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Interview with author Devadatta Kalinterview with author Devadatta Kali
Author of In Praise of the Goddess and The Veiling Brilliance author interview

Devadatta Kali is a highly respected writer and author of the forthcoming novel The Veiling Brilliance. He is a lecturer, teacher, and author, and wrote the popular book, In Praise of the Goddess. A Vedantist, he has been writing about Vedanta since the 1990s. Devadatta, it is a pleasure to visit with you to discuss the Goddess Kali and your life in Vedanta. 

Tell me, when did David Nelson become Devadatta Kali, and why?

Devadatta Kali: Thanks, Lee. My association with the Vedanta Society of Southern California began in September 1966, when I attended my first lecture in the Hollywood temple. I knew from that moment that I had found my spiritual home. Many of the devotees there had Indian “spiritual” names that they had been given by the guru, Swami Prabhavananda. He explained that a spiritual name is an ideal to live up to. Although he initiated me in March 1969, for some reason I didn’t ask for a name until three and a half years later. About two months after my request (it must have been in December 1972), he named me Devadatta. It means “given to God,” and it’s a wonderful reminder of how I should live my life. 

In 1994 I met my second spiritual teacher, or upaguru, in the person of Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati. You may have heard of her. She’s the spiritual head of Kashi Ashram in Florida, an interfaith group with strong ties to Kali, or God the Mother. In April 2000 Ma added the Mother’s name to mine, saying that I am a son of Kali.

So, Devadatta Kali reflects two spiritual lineages. On my guru’s side there is the lineage from Sri Ramakrishna, who was a priest of Kali at the Dakshineswar Temple near Calcutta, and on my guru Ma’s side there is another lineage also connected to Kali. 

Tell us about your first book, In Praise of the Goddess.

n Praise of the Goddess is the actual translation of a sacred text, the Devimahatmya, which is about 1600 years old. Since it is a holy book, I made the language eloquent and inspiring, as sacred literature should be. Just translating the text wasn’t enough, though. It needed explanation to point out its depths and hidden meanings, so I wrote an introduction and then a verse-by-verse commentary. Some people say the book is “scholarly,” but I don’t want to frighten people off with the “s” word. Admittedly the book is based on careful scholarship, but that is necessary to make this ancient text come alive — and it really comes alive in a way that few translations from Sanskrit do. I think the excitement of discovery that I felt throughout the process comes through in the book.

Could you share your personal feelings on what is Goddess?

The Goddess exists on every level. Tantra teaches that she is the power that creates this universe. She is that same power residing in each of us as the strength of inconceivable silence, peace, and joy. She is the divine presence that makes everything alive and wonderful, shining with light — not light in a physical sense but something I can’t put into words. It’s vibrant, and its nature is joy — not joy in the ordinary sense but a self-contained joy of freedom and beauty. We get a taste of this when we are moved by something inspiring — maybe a piece of music, a work of art, the magnificence of nature. In any of these experiences I think we sense the presence of something greater than ourselves. “Standing outside” — that is the literal meaning of the word ecstasy. For a moment we stand outside of our ordinary limitations of ego and touch something far greater. Psychologists call this awareness “the unitive dimension of being.” It can’t be described, not really, but anyone who has had this sort of glimpse into a greater reality will know exactly what I am talking about. This mystical insight need not come necessarily through anything we call religion, although customarily we slap the religious label on it. The divine reality is greater than any or all religions. As I like to say, the experience is primary, and all religions and philosophies are only the afterthoughts. So, to return to your question, to me the Goddess is many things — the universal creative principle; the countless personifications of that principle, such as Durga, Kali, Lakshmi, Sarasvati, the Virgin Mary, Yemaya, and so on; and ultimately she is the pure infinite consciousness which is the true Self of every being.

What is the role of Goddess in life?

Since the Goddess is everything, her roles are without number. She (or he or it, if you prefer) is the source, sustenance, and ultimate goal of all creation, and everything that exists is nothing but her own self-expression. If we can remember that and strive consciously to make the divine presence central to our individual lives — in whatever way we choose to do this — then we live in harmony with the entire universe. There are many ways to do this. The Hindu tradition has the well-known four yogas or spiritual paths: devotion, knowledge, meditation, and selfless action. Each of them or, better, any combination of them that best suits us, is a way back to the center. The Goddess — whatever or however you choose to think of her, him, or it — is the center, where everything comes together, first in harmony, then in unity, then in enlightenment.

