As a lover of Shakti and as a staunch advocate for women and girls, I often find myself at odds with the wildly popular view of the Hindu goddess as a sword-bearing feminist, particularly in the West. And especially at this time of the year when we are celebrating Navarathri, and are flooded with images of the warrior goddess.
You’ve seen her. She chops off heads (male heads at that!). And we are bombarded with stories about her triumph against injustice…
And if one is a feminist with a strong sense of having been wronged as a woman, an image of Kali beheading a man can be so deeply gratifying that it becomes easy to believe that the goddess is indeed avenging womankind.
Nothing is further from the truth.
Separating Gender and Divinity
Perhaps the greatest confusion about Shakti arises from the conundrum of gender assignment. Shakti is assigned the feminine gender to differentiate her from Shiva, the masculine. And since the only reference we have for gender is the one we are conditioned with, we assign these learned concepts on to the Divine.
Herein lies the problem…
So let’s take a step back and see what happens if we do away with the highly charged gender attributes altogether when attempting to describe the Divine – at least from the perspective of Shaktism, the tradition from which the feminist skull-bearing goddess is borrowed.
Shaktism holds that the Divine is the ultimate reality that is both form and formless, immanent and transcendent. The transcendent here refers to the reality that is out of the range of the manifest universe. The transcendent is formless but is the very essence of form.
The transcendent Divine is devoid of attributes such as name, form, space, and time. The immanent Divine is endowed with attributes. As form, this aspect of the ultimate reality is everything in manifestation.
One way to understand these two aspects of the ultimate reality is to call them Shiva and Shakti. That which remains transcendent and formless is Shiva. That which takes form and becomes immanent is Shakti. Shakti is the creative potency of Shiva. Shiva isn’t masculine, and Shakti isn’t feminine, where masculine and feminine are our learned concepts of what a male or female should be. Shakti is called feminine simply because she is the creative power of the Divine.
Since females carry this creative power in most species, these two aspects of the Divine are called masculine and feminine – not because they carry any specific male or female attributes.
All attributes that are assigned to Shiva or Shakti come from our experience of male and female.
It is much more useful to think of them as formless and form. Formless and form are inseparable. Each is unknowable without the other. Although they appear to be distinct, it is impossible to know where one ends and the other begins.
Shakti is Shiva in motion. Shiva is Shakti in stillness.
In a very famous verse of the Devi Mahatmyam, Shakti is revered thus:
namo devyai mahādevyai śivāyai satataṃ namaḥ।
namaḥ prakṛtyai bhadrāyai niyatāḥ praṇatāḥ smatāṃ
We bow to the Goddess, the Great Goddess, who is Shiva, the eternal.
We bow to the Goddess who is Nature, who is auspicious and eternal. To her, we bow reverentially.
Shiva is formless. Shakti is form. As Nature, Shakti is all forms.
As in everything in the cosmos:
Tamas, rajas, and sattva.
Stars planets and moons.
Galaxies, black holes, and dark matter.
Light, energy, and matter.
Electrons, neutrons, and protons.
Quarks, leptons, and bosons.
Earthquakes, tsunamis, and thunderstorms.
Breath, mind, and body.
DNA, chromosomes, and genes.
Hormones, cellular reactions, and neural pathways.
Viruses, bacteria, and parasites.
Good and evil.
Male and female.
Misogyny and misandry.
Justice and injustice.
You get the point. There’s nothing in the universe that is not Shakti. Unlike other faiths that exclude evil from the Divine, nondual traditions declare that evil and good arise from the same source. Impure and pure have their origins in the same Divinity. In fact, the Divine is everything in manifestation. Shiva-Shakti becomes creation.
Why would there be evil if everything is the Divine? Well, from the perspective of nondual Shaktism, the purpose of creation is for the formless Divine to enjoy Itself as infinite forms. Imagine going to a movie where everyone is “good.” What fun would that be? The movie would be a total bust.
The Divine takes infinite forms by veiling Its divinity. By this seeming forgetfulness, the drama is made richer, more real. Evil is merely the function of how dense the veil is. The more opaque the veil, the lesser the ability to think beyond one’s personal gains and the greater is the capacity to exploit others for one’s own benefit.
