Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Sword and the Flute: Kali and Krsna: Dark Visions of the Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology

Book review: The Sword and the Flute: Kali & Krsna: Dark Visions of the Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology – by David R. Kinsley (University of California Press, 1975)

This is a great study of Indian metaphysical ideas. It shows that the study of deities can indicate how a people conceived of the human condition. The vast and diverse Hindu pantheon depicts the divine in a myriad of ways, from gentle to severe. Kali and Krsna are two of the most popular deific forms in Hindu India. One terrifies while the other intoxicates. Man, as a religious being, says the author, seeks out the “other” in deified forms. Because of their popularity, particularly in Bengal, Kali and Krsna likely epitomize fundamental truths of the Hindu tradition, he reasons.

Krsna is first revealed in the Bhagavad Gita, part of the epic Mahabharata, where he appears as the charioteer of the warrior-king Arjuna. He is revealed here as an avatar of Visnu. An avatar can be defined as an incarnating god. Around 400 C.E. Krsna’s genealogy appears in the Harivamsa, a text meant to be an appendix to the Mahabharata. Here Krsna’s birth and childhood as a cowherd in Vrndavana is recounted. Archaeological evidence suggests that the depiction of Krsna as a cowherd goes back to about 200 B.C. though not in literature till about 600 years later. The story of Krsna in Vrndavana is further embellished in the various puranas. Here his lover, Radha, becomes the embodiment of the god-intoxicated devotee. Kinsley gives three “versions” of Krsna: as a human hero in the Mahabharata, as a divine incarnation in the Bhagavad Gita, and as the Supreme Lord as the cowherd youth (Krsna Govinda). Krsna became a teacher in the Gita but ultimately an object of devotion in the later tradition.

Krsna is the eternal child, spontaneous and playful. In the lore he engages in pranks, dares, sporting, and endless play. As a butter-thief and prankster he gets the reputation of a hooligan in some of the lore. He is said in this manifestation to represent the unconditioned nature of the divine. The wild play continues through Krsna’s adolescence. The author sees his youth and frolicking nature as indicative of his approachability. He is an adorable babe and charming adolescent. A third factor he mentions about Krsna as a child god is his “transcendental aloofness,” meaning that he is so absorbed in his revelry that he does not rule the world like a king and actually shows little direct concern for the world – “a testimony to the essential nature of the divine as self-delight.” Even his combat with demons is a form of play. He defeats them readily and creatively and their corpses are absorbed into the land of delight, Vrndavana. Vrndavana started as the temporary home of Krsna during his youth but in later texts became synonymous with the highest heaven. Krsna was known for his beauty, grace, and pleasant fragrance. The nymphs of Krsna’s heaven are the gopas and gopis, who maintain Vrndavana and are continually mesmerized by the sound of his flute. The gopis are the milk-maids, each who experiences herself as Krsna’s exclusive lover. Krsna is eternally young in the eternal spring of Vrndavana. There are various theological arguments as to whether Radha and the gopi girls are part of Krsna (as his sakti) or separate. 

The call of Krsna’a flute bewitches. Not unlike the pipes of Pan the flute of Krsna makes people stop what they are doing and come frolicking to the wood. The devotees become filled with ecstasy and abandon their tasks. Even the gods are mesmerized and drawn to listen. Even Krsna is intoxicated by the sound of his flute. With his flute he fills the world with bliss.

Krsna is also the divine lover. Radha’s place in Indian literature and Vaisnava myth came much later. She was mention by 700 CE but did not become popular until the 11th and 12th centuries. The love of Krsna and Radha is framed as a “first love” full of klutziness and bodily exploration. Youthful love becomes the delightful game of love-play. Their amorous dallying is a favorite subject of Vasinava poets. Approaching the divine as lover is one aspect of the devotee. Radha and Krsna become totally absorbed in one another. Thus the path of devotion, or bhakti, is a path of bliss, or ananda. It is the aspiration towards a heavenly realm that is erotic, life-affirming, and eternally blissful. 

