21 October 2006

The Destroyer of Time

One of the consequences of this project is that words I used to use without much thought, words like “miracle”, I can’t trot out so willy-nilly these days. I mean, before I started all of this, I’d have just let my fingers tell you that, by the end of this night, I’d sat still – as in no-moving-at-all still -- for more than ten hours and, for me, that was a miracle. Now that I’m quite certain that I have no idea what qualifies as a miracle, what I can say is: something’s changing and this is my evidence. The event? The Vedanta Society’s annual Kali puja.

The Hindu goddess Kali is terrifying – and she’s meant to be. Her annual celebration - or puja - is a big deal at the Vedanta Society because Ramakrishna had his first direct experience of the Divine after years of obsessively praying to “Mother Kali.” I’d been warned that the Kali puja at the Hollywood Vedanta Center was so popular, so dramatic, so theatrical, that people from all over southern California came, many with no interest whatsoever in Hinduism, making it impossible to get in the small chapel so, if I wanted to be able to see what was going on, I was going to have to get there early.
It was supposed to begin at ten o’clock at night so I got there four hours before. Even so, there were only a couple of spaces left in the small parking lot. With my notebook, a pen, a bottle of water, and a small bag of emergency cashews in hand, I walked to the chapel, passing by a wooden stand with a paper signed taped to it that pointed the way to the bookstore for those who wouldn’t be able to get in the building later that night. The white shoe racks were already standing outside to accommodate the crowds and keep the doorway clear.
Inside, most of the pews were gone and the raised altar area was lit up. A group of orange robed nuns and white-robed helpers were scurrying back and forth, preparing. But, even in all the tumult, you couldn’t miss her

In one of the corners of the normally muted ivory altar alcove was a human-sized representation of possibly the most dramatic deity in all of Hinduism, Kali, surrounded by blood-red silk that had been pinned to the fabric walls in her honor. Jet black with red accents, Kali is the mother of the universe, the power of time, the goddess of creation and destruction. She’s usually standing on the white body of Shiva, her consort, on a large silver lotus blossom. Every year a different local artist made a new representation of Kali and this one was stunning. Her four black arms each had red palms. A sword in the shape of a vicious question mark and dripping with painted blood was raised high over her head by one of her left arms while her other left arm held a recently severed man’s head by the hair with blood still dripping from the neck. Kali’s two right arms offered boons and protection. A vertical third eye was in the center of her ebony brow, her long black hair was thick and wild, and a necklace of fifty skulls hung from her neck. With embryos for earrings and a girdle of men's arms circling her waist, if you can get with Kali, the others, like the friendly elephant figure of Ganesh, the god of success, the remover of obstacles who rides on a mouse, or Hanuman, the playful obedient monkey, are a piece of cake.

A young man, dressed in sweats and a loose shirt, was busy marking off two narrow but long rectangles on the carpet up front with masking tape. When he stood to leave, pieces of paper with marker scrawl made clear that only monastics could sit within them. I grabbed a small round silk-covered cushion filled firm with seeds or husks of something and put it right behind one of the rectangles, insuring a clear view of Kali, and sat on it.
It was a few minutes after six in the evening.
Ramakrishna was an extremely emotional and devotional guy who cared little for what anyone else thought. Christopher Isherwood’s biography of Ramakrishna, written for a western audience, began almost apologetically by acknowledging that most of us western, factual materialists or even those devoted to almost any Judeo-Christian faith, might have a pretty hard time swallowing the stories about this fairly recent historical figure.
This is the story of a phenomenon. I will begin by calling him simply that, rather than ‘holy man’, ‘mystic’, ‘saint’, or ‘avatar’; all emotive words with mixed associations which may attract some readers, repel others.

I only ask you approach Ramakrishna with the same open-minded curiosity you might feel about any highly unusual human being: a Julius Ceasar, a Catherine of Siena, a Leonardo da Vinci, and Arthur Rimbaud. Dismiss from your mind, as far as you are able, such categories as holy-unholy, sane-insane, wide-foolish, pure-impure, positive-negative, useful-useless.
It is difficult, in fact, to reconcile this very emotional, experiential figure with the cerebral, almost protestant form of the faith one sees most days in Vedanta centers across the country. Perhaps it’s an accommodation to western tastes but, given that Hinduism’s central tenet is you must find whatever path suits you, it makes sense that the Vedanta centers would highlight the parts of their practice that might encourage instead of alienate us westerners.

