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Notes on the masculine word Kala

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The feminine Sanskrit word kālī (काली) has a masculine counterpart kāla (कालः), which often appears in the compound form mahākāla (महाकालः). If we wish to understand how Kālī has been experienced and understood through history, it seems logical and natural to study the history of these two words: kālī and kāla.

The masculine word kāla has received comparatively little attention in recent English-language works about Kālī. One reason for this may be the tendency to think of Kālī as a independent feminine power – one who doesn’t need masculine support.

An exception is W.C.Beane’s book Myth, Cult and Symbol in Śākta Hinduism. Beane is aware of the praise of Kāla in the Atharva Veda 1 and suggests that the feminine Kālī has emerged into human consciousness out of Kāla. 2 Beane however pays little attention to the post Vedic history of the masculine name. He simply tells us that “Kāla... is absorbed by Śiva.” 3

"Śiva" and "Mahākāla"

It may be true that the names Śiva and Mahākāla often function as two names of one deity. The same is true of the names Mahādevī and Kālī. (See How to Study the Literature of Kali?) Nonetheless, the name Kālī has a rasa, a flavour, of its own. Is it possible that the same is true of the name Kāla?

When the word Kāla does get a mention in the English literature, it is usually associated with death and destruction. Beane, for instance, cites an earlier writer’s interpretation of the root kāl- as “all that is black and terrible”. 4 Similarly in her book Hindu Myths, Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty suggests “the Great Death” as a translation of the name Mahākāla.5 Thomas Coburn writes that kāla means “time... as that which brings all things to an end, the destroyer”. 6

Is it possible that the word kāla has a history worth studying in its own right, as well as for the light it may shed on the history of the word kālī? Is it possible that there is more to this word than death and destruction, even if death and destruction are part of its meaning?

A range of meanings

Some meanings of the Sanskrit word kāla, as given in V.S.Apte’s dictionary: “black or dark-blue colour.. time... opportune time... proper time... period or portion of time... weather...” 7

It has been argued that originally there were two words pronounced kāla – one, of Aryan origin, meaning “time”, and another, from a different family of languages, meaning “black” or “dark”. 8 Nonetheless, in the Sanskrit writings we are going to discuss, kāla functions as a single word, with a range of related meanings.

Kāla in the fourth Veda

It would be wrong to assume that the word always refers explicitly to a great and worshipful principle. But there are contexts in which it does. An early instance is the Atharva Veda. This is the work referred to as the fourth Veda, whose canonical status in relation to the other three Vedas has been a matter of debate. The Atharva contains two hymns to kāla, translated as “Time”. The hymns describe kāla as the source of heaven and earth, though also their son. He is the source of the waters, scriptures and sacrifice. He is the father even of the creator-god Prajāpati (Lord of Offspring). 9

In Indian writing, the distinction between upper and lower case letters (e.g. “k” and “K”) does not exist. In English, though, it seems natural to write the name of such an exalted principle with a capital letter: Kāla. 10

One of the Kāla hymns of the Atharva Veda contains a verse which the translator Raimondo Panikkar, describes as “enigmatic... of incomparable beauty and extra-ordinary suggestive force” 11

Above Time is set a brimful vessel.12

The Sanskrit phrase translated “brimful vessel” is pūrṇaḥ kumbhaḥ. In India today, the same term is used for a ritual object that is considered to represent the feminine principle. 13

In the Maitrī Upaniṣad

Now the Maitrī (or Maitrāyaṇīya) Upaniṣad, which is considered one of the 16 most important Upaniṣads.14 A passage in this text declares that Brahman has two forms, Kāla and Akāla (which can be translated “the Timeless”, or “Eternity”). Akāla is without parts, is undifferentiated; whereas Kāla is differentiated. Kāla begins with the Sun, and creates the Year. The Year creates, nourishes and finally absorbs all creatures. Kāla is said to “bake” all things. 15

कालः पचति भूतानि सर्वाण्येव महात्मनि ।

यस्मिंस्तु पच्यते कालो यस्तं वेद स वेदवित् ॥

kālaḥ pacati bhūtāni sarvāṇyeva mahātmani,

yasmiṃs tu pacyate kālo yas taṃ veda sa vedavit.

