MOTHER KALI’S RED TONGUE:
Often, there is something about Kali’s tongue that disturbs the viewer. This symbol is seldom comprehended and oft becomes a cynic’s target. Mother Kali’s symbolisms are quite misunderstood not only in the west but in the east as well. From a philosophical standpoint Mother Goddesses in general are allegorical representations of their divine qualities and the respective roles They play.
SIGN OF TERROR:
For most parts, saguna aspects of Hindu Gods knows no bounds. Sculptors and painters have stretched their imagination to reflect the essence of the Puranas. The outstretched tongue of Kali distinguishes Ma from all other Goddesses. Indeed, Chandi,Chammunda, Bhairavi and Bhagvati are also associated with nakedness or semi-nakedness, blood and death. But none stick out their tongue. How does an actor in a drama depict terror? The face, for most parts, is a tool of expression. This is seen in Kathakali and Bharathanatyam dance expressions.
It is common to see Indians stick out their tongue and pretend to bite them when admitting to a gaffe. This mortal visual identity gets expressed by Kali’s saguna form when She stands on Her husband’s chest. In South Indian depictions, Kali is shown with fangs protruding from the corners of the mouth. In this sense she manifests as Bhadra Kali, the family Guardian. In worshipping Kali, the worshipper becomes a child and Kali assumes the form of the ever-caring mother. Didn’t our mothers ever bite their tongue on some day or other?
SYMBOLISM: Kali’s tongue denotes the act of tasting, consuming and enjoying what society regards as forbidden, foul or polluted, her indiscriminate enjoyment of all the world’s ‘flavours’. Kali is the force to destroy the evil and in the end to destroy the world. Her red tongue shows that she drinks the blood of evil forces and the tongue is out to create fear in evil forces.
In some Kali temples, the deity’s tongue is symbolically smeared with blood from sacrificial animals. This is a reminder that Mother Nature gives and takes life. Man may domesticate Her but she will always stick out her tongue to slurp our blood and maya that surrounds us. It is also submitted that Kali teases and mocks as She sees through man’s façade or lies, while She knows their dark desires which they try to suppress. The tongue is a provocation to be truthful. Kali is neither embarrassed by her bare breasts nor the protruding tongue and prompts men to delve into their consciousness to be truthful.
Mother Kali is the fearful and ferocious Goddess. She assumes this terrorizing character as a powerful Goddess and became popular with the Devi Mahatmya composition of the 5th century. She is probably the fiercest among Hindu deities depicting terror. In Her proximity to cremation grounds is all about giving up the ego. Her black complexion symbolizes all embracing transcendental nature. Her nudity is primeval as she represents nature and that she is beyond maya, the false consciousness. She holds a blood stained sword, the head of a demon, blesses whispers ‘fear not’, has dead heads for ear-rings, skull necklace, girdle of human hands. Her sword is the destroyer of false consciousness and illusory bonds. Surely one cannot expect her to smile. Her tongue protrudes from her mouth, face and breasts sullied with blood. Her red lolling tongue indicates her omnivorous nature – her indiscriminate enjoyment of all the world’s flavors.
Prakrithi consists of three gunas: sattva – calmness; rajas – activity and tamas- inertia. When Prakrithi vibrates, the three gunas loose their balance; when the gunas vibrate, creation begins. Later version of the tongue symbolism, especially in the tantric contexts, denotes the element of raja guna – energy and action controlled by sattva guna – spiritual and godly creatures who served as assassins. The raja guna is wonderful but not pleasant. Its colour is red usually symbolising activity whereas white is purity or spirituality. Through work and discipline, one can overcome rajas and tamas. Thus Kali’s red tongue is symbolically held by Her white teeth to show spirituality having a control over activities. Thus She conquers Her devotees’ tama guna by increasing their raja guna. Upon conquering, She cuts off raja guna with her large teeth.
In the famous Raktabija myth, Durga and her assistants, the Matrikas find various ways to kill him. From every drop of blood spilt and touching the ground, Raktabija reproduced a clone. Durga summoned Kali. Kali spreads her tongue across the battlefield to swallow the blood before it touched the ground. Skanda was allowed to attack the remaining demons while Kali sucks the blood of the original Raktabija till he falls lifeless. Thus Kali’s tongue is a weapon to be feared and a reminder that nature ultimately consumes all life. The description of Kali’s terror and the killing spree is given in Devi Mahatmayam.
Kali was pleased with the victory and dances on the battle-field.
To stop Her, Lord Siva threw Himself under her feet. Some accounts narrate that Shiva lies among the dead beneath Her feet. Shocked at this, Kali stuck out Her tongue in astonishment and put an end to her homicidal rampage. Hence one of Her images, depicted as Dakshinakali, shows the melee mood standing on Shiva with Her enormous tongue stuck out.
