Theme: Sacred Goddess
Time for All Ages Rev Denis
This morning, I’d like to share with you the mythological story of the birth of Kali, the great goddess of the Hindu people, the goddess who instills great fear in so many hearts, but in so doing, challenges them to find love in unexpected places, by facing that fear.
There are many different stories about how she came to be, so this is just one.
Back at the dawn of time, when there were only a tiny fraction of the number of people on earth as there are now, men and women worked together in harmony. Women then, as now, were the bearers of children, gifted with the power to create new life. It made them special. Revered by the men.
But over centuries, men began to feel as if they were more special, because most of them were physically stronger than most women.
Men had begun to fight with each other for power, for the right to make decisions that affected all people, and they began to treat women as property, lesser creatures in the cosmic hierarchy. The whole world had come to be stuck in a great struggle for power and domination. It was utter Chaos.
This was a world where the divine was understood to be so complex as to not be a static person, but instead capable of constant transformation and expansion, able to split repeatedly into new forms, new incarnations, to serve different needs that arose, when the skills of existing gods were too limited to be of use.
Brahma, the grandfather, was the creator of life. Vishnu was the sustainer of life, responsible taking care of the whole world. Shiva was the destroyer, the one who created great transformation by allowing the old ways die off to make way for the new.
Shiva…well, Shiva had fallen asleep on the job. He didn’t really fall asleep, he just sat on a mountain, lost in meditation, reluctant to do much of anything. And that is what created the chaos. None of the old, bad ways would die off to make room for the new.
So Brahma the creator and Vishnu the sustainer approached Sati, whose name means She-Who-Is, and begged her to take the form of a woman who could lure Shiva out of his trance. She agreed, but only on the condition that she be honored as the Great Goddess.
She was born in human form as he daughter of Daksha, a son of Brahma. And at the age of sixteen, she married Shiva.
Sita and Shiva loved each other profoundly, and delighted in each other in every way possible. Actually, they got lost in each other, so much so that thousands of years had passed and nothing really changed. Men were still at war with each other, and still treating women as their property.
That’s when things got really bad, because Daksha, Sita’s earthly father, had worked his way into having power over everyone, including Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, all of whom had forgotten their promise to Sita that she would be the Great Goddess. And if she were honest, Sita had forgotten about her promise to encourage Shiva to be more responsible.
Daksha was so disappointed in Sita, so consumed by anger, that he planned a great cosmic fire ritual to him the leader of the universe for all time.
He didn’t invite Sita, so when she heard the news, she was so insulted that she sat in meditation, summoned her inner fire, and sent her life force out into the ether, never to return.
Shiva discovered Sita’s lifeless body, took it up, and careened through the world, bouncing off everything. Wherever he went in his tortured grief, he left behind a wake of destruction in the form of eathquakes and volcanoes and tidal waves and massive forest fires.
He didn’t stop until Sita’s body became a sacrifice that infused the sacred feminine into every inch of the earth itself.
It was out of this history of chaos that Kali was born, thousands of years later. Remember, the gods and goddesses could recreate themselves as new forms, or avatars.
Sita had come back in a way, in the form of Durga, another warrior goddess, whose life was threatened by two demons.
Their battle was furious, and Durga was afraid of losing when suddenly Kali emerged from her with a loud roar, fully formed, swinging a sword and crunching the demons with her teeth.
But as the drops of their blood hit the ground, they would turn into new demon warriors. So Kali used her long tongue to lick up the blood before it hit the ground.
It was an incredible way for Kali to come into being.
Ever since then, and to this day in the Hindu faith, Kali has been seen as the ultimate protective mother. More of a tiger mom than any other tiger mom that has ever lived, fiercely protecting all of the human children of the world.
In a way, Kali is the mother of all. She totally owns who she is: The toughest and most cunning warrior of all time, and a force of unconditional love. She is a paradox, a feminine power capable of destroying evil and dissolving pain. She is a force of liberation, and strength. (End)
Reading Justin Simons
Our reading this morning is by Sally Kempton, from her book Awakening to Kali: The Goddess of Radical Transformation. She Writes:
Sacred feminism … takes us beyond the association of femininity with gender, and it shows us that the very life-force of the universe is the feminine face of spirit. To be a sacred feminist is to be a lover of the feminine face of God as she appears in the world, in culture, and also in our own psyche and soul-while also recognizing that the feminine can never be separated from her masculine other half.