– Maitrī Upaniṣad chapter 6 verse 15

Kāla bakes all things into the great Ātman,

but one who knows what Kāla is baked into, knows the Veda.

The Sanskrit verb pac “bake” can also been translated “cook”, “melt” or “ripen”, the common factor being change due to heat.

In the Mahābhārata

In both of the passages we’ve looked at, Kāla appears as a creative principle, not simply as a destroyer. On the other hand, there are two passages in the epic Mahābhārata in which the same name Kāla is specifically associated with sudden violent death.

One passage describes the way a camp of warriors experience a surprise attack by their enemies at night. They see a laughing, blood-smeared female figure binding and carrying away the spirits of men, horses and elephants; a figure they had seen on other nights in their dreams. 16 This macabre female figure is called kālarātri, which the modern scholar Thomas Coburn translates “night of death”. She is also called kālī. Coburn treats kālī in this context as a proper noun – Kālī –though he concedes that the word can equally well be taken as a description “the black one”. 17 The expression kālarātri, too, is treated as a proper noun – Kālarātri – by Coburn in his subsequent discussion of the passage. It could also be thought of as a compound of two proper nouns – Kāla-Rātri. For the term contains the names of two deities mentioned in earlier works: the masculine Kāla and the feminine Rātrī, or Night, of the Ṛg Veda.18

The best known portion of the Mahābhārata is a long conversation between the god Kṛṣṇa and the hero Arjuna, called the Bhagavad Gītā. Kṛṣṇa declares himself to be kāla lokakṣayakṛt 19Kāla the World-Destroyer. When the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer witnessed the first atom bomb test, he remembered an English rendering of that verse: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” 20 Yet, elsewhere in the Bhagavad Gītā 21 Kṛṣṇa uses the word rather differently, when he situates Kāla in the class of “reckoners” 22 or “things that measure” 23. Here again, Kṛṣṇa declares that he is Kāla. In yet another verse, he states that he as Kāla is beyond destruction 24.

Kālidāsa and the Devī-Māhātmya

Kālidāsa’s classic poem Meghadūta, written some 1500 years ago, contains a detailed description of a temple of Mahākāla (Great Kāla).25 The Lord of this temple is also called Hara, 26 a synonym of Śiva; his feminine other self is named Caṇḍī in one verse 27, and Bhavānī in another 28. They are attended by dancing courtesans (Sanskrit: veśyā) 29. The god himself is also a dancer. He yearns for offerings like the bloody hide of an elephant, yet also takes pleasure in red hibiscus flowers, and the colour of a cloud at sunset. 30

Now the Devī Māhātmya, which scholars such as Thomas Coburn consider to have been written around the same time as the works of Kālidāsa.31 The Great Goddess who is praised in this work is described as kālarātri in the very first chapter. 32 A verse towards the end of the Devī Māhātmya mentions mahākāla immediately after mahākālī. 33The word mahākāla is written in the locative case – mahākāle – “at Mahākāla”. This may refer to the presence of the Goddess as Mahākālī at the temple of Mahākāla, or to her role at the time that is Mahākāla – the time of dissolution – or both.34 However it is read, the verse demonstrates a close association, in this period, between the names of Great Kālī and Great Kāla.

Kālī and Mahākāla in a tantric hymn

The association between these two names continues in a well-known tantric hymn to Kālī, the Karpūrādi Stotra.35 Woodroffe’s English edition leaves the name Mahākāla untranslated, exactly where it is in the Sanskrit text. This is a rare policy among translators and editors. Most seem to think the names Kāla or Mahākāla would be too unfamiliar to people who think in English, so they replace these names with something else, like “time” or “Śiva”. By doing this, they make it more likely that the name Kāla will remain unfamiliar to the English-speaking world.

