Essay | ‘Kāli’s Cleaver’ by Michael David Sowder | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

I’m standing in bright June sun on a landing above the stone steps of a temple to the Goddess Kāli, staring at a portico where her black statue stands covered in garlands of flowers. My partner Jennifer, our two boys, and I have just had darśan, “sight of the deity.” We approached her in a crowded line, people crushed together, sweating.  Excitement rose among the devotees, many on pilgrimage from distant places, bells ringing, priests chanting, everyone shouting, “Ma! Jai Ma!” We bowed and threw roses and came down to where I’m standing, looking back at her. 

Beneath her garlands of jasmine, hibiscus, and marigolds, she wears a necklace of human skulls (fifty—one for each letter of the Sanskrit alphabet). Her upper left hand holds a bloody cleaver, and her lower left hand a severed head. Her upper right palm is open in the abhaya mudrā, which means, No fear, and her lower right hand offers boons. A bloody tongue sticks out of her mouth. Her eyes are bright, almond-shaped, child-like, dancing. 

Today is June 24, my birthday, and Jennifer has brought me and our boys to Dakshinesvar, India, north of Kolkata, to this temple, where Sri Ramakrishna, my favorite guru (after my own guru), lived and served as Kāli’s priest and devotee. Ramakrishna’s words introduced me to Kāli. I wondered how this playful, ebullient guru could be in love with a goddess wielding a bloody cleaver and wearing a belt hung with severed arms. Now I wonder how I, too, have fallen in love with her. Sachi, our guide for the day, Jennifer and the boys, are waiting for me to come down the steps to continue our tour of the temple complex.

The problem is that I don’t want to move. 


The temple stands on the east side of a red-stone courtyard, wide as a cricket field. To the north is a temple to Kṛṣṇa, the avatar made famous in the Bhagavad Gītā.  Along the west side, twelve temples dedicated to Lord Śiva overlook the Ganges River. Śiva, Kāli’s husband, is the Lord of Yoga and the God of Destruction. Himalayan ice and the snows of Mount Kailash are his favorite abode. Winter his season. He and his followers, sadhus (holy men and women) and wild bands of ascetics, kapālikas, hang out in cremation grounds using skulls for drinking cups. Below Śiva temples, the Ganges River spreads wide, close to the delta where it pours into the Bay of Bengal.  The river, itself, like Kāli, is a manifestation of the Divine Mother. Every part of India is sacred landscape.

The temple complex is enclosed by high red walls, and along the base of the north wall runs a veranda supported by red and white columns. Ensconced behind them are shaded rooms where priests, workers, and officials have offices, stores, and lodgings. In the northwest corner sits the room where Śrī Ramakrishna lived his entire adult life. Meditating there today will bring a dream to life for me. Here on the temple landing, I ask Sachi if the temple priest could bless the māla beads I wear around my neck. The priest takes a moment out of his ritual and touches them to Kāli’s feet. Sachi returns, handing the beads to me, saying that this was a great and rare honor.  He seems anxious for us to get on with our tour. 


When I think of Ramakrishna (1836-1886) I often think of his contemporary, the American poet Walt Whitman, about whom I wrote a dissertation and book. The two have a lot in common. Their ecstatic, playful personalities mirror each other, and the Indian guru’s teachings about oneness and diversity would have resonated with Whitman, though Uncle Walt would have envied Ramakrishna’s being labeled an Incarnation of God. It’s easier, of course, in India than anywhere else on earth to be called a Divine Avatar. In the Tantrik tradition Ramakrishna partly represents, the whole world is Divine. In a sense, we are all incarnations, our divinity hidden by our overriding egos and ignorance. How to make manifest that natural, intrinsic divinity is what Ramakrishna, Whitman, and Kāli, come to shows us.  

