The Hindu Goddess Kali: Story, Symbols & Facts

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson explores the Hindu goddess Kali and the complex meanings surrounding her. An account of her appearance, background, and worship will be given, as well as an interpretation of her place in Hindu devotion.

Mama Kali

A statue of Kali in Calcutta.

No figure in the history of world religions is more evocative and complex than the Hindu goddess Kali. In many respects, Kali appears to be an intensely frightening manifestation of the sacred, with her associations with blood sacrifice, death, and destruction. At the same time, Kali is seen as the ultimate mother figure, protector, and liberator. We cannot understand Kali without embracing both sides of this paradox; indeed, such ambiguity and multiplicity runs through much of Hinduism.

From one perspective, Kali is a goddess of chaos; a sacred being that embodies that which cannot be controlled or contained. From another perspective, Kali is a dramatic expression of a mother's fierce, protective love for her children; the feminine power rising up to attack those who threaten her babies. Kali is the dark aspect of the goddess Durga, who is central to Hindu devotion.

Appearance and Background

A bronze statue of Kali

Kali is, indeed, a frightful goddess to behold. Her skin is often black, her bright red eyes are set deep into her head, and her distinctive tongue lolls lasciviously from her mouth. Kali wears a garland of severed human heads, and a skirt of severed arms. Her arms hold a severed head and a bowl with which to catch the blood running out of the head. A trident and a sword are also common features brandished by Kali.

In the most common manifestation of Kali, the goddess has four arms and stands atop the supine figure of her consort, Shiva. In the ten armed version of Kali, she is bright blue and is usually not standing on Shiva. As with most Hindu iconography, there is no singular, consistent, canonical image of Kali; she is depicted in a range of ways throughout Hindu cultures.

Exactly where and when Kali become part of the mainstream Hindu tradition is unclear. In his book the Sword and the Flute, David R. Kinsley notes that Kali does not take on her unique characteristics until the epics written between 200 BCE and 400 CE. With this in mind, Kinsley also notes that other aspects of the goddess Durga, as well as the monstrous demon Nirrti, show up much earlier, displaying many of Kali's basic characteristics. We may never know how long Kali has been worshipped by everyday Hindus in South Asia, but it is likely that she predates any of her appearances in written texts.

The Devi Mahatmya

Hinduism abounds in stories about the gods and goddesses, and many more have existed in oral traditions than will ever be written down. The most famous story concerning Kali comes from the Devi Mahatmya, written between 400 and 600 CE. The Devi Mahatmya describes a violent battle between the various manifestations of Durga and a horde of demons. The gentle, feminine, loving side of the goddess, in the guise of Parvati, appears on the field of battle, and releases the tender side of the goddess from her body, in the form of the goddess Ambika. Having done so, Parvati's skin turns black and she transforms into the fearsome Kali. In addition, Ambika emits Kali out of her head.

Kali, in all her ghastly glory, proceeds to kill the demons Chanda and Munda. At this point, seven more aspects of Durga appear and Kali leads them in a total defeat of the demon armies. As Diana L. Eck argues in India: A Sacred Geography, this story reconciles the contrasting sides of Durga's character: the compassionate, sympathetic aspect, with the dreadful, wrathful aspect.

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