We celebrate the Festival of Light on a new moon autumn night that falls on the Hindu month of Kartik to drive the darkness away. Anything that is dark is somehow associated with evil in our culture. We light lamps or diyas on Deepavali to celebrate the victory of good over evil. According to Hindu mythology, Deepavali marks the day when Lord Rama returned home after vanquishing Ravana, the asura king. The golden Goddess Lakshmi is worshipped across North India to usher wealth and prosperity on that night. Homecoming of Lord Rama did mark the beginning to happy days for his subject in Ayodhya. In Bengal and east, however, we worship Goddess Kali on Deepavali night. Fearsome Kali with open hair, bloodshot eyes, garlanded with skulls is considered to be the vanquisher of evil – the dark Kali violently and uprooting the dark evil.
The image of Kali has always evoked a mixed response in me. The bloodthirsty semi-naked dark blue Goddess adorned with a garland of skulls of the demons she has crushed, holding a severed head dripping blood, wearing a skirt of severed limbs, her bloody tongue jutting out as she steps on to her consort, Lord Shiva. Yes, Shiva needed to fall on her feet to calm her down. I have sometimes wondered how or why our patriarchal society conceived of female power so ferocious so, so untamed? On the night of Deepavali, Kali bhakts in Bengal stay up the whole night and worships Goddess Kali who used her darkness to annihilate darkness. Though, having grown up as a Bengali, with images and pictures of Kali all around, one can sometimes take this enigmatic Goddess for granted. I have always felt there is more to her than meets the eye. And the more I read about her, the more questions she evokes.
Kali’s blackness is associated with the eternal darkness that can destroy and create. As Shamsana Kali she presides over the crematorium, the land between the living and the dead. She is associated with death and dark magic or Tantra. Kali is central to Tantra Sadhna in Bengal, a spiritual practice that involves the dead. Though she is much revered, this dark blue Goddess is never worshipped at home. Her wildness and untamed spirit inspire awe, her raw feminine energy refuses to be domesticated. She effortlessly dwells in the realms of life and death. Kali has always reminded me of the darkness that lurks under the flickering flame, the opposites that embrace each other to create harmony. She lends deeper appeal to celebrations of light.
Not many of us are aware that this wild Goddess manifests herself in 10 different forms. In one such forms, Kamala Kali, she is a tantric form of the Goddess of wealth and prosperity, Lakshmi. This form of Goddess Kali is worshipped as ‘Gaja Lakshmi’, as she has two elephants by her side, the southern states.
Interestingly, Kali Pujo is preceded by Bhoot Chaturdashi or Bengal’s own Halloween. On Bhoot Chaturdashi our 14 forefathers are called upon and warded off on the same day. Choddo Prodip or 14 candles are lit in 14 corners of the house, a practice that I follow even in Gurgaon. According to folklore, the spirits of ancestors come back to us on this night and these diyas help them find their homes. It is believed that our Choddo Purush or fourteen ancestors descend to bless us and ward off evil spirits and ghosts. But they are spirits too, so we need to ward them off after being blessed. What a strange practise that challenges the opposites and the barriers that we carefully construct.
Kali, also known as Adishakti or Kundalini Shakti, is the divine feminine energy or the light that makes the Universe live, but she can also burn it. Therefore, when we worship Kali, we celebrate these very opposites, revere her, fear her. The darkness that our society looks down upon is adulated. The dark blue Goddess who effortlessly embodies the contradictions is probably mocking at the futility of all boundaries – the good and the bad, the black and the white, of the different compartments that we have carefully built over the years. For, Kali’s darkness brings light and under the flames of every lamp plays the dark shadow!