In this hymn Kālī is said to be worshipped by the Hindu trinity 36, and to be the giver of prosperity 37, success in love 38, poetic inspiration 39, and liberation of the soul 40. She is pictured as engaged in amorous play with Mahākāla 41.

श्मशानस्थे तल्पे शवहृदि महाकालसुरतप्रसक्तां

त्वां ध्यायन् जननि जडचेता अपि कविः ॥

śmaśānasthe talpe śavahṛdi mahākālasurataprasaktāṃ

tvāṃ dhyāyan janani jaḍacetā api kaviḥ.

— Karpūrādi Stotra, verse 7

Even a fool becomes a poet, Mother,

by contemplating you in the cremation ground,

with the chest of a corpse as your couch,

taking pleasure with Mahākāla.

Verse 7 praises the power of Kālī, when pictured with Mahākāla, to transform even a fool into a poet. This may refer to the legend that Kālidāsa himself was regarded as a fool, until he was transformed by the grace of Kālī. 42 Verse 18 states that śavaśiva, the corpse-Śiva, lies beneath Kālī while she is deeply united with Mahākāla. This corpse-Śiva may be Mahākāla, or may be another figure lying beneath Mahākāla. The second of these interpretations corresponds to the imagery in certain Bengali paintings, where there are two male figures underneath Kālī, a still figure and an active one. 43 Mahākāla is also credited with composition of the Karpūrādi Stotra. 44 So he appears as the first devotee of Kālī, as well as her partner.

Quite a lot of academic ink has been spent on studies of the “consort goddess” – goddesses such as Lakṣmī and Pārvatī, who tend to play a supporting role in relation to a god. Mahākāla of the Karpūrādi Stotra can be seen as a consort god.

In the Mahānirvāṇa Tantra

In the Mahānirvāṇa Tantra, as in the Meghadūta, Mahākāla appears as a dancing figure. In the Mahānirvāṇa Tantra, however he is said to be dancing before Kālī. She is sitting on a red lotus, and is watching him, her face radiant and beautiful. 45

According to the Mahānirvāṇa, Kāla consumes everything at the time of the great dissolution, and this is why he is called Mahākāla. 46 The Goddess consumes Kāla himself, and that is why she is called Ādyā Kālikā Parā, the supreme primordial Kālikā.47

In this text, both Kālī and Kāla are distinguished from Brahman. From Brahman comes the creative desire which causes the Goddess to give birth to the world. 48 Brahman, however, does not act — the Mother is the one who actually does the work of creation. 49 Mahākāla is described as her form (rūpa). 50 Kālī and Kāla here represent the active side of deep reality, just as Kāla does in the Maitrī Upaniṣad.

In another chapter, Kālī is called kālaśakti, the power of Kāla, 51. The next verse calls her kālarūpā, form of Kāla, and also śivātman, self of Śiva. 52

The whole text of the Mahānirvāṇa Tantra is presented as a conversation between Śiva and Pārvatī, with Pārvatī asking questions and Śiva answering. He begins by revealing that Pārvatī is his feminine form (rūpā), and there is no difference between Pārvatī and himself. 53 Talking to Pārvatī, he often speaks of the Goddess – named Ādyā Kālikā and Mahākāli – as “you”, 54. This implies that Kālī is Pārvatī’s hidden self; or, Pārvatī is a form of Kālī.

Śiva also affirms that all things are known to Pārvatī.55 She isn’t asking him questions for her own benefit, she is inviting him to speak for the benefit of confused humanity.

To recapitulate… according to this Tantra, Mahākāla is the same as Kāla and is a form of Kālī; Kālī is also a form of Kāla; Pārvatī is a form of Kālī; and there is no difference between Śiva and Pārvatī. The deities are multiple, yet also one.

