Kali is the first of the ten Mahavidyas, representing time (kal/kaal = time).
She is depicted as a dark goddess, ferocious and terrifying in appearance. She wears a garland of human arms for a skirt and human heads as a necklace. She lives in cemeteries and graveyards – wherever there is death and decay. She has piercing eyes and her tongue lolls out of her great mouth. She carries several weapons in seven of her ten arms (the scimitar being the one of her choice) and a freshly severed human head in the eighth. The lower two hands form the mudras of protection and boon-giving. She is intoxicated from the continuous consumption of blood and dances wildly upon corpses and her own beloved Shiva, who lies completely still and seemingly powerless under her forceful steps.
Kali is the first among the Mahavidyas because the process of creation begins with time. From a macrocosmic perspective, in the beginning there is only Purusha – undifferentiated, timeless potential. The cosmos begins with the “Big Bang”, and simultaneously, linear time and along with it, all duality. Light and dark, good and evil, high and low, truth and untruth – each is made possible only because of its counterpart. For creation to be sustained, death is necessary – life is only possible through death. What is born must necessarily die in time. Time and death are thus synonymous. The linear sequence of time is maintained only with dissolution of one moment to give rise to the next. Maya thrives thus as a sequence of time-related phenomena, each event dependent upon all the other events, nothing occurring independently and everything influencing everything else and the whole. The cemetery is the perfect representation of this process.
Similarly, at the level of the individual, the separate “I” or ego is born and sustained through events in time. The ego is born in early childhood prior to which an infant has no concept of itself as an individual. With unfolding of life events, influences from society and development of memory and imagination, the identification as this “I” becomes stronger. As the separate self, the individual is propagated through thoughts and memories of the past and projections into the future, both of which are illusory and nonexistent. Attaching the “I-ness” (and it’s related emotional signature) to an event creates a vasana, and through the Maya of Kali as time, the ego becomes enmeshed within this web of vasanas. Such a separate self is dragged helplessly through time, circling again and again from life to death and back to life. Kali dances in this cemetery of one’s being where the separate self that is born (in every moment from the actions and impressions from the last moment) dies and is reborn again. Every desire arising from a vasana gives birth to the “I-thought”, which then dies temporarily with the fulfillment of the desire, only to be born again with the next vasana-driven thought/desire. And on it goes, with Kali dancing merrily, cutting off the head of the I-thought and feeding upon the lifeblood of the separate self again and again, nudging Shiva to wake up from this apparent identification with the ego. She repeatedly severs the hands that represent vasana-driven selfish actions, pointing the way to action that can arise from wholeness with the death of the separate self. The compassion of the Divine Mother is so infinite that she provides the opportunity to step out of her illusion and the quagmire of samsara in every single moment. With every step of her dance, she destroys the moment before and holds the future in darkness, allowing one to be reborn forever into the eternal now. She remains willing to continue the dance as long as identification with the “I-thought” continues, patiently waiting for the sadhaka to wake up to his/her true (Shiva) nature.
The sadhana of the Mahavidyas is not for the weak of heart. Each of these forms of Shakti represents an aspect of creation at both the macrocosmic and individual (ego) levels. While some worship the Mahavidyas for power, dark magic and siddhis, they get further enmeshed in her Maya and succumb eventually to her insurmountable power. It is not possible to win her grace through force or cunning. Only the willingness to give up the “I-ness” enables her grace to shine forth. This is the secret of tantra – one’s spiritual progress is in direct proportion to the degree of surrender. Moreover, it is not necessary to worship all ten Mahavidyas – each is a gateway to liberation, opening to the grace of all the others. After all, she is one manifesting as all.
Kali is known for cutting through the ego’s ties quickly and efficiently. However, she does not concern herself with the comfort of the ego. She is therefore not particularly interested in granting boons of wealth, relationships and other superficial matters pertaining to the separate self. In fact, these matters can frequently take a turn for the worse when her sadhana is taken up. Her only interest lies in liberating her devotee from Her own snare. To such a devotee that desires nothing else, she reveals her softer side as Bhadra Kali (Bhadra = auspicious) – calm, serene and radiant.
My sadhana took a dramatic turn when seemingly out of the blue, Kali beckoned me into her fold. Even as the heart melted in devotion to her fierce form, all external aspects of my life took a beating in the form of deep cleaning. Nonserving relationships were cleanly severed and let go of, even seemingly treasured ones. Only in retrospect was I able to see that hanging on to them was obscuring the way ahead. All ambiguity and less-than-clear aspects of life were shaken off (and continue to be). Everything related to “I-ness” was swept away mercilessly, without care for how painful it was at the time. Simultaneously, I sank deeper and deeper into Her dark, silent fold where finally time stood still and the false “I” was seen through. She hovers over my being, relentlessly guiding, shoving and manipulating, wanting nothing but to experience her Shiva through this body-mind. At last, the unease of being in her ferocious presence has been replaced by gratitude and love, and willingness to be decapitated by her merciful blade once and for all.
Kali’s bija (seed) mantra is “klim”. When thus invoked, she withdraws Her Maya of time and liberates one from linear time-related phenomena and all dualities associated with it. Free from incessant thoughts of the past and anxieties about the future, the sadhaka blessed thus by Kali is open to experience the primordial vibration represented by Tara, the second Mahavidya.
(Image: Kali by Raja Ravi Verma. Source: Wikipedia)