The final passage in A Garland of Forgotten Goddesses is very unique—it is quite possibly the only example in world history that applies what is known as apophatic theology to the feminine divine. Since strictly speaking the term theology refers to the nature of a masculine God, we have coined the more appropriate label “apophatic thealogy” instead.
The uninitiated may be wondering what these arcane terms mean! Apophatic thealogy is the description of the Goddess by negation. In other words, describing the Goddess by saying all the things she is not, rather than attributing particular limited qualities to Her. Our subject in this chapter is therefore named appropriately Avyapadeśyā, the Indescribable One. Since the passage, translated by Olga Serbaeva, is embedded in an immense scripture dedicated to the goddess Kālī, we have taken the liberty of calling her Avyapadeśyā Kālī, or The Indescribable Kālī. But to be accurate, it is notable that the passage includes the statement that the One described by negation is not Kālī either; she is beyond all labels and descriptions the human mind can think up.
What a challenge, then, to illustrate her! One of only a few positive descriptions says “Her form encompasses the entire cosmic orb, resembling a full, brimming ocean.” So the artist Laura Santi translated those alluring words into the image below.
The paragraphs below, translated by Olga Serbaeva on the basis of seven handwritten manuscripts from Nepal and one held in Berlin, are the first two out of nine total paragraphs in this passage.
After hearing the previous teaching, the goddess praised by heroes was highly pleased, and spoke again to Śiva. The goddess said, “O Great Lord, I am now content—you graciously imparted complete knowledge: the supreme King of Tantras. Now, I wish to hear about Her, the highest Goddess, the Mistress of all mantras called Śuskā, shriveled, and Siddhayogeśvarī, the queen of magic female spirits—the one who gives supernatural powers and worldly prosperity (siddhi and ṛddhi), bestows liberation and destroys sins, the one whose mantra-forms span from one thousand syllables down to seventeen syllables, and even to a single syllable—O God, how is she the supreme root of creation? Being singular, how does she become many and of multiple forms? Or rather, O Great Lord, speak of the one who does not take many forms, so that I become liberated from doubt.” On hearing that, supreme Bhairava, the only one capable of pacifying this terrible ocean of existence (saṃsāra), suddenly laughed loudly and said, “Listen—just as you requested, I will tell you that great and peerless secret that is hard to know, even for the highest gods.
“This subtle Power (śakti) is all pervasive, the originator of Bhairava. The Goddess does not consist of letters and is not affected by the vowels. She is not the highest level of speech, nor visionary speech, nor the middle type, nor common speech; her essence is that speech that cannot be defined by the separations related to gross and subtle qualities of sound. This Goddess is not the embodiment of knowledge, nor does she have the nature of the subtle sound or vibration (nāda) that underlies existence. She is not an aspect of the primal vibration called ‘drop’ (bindu), nor is she the pervasions—and yet she is not meaningless. She does not arise from the foundational energy center (cakra), nor does she serve to inflame the mouth of the vital channels. She is not the basis of the three voids, nor does she have the nature of the three luminaries. She is not white, not red, not yellow, and not black, not gray, not brown, and not of mixed color. This Goddess is not mottled, nor is she fiery in appearance. She is not sound, not touch, not form, nor taste. She is not smell, nor the sense organs, nor their subtle forms. She is not the non-supreme goddess of the Trika school Aparā, not the supreme goddess Parā, and not Parāparā who is supreme-cum-non-supreme. She is not pure light, nor power, nor the manifest, nor an aspect.A Garland of Forgotten Goddesses, UC Press, 2021