Archives For Kali Ma

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

Namaste, Wild Hunt readers! Many thanks to Jason for his invitation to bring some perspective on a subject that is more and more relevant – the issue of worshipping Hindu deities as a Pagan.

As the Pagan community grows, so do the various approaches to deity and ritual. While much of the Pagan world is involved in creating new traditions, reconstructing ancient ones, and everything in between, there are more and more Pagans who are drawn to living traditions such as the various African diasporic religions, Buddhism, and Hinduism. These practitioners typically want to maintain their basic philosophy and approach to religion, which often allows them to worship many deities in a spontaneous, eclectic way, and allows them to connect with many different Gods and Goddesses, while also incorporating deities or practices they find themselves drawn to.

One of the issues that comes up when this happens is appropriation. Cultural appropriation happens when someone from one culture borrows symbols, rituals, and practices from another culture without fully understanding the context, meaning, and complexity of those things, and then passes them off as one’s own, or uses their own interpretations and then passes them off as “authentic.” This becomes especially problematic when dealing with interactions between members of cultures with historical roots in colonialism, slavery, and exploitation.

With Hinduism, we often see Gods and Goddesses appropriated to give an “exotic” feel to a product, and in a religious sense when someone wants to worship a Hindu deity, but believes that their personal interpretation and experience of the deity is all that matters, and use pop cultural knowledge to essentialize these deities (i.e. Ganesha is reduced to a “remover of obstacles,” or Lakshmi becomes a “money goddess”). While putting a Hindu deity on a T-shirt isn’t so culturally offensive like putting one on a toilet seat is, plenty of my fellow Hindus are rightfully upset about the various appropriations of our religion, as it often betrays a simple disrespect or ignorance of Hindu culture and Indian history and philosophy, or a sense of entitlement to colonize and appropriate important symbols and deities.

From my own experience talking to and teaching people in the Pagan community about Hindu worship and deity, I have seen how paralyzing the fear of cultural appropriation can be, and I’ve also seen plenty of positive and negative sycretism. Some people feel drawn to these deities, but don’t know where to begin, and don’t want to step on any toes while they’re learning, so they never pursue it. I’ve seen plenty of neo-Pagans doing a great job at respectfully approaching Hindu deities and incorporating Hindu worship into their own with some amount of care and respect. At the same time, I’ve also seen a few neo-Pagans worship Hindu deities with some bravado, and have seen and heard about some rituals that are at best ignorant and at worst blatantly disrespectful of Hindu traditions and culture.

So what does it mean to worship a Hindu deity? Can you worship a Hindu deity if you are not Indian or Hindu? If you can, what does it require? I’ve run into a lot of spoken (and unspoken) misconceptions in the Pagan community around these questions, and I’d like to share some of my own perspective by debunking three common myths. You’ll also find this discussion relevant to approaching other living traditions.

Myth #1: You have to be Hindu to worship Hindu deities.

There are some very orthodox Hindus who believe that you have to be an Indian to be a Hindu, and there are many temples that bar entrance to non-Hindus (generally meaning non-Indians, but that can also mean those of low-caste, or who have any known non-Hindu ancestry). But there are also plenty of Hindus who believe that it’s what is in your heart that makes you a Hindu, not your nationality or the color of your skin. Hinduism at its best is incredibly accepting of many ways of knowing Truth. There are also plenty of temples that welcome people from all religions to worship the deities housed there, with a recognition that no one can put a limit on God, or on the human heart.

So, you don’t have to be Hindu to worship Hindu deities, but you do have to have respect for Hindu traditions and culture if you decide to become a devotee of a particular deity.

For example, I am a student of classical Indian music, and I can relate to you countless examples of Muslim music masters who were devout Muslims, but nevertheless worshipped Hindu deities, often through heartfelt religious songs and Sanskrit prayers. In the same way, if you are a neo-Pagan and you feel drawn to a Hindu deity, it’s important to learn the ways in which that deity is worshipped, so that you can be respectful to the tradition from which it comes.

Learning how to do a simple puja (worship ritual) and sing a couple of simple traditional songs is a good first step. Learning from a qualified teacher within the tradition is a great way to deepen your knowledge and practice, and there are a number of books, free videos, articles, and even email listservs that can help you with the basics. The best way to respectfully incorporate worship of Hindu deities into your own Pagan worship is to put in the time and energy to learn how they are worshipped traditionally.

