Mother Kali – MahaKali – Kalika
Who can comprehend the Divine paradox of Mother Kali? Fierce, black in color, large, shimmering eyes, destructive, triumphantly smiling amidst the slaughter of billions of demons, wearing a necklace of skulls and a skirt of severed arms, glowing effulgently like the full moon in the night sky, holding the head of a demon, a Trident that flashes like lightning and a knife etched with sacred mantras and infused with Divine Shakti, Kali stands peaceful and content, suffused with the fragrances of jasmine, rose and sandlewood!
Kali is the Guardian. The Protectress. The Mother. Kali is Dharma and Eternal Time. Kali shines with the brilliance of a Million Black Fires of Dissolution and Her body is bathed in vibuthi (sacred ash). Shiva is under Her Feet and the Great Devotee, Ramprasad, envisioned Kali as stepping upon a demon that was transformed, by Kali’s touch, into Lord Shiva Himself!
Just as the night sky appears black due to it’s fathomless depth and as the ocean appears deep blue due to it’s fathomless depth~ so too Kali appears dark due to Her Infinite depth. Kali assumes the form that reflects the attitude and bhava (emotion) of the person who approaches Her. If Kali is appraoched with the bhava of Motherly Love, She assumes the form of Lakshmi. If Kali is approached as the Guru, embodying Wisdom, Art and Education, She assumes the form of Saraswati. The demons approached Kalika with the bhava of destruction and evil. Consequently, the Divine Mother assumed the form of their Destruction by reflecting, in form, their own Evil. In truth, Kali is all of these forms and beyond them.
Scriptural References to Kali
Kali is thought to have originated as a tribal goddess indigenous to one of India’s inaccessible mountainous regions. The Matsyapurana gives her place of origin as Mount Kalanjara in north central India, east of the Indus Valley floodplain. But owing to the late date of the Puranas’ composition, this evidence regarding Kali’s place of origin cannot be taken as particularly reliable.
At least thousand years before the Matsyapurana, the name of Kali first appears in Sanskrit literature between the eighth and fifth centuries BCE. The reference, in Mundakopanishad 1.2.4, names Kali as one of the seven quivering tongues of the fire god Agni, whose flames devour sacrificial oblations and transmit them to the gods. The verse characterizes Agni’s seven tongues as black, terrifying, swift as thought, intensely red, smoky colored, sparkling, and radiant. Significantly, the first two adjectives — kali and karali — “black” and “terrifying,” recur in later texts to describe the horrific aspect of the goddess. Karali additionally means “having a gaping mouth and protruding teeth.” This verse scarcely suffices to confirm that Kali was a personified goddess during the age of the Upanishads, but it is noteworthy that the adjective that became her name was used to characterize an aspect of the fire god’s power.
Kali first appears unequivocally as a goddess in the Kathaka Grihyasutra, a ritualistic text that names her in a list of Vedic deities to be invoked with offerings of perfume during the marriage ceremony. Unfortunately, the text reveals nothing more about her.
During the epic period, some time after the fifth century BCE, Kali emerges better defined in an episode of the Mahabharata. When the camp of the heroic Pandava brothers is attacked one night by the sword-wielding Asvatthaman, his deadly assault is seen as the work of “Kali of bloody mouth and eyes, smeared with blood and adorned with garlands, her garment reddened, — holding noose in hand — binding men and horses and elephants with her terrible snares of death” (Mahabharata 10.8.64-65). Although the passage goes on to describe the slaughter as an act of human warfare, it makes clear that the fierce goddess is ultimately the agent of death who carries off those who are slain.
Kali next appears in the sacred literature during the Puranic age, when new theistic devotional sects displaced the older Brahmanical form of Hinduism. In the fourth and fifth centuries CE the Puranas were written to glorify the great deities Vishnu, Shiva and the Devi — the Goddess — as well as lesser gods. One such Purana, the Markandeya, contains within it the foundational text of all subsequent Hindu Goddess religion. This book within a book is known as the Devimahatmya, the Shri Durga Saptashati, or the Chandi.
