Kālī in our Hearts and Minds (Part 2)

David Nelson (Devadatta) is a longstanding devotee. He gave this retreat on October 25, 2014. Devadatta is an authority on Kali. He has masterfully retranslated the Chandi, and has written several books on the Divine Mother.  This is Part 2.


Retreat, Vedanta Society, Santa Barbara

25 October 2014

Devadatta Kālī (David Nelson)


Rāmprasād Sen was born around 1718 or 1723 in the village on the bank of the Gaṅgā, some thirty-five miles north of Calcutta. His family were Brahmins by caste and Śāktas by religion, which is to say that they were devotees of the Divine Mother. His father, Rāmrām Sen, was a respected Ayurvedic physician. His mother, Siddheśvarī, was Rāmrām’s second wife. Rāmprasād was sent to a Sanskrit school, where he learned grammar and literature. He also received instruction in Bengali poetry. Contrary to his father’s hope that his son would follow in his profession and become a physician, the boy’s destiny lay elsewhere. By the time he had reached adolescence, Rāmprasād showed a deep spiritual inclination that left no room for other pursuits.

In accordance with custom Rāmprasād was married at the age of twenty-two. He and his bride, a young woman named Śarvāṇī, were initiated by the family’s guru, Mādhavācharya. As the story goes, when the guru whispered the mantra to him, Rāmprasād became overwhelmed by intense longing for Kālī. A year later, after the guru’s death, Rāmprasād became the disciple of the great Tantric scholar and saint Kṛṣṇānanda Āgamavāgīśa. He too was a devotee of Kālī, and his famous book, Tantrasāra, in large part redefined Kālī as the beautiful, loving Mother Goddess worshiped today.

Rāmprasād spent most of his time to spiritual practice and was not inclined to seek employment. When his father died suddenly without making provisions for his family, Rāmprasād was forced to move to Calcutta, where he found work as an accountant. His employer, a landowner named Durgā Charaṇa Mitra, paid him a monthly salary of thirty rupees. Although Rāmprasād was conscientious about his duties, he would also compose songs in adoration of Kālī and write them in the blank spaces of the account book. Rāmprasād’s fellow employees reported him, but their action had unintended consequences. Instead of firing him, Durgā Charaṇa Mitra was so moved by Rāmprasād’s devotion and literary skill that he sent him back to his village with a monthly pension of thirty rupees, provided he would continue writing songs to Kālī.

Back in the village, Rāmprasād was sitting in the bank of the Gaṇgā one evening after prayers, singing to the Divine Mother, when Mahārājā Kṛṣṇa Candra of Nadia heard him. The Mahārājā too was an ardent devotee of Kālī and a fellow disciple of Kṛṣṇānanada Āgamavāgīśa. He appointed Rāmprasād as his court poet, and the two became personal friends. Rāmprasād rarely appeared at the court but spent his time in spiritual practice instead. Even so, the Mahārājā granted him one hundred acres of tax free land and gave him the title of Kavirañjana, meaning “Entertainer of Poets.”

While Rāmprasād’s mother, Śiddheśvarī, was alive, she managed the financial affairs, but after her death, the family fell into hard times. Rāmprasād’s wife, Śarvāṇī, was a less capable than her mother-in-law. To complicate matters, the family’s poverty was matched only by its generosity. They were ever ready to give to others less fortunate than themselves. Rāmprasād’s recourse was to pray to the Divine Mother, and soon tenants, admirers, and friends came to the rescue.

Having outlived his wife, Rāmprasād was looked after in his later years by his son Rāmdulal and daughter-in-law Bhagavatī. According to the traditional account Rāmprasād left his body on Divāli, the Festival of Lights, around 1775. He had performed worship of Kālī and sung throughout the night. In the morning he carried the jar of Divine Mother’s sanctified water on his head, followed by devotees who carried the image of Kālī to be immersed in the Gaṇgā. Rāmprasād waded into the river up to his neck, all the while singing to his Divine Mother, and as the image was immersed in the holy river, the poet-saint was immersed in complete union with his beloved Kālī Mā.

