Mother Kali Dances and Unveils Her Maya

Several years ago, when I first started trying to understand Vedanta, my teacher Pravrajika Vivekaprana, explained some ‘laws’. Among them were the four pillars of Hinduism: Reincarnation (punar janma); Evolution; Karma (cause and effect); and Maya. How lucidly one understood or understands even now is debatable, but for a lay mind, some things were clear because they were, and are, woven into our way of life and culture.

Reincarnation or rebirth and evolution: These concepts, for example, one has never questioned! Listening to tales from the epics and Hindu mythology from childhood, it was almost natural to understand that when a living being dies it is reborn. Countless theories and stories giving us the concepts of creation and evolution are deeply embedded in the ancient Indian Scriptures — the Upanishads, the epics, and the Puranas. Through the direct words of the ancient rishis, or in the narratives of various texts, birth, rebirth, and the process of evolution are explained. And the ultimate truth or law is that the Atman, or soul (the limited meaning in the English language of Atman), is an omniscient, omnipresent, indestructible reality. Sri Krishna explains in the Bhagavad Gita about reincarnation, about the ephemeral nature of the embodied being, and the unchanging nature of the Atman:

· As are childhood, youth, and old age, in this body, to the embodied soul, so also is the attaining of another body (2: 13)

· Even as a man casts off worn-out clothes and puts on others which are new so the embodied casts off worn-out bodies, and   enters into others which are new (2: 22)

· This (Self) weapons cut not, This fire burns not; This water wets not; and This, wind dries not (2: 23)

· This (Self) is said to be unmanifested, unthinkable, and unchangeable. Therefore, knowing This to be such, though oughtest not to mourn (2: 25).

There are undoubtedly Western thoughts on the concepts of evolution as well, although not on rebirth as per ancient Hindu thought. Through On the Origin of Species, Darwinism explains the concepts of biological evolution by natural selection; further, with the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin links his evolutionary theory to human evolution. But these are recent revelations of the 19th century! The Book of Genesis as explained in Judaism and Christianity, which possibly dates several centuries ago, there is first the concept of God created the heavens and the earth in seven days. In six days actually, because on the seventh day, He rested. He also created the first man, Adam, and placed him in the Garden of Eden, with the first woman, Eve as his companion. Much discussion and disagreement remain on these concepts, but at least, for us, reincarnation and evolution are accepted. We cannot confidently say we completely understand or know, because all human understanding and knowledge is based on experience, and with the window of memory within experience being entirely myopic, we can only say we accept because the explanations as we get from the scriptures, are logical and because we believe, we agree.

Karma — Cause and Effect: According to the theory of cause and effect or Karma, which is unique to Hinduism, everything we do, everything that we think, everything that we use, everything that impacts our lives, our mind or body, leaves an impression. These impressions are called samskaras. Again, we don’t fathom the significance. The law of samskaras or tendencies, that we bring from previous lives, was, once upon a time, central to Hindu life. Today, while some of us accept this, many reject this concept. Indeed, we do not know nor can we rationally explain how and why actions of our past lives decide where we stand in this life, but we accept that they do. This acceptance is not necessarily because we understand in-depth, but from our experiences, we cannot deny the cyclic nature of cause and effect. It is not a blind acceptance; we do know that within this life itself the cycle or nature of cause and effect is undeniably the force of all action and reaction.

Maya: Finally we come to the fourth pillar, Maya. This has proved to be entirely elusive and mystifying. Our Upanishads do not talk about creation; they talk about projection. The word Srishti means projection or Maya. In Hindu Pauranic literature Maya is quite often interpreted as an illusion, almost magical. In the epic Ramayana, the demon Marichi, with his ‘Maya’ becomes the enticing golden deer; Ravana, with his ‘Maya’, can abduct Sita. Maya is also referred to as a goddess. She, with her power, can delude the human mind. The ancient sages of India most often demonstrate the concept of Maya bringing home the mystery of the real and unreal. Among the most well-known are the stories revolving around Sage Narada and Sage Markandeya. Both ask the Lord for an experience of Maya.

As narrated in the Bhagavatam, Narada Muni asks Lord Krishna — can you please show me the power of your Maya, your illusory energy? Please explain to me the secret of this magic called Maya and how she acts? Sri Krishna hesitates and then asks Sage Narada: are you sure you want to see the power of my Maya? Sage Narada is determined and insists.

Lord Krishna replies, “Okay, I shall show you, But first, Narada, it’s terribly hot, would you get me a cool glass of water?” Narada Muni sets out across the fields. Walking some distance the sage sees some thatched cottages of the nearest village. Narada’s throat is parched too. He runs to the nearest house — and there stands the most beautiful girl he has ever seen. All he can do is look at her beautiful face. Finally, he speaks out, “Will you marry me?” Soon enough the couple settles down to a life of family bliss. Years pass, they have a family and Narada and his wife remain engrossed in their private little world, quietly building their dreams. Then a flood comes. The raging river sweeps away the entire village, and Narada helplessly sees that everything that he has loved and lived for — his lands, his cattle, his house, most importantly his beloved wife and family — are swept away. Unable to bear the destruction and the grief of the calamity, Narada falls to the ground crying for help, “Krishna! Krishna!” In a flash, the raging floods disappear and there is Sri Krishna, standing casually on the same fields where they had walked earlier. “Narada,” the Lord asks gently, “where is my glass of water?” Looking up to see a smiling Sri Krishna — Narada, the sage, understands the play of Maya.

