In Search of Kali Ma (part 1)

Finding places where people gather to worship Kali–the aspect of God that, among other things, severs your head–is not necessarily an easy task. While there’s nothing particularly secretive about Kali worship, diaspora communities who take Kali as their primary deity–the people you want to meet–aren’t necessarily interested in proselytizing to people outside the diaspora, and thus do not send up smoke signals calling spiritual exiles to the faith. Rather, for Americans wishing to find people venerating Muktakeshi [She with Disheveled Hair] they must often be in the presence of either Ammachi the “hugging guru,” or California sadhu and kirtan wala, Bhagavan Das, both of whom give much respect to the great Mother of the World, Jagadamba. Yet, while both are inspiring enough people, neither represent what I am looking for.

For some time now, I have been on a mission to locate–and perhaps become mystically enraptured within–spiritual spaces of a less commercial (read: less billion dollar yoga industry supported) variety. This makes my search all the more difficult as walking among the spiritual non-elite means that I need to do some actual work to find where other, more DIY spiritual spaces (esoteric TAZs), exist.

Doing the work, however, can be a fruitful endeavor. Over the years my journey has lead me to a number of—sometimes literal—doorsteps including the very residential home of Kamit Publications; the Ausar Auset Society; a pizza shop in upstate New York run by a sufi mystic; the Nuwaubian Bookstore, All Eyes on Egypt, in Brooklyn; The Allah School in Harlem; Malcolm X’s mosque in Harlem; twisty wooded corners in Prospect Park where distillers of ital roots tonics hang out; the gurdwaras, churches, and mosques of orthodox Sikhs, Christians, and Muslims; as well as the dens of their squirrelly and sometimes heterodoxical nemeses.

So it was back in 2009 during one of my “quests” that I went looking for a community of Kali worshipers ground floor enough to satisfy my self-proclaimed punk anarcho-mystic ethos. Like many travelers these days, my preliminary search began online where I exhausted Google’s cyber services (web search, image search, map search, “Earth” search) to acquire phone numbers, addresses, and landmarks of people and places serving the greater Kali sangha.

Being a Google Mystic, however, necessitates language experimentation. It’s not as if simply typing the words “Kali temple nyc” in a search engine will get you a key to the city’s esoteric underworld. You need to flip things around, use alternate spellings, break out the thesaurus. For instance, when looking for Kali temples in New York City, the first thing worth abandoning is the term “temple” and replacing it with the word “mandir.” Unfortunately for me, back in 2009 searching for “kali mandir nyc” would always put me at the cyber home of the New York Kali Mandir on Long Island, which in addition to its huge committees and $1000 membership fee, seemed to serve mostly as a cultural center, or “home away from home” for transnational Hindus outside the immediate New York City area. It simply wasn’t what I was looking for.

I had also run into a few geographic dead ends. Originally I focused almost entirely on Queens, since out on the end of the 7-train there’s a large South East Asian population with scores of Hindu temples and gurdwaras lining the blocks. I had taken a trip there once before, and while I had the opportunity to meet a nice Sikh man kind enough to show me the ropes at one of the gurdwaras, I ultimately left without seeing a Kali temple, but still noted the experience as being a good one. Of course this was after I nearly incinerated the inside of my mouth on a “vegetable” (read: chili pepper) uttapam.

As I continued to look, I also began to realize how limited in cultural scope I had become. It hadn’t yet occurred to me that not all worshipers of Kali are from India or necessarily identify as Indian culturally, irregardless of considering themselves Hindu. While clicking around I began to see the words “guyana” or “guayanese” pop up when reading the fine print between “brooklyn,” “kali,” and “mandir.” Thus, once I began adding “guyana” to the mix much started to unfold. What can I say? It never occurred to me to look up English-speaking Hindus from Guyana, a largely Christian country on the northern tip of South America, who identify more with the Caribbean cultures of Tobago, Trinidad, and Jamaica than they do with South America or India as my gateway into local Kali worship in Brooklyn, NY. Nevertheless, there I was wondering if I had actually stumbled upon a culture informed equally by Catholic and Hindu sensibilities.

The video below seemed to suggest I had:

Watching this video focused my search, and it became clear that no longer was I looking for Hindus from India, but rather I was going to look for Hindus from Guyana whose services and worship had, for me, familiar elements of Jesus revivalism, shamanism, pantheism, and Hinduism. I was excited, and began to wonder if the Guyanese Hindu love of the Divine Mother as Kali, would eventually spark in me my own love of the Divine Mother as Mary.

It was time to leave the safety of home and venture outside.


Next: Hitting the pavement to knock on some doors

6 replies

  1. Fantastic article. I am a Vedantist, and do puja Kali, but I am an advaita Vedantist ( Ramakrishna and Vivekananda stuff) and so when I do puja it is very different then what a more traditional, dualistic Hindu would do. Sadly here in Phuket, we have a limited amount of Hindu temples, and none of Kali ( to my knowledge) nor is there a Ramakrishna order temple here, so I most prob have to make my way over to India to meet some hard core worshippers lol.
    I also like your comment re the billion dollar yoga industry . I lived in LA for 9 years, aka the mecca of yoga this and yoga that. AKA non yogas. Since I do Jnana yoga and the more philosophical paths, no one ever got why I called myself a yogi, since I wasn’t doing poses. Ha. Then there was the ‘center’ ( I will call it this) where all these preggo moms went, and it turns out their guru was a major nympho ( AND HOW MANY OF THEM ARE??). Getting authentic, spiritual physical yoga is a challenge nowadays, even in India. Then again, we are in the Kali Yuga…

    • Not sure which one you’re referring to, but the one in the video is, I think, in the States…. Again, not sure.

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