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A walk on the dark side: a Christian reflection on Kali.

Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them.--Psalm 111:2

Twin convictions which engender expansive theological study

If I had to characterize Duane Priebe's study of theology with one word, that word would be delight. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have studied under someone whose theological research and analysis was characterized by absolute joy and wonder--and to this day, I am shocked when someone describes systematic theology as "boring." It is simply impossible to have been a student of Dr. Priebe and consider theology "boring": challenging, frustrating, captivating, and surprising, sure, but never, never dull or boring. More than anything else, Dr. Priebe impressed upon me two things, which I hope have come to characterize my own theological work: first, his awareness of the vast world of possibilities open to the Christian systematic theologian; and second, his absolute confidence that God can be found in the most unlikely places. These twin convictions--and the expansive theological study they engendered--bring an extraordinary richness to his own Christian faith and theology, and serve as the inspiration for this article, which seeks to honor those convictions.

In light of the fact that it was Dr. Priebe who first encouraged and stimulated my interest in Hinduism, and at the same time, in a large measure, provided the good soil in which my own theological roots were nourished, this article returns to those roots with a comparative exercise concerning language and imagery for God. In what follows, I introduce and describe the Hindu goddess Kali--her imagery and character--and suggest ways that reflection on the role she plays in Hinduism can helpfully challenge and inform Christian imagery for God. I argue that through this engagement, a more complex and nuanced picture of God can result, which enhances not only our understanding of who God is but also how God is in relationship with humanity and the whole cosmos.

Who is Kali? A union of opposites

Kali has a complex, multi-faceted history within Hinduism as a whole, and as such, summary statements are difficult, and always run the risk of omitting important information. (1) However, according to David Kinsley, one of the foremost Kali scholars, several points can accurately be made. First, Kali, as we think of her today, 1 does not appear in Hindu sacred texts until sometime between 200 B.C.E. to 300 C.E., even though her name appears earlier, and there are other "prototypes" of her in earlier Hindu literature. (2) She comes into her own in the Devi-mahatmya, composed around 400-500 C.E., where she is described as a deity with her own history and definitive characteristics. In this text, she first appears in the midst of war, sprung from the forehead of another goddess, Durga, and slaughters two demon brothers and their army. In this account, she is "born from wrath, is horrible in appearance, and is ferocious in battle. Taking delight in destruction and death, she epitomizes the wild, fearful aspects of the divine." (3)

From this and other similar stories in which she appears, Rachel Fell McDermott describes Kali's nature as "a union of opposites, as a paradoxical deity who combines within herself the poles of creation and destruction, birth and death, love and fear. This dual aspect of her character is implied by her epithet, 'Terrible Mother'." (4) Kali is unpredictable and unexpected, a "mother" goddess who both saves and destroys. These basic characteristics have endured through the centuries to form the core of her persona as she is known and worshipped today.

What is Kali like? Ugly, chaotic, destructive

One of the first theological challenges that Kali raises for Christians is the idea that God is beautiful; and what's more, that there is a feminine ideal of beauty that has divine origins, to which all women should ascribe. For many centuries in Western society--up to and including the present day--the word "goddess" immediately conjures up images of surpassing beauty, grace, and gentility: Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" comes to mind, as does Helen of Troy. Kali, however, is nothing like either of these figures. Instead, Kali is ugly, vulgar, and entirely lacking in propriety; and nowhere is this more evident than in her appearance.

It is true that in contemporary Hinduism one can find images of Kali that are more traditionally feminine and beautiful; however, this is not at all the dominant way she has been depicted in her history, nor is it the primary way she is viewed today. Instead, when seeing an image of Kali for the first time, one is struck first and foremost by her "extreme appearance and her dubious associations." (5) As to the first, her "look" is unquestionably unique and unforgettable:
   Her hair is disheveled, her eyes red and fierce, she has fangs and
   a long lolling tongue, her lips are often smeared with blood, her
   breasts are long and pendulous, her stomach is sunken, and her
   figure is generally gaunt. She is naked but for several
   characteristic ornaments: a necklace of skulls or freshly cut
   heads, a girdle of severed arms, and infant corpses as earrings.

