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Kali was a mighty and frightening deity in Hinduism, a complex goddess with both negative and positive meanings associated with her. Today, she is seen as a symbol of women’s empowerment. Here’s a closer look at her myth.
Who was Kali?
Kali was the Hindu goddess of time, destruction, death, and in later times, of motherly love. She also had associations with sexuality and violence. Kali stands for she who is black or she who is death, and this name could derive from the darkness of her skin or that of her soul and powers. This opposition between her domains created a complex story. Kali surpassed the western concepts of good and evil and poised herself as an ambiguous character. This dichotomy is present in different parts of Hinduism.
What Does Kali Look Like?
In many of her depictions, Kali is portrayed with black or intense blue skin. She carries a necklace of human heads and a skirt of severed arms. Kali appears holding a decapitated head in one hand and a blood-tainted sword in the order. In these depictions, she is totally or partially nude, has many arms, and sticks out her tongue. Apart from that, it is common to see Kali standing or dancing on her husband Shiva, who lies on the floor.
This gory depiction references Kali’s associations with death, destruction and devastation, reinforcing her fearsomeness.
The History of Kali
There are several stories about the origin of Kali in the Hindu religion. In all of them, she appears to save people and gods from horrible threats. While Kali is an ancient deity in Hindu tradition, her significant portrayal can be found in texts like the Devi Mahatmya.
Kali and Durga
In one of her origin stories, the warrior goddess Durga threw herself into battle, riding a lion and carrying a weapon in each one of her hands. She was fighting the buffalo demon Mahishasura when her anger created a new being. From Durga’s forehead, Kali came to existence and started devouring all the demons she found on her way.
This killing spree became uncontrollable and extended to any wrongdoer who happened to be nearby. She took the heads of all those she killed and wore them around her neck with a chain. She danced the dance of destruction and her lust for blood and devastation couldn’t be controlled.
To stop Kali, the powerful god Shiva laid down on her path until she stepped on him. When Kali realized whom she was standing on, she calmed down, ashamed that she hadn’t recognized her own husband. The depiction of Shiva beneath Kali’s feet is also symbolic of the power of nature over humankind.
Kali and Parvati
In this explanation of her origin, the goddess Parvati sheds her dark skin, and becomes Kali. Hence, Kali is also known as Kaushika, which stands for the sheath. This origin story explains why Kali is black in her depictions.
In some accounts, Parvati created Kali to fight Daruka, a mighty demon who could only be killed by a woman. In this myth, Parvati and Shiva work together to bring Kali to life. Kali emerges from Shiva’s throat through Parvati’s doing. After coming to the world, Kali destroys Daruka as planned.
Kali and Raktabija
Kali was a necessary figure in the story of the demon Raktabija. Raktabija stands for blood seed since new demons were said to be born from the drops of blood that fell on the ground. Because of this, all the attacks the gods attempted turned into more hideous creatures terrorizing the land.
All the gods joined forces and put together their divine energy to create Kali so that she would defeat Raktabija. Kali went on to swallow all the demons entirely, thus avoiding any blood spilling. After eating all of them, Kali beheaded Raktabija and drank all of his blood so that no more evil creatures would be born.
What Happened between Kali and the Band of Thieves?
A band of thieves decided to offer a human sacrifice to Kali, but they chose the wrong tribute. They took a young Brahmin monk to sacrifice him, and this enraged Kali. When the thieves stood in front of the statue of the goddess, she came to life. According to some accounts, Kali decapitated them and drank all the blood from their bodies. During this killing spree, the Brahmin monk escaped and continued his life without further problems.
Who Were the Thuggees?
Despite her associations with killing, Kali was a benign goddess for most of her history. However, there was a cult that operated following her actions in a negative way. The Thuggee were a group of worshippers who brought about the bloodlust aspects of Kali during the 14th to 19th centuries. Criminals of all sorts were the principal members of this group during its 600 years of history. The Thuggees had thousands of members, and throughout their history, they killed between five hundred thousand and two million people. They believed they were sons of Kali and that they were performing her sacred job by killing. In the 19th century, the British Empire wiped them out.
Meaning and Symbolism of Kali
Throughout history, Kali came to represent a variety of positive and negative things. She is believed to be one of the most misunderstood goddesses.
1. Kali, the Liberator of Souls
Although Kali might appear as a goddess of destruction and killing, few myths portray her killing anything other than evil demons. She liberated the souls of the illusion of ego and gave a wiser and humbler life to people.
2. Kali, a Symbol of Sexuality
Due to her nudity and her voluptuous body, Kali represented sexuality and also purity. She was a symbol of sexual lust but also of nurturance.
3. Kali, the Mystery of Duality
The duality of Kali as a violent yet loving goddess influenced her symbolism. She represented evil and killing, but also the complicated and metaphysic affairs death carries with it. In some depictions, Kali even had three eyes, which were a symbol of omniscience.
4. Kali, the Tantric Goddess
Kali´s fundamental worship and adoration were due to her role as a tantric deity. In these stories, she was not frightening but young, motherly, and voluptuous. The Bengali poets who told her stories described her with a gentle smile and attractive features. She represented traits of tantric creativity and the forces of creation. In some accounts, she had to do with karma and accumulated deeds too.
Kali as a Symbol in Modern Times
In various modern contexts, Kali has been interpreted as a symbol of feminism due to her unrestrained nature and actions. From the 20th century onwards, she was both a symbol for feminist movements and a politicized figure to suit different interests. Kali was a symbol of the all-powerful matriarchal status that women enjoyed before the oppression of the patriarchy strengthened. She was an uncontrollable force in the world, and this idea suited women’s empowerment.
Kali remains among the most complex of all Hindu deities, and also one of the most misunderstood. At face value, she’s often taken to be an evil goddess, but a closer look shows that she represents much more. To learn about other Hindu deities, check out our guide on Hindu gods.