Kali makes her 'official' debut
in the Devi-Mahatmya, where she is said to have
emanated from the brow of Goddess Durga (slayer
of demons) during one of the battles between the
divine and anti-divine forces. Etymologically
Durga's name means "Beyond Reach". She is thus
an echo of the woman warrior's fierce virginal
autonomy. In this context Kali is considered the
'forceful' form of the great goddess Durga.
Kali's fierce appearances have
been the subject of extensive descriptions in
several earlier and modern works. Though her fierce
form is filled with awe- inspiring symbols, their
real meaning is not what it first appears- they
have equivocal significance:
Kali's blackness symbolizes her
all-embracing, comprehensive nature, because black
is the color in which all other colors merge;
black absorbs and dissolves them. 'Just as all
colors disappear in black, so all names and forms
disappear in her' (Mahanirvana Tantra). Or black
is said to represent the total absence of color,
again signifying the nature of Kali as ultimate
reality. This in Sanskrit is named as nirguna
(beyond all quality and form). Either way, Kali's
black color symbolizes her transcendence of all
A devotee poet says:
"Is Kali, my Divine Mother,
of a black complexion?
She appears black because She is viewed from a
but when intimately known She is no longer so.
The sky appears
blue at a distance, but look at it close by
and you will find that it has no colour.
The water of the ocean looks blue at a distance,
but when you go near and take it in your hand,
you find that it is colourless."
... Ramakrishna Paramhansa
In many instances she is described as garbed in
space or sky clad. In her absolute, primordial
form she is free from all covering of illusion.
She is Nature (Prakriti in Sanskrit). It symbolizes that she is completely
beyond name and form, completely beyond the illusory
effects of maya (false consciousness). She
is said to represent totally illumined consciousness,
unaffected by maya. Kali is the bright fire of
truth, which cannot be hidden by the clothes of
ignorance. Such truth simply burns them away.
is a ceaseless creation. Her disheveled hair forms
a curtain of illusion, the fabric of space - time
which organizes matter out of the chaotic sea
of quantum-foam. Her garland of fifty human heads,
each representing one of the fifty letters of
the Sanskrit alphabet, symbolizes the repository
of knowledge and wisdom. She wears a girdle of
severed human hands- hands that are the principal
instruments of work and so signify the action
of karma. Thus the binding effects of this karma
have been overcome, severed, as it were, by devotion
to Kali. She has blessed the devotee by cutting
him free from the cycle of karma. Her white teeth
are symbolic of purity (Sans. Sattva), and her
lolling tongue which is red dramatically depicts
the fact that she consumes all things and denotes
the act of tasting or enjoying what society regards
as forbidden, i.e. her indiscriminate enjoyment
of all the world's "flavors".
Kali's four arms represent the
complete circle of creation and destruction, which
is contained within her. She represents the inherent
creative and destructive rhythms of the cosmos.
Her right hands, making the mudras of "fear not"
and conferring boons, represent the creative aspect
of Kali, while the left hands, holding a bloodied
sword and a severed head represent her destructive
aspect. The bloodied sword and severed head symbolize
the destruction of ignorance and the dawning of
knowledge. The sword is the sword of knowledge,
that cuts the knots of ignorance and destroys
false consciousness (the severed head). Kali opens
the gates of freedom with this sword, having cut
the eight bonds that bind human beings. Finally
her three eyes represent the sun, moon, and fire,
with which she is able to observe the three modes
of time: past, present and future. This attribute
is also the origin of the name Kali, which is
the feminine form of 'Kala', the Sanskrit term
Another symbolic but controversial
aspect of Kali is her proximity to the cremation
O Kali, Thou art fond of cremation
so I have turned my heart into one
That thou, a resident of cremation grounds,
may dance there unceasingly.
O Mother! I have no other fond desire in my heart;
fire of a funeral pyre is burning there;
O Mother! I have preserved the ashes of dead bodies
that Thou may come.
O Mother! Keeping Shiva, conqueror of Death, under
Come, dancing to the tune of music;
Prasada waits With his eyes closed
... Ramprasad (1718-75)
The image of a recumbent Shiva
lying under the feet of Kali represents Shiva
as the passive potential of creation and Kali
as his Shakti. The generic term Shakti denotes
the Universal feminine creative principle and
the energizing force behind all male divinity
including Shiva. Shakti is known by the general
name Devi, from the root 'div', meaning to shine.
She is the Shining One, who is given different
names in different places and in different appearances,
as the symbol of the life-giving powers of the
Universe. It is she that powers him. This Shakti
is expressed as the i in Shiva's name. Without
this i, Shiva becomes Shva, which in Sanskrit
means a corpse. Thus suggesting that without his
Shakti, Shiva is powerless or inert.
Kali is a particularly appropriate
image for conveying the idea of the world as the
play of the gods. The spontaneous, effortless,
dizzying creativity of the divine reflex is conveyed
in her wild appearance. Insofar as kali is identified
with the phenomenal world, she presents a picture
of that world that underlies its ephemeral and
unpredictable nature. In her mad dancing, disheveled
hair, and eerie howl there is made present the
hint of a world reeling, careening out of control.
