Every autumn, once the week of Durga Puja festivities is over, people all over eastern India, and especially in Bengal, wait expectantly for the next big festival, dedicated to another great goddess—Kali.

While Diwali’s festival of lights is fairly popular in eastern India, it is the celebration of the quintessential deity of darkness that takes precedence in Eastern India. Pandal after pandal takes pride in its attempts to come up with the most lurid depictions of Kali’s assemblage of cremation ground spirits, as well as the more outré members of the dasa mahavidyas (the group of ten great goddesses, to which Kali belongs) like Chinnamasta, the goddess who severs her own head.

The cult of Kali, despite its mass base, is essentially one of secrecy, and of personal sadhana (a system of spiritual practices centred on meditation). Because of her pre-eminent position in the Sakta tantras (tantric texts of communities that held feminine power, or Shakti to be all powerful) as the deity nonpareil, who best exemplifies the power of the tantra, Kali’s importance goes beyond being the wrathful emanation of Durga who helps vanquish demons in the various wars between the gods and the asuras. As the scholar David Kinsley shows in his book The Ten Mahavidyas: Tantric Visions Of The Divine Feminine (1997), the word “mahavidya" encompasses several definitions, including “great knowledge" and “great mantras", and in a way, these goddesses are mantras-made-flesh. According to tantric practice, their sadhana through mantras leads to a true understanding of the nature of reality, and with it, mastery over the phenomenal world in the form of magical attainments or siddhi. And of this group, Kali is the pre-eminent, the greatest vidya who encompasses all the others.

In mythology as well as in the resultant iconography, Kali appears as a wild, terrifying figure that haunts cremation grounds and is propitiated by both thieves and warlords on the peripheries of society, dressed in girdles of bones and a tiger skin, with severed heads for garlands and earrings. In her stories of nearly destroying the world in the grip of titanic rages and bloodlust, Kali is the “other", infinitely more dangerous spouse of Shiva, as opposed to her demure, pati vrata (devoted to one’s husband) alter-ego, Parvati.

Kali’s journey from a marginal, emaciated, bloodthirsty avenging figure, more ghoul than deity, in her early appearances in texts such as the Agni Purana (7th century) and the Devi Mahatmya (6th century) to her moving centre stage by the time of the composition of the Kalika Purana (c. 14th century) is a fascinating one. This coincides with the explosion in the popularity of the tantras in the early medieval era (commonly held by historians to range from the 6-13th centuries, when Saiva, Buddhist and Sakta tantric systems achieved great popularity and influence).

The common theme running through each of the systems is a recognition that our perceived world of dualities—male/female; pure/impure; sun/moon; good/evil; macrocosm/microcosm, etc.—is a false one. For adepts, to know true reality is to reach a state of being where all opposites unite. In Sakta tantric texts like the Mahabhagavata (after c. 14th century), and subsequent digests composed in eastern India like Tantrasara and Saktapramoda, Kali personifies this highest reality and ultimate truth. Blue as the sky, and equally all-encompassing, to the adept and the lay devotee alike, the terrible Kali is also the benevolent mother, the destroyer of false beliefs and the primordial power that moves the universe. According to the Nirvana Tantra (circa 14th century), all other deities arise and dissolve in her. In the Mahanirvana Tantra (18th century), Shiva describes Kali as the devourer of time and the one that alone remains after the dissolution of the universe.

But Kali is not the only goddess with such attributes. In particular, Mahayana Buddhism and especially its tantric offshoot, Vajrayana, have popular goddesses like Tara, Vajrayogini and Nairatmya with many of Kali’s spiritual attributes. And at least until the long decline of Buddhism which began with the destruction of Nalanda and other mahaviharas in the 13th century, Kali, along with her less esoteric counterpart Durga, competed with them for popularity. Some of them were later given a Hindu cast and appropriated within the cult of Kali.

In The Making Of The Goddess: Korravai-Durga In The Tamil Traditions (2011), R. Mahalakshmi carries out a masterful study of the process by which local goddesses are subsumed within dominant mother goddess figures like Durga. While narrating the tale of the popular Sangam-era warrior goddess Korravai, and her subsequent appropriation by brahminical Hinduism, Mahalakshmi touches on the similar role played by Kali, wherein she subsumes both the cult of Korravai as well as that of other independent goddesses, called pitari, roughly in the Chola era. These goddesses were originally hyper-local guardian deities of a region or a village, as is evinced in the pan-Indian worship of the mothers (matrika) sometimes numbered as seven, and sometimes as eight, who guard the peripheries of villages and towns. Mahalakshmi links these transformations to the efforts of migrating brahminical classes, settled in then-animistic regions by royal grants, who sought to first tame and then identify independent goddesses with figures like Durga and Lakshmi, and in doing so, tie them down in wedded obedience to male brahminical deities like Shiva and Vishnu.

A miniature watercolour of Tara Kurukulla (c. 12th century), Bengal
A miniature watercolour of Tara Kurukulla (c. 12th century), Bengal

Vidya Dehejia, in her book Yogini Cults And Temples: A Tantric Tradition (1986), similarly examines the traditions of the worship of yoginis—female deities and spirits who dwelt in liminal, “polluted" areas such as cremation grounds—and their subsequent transformation as tantric consorts and attendants to figures like Shiva and Kali. Indeed, in their tantric contexts, the yoginis, with their voluptuous bodies, animal heads, a penchant for blood and unabashed sexuality, serve almost as a prototype for Kali, and are often identified with her. In human terms, yoginis are also the women who undertake tantric practice, often in conjunction with a male partner or yogi, under the tutelage of a guru. As is evident from the Indian Vajrayana tradition, the liminal spirit yoginis are also representative of real communities of men and women, defying strictures of caste and marriage, who would seek non-dual insight in sites like cremation grounds, directing their sadhanas at Kali, or, in the Buddhist context, to the great goddesses, Vajrayogini and Nairatmya. Such communities can still be found in tantric temple sites like Kamakhya in Assam or Tarapeeth in West Bengal, as well as in the Baul community of Bengal.

