Who is Kali?
Is she the woman God of death and destruction? Or is she just a symbolic representation of the deadly force that emanated in fiery feminine form from the brow of the goddess Durga, to slay the demons? Is she just a God of folklore who carries the souls of the slain soldiers from the war front, as depicted in Mahabharata? Is she a great warrior of the Santal tribe who waged many bloody battles and by virtue of her heroic deeds, raised to the level of a God, or is she “Kotravai”, the blood-thirsty God found in ancient Tamil literature?
Or is she the Shakti of Shiva, who is really the “arta-nari” – the woman-half of Shiva? If so, how come she is depicted to be standing on the seemingly dead and inert body of her husband Shiva? If she the all benevolent and lovable “Lokha mata”, the universal mother who is worshiped in many pleasing and adorable female forms as Parvati, Meenakshi, Kamakshi, Raja Rajeshwari and so on? If so, why is she depicted in such a fiery form of Kali – dark skinned, bloody and protruding eyes, tongue hanging out, her two canine teeth protruding out like a carnivorous animal, body smeared with ash, wearing a garland of human skulls, just wearing a skirt made of human arms and standing over the corpse-like body of her husband Shiva?
Is she simply a representation, in woman form, of the all pervading Brahman, who is beyond form and formless, who is both the manifest and un-manliest, who is behind creation, sustenance and destruction and consequently, the Ultimate Reality, from whom the three Prime Gods – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva (Rudra) arise and disappear like bubbles from the sea, as eulogized in the “Nirvana-tantra”?
To grasp Kali by any such inquiries is too difficult and too daunting a task! But the best way to grasp her true import is to surrender to her unquestioningly and unconditionally like the great Bengali Saint Poet Ramprasad had done. He declares “I have understood that Kali is Brahman and thus have gleefully renounced both Dharma and Adharma”.
In the recent history, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836-1886) is one great sage, who was an ardent devotee of Bhavatarini – the Kali of Dakshineswar temple (near Kolkotta). Sri Ramakrishna had the divine vision of Kali and he was virtually on a never-ceasing divine communion with her.
It is very difficult to say whether Sri Ramakrishna chose Maa Kali or Maa Kali chose Ramakrishna to express Her divinity through him! It looks to me that the later was more true.
Worshiping Lord Raghuvir (Ram) and Sitala Devi (A form of Durga) as family deities was in vogue in Sri Ramakrishna’s family. But there doesn’t seem to be any specific instance of Sri Ramakrishna’s ‘attachment’ to Sitala Devi for worship in his early years.
Sri Ramakrishna’s first “encounter” with Maa Kali seems have happened when he took a pilgrimage as a boy along with local women to Anoor Visalakshi Temple. As he was walking with the women singing bhajans on Divine mother, he suddenly went into a trance – attaining bhava Samadhi and getting immersed in overwhelming emotions on Devi.
Later, in his late teens, he went to Kolkata to assist his elder brother Ramkumar, who was earning the very livelihood through practicing purohitam (priesthood) for the family stricken with poverty at Kamarpukur. Ramkumar got appointed to to Dakshineswar Kali temple as the priest and Sri Ramakrishna too shifted to the temple premises only very reluctantly. Interestingly, the orthodox Brahmin mindset he had in those days made him decline to eat Kali’s Prasad!
I believe it was gradually afterword that Dakshineswar Bhavatarini Kali started Her divine play of ‘possessing’ the reluctant Village Brahmin teenager and making him her own and finally making his Self her own divine abode!
The rest is history.
Sri Ramakrishna was a great lover of Ramprasad’s songs on Kali. He used to interpret the profound meaning behind Ramprasad’s songs, based on his own personal and intimate experience of Kali.
He says “What Vedas call as Brahman, he (Ramprasad) addresses as the Mother. He who is attributeless also has attributes. He who is Brahman is also Sakti. When thought of as inactive, He is called Brahman, and when thought of as Creator, Preserver and Destroyer, He is called the Primordial Energy, Kali. …. Brahman alone is addressed as mother. This is because mother is an object of great love. One is able to realize God just through this love.”
