Once upon a time, the god Shiva, the Lord of Destruction, was so busy meditating that he was not doing his godly duties. The other gods petitioned the great goddess Shakti to manifest as Sati, a beautiful woman who would become Shiva’s consort and draw him back into engagement with the world. She agreed to do so and took on Daksha, a minor deity, as her father, as long and no one ever forgot who she really was. Sure enough, Daksha gained enough power as a religious leader that he started to think himself more powerful than his daughter and her husband, whom he disliked. He held a great fire ceremony and invited everyone in the godly universe but Shiva and Sati. This was a grave mistake. Daksha was so preoccupied with pomp and circumstance he forgot that his very daughter was the manifestation of Shakti, the reason for all religion. He broke his promise to her.
When Sati found out what he’d done, she was infuriated. She told Shiva she was going to go confront her father, and Shiva, who has little time for religious showmanship, told her to calm down. At that, Sati did what most angry people do when they are told to calm down: she got angrier. Shiva lost his patience. “I forbid it!” he said. At that, Sati turned black. Her fangs came out and her mouth dripped with blood. Her long black hair grew wild and unkempt, a necklace of severed male heads appeared around her neck, and a huge sharp sword appeared in her hand. “You forbid it?” she asked quietly. Terrified, Shiva tried to run away, but everywhere he turned a new fierce goddess appeared, blocking his way. “Where is my beautiful Sati?” he cried. “Right in front of you,” said this dark goddess, whose name was Kali. “This is my true face. I only appear beautiful and sweet as a favour to you. If you ever try to control me again, I will fight you in this form.” Shiva recognized the power and primacy of his consort, and got the hell out of her way.
Kali is one of the most popular forms of the divine in India, especially among women. She is the great destroyer, even more powerful than Shiva, and in her destruction, she allows new things to be born. In this way, she is both a killer and a mother. She often appears when the prettier, softer goddesses are enraged, when a male force like Shiva, Daksha, or a demon on the battlefield tries to control or subjugate her. There are also several stories that tell of how she appears when her love tries to abandon her, when her heart threatens to break.
Kali represents Shakti, the fundamental feminine energy that animates everything and will not be fully controlled by masculine force, according to Tantric philosophy. She also represents, I think, a reality that many human women know well—the rage that arises when a man we love underestimates us, blocks our progress, or refuses to show up for us.
She’s sometimes understood as the shadow side of life (namely, death) that we don’t want to look in the face most of the time. But as she tells Shiva in the above story, her fierce, bloody face is her true self. Death is a reality of life. Anger and rage can reveal whatever truth has been bubbling beneath the surface.
Anger is a power that we all hold inside of our bodies. We reveal prettier faces most of the time because, generally, we catch more flies with honey. Love and forgiveness are powerful, too. But we must not forget the Kali that lives inside each of us. We’ve all felt oppressed before, no matter our gender, and rage can give us the strength to see past fear and take action. Every now and then we need to rise up, bare our true fangs, and resist.