I remember being born. I remember coming down the dark, narrow birth canal: rhythmic resoundings, red mottled walls, a feeling of powerful momentum. Blinding light. The absence of sound. Green walls, green floor, green pants attached to scurrying green shoes. Shiny silver medical equipment. I'm being held upside down by my feet and suddenly a cacophony of sharp noises explodes through my skin.
Kālī is the dark womb.
Everything is born from darkness.
"Watch my puppet show, mommy!", my then-four-year-old chirped. I put down my book about the history of the Black Madonna and smiled expectantly at her.
She picked up two puppets and placed them behind the homemade cardboard box puppet theater. She wiggled a puppet. "I am the puppet master", she began gravely, "And you are all my puppets."
My pulse quickened. "Uh, what's your name, Puppet Master?" I inquired.
"My name is m..m...m... my name is Maa."
I think my pulse momentarily stopped.
"I am the Queen of the Night", she added. She continued on, "But the night is not black, mommy, it's a dark, dark beautiful blue", and my then-four-year-old put down her puppets, stood up, and began to slowly spiral across the floor, arms out, like a Sufi.
I sat, mouth agape, watching her as she made her way down the hallway. She skipped back a few moments later.
Kālī. Her name means blue-black. She has many terrifying forms but she is also Ma, Mother. And to Shaktas she is the all-pervading Mahākālī or Great Kālī, the source of the Universe and the forces that flow through it.
Towards the end of this summer I decided to commit to a Kālī sadhana, which means 40 days of chanting simple Kālī mantras. In this blog I share some of this exploration with you and share some stories of how these archetypal energies might arise within your own life. To invoke the forces within mantra is to fuel a powerful resonant field and have it impact your life. Because that's what it's about: it's about your experience. It's about your life.
And so we begin...
"Mom, wouldn't it be cool if we could wash things with something other than water! Like, do you think you could clean something just as well with fire?!", my now-10-year-old yelled excitedly from the kitchen.
The name Kālī is briefly introduced in the Vedas as one of the 7 flames of Agni, the fire god. If Agni is considered the very mouth of the gods and goddesses who eats the oblations given during the fire ritual, the flame called Kālī is his dark, devouring tongue.
And then the dreams and meditative images begin. Dreams of ghoulish, macabre faces arising out of the darkness. One after the other they rapidly appear and disappear. I feel like I'm reliving every 1980s horror film my highschool friends pressured me into watching. The next night my dreams are of wizened women. Impressions of dying and death surface almost quicker than I can witness.
My daughter calls to me from her room during the night, "Mommy! Why am I so scared all of a sudden? I feel scared of everything right now!" I feel a tinge of guilt yet it opens up a flow of conversation between the two of us about fear and how to manage it... or even go beyond it.
To evoke the experience of Kālī is to begin by diving deep into the darkness of the unconscious and raising your fears. It's called "cleaning house". "Kālī" initially targets our lower chakras, subtle centers where our survival instinct is housed.
When we chant mantra we are setting powerful movements of energy into motion. In fact, the Sanskrit sounds of the alphabet are considered the primal movements of the Universe. The consonant “K(a)” is the first consonant in the Sanskrit alphabet. It is the sonic symbol for the curvilinear motion of the creative energy of the universe. This curvilinear movement leads to the concept "kal"/“to count” or “to measure" and then "kāla" which is "time". The ī denotes the feminine and thus suggests that Kālī is the action or movement of time. (The english words "calculate" and "calendar" are related.) Kālī, as this force of time, is integral to our destiny and our death. But "K(a)" is also the root of "kama" which means "love"...
I dream of a young, beautiful, blue-skinned, nude woman. Long flowing loose hair. A crown of leaves on her head. One of Kālī's other Sanskrit names, and she has many, is "Kamakhya" which means "She whose very name is desire". What is this desire? It is not just sexual desire but Eros, 'life's longing for itself' to quote a line out of context from a poem by Kahlil Gibran. Kālī is also described in texts as 'garbed in space' or 'sky clad' for like the vast sky, "she" is free and unbound.