Myth #2: You have to learn Sanskrit to worship Hindu deities.

I hear this one a lot! Hindu deities are worshipped with Sanskrit, and in order to develop your worship, you should learn a few basic Sanskrit prayers (mantras) to offer to your chosen deity. This is both a sign of devotion to your deity, as well as a sign of respect for the tradition.

But the fact is, most Hindus, regardless of nationality, don’t know Sanskrit beyond the basic chants and mantras they have learned from going to temples or performing simple worship in their own home, and history is full of saints who worshipped deities with ecstatic poetry and songs in their own native language. And most Hindus have small shrines in their homes where they offer very regular, very simple worship.

Sanskrit has two levels of power – the meaning of a given word or phrase, and the vibration created when spoken. Some mantras cannot be translated, but are purely spoken for their vibrational power. Even if you don’t know the meaning of a mantra, speaking it will evoke the power and blessing of the deity for which it was formulated hundreds or thousands of years ago. Thus, it’s important to learn some Sanskrit in order to perform basic worship, both to honor the tradition and to honor the deity properly. But you need not learn the entire language. Just learn the mantras you need to worship your deity, and learn them well so that you can infuse them with your devotion.

Myth #3: I can worship this deity any way I want, because it’s all about my relationship with them, and what I intuit.

This is a tricky one. Intuition is important when working with any deity, but what we see when we look at a symbol (including representation of deity) is informed by our own cultural information. Cultural appropriation happens most egregiously when we adopt symbols from other cultures, and then reassign meaning without regard to their original meaning or purpose. This is why the sacred texts and reputable gurus and teachers are important – they help us to understand the deeper meaning of mantra and ritual, contextualize symbols and experiences, and help us learn how to listen to our highest selves in more meaningful ways.

When we look at the Goddess Kali, for instance, one might see a terrifying Goddess of death and destruction. In fact, many in the Pagan community misconstrue and appropriate Kali as a Crone Goddess, emphasize Her as destroyer even while acknowledging Her role as creator, or essentialize Her as a Goddess of transformation. But this would be a terrible misconception of this Goddess who embodies but is also beyond Maiden, Mother and Crone (in fact, She is nothing less than Infinite Being), who is understood as benevolent and loving in West Bengal, where some of Her most famous temples are, as well as in Kerala, Assam, Bihar, and elsewhere throughout India.

To say it more succinctly, Hindu deities don’t exist without Hinduism. Hinduism doesn’t exist without community. So the best way to understand Hindu deities and offer respectful worship is to actually understand Hinduism and Hindu culture by participating in it. If you haven’t had the benefit of being raised in a Hindu culture, that means you’ll have to spend some time learning about it.

Although it’s uncomfortable to talk about, I also find that there are a surprising number of white Pagans who are afraid to visit Indian temples because they are afraid of being the only white people, not because they are worried about religious differences. This is an important fear to acknowledge and confront, because it goes to the heart of the cultural appropriation problem. If you can’t worship a Hindu deity in the midst of Indian Hindus, if you can’t be yourself and make friends in a community of people who share your devotion to this deity, then how can you claim to really respect the deity and the culture? If you feel uncomfortable, then good! That means you’re probably ready to learn something! Not just about the worship and the community, but about yourself, which is part of both the Hindu and the Pagan journey toward Truth.

I’ll say it again: Hindu deities are not separate from Hindu culture, and have been worshipped in much the same way for thousands of years. Learn and respect the path!

I now consider myself a Hindu, but I have been a practitioner of Goddess spirituality for nearly 20 years, and I started firmly rooted in the Pagan community. I’m also not Indian – I’m of European descent – and so being a Hindu and running a very small Hindu Goddess temple constantly challenges me to learn more and interact fully with the culture and the traditions from which the Hindu tradition comes. But I’m grateful for the generosity and good will of those who have shared their knowledge and their traditions with me, which includes my gurus, teachers, and friends. And I’m committed to helping people of all faiths learn more about respectful, traditional worship in a way that is simple and straightforward for the average devotee.

