Rohit Arya-Sacred India Tarot#Creating the Alternative Death Card

Card number 13 in the Major Arcana has historically been a turbulent and slightly difficult one. The Archetype is  just too powerful. Add to that the choice of Mother Kali to represent it and we have a really interesting situation. Kali has been in continual worship for at least six thousand years in India… it makes the Power  quite unpredictable and surprising. Jane created an early version which scared the pants off everybody; we show it now for the first time. I was mainly responsible for that. I wrote a feature on Kali which emphasized the turbulence and power and Jane tapped into that. Her descriptions of the process of creating this card are most illuminating from  both an artistic and spiritual perspective. She has  also included David Frawley’s take on Kali which is superb.

Sacred India Tarot

Notes on its Creation:  Card 13, Death (2):


Rohit’s Notes:

As we agreed before, we will have two death cards.    The male one is Mrityu in the form of Yama;  the female one will be KALI.  Our attached articles and pictures will give you some idea as to how to proceed.

Kali as usual should be portrayed on the prone Siva in the crematorium, Siva white, Kali black.   The pictures we have are adequate visual reference.  The sword of Kali should be the curved cleaver of tradition, as shown here in the pic, as that is very ancient and also ties her into the goddess of death-in-life, like the Morrigan goddesses of the Irish tradition, who use a similarly shaped reaping hook that later became the scythe of Death.  The name for Kali’s sword is the Bhojali, and it is as old as the curved sword of Egypt, and still in use today by the oracles in the temples of Kali.

Rohit’s Article – Kali:  the Fierce Dark Goddess

No other form of divinity worshipped by the Hindu is so difficult of acceptance as Kali – the dark and terrible naked Mother, named after the night black complexion of her skin.  Not just for non-Hindus, many of whom visibly blanch, even in these days of political correctness, when they see a picture of Kali.  Many Hindus of impeccable pedigree have the same problem in coming to terms with her.  They include even so eminent a person as Tagore.

A goddess that arouses so much genuine emotion instead of tolerant curiosity is a living force indeed, and Kali is easily amongst the six most popular forms of God worshipped amongst Hindus today.  There is a concentration in Bengal, Assam and parts of South India however, for historical reasons.

Kali was never a goddess with great significance in the texts of the faith, though it would not be pushing speculation too far to say that she was always a popular deity amongst the little traditions.  Most scholarship is veering away from the (previously prejudiced) point of view, that she is a remnant of primitive beliefs, an appallingly bloodthirsty tribal totem of uncivilized peoples, who has unaccountably made her way into the modern world because of the Hindu tendency to never really render any belief system obsolete.  That is a colonial point of view, though it does have its adherents even today.

Kali is also not convenient shorthand for some local manifestation of the Weltmutter (the World Mother).  She was always an independent and powerful goddess in her own right, and the Official Canon had to come to terms with her.  They never succeeded in marginalizing her, or rendering her subservient to male authority, unlike the examples of Saraswathi, Lakshmi and sometimes Durga.  That is a pretty remarkable achievement in itself, and testifies to the sheer power of the Kali Archetype.

In the Vedas, there is a proto-Kali, a goddess of death, destruction, bad luck and grief.  Called Nirrti, this awesome power was black in complexion, wore black clothes and rather incongruously, had long golden hair – the only black skinned blonde goddess in all mythology, I think.  While she was not Kali, she shares this trait with her, in being unambiguously associated with, and causing death.  The presence of Nirrti in the Official Canon helped quite a lot, when Kali had to be engaged with by the guardians of the faith.  So similar are the two indeed, that Nirrti has vanished from the popular imagination, Kali being more than adequate to fulfill all her roles.

The first mention of her is in the Mahabharatha, and the accounts given vary widely.  She seems to be a minor personage in Heaven, or one of the two warrior goddesses, Kalika and Bhadakali, who accompanied Skanda – one of the foremost cultural heroes of India – into battle.  Yet a vital point about them is made here, which will become the norm in all future descriptions of Kali.  They live in trees, mountains and hills, crossroads, jungles, caves and cremation grounds.  The two goddesses speak many tongues, i.e. not the language of the elite like all other well behaved gods.

The parallels with the wild Innana-Ishtar of west Asia, and the congruence of ideas with Siva as to what constitutes ideal habitation, are remarkable.

