22. The Worship of Kali
“If you have to adore an image, why that hideous Kali?” Surendranath Tagore exclaimed to Nivedita one day.
“I adore no image,” she replied. “Kali is in me as She is in you. We cannot deny it. Why do you find that revolting?”
It was the first time she had ventured to say openly that the symbol of the Mother of Energy had entered, as a possession, into her own life. Without that question from her Brahmo-Samaj friend she would not have assessed the distance she had come. Swami Vivekananda had never suggested such a self-examination. But she was bound to make a reply to Surendra-nath’s direct inquiry, and in it she revealed her own personal experience, even though the testimony was fragmentary as yet. Her self-analysis showed how she, an austere Protestant Christian, had gone over to a cult of image, and explained why the name of Ma Kali, the great Mother, re-echoed within her with all the intensity of the goddess’ power: Kali was the scientific concept of the Supreme Power deified, and stood for all the functions of life.
At the outset, the identification had been difficult and even painful, for Nivedita had relied on her intelligence alone to ascertain what was happening within her, and her intelligence had artfully accepted her defeats without providing any solution to the problem. But at last the barrier that obscured her vision fell away, and Nivedita had understood that, in order to draw near to Ma Kali the Divine Mother, she must trust solely to her intuition and give up all reasoning.
This process had taken a long time. The struggle had actually begun as soon as she left Amamath, and she had welcomed it. Like a child mastering a new language, she had learned the words and gestures of Kali-worship, and thus drew nearer every day. Then she had realized that, as she wrote in a letter about this time, in India “one does in the name of religion just what one chooses, only all possible desires and deeds are scientifically classified, so that one can find out where one is spiritually by one’s own desires.” She had made this discovery in the silence of her cell, and had felt suddenly broken. Deeply hurt, she had shut out the grace that was ready to pervade her. Some bonds were still holding-above all, that of obedience to her guru, of submission to him. The fear of losing him intercepted the light; she did not dare plunge into the void.
Where, then, was the secret path toward Ma Kali of which her guru had spoken? His only counsel had been, “Give yourself to Her.” He had set her face to face with the vital problem, and at her side he had set Swami Sadananda, the perfect monk, but an individual with whom she had no mental contact at all. Her guru had led her to the fact of Kali without providing her with the means of feeling Her power.
On the day of her dedication, Nivedita had clearly understood that she must find her way by herself. She had entered upon her monastic vows – Brahmacharya – dirough a narrow gate, deeply conscious of all that in her being still eluded her control, but casting it upon the sacrificial fire. The flames consumed the sins of her ego, leaving only the pious love of God. And it was at that moment, in utter destitution, that Nivedita discovered within herself the living symbol of the living Ma Kali, Mother of Humanity, with Her right hand blessing and Her left hand destroying: Her day and Her night; that is to say, Her constant double aspect. Nivedita, in her worship, had desired only one thing: to feel Her moving within her. And she had greeted Her devoutly with the words, “Jaya Ma Kali, Jaya Ma Kali”
Swami Vivekananda had followed this progressive development dosely. When he felt that Nivedita was strong enough, he put her to the test.
“You must speak, now, about Kali, your Kali,” he said. “Express Her in your own way.”
As a foreigner, and as a Christian, Nivedita met here her first great trial – in the challenge to an explanation of Ma Kali that would satisfy the orthodox people, her progressive guru, and the Brahmo-Samaj reform elite. “What am I going to say?” she wondered. “My only prayer is that I shan’t fail completely.” The Albert Hall had been booked for her lecture, and its subject, “The Worship of Kali,” announced. She had written out what she would say and had discussed it with her guru. In moments of hesitation, as the time came nearer, she repeated the sentence that she was to quote: “My little child, you need not know much in order to please Me. Only love Me dearly.”
She knew that her Brahmo friends were lying in wait,for her on the concept of “good” and “evil” as mingled in Kali, but she did not wish to bring the Divine Mother before a bar of indictment. As she mounted the platform in the packed hall she was thinking that her speech would be, instead, a thank offering for having caught the cry of Nature in progress toward unity; an account of the upward march of the Hindu who feels one with the elements, who struggles to purify himself, remains no longer himself, begins again, wavers, and comes Backagain, untiring in his efforts. She spoke slowly, listening to the sound of her own voice. When she finished there was applause from the crowd, and a lengthy discussion followed the lecture. But Nivedita was tired.
“How extraordinary it is,” she thought “All these people have shown their satisfaction in me because I presented to them the symbolic image of the Mother whom they all know well after their own fashion. .. .
She found her guru at the door, talking with Sarola Ghosal.
“You did splendidly, Margot,” he said, reserving all criticism for the carriage journey. She was exhausted and depressed.
“I have only done harm,” she said several times. “I shouldn’t have spoken. Now I don’t remember what I said.”
She awaited the Tagores’ visit, and their criticisms. These were severe. “Of course,” she wrote to a friend, “I am being attacked. What people seem to lose sight of is that no one is making speculation-investments in the worship of Kali now in order to get Sri Ramakrishna’s realization later on. We worship Her for what She is. She is God, one of those conceptions which are so powerful as the Names of God. As you respond when your name is uttered, in tones of need or of love, so God to this name of Kali – as much as when we say, “Our Father Who art in Heaven. . . .”
Other Brahmo-Samaj friends said to her: “Your admirable lecture satisfied our intelligence, and even the crowd which only understood what appeals to its instincts. But, in practical life, what does your Kali really represent? Can’t you tell us?”
