Is Kali Ma a Hindu goddess?
The Hindu Goddess Kali or Kali Ma, like other gods and goddesses originating from the Indian sub-continent, goes by many names such as Mahakali, Kali Durga, Kalika, and Bhadrakali.
These Sanskrit names can be translated to Dark Mother, the Divine Mother, or the Terrible Mother. Each name has a slightly different personification and form of the goddess as she takes on different aspects of divinity.
She is most commonly associated with death and destruction but also with time, universal energy, transformation, and rebirth. She is both terrifying and beautiful and can be depicted in many forms.
The most powerful and formidable picture of Kali, is her holding the decapitated head of a demon dripping with blood with an outstretched tongue, wearing a garland of human skulls and a skirt of dismembered arms.
If that doesn’t strike fear into your heart. Nothing will. Although is all this fear justified?
History of Kali
Kali is commonly worshiped as a deity, primarily in India and Nepal, going back several thousand years. The origin of which is somewhat mirky, along with most ancient origin stories coming from that part of the world.
Not because they are lost to time necessarily, but because of their complexity, their overlapping narratives, imagery, symbolism, and cultural association makes it very challenging to pinpoint exact dates, times, and associations.
The first mention that I found mentioning Kali goes back all the way to the Rig Veda, which is considered by most to be the oldest of the Vedas, going back 3000 years to 1,000 BCE.
However, she is only given a symbolic mention as a ‘black tongue that spits forth creation through Agni‘ (fire), rather than that of a goddess.
The worship of Kali as a goddess likely comes from the Indus Valley, this is all pre-Aryan times.
This was a time when people had a culture that was a mixture of folk, magic, and tribal shamanism. It is possible that the personification of deities and the making of these figures into god-like men and women happened during a time where Tantrik rites and rituals flourished. Though it is difficult to draw a line where and when these practices occurred.
What we do know is that during the Puranic times, deity worship came to the forefront of India’s cultural and religious practice around 300 CE. This also coincides with the flourishing of oral poems and epic narratives.
The most famous of which are the Ramayan and the Mahabharata, which give a rich story of many of the gods and goddesses living their lives superimposed with all the trials and tribulations very similar to ordinary human life – but with a bit more glamour.
These poems were recited and memorized by ear, with some like the Mahabratha, taking over two weeks to fully recite. The orators became famous amongst the land, given a special place within court, and with it, these poems and the gods they glorify took up a much bigger role within the religious and cultural heritage during that time.
What does Kali mean? Etymology and Sanskrit Definition
Kali is a feminine form of the word Kala which means “time” and “black” in Sanskrit. Often referred to as the goddess who devours time or the goddess who is black.
“Is Kali, my Divine Mother, of a black complexion?
She appears black because She is viewed from a distance
But when intimately known She is no longer so
The sky appears blue at a distance, but look at it close by
And you will find that it has no colour
The water of the ocean looks blue at a distance
But when you go near and take it on your hand, you find that it is colourless”.-Ramakrishna Paramhansa
She is seen to be a divine feminine form, or one complete form of Adya Shakti, (eternal life force) or Prakriti, which exists alongside Adi Shakti, or Purusa, pure consciousness.
Kali has many names (some say 8, 9, 12, 21, or 108) some of them are Bhadrakali, Chamunda, Shitala, Kalika, Chandi, Durgadevi, Vindhyavasini, Kalki, Chandikeshwari, Makhyala, Pundarika, Mahakali.
Each name has a slightly different meaning and with it a new form, origin story, iconography and meaning.
Interpretation of Kali’s Form
Kali is most often portrayed with blood-smeared lips, holding or adorned with a garland of skulls, and carrying weapons. In other depictions, Kali has four, eight, or ten arms with a terrifying appearance coming together with a crazed facial expression and unruly hair.
A common element in most pictures of her are multiple arms and hands which can be seen in images where Kali is slaying enemies. Her upper left-hand holds a sword, her lower left holds a decapitated head of a demon; her upper right-hand makes the sign for fearlessness and her lower right-hand outs boons.
She is depicted in many forms, though usually as black or blue. She wears a skirt made of arms of her enemies usually holding a sword, but sometimes a trident, club, bow, or mace.
Ma Kali wears a garland of skulls and a skirt of dismembered arms. She is the destroyer of illusion and does so by cutting off the head of ignorance. The skirt of flesh is her cutting away bodily identification.
She eats the flesh of identification that we humans have for our body. In this perspective, worshiping her helps to cut those cords of bodily attachment.
Aghoris are known for their love of Kali. They can be seen living in cremation grounds, where they live, a constant reminder that all life turns to death, all bodies turn to ash.
Kali represents this destructive aspect of creation. The garland and skirt are her trophies. Symbolizing that she has liberated those beings from their attachment from their body through meditation on her.
