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Past the Sound and Fury: Meaning of Iconography of Goddess Kali

Armin Navabi maa kali

Only by realizing the full sense of every symbol can we know the whole thought of Humanity about God.
– Sister Nivedita, in Kali the Mother

Sound and Fury vs Discursive Reason

The voice of reason often gets mired in the sound and fury of outrage. Outrage is sometimes a natural reaction to some preceding action that was meant to provoke (or to ‘trigger’, as the neologism goes) a specific target community. And make no mistake about it: when the self-proclaimed atheist Armin Navabi (of ‘Apostate Prophet’ fame) posted a sexually suggestive image of something that had the likeness of the Hindu Goddess Kali on Twitter, he did it precisely to provoke the Hindu community.

He was successful in his mission to a fair degree, as is evident from the complaint filed by the VHP, the scathing criticism by a Hindu celebrity (and a woman at that), and by the social media trends that were unleashed in its wake. Reportedly, the number of Navabi’s Patreon patrons from India and elsewhere have gone up; and atheists across the globe, as well as orthodox religionists from all sorts of non-Hindu creeds, have upped the ante against ‘Hindu fundamentalists’, ‘Hindutva’ and whatnot, through their redoubled anti-Hindu rants, full of bile and hatred.

What is most conspicuously missing in all this outrage, rhetoric, and counter-rhetoric is that, despite what Navabi has claimed in his ill-informed captions to his Twitter posts, the couple of images shared by him are not of any existent Hindu Deity, let alone of the Mother Goddess Kali. Any depiction of a Hindu deity without the appropriate weapons, the mount, and other such essential paraphernalia is an incomplete depiction; and as per the various Hindu Tantra-Agama traditions, an incomplete depiction of a deity is no deity at all – no self-aware Hindu would recognize it as such and it will not qualify for receiving worship.

In addition, the deity in question has to have three eyes, the third eye to be put on the forehead such as to locate it right across the pituitary gland. Navabi’s images lack the weapons of Ma Kali, they fail to present her mount and companions, and most importantly, the third eye is missing in those images. A self-aware Hindu cannot but spot the absence of these markers, and as such her reaction to the images in Navabi’s posts would be: what is this creature?

Thus, a lot of the outrage from the Hindu side was entirely avoidable, in view of the fact that a random representation, without meeting the sine qua non of Hindu iconography, will not qualify as a Hindu deity or any other sacred Hindu symbol for that matter. Another good example of this folly is the misnomer of ‘Svastikā’ imposed on the Nazi Party symbol of Hakenkreuz, literally the ‘hooked cross’, a crooked (pun intended) variation of the sacred Christian symbol of the cross.

Hindus all over the world continue to draw a lot of flak from across the entire political spectrum because of this dumb and persistent ignorance of the very vivid differences between the Hakenkreuz and the Svastikā mainly on the part of the non-Hindus, but regrettably enough, on the part of some titular Hindus as well, who are completely clueless about the meaning of key symbols of their own culture and tradition.

But even outside the din of all the outrage, discursive reason too dictates that there’s something deeply wrong with Navabi’s depiction of Kali, in both its graphical as well as verbal manifestations. In the following paragraphs, we will try to explain what these reasons might be.

Notwithstanding the utter failure of representation of the intended subject (i.e. a Hindu deity) in the images posted by Navabi, it is necessary point out on what grounds it would be wrong to term the Mother Goddess Kali ‘sexy’. Doing so will help all sides to engage in a sincere and meaningful debate, through which, we would like to hope, better sense may prevail.

Subversion of Meaning and the Two Kinds of Revolution

It is the nature of atheist, nihilist, and postmodernist campaigns to thrive by subverting existing norms, boundaries, symbols, and images that are held sacred by those others who are outside their unstable tribes of rebels. They themselves are good provocateurs, and they achieve such subversion by provoking the others.

For, the rebels do not have anything to offer that would be both novel as well as enduring – they have failed to create anything long-lasting, throughout the ages they have failed time and again in leaving after themselves an enduring mainstream legacy – and that is the very reason why they so intensely and sincerely hate symbols, images, and norms that have endured for a long, long time.

