The rise of Kali

Indian Mythology 6 Comments

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, Nov. 13, 2011


India has been a land of adjustments and accommodation. We keep making room for new ideas and including different thoughts. This can make us very inefficient but also very tolerant. Nowhere is this more evident than in observing how perceptions of gods and goddesses changed over time.

The Jaiminya Brahmana dated around the 8th century BC tells the story of one Dirgha-jihvi. “Dirgha-jihvi or ‘the long-tongued one’ used to lick up the divine drink, Soma, produced during the yagna that was much loved by the gods. Exasperated by her actions, Indra, king of the gods, wanted to grab her, but he could not get hold of her. So he said, ‘Let no one perform any sacrifices at all, for Dirgha-jihvi licks up the Soma produced.’ Now, Sumitra, the son of Kutsa, was handsome. Indra said to him, ‘Go seduce Dirgha-jihvi.’ When Sumitra approached her, she said, ‘You have just one organ, but I have many, one on each limb. This won’t work.’ Sumitra went back and informed Indra of his failure. ‘I will make organs for you on every limb,’ said Indra. Equipped with these, Sumitra went back to her. This time she welcomed him with open arms. They lay together. As soon as he had his way with her, he remained firmly stuck in her.  Finding the ogress pinned to the ground, Indra ran to her and struck her down with his thunderbolt.

It is speculated that Dirgha-jihvi refers to Kali-like goddesses worshipped by agricultural communities, who were probably matriarchal, who came to be feared by patriarchal nomadic communities. A century or two after the Jaiminya Brahmana, the Vedic priests put together the Mundaka Upanishad where Kali is the name of one of the seven quivering tongues of the fire god, Agni, whose flames devour sacrificial oblations and transmit them to the gods.

Between the 2nd century BC and 3rd century AD, Kali appears unequivocally for the first time as a goddess in the Kathaka Grihyasutra, a ritualistic text that names her in a list of Vedic deities to be invoked with offerings of perfume during the marriage ceremony. Unfortunately, the text reveals nothing more about her.

In the Mahabharata and Ramayana which were being composed around this time, goddesses, including Kali, are given more character: they are usually independent and (hence?) wild, appearing as manifestations of divine rage and embodiments of the forces of destructions. In the Mahabharata, for example, the nocturnal bloodbath by Ashwattama at the end of the 18-day war, when the innocent children of the Pandavas are slaughtered rather dastardly while they are asleep, is seen as the work of  “Kali of bloody mouth and eyes, smeared with blood and adorned with garlands, her garment reddened, — holding noose in hand — binding men and horses and elephants with her terrible snares of death.”

In the Devi Mahatmya, dated roughly to 8th century AD, Kali became a defender against demonic and malevolent forces and by the 19th century, Kali was a goddess of mainstream pantheon, a symbol of divine rage, of raw power and the wild potency of nature. The one who was once feared as an outsider had made her way right to the heart of the mainstream.

  • Rani Arokya

    Hello Sir,
    I realised after reading your article that there is a Kali living in me who wants to destroy every unethical, narcissit individual that she comes across :)
    But it is a live and let-live world and I am trying to learn to deal with the reality. Someone else out there could be thinking of destroying me too :)

  • Puneresident

    Some comments:

    1.Ramayana written in 2 to 3 centuary BC? Hindu scriptures mentions clealry ramayana occured in tretayuga which is roughly before 864000 years before.
    2.Earlier there exist purush(Ishwar) and prakriti(Shakti).Kali is one of the name of shakti.
    3.If kali is got famous in 19th centuary then how 51 shakti peeths came to existance.
    4. Moreover the bloody appearance of kali is to create fear in the peoples mind who will do adharmic/Unethical works.

  • Mystical Sense

    another dirgha jihvi was one who was killed by Skanda’s better half.
    and Tara too has a lolling tongue, apart from Kali.
    There is no doubt a correlation between the process of Amrita produced and being consumed by the fire (Agni)in the body. Preventing that from happening is practised in yoga.

    The pendulum of the mind alternates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong. Carl Jung

  • Himadri Roy

    Dearest Devdutt,
    I was quite surprised to know the Story of Dirgha-Jivya and the cause of her death…As i belong to Kali Kula, i was told by my grandfather about her as a Defender, which you traced back to Devi Mahatmya of 8th century…about the offerings of Kathaka Grihasutra, yes we do still perform this ritual of offering perfumes, especially home-made of Rakta Chandan (red Sandalwood) and Jaba Phool (Hibiscus Rosa Sinensis) on marriages…very interestingly Grandfather started a tradition of offering the country-liquor or Desi daru (as it is our family business, since 1954) during the Shyama Kali puja on the Omabashya of the 6th month on Bengali calender, which is celebrated as Deepawali in the Northern India…I dont know exactly how to trace this tradition…may be it was the Dirgha Jivya epoch…Anyway, your article as always been inspiring to probe into our Hindu traditions through different texts…Thanks a lot for enlightening us once again…

  • Vikram Purohit

    Dear DevDutt,

    Good Reasearch, But to add it more Kali represents Shakti. And If you will refer to the actual picture of Kali it has two sides (Right and Left), one upliftment, blessing and second is the dark side which is nothing but blood. Interesting part is the SHIVA, when Shiva came down then her anger got stopped. Here Shiva is nothing but the Symbol of consciousness which generates ability to take decision between right and wrong when you have Power (Shakti) …

  • Akshay Singh

    Dear sir,
    I am reading your book ‘7 secrets of the Goddess’ right now. And i must confess that i felt a little disappointed with the chapter on The Dark Mother. It does bring into light the ‘evolution’ of Kali and Tantra and the rest. But the true meaning of Kali was somehow missing.