Born in a small village outside Kolkata, Ramakrishna had his first enlightenment experience at age six, when he gazed on a sedge of white cranes lit by the setting sun in flight before a dark bank of clouds. He fell into an ecstatic trance and had to be carried home. Family and teachers recognized him as spiritually gifted, unusual.  Given to reveries, he had little interest in studies or worldly goings-on, and what interest he did have dwindled away after his father died. He preferred the company of the saffron-robed ascetics passing through the village on their way to a famous Kṛṣṇa temple in Pūri to the south. At twenty-two, he was invited to come here to Dakshineshvar, north of Kolkata, to assist his older brother, who had been made priest of the temple. Though poor since the death of their father, the family were Brahmins, of the highest, priestly caste. Brahmin priests, unlike homeless sadhus, can marry and live a more or less comfortable life. But notions of caste were irrelevant to Ramakrishna. In fact, the temple complex was built by Råni Rasmani, a wealthy śudra, or lower-caste woman. Ramakrishna ate food cooked by lower caste persons and fed sacred temple offerings to stray cats.

People thought he was insane. In love with Ma Kāli, he spent hours decorating her statue. He would dance before her, sing to her, put on women’s clothing, remain night and day weeping at her feet. At one time, inspired by the monkey god, Hanuman, he took to leaping around her like a primate. In reveries and ecstasies, which might last for days, he had to be hand-fed by assistants. But Rasmani suspected that his madness was a kind of divine intoxication. She called a symposium of Vedic scholars to determine who or what this creature was. At the conclusion of the convocation, the pundits unanimously agreed that he was not only a saint, but a living incarnation of God. (This is reminiscent of the Council of Nicea (330 CE) where a synod of bishops, determined, by vote, the true nature of Jesus. The vote was: “One in Being with the Father.”) During his early years at the temple, three gurus, of different traditions, came one after another and lived with him, teaching him the doctrines, stories, and ritual practices of the scriptures—outward expressions of inner truths he already had experienced. 

He prayed unceasingly for a vision of the Divine Mother, and Kāli granted him visions many times. He experienced nirvikalpa samadhi, the highest enlightenment experience, in which the human soul merges in oneness with God and the Universe. He said that in such experiences the universe melts in a quicksilver sea of endless bliss.  He disappeared, and only God remained. Ordinary mortals give up their bodies in this experience, but Mā Kāli told him to remain on earth for the benefit of others. 

Like us.   

Luckily, during his last years, a devotee named Mahendranath arrived and transcribed his talks and recorded his activities. After the Master’s death, Mahendra’s writings were published in Bengali, and an English edition came out in 1942, titled, The Gospel of Sir Ramakrishna. This is perhaps my favorite book. Not only are Ramakrishna’s words transcendent, they’re also funny. A disciple asked, “Master, if the whole world is filled with the God, if God is in everyone, then why do you tell us to keep the company of sincere seekers and not mingle with decadent persons?” Ramakrishna responded with a story.

Once there was a disciple whose guru imparted the same lesson. That evening, walking home through the jungle the disciple saw an elephant charging down the path. The mahout on top of the elephant was yelling, “Get out of the way! This elephant has gone mad!” The disciple thought, well, if the elephant is God, why worry? He continued up the path. The elephant rushed upon him, slammed him into a tree with his trunk and hurled him into a mass of thorns. Seriously injured, the disciple lay moaning that night in bed. The guru had heard what had happened and came to see him. After the doctor left, the guru softly asked, “Why didn’t you just step off the path?” The disciple moaned, “But you told us everything was God! So the elephant was God. Why should I have moved?” The guru replied, “Yes, yes! The elephant was God! But the mahout was God, too! And he was yelling for you to get out of the way!”  Funny like that.

Authentic gurus are frequently funny, because they don’t take so seriously a lot of the things we take very seriously, like ourselves. Ramakrishna’s metaphors for the spiritual path come from nature, from rural and village life. Often as you read this book, evening is falling, jasmine in the air, a bulbul or magpie sings outside. Ramakrishna pauses in his talk, in a sublime mood. A disciple sings a spiritual song, and he goes into the vision of samadhi, standing still as a post or collapsing in ecstasy.   

Now, a hundred-and-forty years later, Jennifer, my boys, are going to sit in the room where this avatar, this incarnation of God, lived and taught. The room where Swami Vivekānanda sat entranced, the disciple who founded the Ramakrishna Society and became the first yogi to set foot in America.  


