Devadatta Kali, author of In Praise of the Goddess and The Veiling Brilliance

The sage Medhas said:

The Devi appears in many forms. [....] There is no end to the ways in which she reveals herself. And for now she is both the auspicious Ambika and the terrible Kali. [....] Kali appears here [in the Devimahatmya] in a particularly frightening form to embody the Devi's wrath. The Devi, in her lovely form as Ambika, projected the horrific Kali from her own scowling brow.

This form of Kali bears the imagery of death and destruction: the emaciated flesh hanging loose upon the bones, the skull-topped staff, the all-devouring mouth. Kali is the relentless power of time, which in the end swallows up everything. But there is more to Kali than this. Her flesh is black, her tongue is red, her teeth are gleaming white. Black, red, and white represent the three gunas - tamas, rajas, and sattva. Kali embodies all the energy of the universe. She is Shakti personified. Hers is the power to create, sustain, and destroy. She is indeed supreme. [....]

She is The Mother [...] You must go beyond your fear and come to her in love.

[....] What you love, you cannot fear, [.....] And Kali takes us beyond all fear. She has many forms. This wrathful form is called Chamunda. When she appears on the battlefield with bloody mouth and glowing eyes, she is the night of death who laughs derisively and binds men and horses and elephants in her terrible snare. When she haunts the cremation ground, she is Shmashanakali, the embodiment of destructive power who reduces all created things to ash. [...] Shmashanakali presides over the dissolution of matter back into spirit. When [Kali] is pleased, she is the benevolent Bhadrakali. As Shyama, she is worshiped in household shrines as the tender dispeller of fear and the granter of boons. She is also called Bhavabhayaharini, 'she who removes the fear of worldly existence.'

[...] [B]ehind every detail of her appearance lies a sublime truth. [....] For example, [consider] the auspicious Dakshinakali. Her untamed hair hints at unrestrained power and boundless freedom. Some say it represents the veil of illusion, woven from the strands of space and time. Her three eyes represent omniscience, for she sees past, present, and future. Nothing is unknown to the all-knowing Mother. The garland of skulls around her neck is not a symbol of death, as you might think, but of creative power. [....] Each of the fifty skulls stands for a sound of the alphabet, and from these sounds, these vibrating energies, The Mother brings forth the entire universe. So this garland of skulls is, in fact, the alphabet of creation! Kali's full breasts show how she nurtures us. The girdle of severed arms around her waist betokens her power to sever the bonds of karma - to free us from the accumulated deeds that keep us in bondage. Her nakedness represents freedom from illusion, and her blacker-than-black skin, like the endless blackness of the night sky, tells us that she is infinite.

[Kali's paradoxical mixture of maternal tenderness and destructive terror appears polarized on her right and left.] She often appears with four hands. Her lower right hand extends itself in the offering of a boon, as if to say, Ask of me what you will.' [....] One of Kali's greatest boons is fearlessness, which she signals with her upper right hand, the palm held outward. 'Be not afraid!' this gesture proclaims.

[....] Consider The Mother's upper left hand, which wields the bloodied sword of knowledge. This is a strong image. It represents the power of discernment - the ability to separate what is transitory and fleeting from what is real and abiding. This power cuts through appearances and reveals things as they really are. [....] In her lower left hand The Mother dangles the freshly severed head of a demon. This represents the limiting sense of ignorance that she slays. Taken together, Kali's four hands say, atake refuge in me, let go of your fear, let me slay your illusion of smallness and separation, and you will merge into my infinite bliss.'

Devadatta Kali, The Veiling Brilliance, Pages 138-140

Devadatta Kali
In Praise of the Goddess

June 30, 2006
Interview with author Devadatta Kali
Author of In Praise of the Goddess and The Veiling Brilliance
Interview by Lee Prosser - author interview

Devadatta Kali (DAvid Nelson) is a highly respected writer and author of the forthcoming novel The Veiling Brilliance. He is a lecturer, teacher, and author, and wrote the popular book, In Praise of the Goddess. A Vedantist, he has been writing about Vedanta since the 1990s. Devadatta, it is a pleasure to visit with you to discuss the Goddess Kali and your life in Vedanta.

Tell us about your first book, In Praise of the Goddess.