What is the role of Goddess in religion?

Here in the Western world, we’re living in very exciting times. This is a period of rediscovery of the sacred feminine. There is a deep archetypal need in the human psyche to have a mother, and for far too long the motherhood of God has been suppressed by the monotheistic religions. They have promoted an imbalance in our world that has led to our present global crises. If what present-day researchers and scholars, not to mention India’s Tantric tradition, tell us is true, the Goddess was humankind’s earliest conception of divinity. The Willendorf Venus, for example, is 28,000 years old. Cybele, the ancient Anatolian goddess from around 8000 years ago, is a direct ancestor to Durga, who has been worshiped in India without a break (although under various names, such as Aditi, Vak, and Sarasvati) for as far back as we have evidence. 

When we read the historical sections of the Jewish Bible in the light of recent scholarship and archeological findings, it becomes clear that the Asherah, YHWH’s female consort, played a very important role in the religious lives of the Jewish people. Look at what happened with the establishment of patriarchal “reforms” under King Josiah. During his reign a fifth book of Moses, Deuteronomy, was “discovered” after lying forgotten for centuries in the Jerusalem temple! It denounced the Asherah, and Josiah had her image removed from the temple and destroyed. Officialdom forced the Goddess underground. She survived, of course, variously disguised — as Hokhmah (Sophia) in the Jewish Wisdom tradition and later as Shekhinah in Kabbalah. The brand of Christianity that won out as orthodox by the late fourth century had a similar distaste for the divine feminine. The Goddess in all her forms was forcibly repressed — especially Isis, whose religion was one of Christianity’s most serious rivals. I like to say that Isis and her son Horus were forced into the witness-protection program and emerged with new identities as the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus. For Isis it was also a demotion, of course. She had to give up her job descriptions, such as “Queen of Heaven” and “Stella Maris,” which were reassigned to Mary, whose cult then became a thriving one throughout the Middle Ages. 

Why? Because she presented the gentle, compassionate face of the divine. People wanted that and needed that, especially in view of the harsh, punitive measures taken by the male-dominated church to preserve its hold on power. The role of the Goddess fulfills a profound human need — to have a mother who is near and dear, who is always approachable, and who loves us unconditionally. This is all very general, of course, but in Indian tradition the Goddess takes on many different forms to fulfill different needs, and if you asked me about them, I could be more specific.

What do you see as the most important aspects of the Hindu Goddess, Durga?

Durga is called the Mahadevi, the Great Goddess, and she is the form of the Mother who gives rise to all other forms. She is the subject of the Devimahatmya, which is also known as Sri Durga Saptashati, or Seven-Hundred Verses on Sri Durga. Relating this to what I said earlier, I’d like to mention that at the same time as the Goddess was being suppressed in the Western world, her devotees in India were busy collecting and preserving all the ancient knowledge about her, which was compiled as the Devimahatmya.

Durga is portrayed in sculptures and paintings as a beautiful woman with ten arms to represent that she is present everywhere. Her ten hands hold various weapons and other objects to symbolize that she is all-powerful. She has three eyes to show that she is all-knowing. She rides the lion of dharma, meaning that holy action is virtuous action. Durga is both warrior and mother at the same time. You have to ask yourself, who is more fiercely protective than a mother toward her child? I remember hearing once about an incident at a zoo. Somehow a lion got loose, pounced on a child and had the child’s head in its mouth. The mother was so focused on saving her child that she rushed forward with no thought of her own safety and miraculously pried open the lion’s jaws with her bare hands. Now and then a story comes along about a mother who does something almost physically impossible, like lifting up a car to save the child trapped beneath it. That is the power of a mother’s love, and that’s what we revere in Durga.
Durga is a fierce warrior, and she goes after all the personal demons that assail us. So, even though she has this awesome destructive power, what she destroys is anything that threatens our well-being. 

What do you see as the most important aspects of the Hindu Goddess, Kali?

