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Decapitation and Transposition of Heads: Paradise Lost or Gained?
Marguerite Yourcenar's ‘Kali Beheaded’ and the Indian Myths and Legend

-- Jyoti Panjwani

"Life is like fire, it feeds on destruction, it is devouring.  . . .  I do not deny the reassuring fire of love, but it too often happens that fire is extinguished faster than the others, or that it too becomes devouring." (Marguerite Yourcenar, "Les yeux onverts."  Paris Le Centurion. 1980,  220-21)

In 1938 Marguerite Yourcenar published her work Nouvelles Orientales (The Oriental Tales), a collection of "retranscriptions" of legends and myths. In her post-script to the 1963 edition, Yourcenar attributed the source of one of the stories, "Kali Decapitee" ("Kali Beheaded") to a Hindu myth. Although Yourcenar attributes the story to one Hindu myth, one can trace several Sanskrit sources. This paper will (a) analyze three Sanskrit myths and legends, namely, (i) the myth of Jamadagni and his wife Renuka from the longest Indian epic The Mahabharata, (ii) The story of "The Heads that got Switched" from The Vetalapancavimsati, and (iii) The myth of the birth of Maya from the later Vedic text, Kalika Purana, (b) study the ways Yourcenar uses, deviates, blends and embellishes these myths to propound her own philosophical and psychological interpretations, and (c) compare the transcultural and transnational responses to the themes of loss or recovery of human perfection through the decapitation of heads. In other words, the central question is to analyze why and how Yourcenar deviates from the original Sanskrit sources.

In the three Sanskrit tales, the themes of decapitation and transposition of heads aim at resolving tensions, usually arising from a conflict between the erotic yearnings of individuals and the demands of the society. The decapitation (which can also be seen as literally expressing the figurative concept of 'losing one's head') represents a metaphysical explanation of the split between the body and soul, and the subsequent transposition of heads symbolizes the resolution of the conflict and hence the recovery of social order and human happiness (Figueira 161). In the myth from Sanskrit epic, The Mahabharata, the author, Muni Vyasa, explains how Renuka, the wife of Jamadagni, on her way to the river to bathe caught sight of king Mritikavati with his queen frolicking in the water and became jealous of their happiness. Sullied by such unworthy thoughts she immersed herself in the river but was not cleansed by it, which is symbolized by the loss of her magical power to carry water without the aid of a jar. The impure lust, which the glimpse of the young king engendered, deprived her of her magical power. She returned home and her husband noticed her excitement and saw that she had fallen from her status of perfection. One impossibility, the existence of an absolutely chaste wife, is symbolized by another; the magical ability to carry water rolled in the hand (Figueira 161). Jamadagni seeing his pure wife polluted became enraged and ordered his sons to kill their mother. All the sons refused except Paracurama. After he decapitated her, his father being pleased offered him a boon and Paracurama chose to bring his mother back to life except that she remembered nothing of her lust for the king, which threatened to destroy the marital bliss of his parents and also violate the norms to be fulfilled by a chaste Hindu wife and mother. The theme of decapitation in this story, while it symbolizes the loss of Renuka's perfection, also symbolizes the recovery of perfection and happiness. But, the woman here never becomes aware, after she has regained her life, of her once lost perfection and the recovery of her perfection because she remembers nothing after she has been made whole again. She gains no knowledge or wisdom. Decapitation and reattachment of head become a way of resolving moral, marital and social tensions and ordering them through the decapitation. One can, therefore, read the story as the fantasy of the husband. In addition to his desire for an unsullied wife, Renuka's attraction for the king threatens to reveal his shortcomings and his inability as a man to satisfy his wife. Therefore, he does not decapitate her but orders his sons to do it so that through the boon, he can bring her back to life. In doing this, he also avoids incurring the guilt of killing her by making it a social and moral issue, rather than a personal one.

