Kaal, Kaali / eternity, Identity
SALIMULLAH KHAN answers five questions on Maa Kaali, the goddess who devours time to demonstrate the undemonstratable – 'natural time', and examines the shifting narrative through which she has been seen, shown devotion, and turned into a political symbol.
Depart: The pre-Boidic (Vedic)-era deity Kaali problamitizes the whole spectrum of modernist narratives when it reappears as a living goddess at the end of the eighteenth century as a naked shoshancharini (one who treads the funeral ground), and also as a symbol of matritva or motherhood, as is portrayed in the shakto padaabali or shaakto verses from that era. Do you feel that she signifies the burgeoning force of resistance against the colonial rule – represented solely by white Europeans.
Does she license a reclamation of the tribal on the part of the shakto worshipers as they, through their practices, lend primacy to her over the white-skinned Durga?
What is she as a religious icon? Is her blackness only about transcending time? Or is she about a politico-cultural imaginary that signposts a departure from the consensus truths and established norms?
Salimullah Khan: The idiom 'resistance to (or against) colonial rule' begs a number of questions, namely: first, who is it that resists. Who is this subject supposed to resist colonial rule? Secondly, what is colonial rule and, not least, what does one do when one resists. I would therefore invite you to read Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya, a founder of the 'nationalist discourse' in colonial India.
For Bankimchandra, his fellow-travellers and his followers in colonial India, colonialism was defined as Muslim rule that began early in the 13th century. To wit, Kamalakanta Chakravorty, a character supposed to be Bankimchandra's secret-self, discourses:
'From the year 1203, I have been counting my days. From the day seventeen horsemen won Bengal over, I have been counting the days. Alas! How long shall I keep counting! As I count, days turn into months, then months into years, and years into centuries; even centuries I have counted seven times. Why has fate not sent to me that for which I have been blue? Where is the fortune I wish to see restored? Where is the humanity I wish to see restored? Where is the spirit of one nation I want to see restored?'
As you will see, constructing an identity for the nation, that is to say for the colonial subject, has to be an 'unorthodox' task, fraught with peril. Tapan Raychaudhuri, for instance, has argued that though Bankimchandra's construction of the identity of the nation on the idea of the mother is taken from the repertoire of the Hindu religious ideology, it is a highly 'unorthodox' construction. In Vedic ideology, as Rabindranath Tagore, leader of the Adi Brahma Dharma, prominently noted, India that is the Aryavarta has always been taken as fatherland instead. (R. Thakur, Banglabhasha-Parichoi, Calcutta: Bishvabharati, reprint, 1969)
In Bankimchandra's Ananda Math the nation identified as the country is represented then as the mother. Whether she is mother-Bengal or mother-India is not yet settled, though. Consequently, it is as her children only that these poor subjects are supposed to know colonial rule. This construction is something new. Bankimchandra himself testifies to that. In Ananda Math the song Bande Maataram is sung first by Bhavaananda. Mahendra, who walking by his side, confusedly asks, 'Who is this mother'?
Mahendra is then ushered in to an underground temple, located somewhere in the jungles of Birbhum. He is presented to an idol which is remarkably, as Sudipta Kaviraj remarks, 'different from any that practising Hindus could have actually worshipped.' (S. Kaviraj, The Unhappy Consciousness, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995, p.138)
Mahendra could, in a remarkable mise en scène, see a monumental image of four arms, carrying shankha, chakra, gada and padma, with the emerald kaustabha adorning the chest; the wheel shudarsana placed as though spinning in front. Two large severed heads, blood-spattered, placed in front representing Madhu and Kaitabha. To the left stood Laksmi, with her hair let down, with a garland of lotuses, but apparently frightened; to the right, Sar asvati, surrounded by the book, musical instruments and figures of the ragas and raginis. On the lap of Bishnu or Visnu was marvelous formshe was more beautiful than Laksmi and Saraswati, with more grandeur than either. The gandharvas, kinnaras, gods, yakshas and demons were worshipping her.
The hermit spoke to Mahendra in a very solemn, very awed voice: 'Can you see everything?'
'Yes,' said Mahendra.
'Have you seen the figure on the lap of Visnu?'
'I have; who is she?'
'Who is mother?'