If we approach the songs of Rāmprasād with the idea that they are expressions of conventional piety, we will be in for a surprise, even a shock. There is no doubt that Rāmprasād was a great devotee of the Divine Mother. His songs bear witness to the intimacy of their communion. There was no emotion, feeling, or thought that he hesitated to express to her. We find him complaining about the circumstances of his life or the imperfection of this world. He gives voice to his hardships and struggles. And why shouldn’t he? The Mother is all-knowing; there is nothing that he could withhold from her as secret. The lesson here is that in the Mother’s presence we need feel no shame. She sees us for who we are, with all our faults, and loves us as only a mother can—unconditionally. Rāmprasād’s songs run a gamut of emotions—they show his struggles with the challenges of everyday life, with inner impulses and passions, with his doubts. They also speak of his convictions, and of his utter devotion to the Mother and his surrender to her. He pleads for her grace, he expresses his humility, his dedication, his complete trust in her. The reason these songs have survived is that they also speak to our lives and provide guidance along this spiritual journey, with all its ups and downs and unexpected turns and apparent reversals that conceal our steady progress.

The songs are indeed an outpouring of the heart. At the same time they are expressions of deep wisdom and knowledge. Rāmprasād worshiped the Mother primarily in the form of Kālī, describing her loveliness as well as those aspects that provoke awe. He saw her as form made of consciousness (cinmayarūpa) and was aware of her presence not only in her images, but also in every atom of the universe, in all created things. He also realized her as the impersonal Absolute, as the eternal radiance of consciousness itself, devoid of all form. He knew her as Śakti and Śiva, Kālī and Brahman, the relative and the Absolute—as the highest reality, the inexpressibly unity beyond all thought. Rāmprasād’s songs illustrate for us the entire range of consciousness, from the outward appearances grasped by the mind to the abiding inner reality of the heart.

1 [on the grind of life] [92]

O Mother! How long will you keep me turning,
tethered and blinkered like a bullock
to this millstone of life – turning, ceaselessly turning?
Whatever did I do to become enslaved to its six masters –
desire, anger, greed, pride, envy, and delusion?
The word
mother is an ever-yielding source of love;
when uttered by a son, she takes him in her arms.
This is a universal truth, O Mother!
And am I not a part of this universe?
Countless souls have been delivered by repeating your name.
Remove my blinkers, and let me to my heart’s content
behold your blessed feet!
Countless are your children who may be bad,
but a bad mother? Never!
Rāmprasād cherishes a fond hope, O Mother, that in the end
he will lie at your feet. 

2 [on the bondage of appearances] [156]

O mind! How caught up you are in making merry!
Caught up in merrymaking, in making merry!
You dance in joy, but then you cry in grief,
from moment to moment immersed in changing moods.
In times of prosperity you squander precious gold to purchase trifles.
And when fortune turns against you,
you pawn your precious gems for a trifling sum.
For you, O mind, this world is a house of pleasure,
indeed an abode of allurement,
and by its passing beauty you are enchanted.
When will you lose that enchantment?
When, O mind, will you see it for what it is?

3 [on the divine play] [105]

As a bee may be drawn to the mere painting of a lotus,
So have I, deceived by this world, seen my hopes unfulfilled.
O Mother! You have tricked me into eating the bitter,
mistaking it for the sweet; such is your deception!
I acted out of greed, and now the bitter taste lingers day after day.
O Mother, you brought me here on the pretext that we would play,
but your play has not fulfilled my expectation.
Rāmprasād says, In this worldly play
what was destined to be has come about.
Now, at day’s end, O Mother, take your child home
and hold him in your arms.

4 [on despair] [15]

O Mother, my desires remain ungratified
and my hopes unfulfilled as my life steadily slips away.
Let me beseech you, O Mother, for one last time,
to come and take me in your arms.
In this world there is no one who truly loves;
how to love, this world knows not.
O Mother, my heart yearns to go to that place
where love reigns supreme.
I have suffered intensely. Now I renounce my desires
and cast aside those longings that lead only to agony.
Bitterly have I wept, but I can weep no more.
My heart, O Mother, is torn apart.