Ramakrishna’s single-minded pursuit of direct knowledge of God made many people – even those who ultimately came to be his main disciples – consider the possibility of insanity before coming to revere him. He spent most of his life in the Kali temple in Dakshineswar, India, on the banks of a river near Calcutta (Kolkata)where he would spontaneously disengage from what was going on around him in a state of spiritual ecstasy that could manifest itself as dancing with abandon for hours or, more often, in an inability to talk, walk or move. After his death in 1886, Narendra, who had been both a follower and one of Ramakrishna’s biggest doubters, who became Swami Vivekananda, helped found this sect and finally introduced it to the United States in 1893. In his first visit here, Swami Vivekananda often wore a western clerical collar, so Americans would understand his role. He also concentrated on the tenets of the faith more than its rituals. Deities like Kali weren’t stressed in the United States…at least at first.

So, for those of us with a more theoretical rather than devotional bent, the Vedanta center’s almost protestant simplicity and well-stocked bookstore make it easy to forget about all of those exotic, multi-armed, sometimes well-endowed gods and goddesses. The worship of deities is, in some sense, optional in Hinduism. They aren’t meant to be “God” or “Gods” but representations of some of the powers of the Absolute Reality of which we are all a part. As an example of how different the concept of these deities is from the Judeo-Christian concept, the Upanishads, one of the central sacred texts somewhat equivalent to the Christian Bible, says: “The life of a god is eternal in comparison with a man’s life on earth but it is non-eternal from the standpoint of the Absolute.” So if you identify God as infinite, omnipotent, and eternal, these Hindu figures aren’t that. Their purpose is to offer different pathways for different people so they can personally come to know or experience the Infinite Unknowable called “Brahman.”

To tell the truth, it's an enormous relief not to have to consider directly worshiping these fearsome figures as “God.” But, given that they were, in some sense, the most well-known part of the faith even to outsiders, I felt I couldn’t pretend they didn’t exist any longer. My very western antipathy to idol worship had prevented me from coming to understand what those figures did have to offer.

As I settled in to the round rustling silk pillow on the floor to watch the nuns in orange and the novices in white prepare for the Kali worship ceremony, the striking sight of Kali in the back corner was soon rivaled by the incongruous profusion of flowers. They were everywhere. Too many vases to count crowded on every ledge on the altar, spilling out onto the floor all around. Kali’s flower is the red hibiscus although it’s clear that any red flower will do. Shiva’s is the white jasmine blossom though, again, color clearly trumps the species. After draping three firehose-sized garlands on Kali and smaller garlands on the photos of Ramakrishna, Vivekanada and Ramakrishna’s wife, (yes, Ramakrishna was, uniquely, in a lifelong celibate marriage) a young novice stuffed more flowers in the U of the garland so all that was visible was her scary black head. The head nun, a large, brisk elderly Australian woman, occasionally gave clipped directions in a regular voice that seemed like a shout in a room where people usually chanted, if they spoke at all.
So, what’s Kali’s story? There are many versions with slight variations but the one contained in a book called Kali: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar for sale in the Vedanta bookstore was this: Demons were running wild and even the gods themselves were having a hard time dealing with them. So Shiva along with Vishnu, Brahma, Indra and the “other mighty gods” beamed rays of blinding light and…

…all the gods’ rays joined at one point and, slowly, the blazing concentration of light took shape in the form of a woman. The light of Shiva formed her face, Yama gave her hair and Vishnu her arms. From the light of Chandra, the moon god, her two breasts were formed. Indra modeled her waist and Varuna her thighs. Earth gave her hips and Brahma feet. The light from the fire god, Agni, fashioned her three eyes.

But the gods didn’t stop there; they gave her weapons.

Shiva gave her a trident drawn forth from his own, Vishnu a powerful discus, and Indra, the king of the gods, gave her a thunderbolt identical to his own. Surya, the sun god, bestowed his rays on all the pores of her skin and Varuna, the god of the ocean, gave her a divine crest jewel, earrings, bracelets and a garland of unfading lotuses.

Kali fought the demons, slaying most easily with her sword or gnashing them in her teeth but, when she encountered one who could regenerate from drops of its own blood when cut, she simply picked him up and swallowed him.
Once all the demons were gone, however, Kali’s destruction didn’t stop. She was in such a frenzy, she kept “smashing and slashing the dead demons all over again.” The gods didn’t know what to do to stop her but Shiva, Kali’s consort, had an idea. Covered with ashes, he lay down among the corpses. Kali, still raging with blood lust…

…found herself standing on top of a beautiful male body – nude and besmeared with white ashes. Awed, she stood still for a moment, looked down at him, and saw straight into the eyes of her husband, Shiva.

And she stopped.

