Create a new article
Write your page title here:
We currently have 2,416 articles on Monstropedia. Type your article name above or click on one of the titles below and start writing!


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.



  • The Matsyapurana states Kali was first a tribal Goddess of the high mountain region of Mount Kalanjara, which is in north-central India and east of the Indus Valley. It is widely believed that she represents a survival of a Dravidian goddess, which makes her the great creatrix of the ancient Indian pantheon. Her dark skin evidences the fact that she predated the lighter-skinned Aryan invasion of the darker-skinned inhabitants of the Indian sub-continent. This conflict became the subject of many myths handed down about Kali's fierce passion in defending her people against the invaders. Kali's fierceness is due both to her ties to the pre-Aryan Great Mother Goddess, as well as her place at Shiva's side as his consort, which gives her the power of the Shakti, or female energy. However the Aryan Invasion Theory of India's origin is still in dispute amongst historians.
  • The Aryan introduced patriarchal gods in India, but various matriarchal tribes, such as the Shabara of Orissa , continues worshipping Kali. She was probably an aboriginal deity of vegetation and agriculture; but evidence that animal and human sacrifices were offered to her suggests that Kali lately became a fertility deity. Animal sacrifices are still made to her in temples such as the one at Kalighat, Calcutta, where a goat is immolated in her honor every day.
  • On her feast, held yearly in fall, goats and buffalos are sacrificed to Kali. Although human sacrifices have been banned, there are occasional reports of alleged sacrifices to authorities from remote areas.
  • As the Matsyapurana is quite recent we cannot acknowledge how Kali's cult began, not the time nor the location. However it is a fact that she was mentioned in the Upanishads, which were written a thousand years before the Matsyapurana.
  • In the Vedas the name is associated with fire god Agni, the god of fire, who had seven flickering tongues of flame, of which Kali was the black, horrible tongue.
  • In the Sangam era of Tamilakam, a Kali-like bloodthirsty goddess named Kottravai appears in the literature of the period. Like Kali she has dishevelled hair, inspires fear in those who approach her and feasts on battlegrounds littered with the dead. It is quite likely that the fusion of the Sanskrit goddess Raatri and the indigenous Kottravai produced the fearsome goddesses of medieval Hinduism, amongst them Kali being the most prominent.
  • It was the composition of the Puranas' in late antiquity that firmly gave Kali a place in the Hindu pantheon. Kali or Kalika is described in the Devi-Mahatmyam (also known as the Chandi or the Durgasaptasati) from the Markandeya Purana, circa 300-600CE, where she is said to have emanated from the brow of the goddess Durga, a slayer of demons or avidya, during one of the battles between the divine and anti-divine forces. In this context, Kali is considered the 'forceful' form of the great goddess Durga. Another account of the origins of Kali is found in the Matsya Purana, circa 1500CE, which states that she originated as a mountain tribal goddess in the north-central part of India, in the region of Mount Kalanjara (now known as Kalinjar). However this account is disputed because of the fact that the legend was of later origin.
  • Kali as Shakti is life energy (prana, represented by breath), and when it enters into the body (Shava or corpse), the body becomes alive. Thus the saying "Shiva without Shakti is Shava." Kali (Life Energy or Shakti) and the body together are called Shiva. Thus the saying, "Every person is God (Shiva)". The "I" in Shiva is the energy of Shakti.


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 Goddes is linked to

The goddesses she is associated or identified with include

  • Bhavani
  • Chamunda
  • Chinnamasta
  • Durga
  • Himavati
  • Kamakshi
  • Kumari
  • Meenakshi
  • Parvati
  • Rudrani
  • Sati
  • Tara
  • Uma

These names, if repeated, are believed to give special power to the worshipper.

  • Of the many other aspects of Kali, the best known are Mahakali and Bhairavi. In the aspect of Bhairavi, Kali is the counterpart to Shiva, taking pleasure in destruction, as well as ultimate dissolution of the universe. In this aspect Kali is depicted with black skin and a hideous tusked face and claws; her forehead bearing a third eye like Shiva's.
  • Some of Kali's older names found their way into the Bible. As Tara, the earth, she became Terah, mother of the Hebrew ancestral spirits called "teraphim". The same Tara became the Celts' Tara, Gauls' Turan, and the Latin Terra, meaning "Mother Earth," said to be interchangeable with Venus.
  • The name of Eve, may have originated with Kali's Ieva or Jiva, the primordial female principle of manifestation; she gave birth to her "first manifested form" and called him Idam (Adam). She also bore the same title given to Eve in the Old Testament: Mother of All Living (Jaganmata).


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

  • 2) Plant forms
  • 3) Humans, animals and birds
  • 4) Everyday objects, like a book or a bowl. Some objects are generally carried by wrathful deities, while others are generally carried by peaceful ones. Some objects are traditionally masculine, while others are feminine. And finally, some objects are considered right-hand proper, while others are for left-handed deities.

