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Arousing the Goddess: A Man's Encounters with Kali in India

Author: Tim Ward
Posted: July 31st. 2004
Times Viewed: 10,074

I first heard about the Goddess from the lips of a Belgian Tibetan Buddhist monk. It was at a monastery in the Himalayas where I was studying Buddhism for the summer. He told me that we were living in Kaliyuga, the Age of Destruction named after Kali, the Black Goddess of Hinduism.

"She wears a garland of skulls around her neck, holds a machete in one hand, a severed head in another, and dances upon the corpse of her spouse, Shiva. This fearsome feminine energy signifies chaos, death and the dissolution of the universe," the monk said. "In Kaliyuga, the destructive passions run wild, causing much pain and suffering. And so it is also a great time for Buddhist practice, because the path of liberation from suffering becomes most appealing."

In my studies at the monastery I learned that cessation of suffering was at the heart of Buddhist practice, and that desire was the cause of all suffering and so was to be rooted out. And for a would-be monk, the most potent and dangerous form of desire is lust for a woman.

"There's no prayer or charm that can protect a monk from the beast with soft horns on its chest," goes the Buddhist aphorism.

Indeed, I discovered many Buddhist practices are designed to protect monks from the evils of female flesh. In many sects, a woman is not permitted to touch a monk, not permitted to be alone with a monk. In Thailand a woman must kneel down whenever a monk walks by so that her shape won't excite him. In some schools of Buddhism, women are not even permitted to become nuns. The best they can hope for is a pious life serving monks which will allow them to be reborn as men. Even in countries where women can take monastic vows, nunneries tend to be poorer and nuns hold lower status than monks.

One Buddhist meditation technique encourages trainees to imagine the body of a desirable woman and then deconstruct her body into five heaps - skin, bones, organs, nails and hair. "See the body as nothing but a bag of rotting meat and frothing pus," one text advises.

As a liberal, pro-feminist North American, I found this blatant sexism repulsive. But I had to admit that nothing caused me so much suffering as my relationships with women. They pulled me from my spiritual path. They demanded I commit. They had plans for me. They made me feel guilt for doing what I wanted...Hell, one of the reasons I went to India to study Buddhism was to get out of a long-term relationship that I didn't have the guts to just end. Instead, I went off on a spiritual quest. Yet traveling on my own, I found I longed for a woman's touch, a woman's attention, a woman's love. To twist the old phrase, "You can't end suffering with them, you can't end suffering without them." To me it seemed women were indeed Kali in the flesh.

It made me wonder about my own culture, rooted in European Christianity, and how the denial of the feminine divine was connected to the secondary status of women - which only began to change in the West in the past 150 years. On the one hand, women were considered subservient to men, and kept that way by the laws of marriage, property ownership, and social convention. They were forbidden to hold roles of religious leadership, and certainly according to the Church Fathers women were as much to blame for the sinfulness of "man" as they were for tempting Buddhist monks in Asia. And yet when a man falls in love, the woman he desires appears to him as a goddess in all but name. I saw this in my own life, and mirrored in the movies, songs and literature right down through history in the West. But there is no Kali in our culture that they embody, no real goddess they reflect... Maybe the Virgin Mary - but then, what is left of the Virgin's image once you have slept with her?

In truth, Indian society was not much different. In fact, the status of women in India, generally speaking, is far behind that of women in the West. There you find infanticide of female babies (who are considered a burden), young girls still being bartered away as brides, and vicious attacks on "unsatisfactory" wives by their husbands and mothers-in-law - including incidents of setting them on fire or throwing acid in their faces. So it is not as if Indian society demonstrated a better answer.