Sage Markandeya is fulfilled within himself, he has no desires. Pleased with his austerities and penances, Lord Shiva appears and offers him a boon to ask for whatever he wants. The sage has no desires left, but on the Lord’s insistence, only asks to understand the Lord’s Maya, which he has heard so much about. The Lord agrees, “so be it”, and departs. One day the peaceful and tranquil life of his ashram is hit by a fierce storm. Torrential rain and floods sweep over the entire region. Soon the sage finds himself in the floodwaters as he sees his ashram and everything around swept away. He cannot understand what is happening. Not understanding gives rise to fear, and because of fear, he finds himself amid the chaos. Just as he is about to drown, he sees a serene child floating on a leaf on the water, undisturbed by the turbulence around him…. The rishi is astonished by the vision, and he gets “sucked in” with the child’s in-going breath. As he is sucked in he finds himself back in his ashram, as if nothing has happened. He wonders at these events and suddenly he is thrown out again into the chaos with the child’s out-going breath. When he is thrown out again he realizes and says, “Oh! This is Maya!” The moment he understands, there is no fear, and everything is back to normal.

These stories may give an impression of the magic or illusion of Maya. But Swami Vivekananda says: “Maya is not illusion as it is popularly interpreted. Maya is real, yet it is not real. It is real in that the Real is behind it and gives it its appearance of reality. That which is real in Maya is the Reality in and through Maya.” “Thus we find that Maya is not a theory for the explanation of the world; it is simply a statement of facts as they exist, that the very basis of our beings is contradictions.” This is the final challenge to our understanding. We may use the word Maya, but we do so without understanding and the concept has almost vanished because it is extremely abstract and difficult to accept. It is difficult to grasp because we are unable to look beyond the experiences of the waking state, which we take to be the ultimate reality. The example given in the scriptures is of a rope lying in front of us and in the poor light, we mistake the rope for a snake. When we bring in the light we realize it is a rope. So was the snake ever there? Is the waking reality all that there is?

The Age of Kali and Her Maya

There was another teaching that had me perplexed for years. “This is the Age of Kali”, Vivekapranaji had asserted. At the time it was confusing. Yes, in our scriptures they have explained the four yugas — Krita, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali. The yugas make up the maha yuga or the “great yuga” and 2,000 maha yugas make up the basic cosmic cycle, the Kalpa. Each yuga lasts for aeons. The Krita was the Age of perfection. The fourth and most-degenerate yuga (Kali) is the present Age. It is said to have started during the deceitful game of dice in the Mahabharata. At the close of the Kali Yuga, the world will be destroyed, to be re-created after a period of quiescence as the cycle resumes again. But the “Age of Kali” is with reference also to the Goddess Kali, and that this is the age of the goddess, not only the Kali Yuga as scripturally explained.

Over the years, whenever I saw the image of Mother Kali, I was always overwhelmed and even perplexed by the apparent contradictions in her appearance. A black figure, with a red tongue, protruding from a fearsome face with eyes ablaze. With one hand she gives benedictions and blessings and but in the other hands, she holds a bloodied skull and a sword. She wears a garland of severed human skulls, a girdle of human hands, and she stands with one foot on the prone form of Lord Shiva, her consort. What does She really represent? It was only after reading the life of Sri Ramakrishna and his teachings that the image of Mother Kali emerged as the Divine Mother. He explains so lucidly, “You see Her as black because you are far away from Her. Go near and you will find Her devoid of all colour. The water of a lake appears black from a distance. Go near and take the water in your hand, and you will see that it has no colour at all. Similarly, the sky looks blue from a distance. But look at the atmosphere near you; it has no colour. The nearer you come to God, the more you will realize that He has neither name nor form. If you move away from the Divine Mother, you will find Her blue, like the grass-flower.” (The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna).

Swami Vivekananda, even after experiencing Sri Ramakrishna’s purity and devotion, had this one dilemma that he could not somehow accept the world of gods and goddesses, visions and ecstasies, which Sri Ramakrishna lived in. Sri Ramakrishna told Swami Vivekananda, “you suffer because you do not believe in the Mother.” Later in his own words, Swamiji explained, referring to his days of doubts in accepting the Kali ideal, “How I used to hate Kali! And all Her ways! That was the ground of my six years’ fight — that I would not accept Her. But I had to accept Her at last! Ramakrishna Paramahamsa dedicated me to Her, and now I believe that She guides me in everything I do, and does with me what She will… Yet I fought so long! I loved him, you see, and that was what held me. I saw his marvellous purity… I felt his wonderful love… His greatness had not dawned on me then. All that came afterwards when I had given in. At that time I thought him a brain-sick baby, always seeing visions and the rest. I hated it. And then I, too, had to accept Her!”

