In veneration of Nallur's Vira Ma Kali
by Romesh Jayaratnam
(August 17, Colombo, Kandy , Sri Lanka Guardian) Existence is one according to Hindu Advaita philosophy. The conceptual categories of space and time lead to a relative plurality around us. Divinity is one with several manifestations according to Vedanta.
The Goddess Kali represents one aspect of divinity. Often situated on the margins of high Hinduism, she remains much sought after by those in distress. Her petitioners include women and men in all walks of life, throughout the Hindu world, be it in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Singapore, Sri Lanka or elsewhere. Kali negates conventional day to day morality and responds to the instinctive pleas of the dispossessed, the sidelined and victims of injustice. She is the solace for those who have no option where all else has failed. In short, she is the last resort for a person in need of a respite during the harsh trials and tribulations of life.
Her immediate direct response to the pleas of the injured and the defeated explains her immense popularity be it in the beautiful three-roofed pagoda built in traditional Newari architecture dedicated to Sweta Kali in the Naradevi quarter of Kathmandu, the temple of Dhakeswari, possibly built by Arakan-Burmese nobility in what is today Dhaka or the Veera Maha Kali temple in Nallur, built by a king in pre-colonial Jaffna.
The prototype of the Goddess Kali emerges in the early Neolithic agrarian settlements of highland Baluchistan that date back to 6000 BCE. Archeologists have excavated female figurines made of baked clay displaying grim skull-like faces evidently designed to evoke terror. These proto-historic settlements were the precursors of the Indus valley civilization in the Indian subcontinent. The Rig Veda alludes to a dark Goddess referred to as Nirriti. The Mundakopanishad identified Kali with one of Agni's seven flaming tongues while the post-Vedic Kataka Grihyasutra recommends that Kali be invoked during the marriage ceremony. Early Tamil literature of the 2nd century CE refers to Korravai, the fierce patron Goddess of the arid parched tracts of land in South India with its war-like Maravar inhabitants.
Chapters 81 to 93 of the Markendeya Purana of the 5th or 6th century CE, known today as the Devimahatmaya, celebrate the feminine divinity in the broader sense of the word. I quote one remarkable verse often repeated in Kali temples:
'Remembered in distress, you remove fear from every person
Remembered by the untroubled, you confer even greater serenity of mind.Dispeller of poverty, suffering and fear, who other than you is ever intent on benevolence towards all?'
The fearsome Goddess once situated on the edges of civilization was gradually recast to a protective redemptive role and a saving grace in the face of adversity. This accounts for the popularity of the Goddess Kali down the centuries.
The awe-striking Goddess of the village and of high tradition represents different strands of the same thread. This was to peak much later in the works of the Bengali savant Ramprasad of the 1700s CE who sang:
'O mind, you do not know how to farm!
Fallow lies the field of your life.
If you had only worked it well,
How rich a harvest you might reap!
Hedge it about with Kali's name
If you would keep your harvest safe:
This is the stoutest hedge of all,
For death himself cannot come near it'.
There appears to be a feminist subtext beneath the veneration of the Goddess Kali. In contrast to other religions, Hinduism provides for the depiction of the supreme godhead in the feminine gender. Unfortunately, this representation of female divinity often co-existed with the subordination of women in social life. It nonetheless represented a certain promise, often unrealized, that women were no less than men.
Kali did not derive Her power or authority from any male consort. Her iconography and religious practice refused to concede male conceptions of propriety, hierarchy and restraint. Her strength lay in a directness of approach, not to mention an immediacy of succor provided to the subjugated and vanquished.
As Sri Aurobindo put it in the early 20th century, all movement, all activity are expressions of Her one movement which in this universe is directed towards the fulfillment of creation.
While the widespread appeal of the Goddess is unmistakable, some in Sri Lanka, not all Tamils, propriate her with animal sacrifice. This makes one uncomfortable. One has no right to take life unless it be in self-defense. To do so is to incur bad karma that would result in future suffering in samsara i.e. the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. We have an imperative therefore to reform Tamil Hindu religious devotion.
Far more appropriate would be the veneration of the Goddess by helping the poor, the dispossessed and the weak, her core set of devotees. Tamil Hindus should consider thoughtful vows that include philanthropy, providing health care for the poverty-stricken, alms for the indigent or feeding the destitute in lieu of the senseless sacrifice of helpless animals while worshiping Kali. One can even consider paying the legal fees of a poor litigant in court desperately in need of judicial remedy. Tamil Hindus need a sense of social responsibility to those less fortunate.
A Tamil language classic dated by many to the 5th century CE in-fact asserts:
'Give to the poor and become praiseworthy.
Life offers no greater reward than this'
[Tirukural verse 231]
I conclude this offering to Kali with with another quote from the Devi Mahatmaya:
'Salutations be to you, Narayani, who are the good of all good, the auspicious one; to you who accomplish every intent; to you the refuge, the all knowing and shining Gauri!
May the supreme Goddess Vira Ma Kali ever protect and bless Jaffna.