In the Devimahatyma Kali emerges from Durga’s brow as the embodiment of divine wrath in order to take on a growing army of demonic forces. It’s a chilling scene, and in The Veiling Brilliance I recreated it in widescreen technicolor. 

Kali is terribly misunderstood, except by her devotees. Yes, she has her horrific side, as she appears in the Devimahatmya, but over the centuries the understanding changed. The most wonderful portrayals of Kali are the 18th-century devotional songs of Ramprasad and Kamalakanta, which show her in many aspects, everything from a naked mad woman on the battlefield devouring demons between her gnashing teeth to the epitome of feminine beauty and gentle motherhood. The beauty of Kali is that she reconciles all the pairs of opposites that bedevil our human experience. She has her benevolent side on the right and her fierce side on the left.

The first Westerners who saw her images were aghast and misinterpreted everything as devilish, but Kali is in fact pure divinity in all its raw power. The symbolism is strong, no doubt — a garland of severed heads around her neck, severed arms forming her girdle, blood oozing from the corners of her mouth — but every feature, no matter how horrific, means something absolutely sublime.

Let’s just take her four hands, for example. The lower right hand is extended in a gesture of boon-giving. We can ask the Mother for whatever we want; she’ll give it all — worldly enjoyment (bhukti) or spiritual liberation (mukti). Her upper right hand forms the abhayamudra, a gesture that means, “Be not afraid.” How’s that for a gift? Fearlessness is a condition for success in our worldly affairs, of course, but it’s also essential for spiritual life. If we let anything hold us back, how can we move forward? OK, that’s the benevolent side. What about the other half? Kali’s upper left hand wields a curving sword, smeared with the blood and fat of the demons she’s slain. Pretty scary, huh? Actually, no. The demons are all the enemies of our own mental and spiritual happiness and well-being. The sword is called jnanakadga, the “sword of knowledge,” because it is our own empowerment to cut away from our awareness all the mistaken ideas that cause so much trouble. Those ideas arise in the ego-sense, the thought that I am an individual being — separate, limited, small, alienated. When there is this restrictive idea of “I,” everything that is “not-I” becomes the other, and that’s where the problems arise — everything from individual grievances to nations at war. So, we look at Kali’s lower left hand and find it dangling the freshly severed head of a demon. That is the demon of ego. We are not that small, separate self we mistook ourselves to be; we are the infinite Self that is one with the Mother. Her power of knowledge sets us free. Kali’s power is the power of transformation that brings us to enlightenment. 

You lived in California during the 1960s and came into contact with many important writers involved in the Vedanta movement. How did you become attracted to the Vedanta Society?

Even as a small child I had strong spiritual leanings, and maybe that is why I did not fit into the mainstream religious culture of northern Minnesota, where I grew up. I attended Sunday school (usually under protest) for about eight years, and at the age of fourteen I stopped going because of doctrines that I just couldn’t accept. I began reading about other religions. I was eighteen when I came to California, and for the next four years experienced a few different religions at first hand. In the summer of 1966, while vacationing at home in Minnesota, I borrowed a book from the library, A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy by Radhakrishnan. When I got to the chapter of Vedanta, there it was — what I had vaguely intuited all along but had never been able to put into words. I couldn’t wait to get back to Hollywood, because I knew about the Vedanta Society. As I said earlier, that was when I found my spiritual home.

 What are your most cherished memories of Swami Prabhavananda? 

How can I even begin? When you were with him you were in the presence of greatness. To give a more worldly analogy, I can remember going to see Stravinsky conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic on two different occasions, and when he stepped onto the podium, there was that presence of greatness. It was tangible. Swami Prabhavananda had that aura, but in a spiritual sense. He had an unassailable dignity, but at the same time he was unassuming. He was a man who lived and breathed what he taught, and I think it was his total integrity that commanded such enormous respect. So many people, including myself, were in awe of him and loved him dearly at the same time. He lived immersed in love for God and in love for his own revered guru, Swami Brahmananda, who was Sri Ramakrishna’s spiritual son. So, being in Swami Prabhavananda’s presence was being in the aura of that great spiritual tradition. I have many cherished memories, but most of them are too personal to share. At least one important incident found its way into The Veiling Brilliance, but I won’t say which one it is. 

Of Christopher Isherwood? 

