The most terrifying form of the Devi (Goddess) is called Kali. She is black and fond of blood. She wears a necklace of seven human heads. Theologically, Kali reveals that life is inherently painful. In a not too distant past, human sacrifices were offered to Kali in South India. These sacrifices were practiced up until the 19th century. In the late 18th and early 19th century, a group known as Thugs was known for committing crimes in the name of Kali. They often murdered innocent victims by strangulation as a sacrifice to their patron Kali. The Thugs were often respectable men who had regular jobs during the day, but served the goddess at night. Although the British banned the Thugs in the 19th century, their name lives on in the English language as a synonym for a brutal criminal.
Although human sacrifices in honor of Kali had by far disappeared, animals are regularly offered to her in Calcutta. Nonetheless, animals are only a substitute for humans. The Puranas say that the goddess is pleased for a while with the sacrifice of goats or buffaloes, but a human sacrifice pleases her for a thousand years. Even today there are sporadic reports of human sacrifices to honor the goddess.
The autonomous goddesses were often and still are associated with the outbreak of epidemics, specially smallpox, the disease that has ravaged India more than any other. Epidemics have frequently believed to be the result of the goddesses’ anger directed toward a particular village or district. There are innumerable local village goddesses and many of them are smallpox goddesses. When epidemics occur, Devi worship intensifies. Still today many Hindu villagers would refuse to take smallpox inoculations because they believe the goddess has a greater power to prevent the disease. To submit to human science would be to anger her.
The Unsatisfied Goddesses
The contrast between the independent goddesses and their married female counterparts is striking. It is a difference that has not gone unnoticed among scholars, specially those working in the area of women studies. A common explanation for this difference is as follows. The rage to which the Goddess is subject derives in essence from her childlessness. Without children she is seen as not having fulfilled the central role of the female. Hindus do not deem it appropriate for the goddesses and gods to have children, except in a few remarkable cases, since children would mean a loss of immortality.
The view implied here is a common one in the history of religion. Children are what humans have instead of immortality. Perhaps it is ironic then that Hindu women seek help from the Goddess to have children. Being childless and perhaps sexually frustrated, the Goddess’ emotional energies are triggered and usually directed towards those who might upset her in the slightest way. It is therefore in one’s best interest to cool the Goddess’ ardor with appropriate gifts and offers.
What might motivate a Hindu to choose such a deity to worship? The sufferings that one endures in this life are regarded as the chastisement of an ultimately loving mother, to whom one clings in all circumstances.
Shakti: The Female Creative Power
Being childless, the married goddesses are also subject to the propensity of rage. But their relationship to male gods keeps them cool, channeling their anger into nurture. Perhaps this Theology sounds blatantly steorotypical of a patriarchal society that believes that a woman is never fit for independence. Yet, there is also a relatively complex understanding of the divine nature that supports this view, one that is not wholly stereotypical. In this understanding, the female aspect of divinity is considered its creative and activating power. The word for this power is Shakti, and it is the root word in Shaktism, the religion in which the Goddess is worshipped as supreme. A devotee of the Goddess is called a Shakta.
Shakti is the active principle in Hinduism, not unlike what the Chinese call Yang. Yet the word Yang is associated with the masculine, Shakti is feminine. The masculine principle, or shiva (note the small “s”), is, by contrast, passive. In fact, the masculine principle is so passive as to be dead. “Shiva without Shakti is a curse”, as a proverb says. Male gods require goddesses to empower and enlighten them. This is why in the temple images the gods are usually accompanied by their consorts. The indispensable nature of the Shakti is suggested in a macabre image depicting Kali dancing on Shiva’s dead body. This idea is also suggested by the goddesses’ red forehead markings, as contrasted with the white forehead markings for the gods. Red is the color of power and energy. White is a cooling color often associated with death.
As the goddesses are essential for the functioning of the gods, at the same time goddesses require passive gods to give form to their dynamic power. Without form and restrain, the energy embodied in the Goddess can become dangerous. Thus we witness the fury of the independent goddesses. With too much restrain, though, the goddess may become too passive. It is for this reason that we find both the dependent and independent form of goddesses in Hinduism.