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Sakti bodies – II: Kali in the Mahabhavagata Purana

“Oh Kali full of Brahman!
I’ve searched them all
Vedas, Agamas, Puranas
and found You:
Krisna, Siva, Rama
they’re all You
My Wild-Haired One.”
Ramprasad Sen

Kali has been occupying my thoughts a great deal of late, so to take this series of posts forward, I thought I’d take a look at how Kali is represented in the Mahabhavagata Purana, a late medieval text which for the most part, is given over to narratives about the Great Goddess. Several of these narratives deal with the origin of Kali and the group of goddesses known as the Mahavidyas. The Great Goddess. desirous of a consort, creates the gods Brahma, Visnu and Siva, who each proceed to undertake austerities in order to prove their fitness. As a test, the Goddess appears to each of the gods in terrible form and whilst both Visnu and Brahma turn away from her, Siva remains absorbed in his meditation, and is not disturbed by the vision of the goddess in her terrible form. As a reward, the Goddess chooses to fully embody herself when she marries Siva – becoming “born” as the daughter of Daksa and Prasuti. This in itself is interesting as there is the implication that to be married, the Goddess must become a daughter and acquire a set of parents – to be married means participating in the web of familial relationships and obligations.

Kali head by Maria Strutz

The Goddess is born to Prasuti and Daksa and is known as Sati. When she reaches a marriageable age, Daksa arranges a great event at which She can choose her husband from the assembled guests. Needless to say, Daksa does not approve of Siva – and says so at some length, disparaging Siva’s chaotic lifestyle and appearance. When Sati chooses to marry Siva, Daksa is enraged, and reviles them both. For a while, Sati and Siva enjoy a honeymoon period together, but gradually, Siva becomes full of pride and behaves disrespectfully towards the Goddess. Matters come to a head when Daksa holds a great sacrifice, to which all the gods and goddesses are invited – except Siva and Sati.When She hears of this great event, Sati tries to persuade Siva to attend – and he refuses. She then asks for permission to attend on her own, and Siva insults her:

“Although you are forbidden, Great Goddess, you do not hear my words! Having himself done an evil deed, the evil one corrupts another. I know that words do not get through to you, daughter of Daksa. Do as you please! Why do you await my permission!”
(quoted from Dold, 2003, p48)

Sati then becomes angry – so angry in fact, that Siva turns his face from her and closes his eyes. When he looks again, he sees the Goddess in her ferocious form, with a black body shining like fire, a fanged mouth, four arms, adorned with a garland of human heads and roaring ferociously. And how does Siva react to this terrible vision of Kali? He does a runner. Sati creates the ten Mahavidyas, so that no matter in which direction Siva runs, he comes face to face with a terrifying goddess, and so eventually, he has to go back to the Goddess, whom he now recognises as the Supreme Deity, and begs her forgiveness. When Siva asks the Goddess about the Mahavidyas, she says that:

“All these figures are my excellent forms, and I abide in manifold forms”
(Mahabhavagata Purana 8.71, quoted from Kinsley, p25)

The story winds on, detailing how the Goddess attends Daksa’s sacrifice, creating a shadow form of Herself which enters the sacrificial fire; of Siva’s grief and the resultant battles. But I’ll leave it there for a moment, because the section I’ve briefly outlined forms an origin story for Kali – that she is the true form which the Goddess reveals – and of the origin of the ten Mahavidyas – a group of goddesses associated with tantric literature. But the Kali of the Mahabhavagata Purana is not merely the personification of the anger of the Goddess (as She appears to be from the Durga narrative in the Devimahatmya – see previous post), She is the very essence of the Goddess – the reality behind the seemingly benign forms of the Goddess.

Patricia Dold points out that the theme which underpins the Goddess’ appeance in wrathful form – whether it is to test the ascetic power of Brahma, Visnu or Siva, or her anger at Siva’s disrespectful treatment of her – is one of testing. Whilst the Mahabhavagata Purana is not a tantric text, Dold proposes that this testing theme way well reflect a tantric influence, and points to tantric narratives whereby would-be initiates are confronted by intimidating Yoginis (or sometimes guru figures behaving badly) and whose unruly or repellent behaviour poses a test of overcoming pride and attachment.

Patricia Dold, Kali the Terrific and Her Tests in McDermott & Kripal (eds) Encountering Kali: in the margins, at the center, in the west (University of California Press, 2003)
Lynn Foulston, At the Feet of the Goddess: The Divine Feminine in Local Hindu Religion (Sussex Academic Press, 2002)
Sanjukta Gupta, The Worship of Kali according to the Todala Tantra in White (ed) Tantra in Practice (Princeton University Press, 200)
David Kinsley, Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas (University of California Press, 1997)
Rachel Fell McDermott, Singing to the Goddess: Poems to Kali and Uma from Bengal (Oxford University Press, 2001)

One comment

  1. J D
    Posted August 31st 2011 at 12:07 am | Permalink

    Cheers for this. I sometimes like observing what presuppositions are in a text: attitudes to the divine and to women for example. In this it seems to be:
    A woman is second class: required to ask permission of the husband.
    A women is not the great goddess in the first place: Shiva’s guilt comes when he realizes who he messed with, but not before when she was merely a woman.
    Begs the question, I feel, of who wrote this and why should we consider this valuable in a spiritual way, in this day and age.

    I think the idea of a goddess testing is curious: yes it might be evident in this text, but why should that mean anything in a real sense, I wonder. Seems like people putting ideas onto the divine.
    I’m not sure of the value of these kinds of text sometimes. How can they benefit us? I enjoy a good story anyway though.