In appearance, then, Kali is about as far removed from both the regal, respectable images of God the Father and the gentile, charming images of the Virgin Mary as one can imagine. Kali is not noble, dignified, or attractive; instead, she represents a presence that "dramatically and unambiguously confronts one with 'the hair-raising, horrifying aspects' of reality. She presents, it seems, something that has been apprehended as unspeakably terrifying, something totally and irreconcilably 'other'." (7) She is not pleasing, inviting or welcoming--as we typically envision God to be [and, not coincidentally, desire others to be as well]; instead she is dreadful, repugnant, and abhorrent.

Kali is not only wild in appearance, however; she also is wild in action, best seen in her utter disregard for cosmic order and rational thinking. Reflection on Kali, then, challenges both the long-held Christian belief that God is orderly and rational, and also the cherished idea that the world is orderly and rational. Thus, worship of Kali does manifest a connection between the cosmic and the divine, but with a very different lens than typically found in Christianity: "Insofar as Kali reflects the phenomenal world, or is identified with the phenomenal world, she presents a picture of that world that underlines its ephemeral, unpredictable, spontaneous nature." (8) In her very being, Kali embodies the chaos and often dreadful impetuosity that the world exhibits.

The Bengali poet Ramprasad sees Kali as "... she who reveals (or is) the world process, the entire creation in all its ambiguity ... the mistress of a mad, reeling world." (9) Similarly, Ramakrishna, perhaps Kali's most famous devotee, describes Kali as "the Mistress (but also the Mother) of a dizzying, intoxicated creation." (10) In this way, we see that Kali herself is a frightening and frantic goddess, personifying a world that is frequently frightening and frantic. Suffice it to say that neither of these concepts appeals to Christian thinking about God.

Finally, and related to the above, is the fact that Kali is dangerous, destructive, and deals in death. Kinsley writes, "In general, then, we may say that Kali is a goddess who threatens stability and order ... she is ultimately dangerous and tends to get out of control. In her association with other goddesses she appears to represent their embodied wrath and fury--a frightening, dangerous dimension of the divine feminine that is released when these goddesses become enraged ..." (11) As already noted, many Hindu myths associate her with battle, and she is often found in cremation grounds. She wears emblems of death on her own body, and death is still used as a means of approaching her: Diana Eck notes that at the famous Kali temple in Kolkatta, Kali Ghat, a goat is still sacrificed daily and symbolically offered to the goddess. And, in fact, just a few decades earlier, as many as seventy goats were offered daily--and as many as 700 on a feast day. (12) In this way, Kali challenges the idea that God is gentle, kind, and exclusively life-giving, forcing one to ask about the role of death in divine activity, and the connections between the end of life [broadly understood] and its beginnings. In a nutshell, then, we can say that Kali is terrifyingly ugly, fearfully chaotic, and dreadfully destructive.

Kali: What's the attraction? Facing the darker side of reality

So after reading all this, one might well ask: Why is Kali worshipped--and even more, why is she called "Mother" by some of her devotees? The answer is both surprising and insightful. According to many scholars, the appeal of Kali is that she quite vividly and dramatically brings people into an awareness of the darker side of reality--the resistance of things to conform entirely to the orderly structure Hindu dharma imposes upon the world. Kinsley writes, "Kali puts the order of dharma in perspective, or perhaps puts it in its place, by reminding the Hindu that certain aspects of reality are untameable, unpurifiable, unpredictable, and always threatening to society's feeble attempts to order what is essentially disorderly: life itself." (13) Kali thus reveals to Hindus [and to Christians as well] that as much as human beings attempt to impose an order on creation--through technology, development, and domestication--creation continually and insistently refuses to cooperate. And in the same way, as much as human beings attempt to prescribe God's activity--through rituals, rites, and rules--God also continually and insistently refuses to cooperate, choosing instead freedom and novelty in ways that both delight and disappoint us.

