In the eyes of westerners, Kali is a goddess dark of mind, body and soul, a mysterious goddess of death and destruction. However her story is far more complex and far-reaching; she cannot be easily fitted into a typical western narrative of good verses evil, and in fact transcends both.
It is likely that Kali’s origins begin, as do the origins of most divine figures, with tribal folklore deeply rooted in the history of humankind. The name Kālī first appears in the Atharva Veda, a collection of hymns and mantras published between 1200 BCE and 1000 BCE. However she is not a goddess but rather a fierce black tongue, one of seven belonging to Agni, the god of fire. It is another 400 years before Kali is described as an individual in her own right, when she appears around 600 CE in the Devimahatmya as a battlefield goddess personifying the wrath of Durga. Her aspect at this time is terrible – a skeletal and frightening crone, coloured black (a literal interpretation of her name), wearing animal skins and carrying a khatvanga, the skull-topped staff associated with tribal shamans. Other texts of the period associate her beginnings with Shiva. The Linga Purana (500 to 1000 CE) describes how Shiva asks his wife Parvati to defeat the demon Daruka, whom only a female can kill. Parvati merges with Shiva, reappears as Kali and does the deed, but at a terrible cost; her bloodlust becomes uncontrollable, only calming when Shiva intervenes. The Vamana Purana (900 – 1100 CE) has a different version. When Shiva addresses Parvati as Kali, "the black one," she is affronted and performs certain austerities to lose her dark complexion, ultimately generating Kali as a separate entity.
Kali is often associated with Shiva. Her very name is the feminine form of Kāla, an epithet of Shiva, thus tying her inextricably to him. She is regarded as the shakti (power) of Shiva, and he her consort. She is closely linked with him in many of the Puranas and when she appears in these writings besides Shiva, she plays an opposite role to that of Parvati. While Parvati soothes Shiva, neutralising his destructive tendencies, Kali actively provokes and encourages him. As scholar David Kinsley states, “it is never Kali who tames Siva, but Siva who must calm Kali”.
In her earliest appearances, Kali was frequently associated with violent endeavours on the battlefields of the gods. In one legendary battle with the demon Raktabija, she is manifested by Durga to deal with a situation that has gotten badly out of hand. Every drop of blood spilled by the wounded Raktabija becomes a deadly fighting clone, but Kali turns the battle around and defeats him by draining his blood before it touches the ground, then devours his replicates. In this story she is brought in to play when decisive action is required, when dark deeds must be matched with dark deeds, when resolve must be shown - attributes not always associated in the west with the archetypal woman. In another story, Kali is summoned by a group of criminals who decide to sacrifice a human to her image in order to gain her favour. They unwisely choose a young Brahmin monk of upstanding character, however his saintliness shines so brightly that her statue is scorched in his presence. She manifests but proceeds to horribly kill her erstwhile worshipers by decapitating them and drinking their blood. Here, Kali demonstrates her refusal to be controlled by those who think they understand her and her triumph over the attributes of ignorance and evil, as well as the absolute impartiality of her nature.
While Kali was well integrated into the Vedic, or orthodox, Hindu tradition from the first, she also developed a parallel relationship with Tantra. Tantric teachings are a collection of ancient magical stories and folk practices that exist alongside the Vedic tradition, and could be considered to hold to the wild tribal origins of Kali more faithfully than the Vedic. One of the meanings of Kali’s name is “force of time”. In this aspect she is considered to stand outside of the constraints of space-time and have no permanent qualities; she existed before the universe was created and will continue to exist after the universe ends. Limitations of the physical world such as colour, light, good and bad do not apply to Kali. She is a symbol of Mother Nature herself – primordial, creative, nurturing and devouring in turn, but ultimately loving and benevolent. In this aspect of goodness she is referred to as Kali Ma, Mother Kali, or Divine Mother, and many millions of Hindus revere and worship her in this form. In Tantric meditation, Kali’s dual nature leads practitioners to simultaneously face the beauty of life and the reality of death, with the understanding that one cannot exist without the other. It is worth noting that Shiva, in his role of destroyer of worlds, also stands outside the boundaries of the physical universe and is well complimented by his association with Kali.