Then... dreams of swirling, dense, frenetic storm clouds. A bolt of lightning. A house bursts into flame. The fire crackles and the flames leap higher. The house burns completely to the ground. In the morning I wake up feeling lighter. I dance into my daughter's room to wake her up.
"This is for you, mommy", my daughter said as she handed me this drawing. She has no idea what I am currently writing about yet she remains a few steps ahead of me. The word Kālī, I later learn, can also mean 'a row of mountainous black clouds'.
And behind the ones with the brilliance of gold,
Kālī the skull-decorated shone,
like a bank of dark blue clouds with cranes,
throwing flashes of lightning far in front.
Kārasambhava of Kālīdāsa
The images continue... black Kālī, rapidly and rhythmically swinging a sword while spinning frenetically in an unceasing dance. The next night I fall asleep with my daughter and I dream of two tornados, one large and one small, spinning a furious path along the horizon. Kālī as primal Shakti. Shakti begins as subtle vibrations which intermingle and become swirling vortices. This kinetic energy gives eventual rise to manifestation of forms. Kālī is often portrayed as dancing on Shiva's inert body: he symbolizing pure Consciousness, she symbolizing the active energy of the universe.
Then, I dream of a black crow with a golden strip on each wing. Within the Tantric system, there are ten goddesses called the Mahavidyas (Great Wisdoms). Kālī is the primary deity and all others are enfolded within her being. One manifestation rides a crow, is known as "The Smoky One", and embodies the experience of suffering. Yet behind her veil of smoke shines the potential for integrating and reaping the boons of life's difficult times: loss, loneliness, despair. Kālī is the force within your consciousness and Consciousness itself that integrates the darkness which leads to your renewal.
Veils. The archetypal energetic form of "Kālī" cascades down into our human consciousness and manifests across time and different contexts in myths, songs, art, etc. Within India she is envisioned the popular four-armed Dakshina Kālī who wears a necklace of skulls, wildly dances in the nude with her tongue sticking out, has a skirt of severed human hands around her waist, and brandishes in two of her hands a sword plus a bloody severed head. With her other two hands she composes the mudras of "fear not" and granting boons. But there is also Bhadra (auspicious) Kālī who is elegantly majestic and carries among other things a lyre, a lotus, a pestle, and a conch. The experience of Kālī overlaps with the fierce Vajrayogini of Tibet, Sekhmet the Egyptian lioness goddess, and Tiamat the ancient Babylonian goddess who is the embodiment of primordial, chaotic motion. Within the Celtic world we see Kālī energy manifesting as a goddess of storms, "The Cailleach" or Crone...
"Mom, do you know the story of Baba Yaga?" my daughter hollers from the back seat of the car. I don't. She proceeds to tell me a story from Russia of a crone who lives in the dark depths of the forest. She rides in a mortar and pestle! She guards The Waters of Life and Death. She eats people and collects their bones. Her singing causes them to be reborn.
Within the Yogic traditions, the mantra is the sound form of the deity/cosmic power. (The visual form is the yantra and not the anthropomorphic images we know and love!)
Your substance is made up of the fifty letters of the alphabet
In which the qualities of What Is vibrate
Kālī is the power of mantra. She is Shabda Brahman, Ultimate Reality as sound. Each sound of the Sanskrit 50- letter alphabet is an akshara, an indestructible vibratory syllable, which constitutes the building blocks of the universe and all its forms. Visually this is portrayed as Kālī's necklace of 50 skulls, her mundamala. We can harness the eternal archetypal energies embodied in mantras to break down our existing egoic structures, like a spiritual ultrasound, and transmute the stagnant energy locked within. They also attune us to the greater forces and patterns which give rise to forms, our thoughts... our lives.
