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Mythology Monday: Conquests of Kali

So, we all know the story right? There's a big bad demon, and everytime a drop of his blood touches the ground, a copy of him springs up. Enter the dark Goddess who drinks all the blood before it can touch the ground and then owns the demon, only to go on an uncontrolled rampage until her husband throws himself in front of her and she stomps on him and comes to her senses because love/social expectations of respect towards the husband.

A traditional painting of the Hindu goddess Kali, depicting her with black skin, wearing a necklace of severed heads and limbs, brandishing a blade which drips blood onto her long tongue as she stands on the unconscious body of her husband, the god Shiva

We've all collectively decided we wouldn't argue with this person, right?

This is, arguably, the most popular story featuring the Hindu Goddess Kali, not just in the West but anywhere (with the possible exception of the ones featuring impromptu heart extractions). Children in India grow up with this story, with minor variations, as an explanation for why images of Kali always portray her as standing on top of her husband Shiva.

But what if I told you that that story isn't so much a story as it is a descendant of stories that grew up to become much more popular than any of its predecessors? There are three separate plot points in the popular myth of Kali: the fight with Raktabija, the stomping of Shiva, and the calming of Kali's rampage, and each of these has an origin in three separate myths from three separate texts. Let's have a look at them, shall we?

The Battle with Raktabija - The Devi Mahatmyam

The Devi Mahatmyam is one of the oldest of the Goddess-centric texts in Hinduism, and tells the story of multiple exploits of the Goddess all wrapped up in the framing story of two down-on-their-luck individuals seeking the true meaning of life (spoiler: awesome ladies kicking ass, that is the meaning of life). Among the many exploits in this book is the slaying of Raktabija or Blood Seed, who is an Asura, a race of beings often in conflict with the Gods. He has the power to spawn a copy of himself from every drop of blood that touches the ground; every time the host of Goddesses strikes him in battle, these clones arise and while they don't actually pose a threat to them, they do seem in danger of overflowing the earth, which would be a problem. So far, so familiar, right?

A painting of the battle between Kali and Raktabija, showing Kali, black-skinned and wearing only a tiger-skin, extending her tongue so that it catches every drop of blood from her enemy, who she also holds down defeated with one hand

You can't argue with this, only marvel from a safe distance

Only, in this version of the story, Kali doesn't appear at this point... she's been with us since the preceding chapter, where she appeared out of the furrowed brows of Durga and took out a duo of baddies called Chanda and Munda (strictly speaking, she made a cameo a few chapters before even that, but let's save that for if we ever do a storytime for the book as a whole). Seeing the situation, Durga calls on Kali again and instructs her to swallow every drop of blood before it can spawn a clone, which she does, while Durga stabs Raktabija to death. This is arguably the largest part of the popular legend, but that's around where it stops being similar... you see, after Raktabija dies, Kali rejoins the rest of the battle. There is no rampage, Shiva does not make an appearance, Kali's not even the one who kills Raktabija (Durga does), and Kali only acts to suppress the clones.

The Shiva Stomp - The Adbhuta Ramayana

The Adbhuta Ramayana is a text attributed to the Sage Valmiki, the same person to whom the oldest written version of the Ramayana is also attributed. As a text it claims to fill in some hitherto unknown details that Valmiki had been unable to fit into his main work, and starts off with a bunch of stories only tangentially related to the main plot, before summarizing the plot of the Ramayana very briefly. What follows is the main meat of the book: an expedition carried out by Rama against Thousand-Bodied Ravana, a hitherto unknown twin brother of the more famous villain of the original Ramayana who is said to be many times more powerful as his brother, and the slaying of whom is given as a challenge to Rama when he boasts of his defeat of the O.G.