The Devimahatmya’s seventh chapter describes Kali springing forth from the furrowed brow of the goddess Durga in order to slay the demons Chanda and Munda. Here, Kali’s horrific form has black, loosely hanging, emaciated flesh that barely conceals her angular bones. Gleaming white fangs protrude from her gaping, blood-stained mouth, framing her lolling red tongue. Sunken, reddened eyes peer out from her black face. She is clad in a tiger’s skin and carries a khatvanga, a skull-topped staff traditionally associated with tribal shamans and magicians. The khatvanga is a clear reminder of Kali’s origin among fierce, aboriginal peoples. In the ensuing battle, much attention is placed on her gaping mouth and gnashing teeth, which devour the demon hordes. At one point Munda hurls thousands of discusses at her, but they enter her mouth “as so many solar orbs vanishing into the denseness of a cloud” (Devimahatmya 7.18). With its cosmic allusion, this passage reveals Kali as the abstraction of primal energy and suggests the underlying connection between the black goddess and Kala (‘time’), an epithet of Shiva. Kali is the inherent power of ever-turning time, the relentless devourer that brings all created things to an end. Even the gods are said to have their origin and dissolution in her.
The eighth chapter of the Devimahatmya paints an even more gruesome portrait. Having slain Chanda and Munda, Kali is now called Chamunda, and she faces an infinitely more powerful adversary in the demon named Raktabija. Whenever a drop of his blood falls to earth, an identical demon springs up. When utter terror seizes the gods, Durga merely laughs and instructs Kali to drink in the drops of blood. While Durga assaults Raktabija so that his blood runs copiously, Kali avidly laps it up. The demons who spring into being from the flow perish between her gnashing teeth until Raktabija topples drained and lifeless to the ground.
Different Forms of Mother Kali
Kali is a powerful and complex goddess with multiple forms. In times of natural disaster she is invoked as the protective Rakshakali. At the magnificent Dakshineswar Temple in Calcutta, she is revered as the beautiful Bhavatarini, Redeemer of the Universe. The Tantras mention over thirty forms of Kali. The Divine Mother is also known as Kali-Ma, the Black Goddess, Maha Kali, Nitya Kali, Smashana Kali, Raksha Kali, Shyama Kali, Kalikamata, Bhadra Kali, Ugra Chandi, Bhima Chandi, Sidheshvari, Sheetla (the goddess of smallpox) and Kalaratri. Maha Kali and Nitya Kali are mentioned in the Tantra philosophy. When there were neither the creation, nor the sun, the moon, the planets, and the earth, when the darkness was enveloped in darkness, then the Mother, the Formless One, Maha Kali, the Great Power, was one with the Maha Kala, the Absolute. Shyama Kali has a somewhat tender aspect and is worshipped in Hindu households. She is the dispenser of boons and the dispeller of fear. People worship Raksha Kali, the Protectress, in times of epidemic, famine, earthquake, drought, and flood. Shamshan Kali (Shmashanakali) is the embodiment of the power of destruction. From her mouth flows a stream of blood, from her neck hangs a garland of human heads, and around her waist is a girdle made of arms. She haunts the cremation grounds in the company of howling jackals and terrifying female spirits. Tantrics worship Siddha Kali to attain pefection. Phalaharini Kali to destroy the results of their actions; Nitya Kali, the eternal Kali, to take away their disease, grief, and suffering and to give them perfection and illumination. She is also known as Kalikamata (“black earth-mother”) and Kalaratri (“black night”). Among the Tamils she is known as Kottavei. Kali is worshipped particularly in Bengal. Her best known temples are in Dakshineshwar and Kalighat in Kolkata (Calcutta) and Kamakhya in Assam.
