Kali: The Dark Mother Goddess in Hinduism

The love between the Divine Mother and her human children is a unique relationship. Kali, the Dark Mother is one such deity with whom devotees have a very loving and intimate bond, in spite of her fearful appearance. In this relationship, the worshipper becomes a child and Kali assumes the form of the ever-caring mother.

"O Mother, even a dullard becomes a poet who meditates upon thee raimented with space, three-eyed, creatrix of the three worlds, whose waist is beautiful with a girdle made of numbers of dead men's arms..."

(From a Karpuradistotra hymn, translated from Sanskrit by Sir John Woodroffe)

Who is Kali?

Kali is the fearful and ferocious form of the mother goddess. She assumed the form of a powerful goddess and became popular with the composition of the Devi Mahatmya, a text of the 5th - 6th century AD. Here she is depicted as having born from the brow of Goddess Durga during one of her battles with the evil forces. As the legend goes, in the battle, Kali was so much involved in the killing spree that she got carried away and began destroying everything in sight. To stop her, Lord Shiva threw himself under her feet. Shocked at this sight, Kali stuck out her tongue in astonishment and put an end to her homicidal rampage. Hence the common image of Kali shows her in her mêlée mood, standing with one foot on Shiva's chest, with her enormous tongue stuck out.

The Fearful Symmetry

Kali is represented with perhaps the fiercest features amongst all the world's deities. She has four arms, with a sword in one hand and the head of a demon in another. The other two hands bless her worshippers, and say, "fear not"! She has two dead heads for her earrings, a string of skulls as a necklace, and a girdle made of human hands as her clothing. Her tongue protrudes from her mouth, her eyes are red, and her face and breasts are sullied with blood. She stands with one foot on the thigh, and another on the chest of her husband, Shiva.


Kali's fierce form is strewed with awesome symbols. Her black complexion symbolizes her all-embracing and transcendental nature. Says the Mahanirvana Tantra: "Just as all colors disappear in black, so all names and forms disappear in her". Her nudity is primeval, fundamental, and transparent like Nature — the earth, sea, and sky. Kali is free from the illusory covering, for she is beyond all maya or "false consciousness." Kali's garland of fifty human heads that stands for the fifty letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, symbolizes infinite knowledge.

Her girdle of severed human hands signifies work and liberation from the cycle of karma. Her white teeth show her inner purity, and her red lolling tongue indicates her omnivorous nature — "her indiscriminate enjoyment of all the world's 'flavors'." Her sword is the destroyer of false consciousness and the eight bonds that bind us.

Her three eyes represent past, present, and future, — the three modes of time — an attribute that lies in the very name Kali ('Kala' in Sanskrit means time). The eminent translator of Tantrik texts, Sir John Woodroffe in Garland of Letters, writes, "Kali is so called because She devours Kala (Time) and then resumes Her own dark formlessness."

Kali's proximity to cremation grounds where the five elements or "Pancha Mahabhuta" come together and all worldly attachments are absolved, again point to the cycle of birth and death. The reclined Shiva lying prostrate under the feet of Kali suggests that without the power of Kali (Shakti), Shiva is inert.

Forms, Temples, and Devotees

Kali's guises and names are diverse. Shyama, Adya Ma, Tara Ma, and Dakshina Kalika, Chamundi are popular forms. Then there is Bhadra Kali, who is gentle, Shyamashana Kali, who lives only in the cremation ground, and so on. The most notable Kali temples are in Eastern India — Dakshineshwar and Kalighat in Kolkata (Calcutta) and Kamakhya in Assam, a seat of tantric practices. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda, Vamakhyapa, and Ramprasad are some of the legendary devotees of Kali. One thing was common to these saints — all of them loved the goddess as intimately as they loved their own mother.

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 Ma: the divine mother, appears fearsome.

Kali goddess, the Divine Mother, the Dark Mother, the Terrible Mother. She is the Hindu goddess of time, creation, preservation, and destruction. As fearsome as she may appear, she is the most compassionate goddess of them all.