Kali worship, Tantra and Sri Ramakrishna
Regarding significance of Kali Worship, Shaktas will give lots of reasons based on Puranas and Tantra Shastras about the superiority of Kali worship over other sects. In my opinion, Shakta was a very strong sect, (like Gaudiya Vaishnavism) in Bengal existing in those periods, thanks to the widespread practice of Tantra amid Bengalis.
It may be pointed out that Sri Ramakrishna practiced Tantra under the methodical and strict guidance of Bhairavi Brahmani and attained the pinnacle of divine experience as per Tantra Shastras. But during his days, Tantra Shastra had attained quite a bad reputation because it was conveniently misunderstood and practiced by many to enjoy drinking and sex. Leaving behind the core idea of transcending those meaner pulls to attain divinity (Unity of Shiva and Shakti) through enjoying and overcoming, Tantra in practice had considerably degenerated those days.
By the strength of his divine experience, Sri Ramakrishna strongly warned against those practices of Tantra; he pointed out that the chances of falling were rather more than succeeding by the secret practicing of indulgence in the Pancha Makaras — madya (wine), māṃsa (meat), matsya (fish), mudrā (parched grain) and maithuna (sexual intercourse) of the Tantra.
Sri Ramakrishna prescribed Bhakti as the best means for woshipping divine mother Kali. For him, Maa Kali and what Upanishads call Brahman are one; Maa Kali is Brahman and Maya rolled into one and inseparable.
In the path of Bhakti on Kali, again, Sri Ramakrishna recommended a relationship of a child with its mother (Santhana bhava) as the best and detested a relationship as a lover (Madhura bhava).
Kali is depicted in several sub-forms too for worship and also for grasping her different attributes by people of different tastes and temperaments. These classifications have their origin mostly in Tantra practice.
Once, based on a request made by Kesab Sen, Sri Ramakrishna explained to him some forms of Kali:
“Maha-Kali & Niya Kali: These two forms are mentioned in the Tantra philosophy. When there were neither the creation nor the sun, moon, planets and the earth, when darkness was enveloped in darkness, then the Mother, the formless one, Maha Kali, the Great Power, was one with Maha-Kala, the absolute.
Syama-Kali: She has somewhat a tender aspect and is worshiped in the Hindu households. She is the dispenser of boons and the dispenser of fear.
Raksha-Kali: She is the Protectress; people worship her in times of epidemics, famine, earth quake, draught and floods.
Smasana-Kali: She is the embodiment of power and destruction. She resides in the cremation ground, surrounded by corpses, jackels and terrible female spirits. From her mouth flows a stream of blood, from her neck hangs a garlant of human heads and around her waist is agirdle made of human hands.”
Sri Ramakrishna also gives a unique explanation to the dark complexion of Kali. “She appears black because she is viewed from a distance. But when intimately known, she is no longer so. The sky appears blue at a distance; but look at it close by and you will find that it has no color”.
Yes. It is the intimacy with her that matters – to know the true nature of Kali.
However. we should not make the mistake of compartmentalizing Sri Ramakrishna to be a Shakta. He was a vaishnava amidst Vaishnu Bhakts; he was a Shaivite amidst Shiv Bhakts. He was an Advaiti amidst Jnanis. He was a yogi amidst Raja yogis.
We must also remember this: Sri Ramakrishna, when he practiced Nirvikalpa Samadhi under the guidance of Tota Puri had to mentally severe his emotional dvaita relationship with Maa Kali; as per Tota Puri’s instruction, he had to cut and get rid of Kali’s form from his mind (by using the sword of jyana) before he experienced Nirvikalpa Samadhi where the experience of God is beyond name and form.
However, for the sake of ‘coming back’ and teaching the world his all-encompassing divine knowledge, Maa Kali instructed him to remain in Bhava Samadhi (in a state where he could be in communion with God with name and form only).
(Sources: Wikipedia, “The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna”)