Thus, to be Kali's child "is to suffer, to be disappointed in terms of worldly desires and pleasures. Kali does not give what is normally expected. She does allow her devotee/child, however, to glimpse a vision of himself [or herself] that is not circumscribed by physical and material limitations ... Kali does not indulge her devotees in worldly pleasures. It is her very refusal to do so that enables her devotees to reflect on dimensions of themselves and of reality that go beyond bodily comfort and world security." (14) This points to the fact that one reason for Kali's enduring appeal--both in India and beyond--is that she brings her devotees an unflinching view of the darker side, the dangerous aspects of life, demanding that they reflect on the transience of all life, and the reality of suffering we all face. Yet, in facing that reality, she creates the possibility for accepting it, and thereby transcending it.

A theology of the cross dares to consider the implications of Kali for Christian God-talk

What might all this then mean for Christian God-talk? In this concluding section, I suggest three insights for deeper reflection, ideas that offer possibilities for new ways of thinking and talking about God. First, it is clear that Kali challenges Christians to think more incisively about "ugliness" as it relates to God. It is somewhat ironic that this idea is actually not entirely foreign to Lutherans, and, in fact, has an analogue in Luther's discussion of a "theologian of the cross" in his Heidelberg Disputation. There, in thesis 20, Luther writes, "That person deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross." (15) More specifically, the theologian is called to see God in the "suffering and despised crucified Jesus:" (16) a scourged, bruised body, with blood oozing from wounds on his head, hands, feet, and side. Is that not, too, an ugly, revolting sight? By refusing to see God that way [and, by extension, refusing to see God in the sight of our similarly suffering neighbors], we are, in effect, replacing God's own self-revelation with an image of our own choosing--one more palatable and pleasing; in short, we are functioning as theologians of glory.

Kinsley offers the following example, which seems to relate directly to this difference between the cross and glory. He writes:
   Most individuals find themselves protected,
   coddled, cradled, and nourished
   within the apparently inviolable confines
   of a loving family in which the mother
   figures most prominently. For many,
   the supportive warmth of their human
   mother is perceived to pervade the entire
   creation and to reveal a divine mother
   who creates and nourishes the whole
   world ... Kali reveals that there is more
   to the world than this apparently free
   flow of grace, fertility and strength. (17)

Surely there is something about Kali that speaks to the reality of many, many people who find themselves outside that "free flow of grace," and whose experience of the world is characterized primarily by brutality, destruction, and loss. Kali is ugly, unapproachable, and, frankly, disgusting--just like the people Jesus sought out, ate with, and welcomed. What would it mean for Christians to confront an image of God with leprous skin, a naked God lurking about in a cemetery, a God diseased and hemorrhaging blood? Kali forces Christians to consider that possibility.

Second, Kali invites Christians to contemplate God's "shadow side:" God's "backside," God's inscrutability. Most Christians would rather avoid this, of course, and consequently we spend much of our theological time and energy focusing on God's goodness, God's love, and God's benevolent activity in the world. This kind of thinking reassures us with a vision of an orderly, sensible God who is at the helm of an orderly, sensible creation. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, of course, unless and until we forget that this is not the whole story; and that there is much in God's life and work that is mysterious and incomprehensible to us. Kali suggests another point of view: "Meditation on Kali as an image of this world calls into question the stability, order and destiny of the phenomenal world. Confronted with the reality of a world either as embodied by Kali or as ruled by Kali, one is compelled to question seriously a vision of the world as dependable, stable, and predictable." (18) Perhaps we need to take God much more seriously when God says in Isaiah "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways."

One Hindu priest describes it this way: "... Kali's actions sometimes don't make sense, but life itself often doesn't make sense, so what can one say?" (19) Some how, I find this much more comforting than some Christian responses to life's tragic, inexplicable occurrences, which try to force a divine order or meaning where none exist. Not everything is God's will, not everything has a divine purpose; and we deceive ourselves and others when we try to pretend that it is so.