A black-and-white etching of the goddess Kali, wearing a necklace of skulls and a crown, standing on Shiva who is blowing a horn, both surrounded by small depictions of gods and animals from HIndu mythology

Pictured: a woman who has had just about enough of the Ravanas of the world

This brother, however, turns out to be a bit of an uber-boss and straight up kills Rama in combat; at this, Rama's wife Sita decides to turn into Kali and easily slays Thousand-Bodied Ravana herself, before creating a thousand copies of herself and beginning to play soccer with the thousand heads. It is this play that begins to shake the earth and threaten to crack it open... and at this point that Shiva throws himself onto the earth so that she stomps on him instead. However, this is not an attempt to calm her down, but an attempt to protect the earth by acting as a shock absorber. Brahma is the one who finally gets to calm her down by bringing Rama back to life, following which she turns back to Sita.

The Rampage before the Calm - The Chandi Purana

The Chandi Purana is a regional text in the Oriya language that relates many tales of the Goddess... sadly, no full translation has ever been made into other languages, to my knowledge, but the extracts that have been translated tell us about a very interesting version of a tale found also in the Devi Mahatmyam. It tells that the Asura Mahisha gained the boon that he could only ever be killed by a woman, and a woman who willingly strips in front of him, at that. The Gods beg Durga to defeat him, and she battles him but cannot land the killing blow... until a local Goddess informs her about the additional clause. Hearing this, she strips and kills Mahisha, who actually has a divine epiphany before death (a thing that happens to him also in the Kalika Purana). The Gods, hearing that Mahisha is dead, arrive to congratulate her, but seeing her naked are ashamed and attempt to leave, at which point Durga accuses them of not just giving out boons willy nilly but also keeping from her information that she needed to defeat her enemy.

A miniature painting of the gods Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma standing before Kali in supplication, while she is seated on a burning bonfire of corpses with a serpent around her neck and a sword in her hand

Please accept our heartfelt apologies for our objectively terrible decisions

At which point she turns into Kali and proceeds to kill all the Gods. Shiva alone does not run away from her and in fact does a silly dance before her, which amuses her enough that she gives him leave to remember his family friends and deities before she kills him. At this, Shiva says simply that he has no family besides Durga, knows no friends other than her, and bows to no God except her... she is the Universe and his All, and therefore should she wish to kill him, he will happily accept, for she is his Ruler in any case. This answer so pleases Kali that she agrees to stop her rampage and marries Shiva, bringing the dead Gods back to life... and it is interesting to note here that A) Kali's rampage is against the Gods in Heaven specifically, with is no evidence that the world at large was at danger, and B) She is calmed not by shame at her behaviour towards her husband but by Shiva's showing of subservience, and he's not even her husband yet at that point.

Kali is a Goddess with an... interesting history, as far as her perception both within and without India are concerned. She's an incredibly complex figure who's just getting appreciated for that complexity outside of her traditional haunts fairly recently, and part of understanding that complexity is understanding the sheer variety of roles she's played in stories, from the well-known caution tale about maintaining control over her power to the Ruler of the Universe who holds the lives of even Gods in her grasp.

And all of that brings up an interesting question for Hero's Journey: mythology rarely has a set timeline with a clear set of events that people universally agree on, entire religions have sometimes splintered along these alternate versions, and much of theology is dedicated to discussing the various stories (as the Mesopotamians have shown us before), much of which is above your average Destiny's pay-grade... so, what do we do about these apparent contradictions? Pick one single version as canon for your game? Try and bring in technobabble to explain it, like alternate universes or timelines? Or just roll with it, have outcomes of all versions become relevant to your game and just have the Gods smile mischievously when someone asks about it?

To be frank, that is a post in itself (send it in so Anne has to write it now), but I can hope that this post at least got some of you thinking in that direction... oh, and reminded anyone who hadn't gotten the memo that Kali is awesome, in all senses of that term. I can only hope that the stories you read today shed a bit more light on She Who is the Dark Night of Time!

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William Bennett
William Bennett
May 04, 2021

Why are the Hindu gods and goddesses so metal.

May 04, 2021
Replying to

It's a terrifying job but someone's got to do it.

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