The second story where the transposition of head is a central theme is the legendary tale entitled "The Heads that got Switched" [Indian sources include Bhavishya Purana, four versions of Vetalapancavimsati (The King And The Corpse translated by Heinrich Zimmer), and Somadeva's Kathasaritsagara]. It is the story of two best friends, Dhavala, who is a scholar and famous for his brilliance, and Vimala, who is admired for his physical strength and a beautiful woman named Madanasundari (these names are used in Somadeva’s version but they vary in different versions). Dhavala falls in love with Madanasundari and marries her. Madanasundari admires Dhavala's intellect but is attracted to Vimala's body.

    Shortly following the wedding, the couple together with their bachelor friend, set forth on a visit to the parents of the bride. On the way they came to a sanctuary of the bloodthirsty goddess Kali and the husband excused himself for a moment to go into the temple alone. There, in a sudden excess of emotion, he decided to offer himself to the image as a sacrifice, and with a keen-edged sacrificial sword that was there, lopped his head from his shoulders and collapsed in a pool of blood. The friend, having waited with the bride, went into the temple to see what had happened, and when he beheld the sight he was inspired to follow suit. At last the bride came in, only to take flight again, intent on hanging herself from the limb of a tree. The voice of the goddess commanded her to halt, however, and sent her back to restore the lives of the two young men by replacing the heads. But because of her distraction, the young woman made the interesting mistake of putting the friend's head on the husband's body and the husband's on the friend's. "To which now does she belong?" demanded the specter in the corpse, "the one with husband's body, or the one with the husband's head?"

    The King thinks he knows and to keep his head from bursting, gives his answer: "The one with the husband's head; for the head ranks supreme among the members. (Zimmer 210 )

This story, apart from praising the benign powers of goddess Kali, lays before us, like the previous tale, a social and moral dilemma. By establishing the intellect/head as the signifier of individual's identity (i.e., by asserting the superiority of the head over the body), the story provides a way of restoring social order and the marital relationship between the young couple. This story, like the previous tale, can also be read as the fantasy of the spouse (the wife in this story). The wife is attracted to both the men but for different reasons. Through the decapitation and transposition of the husband's and friend's heads, the wife gets the best of both the men and her erotic yearning and social/moral conflict inherent in that yearning are resolved (her desire for the perfect husband is fulfilled). Madanasundari lives happily ever after with her lawfully wedded husband (the lover's body with the husband's head since head is established as the identity marker).

Unlike the above two stories, Marguerite Yourcenar in her story "Kali Beheaded" does not use the theme of decapitation and transposition of head to resolve tensions rather she uses it to create an awareness of perfection lost and a conflict between the human and divine dimensions of the protagonist Kali, who possesses the head of the goddess Kali and the body of a prostitute. The story that unfolds is Kali's attempt to recover her perfection. Her search signals the beginning of a process that leads to an understanding of the cosmic process, controlled by the male gods/power, that destroys/mauls the female energy for its own sustenance. Yourcenar's retranscription brings into play the very basis of the sacred world and shows how it is linked to the role of woman in the human world. The myth in Yourcenar's retranscription acquires strong feminist, philosophical and psychoanalytical tinges.

In Yourcenar's story, Kali like Renuka is perfect but, unlike her, she has no knowledge of her perfection, purity and beauty. It is also interesting to note that Yourcenar replaces the human protagonists, Renuka or Madanasundari, with the divine Kali and thereby introduces another dimension to the story because Kali, the goddess of destruction and recreation is Maya herself, the cosmic illusion and symbol of the feminine principle. This is where the third source, The Kalika Purana, one of the Later Vedic stories of creation, comes to play a dominant part in Yourcenar's story.

The Kalika Purana, which has philosophical and anthropological overtones, describes the birth and the purpose behind the birth of Kali, the first woman and the symbol of all womanhood.