If mantras are light embodied in the form of sound, Kālī is a "fierce goddess" because her lightning energy erupts from the darkness as a swift strike. These mantras can rapidly purify the subtle body and thus the emotions, creating a ripple effect into our external life. Just trust me on this one! (This is when working with the guidance of a teacher can be very helpful.) As you continue to release energetic blockages the experiences triggered by the mantras become more pure and more ecstatic. Simple mantras for Kālī include "Om Kālī Mā" and "Om kreem Kālīkaye namaha". "Kreem" is the Tantric bija, or seed sound, of Kālī . "K" is the primordial energy of action; "R" is the sound of fire; "I" is the sound of Shakti; and "M" draws one into the state of dissolution. As with all mantric energy work, a clear sense of why you are engaging in it and a purity of intention becomes very important. Then you can "dance with Shakti"!
So! Here we have a wondrous dark Goddess, an archetype of Wholeness, who is the prima materia from which everything emerges and dissolves. She embodies the first movements of primordial Consciousness which creates the dimension of time and time itself collapses within her, as it does into a black hole. Within our psyches, she is the darkness of the unconscious where our latent fears and urges lurk but she is also the capacity within consciousness for the transformation of our psyches so that we can rebuild ourselves anew. She is the collective unconscious which surfaces as our instinct and our intuition. Kālī is Maiden, Mother, and Crone (or Wise Woman as I prefer it!)... and everything in between. She is the liminal state for she is the force of transformation itself. Her energy is seen in the devouring flames of fire which dissolve into smoke and in the awesome electrical forces of lightning. She is the dark face of eternity that embraces all and in whose blackness the Self continues to shine.
And Kālī is a relatively popular image in the West. While most Westerners are not attuned to the deeper meanings and power within the symbol, if nothing else the images of unbridled feminine energy strike a chord, particularly with feminist women. We live in a world where the qualities, labelled feminine, of resonance, intuition, empathy, and connectedness are devalued; where women's voices are stifled; and across the globe many women live under threat just because they are women. As a woman I am angry at the sexist messages I cannot avoid flooding into my daughter's awareness. As a mother I am angry when my daughter asks me if she will die young because the planet is suffering. Kālī is a powerful symbol for us at this time emphasizing our need to face our individual and collective darkness.
In one of India's sacred texts, the Devi Mahatmya, Kālī leaps forth from Durga's brow, to save the world from a powerful demon. Every drop of blood that the demon Raktabija sheds transforms into another demon as it hits the soil. His self-perpetuating blood is symbolic of the illusory desires of life. Kālī laps up the blood with her tongue integrating the fragmented life-force within herself and restoring balance to the world. Kālī, as the supreme feminine power, rages but it is a holy battle to maintain equilibrium and the overall web of life.
I think any parent can relate to this fierce desire to create a more harmonious world for our children. While I've been enchanted with Yoga for many years now, having a child certainly fanned the flames for me. Never has my being been so entwined with someone else's and when I experienced how viscerally my state affected hers and vice versa, I knew I had to clean up my act. So her well-being is a big part of my Yoga. Her name is Lila which was chosen because it means "the play of the universe" in Sanskrit ... but last week I just learnt that her name also means "night" in Hebrew. And that in Arabic it means "companion of the night" or "blue-black twilight". Well, doesn't that just make me smile. We come full circle.
And she is at it again. She zips by as I am typing and proclaims, "When I am feeling all lovey-dovey, like when I am filled with love for you Mom, I just want to do this!", and she smiles as she sticks her tongue right out and begins to quickly jiggle her head and body. I smile. Kālī's dance is the incessant dance of existence, recreating itself through births, deaths, and everything in-between. And fuelling this dance is Love.
I will be giving two chanting evenings in the upcoming months: one on Thursday, Nov. 22 with Transitions NDG. And a evening to dive deep on Dec. 7th co-presented with yoga teacher, Brandee Safran. For more info, click here.
For a very simple Kali mantra, you can check out the free resource page. If you haven't done so already, simply create a username and a password here on the home page at the top.
Here are my "musings" on mantra and sound as a transformative path.