Another theory sees Kali as being the only survivor of the Matrikas, that group of Yaksha female deities who are ambivalent in the extreme, being simultaneously malevolent persecutors and kindly protectors.  Specifically, she is associated with Naravahini, a naked, skeletal and terrifying figure who rides a man as her vehicle.  There is quite a lot to be said for this theory, as the average person when confronted with a group of Matrika figures, one of the great sculptural clichés in India, identifies only Kali (the Naravahini) within it, usually.

It is however, in the Devi-mahatmayam that Kali is finally brought into the ambit of the formal faith.  In this version, Kali is an emanation of the great Goddess Durga, or more significantly, she is a personification of emergent wrath on the part of the older goddess, when she goes to battle.  The external appearance that gives so much offence to the squeamish, is full blown here.  She is red eyed from quaffing wine as well as wrath, she has a garland of human heads, wears tiger skin clothes and has a lolling tongue, which she occasionally employs to emit frightful roars that fill up all the quarters.  Her preferred mode of demon destruction is to either chew them up or cut off their heads, as she does to Chanda and Munda.

Then comes the famous encounter with the demon Raktabija, Blood-seed.  This worthy has a peculiar power – if you wound him and his blood hits the ground, a clone springs up which is as powerful as himself, and having the same power.  To wound him is therefore totally counterproductive.  Kali solves the issue by opening wide her gigantic mouth and drinking all the blood that spurts from the demons before they hit the ground!  This episode gave her a taste for blood, which has still not been slaked, and Kali remains the only major Deity in actual worship in the twenty-first century to whom daily offerings of blood are made.


(Jane’s Notes, July 2012:  “This tale bears a mirror-image (i.e. reverse) resonance to the “Self-enquiry” Goddess Chhinnamasta, who holds her severed head in her hand to receive the fountain of sushumna – the joy-awareness through her ida and pingala streams.  Rohit sent me this picture of Chhinnamasta, among his visual references to Kali.  Cropped from it are the pair of lovers Chhinnamasta always stands upon.  She transforms and sublimates their yogic energy, or Tejas, releasing it to cosmic particles;  likewise, Kali stands on Lord Siva as his fountain Shakti-power.   Reflection on these images reveals Death as a transformative force through Life.  Our profound feelings, fears and terrors of Death ARE life, the awareness which transfigures.”)  


Kali – the Fierce Dark Goddess continued:

In her official debut as it were, into the Great tradition, Kali comes in her most uncompromising and horrific forms.  And the wonder is that she has found millions of worshippers who do not object to her stern demands.

As a practical spin off, and as an illustration of the power of mythology, comes the curious story of the Thugees (or thugs?), the famous strangler bandit tribe of India, who waxed fat until the British administrator Sleeman hunted down and hanged all of them in the 19th century.  The Thugees had their own version of the Raktabija story.  According to them, Kali realized that the key to defeating the demon was that no blood be spilt.  Therefore she and her helpers devised the deadly scarf garrote and attacked the demons from behind.  Being her devotees, the Thugees used to strangle their victims likewise, having a peculiar horror of shedding blood.  Such stories go a long way in explaining the bad reputation Kali usually had in urban centres.

David Frawley writes:  (extracts from Tantric Yoga and the Wisdom Goddesses)  “The Sanskrit word Kali literally means Time.  Kali is the feminine of the word for Time which in the masculine is Kala…. In its essential nature, Time is eternity itself, perpetual changeless duration.  Everything changes but change itself …


“Time is life.  Life is our movement in time.  Through our own life-force or Prana, we experience time.  Kali as time is Prana or the life-force.  Kali or the Divine Mother is our life.  She is the secret power behind the working of our bodily systems and vital energy.  Only through her do we live … as the Life-force, she drinks the blood of all beings … Death is the ending of what has no real substance.  It eliminates the inessential to reveal the essential…   Life and death are the rhythms of time, the ebb and flow of the eternal sea.  To die daily is her daily worship…

“Kali is the love that exists at the heart of life, that endures through both life and death.  Maintaining the awareness of the eternal nature of life through the cycles of birth and death, is another one of her meditational approaches.


“Why should we look on time as a Goddess or a feminine form?  Time is not a mere abstract continuum in which things occur, it is a living field, a conscious energy, a matrix and a vortex.  Time is the great womb and hence has a feminine quality.

“Time is the working out of a cosmic Intelligence.  It is the very breath of the cosmic Spirit.  Time is not a mere mathematical concept but the very stuff of our experience, the rhythm of our lives.  What are we apart from time?  Time is our mother and origin, as well as our final abode.  Time is the mother who eats her own children, which is one of the terrible aspects of Kali.  Yet in devouring her own children, she is also returning them to her wholeness and delight.”

