Kali is often spoken of as the goddess of destruction, or of time, and there is truth to these descriptions, mythologically and linguistically speaking. While these simplified terms can be helpful when trying to apply the mythological stories and lessons of Kali psychologically to whatever we might be facing in life, ultimately these are just very simple ways of speaking and thinking about her, and don’t even begin to scratch the surface.
So I want to urge you for a moment to stop thinking about Kali as the sword-wielding, black-skinned goddess wearing a skirt of severed arms and a garland of heads. Just for a moment, let’s think about her differently.
The Ten Mahavidyas (Daśa Mahāvidyāḥ) are central to the practices of Shakta Tantric tradition. Kamakhya is primarily and equally identified with Durga (especially as Mahiṣāsuramardinī), Kālī, and Ṣoḍaśī (also known as Mahā Tripurāsundarī, Lalitā, or Rājā Rājeśvarī), but she is also closely identified with all of the Mahavidyas, as is revealed in these mantras. Thus her traditions are diverse, expansive, mysterious, and unique in the world of Tantra.
Devotion, along with humility and compassion, is one of the greatest tools and biggest allies on the Tantric path. The Manthanabhairavatantra Siddhakhandah declares:
Devotion (is of three kinds, namely, devotion) to the Transmission, devotion to the teacher, and devotion here to the teaching itself. Devotion is power and the Transmission is transmitted by power. Speech is transmitted from the Transmission and the Command operates by Speech. Devotion is liberation that beholds the end of the Transmental.
– MBT, SKh 4:36-7. Translated by M. Dyczkowski.
There is a lot going on in this statement – but what I want to focus on is the necessity of devotion on the Tantric path.
There was a time when practicing some form of hatha yoga – that is, physical postures – was inseparable from Tantric practice. In the beginning, serious practitioners are often required to sit for extended periods in order to complete what their gurus ask of them. As one progresses on the path, intense sadhanas require great physical effort to maintain the health of the body while going through the rigors of the path. Hatha yoga is a physical practice that is based on asanas or postures, which are said to prepare us to sit for sadhana.
“The folklore that crystallized around Gorakhnath bears witness not only to the tremendous impression that his magical powers made on the popular imagination but also to certain shamanic elements that confirm the archaism of the myths and symbols launched by the appearance of the Siddhas. The well-known story of the drought in Nepal has come down to us in several versions. Gorakhnath, not having been received with fitting honors in the course of a visit, shut up the clouds (or the Nagas who governed them) in a bale, sat down on it, and remained there for twelve years, lost in meditation. The King begged Avalokiteshvara (= Matsyendranath), who was living on a mountain named Kapotal (near Kamarupa), to save the country, and the saint came to Nepal; upon seeing his guru approach, Gorakhnath got up from the bale, the clouds escaped, and rain began to fall. After this service, Matsyendranath-Avalokiteshvara became the tutelary divinity of Nepal. We may note in passing that this legend clearly points to a historical fact: it was from Kamarupa (= Assam) that “Matsyendranath” brought tantrism, or more precisely, the new “revelation” of the Siddhas and Nathas, to Nepal.”
p. 311, Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009/1954).
Kamarupa is none other than Kamakhya, home of the Sri Sri Kamakhya Temple, our Mother. According to legend, Matsyendranath (also called Macchendranath) was initiated into a system related to what is now called Tantra by yoginis (female yogis) at Kamarupa (where Kamakhya is located), and that he then codified, Sanskritized, and disseminated its secrets throughout India and Nepal.
I am a Shakta, and for me, MAA (an informal word a child uses for its Mother, like “Mama”) is the representation of Infinite Being, of pure existence from which all things emerge.
Essentially, we are all MAA, we are all just in different phases/states/stages of realized awareness about the nature of Her existence. The best of gurus teach their disciples to listen to their own Atman (and how to listen, through sadhana) as the supreme guide, because Atman is not separate from Brahman/MAA/Infinite Being (these words are interchangeable), rather than relying on them totally. They may give us guidance and advice, but ultimately they will encourage us to first begin to hear, and then begin to listen to MAA directly. We must each come to our own realization, do our own sadhana, make our own mistakes, and release our own “I” in order to emerge from the darkness of non-awareness.
Supreme reality is beyond dualisms of this/that, good/bad, existence/non-existence. We can experience Maa even in suffering and difficulty, and this is one of the messages of the Chandi as well as Tantra.