In praise of Kathmandu’s Sweta Kali

published on July 10, 2011
By Romesh Jayaratnam
Kandy, Sri Lanka

Existence is one according to Hindu Advaita philosophy. The conceptual categories of space and time explain the relative plurality around us. Divinity is one with several manifestations as per Vedanta.
The Goddess Kali represents one aspect of divinity. Often situated on the margins of high Hinduism, she remains much sought after by those in distress. Her petitioners include women and men in all walks of life, throughout the Hindu world be it in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Singapore, Sri Lanka or overseas. Kali negates conventional day to day morality and responds to the instinctive pleas of the dispossessed, the sidelined and victims of injustice. She is the solace for those who have no option where all else has failed. In short, she is the last resort for a person in need of a respite during the harsh trials and tribulations of life.
Her prompt direct response to the pleas of the injured, the defeated and the humiliated explains her immense popularity be it in the sylvan shrines of Dakshin Kali outside Kathmandu, Bhadrakali near the Government Secretariat in Kathmandu or the beautiful three roofed pagoda built in traditional Newari architecture dedicated to Sweta Kali in the Naradevi quarter of Kathmandu. One is also reminded of the Vira Ma Kali temple in Jaffna in north Sri Lanka.
The prototype of the Goddess Kali emerges in the early Neolithic agrarian settlements of highland Baluchistan that date back to 6000 BCE. Archeologists have excavated female figurines made of baked clay displaying grim skull-like faces evidently designed to evoke terror. These proto-historic settlements were the precursors of the Indus valley civilization in the Indian subcontinent. The Rig Veda alludes to a dark Goddess referred to as Nirriti. The Mundakopanishad identified Kali with one of Agni’s seven flaming tongues while the post-Vedic Kataka Grihyasutra recommends that Kali be invoked during the marriage ceremony. Early Tamil literature of the 1st century CE refers to Korravai, the fierce patron Goddess of the arid parched tracts of land in South India with its war-like Maravar inhabitants.
Chapters 81 to 93 of the Markendeya Purana of the 5th or 6th century CE,  known today as the Devimahatmaya, celebrate the feminine divinity in the broader sense of the word. I quote one remarkable verse often repeated in Kali temples:

‘Remembered in distress, you remove fear from every person
Remembered by the untroubled, you confer even greater serenity of mind.
Dispeller of poverty, suffering and fear, who other than you is ever intent on benevolence towards all?’

The fearsome Goddess once situated on the edges of civilization was gradually recast to a protective redemptive role and a saving grace in the face of adversity. This accounts for the popularity of the Goddess Kali down the centuries.
The awe-striking Goddess of the village and of high tradition represents different strands of the same thread. This was to peak much later in the works of the Bengali savant Ramprasad of the 1700s CE who sang:

‘O mind, you do not know how to farm!
Fallow lies the field of your life.
If you had only worked it well,
How rich a harvest you might reap!
Hedge it about with Kali’s name
If you would keep your harvest safe:
This is the stoutest hedge of all,
For death himself cannot come near it’.

Feminist Subtext
There is a feminist subtext beneath the veneration of the Goddess Kali. In contrast to other religions, Hinduism alone provides for the depiction of the supreme godhead in the feminine gender. Unfortunately, this representation of female divinity often co-existed with the subordination of women in social life. It nonetheless represented a certain promise, often unrealized, that women were no less than men.
Kali did not derive Her power or authority from any male consort. Her iconography and religious practice refused to concede male conceptions of propriety, hierarchy and restraint. Her strength lay in this directness of approach, not to mention the immediacy of succor provided to the subjugated and vanquished.
As Sri Aurobindo put it, all movement, all activity are expressions of Her one movement which in this universe is directed towards the fulfillment of creation.
Needed Reform
While the widespread appeal of the Goddess is unmistakable, many in Nepal propriate her with animal sacrifice. This makes me uncomfortable. One has no right to take life unless it be in self-defense. To do so is to incur bad karma that would result in future suffering in samsara i.e. the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. We have an imperative therefore to reform Hindu religious devotion.
Far more appropriate would be the veneration of the Goddess by helping the poor, the dispossessed and the weak, her core set of devotees. Hindus should consider thoughtful vows that include philanthropy, providing health care for the poverty-stricken, alms for the indigent or feeding the destitute in lieu of the senseless and barbaric blood sacrifice of helpless animals while worshipping Kali.  One can even consider paying the legal fees of a poor litigant in court desperately in need of judicial remedy. Hindus need a sense of social responsibility to those less fortunate.
A Tamil language classic dated by many to the 5th century CE in-fact asserts:

‘Give to the poor and become praiseworthy.
Life offers no greater reward than this’
[Tirukural verse 231]
I conclude this offering to Kali with with another quote from the Devi Mahatmaya:

‘O ruler of the universe, you protect the universe.
You are the essence of all things and you support all that is.
All kings must praise you, O revered one.
Those who bow to you in devotion become the refuge to all’.  

May the supreme Goddess Sweta Kali ever protect and bless Nepal.

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