Kali’s iconography frequently depicts Her as standing with one foot upon Shiva, sword upraised, holding a severed head, with her tongue sticking out between closed teeth. One interpretation of this imagery is that Kali sticks her tongue out in shame of stepping on her consort, Shiva. However, in the Devi Mahatmya, Durga manifests Kali to destroy the demon army by using her tongue to lap up the blood of Raktabija, who produces a new demon with each drop. This seems to be an important message about the nature of shame and the power of the Goddess.
One of the problems that frequently arises for me in devotional practice is shame. My discipline is far from perfect, and when I lapse in my sadhana (practice), I quickly enter a tailspin of shame. If I can’t even do this, how can I be worthy of Maa’s love? How can I be worthy of calling myself a devotee? How can I belong to community or be of service when I can’t even consistently manage my daily practice? And on and on, the shame spiral feeding back into itself until a lapse of a couple days becomes a couple weeks or more.
Eventually, I psych myself up to ‘surrender to the consequences’ of my unworthiness and neglect and sit back down at the shrine, ready to accept my punishment as the terrible child that I must be.
Mother’s ‘reputation’ as a rageful and vindictive goddess has taken root in some areas of western polytheism and goddess spirituality, but I have found that Her love, though tough, and Her grace, though subtle, are boundless. I have been cruel enough to myself in this process; there’s no reason for Ma to be cruel, and anything She has to offer has to better than my continued suffering.
Shame is definitely a potent poison. Though, as Brené Brown says, it is one of the most universal and primitive human emotions, it seems to me that shame has a particularly powerful hold on people in the west. Brown (2010) defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
In reflecting on my past experiences in western polytheist communities, I think of all the times I heard some variation on “the gods are dangerous” and “be careful or you will be punished” and “only these specific types of people are true devotees.” What internalized ideas do these messages speak to? Is achieving a sense of belonging more difficult in our communities? Do we receive stronger conditioning about our flaws?
There is certainly some truth to god/godds being ‘dangerous’ and best approached with intention and awareness. But our ideas of relationship and punishment are so colored by Puritanism and power hierarchies, by religious traditions that have told us we are not worthy of direct connection with divinity; we are tainted and should be ashamed of ourselves. Original Sin has sentenced us all to a life of shame and unworthiness.
It’s easy to understand why shame has infiltrated western pagan and polytheist communities – our egos are finely attuned to it. According to Dr. Linda Hartling, we react to shame in one of three ways: move away by withdrawing, move toward by people-pleasing, or move against by trying to gain power over others. I wonder how these tendencies translate into our devotional relationships? Are the messages we share about how to approach divinity influenced by these reactions?
Ultimately, in my worldview, shame and our reactions to it are a defense mechanism of the ego. When we forget that we already belong, that we already have unconditional love, shame rears it’s head and sends our ego into a whirlwind. Ma’s love is the love that destroys ego, destroys our shame.
Is the interpretation of Kali biting her tongue in an act of shame influenced by beliefs about the nature of women and social customs? Perhaps. Concepts and experiences of shame are not limited to our culture, by any means. Admittedly, I am speaking in very broad terms in an attempt to tease out some of the ways shame interacts with devotional practice. I can’t speak for an entire culture, my own or anyone else’s. The question of shame in devotional practice is one that I continue to explore, as I work through my own experiences.
The more I reflect on it, the more it seems to me that our shame is Kali’s shame – this too is Her – and part of our work is unraveling the influence of that shame, of unbinding ourselves from it’s clenches and freeing ourselves of the cruelest parts of our ego.
P.S. I should add a disclaimer that my committed studies and practice with Shakta Tantra are only 3-4 years old, and that I have a lot to learn. My experiences in western paganism and polytheism go back two decades (though I don’t hold the same identity anymore). Again, I am only speaking of my experiences as I currently understand them.
P.P.S. I’ve recently shifted my social media engagement, where I would frequently post ‘Thoughts in Three-hundred Words.’ I’m trying to move back to blogging more regularly, and will hopefully publish short pieces more frequently. Click follow or subscribe if you want to read them.
Brown, Brene. (2010). The gifts of imperfection. Hazelden: Center City, Missouri.