A colleague of mine once wondered aloud, after seeing the poster of Kali I had brought from India, how it was anyone could worship such a wholly despicable image.
It seems a fair question on its face. The image is undoubtedly despicable. A wild-haired, bare-breasted goddess, tongue dripping blood, brandishes a man’s severed head along with the blade with which she cut it. Around her neck is a garland of skulls. Her skirt is not of grass but the limbs of her victims, who have fallen dead at her feet.
To be fair, my colleague was not playing at scholarly criticism with his comment, which had no depth. Still, in his consternation, there was an implied distinction — that the image was foreign, certainly, but also barbaric, perhaps even inferior.
But then, what is the crucifix if not a depiction of murder? And not just murder, but gruesome torture. Nails have been driven through a man’s hands and feet. He has been stabbed. Blood weeps from his forehead onto which a crown of thorns has been forced. He is exposed, dangling as naked as Kali, his head bowed in suffering.
The dance of Kali and Christ on the cross are two ends of the same swinging pendulum — suffering and its cause. Through their depictions, we are invited to contemplate both our lot and our escape from it: salvation.
That’s not to say there is no difference. The Christian symbol, especially with its foundation in original sin, seems almost to rebuke. Look what you made him do. Now, don’t you feel terrible?
Kali, on the other hand, dances through no fault of ours. She tramples everyone, rich and poor, saint and sinner alike. One of the figures at her feet is a god. In that sense, one can read into the carnage a message of universal camaraderie. Very few of us will be crucified, but all of us will suffer deprivation.
This seems to be the view people in the East have of Christianity — that it’s grim and punitive. If a Buddhist or Taoist is a bad person, they suffer consequences in the next life, but they are also given a chance to do better. If a Christian is a bad person, or even if she is a good person but simply not Christian, she suffers eternally.
Christians, of course, wouldn’t call themselves pessimists. They greet you with the words “Have you heard the good news?” But for an Easterner, it’s hard to take that news (of Jesus’ resurrection) as anything but a stay of execution for a crime they didn’t commit — gaslighting writ large.
I never really thought about it, how people in the East perceived Christianity, until I came across this passage from Osamu Dazai’s 1948 novel Ningen Shikkaku (“No Longer Human”), in which that pessimism is referenced offhand.
For context, the novel has nothing to do with Christianity or religion. This is simply an offhand remark made to the narrator, a Japanese man. It is not a remark of note. But that’s the point. By its very triviality, it reveals the unconscious image.
The book is excellent, by the way.