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Reflections on David Kinsley...

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David Kinsley (1939 - 2000) has been called “the Father of Kālī studies”.1 Indeed, if you’re looking for ways to think and speak about Kālī in English, his book The Sword and the Flute 2 cannot be ignored.

The vision of Kālī

I’m indebted to Kinsley for his positive use of the word “vision”, part of the complete title of The Sword and the Flute. As Kinsley explains in his introduction, visions permit us “to see beyond the immediately sensed world of bits and pieces... to have a world, a cosmos.” 3 It might be added that this word “vision” is a natural English translation of the Sanskrit darśana, a word widely used in India to describe encounter with the divine.

Critical questions about Kinsley's concept of "polytheism"

On the other hand, I have always felt irritated, and challenged, by his notion that Hindu culture is polytheistic. As Kinsley himself writes, he “does not try to... justify... the term ‘polytheism’ in the Hindu context”. 4 He simply takes it as his starting point.

Several critical questions may be asked...

1.Is “polytheism” a fair description of Hindu religious culture in general?

It’s true that Hindu myths, and temple images, involve many gods and goddesses. On the other hand, there is a strong tradition that the many are actually one. This tradition goes back to the Ṛg Veda, the oldest known Sanskrit text, where we find the words:

ekaṃ sat viprāḥ bahudhā vadanti 5
"Reality is one. The wise speak of it in various ways."

The word “polytheism” has been rejected by a number of twentieth century Hindu writers.. Ananda Coomaraswamy: “Almost all Indian worship is monotheistic...” 6 Swami Harshananda of the Ramakrishna order: “...there is in Hinduism no polytheism as understood by the Western thinkers.” 7

2.Is it a fair description of India’s vision(s) of the divine feminine?

The phrase “the divine feminine”, part of the title of Kinsley’s book Hindu Goddesses,8 is his long-winded alternative to “the Goddess”. “The Goddess” is a term Kinsley avoids, although it is the natural English translation of the Sanskrit “Mahādevī”.

Kinsley writes: “Hindu goddesses are very different from one another... Although the centrality of a great goddess is clear in some texts...her presence is not indicated in the majority of texts that speak of Hindu goddesses.” 9

An authoritative-sounding statement, but a debatable one. Kinsley doesn’t tell us when the “majority of texts” was determined, or what sort of tallying process was used. Does “majority of texts” mean “majority of books”, “majority of chapters”, “majority of verses” or something else?

If positions which may seem incompatible -- such as monotheism and polytheism -- coexist in India’s sacred literature, do we resolve things by asking which represents “the majority”? Is it not more pertinent to ask how the positions have been able to coexist? Is it possible that they are not incompatible after all -- that the divine feminine is both one and many?

Ajit Mookerjee, a twentieth century writer prominent in the fields of tantric visual art and literature, expresses a view different from Kinsley’s. Mookerjee writes: “... It has been the practice in India to attribute the achievements of one goddess to another. The idea is that... in reality there is one Devī who assumes various forms to fulfil various purposes.” 10

It is worth reflecting on the implications of the Sanskrit word śākta, a general term for the devotees, texts (both tantric and bhaktic), and sacred places of the feminine power (Śakti). The word covers devotees who focus on various sacred names: Kālī, Durgā, Lalitā etc. Certainly there are many differences between different forms of the śākta vision. Yet the word śākta itself suggests that the differences aren’t the whole story...

3.Does the idea of “polytheism” help us to understand what the name “Kālī” has meant over the centuries? Or is it an obstacle to our understanding?

Kinsley’s notion of Kālī as “a goddess” does help him to focus (in ways other writers do not) on some of the specific associations of the name “Kālī” in Sanskrit as well as Bengali literature. This is why Kinsley, for all his faults, is well worth reading and discussing.

Kinsley writes: “To my knowledge no one has yet come up with a ‘Great God’ theory to explain the differences between early and late male deities in the Hindu tradition.” 11

A polemical statement, but also a revealing one. As it suggests, the task Kinsley sets himself is to “explain the differences” -- differences between deities, and differences between early and late forms of Hinduism. His notion of Kālī as “a goddess” helps him to do this.

But what if we are interested not only in the differences, but also in the continuity -- in the persistence of phrases, images, and rituals from generation to generation, from century to century, from millenium to millenium; in phrases, images, rituals shared by the worshippers of supposedly different deities?


Patricia Dold, a contributor to the recent book Encountering Kālī has demonstrated substantial gaps in Kinsley’s history of Kālī worship: for instance his failure to look at the repetition of Kālī’s name in the Durgā Stava of the Mahābhārata, and his lack of attention to the Mahābhāgavata Purāṇa, a text in which, as Dold puts it, “Kālī is Mahādevī.” 12 In past issues of Ferment, we’ve looked at a number of other texts whose orientation is comparable to that of the Mahābhāgavata, for instance the Kālikā Purāṇa and the Adbhuta Rāmāyaṇa.


For those dissatisfied with the notion of “polytheism”, and of Kālī as “a goddess”, the next question is...

What is the best alternative?

Should we take as our starting point notions of divine unity, of unity of the Goddess, and of Kālī as one of her names? Should we focus only on texts, such as the Mahābhāgavata and Kālikā Purāṇa, where Kālī is Mahādevī?