She is considered to be shakti or Prakriti, the energy of creation, beyond name and form and can be seen to be in ‘primordial nakedness’ or stripped of clothes signifying that she is beyond the covering of illusion. She is the color black which is a symbol of the Infinite and the seed stage of all colors.
“Just as all colours disappear in black, so all names and forms disappear in her”.Mahanirvana Tantra
Another name for her is Digambari, meaning “clad in space” as no finite clothing can ever be used to clothe and hide her infinite form.
What does the Hindu goddess Kali represent?
The difficulty in pinpointing an exact representation is due to the sheer fact that it means a lot of things to millions of people, and depending on who you are talking to and where you are – you will get different variations.
For some, she is the black goddess of death that devours time, and for others, she is the compassionate mother who only destroys to bring forth new life. And for some she is both.
Kali is often found in pictures with her eternal consort Shiva, a dreaded, ganja-smoking mendicant, representing pure awareness; whereas Shakti is the life-giving expression found in creation.
She is worshiped by devotees or shaktas as they see her as being the supreme goddess because, without Shakti, Shiva could not exist. In other words, without creation, consciousness could not manifest itself – or so the rationale goes.
She signifies the destruction of mind-born delusions (characterized as demons) symbolized in pictures showing her cutting off the heads of her enemies. The demons are the mind born thought patterns, the cause of separation between ourselves and the Divine.
She is often seen in her destructive form because of her ability to destroy the ‘ego’.
All of the depictions of her severing the heads of her enemies and drinking their blood shows that she is capable of severing the head of delusion or Maya that is causing ignorance.
The Goddess Kali Origin Story
Kali is said to have emanated from Paravati during battle, depicted as Durga riding a lion. Kali was created to help battle evil spirits, when confronted by fierce demons in combat. One particular demon by the name Daruka was giving Paravati trouble and with a furrow of her brow, Kali the wrathful form of Paravati emerged.
Kali then deposed of her enemies, decapitated the demons and swallowed them whole in her enormous mouth.
Another story of her most popular image tells of how Kali fought two demons and in celebration, she drank the blood from her enemies and became drunk and began to dance. Kali became wild, until she realized that she was stopping on Shiva underneath.
Upon seeing that she was killing her eternal consort, she became calm and stopped her esctatic dance.
Worship and Festivals
Kali is worshiped in a 10 day, 9 nights festival called Navratri. Each night a different form of the goddess is worshiped. It is also called Dasara or Dussehra (Durga Puja), celebrating the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana or the celebration of light (dharma) over darkness (adaharma).
‘Navratri’ is a Sanskrit means ‘nine nights and during this period people fast, and offer prayer and offerings to the ‘Nine Forms of Maa Durga’.
During this festival, and every day of the festival there are many rituals performed each day to a different manifestation of Durga. These include the lighting of lamps, offering prayers, and performing puja (worship).
The goddess Kaalaratri (a form of Kali) is worshiped on the seventh night and is considered to be an auspicious night, especially to Tantriks and Shaktas, where special offerings are given to her throughout the night.
Kali Ma is worshiped in temples primarily in India and Nepal. There are many different forms of worship. Some of these include offerings such as flowers, fruit, incense, milk, ghee, rice, sweets, while other forms of worship are done silently in meditation, prayer and fasting.
Kali Puja, also known as Shyama Puja or Mahanisha Puja is an Indian festival where the Kali is worshiped. She is celebrated on the new moon day of the Hindu month Kartik, mostly observed in West Bengal and Eastern India.
During Kali puja (similar to Durga Puja), devotees worship the goddess Kali in their homes by making altars and shrines. People sing and recite hymns and offer flowers and sweets. She is adorned with garlands of flowers, is sung too and devotees are bid to stay up all night until the light of dawn of dharma washes away the darkness of the night.
Like all Indian festivals, there are many variations that are practiced depending on the family and region, making festivals and pujas a chaotic, yet inclusive practice. All elements are embraced, giving each individual the ability to make it their own. Any person can observe any particular aspect of a ritual that means the most to them and use that as their means of devotion.
There are 51 Peethas or temples located in India devoted to Kali, with the most famous being the Dakshineswar temple located in Calcutta, West Bengal. This temple became famous during the life of Sri Ramakrishna who was a priest and holy man known for his estatic trances and utter devotion to the Kali statute that stood in the temple.
For most of his life he worshiped the statue as the incarnation of the Divine goddess, could be seen for days on end in silent adoration, or enraged in wild mad fits of divine ecstasy.
Kali Ma in Tantra
There is no singular representation of Kali in Tantrik scripture. Though fundamentally, she represents the shakti, (the divine energy) which sits on Shiva or (divine consciousness).
In Tantra, ‘the Goddess’ is a common term used figurately in part of diety worship. Many pictures depict Kali riding Shiva in sexual embrace. Others show her with her standing on top of Shiva, representing the feminine energy, having the power to create, and exist atop of male (consciousness).
From a Tantric perspective, if we meditate on the creative energy through dynamic meditation, this can be referred as Kali meditation which is done through prayer, worship, offering, and visualization.
