“MAHAKALA” IS BOTH A WORD AND A PHILOSOPHY. As a word, its mention occurs seventy-three times across a wide literary spread including the Purāṇa, Rasa-śāstra (latrochemistry in Ayurveda), Kathā (Br̥hatkathā, etc), Kōśa (lexicons), Mantra-śāstra, Tantra-śāstra, and the Mahābhārata.
But drawing from the Indian tradition of the inseparability between Vāk and Artha (word and its meaning), it is the philosophy behind Mahakala that yields much delight, profundity and succour. Delight in the realm of aesthetic experience (Rasānanda), profundity on the plane of philosophy (Darśana) and succour as an eternal guide to living a life leading to fruition.
One of the most exalted embodiments of all these life-nourishing and soul-uplifting elements is undoubtedly the form of Shiva as Mahakala. Even as a philosophy and symbol, Mahakala is one of the original gifts of the genius of the Hindu civilisation to the world.
As Mahakala, Shiva signifies the incessant flow of time. He embodies the ultimate action of Laya (or dissolution). Laya is also the term for “beat” in poetry, music and dance, again signifying time. Adi Sankara evocatively brings out this aspect of Shiva in a tangential fashion when he says that Time is the world-eater (Jagadbhakṣakaḥ). At a broad level, Mahakala may be regarded as a personification of time that destroys all things. As Mahakala, Shiva also symbolises Sanatana or Eternity in the great cycle of Time. Thus, when Time repeats itself, what really is meant by “destruction?” We also notice the unity of this profound conception in Shiva’s widely familiar abode: the Smaśāna (cemetery). There’s a reason the Smaśāna is also named after him: Rudra-bhūmi. The word Rudra is derived from Rōdanaṁ drāvayati, i.e., He who melts away our tears. The Smaśāna, a place of fear and fright, becomes bereft of fear when we realise that it is also Shiva’s dwelling. It is his presence that takes away bhaya and confers abhaya on the devotee. Among others, this is the reason Shiva is also known as Abhyankara, the bestower of fearlessness. Fear and fearlessness merge in him because on the fundamental Sanatana philosophical plane, the source of both are the same. The Atharva Veda says this in an extraordinary fashion:
yaireva sasṛje ghoraṃ taireva śāntirastu naḥ — That which created the terrifying also created peace.
Thus, understanding Mahakala at all these levels helps us grasp the true foundational impulses of the Bharatiya spiritual civilisation itself.
THE MAHAKALA TEMPLE AT UJJAYINI is simply the architectural and artistic expression of this core philosophy. In fact, the temple wouldn’t exist but for this lasting Darshanic edifice. And it has endured precisely because this edifice is eternal. Mahakala is also Mr̥tyun̄jaya, the one who has triumphed over Death. Eternal. Immanent.
And it couldn’t have been more appropriate that Mahakala is located in Ujjayinī — literally meaning city of victory, one of the Seven Sacred Sanatana Cities. It is additionally significant that the word Ujjayinī is a feminine noun (stri-linga). In our tradition, Śrī (prosperity) resides where Strī (woman) is victorious.
It is not coincidental that Ujjayini is both a Jyotirlinga, and a Dēvi-pīṭha, where Mahakala’s wife also resides as Mahakali.
And who better than Kalidasa to give us the scenic, vibrant, dynamic, lilting and above all, a living, throbbing portrait of the Ujjayini he not only saw but lived and experienced to the hilt? That he has chosen the cloud messenger (Meghaduta) to deliver Ujjayini to us tells us how he lovingly close he had held the city to his heart. The cloud-messenger, a great symbol, a kind of bridge separating divinity with mortality is a lasting metaphor of the Sanatana civilisation itself. Here is a sample of Kalidasa’s Ujjayini from Meghaduta.
Though the road will be circuitous for you, set out for the north, do not be averse to forming the acquaintance of the upper vaults of the mountains of Ujjayini; and if you will not be charmed there with the eyes of the town’s fair, with their outer corners tremulous and dazzled by the flashes of the streaks of lightning, you would have missed the fruit of existence itself.
On reaching the country of Avanti… go to the city [Ujjayini], great by its opulence…the city… is a bright part of heaven borne down to the earth by the remaining merit of those, who, after having lived in heaven, have come down to the earth, because the stock of the fruits of their virtuous deeds have run short.
In the early mornings, the breeze from the Kshipra River, prolonging the loud cooing of the cranes indistinctly sweet through intoxication, fragrant being charged with the extremely pleasing smell of blow'n lotuses, and agreeable to the body…
And on seeing in crores, pearl-necklaces with precious stones forming their central gems, conches, pearl-shells, emerald gems, dark-green like young grass, with their shooting rays spread upwards, and pieces of corals, arranged for sale in the marketplaces whereof, the oceans appear to have only water left in them.
With your size augmented by the smoke of the incense used for perfuming hair and escaping through the lattices of the windows, and welcomed with presents in the form of their dancing by the domestic peacocks through fraternal affection, you will dispel the fatigue of your journey enjoying the beauty therein: in its mansions, sweet-smelling with flowers and marked with red lac applied to the feet of graceful ladies.
And then Kalidasa describes the Mahakala Temple, true to his befitting mantle of being a glorious devotee of Shiva. First, he tells the cloud-messenger what to do before even setting foot into the temple.
