It wouldn’t do justice to the 17th Chapter of the First Canto of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam if I didn’t talk about actual punishment and reward of Kali. The bull of religion, dharma personified, has spoken and refused to name Kali as the cause of his suffering, hopefully we get that, but it still feels like Kali is responsible for a lot of bad things happening to us, both as embodied soul and as aspiring devotees. What is his role in all this? Let’s try and find out.
In the previous chapter Sūta Gosvāmī told the sages how Mahārāja Parīkṣit ruled his kingdom in the absence of Lord Kṛṣṇa. The Kali yuga had already started and the first symptoms were noticed by Mahārāja Yudhiṣṭhira who, along with other Pāṇdavas, had called it a day and timely retired. Mahārāja Parīkṣit saw further degradation and once, in his travels, came across that śūdra dressed as a king and beating a cow and a bull. There’s a nice conversation between that bull, personality of dharma himself, an the cow, personality of earth. They were really worried for the state of the world which was in sharp contrast with just a few years earlier when Kṛṣṇa was still present.
So, when Mahārāja Parīkṣit met that śūdra “king” he shouldn’t have been surprised but maybe astonished at the depth of degradation. These things were not supposed to happen in his kingdom, he was trying to hold it together regardless of the change of the yugas and he did everything right. He was trying to find the source of the troubles but I don’t think he was prepared for what he saw.
It’s not just hurting of the cows that was bad but that it was done by a man dressed as king. That’s the two pronged attack of the Kali on dharma – not only openly destroy it but all the while pretend that you are defending it, as expected from kings. That’s what we get all the time too – people doing all kinds of bad stuff and at the same time preaching their own saintliness. Well, the last remaining principle of religion in this age is honesty so it’s no surprise that Kali tries to destroy it by cheating.
How Mahārāja Parīkṣit was supposed to react there? His first impulse was to kill the bastard on the spot, that would have spared all of us a lot of trouble for millennia to come but that’s not what happened. The main reason was that it’s Kali yuga, this degradation is scheduled by the universe and it can’t be stopped, but for Mahārāja Parīkṣit there were more immediate concerns. He didn’t kill Kali because of the universe, it’s Kali’s behavior that earned him mercy.
The moment Mahārāja Parīkṣit took his sword and was going to behead Kali on the spot Kali immediately abandoned all pretense and surrendered to him. He dropped his “royal” clothes and decorations, kneeled, and bowed his head. Well, the text doesn’t say “kneeled” exactly but it’s in our accompanying pictures. Hmm, I just realized that BBT doesn’t have an official gallery of Bhāgavatam illustrations. It’s a pity, our pictures have a lot going for them, they are like windows into a different world. There’s this collection I’ve never seen in our books, it’s not as good, in my opinion, but it’s illustrative.
So, Kali or not, but a proper Vedic King can’t kill an unarmed, surrendered person. I don’t think kings are allowed to kill śūdras either – śūdras are meant to be protected and provided for, not punished. Being the lower class they don’t know what they are doing and they shouldn’t bear the same responsibility for their actions as fellow kṣatriyas. In that Kali was like a pet animal and we don’t kill pets no matter what mess they make.
In hindsight we can discuss whether killing Kali would have been beneficial or not, whether breaking kṣatriya principles on that one occasion would have been justified by greater good, but Mahārāja Parīkṣit didn’t have such dilemmas. He wasn’t going to act against dharma himself, period, not open to discussion. Kali could not have been killed.
From Kali’s perspective it all went according to the rules, too. He might have pretended to be the king for a while and engaged in illicit activities but faced with the prospect of immediate justice he gave it all up. Suddenly his indulgence was exposed and he wasn’t going to die for it, it was not worth it. Partly it was also because Kali doesn’t have principles other than being a servant. When no one is watching he might do all kinds of things but in the presence of a master he has no other choice but accept his subservient position.
Demons are different in this regard, they are ready to fight and ready to die for what they believe is right. Kali doesn’t have the same backbone, he is a servant, not a warrior. When the master is not around he is serving his senses – he must always serve something, that’s the nature of a śūdra.
When Mahārāja Parīkṣit exposed him he was trembling with fear, knowing that he had made a real mess this time, but he still had no other choice but surrender and beg for mercy. Just like a dog, really. Mahārāja Parikṣit said that he wouldn’t kill him but he wouldn’t allow him to stay in his kingdom either. It’s like telling the dog that the office or the bedroom is off limits. “But where shall I live?”, asked Kali.
That’s another feature of a śūdra – they can’t do anything themselves, they must always depend on their masters. They can’t even think of living on their own. Brāhmaṇas depend on the Lord, kṣatriyas take what they need by force, vaiśyas can at least provide for themselves, but śūdras need to be provided and protected by others in return for their faithful service. Well, to be exact, brāhmaṇas depend on charity, which they see as ultimately coming from the Lord, and kṣatriyas do not take things by force but their mere presence inspires others to pay taxes, but that is beside the point.
Now the nature of Kali starts to make a lot more sense. Forget the personalities, we won’t see Kali personified walking among us, but we can see symptoms of his presence and signs of his influence. Kali makes us into śūdras – unable to control our senses and unable to live on our own. When called on by our masters we realize our guilt but we can’t do anything about it when left alone. Mind and senses always take the better of us even if we heard all the good lessons from our gurus.
We also tend to present ourselves as righteous and saintly and we love to dress up as someone we are not – as our masters. Our best time is when the master is not watching and if we can go out and fool others into worshiping us it makes our lives complete. Then time comes to face our master and we feel guilty, we beg for mercy, we plead for lenience, we usually get it, and then we abuse this mercy again.
That’s why saṅkīrtana makes a lot of sense – it keeps us on our toes and always in the presence of devotees. Engaged in saṅkīrtana we do not have a chance to let our mind and senses take control and we don’t have a chance to go and and fool others into admiring us. Of course even saṅkīrtana can be subverted for these purposes but not if we are doing it right – honestly and with open hearts. We should also always be in the presence of our master – the holy name, if we happen to serve someone else, or our senses, then Kali would quickly take over and we would be lost.