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

  • She is usually portrayed has having four arms and hands. 2 of these (usually the left) are holding a sword and a severed head. This means that in the end she will kill everyone as no one can avoid her as mortal death. The other 2 hands (usually the right) are in blessing, which means her initiated devotees (or anyone worshipping her with a true heart) will be saved as she will guide them here and in the hereafter. She is wearing a garland of 51 heads, which represents the Varnamala, or the Garland of Letters. They represent the 51 letters of the Devanagari or Sanskrit script. Hindus believe Sanskrit is a language of dynamism, and each of these letters represents a form of energy, or a form of Kali. Therefore she is generally seen as the Mother of language, and all mantras.
  • She is depicted as naked with Maya as her only covering and is shown as very dark, as she has no permanent qualities -- meaning she continues to exist even when the universe doesn't. And, so it is believed, that the concepts of color, light, good, bad don't apply to her -- she is the pure, un-manifested energy, the Adi-shakti. She is accompanied by serpents and a jackal while standing on a seemingly dead Shiva, usually right foot forward to symbolize the more popular Dakshinamargi or right-handed path, as apposed to the more infamous and secretive Vamamargi or left-handed path. There is a mythological story for the reason behind her standing on what appears to be Shiva's corpse which translates as follows:

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.

Main Belief

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.

The Trinity

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.

  • Her three forms are manifested in many ways: in the three divisions of the year, the three phases of the moon, the three sections of the cosmos (heaven, earth, and the underworld), the three stages of life, the three trimesters of pregnancy, and so on. Women represent her spirit in mortal flesh.
  • Three kinds of priestesses tend her shrines: Yoginis or Shaktis, the "Maidens"; Matri, the "Mothers"; and Dakinis, the "Skywalkers". These priestesses attend the dying, govern funerary rites and act as angels of death. All have their counterparts in the spirit world. To this day, Tantric Buddhism relates the three mortal forms of woman to the divine female trinity called Three Most Precious Ones.
  • Kali's three forms appear in the sacred colors known as "Gunas": white for the Virgin, red for the Mother, black for the Crone, the three together symbolizing birth, life, death. Black is Kali's fundamental color as the Destroyer, for it means the formless condition she assumes between creations, when all the elements are dissolved in her primordial substance.


  • Kali was first manifested when the Goddess Parvati knitted her brows in fury when the demon, Daruka, threatened the Gods. It was then that the three-eyed Kali first sprang forth from Parvati, fully armed, and immediately putting an end to Daruka. It is for this reason that Kali is considered an aspect of Parvati.
  • Other stories tell of how Kali fought and killed two demons. It was then, celebrating Her victory, that She drained the blood from their bodies and, drunk from the slaughter, She began to dance. Kali became overjoyed with the feel of their dead flesh under Her feet, and She continued to keep dancing, more and more wildly, until She finally realized that Her husband, Shiva, was underneath Her, and that She was dancing him to death. There is yet another version of Kali's manifestation. The Gods were not able to kill the demon, Raktabija. Each drop of his blood that touched the ground turned into another Raktabija. Thus, every time he was struck, millions of his duplicates appeared all over the battlefield. At this point the Gods were totally desperate, and they then turned to Shiva for help. Shiva, though, was so deep in meditation that he could not be reached. The Gods then turned to Shiva's consort Parvati for help. The Goddess Parvati immediately set out to do battle with the demon, and it was then that She took the form of Kali.
  • In spite of her seemingly terrible form, Kali is often considered the kindest and most loving of all the Hindu goddesses; in fact her devotees consider Kali the Mother of the Universe. Moreover, because of her terrible form, she is also often seen as a great protector. When the Bengali saint Ramakrishna once asked a devotee why one would prefer to worship Mother over him, this devotee rhetorically replied, “Maharaj, when they are in trouble your devotees come running to you. But, where do you run when you are in trouble?”

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 cult

  • Kali's top place of worship is the cremation ground, best if at the dead of night, on a day of the waning Moon. Then her nature becomes clear and apparent. For an adept of hers the whole world is a cremation ground, and She who by herself creates and destroys all, is personified as the pyre. There, after life, all mortals and their wishes, dreams and reflections come to their fruition, a pile of worthless ashes.

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.

  • Being worshipped as the Great Mother, Kali devoids of her usual violence.

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.

  • Sadhakas and sadhikas (of all generations) prescribe various benign and horrific qualities to Devi simply out of practicality. They do this so they may have a variety of symbols to choose from, symbols which they can identify and relate with from the perspective of their own, ever-changing time, place and personal level of unfolding. Just like modern chemists or physicists use a variety of molecular and atomic models to describe what is unperceivable through rudimentary, sensory input, the scientists of ontology and epistemology must do the same. One of the underlying distinctions of Tantra (in comparison to other religions) is that it allows the devotee the liberty to choose (from a vast array of complementary symbols and rhetoric) that which suits one's evolving needs and tastes. From an aesthetic standpoint, nothing is interdict and nothing is orthodox. In this sense, the projection of some of Devi's more gentle qualities onto Kali is not sacrilege and the development of Kali really lies in the practitioner, not the murthi.
  • The following passages (A & B) and their footnotes are from "Devi-Mahatyam" and both show two much contrasted descriptions of the divine-feminine. A Brahma said: You are Svaha1 and Svadha2. You are verily the Vashatkara3 and embodiment of Svara4. You are the Sudha5. O eternal and imperishable one, you are the embodiment of the threefold matra6. You are half a matra, though eternal. You are verily that which can not be uttered specifically. You are Savitri7 and the supreme Mother of the devas.

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.

  • Roman tombstones invoked her with the phrase Mater genuit, Mater recepit - "the Mother bore me, the Mother tookme back".
  • Priestesses of prehistoric Ireland were “kelles“, origin of the name “Kelly“,a hierophantic clan devoted to "the Goddess Kele". This was cognate with the Saxon “Kale“, or “Gale“, whose lunar calendar or kalends included the spring month of Sproutkale, when Mother Earth (Kale) put forth new shoots.


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.

See also



Part of this article consists of modified text from Wikipedia, and the article is therefore licensed under GFDL.