Bhadrakali and the Tantric Path of Transformation (Kalikapurana)

“In the earlier age, during the period of Svayambhuva, in the beginning of Krtayuga, the goddess who is known as Mahamaya, Yoganidra, Jagaddhatri, and Jaganmayi, assuming a mighty figure with sixteen arms, renowned by the name Bhadrakali (appeared) on the northern shore of the Milk Ocean with a view to destroy Mahishasura and with a desire to do good to the world.

“She with the lustre of the colour of flax blossom, with earrings made of flaming gold, being adorned with long twisted hair, and with three diadems together with the crescent (moon), having a snake as her necklace and adorned with golden necklaces; always holding a trident and a discus, a sword, a conch-shell, an arrow, a lance, a thunderbolt and a staff in her right arms, looks splendid with her radiant teeth, the goddess continuously holds a shield, a hide, a bow, a noose, a hook, a bell, an axe, and a mace in her (eight) hands (from the uppermost to the lowermost respectively); she was on the back of a lion, was shining extremely like the flame with her three eyes, which were red as blood, she had been piercing the demon Mahisha with the trident and was treading Mahisha with her left foot; the goddess was the embodiment of the world.

“All the gods then having seen the demon Mahisha being killed by the (goddess Durga) did not utter a single word.”

Kalikapurana, Chapter 60:55-64, from Kalikapurane Murtivinirdesah, trans. & ed. by Biswanarayan Shastri  (Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, 1995), 59-61.

Bhadra means “blessed” or “auspicious.” Kali (or Kālī) has many potential meanings, as the name relates to time, as well as to blackness. But here, Kali is not black, She is golden in color. The blackness of Kali may be taken literally, but it is also the timeless void, everything that ever was and everything that ever will be. It is time without form, and form without time. It is utter emptiness, and complete fullness. Kali is paradox incarnate, the struggle we face when we hold two conflicting but equally true paradigms or thoughts in our minds at the same time. In the center of that struggle is the force of non-duality, the non-intellectual realization of which is the goal of all Tantric practice. And there is auspiciousness, tremendous blessing in engaging in that struggle.

Bhadrakali in the Kalikapurana is associated directly with Mahishasura Mardini, “She who kills the buffalo demon.” This is an important and popular form of Durga, and brings together all the various shaktis (female powers) into a single form. Although her name is Kali, she has a golden – not black – complexion, the color of golden flax seeds. The symbols held in her eight arms identify her with different deities and powers, such as Shiva (trident), Vishnu (discus, conch shell), Indra (thunderbolt), and Raja Rajeswari/Tripura Sundari (arrows, bow, noose, goad/hook). Unlike many of the images of Mahishasura Mardini we see during Durga Puja time, which are sweet and smiling, this gives a more striking image – her eyes are “red as blood,” and indeed if one reads the Chandi Path they will see that Durga is described in this episode as intoxicated, ferocious, and terrifying.

This intoxication and ferocious demeanor is reflective of the inner process of the Tantric path.

This intoxication and ferocious demeanor is reflective of the inner process of the Tantric path. As we perform sadhana, we may employ various tools under tightly controlled circumstances. Externally, we are calm, often solitary, and contrary to what some may have you believe, the rituals externally can seem quite boring! But internally, there is a battle constantly being waged and won by the sadhika or sadhak. It is the battle with one’s own limited intellect, the battle with one’s own demons of self-doubt, apathy, self-righteousness, pride, greed, and small-mindedness. The battle begins when one steps forward and fully commits to the path. It does not begin with the puja. Nor does it end when the puja is over, but continues in daily life. Ritual acts as a grounding point, something to strengthen the journey that continues 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for one’s lifetime. The tools employed in that ritual – whether they are physical or ephemeral – are, with proper guidance from a qualified guru, vehicles for transformation.


 Photo credit: Bhadrakali Temple, Warangal, Adhra Pradesh (official image)