In comparison, a ‘Shiva meditation’ would be one where the meditator sits as awareness, as consciousness.
Kali and Tantra have been inexorably associated with tantric sex in today’s modern sexualized world. However, a deeper look into Tantra would reveal that it’s not about sex at all.
There is a big misunderstanding of both the left-hand path of Tantra (Vamachara) and the 5 M’s or Panchamakara.
Far from it being a path of indulgence and frivolity, it is a rigorous path that involves inner and outer purity. The sexual aspect of the path was only meant for the advanced practioneer, once they had mastered all the others. A mastery that could take decades to complete. Not something that is brushed aside so that one can get to the sexual practices.
Tantra has never been a license to engage in frivolous sex like the modern New Age Tantra proclaims. The mass-marketed ‘7-day Tantra Love package’ is just a clever marketing ploy used to capture impressionable minds that are looking for an easy way out.
The sexual union of Shakti and Shiva shows is something that has been taken way out its original use and is now abused for the sake of lust.
Worshiping of Kali is done in many forms, whether it is through singing, mantra, devotion, bhajan, or meditation.
There are many Kali meditations that are often used by Shaktas or devotees of the divine feminine, one of which is visualizing the divine mother in front of you. By visualizing her, you let go of your separate individual form. The eventual emergence with the goddess is the end goal whereby the sense of individual personhood vanishes and all that remains is the divine form.
There are many Tantrik practices and pujas, often done in large groups, others done in seclusion.
Ways to Invoke Kali into Your life
Why would you want to invoke the goddess of death into your life? Good question. Invoking the archetypal aspects of Kali into your life, may help to give you the power and strength you need to confront all the challenges that come up in life.
Let’s admit it, life is hard. Period. Sometimes you just need help. And the mother goddess is here just for that.
She can help to embody, to destroy the version of ourselves that no longer serve us.
She can be used to help let go of the negative tendencies and thought patterns that limit us from being who we truly are.
She can help to destroy all those limiting ideas we have about ourselves.
There are infinite ways that we can connect to the Divine, but as the formless, it can be hard to begin that approach. The beauty of the Hindu tradition is that they bring into form something that we can work with.
That being said, all forms or worship or concertratrion are used, just as a means, to go beyond. However, we all have to start somewhere, and there is no better place to start than with Kali.
In Tantric meditation, Kali’s dual nature leads practitioners to simultaneously face the beauty of life and the reality of death, with the understanding that one cannot exist without the other.
Here are some ideas you can use in your practice if you would like to invoke Kali into your life.
1. Meditate on Her image – Get an image of her, print one out online, and place it on your altar
2. Pray for Her blessings – Ask for her guidance, and offer something that you feel is close to you as an act of sacrifice, as it is only in giving that you can receive.
3. Offer your negative beliefs to Her – Offer parts of yourself to Her, so that she can eat up the dark and negative parts of yourself that you would like to let go of.
4. Perform rituals to invoke Her – Give flowers, light candles and incense, and create an altar or sacred space where you can invoke her and give her space to exist and connect with.
5. Make offerings to Her – Giving a literal or figurative offering is a way to let go or surrender an aspect of yourself to that which is greater. An offering can be real or some desire which you would like to relinquish.
6. Sing Her praise – Say prayers to her, in silent Japa, in mantra, or through devotional kirtan. Chanting her name is a powerful tool to feel connected to her and begin to embody what she represents
7. Write Her name – Writing out her name, journaling and making an offering by writing out in words what you would like to give up and offer that as a sacrifice. You can even burn the message and make a little ritual out of it.
8. Do yoga postures to Her – Doing asana to her, for her, helps to bring about another dimension to your practice. The lion’s roar pranayam feels very Kali-like.
If you would like to hear that mantra and watch a short video. I came upon this some years ago, and since then every time I watch it I get enchanted by the power this mantra invokes.
The words are:
“Jai! Mata Kali Jai! Mata Durge
Jai! Mata Kali Jai! Mata Durge
Kali Durge, namo namah
Kali Durge, namo namah
Jai! Mata Kali Jai! Mata Durge”
This mantra can be interpreted as:
“O Goddess Kali
O Goddess Durge
I bow to You Again and Again”
Another deeper interpretation of the mantra is:
“I bow to the Divine Mother and her many feminine aspects. Kali, remover of delusion and ignorance, Divine Goddess, The life force and consort to Shiva, and the Goddess energy that rises within us. Praise to the Mother of the World”
Kali is not only a powerful Hindu goddess, but she is also a representation of the divine feminine principle. Although she is greatly misunderstood, it is for good reason, as she is a complex figure that defies reason.
Kali can be a tough teacher, but if we are willing to learn from her, she can show us the way. In order to work with Kali, we must be willing to let go of our attachments and face our fears. However, the rewards for doing so are great, as we become more connected to the divine and come to know ourselves more deeply.