The Vajrayana had a long and influential career in South Asia between the 7th and 13th centuries, especially in Kashmir, eastern India, the Konkan and Coromandel regions. The Buddhist tantras, which progressed from the early, strictly ritual-based charya and yoga tantras to the later, more radical yogini tantras, place their emphasis on two things: the essential emptiness (sunyata) of all phenomena and that the realization of ultimate reality, beyond all dualities, leads to The Great Bliss or mahasukha. The followers of the Buddhist yogini tantras shared the same sacred locales, and sometimes even gurus and meditative techniques, with their Hindu counterparts.

In fact, so invested was the Vajrayana in championing, and assimilating, tribal and “low" caste figures and deities, that it gave rise to two great tantric goddesses, Vajrayogini (the great yogini of the thunderbolt) and Nairatmya (no-self). These were goddesses who were accorded the full status of Buddhas, and who presided over their own ritual space, or mandala, with their spouses, the wrathful deities Chakrasamvara and Hevajra respectively, as well as by themselves, with their attendant yoginis—much like Kali.

Vajrayogini and Nairatmya, whose many paintings and stone images from Bengal, Bangladesh and Bihar have survived, along with hymns in Sanskrit texts like the Chakrasamvara Tantra (c. 10-11th centuries), the Hevajra Tantra (c. 9th-10th centuries) and the meditation compendium Sadhanamala (c. 11-12th centuries), as well as poems in Old Bengali called the Charyagiti (before c. 11th century), were popular goddesses in the same locales as Kali worship. Their secret sadhanas were performed in cremation grounds, and in look, feel and function, they are identical to Kali in many respects.

In fact, one of the emanations of Vajrayogini, the goddess Chinnamasta, entered Kali worship as one of the ten mahavidyas. Known in Buddhist texts as Chinnamunda-Vajravarahi and Trikaya-Vajrayogini (the Vajrayogini of the tree bodies), Chinnamasta is depicted as standing naked on a corpse, with her two attendants, Vajravairochini and Vajravarnani. She has cut her head off with a knife, and from her neck stream out three jets of blood. The left and right channels enter the mouths of her companions, while the central channel enters her own mouth. As Kinsley makes clear, traditions of deities demanding the heads of their devotees or cutting off their own heads were, once, fairly widespread. In the 11th century Tamil text, Kalingattuparani, there’s a fearsome depiction of a Kali temple where devotees and warriors chop off their own heads in sacrifice, as a sign of their devotion and fearlessness respectively.

A lithograph of Kali (late 19th century)
A lithograph of Kali (late 19th century)

Elizabeth English, in her book Vajrayogini, Her Visualizations, Rituals and Forms: A Study Of The Cult Of Vajrayogini In India (2002) and Elisabeth Anne Benard in Chinnamasta: The Aweful Buddhist And Hindu Tantric Goddess (1994), show how the Buddhist myth raises the act of self-decapitation to a greater yogic significance. In the secret sadhana reading of this act, the three channels of blood stand for the three veins that carry the body’s vital energy. The one on the left is lalana, the one on the right is rasana and the middle one is avadhuti. According to meditation practice, the mystic heat, called chandali, moves up the central vein to the head and creates the feeling of mahasukha. In this sense, a sadhaka, self-identifying as Chinnamunda, uses her mantra and practice to metaphorically drink the nectar of The Great Bliss. In the Hindu version of Chinnamasta, this yogic sense is left intact, with the names of the three veins changing according to Hindu nomenclature—ida (right), pingala (left) and susumna (central) respectively.

Among the other mahavidyas, none is as close to Kali in spirit as Tara. Second only to Kali in her importance, Tara represents the other blatant borrowing from Buddhism. In the Mahayana tradition, where Tara first appeared as a Bodhisattva and Avalokiteshwara’s consort in the 7th century, she quickly became big enough to rival Durga (who debuted in the Devi Mahatmya a century earlier) as the main goddess of South Asia. At the height of her popularity, she was the patron deity of the Bengali Pala kingdom (c. 8th-12th centuries), and her image was embossed on the official flags of the vast kingdom. A benevolent figure, who was famous for being a source of succour to everyone in suffering, Tara had many emanations as well. In particular, two such emanations became quite famous, one being the flaming red Tara Kurukulla, a fierce, cremation ground dwelling deity whose function and attributes closely resembled Kali.

The other was the blue Mahachinakrama Tara, patron deity of artists, who was imported wholesale, mantra and all, into the dasamahavidya vision of the fierce Tara, called Ugra Tara, and given pride of place in the pantheon. In fact, at Tara’s most famous temple in India, at Tarapeeth in West Bengal, her Ugra Tara form is worshipped, and the local legend refers to the sage Vashishtha travelling to Tibet to be initiated into Tara worship by the Buddha, in his Hindu identity as an avatar of Vishnu. It’s quite ironic then that the form of Tara that is most popular at Tarapeeth isn’t the wild Ugra Tara, standing on a corpse with her blue skin, blue lotus and a lolling tongue, but a benevolent Tara, portrayed as a loving mother giving succour to Shiva.

In this centuries-long tussle to emerge on top, Kali certainly succeeded. However, when Kali Puja rolls around and crowds of devotees throng the pandals to pay their respects to the great dark goddess, unbeknownst to them, they’re also sending prayers up to those who Kali absorbed.