The author chooses three most important themes in the traditions of Krsna: Bhakti (devotion), Ananda (bliss), and Lila (play). In the Bhagavad Gita and Mahabharata Krsna teaches Arjuna about bhakti-yoga, or how to worship the Supreme Lord. Also taught are karma-yoga, the path of disinterested works, and jnana-yoga, the path of knowledge. The Gita exemplifies the path of bhakti-yoga. Early in this tradition the work of the devotee was straightforward, ruled by discipline and sacrifice. When Krsna showed his true form (as Visnu) to Arjuna it terrified him. By the time of the Bhagavata-purana (10th century CE) and possibly beginning with the Harivamsa (400 CE) the devotional methods took on a fervent, emotional, and impassioned quality. The influence of the Tamils in South India might be relevant here. They came from all castes and tended to reject the religion of the priests. Devotional poetry and ecstatic love came to dominate their Vaisnava and Saivite cults. Tamil saints of both cults ridiculed Brahmanism. The new devotees paid less attention to serving society (through karma-yoga) and more to serving the Supreme Lord through ecstatic devotion. The same was to occur in the north, in Bengal. Bhakti-yoga would come to be seen as the supreme yoga. The soul of a human (jiva) was said to be the hladini-sakti of the Supreme Lord, his most essential self. Thus the true nature of the soul of man is pure bliss. It is maya which conceals our true nature from us. Thus we are all gopis, we are all Radha.

The well-known formula of the Absolute in Hinduism is Sat-citt-ananda, or being-consciousness-bliss. Krsna changed, in the tradition, from an avatar of Visnu, to the Absolute, the Supreme God, the source of all avatars. This was a theological change that came quite late, possibly even under Muslim influence. Thus, the monotheistic Vaisnava theology became firmly established, particularly in Bengal with the Bhagavad-purana being its most important book. The Upanisadic absolute as Brahman was now called “impersonal.” Krsna became, as the Hare Krishna movement says, the “Supreme Personality of Godhead.” To the Vaisnava theologists, God is one but has a threefold aspect: Bhagavan, Paramatman, and Brahman:

“Paramatman is God in relation to nature (prakrti) and spirit (jiva), Brahman is unqualified and therefore never expressed, while Bhagavan is infinitely qualified and infinitely perfect and considered the most sublime aspect of all. And Krsna, finally, is identical with Bhagavan.”

The divine is said to express himself through his saktis. This expression is the same as Krsna’s dalliance in Vrndavana. Thus the Godhead “is” Krsna and Radha and the gopis and gopas frolicking in Vrndavana. It is God as an eternal expression through his saktis. He does not “reveal” himself to humans or direct their affairs, he simply displays himself through his natural expression.

Lila is called divine play. Since the gods have no shortcomings, no needs, and no desires, there is no work or striving for goals. All action is simply play. Thus for humans they are unpredictable. There is no purpose to the play in Vrndavana, it is just play. According to the Harivamsa and the puranas, Visnu incarnates when Mother Earth requests him to subdue the tyrannical demon-king Kamsa. This, he does while still engaged in play. Vrndavana is an eternal magical playground. The Vaisnava cults of Bengal and the north emphasized Krsna’s child cowherd form as the most essential and complete form of the Lord. His life in Vrandavana is a continuous song and dance and dalliance without aim.
Now we come to Kali, as this is really two books in one, with some comparison at the end. Due to her extreme appearance, Kali has been controversial both in Hindu and non-Hindu contexts. Some sects offer her blood sacrifices but others do not. She is called Mistress of Death and in her myths and iconic appearance she is slayer, particularly of demons. Her association with the infamous Thugs, a criminal cult who sacrificed humans to her, often by strangulation, have given her a bad reputation, although I have heard such sects may have been more influenced by Muslims than is generally known. In any case, Kali is on the fringe and expresses out-of-control attributes. However, she is also the Divine Mother, compassionate and kind to her children. In spite of her appearance, she is one of the most popular deities in Hinduism, especially in Bengal. Some see her as a continuation of the Aryan Great Goddess of the Vedas while others see her as a tribal goddess inherent to non-Aryan pre-Vedic India.