'She is the mother whose children we all are.'
'Who is she?'
'You will recognize her when the time comes for you. Now, say, Bande Mataram (hail mother). Come along and watch.
Then the hermit led Mahendra into a second chamber. There Mahendra saw athe wonderful figure, of Jagaddhatri (world-mother), rich in every limb, decorated with every possible ornament. Mahendra asked: 'Who is she?'
'What our mother used to be.'
'What is that?'
'She has tamed the animals of the forests, the elephants and the lions, and in their habitat she had established her own abode. She is adorned with ornaments, laughing, beautiful. She is gifted with all the riches of the earth, the colour of the rising sun. Bow to her.'
Mahendra bowed with great emotion to the motherland in the form of the Jagaddatri, and the hermit showed him a darker tunnel and said, 'Come this way.' The hermit led the way and Mahendra followed in trepidation. In a chamber deep under the ground, there as some strange source of meager light. In the faint light he saw an image of Kaali.
The hermit said, 'Look, what our mother has become.'
Mahendra whispered in fear, 'Kâli.'
'Kaalicovered with darkness, consummated in black. She has been robbed of everything; that is why she is nude. Today the whole country is a graveyard; that is why our mother has a garland of bones, dead skulls. She is trampling her own welfare under her feet. Alas!'
Tears streamed down the hermit's eyes. Why does she have a sword and scythe in her hands, Mahendra asked.
'We are her children, we have given her these weapons. Say, Bande Maataram. Mahendra said Bande Maataram and bowed to the Kaali idol. The hermit said, 'Come this way', and started climbing a second tunnel.
Suddenly their eyes were dazzled by rays of the morning sun. Sweet singing of the birds sounded on all sides. They saw a ten-armed golden idol in the middle of a marble temple, laughing in light of the morning sun. The hermit bowed to her and said: 'This is what our mother will become. Ten arms are spread in ten directions; in each a different weapon, symbol of a different power, her enemy sprawled defeated at her feet, the lion she rides on mauling her adversary. Arms spread in different directions …' Satyananda, speaking in a deep throat, was overcome with tears. 'Arms spread in all directions, carrying various weapons, overpowering enemies, rising on the lion, fate as Laksmi on the right, on the left Sarasvati the giver of knowledge and science, accompanied by Kartikeya, the symbol of strength, and Ganesa, symbol of success. Come let us bow to the mother.' Then both of them looked upwards, and sang with folded hands:
'Sarvamangala-mangalye shive sarvaartha-saadike
Sharanye tryamvake gauree naaraayanee namohstu te.'
When they got up after bowing to her with great devotion, Mahendra – choked with emotion – asked, 'When shall we see mother in this form?”
The hermit answered, 'The day all her children would call her their mother, she will be pleased with us.' (Sudipta Kaviraj's translation, modified)
A quarter-century later, as the united province of Bengal was partitioned by the colonial state on its own political grounds, the unorthodox identity of the mother began to display her true, orthodox colours. Revolutionary 'nationalists' (often called 'terrorists') began actually to argue that the Muslims of Bengal, and other reluctant communities for that matter, should be forced to be free, to become children of this mother. Bipinchandra Pal, a leader of the extremists, actually used this Rousseau-sounding idiom. One can hardly understand the contradictions of Indian nationalism without an appreciation of such elementary aspects of religious life.
Is the tradition of being divisive over the worshipping of the two deities – Durga and Kaali – embedded in the scriptural tradition of India or the discourses of the past, as we know that at the beginning Kaali was eternally single, Audaito – without any sharik?
In Bengal, as is known, the tradition of worshipping the goddess Durga itself is an invented tradition, something no older than the transition to Turko-Afghan rule in the 13th and 14th centuries. I assert this on the authority of Bankimchandra himself.
Traditionally, worshippers of Kaali, devotees of shakti that is, constituted the majority of the Hindus in Bengal. In addition, Islam was taking root in Bengal. Chaitanya's new religion was not able to stem the spread of Islam. It is against this ground that Bankimchandra's attempt to construct a new Nation in the late nineteenth-century must be seen.