5 [on images] [24]

My uncomprehending mind wants to make an earthen image,
but is my Divine Mother made of clay? My task is in vain.
Even though holding a sword in hand and wearing a garland of skulls,
is that image truly the Mother?
Tell me, O mind, can such an object soothe your anguish?
It is said that the Mother’s complexion is of a darkness
so dazzling that it illumines the world.
Can any created image be made so dark?
Mother’s three eyes are the sun, the moon, and fire.
What artist can ever attempt that?
Kālī is the destroyer of all evils;
how then can she be made of earth and straw?
O mind, truly she will wash away the stain of incomprehension
and reveal herself to Rāmprasād!

6 [on turning to the divine] [209]

Of what use is this body, unless it swoons in love for Kālī?
Shame on the tongue that speaks not her name.
Misguided are the eyes that fail to see her form;
unworthy is the mind that engages not in her contemplation.
Of what use are ears that hear not her sweet name,
or eyes that flood not with tears at the name of Kālī?
Should we wish for hands that merely fill the stomach,
or for those that worship her with red hibiscus and sandal paste?
Of what use is a pair of feet? Their labor day and night is futile
unless they take us joyfully to where her images are worshiped.
Does the Divine Mother reveal herself, asks Rāmprasād,
to one of undirected thoughts and actions?
Does an acacia tree yield mangoes?

7 on tilling the field of awareness [33]

In this birth I shall till the field of my mind.
O Mother, let your grace shower down upon it
as you sit by keeping watch.
O Mother, this field of my awareness is full of weeds;
What power have I to tend the whole of it?
If I can cultivate but a part, I shall swim in an ocean of joy.
Misdeeds are amassed in my mind as noxious weeds.
O Mother of disheveled hair, cut them with your curving blade!
Six bullocks – the six passions – plough this field day and night.
But I shall sow the seeds given by my guru
and gather an auspicious harvest.
Even so, says Rāmprasād, my desire for tilling the field
is not so very earnest. My true yearning, O Mother,
is to abide in oneness at your holy feet.

8 [on discernment] [154]

Shame on you, O mind! Greedy for pleasure,
you are ignorant, unbelieving, and unruly.
Virtue and vice are two she-goats
that you should first tether to a stake and then sacrifice
with the sword of knowledge if you would find release
from the every-repeating round of birth and death.
Heed the voice of wisdom and sever the bond of delusion
that is the sense of difference.
Make this sacrifice an offering to the Mother,
that she may enjoy the bliss of your realization.
Rāmprasād says, delight in the bliss of the Self!

9 [on the divine name] [21]

O mind, repeat her name: Kālī, Kālī.
Why do you not repeat the name
of her who destroys all danger?
Why do you forget?
Feel no fear of the vast ocean of existence,
for Kālī shall take you easily across this sea of life.
Do not fret, O mind: what is past is dead and gone.
Waste no time in vain pursuits,
but utter Kālī’s name without regret.
Casting dust into death’s eyes, cross the sea of life.
O mind, says Rāmprasād, why do you forget her?
Your time is coming to an end,
so repeat without end the name of Kālī.

10 on inner worship [22]

O mind, why are you so unsettled?
Be still, repeat Kālī’s name, and meditate on her.
If you make a show of your worship,
your heart will merely swell with pride.
So worship her in secret, unknown to the world.
If you make an image of metal, stone, or earth,
of what use will it be?
Make a mental image, and set it on the lotus of the heart.
If you gather sun-dried rice and ripened fruit,
what purpose will they serve?
Instead make a mental offering of the nectar of your devotion,
and fill the Mother to her heart’s content.

The lights of candles and lanterns and waving lamps,
of what use are they?
Kindle instead the resplendent light of your heart,
and let its gemlike luster shine day and night.
What will it avail you to sacrifice sheep or goats or buffalo?
Sacrifice instead the six passions of lust, anger, greed, pride,
envy, and delusion, all the while exclaiming, “Victory to Kālī!”
Of what use are drums? asks Prasād. Just clap your hands,
shouting “Jai Kālī!” and fix your mind on her blessed feet.

