This article was originally published in the Australian quarterly journal 'The Vedic Light' (Vol2, 2002).
Mahakala- the Great God of Time
------ © Dr. Satya Prakash Choudhary
"Where are all the riches of kings? Where are all the worlds created by Brahma? All these are destroyed and dissolved (in the eternal process of Time). How can I have faith in all these things?
Millions of Indras have been swallowed up like bubbles in the ocean of eternity. Wise men will laugh at me for my having pinned my faith to earthly life.
Millions of Brahmas have passed away. Several cycles of creation have elapsed. Kings of the earth have disappeared like particles of dust. Where is the confidence then, in my life and its stability?"
(I.22-24, JANAKA GITA, Upashanti Prakarana, YOGA VASISHTA)
Perhaps of all the forms of gods worshipped, the most mysterious and difficult to comprehend is Mahakala- the great Lord of Time. Mahakala literally means 'Great Time'. Every male god in tantra, has a female counterpart and vice versa. Mahakala is the male counterpart of Mahakali, the Mistress of Time. In life, there is nothing that does not change. The only thing that doesn't change is this principle of change. Time is the great force of change that drives all things to be born, to grow, to transform and eventually to die. But beyond our limited vision of manifest time, is eternity, which is the unmanifest time. When we realize the ultimate truth of time itself, we merge into that eternity.
'Kala' literally means 'time' and is the matrix of the unborn. Mahakali is the mother who destroys her own children, returning to them their wholeness and unity with herself. She withdraws the countless universes into her womb like waves that recede back to the ocean. Time is death, for change implies death- the death of the past. Mahakala is both creation and destruction for, to create he must first destroy. He destroys only to transform. He transforms Avidya into Vidya. He is the Lord of Time who weaves the warp and woof of existence.
The worship of an abstract concept like 'Time' is a unique aspect of the Hindu way of life influenced by the pre-historic Tantric tradition, which considered Shiva as the supreme Godhead. The idea that the guru (teacher) and god are the same is quite common to such ancient schools. And who is a better teacher than Time? Many civilizations have risen and fallen. Very many generations have come and gone. Great kings have merged with the dust of the earth. Even the planets, the sun, the stars, this very universe, have all gone through many cycles of destruction and creation. Millions of mighty beings have been swallowed up like bubbles in the ocean of eternity. Several cycles of creation have elapsed. Time teaches the greatest lessons. It teaches us to accept change as the only unchanging principle in this universe that is in a constant state of flux. From the depths of the prehistoric human psyche, emerge the nebulous beginnings of the image of Mahakala, the great Lord of Time. The image of Mahakala grew slowly and developed spontaneously as man moved through and lived in the various bygone eras. It was not thrust on man, but manifested naturally as any other archetypal image would. Here it may not be out of context if I deviate, to acquaint the average reader with the term 'archetype'.
The word 'archetype' was first used by the famous psychologist Carl Gustav Jung in 1919. What are archetypes? Jung posited that in addition to the personal unconscious , there is also the collective unconscious . The collective unconscious is formed of two components- the instincts and the archetypes . He had discovered that the delusions of the insane seemed to call on a collective fund of archaic images and symbols.
While instincts are impulses, which carry out actions from necessity and have a biological quality (for instance the homing instinct in birds), the archetypes are different. Archetypes are innate, unconscious modes of understanding which regulate our perception itself. These inborn forms of 'intuition' are the necessary determinants of all psychic phenomena. At times it seems as if Jung doesn't make a distinction between the instincts and the archetypes, while at many places he differentiates them.
Jung also believed that many of our more complex social behaviors and/or rituals are also inborn, universal, archetypal behaviors. Then the intricate mating games and courtship rituals that we humans (as well as other animals) engage in, are also considered to be universal, archetypal behaviors. Going beyond the basic instincts, beyond the social, "instincts" (rituals or behaviors), Jung saw even the human desire for spirituality - our need for experiencing "the Eternal" (God) - as being an inborn archetypal behavior.
