- The name Kali has two derivations. In the sense of “she who is black” it is from kala (black). In the sense of “she who is the ruler of time” it derives from kala (time, spelled slightly differently in SANSKRIT letters).Kali is the most frightening of the goddesses and the most misunderstood by non-Hindus. Mythologically, she originates in the fury of the goddess DURGA and emerges physically from that goddess’s forehead. She has a terrible, frightening appearance. She is originally very black (though in modern depictions she is often lighter), usually naked, emaciated, with long disheveled hair. She wears a skirt of severed arms, earrings made of the corpses of children, and a necklace of human skulls. In one hand she holds a cutting instru-ment, in another the severed head of a man. She has long sharp fangs, bloody lips, and a bloody lolling tongue.In iconography Kali is often depicted as stand-ing upon the chest of the supine corpse of SHIVA, her nominal husband. She is known to frequent the burning grounds where burned and unburned corpses abound, where she is always accompanied by female jackals. She, as does DURGA, likes liquor, meat, and blood.There is little doubt that Kali is a fierce autochthonous non-Aryan goddess who has been absorbed into the larger Brahminized pantheon of Hinduism. Kali first appears in developed liter-ary form in the Devibhagavatam of the 11th to 12th centuries, where she is seen to be PARVATI, wife of Shiva, who becomes completely black out of fury when battling the demons Shumbha and Nishumbha. She also appears in the 16th-century Devimahatmya, part of the Markandeya Purana; this is the source of the story that Kali emerged from the enraged Durga.Kali is most associated with eastern India, particularly Bengal. Her devotional literature and cultic followings began to proliferate as early as the 13th and 14th centuries. Bengal is the only state to worship Kali during the all-India festival of DIVALI. The medieval Bengali poet Ram Prasad is best known for his Bengali hymns in devotion to “Mother Kali,” and the modern Bengali Saint RAMAKRISHNA, who had perhaps the greatest influence in the West of any Indian spiritual figure, was known as a devotee of Kali alone.Devotion to Kali requires the utmost surrender and the ability to see that her chaotic and fearsome visage is only a barrier placed before the devotee, who must have the courage to seek the inner depths of her compassion and the SHAKTI or uni-versal power she represents. When one has accom-plished this step, one can learn to become Kali, as Sri Ramakrishna so clearly demonstrates. When one has learned to be her truth, then one’s con-sciousness and being are completely transformed The temple to the goddess Kali, in Dakshineshwar, Bengal, where Sri Ramakrishna served as a priest (Constance A. Jones) and one can live in her endless bliss for longer and longer periods.Kali has been associated with tantric religious forms. TANTRISM in this context focuses on the cremation ground; normative elements and prac-tices are frowned upon or forbidden. When one realizes the divinity within even the lowest reali-ties, within the rotting corpse, within the dark of the cremation ground, then one has learned to find the limit of time and one can began to see the secrets buried in the depths of reality. Then one can begin to experience Kali as the sweet, compas-sionate, nurturing mother that she is.Iconographically it is understood that Kali’s nakedness symbolizes the stripping away of illu-sion; the severed head is a symbol of her cutting away of the ignorance that binds one to the cycle of birth and rebirth. Kali’s lolling tongue is most often taken to indicate her anger, but some in India have taken it to be a gesture, like “biting the tongue” in shame.Further reading: David Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tra-dition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); ———, The Sword and the Flute: Kali and Krsna, Dark Visions of the Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975); Rachel Fell McDermott and Jeffrey J. Kripal, eds., Encountering Kali: In the Margins, at the Center, In the West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.