They seek to topple these enduring symbols, images, and norms as if to spite the very notion of endurance; to these rebels, ‘revolution’ signifies a sudden and violent change in the order of things – they cannot appreciate the revolutions that need a much longer period of gestation and are thus undetectable to the naked, untrained eye.

The tribes of rebels have no patience for changes that are unrushed but certain; like the revolution of the earth around the sun, or the yearly revolution of the seasons which ensues from it.

For, if they had patience for such things, they would have appreciated the symbol that is Kali: the symbol of revolution – of life and death and death and life, of the comings and goings of the great tidal waves, and of the rises and falls of civilisations that take epochs to occur and recur.

Kali, as consort of Shiva, and as one who, in a moment of divine indiscretion, has overpowered her consort who is no less a heavenly personage than the Lord of Destruction himself, blazes forth as the perfect, awe-inspiring symbol of such macro-revolutions as are the only changes in this whole scheme of things that really matter – changes which lie far outside the range of understanding of our rebel tribes of atheists and nihilists and the postmoderns, carriers of bloated egos who mistake every little strike of the hammer on the chisel as some great affair with equally great impact.

No wonder their quick coups, which they deludedly take to be revolutions, never fail to disappoint them! And at the conclusion of every one of such violent but momentary, miniscule aberration in the life of the universe, it becomes evident to everyone how imaginary and delusional the dream of change has been all along, including to the rebels who have enthusiastically conducted the damned business.

The atheist, the nihilist, and the postmoderns, although they differ on several points, converge invariably upon this one point: they revel in the desecration of meaning. They love to strip an enduring symbol of its traditional signification, or meaning, and inject into it an inverse – often perverse – notion of how they would like to see or read the symbol. Seeing and reading are different things: they are two distinct actions that have different repercussions on the human brain.

To just say that ‘someone or something is sexy’ may suggest different things in different contexts. While one context may make that statement imply that the indicated object or person is sexually arousing, another may simply suggest that the thing indicated is just very attractive, as in “being a jurist may not seem like a sexy career choice”.

But when a sexually appealing image corroborates the application of that word, it becomes a different thing altogether – no room for doubt regarding the intent is left therein. Point is: one may find multiple interpretations of a word, but there are no alternative interpretations for signboards that flash both verbal signs and a diagram to aid it.

Therefore the act of posting a sexually suggestive image of a sacred Hindu symbol and describing the same as ‘sexy’ is a definite act of imposing a very specific new meaning to the symbol, with the full and pure intent of doing so. The fact that the imposed meaning is new, is the most problematic thing here.

Neither Navabi nor his tribe of atheists harbour any patience for understanding the traditional meaning ascribed to the image of Kali. For, at the moment, they are out on a rampage with their newfound social media tools of desecrating just about anything and everything they perceive as ‘religious’ or ‘sacred’ – just as a drunk monkey would if it discovers the power of a machine gun.

In fact, immediately after the eruption of the controversy around the purported Kali images, Navabi tweeted: “Okay, how can we trigger the far-right now?” This clearly shows that Navabi and his ilk are on a spree to provoke everyone, jumping from one branch to the next, so to say, in an extension of our monkey metaphor. As of now, they don’t seem to have either time or interest for understanding specificities of and distinctions between Islam and Hinduism.

Nevertheless, I will make an effort to state the traditional signification of the Kali image, firstly because it is important – and therefore worthwhile – to know and remember the enduring meaning of that image; and secondly because such occasions as is gifted us by Navabi are meant precisely for the restatement of the traditional signification of a symbol or custom.

It gives us an opportunity to reinforce in our minds the traditional signification of the symbol of Kali by adding yet another restatement in an unbroken and time-honoured practice of stating an aspect of the Sanatana Dharma again and again, with every restatement meant to be clearer or more convincing than the former. For that, I should be grateful to Navabi!

While considering the traditional meaning of the Kali image, the first thing to note is that it is a sacred symbol. A thing which is considered sacred is by definition quite elevated and hence different from the profanities surrounding it – for the reason that the sacred object is placed in an environment which is full of the profane elements of life, and yet it is an island because the sacred object transcends them all.