The world is created and destroyed in Kali's wild
dancing, and the truth of redemption lies in man's
awareness that he is invited to take part in that
dance, to yield to the frenzied beat of the Mother's
dance of life and death.
Kali, my Mother full of Bliss! Enchantress of
the almighty Shiva!
In Thy delirious joy Thou dancest, clapping Thy
Thou art the Mover
of all that move, and we are but Thy helpless
Kali and her attendants dance
to rhythms pounded out by Shiva (Lord of destruction)
and his animal-headed attendants who dwell in
the Himalayas. Associated with chaos and uncontrollable
destruction, Kali's own retinue brandishes swords
and holds aloft skull cups from which they drink
the blood that intoxicates them. Kali, like Shiva,
has a third eye, but in all other respects the
two are distinguished from one another. In contrast
to Shiva's sweet expression, plump body, and ash
white complexion, dark kali's emaciated limbs,
angular gestures, and fierce grimace convey a
wild intensity. Her loose hair, skull garland,
and tiger wrap whip around her body as she stomps
and claps to the rhythm of the dance.
Many stories describe Kali's dance
with Shiva as one that "threatens to destroy the
world" by its savage power. Art historian Stella
Kramrisch has noted that the image of kali dancing
with Shiva follows closely the myth of the demon
Daruka. When Shiva asks his wife Parvati to destroy
this demon, she enters Shiva's body and transforms
herself from the poison that is stored in his
throat. She emerges from Shiva as Kali, ferocious
in appearance, and with the help of her flesh
eating retinue attacks and defeats the demon.
Kali however became so intoxicated by the blood
lust of battle that her aroused fury and wild
hunger threatened to destroy the whole world.
She continued her ferocious rampage until Shiva
manifested himself as an infant and lay crying
in the midst of the corpse-strewn field. Kali,
deceived by Shiva's power of illusion, became
calm as she suckled the baby. When evening approached,
Shiva performed the dance of creation (tandava)
to please the goddess. Delighted with the dance,
Kali and her attendants joined in.
This terrific and poignant imagery
starkly reveals the nature of Kali as the Divine
Mother. Ramaprasad expresses his feelings thus:
Behold my Mother playing with
lost in an ecstasy of joy!
Drunk with a draught of celestial wine,
She reels, and yet does not fall.
Erect She stands on Shiva's bosom,
and the earth Trembles under Her tread;
She and Her Lord are mad with frenzy,
casting Aside all fear and shame.
... Ramprasad (1718-75)
Kali's human and maternal qualities
continue to define the goddess for most of her
devotees to this day. In human relationships,
the love between mother and child is usually considered
the purest and strongest. In the same way, the
love between the Mother Goddess and her human
children is considered the closest and tenderest
relationship with divinity. Accordingly, Kali's
devotees form a particularly intimate and loving
bond with her. But the devotee never forgets Kali's
demonic, frightening aspects. He does not distort
Kali's nature and the truths she reveals; he does
not refuse to meditate on her terrifying features.
He mentions these repeatedly in his songs but
is never put off or repelled by them. Kali may
be frightening, the mad, forgetful mistress of
a world spinning out of control, but she is, after
all, the Mother of all. As such, she must be accepted
by her children- accepted in wonder and awe, perhaps,
but accepted nevertheless. The poet in an intimate
and lighter tone addresses the Mother thus:
O Kali! Why dost Thou roam
about without clothes?
Art Thou not ashamed, Mother!
Garb and ornaments Thou hast none;
yet Thou Pridest in being King's daughter.
O Mother! Is it a virtue of Thy family that Thou
Placest thy feet on Thy husband?
Thou art without clothes; Thy husband is without clothes; you both roam
O Mother! We are all ashamed of you; do put on
Thou hast cast away Thy necklace of jewels, Mother,
And worn a garland of human heads.
Prasada says, "Mother! Thy fierce beauty has frightened
The soul that worships becomes
always a little child: the soul that becomes a
child finds God oftenest as mother. In a meditation
before the Blessed Sacrament, some pen has written
the exquisite assurance: "My child, you need
not know much in order to please Me. Only Love
Me dearly. Speak to me, as you would talk to your
mother, if she had taken you in her arms."
Kali's boon is won when man confronts
or accepts her and the realities she dramatically
conveys to him. The image of Kali, in a variety
of ways, teaches man that pain, sorrow, decay,
death, and destruction are not to be overcome
or conquered by denying them or explaining them
away. Pain and sorrow are woven into the texture
of man's life so thoroughly that to deny them
is ultimately futile. For man to realize the fullness
of his being, for man to exploit his potential
as a human being, he must finally accept this
dimension of existence. Kali's boon is freedom,
the freedom of the child to revel in the moment,
and it is won only after confrontation or acceptance
of death. To ignore death, to pretend that one
is physically immortal, to pretend that one's
ego is the center of things, is to provoke Kali's
mocking laughter. To confront or accept death,
on the contrary, is to realize a mode of being
that can delight and revel in the play of the
gods. To accept one's mortality is to be able
to let go, to be able to sing, dance, and shout.
Kali is Mother to her devotees not because she
protects them from the way things really are but
because she reveals to them their mortality and
thus releases them to act fully and freely, releases
them from the incredible, binding web of "adult"
pretense, practicality, and rationality.
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