Some early Buddhists identified Kalika with their Prajnaparamita, the “Perfection of Wisdom”, conceived of as a multi-armed goddess/female wisdom energy. Buddhist tantrics viewed Prajnaparamita as the original Buddha-consort, and over time, developed this vision further. They viewed Her as the saviouress Tara, “the Compassionate One”, “She who helps the devotee overcome suffering”. As the dark four-armed Ugra Tara, with the dark blue Dhyani-Buddha Aksobhya on her crown, she became “the Wrathful Saviouress”, externally fierce to ward-off enemies and unbelievers, but internally compassionate, the “Embodiment of Compassion”. Buddhists also knew the Dark Goddess as Shyam (the “Dark One”) and Kali. According to the noted Bengali authority on Indian Buddhist Tantra, Dr Benoytosh Bhattacharyya, “Kali, according to Buddhist tradition, is Kadi or Kakaradi, or, in other words, all the consonants of the alphabet….all the consonants of the (Sanskrit) alphabet are deified in her.”
As Maha Kali (with form) the Great Goddess is most commonly visualised as twenty-armed, ten-faced, with three eyes on each face, her complexion dark and shining. In this form she destroys the egoistic demons Madhu and Kaitabha. This is a form which emanated out of the dark goddess Durga. As Kala Ratri, tawny-eyed, cruel and fond of war, wearing tiger and elephant skins, holding axe, noose, other weapons and a skull-bowl from which she drinks blood, Kali is the “Night of Destruction” at the termination of this world, the Female Spiritual Power always ready to defeat the last demons, so none can pollute the next world. Forms of Bhadra Kali have sixteen arms, eighteen arms or one hundred arms, all giving protection to her devotees. Bhadra Kali is always visualised as huge, wearing a three-pointed crown ornamented with the crescent moon, a snake about her neck, her body draped in red and her mood jolly. She pierces the body of a buffalo with her lance, one of her many weapons. Hindu tantrics believe that in this form She pervades the whole universe.
Some of the more striking similarities between Kali and Goddesses of other parts of the world are as follows:
We find Kali in Mexico as an ancient Aztec Goddess of enormous stature. Her name is Coatlicue, and her resemblance to the Hindu Kali is striking. The colossal Aztec statue of Coatlicue fuses in one image the dual functions of the earth, which both creates and destroys. In different aspects she represents Coatlicue, “Lady Of the Skirt of Serpents” or Goddess of the Serpent Petticoat”; Cihuacoatl, “the Serpent Woman”; Tlazolteotl, “Goddess of Filth”; and Tonantzin, “Our Mother,” who was later sanctified by the Catholic Church as the Virgin of Guadalupe, the dark-faced Madonna, La Virgen Morena, la Virgen Guadalupana, the patroness and protectress of New Spain; and who is still the patroness of all Indian Mexico. In the statue her head is severed from her body, and from the neck flow two streams of blood in the shape of two serpents. She wears a skirt of serpents girdled by another serpent as a belt. On her breast hangs a necklace of human hearts and hands bearing a human skull as a pendant. Her hands and feet are shaped like claws. From the bicephalous mass which takes the place of the head and which represents Omeyocan, the topmost heaven, to the world of the Dead extending below the feet, the statue embraces both life and death. Squat and massive, the monumental twelve-ton sculpture embodies pyramidal, cruciform, and human forms. As the art critic Justino Fernandez writes in his often-quoted description, it represents not a being but an idea, “the embodiment of the cosmic-dynamic power which bestows life and which thrives on death in the struggle of opposites.”
We find Kali in ancient Crete as Rhea, the Aegean Universal Mother or Great Goddess, who was worshipped in a vast area by many peoples. Rhea was not restricted to the Aegean area. Among ancient tribes of southern Russia she was Rha, the Red One, another version of Kali as Mother Time clothed in her garment of blood when she devoured all the gods, her offspring. The same Mother Time became the Celtic Goddess Rhiannon, who also devoured her own children one by one. This image of the cannibal mother was typical everywhere of the Goddess of Time, who consumes what she brings forth; or as Earth, who does the same. When Rhea was given a consort in Hellenic myth, he was called Kronus or Chronos, “Father Time,” who devoured his own children in imitation of Rhea’s earlier activity. He also castrated and killed his own father, the Heaven-God Uranus; and he in turn was threatened by his own son, Zeus. These myths reflect the primitive succession of sacred kings castrated and killed by their supplanters. It was originally Rhea Kronia, Mother Time, who wielded the castrating moon-sickle or scythe, a Scythian weapon, the instrument with which the Heavenly Father was “reaped.” Rhea herself was the Grim Reaper.