In Praise of the Goddess is the actual translation of a sacred text, the Devimahatmya, which is about 1600 years old. Since it is a holy book, I made the language eloquent and inspiring, as sacred literature should be. Just translating the text wasn't enough, though. It needed explanation to point out its depths and hidden meanings, so I wrote an introduction and then a verse-by-verse commentary. Some people say the book is"scholarly," but I don't want to frighten people off with the"s"Word. Admittedly the book is based on careful scholarship, but that is necessary to make this ancient text come alive—and it really comes alive in a way that few translations from Sanskrit do. I think the excitement of discovery that I felt throughout the process comes through in the book.

Could you share your personal feelings on what is Goddess?

The Goddess exists on every level. Tantra teaches that she is the power that creates this universe. She is that same power residing in each of us as the strength of inconceivable silence, peace, and joy. She is the divine presence that makes everything alive and wonderful, shining with light—not light in a physical sense but something I can't put into words. It's vibrant, and its nature is joy—not joy in the ordinary sense but a self-contained joy of freedom and beauty. We get a taste of this when we are moved by something inspiring — maybe a piece of music, a work of art, the magnificence of nature. In any of these experiences I think we sense the presence of something greater than ourselves.”Standing outside"—that is the literal meaning of the word ecstasy. For a moment we stand outside of our ordinary limitations of ego and touch something far greater. Psychologists call this awareness"The unitive dimension of being.” It can't be described, not really, but anyone who has had this sort of glimpse into a greater reality will know exactly what I am talking about. This mystical insight need not come necessarily through anything we call religion, although customarily we slap the religious label on it. The divine reality is greater than any or all religions. As I like to say, the experience is primary, and all religions and philosophies are only the afterthoughts. So, to return to your question, to me the Goddess is many things—the universal creative principle; the countless personifications of that principle, such as Durga, Kali, Lakshmi, Sarasvati, the Virgin Mary, Yemaya, and so on; and ultimately she is the pure infinite consciousness which is the true Self of every being.

What is the role of Goddess in life?

Since the Goddess is everything, her roles are without number. She (or he or it, if you prefer) is the source, sustenance, and ultimate goal of all creation, and everything that exists is nothing but her own self-expression. If we can remember that and strive consciously to make the divine presence central to our individual lives—in whatever way we choose to do this—then we live in harmony with the entire universe. There are many ways to do this. The Hindu tradition has the well-known four yogas or spiritual paths: devotion, knowledge, meditation, and selfless action. Each of them or, better, any combination of them that best suits us, is a way back to the center. The Goddess—whatever or however you choose to think of her, him, or it—is the center, where everything comes together, first in harmony, then in unity, then in enlightenment.

What is the role of Goddess in religion?

Here in the Western world, we're living in very exciting times. This is a period of rediscovery of the sacred feminine. There is a deep archetypal need in the human psyche to have a mother, and for far too long The Motherhood of God has been suppressed by the monotheistic religions. They have promoted an imbalance in our world that has led to our present global crises. If what present-day researchers and scholars, not to mention India's Tantric tradition, tell us is true, the Goddess was humankind's earliest conception of divinity. The Willendorf Venus, for example, is 28,000 years old. Cybele, the ancient Anatolian goddess from around 8000 years ago, is a direct ancestor to Durga, who has been worshiped in India without a break (although under various names, such as Aditi, Vak, and Sarasvati) for as far back as we have evidence.

When we read the historical sections of the Jewish Bible in the light of recent scholarship and archeological findings, it becomes clear that the Asherah, YHWH's female consort, played a very important role in the religious lives of the Jewish people. Look at what happened with the establishment of patriarchal"reforms"under King Josiah. During his reign a fifth book of Moses, Deuteronomy, was"discovered" after lying forgotten for centuries in the Jerusalem temple! It denounced the Asherah, and Josiah had her image removed from the temple and destroyed. Officialdom forced the Goddess underground. She survived, of course, variously disguised—as Hokhmah (Sophia) in the Jewish Wisdom tradition and later as Shekhinah in Kabbalah. The brand of Christianity that won out as orthodox by the late fourth century had a similar distaste for the divine feminine. The Goddess in all her forms was forcibly repressed—especially Isis, whose religion was one of Christianity's most serious rivals. I like to say that Isis and her son Horus were forced into the witness-protection program and emerged with new identities as the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus. For Isis it was also a demotion, of course. She had to give up her job descriptions, such as"Queen of Heaven"And"Stella Maris," which were reassigned to Mary, whose cult then became a thriving one throughout the Middle Ages.

