Published On: Sun, Oct 9th, 2016

Understanding the Fierce Cosmic Mother, Kali

Who is this terrible woman,

Dark as the sky in midnight?

Who is this woman,

Dancing over the field of battle,

like a blue lotus that floats,

on a crimson sea of blood

in frenzy and savage fury?

Under the weight of her tread

the Earth itself is trembling,

Shiva, Her almighty husband

Who wields the fearful trident,

Lies like a lifeless corpse

beneath Her conquering feet.

( from Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa)

Of the diverse forms of worship prevalent in India from time immemorial, worship of divine mother has occupied a place of singular significance. This idea of worshipping the divine as eternal mother has nowhere been developed as it is in the Hindu religion. Therefore it’s a unique contribution of Hindu thought to global religious cultures.

Though the origin of Shakthi or mother worship  can be traced back to Vedic and prevedic culture, it is in the Puranas and tantras  that the concept of Shakti as mother goddess attained remarkable development.

Devi or Shakthi is the divine power that manifests, sustains and transforms as the one unifying force of existence. Since Shakti cannot be worshipped in its essential nature, it is worshipped as conceived of in manifestations, which is creation,  preservation and destruction. Shakti in relation to these three functions is Saraswathi, Lakshmi and Kali. These three are not distinct devis, but one worshipped in three forms. The divinity adored in three ways.

What does Kali Mean

Kali means the black one and is the feminine force of kala. Kala primarily means time. She is the power of time. Time as we are all aware is all destroying , all devouring. A 19th century Sanskrit dictionary – Shabdakalpadrum states,

kalah sivah| tasyapatnithi kali|

meaning, Shiva is kala, thus his consort is Kali, referring to Devi Parvathi, being a manifestation of Devi Mahakali. Few other names include Kalika, Kalaratri  (dark night) and Bhavatarini (redeemer of universe).

The Devi Mahatyam

The Devi Mahatmyam is a sacred text, describing how Devi, Divine Mother, manifested in various forms to kill the evil forces. It consists of 13 chapters comprising of 700 slokas. This text is embedded in Markandeya Purana and authored by Veda Vyasa.

In this text, Kali is the fiercest manifestation of the most beautiful and powerful goddess Durga. In her triumphant battle against the forces of evil, Kali emanates from the brow of mother Durga during one of the battles between Her and evil forces.

Durga is worshipped in households for fame, progeny, to ward off evil forces and suffering, and the like. Goddess Lakshmi is worshipped for wealth and everything that is auspicious. Goddess Saraswathi is worshipped especially by children for knowledge and all are aspects of the same Cosmic Mother. But Kali is not worshipped for anything but liberation.

Why The Worship of  Mother-The Terrible?

The scene of Kali worship takes place in a cremation ground, where the air is smoke laden and little specks of ash from burning funeral pyres. She is Mother the Menign and Mother the Terrible.

Prone to human emotions the majority of people are terrified by Kali’s awe inspiring grandeur backlit by fires in the cremation ground. They would much rather worship her in a less threatening place, where reality is a symbol rather than a harsh truth. So they flock to temples and worship Kali at shrines. They pray to the divine mother  to grant them boon of a child, devotion, and liberation from existence in misery.

Now the question arises why would anyone want to worship the terrible mother of the cremation ground?

According to the Tantras, one’s spiritual discipline practised in a cremation ground brings success quickly. Sitting next to the corpses and other images of death, one is able to transcend the pair of opposites good- bad, likes- dislikes, pleasant-unpleasant, love- hate and such other aspects of life.

The ghastly images in the cremation ground arouse instant renunciation and help the aspirant or the tantric to get rid of attachment for the body. By Her magic we see good, bad etc. But Kali  is neither. This whole world as we see is the play of the Divine Mother. She is beyond the pair of opposites which constitutes relative existence.

Understanding the Symbolism Behind the Image of Kali

  • Kali’s dark colour represents the infinite.
  • Her three eyes represent the knowledge of past present and future.
  • Her red tongue sticking out represents rajas, the quality of activity, while her white teeth pressed on her tongue represents sattva, the quality of calmness. Both then represent the quality of activity being controlled by calmness.
  • The garland of 50 skulls represent the alphabets which also mean speech. They also represent the manifest state of sound from which the whole creation evolved.
  • The sword in her upper left hand cuts our ignorance or bondage, while the severed head in the lower left hand bestows wisdom.
  • Kali has four arms representing dualities of this world.
    • Her two right arms represent the benign aspect. She bestows fearlessness and boons with those.
    • The two left arms, holding a sword and a severed head and the rest of Her represents the terrible aspect. Here in Her form we have Her functions of causation – creating and destroying as well as of the dual experience of the world.
  • Kali is naked, clad in space except for the girdle of human arms, cut off at the elbows. The arms represent the capacity for work, and Kali wears all work, potential work and the results thereof around Her waist.
  • Everything comes from Her and everything dissolves back into  Again She is standing on Shiva, The transcendent Absolute aspect of God, the ultimate reality beyond name and form and all dualities. Kali  represents the cosmic power or Shakthi.

Kali, the Symbol of Death

Inspite of the fact that one part of Her is offering fearlessness and boons, the major part of Her form is terrifying. She looks like the embodiment of destruction, the  symbol of death. Death is terrifying. Yet death is a natural process of life. It terrifies us  because we are in complete ignorance of it.

What is Death? What Gets Destroyed?

Mahamaya made of time, space and causation has deluded us so much that we cannot even be sure of our existence after the death of our ego. Like our bodies we identify with our ego so much it seems to us there is no existence in us without it. Little do we realise that when the ego dies, there is no more death for us.

As the ego departs the Lord, the real self manifests. This is because along with our ego, all our anger, fear, pride, jealousy, likes and dislikes and other passions, all of these die. They are all rooted in the ego. If we want liberation and experience our true state of bliss, we must give up everything even ego.

In fact, liberation is what Kali represents. When her form makes us think “must we go through suffering to attain our goal?”, her right arms gives us assurance and grace that She is there to hold us.

This gives us assurance that pain and suffering come and go and are transitory. But She is our own and She alone is real. Kali shows us the purification process and how we must dance the destructive dance with her to shed our obstructions.

Kali takes us there where she reveals her grace. She holds the Abhaya mudra, the gesture of fearlessness, saying “Don’t be afraid, it may seem difficult, but hold on to me and I shall help you”.

Then another hand displays Varada mudra, the gesture of bestowing boons. This gesture says “ I shall give you everything you need to accomplish this” and she takes us to the realm of absolute love. We realise it was our ego all along which was separating us from this love.

Mother’s Own Child

Once that ego with all its desires and attachment has been destroyed, then we realise that we are Mother’s own child. Then we are liberated and attain supreme bliss.


  1. The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna by Swami Nikhilananda, Chennai Ramakrishna Math publication, 2002 edition, page 240.

By – Veena Nagaraj

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