Why do Temples Offer Fish and Meat to Goddess Kali in Bengal?
The Mystique of Goddess Kali
To westerners, Kali represents darkness, and not just of skin color, but that of mind, body, and soul. She is a mystery, a goddess who rules death and destruction. But in truth, her story defies such narratives. She is not all good or all evil. Instead, she transcends both categories.
Kali worship probably began among the tribals. Her name first appears in the Atharva Veda, which appeared between 1200 BCE and 1000 BCE. But she is depicted not as a goddess but as a fierce black tongue. It is one of the seven tongues that belong to Agni, the god of fire.
It took another four centuries before Kali became an individual in her own right as a a warrior goddess in the Devi Mahatmyam, around 600 CE. As Kali, she represents the fury of Goddess Durga. Her aspect evokes fear and terror – a skeletal frame, black complexion (‘kala’ means ‘black), attired in animal skins and holding a khatvanga (a skull-topped staff tribal shamans used to carry).
Other texts written of the same period associate her with Lord Shiva. In the Linga Purana (500 to 1000 CE), Shiva asks his consort, Parvati, to defeat the demon Daruka, who would meet his death only at the hands of a woman. So Parvati merges with Shiva and manifests as Kali to kill the demon. But she is unable to control her bloodlust, and Shiva steps in to stop her killing spree.
The Vamana Purana (900 – 1100 CE) tells a different story. In it, Shiva addresses Parvati as Kali, “the black one.” Annoyed, she performs penance to lose her dark complexion and becomes Gauri (the fair one) in the process. The black skin she sheds becomes a separate goddess, Kali.
Kali is the feminine form of Kāla, which is one of Shiva’s names. Kali is Shiva’s consort as well as his power (Shakti). In several Puranas, Kali is closely associated with Shiva. But her role is opposite to that of Parvati. Parvati has a soothing influence on Shiva, which can neutralize his destructive urges. Kali, on the other hand, incites and provokes him. The scholar David Kinsley points out, “it is never Kali who tames Siva, but Siva who must calm Kali”.
Kali’s violence on the battlefield is legendary. The way she disposes of the demon, Raktabija, when summoned by Durga, is a scene straight out of a horror movie. When it comes to dealing with dark deeds, when firm resolve and decisive action are the need of the hour, it is Kali who delivers.
Another story talks of some criminals who invoke Kali and who plan to sacrifice a human for her. Their prey is a young Brahmin monk of noble character. But his virtue shines so brightly that it scorches her image. Kali then manifests and kills the criminals who sought to worship her by decapitating them and drinking their blood. Thus, Kali reveals her unpredictable nature. She will not be controlled by those who claim to know her. The story also illustrates her victory over ignorance and evil and her impartial nature.
Kali and Blood Sacrifice
In Bengal’s Shakta (Goddess worship) traditions, offering ‘bali’ or blood sacrifice is allowed.
Kali worship in Bengal involves the ritual partaking of boli’r mangsho (meat cooked for bhog). Animal sacrifice in Bengal predates the popularity of Kali Pooja, which is one of the biggest festivals in the state. It became a household affair thanks to the efforts of a very influential figure in the early 18th-century – Raja Krishnachandra Roy of Nadia. He was a rich zamindar or landowner who was also a patron of the arts. He decreed that his subjects should observe Kali Pooja. Not wanting to attract his anger, people began to observe the Pooja. William Ward, an English missionary, mentions this in his book A View of the History, Literature and Religion of the Hindoos (1815).
Animal sacrifice is also in keeping with Kali’s tribal origins. In many villages of the state, animal sacrifice is mandatory for Kali Pooja. Devotees cook the meat and serve it as bhog the next morning. Local tribes have their own version of the Kali Pooja, which also includes music and mahua (an alcoholic drink), besides meat.
But due to the influence of Vaishnavism, Kali Pooja is now a vegetarian affair in many Bengali homes. Instead of meat, ash gourd, sugarcane, cucumber, and banana form the sacrificial offerings. Many Bengali liberal elites like Rabindranath Tagore did not favor blood sacrifices.
At the famous Kalighat Temple in Kolkata, animal offerings are made daily. The meat is often bought by buyers clandestinely.
There are numerous Kali temples in Bengal, and many of them do accept animal sacrifices. Devotees offer fish and meat at these temples to the Goddess. Here are some of them.
This 200-year-old temple is one of the 51 Shaktipeethas in India. Here, animal sacrifice occurs daily. Devotees who have made a pledge to the Goddess bring the animals. The cooked meat is offered to devotees as prasad. But the Goddess herself is offered a vegetarian spread. Dakini and Yogini, her assistants, are given the meat from the sacrifice.
This temple is also a Shaktipeetha. Both fish and meat sacrifices are made to Kali as bhog, as per Tantra. “Karan Sudha”, or alcohol, is also offered. But there are also separate vegetarian and fruit offerings.
At Shri Ramakrishna’s Dakshineswar temple, devotees offer Kali fish daily as bhog. But animals are not sacrificed here.
Thanthania Kalibari, Kolkata:
This 300-year-old temple is in north Kolkata. For bhog, fish is mandatory here. On full moon days, animals are sacrificed and offered to the Goddess by the temple. At times, devotees may pledge a goat too. The sacrificial meat is given to the devotee who pledges it and is not cooked at the temple.