Our creation of Kali for The Sacred India Tarot underwent a similar evolution, from the raw, un-discipled fury of the Goddess, to her Yogic alliance with Siva.   Likewise, attitudes to death evolve through confronting the demon asuras of anger, violent loss and grief, to a re-cognition of All-consciousness.  In this cycle, Mother Kali seems at first to avenge her dead child.  As her archetype matures, she IS the child, and her creative awareness aligns the paradox of destruction with the seed, the newly born.

Correspondence:  Jane – August 2002

“Dear Gautam, thank you very much for the images of Kali and of Ganga, well received here.  They are most helpful.  I am feeling a bit better now, and I hope Rohit is too.  I am going away Monday thru Friday next week, I will try by the end of tomorrow (Sunday) to get enough of Yama done to give you some idea, and send.  Regards, Jane.”

Jane’s Notes – end of August 2002

… The day before going to the Summer School – i.e. last Sunday – I painted in four hours flat for India Tarot, the card for Death Mark Two, a really horrifying Kali stamping with utmost female cosmic rage upon a really beautiful Siva, and felt afterwards utterly shattered.

During the following days I was away at Hawkwood, I forgot about it, but it was alive in my subconscious, and gave me some bother, didn’t it – I had my Earthquake dream, the ground turned fluid;  there was no noise, it was silent;  and through the force-8 shock I staggered through the basement to a gramophone to take the stylus off the record (piano sound distortion, fogging out, feared electrical damage) – but there was another stylus still on it, from Upstairs.  Everything vertical went horizontal in my spine.

Am therefore aware of what it really feels like when the Beriah work on the creative plane hits the vast density and relative turbulence of Yetzirah – the psychological or formative world.  It is no longer theoretical.  Warning and self knowledge.

India Tarot Death Mark One was done the day before this Kali picture, and is the Wisdom god Yama, with young Nachiketas.  Yama is so far my favourite of all the cards.

Yet I feel rather proud of this depiction of the Dark Mother striking back through millennia of suppression, ignorance and abuse.  She is not ignored.  Siva looks as relaxed as ever.

Correspondence:  Gautam – 3 September 2002

“Dear Jane, the death cards are to die for.    Yama:  This is a brilliant card.  Only minor correction – the horns make it look more like a bull than a buffalo.  We are sending you a reference for the same.

“Kali:  The most powerful representation we have seen in a long time.  However, on showing it to a few people, they were visibly frightened, and we wondered if this would work against the deck.  Perhaps it would be a bit too strong for Westerners to digest?   A thought would be, to do a version of Kali more slender/less terrifying, or a Chhinnamasta Kali, a reference of which is attached.  Do let us have your thoughts.   We are sending you by mail, some references for the rest of the Major Arcana.  Notes for the same are attached, for your reference.  Warm regards, Gautam & Rohit.”

Correspondence:  Jane – 3 September 2002

“Dear Gautam and Rohit, thanks for yours and buffalo horns.  I would suggest that those cards which need small amendments get done at a later stage, so they can be discussed and sent all together, or a few at a time, and then some more later.  I would like first to get the bulk of the work done.

“Essentially I agree with you about Kali.  For the design I was picking up those elements in Rohit’s article about the dark and fierce Kali.  Also I remembered I didn’t make The Fool (Rudra) ‘frightening’ enough at my first attempt, so now I had better pull the stops out.  That day I had a very bad cold, and am still not quite better, and I did the picture very fast.

“I have a more rounded (philosophic) design/conception here, of Kali as the Goddess of Time, from David Frawley’s book about the Wisdom Goddesses.  So I shall do that, and send to you in the next couple days.  It is in the same gear, but is more refined.  I think it’ll do the trick.”

Drawing of Kali by Margo Gal

Jane’s Notes – ‘KALI – Destruction & Transformation’ – 4 September 2002

Taking a wider view, remember:  this work oscillates, it breathes in and out seasonally.  Within these movements, we often think we have lost our way.

Yesterday I had an email from Gautam in India – my Kali made people visibly frightened, and might work against the deck.  I felt absolutely horrible, having forgotten the cardinal rule with “sacred art”;  which is not to indulge one’s passing mood, but to respect a more comprehensive level of truthful expression.  I felt imperative to immediately replace the bestial fishwife, though much too tired to draw.  I consulted David Frawley’s book on the Wisdom Goddesses, and at once found a design and concept which is more yogic, and set to at once.