Finally, and related to the above point, reflection on Kali challenges Christians to see God present and at work in destruction, death and disorder. To be clear, this does not demand that Christians see God as the author of death and destruction, such that one has to interpret every event through the lens of God's will and divine intention. However, at the same time, reflection on Kali reminds Christian theologians that one cannot simply consider death and destruction apart from God, excluding them from the larger picture of God's presence in creation. This reflection forces Christians to ask hard questions about our own understanding both of God and a world that is not nearly as benevolent and benign as we would like it, instead exhibiting behavior that we find shocking and entirely inexplicable. What are we to say about a violent volcanic eruption, or an unpredictable disease outbreak that causes the loss of an entire harvest or an entire local population of a species? What are to say about a God who makes it rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous alike, a God whose own incarnate life ends in suffering and the cross, and who demands suffering and a cross for his followers? Christian theology must reflect squarely and honestly on such a world and such a God, costly as those reflections might be.


Christian reflection on God is always incomplete, always in process, always seeking--and that is as it should be, because the Triune God we worship chooses to reveal Godself in such a way that God is experienced as mysterium tremendum et fascinans: a "awe-full" and compelling mystery before whom we both shudder and draw near. (20) We do well to cast our nets widely in the quest for rich and faithful language to describe this God, and best understand how God is in relationship to creation. Examining the image and function of Kali in Hinduism aids Christians in this quest by encouraging us to rethink our understanding of God in relationship to the unpleasant realities of life that we too often seek to ignore: ugliness, chaos, and death.
   Meditation on Kali...restores [hu]
   man's hearing, thus enabling or forcing
   a keener perception of things around
   him. Confronted with the vision of Kali,
   he begins to hear, perhaps for the first
   time, those sounds he has so carefully
   censored in the illusion of his physical
   immortality: 'the wail of all the creatures,
   the moan of pain, and the sob of
   greed, and the pitiful cry of little things
   in fear'. He may also be able to hear,
   with his keener perception, the howl of
   laughter that mocks his pretense, the
   mad laugh of Kali, the Mistress ofTime,
   to whom he will succumb inevitably
   despite his deafness or his cleverness. (21)

Perhaps in this way, Kali has something to teach all of us, who, despite Jesus' warning, still spend our time building bigger barns, attempting to deny our own mortality, and refusing to engage the darkness either in creation or--dare we say it--in God.

(1.) This is to say nothing of her depictions in a contemporary Western context, which often have only a tangential relationship to her Indian origins. See the incisive, clever account in The Hindus: an Alternative History, by Wendy Doniger (New York, N.Y.: Penguin Press, 2009), 642-645.

(2.) David R. Kinsley, The Sword and the Flute: Kali and K[][][]a, Dark Visions of the Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1975), 87.

(3.) As quoted in The Sword and the Flute, 92.

(4.) Rachel Fell McDermott, "The Western Kali," in Devi: Goddesses of India, edited by John S. Hawley and Donna M. Wulff (Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1996), 285.

(5.) The Sword and the Flute, 81.

(6.) David R. Kinsley, "Kali: Blood and Death Out of Place," in Devi: Goddesses of India, edited by John S. Hawley and Donna M. Wulff (Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1996), 77.

(7.) The Sword and the Flute, 82.

(8.) Ibid., 135.

(9.) Ibid., 115.

(10.) Ibid., 121.

(11.) "Kali: Blood and Death Out of Place," 86.

(12.) Diana Eck, India: A Sacred Geography, (New York, N.Y.: Harmony Books, 2012), 262-263.

(13.) "Kali: Blood and Death Out of Place," 84.

(14.) David R. Kinsley, Kali, in Encountering Kali: In the Margins, at the Center, in the West, edited by Rachel Fell McDermott and Jeffrey J. Kripal (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2003), 34.

(15.) Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 77.

(16.) Ibid., 79.

(17.) David Kinsley, "The Motherhood of God as Expressed in the Goddess Kali, Anima, 8 no 2 Spring Equinox, 1982, 135.

(18.) The Sword and the Flute, 136.

(19.) Usha Menon and Richard A Shweder, "Dominating Kali: Hindu Family Values and Tantric Power," in Encountering Kali: In the Margins, at the Center, in the West, edited by Rachel Fell McDermott and Jeffrey J. Kripal (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2003), 84.

(20.) Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, translated by John W. Harvey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967).

(21.) The Sword and the Flute, 141.

Kristin Johnston Largen

Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg
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Author:Largen, Kristin Johnston
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Article Type:Essay
Date:Feb 1, 2014
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