The Status of Kali in American Academia

A Lecture presented to the Institute of Historical Studies, Calcutta on 21 December 1996


Friends, I thank you for taking the time, giving up your Saturday afternoon and risking Calcutta’s traffic, to assemble here. Let me first of all express my heartfelt gratitude to the Director of the Institute, Professor (Amitabha) Mukherjee and the Registrar, Mrs. (Minati) Chattopadhyay for providing a venue for and organizing this talk. I must, however, make it absolutely plain at this time that in course of my presentation I will have occasion to recite some poems or passages on Kali composed by others verbatim, which contain frankly obscene words and phrases. I do not wish to paraphrase, edit, or elide them as that would defeat the very purpose of my commentary and report. Having said this let me get on with the business at hand.

I always thought that cross-cultural borrowing is a bit of dicey business, at least in the short run. In the long run, on the other hand, over the centuries, various cultures of the world interacted with each other, symbiotically, resulting in an all-round enrichment and energizing of human civilization. No culture — with the sole exception of the fabled primitive culture of China — can claim a splendid autonomy. However, I am here concerned with an example of this phenomenon in the short run. In other words, I present before you my experience at a recent academic conference which illustrates the distortion and sheer desecration of a culture when its religious icons and symbol are misrepresented by the so-called experts and aficionados from other cultures for either academic or political reasons or perhaps for both. I have here the odyssey of Kali, her image, symbolism, significance, and relevance in the eccentric electronic culture of free market of world wide web.

Before I proceed any further, let me acknowledge my profound debt to the excellent researches of a number of scholars from the Western world, most notably Dr. Rachel McDermott of Barnard College, Columbia University, author of a paper titled “Kali’s New Frontiers: A Hindu Goddess on the Internet,” presented to the Kali Conference held at the Barnard campus (September 20-22, 1996). My talk this evening, more a commentary and a report on the proceedings of this conference than a piece of original research, draws freely and sometimes almost entirely on Dr. McDermott’s eminently interesting but frankly frightening paper. A biographer of Sadhak Kamalakanta, Rachel commands a deep insight into Bengali sensibility with regard to the Mother Goddess and has provided a judicious and, in my estimation, a most balanced analysis of Western Kali scholarship as well as a substantial and colorful exposure of American Kali mania.


I would like to commence my commentary with some prefatory remarks about the fascination for this particular deity in the Christian West that I have discerned. Her iconography, so readily visualized and interpreted in conveniently psychosexual or anthropological-sociological terms, and her theology, which could be studied sedulously or surpassed, even bypassed, in favor of a visually rich and tantalizingly provocative erotic tantric acaras, Kali comes in handy for some Western scholars, both male or female, who are starting out to make a debut in cross-cultural understanding of an exotic goddess with a view to opposing her feminine and erotic force to the patriarchal, cerebral, and morally pernickety Judeo-Christian culture of their own society.

There were times—and we know it for sure, thanks to the magisterial study by Dr. Partha Mitter — when Orientalist curiosity in Indology led to the celebration, in a perverse way of course, of the grotesque and the gargantuan in Hindu pantheon—the “much-maligned monster,” to quote Mitter’s notorious phrase (Much-Maligned Monster: A History of European Reactions to India Art, University of Chicago Press, 1977/1992). Since the monster-mongering of the colonial period we have come a long way — both foreign Indologists and indigenous experts. To call an alien culture or ritual simply and starkly bizarre or macabre is not only academically questionable, but even worse, legally contestable, given the current rage for punitive or pecuniary justice all over the world. Hence the safest and the best way to achieve the old goal — denigration of a non-Christian deity — is to focus on one whose iconography is familiar in its own land of origin.

