Forms of the Goddess Kali: Classic, Mahakali, Daksinakali & Shamshan Kali

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Kali is one of the most complex deities you'll find, and this is represented in her many forms. In this lesson, we'll examine her four most widely utilized ones and see what this iconography represents.


Have you ever wondered why Hindu deities have so many arms? Maybe it's because they have so many different roles to fill in the Hindu religion. For example, take the goddess Kali. Kali is an incredibly complex figure. She is one of the fearsome female warriors as a goddess of death, violence and the doomsday. She is also, however, a goddess of time and is associated with sexuality and motherhood, in particular motherly love. She is an embodiment of feminine energy and a force of creativity, as well as a progenitor of language. That's a lot to handle.


The Classic Form of Kali

Like many Hindu deities, we can find Kali represented in different forms depending on how (and sometimes where) she was being worshipped. The most common way to see Kali in Hindu iconography is what we call the classic form. In this form, Kali is depicted with blue or black skin and is generally naked, emphasizing her sexuality as well as her power. Her hair is generally disheveled, her eyes red, and her tongue sticks out, suggesting a state of rage and fury befitting a goddess of violence. That terrifying demeanor is emphasized by a necklace of decapitated heads, a skirt made of severed human arms, and earrings made of dead children.

Kali is most often depicted with four arms

Kali in this form has four arms, generally shown holding specific items. In her left hands, she usually holds a severed human head and a sword. This has been said to represent the role of divine knowledge in destroying human ego. Her other hands are often shown in various mudras (the symbolic gestures of Hindu iconography), generally representing fearlessness and blessing. The idea is that this terrifying goddess is actually here as a protector, and that she will be guard and save those who worship her.


If you think classic Kali is intimidating, just wait until you see her Mahakali form. As Mahakali, the goddess is conflated with the ultimate spiritual force of feminine power. This is her cosmic form, guarding over the cosmic order and restoring it when it's out of balance. She is the embodiment of Brahman, the ultimate truth of the Universe that unites all material and spiritual laws.

This much power deserves an equally impressive figure, and so Mahakali has not four but ten arms. She is also generally depicted with ten heads and ten legs as well. All ten hands hold an instrument that represents divine power, specifically those associated with another deity. What this represents is that Mahakali holds the power of all these deities, and furthermore that the gods only have their powers through Mahakali.


The classic Kali and Mahakali forms of the goddess are the most popular throughout Hindu art. However, there are two other very important iterations we need to talk about as well. The form most popular in Bengal is Daksinakali.

Daksinakali is similar to classic Kali, with four arms and the accessories of human body parts, but is identifiable by the fact that she is standing on top of the Hindu god Shiva. Yes, Daksinakali is shown standing over Shiva the destroyer. It's important to remember the Kali (in any form) is an incarnation of Parvati, Shiva's wife. So, what's going on here?

Kali standing over Shiva

According to most Hindu stories, Daksinakali was one of the greatest demon slayers in the entire pantheon. As she destroyed demon after demon in an epic battle, she worked herself into an uncontrollable rage. Shiva worried that she would end up destroying the world if she didn't stop, so he lay down in front of her. When Daksinakali stepped on him, she realized how out of control she had become and calmed down. This story likely also represents the surrender of ego before Kali, a theme we've seen already. The message here is that while Daksinakali is terrifying and capable of destroying anything, she is merciful and benevolent to her worshippers (those who cast aside their own ego and seek her protection and guidance).

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