11 [on the battlefield of life] [299]

Who is that enchanting maiden, exquisitely beautiful
with the new moon adorning her brow?
Her complexion rivals the darkest night of the new moon.
In the prime of her youth, she is slim and unclad.
She stalks the battlefield with her dark hair flowing loose.
Her two hands on the left hold a sword above and a severed head below.
Her two hands on the right assure safety and grant blessings.
How enchanting is her beauty! Behold her, O king of demons,
is she herself a demon or a woman or a goddess?
In this battle of life I long for victory through Śiva’s strength,
but he lies feigning death beneath her feet.
Such is the strength of Śakti that she subdues the subduer of death!
Śakti assumes so many bewitching forms, now enchanting the heart
but in a moment looming large to strike terror with her laughter.
Now she runs about the battlefield, then soars into the sky,
hungrily devouring chariots and charioteers, horses and elephants.
Rāmprasād declares, You know not Mother’s greatness.
She is Brahman’s power – consciousness eternally dynamic.
He who is Kṛṣṇa is Kālī in an enchanting maiden’s guise.
Go beyond the forms, and know her sword to be his flute.  

12 [on breaking convention] [275]

In Śiva’s company is Mother ever immersed in joy and delight.
Intoxicated with his nectar, still she does not stumble.
Her actions defy all custom, and earth itself trembles beneath her tread.
Both Śiva and Śakti are mad, yet the very sight of them destroys all shame and fear!

13 [on religious universality] [220]

O mind, your error is not yet gone.
You are engrossed in the worship of Śakti,
but Hari and Hara are not yet one to you.
Why do you fail to grasp what lies
at the heart of Vrindāvan and Kāśi alike?
As you go about in pursuit of God, you succeed
only in deceiving yourself.
Why do you not meditate on the identity
of the Gaṅgā and the Yamunā?
What have you done to realize the secrets
of the sword and the flute?
Prasād says, You are confused, and your prayer
is but hypocrisy. As long as you distinguish
between Kālī and Kṛṣṇa, you have eyes but do not see.  

14 [on higher states] [187]

O mind, wake up, wake up from delusion’s sleep!
How long will you slumber unaware?
Your life is wasted in women, revelry, and fleeting pleasures.
Desires flame forth and drive your dreaming.
If sleep you must, then practice the sleep of deep meditation;
only then you will attain the wealth you prize,
which is the bliss of resting at Kālī’s feet.
It is through meditation, illumined by reason and ardent love
and the Mother’s light, that the inner Self awakens.
O mind, rend the veil of unknowing and awaken
in meditation to the light of lights!

15 [on who you really are] [122]

Everyone disputes what will happen after death.
Some say you will become a ghost.
Some say you will go to a heavenly realm.
Some say you will abide near the Lord.
Still others say you will merge into God.
The Vedas teach that you are as space enclosed by a jar,
and when the jar breaks,
you are that same space you have always been,
only now without limit.
Good and evil – how empty they prove to be,
even though you have taken them all along as solidly real.
Your body is made of five elements, harmoniously arranged,
but on its demise they will go their separate ways.
Prasād says, you will be at the end what you were in the beginning,
just as a bubble that emerges from water and then merges back.

16 [On Liberation While Living] [6]

O Mother, you are present in every form,
throughout the vast universe and in its smallest things.
Wherever I go, wherever I look, I see you, O Mother,
in your all-embracing oneness.
The entire world of earth and water, fire and air, and birth and death –
all of it is you.
Mountains, plants, and the creatures of land, water, and air,
all things moving and unmoving in this beautiful world,
says Prasād, are expressions of your divine intent.

Rāmprasād’s poems bear out the advice to “watch your mind but listen to your heart.” We find him describing his constantly changing moods of discontent, discomfort, frustration, pique, anger, even disillusionment at times. Haven’t we all been there? But we also hear the voice of inspiration. He has an intuitive grasp of something greater than himself, and in the end he knows that the something greater which reveals itself in intuitive flashes is his higher Self. As a devotee of the Mother Kālī he strives for a relationship with her. As a seeker of knowledge, he reaches the supreme identity with her. As Swami Brahmananda, the guru of Swami Prabhavananda, taught, in the end pure devotion and pure knowledge are one and the same. It’s all a matter of watching the mind and listening to the heart.

English versions of the songs are by Devadatta Kālī. The numbers in brackets refer to their position in the complete edition by Jadunath Sinha. 

Kali: In Our Hearts and Minds   Led by David Nelson
November 8, 2014
How Karma Yoga Has Affected My Life   Br. Vivek
December 3, 2014
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Kālī in our Hearts and Minds (Part 2)