Most of the earliest references to Kali do seem to associate her as an indigenous tribal deity who later entered the greater Hindu tradition but there are a few goddesses in the Vedas that may be precursors to her. In the Mundaka Upanisad, Kali is one of the names of the seven tongues of Agni. As a ‘tongue of fire’ this may presage her later association with the cremation ground but that is only speculative. Other possible prototypes of Kali are Ratridevi (the Goddess Night) and especially the demoness Nirrti, who appears to be the personification of death, destruction, and sorrow. Kali has been called the “terrible night of destruction. Both Ratridevi and Nirrti appear in the Rg Veda. Nirrti disappears while Kali appears in the epic and Puranic period texts (200 BCE to 300 CE). Nirrti and Kali have some similarities (both are black) but many differences and cannot be definitively linked.

In the Mahabharata there are mentioned two “mothers” who became the companions of Karttikeya (Skanda or Kumara) when he went to slay the demon Taraka. One was called Bhadrakali and the other Kalika. The mothers collectively were said to be both beautiful and terrifying and to live in trees, caves, mountains, crossroads, and cremation grounds. They were said to speak many languages. These sound a lot like the “fierce mothers” or matrkas, of early Bengali tradition associated with warding off disease and guarding the Sanskrit letters in the Buddhist and early Tantric traditions and may be precursors or contemporaneous with them. The author mentions the matrika association and that since they spoke many languages and were associated with the late deity Karttikeya they were likely peripheral to the Aryan tradition. Geoffrey Samuels in his book, The Origins of Yoga and Tantra, noted that the fierce mothers as deities to ward off sickness and disease may have become a practical necessity after people began to live in larger cities along the Ganges as merchant towns built up. Some of the late Indus Valley peoples likely migrated eastward eventually entering these areas as well. People living in closer proximity with livestock likely led to more disease as has historically been the case throughout the world. Another early reference to Kali in the Mahabharata is when she appears with a noose to lead the dead away after the sleeping Pandava army is slaughtered by the surviving Kaurava warriors. As in her later main descriptions she is black with a bloody mouth and disheveled hair. Except perhaps in add-ons to the epic, she is not yet associated with Durga.

In the Devi-Mahatmya Kali is first associated with Durga. This is the text that gives the mythology of Kali. The Great Goddess as Durga has to fight off demons born from the sleep of Visnu. When she confronts the demon brothers Sumbha and Nisumbha and their army who have subdued the gods and rule over them, this is when Kali appears when Durga in the form of Parvati confronts the demon heroes Canda and Munda. She becomes furious and Kali springs from her brow in her terrifying form armed with a sword and a noose. Howling and laughing madly she decapitates them both and presents their heads as a gift to Durga. In another scene Durga is having trouble defeating the regenerating demon Raktabija so she calls Kali who sucks out all his blood so he cannot regenerate. This is the main mythological entrance of Kali, born from wrath, ferocious, and invincible in battle. Oddly, in the Thuggee version of the myth she strangles the demons with helpers and then exhorts the helpers to make their living by strangling human victims. Later she was to keep the same terrible form but assume new roles. In the Agni and Garuda-puranas she was summoned through mantra for success in warfare. As a patron of thieves she appears in the Bhagavata-purana. In Kalidasa’s Kumarasmbhava (4th to 5th centuries CE) she is mentioned as part of Siva’s wedding procession, walking behind the matrikas in her fierce form. In all these depictions she is still a minor deity. In Subandhu’s Vasavadatta (6th or 7th century CE) there is mentioned a goddess called Bhagavati or Katyayani whose description is very similar to Kali. Other works of that time period describe Kali (also Candi, another name of Durga) as a non-Aryan goddess, particularly venerated by tribal hunters called the Sabaras. Kali is similar to Camunda in appearance and attributes in Bhavabhuti’s Malatimadhava (late 7th or early 8th century CE).

The Tamils of South India also had wrathful goddesses similar to Kali. In the Tamil epic Silappadikaram (traditionally dated to 2nd century BC but probably not written before 4th or 5th century CE) Kali appears as the goddess of death aiding bandits who offer her blood sacrifices. Similar tales occur in other Tamil epics, one where she is called the Dark Mother of the Forest.

In Bengal there are similar earlier fierce goddesses: Durga, Manasa, the snake goddess, Sitala, goddess of smallpox, and Candi, goddess of the jungle and hunters. Candi is a popular name of Durga as the Great Goddess, but is usually not depicted in wrathful form. However, Kali as a distinct deity does not appear to have been worshipped in Bengal before the 18th century even though she is one of the most popular deific forms there now. That is when she gained prominence in Vaisnava literature and Sakta devotional literature. Kali is known in other parts of India also from earlier times. In some places she is not associated with Durga. The author concludes that she cannot be definitively found to originate in any one particular region. Despite her association with Durga as the Great Goddess, Kali was not accepted quickly as a deity. She was often seen as a demonic shrew, worshipped by criminals and outsiders.