Brahma, the creator of the universe, sat lost in yogic state producing various kinds of forms and beings and then sinking still further into the limpid darkness of his own interior, struck a new depth, suddenly the most beautiful dark woman sprang from his vision and stood ... before everyone's gaze. (Zimmer 241)

Kali's beauty and purity casts a spell over the gods and they are overcome by desire and longing. The elaborate description of her outer being as an end in itself, establishes the correlation between Kali's/woman's predominant asset and, as we see later in the story, her role in the world. Brahma, before he assigns her a role, is himself perplexed about the meaning of such a creation that he has produced involuntarily. He begins meditating again to find answers. In response he beholds before himself (producing again involuntarily) a youth of striking beauty and strength. Seeing him the gods became filled with desire. "Each felt himself beginning to be moved with a secret burning longing to possess the woman. So it was that desire first made its way into the world" (Zimmer 242). The birth of Kali, thus, leads to the birth of desire. Looking at the youth, who is named Kamadeva, the world creator assigns him his job: "You will go wandering about the earth, striking bewilderment into men and women with your flower-bow and shafts, and in this way bring to pass the continuous creation of the world." (Zimmer 243). Interestingly, in this creation myth, it is the male that symbolizes desire aiding the feminine principle in procreation, who in turn becomes the symbol/medium of the fulfillment of desire. Without Kama, Kali/Maya would be helpless and inadequate as we see in the episode of Sati and Shiva, where the arch ascetic is forever lost in the contemplation of the Absolute Being (Brahman), away from any involvement in the colorful creations of Brahma. But Brahma wanting Shiva to be a part of his creative process, urges Kamadeva, the god of love, to intervene and arouse in Shiva a desire for Sati, the reincarnation of Kali/Maya.

As the myth continues, Kali takes the form of Sati, to enchant and distract Shiva from leading the way of asceticism and thus involving him in the cosmic process of creation, sustenance and destruction. Yet, she always remains, simultaneously, attached and detached from the world and its objects. For example, when Sati is angered by her father Daksha's refusal to invite her and Shiva to the sacrificial ritual, she voluntarily puts an end to her life. But before doing so she contemplates:

The great wish that agitated all the gods became fulfilled for them; Shiva caught in my spell, found his joy in a woman ... There is no other woman in all the worlds who could arouse and satisfy Shiva's passion; he will never marry another. That however, is not going to stop me. I will quit this body, just as I declared I would. Some later day, I can reappear ... marry Shiva again, dwell with him again and complete the work that all the divinities have in mind. (Zimmer 292)

In this myth, it is Sati/Kali who seems to be the powerful one (and in Lacanian terminology, 'the phallic one'). Although abiding in the role accorded to her by Brahma, she fulfills her individual longings. She is bound and yet free, she is under the domination of gods, working for them and yet she is the most powerful of all. Without her Brahma would be helpless. But the paradox of all paradoxes is that Kali/Maya, the cosmic force and illusion despite being objective, detached, powerful is herself deluded by her own woven delusion. She is caught in the emotions of illusionary human existence and is trapped and tricked by her own created playfulness. Heinrich Zimmer, in his analysis of the myth, comments: "Sati's pique and demise are the signs of her entanglement in the net of her own delusion and yet---her net is the fabric of paradox. She knows that she is going to have to return, she will be born as a Parvati ... and through long and difficult austerities will win again her beloved Shiva." (Zimmer 295). But is Sati responsible for her delusion because next time when she will be born as Parvati and Kamadeva will aim his flower arrows at Shiva's heart "the great god of yoga will open his middle eye at him and the ... handsome divinity of the flower-bows will be burnt as by a lightning bolt to ashes. Then the primeval prophesy of Brahma will be fulfilled or in other words, the calamity (i.e. the self-immolation of Sati) and all that led up to it will be disclosed to have been predestined all the while. And so the question will have to be balanced in the mind as to whether the voluntary death was voluntary after all. Where is the beginning or the end of the playfulness of Maya's play" (Zimmer 296). In the ultimate analysis Maya's (Kali's) power itself is an illusion of which she is absolutely oblivious. She thinks she is powerful but in reality is not so and neither are the male gods totally powerful. In fact, in this myth all, starting from Brahma, Shiva, Sati, are all victims and victimizers in their self-created game of cosmic illusion. Power of both the male and female principles remains an illusion. The cycle continues through their vacillations between desire and regret. In Yourcenar's story it is only Kali who vacillates between desire and regret and is the victim of both the male gods and human beings.

