Road to the Mother
Confessions of a Twenty-Something Kali Worshiper
by Swami Ambikananda Saraswati
This article originally appeared in Winter 1998 issue of Light of Consciousness Magazine (Desert Ashram, Tucson, 1997).
Flipping through one of my old journals recently, I came across a sentence scrawled out years ago, in bold, black ball-point pen, while in a fit of inspiration or desperation—it’s hard to distinguish between the two when you’re in high school—and reading it now so many years later I had to chuckle: “In disparity is the Great Dynamic.” I was very proud of this little dictum when I wrote it, probably because I didn’t really know exactly what I meant by it. I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of duality and the relationship between opposites. On other pages of the same journal are long lists of pairs: Light/Dark, Goodness/Evil, Feminine/Masculine, Religion-Art/Science. This last one is especially revealing. Art and Religion were not just both conveniently equal antonyms to Science; to me Art was my Religion. Having left the church of my upbringing, I had dubbed myself the “Happy Agnostic” and, holding my copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man securely under my arm, was ready to ascend the pinnacle of foppishness and live a life of deliciously poetic decadence.
College for me was a time of gradual disillusionment, degenerating into a profound cynicism. If the stereotypical artsy-bohemian temperament can have its benign charm, it also can have a devastating effect upon the soul. I was beginning to discover that “happy agnostic” was not at all a clever title, but a simple oxymoron, and I simply could not live this way. In a house full of five other students, the only occasionally private place was the bathroom, and I would stand in the shower, crying and praying, not knowing who, if anyone, was listening. Luckily, through the good graces of friends and loved ones more stable than myself, I was able to emerge from underground, eager for a fresh perspective. And that’s when something unexpected happened.
Up until this point, the only encounter I had had with Kali was courtesy of Hollywood and Mr. Spielberg, with his swashbuckling action-adventure film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I had seen the movie while in the sixth grade, and it had terrified me, with its bloodthirsty, demonic-looking Kali and its blood-drinking, demonic-looking Kali priest who performs live human heart removals. (I know, it was all meant in the spirit of fun-just at the expense of an entire religious tradition.) Suffice to say, at this time after graduation, my opinion of Kali, if I had one, was misinformed at best.
My good friend of many years, Jose (later Swami Bhajanananda), was taking me, on this warm September morning in 1994, to his friend Usha’s house. It was an apartment, actually, close to the beach, and even closer to the Hare Krishna temple in Laguna Beach, California. All he had said at breakfast was, “There’s someone you need to meet.” I had taken it for granted that he had meant Usha. But when we had made it up the stairs to the door marked #6, he pulled out a key and let himself in: Usha was not at home. I managed to remove my shoes—almost falling through the screen door in the process—and entered.
Once inside, I was taken aback. Everywhere I looked my eyes fell on some image of divinity. There were pictures of Indian saints and avatars, photographs of temples and gurus, intricate tapestries, statues of varying sizes and moods. Though mostly Hindu, there were Christian and Buddhist images as well. Jose seemed to enjoy my amazement. He walked around the corner into another room, beckoning me to follow.
And around that corner was the “someone” I needed to meet. Ma Kali walking on the chest of Her prostrate husband Shiva, ready to engulf the room within Her four arms, was surrounded not by human hearts and cups of blood, but by flowers and small plates of sweets. Yes, carved carefully into Her image was a garland of severed heads, and Her left hands held a bloody sword and a severed head. But Her right hands displayed fearlessness and offered blessings. And though Her lolling, blood-red tongue did possess a definite fierceness, it was surrounded by the most compassionate smile a mother could offer. However, I really didn’t see any of these things yet—I was too busy feeling to notice exactly what I was seeing.