I suspect herein lies the secret of the plethora of studies on Kali and Tantra. Giving academic approval to mystical experiences and tantric practices of the Kali sadhakas or the run-of-the-mill devotees of the goddess by way of first highlighting their irrational base and esoterism and then telling readers to accept them for what they are has become the currently fashionable and practicable (i.e., “politically correct”) way of bringing Kali out of the cremation ground into the cyberspace and enjoining everybody—devotee, dilettante, or charlatan—to recognize this dark deity with oversize tongue and breasts in any way they choose. Similarly, Tantra, with its skull, shit, piss, sex, blood, and booze, appears to be an opposite ritual associated with the naked and aroused goddess. The result has been mixed. On the one hand, we are indebted to genuinely scholarly contributions by Westerners to the study of Tantra, Hindu mysticism or Hindu gods/goddesses, godmen/godwomen, and devotees. On the other hand, some Western scholars, ever eager to affirm the validity of esoteric practices, and ever on the lookout for the unfamiliar or the esoteric, eventually exoticize the humdrum, even banal, rites and rituals which the indigenes take for granted.


The Orientalists of yesteryears had discovered in Kali all that they wished to “otherize” an alien people to be humanized, civilized, and perhaps Christianized. Kali’s color and character confirmed the miserable and murderous “other” who had to be controlled and tamed. The Orientalist hegemonic interest was followed by academics such as John Woodruffe, Heinrich Zimmer, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Mircea Eliade, who gave Kali’s “otherness” a scholar’s imprimatur. Then we have the academic empire presided over by the redoubtable baron of Bengaliana, Professor Edward Dimock of Chicago, who, as Dr. McDermott informs us, in the decade of the radical and cold war-contaminated and-financed sixties of the past century, began spawning research based on vernacular sources and texts. Dimock’s students, most famously David Kinsley of Canada, popularized Kali providing a dialectical hermeneutic of the malevolent and benevolent Black goddess. Thus was born the image of Kali, the “One with the Lolling Tongue,” to borrow McDermott’s exquisite phrase used in a personal communication with this author.

Kali was fiercely appropriated by feminist scholars and activists and taken as the archetype of the elemental, uncontrollable, spontaneous, and autonomous sexuality of femina perennis, the eternal female, vanquisher of the parasitic and passive male, and even progenitor of the Hindu trinity—the primordial male gods of the canonical tradition. Then, with the advent of the electronic age since the late eighties and the early nineties, the Bengali Kali was sacrificed at the altar of the free-thinking, free-wheeling but utterly benighted computer buffs and has been transformed into a pretty and lusty beast of the East that you are now looking at—a booted but naked woman with markedly Mediterranean features perched on a toilet seat, possessing six hands (any being other than the bimanual human is enough to be regarded as a Hindu deity) holding all the artifices of autoerotism, and actually masturbating with an oversize dildo (see Rachel F. McDermott, “Kali’s New Frontiers: A Hindu Goddess on the Internet,” paper presented to the Kali Conference, Barnard College, Columbia University, September 20-22, 1996). Or we have Kali who resembles a monstrous mutant sci-fi creature with a lolling tongue or, partially true to some indigenous iconography, an excessively passionate female in rut or animal heat on top of the ethyphallus Mahadeva, the Great God (another appellation of Siva) in a posture of viparitarati [reverse sex] (see Philip S. Rawson, The Art of Tantra, London: Thames & Hudson, 1973, plate 88).

Dr. McDermott splendidly discovered the American Kali of the nineteen-nineties. She has scoured books, articles, and magazines, and even tarot cards, and identified five Internet newspapers catering to New Age themes as well as several world wide web sites dealing with Kali. Some of these web sites have interesting and quite revealing titles such as “Calcutta,” “Church of Tantra,” “Hindu Image Library,” “Hindu Tantrik Home Page,“ “Kali Mandir,” “Kali Sanctuary,” (note the replacement of the word sanctum with “sanctuary,” reminiscent of a wild animal sanctuary!) etc. etc. However, some modern American women have sought to recover and reclaim the wholeness of Kali as the embodiment of polarities and opposites which, they feel, have been submerged or subverted by the Orientalists who had discerned only the demonic and the diabolical in the goddess. Kali’s paradoxical persona is thus projected as a critique of patriarchy.