Such an approach would exclude or marginalize too much of the textual material. There really are many passages in Sanskrit literature in which the name Kālī does refer to a goddess who is one among many (at least in appearance); as well as many passages in which the same name refers to the universal Goddess. There are also passages in which the same Sanskrit feminine word kālī has other meanings, for instance “a dark raincloud”. Then there is the word kāla, which appears in Sanskrit and Bengali literature as the masculine counterpart of kālī, and likewise functions as an important divine name.

If we really wish to understand the vision or visions connected to the name Kālī, perhaps we’ll do better to take the whole range of usages into account.


1Kripal, J. and McDermott, R.; “Introducing Kālī Studies”; in McDermott, R. and Kripal, J.; Encountering Kālī; University of California Press, Berkeley, 2003; p2.

2Kinsley, David; The Sword and the Flute -- Kālī and Kṛṣṇa, Dark Visions of the Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology; Uni. of California Press, Berkeley,1975.

3Kinsley, David; The Sword and the Flute; p 4.

4Kinsley, David; The Sword and the Flute; p 3.

5Ṛg Veda 1.164.46. Cited in Harshananda, Swami; Hindu Gods and Goddesses; Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Madras, 1982; p 6.

6 Nivedita, Sister, and Coomaraswamy, A.; Hindus and Buddhists - Myths and Legends; Studio Editions, London, 1994; p 389.

7Harshananda, Swami; Hindu Gods and Goddesses; p 167.

8Kinsley, David; Hindu Goddesses -- Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition;Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1987.

9Kinsley, David; Hindu Goddesses; p 5.

10 Mookerjee, Ajit; KALI -- the Feminine Force; Thames & Hudson, Lndn, 1988; p 61.

11Kinsley, David; The Sword and the Flute; p 84.

12Dold, Patricia; “Kālī the Terrific and Her Tests”; in McDermott, R. and Kripal, J.; Encountering Kālī; University of California Press, Berkeley, 2003; pp 42 - 43.

Article first published in Ferment August/September 2006.
Revised for the Web 2009.
Article © Colin Robinson 2006, 2009


Tuesday February 16, 2010

Dear Colin,

It was worth reading the comments on Kali and critical analysis of the book by David Kinsley. I haven't read the book, but what I have understood is that this guy has done some research work on Hindu deities. But like many westerners had failed to understand the focal point in all the shastras.

The union of the opposites is the main idea of the Hindu religion. If you take the case of goddess "Saraswati", you will see that she evaluated from the mother of all the earth to a mere music lover goddess. She actually is the only Goddess the Hindus have. But different Goddess appeared in the scene because of the nature of the rulers. The rulers who were shaktas, baishnavas, buddhists etc. took it upon them as there prestige to focus there own goddess as the torch bearer of Hinduism. This point is evidenced in the " manasamangala kabya".


So, Hinduism is only monotheistic and it was never polytheistic. The word "Hindu" itself is a word given by the Greeks. The mixture of different races and culture gave rise to such a huge no. of gods and goddesses in Hindu religion.


Sanjay Dey

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Thursday February 18, 2010

Dear Sanjay

I am glad you found my criticism of David Kinsley worth reading. Different westerners think different things about Hinduism (and about Christianity, for that matter!), just as different Indian people think different things about religious traditions.

David Kinsley is an instance of a western writer who sees Hinduism as polytheistic. On the other hand Sir John Woodroffe was a western writer who saw Hindu Goddess worship as essentially monotheistic. He wrote: "The Goddess or Devi (as Hindus call Her) is God (as the Western worshippers address Him) in Its Mother aspect." (from the book Hymns to the Goddess)

In my article about Kinsley, I mentioned two recent Indian writers who say that HInduism is monotheistic, not polytheistic. On the other hand Prem Saran, an Indian writer who lives in Assam, writes of "the healthy polytheism of Shaktism". (from page 76 of his book Tantra - Hedonism in Indian Culture -- I put a review of this book on the web at http://home.pacific.net.au/~ferment/saran.html )

> If you take the case of goddess "Saraswati", you will see that she evaluated from the mother of all the earth to a mere music lover goddess. She actually is the only Goddess the Hindus have.

Does that mean that Kali and Lakshmi are not really Hindu, or does it mean that they are actually the same Goddess as Saraswati?

I know there is a chapter in the Rig Veda (1.164) which praises Saraswati as the mother, and speaks of "ekam sat", the one reality. The chapter also says that the one reality is given many names by wise people.

> The word "Hindu" itself is a word given by the Greeks.

I think it was the Persians, actually.

> The mixture of different races and culture gave rise to such a huge no. of gods and goddesses in Hindu religion.

I agree, and I think India's culture has been enriched by this mixing.

> The union of the opposites is the main idea of the Hindu religion.

Perhaps it is because of this idea that I have found the religion so relevant to my own concerns.



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Sunday February 28, 2010

Dear Colin,

"Does that mean that Kali and Lakshmi are not really Hindu, or does it mean that they are actually the same Goddess as Saraswati?"


Well actually I can't answer this question. But what I know is that in the Vedas Saraswati was given the place of the goddess who created the world. At that time she rode a tiger/lion. But gradual transition has made her lose that status and now she is the goddess of music. If we consider Kali as the other part of Durga,then we can say that Saraswati and Kali are the same. But I am not sure about this.


Sanjay Dey

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