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Kali is known by many names which include Kali Ma, The Dark Goddess, The Black Goddess, Mahakali, Dark Mother, Kalika, Bhairavi, Kali the Destroyer, Consort of Shiva and the Dancing Lady of Death. The name “Kali,” is derrived from the Hindu word “Kala,” which means "time," although it can also mean "black," and she is believed to represent the power of time, which will devour everything in the end.
Even though Kali may have a wide assortment of aspects, the most well known are Mahakali and Bhairavi. In the aspect of Bhairavi, Kali takes on the role of Shiva’s counterpart, finding pleasure in the destruction which will eventually lead to the final dissolution of the universe. Kali is also believed to be an aspect of the Devi, one of the most powerful and complex of all the great Goddesses, and when Kali assumes this aspect, she becomes known as Mahakali.
As Mahakali, Kali takes on a frightening visage, with black skin, wild hair, sharp claws, tusks thrusting out from her face and a third eye which sits right in the middle of her forehead, just like that of Shiva. Mahakali uses her terrible appearance quite successfully as a weapon, to terrify the many demons, devils and other forms of evil that exist throughout the universe.
Different views exist regarding Mahakali’s third eye. There are those who claim that her third eye has the ability to see wisdom, in all of its many forms, while there are others who believe that each of her three eyes sees a different point in time: the first eye seeing the past, the second, the present, and the third, the future.
It is in this aspect that Kali has four arms. Her upper two hands hold a bloody sword and severed head, while the lower two are held out in welcome as Kali graciously grants the boons of her devout followers.
Kali has also been depicted as a woman with black or blue skin and long, wild black hair. With her tongue protruding from her bloodied mouth, she appears to be standing or dancing on top of her husband, Lord Shiva the Destroyer, who is lying there dead and covered with white ashes. Another belief is that Kali is actually squatting over Shiva and feasting on his intestines while, at the same time, she is offering him one of her breasts.
It is in this depiction that Kali appears completely naked, except for a few ornaments that she wears which include earings and necklaces that have been made from human skulls, and demons’ hands which hang from her belt and are believed to represent Karma.
Another belief exists which claims that the skulls and hands worn by Kali represent slain human egos which have attempted to usurp the Divine Mind. There are others, as well, who claim that Kali’s necklace of skulls represents the "seed syllables" of the Sanskrit alphabet, which are considered to be sacred sounds, used to create the universe. All the while that Kali is adorning herself with these ornaments, she continues to wield her bloodied sword which she uses to cut through “Maya,” or illusion.
In the many temples throughout India that are dedicated to Kali, she is worshipped during the dark of the moon. Her followers are frequently known to worship her at the cremation grounds on the very darkest of nights, and it is there that they present Kali with the offerings she requires: the offerings of flesh. Worshipping Kali in the cremation grounds is extremely important, because it is there that her followers will become used to the images of death.
Other Gods and Goddesses that are considered to be similar to Kali include Kele in ancient Ireland, Kal-Ma in Finland, Kalli in ancient Greece, and Kalu in the Sinai region of the Middle East. Then, there is also the common thread which connects Kali to the Demon-Goddess Lilith, who is also a Goddess of Creation and Life.
Kali’s various personalities span a wide range, running the gamut from the mild Sati to the terrifying black one known simply as Kali. It is while she is in this particular aspect that Kali requires her followers to perform an assortment of rites which include sacrificial killings. Sacrificing animals was not sufficient to fulfill the needs of Kali, so human sacrifices were required. In modern times, however, attitudes seem to have changed, and instead of sacrificing humans, other mammals are now being used.
Kali is an extremely ancient Goddess. Her dark skin indicates that she existed long before the time when the lighter-skinned Aryans invaded the darker-skinned inhabitants of the Indian Subcontinent. Many myths regarding that invasion have been handed down in the ancient oral tradition, from one generation to the next, as they tell of Kali's fierce passion while protecting the people of India from invasion. That great passion and Kali’s fierceness arise, not only from her strong ties to the Great Mother Goddess, who was there long before the Aryans ever invaded India, but also from her place at Shiva's side, as his consort, where Kali is granted the female power of Shakti, which is the essence of feminine energy. Kali has always been a widely worshipped Goddess, and even though the Aryan invaders may have introduced their patriarchal gods into India’s culture, she remains to this day an extremely powerful Goddess.