My own temple is explicitly a Hindu Shakta Tantric temple, and we welcome anyone from any path who wishes to come and worship the Goddess. We also offer a number of articles and a podcast to help both Hindus and non-Hindus learn more about the deeper meanings of deity and worship. There are also plenty of Indo-Pagan groups out there, and you may find that someone has already forged a path that speaks to your own desire to worship Hindu deities within a Pagan context. And finally, Hindu temples are generally welcoming to non-Hindus, as long as you are a respectful devotee. Dress conservatively, and if you don’t know what to do or how to worship, just ask someone to help you. Human beings are generally helpful and generous creatures when asked sincerely, and Hindus are no exception.

Even if you don’t worship Hindu deities, if you feel drawn to deities from a living tradition that is from a culture other than your own, the guidelines above – learn the worship from a qualified teacher, learn the basic prayers, engage in the community of devotees – are good ones to follow. I hope that this has been helpful, and I look forward to seeing the discussion develop!

Of all the Hindu goddesses, the image of Kali is perhaps the most well-known by those who know virtually nothing else about Hinduism. She’s been invoked and adopted by countless modern Pagans in America, sometimes with little to no knowledge of the religion or culture she sprung from, a fact occasionally satirized by Pagan humorists. In addition, she has become part of America’s cultural (and subcultural) short-hand in invoking an “exotic” Indian other (along with Ganesha and the dancing Shiva). However, as Hindus in America start to gain more political and economic clout and confidence, there’s been a push-back against appropriation and uses of Hindu imagery that they find offensive and demeaning. Take, for example, the recent case of the “Kali Mints”.

“Hindu leader, Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada, said inappropriate usage of Hindu deities or concepts for commercial or other agenda was not okay as it hurt the devout. Zed, who is president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, stressed that the goddess Kali is revered highly in Hinduism and is meant to be worshipped in temples and not used for selling mints.”

What’s so offensive about these mints? Let’s take a look at the product.

“Kali is a Hindu goddess that represents death, destruction, time and change. And what food comes to mind when you think of death, destruction, time and change? Curry! These exotic spice mints are great on their own or as an accompaniment to basmati rice and garlic naan.”

Not a lot of reverence or respect there. One could see how a Hindu group might take this product the wrong way (though I don’t think it’s nearly as offensive as that episode of Supernatural). Now, I’m not calling for my readers to boycott Accoutrements, or even write them a letter; but I do think this should raise some interesting questions about how our culture uses Hindu images and entities in our entertainment and marketing. Where should Pagans, and especially Indo-Pagans or those who profess to follow an Indian/Hindu god or goddess, stand on this issue? How do we balance our freedom of expression with respect for the culture and history that produced the gods, ritual, and rites many of us honor?

Meanwhile, a story out of India shows just how different attitudes are concerning the goddess Kali.

“The houses of this village have no doors, yet its residents don’t feel the lack of protection as they believe goddess Kali watches over them. What’s more, no thefts have been reported here for many years.  ”It may be surprising for an outsider, but for us it has become a tradition. We have been living without doors from time immemorial,” Sajeevan Pal, 75, a farmer and resident, told IANS.  Singipur is on the outskirts of Allahabad district, some 200 km from the state capital Lucknow. Thatched, mud and cemented houses all exist in the village, but they share a common feature – not having the provisions of doors for its 140-odd houses.  Locals have a strong belief that goddess Kali protects their homes and would even punish those who attempt robbery or theft.”

One wonders what the villagers of Singipur, where Kali protects their door-less homes, would think of curry-flavored “Kali Mints”. Would they be flattered? Amused? Or would they find it sacrilegious and offensive? What do you think? Should we care about Kali Mints?

My mother died early last Friday morning.  She was 97.  Her body was worn out, but not her spirit.  I’ve had the privilege of sitting vigil with the dying in the past, and I was with my father during his dying days in a hospital 19 years ago, but this was the first time I’d ever been with someone dying of old age.  Besides, one’s relationship with one’s mother is the closets and in most cases the most complicated.  It certainly was in our case.

