Kali’s Tongue: Shame and Devotional Practice

2275223546_3ffee6f8eeKali’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.

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Artist Unknown

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.

Rising from the Ashes

Hello dear readers,

I feel like a struck chord this morning, vibrating with the echoes of the past as they collide with the present and shift my movement into the future. It was a year ago today that I plunged my hands into the ashes of the body of my sister, and they slipped through my fingers at sea. A year ago that an initiation descended upon me, the continuation of a process that had begun in a vision now made manifest.

I now find my own life in ashes; what remains after having endured the most difficult year of my life. One can’t hold onto ashes… they are too easily picked up by the wind, slip through the fingers, are too easily gone never to be seen again, whisked off to dissolve back into the world.

The fires have stripped away my resistance and my fear, have reduced my attachments to the life I thought I wanted to something that will blow away at the slightest breath of will. In the space that remains I am finding the vulnerability to open my heart to the love of the Great Mother in ways that I have never known. It is giving me the confidence to step off the ledge and fall into the great unknown, to open to the ecstasy of Her love and to find Her within myself. To take myself as my own Lover.

I’m taking the leap into a new vision for my life. I’ve survived the trifecta of life tragedies this year – Death, Disability, Divorce – and the loss of my housing. There’s a new page on my blog explaining more about what is to come next to support my survival as I take this leap. I hope you will read it and offer whatever support you can.

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Artist Unknown

Hymn to Kali

 

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O Maa
Dancing through our hearts
Shattering our illusions

You, Creator and Destroyer
All encompassing Time
Nothing escapes the wisdom of your blade

Sever us from our demons
Teach us to drink deep
of the ecstasy of life

O Maa
Praise be to you,
Most Fierce and Loving One.

Jai Kali Maa!

Poem and Photo by Syren Nagakyrie

Offering and Taboo

CW: discussion of animal sacrifice

Kalighat

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.

Kamakhya

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.

Goat at Kamakhya
Goat at Kamakhya Photo by S. Nagakyrie

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.

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Harikhat at the Kali temple Photo from http://www.kalibhakti.com/kalighat/

Taboo

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.

Offering

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.

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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.

Land of Maa

I recently returned from two weeks in India. I was there mostly on business; I had been invited to participate in a hackathon against gender based violence, as a subject matter expert and mentor. After the hackathon, I gave a couple of presentations at local schools and organizations and enjoyed getting to know local youth. It was an incredible opportunity to not only share my knowledge and expertise but to learn from local NGOs and youth.

I visited Kolkata, Ranchi, and Guwahati. Of course, I could not be in India without visiting some of the Temples. I’ve been a devotee of Kali for quite some time, and have a strong alignment with Tantra (the real Tantra – not the Western tantra-is-sex thing). I feel very lucky to have been able to visit the Kali temple at Kalighat, Umananda temple on Peacock Island in the Brahmaputra River, and most especially Kamakhya Temple.

But just as meaningful as the large temples, were the many many shrines to be found on almost every corner or under every other tree. And to walk on ground that has supported the feet of pilgrims for centuries, to feel earth and community that has steeped in devotion – those feelings I will struggle to describe for a long time.

And yet, the problems that India has are also very real. We’ve heard about them – the poverty, the violence, the pollution. The ways of living and being in community that seem irredeemable to the Western eye. And indeed, I saw much that shocked me. Being in India, I was constantly holding both shock and awe. It shook me and woke me up in ways that I had never experienced, and forced me to move through perceptions of duality.

And it made me realize just how much the United States has in common with supposedly “third world”, “developing”, “Global South” countries. Why else would we label them as something Other?

So keep an eye out here for more posts about my experiences. I’ll try to be timely with them, but words flow when and how they will.

Jai Ma!

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at Kamakhya Temple