We find Kali in historic Europe. In Ireland, Kali appeared as Caillech or Cailleach, an old Celtic name for the Great Goddess in her Destroyer aspect. Like Kali, the Caillech was a black Mother who founded many races of people and outlived many husbands. She was also a Creatress. She made the world, building mountain ranges of stones that dropped from her apron.
Scotland was once called Caledonia: the land give by Kali, or Cale, or the Cailleach. “Scotland” came from Scotia, the same goddess, known to Romans as a “dark Aphrodite”; to Celts as Scatha or Scyth; and to Scandinavians as Skadi. Like the Hindus’ destroying Kalika, the Caillech was known as a spirit of disease. One manifestation of her was a famous idol of carved and painted wood, kept by an old family in Country Cork, and described as the Goddess of Smallpox. As diseased persons in India sacrificed to the appropriate incarnation of the Kalika, so in Ireland those afflicted by smallpox sacrificed sheep to this image. It can hardly be doubted that Kalika and Caillech were the same word. According to various interpretations, “caillech” meant either an old woman, or a hag, or a nun, or a “veiled one.” This last apparently referred to the Goddess’s most mysterious manifestation as the future, Fate, and Death–ever veiled from the sight of men, since no man could know the manner of his own death. In medieval legend the Caillech became the Black Queen who ruled a western paradise in the Indies, where men were used in Amazonian fashion for breeding purposes only, then slain.
Spaniards called her Califia, whose territory was rich in gold, silver, and gems. Spanish explorers later gave her name to the newly discovered paradise on the Pacific shore of North America, which is how the state of California came to be named after Kali. In the present century, Irish and Scottish descendants of the Celtic “creatress” still use the word “caillech” as a synonym for “old woman.”
The Black Goddess was known in Finland as Kalma (Kali Ma), a haunter of tombs and an eater of the dead. The Black Goddess worshipped by the gypsies was named Sara-Kali, “Queen Kali,” and to this present day, Sara is worshipped in the South of France at Ste-Marie-de-la-Mer during a yearly festival.
Some gypsies appeared in 10th-century Persia as tribes of itinerant dervishes calling themselves Kalenderees, “People of the Goddess Kali.” A common gypsy clan name is still Kaldera or Calderash, descended from past Kali-worshippers, like the Kele-De of Ireland. European gypsies relocated their Goddess in the ancient “Druid Grotto” underneath Chartres Cathedral, once the interior of a sacred mount known as the Womb of Gaul, when the area was occupied by the Carnutes, “Children of the Goddess Car.” Carnac, Kermario, Kerlescan, Kercado, Carmona in Spain, and Chartres itself were named after this Goddess, probably a Celtic version of Kore or Q’re traceable through eastern nations to Kauri, another name for Kali. The Druid Grotto used to be occupied by the image of a black Goddess giving birth, similar to certain images of Kali. Christians adopted this ancient idol and called her Virgo Paritura, “Virgin Giving Birth.” Gypsies called her Sara-Kali, “the mother, the woman, the sister, the queen, the Phuri Dai, the source of all Romany blood.” They said the black Virgin wore the dress of a gypsy dancer, and every gypsy should make a pilgrimage to her grotto at least once in his life. The grotto was described as “your mother’s womb.” A gypsy pilgrim was told: “Shut your eyes in front of Sara the Kali, and you will know the source of the spring of life which flows over the gypsy race. We find variations of Kali’s name throughout the ancient world.
The Greeks had a word Kalli, meaning “beautiful,” but applied to things that were not particularly beautiful such as the demonic centaurs called “kallikantzari,” relatives of Kali’s Asvins. Their city of Kallipolis, the modern Gallipoli, was lefted in Amazon country formerly ruled by Artemis Kalliste. The annual birth festival at Eleusis was Kalligeneia, translatable as “coming forth from the Beautiful One,” or “coming forth from Kali.”
