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The songs composed in the eighteenth century by Rāmprasād Sen are undoubtedly a milestone in the history of Kālī worship. The question is, how far is this milestone from the beginning of the road?
The last half century has seen a shift in academic interest away from ancient and medieval literature in Sanskrit, the classical language of India, and towards more recent literature in languages of everyday modern speech, such as Bengali.
The direction I’ve travelled in my reading has been the reverse. My attention has shifted from Rāmprasād, who praised Kālī in Bengali, to his Sanskrit antecedents.
Some of the things that impressed me when I first picked up Sinha’s English edition of Rāmprasād’s poetry 1, around 1985...
1. The richness of imagery. I was not surprised to find Kālī described as a dark naked figure with a sword and a garland of heads, as I’d seen plenty of pictures where she looks like this. But I wasn’t necessarily expecting to find her depicted as a tree with four fruits 2 , or as a boat 3
আয় মন, বেড়াতে যাবি ।
কালী-কল্পতরু-তলে গিয়া চারি ফল কুড়ায়ে খাবি ।।
āy man, beṛāte jābi,
kālī-kalpataru-tale giyā cāri phal kuṛāye khābi.
Come, oh my mind, let’s go for a walk
to the foot of the tree of fulfilment that is Kālī
where you will gather and eat the four fruits.
2. Various sacred feminine names, such as Kālī, Durgā and Tārā, are treated as belonging to the same Mother.
3. Kālī is described as Śiva’s partner, whose glances charm him. 4 That is, she has qualities ascribed to the pleasing aspect of the Goddess (known as Umā, Satī, Pārvatī) although Rāmprasād does imply that Kālī is more than the wife of Śiva.5
4. Kālī and Kṛṣṇa are identified. The lady with the garland of heads becomes the young man with the garland of flowers.6
5. Emphasis on personal devotion as the way to find Kālī.
6. Kālī is said to present in every household, specifically in the encounter of man and woman, bhairava and bhairavī.7
I’ve described Rāmprasād as my guru in a previous Ferment. 8 When I visited India in 1995, I made a point of visiting his home town, Halisahar, 34 miles north of central Calcutta.There is a small Kālī temple there, whose outer hall is decorated with scenes from the poet’s life.
Rāmprasād’s importance has been emphasized by many of the twentieth century authors who have introduced the English speaking world to the vision of Kālī. In her book Kali the Mother, Sister Nivedita presents Rāmprasād as a teacher who expressed “a new religious intuition”, arising from “the great heart of the vulgar... the imagination and conscience of the myriads”.9 In The Sword and the Flute, David Kinsley writes: “It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of Rāmprasād in the history of Kālī’s worship in Bengal.” 10
Rachel Fell McDermott begins her book Mother of My Heart, Daughter of My Dreams with a quote from Aruṇkumār Basu, a speaker at the Bāṅglā Akademi Rāmprasād-fest of 1997, who declares that Rāmprasād “rescued Kālī from the dacoits for the bhaktas”. 11 (The word “dacoits” means bandits.)
There is an element in all this I have never been very happy with: the assumption that Rāmprasād put together an essentially new picture of Kālī. Even if a woman as courageous and compassionate as Nivedita could write of “a new religious intuition”, I always doubted that alleged newness. So I’ve made a serious effort, over the years, to identify and study Sanskrit texts (for instance Purāṇas and Tantras) which can tell us more about how Kālī was understood before Rāmprasād.
Some things I’ve found:
1. The Niruttara Tantra says that Kālī “is the great desire-gratifying tree of those who long for the fourfold fruit of dharma, artha, kāma, mokṣa”. 13 In the Devī Māhātmya, the boat is an image of Durgā, who is also called Bhadrākālī. 14
3. In the Mahābhāgavata Purāṇa, Kṛṣṇa is described as an incarnation of Kālī.16
4. In the final section of the Kālikā Purāṇa, there is the statement that the four goals of life are available to anyone who makes a personal declaration of devotion to Kālī.17
कालिकायै नमस्तुभ्यमिति यो भाषते स्वयम् ।
तस्य हस्ते स्थिता मुक्तिस्त्रिवर्गस्तु वशानुगः ॥
kālikāyai namas tubhyam iti yo bhāṣate svayam,
tasya haste sthitā muktis trivargas tu vaśānugaḥ.
