Imagine the scene: India, 1977, and a street performer has set up a mongoose and a snake to fight each other.
As the crowd gathers, he starts shouting “Jai Kali Ma!” Someone’s playing a drum, someone’s dancing, a ferocious ecstasy seems near. Then from the crowd bursts a tall American woman with wild black hair, as wild as Kali herself. She grabs the man’s stick, threatens him with it, scatters the crowd, and explains to him that he has it all wrong.
Did it happen exactly like that? I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but the woman with the long dark hair was Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, and when she told this story it made perfect sense. Ma has worked for forty years to clear up misconceptions, about karma, about tantra, but most of all about the Mother, especially her fiercest forms.
Kali is the black mother, the one with the garland of skulls and the skirt made of human hands, the one holding a big knife in one hand and a severed head in the other, the one whose long tongue drips blood. But Ma Jaya says this has nothing at all to do with cruelty or violence, and that’s what the mongoose man didn’t understand.
So, who is this black mother? Like her consort Shiva, she destroys and transforms. Her special province is destroying the ego, the small self that tricks us into separateness. Kali is in charge of ego death. If you look again at her image, why do all those severed heads seem to be smiling? Here’s what Ma Jaya said in an article originally published in Parabola:
“Kali represents the destruction of ego and illusion. She devours pain, devours truth, devours falseness, devours all that is and just leaves the purity of the heart. She wanders the skies in search of any kind of sorrow so she can absorb it inside of herself.…This Mother will wrap her arms around you and hold you, she will love you and touch you and give you compassion, and in the same breath strip the flesh away from your bones and leave you free.”
Whether we understand Kali as an actual being or as some sort of archetype, her blackness is our own. She’s dark because we are dark. But worshiping Kali is not just darkness meeting darkness, because what would be the point of that? That’s where I think some feminists get it wrong when they embrace Kali for her ability to “kick a**.” The a** they want to see kicked usually belongs to some man or some male power structure. That’s fine with me, but Kali isn’t really about that, any more than she’s about the celebration of blood and violence between a snake and a mongoose in some Indian marketplace. She’s not about cruelty, she’s not about power, and she’s not about women’s empowerment.
Who is she then? Most simply, Kali is a bringer of grace. As she absorbs our darkness, we become lighter. Most of us fear ego death even more than we fear physical death, and yet the teachings of most religions and spiritual paths describe ego death as the doorway to transformation. That’s precisely why we need Kali, she who holds “grace and mercy in her wild hair.”
editor: Greg Eckard
Swami Matagiri Jaya was an editor and a writing teacher for so long that she finally felt, “Enough already! I can write.” First, she had to accept that she knows some things worth writing about, after spending 35 years in a spiritual community with her guru. She was initiated as a swami in 2011. In her spare time, sometimes she teaches Kali Natha Tantric Yoga, and other times she teaches English and psychology at a local college. She’s still an editor too, and you might be able to hire her to edit your book!