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Feminism, Spirituality and Kali: Western Witchcraft, Shakta Tantra and the Quest for the Feminine Embodiment of the Divine
by Erin Johansen

This article is to be published in the 2005 anthology She is Everywhere, edited by Luisah Teish and Lucia Birnbaum, PhD. Printed with permission.

The best way to treat Shakti is as a Mother. It can save you from so many karmas also. If you look at all women as your mother would you ever think of raping or cheating or deceiving one? And if you see the Divine Mother in all beings can you ever intentionally injure anyone? [1]

In every religion and in every culture, there are those who live on the edges of society, outside of established cultural norms and standards of belief and practice. But in the East and the West, there are two groups I call attention to. These groups have a number of things in common. First, they are religious groups who see themselves as following a life-affirming path of personal and social liberation. Second, they hold a goddess as the supreme deity. Third, their practitioners must often deny their involvement with the religious movements, to avoid social stigma and community vilification. Śākta Tantra and witchcraft are these two religious paths, and what unites them is the goddess Kālī.

In India, practitioners of Tantra are often misunderstood, particularly those who practice any of the numerous incarnations of Śākta Tantra, the tantric practice that elevates the goddess as the ultimate form of being. [2] Even in the living goddess traditions of India, this is radical, for patriarchal Hinduism teaches the supremacy of gods over goddesses. Because of their belief system and practices that fly in the face of conservative Hindu and their devotion to the fierce mother Kālī, a slayer of demons but also a patriarchal symbol of an untamed woman's uncontrollable rage and destruction, they are often accused of malicious deeds and crimes against humanity.

In the West, veneration and symbolism of Kālī is often misunderstood even by feminist scholars, and especially by Western witches and goddess practitioners, themselves subaltern groups in the Western religious paradigm, both as women and especially as those who acknowledge and worship the goddess. Even today, around the world, men, women and children are tortured or killed because of accusations of witchcraft, primarily in poor areas on the margins of society. [3]

Many Western women in these traditions have adopted Kālī is a symbol of freedom, transformation and empowerment, but simple misunderstandings lead to the dilution of her jarring symbolism and primal potency. Taking her out of the Indian context without sufficient research has kept Westerners from fully appreciating Kālī's power in modern and historical India, and contributes to a common problem in middle class feminist spirituality - that of the myth of the commonality of all experience and symbolic meaning.

In fact, Western witches have much to learn from the history of Tantra, and the living goddess traditions of India. While Kālī's image in India is undergoing a sort of cosmic and cultural makeover, in subtle ways softening her for broader devotional consumption, in the Western context, her imagery is still being understood and defined. Furthermore, embracing Kālī and other dark goddesses is a way of addressing and eradicating the subtle racism that has pervaded Western feminism and witchcraft, in ways that many practitioners probably do not even recognize - and at the same time in India is a reverse process of lightening the image of Kālī to make her less intense and more palatable to many Indians who equate lighter skin with greater purity. In fact, Kālī is perhaps most powerful as a transformative image in the quest for acceptance of the power of female menstruation and sexuality.

Next Page | As a stereotype, the word "witch" has been used throughout history to slander women...
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[1] A quote from the aghori guru Vimalananda, from R. Svoboda, Aghora: At the Left Hand of God, (New Delhi: 1986) Rupa & Co., 74.

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