The very purpose of inventing a sacred object and placing it in a consecrated place is to demarcate its elevated, transcendental nature by virtue of which it becomes different from the other objects or humans or animals around it.

The second question to ponder over is this: was the symbol of Kali meant to be a sex symbol in the first place? Have the various Hindu traditions ascribed such a meaning to this symbol? The answer is no, no and thrice no! The symbol of Kali is meant to suggest and help conceive a very different reality altogether.

Kali, the Goddess, is dark and stands astride the contrastingly fair body of Shiva, an act for which she shows remorse by sticking out her tongue which is dripping with the blood of demons; she is naked and wears only a girdle around her waist and a garland around her neck – ornaments which are made of the skulls, amputated limbs and decapitated heads of the demons she has slain in battle; she has got three eyes – same as her consort Lord Shiva – and her loosened dark hair cascades down her back, giving the impression that darker clouds have gathered forebodingly across the pitch-dark sky on a moonless night, in a premonition of an imminent apocalypse. A bloodthirsty jackal follows at her heels, confirming the Goddess’s ominous air. In the words of a commentator:

“Kālī manifested herself for the annihilation of demonic male power in order to restore peace and equilibrium. For a long time brutal āsuric (demonic) forces had been dominating and oppressing the world. Even the powerful gods were helpless and suffered defeat at their hands. They fled pell-mell in utter humiliation, a state hardly fit for the divine. Finally they prayed in desperation to the Daughter of the Himalayas to save gods and men alike. The gods sent forth their energies as streams of fire, and from these energies emerged the Great Goddess Durgā.

In the great battle to destroy the most arrogant and truculent man-beasts, the goddess Kālī sprang forth from the brow of Durgā to join in the fierce fighting. As the ‘forceful’ aspect of Durgā, Kālī has been dubbed ‘horrific’ or ‘terrible’…” (Mookerjee 1988)

Thus, the image of Kali is the embodiment, in name and form, of the unrestrained force of the divine energy which is often depicted as the feminine aspect of the divine in several Hindu traditions. As a dark-hued Goddess, she stands astride the fair body of Shiva, obscuring the devotee’s vision of the Lord who is Brahman, the Supreme Reality – pure knowledge and consciousness – aspects which are color-coded as white. What robe can cover the form of the one who enwraps the absolute?

Hence she is naked. She is the victor in a bloody battle against the āsuric forces of adharma, and hence she wields the fearsome curved blade called khadga, and wears the body parts of those who she has slain in the cataclysmic battle as her many badges of victory. And by slaying the apparently unstoppable āsuric forces of adharma, she protects the good and the meek. Hence, while her name and form strike terror into the hearts of the āsuric and the adharmic, the same induce the hope of deliverance in the hearts of the followers of dharma.

This, in a nutshell, is the traditional signification of the image of Kali as observed in various Hindu traditions. Atheists, nihilists, and postmodernists have been trying to subvert this meaning by their stylistic, novel interpretations, whose sole aim is to strip off the enduring meaning of the sacred symbol and make it open to infinite interpretations – all of which, a postmodernist would insist, are equally valid as well as valuable. This is the intellectual background which gives birth to Navabi’s interpretation.

Of Feelings and Emotions

Then there is the argument of the Hindu devotee, who, although sharing some basic commonalities with the Muslim or Christian devotee, stands in stark difference to either of the latter groups in a very fundamental manner. For, no devotee other than the Hindu devotee can wrap their heads around the notion of a ‘Mother Goddess’.

This is a point to be noted with great care. For the Hindu, Kali is not only a Goddess placed on a high pedestal, but a veritable Mother who is the support of the helpless, and the One to whom the Hindu may complain, confess, cry and solicit indulgence.

Armin Navabi maa kali

No Abrahamic religion can fathom this deeply personal, intimate relationship with the Divine – at least not in its feminine aspect. The Catholic has his Virgin Mary, but she is merely the Mother of God, and not Mother Goddess Herself.

