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Encountering Kali: in the margins, at the center, in the West

edited by Rachel Fell McDermott and Jeffrey J. Kripal

University of California Press, 2003, 231pp


Of all the scholarly works I have read over the last couple of years, Encountering Kali is without doubt one of the most impressive. Divided into two seconds, covering respectively - Kali in the texts and contexts of South Asia and Kali in Western settings and discourses - the various contributions highlight the widely diverse contexts within which Kali appears.

Contributions to this collection range from Patricia Lawrence's fascinating field research on Kali worship in Sri Lanka against the backdrop of civil war to Hugh B. Urban's review of Kali in the Colonial imagination, and Cynthia Anne Hume's Wrestling with Kali which focuses on British Colonial-era and South Asian portrayals of Kali and focuses in particular on Kali's imagery with respect to the so-called Thuggee cult. Also of interest is the fieldwork of Usha Menon and Richard A. Shweder, in investigating the local meanings of Kali iconography in the temple town of Bhubaneswar in 1991, and how those meanings have come to become associated with narratives that uphold Hindu family values - especially those encouraging female self-restraint and self-control.

Roxanne Kamayani Gupta's Kali Mayi: Myth and Reality in a Banares Ghetto offers a poignant account of her meetings with a female Kali devotee; and how this illustrates the differences between how Kali is thought of by Western and Indian women. The final essay in the collection, Kali's New Frontiers by Rachel Fell McDermott, reviews how Kali is presented on the Worldwide Web, and discusses how the representation of Kali by Western feminists and New Age groups is, by turns, fuelling the rise of a new wave of critique of inappropriate cultural borrowings.

This is an excellent collection of essays and as such, deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone with a serious interest in Tantra or Goddesses in general. - Phil Hine