Facing Fear to Find Freedom & The Deity Kali

goddess pose photoSince Halloween is fast approaching, it seems fitting to write about the fascinating subject of FEAR. Yoga classes all over the Western world will more than likely be concentrating on this particular focus this week, with handstands, arm balances, headstands, and those classic ‘fear-based’ postures, but before all of that – let’s first consider what fear actually is, and how the traditions of Yoga meet it head-on.

The Oxford Dictionary defines fear as: ‘An unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm’

The word ‘threat’ is absolutely key to our conversation here – as many of our fears are just that; threats. They’re things that haven’t yet happened, and probably never will happen, but we spend an awful lot of time thinking about them….

The brilliant book The Book of Human Emotions by Tiffany Watt Smith, describes fear in this way: ‘Fear has come to be seen as the most primal, most fundamental of all human emotions….. It was Charles Darwin, in 1872, who first insisted on fear’s primordial roots: ‘we may confidently believe,’ he wrote, that ‘fear was expressed from an extremely remote period in almost the same manner as it is now by man;.

Most of the other animals who live on this planet share these involuntary responses to threat. Such reactions evolved to preserve the life of our species. The eyes widen and hearing sharpens, the heart beats rapidly and breathing becomes shallow or held. We try to hide ourselves, or flee. Or else, riding a surge of adrenaline we turn and fight. The response is instinctive. Under threat, our bodies grab the controls, and put us on automatic pilot.’ [1]

That familiar ‘fight or flight’ sensation is something many of us are locked into on a daily basis. The body is now used to that shallow or held breath, and our minds are used to either being completely wired or completely exhausted. With many more people suffering from adrenal issues, chronic fatigue and physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, it’s becoming obvious that our nervous systems have paid the price for what we’re doing to ourselves these days. 

Kali

Kali is essentially the ‘dark’, ‘fearful’ or ‘fierce’ aspect of the female goddess Durga – Durga is the original and primary form of the ‘goddess’, ‘mother goddess’ or ‘shakti’. If you’re familiar with the term kali image‘Mother Nature’, that’s basically Durga – except she’s a little bit more powerful than that; she’s Mother of the Universe. Many Hindu female goddesses are almost the opposite to the Western fairy-tale females we see in films; these women are often powerful, fierce, and highly revered.

Late October sees the festival of Durga Ashtami (It was celebrated recently on October 21st), which celebrates the victory of Maa Durga over Mahishashura, a bull demon. Another Indian tale says it is the day when Kali and 64 other Yoginis emerged from the forehead of Maa Durga to kill the devils Chanda and Munda. Whatever mythological story you read, it’s all about good overcoming evil. [2]

The name Kali means ‘the black one’, ‘force of time’ and ‘beyond time’, and she’s honoured as the goddess of time, destruction, power, change, creation and preservation. Although she’s a ‘fierce and fearful’ goddess – and images of her are worthy of considering as a Halloween fancy-dress outfit – Kali is the destroyer of evil. She is strongly associated with Shiva, one of the most widely worshipped Hindu gods, who happens to be her consort (her husband) and is the male god of destruction. Shiva and Kali are both important deities worshipped in the Tantric tradition (link to Tantra), and both are often worshipped in times when we need to overcome fear and self-doubt, and to find inner power to get through any difficult or scary life situations.

Kali Yuga and ‘The Iron Age’ or ‘Age of Destruction’

Interestingly – it is said that in terms of ‘cycles’ of the world, we’re currently positioned in the Kali Yuga – ‘age of the demon’ or ‘age of the vice’, also known as ‘the iron age’. This is an age in which we’re governed or controlled by our own habits and vices – and is the last of the four stages or ‘Yugas’ the Sanskrit texts describe. The others are Satya Yuga (the ‘golden age’ or ‘era of truth’), Treta Yuga (‘silver age’), and Dvapara Yuga (the ‘copper age’). Ancient descriptions of the Kali Yuga actually pretty scarily accurate, here are some of them:

  1. Religion, truthfulness, cleanliness, tolerance, mercy, duration of life, physical strength and memory will all diminish day by day.
  2. In Kali Yuga, wealth alone will be considered the sign of a man’s good birth, proper behaviour and fine qualities. And law and justice will be applied only on the basis of one’s power.
  3. Men and women will live together merely because of superficial attraction, and success in business will depend on deceit. Womanliness and manliness will be judged according to one’s expertise in sex, and a man will be known as a brahmana just by his wearing a thread.
  4. A person’s spiritual position will be ascertained merely according to external symbols, and on that same basis people will change from one spiritual order to the next. A person’s propriety will be seriously questioned if he dos not earn a good living. And one who is very clever at juggling words will be considered a learned scholar.
  5. A person will be judged unholy if he does not have money, and hypocrisy will be accepted as virtue. Marriage will be arranged simply by verbal agreement, and a person will think he is fit to appear in public if he has merely taken a bath.
  6. A sacred place will be taken to consist of no more than a reservoir of water located at a distance, and beauty will be thought to depend on one’s hairstyle. Filling the belly will become the goal of life, and one who is audacious will be accepted as truthful. He who can maintain a family will be regarded as an expert man, and the principles of religion will be observed only for the sake of reputation.
  7. Kali-Yuga-700x512As the earth thus becomes crowded with a corrupt population, whoever among any of their social classes shows himself to be the strongest will gain political power.
  8. The citizens will suffer greatly from cold, wind, heat, rain and snow. They will be further tormented by quarrels, hunger, thirst, disease and severe anxiety.
  9. In Kali-yuga men will develop hatred for each other even over a few coins. Giving up all friendly relations, they will be ready to lose their own lives and kill even their own relatives. [3]