Yet India reveals what lies beneath the surface in her own time and in her own way. As I traveled through sacred Buddhist sites in India, I discovered to my surprise that at the heart of Buddhist mythology, at the very instant of Buddha's enlightenment, a goddess appears:

After years of strenuous meditation and fasting, the Buddha sat himself down under the Bodhi tree, determined to gain enlightenment. Mara, Lord of Delusion (the Buddhist Devil), feared that this would be the end of his rule over human kind. So he decided to try and break Buddha's concentration and spoil his mediation. First he sent fearsome demons to frighten Buddha, but he ignored them. Then Mara sent his beautiful daughters to try and seduce him, but Buddha looked at them, and with a glance turned them into withered hags. Then Mara himself approached Buddha. He told him that no one would ever understand what he had attained by his enlightenment. Therefore, he should pass straight on to Nirvana, not linger among mortals. There would be no witness who could vouch for what Buddha was about to attain, and without a witness, who would believe him?

But the Buddha responded with a gesture, touching the ground beneath him with his hand, saying, "The Earth will be my witness."

Then the Earth Goddess rose from beneath his fingertips and she answered him: "Yes, I will bear witness to what you are about to attain."

And at that instant, the Buddha was enlightened.

This myth astounded me when I first heard it. It rooted Buddhism's central event to the Earth, the real world that Buddha reached out and touched - and to the goddess who embodies that reality. Suddenly other details of the scene came into focus: The Buddha had taken his seat beneath a tree - one of the most powerful symbols of feminine fertility, and he is most often depicted sitting on a lotus blossom. And the last thing he did before taking his seat was drink a bowl of milk offered to him by a woman. The tree above him, the flower beneath him, milk in his belly; this moment of spiritual awakening was surrounded in feminine imagery.

To me this signified that the feminine was not delusion and desire, but a fundamental force of nature. As my understanding of Indian religion broadened, I learned that this was so, and that the creative life-force energy known as Shakti is the essence of the goddess. For example, certain Tantric sects believed that the highest form of meditation involved sexual union, either created in the meditator's mind, or through actual ritual sex.

A male Hindu Tantric practitioner named Singh, who I met at Kajuraho, a temple complex carved with thousands of erotic statues, explained it to me like this: "When a man submits his manhood to a woman and a woman submits her womanhood to a man, then the feminine essence, which is Shakti, and the man's essence which is Consciousness, join in perfect complement. We men are drawn to women to understand this mystery. But women are drawn to men to understand themselves."

The belief behind this idea goes back to the birth of the first Goddess, Sati, Singh explained. According to the Hindu Vedas, at the dawn of creation the gods faced a problem. They could create life, but that life would die, and could not reproduce itself. So they went to the great ascetic yogi-god, Shiva, and persuaded him to split his own nature into two parts, male and female - and you sometimes see statues of Shiva with one half a curvy voluptuous woman the other half an angular male. The female part he then split off from himself. She was nurtured in a mountain and raised to become the first goddess, whom Shiva then took as his wife. Through Sati, all living things gained a portion of her Shakti, which made reproduction possible.

And so in sexual union, the male and female energies recombine into the original divine unity of the godhead. As Singh put it: "Some cults mistakenly think that through celibacy one can attain the highest oneness, but oneness comes only after the fusion of duality. You can't have union until you have fusion."

For Singh, celibacy was an obstacle to spiritual growth. His wife embodied the goddess and provided an intimate connection to the divine. They had two girls and no boys, he told me with pride. He was the only man I met in India who actually preferred daughters to sons.

"But if this myth of Shakti was present in the Vedas, how is it that most women in India are treated so poorly by men?" I asked him.

Singh looked down.

"You must remember, until independence in 1949, India was a slave nation, occupied first by Muslims, then by Christians for 900 years. In an occupied country, women do not go outside alone for fear of soldiers, and an unmarried girl is always at risk of rape. So it is safer to be married young. But if you look at the erotic statues here at Kajuraho, 1000 years old, you can see women so free and sensual. This, I think, is more true to the nature of India."