All these thoughts are going through my head as I stand here gazing at Kāli. I need to get going, but I feel that she is holding me. I remember having a feeling like this once before, an evening when I was standing in the rain in the hills outside of San Ramon, California. I had just come out the front doors of a lodge-like temple, having been embraced by a female guru, Māta Amritanāndamāyī, affectionately known as Amma, “the hugging saint.” Amma’s darśan is expressed by hugging people. In the U.S., hundreds line up to receive what many call a life-changing embrace. In India, thousands stand in lines snaking down dusty roads outside their villages. Amma hugs each person, one after another—some crying, some laughing, all clinging to her. She doesn’t get up, eat, or go to the bathroom for twenty-four, thirty-six, forty-eight hours. 

That evening, I had received my hug and sat and watched others receive theirs, and then I was standing outside in a light drizzle, gazing at the green California hills. I just felt that I could stand there forever, held by a sense often emphasized by meditation teachers that there’s nowhere you need to go, nothing you need to do, no one you need to be. This same feeling I’m having now, but it’s one suffused with sweetness, a sort of tenderness I can’t let go of. I don’t want to leave Mā Kāli, the child-like goddess with the raised and bloody cleaver. It’s as if she’s holding me, like Amma, in a kind of embrace. 


How does a Westerner, raised with eleven years of formal Catholic education, come to love a goddess decked out in a garland of skulls? The churches I grew up around were decorated with bloody scenes, but Jesus, the Incarnation, was suffering the violence. He wasn’t doling it out. How does a Westerner make sense of Kāli’s cleaver?  

The Indian spiritual traditions we lump together as “Hindu” acknowledge the suffering, horror, and death that surround us every day. There’s a god of creation and a god of destruction. It’s an expression of clear seeing, like Kāli’s eyes. Everywhere in nature, in our daily lives, beauty and horror exist side by side. In Nature, everything is beautiful—and, everything is eating everything. The West has struggled with this paradox. Nietzsche said the world can be justified, if at all, only as an aesthetic phenomenon. Given the world’s many horrors, the best you can say about it is that it is beautiful. In Europe, before the end of the eighteenth century, wildernesses, stretches of uncharted forests, unnamed peaks, were known as wastes, deserts.  New England Puritans called nature a howling wilderness—the home of devils, wolves, and (American) Indians. But by the end of the eighteenth century, Westerners began to see beauty in wilderness, or, perhaps, the wildness in beauty—or began to be able to hold the two together. 

Poets and artists sought out wild landscapes to have experiences of the “sublime”—views that inspired not just appreciation but awe. In his work, A Philosophical Inquiry into Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, Edmund Burke clarified the difference between “the beautiful” (as in, flowers, butterflies, cultivated parks) and “the sublime” (cataracts, ice-cloven peaks, lightning storms). A landscape can be called “sublime,” he wrote, only if it exhibits an element of danger, terror.  A sublime landscape both draws us and repels us. 

We all know this feeling. We like to stand at the lip of the cliff, but not too close. We love the thrill of roller coasters, horror flicks, true-crime podcasts, and rope-less ascents of El Capitan. We crave the “little death” of orgasm and escape the strictures of self with alcohol or oxycodone. It may seem at first that Kāli’s cleaver is too strange, too morbid, but we find something like it—a fascination with death—thanatos—in Western culture, too. 

We find it in Western religion, though we have to look to the mystical, contemplative traditions. Sixteenth-century John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, Doctors of the Church, for example, speak of the death one must pass through before attaining Union with God. St. Teresa cries out, “I die because I do not die!”  The Sufis, too, the mystical wing of Islam, including poets like Rabia, Rumi, and Hafiz, speak of fana, the ecstatic annihilation of self, undergone before entering the Oneness. 

And it’s there in Walt Whitman. In his great poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, “the father of American poetry reminisces about one night in his childhood when he walked the beaches of Long Island, with moonlit surf swirling around his ankles. He hears a mockingbird sing what sounds like a sorrowful melody and gives voice to the song with an aria of lost love.  He says, “a thousand singers, a thousand songs, clearer, louder, and more sorrowful . . . / . . .  . started to life within me.” In a climax of emotion, at dawn, he demands of the sea, the great old mother, to give him the final answer. “O give me the clew! . . . / . . . Are you whispering it, and have been all the time you sea waves?” And the sea, answering,  

Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word, death,
And again death, death, death, death, 
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous’d child’s heart, 
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over, 
Death, death, death, death, death. 