I have fond memories of Chris and the Wednesday evening readings from The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna that took place in the Vedanta Society’s living room back in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Swami Prabhavananda would sit in an upholstered chair on the left side of the fireplace, and Chris would sit in a similar chair on the right and read from M.’s eyewitness account of conversations with Sri Ramakrishna. He had an uncanny ability to bring it to life. The associates and devotees of Ramakrishna took on flesh and blood when he read about them.

On a more personal note, I’m grateful to Chris for something he was never aware of. He taught me the 

meaning of humility. Here he was, a world-famous author, but he had an ability always to make the person he was talking to feel like the important one. I noticed that not only in my own conversations with him, but in his conversations with other people, no matter who they were or what their background. He had a lively way of engaging with people, as if they were all very interesting. The lesson I gained from his demeanor is that true humility is not about self-abasement but about making the other person feel valued. I value this lesson so highly that I incorporated it into Medhas’s teaching in The Veiling Brilliance. 

Of Aldous Huxley? 

I never met him. By the time I came to the Vedanta Society, Aldous belonged to an earlier chapter in the society’s history. 

Of Swami Chetanananda of the Vedanta Society of St. Louis, Missouri?

I’ll start at the beginning. When Swami Chetanananda first arrived in Los Angeles in 1971, I was fortunate 

enough to be among the twenty or so devotees who met his plane at LAX. We were all expectant about the new assistant to Swami Prabhavananda, and the moment he stepped off the plane, it was collective love at first sight. What a gentle, innocent, and utterly charming man. When I think of that quality of his, I am reminded of how Sri Ramakrishna valued guilelessness in his young disciples. Over the years Swami Chetanananda has matured into a venerable figure, but he still has that boyish quality that endears him to so many people. I hope he won’t mind my saying this!

At the same time I have to mention his reputation as a scholar and historian. He has written many books about the Ramakrishna movement and has applied meticulous scholarship to collecting and sifting out the data. He told me once that some of the stories about Ramakrishna’s disciples exist in as many as half a dozen different versions. At the time he told me this he said there were still very aged people alive in India with whom he could consult in order to determine the most authentic version of these memories. His books, which are written in excellent English, contain a lot of material taken from previously untranslated Bengali sources. In a way, he has been racing against time to preserve for future generations much knowledge that is otherwise in danger of being lost. 

What do you feel is the message of Vedanta for contemporary times? 

Two answers. One is that Vedanta is also called sanatana dharma, the eternal truth or the perennial philosophy. Its core teaching is particular to no one religion and to all religions. I have to stress that in order to bring out that Vedanta is strongly nonsectarian and undogmatic. Spiritual truth is spiritual truth — what else can be said of it? — and it is available at all times and places to everyone, because in the end it is the truth of our own being.

The second answer applies more to present-day circumstances. A little over a hundred years ago Sri Ramakrishna himself practiced the disciplines of various Hindu sects as well as Christianity and Islam, and in every case he found that they led to the same experience of the divine reality. “Truth is one,” as the ancient Rigveda proclaimed thousands of years ago. We speak of Ramakrishna teaching the harmony of religions, but in fact his real intention was to demonstrate through his own experience that all are true and valid, not just to have us say they are. In that respect he is very much a teacher for the present age. Nowadays, in an era of unprecedented mobility, people from all over the world are living and working together side by side, people of all different nationalities, ethnicities, and religions. It is the weaker part of human nature that makes us uneasy in the presence of difference, and it is all too easy for someone of different beliefs to be branded “the other.” Ramakrishna’s message is the universality of religion. All paths, he taught, lead to the same goal. 

Is there a special message from Vedanta for Americans?

Yes, in fact two come to mind immediately. Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna’s disciple, brought Vedanta to America in 1893, at a time when we were making enormous technological advances. There was great optimism in the air, and America seemed to lead the world toward a better material existence than it had ever known before. Vivekananda loved this country for its innovativeness. At the same time he recognized a spiritual poverty. He believed that the cooperation of East and West could be of enormous mutual benefit. American scientific know-how and ingenuity could work in tandem with the profound spiritual knowledge of India to build better societies in both countries. 

