“Go die in a fire.” It’s one of my favorite off-the-cuff, half-joking missives. I try not to use them so much anymore, especially in mixed company, but my Edward Gorey-loving self still holds on tight to those passive aggressive idioms.
This morning was a “blood moon eclipse” – which even if you aren’t superstitious sounds pretty foreboding. According to astrology experts on the internet, any eclipse is a sign of transformation — a changing from one thing to the next. Add blood to that. Woof.
Kali, by Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Sometimes transformation happens gradually, like the unfolding of a beautiful flower. Usually, however, it’s uncomfortable, frustrating, and downright terrifying. Fire is a central element in most pujas (Hindu religious ceremonies) — and not by accident. We offer things to the fire to be devoured, destroyed, permanently transformed. What do want to be transformed, to be burned up, to be completely dissolved in order to make way for something new?
That’s Kali. She is fierce, transformative. She is the darkness — that we can’t quite see, the fire in our belly we don’t quite understand. She is nearly uncontrollable, as we see in the end of her myth, which goes a little like this:
A long time ago, in a land far, far away, a band of demons had taken over the earth. They were pillaging towns, taunting yogis, and tipping cows. The humans on earth grew very frightened, and began to pray to the gods above to rescue them.
The gods looked down from their celestial mountain tops, and saw all the devastation happening on earth. They gathered a group of their greatest warriors to go down to defeat the demons. They were gods, after all – what could go wrong?
The gods descended to earth and began to fight the demons – chopping off heads with long sabers, skewering torsos with tridents – but something went wrong. The enemy only seemed to get more plentiful as they fought. Finally Shiva, one of the most powerful gods, realized every time a drop of the demon blood hit the earth a new demon sprang up. They were Raktabijas — literally “blood seed” demons.
Once the gods realized their usual methods were useless against this opponent, they retreat back to their mountaintops. They gather in heaven, a little panicked and afraid themselves. After much discussion, they finally turn to Durga – the chief goddess – and plea for her help.
After much urging, Durga transforms into Kali – the black one – and descends to earth. Kali is vicious, ferocious, with her near-black skin and long tongue. She begins not just to fight the raktabijas, but to devour them whole. She continues fearlessly, fiercely, until she has consumed all of the enemy. She’s like a whirlwind of destruction.
The gods and humans are grateful for her victory, but then something terrifying happens: just like a fire that spreads through a forest, uncontrollable, Kali has developed a blood lust. She begins searching the countryside for more demons, becoming almost as terrible as the demons. She’s not
Shiva, Kali’s consort, descends to earth trying to snap her out of it — but she even doesn’t know him, she is so singly focused. Unable to get her attention, Shiva literally stands in her way, and allows himself to be trampled by her fierce dance. Once he is under her feet, she realizes what she’s done — and her rage settles. Shiva and Kali return to heaven, and the villagers on earth begin to return to their lives.
Yoga is traditionally a practice of transformation. We use tapas (heat) in our practice to burn up the things we don’t need anymore. My favorite translation of yoga sutra 2.1: “Purification, Refinement, Surrender: these are the practical steps on the path of yoga.” Some days the purification is a slow burn: allowing our practice to work gradually but inevitably in our bodies and minds. And some days we need to light a firecracker in the middle of the TNT in our spirits, and watch the sparks fly.
That’s Kali. Kali is the beast unleashed. She’s in each of us, waiting, ready to pounce.
Sometimes by lighting that match and putting it to the proverbial fuse, we break through the barriers that won’t be eroded by the gentle, gradual process. Let me clear: this is not comfortable. It’s usually not fun. But sometimes, Kali is necessary.
Kali’s blackness is relevant. Even as children, what we fear the most is that which we can’t see. It’s the sound in the darkness that starts our overactive imaginations building giant monsters on their way to devour us — at least when we’re kids they give us night lights. In my own life, it’s the things that are just beyond my vision or grasp that are the most frightening. That amorphous foreboding feeling that I can’t quite wrangle. Like my finances. Or my future. In fact, sometimes Kali is translated as “time.”
I encourage you to own the darkness in your life that is growing like a monster in your childhood bedroom. Recognize the thing that you’ve been avoiding, that has morphed in the background into a giant demon before you knew it. And then give it to the flames. Tell it to go die in a fire.
And then just wait. Let the fire do its work. After the last ember burns out, see what’s left in the ashes — it might just surprise you.
An important post script:
“Purification, Refinement, Surrender: these are the practical steps on the path of yoga.” Yoga doesn’t end with the purification — Kali cannot be left to run wild. We can’t live in Kali energy all the time. As Nietzsche says, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”
Shiva, Kali’s lover, descends to earth, to stand in her way. He represents pure love in that moment, willing to sacrifice his self, his ego entirely to rescue Kali from herself. I wouldn’t be a yoga teacher if I didn’t add: Love is the antidote for transforming permanently into the monster.