In bhakti poems

Close association of the names Kālī and Kāla continues in devotional poetry of the last few centuries.One of the best known songs of Kamalākānta begins…56

সডানন্ডময়ী কালী, মহাকালের মনোমোহিনী

sadāndamayī kālī, mahākāler manomohinī

Kamalākānta Bhaṭṭācārya

Ever-blissful Kālī, enchantress of Mahākāla…

The ending er is the Bengali genitive, giving the meaning "of Mahākāla". You have to go to the original Bengali text to find this reference, as translators into English have replaced the name that is actually used with something they think their readers will understand better: “almighty Shiva” 57 or “the Destructive Lord”.58

Kāla and Kālī are also mentioned together in a twentieth century Sanskrit devotional poem from southern Indian, the Umā Sahasra of Vasiṣṭha Gaṇapati Muni. A verse in this poem identifies Kāla as the baker responsible for all the world’s changes, using language very similar to that of the Maitrī Upaniṣad. Kālī is mentioned, in the same verse, as the śakti of the baker. And the poet declares that between Kālī and Kāla there is no distinction except gender.59

An active spirit

The association between the name Kāla and death is long, but has never been exclusive. Kāla also has been associated with creation, differentiation and measurement; with baking and with dance. These associations are by no means recent developments. They begin in the period represented by the Vedas and Upaniṣads, and continue into the twentieth century.

What we don’t see in the early passages about Kāla, such as those in the Atharva Veda and the Maitrī Upaniṣad, is direct mention of a great feminine power; though we may find suggestions of a female presence in the words “brimful vessel”. Is there something else in these texts that fits Kāla for his role in the later, tantric writings, as the one who lies beneath the Goddess and dances before her lotus throne?

Perhaps it is his character as an active spirit, a spirit of change and transformation, contrasted with the stillness ascribed to undifferentiated Brahman.... He represents the dance of creation and destruction, life and death. As such, he is a natural companion to the Kālī of the Mahānirvāṇa Tantra, who is praised as “life in this world” 60.

He is the masculine world-spirit, natural partner of the feminine world-soul: a God for the Goddess.


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

1 Beane, W.C.; Myth, Cult and Symbol in Śākta Hinduism; E.J.Brill, Leiden, 1977; pp 82.

2 Beane, W.C.; Myth, Cult and Symbol; p 271. Beane says the feminine *emerged “via deomitosis”, an example of his obscure style of writing, which may be why his views haven’t yet gained the attention they deserve.

3 Beane, W.C.; Myth, Cult and Symbol; p 272.

4 Beane, W.C.; Myth, Cult and Symbol; p 83.

5 Doniger O’Flaherty, Wendy; Hindu Myths; Penguin, England;1975; footnote to p 253.

6 Coburn, Thomas; Devī-Māhātmya: Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1984; p 108.

7Apte, V.S.; Student’s Sanskrit-English Dictionary; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1970.

8Beane, W.C.; Myth, Cult and Symbol; p 82.

9 Atharva Veda 19.53 verses 1 to 10; and 19: 54 verses 1 to 6. Panikkar, Raimundo; The Vedic Experience: Mantramañjarī; Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 1977.

10 As Woodroffe does in his editions of later, tantric works mentioned below.

11 Panikkar; The Vedic Experience; p 217.

12 Atharva Veda 19: 53 verse 3.

13 Harshananda, Swami; Principal Symbols of World Religions; Ramakrishna Institute, Mysore, 1989; pp 20-21.

14 Radhakrishnan, S.; The Principal Upaniṣads [Sanskrit text, translation, and notes]; George Allen and Unwin, London, 1953, p 21. For a detailed examination of the Maitrī Upaniṣad and its history, see Buitenen, J.A.B.; The Maitrāyaṇīya Upaniṣad [Sanskrit text, translation, and commentary]; Mouton & Co., ’S-Gravenhage, 1962.

15 Maitrī Upaniṣad chapter 6 verse 15.

16Mahābhārata 10.8 verses 64 - 67, 69. Cited in Sanskrit, with an English translation, in Coburn;Devī-Māhātmya: Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition; pp 111 – 112.

17 Coburn;Devī-Māhātmya: Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition; p 111.

18 Ṛg Veda 10.127 verses 1 - 8. English trans. in Coburn; Devī-Māhātmya...; pp 256 - 258. The forms rātrī and rātri are variants of the same word, the first being Vedic, the second classical. See Coburn; Devī-Māhātmya...; p 257.