Why? Because she presented the gentle, compassionate face of the divine. People wanted that and needed that, especially in view of the harsh, punitive measures taken by the male-dominated church to preserve its hold on power. The role of the Goddess fulfills a profound human need—to have a mother who is near and dear, who is always approachable, and who loves us unconditionally. This is all very general, of course, but in Indian tradition the Goddess takes on many different forms to fulfill different needs, and if you asked me about them, I could be more specific.

What do you see as the most important aspects of the Hindu Goddess, Durga?

Durga is called the Mahadevi, the Great Goddess, and she is the form of The Mother who gives rise to all other forms. She is the subject of the Devimahatmya, which is also known as Sri Durga Saptashati, or Seven-Hundred Verses on Sri Durga. Relating this to what I said earlier, I'd like to mention that at the same time as the Goddess was being suppressed in the Western world, her devotees in India were busy collecting and preserving all the ancient knowledge about her, which was compiled as the Devimahatmya.

Durga is portrayed in sculptures and paintings as a beautiful woman with ten arms to represent that she is present everywhere. Her ten hands hold various weapons and other objects to symbolize that she is all-powerful. She has three eyes to show that she is all-knowing. She rides the lion of dharma, meaning that holy action is virtuous action. Durga is both warrior and mother at the same time. You have to ask yourself, who is more fiercely protective than a mother toward her child? I remember hearing once about an incident at a zoo. Somehow a lion got loose, pounced on a child and had the child's head in its mouth. The Mother was so focused on saving her child that she rushed forward with no thought of her own safety and miraculously pried open the lion's jaws with her bare hands. Now and then a story comes along about a mother who does something almost physically impossible, like lifting up a car to save the child trapped beneath it. That is the power of a mother's love, and that's what we revere in Durga. Durga is a fierce warrior, and she goes after all the personal demons that assail us. So, even though she has this awesome destructive power, what she destroys is anything that threatens our well-being.

What do you see as the most important aspects of the Hindu Goddess, Kali?

In the Devimahatyma Kali emerges from Durga's brow as the embodiment of divine wrath in order to take on a growing army of demonic forces. It's a chilling scene, and in The Veiling Brilliance I recreated it in widescreen technicolor.

Kali is terribly misunderstood, except by her devotees. Yes, she has her horrific side, as she appears in the Devimahatmya, but over the centuries the understanding changed. The most wonderful portrayals of Kali are the 18th-century devotional songs of Ramprasad and Kamalakanta, which show her in many aspects, everything from a naked mad woman on the battlefield devouring demons between her gnashing teeth to the epitome of feminine beauty and gentle motherhood. The beauty of Kali is that she reconciles all the pairs of opposites that bedevil our human experience. She has her benevolent side on the right and her fierce side on the left.

The first Westerners who saw her images were aghast and misinterpreted everything as devilish, but Kali is in fact pure divinity in all its raw power. The symbolism is strong, no doubt—a garland of severed heads around her neck, severed arms forming her girdle, blood oozing from the corners of her mouth—but every feature, no matter how horrific, means something absolutely sublime.

Let's just take her four hands, for example. The lower right hand is extended in a gesture of boon-giving. We can ask The Mother for whatever we want; she'll give it all—worldly enjoyment (bhukti) or spiritual liberation (mukti). Her upper right hand forms the abhayamudra, a gesture that means," Be not afraid.”How's that for a gift? Fearlessness is a condition for success in our worldly affairs, of course, but it's also essential for spiritual life. If we let anything hold us back, how can we move forward? OK, that's the benevolent side. What about the other half? Kali's upper left hand wields a curving sword, smeared with the blood and fat of the demons she's slain. Pretty scary, huh? Actually, no. The demons are all the enemies of our own mental and spiritual happiness and well-being. The sword is called jnanakadga, the"sword of knowledge," because it is our own empowerment to cut away from our awareness all the mistaken ideas that cause so much trouble. Those ideas arise in the ego-sense, the thought that I am an individual being—separate, limited, small, alienated. When there is this restrictive idea of"I," everything that is"not-I"becomes the other, and that's where the problems arise—everything from individual grievances to nations at war. So, we look at Kali's lower left hand and find it dangling the freshly severed head of a demon. That is the demon of ego. We are not that small, separate self we mistook ourselves to be; we are the infinite Self that is one with The Mother. Her power of knowledge sets us free. Kali's power is the power of transformation that brings us to enlightenment.

Devadatta Kali, In Praise of the Goddess and The Veiling Brilliance

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