratton and Wulff, Donna Marie; Devi: Goddesses of India; University of California Press, Berkeley, 1996.

Diverse answers to important questions

Encountering Kali is a collection of new articles (and one reprinted piece) by 13 scholars based in western universities. If Kali means something to you, and you like finding out about what she has meant to others, then the question is not whether to read this book, but how to read it.

My first quick look through the work made me aware of one important thing. There is a lot of information here. There is information about how Goddess Kali is perceived and worshipped in different places: at Kalighat in Calcutta, in Banaras, at the town of Bhubaneswar in Orissa, in Sri Lanka, and in Trinidad. There is information about centuries-old writings about Kali which readers may not have seen cited elsewhere: the Sanskrit Mahabhagavata Purana; the Candi Purana, a text in Oriya. There is information about how Kali was perceived by British Empire people in the nineteenth century, how Freudian writers have theorized about Kali, and some of the ways Kali has been presented on the internet.

I found something else important when I went through the text slowly and carefully, and mentally asked it a series of questions -- questions of basic importance to me, and I think, to most Ferment readers. I found that on these questions the views of the writers are quite diverse. The discovery surprised me, because it was not what the editors’ 19-page introduction had led me to expect.

Encountering Kali is dedicated to David Kinsley (1939 - 2000), the author of The Sword and the Flute, which was first published in 1975. In the introduction, the editors pay tribute to Kinsley as a scholar, teacher and human being, and name him “the Father of Kali Studies”. (p2) We are told that Kinsley’s writing “has become the starting point for all students’ work on the Goddess, and many of the contributors to the present volume count him as an inspiration, if not an actual mentor.” (p 8) The editors do speak of “new interests, questions, and theoretical approaches” of the other writers, described as Kinsley’s “followers”. (p 8) All the same, it is David Kinsley who has told “Kali’s basic story”, (p 11) and for this reason the introduction is followed by a reprinted article of his.

Are the other writers simply developing a “basic story” told by Kinsley, or are there other stories here? Let us consider what these people say or imply about questions such as the following...
  • Where are the strongholds of Kali worship today?
  • What literary tradition or traditions can provide information about the historical experience of Kali?
  • How long has Kali been central to her worshippers?
  • Does the vision of Kali come from a time when women were powerful?
  • Are Kali, Parvati and Durga the same Goddess?
  • Is the word “extreme” applicable to Kali?
  • Are western psychological theories relevant to experiences of Kali?
  • Is the vision of Kali relevant to the lives of westerners?
In the discussion below, we will refer not only to the new book itself, but also to earlier writings by its contributors.

Where are the strongholds of Kali worship today?

In The Sword and the Flute, Kinsley states that Kali is worshipped “primarily in Bengal”, (Sword p 93) although he makes passing reference to her worship in various other regions. (Sword pp 96-97, 100-101) In Encountering Kali, Sarah Caldwell lists “Nepal, Assam, Bengal, Bihar, Sri Lanka, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh” as places where Kali is “at the center of religious life”. (pp 258 - 259)

What literary tradition or traditions can provide information about the historical experience of Kali?

In The Sword and the Flute, Kinsley refers repeatedly to “the Hindu tradition”. The reader is given a sense of one tradition, which is distinct from other great religions, and whose writings express a gradually changing understanding of Kali.

In Encountering Kali, Cynthia Ann Humes sees that within the literature of Hindu sects (as well as Jain and Buddhist literature) there have long been “contradictory ... stances” about Kali (positive, negative and in between) engaged in “contentious debate”. (pp 145 - 147) Rather than one, gradually evolving, Hindu view of Kali, she sees very different views existing alongside each other.

Patricia Dold sees a close affinity between the Mahabhagavata Purana, a Hindu text which glorifies Kali, and tantric Buddhist legends about men receiving enlightenment from goddess women with necklaces of bone. (p 51 - 53)

For David Kinsley: “Kali is a Hindu goddess; she is a being who has revealed herself to the Hindu tradition.” (Sword p133) Patricia Dold’s work suggests that Kali has revealed herself through tantric Buddhism as well as through Hinduism.

How long has Kali been central to her worshippers?

According to David Kinsley, it is only in the last few centuries that Kali has been regarded by Hindus as more than a peripheral goddess. While Kali’s name appears in Sanskrit and Tamil epic literature around two thousand years ago, she is a first a very minor figure, on the fringes of the Hindu tradition. She gains greater recognition in the Puranas and in tantrism, yet “her ultimate acceptance” only takes place in the eighteenth century, when Ramprasad composes his devotional songs. (Sword p 115)

Sarah Caldwell, on the other hand, finds that Kali “has been the central deity of the south Indian state of Kerala at least since the Cankam age, some two millenia ago”. (Encountering p 253)

Does the worship come from a time when women were powerful?

In her article “The Western Kali” (in Devi: Goddesses of India) Rachel McDermott looks at the views of Barbara Walker and other feminist writers, who have taken Kali to be an image of women’s power in very ancient times, when Goddess worship was prevalent. McDermott argues while such a view of history may be popular, its proponents have failed to make an intellectually convincing case. Moreover, their theories don’t fit with what David Kinsley found out about the history of Kali.