19 Bhagavad Gītā verse 32. Chidbhavananda, Swami (ed); The Bhagavad Gita [Sanskrit text with English translation and commentary]; Sri Ramakrishna Tapovanam, Tirupparaitturai, Tamil Nadu, 1975.

20 http://www.atomicarchive.com./Movies/Movie8.shtml

21 Bhagavad Gītā verse 30.

22 English trans from Chidbhavananda, Swami (ed); The Bhagavad Gita.

23 Translation from Mascaró, Juan; The Bhagavad Gita; Penguin, 1962.

24Bhagavad Gītā verse 33.

25 verses 37 to 40. Nandargika, G. (ed); The Meghadūta of Kālidāsa [Sanskrit text and English translation]; Bharatiya Book Corporation, Delhi, 1979.

26 verse 40

27 verse 37

28 verse 40

29 verse 39

30 verse 40

31 Coburn; Devī-Māhātmya...; p 113.

32 chapter 1 verse 78. Jagadiswarananda, Swami (ed, trans); Devi Mahatmyam [Sanskrit and English]; Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, 1953.

33 chapter 12 verse 38

34 Coburn; Devī-Māhātmya...; p 109.

35 A Sanskrit text of the Karpūrādi Stotra is provided in Pūrṇānanda Giri (edited by Śyāmānanda Tīrthanātha); Śyāmārahasyam;Navabhārat Publishers, Calcutta, 1982; pp 152 - 160. An English translation is given in Woodroffe, J.; Hymns to the Goddess; Ganesh, Madras, 1973.

36 verse 13

37 verse 16

38 verse 2

39 verse 7, verse 16

40 verse 22

41 verses 7 and 18

42 This traditional narrative about Kālidāsa is briefly mentioned in a twentieth century commentary to the Tripurasundarī Aṣṭaka, a Sanskrit Goddess hymn. p 26 of Kameswar S.; (ed); Tripurasundari Ashtakam; Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Madras, 1986; p 26. There is a longer version in Svoboda, R.; Aghora – at the Left Hand of God; Brotherhood of Life Inc, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1986; pp 65 - 69. See also the website http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/K/Kalidasa/index.htm

43 For instance, the painting reproduced in Rawson, Philip; Erotic Art of the East; Minerva, 1973; fig 111 (p 141).

44 Woodroffe, J.; Hymns to the Goddess; pp 334 and 335. Pūrṇānanda Giri; Śyāmārahasyam; p 160.

45 chapter 5 verse 141. Avalon, A.(ed); Mahānirvāṇa Tantra [Sanskrit]; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1977. Avalon, A. (ed); Tantra of the Great Liberation [English]; Dover, NY, 1972.

46 chapter 4 verses 30 - 31

47 chapter 4 verse 31

48 chapter 4 verse 25

49 chapter 4 verse 26

50 chapter 4 verse 30

51 chapter 13 verse 6

52 chapter 13 verse 7 Woodroffe translates śivātman as “soul of beneficence”.

53 chapter 1 verse 16

54 e.g. chapter 4 verse 31; chapter 11 verse 10

55 chapter 11 verse 11

56 Amarendranāth Rāy (ed); Śākta Padābalī [Bengali]; Uni. of Calcutta, 1942; song 149.

57 Harding, Elizabeth U.; Kali – the Black Goddess of Dakshineswar; Nicolas-Hays Inc, York Beach, Maine, 1993; p 235.

58 McDermott, Rachel F.; “Bengali Songs to Kali”; in Lopez, Donald S.; Religions of India in Practice; Princeton Uni Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1995; p 70.

59 Umā Sahasra14.4. Pandit, M.P.(ed); Adoration of the Divine Mother – Gems from Umasahasram [Sanskrit text with English trans and commentary]; Ganesh, Madras, c1972; p 49.

60 Mahānirvāṇa Tantra chapter 11 verse 8.

Article first published in Ferment February/March 2007.
Revised for the Web 2009.
Article © Colin Robinson 2007, 2009

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