– Kālikā Purāṇa chapter 90 v 28
One who personally declares “Kālikā, reverence to you.”
has liberation in his hand, and the other three goals of life at his command.
5. The Tārā Rahasya (a sixteenth century tantric work) makes the statement that all women are forms of Kālī, and all men are forms of Śiva.18
How similar, or how different, are the texts I've cited? Certainly it is possible to draw a distinction between a largely narrative work like the Devī Māhātmya, and Tantras which concentrate on meditative and ritual practice. On the other hand, all of the Sanskrit texts just mentioned are from the śākta tradition (i.e. the Goddess tradition), and all are from texts in which the name Kālī is applied to the Mahādevī (Great Goddess) herself. 19
Thus, it seems to me that the images and perceptions which so impressed me, when I began to read translations of Rāmprasād, did not originate with Rāmprasād himself, nor did he have to seek for them outside the Kālī current in the Goddess tradition. My sense of personal indebtedness to Rāmprasād continues, as he was, in any case, the one who introduced me to all this.
What, then, was Rāmprasād’s historical importance? Why is it said that he rescued Kālī from the dacoits and gave her to the bhaktas?
In sixteenth century Bengal – two centuries before Rāmprasād – there was a thriving culture of kālī-kula tantra. In that period, Kālī did not belong only to dacoits: her worship was commended by scholar mystics who wrote in the Sanskrit language about images and rituals. Among these scholars were Kṛṣṇānanda Āgamavāgīśa, author of the Tantra-sāra; Brahmānanda Giri, author of the Tārā Rahasya; Pūrṇānanda, author of the Śyāmā Rahasya. Their works are classics of the Kālī tradition, published and read in Bengal to this day. 20
It is possible, however, that there was a period immediately prior to Rāmprasād when the religion of Kālī was eclipsed by other visions of the divine. There was pressure (as Malcolm McLean notes 21) from Caitanya’s school of devotion to Kṛṣṇa. Christianity was another factor. European traders (Portuguese, Danes, Dutch, Greeks, Prussians and Armenians, as well as English) had been a growing presence in Bengal through the seventeenth century.
Probably the most acute challenge to the Kālī tradition in the pre-Rāmprasād period was from the form of Islam represented by Aurangzeb,the last major Mughal emperor. The historian Narendra N. Bhattacharyya notes that Aurangzeb’s campaign against Hinduism provoked a movement of “Hindu revivalism” throughout India after the emperor’s death. 22
Bhattacharyya mentions as an instance of this Hindu revivalism the royal approval given to Kālī worship by Mahārāja Kṛṣṇacandra. 23Kṛṣṇacandra was the ruler of Nadia, a kingdom within the disintegrating Mughal empire. He supported Rāmprasād’s work with a grant of tax-free land.24
What sort of religious culture do Rāmprasād and Kṛṣṇacandra represent? Was it devotionalism (bhakti), as most commentators think, or was it really a form of tantrism, as Malcolm McLean argues? Perhaps it was both at once.
According to McLean, it was around the time of Rāmprasād that the sixteenth century Tantra-sārā was translated from Sanskrit into Bengali. The translation appears to have been commissioned by Mahārāja Kṛṣṇacandra. This, as McLean notes, is evidence of the continuing tantric character of Kālī worship in the eighteenth century.25
Yet, the translation of the Tantra-sārā may also point to parallels between eighteenth century Bengali Kālī worship and other great Indian bhakti movements.
It is a characteristic of such a movement that it not only produces new poetic works in the everyday language of its region, but also “translations of inaccessible Sanskrit texts”. I am quoting from A.K. Ramanujan’s discussion of bhakti movements, a discussion which refers specifically to South Indian poetry about devotion to Śiva. Ramanujan compares the bhakti movements to Protestant Christianity, with its vernacular translations of the Bible.26
Narendra Bhattacharyya’s term “revivalism”, which also has Protestant overtones, does seem a better description of Rāmprasād’s work than McLean’s “synthesis”. Rāmprasād deserves our respect and attention, not because he put together a new picture of the Goddess, but because he gave voice to a major revival of Kālī-centred religious culture, part of the broader Hindu revival of the eighteenth century.