Mother’s Dance in the Age of Kali: In the Devi Mahatmyam, or the Chandi we read of Raktabija. The goddess Ambika is at war with the demons Shumbha and Nishumbha, and Raktabija is fighting along with them. As she faces the asura Raktabija, and wounds him, from each drop of his blood that touches the ground, another Raktabija appears. The goddess is overwhelmed in fighting the losing battle against the fast-multiplying duplicates of Raktabija. She has other goddesses fighting along with her, but the battle seems too one-sided. Suddenly, the Goddess Kali joins the battle. With her tongue stretched over the earth, she licks up each drop of blood pouring out from Raktabija’s body, while other goddesses continue to wound him. Kali devours his duplicates into her gaping mouth. Ultimately, Raktabija is annihilated. As our mythology further narrates, after killing Raktabija and most of his entire army, Goddess Kali goes on to kill all creatures in a fury. But Shiva intervenes and before she can annihilate everything, he lies down in her path. Striking his body, Kali is shaken and embarrassed and takes out her tongue in shame. After that, her anger vanishes as speedily as it had arisen.

In this Age of Kali, one also recalls the very powerful story of the Samudra Manthan or the churning of the ocean. All the muck and poisons that have lain dormant in the bottom of the great Ocean of Life have to rise and come out into the open. This is the Age when the ocean is being churned mercilessly, and before the elixir can rise, first the poisons have to be swallowed. In the mythological story, Shiva was propitiated by the devas to swallow the poison before it annihilated all of them. In the Age of Kali, She alone can withhold the poison and give the blessings. Else we have to learn to swallow the poisons ourselves.

The Mother unveils Her Maya: Today, Maya stands exposed! The Mother’s dance is no longer the mystery that we struggled to understand. At the beginning of the year 2020, there was great anticipation in human minds of a magical year to ‘leap’ into a new decade. The same incorrigible optimism, the endless planning, the resolutions, and belief systems were at an all-time high. Humanity continued to rush and ‘progress’, at the cost of everything else. Nothing mattered besides one’s trajectory of success. The rat-race was merciless. The quest for wealth, comfort, and success, all of which seemed to translate into happiness, was the single-point focus of humanity. Complacency and confidence riding on ego and arrogance had swept aside almost all sensitivity and compassion. Humanity was focused on its chosen comfort zone! Racing ahead in the quest of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, metaphorically burning rubber just to stay in the “Formula-1” event of life. We looked around, without really seeing. So content were we in figuring out our unique ways of staying in the race that ‘me’ and ‘mine’ took eternal precedence over anything or everyone else.

Yes, we shook our heads very sagaciously as witnesses to the annihilation of the Amazon forests; as the oceans flooded, forest fires blazed, and nature stood violated; but the race of superior human beings was set to continue unabated. A whisper in the background talked of a ‘novel virus’ that had raised its ugly head in a far-off city of Wuhan in China. It was their problem, and we even made disparaging remarks on the lack of hygiene or the carnivorous eating habits that caused these ‘un-natural’ diseases to be born. But before we could realize it, the disease spread its pandemic clutch on the entire planet, and since then millions have got sick, thousands have died, and billions are affected by the “flash flood” of bankruptcy, joblessness, and starvation. The world of humanity has stood still in helpless despair. While fighting the Raktabija of this Age, the world has virtually, shut down. Planet Earth has continued to revolve and rotate, the Sun has given its heat, the winds have not stopped, Nature has, in fact, revived with its cycle unabated, but a shocked, confused, scared, and helpless humanity has stood still and watched. For the first time in memory recall, what the world has faced in this life-changing “leap year” is unprecedented. The very concept of the comfort zone has changed.

Through eternity, life and death have always walked hand-in-hand. Diseases, accidents, old age, have always been instrumental in the daily toll of life. And yet, suddenly the numbers have been watched with hawk-eyed focus and trepidation, because the Maya of the Goddess, has swept across the world with her banner of ‘Kaal’, the Lord of death, in the name of a microscopic virus. This is the living experience of the dance or the fury of the Goddess Kali.

This also is passing, just as everything else does. But the world as we knew it, has changed and will continue to change. The “taken for granted” certainty has vanished. What was real yesterday, what is real today, and what we shall see as real tomorrow, are all now ephemeral and transitory. And this is Maya! Life is going on, for sure. Millions have died before, so millions will die today and tomorrow. Millions will also be born. Jobs have been lost, homes have been destroyed, there is starvation and anger. But at the same time, there is hope and renewed endeavour. It is vital that we humbly stand with folded hands in Her presence; that we acknowledge Mother Kali’s dance and Her Maya’s play; and as human beings are ever ready to make a fresh start, but with awareness, faith, and compassion.