Named Elizabeth, called Betty by our father and her friends, our mother tended towards formality. She was a woman who knew her own mind, held strong opinions, and believed that women should have equal educational and professional opportunities with men.  Unfortunately, she didn’t live in an era when this was the case.  So instead of being an executive, a role I think would have suited her temperament and talents perfectly, she became a homemaker.
She came from a line of Methodist ministers.  Her maternal grandfather, Alpha Gilruth Kynett, preached a conservative form of Protestantism, more conservative than most Methodists today are known to be.  Mother saw life in black and white, right and wrong, good and bad.  There was only one way to look at anything, the one dictated by the King James Bible and middle class Euro-American society.  She believed in Heaven and Hell, in salvation and atonement and reunion in God’s Heaven with those who’ve gone before. 
I’m a Pagan, with a less certain but more holistic view of the world and how it operates.  I also consider myself to be a Priestess of the Dark Mother, a death priestess, a midwife of souls.
For as long as the human race — the one race, that comes in different sizes, shapes and colors, like birds and fishes, dogs and cats — has been around, people have contemplated the puzzlement of death.  When we can clearly see that the mysterious energy that animated our loved one has left a body and an empty husk remains, we have wondered where that soul has gone.
A few people have had a glimpse of that place.  They’ve survived NDEs (near death experiences).  Their descriptions after they return to this plane of existence vary, but most commonly they speak of white light or a bright tunnel. Some speak of seeing departed loved ones, seeing Jesus with open arms, or even, for a small percentage, seeing horrors.
I don’t believe anyone, other than someone who’s undergone an NDE, who tells me she or he knows what happens when life leaves.  We just don’t know.  Or maybe we don’t remember.  Some of us may claim with “crippling certainty” to know.  Some of us have stories of the worlds beyond the veil of the world of the living.  We often speak in metaphors.  The question remains:  Where do we go?  Another question is:  Does it really matter?  I don’t know if it does not not, but I know people will continue to contemplate this.
When our mother took a bad fall in her early 90s, the hospital released her to a “convalescent hospital,”  For the first week or two she was pretty out of it.  I brought a painting from her house to hang on the wall at the foot of the bed.  It’s a large oil of Jesus as fisher of men casting a net from a boat on the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus is oddly alone in the boat.  She and our father bought this painting in their retirement years from an artist on the Ocean City, NJ boardwalk.  Mom loved it.  She proudly displayed it over the living room couch.  So I thought that since she couldn’t walk without aid and would probably be spending a lot of time in bed, and she couldn’t see all that well either, having this familiar painting to view would give her comfort.  She had been declining both physically and mentally for some years at this point.  She believed in Jesus and the resurrection of the soul after death.
When my former husband, Rod, was dying of cancer, we hung a painting of Kurukulla (Red Tara) at the foot of his bed, in the West, the direction towards which many Pagans understand the soul to travel.  West is where the Sun sets.  Our daughter, then 12, stood at the foot of the bed to keep her father from leaving.
My friend John McClimans envisioned the place where he was headed as he approached his death as the yoni of his matron, Hekate, dark and mysterious and ablaze with glistening stars.
When I helped my friend Raven Moonshadow to die, I went with him to a place where he was taken into the lap of Kali Ma.  I went as far as I could while he went all the way.  I saw her jeweled toenails.
I have a painting (actually a fine print of an acrylic I watched the artist working on at CoG‘s MerryMeet in Minnesota in 1997) of Kali Ma done by visionary artist Paul Rucker.  This painting evokes for me the encounter I had when I traveled with Raven towards the Other Side.  I think I would find it a comforting sight when I am facing my own demise.
I phoned my cousin John in Honolulu this week to tell him of his Aunt Elizabeth’s passing.  He’s been writing to her all his life, and continued to write even after she no longer understood the words in his letters.  John has been a Quaker all his adult life and possesses a doctorate in religion and ecology.  We talked for more than two hours, about all manner of things, including this painting that hung on the wall of Mom’s room.  He suggests that each of us has a different conception of where we’re headed when we die, and that whatever image gives one comfort during the dying process is the one to use, religion aside.  I think he’s right.
My sister Catherine and I are giving the painting to Mother’s Methodist Church to hang in her memory.  I think she’d have liked that a lot.
~ Guest posted by M. Macha NightMare at Broomstick Chronicles.  Thanks, Jason.  I’m honored.