In one of the many Tantrik mystic traditions of Bengal, the goddess Kali, often addressed as Tara, is identified with Krishna, locally known as Keshto. Both share the same dark-complexion, Shyam-ranga, and their partners, Shiva in case of Kali, and Radha in case of Krishna, are fair as camphor, Karpura-gaur. The stories that connect these two very distinct traditions – the blood sacrifice demanding Tantrik tradition of Kali and the vegetarian Brahmanical Vaishnava tradition of Krishna – come through in phrases and couplets that make up some of the songs of Baul minstrels and even kitchen tales. The emotion that overrides all others in these stories is one of love, pure love, that transcends the demands and limitations imposed by customs and law.
They say that Shiva never spoke a single word until Shakti came into his life as Parvati. She became not only his wife, but also his student, asking questions, discussing and deliberating with him, till he revealed to the world the mysteries of life. So one day, she asked him, “What is love?” All he did then was look at her and smile. “Tell me, please, what is love?” she asked, turning away to hide her blush. This is what he said.
“When you come to me as Annapoorna, the goddess of food, and feed me and ask for nothing in return, I feel love. For you have taken care of my hunger unconditionally. When you come to me as Kamakhya, the goddess of pleasure, and hold me intimately as no one does do, I feel love. For you have made me the object of your desire. This is bhog. This is one kind of love. But there is another kind of love.
“When you come to me as Gauri, demure and delicate, and allow me to dominate you, demand things of you, take you for granted, knowing fully well that you cannot be dominated by anyone, I feel love. You made me play dice, laugh at the simple pleasure of games. You made me make you dolls and enjoy entertaining you. When you come to me as Durga, bearing weapons in your hand, and protect me, I feel secure and safe, and cared for, I also feel love. This is shakti. This is power. By granting me power over you, by defending me, protecting me, empowering me, you make me feel loved. This is the second kind of love. But there is yet another kind of love.
“When you dance atop me as Kali, naked with hair unbound, unafraid to be yourself, unafraid to be powerful and vulnerable and unafraid of being judged and mocked, I feel love. You make me open my eyes. I realize that Lalita, the beautiful one, is also Bhairavi, the fearsome one. I realize Mangala, the auspicious one, is also Chandika, the violent one. I see you totally, without judgment, and I realize I am capable of seeing the truth. That you allow me to see you fully, without judgment, tells me that I have become trustworthy. Thus you become the mirror, the Parvati darpan, that reflects who I am. You help me discover myself. You become my Saraswati. You reveal the true meaning of ‘darshan’. In joy, I dance. I become Nataraj.
“Thus there are three kinds of love: love for the body that grants satisfaction, love for the heart that grants security and love for the head that grants wisdom. Animals can give the first and the second, only humans can give the third because they have the third eye hidden inside the head. The first two loves spring from Kama, god of desire, and they sustain life on earth. But the third kind of love springs from Kamantaka, from the destruction of desire, unmotivated by fear of death.”
Shakti smiled and she offered Shiva a boon for this wonderful anwer. And he said, “As Shyama, the dark Goddess, who is Kali and Shakti, you have taught me love. You have danced atop me, forced me to open my eyes, turn from shava (corpse) to Shiva. Grant me the chance to do the same to you.” So the Goddess asked Shiva to descend on earth as the fair Radha whose love and pining would make her descend as the dark-one Krishna.
And it is Radha who taught Krishna the meaning of love as Shakti had once taught Shiva. He was until he met her but a butter-loving cowherd who fought demons and teased milkmaids but the presence of Radha changed it all. Just as Kali transformed Shiva into Nataraj, Radha made Krishna take up the flute and make music. Just as Kali had made Shiva give up his autonomy and understand the value of the not-so-autonomous other, the pining beloved, Radha helped Krishna understand the limitations of society, the struggle between faith in divinity and fidelity for the husband. Radha was demanding, as Kali once had been. Radha sat on Krishna as Kali stood on Shiva. The two thus mingled in merged in roles and thoughts and feelings. But there was one crucial difference.
Kali had made the wandering hermit, Shiva, into a rooted hermit, Shankara. Radha did the very opposite. She remained a flower stuck to the branch of a tree while Krishna became the bee that moves on after enriching himself with the nectar. And so fulfilled by Radha’s love, Krishna left Madhuban for Mathura. Kali had revealed love through shringara, romance, as only Krishna can. Radha revealed love through vairagya, renunciation, as only Shiva can.