Ardently gazed upon by the Ganas, as one possessed of the complexion of their master’s neck, you should visit the holy abode [i.e., temple] of the husband of Chandi, Lord of the three worlds, the gardens of which are shaken by the breezes from Gandhavati, redolent of lotus-pollen and scented with perfumes…
But Kalidasa insists that the cloud should stay on to watch the evening unfold at the Mahakala Temple.
On arriving at Mahakala, even though it be at another time than the evening, you should stay there, O cloud, till the sun passes beyond the range of sight. Serving the noble purpose of a drum at the evening worship of Siva, you will obtain the full fruit of your moderately deep thunderings.
The metaphor of the cloud’s thunder as a damaru in service of Mahakala is highly evocative. And then we get a lovely picture of the Devadasis offering Natya-Seva to Mahakala, the Cosmic Dancer himself.
…the dancing girls, with their waists jingling at the planting of their feet while dancing, and with their hands fatigued by the Chamaras gracefully waved and having their handles covered with the lustre of gems, will cast side-glances at you like rows of bees.
And then, Kalidasa describes Nataraja’s dance.
Thereafter, at the commencement of Siva’s dance, resting in a round form on the lofty forests of his arms possessing the twilight lustre as red as the fresh-brown japa flower, do you remove the desire for the wet elephant’s hide of the Lord of creatures. Your devotion is then marked by Bhavani with her eyes steady owing to her inward agitation being calmed down.
This is poetry and music and painting in verse. This is cultural inheritance authored by a talented laureate, a refined connoisseur (rasika) and a profound devotee.
Mahakavi Kalidasa was a pilgrim on the journey towards timelessness that Mahakala epitomises. Ujjayini was the sacred Tīrthakṣētra that facilitated the journey, and not all journeys are made on foot.
Ujjayini and Mahakala created Kalidasa and he immortalised both of them for us by summoning Saraswati at will.
SIX HUNDRED YEARS LATER, UJJAYIJNI was defiled and despoiled almost irreversibly. Around 1233-34, a band of impure, irreligious and intolerant barbarians led by the arch-savage Iltutmish rudely wrecked Ujjayini’s Sanatana serenity of eons. In their eyes, this was a great hub of infidelity and idolatory fit for instant destruction.
With a feral stroke, Iltutmish demolished the exquisite Mahakala Temple. A majestic living proof, a profoundly dignified symbol of the infinite possibilities of what unsullied devotion and stainless piety could accomplish when it finds untainted expression in architecture and refined sculpture. All of it, destroyed overnight. A work of three hundred painstaking years and countless generations of dedicated, joyous, backbreaking work, an awe-inspiring system of transmitting generational knowledge, an economic framework and political stability that had sustained this whole cultural complex tragically fell to the sword and the pickaxe and the fire of a dogged vandal.
In fact, when Iltutmish saw the Mahakala Temple, it took his breath away. He lavished praise on its beauty and grandeur, remarking that this could not be the work of mere human beings. And yet, despite the admiration, he annihilated it without remorse but with immense pride. Imagine the sheer scale of bigotry that it must take to do something like this and gloat about it.
After the pious Islamic ravage of the Mahakala Temple was complete, Iltutmish ordered his troops to carry the broken Murtis and countless other figures and brass statues of our Devatas to Delhi where they were further broken to pieces and hammered to the threshold of the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque so that devout Musalmans could trample upon it.
THE FLAGRANT TRAGEDY of our cultural history is the fact that Ujjayini — like countless others — has been unable to produce even an infinitesimal fraction of one more Kalidasa. Sadly, this centurial inability persists to this day. We have to console ourselves merely by reading Kalidasa instead of living that Ujjayini and offering our piety to that Mahakala.
This pathetic civilisational plight we see in Ujjayini is akin to the sight of Nandikeshwara looking with melancholic longing at Visvesvara in Kashi, the home of his Lord and Master, usurped by unclean, uncultured and incurable Mlecchas, awaiting liberation.
The connections are deeper and far more intricate than we realise. If Ujjayini is the Tāṇḍava-theatre of Mahakala, the whole of Vārāṇasi itself is the Mahāsmaśāna. The Sanatana tradition regards both places as Muktidhāmas.
The overall picture is equally depressing: all the sites sacred to Hindus in Uttarāpatha continue to remain little better than wastelands — dirty, filthy, indisciplined and chaotic because the refinement and values that the core of Sanatana culture infuses in the devout practitioner have been divorced from the daily lives of people. Constant inner cleansing leads to outer hygiene. It is also the reason that this region presents a depressing scene of constant strife. When the late V.S. Naipaul wrote that India is a wounded civilisation, he largely focused his analysis on the debased and corrupt character of our people and the near-total breakdown of society and institutions. But in a fundamental sense, it really means the incurable wounds represented by the Hindu cultural spirit crushed by unending Mleccha invasions and despotisms.
It is in this backdrop of our cultural history that the recent re-evolutions at Varanasi and the Mahakala Corridor at Ujjayini acquire such enormous significance.
The Mahakala Corridor is actually a corridor to the Sanatana cultural reclamation, renaissance, renewal and rejuvenation. In that order. More power to such reclamations, which should occur more often on a more widespread scale.
Laya is followed by Srushti.
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