And there are many more, all from the ancient text the Bhagavata Purana, also known as the Srimad Bhagavatam. It’s worth mentioning that in some traditions there is also a confluence age – the age of change between the Iron age and the Golden age – in which many changes take place. This is said to be the time when mass destruction happens, lots of natural disasters and a huge amount of war between people, but also an age in which many people are thinking differently and becoming more empowered and ‘enlightened’. This is an age of change and destruction indeed, and when this age ends (apparently in 2025) a new Golden age is said to emerge….

(Also, consider each of these ages can also be thought of as states of mind within each of us at any particular time in our lives.)

The depiction of Kali sees her with the most fierce features of all the deities. She has four arms, with a sword in one hand and the head of a demon in the other. The other two hands are said to bestow blessings upon those who worship her and tell them to ‘fear not’, but in many pictures she’s also kali image 2holding a trident (belonging to Shiva). As far as feminine accessories go, she wears two slayed heads as earrings, a long string of skulls as a necklace, and a girdle or skirt made of human hands as clothing. Make up? She’s sporting blood on her face and breasts and her eyes (of which there are three) are red. Rather than smiling, her tongue protrudes from her mouth.

The male figure she stands with one foot on is in fact Shiva – and the reason behind this is where we realise that even goddesses make mistakes when it comes to men…. Kali is depicted in battle, stamping on demons and slaying them – it is said she gets so caught up in the slaying that she accidentally stamps on lord Shiva who is lying on the cremation ground (he spends a lot of time there meditating). At this point one version of the story says she bites her tongue and that’s why it sticks out of her mouth…. Oops.

Kali’s Symbolism

  • Her dark complexion: The fact that Kali is ‘all-embracing’. The Mahanirvana Tantra text says; “Just as all colours disappear in black, so all names and forms disappear in her”. She isn’t thrown or bound by man’s own prejudices and judgements.
  • Nudity: Just as fear is a primal instinct, Kali represents this primordial and fiercely natural state, and is not covered by ‘Avidya’ or‘the veil of delusion and ignorance’ and self-consciousness.
  • Necklace of 50 human skulls: There are 50 primary letters in the Sanskrit alphabet which encompass all universal sound and every movement of the mouth. The 50 human skulls resemble 50 of these primary letters and therefore ‘infinite knowledge’.
  • The skirt of human hands represents her destruction of the bonds of the cycle of karma.
  • The blood on her face and breasts represents the fact that – as is much followed in the Tantric traditions – she is open to all flavours, tastes and experiences of the universe.
  • White Teeth: Symbolising inner purity
  • Three Eyes: Relating to her aspect of the Goddess of time, the three eyes represent past, present and future.
  • Standing upon Shiva: Other than having made a mistake and stepping accidentally on her husband, some stories also link this image to the concept that all of mankind (i.e. Shiva) is powerless without the feminine counterpart.

When you’re facing times of darkness and fear, Kali is the go-to goddess. Chanting her name is said to help ignite inner power and confidence, as well as helping bring relief to all problems.

A Kali Maa Mantra:

“Om Klim Kalika-Yei Namaha”

The important thing to remember about Kali, about the Tantric tradition of Yoga, of fear, and of life itself – is that we cannot (and ‘should’ not) ignore the things we’re scared of. (We’re not talking about physical violence, scary animals or potentially life-threatening situations). It’s about those small fears that hold us back every single day. Fear to step outside of our comfort zones, fear of saying what we really feel, fear of failure and therefore fear of trying, fear of letting go, fear of changing habits, and fear of the things we know will free us. Indeed, fear of leaving our own darkness or personal ‘Kali Yuga’ is often met by finding our very own Golden Age.

“Sometimes what you fear the most is the very thing that will set you free”

– Robert Tew

References:
[1] The Book of Human Emotions by Tiffany Watt Smith (pg. 106)
[2] http://www.indiamarks.com/when-is-durga-ashtami-in-2015/
[3] http://www.indiadivine.org/15-most-amazing-predictions-for-kali-yuga-from-the-bhagavata-purana/
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