In the new book, Sarah Caldwell points to evidence, from early literature in two south Indian languages (Tamil and Manipravalam), that in Kerala “in ancient and even medieval times, women took actual roles of power in ritual and military activities”. (p253) Sarah Caldwell reassures readers that she isn’t speaking of “matriarchy”. (p 253) She does, however, suggest that the evidence from Kerala is part of a much wider picture, of “an ancient shared goddess-worshipping culture” involving “female ritualists”. (p 261)

Are Kali, Parvati and Durga the same Goddess?

David Kinsley regards Kali as a goddess distinct from Parvati (the tranquil wife of Siva) and Durga (a great warrior goddess), although he recognizes that they have sometimes been identified with one another. For instance, Kinsley mentions texts where “the names Parvati and Kali are used interchangeably.” (Sword p102) Nonetheless, Parvati is not the furious fighting goddess whom Kinsley sees as the real Kali, “Kali herself”. (Devi, p79) Kinsley sees Kali as “Siva’s ‘other’ wife” who “appears to play the opposite role from that of Parvati.” (Encountering, p 28)

Patricia Dold outlines the mythic structure of the Mahabhagavata Purana (a late medieval text) in which “Kali is Mahadevi... the essence of all goddesses” (Encountering p 43). This Great Goddess has many forms, including the form of Durga. The successive wives of Siva, namely Sati and Parvati, are her complete incarnations.

Patricia Dold also draws our attention to the Mahabharata’s hymns to Durga, which are roughly contemporary with the Devi Mahatmya. Here Kali is one of the names of a “complex goddess”, who is “compassionate and auspicious”. (p 42)

Further light on the relation between Kali and Durga is provided by the material from the fifteenth century Candi Purana, presented to us by Usha Menon and Richard Shweder. Their article presents a version of the myth in which Durga kills Mahisasura, the Buffalo Demon. In other texts, the myth begins with a favour granted to Mahisasura by the god Brahma: the demon can be killed only by a woman. In this text, the favour goes a step further: only a naked woman can kill Mahisasura. When Durga finds out, she strips and becomes Kali. (pp 91- 92)

Is Kali a goddess of the extreme?

Kinsley says “... the tumultuous, wild, uncontrollable aspects of the divine... are elaborated and pushed to extreme lengths in Kali.” (The Sword and the Flute p 149) However, in 2000, in a preface to the second edition of the same book, Kinsley says that neither Kali nor Krishna “seems as extravagant to me today as when I wrote The Sword and the Flute.

In Encountering Kali, Jeffrey Kripal speaks of “extreme and excessive mythological, ritual, and textual material”, and asks: “Is there any way to understand a goddess with fetus-earrings and a garland of decapitated heads having sex with a husband likened to a corpse in a cremation ground without being excessive?” (p 212)

On the other hand, Patricia Dold: “I suggest that -- to a degree -- scholars have imposed their preference for a wild Kali on their study of the Goddess... the extreme early Kali is sometimes the result of scholars’ selective reading...” (pp 41 - 42) Sarah
Caldwell calls on scholars to cease referring “to Kali as a goddess only of the extreme, repulsive, and unacceptable.” (p 268)

Are western psychological theories relevant to experiences of Kali?

One of the starting points of The Sword and the Flute is that “religious phenomena can best be understood on their own plane”. (Sword p 3) Kinsley wants to “study religious things as religious things”. (Sword p 4) He criticizes the Jungian writers Erich Neumann and Heinrich Zimmer for interpreting Kali in psychological terms rather religious terms, although he doesn’t completely reject what they say. (Sword p 132)

In the new book Jeffrey Kripal identifies himself with a series of writers who have used the psychoanalytical theories of Sigmund Freud to interpret the experience of Kali as a mother goddess. He acknowledges the point that such theories “cannot help us explain the... philosophical, metaphysical, and mystical systems” associated with mother goddesses. (p 204) Nonetheless, he sees important analogies between psychoanalysis and Tantra, and has hope for “a psychoanalytic poetics of the Goddess”. (p 197)

Is the vision of Kali relevant to the lives of westerners?

In The Sword and the Flute, Kinsley describes the vision of Kali as “fundamentally Hindu and... fundamentally human”. (Sword pp 129 - 130) However, his book emphasizes the “fundamentally Hindu” side: Kali’s specifically Indian cultural and historical associations. The question of Kali’s relevance to the lives of westerners is not directly addressed.

In her 1996 article “The Western Kali”, Rachel McDermott expresses many reservations about ways Kali has been interpreted in feminist and new age literature and ritual. All the same, she seems inclined to accept that this western response to Kali “helps to heal divisions in women’s lives”. (Devi p 305) In the new book she goes a step further, with the suggestion that Kali’s western worshippers “have been able... to create a subcommunity of women and men who find peace and resolution of inner conflict”. (Encountering, p 287)

The introduction to Encountering Kali begins with a short but moving description of David Kinsley’s last days. Quoting or summarizing here does not seem appropriate. Suffice to say, the passage demonstrates that for David Kinsley himself, the vision of Kali was more than a topic.

Review first published June 2003 in the journal Ferment
Revised for the Web.
Review © Colin Robinson 2003.
Artwork © Colin Robinson 1999, 2007.

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