This vicious story means Kali’s evil, right? Well, not really. Kali is beloved. As the Mother of the Universe or as Time or the Destroyer of Time, she ‘s kind of like a mother tiger …but yours. Although nothing and no one will survive Time, Kali’s destruction is creative, wiping away sin, decay, and disease to allow for a new start. “She’s Cosmic Power, the complete picture. Nothing is missing. All good (symbolized by her right side) and all bad (symbolized by her left side) is within her.” She’s black but that means she’s clothed in space, without any real form, and will continue to exist even when the world ends as pure energy. The necklace of skulls, one for each letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, represents the idea of creation by the naming of things, an early instance of the idea of Logos or “the Word” found later in the Christian Bible. Her embryo earrings represent creation and the girdle of men’s arms represents “human action as well as its resulting karma that has been taken back by Kali.” Kali is an extremely popular deity in India and is considered the patron saint of working people.
From information available on line, I also learned that the Kali puja back in the Indian headquarters of the Ramakrishna Order ended with the sacrifice of a goat.
A live goat.
So I came to the Center a bit worried about that, looking for evidence that that might be part of the night. But I figured that the person who warned me about the crowds – the American woman named Leslie - would certainly have told me if goat killing was part of it, right? But, what if she forgot? Or assumed I knew? I mean, I can’t even go to scary or violent movies because I can’t convince myself that someone isn’t really being hurt, that it isn’t real. The images of every single terrifying movie scene I’ve ever seen even by accident while flipping the channels never leaves my mind. Then, again, I’ve eaten slaughtered animals almost all of my life, I just haven’t had to see the process by which they ended up on my plate. Is there really any difference?

At the BAPS Sri Swaminarayan Mandir in Whittier(note: location now in Chino Hills) , there was no goat-killing. There was an absolute ban on killing anything, even a fly, even by accident. I was pretty certain the Vedanta Society couldn’t and they wouldn’t even if it were allowed, still, there was a tiny part of my brain that never stopped checking for any evidence that a live goat might be part of the evening to come. But there, amid the profusion of flowers and scurrying nuns, I finally noticed another small, mostly brown figure on Kali’s left. It appeared to be a representation of a headless animal at the goddess’ feet. A papier mache goat meant there wouldn’t be a real one. Right?
During the four hours it took to prepare, I sat on the cushion on the floor in silence, absorbed in the coming and the going. Small groups of friends, families with their elders, younger families with small children came in to bring gifts, which they left in bags on the front of the carpeted stage before bowing down until their heads touched the floor. Some of the younger women appeared to be particularly taken by Kali in all of her finery. Many took photographs. One young father brought a daughter wearing her very first sparkly dress who couldn’t have been more than two up to the carpeted steps leading up to the altar and tried to teach her how to bow but the wide-eyed child was too excited to focus enough for the lesson.
Once sheets of plywood covered in red fabric were on the ground, the nuns covered them with trays of blossoms and fruit; brass and glass dishes and pots; countless candles; glasses of sacred water; bowls of colorful powders; piles of tulsi leaves still on their branches; trays with jewelry, perfumes, bathing products or stacks of saris; and bouquets of incense and then dimmed the lights.

Here and there I saw faces I was beginning to recognize. A woman from the small class in the living room sat down on the carpet with a friend; the good-looking man who had marked off the carpet with masking tape was back to take his place inside one of those rectangles reserved for the monastics, tossing his white – what was it? A dhoti? What is that separate wrap of cloth on top called? – over his shoulder just as I’d seen the other monastics do. Even though all of us sitting on the floor were close enough to touch, there was at once a sense of privacy and an almost intimate and immediate accommodation for any small adjustment that any neighbor made. Most, except the smallest children, sat still, some with cream-colored shawls trimmed with orange or red over their heads. By the time the ceremony began at ten, even most of the children were still, asleep in their parents’ laps.

Although there are countless skills I lack, I did have one small trait that prepared me for this project. My legs have always been just a tad too short to reach the floor in most chairs so I’ve spent a lifetime sitting cross-legged even on normal chairs…at my own kitchen table. Or so I told myself. There had to be some explanation for the hours passing without my feeling rammy or restless or my knees and back starting to ache. But I didn’t and they didn’t. At one point I thought I really should drink something, drink some water, but it seemed too disruptive, not to anyone else but me.

The ceremony began so quietly, with such little fanfare, I was surprised when I realized it had started. The officiating swami, Swami Aparananda, a slight, grey-haired man who had come from Berkeley to officiate, was followed by Swami Sarvadevananda carrying a ring binder with the complex ceremony’s order of rituals and chants. In the hours of dipping flower after flower in sandlewood paste or sacred water, chanting over each joint in the swamis bodies to purify them, lighting of one stick after another of incense, and the presentation of tray after tray of offerings each given to Kali one by one, I lost all sense of time. At first I made notes in my book but soon I was floating on an image of two men in a perfumed smoky sea of fire and flowers, presided over by a goddess whose image - with the exception of her red tongue – was submerged in blossoms. For anyone who might have tried and failed at meditating, this was what we were all doing, eyes open or shut, whether we knew it or not, whether or not we were trying. Time became elastic, nonexistent, as we drifted in the dim half-light. There was no point in counting or knowing or clock watching. The swami’s movement from one object to another with a purpose unknown but a purpose nonetheless was our only reality.

