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. She doesn’t fit into neatly packed boxes of good and evil. In truth, she transcends both.
The History of Kali Ma
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 Ma 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 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.
Origin Story of Kali Ma Goddess
There are several stories that recount the birth of Kali.
In one story, she is born during a battle between the goddess Durga and the demon Mahishasura, the buffalo demon. Durga carried a weapon in each of her ten arms and rode a lion into battle.
Mahishasura had received a boon from Brahma. He asked for immortality - but Brahma instead granted him near immortality. No man or god could kill him, he could only be killed by a woman. Because he was such an enormous demon, he was sure that no woman could destroy him.
Mahishasura reigned terror over men and gods. He formed an army that took over the heavens, driving out the gods who were powerless against him. No woman alive had the power to defeat him.
During the battle, the goddess Durga was so filled with rage that her anger exploded from her forehead in the form of Kali. Kali was born enraged and went wild, attacking and eating every demon she encountered. She strung their heads into a necklace and wore it around her neck.
Her rampage seemed impossible to stop. The bloody attacks continued until finally Shiva laid down in her path. Once Kali realized who she was standing on, she settled down.
This story explains Kali’s presence at battlegrounds, graveyards, and places where cremation takes place.
In another version of this story, after Mahishasura drives all of the gods out from the heavens, the devas (gods) seek the counsel of the trimurti - Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.
The combined powers of the trimurti - Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, joined with the powers of all of the devas to create one enormous flame which took the form of Kali.
Every part of her was god given. She filled the earth and the skies with a sound so powerful that it echoed throughout the universe. She spread over all three worlds - the earth, the heavens, and the underworld.
Mahishasura heard the sound and went towards it.
The battle began and Kali defeated every demon without tiring.
Mahishasura shapeshifted throughout the battle, from a buffalo to a lion, to a man, to an elephant, back to a buffalo. But despite all his efforts, Kali defeated him.
Other versions of the birth of Kali involve the goddess Parvati. In one version, Parvati sheds her dark skin. This skin becomes Kali and gives her an alternate name, Kaushika, meaning the Sheath. Parvati here is left as Gauri, the Fair One. Kali’s blackness in this story is a symbol of eternal darkness - which has the power both to destroy and to create.
Kali is multifaceted. She embodies a complex duality Although she appears in many violent stories, including her origin stories, she is also viewed as a goddess of creation. Creation cannot exist without destruction - and Kali certainly teaches us that.
As a destroyer, Kali is revered. But as a creator, Kali is worshipped. Expectant and new mothers turn to Kali for fertility, artists turn to Kali for inspiration. Sometimes she can be found annihilating demons, sometimes she can be found bringing peace to expectant mothers. Always, Kali represents humanity’s dark AND light, the good AND the evil.
Kali ma is called upon in critical times when action must be taken. She is formidable. She is ready to take on the torment of this world. 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.