This veiling is called delusion.
Whether the exploitation is that by men of women or women of women or women of men is really irrelevant. Remember, Shakti is both man and woman. How much the said man or woman is deluded is the primary drive for exploitation.
Take misogyny for example. Sure, it is a broader issue of women being suppressed by men. However, history shows us that this isn’t the full picture. Misogyny is kept intact by women as much as men. In the very complex psychological conditioning that has taken place over centuries, women have joined forces with misogynistic men to suppress other women because it benefits them to a certain extent. They’re not even aware of the conditioning that makes them act in ways that are harmful to themselves, their daughters, sisters, and mothers – this lack of awareness is not intentional. It is innocent and the product of delusion. In fact, this kind of oblivion is the very nature of delusion.
Fundamentally then, Shakti is not an enraged woman fighting for justice, because she is both the perpetrator and the victim, both under her spell of delusion. To take Shakti to be a vengeful woman is to reduce her to the level of our own deluded minds.
The Warrior Goddess Myths
What about all the imagery of the goddess killing off men, then? Doesn’t this say something about the feminist streak of the goddess?
In one word, no.
This kind of misunderstanding stems from a total lack of understanding of myth and extrapolating it to our limited experience.
The purpose of a myth is to transmit a profound recognition of our own delusion as well as the solution for its dissipation – which is to awaken to our true nature.
Remember, who we really are is Shiva-Shakti. And yet, why don’t we know this? Why is this not our experience?
It’s not our experience because we take ourselves to be this person, this woman, this man, this victim, this exploiter, this good person, this not-so-good person – this story of “me.” Ultimately, what we take ourselves to be doesn’t matter because it is not the correct understanding. This misunderstanding, of taking ourselves to be what we really are not, is called ignorance. Myths wake us up from this ignorance. This is what they’re supposed to do.
This waking up is called Self-knowledge, where the Self refers to our true Shiva-Shakti nature.
However, our delusion prevents us from grokking the myth and receiving its profound transmission. This is the case for the warrior goddess myths and twisting it into a feminist issue.
The Devi Mahatmyam is an exquisite text of myths and teachings that have the ability to catapult one permanently out of the darkness of ignorance into the light of Self-knowledge. It is a saga that is replete with stories of war and killing, playing out between the devas (forces of harmony) and asuras (forces that result in disharmony and unrest). The devas find themselves in trouble again and again and appeal to the goddess for help. She appears again and again to defeat the asuras and to re-establish harmony.
It turns out that Devi (the goddess) doesn’t care where the disharmony comes from. Whether it is men causing unrest for women through suppression or women doing that to each other is irrelevant to her. She will slash the heads of disharmony equally, male or female. So let’s not for a moment think that we will be spared because we happen to inhabit a female body.
In the final episode of the Devi Mahatmyam, Devi manifests a host of other goddesses from her own being to assist her in the great battle against Shumbha, the great asura. When she causes irrevocable damage by killing off all his generals and his beloved brother Nishumbha, Shumbha accuses her of relying on the strength of the other goddesses and challenges her to fight him alone. Smilingly, she absorbs all of the goddesses back into her being and says, “I am all that exists. What exists other than me?”
The poignancy of this myth lies in this statement – nothing exists that isn’t Shakti. She is also the asuras.
In other words, she is both the misogynist and the feminist.
Personal Freedom and Social Justice
So Do We Do Nothing?
This is the question that seems to bug most of us when we hear things like “everything is divine.” Having been conditioned to “do something” about things, we can suddenly feel like we are being asked to not act or to become a doormat. Or we can feel paralyzed, particularly when it is not our lived experience that everything is indeed divine.
So we turn to the myth again. Remember, the purpose of a myth is to wake us up to our true nature. Waking up is to recognize our unlimited Self, that which is beyond gender, name, and form. This is personal freedom, and it comes from transcending our limitations. Our limitations, in turn, are the result of our conditioning. We are conditioned to believe that we are female, male, victim, victor, white, black, whatever, when in fact, we are none of these things.