Yourcenar transplants the divine drama of Kalika Purana on to the human level. What was a myth of creation and a story in praise of Kali/Maya and her powers enters the realms of feminist, psychoanalytical, and philosophical discourses in Yourcenar's retranscription. Kali's beauty and perfection, that aroused desire and longing in the gods of Kalika Purana, cause jealousy in the gods of Yourcenar's "Kali Beheaded", who, finding her reigning gloriously in Indra's heaven, ambush her; she is decapitated and thrown in the human world. The gods become contrite and after finding her head, attach it to the body of a prostitute. Kali's perfection, the goddess who was born in the Kalika Purana to aid Brahma in the process of creation, is destroyed and her limpid eyes begin to weep. Thus Kali, the feminine principle, Maya, the cosmic delight, the dawn of all creation, gets embedded in the throes of agony and frustration.

Kali's face, eternally bathed in tears is ashen and covered with dew like the uneasy face of dawn. Kali is abject. She has lost her divine caste by having given herself to pariahs, to outcasts, and her cheeks kissed by lepers are now covered with a crust of stars. Wretched as a feverish woman, she goes from village to village, from crossroads to crossroads, in search of the same mournful delights. (Oriental Tales 119-120)

Her body (i.e., the prostitute's body attached to her head) longs for forbidden pleasures. She becomes the seducer of children, the tantalizer of old men and the despotic mistress of younger men. But she was created pure and perfect, reigned in perfect harmony and peace in Indra's heaven " the diamonds of dawn glittered in her eyes, and the universe contracted or expanded in tune with the beating of her heart"(Oriental Tales 120). Her beauty and purity (of which she has no knowledge), reveals her presence as overpowering and the fact that, despite being a woman, she reigned in Indra's (male god's) heaven makes her the powerful one and like the Kali of Kalika Purana, "the phallic one":

For the phallus is a signifier, a signifier whose function, in the intrasubjective economy of the analysis lifts the veil perhaps from the function it performed in the mysteries. For it is the signifier intended to designate as a whole the effects of the signified, in that the signifier conditions them by its presence as a signifier. (Lacan 285)

This overpowering position of the female becomes the source of causing disturbance to the male gods and makes them jealous of Kali, who through her beauty and perfection threatens to destroy the patriarchal order where the male is the cultural symbol of power, prestige and knowledge. Indra's (the male/chief god of thunder and lightning) heaven is a male world where a female begins to rule. Aggression/violence in males, according to Ellie Ragland-Sullivan in her article "Seeking the Third Term: Desire, the Phallus and the Materiality of Language," is the result of the anxiety of losing the phallic power (where the phallus is the signifier of power).

The problem for males, in Lacan's view, is that they are asked to identify away from the mother in the name of the father, who is supposed to be an ideal (in the imaginary and symbolic realms) but is, in actuality, the source of prohibition. This double bind places the son [the male] in a confused position in terms of both the ego and desire. He cannot be the mother. He cannot be the father. He can only await from a posture of aggressive frustration the position of power tacitly promised. Feminine structure undergoes no such prohibition. The daughter can be "a little mother" from the start, her identification with her mother, approved by mother and father alike. These are "normative" almost caricatured paradigms, but Lacan taught that they lay behind the structuration of the subject and create a dialectical battle between the sexes which is prior to any class dialectic.  (Ragland-Sullivan 41)

