This is a true story about a man, a snake and a turkey poult. At the end of the story, the snake and the poult will be dead.
It’s also a story about the Hindu goddess Kali, the so-called goddess of death who wears a necklace of skulls while holding the severed head of a warrior. Kali is understandably fearsome. She dances on the body of her divine consort who willingly lets her wear out her driven passion on himself so this is a story of love as well.The poult and its brothers and sisters arrived in a cardboard box at the post office. I put them into a metal tub under a heat lamp. Baby turkeys need to be kept warm and dry or else they will die. For days I watched as they slowly grew larger, consuming water and food. I kept a screen over the tub so they would not jump or fly out. There came a point when it was time to move them to their next home, a bird house where they would have more room and could actually begin to fly inside. To prepare the poults for the rigors of being outdoors, I began turning off the heat lamp during the day so they could start hardening off. On the day before moving them, I went into the shanty and fed them. I came back an hour later to see something large inside the tub and noticed the turks were terrified. I looked closer and it was a six-foot black snake that had already killed one of the poults and was beginning the long process of eating it. I was horrified because I’d always taken care of the snakes in the winter house. I let them outdoors in the spring when they were ready to go outside. I kept them safe indoors because I knew they ate mice and snakes are also sacred to me. And this is how I was repaid. At least that’s what I kept screaming at the snake as I chopped it apart with poults flying out of the tub as I removed the screen so I could aim my axe at it. In my anger I inadvertently smashed the lamp and the ceramic food plate, one of my favorites of course.
The snake and the poult were wrapped together in death as I took them outdoors and deposited their lifeless bodies near the road. I gathered the remaining poults, put them into a carrying cage and brought them to their new home. The next day I went back to see the snake and the poult. Flies were on the bodies and swarming around them. Maggots were already gutting the poult and the snake. Death alone was triumphant.
And that’s when I thought about Kali. I have several pictures of her in my house, as well as a sculpture. She is fearsome indeed, with her tongue hanging out of her mouth, sword in hand, death triumphant. Yet she also has one hand raised in the traditional position of “no fear” so common to Hindu and Buddhist deities. How can such fearsome goddess also be saying “Don’t be afraid?” How can we not be afraid of what she is? Because Kali is more than the incarnation of death, she is also liberation from death. For Kali actually represents time which destroys all things. Only Kali herself stands outside time so by worshipping her, we stand in her protection. No fear.
Kali is also a fearless warrior and one time the gods needed her to overcome the armies of approaching enemies. She went into battle and destroyed the warriors arranged against her, but then she went insane with blood lust and began killing the innocent as well, a story so common in war. The gods had no way of stopping her and it seemed as though as creation itself might be destroyed. Then her loving and beloved consort Shiva stepped forward and said he would stop her. So he laid on the ground and let her trample him until she wore herself out. At that moment her thirst and hunger were satiated and she regained sanity. What self-sacrificing love!
I thought of Kali as I looked at the maggots eating the remains of my beloved poult and the snake that ate him. I foolishly blamed the snake for doing what snakes do, as in the story of the snake who was taken across a stream by a friendly creature only to be bitten by the snake halfway across, thereby ending with the death of them both. As the benefactor drowned, it asked the snake why it had bitten him considering he was helping the snake cross the river. “That’s what I do,” replied the snake. There was nothing personal to it, just as I was not at all involved in why the snake was eating my poult. I’ve seen black snakes crawl up tree trunks to find and eat baby birds. That’s what they do. The fact that I had helped the snake many times was nice but not relevant at this point. The snake was hungry; it heard the poults chirping away, followed the sound to its source and then had lunch. Nothing personal at all. I made it personal, but it wasn’t personal. The fact that I would not let the snake survive was my issue, my anger at what it had done. And now two creatures were dead, each one now food for new life as maggots ate their flesh. Kali supreme.
So where was enlightenment in all this? For Kali is nothing if not a beacon for enlightenment. The dark goddess summons those who follow her, offering redemption from the illusion of existence, the illusion that things are permanent when actually all is smoke and mirrors. Beyond the illusion of death is the true permanence of the spirit that does not die. Beyond time, which is Kali’s realm, is the timeless towards which she points the way if we only we will follow. Kali harvests death, the snake and the poult. Beyond them, beyond even the maggots feasting on them, is another realm that is hard to see as we try to look through a glass darkly, hoping to spot glimpses of a world beyond. But that world beyond is still the world here and now. And what Kali says is “Do not fear for nothing is lost. No, nothing is ever lost.”