She rides a lion. She wears a garland of severed heads and a skirt of dismembered arms, or nothing at all. Her dark, disheveled hair flows freely. Her eyes are red with intoxication and rage. Her red tongue sticks out under sharp white fangs that shine against blue black skin. Her many hands carry a sword, a trident, a severed head dripping fresh blood, and a kapala or skull cup catching the blood. She is often accompanied by serpents and a jackal. She dances in graveyards.

At first glance and without understanding, Kali ma may appear more like a demon and less like a loving goddess. But she is simply misunderstood.

The History of Kali :

Kali ma goddess is willing and able to do the necessary dark deeds that others are not capable of. She is willing to destroy the ego. She happily kills demons and laps up their blood. Her love is so fierce that she destroys evil in order to grant liberation. She destroys our attachment to the temporary body—and reminds us to enjoy the beauty of life, because death is certainly coming.

Her garland of severed heads represents her children who she has liberated from the illusion of the ego. Kali ma shows us that this body is temporary and reminds us not to become too attached to it. Her garland is either shown with 108 or 51 heads. The number 108 is auspicious in Hinduism. It represents the wholeness of existence, as well as the Earth, Moon, and Sun. The number 51 represents the 51 characters of the Sanskrit language—the origin of sound. Kali is often considered the mother of language and the mother of all mantras.

Kali Appearance :

Kali’s skirt is made of dismembered human arms, which represent action. All actions—karma—go to Kali ma goddess. At death, all souls merge with Kali ma and then are reborn again with their karma restored. This is also a reminder to not become attached to the fruits of your actions, as they do not belong to you.

Kali ma appears naked, or dressed in only the garland of heads and skirt of arms because she is infinite and pure. She is sometimes called digambari, meaning “clad in space” because no finite clothing can clothe her infinite form. She is so pure that she is beyond the need for clothing, as this is only Maya, or illusion. Her skin is dark black (often shown as dark blue) because she is limitless, all pervading, and transcendent. She is Nirguna Brahman, meaning the Highest Brahman—the ultimate reality—in its greatest unmanifest state.

Embrace the Knowledge

She embodies the gunas, or the three qualities of Prakriti or nature. Her white teeth represent sattva, goodness and purity. She uses her sattvic nature to create life. Her tongue is red, which represents rajas, passion or activity. She uses her rajasic nature to preserve life. Her eyes are red with rage and intoxication, which represents tamas, ignorance or inertia. She destroys with tamas.

In her left hands, Kali goddess carries a sword of knowledge to destroy ignorance and a severed head which represents liberation from the ego, or attachment to the body. Kali’s two right hands are shown in abhaya mudra (fearlessness), and varada mudra (blessings). She is most popularly depicted with four arms, though sometimes with ten. Her ten armed form is called Mahakali, and her ten arms are depicted holding many different ritualistic objects and weapons, each of which represent the power of one of the Devas. This implies that Mahakali is responsible for the powers of each of these deities.

Kali goddess is the consort of Shiva, the Destroyer and the Transformer. The two inhabit cremation grounds, reminding us that the body is a temporary condition. Kali ma goddess is often seen dancing on Shiva as he lies still and unperturbed beneath her. Shiva may be the destroyer, but it is Shiva that must calm Kali down when she becomes too violent. And Kali ma actively provokes Shiva’s destructive tendencies. They are the destroyers of illusion. By destroying the ego and the illusion of duality, they grant moksha, or liberation.

Kali ma is often called upon in battle. One of the most well-known stories where Kali ma appears is in the battle against the demon Raktabija. In this battle, Raktabija is undefeated because of his ability to produce a clone of himself for every drop of his blood that touches the ground.

The goddess Durga calls upon Kali ma to defeat the demon and his countless clones. Kali ma goddess defeats him by drinking every last drop of his blood so that he can no longer replicate himself, and she eats each of the demon’s clones. Kali ma is called upon in critical times when action must be taken. She is formidable. She is willing to take great measures to protect her children, just like any good mother. But just like a good mother, she is also willing to punish her children when necessary in order to teach them.

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