"If therefore, we speak of "God" as an "archetype," we are saying nothing about His real nature - but are rather letting it be known that "God" already has a place in that part of our psyche which is pre-existent to consciousness. And that therefore God cannot be considered merely an invention of consciousness. We neither make Him more remote nor eliminate Him, but bring Him closer to the possibility of being experienced.... The psyche of the infant in its preconscious state is anything but (italics mine) a tabula rasa (blank sheet); it is already preformed in a recognizably individual way, and is moreover equipped with all specifically human instincts, as well as with the a priori foundations of the higher functions... And if, by employing the concept of "archetype," we attempt to define a little more closely the point at which the "god" grips us, we have not abolished anything, only approached closer to the source of life." (Excerpt from Memories, Dreams, and Reflections) In other words Jung tells us that we are born with the desire to know and experience God!
Archetypal images, as universal patterns or motifs, which come from the collective unconscious, are the basic content of religions, mythologies, legends and fairy tales. "An archetypal content expresses itself, first and foremost, in metaphors. If such a content should speak of the sun and identify with it the lion, the king, the hoard of gold guarded by the dragon, or the power that makes for the life and health of man, it is neither the one thing nor the other, but the unknown third thing that finds more or less adequate expression in all these similes, yet-to the perpetual vexation of the intellect-remains unknown and not to be fitted into a formula." ( "The Psychology of the Child Archetype," CW 9i, par. 267) On a personal level, archetypal motifs are patterns of thought or behavior that are common to humanity at all times and in all places.
The archetypes have no material existence and reveal themselves only as 'images' . Jung distinguished per se the 'archetype' from the 'archetypal image'. The existence of the archetype itself can only be inferred, since it is by definition, unconscious. But the archetypal image protrudes into consciousness and is the way we perceive the archetype for ourselves. Thus archetypes are primordial ideas, common to all mankind, and express only through the archetypal images. Archetypes are charged with emotion and function autonomously from the unconscious. They are numinous, electrically charged with a sense of the sacred. T hroughout the centuries, the various religions and their sacred writings have identified archetypes (and visionary, numinous archetypal experiences) using a wide array of terminology for them. Within Hinduism, Tantra had the most evolved and universal system of symbols, images, and other such tools of transformation. Mahakala (Great 'God of' Time), KalaChakra (Wheel of Time), KalaSarpa (Serpent of Time) etc are among some such images that emerge from the unconscious, images that are of great value in understanding how the ancients evolved certain astronomical concepts.
The conception of Time was common to both the Tantric and Vedic traditions (modern Hinduism is a blend of both). Both the Tantric as well as Vedic traditions conceived Time as a mathematical abstraction of the ecliptic. "The sidereal zodiac provides convincing astronomical explanation for many of the Hindu customs and practices. The origin of the Phallus & Serpent worship can be traced to the sidereal zodiac . by incorporating the basic rationales. Prevalence of these customs in all the ancient civilizations like Egypt & Sumeria suggests Indian influence and the existence of Tantric cult in these places. The remnants of this ancient tradition are still visible in Kerala." (Pre-Historic Indian Astronomy, K.Chandra Hari).
Serpent worship was common in many ancient cultures, including the tantric. In fact Shiva is adorned by a serpent coiled around his neck. The serpent is symbolic of the Kundalini (also referred to as the 'Serpent Power'). Even Rahu (North node) and Ketu (South node) are depicted as 'serpent bodied' and 'serpent headed' respectively, in ancient myth. While each of the seven grahas (Sun to Saturn) corresponds to the seven colors of the spectrum, Rahu and Ketu represent the outer invisible ultraviolet and infrared regions respectively. The importance attached to the nodes in ancient astronomy becomes evident from the fact that the nodes are equated to the "Serpent of Time". More of this in another appropriate article. Let me first get back to the image of Mahakala .
'Mahakala has four arms and three eyes, and is of the brilliance of 10,000,000 black fires of dissolution, dwells in the midst of eight cremation grounds, is adorned with eight skulls, seated on five corpses, holding a trident, a damaru, a sword and a kharpa in his hands. With a beautiful body adorned with ashes from the cremation ground, on various corpses he dallies with Kali, fondling her and making love with her and fiercely kissing her, surrounded by numerous loudly shrieking vultures and jackals, adorned with a heap of braided hair, in a deserted place. Kalika, his Mistress, is of the form of the void, ornamented with skulls, with a sweet and charming face, in the midst of that five-fold love-yantra. Her yoni is the wheel of time (kalachakra)', states the Shaktisamgama Tantra . The description varies slightly in other texts. The depiction in all the texts has something in common- it is intensely primordial and very rich in symbolism.
