In one sense, she is merely the name I give to my awe at the wonder of the world through the lens of this incarnation. In another, birthed as I am from a particular marriage of energy and consciousness, she is the whole of biological evolution at the same time that she is also the dancing of the stars at the limits of black holes. She is the innermost recesses of thought and the certain fabric of my existence. She is time and essence, space and reverberation. She is an unveiling of the folds and layers of breath that have gone and continue to go into life itself.
For over six months in 1998, I called the north and northeast of Bharat Mata (Mother India) home as I did fieldwork of more than one kind, exploring my own assumptions, limitations, and fears. I felt internal barriers crumble as I experienced the joy of being received without reservation by devotees of the Divine who cared not for my place of birth, only my sincerity. I felt other protections get stronger as I navigated alleyways and temples alike filled with decomposing fruit and flesh. My experiences hint at the beauty of Kali’s teachings on non-duality, in which the elegance and horror of creation become real.
This is reflected in much of her iconography. She may appear with unbraided hair, for example, to denote sex or menstruation. Her snake-entwined arms may hold in one hand a severed human head and in the other, a skull cup or kapala at the level of her heart to signify the bliss of egoless detachment. My first visit to Tarapith in West Bengal provided a concrete example. There, abundant red flowers strung into fragrant garlands welcomed me after a grueling trip from which I needed relief. The day ended disappointingly, however, despite a glorious darshan (seeing of Goddess Tara) at the temple when the door to my pilgrim’s guest house room opened to reveal a fresh pile of excrement on the bed. In India, the possibility for escaping the realities of life were, I was learning, greatly (and importantly for the spiritual seeker) diminished.
From the cosmic perspective, Kali is the sacrifice of spirit arising in the world. Following the whim of the Divine, She—the all-pervading and powerful consciousness-force of spirit—yearns and then answers that yearning, becoming the yearning itself as the limitless condenses into the world of matter and is created. In our bodies, we know pains of the flesh and the sufferings of the heart. Yet, we have only hints of the torment that is endured by the Divine. For the sake of knowing the taste of freedom and the scent of love, She is born. Many women’s unadulterated experience of natural childbirth (my own included) certainly offers one microcosmic expression of this reality. I might say it another way: that the rendering asunder is also a portal to unfathomable bliss.
Today, after annual pilgrimages to her homeland and over thirteen years of public pujas offered in her name, I am much more comfortable with my role and responsibilities relative to her teachings in the flesh. The learning continues, of course, as I plunge more deeply with community into the realms she inhabits and seek to know more intimately the gateways she guards. Her gifts, sometimes even the passwords that open the gateways, have been largely earned on the path of practice and service.
In India and like Agni, Lord of the Flames, the one out in front initiating ritual by creating the container in which spirit can dance is called purohit. My Sanskrit teacher in America remarked once that I must claim that title, and in time, I have. I lead ritual and live an engaged spirituality in part through the work of service in community. Every month, we gather and Kali is loved through symbol and form, smile and sacrifice. Kali Puja welcomes old and young, newcomers and initiates alike. We are family for that time of worship, no matter what our backgrounds or heritage, political preferences or beliefs. We each take responsibility for our worship, with my role being largely that of facilitator, and come to know her through our shared and unique experiences alike.