Kali’s great popularity as a goddess likely began with her association with Siva and then with the spiritual technology of Tantra. She began to be associated with Siva as early as the 8th century CE. It is uncertain how and why they came to be associated. Both have wild and peripheral qualities and are associated with cremation grounds and death and destruction – so it may have been a similarity of attributes. The names Kali and Parvati are used interchangeably in the Vamana-purana. Both Kali and Parvati have dark complexions but the visual similarities end there. Kali later appears as a consort-sakti to Siva. In that text and the Siva-purana, which is likely quite late, it is made clear that all goddesses are manifestations of Mahadevi as Uma-Sati-Parvati, the spouses of Siva. In the Rudra-samhita Kali is said to have been created from Siva’s hair. Other myths more strongly confirm Kali’s identification with Parvati. There are stories of Siva and Kali dancing madly together and ones of a dance contest between the two, where he wins. This is prevalent in South India and may represent the local Saivite cults absorbing the local goddess cults. It could be Siva as Purusa (spirit) subduing Kali, as Prakrti (matter). Indeed Kali (and many goddesses) are associated with matter and the elements. There is a story similar to the Ramayana where Siva must rely on Kali to subdue demons, as he could not do it himself. This is the story where Siva lays down among the corpses of the battlefield and Sita who has assumed the form of Kali is dancing madly slaying and severing heads but is exhorted by Brahma to recognize Siva, said here to be her husband, and to stop in her embarrassment.

It is thought that with the rise of Tantrism came greater popularity of female deities. This began around 700 CE and continued and by 1600 CE Kali was strongly associated with Tantrism though her transition to here may have come much earlier. In the Mahavidya tradition of the ten wisdom goddesses, it is Kali who is said to be the greatest. In the Mahanirvana-Tantra she is praised as the devourer of time, who originates and ends all things. Tantra exhibits deity forms as in sexual union. In Hinduism it is Siva-Sakti, sometimes said to be Consciousness-Energy. In. Buddhism it is Upaya-Prajna, Skilfull Means and Wisdom. Kali, as death, is confronted by the sadhaka, the Tantric practitioner, as nothing is forbidden and all is part of the spiritual path. The Karpuradi-stotra, a short work in praise of Kali, describes a pancatattva ritual, the rite of the five forbidden things, as performed in the cremation ground amidst a meditation on the form of Kali. She grants the boon of freeing the sadhaka from fear. As the mistress of the universe she is identified with the five elements, as matter, and with Siva, as consciousness, creates and destroys the universe.

The latest development of Kali in Indian tradition is her popularity in Bengali devotionalism. This is mostly the result of two teacher-poets: Ramprasad Sen (1718-1775) and Ramakrishna (1836-1886). These two made many beloved devotional hymns to the Great Wrathful Mother. Ramprasad became a Krsnanagar Court poet and his works became popular for all castes in the region. His descriptions of the attributes of Kali were embraced by the people. He sings of her madness, complains of her unfairness, and yet sees her as the entire universe, “present in every form.” He sees in her the darker dimensions of reality. She is unruly and demonic and yet the mother of all. Her boon is conquering the fear of death. Beginning with Ramprasad, devotion to Kali emerged from the secret societies of Tantrism into the venue of public worship. Ramakrishna kept up the devotional tradition of Ramprasad and added much to it. He emphasized Kali as playful and approached her often as a child would approach his mother. He had time to be devotional and approached her as a bhakti-yogi. I recall reading Ramakrishna saying that it is Kali who grants the “fruits of yoga.” Her popularity in Bengal still retains a darker side as black goats are often beheaded and sacrificed to her, apparently, every other day at one temple. She was also associated with Bengali nationalism and armed resistance in the early 1900’s and invoked as cause of disasters, like flooding, which are plentiful in Bengal, through her long association with inauspiciousness.