Nevertheless, this frankly feminine agenda—a respectable and even arguably a legitimate enterprise—has gone out of hand in the late nineties. The world www website titled “I am the Bitch from Hell” begins with Kali’s declaration of female empowerment:

I am the Bitch from Hell
I think you know me well.
I am the dark goddess
Kali, Hecate, Medusa, Lilith, Ereshigal

A female guru from Brooklyn, New York, Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, told her devotes some guhya katha [secret talk], her first encounter with Kali. As Ma Jaya etc. said: “She appeared on Easter Sunday in 1974….I went to the Mother and I cried, ‘Oh Mother, please show me. Pleased unzip yourself.’ She almost looked like she was unzipping her chest down to her belly. She climbed out of herself and there was the most beautiful of women, the Golden Mother. I have never seen such beauty before or after. That was Kali.”

On this website one could click on to a page called “The Bitch Board” which invites the user to write down, graffiti-like, as it were, all the experiences of personal aggravation and anger. A creative and angry poet depicts Kali both as that which is repressed and as the devourer and destroyer of those repressions and thus as a healing goddess. A busy and tired housewife “sing[s] praises to Kali, the only goddess capable of sanctifying housework”

Om Namo Kali Om
Oh Kali clean up home.
Om Namo Kali Om
I praise you when I mop the floors.
Om Namo Kali Om
I praise you when I scrub the toilet.
Om Namo Kali Om
I praise you when I turn the compost heap.
Om Namo Kali Om.

A more intrepid “devotee” of the cyberspace salutes the goddess:


Kali is a slut, and a bitch.
She fucked your grandmother and your grandfather at the same time.
Kali is willing to sexually/spiritually ravish
all would-be lovers: man, woman and child.

A reader of the above piece of American ramprasaadi poem responded in the internet:

Kali, my Bitch-Slut-Whore,
fuckest Thou my Dad and Gran,
great Kinky Tart, would Thou
do as much for I, Thy son.

In an electronic article titled “Kali’s Dance” the author writes: “Kali is a force that says ‘yes’ to primal instinctual energy. To me Kali is very much a goddess of the body….I see Kali in the flesh, blood, bones, and bowels of humans. Each time mu baby sucks my breast for milk, or I water my garden with my sacred menstrual blood, or I feel my lover’s lingam inside my yoni uniting us in Tantric bliss, I know I am enacting Kali’s holy rites. And I rejoice! Thank Goddess!”


Need I pull out more rabbits from Rachel’s veritable Pandora’s Box? I think it’s enough, bastante! I only recall poor Ramprasad Sen who wrote in a frenzy of devotional despair: Ebar Kali tomay khabo—“this time, Kali, I’ll gobble you up.” Sen obviously failed to devour his beloved goddess but instead was himself consumed by her maternal energy. Ramprasad’s unrequited appetite has been satisfied by posterity, not from his own land, as he might have wished, but by the electronic bhaktas from across the seven seas, something Sen might never have wished to happen in his worst nightmare.

However, as Dr. McDermott assures us, all is not gall in America; there is still some voice of probity and sanity in the West. In mid-April of 1995 Internet users debated whether Kali is or is not solely a “woman’s deity.” One of them even categorically denied the validity of focusing too exclusively on women and sex and commented:

Portraying Mother Kali as one who impales herself in a wild erotic frenzy on Lord Siva’s erect lingam or as the Great Virgin and the Great Whore is sad.

This is a clear example of us mortals creating God/Goddess in our own image. Another critic of New Age frenzy wrote:

The pagans and performance artists will do what they like with Her….The Kali I love is the Kali Ramprasad, Ramakrishna, and [Ajit] Mukherjee loved. I believe this form to be Her purest, and therefore attempt to expand upon it.