What reply could Nivedita make that would convince them? Even those who teach the rites of Kali are silent.
It was a little after this that an unexpected summons came to Nivedita: the high priest of the Kalighat came to Bagh Bazar to invite her to speak, on Sunday, the 28th of May, within the very precincts of the temple of Kali. This would be, for her, tantamount to a public act of faith in Hinduism, a public acknowledgement of the two powers that had sustained her – her guru in his dynamic aspect and Sri Sarada Devi in her static aspect of the same Unity – and it would also be a recognition of the universal character of Kali, at the very foot of Her shrine.
The heat in Calcutta is intense in May. During the two days that preceded her lecture, Nivedita could hardly work at all. On the morning of the 28th, Vivekananda went to see her.. “Swamiji came to rescue me,” she wrote, “from the depression that overtook me as I felt my way. He did so with great reverence, gradually revealing to me a part of his own life, so as to give me strength. To come face to face with Kali is a formidable undertaking. . .
“How I used to hate Kali and all Her ways!” confided the Master. “That was my six years’ fight, because I would not accept Kali. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa dedicated me to Her, yet I fought so long. I loved the man, you see, and that helped me. I thought him the purest man I had ever seen, and I knew that he loved me as my own father and mother had not power to do. … But his greatness had not dawned on me then. That was afterward. When I had given in. . .
“What broke your opposition down, Swamiji, won’t you tell me?” Nivedita asked.
“That will die with me,” her guru answered. “I had great misfortune at this time and Kali the Mother seized Her opportunity to make a slave of me. They were Her very words: ‘To make a slave of you!’ And Sri Ramakrishna made me over to Her. . . . Curious, he only lived two years after doing that, and most of that time he was suffering. He had only six months of his own health and brightness. Guru Nanak was like that too, you know, looking for the one disciple to give his power to . .. and then he could die. . . .”
The notes in which Nivedita recounts this intimate conversation continue:
The Swami was overwhelmed and went on. “Yes, r.o doubt that Kali worked up the body of Ramakrishna for Her own ends. You see, Margot, I cannot but believe that there is somewhere a great Power that thinks of itself as feminine and is called Kali the Mother . . . and I believe in Brahman too . . . that there is nothing but Braham, even.. . . It is the multitude of cells in the body that make up the person, the many brain centres that produce the one consciousness. Always unity in complexity! It is Brahman, the
One, and yet it is the many gods too— But how She torments
me sometimes! And then I go to Her sometimes and say – If you don’t give me so-and-so tomorrow, I’ll throw you over and preach Chaitanya .. . and that thing always comes. . . .” Then the Swami became very humble and said, “The priests of Kalighat have put me down to preside at your lecture, but I shall not go. . . . I could not restrain my excitement. In my family we have been Kali-worshipers for centuries and every bit of that place is holy to me. Even the very blood in the ground is holy. … I have given strict orders about your lecture. There are to be no chairs. Everyone is to sit on the floor, at your feet. And all shoes and hats are to be taken off. You will be on the steps with a few of the guests.”
When he left after this conversation Swami Vivekananda blessed his disciple. As he crossed the threshold he bowed low before her and abased himself abruptly to touch her feet.
“Blessed are you, who will speak of Her,” he said. “Be always Her servant.”
Nivedita walked barefoot to Kalighat. Swami Sadananda went with her. It was a long journey. Around the temple itself, when they got there, beggars in several rows were tapping on their bowls in which the priests once a day gave them their pittance, and were calling out to touch the hearts of the faithful. In the courtyard, under huge parasols of bamboo leaves, a riot of flowers in all the tones of red and purple – crimson, scarlet, vermilion – shouted their cry of victory to Kali. Around them, worshipers in red and white praying shawls filled the courtyard and sat in the prayer hall. Nivedita spoke from the main staircase:
“The spot where we are met this evening is the most sacred of all the shrines of Kali. For long ages it has been the refuge of pious souls, in need, in sorrow, and in thanksgiving; and their last thought in the hour of death. Let us realize that we are gathered here to worship. . . .”
Stirring and carrying away all the devotees around her, she gave thanks to Kali and evoked the idea of the maternity of God under every sky and according to every rite:
“In Kali is the balm for every wound, as long as we need that. But, when we have grown past this, life will be a song of ecstasy because the last sacrifice has been demanded of us. Religion, it appears, is not something made for the fine words of fine folk: religion is for the heart of the people. To refine it is to emasculate it. Every man must be able to find his bread there. So worship must have its feet on the clay if with its head it is to reach Heaven. … At some infinitely distant time, perhaps, when duality is gone, and not even God is any longer God, may that other experience come. It is always on the bosom of dead Divinity that the blissful Mother dances Her dance celestial.”*
* ‘From “Kali Worship: a lecture at the Kali Temple at Kalighat,” published by Haridas Haidar, Calcutta, 1900.
A few days after this, Nivedita wrote to one of her friends: I have a new feeling about Kali. I look at the intoxicated eyes of Shiva the prostrate God at Her feet, and I see how they indeed meet Hers. She is Shiva’s vision of the Mother. Shiva sees the Divine in such a guise. … Shiva is Kali, just as Kali is Shiva. Is the truth of it all just a response to the vast working of the human mind? Does man, in a word, create God? I wonder. . . .The secret of the universe has one thin veil of coquetry at least!
In her meditations Nivedita experienced an absorbing fullness. “Kali, my Mother, I am Thy slave,” she prayed. “I know little to please Thee. I only love dearly. . .