Only when we begin to see the grave consequences of our own conditioning do we see that all conflicts are simply the clash of conditioning. My conditioning as a suppressed woman conflicts with yours as a privileged man. My conditioning as a woman who benefits from patriarchy conflicts with yours as a woman who finds it repulsive. People who are conditioned in similar ways band together, and then it is a war – “us” vs. “them.” In reality, the war is merely between “our” wrong concepts about ourselves and “their” wrong concepts about themselves. In reality, we both are equally deluded.
When we gain clarity from our own conditioning, our stand for justice takes on a new life. It is infused with compassion, so the fight can be directed toward the ignorance that is the fundamental problem. We also stop feeling like victims – the very flavor of the fight changes, from one based in “getting even” to one that is about harmony for all, yes, including the perpetrators of injustice. Because there is no “other” who needs to burn in hell. So, sure, we can continue to be a feminist (or whatever), while knowing fully that it’s not really who we are.
The Dark Feminine
It is a grave injustice to the myths of the goddess to reduce her to our level of delusion and ignorance. There is a lot of talk these days about the “dark feminine” being a force to reckon with – a great dark goddess who’s volatile, violent and vindictive.
One of her many names is Kalaratri – Kala is time, the primordial force of creation. It is with time (and space) that the limitless Divine become limited in creation. Ratri is night, the darkness that occurs before light, that which consumes light.
Time consumes everything – our age, our experiences, our joys and sorrows, our treasured and abhorred moments, our relationships, our achievements and failures, our legacies and eventually, even the last sign that we were ever here.
Kalaratri is the force of time that obscures the light of Self-knowledge with ignorance. If not for our stories based in the long-dead past that are projected to an unknown future, we wouldn’t think of ourselves as limited beings.
Kalaratri is Kali, the primordial force of creation that destroys everything it creates. This is, of course, the symbolism of Kali chopping off heads and eating up corpses.
What we don’t see readily is that she is impartial in her beheading – she will readily chop off our heads too. As the giver of freedom through Self-knowledge, she will destroy all that stands in the way of our waking up. In this, her sword will claim the heads on both sides of justice equally and without hesitation. We may feel that we are on the side of justice and hence she will show us preferential sparing. No such mercy is shown by the dark goddess.
Any action we take from a stand of ignorance will be subject to her sword, regardless of which side of justice we’re on. And here, ignorance refers to taking ourselves to be a limited being. Just because we’ve shed the materialist identity and donned on the spiritual one doesn’t mean we will be spared. Just because we strongly feel that we are fighting for justice doesn’t mean she will hesitate to behead us. As far as the dark feminine is concerned, taking ourselves to be a good person, a materialistic person, a spiritual person, a fair person or a service-oriented person is irrelevant – the “person” is what she’s after. What she wants is for us to shed this “person” identity and know who we really are – not separate from her.
At this point, one might ask, “Wait, you said the Divine veils itself to have fun as forms. So why would It care about freedom from it?”
Well, that is the play of Shiva-Shakti – it conceals Itself as forms to enjoy the drama and then reveals Itself for the pure wonder of the form realizing its true nature. In Sanskrit, this wonder is called chamatkara, which is absolute delight and amazement.
So yes, the dark feminine is mysterious, volatile and violent… but vindictive – no. Our vindictiveness, like our limited identity, is based in time. The dark feminine doesn’t operate in time. She is the creator of time and thus she transcends it. She has absolutely no concern for our fight against misogyny, which is based in time-dependent conditioning.
The bottom line is this. There’s nothing wrong with being an avenging justice seeker for misogyny, but let’s not use the goddess as justification for it. That’s not how she operates, and certainly not what her myths are about.
On the other hand, if freedom is what we seek, submitting our head to her sword is the way to go. Let her chop it off so we may transcend our time-based conditioning. Let her work through us, where Divine will drives our activism and not our personal stories.
Instead of using her imagery to further our own agendas, let’s approach her for freedom, so that justice may flow from it.