Lunar priests of Sinai, formerly priestesses of the Moon-Goddess, called themselves “kalu.” Similar priestesses of prehistoric Ireland were “kelles,” origin of the name Kelly, which meant a hierophantic clan devoted to “the Goddess Kele.” This was cognate with the Saxon Kale, or Cale, whose lunar calendar or kalends included the spring month of Sproutkale, when Mother Earth (Kale) put forth new shoots. In antiquity the Phoenicians referred to the strait of Gibraltar as Calpe, because it was considered the passage to the western paradise of the Mother.
The Black Goddess was even carried into Christianity as a mother figure, and one can find all over the world images of Mother Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, depicted as a black Madonna.
‘Kal’ also translates as Time and ‘i’ means the Cause; Kali, the Cause of Time or She Who is Beyond Time, activates Consciousness to perception, allows Consciousness to perceive. The mystery of Kali’s name, which begins with the first consonant of the Sanskrit alphabet, attached to the first vowel, is deep indeed. From tantric tradition we learn that the whole material universe is but an expression of certain primordial sounds or vibrations.
These are expressed by the consonants and vowels of the Sanskrit alphabet, combined together in different ways. “Seed-syllables” (Bija Mantras), short combinations and “Spells” (Dharanis), long combinations of differing measures, are the very “fabric” from which this universe is formed. From tantric tradition we learn that the garland of heads about Kali’s neck symbolize the letters or vibrations of the Sanskrit alphabet. We learn Kali’s seed-syllables, names and potent Mantras, the tools by which we can transform ourselves and become one with Her.
Origins of Kali
There are two stories on the origin Kali Maa, and the one from the Durga Saptashati (a poem in praise of Durga Maa), which is part of the Markandeya Puran is more popular.
Long long ago there existed two powerful demons called Shumbhu and Nishumbhu. As they grew in strength, they usurped the vast empire of the King of Gods, Indra and dispossessed all the gods like Surya, Chandra, Yam, Varuna, Pawan and Agni. Both of them also managed to throw the god-host away from heaven. Sorely distressed the gods went to the mortal realm (Earth) and began to brood on how to get rid of these demons permanently. The solution was to pray to Durga Maa in her form of Parvati, the wife of Shiva. They reached the Himalayas and prayed to please the kind hearted Goddess Parvati. Agreeing to help, the body of Mother Parvati emerged a bright light in the form of a divine lady called Ambika. Her exit from Devi Parvati’s body caused the latter to turn dark and black. She was then known as Kaushiki who began to dwell over the mountain ranges.
When the sycophants of the demons, Chand and Munda saw the dazzling light in the beautiful form of Ambika, they were enchanted by her superb beauty. They went to the demons Shumbhu and Nishumbhu and said, “Your Lordship! This woman is the most beautiful female in the entire Universe.” They described her beauty in such superlative terms that Shumbhu and Nishumbhu could not resist sending their messenger Sugreeva to bring her to them.
Sugreeva reached Ambika and extolled the virtues of his masters Shumbhu and Nishumbhu to influence the Goddess. But she smiled indulgently and replied: “You may be right in the assessment of your masters but I cannot break my oath. I might have done it rather unconsciously but the fact is that now I stand committed to my oath, which is that whosoever can defeat me in battle and brow-beat me; whosoever can match my power, only he shall only be my master. So go and tell your masters to show their strength and win me in the battle.”
The messenger replied: “Listen, O Lady! You are very arrogant and adamant. Don’t challenge my masters, against whose might the universe shudders in fright. They, who have browbeaten the gods and have thrown them out of Heaven, are very powerful. You are a mere woman, and you cannot match their might. Follow my advice and come with me to accept their proposal. Or else you shall be pulled by your hair and taken to their feet.”
The Goddess replied: “Whatever you say may be true. Maybe your Shumbhu is so powerful and your Nishumbhu is so virile but I am committed to my pledge. But go now and explain the whole situation to the Demon-lords. Let them come and defeat me!”