But it did not take long for me to see that in Her was the truest symbol of reality that I had ever come across. As a student of literature, my mind was trained to look at things symbolically. And nothing could surpass Her in eloquence or intensity. She is black, the color of deepest Night; naked, clothed in space. A girdle of severed human arms is around Her waist, reminding you that all of your action, all of your work, belongs ultimately to Her. She walks on the chest of Her husband Shiva, Who lies, ashen white, corpse-like at Her feet. She is Divine Manifestation, He is Divine Consciousness, and the two of them are inseparable: energy and stasis, yin and yang. My longtime obsession with opposites and the dynamics of duality suddenly made sense. Her image acknowledged what I had always felt about life, that there is an Ultimate Presence behind all the joy and pain, beauty and ugliness, the light and darkness-behind all the disparity that we encounter. She is the Great Dynamic. She contains and transcends everything. As a result, the “darkness” and the “unpleasantness” are not dismissed or ignored. You look at her right side, and know that there is nothing to fear. You look at her left side, and know that the freshly cut head in her grasp is but your ego.
In the months that followed, I came many times to that little apartment in Laguna Beach. I eventually did meet Usha, and began attending amavasya pujas, traditional worship ceremonies held each month on the night of the dark moon, an auspicious and sacred night for Kali and Her devotees. Of course, during this time, I was absorbing a great deal of information, trying to keep the more confusing or seemingly contradictory aspects of this tradition at least somewhat organized in my head. It was not an easy adjustment moving from the Western-minded conception of divinity to the Eastern. The Truth which Kali represented to me made perfect sense; I had accepted it that first September morning. But this acceptance was only the springboard. Now I was being challenged to delve into the very heart of the matter, to express this new-found devotion in some way, and to take this tradition that was in a sense foreign to me, and make it my own.
In one of his essays Christopher Isherwood writes that, “Nine times out of ten, when we use the word ‘Religion,’ we are really referring to the crimes or follies committed in Religion’s name.” (“Hypothesis and Belief” from Vedanta for the Western World, Viking Press, New York, 1945, p.38) The tendency nowadays is to “correct” any discrepancies by making a distinction between “religion” and “spirituality.” We want to be spiritual; we don’t want to be religious, because religiosity connotes dogmatism, fanaticism, close-mindedness. Indeed, my years as a “happy agnostic” were due, in part, to the repugnance I had felt for “religion.” But what was I doing now? Had I rejected one religious institution only to embroil myself in another? Fear gripped me. I would pray to Ma, wondering if I was just being artificial. This Goddess from halfway around the world: should I—and did I even have the right to—call Her my Mother?
On Usha’s altar were two black-and-white photographs, of a man and a woman. The man was Sri Ramakrishna, the woman was Sri Sarada Devi, or Holy Mother. They were husband and wife, and were arguably the greatest devotees of Mother Kali the world has ever seen. The two of them are revered throughout India and abroad, considered to be male and female counterparts of the same divine incarnation. I found that as I looked at their lives, I began to see what the word “religion” truly meant, because their lives embodied it. As Sri Ramakrishna said:
Ah, what yearning! How restless a child feels for his mother! Nothing can make him forget his mother…. God is our Inner Guide. It doesn’t matter if you take a wrong path—only you must be restless for Him. He Himself will put you on the right path. Besides there are errors in all paths. Everyone thinks his watch is right; but as a matter of fact, no watch is absolutely right. But that doesn’t hamper one’s work. If a man is restless for God, he gains the company of sadhus (holy persons) and as far as possible corrects his own watch with the sadhu’s help. (Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna)
To my many questions, Mother had answers, and they came in various forms. Sometimes, it was the soothing words of Sri Ramakrishna or Holy Mother. Sometimes, it was just being in the presence of a holy person. At other times, the question would mysteriously disappear, a dilemma evaporated by time or experience.
If you travel inland from Laguna Beach along Broadway, before long you will find yourself in Laguna Canyon, along the snake-like Laguna Canyon Road. A strikingly beautiful place, with steep hills on either side spotted with sage and oak trees; there is a pervading, holy serenity, ancient and quite defiant of the encroaching development. Eventually you will come to a little gated driveway on your right. This leads to Anneliese’s School, where, once a year, the schoolhouse is transformed into a Kali temple, and a traditional amavasya puja is held. But this is a very different affair from the monthly pujas I mentioned earlier. This puja lasts for three days, and the pujari (priest) performing the ritual is the main pujari from the Dakshineswar Kali Temple near Calcutta. Sri Haradhan Chakraborti and his assistant pujari Pranab Gosal come to America exclusively to conduct this ritual. The Dakshineswar Kali Temple is where Sri Ramakrishna and Holy Mother lived for many years, and where Sri Ramakrishna acted as pujari. So this particular puja in Laguna is what you might call an Event.