Mahakala's outwardly frightening form is a highly symbolic one. "To the ignorant the idea of sacrificing the ego is fearful. But only when the ego is killed and the conflicting, doubting thoughts of the mind are cut asunder, can we be delivered of the attachments of ignorance and sorrow. The death of the ego, the death of the attachment to our material natures, the death of the mind, all these bring the new into the being. For, in the death of these aspects of our false self, lies our spiritual rebirth". Mahakala is the life that exists in death. To die daily to the past, ever aware of the present, here and now, is to be one with Mahakala, the Great Time. The past has to be buried. The future is uncertain. The only reality is here and now. This is the message of Mahakala. The cessation of desire, attachment fear and ego are all due to His grace.
Every aspirant in his spiritual journey has to meet Mahakala, at least symbolically. One has to learn to transcend 'Death' or rather the fear of 'Death', the fear of the unknown and the resistance to change, if one wants to grow. Mahakala symbolizes all this. To the initiate, he is both terrifying and lovable. He is both birth and death, for death leads to a new birth. In short, Mahakala has within him, both aspects of duality, the pairs of opposites- birth and death, happiness and misery, success and failure, ignorance and knowledge, deities and demons, good and bad, vice and virtue, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, all merge into the dense darkness of Mahakala. Man goes through life after life, passing through very many wombs, experiencing scores of fathers, mothers, lovers, enemies and friends. Caught in this cycle, he gets pulled into the whirlpool of karma, in this enigma of time, getting crushed under the wheel of time (Kalachakra), in this sport of Mahakala. Those who comprehend Mahakala's nature, his glory and his sport, transcend Time and are ultimately liberated.
Various accounts distinguish between Rudra, Bhairava, Kala and Mahakala, though all these are various forms of Shiva. Rudra is the vedic version, the destructive aspect while Time is personified as Kala. Another important aspect of Shiva-Rudra is Mrityunjaya, who personifies the victory over untimely death. According to one account, Rudra met Kala, the god of Time, and recognized in him his own self. But Kala has only four faces and lacks the fifth face of Shiva, that which is beyond time, as personified in his transcendent aspect of Ishana Thus Shiva is the personification of time as Kala, and beyond the limitations of time as Mahakala. The mysteries of day and night, life and death, and the cycle of seasons, are all elaborations of the sport of Mahakala. The distinction between Kala and Mahakala, between manifest and unmanifest time, is a great philosophical concept. Time and change are rhythmic and this rhythmic nature is seen as a great dance, and Shiva is depicted as Nataraja, the Lord of dancers, the Cosmic dancer.
The Tantric path allows the initiate to choose a deity, from the innumerable forms. These forms are all 'archetypes' deeply embedded in our psyche. Of such forms, there are five principal forms. Shiva, Shakti, Surya, Vishnu and Ganesha are the five main forms, and have corresponding Tantric sects. Shakti is shared in some sense by both the Shaivite (those who like to see the Supreme Godhead as Shiva) and Vaishnavite (those who like to see the Supreme Godhead as Vishnu) paths. At one stage, the grahas (loosely translated as planets) also were glorified and raised to the status of Gods. Sun (Surya), the giver of life and vitality, was worshipped as Suryanarayana, a form of Vishnu himself, while Sun's son Saturn (Shani), was equated to Shiva Mahakala, since he shares some attributes of Mahakala. Thus the planetary archetype of Saturn is a manifestation of Mahakala. Yet Mahakala is higher than Saturn, whilst still holding the same spiritual lessons. The psycho-spiritual message of Saturn is very much the same as that of Mahakala - change, growth and transformation- a threefold lesson learnt through the hard experiences of Time. Ultimately the malefics too are benefic, benefic at least in their purpose. Their work is the grace of Mahakala. Everything dissolves into Him. Glories to Mahakala!