Kali is a goddess with a long and complex history in Hinduism (although sometimes presented in the West as dark and violent). Her earliest history as a creature of annihilation still has some influence, while more complex Tantric beliefs sometimes extend her role so far as to be the Ultimate Reality and Source of Being. Finally, the comparatively recent devotional movement largely conceives of Kali as a straightforwardly benevolent mother-goddess. Therefore, Kali is associated with many devis goddesses as well as the deva god Shiva.
Kali's name is the feminine version of the Sanskrit word 'kala' meaning 'time' - time in this form being a euphemism for death - or 'devourer of time.' It also means 'black' or 'black female,' in contrast to her consort, Shiva, who is white, like the ashes of the cremation ground (Sanskrit: '_ma_an') in which he meditates, and with which they are both associated, hence Kali's epithet '_ma_anâ.' Frequent confusion comes in interpreting the "kali yuga," or "terrible age," one of the four great ages (yugas) of Hindu cosmology, as conflated with the goddess Kali. This is mostly due to her appearance, which is often described as terrible and fearsome. In fact, the goddess Kali should not be confused with kali yuga, as her name holds separate and unrelated meaning.
The goddesses she is associated or identified with include
These names, if repeated, are believed to give special power to the worshipper.
The iconography of Kali can be explained by studying the aesthetic formalities of the Nidanshastra, authoritative collective on South-Asian symbolism and iconography. In Hindu iconography nothing is included without purpose. Starting with their various accompaniments, deities are usually portrayed holding objects in their hands and these objects always have some symbolic significance. The objects or icons which they hold can be roughly grouped into 4 categories: *1) Weapons
Furthermore, the deities may hold their hands in a specific, ritualized gesture or mudra, or similarly, their legs may be in a ritual pose or asana. The body pose or bhanga can have special significance, as well as the throne or seat, vahana on which the deity rests. Even the dress of the deity can (and often does) have a particular meaning. Virtually, the whole visual ensemble -- crown, ornamentation, garments, skin-pigmentation, etc. -- have significance and can be a vital aid in the interpretation of the particular deity.
Given the popularity of this Goddess, artists everywhere will continue to explore the magnificence of Kali's iconography. This is clear in the work of such contemporary artists as Charles Wish, and Tyeb Mehta. Who sometimes take great liberties with the traditional, accepted symbolism, but still demonstrate a true reverence for the Shakta sect.
Appearance and Myth
Once Kali had destroyed all the demons in battle, she began a terrific dance out of the sheer joy of victory. All the worlds or lokas began to tremble and sway under the impact of her dance. So, at the request of all the Gods, Shiva himself asked her to desist from this behaviour. However, she was too intoxicated to listen. Hence, Shiva lay like a corpse among the slain demons in order to absorb the shock of the dance into him. When Kali eventually stepped upon her husband she realized her mistake and put out her tongue in shame. However, the symbolism of the previous mentioned mythology is often seen as antiquated and misogynistic. The more thoughtful and Tantric interpretation of Kali standing on top of her husband is as follows: The Shiv tattava (Divine Consciousness as Shiva) is inactive, while the Shakti tattava (Divine Energy as Kali) is active. Shiva, or Mahadeva represents Brahman, the Absolute pure consciousness which is beyond all names, forms and activities. Kali, on the other hand, represents the potential (and manifested) energy responsible for all names, forms and activities. She is his Shakti, or creative power, and is seen as the substance behind the entire content of all consciousness. She can never exist apart from Shiva or act independently of him, or vice versa, i.e., Shakti, all the matter/energy of the universe, is not distinct from Shiva, or Brahman, but is rat her the dynamic power of Brahman. To properly understand this complex, Tantric symbolism it is important to remember that the meaning behind Shiva and Kali does not stray from the non-dualistic parlance of Shankara or the Upanisads. According to both the Mahanirvana and Kularnava Tantras, there are two distinct ways of perceiving the same Absolute reality. The first is a transcendental plane which is often described as static, yet infinite. It is here that there is no matter, there is no universe and only consciousness exists. This form of reality is known as Shiva, the Absolute Sat-Chit-Ananda, existence, knowledge and bliss. The second is an active plane, an immanent plane, the plane of matter, of Maya, i.e., where the illusion of space-time and the appearance of an actual universe does exist. This form of reality is known as Kali or Shakti, and in its entirety is still specified as the same Absolute Sat-Chit-Ananda. It is here in this second plane that the universe as we commonly know it is experienced and is described by the Tantric seer as the play of Shakti, or God as Mother Kali.