And what, then, is a puja? I’ve only alluded to terms like “ritual” and “worship.” Indeed, puja, as with any other experience, is very personal. And because this experience is in relation to the Divine, it is quite intense. The ritual involves sacrifice-not of live human hearts, but of one’s selfishness; puja should be an act of unconditional giving. Puja involves adoration, which is what happens when love meets reverence. Puja is sacred, and therefore pure, and thus the pujari is purified. And being a ritual, it has conventions, a kind of “sacred language.” There are various ways of interpreting these conventions. Some people prefer to view the offering as symbolic. My mood is that of treating God as the most respected house guest. You get rid of all distractions, and then offer Ma flowers, sweets, incense and light, and you bathe Her, give Her perfume. It is tremendously intimate, beautifully simple.
Assisting during this annual puja is a great service, and it is impossible not to get swept up by the current of intensity swarming around Ma. Sometimes, after carrying a tray of flowers to the altar, I will linger nearby, gazing at Ma, Who seems to be rising triumphantly from out of a mountain of flowers, while Haradhanji sits before Her, surrounded by tray after tray of sweets, flowers, and fruit. Haradhanji’s Sanskrit chanting is pure, rolling and melodic, and seems to glide along the incense smoke which curls around the altar. Meanwhile devotees are chanting kirtan (devotional hymns) to the rhythm of drum and cymbal. The drone of the harmonium mingles with the pujari’s clanging bell. A line of devotees reaches out the door, as they approach the altar to offer baskets of individual offerings of candy and incense. Haradhanji silences the bell, expertly slamming it down on a brass plate. A devotee, a kitchen worker still in his apron, is on his knees, head to the floor, bowing before Ma at the altar. Once he rises, Pranabji is there to give him a spoonful of charanamrita, Mother’s sacred bath water, to sip. On the other side of the altar a devotee is seated, reciting, hour after hour, verses from the Chandi, the sacred scripture for Mother worshipers, in a low, resonant voice. Throughout the hall, Indians and Westerners, monks in orange robes, mothers and fathers with children in their laps or on their shoulders, teenagers, some with shaved heads, others with dreadlocks-all are watching Ma. All of this is going on simultaneously; the experience of puja permeates each and every sense. It is a meditation wherein the senses are not shut down, but opened up to receive Divinity, opened up with a willingness to surrender.
And when Haradhanji offers a simple red hibiscus flower, he closes his eyes and with an ever-so-slow serpentine movement, guides the flower lovingly in his hand, showing Mother his gift. This is done with such pure grace that it brings tears to my eyes to write these words. Ma is satisfied.
But what happened to the symbolism of it all, you ask. Wasn’t Ma the “truest symbol of reality?” Yes, for a long time Kali symbolized Truth. But at some point, Ma became something much more than a symbol to me. She’s more than a representation, more than a devotional mood or theological “aspect.” To be sure, the symbolism is there, and quite true, too. And Ma knew that the magic of the symbol would bring me to Her feet. But once I was there, She used Her own sword to slash through the symbol and reveal Her very living and immediate Presence. My mind liked things complex for so long. There came a time when it became exhausted. And once my frenetic little mind slowed down, it was able to grasp the beauty and profundity of pure simplicity, the grace of a flower offered to the Divine Mother.
Ultimately “religion” and “spirituality” and “God” must cease being words and become an experience. We must find a point of connection that suits our individual temperament. I am so grateful to have found, after all my wandering, a relationship with God. That I have chosen Kali could seem arbitrary to some, or just plain odd to others. But I can only say, with a smile and a shrug, “She works for me!” And judging from the growing number of attendees at the monthly and annual pujas in Laguna, She may not be that arbitrary or odd at all. With Kali, God is not just an experience, but an adventure. You never quite know what to expect. And perhaps that’s part of the attraction. She is a Mother who loves to play—what mother doesn’t love to play with her children—and She plays so very well.