Kali Ma: the divine mother, appears fearsome.
Kali Ma 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.
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’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.
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 ma 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.
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Kali ma 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 ma 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.