Kali and Tantra
From a Tantric perspective, when one meditates on reality at rest, as Absolute pure consciousness (without the activities of creation, preservation or dissolution) one refers to this as Shiva or Brahman. When one meditates on reality as dynamic and creative, as the Absolute content of pure consciousness (with all the activities of creation, preservation or dissolution) one refers to it as Kali or Shakti. However, in either case the yogini or yogi is interested in one and the same reality -- the only difference being in name and fluctuating aspects of appearance. This is generally accepted as the meaning of Kali standing on the chest of Shiva.
Throughout her history artists the world over have portrayed Kali in a myriad of poses and settings some of which stray far from the popular description provided above, and are sometimes even graphically sexual in nature. Although there is often controversy surrounding these images of divine copulation, the general consensus is benign and free from any carnal impurities in its substance. In Tantra the human body is a symbol for the microcosm of the universe; therefore sexual process is responsible for the creation of the world. Although theoretically Shiva and Kali (or Shakti) are inseparable, like fire and its power to burn, in the case of creation they are often seen has having separate roles. With Shiva as male and Kali as female it is only by their union that creation may transpire. This reminds us of the prakrti and purusa doctrine of Samkhya wherein vimarsa-prakasa has no practical value, just as without prakrti, parusa is quite inactive. This is why it is stressed that without Shakti, Shiva is no better than a corpse, shava.
Shiva's involvement with Tantra and Kali's dark nature led to her becoming an important Tantric figure. To the Tantric worshippers, it was essential to face her Curse, the terror of death, as willingly as they accepted Blessings from her beautiful, nurturing, maternal aspect. For them, wisdom meant learning that no coin has only one side: as death cannot exist without life, so life cannot exist without death. Kali's role sometimes increased beyond a chaos who could be confronted to bring wisdom, and she is given great metaphysical significance by some Tantric texts. The Nirvana - tantra clearly presents her uncontrolled nature as the Ultimate Reality, claiming that the trimurti of Brahma, Visnu and Siva arise and disappear from her like bubbles from the sea. Although this is an extreme case, the Yogini-tantra, Kamakhya-tantra and the Niruttara-tantra declare her the svarupa (own-being) of the Mahadevi (the great Goddess, who is in this case seen as the combination of all devis).
Like Sir John Woodroffe and Georg Feuerstein, many Tantric scholars (as well as sincere practitioners) agree though that, no matter how propitious or appalling you describe them, Shiva and Devi are simply recognizable symbols for everyday, abstract (yet tangible) concepts such as perception, knowledge, space-time, causation and the process of liberating oneself from the confines of such things. Shiva, symbolizing pure, absolute consciousness, and Devi, symbolizing the entire content of that consciousness, are ultimately one in the same -- totality incarnate, a micro-macro-cosmic amalgamation of all subjects, all objects and all phenomenal relations between the "two." Like man and woman who both share many common, human traits yet at the same time they are still different and, therefore, may also be seen as complementary.
Kali is a great and powerful black earth Mother Goddess capable of terrible destruction and represents the most powerful form of the female forces in the Universe. The Goddess Kali constantly drinks blood. She has an insatiable thirst for blood. As mistress of blood, she presides over the mysteries of both life and death. Kali intends her bloody deeds for the protection of the good. She may get carried away by her gruesome acts but she is not evil. Kali's destructive energies on the highest level are seen as a vehicle of salvation and ultimate transformation. Kali is the central deity of Time. She created the world and destroys it. She is beyond time and space. After the destruction of the Universe, she collects the seeds of the next creation: she destroys the finite to reveal the Infinite.