In another popular myth, Kali’s sticking out tongue is domestic. This is also depicted in her Daksinakali manifestation. After killing the demon Daruka, Kali not only drank his blood but became bloodlust. She started killing at random and Siva begs her to stop. So he takes the form of a handsome man and lay in Kali’s path. As soon as she stepped on Him, she was embarrassed and bit her tongue. She was ashamed to learn that in her blood lust she had prevented herself from recognizing her own husband.
KALI IN THE VEDAS:
Mention of Kali appears as early as the Atharva Veda. In the Rigveda she is the name of one of the seven Tongues of Agni, the God of Fire and the feminine of Time (Kala). This is also mentioned in the Mundako Upanishad which dates 800 BCE. Kali’s protruding tongue, ie the Tongue of Agni, which sticks out and reminds us that this tongue emerges from her Fiery of Lightning-like body, as the Primal Tongue or Speech (ie Atman) from which Brahma, the Rishis and Devas received the Vedas through Yoga. The whole image of Kali is therefore the embodiment of Vedic ideas and concepts.
Seeing She is the tongue, Kali is the embodiment of Sanskrit language itself, the hymns and the Vedic Vak or Speech. In the Vedas, Brihaspati is the spouse of Vak or Brihat (Speech) which connects to the later Tara, Kali’s first emanation. So it is Kali as tongue that produces Speech – Vak or Tara. It is to be noted that Tara is also Brihaspati’s spouse. In the Vedas the Divine Mother was lauded as Speech. Speech was and is the Mother: Aitareya Aranyaka 4.6.14. Thus Tara and Kali are Speech and Tongue respectively as mentioned in MundakoUpanishad. The whole image of Kali is the embodiment of Vedic ideas and concepts.
Kali dominates much of Tantric iconography, texts and rituals where She is praised as the highest reality or the greatest of all Deities. In her svarupa, She is Mahadevi. This is declared in Nirvana Tantra, Niruttara Tantra, Picchila Tantra, Yogini Tantra, Kamakhya Tantra. They declare her greatness and declare her to be an essence of her own form. In the Mahanirvana Tantra Kali is shown as the epithet for the primordial Sakti who is praised by Siva.
A mudra awakens kundalini. Generally Kali conveys death, cemetery, meditations, sacrifices, etc. She transforms herself into a vehicle of salvation. In her depiction as being young and beautiful she appears as a symbol of triumph over death. Her tongue symbolism in tantric tradition brings about different meanings. This is analysed as ‘inversion’ or ‘immortality.’ It is said that the long protruding tongue of Kali is an explicit recall of the Kechari Mudra’s physical effects; inversion of the tongue and immortality of amrita falling.
Khecari Mudra is the bending backwards of the tongue into the gullet and the eyes are fastened upon the point between the eyebrows. In extreme yoga practices, the membrane below the tongue is cut progressively and the tongue shaken till it elongates to touch the centre of the eyebrows. Those who have mastered khecari mudra are said to be no longer subject to the laws of nature and remains undisturbed even at time of death. (Those who are well-versed with this yoga could kindly contribute their knowledge.)
In Tantra Kali’s protruding tongue is the demonstration of the existence of a way, the Supreme way of Liberation. Kali is Shunya or Void. The practical way to emancipation is to recognise the mouth as Shunya and the tongue is the principal of Inversion, so stimulating some hidden points where one can drink the Amrita.
Kali as Kundalini is also a Vedic idea – Kali as Speech or Vak resides in the Muladhara Chakra as Brahma or Brahmanaspati in later times, showing the Vedas or Speech. The female form of Saraswathi, residing in the tongue, is also called Sarparajini, the Serpent Queen. Saraswathy, Goddess of Wisdom and Speech is clearly Kundalini in RigVeda 6.61.11-12. The Seven Tongues mentioned in Mundaka, starts with Kali. These are the Opened or Awakened Seven Chakras, or the Seven Speech forms, Seven Tongues inside Agni who is Purush, the cosmic or subtle Body of man. Kali is hence the essence of the Vedas, of awakening and the Adi or Primal Speech from where all other forms originate. As the tongue, She is the speech or Sanskrit and physical language we speak described to be coiled up in Muladhara as Kundalini.
Kali’s red tongue is not an art depiction. In Tantra, Kali luxuriates in the licking up of ritual offerings; is supposed to lick up anything that is offered to her with her ‘lolling’ tongue and please Her children. In the Puranas, Her tongue is ever vigilant to lap the blood of those who are animous to Her devotees; Yogis would assert the tongue to be Mudra, a method of controlling and channelling Prana; Jnanis would declare that the tongue and bare breast depict her oneness with the cycle of Nature; her egolessness and Truth. Another philosophical explanation says she is Vak or Speech, thus the tongue represents Sound. Another interpretation says Kali’s white teeth is symbolically spiritualism over-powering raja and tama guna for which the red tongue stands for. What Kali's tongue represents will depend greatly upon on the devotees’ intentions for approaching the great Mother Kali. One’s intentions play a major role and influence the way in which the individual ‘sees’ saguna forms of Hindu Gods and Goddesses.
Yogi Ananda Saraswathi