Sugreeva then went to his masters Shumbhu and Nishumbhu and explained the whole situation at length. Shumbhu and Nishumbhu became angry and they sent another demon Dhoomralochan to fetch her. But a mere loud cry and wrathful gaze of the Goddess was enough to incinerate the demon Dhoomralochan. The lion of the Goddess slayed the accompanying demons. Then the Demon kings sent Chanda and Munda with a large army to capture the Great Goddess. They encircled the Himalayas to nab the Goddess. The Goddess then produced a black figure of frightening form, called Kaali-Devi or Kaalika Devi. She destroyed the demons easily, hacked off the heads of Chanda and Munda and brought them to the Goddess Ambika. Since she had hacked off the heads of Chanda Munda, she became famous as Chamunda Devi.
Hearing the death of Chanda and Munda, the Demon Kings sent another huge army headed by seven commanders. To match their combined strength the seven gods: Brahma, Vishnu, Shiv, Indra, Mahavaraah, Nrisingh, Swami Kartikeya dispatched their forces. Seeing the temerity of the demons, another beam of power in the form of a woman emerged from the Goddess’s body, who sent Lord Shiv as her messenger to Shumbhu and Nishambhu with the message: “If you want your welfare, return the realm of gods to gods along with their right to perform yagyas, and you must now go down to Paataal Lok (Nether world)”. Shumbhu and Nishumbhu refused to accept the Goddess’s advice and leading a huge army of terrible demons, reached the battlefield. Supported by the divine powers, the Goddess began to massacre the demons. At that time the demon forces were led by a demon, Raktabeeja. He had the power to reproduce as many demons of his form and dimension as the drops of his blood which fell to the ground. After a fierce battle the Goddess ordered Chamunda (Kali Maa) to spread her mouth far and wide and swallow Raktabeeja alongwith his blood. Chamunda did exactly that and hacked off the head of demon.
Kali Maa then devoured the slain bodies of the asuras and danced a fierce dance to celebrate the victory. This dance of destruction began by Kali and her attendants continued for long and none could stop her. To stop her, Shiva himself mingled among the asuras whom she was annihilating. Shiva allowed himself to be trampled upon by her in this dance of victory because this was the only remedy left to bring her to senses and to protect the world from total annihilation. When Kali Maa saw that she was dancing over the body of her husband, she put her tongue out of her mouth in sorrow and surprise. She remained stunned in this posture and this is how Kali is shown in images with the red tongue protruding from her mouth.
Durga Maa then fought the demon Nishumbhu who was slain in no time. Now Shumbhu decided to take on the Goddess (Durga Maa) himself. Reaching the battlefield, he said to the Goddess: “You take pride on others’ strength. Why don’t you show your own power!”
The Goddess replied with a smile: “Fool! The whole world is just Me. All Creation is my form in a variety of dimensions. I am the cause and effect of everything: all things emerge from me only and ultimately’ enter me only. The whole world is in harmony with My Being.”
Then after the nine celestial powers (Kali Maa being one of them) which had emerged from the Goddess (Durga Maa) went back into her and she single handedly killed the demon Shumbhu.
The Dasa-Mahavidyas, or Ten Great or Transcendent Wisdoms, is a circle of Ten Goddesses associated with Tantric practice. There are several accounts on how this dynamic circle was formed. In one version Shiva is living with the Goddess Kali in the Satya Yuga, the first and most perfect of the four periods of the world cycle. Eventually, Shiva grows restless and decides he is tired of living with Kali. He gets up and when She asks him where He is going, He answers, “Wherever I wish!” She does not reply and He begins to wander off. However, in no matter what direction Shiva goes, a form of Kali appears as one of the Mahavidyas: first Kali herself is constellated, then Tara, Tripurna-sundari, and Buvanesvari, then Chinnamasta, Tripura-bairavi, Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, Matangi, and finally Kamala. Experiencing the all-pervasive essence of Kali in these Goddesses one by one at every turn, Shiva sees through His yearning to leave Kali and wander about, having gained the wisdom (vidya) that She “fills the four quarters in the ten directions” so that wherever he goes, She is there in one of Her energetic forms. Shiva, at last, comes home to the reality that She in all her prismatic forms and He, are One.