Dancing World-Soul Kali                                                             Kali for the World

The tentacled tower of coral
My image of nature as God/dess

Tower of Coral

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An image that crystallized...

The tentacled tower of coral is something that crystallized in the centre of one of my drawings – a pencil drawing I did a few days before Christmas last year.

The drawing developed from an earlier one: two young woman hunting fish underwater. One of the women was actively swimming, the other watching and waiting. There was also a large reef structure in the picture. The actively swimming woman was moving around this structure, making a curved line through the water.

I liked her curving dive, so I did a second version of the drawing, paying more attention to the swimming girl... The reef structure, around which she was diving, then became a big, symmetrical shape, right in the centre of the picture... a huge coral formation, like a star, flower, tree, or tower. There are lots of living things in and around this structure, there are lots of tentacles. It has, for me, a mandala-like quality.

The coral in the centre

As Jung understood, the centre of the mandala is the place where opposites meet, where different, contrasting qualities come together. The coral structure in the picture represents something central to me.

Does this mean it represents a centre within me? My answer is "no", or at least, "not only that". Of course coral is something I know about, which means knowledge about coral is within me. But coral is not something I invented, nor did any human being invent it.

Coral is a part of nature; a part of nature that does embody contrasting qualities.

It combines characteristics of the animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds. In strictly scientific terms, it belongs to the animal kingdom, for it is a colony of small invertebrates: coral polyps, which are relatives to the jellyfish and the sea anemone. Yet corals often look like vegetation, and indeed perform the characteristic plant function of photosynthesis. They are able to do this because the coral polyp contains living organisms of another sort within its tissues: microscopic marine plants known as algae. Corals can also look and feel rather like minerals — they have a rock-like stability, because the polyps make themselves a hard outer layer of calcium carbonate, which enables them and their algae friends to keep a place in the sun.

The coral polyp is the great builder of the underwater world and its constructions provide a home for diverse living things. Nowhere else in the ocean is life as plentiful as around the coral reef.

And yet coral is also a consumer, a destroyer. For the coral polyp really does possess tentacles. And like the sea anemone and the octopus, it uses its tentacles to catch and eat small marine organisms.

In short, like the Hindu trinity (trimūrti), coral combines the functions of creating, sheltering, and consuming.

Tree, star, tentacles...

The coral structure in the picture has a tree-like, star-like character. Trees and stars are of course traditional symbols of Christmas, a Christian festival based on earlier solstice festivals of European Paganism. No doubt that is part of the reason this image came to me a few days before Christmas.

Both trees and stars have associations with Kālī also. She is identified with the Kalpataru, the tree that fulfills desires, and with the goddess Tārā, the wisdom goddess whose name means star.

The shape of the tree suggests upward growth, branching out, and centredness. Star – sense of orientation, direction, which comes from a source beyond our full knowledge.

The coral structure also has tentacles.

Tentacles in literature are usually associated with horrific entities or absurd ones. In the horrific category, there are the bloodthirsty Martians of H.G.Wells’ War of the Worlds, and the ravenous demon Cthulhu in the works of H.P.Lovecraft. In the absurd category are the friendly aliens in the book Men, Martians and Machines by Eric Frank Russell; and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a parody god.

Tentacles are attributes of life-forms very different from us humans. They belong to invertebrate creatures, rather than vertebrates; and to living things of the sea, not those of the land. So the tentacles are a reminder that the Centre is not only Self, but also Other.

The coral and the spearfishers

What does the tentacled tower of coral say about the spearfishers? To me it says that killing and eating can be part of a bigger picture that also includes building and sheltering.

Reflections on the image

Images, traditional and new

There is a lot of visual imagery in Sanskrit literature about Brahmā, Viṣṇu, Śiva and the Goddess. Fish, tortoises, swans, trees, lotus flowers have all appeared as images of the divine in India's traditional literature and art. Similar visual imagery occurs in Chinese traditions and in the hermetic art of Europe, which was appreciated and studied by Jung.

As far as I know, the coral reef does not appear in any of these traditions as an image of the divine. Perhaps that is part of the reason I had to do this drawing.