Though called "the One," Kali was always a trinity: the same Virgin-Mother-Crone triad established perhaps nine or ten millenia ago, giving the Celts their triple Morrigan; the Greeks their triple Moerae and all other manifestations of the Threefold Goddess; the Norsemen their triple Norns; the Romans their triple Fates and triadic Uni (Juno); the Egyptians their triple Mut; the Arabs their triple Moon-goddess - she was the same everywhere. Even Christians modeled their threefold God on her archetypal trinity.
The Goddess and Shiva
In the later traditions, Kali has become inextricably linked with Shiva. The unleashed form of Kali often becomes wild and uncontrollable, and only Shiva is able to tame her. This is both because she is often a transformed version of one of his consorts and because he is able to match her wildness. His methods vary from challenging her to the wild “tandava” dance and outdoing her, to appearing as a crying infant and appealing to her maternal instincts. While Shiva is said to be able to tame her, the iconography often presents her dancing on his fallen body, and there are accounts of the two of them dancing together, and driving each other to such wildness that the world comes close to unravelling.
Kali's dwelling place, the cremation ground denotes a place where the pancha mahabhuta (five elements) are dissolved. Kali dwells where this dissolution takes place. In terms of devotion and worship, this denotes the dissolving of attachments, anger, lust and other binding emotions, feelings and ideas. The heart of devotee is where this burning takes place, and it is in the heart that Kali dwells. This inner cremation fire in the heart is the gyanagni (fire of knowledge), which kali bestows.
This practice is a break from the more traditional depictions. The pioneers of this tradition are the 18th century Shakta poets such as Ramprasad Sen, who show an awareness of Kali's ambivalent nature. Ramakrishna, the 19th century, Bengali saint, was also a great devotee of Kali; the western popularity of whom may have contributed to the more modern, equivocal interpretations of this Goddess. Rachel McDermott's work, however, suggests that for the common, modern worshipper, Kali is not seen as fearful, and only those educated in old traditions see her as having a wrathful component. Some credit to the development of Devi must also be given to Samkhya. Commonly referred to as the Devi of delusion, Mahamaya, acting in the confines of (but not being bound by) the nature of the three gunas, takes three forms: Maha-Kali, Maha-Lakshmi and Maha- being her tamas-ika, rajas-ika and sattva]-ika forms. In this sense, Kali is simply part of a larger whole.
1 The propitiatory mantra of the devas uttered when an oblation is poured in the fire for them. 2 The propitiatory mantra of the manes (Pitrs) uttered when offerings are made in ceremonies in honor of departed ancestry. 3 Vashatkara in this text signifies Yajna, Vedic sacrifice. 4 all utterances. 5 Sudha, is the nectar of the devas and signifies immortality. 6 sound measures, long, short and unmetered. Also interpreted as omkara, made up of a, u and m, the original three sounds, made with open, intermediate and closed lips 7 The famous Savitri hymn which occurs in the Rigveda. B Out of the surface of her forehead, fierce with frown, issued suddenly Kali of terrible countenance, armed with a sword and noose. Bearing the strange khatvanga (skull-topped staff), decorated with a garland of skulls, clad in a tiger's skin, very appalling owing to her emaciated flesh, with gaping mouth, fearful with her tongue lolling out, having deep reddish eyes, filling the regions of the sky with her roars, falling upon impetuously and slaughtering the great asuras in that army, she devoured those hordes of the foes of the devas.
The Black Goddess in Europe
In Finland The Black Goddess was known as Kalma (Kali Ma), a haunter of tombs and an eater of the dead. European "witches" worshipped her in the same funereal places, for the same reasons, that Tantric yogis and dakinis worshipped her in cremation grounds, as Smashana-Kali, Lady of the Dead. The ceremonies were held in the places where ordinary folk feared to go, just like ceremonies of western pagan "witches.
Kali's poor reputation in the West is often ascribed largely to the cult of the Thuggee, a group of radical, indigenous and immigrant South-Asians (primarily centered near Kolkata, circa 13th-19th century CE) who took the goddess Kali as their deity. Although much controversy surrounds their habits, it has been widely reported that the Thuggee robbed and murdered travellers as sacrifices to Kali and were eventually broken up by the occupying, British colonists. The common English word thug is derived from this.
Many non-Hindus were introduced to Kali by way of the Goddess appearing as a villain deity in the films Gunga Din , Help! and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.