Kali is, perhaps, the most fully realized of all the Dark Goddesses, and even though she was originally worshipped as a Warrior Goddess, those same worshippers are wise enough to realize that her strongest role has always been that of a protectress. Indeed, Kali is also worshipped as a great and loving primordial Mother Goddess in the Hindu tantric tradition, and when she assumes that particular aspect she becomes known as Kali Ma, which means Kali Mother, and millions of Hindus worship her in that aspect. Those worshippers believe that Kali will relieve their suffering and negative Karma while granting them eternal bliss and liberation from fear.
Kali is an extremely complex Goddess, and she encompasses a wide variety of things. It has been said that she withdraws time into itself or, looking at it in a different light, that she devours “Kala,” or “time,” swallowing everything up without a trace and, by doing that, she returns to her own dark lack of form. It is for that reason that Kali is known as the Hindu Goddess of Multiple Possibilities, transforming life into a constant dance with death. It has also been said that the Mother of Death is the force of time that leads to destruction and then, even when everything has finally been destroyed, new beginnings will awaken from the timeless sleep that Kali represents.
Kali has also been associated with intense sexuality, and her symbol is the Yoni. Myths exist, which tell about the time when Kali’s yoni fell to Earth and landed on the sacred hill near Gauhati, which is the exact same place upon which the Temple of Kamakhya now stands. Ancient carvings cover the temple’s outer walls, depicting Kali as a Singular Triple Goddess. First, Kali is shown squatting and exposing her Yoni; second, she appears as a mother who is breast-feeding her child; and third, she is seen as a warrior woman drawing back her bow. While all of these carvings depict Kali as an extremely sexual woman, they also show her to be a protective and motherly woman, filled with great compassion.
When the demon, Daruka, threatened the Gods, the Goddess Parvati knitted her brow in fury, and it was then that the three-eyed Kali first sprang forth from Parvati, and immediately destroyed Daruka. It is for that reason that some people consider Kali to be an aspect of Parvati.
Many stories exist which tell about Kali’s victory in battle. One story tells how she fought and killed two demons, and then drained the blood from each of their bodies as a way of celebrating her victory. It was then that Kali, who became drunk on the demons’ blood, began to dance. Kali danced, and Kali kept on dancing. Finally, she became so ecstatic, because of the way that the demons’ dead flesh felt beneath her feet, that she began to dance more and more wildly, until she finally realized that her husband, Lord Shiva, lay beneath her, and that all the while that she was dancing, she had been dancing him to death.
Once Kali came to the realization of what she had done, her wild behavior did slow down. The belief exists, however, that Kali will one day continue her dance, and when she does, the world and all life on it will finally come to an end. That knowledge does not seem to bother Kali’s followers, because they believe that once faced, and understood, Kali will free them from all of their fears and then, when that dance finally does take place, she will turn into yet another aspect; that of a loving Mother.
A well-known story exists regarding the time that the Gods were unable to kill the demon, Raktabija. They were unable to kill him, because every drop of his blood which fell to the ground immediately turned into another Raktabija. The Gods actually began to believe that victory might not be attainable, because every time that they struck him, his blood turned into millions of his duplicates, and they eventually grew to such great numbers that they almost covered the entire battlefield.
Finally, the Gods became so desperate that they went to see Shiva, to ask him for his help. Unfortunately, however, Shiva was so deep in meditation that he was unable to be reached, so the Gods then turned to his consort, Parvati. Parvati appeared to be quite ready for the fight, and when she set forth to do battle with the demon, she immediately turned into Kali. There stood Kali, where Parvati had just been, with violent red eyes, skin as black as night, gaunt features, a disheveled mane of hair and tusks as sharp as fangs protruding from her face.
Kali entered the battleground riding upon the back of a lion, and it was only after he had seen Kali, that the demon, Raktabija, began to know the true meaning of fear. Then Kali spread her tongue so that it covered the entire battlefield, and while she was doing that, she ordered the Gods to attack. By covering the entire battleground with her tongue, Kali prevented even one drop of blood from touching the ground, and the Gods were, indeed, victorious. However, they never would have been so had it not been for the help of Kali.