Kali’s worship was not always so benign. From the 14th century to the 19th century, a cult group called the Thuggee (from the Hindu word to deceive) was operating at will in India. A hereditary sect, Thuggee membership was passed from father to son, although outsiders, particularly criminals, could be recruited if found worthy – or might end up as victim if not. During its peak, the group is believed to have had thousands of followers and during the 600 years of its operation its members are estimated to have killed anywhere between 500,000 and 2 million people. Thuggees proudly traced their origin to the battle of Kali against Raktabija, and considered themselves her children, created from her sweat. Pandering to the fiercest aspects of Kali and her requirement for death, destruction and human sacrifice, the Thuggee believed that they were doing Kali’s sacred work (although it should be noted that they had no hesitation in also robbing their victims). The British finally wiped out the Thuggees in the mid 19th century, and the cult of religious stranglers ceased to exist except in myth and folklore.
The Thuggee are said to have had their female equivalent in a sect of Tantrists who held that it was through constant indulgence in gluttony of the senses and the five recognised vices – drinking of wine, eating of meat and fish, performance of “mystical gesticulations” and sexual indulgence - that a human could achieve purification of the soul and all-embracing union with Kali. It is difficult to discover any concrete information about this group of women – their name, the extent to which they practiced in India, whether they were associated with the Thuggee cult, and whether they died out or continue to exist within the many Tantric sects extant today. Their ethos has similarities to that of the male Aghori monks of Varanasi who inhabit cemeteries and sometimes eat human flesh as part of their rituals, use marijuana and alcohol, and meditate on top of corpses to help them reach a state of heightened awareness and bring themselves closer to Shiva, Kali’s consort.
In part because of her dread characteristics and habit of acting unpredictably, at least to those who tried to control her, devotion came late in the game to Kali – even devout Hindus were wary of her wrath. However in the seventeenth century Kali received a makeover from the Tantric Bengali poets in northwest India. No longer a terrifying red-eyed crone, she began to be depicted as voluptuous, motherly, young and beautiful, with a gentle smile, attractive ornaments and pleasing blue complexion. While she continued to brandish weaponry and severed heads, two of her right hands now made soothing gestures - the mudras of fearlessness and blessing.
Today, her image reflects her duality. Kali is depicted in the act of killing but smiles engagingly. Her protruding red tongue signals both modesty (a Bengali tradition) and her thirst for blood. Her dishevelled hair hints at unrestrained blood lust and alternatively the metaphysical mystery of death that encircles life. Her three eyes represent omniscience, her voluptuous breasts both sexual lust and nurturance. Her nakedness simultaneously represents carnality and purity. Her necklace of severed heads and girdle of severed arms signifies her killing rage but are also tantric metaphors for creative power and severance from the bonds of karma and accumulated deeds. Even her stance is imbued with dual meaning. The respectable, right handed path of Tantra (Dakshinamarga) is emphasised by her right foot forward stance, while the infamous left-handed path (Vamamarga) followed by “degenerate” Tantric practitioners such as the Aghori is down-played. While her right hands are generally associated with positive gestures, her left hands hold weaponry – depending on the number of arms she is portrayed as having, a bloodied sword or trident, a freshly severed head and a skull cup to catch the blood. However, even these are symbols of greater purpose. The sword symbolises higher knowledge, the head the human ego that must be severed in order to exit from the cycle of life and rebirth.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, many western feminist scholars have adopted Kali as a mascot of female empowerment, or have politicised her as a symbol of the supposed former matriarchal golden age that came before our present state of patriarchal control and decline. New Age Tantric practitioners adapt her obvious sexual manifestations as a therapeutic tool, while Hollywood employs her as a convenient symbol of malevolence. But Kali, the true Kali, will continue to defy all attempts to tame and domesticate her, as she has since the beginning of time.