Which I do not forget  . . .  
My own songs awakened from that hour, 
And with them the key, the word up from the waves, 
The word of the sweetest song and all songs,
That strong and delicious word, which, creeping to my feet 
(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet garments, bending 
The sea whispered me.


When Whitman calls “death” the “word of the sweetest song and all songs” we are not hearing a Romantic poet in philosophical reverie one evening by a window. As a volunteer nurse in Civil War hospital tents, Whitman cared for young soldiers with traumatic injuries, assisted in amputations, held them through screams of pain, and wept over their uncountable deaths. He speaks of a deeper, perhaps inarticulable, mystery at the heart of death that few of us can fathom. 


The twentieth-century monk, Thomas Merton, in the final chapter of his book, Seeds of Contemplation, describes the culmination of a life of prayer in terms Whitman would understand. He says that after years of deep meditation, you come to an edge, to a moment when you feel that with the next step, you may find yourself flying in interstellar space. But what you actually find, he says, is that  

The next step is not a step. 

You are not transported from one degree to another.  

What happens is that the separate entity that is you apparently disappears and nothing seems to be left but a pure freedom indistinguishable from Infinite Freedom, love identified with Love. 


There are myths and stories in Indian religions to account for Kāli’s cleaver, but on a deeper level, it is this mystery of death that she lifts before us. With childlike eyes, she comes like Whitman’s sea-crone to sever the bonds of what we know as our self, our socially-conditioned identity and ego. She will lift us, through our own death, into that Freedom, where we are, in yogic terms, united with the Transcendent, sometimes called Śiva, the Formless, Unmanifest, Absolute. In the traditions out of which Kāli arose, when we have direct experience of that—then we realize that this whole world is Divine—every child, every crane, every elephant, hibiscus, mockingbird, and wave. We realize then that there never was any place to go, anything to do, anyone to be.  

I come down the steps, not knowing if I will ever stand before her again, the Goddess who ravished Ramakrishna, Whitman’s brother, spiritual genius and holy fool, childlike guru and Incarnation of God.

Sachi, my family, and I walk barefoot across the hot brick courtyard.  We enter the Master’s room and sit on the hard tiled floor. Sweat pours rivulets in down my back, drips down my front. I look around. His bed, his divan, photos of gurus and disciples. I close my eyes and my mind quiets, simply stops. It opens in a vast emptiness. Just breath moving in, moving out. Like surf. My heart melts in love for Ramakrishna, for Whitman, for my family, and full of gratitude flows out into a silvery sea of rejoicing. 

The boys are restless, suffering in the heat. We don’t stay long. 

As we leave the temple complex, we retrieve our sandals and carry them down the ghats to the Ganges to fill our bottles with water. I look across the river, so wide near the delta, waves like platinum in the afternoon sun, and think of Emerson, so influenced by Indian philosophy, who said that every view of nature is a thing complete, a picture never seen before and never to be seen again. A woman in a green and purple sari, gold brocade, hip deep in water, motions for our bottles. She gives them to a boy who dives with them like a fish. I think of Heraclitus, how we never enter the same river twice. Each moment death, each moment birth. The boy rises from the water, body glistening, with child-bright eyes and bottles full. We thank him with rupees and namastes and screw our caps on tight, to carry home water of the Goddess, tucked safely in our bags. 

Michael’s first poetry collection, “The Empty Boat,” was chosen by Diane Wakoski to win the T.S. Eliot Award, and his recent most collection is: “House Under the Moon”. His study of Walt Whitman’s poetry was published by Routledge as, Whitman’s Ecstatic Union. In 2014 he lived in India on a Fulbright Fellowship, one of the six stays in the country. 

His work has appeared in American Life in Poetry, Five Points, The New York Times OnlineLion’s Roar, Green Mountains Review, Poet Lore, Sufi Journal, New Poets of the American West, Sow’s Ear, Pilgrimage, and elsewhere. He used to write a religion blog for the Huffington Post. A professor of English and affiliated faculty member in Religious Studies and Yoga Studies at Utah State University, he lives at the foot of the Bear River Mountains with his wife, the writer Jennifer Sinor, and their two boys. 

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