When people in past centuries in India and Europe created imagery of lambs and dragons, lions and water buffalo, they created that imagery on the basis of what either knew directly, or had heard of – they pictured creatures that were within their cultural knowledge. Today our cultural knowledge is different. Does that means we can and should create new images?

Religious naturalism and centredness

Religious naturalism means finding sacredness in what is natural, rather than what is supernatural. There are a number of websites about religious naturalism, with somewhat different agendas and orientations.1 I am a religious naturalist; however an element I don't always find in religious naturalist websites is centredness.

The Centre: God/dess, Nature

The picture has a mandala character because there is circling and a centre. Yet it is a picture where everything is natural rather than supernatural.

The central coral could be described, in religious terms, as an image of the God/dess. In more secular terms, it could be described as an image of the character of nature. And each of these descriptions would be equally true.

What sort of Centre?

A centre which is natural. A centre which humans can find, approach. A centre which can nourish humans. A centre which can be a danger for humans.

This Centre is natural.

This Centre is alive.

This Centre expresses itself in growth, sheltering, consuming.

This Centre is not (just) my centre or your centre.

This Centre does not belong to any one nation or tradition.

This Centre is not specifically human. If we humans are its images, so too are other living things.

In what sense is the Centre "Nature"?

The Centre is more than a cultural construction. As Jung said of his own visionary work: "No, It is not art! On the contrary, it is nature…" 2

I wouldn't take the distinction between nature and culture too far, though. Nature is not the other of culture, but the mother of culture: the bedrock on which cultures are built. And human understandings of nature are cultural: we come to terms with nature not by abandoning language and symbolism, but by using language and symbolism as a bridge.

Yet the bottom line is that we humans can become more aware of our own naturalness, and as we do so, we start to understand our kinship with all the other forms of life. As William Blake wrote:

"I have said to the Worm: Thou art my mother and my sister." 3

In what sense is the Centre "God"?

This centre corresponds to Stuart A. Kauffman's God: the self-organizing, creative tendency within this world. 4 But this creativity is inseparable from decay, inseparable from increasing entropy.

From Raymond Smullyan's dialogue "Is God a Taoist?"...

God: … it is inaccurate to speak of my role in the scheme of things. I am the scheme of things. 5

This is not a "God of the Gaps". It does not have to perform supernatural stunts to show us it is there.

In what sense is the Centre "the soul of the world"?

In the sense that it is the character of the world, or, the character of nature. Not in the sense that it is another substance, separable from the world itself.

Is the Centre Kālī?

Yes, in the sense that it is Nature (Prakṛti), and represents growth, sheltering, and devouring. But if you regard Kālī as a very localized goddess, a deity to be found only in a particular city or state or subcontinent, then no, this Centre is not that Kālī. The Tower of Coral is the God/dess of the ocean, and the ocean embraces every continent.

The Devī Māhātmya says that Prakṛti (Nature) is the Goddess, the Great Goddess, 6 whom it also calls the Mahākālī of Mahākāla 7; and it affirms that she is present in all beings 8. If so, she is present also in the coral reef, and our knowledge of the coral polyp may help us to understand her character.

Is the Centre Gaia?

For several years before I drew this picture, I had been studying and reflecting on the topic of life in the universe. Is our Earth (Gaia) the only world with living things, or are there many Gaias out there?

It seems clear that life is not present in every part of the universe — the astronauts who landed on the Moon did not find any living things there. On the other hand, Saturn's moon Titan, with its liquid lakes, abundant carbon compounds, and thick atmosphere, looks distinctly more hopeful as a habitat for organisms of some sort.

I know there are secularists who think of life on Earth is a meaningless chance event, and religious people who think of it as the result of a supernatural invention. Both these views make our Earth radically exceptional, a concept which appeals to our pride. There is another school of thought which sees life here on Earth as an outworking of natural principles, in which case life demonstrates something about the character of the universe as a whole. (See Clockmaker, Casino or Crystalization?)

I think life has made itself in the image of the cosmic God/dess. Not only human life is the image of the Divine, all life is. Even life with tentacles…

Colin Robinson, March 2012

1 Two notable ones: PANTHEISM: Nature, universe, science and religion; Swimming the Sacred River.

2 Jung, C.G.; Memories, Dreams, Reflections; Pantheon Books, Michigan, p. 186

3 Blake, William; The Gates of Paradise, 1793. Cited in Raine, Kathleen; William Blake; Thames and Hudson, London, 1970; p 66.

