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There is something about Kali's tongue that disturbs the viewer. Is it a symbol of power or a symbol of shame, wonders Devdutt Pattanaik.
The outstretched tongue of Kali distinguishes her from all other gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. There are many goddesses who, like Kali, are naked and associated with blood and death, including Chandi, Chamunda, Bhairavi and Bhagavati, but none stick out their tongue like Kali.
Sometimes Kali does not have the characteristic outstretched tongue. She has fangs protruding from the corners of the mouth. This is especially popular in south Indian imagery.
A Kali without the tongue is called Bhadra-Kali or the decent-Kali who does not reject feminine grace totally. She resides in household shrines and serves as the guardian of the family.
There is something about Kali's tongue that disturbs the viewer. It is feared; it is seen as shameful, a-bhadra or not-civilised.Why is she doing it? Is it a symbol of power or a symbol of shame?
In Devi Mahatmya, Kali unfurls her tongue in her role as the ultimate deliverer called upon to salvage a situation that seems hopelessly out of control. She is summoned by Durga herself to destroy the demon Rakta-bija, whose name means 'blood-seed'. The demon Rakta-bija had the magical ability to produce a double of himself instantly every time a drop of his blood fell to the ground.
Having wounded Rakta-bija with a variety of weapons, Durga and her assistants, a fierce band of warriors known as the Matrikas, find they have worsened the situation: as Rakta-bija bleeds more profusely from his wounds, the battlefield gets filled with Rakta-bija duplicates.
Desperate, Durga summons Kali, who spreads her tongue across the battlefield, and swallows in one gulp, the swarm of blood-born demons and sucks the blood from the original Rakta-bija until he falls lifeless. Kali's tongue here is a weapon, to be feared, a reminder that nature ultimately consumes all life.
In popular story-telling, the reason for Kali sticking out her tongue is rather domestic. After killing the demon Daruka, Kali drank his blood. The blood drove her mad with bloodlust. She went around the world killing at random. The gods begged Shiva to stop her. So he took the form of a handsome man and lay in Kali's path. As soon as Kali stepped on him, she bit her tongue out of embarrassment. She was ashamed to learn that her bloodlust had prevented her from seeing and recognising her own husband. Needless to say, this is considered a patriarchal interpretation that became popular in the 19th century.
In Kali temples, the tongue is smeared with the blood of sacrificed animals - a reminder that Mother Nature is - 'red in tooth and claw', giving life as well as taking life. We may domesticate her, transform her into the demure Gauri, clothed and coy, but she will always stick out her tongue and slurp on our blood.
Perhaps with the outstretched tongue, Kali teases and mocks her devotees - she sees through their social facade and knows the dark desires they try so hard to deny or suppress. She provokes them to delve into their unconsciousness and confront all those memories they shy away from.