There is a world of difference between bearing an aspect of the Christian triplicate divinity (or the Trinity) i.e. the Son or Jesus Christ in one’s womb, and being the One who is hailed by the mainstream devotee as “sṛṣṭi sthiti vināśānāṁ śaktibhūte sanātani guṇāśraye guṇamaye nārāyaṇi” which translates to:

“O Thou first cause and the One Force of creation, sustenance, and destruction, O Eternal One! O Thou supporting matrix of all qualities, the very incarnation of all qualities, Thou feminine aspect of Narayana!”

While the first is merely touched by the Divine (who is necessarily male) and a mere instrument of the Divine Will, the second is Divinity Itself, manifested in its feminine, forceful aspect as the cause and mover of the universe, the Eternal One, the Eternal Mother. This is what made the lay Hindu devotee doubly enraged, as here the sexual objectification by a male gaze is directed at the One who she considers her Mother! Kali is not just a Goddess to the Hindu, She is Mother Goddess, and the maternal dimension of the Hindu’s devotion towards Kali makes her sensitive to attacks on Kali or any other form of the Mother Goddess Shakti in two ways.

The first of these is the devotee’s sensitiveness to the desecration of her God, and the second is the child’s sensitiveness to the sexualization of her mother. I am sure Navabi, of all people, can appreciate the second of these two aspects; since he is uniquely placed by virtue of his special background and due to his own admission of sensitiveness to insults thrown at his own mother (as is evinced by his reactions on Twitter to a recent derogatory tweet directed at his late mother) to understand what it means when one’s mother is sexualized by a random male in front of the child.

A Balancing Act

Another strong reason behind Navabi’s recent actions might be that after desecrating the Quran, not just as an individual but as a member of a network of ex-Muslim atheists running a controversial social media hashtag-campaign named ‘#DesecrateTheQuran’, he has quite naturally drawn the ire of the Muslim community, which could bring disastrous consequences upon him and his relations; and therefore to allay Muslim anger, now he desecrates sacred Hindu symbols.

Through such optics, he wants to create the impression that he metes out same treatment to Islam as well as to Hinduism. In fact, this suspicion has been expressed by several social media users who have been following Navabi’s actions on Twitter for some time. They feel that Navabi and the people in his Apostate Prophet network are now merely playing to a certain gallery.

Reactions that are generated by a fear psychosis often turn out to be extreme; and it would be quite unsurprising if the fear of persecution at the hands of his erstwhile coreligionists happen to have driven Navabi to resort to such balancing acts in this case.

In the Eyes of the Beholder

“Our daily life creates our symbol of God”, says Sister Nivedita, in the opening chapter of her Book Kali the Mother, titled “Concerning Symbols”. The pithy statement holds a simple but sharp truth, and that is: what we worship is determined by how we live, what we eat, drink, and think, and what we aspire for. When Navabi captions the caricature of Kali with the words “I never knew you [i.e. Hindus] had sexy goddesses like these.

Why would anyone pick any other religion?”, it is understandable that he is in all probability speaking in an idiom of sarcasm; but at the same time it becomes apparent that he is also giving voice to many of those who idolise him. In doing so, he is putting a misleading aspiration and a false ideal before them, an ideal which dictates that the only object worthy of worshipping, the only thing worth pursuing is sensual pleasure, a life of the body, and no higher aspiration is worth a try.

It is an utterly materialistic view of life, which dooms the spiritual growth of those who have only started exploring the world without any guide or guru, and are likely to stumble upon false prophets like Navabi (after all, let us not forget that he calls his network ‘Apostate Prophet’) and the gateway to a vital area of lifelong inquiry will be forever sealed before them.

In short, they will probably never be inquisitive about spirituality – the urge to rise above the conditioned consciousness of hunger and sex will likely be forever lost on them. And that, more than any real or imaginary harm done to the Hindu community by an uninformed, wrong representation of a Hindu Goddess, would indeed prove fatally harmful to one or more generations across the globe.


  1. Mookerjee, Ajit. Kali: The Feminine Force. Destiny Books, Rochester: 1988
  2. Nivedita, Sister. Kali the Mother. Swan Sonnenschein, London: 1900

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