4 "I want God to mean the vast ceaseless creativity of the only universe we know of, ours." Kauffman, Stuart; "Beyond Reductionism – Reinventing the Sacred"; at Edge: the Third Culture (accessed 18 March 2012).

5 Smullyan, Raymond, "Is God a Taoist?", in Hofstadter, Douglas, and Dennett, Daniel; The Mind's I; Penguin, UK, 1982; p 333.

6 Jagadiswarananda, Swami (trans); Devi Mahatmyam [parallel English and Sanskrit]; Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Madras, 1953; chapter 5 verse 9. The word prakṛti is in the Sanskrit text; in the English it is translated as "primordial cause".

7 Jagadiswarananda, Swami (trans); Devi Mahatmyam; chapter 12 verse 38. The word mahākāla is in the Sanskrit text; in the English it is translated as "end of time".

8 Jagadiswarananda, Swami (trans); Devi Mahatmyam; chapter 5 verses 14 to 16.

Text and image © Colin Robinson 2012


From Thomas Schenk

Tues, 20 March 2012

Re: Religious naturalism, Kali


Very interesting. Your symbolic associations with coral seem right on. As someone brought up Catholic, I also got a little chuckle thinking about the contrast between the Tower of Coral and the Tower of Ivory. B.T. Newberg, who occasionally posts on the Religious Naturalist, has a blog called Humanistic Paganism, which explores God/Goddess symbolism. I'm going to send him the link to this article.

By the way, do you plan to publish the actual image that you refer to?


Reply from Colin

Wed, 21 March 2012

Re: Religious naturalism, Kali


Glad you can relate to my article. I know Tower of Ivory is a Biblical terms (from Song of Songs IIRC), and is applied to Mary... Would you like to tell me more about the associations and why you got a chuckle out of contrast with my Tower of Coral?

Thanks for mentioning B.T. Newberg and his blog about Humanistic Paganism. Please do send him the link to my article. I didn't know of his site before, but I've just found it through Google, and read with much interest his article "In defense of 'gods' ". Will have to explore the site further.

The image should be visible already at the top of my article, as a monochrome tiff. It is admittedly sketchy -- I may try to do a more finished version later.


From Thomas Schenk

Thurs, 22 March 2012

Re: Religious naturalism, Kali


There are a multitude of levels in which I find the contrast of Tower of Coral/Tower of Ivory interesting. First is the contrast of Kali/Mary. As a student of religion, I find the phenomenon of Mary incredibly interesting. Judaism had worked hard to expunge the Goddess from its religion. I don't believe that the early Christians had any intention of letting the Goddess back in, but Mary was the mother of Jesus, and once it was decided that Jesus was God, then the logic was unavoidable: Mary was the Mother of God. And is not the mother of a god in some sense superior to the God? But it wasn't only the logic that foregrounded Mary. Europe and the Middle East were still full of people who worshiped the Goddess. The image of Mary and Child, for instance, was taken directly from Isis and Horus. Mary was a great marketing tool in the market for souls. The bottom line is that the Goddess came back into Western religion through Mary. But of course it is a very tepid, tamed Goddess compared to Kali.

Coral and ivory are both forms of a semi-precious organic, structural substance. But as you have so aptly developed the metaphor of coral, it is symbolic of life in its teeming, hungry, beautiful diversity and complexity, like Kali. Ivory is an apt symbol of smoothness, simplicity, purity. Thus the contrast of Coral and Ivory is an apt contrast of the difference between Kali and Mary.

My mother, an Irish Catholic and a simple soul, had the deepest devotion to Mary, and praying to Mary was a great comfort to her, as I'm sure it has been to millions of other Christians. So I don't at all wish to be disrespectful to those who revere Mary. But she's so repressed, and so repressing! Kali is my kind of Gal.


From K.

Sat, 24 March 2012

Hello Colin,

This reminds me of Kali Mutu of Tamilnadu {Kali-Pearl}. Another interesting, organic association...


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