CW: discussion of animal sacrifice
I had just received darshan from the podium above the image of Maa Kali. My senses were overwhelmed with the headiness of the spiritual experience, and the overload of being crowded and jostled by devotees, and harangued for money by the phaledar delegates. I exited the temple into the not-so-fresh Kolkata air, and walked around to the other side. Suddenly, my bare feet felt something slick. I looked down, afraid of what I would see, and noticed the blood red streaks from the enclosure next to me, going around the outside of the temple. I turned the corner and took in the sight of the Harikhat-Tola. Covered in blood, as well as red siddur and piled with flowers, this is where the animal sacrifice took place. There were two harikhat, a smaller one for goats and a larger one for buffalo. It was a festival day, and there had obviously been a sacrifice that morning – the blood on the stone around the temple was still fresh.
I was sitting peacefully within a temple high on a hill, having just entered the womb of it and received darshan of the yoni of the goddess. Pigeons were being released with devotion, having been blessed with red marks by a priest. The bells were ringing, and people were praying with looks of complete bliss and devotion. Goats were wandering everywhere, and I had to remember to not set anything down, for a nibbling goat would quickly be there.
A very young goat was led by a rope into the enclosure next to me, bleating the whole way. The cries briefly became more desperate, and then suddenly stopped. A moment later, a priest walked out with a bowl full of blood and siddur, and devotees gathered around him fervently, ready for the blessings.
On my second visit to Kalighat Mandir, a gentle and devoted man that a friend connected me with guided me through the temple complex. He took me back to the Harikath-Tola, and looked at me as he explained the purpose of the place. I could sense that he wasn’t sure how I would react as a Westerner, and was quick and sure to explain that only in some Kali worship was this done and that the animals never suffered and nothing was wasted. I lingered there a moment after he spoke, the full meaning of this place settling on me after experiencing his sharing of it, the devotion and reverence transforming any sense of disdain I had felt.
As a vegetarian of over a decade and a Westerner these experiences should, and did, shock me at first even though I knew to expect them. And as a white person in the US I would never conduct animal sacrifice in my worship of Kali. But within the fabric of Hindu Tantric practice this was an essential thread.
There is a Tantric dictum that says Yaireva Patanam Dravyaih Siddhih Taireva – That by which one falls is also that by which one rises. This of course speaks to the core philosophy of tantra, that desire and attachment to the material world cannot be overcome simply by abstaining from it; one must confront that desire and those material attachments themselves. It is through desire and attachment that we can be free of it.
“The Tantra holds that the impure, the ugly and the unholy things of life are things which have been wrongly seen out of their context, and, from their own particular positions, or from the point of view of the things themselves, they are neither good nor bad, neither beautiful nor ugly, neither holy nor unholy.”
~Sri Swami Krishnananda
In Tantric rituals, items are used in acts of devotion that may seem out of place at best, and abhorrent at worst, to our Western perception. There are items that are often taboo in Hindu culture, for example tobacco and meat. And in Tantra, particularly in the worship of Kali, there is sometimes blood through animal sacrifice.
As a witch I agree that the things of life, from their own particular position, are not in and of themselves good or bad – that is far too binary for me. But I do think that the things of life become good/bad, beautiful/ugly, and even holy/unholy, through the meaning that we give them. Unfortunately, the context within which we find and ascribe meaning is powerfully influential. And the means through which that context and meaning is constructed is just as important.
The first time I attended a tantric puja, I wondered about the use of tobacco. I was a smoker at the time, so it wasn’t particularly taboo to me to use tobacco. Within the context of my life, tobacco was a normal thing. But as the small cigar was passed around, I thought about the lives that had created that object, whose own contexts were very different from mine. I thought about the history of tobacco in America – the sacred use of it by indigenous peoples, the harm and subsistence it has brought since colonization. For some people tobacco has a very significant meaning. For me, it had become so commonplace as to barely register in my awareness. I inhaled the taste of it, noticing the small part of me that was repulsed by smoking tobacco in ritual, while the multiple layers of meaning shuffled in my head.
We know daily use of tobacco kills people. We know that the corporations that produce tobacco for mass consumption do so using 100s of chemicals that increase addiction and that lead to a multitude of health problems. And so this too is a part of the context, is a part of the origin of the thing which influences our construction of the meaning. We cannot ignore it – that awareness is a part of our consciousness.
But we can acknowledge it, and flip it in an act of offering, of sacred-making. We can open ourselves to all of the meaning that has been ascribed to a thing, and thus reclaim our power to create our own meaning. We can move through our binary attachments and recognize the complexity of our own and other contexts.
In India, I opened myself to another source of meaning, a different context for the things of life. That awareness has created an even greater opening in my devotional practice, and for the creation of my own meaning.