The historical issue of Rāmprasād – whether his songs represent a synthesis or a revival – is related to a basic issue about the one Rāmprasād calls Mā...
Are we to think of the vision of Kālī as a relatively modern experience, belonging essentially to the vernacular culture of one region of India; or is it something older, more classical – a treasure for all of India and all the world?
(The translations of verses presented in parallel Sanskrit/English and parallel Bengali/English are original to Ferment.)
1 Sinha, J. (trans); Rama Prasada’s Devotional Songs; Sinha Publishing, Calcutta, 1966.
2 Amarendranāth Rāy (ed); Śākta Padābalī [Bengali]; Uni. of Calcutta, 1942; song 257. Sinha, Song 31. (The boxed English translation is by Ferment.)
3 Sinha, Song 1.
4 Sinha, Song 112.
5 Sinha, Song 58.
6 Sinha, Song 112.
7 Sinha, Song 10.
8 Ferment, June 1996.
9 Nivedita, Sister; Kali the Mother; Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1986; page 45.
10 Kinsley, David; The Sword and the Flute – Kālī and Kṛṣṇa, Dark Visions ofthe Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology; University of California Press, Berkeley, 1975; p 120.
11 McDermott, Rachel Fell; Mother of My Heart, Daughter of My Dreams; Oxford UP, 2001; p3.
12 McLean, Malcolm; Devoted to the Goddess – the Life and Work of Ramprasad; SUNY Press, Albany, NY, 1998; p 58.
13 Woodroffe, John (ed); Principles of Tantra [English translation of the Tantra-tattva of Śiva Candra Vidyārṇava]; Ganesh and Co., Madras, 1986; Part I, p 242.
14 Iswarananda, Swami (trans); Devi Mahatmyam [Sanskrit and English]; Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, 1953; chapter 4, verse 11; chapter 4 verse 39.
15 Tarkaratna, Pañcānana (ed, trans); Kālikāpurāṇam [Sanskrit in Bengali characters with Bengali translation]; Navabhārat Publishers, Calcutta, 1977. The way this text views the relation between Kālī, Satī and Pārvatī is expressed concisely at chapter 1 verses 9 to 13; and again at chapter 44 verses 54 to 57.
16 Dold, Patricia; “Kālī the Terrific and Her Tests”; in McDermott, R. and Kripal, J.; Encountering Kālī; University of California Press, Berkeley, 2003; p 40.
17Tarkaratna (ed); Kālikāpurāṇam; chapter 90 verse 28.
18 Brahmānanda Giri; Tārārahasyam [Sanskrit text in Bengali characters with Bengali translation]; Navabhārat Publishers, Calcutta, 1978; chapter 1 verses 17 - 18.
19 It is true that in the Devī Māhātmya there is a fighting goddess called Kālī Karālavadanā who represents an aspect, rather than the whole, of the Great Goddess. However, the Great Goddess herself is called Mahākālī at chapter 12 verse 38 as well as Kāla-rātri (a synonym of Kālī) at chapter 1 verse 78.
20 All are available from Navabhārat Publishers of Calcutta in parallel Sanskrit (with Bengali characters) and Bengali. See also Banerji, S.C.; A Brief History of Tantra Literature; Naya Prokash, Calcutta, 1988; pp 458, 460-462, 473.
21 McLean, Malcolm; Devoted to the Goddess; pp 43 - 44.
22 Bhattacharyya, Narendra Nath; History of the Śākta Religion; Munshiram Publishers, Delhi, 1974; p 152.
23 Bhattacharyya; History of the Śākta Religion; page 153.
24 McLean; Devoted to the Goddess; pp 9 to 10.
25 McLean; Devoted to the Goddess; pp 102 - 109.
26 Ramanujan, A.K.; Speaking of Śiva; Penguin, 1973; p 54.
Article first published in Ferment February/March 2007.
Revised for the Web 2010.
Article © Colin Robinson 2007, 2010
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