Kali and Eros - from Ferment Feb 08

What does Kali have to do with eros?

Does eros simply mean sex?

How old is the association of Kali's name with eros?

Does this mean Kali is only about eros?

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What does Kali have to do with eros?

On the cover of the March 07 issue of Ferment, there was a drawing of Kali sitting on Mahakala, in a position where sexual intercourse could happen. The drawing – which was not at all explicit – has a clear basis in the India’s tantric literature, for instance in the Karpuradi Stotra which was cited in that issue of Ferment. All the same, it seems that at least one Ferment subscriber was seriously offended by our drawing. For the following issue of Ferment came back to us, unopened, with the words “Return to Sender” on the envelope in the subscriber’s handwriting.

I was a little disappointed, but not much surprised... I was reminded of an angry letter sent to the American magazine Tantra, after they published similar – though somewhat more explicit – pictures of Kali. The letter to Tantra was signed by Ethan Walker of Oklahoma, who describes himself as a devotee of Mother Kali. Walker wrote:

“Portraying Mother Kali as one who impales herself in a wild erotic fury on Lord Shiva’s erect lingam... is sad... The great lovers and ‘knowers’ of Kali Ma – Ramprasad, Ramakrishna and others – did not portray their Mother in such a way.” 1
In fact, Ramprasad portrays Kali in many different ways, and in one of his songs he describes her performing “actions... opposed to custom”, being “shameless to the corpse... immersed in joy” 2. If this doesn’t refer to what Indian literature calls viparita-rati,or “ reversed sexual intercourse”, with the corpse-like form of Shiva, what does it refer to?

In another song, Ramprasad says Mother Kali is “bhairava in a bhairavi’s company, a girl in a boy’s company”. The words bhairava and bhairavi mean awe-inspiring man and awe-inspiring woman. According to Ramprasad’s translator, J.Sinha, in this song they refer to the male and female worshipper of the Mother. 3 This song tells us that the Goddess is present in the energy between girl and boy – the energy of eros.

In yet another song, Ramprasad speaks of Kali as a tree with four fruits, representing the four goals of life, as recognized by Hindu tradition 4... one of which is kama or desire, a word we’ll encounter again in a moment.5 This is among the Ramprasad songs that Ramakrishna liked to sing.6

Ethan Walker is not the first person to deny or gloss over the element of eros in Ramprasad’s vision of the Goddess. Let’s look at what is said by the Indian literary historian S.K. De, in a book whose second edition was published in 1962.

De acknowledges the “erotic atmosphere” of Ramprasad’s narrative poem about Princess Vidya and Prince Sundara, two legendary Kali devotees. But De dismisses the narrative poem as “half-secular”, and as an early stage in Ramprasad’s work.7 A few pages later, De contrasts Ramprasad’s “simple and tender longings for the Mother” with works by earlier poets of the Vaishnava school (i.e. devotees of Krishna). He tells us that the Vaishnava works “may, in the uninitiated, excite worldly desires”, whereas Ramprasad’s songs “are free from this dangerous tendency”.8

And yet... describing Kali’s beautiful appearance as she runs about on the battlefield, Ramprasad says that the streams of blood on her dark body are like red flowers floating on the waters of the Yamuna.9 That is, the sacred river where Krishna used to frolic with his gopi girlfriends... For Ramprasad, Kali and Krishna are two visions of one reality, and he shows us images from each of these visions shifting into images from the other.10 If Krishna is “dangerous”, how can Kali not be “dangerous” too?

Does eros simply mean sex?

The word “eros” in the title of this article was carefully chosen.

For eros is not simply a synonym for sexuality, it is Greek word associated with old myth: the name of a deity. It is the equivalent of the Sanskrit word kama which is sometimes translated as “desire”, and is not to be confused with karma, meaning “action”, “work” or “consequence of acts”. Kama, like Eros, is personified as a god with a bow and arrows. The Romans called him Cupid.

From kama comes Kamakhya “she whose very name is desire”, a title of the Goddess in the Kalika Purana. As its title suggests, that text also refers to the Goddess as Kali...

How old is the association of Kali's name with eros?

As we saw in the December 07 issue of Ferment, the Mahabharata repeatedly applies the name Kali to Satyavati, the girl from the Yamuna river, daughter of a fish, whose beauty and charm make her irresistible to the wandering ascetic Parasara, and later to Shantanu, the king. 11

The story of Kali Satyavati includes an interesting reflection on the relation between the first three of the four goals of life: dharma (performance of duties), artha (wealth) and kama. Satyavati’s devoted stepson, Bhishma, observes that dharma leads to dharma, artha to artha, and kama to kama ; but that if any of these goals is separated from the others, it then leads to its opposite. 12

It is a teaching of balance – of what Jung calls wholeness.

The Satyavati story is the first instance of a theme that recurs in Sanskrit literature - the theme of a male ascetic whose detachment is challenged a female called Kali, (one who is dark).

Ashvaghosha, a Buddhist writer of around the second century CE 13, describes a being called Megha-kali, the “cloud-dark woman”, who bears a skull, and dances seductively in front of the meditating Buddha. She is one of a series of messengers sent to Buddha by the great tempter whose names include Kama. 14

Kama – who is also Mara, a god of violent death – is doing everything he can to overcome the great sage, either by frightening him or arousing his passions. In this story, Buddha remains unmoved. The tranquility of the sage defeats the efforts of the wild god. Nonetheless, the logic of the story tells us that Megha-kali must be an extremely attractive lady, at least in Kama’s estimation. For otherwise, Kama would have sent somebody with better prospects of success.