Another message is that Hinduism has a long history of accepting and assimilating everything that reached India’s shores. Throughout the millennia it has constantly been enriched and has grown through the contact with other religions and cultures. In the same way America is a nation of immigrants, and each group that comes here and is absorbed brings something of value that we can all benefit from. This is what accounts for the vibrancy of our culture and our ability to embrace the future with confidence. It’s a strategy that has served us well. In that respect Vedanta and the American experience have a great deal in common.

Is this a time of spiritual hope for humankind? 

Well, yes and no. That’s a good Vedantic answer to a lot of questions, because the world is a complicated place. You may know the analogy of the dog’s curly tail. The minute you straighten it out, it curls right back up. The world is like that. We can talk about reform and progress all we like, and if we are idealistic, our ideals should guide our actions. But let’s be realistic. The pendulum swings back and forth, and it will always do so. There are times and places where a constructive spirit reigns and great strides are made; and there are times and places where a destructive spirit takes hold, and all that progress is crushed. I don’t subscribe to the Western concept of linear progress, but rather to the Eastern understanding of cyclical nature. It’s just the way the world works.

Real progress, which is spiritual progress, occurs at the individual level — in human hearts and minds. My guru used to say that if you want to reform something, reform yourself. Some of us will want to, some of us will feel compelled to, others will want no part of it. One verse of the Devimahatmya praises the Goddess as abiding in all beings in the form of error. Wow! This after lauding her as compassion, forgiveness, peace, loveliness, intelligence, and other good qualities. “Error” comes at the very end of this litany, almost like a slap in the face. What’s that all about? Well, I’ll tell you. This cosmic error is the Mother’s maya, her power to create this world of appearances, where nothing is exactly as it seems to be. It’s what makes the world go ’round. It’s all her divine play. So, is this a time of spiritual hope for humankind? For the world at large, I’d say as much as any other time; there will be good periods and bad, and we seem to be going through a particularly dark phase just now. But for the individual, every moment is a time of spiritual hope, because the Mother empowers us with choice. Shakti — Sanskrit for “power” — comes from a root that means “to be able.” If we can connect with the Mother in our hearts, we connect with infinite possibility. 

What do you see as the role of Vedanta and the Vedanta Society in the future? 

Vedanta has formally been in America since 1893, even though the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita were known in intellectual circles in New England, for example, somewhat earlier. It’s growth has been slow, because we do not proselytize. There is a saying in India that when the flower blooms, the bees come of their own accord. When I discovered Vedanta in 1966, it was still rather exotic and off the radar screen. The cultural shift of the late ‘60s brought Eastern thought fully into the public consciousness. It was a mixed bag at first with one guru after another appearing on the scene. Some were real holy men and women; others weren’t. Today Eastern thought is widely disseminated in America. The Vedanta Societies have been here all along, for more than a hundred years, working quietly in the background. The Vedanta Society of Southern California, for example, besides operating its temples, monasteries, and convents, is active in the interfaith movement and has forged strong ties to other religious communities. So has the St. Louis Vedanta Society. 

At present something very exciting is taking place along the lines of grass-roots expansion. Vedanta groups are springing up in cities around the country as satellites to the established Vedanta Societies. After a period of slow growth, Vedanta in America seems to be undergoing a spontaneous revitalization. 

Because we do not proselytize, I would say that the role of the Vedanta Societies in the future is what it has been since the beginning: to make the timeless wisdom of India available to those who seek it. And I would add that Vedanta has something even for those who would never be drawn to it as their chosen path. That is its message of respect for all other religions. In that sense Vedanta can be a model for a world presently torn by religious strife.

Devadatta, it has been a pleasure interviewing you. I appreciate your sharing your thoughts with the readers, and thank you. In closing, is there something you would wish to share with the readers? 

Yes. I hope what comes across to the readers is that spiritual life is a joy. Over the years I’ve been blessed to know several holy people — extraordinary men and women from many different religious traditions. In every one of them what I have seen is serenity, fearlessness, compassion, and joy. All of them have left their mark on The Veiling Brilliance, and I hope that through this book each reader will be touched by them. Thank you, Lee, and to everyone the brightest of blessings.

Devadatta Kali’s forthcoming novel, The Veiling Brilliance is being published in December by Nicolas-Hays. The book explores the Goddess through fiction.

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