Indeed, in the Kali Conference I found scholars of all hues and hermeneutics. Stanley Kurtz of Harvard argued persuasively, albeit oppressively loquaciously, about Kali’s mother image on the basis of what he called “sacrificial dominance.” As he observed:

The feminist appropriation of Kali as an emblem of independent and powerful womanhood can and should be questioned. More than this, we must trace the links between the popular feminist appropriation of Kali and our scholarly interpretations….We will have understood Kali…when her conventional character as a respectful wife and mother no longer seems inconsistent with her aggressive power.

Kurtz thus concludes that “Kali is not an emblem of feminism, but of hierarchical holism--feminism’s puzzling, and, to us, virtually incomprehensible contrary.” Malcolm McLean of the University of Otago, New Zealand, who had had lived and worked in West Bengal for a number of years and is a Ramakrishna scholar as well as a biographer of Ramprasad, eloquently enunciated his hermeneutical approach to the goddess in all her extremes, emphasizing “complementarity over opposition.” “Kali is…one form of the Goddess, a particularly dramatic, extreme form, which is but one aspect of the totality of Reality,” McLean maintained.

A judicious and unquestionably scholarly discussion of Kali’s image as the “extreme orient” has been provided by the Chicago anthropologist Hugh Urban in his paper titled “India’s Darkest Heart: Kali in the British Colonial Imagination.” Urban highlights “a highly ambivalent dialectical image” of the goddess whom colonial authorities saw as “a progenitor of chaos and calamity threatening to expose the fragile order of British rule but whom the anti-colonialists and nationalists transformed into a powerful — even if ultimately unsuccessful — instrument of resistance and struggle.” Nevertheless, as Urban concludes, this ambivalent image of Kali -- in colonial as well as in nationalist discourse — subsequently the revalorized image of the goddess by romantic and idealistic Western psychologists and scholars, and more recently by feminists in India and abroad, has reinforced “the image of Kali as the ‘extreme orient,’ the most Other, the most archaic or primordial heart of India.”

Trying to project Kali as a nationalist icon and Kali’s child, Sri Ramakrishna, as a homosexual tantrika, who inspired his devotees and biographers Mahendranath Gupta and Swami Saradananda to challenge the Christ of the metropolitan and evangelizing West, Jeffrey Kripal, the most recent biographer of the paramahamsa, has come up with a very idiosyncratic and frankly ridiculous conclusion. He posits that Ramakrishna had little knowledge of Christ or Christianity and Mohammed or Islam, but as a confirmed homosexual saw himself in communion with these two non-Hindu male prophets who helped him formulate his eclectic religion of yata mat tata path [“as many views so many venues”]. Kripal’s biography of the Master titled Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna, published last year, validated Ramakrishna’s spiritual and mystical experiences on his alleged homosexuality. In his Kali Conference paper titled “Kali and ‘the Gospel’ of Ramakrishna: On the Strange Confluence of Sakta Tantra ad Christianity: the Appropriation of a Hindu Saint,” Dr. Kripal celebrates the importance of a gay tantrika in India’s nationalist struggle—a glaring example of rewriting history with vengeance!


After having been exposed to these multiple exegeses of the meaning of the Hindu Magna Mater, the “Great Mother,” I was not just confused, which would have been desirable — did not Aristotle say that to be confused is to take the first step to knowledge? — but utterly befuddled, even brutalized. I felt sorry for the poet Dvijendralal Roy, who had written in supreme confidence:

I have now found you out, Dark Mother [Syama].
I’m not going to let you slip away any more, now
that I have killed all my worldly pain and suffering.
You had hurled me inside a maze.

Does it behoove a mother to cause so much pain
to her son?
But at last your mother instinct responded to your
Child’s cry [with great compassion].

[Ebar tore cinechi ma
(Ami) ar ki Syama tore chadi.
Bhaver dukha bhaver jvala mago
(Ami) pathiye dichi Yamer badi.
Phelechili golokdhandhyay
Ogo ma haye ki emni kanday?
Sese cheler kanna sune amni
O tor kende uthlo mayer nadi.]


More by :  Dr. Narasingha Sil

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