Finding Power in the Pain: Lessons from the Goddess Kali

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For International Women's Day we look to Kali, the terrifying Goddess of Destruction, who in her fierceness and tenderness helps us face our hardest challenges, and create deep meaningful shifts in our lives.

Say you were at a party and someone asked you what God or Goddess you worship (okay, maybe that’s not a normal question you’d get at a party, but let’s roll with it...). If you said Kali and showed them a picture of her, there’s a pretty good chance they’d make a quick beeline for the other side of the room! With her fangs dripping blood, her skirt made of severed arms, her necklace of skulls, her wild and matted hair, the primal look in her eyes, and the long, curling tongue, she makes quite the impression.

Women are often expected to be docile. Don’t rock the boat, don’t cause a scene, don’t be so dramatic.... Have you ever been told something like this? I know I have! That’s one of the reasons I love Kali so much. She is all about rocking the boat. When she comes on scene, things often get extra dramatic. Sometimes it takes tough love, and even a little shock and awe, in order to create meaningful change.

For so many of us women, the patriarchy has again and again tried to squash our primal power. They want us to be nice. They want us to be quiet. Kali says to hell with all that!

Kali is perhaps one of the most misunderstood goddesses, because although she looks terrifying she only has your best interests at heart. The iconography of Kali, who is the first of the 10 so-called “Wisdom Goddesses” of the Hindu pantheon, is purposefully shocking. It’s meant to disrupt you and to startle you enough to create an interference in your regular thought pattern. The deliberately fierce, wild, and scary depictions of her also serve another purpose, and this one really speaks to my heart. I think it tells us something about how the divine doesn’t always show up as rainbows and kittens or glorious sunshiny days. Sometimes the divine comes disguised as a loss, an ending, or a really challenging shift in our lives.

Have you ever gone through a hard time and felt like the rug got pulled out from beneath your feet? Maybe it was a divorce, the loss of a loved one, or perhaps losing something that you felt was important in your life. I wonder if you can look back now, and see that the challenge you went through created a shift in your life that was necessary, and most likely wouldn’t have happened if it was up to you. Perhaps you can even look back with gratitude and some hard-earned wisdom.

Now, a little disclaimer here: Some crappy things are just crappy and you can’t make lemonade out of them. I’m not talking about those things. I’m talking about the big, pivotal, life changing moments that you thought you would never make it through. I’m talking about the transformations that at the time seemed like the worst thing that could ever happen, but in reality were the best.

As Shiva’s beloved and counterpart, Kali is the goddess of destruction. In one story, there is a terrible demon wreaking havoc on the world. No one can defeat him because every time he is cut, more demons arise from the droplets of his blood as it touches the ground. The Goddess Durga, usually the one to take care of business, becomes frustrated.

Samhara Kali by Raja Ravi Varma

Durga squeezes her eyes shut (I know that feeling!) Suddenly her third eye opens and out jumps Kali. Kali unrolls her giant tongue over the entirety of the battlefield and gives the signal for the other deities to attack the demons. When demon blood is shed it never gets the chance to become more demons, because it lands on Kali’s tongue before it touches the ground. Once all the demons are vanquished, Kali performs a victory dance that is so powerful it threatens to crack the Earth in half. Thinking quickly, Shiva lies down beneath her, and when she sees her beloved on the ground, she turns infinitely tender.

It's important to note here that Shiva didn’t say, “Hey Kali, calm down! You’re being so dramatic!” That never works. Her wildness is part of her power. For so many of us women, the patriarchy has again and again tried to squash our primal power. They want us to be nice. They want us to be quiet. Kali says to hell with all that! She does remember her tenderness after the battle, but its return comes from seeing her beloved, not from being told to settle down.

Kali drinks the demons, whether they be shame, doubt, addiction, or any other affliction we might find ourselves suffering from. There is nothing she won’t take, and if that’s not benevolent I don’t know what is. I have a wonderful therapist who once addressed my lack of faith in a certain situation. He said, “I’m your library. Whenever you don’t have faith of your own, come and take the book out from my library because I’ve got plenty.” (Boy, were there some tears after that.) Kali is like that in a certain way: if you can’t handle something, imagine offering it to her. If there is some part of you that feels unloveable, give it to her.

Kali will drink the pain for you. She wants nothing but for your to discover your wisdom and your power. Sometimes unearthing those gems hurts. You might be called upon to give up things that you thought were essential to your definition of yourself. That’s represented by Kali’s skull necklace and severed arm skirt. You can think of them as the things you let go of (if you’re anything like me, there were probably some claw marks in them!) Kali is tough love. She is an endlessly dancing, primal force of nature, reminding us that Truth, capital-T Truth, is not something we get from material things, but instead from our ability to let those things come and go without clinging or grasping. Kali is just like us, eternally dancing through challenges in order to become our most wise and tender selves.

About the Author

Kelly Kamm

Kelly Kamm is a yoga lifer! She’s been a full time teacher for 15 years and still finds something new to love about the practice almost every day. She lives in the beautiful Hudson Valley with her son and two sweet little cats. You can practice with Kelly in her show, Yin Yoga and Mythology.


Comments

1 person likes this.
Such a powerful, powerful archetype. Eyes rolling, tongue lolling, standing unshakeable on the Earth! Thank you for helping us "UNDER-stand" as well!

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