The jealous gods' act of cutting Kali's head off is symbolic of their anxiety and fragility because "masculine aggression becomes a matter of trying to align unconscious identity position with imaginary figures (super-ego and ideals) in the world and with symbolic conventions" (Ragland-Sullivan 43). Interestingly, for Kali, it is only when her head is cut off, transposed and she is thrown into the earthly realm to satisfy the needs of the male, that she becomes aware of her lost perfection: that she is no longer the "phallic one." Hence begins her search for completeness and perfection. Decapitation, unlike the story in The Mahabharata, leads to an awareness of the perfection, which was there but is now, lost. In other words, she realizes why she has been decapitated and transposed.

Yourcenar's story, like the myth of Renuka, from The Mahabharata, is also a male fantasy, which refuses to allow the woman to threaten his masculinity. Kali's power in Indra's heaven is reminiscent of Renuka's power of carrying water rolled in her hand and their powers symbolize their perfection: Renuka's chastity and Kali's beauty and purity. But Renuka's perfection shows her confirmation to the patriarchal structure and therefore this power is restored to her through decapitation and subsequent reattachment. The loss of her power is the result of her deviation from the codes of the patriarchy (i.e. acknowledging the importance of woman's chastity). Kali's perfection results in usurping the structure of male domination and therefore this power is destroyed through decapitation and not restored through the transposition of her head.

Also, unlike the story of Kalika Purana, which reveals the nature of cosmic functions and the roles of both, male and female, energies in those functions, Yourcenar's story uses the myth of cosmic creation to reveal the structural and power dynamics of male and female positions on the human level. So unlike the Kali of Kalika Purana, Yourcenar's Kali, both a goddess and a prostitute, has been rendered powerless by the male gods and has been dishonored and thrown into the hell pit of human existence. From then onwards Kali's existence is shown as a sorrowful burden on her "Her tiny feet dance frantically, below the chiming anklets, but her eyes never stop weeping, her bitter mouth never kisses, her eyelashes never caress the cheeks of those who embrace her and her face remains eternally pale like an immaculate moon" (Oriental Tales 120). In contrast to the Kali of Kalika Purana who remains entangled in her web of illusion, Yourcenar's Kali is spiritually/intellectually tormented by her present existence. Her divine and human dimensions conflict with each other. The dualistic identity which enables Madanasundari, in the story "The Heads that got Switched", to achieve marital happiness becomes a source of discontentment for Yourcenar's Kali. She is confused about her needs and hence feels lost. She is consumed with feelings of repulsion for all living things - the greatest of all paradoxes that Maya, the force behind creation is filled with a desire to annihilate the creation she is supposed to preserve. In Yourcenar's "Kali Beheaded" the tables are turned upside down. The very force that is responsible for the creation to go on, wants to destroy itself, the force that is responsible for enchantment is itself disenchanted, the force that prevents enlightenment by weaving a web of self-delusion itself wants to break out of this web of delusion to seek enlightenment.

Yet, the fact that Kali through her entry into the human world, through her sense of dissatisfaction and frustration has turned into a destructive principle is precisely the cause that leads to a realization of her incompleteness and an awareness of perfection that she has lost. As long as she was perfect and in heaven, she had no knowledge of her perfection and hence not safe from "misfortune". Yet, loss of perfection and the subsequent suffering become the sources of awareness/regaining knowledge for Kali, of her former perfection. She also realizes that it was this 'lack of knowledge' of her perfection that had made her susceptible to misfortunes. Also, as long as she was perfect/pure, she knew neither desire nor suffering. In comparison to Renuka, in The Mahabharata, who regains her purity and power after the decapitation and transposition of her head, Kali is caught in the trap of sensory desires and impurities. These sensory experiences cause "tiredness," symbolized by Kali's indifference to the idiot whom she allows to overtake her, and disinterestedly fulfills her role as a prostitute. But on the positive side they lead her toward a desire for freedom and peace, which she finds when she meets a sage:

The sage blesses her by saying: "Desire has taught you the emptiness of desire, regret has shown you the uselessness of regret. Be patient, Error of which we are all a part, Imperfect Creature thanks to whom perfection becomes aware of itself (Oriental Tales 125). This blessing, no doubt, points to the error of the jealous gods who destroy Kali's power by decapitating her, but more importantly it shows her the benefit of this 'error' as it engenders a 're-collection' of her power through the knowledge of her perfection. This knowledge will henceforth enable her and, for Yourcenar, women/feminists to know "how to position themselves toward the will to power and the demand for love that lurks behind the Nietzschean mask every person wears" (Ragland-Sullivan 54). The whole unjust act of decapitation and transposition of Kali's head ends in releasing her from her misery. Yourcenar, thus, transforms a Hindu myth of cosmic process into a discourse of feminist emancipation and empowerment.

In opposition to the Indian tales of decapitation and transposition, where the protagonists re-organize their condition and thereby maintain the cosmic illusion of resuming a normal, healthy, worldly life, in Yourcenar's story the resolution lies in the transcendence from the ‘symbolic’ illusion. "Theoretical and practical consequences of a Lacanian psychoanalysis for feminism are that neither language, gender, power, patriarchy, nor the symbolic can be equated to each other in any one-to-one way" (Ragland-Sullivan 60). The sage, in this sense, symbolizes the condition Kali has reached after her fall from primordial unity, her division, and subsequent transformation.

In this reworking of the Indian mythical and legendary material, Marguerite Yourcenar reveals the inter-relatedness of psychoanalytical, feminist, and philosophical ideas. The psychological themes of the fragmented self, the female sexuality, and the politics of gender roles emerge from and culminate into metaphysical queries and possible answers to the meaning behind the workings of the human and the divine worlds.


1The four versions of the stories are: (i) Kshemendra's Brihatkathamanjari, (ii) Jambhaladatta's version of Vetalapanchavimsati, (iii) Sivadasas version of Vetalapanchavimsati, and (iv) an anonymous version of Vetalapanchavimsati. Most versions of the introductory story tell of an evil ascetic who gives many precious jewels to the legendary Gupta King Vikramaditya. To show his gratitude, the King agrees to help him attain magical powers by carrying a corpse (vetala) from a tree to an appointed place. The King sets out to perform this task but the specter in the corpse tells him that he would remain with him as long as the King did not speak in their journey back to his kingdom. In order to remove the tedium and monotony, the specter in the corpse suggests that he would narrate stories which would throw light on human problems, conflicts, conditions/situations and the nature of human life itself. Each of these stories contains a riddle and ends with a question, which needs to be solved. The King, each time, is asked to solve the problem to prove his capacity to judge but he is also caught in a double bind; if he speaks, the corpse will fly back and if he knows the answer and does not speak, his head would explode into pieces. The King dutifully decides on the merits of the cases but as soon as his answer is given, the corpse flies back and the gruesome ordeal begins again. The King is able to answer the riddles in the first twenty-four stories. The problem in the last story leaves him dumb, and the specter in the corpse reveals the ascetic's sinister plans to kill the King and take over the kingdom. With the ghost's help, the King is finally able to kill the ascetic and save himself and the people of his kingdom from evil and disaster.

2Brahma, in a fit of rage, had cursed Kamadeva for shooting his arrows at him, that Shiva would reduce him to ashes.

3The phallus is the privileged signifier of that mark in which the role of the logos is joined with the advent of desire. It can be said that this signifier is chosen as it is the most tangible element in the real sexual copulation, and also the most symbolic in the literal (typographical) sense of the term, since it is equivalent there to be (logical) copula. It might also be said that, by virtue of its turgidity, it is the image of the vital flow as it is transmitted in generations" (Lacan 287).

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