The Tantric traditions of India and Tibet, especially, understood the divine feminine as the force within life that can act creatively or destructively with equal facility. The sacred feminine can be nurturing but also appropriately ruthless and chaotic, as is the case with Kali. Goddess powers endlessly weave the strands of our personal and planetary destiny through space and time, and into the timeless and spaceless. Sacred feminism sees and loves the world as a sacred dance. Sacred feminism wants to embrace everything that is beautiful in the feminine, as well as everything that is terrifying. It wants you, whether you’re a man or a woman, to learn to see and embody all these qualities in yourself. (1)
Sermon (Rev Denis)
Thursday was Gita Jayanti, the celebration of the “birth” of the Bagavad Gita, a sacred text that is considered one of the cornerstones of Hindu faith. Like The Odyssey, the Greek classic , it is an epic poem that was retold aurally for generations before it was ever written down. The Gita tells the story of a Pandava warrior-prince named Arjuna in battle with the Kaurava army.
Arjuna is blessed by the companionship and spiritual guidance of Krishna, a god with pale blue skin. He is an avatar of Vishnu, the Sustainer, who gives him spiritual guidance by telling him metaphorical stories, about dharma and bhakti practices like chanting and stretching, both of which are forms of yoga.
I should say here that I am not any kind of expert on Hinduism. I don’t celebrate Gita Jayanti. I’ve never been to a Hindu country. But I’ve been to a few Ashrams in the US. I’ve read the Bagavad Gita and the Rig Veda. I’ve heard dozens of stories, and I’ve sung kirtan for hundreds of hours total so far….but I still have a heck of time keeping all these gods and goddesses straight.
The stories vary wildly, and even contradict one another, depending on the lineage they come from. I can’t imagine anybody is enough of an expert to know it all. It’s probably more complicated than the seemingly endless factions and interpretations of Christianity, and I know nobody knows everything about Christianity.
At any rate, in the Hindu panoply of divinity, Krishna is the god of compassion, tenderness and love. He is revered by millions as the most personally significant god, and known affectionately as “the butter thief.” The tale is that as a child he loved butter so much he would sneak tastes of it constantly.
He’s always portrayed as happy, generous, and beautiful, as is his most consistent companion and consort, Radha.
Radha is a goddess in her own right, an avatar of Lakshmi, who is the goddess of prosperity.
Radha means “prosperity,” and she’s often portrayed as a milkmaid….obviously there’s some sort of dairy symbology in their companionship. Scholars of Hindu texts consider Radha to be a kind of metaphor for the human soul, a symbol of our longing to be connected to something divine, something greater, perhaps even purer, than our mere mortal and physical selves.
Radha is beloved, and the subject of the chant we sang earlier, before hearing the story of the birth of Kali.
The chant translates loosely to something like “Hooray, for the victory of the great queen Radha!” Who wouldn’t love Radha? She’s pretty. She’s rich. She hangs out with a cool blue guy who can help you feel good about yourself when the going gets tough.
But ultimately, Radha’s purpose is to be devoted to Krishna. She’s more of a companion in the worship of Krishna than she is a positive role model for how to fight the forces of evil.
But these days, as we seem poised on the brink of nuclear war, and we learn every day about the sexual abuses of so many men, including men we’ve admired like Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor, we need somebody like Kali, the fierce goddess born in battle from the rage of Durga.
We need a role model not of maidenly devotion, but instead a mythical force of motherly power that can destroy the evils of the human ego and envelop us in unconditional love, and accept us as we are, warts and all.
Kali is, I think, the most fascinating character in Hindu literature. The image of her on the cover of the order of service is literally the tamest image I could find. She is always depicted as having a long tongue, which she used to lap up the blood of the demons before it hit the ground. She often is shown with a third eye, a symbol of spiritual wisdom.
But most often, she’s depicted as gruesome, with a mask-like warrior face full of rage, carrying a menacing scythe in one hand,
and a disembodied male head or genitals in the other. She wears a necklace of heads, and something that looks like a grass skirt. Only it’s made from human legs.
The pre-amble to Kali’s birth story, the story of Sati spanning thousands of years matters because it reveals, according to Sally Kempton, who has written extensively about Hindu Goddesses, “that moment when the patriarchy removed goddess worship from conventional rituals, leaving the Goddess to hide in the secret places of the earth.” Kali’s birth is a dramatic reclaiming of the power of the feminine to be something more than just a consort to masculine pursuits. (2) Sadly, a lot of people have turned that into an image of hating men. Which isn’t true.
