Generally, Kali is viewed as the Hindu Goddess of destruction. The worship of Kali in India is very popular, with special reverance paid to her in the Bengal region. To many of her followers, she is seen as the supreme Goddess, (i.e. Kali, the Mother of the World and Time). As such, she is considered to have the power to save humanity from the evil, sins, & disasters that befall the human race within the Kali Yuga or "Age of Calamity". It is believed she protects her followers from all occurrences that can kill or make them ill and grants them both temporal and transcendental abilities. Kali is primarily associated with Durga, a Hindu warrior goddess, who later became a mother goddess.
Kali is regarded as one of the famous deities in India. The earliest reference of Kali can be found in the Mundak Upanishad. Also in the Oriya Ramayana written by Balaram Das in 15 A.D. we can see a vivid description of Kali and in Shyamasaparyavidhi written by Kasinath in the year 1699 A.D. a reference of Kali worship.
Hindu Vedic literature associates Kali with the goddess Nirtti since both of them are dark complexioned, but in post-vedic period Nirtti had lost popularity and Kali raise in importance and deities . Some believe Kali is the later form of Nirtti.
The actual forms of Kali worship are based in three texts: Kali Tantra, Tantrasara and Shyamarahasya.
The Forms of Kali (Kali Murti)
The goddess Kali comes in many forms depending on the importance accorded to her, the literary timeframe in which the goddess appears, and aesthetic details that may vary from region to region. Below is a list of the symbols found in the standard murti, or "form" of the goddess most commonly found in India today.
- Location —Kali is typically seen in images where she is dancing at night in the crematory grounds (smashan) where the dead are incinerated. Within the scope of the story most commonly told about the goddess, these charnel grounds are in fact the earth. She stands with one foot on the chest of the god Shiva who is in the "corpse pose" or shavasana commonly found in yoga.
- Kali's Head—These may be separated into the following:
- Hair —Kali's hair is wild, unkempt, and immense symbolising her freedom from all restrictions. This is in direct opposition to the careful and mostly symmetrical coiffures of Hindu goddesses in particular and the classical female hairstyles of indian women in general. It is also said that each follicle represents a human soul or jiva, and therefore all of humanity is rooted within kala, or Time.
- Eyes —The goddess, like most Hindu deities, has three eyes. These may be said to represent the sun, the moon, and the fire, with which she sees though the past, the present and the future.
- Skin —Kali's skin is typically described as being of the deepest black, or the color of the darkest night, or even the color of "monsoon clouds ready to burst." Regardless of the hue, these colors represent the limitless void that Kali both personifies and creates through her insatiable hunger. It is also said to represent the tamas guna, i.e. the "mode" of delusion.
- Teeth and Tongue - Kali's white fangs are firmly clamped upon her immense red tongue in a gesture commonly interpreted as "coyness" for her trammeling over Lord Shiva. An esoteric interpretation of this gesture reveals the control of the rajas guna (the "mode" of passion symbolized by the red tongue) by the sattva guna (the "mode" of wisdom represented by her white teeth). This interpretation has additional meanings in images of the goddess when she is shown sexually mounting Shiva rather than merely stepping on him.
- Kali's Garland—The necklace of the goddess is typically composed of severed human heads. Traditionally this garland is called the varnamala, or the "garland of letters". There are said to be fifty heads composing the garland with each head representing a letter within the Sanskrit alphabet. Unfortunately, most murtis that are commercially available do not represent the entire varnamala with the garland only showing anywhere from eight to twenty-four heads.
- Kali's Arms —As stated above, the goddess' form may change depending on a number of factors. This is nowhere more apparent than in the number of Kali's arms and their contents. Generally, the more arms a Hindu or Buddhist godform has the more powerful they are. That is to say the more weapons and ritualized gestures (called mudras) they have the closer they are to the divine source which issues all qualities. For the purpose of this entry, the commonly viewed "four-armed" form will be used. Note: The four arms of Kali are believed to represent the complete circle of creation and destruction that are both contained within her.
- Upper Left Hand (elevated) —Object: sword. Here the sword may be viewed as the sword of knowledge itself, that cuts the roots of ignorance.
- Lower Left Hand (lowered) —Object: severed head. Importance: The removal of false consciousness away from the body.
- Upper Right Hand (elevated) —Object: Abhaya Mudra. Importance: The removal of fears. Made by presenting the open palm out from the front of the body with fingers pointing upwards, as when one gestures a halt.
- Lower Left Hand (lowered) —Object: Varada Mudra. Importance: The granting of boons or mercy. Made by presenting the open palm out from the front of the body with fingers pointing downwards, as when one gestures to another to take.
- The Skirt of Arms —Kali is often shown wearing a skirt composed of severed arms. These are often attributed to be the arms of demons. An esoteric interpretation of this symbol is that the skirt and the arms of which it consists represent the false identification with actions and their results and consequently, with the removal of that illusion by the goddess. She is viewed as the only "doer" potentially or otherwise while humans are merely her vehicles. Also, the skirt (this false identifation with deeds and their results)conceals the goddess' sex and thereby obscures the true source of creation.
- Kali's Feet —The goddess is always shown with two feet. However, a great deal of importance goes into which foot rests atop Shiva's chest. If it is the laft foot, then the image is of Smashana Kali, or "Kali of the Burning Grounds". If her right foot is placed on Shiva's chest, then she is called Dakshina Kali, or "Benign Kali".