In attempting to historicize the nation as mother, that is to say integrate Kaali and Durga in one maternal symbol, Bankim imagined a new community of children. His success was at best partial. While Bankim's goddess remained a new Durga, revolutionary 'terrorists' became worshippers of a new Kaali. The road to hell, it seems now, was paved with Bankimchandra's best intentions.
Bankimchandra did not provide for Muslims within the new nation. Not only that. Instead of new European oppressors, old feudal conquerors of the country, who happened to be Muslims, were depicted as constituting the principal contradiction. The English were portrayed as strategic allies of the Hindu Nation.
In addition to that Bankimchandra, in consonance with the dominant ideology, was ambivalent about the relationship between Bengal and the Delhi-centered state. While European education taught him that a modern nation needs a basis in the people, i.e., the peasantry, he was also anxious about maintaining a hegemony or consent-based dominance over that peasantry. This anxiety at least in part explains what led revolutionary terrorists in the anti-partition movement of 1905 to adopt Bande Maataram, that famous battle cry from Bankimchandra's song.
Why was a song composed partly in Sanskrit, by a man who was an ardent advocate of high populism in politics destined to become the national song of India?
What is the relationship with the cult of Bhakti shadhana of Bengal with that of the 'Kaali, the apocalyptic vision' – one that invokes an unbounded spirit of destruction and annihilation to ensure a new beginning? Would we be mistaken if we draw a conclusion that Kaali represents both the strands of Bengal – one of Bhakti and the other of Shakti?
In pre-Afghan Bengal, Buddhism for a while became the dominant religion. The Pala rulers of Bengal were patrons of Buddhism. The decline of the Pala power after the tenth century was blow to Buddhism in Bengal and beyond Bengal proper.
But, as Prof Satis Chandra notes, even more serious were the developments within Buddhism itself. Though Buddha preached a practical philosophy, with a minimum of priesthood and speculation about God, a departure is noticeable from the doctrines of Buddha. Worshipping now became more elaborate. As Satish Chandra puts it, the belief grew that a worshipper could attain what he desired by uttering mantras or magical words, and making various kinds of mystical gestures. 'They also believed that by these practices, and by various kinds of austerities and secret rites, they could attain supernatural powers, such as the power to fly in the air, to become invisible, to see things at distance, etc.' (S Chandra, History of Medieval India: 800-1700, Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2008).
Many Hindu yogis also adopted these practices, Goraknath being the most famous among them. Many of these yogis belonged to the lower castes. They denounced the caste system and the privileges claimed by the Brahmans. The path they preached was called tantra which was open to all, irrespective of caste distinctions. This is the old path of shakti.
In South India, the Bhakti movement of the saints was also a popular movement. It took place between the seventh to the twelfth centuries. It took place in response to the revival of Brahmanic religion. Both of these movements had one common denominator; they were anti-caste religions.
In the south, the Bhakti movement was led by a series of popular saints called Nayanmars and Alvars. They rejected austerity. They looked upon religion as a living bond between the god and the worshipper. The chief objects of their worship were Siva and Vishnu. They spoke and wrote in Tamil, the language which everyone could understand.
Almost all of them disregarded inequalities of caste, though they did not try to oppose the caste system as such. The lower castes had been excluded from Vedic scholarship and Vedic worship. The path of bhakti advocated by these saints was open to all, irrespective of caste.
The transmission of bhakti from the south to the north has been a slow and long drawn-out process. The two saints were from Maharashtra, both Namadeva of early fourteenth century and Ramananda of late 14th and early 15th centuries. Ramananda played a key role in this process. Ramananda is said to have substituted Rama in place of Visnu as object of worship, taught bhakti to all the four varnas, and disregarded the ban on people of all castes cooking together and sharing meals. He enrolled disciples from all castes. Ravidas the cobbler, Kabir the weaver, Sena the barber and Sadhana the butcher all counted among Ramananda's disciples. The movements, challenging the caste system and the hegemony of the Brahmans, gained as a result in popularity.
These developments coincided historically with the defeat of the Rajput ruling classes and establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in north India. Islamic ideas of equality and popular solidarity (brotherhood) preached by the Sufi saints also gained in popularity. This led to a two-fold development in turn. While saints like Kabir were preaching a doctrine of Hindu Muslim unity, it would be naïve to think that orthodox elements in both Brahmanism and Islam gave up the struggle.