This theme – the male ascetic challenged – is developed at length in the Kalika Purana, a work we've focused on in past issues of Ferment. 15 This work speaks of a world-pervading feminine power whose names include Mahamaya and Kali. She appears to the gods Brahma and Daksha as a dark, four-armed lady riding a lion. She has full breasts, carries a sword and a blue lotus, and makes the gestures of offering a favour and dispelling fears. At the request of the gods, she becomes incarnate – first as Sati, and later as Parvati – in order to entice the god Shiva out of his yogic withdrawal and into relationship, so that he will play his destined part in the cosmic drama. She wins Shiva, not simply by her beauty, but by performing yogic disciplines herself.

What emerges from this, is that the name Kali has an ancient and continuing association with kama, that is, with the power of eros. It is pointless to try to blame this association either on western misinterpretation, or on those Indian tantric works which some regard as decadent 16. The association goes back right back to the epic period, and continues through Puranas and Tantras into the epoch of Ramprasad.

Does this mean Kali is only about eros?

Does this mean Kali is only about eros? No, for she has other ancient associations too. Consider the skull that is mentioned in Ashvaghosha’s portrait of Megha-kali, and the sword carried by the Goddess in the Kalika Purana. These attributes remind us of David Kinsley’s phrase “mistress of death”17 – a simplistic way of characterizing Kali, but one with a grain of truth.

If Kali were simply a goddess of eros – or, for that matter, if she were simply a goddess of the sword – would she be as interesting as she is? After all, there are many divine names and forms associated with desire: for instance, the Greek Aphrodite, known to the Romans as Venus. Aphrodite resembles Satyavati, in that she’s a lady born from the waters, and associated with fish. And there are many deities associated with violence and death: for instance the ancient Greeks knew of Ares, the god of war, and Thanatos, who represents death itself, and Persephone, the goddess of the underworld. In Hinduism, there is Yama, who is the king of death and the judge of the dead. Ramprasad presents Yama as a principle opposite to Kali, for Yama’s function is to punish, whereas Kali can grant release.18

Maybe the reason Kali is so fascinating – or one of the reasons – is the fact that she brings together images of tender and destroying emotion: eros and fury. Brings them together... or reveals their primordial unity?

Even in this respect, she is not quite unique. The love goddess Aphrodite/Venus has her cruel side, as seen in the myth of Cupid and Psyche; 19 and conversely the war god, Ares, is sometimes seen in the role of lover.20 The literature of Kali presents the same paradox a little more strongly, a little more clearly...


1 Tantra - the Magazine; issue 10, 1995; p 6. The pics of Kali are in issue 9, 1994.
2 Sinha, J. (trans); Rama Prasada’s Devotional Songs; Sinha Publishing, Calcutta, 1966; song 192.
3 Sinha, J. (trans); Rama Prasada’s Devotional Songs; song 10.
4 Sinha, J. (trans); Rama Prasada’s Devotional Songs; song 31.
5 For a detailed discussion of the four goals, see the introduction to Avalon, A. (ed); Tantra of the Great Liberation; Dover, NY, 1972; pp cxl to cxliv.
6 Nikhilananda, Swami (trans); The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna; Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, 1969; pp 68-69.
7 De, S.K.; Bengali Literature in the Nineteenth Century (1757 - 1857); K.L.Mukhopadhyay, Calcutta, 1962; p 373.
8 De, S.K.; Bengali Literature in the Nineteenth Century; p 379.
9 Sinha, J. (trans); Rama Prasada’s Devotional Songs; song 287.
10 Sinha, J. (trans); Rama Prasada’s Devotional Songs; songs 112, 170.
11 Sukthankar, V.S. and Belvalkar, S.K.(ed); The Mahabharata [Sanskrit]; 19 volumes; Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona; 1933 - 1959. Verses where the name Kali is applied to Satyavati include 1.54.2; 1.99.21; 5.145.29; 5.172.1; 6.114.33.
12 Sukthankar, V.S. and Belvalkar, S.K.(ed); The Mahabharata [Sanskrit]; 19 volumes; Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona; 1933 - 1959; 1.99 verse19
13 Coulson, Michael; Sanskrit - an Introduction to the Classical Language; Hodder and Stoughton, Oxford, 1976; p xviii.
14 Johnston, E.H.(ed); The Buddhacarita [Sanskrit text with English translation]; Oriental Books Reprint Corp, New Delhi, 1972; ch 13 verses 2 and 49.
15 Ferment, April 2001; June 2001; Feb 2002; June 2002; October 2002.
16 The charge that tantric literature is decadent is forcefully expressed by Swami Dayanand, the nineteenth century Hindu reformer. See the section "The sect of Vaama Margis.." in The Light of Truth Part I Chapter 11 (accessed 2 Feb 08)
17 Part of the title of Part II - the section about Kali - in Kinsley, D.; The Sword and the Flute; Uni of California Press, Berkeley, 1975.
18 Budhananda, Swami; Ramprasad, the Melodious Mystic; Ramakrishna Mission, New Delhi, 1982; pp 56 - 57. Sinha, J. (trans); Rama Prasada’s Devotional Songs; song 56, song 103.
19 Apuleius, Lucius (Graves, R. trans); The Golden Ass; Penguin, England, 1950; chap vii to ix.
20 Graves, R.; The Greek Myths - Volume 1; Penguin, England, 1960; p 67.

Article first published February 2008 in the journal Ferment
Revised for the Web 2008.
Article © Colin Robinson 2008
Artwork © Colin Robinson 1995

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