All this would have remained nothing but an interesting theory for me except for the fact that while traveling in India I fell in love with a woman Indologist named Sabina. She was researching the Earth Touching gesture for her PhD thesis. Despite my meditations in the monastery, I fell head-over-heels in love with her, and together we traveled through the Buddhist ruins of India. At one point, our sex took a weird turn, and I felt this incredible electricity burning inside my limbs, almost as if my body was on fire. The rush was weirdly ecstatic, almost unbearable. It was as if I was dissolving into a storm of electrons, losing consciousness. And yet I was not sexually aroused at all in the part of my anatomy that most usually experiences arousal. The encounter lasted for hours and left us both confused and wondering what it was that had happened. For me, it was as if the dirty carpet of my spirit was shaken out in the wind and beaten clean. I think what we touched upon was the raw power of Shakti that the Tantrics seek to harness. It terrified me - for it drew me so deeply towards Sabina, with whom I had hoped to have a simple, on-the-road romance and then move on.

This experience became the crux of my book, Arousing the Goddess, which I wrote as a way to better understand just what it was that happened to me in India.

While seeking to understand more about the Goddess, I met an Indian woman in Calcutta named Adyti who was a devotee of Kali, but who rejected the Vedic myths.

"Kali is no derivative Goddess," she told me. "Before the Aryan priests ever dreamed of Shiva, Kali was. The oldest relics of the Indus civilization are terra cotta statues of her as fertile mother, belly swollen, breasts full. For thousands of years she was worshiped across the land. She was the black Earth, the Mother who brought forth life, fed it with her body and then consumed it back into herself. When the Aryans invaded India three thousand years ago, they tried to replace her with their own masculine gods. But their gods did not possess the power to create life, so they invented the tortuous myth of Shiva splitting himself in two, producing the Goddess as his derivative. The Goddess needs no complex myth to explain her powers of fertility, and the priests still feared her powers. Despite millennia of oppression, women remain the stronger sex. They alone wield the Goddess' power to create life, and this must be balanced with the power to destroy. The priests seized upon her Death aspect to demonize her, and made Kaliyuga an age of destruction. And yes, when the Goddess rises again it will literally be the destruction of the male cosmology and the birth of a new age."

My mind reeled: Was the terrible Kali also Mother Earth - and the Earth Goddess who bore witness to the Buddha's enlightenment? How could one worship something so fearful?

Adyti showed me a statue of Kali with four arms: The upper right was raised in blessing, the lower right extended, palm out, as if offering a gift. But the upper left wielded that bloody machete and the lower left grasped a freshly severed human head.

"So how do you get the blessing but escape the machete?" I asked.

"No, that's not the point!" she replied fiercely. "The blessing is only won when you accept both sides of Kali, including pain, sorrow, loss and death. The real death is trying to hold your tiny ego safe from the pain caused by desire and love. Flee from the dangers of life, and you will miss her blessings. But embrace Kali as she is, kiss her bloody tongue and feel all four arms around you, and then you have life, you have freedom. This, my young friend, is Kali's boon."

And so on leaving India, it was Kali's path I chose to take, not attempting to meditate away my passions, but relishing them. Did this provide success and happiness? Yes, and suffering too. The next woman I fell in love with I proposed to after knowing her only three weeks. The irony is, after our wedding my wife decided she didn't really like having sex. So much for Tantric bliss. We had a miserable, horrible marriage that lasted five years. By the time that relationship was over, I was a darker, more bitter man than ever before. I felt like a fool for believing the delusion of happily ever after. The Goddess never promised that. Just the outstretched hand, and the machete.

And yet ten years on, I am newly married to a woman I have known and loved for several years. It's a second marriage for both of us, and we've had to wrestle our fears and our demons to the ground in order to trust each other this far. But a mask of Kali hangs on our bedroom wall and we believe she watches over us. It doesn't guarantee happiness. But it does remind us to live each day as fully and passionately as we possibly can.

Tim Ward

Article Specs

Article ID: 8624

VoxAcct: 230799

Section: words

Age Group: Adult

Days Up: 5,412

Times Read: 10,074


Tim Ward

Location: Bethesda, Maryland

Bio: Tim Ward is the author of Arousing the Goddess: Sex and Love in the Buddhist Ruins of India (Monkfish Books, 2003) and What the Buddha Never Taught. He lives with his family in Bethesda, Maryland and is currently finishing up his fourth book, about his encounters with the ancient goddesses of the Mediterranean. You can visit his website to see his photos of goddesses at

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