Bones, Thugs and Kali

In India, from as early as the mid 1300s to the mid 1800s, bands of men would rob and murder unarmed travelers. Known collectively as the Thuggees (Anglicized to Thug), they would befriend groups of people before strangling them in their sleep, often using a noose or handkerchief. Estimates of their victims vary; the lowest number being 50,000 dead, while the high end is set at 2 million murdered. So, what does any of this have to do with Tantra?

The official answer to that question has changed over the years. When British Imperial forces aggressively infiltrated Thuggee networks in the mid 1800s, the consensus view was that they were both a political and a religious movement. This has softened in the intervening years – a good number of scholars now believe that the British played up the religious aspects of the Thugs to generate fear and support back home in England. However, there are still researchers who acknowledge ties to the Tantric goddess Kali, even if many of the Thugs were not practicing Tantrics (indeed, many were Muslim).

To understand this tie, we have to turn to a Kali origin story (there are several). The myth that fits the Thug narrative can be found in the Devi Mahatmya, part of larger work, the Markendaya Purana. The story goes like this:

Once upon a time there was an Asura (which can be loosely defined as a demon, though fallen angel might be a better translation) whose meditations, rites and rituals pleased the gods (this is a recurring theme in Hindu mythology – many of the Asuras, like Ravana from the epic poem, the Ramayana, received their powers through acts of devotion). This particular fellow went by the name of Raktabija, which means blood seed. The reason: the special power he received from the gods was that any time he shed a drop of blood, another copy of him would spring from that spot. What could possibly go wrong with this plan?

Pretty soon he was running amok with two of his brothers, who had also received magical boons. Even the gods started worrying, so they sent in their fiercest warrior, the goddess Durga. But even Durga was having problems dealing with Raktabija. Like the scene out of the Matrix where Neo finds himself battling an army of ever multiplying agent Smiths, Durga was surrounded, and overpowered.

This is why she created Kali, whose tongue could cover the entire battlefield, and had whose lust for blood was unquenchable. Kali essentially drank Raktabija up before he could make more clones, and Durga was able to save the day. If you remember the imagery of Chinnamasta, it’s not hard to imagine Kali devouring torrents of blood.

So, here’s how the Thug argument went, at least for some of them: The goddess Durga made Kali, and in doing, saved the world. Therefore, to keep the world safe means to keep feeding Kali. Thuggee murders were therefore actually sacred offerings to appease the Tantric goddess, and therefore were a good thing.

Now how much of this is the rationalization of a death cult, how many Thuggees actually believed any of this, and to what extent where the colonials playing off of English/Christian/Missionary fears of “the godless savages”? These are all questions that will keep Tantric scholars writing books and dissertations for the foreseeable future.

Here’s our real concern:

Is Kali a blood thirsty goddess, as many of her Mahavidhya forms imply, or is she the Great Mother, a manifestation of cosmic grace and compassion, which is how she has been worshiped in Bengal for centuries?

The answer is, well…yes. And a whole lot more. So, as we continue our explorations of Tantra, we’ll be seeing a multitude of Kalis.

Just remember to choose your Kali well, and be careful what you feed her; she’s a very picky eater…

circa 1850, from a Missionary publication

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