Then, much like the Egyptian Goddess Sekhmet, who became drunk on the blood of mankind, Kali also became drunk on blood of the demon, Raktabija. Indeed, Kali actually became so drunk that she began to tear across the universe, destroying everyone and everything that happened to get in her way. Most people believe that it was then that Kali first began to adorn herself with the various body parts of her victims. Luckily, Shiva immediately realized what was happening, and he knew, all too well, that Kali had to be stopped. No other choice existed, so he threw himself down beneath her feet, and by doing that, Shiva was able to stop Kali’s dance down the road to destruction. Then, when Kali finally did calm down, and her ferocious form disappeared, she embraced Shiva, turning into her aspect of Gauri, the radiant mother.
The Thuggee, or Thugs, a wild and dangerous sect in India worships Kali. That only adds to the extremely negative views that people in the West seem to have about her. Westerners, who see God as being totally good, find it extremely difficult to understand why Hindus worship a Goddess such as Kali, or why she so often appears to them in such an ugly and ferocious form. Westerners frequently tend to view most things in absolutes. They believe that God is good, and the Devil is bad. Hindus, however, have a completely different outlook on things. To them, there exists one universal power, and that power is beyond, or above, any form of good or evil. They see the absolute good, and absolute bad, which most westerners seem to believe in, as nothing more then “Maya,” which means “illusion.”
Kali’s tantric worshippers believe in the necessity of seeing her as she truly is, in her ferocious form with the terror of death, as well as in her beautiful maternal form in which she dispenses blessings to the multitude of her followers. Kali’s followers believe that true wisdom can only come with the understanding that everything has more then one side to it, whether you happen to be looking at coins, or at points of view; and since death cannot exist without life, then life, as well, is meaningless without death. Kali’s followers also realize that even though she can be their loving Mother, they would not know the whole Kali without also seeing her as their destroyer. That is why Kali is often considered to be a Goddess who threatens stability and order.
Indeed, Kali may very well appear to be serving order while she is killing demons or assisting the Gods, but then, when the blood lust finally takes control, she will once again become drunk on her victims’ blood, and then she will begin to destroy the very same world that she has been put here to protect. That part of Kali which is related to destruction will always remain a part of her. Then, even though she might be serving the Gods in many positive ways, all too often she will end up completely out of control.
Many people believe that Kali represents the combination of all the Goddesses’ collective anger, which can be an extremely dangerous side of the Divine Feminine. The fear also exists, that if that collective anger should ever break free, then the people of Earth would no longer need to worry, because there would be nothing left for them to worry about. Nothing else would exist, except for desolation and despair.
When it comes to Shiva, Kali appears to take an opposing role to Parvati, who seems to have an extremely calming influence on him, and who is able to keep Shiva's anti-social and destructive aspects from getting totally out of control. It is Parvati, as well, who domesticates Shiva, and helps him find balance, whenever one of the destructive aspects of his tandava dance begins.
On the other hand, it is Kali who is looked upon as being Shiva's "other wife;" and not only does she provoke Shiva’s wild and antisocial behavior, she actually encourages it. There exists an extremely dangerous and frightening aspect within Kali, because she views death as a valuable necessity, and because she believes, as well, that no life can exist without death. By looking upon death as a necessity for life, Kali cannot help but internalize what must be some extremely powerful and destructive energy. Then, if she ever happens to be provoked, that destructive energy could completely burst free. These attributes do not belong solely to Kali; they also belong to the Demon-Goddess Lilith. Lilith shares many of Kali’s destructive qualities, and while these two Goddesses may truly be Goddesses of Life and Creation, they also represent the dark side of that role, by taking on the powers that deal with the necessity of destruction and death.
This is an extremely unfortunate example of feminine power, because it all too frequently appears in such a negative light; being viewed as destructive, rather then constructive. Modern feminists in particular seem to look upon Kali and Lilith in that exact same way, and they have been known to turn to these two Goddesses whenever they have needed guidance. They want Kali and Lilith to show them a way for them to exercise their sacred right to rage.
Kali is a Goddess who represents so much. She is both a creator and a destroyer, bringing with her the ultimate horror and the most fulfilling joy. By combining all of these things into one, Kali is able to dance that eternal dance of existence. Yet, at the same time, those exact qualities are also there, teetering upon the brink of an abyss, just waiting to break free in an instant as an unstoppable and uncontrollable force. It is then that Kali can be seen as the very act of destruction, while at the same time she is also the phoenix, rising up from the ashes of mankind, so that she can prepare the world for its rebirth.
If you ever do decide to join Kali, and dance her eternal dance, it might be wise for you to be prepared and to be very, very careful; because when the metaphorical music stops, and the dance finally does come to an end, you just might discover that you have received much more then you had ever bargained for.