The way the character of Kali is interpreted is as varied as human understanding of femininity itself. Some are threatened by the imagery that seems simultaneously emasculating and a symbol of the very violence that stereotypical masculinity identifies with. Others see her as pure love, the disembodied organs symbols of how separating self from the pitfall of ego personified through physicality.
Kempton names a few people who are devotees of Kali – like the contemporary teacher and healer called the “hugging saint” and known simply as Amma. I was hugged, along with thousands of other people by Amma a few years ago, an experience that left me feeling both enveloped a halo of selfless compassion … and weirdly manhandled by a bunch of older women.
Mostly I just felt like assistants pushed aside before I could even comprehend what was happening. There was a lot going on there, on a lot of different levels. You had to take the ugly with the sublime.
Kempton says that great lovers of Kali, like Amma, are able to “hold her light and dark sides together, finding within her a path that transcends duality.” Kempton writes that they invite us “to do the same, which may be why Kali so fascinates modern practitioners.
Kali challenges us by daring us to look her in the face and find the love behind the pain of life. The way we see Kali at any given moment has everything to do with where we are in our own journey.
Whether Kali seems terrifying, fascinating, or loving depends on our state of consciousness and our level of both emotional and spiritual development. But she always invites us to a radical form of ego-transcendence.” (3)
I know to many Unitarian Universalists, as people who value reason and science, all this mythology can seem….well, ridiculous and irrelevant. But mythology has value, even in modern western society.
It gives us a chance to explore archetypes, patterns of behavior that we can emulate. And that is a form of science, analytical psychology founded by Carl Jung, whose work continues to have influence in fields of study as diverse as archaeology, anthropology, literature, psychology and even religious studies.
Mythology isn’t so much about fact as it is about truth….universal truths that help us understand the human behavior. Others’ behavior, as well as our own. Mythology, most importantly as far as I’m concerned, transcends time, by helping us see how consistent our struggles have been across millennia.
In the time of Sati, many men felt like they owned the bodies of their mothers, wives and daughters.
And still, many men feel the same way. And still, they are being called out for it.
In the last few weeks, as women have been sharing their stories of abuse and harassment and doing the calling out, I’ll bet a lot have been reaching inward to find their own inner warriors, their inner Kali, or whatever archetype resonates for them.
When we connect to an archetype like the goddess Kali, it can happen in a lot of different ways, some of which might look like praying.
But summoning the energy of Kali or some other divinity isn’t about asking for intercession to solve life’s problems. It isn’t about saying “come, Kali, and chop off the head of my creepy boss who keeps touching me.”
It’s about connecting with the energy of the goddess to create something similar within you; to personify their admirable characteristics, by developing them in yourself. Working with the Kali myth for example, can lead to find whatever it is within yourself that is elemental and indestructible.
You learn to see your own strength, to nurture it, as you also discern what it is about the world and other people that you don’t have the power to change.
To Cultivate your inner Kali is to find your voice, to protect yourself fiercely, to put aside your own ego so that you can forgive the transgression, and even love the transgressor, while holding him scrupulously accountable.
Working with energy like that is a way of individuating yourself in the world.
It’s a form of self-protection and connection to something greater than yourself.
And that work can happen in a whole bunch of ways. Through meditation, yoga, journaling, writing fiction, or chanting kirtan.
These methods aren’t just for women. The same practices work for men who want to connect to the compassion, tenderness and love of Krishna.
Or the practices can work to connect to the characteristics of Kali that we invoked in our call to worship:
the dissolution of outworn structures
acceptance of death
the fury of battle
dynamic power of change
and release of constriction and stuckness
If you give yourself over, even for a few minutes to the idea of seeking change through the power of mythic archetypes like Kali, it can change your life for the better. And maybe even change the world.
(1) Kempton, Sally. Awakening to Kali: The Goddess of Radical Transformation (Kindle Locations 199-208). Sounds True. Kindle Edition.
(2) Kempton, Sally. Awakening to Kali: The Goddess of Radical Transformation (Kindle Locations 72-73). Sounds True. Kindle Edition.
(3) Kempton, Sally. Awakening to Kali: The Goddess of Radical Transformation (Kindle Locations 510-515). Sounds True. Kindle Edition.