One woman sang:

She comes with stars in her hair,
of lives she wears,
With her sword she severs chains
And shows how to love again.
Dazzling dancer
Nature’s song she sings,

Love is the message she brings.

Finally, around two in the morning, just as I began to get delirious, the service seemed to be wrapping up when a woman came to the center of the stairs and said, “Please move into the living room for the Homa fire which will be followed by the flower offering immediately after and then Prasad.”
It was after two o’clock in the morning and there were three more ceremonies?

Leaving the cocoon of the carpeted chapel in bare feet was a shock. No matter how hot the day, around here the temperature plummets as much as thirty or forty degrees at night so we tiptoed quickly across the cold bricks to find our shoes and, along with hundreds of people in every state from exhaustion to special-occasion adrenaline, we walked to the same building where the swami ate dinner with everyone after classes.

The wood paneled living room wasn’t big enough to hold everyone so some stood outside, watching through the sliding glass doors as Swami Aparananda and Swami Sarvadevananda, the ring binder still in hand, faced the fireplace. In the small manual The Worship of Sri Ramakrishna, the homa fire was called “a very ancient belief and practice that any offering…to a Deity should be offered to fire.” The Vedas call fire “the mouth of the Deities.” The purpose of the homa fire is to wipe out differences, to see that, when you get right down to it, all that we see as form, all that we see as substance, really is nothing, indistinguishable from ash.

A wooden frame was ready and, though hard to light at first, it soon took hold, turning a banana, a flower, an apple and a number of other things I couldn’t see into ashes while Swami Sarvadevananda led us in repeating the name of God twenty-eight times. When the ceremony was over, the swamis scooped ashes out into dishes and put a fingerprint of them on every person’s head as they left the room, mine included. Walking out, lightheaded, almost nine hours after arriving, the ashes on my skin felt like they had real weight. I think I was trying to see what the blotch of ashes looked like from inside my head out but I soon gave up. It was three-fifteen in the morning. I fell into the flow of people back to the chapel for the flower dedication.

The swamis began by laying prone on the floor in front of Kali. When they stood up, assistants picked up new voluminous bowls of flowers and stood at the bottom of the altar stairs. People began walking up the stairs, taking a flower, bowing down on the floor and then giving their flower to a swami for Kali. I wasn’t sure until the long line finally had an end whether or not I would or could do this. I was in an altered state after all those hours of sitting so, when the end of the line finally started to pass me by, I found myself in it, unwilling to be just an observer any longer.

At the stairs to the altar I took a yellow flower with a red stamen from the bowl and then climbed the soft, padded stairs. Swami Sarvadevananda seemed a bit surprised to see me but I didn’t to look to see if there was more in his eyes. The silver lotus blossom was full to Kali’s knees with flowers and the various offerings. Did people get these things back? Like some of the food we were going to eat next, the food they call “prasad,” made into holy food by spending some time as an offering? Maybe those who brought them got them back afterwards but I wasn’t sure.

I knelt, touched my head to the ground and handed over the flower. I felt like a gawky colt. Up close, I could see that some of Kali’s flowers, especially those on the garlands that had been put round her neck almost ten hours earlier, were starting to wilt but the riot of color was grand against such a black but unexpectedly gentle face. I turned, walked down the stairs to join in the final prayer which ended:

Om, I bow down to you,
O Ramakrishna!

Who established the truth of religions

Who is the personification of all religions
The Embodiment of the best of all incarnations.

We walked outside to eat a full meal just a few hours before sunrise, ten hours after I first sat down in the chapel.There were baskets full of flowers from the altar by the doors. I took two still-perfect flowers – one pink, one giant yellow hibiscus with a violent red stamen and stain at its heart – and left.
And the flowers floated, whole and unblemished, in a globe full of water on my kitchen table for a week.
21 October 2006
(Note: Here's a picture of Kali I found online that isn't quite right - Ramakrishna's Kali has a total of four arms - her two "bad" arms (the one with a sword and the other with the severed head) on the left and her two "good" arms on the right - but I include this picture so you can see the girdle of men's arms and the necklace of skulls...)


  1. Thanks for the reportage! Though I’ve been to California a number of times, I’ve yet to go to any of the Kali temples. Recently, I’ve been poking around Brooklyn for Kali mandirs, reading Her texts, etc. All the best to you.


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