Erich Neumann and Heinrich Zimmer offered Jungian interpretations of Kali as the archetypal overbearing mother and as the return to childhood of the devotee. She is merciless in that she represents the inevitables of birth, growth, decay, death, and pain. The author criticizes these Jungians when they interpreted the child-like devotee as portraying a human weakness and a giving up when true liberation requires a human striving. I agree with the author that this interpretation by Neumann is short-sighted. The author notes that to understand Kali one must strive to understand the Indian vision of reality. Here is I think one of the most thoughtful parts of the book.

Kali is here described as Mahamaya, the grand illusion that is our reality. It is maya that prevents us from seeing the world as it is. The gods are said to be mayins, able to conjure whole worlds into existence. The world is mere appearance, conjured by the minds of gods. One quest of the spiritual hero is to rend the veil of maya, to unmask reality. Kali, among other wrathful deities, is a slayer of ego. It is ego which is made of the stuff of maya. Kali’s mad appearance reveals the world as unpredictable and spontaneous, impermanent and chaotic. She reveals the world as it is beyond our ego-mask.

Kali is seen as matter and suffering, prakrti and dukkha. Prakrti is matter but also mind and ego, all of which are revealed to be illusory. It is also primal urge towards grosser forms, moving from the unmanifest to the manifest. As dukkha, or suffering, she is emblematic of the Buddha’s first noble truth, that all is suffering. The unsatisfactoriness of Samara is epitomized in the four sufferings of birth, old age, sickness, and death.

Kali is also time. Time in the Indian worldview (and most archaic societies) is beginningless, endless, and cyclical. The universe is created and destroyed multiple times, infinitely through long cycles of thousands or millions of years (kalpas, one kalpa = one day of Brahma) through ages called yugas. Kali is called Mistress of Time as her name is the feminine form of time, or kala.

Kali’s association with death is most strong. Her lore finds her on battlefields and cremation grounds. The spiritual goal of liberation, or moksha, is said to be possible at death if one does not find it in life, if one trains properly enough. Kali’s boon is confrontation and acceptance of death, notes the author. The death of the ego must be a precursor to liberation.

“Kali’s boon is freedom, the freedom of the child to revel in the moment….”

Only when one lives in the moment, accepting death and all that is inevitable, can one be free from the mocking laughter of Kali, and to understand her as the loving mother.

She is “tamed” by Siva in the dance contest myth and by the Tantric hero through his meditation on her in the cremation ground. Another version of this type of practice is the Tibetan Chod practice where Krodha Kali (Throma Nagmo) as the Wrathful Black Lady is ejected from the top of the practitioner’s head and proceeds to cut up his or her body and feed it in a meal to demons. This is traditionally done in cremation grounds and scary places in the cover of night. The author suggests that accepting her truths – illusion, suffering, and the limitations of matter and time, through childlike devotion is another way to tame her. The dark and terrifying aspects of Kali are merely the dark and terrifying aspects of reality itself.

While the myths of Kali and Krsna seem to present very different versions of divinity - liberation through bliss and liberation through understanding harsh reality, they have similarities. Kinsley notes that they are both black, which suggests a kinship with the land and soil and likely both non-Aryan in origin. They are both peripheral to the Brahmanic tradition. They are not associated with light, the heavens, or order, as are many Vedic deities, but more with the life-force within. Both are erotic: Krsna passing the time in love-play and Kali said to enjoy intercourse with Siva. Krsna is the essence of life as his realm of eternal spring reveals while Kali is the stark reminder that life feeds on life and so requires death. Thus both have “wet” natures, says the author. Both are also wild and frenzied in nature. The goal of liberation is to transcend Samsara yet it is revealed through these deities and others that Samsara is also pervaded by that which is divine, and so that which is beyond it, or as the Mahayana Buddhists say – Samsara and Nirvana are inseparable. The wild natures of Krsna and Kali suggest that the divine is unspecified, boundless, spontaneous, and unconditioned. They are beyond the ego-centered notions of order, control, and predictability. Both invite their human admirers to look beyond – by joining in their revelry, play, and mad dance.

This was a very cool study of apprehending ideas through study of deific forms. It is not known if Kinsley is a practitioner of the traditions but he does note participating in rituals during his time in India. It is a great book aiding an understanding of Indian traditions.

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