The eventual result, completed in the evening, is beautiful!   It contains Kali’s dark and disturbing power within a living interaction with the God of Light – Siva.  He is awake and serene, instead of asleep and catatonic, and her little feet are planted on his chest prana, and the whole thing breathes Transformation;  and Kali herself with her mane of black hair and garland of human skulls and cleaver and severed head in her hand, and tongue sticking out, is yet a wild, exuberant and mischievously mad little girl of the night.   She is that pure kundalini-sexual energy rising.  It is very important with Kali, to remember that Ramakrishna loved her, and why.

And if it hadn’t been for the earlier Kali, the purely destructive and heavy fleshy one – which I did literally from the pictures they sent, and the bloodthirsty descriptions in Rohit’s article (but knew it is NOT how I see death:  my bad cold disabled the higher imagination that day, and the disastrous week that followed) – this extraordinary True one would never have happened.   This Kali is the way I see things.  She is my truth, the other one wasn’t.

It’s the difference between spiritual awareness and “political” awareness.  The one is a world, the other is a local village.

The interesting thing to note is, that esoteric art follows its own laws.  All it needs is one brief “photon” (photo) in the imagination of the weary practitioner, and then it will do itself, regardless of inclination, headache, weakness or whatever.

I am encouraged.  Coming out of the woods, I’ve been through the valley of the shadow of my own Kali, and took through myself the penalty.  You only need to look at the two drawings to see why and how.  With them is the beautiful Yama painting, which they are pleased with in India – the only correction needed, to turn bulls horns into buffalo’s horns.  Next comes Temperance – the River Ganges.  I have awakened to this job.  The India Tarot becomes a series of initiations.

As to the Work, in the occult sense:  it is clear, my allocated task is to generate images (sacred or esoteric art) – knowing these become living beings on the astral plane:  the responsibility and self knowledge this entails.  I feel like a goat coming back onto the beach, onto land, from the depth of the fish’s tail, and having a good shake.

I also know that, formlessly and directly aligned so we have the same pair of footprints for the moment in the sand, my Inner Teacher advises, counsels and guides.  The storms are nothing.  The storms are in Siva’s smile, which is clear and sweet like the white dawn.

5 September – my anxious microcosm registers astrological movements in the ballet of the spheres.  Yesterday I read David Frawley’s chapter on Kali in full – it is so good, I shall put it in Self Enquiry.  In terms of transformation and “dying-to-death” and lightning bolts and also the paradox that the word Kali means Beauty, it is what just happened to me.  It is Yogic.  Characteristic of Kali is her suddenness, and to draw her was done, both times, in a few hours, a one-fire shot.

Began Temperance-Ganges yesterday – this will proceed more slowly.  The message in the mythology, according to Rohit, was that Ganga had to learn temperance before earthing as a river, so there she is, wild in the Himalayas.  Her raft is a crocodile.  I don’t know whether Indian crocs have as bad a reputation as Egyptian ones.


Correspondence: Jane

“Dear Gautam – Stand by for Kali Mark Two – on her way to you in the next hour or two.  Ganga has begun, and proceeds temperately.”


Correspondence:  Rohit to Gautam – 5 September 2002

Dear Gautam – it looks much kinder and nicer, this Mother Kali, and is less likely to offend firangs, but truth be told, the first one had an elemental power I will miss.  Nevertheless we have to use this one for reasons of acceptability. 

This Kali is really beautiful, and looks like Mary would have been if she was ever in a Kali mood.  Tell Jane we like it very much, and no more tweaking need to be done.   With regard, Rohit.”

Rohit Arya is an Author, Yogi and Polymath. He has written the first book on Vaastu to be published in the West, {translated into five languages} the first book on tarot to be published in India, co-authored a book on fire sacrifice, and is the creator of The Sacred India Tarot {82 card deck and book}. He has also written A Gathering of Gods. He is  a corporate trainer, a mythologist and vibrant speaker as well as an arts critic and cultural commentator. Rohit is also a Lineage Master in the Eight Spiritual Breaths system of Yoga

One thought on “Rohit Arya-Sacred India Tarot#Creating the Alternative Death Card

  1. I like your more frightening version of Kali, and I’m a Westener. Granted, I’ve learned quite a bit about the Hindu Gods and Goddesses, so that image doesn’t frighten me, but the lethal one is the one I like the best.

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