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The Different Images Of Goddess Kali Through The Eyes Of Bengali Identities

The Different Images Of Goddess Kali Through The Eyes Of Bengali Identities

The presence of Bengali Probashi — a term equivalent to the diaspora, in any town or neighbourhood in India is known by the existence of a Kali-Bari – temple of the goddess Kali. The Kali-Baris outside of Bengal have served in establishing the Bengali identity of the Probashis over centuries.

Goddess Kali.
Goddess Kali. Getty Images

Hindu gods and goddesses have varying levels of believers depending upon the regions they are worshipped in India. Many times, the same gods can be called by different names and they could as well have different iconographies. However, Shiva is the only exception, he is worshipped everywhere and only in one form, that is of lingam.

The number of people worshipping Ram and Hanuman in the Hindi-speaking regions is far greater in number than there is in the rest of India. Similarly, Durga and Kali are the gods worshipped the most in Bengali-speaking regions and by the Bengali families who have moved out of Bengal.

The presence of Bengali Probashi — a term equivalent to the diaspora, in any town or neighbourhood in India is known by the existence of a Kali-Bari – temple of the goddess Kali. The Kali-Baris outside of Bengal have served in establishing the Bengali identity of the Probashis over centuries.

In a Bengali home, it is a prerequisite to have the following four images on the altar: an idol or a framed photograph of Kali, which could be the goddess in one of her many forms as imagined by the iconographic, and photographs of Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Sharada Ma and Vivekananda.

Kali represents Shakti – the power, the force, the divine energy, which in Hindu mythology is the source coming from the female god. 

In calendar-art forms, goddess Kali is depicted cutting down evil with her Kharga, the sword. She turns black with rage. She wears a garland of decapitated evil heads going right down to her knees. And so goes the story that if she was not stopped she would have cut down all of Brahma's creations in her frenzy. No one had the power to stop her. At which point, the gods in heaven approached Shiva, who is Kali’s husband, to come to the rescue. Shiva lied on the path of Kali, who on stepping onto something so soft and so cold – Shiva’s body is so cold since he lives in the snowbound Kailash mountains and no one else can have a colder body than – instantly knew that she has sinned by touching her husband with her feet. She bit her tongue in guilt. Her rage dissolved into Shiva’s cold body and the world is spared from annihilation.

Kali has remained the supreme source of power and courage to the Bengalis in particular. Jai Maa Kali among Bengalis is the same as Jai Bajarangbali is to the Hindi-speaking Indians. It has been a battle cry to spur on the armies.

But Kali for most Bengalis is a benevolent and kind mother too. All Bengalis of my generation have grown up hearing the story of how Ramakrishna prayed to Kali so that Narendra asks the mother to bless him with ‘bidda and buddhi’ (knowledge and wisdom) and not ‘power’ which Narendra wanted to seek initially from the mother. But now when Narendra goes to the mother, he asks for ‘bidda and buddhi’ instead. Ramakrishna, where are you today?

To be regarded as a genuine Kali devotee is not the easiest thing one can achieve. The goddess can not be pleased easily. The devotee is tested on many counts. Most treacherous among them is to remain hungry and thirsty for a long period of time. Kali worshipping rituals are long and complicated. Not everyone can perform them. It is believed that the slightest of errors can bring grave consequences. But the worshipping rituals end with a lot of feasting on mutton curry after long past midnight.

I lived the Kali Puja experience all through my childhood in Allahabad which had a big Probashi population. Unlike Durga Puja, which was non-stop fun for four days running, Kali Puja used to be a dull affair. It was a day when I used to put my willpower to the test by not eating or drinking water till midnight. At midnight the mutton curry and rice were served as bhog in the city's most prominent Kali-Bari.

On Kali being offered alcohol as part of the ritual, I had no clue about it when I was a child. There used to be an earthen pot with some liquid in it that was placed among other offerings of food, fruits and flowers,  which was called ‘Karun Shodha’. It was only when I became a teenager I got to know what Karun Shodha meant from a Bengali song. The song was from Uttam Kumar-starring, Amanush, which was made in Hindi as well. The song went out, ‘Bipin babur karun shodha, metai jala metai khoda’ – Monsieur Bipin’s Karun Shodha removes anguish, makes you forget hunger.

There were some Kali temples in Allahabad along the banks of the Yamuna that were managed by slightly weird-looking men. I was told by my grandmother to keep away from going near these temples. She said Tantrics and Kapalik lived in these temples. They drink alcohol and steal children and torture them to make them Tantriks like themselves. But many Bengalis and non-Bengalis alike frequented these temples. It was commonly believed that the Tantrics possessed immense supernatural powers. They know rituals that can change the course of many things, win lawsuits, domesticate a shrew, set djins after an opponent, ward off spirits from the possessed widows. They are also rumoured to have a cure for infertility and impotence!

Religion, at a philosophical level, is purely a personal affair. Religion at the ritualistic level becomes a community engagement. In the hyper-sensitive atmosphere that we live in today, the ritualistic side of religion has brought us more misery than the community bonhomie it is meant to bring. All the humour and light-heartedness that the Hindu religion is enriched with at its mythological level has now, sadly, given us a reason to feel offended by the other. Innocent merry-making with our gods and to be able to make our gods be one with us, like us, that which makes Hindu religion so charming is slowly getting lost in all of this din.

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