Perhaps the most fundamental problem with the [Western] presentation of Kali lies with the concept of demonisation. It is certainly true that demonisation as a phenomenon occurs repeatedly throughout Indian history, and indeed throughout the histories of all world cultures: objectifying one’s antagonists as the “other” and perceiving them as evil or inhuman is part of a natural human tendency to reify. It is also a fact that Indians who are hostile to the ritual worship of Kali have demo­nised her.

Problematic, how­ever, are claims about specific instances of demonisation, such as the Aryan invasion, destruction, and appropriation of Indus Valley culture in the sec­ond millennium BCE. Recent scholarship has raised doubts as to whether this “invasion” occurred at all or (if it did) in such a uniform manner as was previously believed. Furthermore, it is hard to accept, from the historical point of view, that Kali’s development as a whole, from her beginnings to the modern era, has been characterised by demonisation.

David R Kinsley and others have carefully charted the growth of Hindu beliefs and conceptions about Kali over the course of the last two thousand years, and if there is any progression to be discerned, it is the opposite of demonisation. The femi­nist view is that Kali was degraded from a paradoxical, all-encompassing de­ity, whose votaries understood her as the cosmic embodiment of polarities, to a fragmented, dark, and dangerous goddess, through the wilful intervention of patriarchy; hence the need for a contemporary revaluing of her darkness and a reclamation of her wholeness.

But the historical record in­dicates that portrayals of Kali’s character have generally progressed in the opposite direction – from a minor, bloodthirsty goddess toward a univer­sally compassionate mother.

If one travels to Bengal, one will see the results of this slow transformation: the images of Kali are beautified as much as pos­sible, many of them disguising her nakedness with the dress and ornaments of a domesticated married woman. In short, while individual groups in various regions may indeed have demonised the goddess, and while a few depictions of her still convey a sense of her more horrific side, Kali’s history overall is one of growing benev­olence and increased complexity, rather than purposeful disfigurement and contraction.

An intriguing aside concerns the different perceptions of patriarchy’s re­lation to Kali, depending on one’s cultural point of view. For the most part, Western women writing on Kali have been struck with her fearsome de­meanour, which they have then blamed on patriarchal attitudes. In contrast, women growing up in India, who are daily exposed to a Kali of beautified aspect, a Kali who is the loving mother of all, do not emphasise her dread character. In their opinion, if there is to be any critique of patriarchy, it is the excessive “sweetening” of the goddess that must come under attack, as it has downplayed her more powerful, sexual, independent side.

The issue of the use of history is a point of some contention among femi­nist writers. Some, who are critical of the type of argumentation that blames patriarchy for most modern evils, charge that history is being manipulated to suit present needs. A good example of such a critic is Joan B Townsend; she feels that what is helpful as an idea or a psychological concept is dangerous when claimed to be actual fact.

“My argument is not with the myth and the use of the myth in giving women a new sense of self and of the divine, but with the tendency of some to treat the myth as historical fact.” She presents the view of history outlined by many feminists as a revitalisation movement, with its typical view of time as beginning with a golden age, followed by a calamity, leading to a utopian hope. To her, such a false and oversimplified construc­tion of history is not ultimately beneficial to the women’s movement:

“If we build unity on an alleged goddess of an alleged old religion and matri­archy, it is built on sand. If the sand of basic assumptions is eroded, as it easily can be with careful scholarship, the myth will collapse, and with it may go the unity and strength of the movement associated with the assumptions. There are many such examples in the history of revitalisation movements. For exam­ple, the Ghost Dance of the North American Plains Indians of the 1890s col­lapsed when the buffalo and the dead did not return as promised, and the ghost shirts did not protect the people. They lost faith in the entire movement.”

Behind the problem of historical interpretation is the issue of authority. Who interprets correctly? What status do texts and indigenous traditions have in the reading of history? When the available texts represent such a scanty and unrepresentative a picture of Hindu life over the centuries, es­pecially in regard to the experience of women, who is to say that one imag­inative reconstruction is further from the truth than another?

In the end, the historical critique may not matter in the slightest to the feminist and New Age projects of many authors, as Kali, or any other goddess, transcends the sphere of historical investigation (which may itself be initiated and poi­soned by patriarchy).

For “Kali eludes any attempt to place her in any his­torical, ethnic, or cultural perspective. As a numen of the untamed feminine, the Dark Devi is the embodiment of the powers of women which have been so long suppressed, denigrated, or denied by patriarchy.” But in refusing scholarly accounts of history a legitimate place in the discussion of goddess figures, it would seem that the potential for intimacy and depth is also lost. Is it sufficient, in developing a love relationship with a divine be­ing, just to “take a few minutes of research” to acquaint oneself with her characteristics? From the standpoint of devotionalism, a thorough investi­gation into the many backgrounds of the beloved in her land of origin would be a true sign of love and reverence.

Postcard of Kali, purchased in Calcutta, 1992. Courtesy of David R Kinsley.
Postcard of Kali, purchased in Calcutta, 1992. Courtesy of David R Kinsley.

A second difficulty encountered in many Western writings about the god­dess Kali pertains to their treatment of Indian women. Although Hindu women are not typically the main subject of feminist narratives on goddess spirituality, insofar as they have suffered from the same patriarchal process that demonised their female deities, they are of substantial interest.

As stated above, many Western assumptions about the experience and oppression of women in India are true. But as Frédérique Apffel Marglin argues in her article “Female Sexuality in the Hindu World,” “Westerners’ understand­ing of female sexuality in the Hindu world has been strongly coloured by cul­tural meanings from Western traditions. All too often, familiar meanings have been projected onto less familiar cultural facts. The Hindu world is com­plex.” Marglin goes on to provide a complement to the perception that Hindus (especially Hindu men) see their women as dangerous and impure, owing to their association with blood and sexuality, by bringing forward the equally important Hindu concept of auspiciousness.

As opposed to the polarity of purity and impurity, which can serve to justify male domination over polluting womanhood, the scale of auspiciousness and inauspiciousness ranks women more positively. Auspiciousness is the power of life and is non­-hierarchical; not only do women embody this quality but so also do men­struation and intercourse. Hence, there are attitudes native to Hindu India that strongly affirm women.

Others writing in this vein point to the independence and respect ac­corded to women in the various devotional traditions of India, the fact that men are often seen as deliverers and rescuers within the context of a Hindu woman’s life, and the fundamental difference between East and West regarding the value of equality. Finally, we have the assumption on the part of many Western feminists that the discovery of Kali as a liberating model for women is of universal relevance. Some Indian feminists do not find this an attractive point of view, fearing that a close identification between women and goddesses may lead to a dehumanisation that denies the real needs of real women – especially Indian women.

Excerpted with permission from “The Western Kali”, by Rachel Fell McDermott, from Devi: The Goddesses of India, edited by John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, Aleph Book Company.