The appropriation of bhakti and shakti in neo-Brahmanical ideology has been part of that historical reaction. The case of Kaali precisely testifies to that. It is in this sense that there lies a road from Ramprasad Sen's shakto tradition in the eighteenth century to Ramkrishna's bhakti movement in the nineteenth century. It is no coincidence that Ramkrishna the priest began his career as a Kaali worshipper.
How do you connect the linguistic representation of Kaali in the popular domain with that of the religious or theologized versions of her? Does she – by refusing to be aesthetically pleasing – stand for eternity, negation, and most of all, what the Kotha-upanishad refers to as Abaktya or 'the un-manifested'?
The received interpretation of Kaali as signifying the goddess of darkness notwithstanding, I would suggest we note also the other semantic fields that the word Kaali functions in. Kaali in Bangla also means a measure of 'space or area' as well as a manifestation of time itself. As in certain philosophical traditions of modern Europe, time is the figure of the un-manifested (prakriti), and being the manifested (purusha). Thus sometimes the un-manifested is also accorded a lower rank in the order dominated by purusha.
After the seventh century revival and expansion of Brahmanism in north India took many forms. Siva and Vishnu became the chief gods and magnificent temples were built to proclaim their supremacy. It was in this process that local gods and goddesses, including the deities of the pre-Aryans or 'tribals', were subordinated or made consorts of the chief gods. In Bengal proper and around, the consorts of gods – Tara the consort of Buddha, Durga and Kaali, the consort of Siva, became themselves the chief idols of worship.
The image of Kaali demonstrates a remarkable stability, though, through the vestiges of time. It does survive from the misty past of folklore to the firm terrain of modern history. Rituals, as Sumanta Banerjee wrote, originally intended to influence nature or overcome the fear of death or disease, do not necessarily die out when rational means of controlling nature or overcoming such fear are developed. (S Banerjee, Logic in a popular form: Essays on popular religion in Bengal, Calcutta: Seagull, 2002, p 57).
Taking the cue from a talk you gave, we are curious about how you still look at the black goddess Kaali in relation to Black Athena? Do you have any observations on how erroneous the claim is of the Europeans about their civilization, which assumes the Greek civilization as its beginning, solely basing their narrative on Eurocentric epistemology? Martin Gardiner Bernal seems to have attempted a demystification of such an arbitrary claim, what is your take on the issue?
Martin Bernal argues the case of Black Athena as proof that the Greek world is not free from Egyptian and Phoenician influences. Thus he wants to undermine the myth of exclusive Aryan origin of the Greek civilization. Bernal's claims have been much disputed, even much maligned but no one could give an alternative explanation of Athena's blackness. In India, Kaali's blackness has not been denied, though there are aspects of mythology which tries to attribute to her an occasional desire to make her 'fair and lovely.'
Europeans may be wrong in claiming the Aryan origin of the Greeks, for that leaves too many things unexplained, Black Athena being most prominent of them. In Indian nationalist discourse, that imaginary integration of Kaali and Durga in one mother-to-be, as we have seen in Bankimchandra, stands in the older tradition of integrating both of them with the god Shib or Siva. That is a process of metonymy, of displacement, of horizontal integration.
The representation of the people-nation as children of a mother is a metaphor which works. However, representing the mother then as a Hindu goddess, Durga in this case, does not quite work out. This is a metonymy too. But it is itself founded on a metaphor.
Bankimchandra suffered from what Roman Jakobson calls contiguity disorder, that is an aspect of aphasia where the subject fails to appreciate horizontal formations of language. (R. Jakobson and M Halle, Fundamentals of Language, The Hague, 1956)
On the contrary Rabindranath Tagore suffered from a somewhat similar disorder, named, by the way, similarity disorder. But that lies beyond the limits of this exchange. I am elaborating on this in a paper soon to be published.
SALIMULLAH KHAN is a scholar and writer whose influential publications include 'Jacques Lacan Bidyalay, vols 1 and 2' (2006, 2008), 'Shotya, Saddam Hossain o Srajerdoula' (2007), 'Adamboma' (2009), 'Eqbalnama: Silence on Crimes of Power' (2009), and 'Ahmad Sofa Shanjibani' (2010).